Writers Giving Back: Pass the Torch

Catherine Wald

Fiction writer Susannah Risley began working with senior citizens as a volunteer while attending the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She's been doing it ever since. Thanks in part to grants from Poets & Writers, Inc. (the publisher of this magazine), she has traveled all over New York State to lead memoir-writing groups, and has "had a blast doing it."

Risley learned early on that older people in our society are an undiscovered treasure. "Something like eighty percent of people in nursing homes never have a visitor," she says. "They don't have the interaction of talking to other people, and they don't have their lives validated. When you express interest, they become much more animated and excited, and you see how interesting they really are."

Risley is fascinated with older people and the link they provide to history. "People in their eighties and nineties grew up in a world without media, when high school education included learning Latin, and when character and community were vitally important," she says. "With a little jogging of their memories, they remember extraordinary things, and they tend to be very good writers. Working with people who are so stable and have so much character has really enlarged my experience of humanity." It even inspired Risley to reconnect with a lost chapter of her own history, tracking down an aunt and uncle she had never met before.

Poet Clara Sala, who works with seniors, teenagers, the homeless, and HIV sufferers in New York City, says she uses different approaches with each group. "With elders, listening becomes really important," she says. "I'm sensitive to the fact that a lot of them feel that society views them as not useful or full human beings." She emphasizes to these students that "the process of bringing out parts of yourself that you've kept under wraps is ageless."

Best-selling novelist and retired English teacher Wally Lamb says that his involvement with a writing workshop at Connecticut's maximum-security prison York Correctional Institution is the most rewarding teaching he's ever done. "I work with students who are immediately appreciative, who have come to a place and a time in their lives where they really want to figure things out and are hungry to learn all they can. They take feedback seriously, they work hard, they invest in revision. For a teacher, that's something big that you get back."

But first you have to gain students' trust, in an environment where mistrust often prevails, and get them to open up on paper. "Many incarcerated women have been victimized all their lives," Lamb explains. "If you're told during your formative years that you're an idiot, you learn silence. So one of the things you have to do as a teacher is get women beyond the assumption that they are voiceless. Once they start trusting their memories on the page, they begin to feel better."

Racial issues can also block communication. "Most of my students are black and I am not, so that can be a problem for black guys who feel that all whites are the enemy," says Wally Wood, a business writer and novelist who has volunteered in both the Connecticut and New York state prison systems since 1992. "My being there forces them to reevaluate that, just as I've had to reevaluate what I think about convicted felons."

To make sure students are serious about writing, it's important to establish firm parameters, says Wood, whose prison workshops include fiction, nonfiction, and a practical class he developed called Writing for Life. "I learned to make it an ironclad rule that each person has to bring a piece of writing to class as a ticket of admission. You either have to participate by writing or not be in the class."

Teaching fiction and poetry has helped Wood grow as a fiction writer. "Seeing students' work, and the kinds of writing problems they have, helps me learn more about how fiction is put together—what works, what doesn't work, and why it doesn't work," he says.

The work has also tested his ability to be flexible. "Prisons are bureaucracies whose first concern is safety and security," he says. "You can show up for a class and, through a clerical error, you're not on the list to get in that night. Or there's been a fight and the whole prison is locked down. Or you have a terrific student and boom, he's gone, because he's been transferred to another prison. If you like a nice, steady routine, this is not the thing to volunteer for."

Publisher and Iowa resident Robert Wolf first taught GED classes at a homeless shelter in 1988. He encourages students to open up on paper with his own technique of oral storytelling, followed by writing and publication. "Getting their writing published gave homeless people self-respect and self-esteem. It's an important element in rehabilitation, to feel that someone cares enough about you to publish your work," he says.

Since then, Wolf has helped a wide variety of populations get their stories and histories into print. He cofounded the nonprofit Free River Press, which publishes collections of writing by farmers, the homeless, and former prison inmates, among others. This work promotes his message that "these are real people, not simply numbers," and it gives him insights into the current state of the country. Plus, it helps his own writing.

Similarly, Detroit-based poet M.L. Liebler seeks to bring poetry to unlikely places, since that's where poetry first found him. "The reason I want to volunteer and contribute is because I came to poetry in an unusual way, from a blue-collar, working-class family, not from a home where books were read. My thinking is that if a person from my background—totally disconnected from the arts and literature-can become an appreciator of poetry, anybody can."

In his drive to "spread the poetry gospel," Liebler has spent time with youths, senior citizens, and prisoners in urban and suburban Detroit, and as far as Germany and China. It is the same challenge regardless of his audience: "You're making people aware of something they've never thought about before, and showing them it can have a life-changing effect."

Whether you choose a volunteer role as a mentor or a workshop leader, whether you work with inner-city adolescents or rural senior citizens, whether you put in an hour each month or 10 hours a week, you'll probably find that this "life-changing effect" isn't limited to those on the receiving end. For many writers, giving back is a chance to pass on a spark that was ignited in them by a teacher, mentor, or role model. "A lot of volunteers in our organization had one or two people in their lives who inspired and encouraged them to be a writer," says Shannon Hughes, program director of the New York City-based Girls Write Now mentoring organization. "Now they want to provide that same inspiration to someone else."

Catherine Wald is the author of The Resilient Writer: Tales of Rejection and Triumph from 20 Top Authors (Persea Books, 2004). She can be found at www.writerwald.com and www.rejectioncollection.com.