Freedom & Healing

Writing workshops transform and empower communities

“In life, you have to want something. You need a motivation,” says Joy Sawyer, bibliotherapist and writing instructor from Lighthouse Writers Workshop.opens a new window “Today, maybe simply start by making a list of the things that you want. What motivates you? Go from there.”

The room settles into the soft melody of subtle movement. Papers flutter as a diverse collection of journals and notebooks flip open. Pens click into action and beat a steady scratch-tempo across blank canvas. Bodies shift and shuffle: some lean forward, alert and active; others slouch, settling into the nooks and crannies of plush comfort. Soft-whispered words of poetry and revision undercut the scene’s score. Artists are at work today.

Every Wednesday from 3 – 5 p.m., a community of writers gathers at Arvada Library for Hard Times Writers Workshop. The group, comprised of 20 – 30 regular attendees from different walks of life, explores storytelling and writing as a way to help process life experiences, particularly traumatic ones. Within the group, you learn that the experience of trauma has many faces—homelessness, poverty, grief, violence-recovery, substance-use rehabilitation, among others. While diverse in circumstance, the transformative process of writing serves as a powerful unifier among the group.

“It was like a light came on inside me,” says Wolf, one of the regular writers at Hard Times. “I have found a treasure that had been hidden for so long: my writing, my creative side, that would help me heal and move on with my new life today. Hard Times has helped me understand my life better today and given me a sense of belonging.”

Belonging, supportive and inviting are all words that participants use to describe the Hard Times community. “I can come in on empty and leave full,” says one writer regarding the group. “I have learned so much,” says another.

“For a lot of people, this is their favorite part of their week,” continues Ben, a free-verse poet. With a wink and wry smile, he reveals that he’s one of those people. During open-share and feedback time, Ben reads a poem he’s been working on over the course of several months. Like many of the writers in the group, he hopes to publish it someday.

“Gosh, I love your stuff,” says Trish, another poet, in response. “Really powerful.”

The group nods and echoes Trish’s comments with another round of applause. Ben receives a firm pat on his shoulder from the writer to his left, a man who jokingly introduces himself as “Pablo Neruda.”

The community is jovial, welcoming, warm and encouraging. Rose, a budding novelist in the sci-fi/horror genre agrees. It’s why she’s been a participant at Hard Times for nearly a year.

“I was looking for a writing group and a place to talk about somethings,” she explains. “I like that I get to see the same people week after week, it builds a lot of connection. We all really support each other. It’s both therapy and a place to work on our craft.”

Hard Times was formed in January 2018 as a continuation of Jefferson County Public Library’s Writing to Be Free program. Hard Times expands to Edgewater Library, meeting on a weekly basis starting Thursday, August15 from 3 – 5 p.m. Lighthouse Writers Workshop supports these programs by providing instruction and curriculum.

Twice a month, the Library to You team brings Writing to Be Free to two Intervention Community Corrections Services (ICCS)facilities, one for women and one for men. The facilities are residential community corrections programs aimed at assisting residents with the reentry stage of their sentences. Writing to Be Free creates a safe space for these men and women to express themselves, form connections and work through rehabilitation in a positive, creative way.

“I was so excited to hear the Writing to Be Free program was going to hold workshops here at the facility,” says one woman writer from ICCS. “I’m a convicted felon and an adult mother whose family [has been] torn apart from my drug use, bad behavior and negative outlook on life. Just the first class helped me to learn to write and open up about my feelings and know that I’m not alone. I cried my eyes out—this time with happiness.”

Another writer describes the environment as “freeing…It provides a safe place for women to open up and share or to simply listen and take in the wonderful words of others.”

“The women feel like their voice is valued in [Writing to Be Free],”says Cecilia LaFrance, Library to You coordinator for JCPL. “It has helped women be more productive or successful in whatever path they choose next.”

Though the path is different for all participants, the transformative process of writing is the same. Upon release, some Writing to Be Free participants have continued exploring their creativity with the Hard Times group on Wednesdays; while others have moved on to job placements, crediting the writing skills they learned with the group with helping them write cover letters and apply for jobs.

To Joy Sawyer, who works alongside Cecilia to bring Writing to Be Free to the community at ICCS and Hard Times to Arvada, writing has this power “to create meaning, vision, community, and in some cases, to change lives completely.” Through writing workshops, Joy hopes to “create a supportive community that holds individual stories with care and compassion.”

Compassion and care are the foundation of both the Hard Times and Writing to Be Free communities. Through these workshops, writers are given the opportunity to be seen, to be heard and to have a safe space to explore questions like, “What motivates you? Where do you want to go next?” And together, they learn, they laugh, they cry, they vent and they heal.

“I call that medicine,” says one writer to another after a particularly emotional reading. “That’s the way that writing heals you.”


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