ReVisionaries: A Transformative Writing Experience by Cheryl Buchanan and Massiel Torres

Cheryl Buchanan is a Writing, Literature, and Publishing professor at Emerson College, the president and founder of the nonprofit Writers Without Margins, and the editor of Writers Without Margins: A Journal of Poetry and Prose.

During the Fall of 2016, I taught the first ReVisionaries class at Emerson with fourteen Writing, Literature, and Publishing students, who traveled with me on a weekly basis to the Center for Change in Dorchester. The course description began: Break boundaries and explore the craft of creative writing outside the traditional classroom while amplifying the voices of others. Over the previous year, one student, Taylor Johnson, and I had been running a literature discussion and writing workshop there as a part of the Writers Without Margins nonprofit with adults transitioning out of homelessness while in addiction recovery and/or mental health treatment. In preparation, the Emerson class met with a psychologist from Northwestern University on expressive writing, the Executive Director of Friends of Boston’s Homeless on city policy, a physician from Boston University on the science of addiction, and the Director of Guest Services from St. Francis House on intersectional advocacy. But, as we got closer to our first day at the Center, I sensed the students’ anxiety that they were ready to stop talking and it was time — time to move beyond our comfort zones of discussion into a more real form of engagement. A few students expressed concern though, what was this class really about anyway?  Was the practice of “transformative writing” anything more than idealistic theory?

As our work as the Center progressed it seemed that in some ways it became even more difficult to define what, exactly, it was we were doing. Moving from an introductory, conventional workshop format, the students began working in writing partnerships with the writers from the Center, and connecting. Each final project became personally tailored to the relationship that was formed and the stories that emerged. For example, while one Center participant struggled with new emotions getting off methadone, another dealt with the death of his sponsor from an overdose. Both of them used writing as a vehicle for recovery and renewal. A man re-learning to walk on prosthetic feet, who once sat in silence, filled his notebook with beautiful script and called himself “the pen dancer.” It became clear that perhaps this class wasn’t about anything at all. Perhaps it was the thing itself. At the culmination of the semester, each of the Center participants took part in a final public reading and had their work published in the nonprofit’s literary journal. Most importantly, each of them took a new sense of authority as authors of their own stories. As far as the students, I think that what each of them learned is relative to what they came in with. But what they practiced was exceptional, and certainly transformative to witness.


Massiel Torres is a Writing, Literature, and Publishing major in the Class of 2017. The following is an excerpt from her final paper for the Fall 2016 ReVisionaries class.

During the process of working with Vincent, my writing partner at the Center for Change, one of my main concerns was always to respect his freedom as an artist as it developed. Listening to the memories of his experiences as a farmer in Jamaica were not only a way to understand him and his hopes as a poet, but to also recognize him, his humanity beyond the many labels society had ascribed him without asking, and to show him that he belonged, that he too was part of that seemingly exclusive group of people who call themselves writers.

Recognition tames and familiarizes the things we have ignored. There were many times that I didn’t know what exactly I was expecting from the process of working with Vincent. I felt I needed to deliver a product. Around week four of facilitating, however, I started to think about questions of authorship, and it occurred to me that my insistence in producing a product could affect Vincent’s budding creative freedom.

I felt up to that moment that I was being bombarded with information that my facilitating partner Brianna and I couldn’t do much about. Vincent himself neglected his writing, preferring conversation. After it occurred to me that I should not push, but patiently wait until the moment Vincent felt ready to write, I started taking notes of interesting lines he’d say as we spoke. One of the best ones, “Rain water is soft, bubbly,” made its way into his poem with an ease that had me awestruck.

Deciding to let go of my obsession with delivering a product proved to be favorable. By not creating a boundary, or a to-do list for Vincent’s creativity, he was truly attuned with the forces of creativity that are never structured but free. By not having a goal, Vincent was overflowing with the possibilities of the unstructured. Through creativity, Vincent was orally reconstructing and reimagining his past and experiences both in his native Jamaica and in Boston.

My experiences this semester as a creative writing facilitator at the Center for Change helped me to critically engage with discussions about what constitutes kindness and niceness and be able to recognize such behaviors and the diverse ways in which they function. My obsession with delivering a creative product, a poem or a story, through Vincent was an act of niceness, of imposing myself over his needs. Yet to draw back, and to give him space to explore his past was an act that now I recognize as kind. I understood that Vincent was in the act of building his identity as a farmer, reconnecting it with his present self, and that the possibilities this connection could have in his future were more enriching than the act of writing at that moment.

All of the writers we worked with were in the process of rebuilding their identities as they transitioned back into permanent housing in Boston. To be able to have their own space, to own their agency once again, is a process that is capable of positively shaping the way in which people perceive themselves and relate to the world.

In this way, the relationships we built as writers and facilitators with the participants are connections that will remain through time, having transitioned into the tangibility of writing. The works we collaborated on, wrote together, play a big part in the way spaces of recognition and belonging are created for writers in vulnerable situations. What we have all contributed to is the creation of one of the many instances in which personal, intimate recollections fuel moments of healing. By becoming friends of the soul, we have looked into each other’s eyes, acknowledged each other and our struggles of wanting to be seen. Participating with the writers at the Center for Change has transformed us and them into teachers, companions, friends, and spiritual guides of one another through the amazing and never-ending grace of literature.

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The 2016 ReVisionaries at the Center for Change. Photo from writerswithoutmargins.org.

 

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