Writing in the raw
WRAP workshops give voice to novice authors
A very tall man with an Old Testament beard stands before an audience and reads.
Frederick James' two-page story tells how he learned to count by enumerating the lashes his father would give him while tied up, naked in the basement. At one point he breaks off to explain that his father doused him with gasoline to hide the bruises from his weapon of choice, a razor belt. The boy's offense? 'Being dumb.'
The reader stumbles over his words the way he has stumbled through life. By the end, listeners are teary-eyed and applauding. He gives a shy smile as he leaves the stage.
Not everyone's story is as disturbing as that of James, the first reader at Write Around Portland (WRAP)'s summer reading, this from its 11th anthology of work, 'Where the Mirror Explodes.' The others reading from their work at the First Congregational Church downtown do so with various degrees of nervousness, but they all finish with pride. Few have spoken before a crowd in their adult lives.
WRAP is a nonprofit group that runs creative writing workshops for low-income Portlanders. Two hours a week for 10 weeks, novice writers sit around a table and are given a key word or a prop Ñ a mirror or perhaps a feather Ñ then are encouraged to write about it for 15 minutes. They read their works aloud and offer each other positive feedback.
Workshops have included battered women living in shelters, Kaiser Permanente patients preparing for surgery for morbid obesity, as well as inmates of Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, the state women's prison in Wilsonville, and Inverness Jail, the medium-security county jail near the airport.
Founders Ben Moorad and Liza Halley met while working with the homeless at at Outside In.
'We came up with WRAP as a way to use writing to bring people out of isolation and then build community,' Halley says. 'Everyone can be a powerful writer, with the right tools.'
WRAP, which put on its first workshop in January 1999, stresses that there is no one special way to write. 'There doesn't have to be that O. Henry twist at the end of every story,' Moorad says. 'We always stress, 'Keep the pen moving.' We tell them, 'Writing crap is OK,' so they can have some raw material to work with.'
In an age of Web logs and big-bucks best sellers, many fantasize about making it as a writer. WRAP helps them overcome their fears of a blank page.
'We're trying to get rid of the gatekeeper, and that might be the publishing industry or the internalized critic saying, 'That's not how it's done,' ' Moorad says. 'The first reaction of any writer Ñ except for Norman Mailer Ñ is to doubt that people will like what you've written.'
The organization has an annual budget of $95,000. To encourage people with chaotic lives to attend the full 10 weeks, WRAP provides child care, bus fare, even notepads and pencils for participants.
Just as patients in psychotherapy often burst into tears of gratitude at being listened to for what feels like the first time, WRAP gets a similar reaction from participants. 'They'll say it's the one thing that has saved their lives over the last six months,' Moorad says. 'Everything else was falling apart, but they knew that was a place where they could be at peace.'
Flakiness is not a great problem. People show up.
'At our community center groups, attendance is very good. Obviously, in our prison and jail groups, attendance is pretty fantastic,' he says with a laugh.
Another surprise is the quality of volunteers WRAP attracts who want to learn how to lead workshops. They have to be prepared to take the same risk, writing and reading alongside their charges. WRAP has had to turn away some professional teachers, social workers and experienced writers.
'It can be very hard for those people to accept that everyone is going to write in a different way,' Moorad says.
While the program focuses on people with common urban problems such as homelessness and substance abuse, local HMO Kaiser Permanente's bariatric surgery department recently paid $2,000 to send a dozen people to a WRAP workshop. Before qualifying for bariatric surgery (stomach reduction for the morbidly obese) patients have to do therapy, take nutrition classes and lose some weight. Kaiser considers the writing program one more tool to help them stick with the program.
Back at the 'Mirror Explodes' reading, a woman reads an account of what it was like to weigh more than 400 pounds. It's a story of deep humiliation.
'For at least 10 years before my surgery, I could not wipe my own bottom,' she reads. On one trip to the mall, her son kept checking her grandson's diaper, wondering where the smell was coming from.
Once again, the room rustles with discomfort, then sympathy, then applause.
'V Is for Verbal, Is It?' is a gem, a retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth in Creole dialect by Ariel Appelbaum, the nom de plume for Dee Keating Ñ who just happens to have a thick Dublin accent. She came here from New York City last fall and has been writing a novel called 'Falling Into Topiary' while looking for a job. WRAP's workshop threw the painfully shy Irish woman in deep with other writers, where she was forced to present her work in public.
She has no shortage of ambition, however: 'I've got a friend who got a big juicy advance. That's what I want.'
While Moorad and Halley wouldn't mind if one of their writers turned pro, the real point is to spread the word that writing workshops are a way to help the less fortunate. WRAP has trained 60 people to lead workshops and has put more than 500 people through them. Already, the Manhattan Writers Coalition is using WRAP's training manual to bring a similar setup to New York City, and another workshop graduate is starting his own group in Madison, Wis.
Moorad, a published poet who studied creative writing at the University of California at Berkeley with poet Thom Gunn, says there are 'highly compelling ellipses of thought' in the anthology. Aware of the grandness of the comparison, he likens them to the work of poets William Blake and Ezra Pound. One writer, Lora Lafayette, writes complex poems including one that ends with the line, 'I write where the mirror explodes.'
Says Moorad, 'It wasn't until I'd known her over a year that we discovered we both love the same weird Russians and Poles and Czech writers Ñ Gombrowicz, Bulgakov, Kafka of course.'
WRAP participants relate to writing surprisingly directly.
'A book like Kafka's 'Metamorphosis' (in which a man wakes up one day having turned into a giant cockroach) speaks to people who have been completely shunned for being socially unacceptable,' Moorad says. 'The result is a lot more interesting discussion than you'd get in a college seminar.'
Similarly, a group of women debate passionately the meaning of a single comma in an otherwise unpunctuated poem about a battered woman. 'They were getting at concepts of linguistics that were highly advanced even though they didn't have terminology for it,' he says.
The stories in the anthology are, by no means, all straight confessionals. Brian Moodhe, who writes under the name Noble Ceverin Moodhe, saw modest success in Portland band Red Hour in the 1990s. He descended into heroin addiction, was homeless for a while and lost all his possessions. But Moodhe now has a girlfriend and an apartment and is looking for work. He recently bought a guitar and is writing songs again. In the anthology, he writes a gothic account of a junkie's nighttime agony. His songs, however, could grace a KNRK (94.7 FM) drive-time show.
Since being exposed to this raw vein of writing, Moorad has found contemporary novels boring, and his own writing has changed:
'I had very little before, but I have no tolerance now for deconstruction, which just seems to treat writing as a game. I know it's not a game: It can change people's lives. And I've cut out 95 percent of the cheap irony that says, 'Everything is meaningless, so I'll just footnote everything to death.' '
Unsurprisingly, literary influences on workshop attendees include hip-hop and Hallmark as well as Nobel laureates. However, this doesn't preclude amazing moments of compressed drama. And death isn't always a metaphor.
One writer, Karen L. May, tells how she thinks her violent husband is going to shoot her when he comes home one day with a small paper package. But he pulls out a compact disc and plays a sappy love song, dedicated to her. She falls for his charm, again.
Weeks later, the police come at night saying he has been beaten to death.
'The arguments were over,' she writes. 'They died along with him.'