Mary Alice Jensen wants to buy her first motorcycle, and she's 75 years old.
"I'm going to ride it to Astoria and dig clams," says the bubbly and charming woman, who has always dreamed of being a writer. She admits she never wanted a motorcycle until she saw her 53-year-old boyfriend's Harley.
Jensen's also poor. Last month, she had to take a job as an on-call caregiver for other seniors in order to raise money for a new refrigerator. "Social Security is the pits," she says. She can't afford to get her hog, but she's already gotten her chance to share her story through Write Around Portland, a nonprofit organization that runs writing workshops for people who otherwise might never have the opportunity to attend one—from domestic-abuse victims and people with mental or physical disabilities to men and women in prison.
Before Jensen attended her first workshop for low-income adults two years ago, she says she thought she was "the only old poor person in the world."
She's not alone. Since its creation six years ago, Write Around has reached more than 1,500 people through 243 free workshops—so far. That's more than local writer's haven the Attic, where 200 people a year participate in classes at around $275 a pop (for eight weeks). Supplies for Write Around's 10-week workshops are donated, right down to the journals participants write in and the money for their bus tickets. Funding comes from personal gifts and donations.
Portland is already a city of voracious readers and writers. What makes Write Around different is who is involved. Executive Director Robyn Steely will tell you that Write Around isn't therapy, it's "about creating a space for people who wouldn't otherwise have the opportunity to write." Some participants have been journaling their whole lives and never shared it; others, like a newly literate inmate, wrote his first sentence in a workshop, according to Steely.
David Biespiel is writer-in-residence at the Attic, which funds an annual fellowship for one advanced Write Around participant to take classes. What sets Write Around apart, he says, is the "belief that writing can help people in their personal lives." Places like the Attic, in comparison, are for people "interested in aesthetic, process and result."
And for those involved, the Write Around program is as much about real-life growth as it is about creative fiction. Amzi Gillcrese Jr. learned about Write Around through JOIN, an organization that helps homeless Portlanders make the transition into life off the street. He was struggling with addiction 18 months ago, and calls his first workshop "part of my healing." Write Around partners with more than 90 other outreach programs and government programs to find workshop space and recruit participants.
A Marine Corps and Army veteran, Gillcrese, 51, says he nearly failed high-school English. But recently he wrote a play, A Mother's Love, which was performed at the Well Arts Institute in Northeast Portland, an outreach program originally part of Artists Repertory Theatre.
Although one guideline for workshops, which comprise 10 adults and a trained volunteer facilitator, is never to assume the writing is autobiographical, most participants follow the old adage "write about what you know." As this writer observed at a recent Write Around gathering, the atmosphere was encouraging. The workshop (for low-income adults) began with a short free-write before each person shared their story aloud. Each participant offered positive comments (the only type of feedback allowed at Write Around events) about how the piece made them feel. It's a far cry from the average creative-writing class, where every student is trying to outdo one another, impress the teacher or earn high marks. Write Around's workshops are about being heard. And about being seen: Three anthologies of participants' work are published each year.
Everett Charters, 43, facilitates a workshop for a low-income adults. He first became involved with Write Around as a workshop participant through the Cascade AIDS Project. He was diagnosed with AIDS at age 27; he writes about it in "The Pissed-Off Phase": "I mean, according to the ads in the gay magazines I say I don't read, I'm supposed to be taking my HIV meds and rock climbing, or mountain biking, or splashing in the pool on a gay cruise with my handsome lover with the ripped abs and oh-so-fashionable black tribal-art tattoo."
Charters feels that Write Around differs from other nonprofits in the confidence-building it provides. "It helps people get over that hurdle of 'I can't do this,'" Charters says. "Because the hurdle has been removed."
But why offer writing workshops—arguably a luxury—when funding and time could be devoted to things like housing or drug rehabilitation? Steely suggests that the program is a change from participants' routines. For people recovering from addiction, it's place to be clean and sober, away from their old friends and neighborhoods where the temptation to relapse is high. For those recently released from jail, it's a place to build friendships and be productive. And people keep coming back.
Ildi Klein, a 49-year-old Romanian, sees Write Around a different way. Even though she has two bachelor's degrees and a master's, she currently sells clothes at a boutique because she can't find work as a hospital chaplain, her chosen career.
"Write Around is a place where you are not labeled by your mental or emotional state, or your monetary value, or where you're coming from," she says. "You're respected. What you're saying is valuable, and it's validated."
Write Around holds its annual fundraiser, Wordigo, at Portland Art Center, 32 NW 5th Ave., 796-9224, 7:30 pm Saturday, Nov. 11. $25. Visit writearound.org for more info.