By Kyle Smith
This spring, Madison Writing Assistance (MWA)—represented by Associate Director Angela Zito, Assistant Director Weishun Lu, and myself, an MWA instructor—asked members of the Madison community to tell us about their relationship with writing. As the community-outreach arm of the UW-Madison Writing Center, MWA works with anyone in the Madison area who has a writing project they want to develop or improve. MWA’s patrons work with us on projects ranging from résumés to memoirs to research proposals, highlighting the fact that writing is a tool that serves many purposes, from the practical to the expressive. It is something we all have a relationship with.
MWA’s annual Celebration of Writing aims to spotlight this relationship, the work done by anyone in the community who uses writing to meet goals, address needs, or express themselves, whether they think of themselves as writers or not. This year, we had to celebrate this work amid ongoing strictures related to the pandemic. Where once we met many of our patrons in Madison Public Library branches and other public spaces, we’ve had to revamp our programming to meet them online and by phone, and thus we had to celebrate the community’s writing remotely as well. We did so in two events: a Story Exchange and a Virtual Roundtable.
Story Exchange: Relationships with Writing
With the Story Exchange, we wanted to create a virtual space where folks could share short stories about their relationship with writing, in the hope that these stories would inspire others to recognize their labor as writers and to push forward on their writing journeys.
One particularly impactful cluster of contributions to the Story Exchange came to us from writers in the Odyssey Beyond Bars program, which teaches credit-bearing and noncredit UW-Madison courses to students incarcerated in Wisconsin prisons. In these responses, we heard from writers for whom writing is a lifeline, a space of freedom and possibility, and a way to speak for themselves and others.
In his poem, “I’ve Been Here Before,” Edward J. creates a rhythmic space in which to outline the physical, sensorial, and mental space of a cell:
This hot, sweltering, 8×11-foot cell,
I’ve been here before
voices get close, cool breeze,
caressing my face as I kneel,
close to the floor,
talking through the vent, I stop…
footsteps in the dark
soft soles, heartbeats
I hear voices whispers, scents,
Somali rose, perhaps frankincense
I stand up, up, up
straighten my back, crack my spine
and step right four steps,
left one, forward three steps
and I watch my window view is clear
no birds perched on my windowsill here,
no grass to be seen
I’ve been here before.
The darkness is my friend
I reach out, grasp at air
and then I stare, silhouette, blurred vision,
screams at a distance
and I sit…
no, I lay
I’ve been here before, I just can’t remember when
I slip off into a slumber,
as my days grow numbered but I persist,
no I resist
for I have been here before,
the belly of this beast
in the cell I grow weak
before at least I fall asleep.
Meanwhile, in his submission, “Why I Write: The Humanities of Survival,” Randy C. tells of how he uses writing to envision what survival means, and has meant, in the spaces of his life:
Writing for me is survival. I write to survive the parts of my mind where I begin to lose myself. Growing up in a dysfunctional household, without either one of my parents, I was often subjected to abuse which led me to see the world from a cynical perspective. I became a shell of myself, afraid to speak and quick to please, in fear of physical consequences. I remember hiding in the closet, piling clothes on top of me while listening to an old Walkman, amazed at the creative and courageous way 2Pac Shakur expressed himself. I wrote my own writings as poems, never touching on my own situation, yet experiencing peace through my imagination.
To never write a word is to sit in a hollow box, breathing but ceasing to exist. In an effort of self-preservation, I write to avenge the foes of my past, to exist in history, if not in the present.
When I write I can live beyond survival, not a prisoner of society, religion, law, or politics. I possess the true free will to roam my imagination and the world around me. Writing to survive is why I write.
Finally, in “Why I Write,” Ali W. writes of the many, past and present, he hopes to impact and give voice to with his writing:
I write for the seventy-year-old man with a third-grade education that worked 14-16 hours a day to put his only daughter through college. I write for the souls of my ancestors who jumped out of the slave ships in shark-infested waters for they knew it would be better to die free than live in bondage.
I write for the young boy who is heavily medicated because he’s been labeled ADD/ADHD and emotionally disturbed, yet all he needed was an in-house father figure to teach him how to deal with his emotions.
I write to help end systemic racism.
I write to give a voice to those who died from senseless violence at the hands of those who claim to protect and serve. I write for the abused wife who desperately wants to leave her husband but can’t see a way out.
I write for the misguided teen who thought they could be more likable if they weren’t themselves but then took their own lives, tired of the constant bullying. I write for the Muslim who is harassed, shunned, and ridiculed by the scared and uneducated.
I write for the peace the world needs and is not getting.
Virtual Roundtable: “Writing for Change”
The power of storytelling also came up repeatedly in the other event MWA put on for the Celebration of Writing: a live roundtable discussion centered on the theme of “Writing for Change.” While this theme aimed to address writing that we don’t often think of as narrative—the persuasive and practical writing that we are often called upon to do in our everyday lives—our participants returned frequently to the importance of storytelling in conveying their ideas, moving their audiences, and shaping their visions for their lives and others’.
Community organizers Marisol Gonzalez-Rodriguez and Robert Wynn both shared narratives they’d written about their personal journeys: Robert, who’s worked on writing projects with MWA in the past, shared with us reflections on the need for action on climate change spurred by a trip to Antarctica, while Marisol, an alum of the UW-Madison Odyssey Project and Writer’s Institute, spoke compellingly of the frequent injustices of the U.S. immigration system by telling her and her family’s story of navigating it. Meanwhile, Madison Public Library’s Liz Boyd stressed the importance of storytelling for drawing attention to the library’s work in the community, while Kevin Mullen of the Odyssey Project emphasized the crucial role of literature in his work teaching and inspiring the students in the program. And inevitably, each speaker had plenty to say about the stories that had moved them, sharing so many book titles that the discussion threatened (in a good way) to be taken over by books!
Our roundtable discussion and our Story Exchange submissions make it clear that when we share stories, big or small, their effects multiply: details lodge in our minds, begging to be repeated; threads come together; stories become tools that others can use, adapt, build upon; and those who encounter them are encouraged to share their own. As tools of knowledge and solace, stories can be just as crucial for our survival as sustenance and shelter.
As MWA looks to the coming year in continuing its work with the Madison community, we long for the shared spaces of the library tables and neighborhood centers where we met our patrons in the past, and we very much hope we can return to them soon. But the participants in this year’s Celebration of Writing remind us that our relationships with writing are resilient enough to thrive in any space, and even to create their own. We are incredibly grateful for the strength we draw from this reminder, and hope that others can share in this as well.
The Madison Writing Assistance (MWA) program offers free, one-to-one writing support for community members over phone, video chat, and email. When it’s safe for us to gather safely in public again, MWA can also be found at libraries and neighborhood centers throughout the city of Madison. MWA services are made possible through generous funding from the Evjue Foundation and the UW Anonymous Fund, and through administrative support from the UW-Madison Writing Center, English Department, and community partners like the Madison Public Library and Meadowood Neighborhood Center. You can follow us on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/madisonwritingassistance).
Kyle Smith is a Ph.D. student in English Literary Studies at UW-Madison, specializing in early medieval literature, and a contributing editor to the Old English Poetry in Facsimile project. He is also an instructor with the UW Writing Center and Madison Writing Assistance; this spring, he worked with MWA Associate Director Angela Zito and Assistant Director Weishun Lu in planning the Celebration of Writing.
3 Replies to “Madison Writing Assistance Celebration of Writing 2021: Sharing Stories, Writing for Change”
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