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Pioneer Valley Poets: Writers take a huge step

  • Tara McNamara of Turners Falls, third from right, stands with some of the Voices from Inside writers after a reading of the “Voices Carry” performance group. Contributed photo

  • Trish Crapo



For The Recorder
Wednesday, June 14, 2017

About a year ago, Tara McNamara of Turners Falls had a great idea.

McNamara had been volunteering as a workshop facilitator for the writing programs of Voices from Inside, a Springfield-based group whose mission is to help incarcerated or previously incarcerated women find their voices and improve their writing skills. Through workshops and a performance group, “Voices Carry,” the organization strives to improve the lives of this at-risk population of women through writing.

McNamara knew that there were other groups, such as the Recover Center of Greenfield, who were also running writing groups. McNamara wanted to bring together writers from the various groups for a public reading.

On Saturday, McNamara’s idea comes to life when “Breaking Free,” a public reading will bring readers from Voices from Inside and The RECOVER Project to the stage on the fourth floor of Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center (formerly Arts Block), 289 Main Street, Greenfield.

The free event is supported by the Franklin County Opioid Task Force, the Western Massachusetts Training Consortium and the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts. Readers will have 5-minute slots and McNamara hopes to foster a fun, participatory feel that will get the audience and readers interacting in positive ways.

“I want to get people in the audience really into what we’re doing,” McNamara said, when she and Voices from Inside Program Coordinator Gretchen Krull sat down with me last week to discuss the project.

“I want to make it not so stuffy,” said McNamara. “Because the work will not be stuffy.”

McNamara laughs. But both she and Krull take the writing workshops seriously. They see writing not only as a way for the women in the workshops to find their voices, as the organization’s name implies, but as a tool toward empowerment and self-confidence.

Krull says, “Putting your writing out on the page and then looking at it, you can see you’ve accomplished something. You’ve had success with a project and you realize you are able to set your mind to doing something, and having it actually be a project that other people respect and encourage you to do more.”

“It’s cathartic,” McNamara says.

McNamara has seen many women who began the workshops doubtfully begin to write with confidence and enthusiasm. And among those, some who were happy to write but never wanted to read in the group, much less in public, are now actively performing in Voices Carry.

“You can be nervous as heck (before you perform),” McNamara says, but after a reading, “People say, ‘Thank you! That was inspirational.’ We get the most amazing feedback. And that helps a lot.”

Krull says that the writing, “Gives you confidence where you may not have had it before. … For some people improving their writing and having confidence in it has actually been the thing that’s motivated them to go back to school.”

Other workshop participants have gone on to become facilitators and lead new writing groups, Krull said, allowing them to acquire leadership skills. These are huge steps for women who have felt stigmatized by society.

“The confidence is the message,” Krull says. “That’s what reduces the stigma, is seeing the courage, the strength of the other readers.”

Both McNamara and Krull emphasize that although the writing workshops can be therapeutic, they’re also lively and fun.

“We never ask them to write about their experience,” Krull says. “But of course we all write from our experience in one way or another because that’s what we have.”

Writing prompts might include choosing words from a “word lottery” generated by the group; writing from the names of paint colors on sample cards; or writing about a seemingly ordinary object, such as an earring, a bottle cap or a coffee cup.

Voices from Inside workshops use the Amherst Writers and Artists method developed by Pat Schneider of Amherst, author of “Writing Alone and with Others.” The model emphasizes generating new work over critiquing, and is based on these five democratic principles: everyone has a strong unique voice; everyone is born with creative genius; writing as an art form belongs to all people, regardless of economic class or educational level; the teaching of craft can be done without damage to a writer’s original voice or artistic self-esteem and; a writer is someone who writes.

At the time we spoke, there were 6 confirmed readers from The RECOVER Project and 14 women from the Voices from Inside workshops. Those numbers might grow, Krull said.

McNamara said that the reading will not be a slam.

“We’re not going to get ‘judgey’,” she said, adding that people who have been working to overcome addiction or to lift the stigma of having been previously incarcerated already have enough judging in their lives.

“We just want to hear what they have to say,” McNamara said.

Voices from Inside
workshops

The Greenfield Voices from Inside writing group meets Wednesdays, 1:30 to 3 p.m. at Recover Project, 68 Federal St, Greenfield.

McNamara and Krull are working to add an evening workshop to accommodate women with daytime work schedules. Contact: Gretchen Krull, 413-896-9181; galynkrull@gmail.com.

Read more about Voices from Inside, including workshop participants’ writing and some favorite writing prompts, at:
www.voicesfrominside.org

Find out more about the RECOVER Project at: www.recoverproject.org

Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She is always looking for poets, writers and artists to interview for her columns. She can be reached at tcrapo@mac.com