Writing workshops across Pioneer Valley help women set their inner voices free

Program provides women who are or have been in jail, or who are in recovery, with cathartic release

  • Members of Voices From Inside, a writing program geared toward women who are or have been in jail, or who are in recovery, regularly give public readings, both at events and through the organization’s own “Voices Carry” performances. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Members of Voices From Inside, a writing program geared toward women who are or have been in jail, or who are in recovery, regularly give public readings, both at events and through the organization’s own “Voices Carry” performances. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • From left, Lisa Peck, Kristina Cruz, Stacy Williamson, Daisy Diaz and Frances Stewart pose for a photo in their Voices From Inside T-shirts. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Members of Voices From Inside, including Amie Hyson, at left, who facilitates the groups at the RECOVER Project and the Franklin County jail, prepare for a public reading at the All Souls Church in Greenfield. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Members of Voices From Inside, including Lee V., pictured, regularly give public readings, both at events and through the organization’s own “Voices Carry” performances. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 4/10/2019 5:24:12 PM

Kayla Barcomb never wrote poetry before Voices From Inside started a writing workshop for women in the Franklin County jail last May.

So at her first writing session, even though everyone was encouraging, she only read her work aloud at the end of the session, on the last call for reading.

“I was worried about, ‘What will people think? What are they going to say? I don’t know what I’m doing,’” Barcomb said. “But after that I would go back and spend a lot more time in my cell, and I would write and write and write. Now I’ve got two folders of stuff in my backpack, and I’ve got four notebooks at home. ... All of that started from Voices From Inside.”

Encouraging all writers

When Barcomb was released from prison in December, she immediately started going to Voices From Inside’s group at the RECOVER Project in Greenfield.

Voices From Inside is primarily geared toward women who are or have been in jail; or who are in recovery, most often from drugs or alcohol. The program was started at the Chicopee jail in 1999 and is thus celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, according to Jenny Abeles, president of the Voices From Inside board of directors. Since then, groups have formed through the Springfield jail, the South Hadley Girls Treatment Program and the Hampden County Sheriff Office’s After Incarceration Support Systems Program.

The Greenfield group at the RECOVER Project was organized in February of 2016 by Tara McNamara, an alumna of one of the Springfield groups, Abeles said. The group at the RECOVER Project now meets every Wednesday at 1:30 p.m.

Both the RECOVER Project group and the one in the Franklin County jail are facilitated by Amie Hyson, who was involved with the program as a participant before she was invited to train as a facilitator. She has been in recovery from an opioid addiction since 2007.

“I was looking for a way to give back to the community when I first came to the RECOVER Project,” Hyson said of her decision to facilitate both groups. “Voices From Inside I was very drawn to because I love to write. I feel like I found my niche there of where it is I can be of most value, giving back to the community in a way that also facilitates my desire to stay a person in recovery.”

Voices From Inside’s system is based on the Amherst Writers and Artists method. Participants start with a prompt, write for 15 minutes, and then everyone is invited to share what they wrote.

“We really do emphasize that there’s no right or wrong way to do it,” Hyson said. “Essentially, we believe that a writer is someone who writes. And anyone can write. It’s just a matter of getting that out on paper.”

Prompts vary in nature. It could be a picture, a poem or a single line from a book. In jail, Barcomb said, participants sometimes used different colored paint chips with words on them.

“I’ll write something pertaining to that color,” she said. “But it doesn’t have to be literally a yellow jacket. It could be, that yellow chip means brightness and happiness, or, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. It could be anything. Whatever I feel. It’s more my emotion for the day. Am I in a good space? A bad space? But I know that when I’m done writing, I feel way better.”

Members of Voices From Inside regularly give public readings, both at events and through the organization’s own “Voices Carry” performances. They will be doing two readings as part of the upcoming Radical Interconnectedness Festival on Friday, April 26, and Saturday, April 27, both at 5 p.m., at the Great Falls Discovery Center, 2 Avenue A in Turners Falls.

Creating a safe space for sharing

Participants say they naturally develop their own style of writing through Voices From Inside, while at the same time getting to know their fellow participants.

“As you work together for a while, you learn the voices of each woman in the group,” Hyson said. “Every woman tends to have their own way of writing, and a theme emerges over time.”

For example, Hyson continued, “Kayla (Barcomb) is the queen of rhyme. Every single piece Kayla writes rhymes. When I try to rhyme something, it sounds contrived or phony or weird. But when Kayla rhymes it always works. It always flows. It doesn’t sound weird or forced.”

In workshop sessions, group members give feedback on each other’s work. There are guidelines to keep participants focused on the writing itself, rather than on the “emotional content,” Hyson said.

“When someone writes something, even if we know that what they’re writing is true ... we treat it as fiction,” Hyson said. “The voice in the piece we refer to as the narrator or the voice in the piece. So we refrain from giving advice. … We don’t say, ‘I’m sorry that happened to you. We’re really looking at the piece devoid of the emotional, even though we do get emotional in the group.”

There are also rules about confidentiality. Outside of writing sessions, group members have to ask permission before talking to a writer about one of her pieces.

“You can’t assume that somebody wants to talk about anything they wrote,” Hyson said. “That gives you a place to write where it’s sort of a safe container, where you can explore something and write about something, and not feel like it’s going to be put under a magnifying glass as to what you wrote about.”

Voices From Inside, Hyson continued, allows for an equality between individuals that fosters “a safe space for people to explore their relationships and their connections to each other in a way that they couldn’t outside in the general population.

“You have to be a certain way out there in order to be perceived,” she explained. “When you come into the group — this is how I like to facilitate groups — I want it to be a equal playing ground. ... I don’t want it to feel like anyone is above anyone. … There’s an equality there. I think the way VFI works, it really does promote that.”

‘I totally feel a release’

Because the Voices From Inside workshops create a safe space for sharing, a bond grows between the women who are involved, Hyson explained. The writing, and subsequent sharing of their work, offers a cathartic release, participants echoed.

“It’s this beautiful place where you get to let out your pain or your joy or your sorrow in any kind of way that you see fit to write it down, and they strengthen you for it,” said Frances Rivera, who has been involved with Voices From Inside as a participant and facilitator since 2001, when she was in jail in Springfield. “I think a lot of us share a quality in the group that we have these burdens or afflictions, if you will, that we carry with us on a regular basis, that we’re not capable of healing on our own. So we draw strength from each other, from the group and from situations that bring us together, that put us in a place to share those burdens with each other. In normal spaces in other areas of our lives, we probably wouldn’t.”

Participants often discuss those burdens or afflictions through their writing, or offer uplifting sentiments.

“For myself, it’s always in direct relation with somewhere I am on the inside,” Rivera said. “I’m a Christian so a lot of my poetry is very spiritual and reflecting on hope and faith. Ninety percent of the things I write about are to inspire hope and faith in another person, that you can get through anything if you just hold on.”

“It was a big part of releasing the shame and regret that comes when you’re sitting there for hours asking yourself, ‘What am I doing here? How did I get here?” Rivera continued, recalling her participation in the Voices From Inside group at the Springfield jail. “Sometimes there’s no one to talk to about that stuff. In the writing group so much of it just pours out, and it frees you from that inside prison, outside in the actual prison.”

Rivera, who now lives in a recovery house in Greenfield, was pleased to find she could continue with Voices From Inside after her release from prison.

“When I found out the group was here (in Greenfield), I was so excited because I knew it worked for me,” she said. “I knew it was a tool that helped me get stuff out so I wasn’t carrying that baggage around.”

Because Voices From Inside’s system emphasizes writing in a relatively short period of time, and participants tend to edit very little if at all, participants are able to apply what they learn in the workshops to their everyday lives.

“Besides praying, I can write,” Rivera said. “It’s such a tool.”

“I totally feel a release,” Barcomb said. “Any time I’m going through something good or bad, I’ll just take a few minutes and write something.”

Just a few weeks ago, in fact, Barcomb used writing as a welcomed outlet on her way to a Voices From Inside workshop, when her son was throwing a tantrum.

“He kept throwing stuff out of the stroller, and I had to stop the stroller because we can’t keep moving on when he’s throwing stuff,” she recalled. “So I pulled the stroller over and wrote a poem. And when I was done with that poem, he was done with his fit.”

“And that poem rhymed and it was amazing,” Hyson chimed in.

Staff reporter Max Marcus started working at the Greenfield Recorder in 2018. He covers Northfield, Bernardston, Leyden and Warwick. He can be reached at: mmarcus@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 261.


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