"The first rule of good writing is don't flinch," Anitra Freeman tells a small group gathered for a creative-writing workshop in Seattle's trendy Belltown neighborhood.
Outside, a blustery wind rattles street lights and pushes the rain sideways. Club- and restaurant-goers hurry by, trying not to get soaked. Inside the cluttered, street-level Second Avenue office, it is warm and dry and Freeman is discussing poetry.
"Remember," she continues, "when you write something general or universal, it doesn't really affect people. Try to be personal or specific. People feel that."
Kindly, bespectacled 47-year-old teacher. Enthusiastic and thoughtful students of all ages. Just another typical workshop for wannabe writers? Well, not really.
The participants are members of Streetwrites, an informal writing workshop for people who are either homeless or poor. And Freeman, one of the founders of Streetwrites, is formerly homeless herself.
She started the Thursday night workshop 18 months ago because she believed that organized support for creative expression should not be limited to people of means. Writing had helped her to focus and express herself. She wanted others to get the same benefit.
"People come alive more when they're doing something creative, whether they're homeless or they're millionaires," she says. "You need to be creating something to really feel like yourself."
Being homeless in Seattle, Freeman wanted people to know, wasn't a single story. It was the stories of the city's estimated 4,000-5,000 homeless people. And being "low-income" wasn't just one person's story either.
Two years ago, Freeman was an out-of-work computer programmer living in a Seattle shelter when she heard about Real Change, Puget Sound's homeless newspaper. She began writing for the publication and eventually joined its editorial committee. In early 1996 she approached Real Change director Timothy Harris, about starting a creative-writing group for others who were homeless or low-income.
Harris was supportive. "Our interest is in seeing homeless people have a voice," he said. "That's something we're always trying to promote. Giving people a chance to tell their story."
With office space and supplies provided by Real Change and the additional help of a few friends, Freeman got the free workshops started. At first, just a handful of people showed up. "I just made sure I was there and the door was open in case people wanted to stop by," says Freeman. Eventually though, a core group of 25-30 was established, with about 10 weekly participants. They are men and women, all races, from a wide range of backgrounds. Some have been homeless for years; others are new to the streets.
The workshop has proved invaluable for Catharine, a 37-year-old mother who lost custody of her three kids a few years ago when she fell back into abusing drugs and alcohol.
"The last three or four years have been unbelievably traumatic," says Catharine, who asked that her last name not be used because she was concerned about being typecast as homeless. "Basically my life blew apart. It shattered." What hurts, she says, is the misunderstanding of people who are homeless. "People only see the surface. They make assumptions. They think everyone who's homeless is dangerous or crazy."
The workshop has given Catharine the confidence to help her get back on her feet and heal the emotional wounds. "Having a place where I could be jittery and quaking in my boots and still feel comfortable was really important for me."
The program also helps to create a sense of community, says Harris. "Poor and homeless people are often very isolated and they have a hard time getting back on their feet without a support network."
Many of the participants write about their experiences as homeless people, but they are just as likely to write about birds or love or an oak tree shedding its leaves. In many cases the writing seethes with anger and bitterness, but sparkling humor and wit are present as well. Freeman doesn't tell people what to write, she only suggests ways to make their writing better.
Freeman has expanded Streetwrites to include public readings at spaces like the Speakeasy Cafe, and she started a Web site where participants can post their poems and stories http://ww w.earthonline.net/public/StreetWrites/index.htm
There aren't many rules to the informal gatherings. Some nights turn into lighthearted parties; on other nights, everyone knuckles down to work.
Freeman is flexible and "goes with the flow." With bushy black-going-gray hair crowding her face and a quizzical smile that never leaves her lips, the amiable teacher constantly advises, prods, praises, and critiques. She makes sure to let those who attend know that what they have to offer is valuable and important. She is also quick to laugh and to let others know that what they have to say will be heard and respected.
It's a message her "students" rarely hear from anyone else.
"I've seen people drag in here with that street dirt on their faces and they leave fully invigorated," she says. "They may be homeless, but they come and people hear them and respond and that's very ego-building. It boosts them and gives them a self-confidence they carry into other things."
It's also been rewarding for Freeman. "People come in here and are able to talk about intensely personal things, and I'm tickled pink that I've been able to develop an atmosphere where they can do that."
We masses don't want tofu, thank you,
We prefer pork chops and hearty beef stew,
Carrots cut thick will nourish the brew
But solo those tubers and sprouts just won't do.
- Ruth Fox