Doctoral student's writing group helps individuals at Shelter House
Friday, July 6, 2012

Two years ago, Patti Silvia was a drug addict with a 10-year prison sentence hanging over her head. Today, Silvia has beaten her addictions and will avoid prison. She says University of Iowa College of Education doctoral student Rossina Liu and the Community Stories Writing Workshop Liu formed have a lot to do with her dramatic turnaround.

“I was a drug addict because I just didn’t know how to let it all out,” Silvia says. “Now with writing, I don’t have the depression I used to have; I don’t have the addiction I used to have. I’m so grateful for this class.”

Liu, a language, literacy, and culture doctoral student, is also a graduate of the UI Nonfiction Writing Program. She formed the writers group at Iowa City’s Shelter House, a nonprofit organization that provides services to the homeless, in the fall of 2010. For the first six months, she shared her leadership role with two others but has been facilitating the group on her own since then. She says almost 50 people have taken part in the group, which meets weekly for 90 minutes to discuss readings, write, and provide feedback on each other’s work for revision.

Liu says she learns as much from the group as she teaches them and hopes that the group will help break stereotypes about the homeless.

“There are a lot of assumptions made of people who are transient. People assume that just because you’re between places, that you don’t also have the literacy practices,” she says. “I have learned while at the Shelter House that there’s such a rich body of knowledge and ways of knowing, ways of practicing, ways of learning.”

One group member told Liu that he read 400 books while serving time.

“When he writes, he thinks about what these other authors did and how he might bring that inspiration into his own work,” Liu says.

Chris Deck, 35, joined the group this spring. He says he’s written all of his life and appreciates the way Liu approaches the group.

“She doesn’t judge us,” he says. “She sees us as straight people. We’re just as intelligent as anyone else, maybe even more. We’ve just had misfortunes. But, you know, experience creates knowledge.”

Deck, who is a former drug addict and spent time in prison, says the workshop gives him the positive outlet for which he's been searching.

“Maybe this is my talent,” he says. “I’ve realized that a talent is just what makes you feel good and what you love.”

Liu’s group can share their talents in a variety of ways. In addition to writing in a traditional sense, Liu says members share their stories through music, photography, graffiti art, even wood carving.

Chris Mundorf, 51, has an essential resting tremor that makes it hard for him to hold a pen to write. He is still able to participate in the group because Liu transcribes his stories for him as he composes them orally. The disabled veteran says he feels he has a lot to write about.

“This gives me a chance to vent a little bit, you might say,” he says with a smile.

Members of the group can choose to share their work at Prairie Lights, Iowa City’s iconic bookstore known for bringing in celebrated authors for public readings. This spring marked the second year the group headlined a reading and the first year that their work was published by Times Club of Prairie Lights Books into a chapbook available for purchase.

Liu says the experience was meaningful for her group.

“There’s a certain sense of legitimacy, of validation that you get from reading and sharing your stories in front of an audience,” she says. “Writing is a very social activity and not a lot of people think about it that way, but it absolutely is—from the time of composition to the time of the presentation or reading.”

Silvia, 51, was among the writers who read their work at Prairie Lights. She says the reading experience and participation in the workshop have changed the way she sees herself.

“I used to feel like I wasn’t part of the community; now I feel like I belong. I felt like I was nobody and nobody gave a hoot, but I don’t feel that way anymore,” she says. “Rossina has been so supportive. She sees when I’m frustrated and overwhelmed and she says, ‘Write about it, Patti.’”

Liu says the successes and achievements writers in her group experience are due to their own hard work.

“I am humbled by the writers in the group,” she says. “Each and every one of them has taught me so much about what it means to be a writer, a teacher, and most importantly, a member of the community.”