Words Without Walls Receives 2020 Pearl of Hope Award

Sarah Shotland was in her first year of her MFA program at Chatham University, when her program director, Sheryl St. Germain, mentioned that she taught creative writing at a women’s prison when she was in grad school. St. Germain mentioned that she would love to start something similar at Chatham, if any of the students would be interested. Soon thereafter, the two started a program at the Allegheny County Jail, in 2010. After three years, they expanded their work to include the women of Sojourner House. 

The creative writing courses are taught in 8-15 week semesters, with two teachers from Chatham coming into Sojourner House for weekly 90-minute classes. The teachers are a Chatham faculty member and a graduate student or two graduate students. Shotland explains why creative writing classes are so beneficial to the women in recovery, stating, “Creative writing is a different way to access memory and meaning. It helps you to build connections between the past and the present and then helps you reimagine the future.”

Words without Walls reading at Creative Nonfiction in April 2019

During each session, the group reads a piece together. 

“We read fiction. We read poetry. We read memoir. We try to choose pieces that we think are going to be emotionally resonant, that are relevant to the women’s lives, which doesn’t always mean they’re about addiction and recovery.“ says Shotland.  The class then discusses the piece and then writes based on a writing prompt offered by the teachers. “It’s a pretty simple formula. Read, discuss, write, share.”

Sojourner House resident group photo from the Words Without Walls reading at Creative Nonfiction in April 2019

Over the course of the semester, the women in the class are also visited by a guest writer who will discuss their writing process and share their work with the class. “They’re used to dismissing their own stories,” says Shotland. “Their stories are so villainized and stigmatized in culture that a lot of women think, ‘Who wants to hear my story?’ So we try to bring in writers that are telling stories that the women can relate to. To read something and think, ‘Oh, that’s like my story. And if this person can say it, I can say it too.’”

Words without Walls reading at Bantha Tea Bar in Nov. 2019
2018 cover of the residents’ published works

After the first few weeks, revision and editing are introduced and the students continue to work on their pieces. Author photos are taken to accompany their work and the semester culminates in the creation of a publication. The students’ work is highlighted at a final celebration, usually at a coffee shop or an art gallery, where the women practice reading their work and confidently telling their stories.

“The response has been really moving, really positive, and incredibly powerful. It is one thing to sort of tell your story alone in a room, in your diary or journal, but when you do it in a group, you may hear somebody who maybe you didn’t think you had a lot in common with share a story that makes you think, ‘Oh, I understand her now, because I can relate to what she just wrote.’” Shotland said, “I love how supportive Sojourner House women are of each other. They champion each other. They cry with each other. They celebrate with each other. They celebrate each other’s kids. I just am so impressed by them all the time.”

The women in the class are not the only ones who benefit from the program. The graduate students in the program take their experience with them and often incorporate it into their post-graduate lives by creating similar classes in their home communities. Supporting those in recovery has a personal impact for many of the Chatham students as well. 

Sojourner House residents in the Words without Walls writing class

“Many, if not all, of our graduate students have a family member or a loved one who has gone through the process of recovery or has not gotten into recovery and is out there struggling. And many of our students themselves have dealt with addiction and are in recovery or will eventually, hopefully, be in a sustainable recovery,” said Shotland. 

Being the 2020 Pearl of Hope awardee means a great deal to the co-founders.

“Sheryl and I are always saying that Sojourner House is our favorite part of our week and it feels really validating to hear Sojourner House say back to us, ‘You’re also a favorite part of our week.’ The women in our classes and the people who work there are incredibly special.”