Since August, I’ve been teaching a creative writing course in a homeless shelter. Every Wednesday night, I’ve gathered together with a group at a Los Angeles County emergency facility.
When I decided to do this, I wanted to bring the same course I have taught at the university level to the homeless population. I wanted to see if there would be interest in various forms of literature (poetry, plays, novels, short stories, and essays). Most of all I wanted to see if there was interest in writing and creative expression at a shelter.
What I found has been pretty incredible. I’ve been touched by every student’s willingness to learn and their sheer reverence for the texts I’ve brought into our classroom.
From Jack Kerouac to Jack Gilbert, from Shakespeare’s plays to Lincoln’s speeches, we covered wide swaths of history. Someone performed Langston Hughes poems aloud. We read Noir, sections of war novels, and old essays from The New Yorker. One student even participated in National Novel Writing Month.What strikes me the most is that people of all ages were drawn to this chance to create. From 4-year-olds to the near-elderly, the class drew interest from every demographic in the shelter. Some were ready to use flash drives to save their work, while others did not yet have an email address and preferred to write by hand.
There were moments of whimsy — some nights we picked a word of the day; once it was “somersault,” one night it was “retorted.” We ate candy and we laughed.
As the government fumbles to fix all of the nation’s current challenges (not the least of which is homelessness itself), and in a time when we are never wanting for more daily stories that make us question what the First Amendment means, it has been effervescent to see the spirit of the creative arts live in people who are struggling to get on their feet again. It’s been fantastic to watch them express themselves, write about their lives and the lives of others around them.
Creative expression can help us make sense of current events. In the course of the class, I’ve talked with the students about their thoughts on the Occupy movement, American anxiety, and the economy. We’ve talked about housing. We’ve talked about jobs.
They’ve written about their experiences living in a homeless shelter, they’ve written dark metaphors for life, they wrote about clowns, fairies, dragons, and rappers. They dug into their imaginations to make others laugh, think twice, and most of all feel something.
Thank you to the committed and brave students who blossomed from mostly shy, inward strangers to writerly comrades who were excited to share their work and give feedback to their classmates.
As our “semester” comes to close, I want to thank each person for putting themselves out there and entrusting me with their writing. It’s been an honor to teach the class and to learn from you.
Photo: This is an up-close shot I took of one of the student’s essays called “Be the Clown.” My favorite sentence is underlined.