Lenses on Water
Pia is a junior double-concentrating in Education Studies and Comparative Literature. This is her third year with Writers' Group, a Swearer Center Community Program that offers creative writing workshops for adults with developmental disabilities, and her first year as a Swearer Center Community Fellow.
It is 12:27, and the writers are waiting. Outside, it looks like it’s about to rain. We’ve gotten to know them a few weeks now, and I wonder what they will have to say about this.
We anchor our big white whale of a van (courtesy of the Sweater Center), in front of a brick building in Pawtucket. Two other Writers’ Group volunteers and I hurry toward Resource, a job training facility for adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities. When we rush through the door, it is 12:29, and our arms are spilling with pens and lined sheets of paper.
The writers gather around the table of the small conference room with bright blue walls. Throughout the week, Tom, Kevin, Ray, and Denise* work diverse jobs in the community while receiving professional development support. But every Tuesday at 12:30, it’s time for Writers’ Group.
“Do you think it’s going to rain today?” I ask the group.
“It’s not going to rain until Thursday,” Kevin says matter-of-factly.
“I don’t like the rain,” says Denise. She has thick, wavy brown hair cut close to the nape of her neck. She shakes her head. On her wrists, pink and silver bracelets chime softly. She makes them herself.
“I like the rain,” Ray insists.
I ask, “What do you like about the rain?”
I write down their ideas on the board. As an organization that offers creative writing workshops to adults with developmental disabilities, our work is predicated on the understanding of the importance of language. As volunteers, we’re conscious of person-first language, that “adults with developmental disabilities” as opposed to “disabled adult” confers dignity and humanness over some notion of presupposed deficiency. At Writers’ Group, language is a means of expression, imagination, storytelling, and strength.
When I moved to the United States, many people assumed I couldn’t speak English and saw that as a deficit. Creative writing became integral to me as a medium of expression. By facilitating creative expression for others, I see language as a window for individuals to express themselves and be listened to, in turn.
Today, we’re writing about our favorite memories of water.
When I walk around and ask if a writer wants help, or ask prompting questions to spark ideas (“Would you like to describe to me what an ice sculpture looks like?”), I think about my going-on-three years at Writers’ Group. As I reflect more deeply on our work, I wonder about the question of who gets to speak for whom. As an able-bodied individual, I’m still learning how to talk about disability and individuals with disabilities, to learn about another’s experience. I can really only speak for myself, after all, and be intentional about listening.
At the end of the workshop, all of the writers are invited to present their work, or have a volunteer read their work aloud. Their peers listen intently, and we applaud: once, at the end of each reading, then again, all together, at the end.
You make a love potion with water. You put drops in the love potion to make it red. You can add a love spice. You make a love potion to find a soul mate.
I go to the beach. It is sunny there.
My very first time was in my pool in my yard with my younger brother Timothy.
Ice crystals are very beautiful… It seems like they take their sweet time to melt.
In social justice work, we are often and rightly pushed to wonder if our work is being effective or impactful. And the truth is, because of the nature of the populations we’re engaging with, I can’t always just ask our writers, or explicitly quantify what difference we’re making.
This has worried me for some time, until, as we are leaving, Kevin asks, “So, I think, next week, we should write something together. All together. As a group.”
Of course we say yes.
Like the writers’ varied views on water, I think the ways in which Writers’ Group operates (relationships fostered, humanities expressed) can’t be examined through any single lens. A writer was already planning ahead for the next workshop, and not only that, taking ownership of the workshop, and that was a kind of indirect assurance.
The two other volunteers and I walked outside into the rain clouds. It would have been cool if it had started raining just then, but that would have been too much of an “ending.” Next Tuesday at 12:30 is Writers’ Group again, and we’re still writing this story.
*For purposes of confidentiality, the writers’ names have been changed.