Songs Aboard the Women’s Freedom Train: Writing to Be Free

“I write myself out of nightmares and into my dreams,” says Terry Tempest Williams, in her essay “Why I Write.” “I write to the questions that shatter my sleep.”

This past July, Lighthouse Writers and the Jefferson County Library launched a collaborative writing workshop called Writing to Be Free, serving women in a local correctional facility who are transitioning out of prison.

Some of these women’s lives are a technicolor nightmare of devastating choices: crack addiction, prostitution, armed robbery. They now want freedom from inner demons, freedom from shattering questions.   

And they also want the freedom to write truthful stories, to join with other honest and courageous women in our culture who also write their way into better dreams. 

Every 1st and 3rd Thursday of the month, JeffCo librarian Cecilia LaFrance and I offer a creative writing workshop for incarcerated women. On the 2nd and 4th Thursdays, a dedicated member of the outreach team (often Cecilia) drives the JeffCo Bookmobile to the facility.

Cecilia fields book requests, hunts down favorite movies and magazines—or handpicks YA novels she knows the women will enjoy. She also encourages them to use the library’s many resources, including job help and literacy programs for their children. To these women, she is more than a visiting librarian; she’s a trusted friend.

Our bimonthly writing workshop might include reading an excerpt from Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle, or a Mary Oliver or Maya Angelou poem. The participants write in response, share personal stories, offer positive feedback.

They also write about their dreams when they’re released, which often include writing more. Many are interested in attending the Hard Times writing workshops offered through Lighthouse at both the Arvada Library and Denver’s Central Library.

At our gatherings, usually every participant shares her writing. These women love to write poetry and rhyme, or even songs. Some screw up their courage, take a deep breath, then bravely sing for us.

Here’s an excerpt from one participant’s piece titled, “Letter to My Four Children”:

I apologize for the chaos and mistakes I’ve made, and since I can’t change what’s already done I feel worthless, and I hide and constantly run as I face all the emotions and hurt I caused and chose not to see. I feel stronger and ready, ‘cause it’s all starting back with me. I hate that I hurt you. I hate that I changed. I don’t know how to stop this spiral fueled by all the guilt and all this shame.

It’s hard to admit and accept I’m not in control of my life, so I sit here empty inside as I watch my dreams fade at the end of the pipe. I can’t remember when things in my world got turned upside down, but it seems like yesterday I was making you proud. I want so badly to be the mom you truly deserve, but I can’t stand my reflection ‘cause I know I’m not her…

I’m looking forward to living better than the life we had, and to see you happy instead of betrayed and so sad. I miss you guys more than words could ever explain, so I’m going [to get help] to prove to you I’m finally ready to change.

“Everything in here is face value,” writes one regular participant. “Coming here means you're for real.”

Another writes: "I enjoy this workshop because it allows me to share pieces of myself that I feel others should know. I journal daily, and in a way, I hope that someday someone will read it and understand me better. Leave my story behind, so to speak. I think writing our stories benefits a lot of women here."

There’s only one aspect of this workshop for which Cecilia and I were unprepared: the gratitude these women express. They thank us profusely every time we visit: for the writing exercises, the journals and pens, the books and films, the fresh bananas and grapes and granola bars, for interrupting our full lives to come see them.

We leave each time humbled and hopeful, carrying their stories of deep hunger in our hearts, humming their new songs aboard the women’s freedom train. We know they ride with us.        

Stories by Writing to Be Free participants will be shared at Voices from the Edge on April 6, 7:00 to 9:00 PM. It's free and open to the public; you can RSVP here.

Lighthouse instructor Joy Roulier Sawyer is the author of several books of nonfiction and a collection of poetry, Tongues of Men and Angels. She's teaching Spark & Re-Spark starting April 28. 


Subscribe to The Lookout