NYWC Tell Your Story Campaign: Ben Dolnick talks about finding NYWC

This July, eight NYWC workshop leaders will share stories about the powerful and transformational workshops they facilitate and participate in each week to raise awareness and much needed revenue to support NYWC’s ongoing programs.

We’ll be posting these stories throughout the month, here, and on our campaign page. Read their stories, follow the campaign, and support NYWC by making a donation and following the NYWC Tell Your Story Campaign.

This story is from NYWC Workshop leader Ben Dolnick, who leads a youth workshop at the Brownsville Justice Community Center. He lives in Fort Greene with his wife and dog, and is the author of three novels and counting.

For a long time, without quite knowing it, I’d fantasized about finding a place like NYWC. I’d volunteered before — as a tutor, in a soup kitchen — but usually with a slight feeling of extraneousness. I was, volunteering-wise, in a gloomy rut: what came naturally to me wasn’t needed, and what was needed didn’t come naturally to me.

Enter NYWC. I spent most of the workshop-leader training stifling a series of giddy questions: you mean we get to just WRITE with people? people with fascinating stories and unfamiliar voices? and it really helps them??

To my ongoing amazement and satisfaction, the answers were yesyes, and yes.

I could go on at great length about all the astonishing things I’ve witnessed in workshops — whole rooms full of adults rendered speechless by a freshly hatched story; radio-worthy rap lyrics composed in fifteen minutes — but I just want to describe one thing in particular: the NYWC face.

The way the workshops work is, the leader gives a prompt (write about jealousy, write from the point of view of an animal) and then everybody, leader included, writes. What I’ve come to think of as the NYWC face usually appears on the participants’ faces a few seconds after the leader has given the prompt, and if I had to translate the expression into words, they’d be: I’ve got this.

I’ve seen the look on the face a mother who lives in a housing project so dangerous that she can’t let her five kids go outside; on the face of a forty-year-old woman facing a terminal cancer prognosis; on the face of an eight-year-old boy in Velcro sneakers. It’s the face of someone who knows, in a happy instant, what story to tell.

Don’t get me wrong: the stories that follow are often dark and difficult and upsetting. But what I love about that moment is that it makes visible the miraculous truth about writing, which is that it puts you in touch with a place beyond whatever pain happens to be your subject. Around the workshop table, no one is a victim, or a patient, or an addict: everyone is a writer.

It’s a transformation every bit as nourishing as food, and NY Writers Coalition has been serving it up in thousands of workshops over the past ten years. I’d love your help in letting them keep at it.

Support the NYWC Tell Your Story Campaign and help NYWC continue to provide free, unique, and powerful creative writing workshops to those who need them most.