NYWC Tell Your Story Campaign: Kate Axelrod on unlikely shared connections

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 NYWC’s campaign page. Read their stories, follow the campaign, and support NYWC by making a donation and following the NYWC Tell Your Story Campaign.

This piece is by Kate Axelrod, who has written for NerveSalon, and various other publications. She has a B.A. in Creative Writing from Oberlin College and a Masters in Social Work from Columbia University. She lives in Brooklyn. 

As some of you know, I work with an organization called  NY Writers Coalition, that offers free writing workshops to groups of people who are often denied a voice in our society. These are individuals who may be formerly homeless, formerly incarcerated, veterans, as well as at-risk youth or the elderly.

NYWC is a wonderful organization, and I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to lead some of their workshops in the past.

Below is an excerpt from a piece I wrote for Salon about the experience.

When I walk into the room, I don’t know any details aside from these: they are all women, they have all been incarcerated and they have all chosen to be here, at this writing workshop, one evening a week, in this balmy conference room with plush faux-leather chairs.

You’re leading a writing workshop, not group therapy, said the woman who hired me a couple of months earlier. She warned me about how easy it could be for these sessions to slip into just that. All the workshop participants have suffered in various ways—some with mental illness, others from intimate partner violence, and many solely at the hands of the system. They are poverty-stricken and have been abused for precisely that. “The criminalization of poverty” is the phrase that keeps coming to mind. And as half writer/half social work student, it is undoubtedly a challenge to just focus on the Prose, the Imagery, the Tone — especially when one woman shares the story of watching an infant become an orphan, in a heroin-induced haze, as her John turns stiff and gray.

The prompt is to write about a feeling: don’t identify what it is, just describe it. I sit with it for a minute, and then I start to write.  I write about my high school boyfriend, whom I have been broken up with for nearly a decade. I write about the echo of past violence that just hasn’t totally gone away. I write about all the years that have passed since we’ve dated, and still the grief that my body continues to remember.

One by one, we share our stories.  It feels at once remarkable and somehow unsurprising that many of us describe nearly identical feelings of being violated; the sorrow and emptiness that comes with being robbed of control, of having little to no say of what happens to your body – whether it be because of physical violence or emotional threats or that plain, guttural fear of what will happen if you try to fight it. Some of the women articulate feelings that I haven’t even realized I’ve had, use metaphors that resonate so totally, my eyes are glassy.

Most of us are in awe of our shared connection and we marvel about how it feels to write it, to share it, together this way.  Though the details of our stories are so different — at the time I dated my ex-boyfriend I was 15 and living on the Upper East Side with my parents; some of the women were homeless or in prison — we are plagued by the same feelings. And we use the same language to describe our sensations of being trapped and violated; we are all carrying around the tiny, hardened weight of that loss.

Our writing is turning these ugly experiences into something almost beautiful, something like art, something empowering, liberating and completely our own.

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New York Writers Coalition relies on small grants and generous donations to keep these workshops going. Any contribution would be so appreciated. As fellow writers, I know you all understand the transformative power of workshops.

Thank you so much!

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.