Women's Writing Program

In 2012, The Advisory Task Force on Justice Involved Women and Girls began a poetry writing program for women in Minnesota county jails. Last year the Task Force approached COMPAS about partnering to incorporate the program into our offerings. We enthusiastically said yes. This week we asked program chair, Gwen Lerner, to share how the program connects women in jails with the life-changing power of creativity. Thank you, Gwen!

For about four years, a project called the Women’s Writing Program has opened many eyes and minds to the tremendous power of creative writing instruction for women confined in Minnesota county jails.

The women who take part in the program exist at a point in their lives where they are disturbingly distanced from their own complex social surroundings and forced to adjust to a temporary new community fraught with emotions. Anger and confusion, loneliness and sadness, guilt and shame are common. Within the Writing Program’s small groups, these emotions stir introspection and affect the women’s interactions while also coloring their own personal reflections.

Offered a safe zone for creative self-expression in both writing and artwork, the women who commit to the intense classes with gifted professional writers pour out their feelings in surprisingly honest ways. Sharing their fears and painful vulnerabilities, they tell the stories that have generated their trauma and shaped the way they see themselves in this constrained setting.

Anthologies of the women's writing are available for check out at select St. Paul, Sherburne County and Washington County libraries.

Anthologies of the women's writing are available for check out at select St. Paul, Sherburne County and Washington County libraries.

In the process, the women struggle to discern just who they are. They identify themselves by what they have done; how they have grown up; who has controlled them and who has loved them; who they would like to be and wish they were. The more they explore, the more insights emerge and the more their perspectives change. Most observable to the outsider (writing classmates and jail staff) is the developing compassion and understanding of their sister writers, a bonding with friendship and humor that is both self-deprecating and genuine. It seems that part of this comes from a new inner strength and courage to be more themselves among a small group of women who get it.

A significant aspect of this program is the beautiful anthology of writing published by each class. The books are distributed to the new authors, shelved in local libraries, entered into the International Standard Book Numbers (ISBN) database, and available for purchase by anyone. (Contact Mica at COMPAS for information on purchasing Anthologies.) While some participants hold back the poems too personal to release, all reveal more than they ever dreamed they could disclose in a printed anthology that could be read by the people they love and fear.

Perhaps it is the focus on writing styles and techniques, tools that promote rhythm and imagery, that allow them to step back from the particular memory or devastating mistake and put it into words that ring.

For certain, it is the skillful and compassionate guidance and encouragement of COMPAS teaching artists Marcie Rendon and Diego Vasquez that convince them of their creative abilities. The women come to believe in themselves and in their unquestionable motivation to achieve a visible testament to the value of their own lives.

Does this continue after the classes end and after their release from jail? We do know that each participant desires and intends to keep writing poetry. One woman said she thinks she may write just poems from now on, instead of letters that she always tears up. Some hope to find more instruction; some do write on their own. A few have read in public at library events or attended open mic gatherings after their release.

We also know that some women return to jail or are moved further into the criminal justice system. The creative writing paths of most remain unknown, but it would be astonishing if the impact of this creative experience does not deeply affect the life of each one.

By Gwen Lerner, guest blogger

Support for the Women's Writing Program connects women in jails with the life-changing power of creativity. To designate your gift to this program, please write "Women's Writing Program" in the space for Tribute or Memorial Dedications on our donation page. Thank you.