Donation Target Spotlight: Words Without Walls

The reading period is open for Issue 15 of After Happy Hour (to be released in the fall of 2021). This reading period, our target organization for feedback donations is Words Without Walls.

Words Without Walls is a Pittsburgh-based organization that runs creative writing programs in jails and addiction treatment centers in the community. They also curate the Maenad Fellowship and released an anthology in 2015, Words Without Walls: Writers on Addiction, Violence, and Incarceration. This companion text to their workshop program is meant to inspire to writers using creative writing to understand experiences of addiction or violence.

We reached out to the Words Without Walls program coordinator, Sarah Shotland, to find out more. If you’re thinking about donating for feedback, we hope this will inspire you to do so! And even if not, they’re a super cool program that we think all our readers should be hip to.

What does Words Without Walls do?

Words Without Walls aims to bring the tools and power of creative writing to environments where stories are often sacrificed to statistics. We’ve been bringing creative writing classes to jails, prisons, and drug treatment centers in Pittsburgh since 2009, when we inherited a creative writing program at the Allegheny County Jail from independent writer and artist, Sandra Gould Ford.

How does a creative writing program benefit people in prison and recovery programs?

Having a writing practice helps you reflect on the past in service to reimagining the future. It also gives you a way to find patterns in your own life, process stress, and make meaning of the world. Reading and writing act as was to find relief either through visiting new worlds, like you do when you read a novel; or, encouraging you to explore your inner world, like when you’re reading or writing memoir. Reading and writing can give you something to occupy your time, relieve stress, continue personal growth, expand knowledge, and build empathy. That’s useful for everyone, whether you’re incarcerated or not!

What other projects does Words Without Walls have going on, aside from the creative writing workshops?

Right now, we’re working with a group of lawyers on a live storytelling series about their perspectives on the legal system, which will be virtually produced in collaboration with City of Asylum. We just produced a virtual staged reading of a play written by the incarcerated youth at ACJ in collaboration with Alumni Theater Company. We’re about to start our fourth cohort of the Maenad Fellowship Program, which is a 12-week paid fellowship for women who are in recovery from substance abuse disorders who want to continue a writing practice.

Were you able to keep the program going through COVID? If so, how did that work, and if not, when do you hope to start again?

COVID has meant we haven’t been able to visit the jail in over a year, and it’s no surprise that the response to COVID at Allegheny County Jail has been abysmal. We were able to teach our class at Sojourner House in person from July 2020-November 2020, and will return in September 2021. While we haven’t been able to continue our classes on-ground, we produced the play I mentioned above; held virtual writing groups, including a 12-week virtual writing group focused on poetry as a tool of prison abolition; and began the live storytelling series with lawyers. We’ll start back at Sojourner in the Fall and will be back at the jail as soon as it’s safe.

Who usually teaches the classes? If someone wanted to get involved with the program, what’s the best first step?

Classes are co-taught by current MFA students at Chatham University, Chatham faculty, and alums. If you’re interested in getting involved, contact!

Program coordinator Sarah Shotland at a Words Without Walls event.

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