In a conference room at the Hotel Louisville—with coffee and styrofoam cups on a table in the back—about 30 women ranging in age from mid-20s to maybe early ’60s, recently pulled their chairs into a broad circle, greeting each other warmly.
All of these women were formerly homeless and in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, but this wasn’t another 12-step meeting.
“Today we’re going to be writing about ourselves,” said Kristen Miller, programming and development director for Sarabande Books, a small publishing house based in Louisville.
“And if this was a high school English class, I would say that we’re going to be writing about ourselves in third person. But this isn’t English class, so we’re going to be writing about ourselves in disguise, and we’re going to be doing that by writing about pie.”
Poetry can be a way to express important thoughts and emotions that can’t otherwise be shared. One group of women in Louisville is learning how to use writing to help change their course in life.
Miller teaches this writing class every Thursday morning.
In this particular session, the class read aloud a series of short poems describing different kinds of women according to their favorite kind of pie, and Miller asked them to respond.
“What were some other things that you noticed about these poems?” Miller said.
One participant said, “They compared it to something in their life. Their style, their way of life, they compared it to that.” Others in the class nodded.
Miller then passed out worksheets to help the women write their own poems, describing themselves through the kind of pie they liked.
Hotel Louisville is run by the Wayside Christian Mission, and all of the participants live at the hotel while they’re in the program. They adhere to a busy schedule —it’s harder for them to relapse if they don’t have much free time.
There are 12-step meetings, parenting classes, and job training to help the women get ready to re-enter the working world. This creative writing class is optional, but they get credit for attending. A woman named Lisa said it’s a highlight of her week.
“We have a nutrition class as well,” said Lisa, whose full name was withheld out of privacy concerns. “These are the two things I look forward to the most, the nutrition class and the creative writing. ‘Cause it’s like therapeutic things, get out of yourself, get out of recovery just for that moment.”
After about 10 minutes of quiet writing time, the women were ready to share what they’d written.
The woman who loves sweet potato pie is always as sweet as the pie itself. She listens to all and slices the fall to protect those who need protection. She’s not very tall and not very short, has cinnamon colored hair and sugar colored nails. She quotes each day to no avail, when life gives you yams, make sweet potato pie.
The woman who loves blackberry pie is strong, is never wrong.
The woman who loves Hello Dolly pie likes to sit by a babbling brook with the wind on her face, listening to the sounds of nature sing.
The woman who loves key lime pie is always on time. She’s there at the drop of a dime. She is the pendulum that strikes your chime. She’d never get caught committing a crime. My oh my, ain’t she fine.
At the end of each six-week session, Miller selects one piece by each participant to include in a small printed book. And just like any other author, the writers are invited to take part in a public reading.
Wayside Chief Operating Officer Nina Moseley said the final reading is always emotional.
“When they can actually stand up and read their poetry to the group, I have seen these ladies burst into tears,” Moseley said.
“It’s so emotional for them. That’s their heart and soul, that’s their feelings that they’re putting out on paper and I guess, once it’s on paper and they’re reading it, it really hits them, this is my reality now.”
Even though the subject matter was sometimes heavy, there was a lot of laughter in the room. Kristen Miller said she wants the participants to enjoy the class, not feel like they’re sitting in school.
“They’re doing the most difficult work you can imagine, you know, recovering. So that’s why I try to make this not seem like work,” Miller said.
The public reading for this group of writers is Friday night at 7 p-m at the Hotel Louisville on Broadway. You can find more information here.
(Top image: The Hotel Louisville/Joseph Lord. Secondary images provided by Sarabande Books)