In a letter to friends, F. Scott Fitzegerald wrote, "A writer not writing is practically a maniac within himself." Those bitten by "the bug" would agree, but what about writing as a soothing outlet for everyone? That is the idea behind the New York Writers Coalition, a Brooklyn-based non-profit that organizes writing workshops for historically underserved communities: homeless shelters, prisons, at risk youth, immigrants, senior citizens. As someone who's coordinated one such group, I can tell you that some of my most magical writing came from that workshop and I witnessed literary miracles from the participants, like the mythical perfect first draft, which I will share at the end of this post.
But first, guess which of these poems appears in the recent issue of the New Yorker?
Poem No. 1
Veldt? Sounds good to me.
Like melt. Back when you could eat Velveeta
and call it cheese. My grandfather's macaroni and cheese
featured a whole brick of Velveeta. I liked peeling away
its beautiful silver wrapper, Velveeta Velveeta all over in blue....
Poem No. 2
Dawn breaks over Fifth Avenue.
A breath of sunlight
at The Conservation Water.
Cold coffee thick with sugar.
A skin of melting ice,
above moist clothing drying,
and cigarette smoke
completes the picture....
Take a look at these excerpts carefully - I've provided the first half of each poem. They each have that certain something.
Poem No. 2 was written by Joseph Pesco, a participant of the Jan Hus Neighborhood House, where I used to oversee a NYWC workshop. The first one is by prolific poet Liz Waldner.
"Everyone has a story, everyone has a voice" is the motto of the NYWC, that has allowed the organization to grow a network of free writing workshops across the city for seven years. "Each person, through writing, can shape and influence the lives of others," is another NYWC tenet.
"One of the war veterans [a workshop participant] went back to school because he was feeling more confident," says Aaron Zimmerman, NYWC founder and executive director.
Funding for this life-saving program has fallen off a cliff: NYWC has lost more than half of its $300,000 budget, due to the economy and major grants expiring.
"The people who are tossed aside are being tossed aside harder - forget foundation funding for them," says Zimmerman on the funding crisis smaller cultural organizations are facing.
Luckily, an anonymous donor has agreed to match a $10,000 donation if NYWC can raise that amount this fall - the deadline is in two days and they have $1,270 left to go.
The funding also goes towards the Fort Greene Park Summer Literary Festival--a six week outdoor creative writing camp for young people, that concludes with readings by luminaries, such as past participants Jhumpa Lahiri and Colson Whitehead. Other hot events, with opportunities to donate, include NYWC's Write-a-Thon--yes, an entire day devoted to writing--in June and the Red and Black Party on February 8th, which gets sexier every year.
At the Red and Black Party in 2007, I read a short piece by Van Verb, a former marine from the first Iraq war, a participant of the workshop I oversaw, and one of the most fun and gifted writers I have ever met. Here is Van's piece that he simply sat down and wrote and it came out blazing. It's called, She Was My Project:
She Was My Project
(A Feeling By Van Verb)
Okay, so she was fifty years old…You know the average starship is supposed to be good for at list a buck fifty, right?
When first I laid eyes on her, the windows on her cockpit seemed to light up; yes they definitely had a shine.
Her fuselage was a little dented, hinting at her age, but her sleek curves and subtle contours suggested a much younger model.
I decided at once that I had to have her. Whether she functioned properly, hell even if she needed a total overhaul, I had to make her mine. The first thing I did was
attempt to access her onboard computer. There were several security
protocols in place; undoubtedly put there by her previous pilot. Some
were redundant, unnecessary, others let me know that she had traveled through dangerous territory, that there had been a fear of viral infection or being pirated.
After a while, I was able to comprehend
the security codes, thus gaining access to the systems and navigation
section of her mainframe. It immediately became apparent that she was just as seductively beautiful inside as she was out.
She had some damage its true, especially with her navigational programs. I was confident that my prowess, patience, persistence, would restore her to her former glory, thereby performing like a showroom model of the present.
The first time I tried to initiate her primary booster, I failed. This was undoubtedly due to atrophy; she hadn't been boarded in years after all.
Carefully, methodically, lovingly, I coaxed her engines from warm to red-hot. She quivered, shuttered, then began to purr. Finally my patience paid off. I was able to jump-start her power core to activate her stardrive. She was even more magnificent than I had anticipated. She
ascended through the atmosphere like a missile. We achieved the heavens
faster than I had with any other vessel. We were soaring through the
stars! When she reached her full potential, it
seemed as if we were one entity, moving through time and space at the
speed of thought. Total satisfaction had been achieved on many levels.