Interview with Aaron Zimmerman and Avra Wing

Aaron Zimmerman is the founder and director of the NY Writers Coalition (NYWC). Avra Wing runs NYWC Workshop at the Center for the Independence of the Disabled, NY (CIDNY).

WG: Id like to start off by asking you about The New York Writers Coalition generally. The NYWC states as part of its mission that it "empowers and enriches the lives of New Yorkers of all backgrounds and experiences through the art of creative writing." Will you talk a bit about how you do this?

AZ: NYWC attempts to empower and enrich people's lives in a variety of ways. I think at the heart of it though is the creative writing process itself. It's truly transformative to put words on paper on a regular basis. Regardless of whether it's a poem, a journal entry, a story, a scene from a play, or whatever one jots down, writing regularly can help us process and name our experiences, creates empathy with others, affects how we see ourselves and the world, and has even been shown to have physical and mental health benefits.

So we aim to create long-term, safe spaces for people to write whatever they want. We partner with social service, social justice, community-based organizations to provide free workshops led by writers that we train, place, and support. The workshops are based on the Amherst Writers and Artists workshop model which provides a compassionate structure for people to generate new material in a positive environment. We work with a broad range of people, including youth, seniors, women, LGBT communities, people living with disabilities, people who are incarcerated or have been incarcerated, and others from traditionally silenced groups. We also run free, drop-in groups for the general public.

Along with our workshops, we also publish writing by our workshop members in chapbook sized anthologies, and hold many public readings to help get our writers heard. Though we have a small staff and budget, we do a lot. Last year, we hosted more than 1,250 workshop sessions serving more than 1,600 different people. Many of the groups are ongoing for many years. For example, the group Avra launched with us at the Center for Independence of the Disabled NY (CIDNY) is in its 10th year.

AW: The workshop I lead at CIDNY consists of people with mental or physical disabilities. I think the workshop's primary value is that while the members are there they identify as writers, while in so many other areas of their lives they are seen–and dismissed–merely as people with disabilities. Some participants have often been overlooked or rejected, their humanity denied. Their inner lives have not been valued, their ideas have not been heard. The workshop provides recognition that they have something unique to add to the conversation, that their experience is important and should be shared.

Most people begin attending somewhat embarrassed and anxious because they feel, "I'm not really a writer." The NYCW method encourages them to take a chance. The rule that only positive feedback to work is allowed helps participants quickly gain confidence. In fact, one former longtime member is working on a novel he began in the workshop, and a newer attendee is writing a novel both during and outside the workshop. The other caveat of our method is that all work is treated as if it is fiction, giving people freedom to write about their lives. I confess we break that rule repeatedly–but it is because the members respect each other and are not afraid to share personal information. Even if people usually don't write or talk about issues related to disability, there is a certain comfort level knowing that we all share some of the same experiences. We empathize with and support each other. As one participant wrote, "For my disability I need courage, medicine and love." Some members have been coming for the entire 10 years, and others have been attending almost as long. They show up week after week, willing to tackle whatever weird prompt I throw at them. No matter the mix as people drop out and new ones join, it always seems to work. Friendships have formed. A small community has been established. And all our lives have been made richer from hearing each other's words.

WG: Can you describe how a typical workshop meeting goes? How do you accommodate writers who are Deaf, blind, Deaf/blind or may not be able to use their hands to hold material?

AZ: A typical workshop involves the workshop leader presenting an optional writing prompt, which group members are free to change or ignore. We encourage folks to write their to do list, to journal, or write anything that they want. Typically, everyone writes for anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes. Then, the group is invited, but never required, to read aloud what they've written. Then the group gives some simple feedback: what we like and remember, what's strong in the writing. We don't offer up critiques or suggestions, because the work is so new. All writing is treated as fictional and is kept confidential. Our workshops are based on the Amherst Writers and Artists method, as described in Pat Schneider's book Writing Alone and With Others. One unique thing about our workshops is that they tend to be long-term. Not only is Avra's workshop at CIDNY is having it's 10th Anniversary of its launch this year, more than 25% of our workshops have been running for seven or more years.

We have two workshops for blind and visually impaired writers. The writers in these workshop get the words down in a wide variety of ways. Some use technology, such an ipad with Voice Over to type their pieces. Some write using high-contrast pens and paper. Others dictate their work to volunteers who transcribe the pieces. For people who can't use their hands, we also use volunteers to take dictation. When it is time to read work aloud, either the writer read their work if they can, or a volunteer, workshop member, or the workshop leader will read for them.

One of our writers, James Peele, who is blind, wrote a book of short stories via dictation that we published, and volunteers helped him with the editing process. (James also recently completed our training to be a workshop leader and soon will be our first blind workshop leader.) We used to have a workshop for deaf writers, lead by a writer who is also a certified ASL translator. In other groups, we have had people with hearing impairment who sometimes have equipment to help them hear. As far as I know, we haven't had any deaf/blind writers yet.

WG: What are some of the specific successes the workshop has had with respect to the writing that has been produced there?

AW: The success of the workshop isn't measured in publication–although our workshop did publish a NYWC collection a few years ago and plans to do another by the end of the year–but in how meaningful it is to the members. The workshop has increased the confidence of the participants in their writing and, I believe, in themselves. Almost without fail new members are hesitant to share their work or preface reading it aloud by saying, "This really isn't very good," or "You all write so much better than me." But if they keep coming, they gradually become more willing to read and not only stop apologizing, but clearly take pride in what they have written. For several members, especially those with brain injuries or mental illness, taking the risk to let other people hear their words takes considerable courage, and receiving praise for their creativity is especially validating. One longtime member, with schizophrenia, is an amazing poet. Over time, too, I have witnessed participants go deeper into themselves and write less guardedly about their lives–actually, on occasion, to seem to discover things about themselves through their writing. Sometimes the work is so imaginative or so beautiful we all feel grateful for having been witness to it.

AZ: I think Avra expressed that so beautifully about all the ways that success happens. I'll briefly add that we have hosted many readings overt the years, and there is something so satisfying about the immediacy of an audience's response. For many of our workshop members, their first reading with us is the first time they've read their work for an audience. A couple of years ago, we created a chapbook of writing from our two workshops for blind and visually impaired people, and produced an audiobook version of it as well. Our resources are pretty limited, so we did the audiobook ourselves, and the result was only in CD form, but it still meant a lot for participants to be able to listen to each other's work presented this way. I think a next step for us will be to figure out how to best help those of our writers that wish to prepare and submit their work for publication.

WG: How would potential writers contact the group if they wanted to become involved? Do you have any events coming up or anything else that you would like Wordgathering readers to know about the workshop?

AZ: Well, there's our website, www.nywriterscoalition.org, where writers can sign up for our email list. You can also visit our Public Programs page to see where they can attend one of our workshops. To join the workshop Avra leads at CIDNY on Thursday afternoons, you can call CIDNY at 212-674-2300 . We offer a number of free, drop-in groups that are open to everyone. Most of them take place in libraries around New York City. For younger writers, our annual summer program for people aged 7-18 in Fort Greene Park starts July 7, andregistration opens in June. Those youth workshops will culminate in the Fort Greene Summer Literary Festival on August 18th, where the young people will read alongside well-known authors. In October, we will host our annual NYWC Write-A-Thon, where people spend the entire day writing, taking workshops, and finding community, all while raising funds to support our free programs.

For anyone interested in volunteering, or being involved in some other way, you can email us at info@nywriterscoalition.org or call us at 718-398-2883.