Eric has now completed his MFA and is teaching for Words Without Walls.
And in 2016, the reported, “suicide in the United States …
surged to the highest levels in nearly thirty years.” The creative arts have been shown to have a positive effect in harm reduction for addiction as well as for the kinds of depression and hopelessness that sometimes lead to suicide.
For the last eight years, Chatham MFA students, alums, and faculty have taught creative writing courses at these facilities, and nationally recognized writers whose work addresses substance abuse or incarceration—Jimmy Santiago Baca, R.
Dwayne Betts, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Natalie Diaz, and Mary Karr, among others—have visited and interacted with our populations.
Eric, a talented young man who took creative writing classes with us while in the Allegheny County Jail, is one of them.
We published one of his stories in our annual Words Without Walls anthology and encouraged him to submit it to the PEN contest.Last year, 70 percent of the students who applied to our program said they were interested in social justice and creative writing, specifically teaching in prisons and rehab facilities.Each year, more creative writing graduate students have asked to be intimately involved with communities outside of academia, and they are finding inspiration in working with and teaching those who are incarcerated or confined to a rehab facility.Why, then, shouldn’t creative writing programs show some leadership in shaping programs that target at-risk communities?In 2009, writer Sarah Shotland and I co-founded Words Without Walls, a creative partnership between the Chatham University MFA program, the Allegheny County Jail, the State Correctional Institution of Pittsburgh, and Sojourner House, a residential drug and alcohol treatment facility for mothers and their children.One has to wonder about a system that privileges creative writing mentorship only for the few who can afford it.A few of the writers we’ve worked with have won awards in the PEN Prison Writing Program.Others have children who are not allowed to see them.Many were addicted while pregnant, and there are often problems giving birth.In addition to constant worry about graduates finding jobs in a bleak economic climate, I also worry that some of our programs have fallen into a kind of elitism, focusing on mentorship that overemphasizes publication and self-promotion, and that ignores the world we live in outside of academia.Too few programs, I believe, make service to the community a central tenet of students’ MFA work, and some even devalue the use of writing for the purpose of healing or creating community. *** In the “real” world, deaths from substance abuse and suicides have risen to alarming levels.