Hope for Hard Times

By Sarah Harvey  |  Photos by Giles Clasen and Sarah Harvey

Hard Times Writing Workshop is the newest addition to the lineup of services at Denver Public Library, proving once again that DPL strives to serve all people who call this city home.

“People have needs beyond just food stamps and housing,” says Simone Groene-Nieto, librarian in the Denver Public Library’s community technology center. Groene-Nieto believes all people also have a need for creative space and a place to feel accepted. This value is at the core of all the programs she designs at the library for people experiencing homelessness, which include Monday Morning Meditation sessions and DPL’s sunrise concert series. The latest project she’s helped design is the Hard Times Writing Workshop, an open writing group that meets every Tuesday afternoon in the Central branch’s book club room.

“I think everyone has stories that they tell themselves about their experience,” said Groene-Nieto. “And when they’re able to verbalize those stories, the stories can begin to shift inside of them.”

A dozen people are present at a Hard Times workshop in mid May. The group is diverse; it includes Groene-Nieto and writing instructor Jane Thatcher, as well as an assortment of community members—two of whom identify as experiencing homelessness. “The diversity of the people in class has been the biggest surprise,” said Thatcher. “There’s people from all different walks of life and all different socio-economic groups and that’s been really powerful for everyone involved.”

A few people in the group heard about the writing workshop from an announcement made earlier that day over the library’s PA system. One man readily admits that he had been job-hunting upstairs and just stopped by for the free food. In addition to the promotion of Hard Times that happens in the library, Groene-Nieto has broadcast the workshop to many of her community contacts. Sometimes participants hear about Hard Times through referrals from caseworkers and social workers (including the library’s own social worker), or see a flyer for Hard Times on a community board for their housing program.

The Hard Times Writing Workshop meets every Tuesday from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m. at Denver Public Library’s Central branch. Photo credit: Sarah HarveyOne of the group members who identifies as homeless is a woman who goes by “T.” T was also doing research in the library when she heard the announcement. She decided to attend the writing group because she wanted to enhance her writing, but also because she found it interesting that the library even had a group like that—open and available to anyone.

Hard Times is a collaboration between Denver Public Library and Lighthouse Writers Workshop. DPL provides the space, and Lighthouse provides the writing instructor. Thatcher has been teaching in Lighthouse’s youth outreach program for two years, and also sat on Lighthouse’s diversity and inclusion committee. 

To prepare for the writing workshop, Thatcher connected with other instructors who have worked with people experiencing homelessness—particularly those who teach in the creative writing program Lighthouse runs at Fort Lyon, a two-year transitional housing program for chronically homeless individuals.

Each writing group session Thatcher leads is two hours long to ensure there is time for reading, writing, and sharing. Hard Times is more of a community space than a craft course. During feedback, the group is encouraged to focus commentary on a person’s writing technique (instead of, say, focusing on the content), and unless someone asks for a critique, feedback is geared toward positivity and encouragement. “[It’s] talking about the story, the crafting of the story, more so than directly approaching people about what they’ve experienced in life,” said Groene-Nieto.

The name Hard Times Writing Workshop is meant to remain inclusive while still attracting people who can benefit from writing about their struggles. “Everyone can define hard times for themselves; it’s unique to each individual. It’s not just about hard times as a result of homelessness,” said Groene-Nieto.

Credit: Giles Clasen“I think we just want to make a space for the community to come together that’s open, free to the public, that’s welcoming, that feels safe, [where they can] explore their writing voices in a lot of different capacities,” said Thatcher.

The handout at the mid-May workshop is a printout of “Short Assignments” and “Shitty First Drafts” from the book Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Though the title of “Shitty First Drafts” gets some laughs, it doesn’t end up being read during the session. And that’s okay; the workshop structure is flexible, and people in the group that day were eager to connect and start writing.

When Thatcher choses writing prompts, she tries to accommodate a wide variety of abilities, and meet as many different sorts of needs as possible. “I always give some options for what people can write about,” said Thatcher. Though there are only a few prompts each session, the workshops produces a variety of writing. People write about cancer, they write about their mothers, they write beginnings to fantasy novels. Often there is both laughter and tears at each workshop. “I’m always surprised—and impressed—by the things people choose to write about.”

During the second half of the workshop, T decides to share her writing with the group. Even though the piece she shares came from a very vulnerable place, she felt comfortable in the space that Groene-Nieto and Thatcher had created. “I got good vibrations from everyone in the room,” said T. “It was very therapeutic,” added T of sharing her writing. “Hopefully, [it was] uplifting for other people too.”

Groene-Nieto has heard other participants echo T’s experience. “That’s been a frequent response,” said Groene-Nieto, “like, ‘wow, I feel really good having said that to someone.’”

This is the first month the Hard Times Writing Workshop has been around, and the group’s attendance has steadily grown. “It’s been going better than anticipated,” said Groene-Nieto. “I’ve been really impressed that people have been coming back.”

The community response so far has been a pleasant surprise for both Groene-Nieto and Thatcher, and the popularity of the group reinforces the idea that people from all walks of life have a need for self-expression.

“I think that writing does a lot for people on a lot of different levels,” said Thatcher. “I think that it helps us understand ourselves, understand the world we’re in.” ■