They’re given seven minutes to write anything that comes to mind after receiving a prompt like “where I’m from.” Those few minutes of scribbling can resurrect a person’s sober life.
This is according to a sampling of participants and the organizers of the Writers for Recovery, a program designed to encourage sobriety as a way of life — for life — through writing. Members of the workshop will have a public reading of their work at Brooks Memorial Library in Brattleboro Monday.
“It has turned my sobriety and my life around,” said Edward “Ladd” Butler, 68, of Brattleboro, sober for 18 years this coming November. “It focuses your attention. The prompts are terrific. It doesn’t give you time to think — just write.” Butler will share his writing at Monday’s public reading.
The program, founded three years ago by documentary filmmaker Bess O’Brien, is a 10-week, free workshop for people in recovery from any addiction, whether it be to alcohol, drugs, food or anything else. People are welcome, whether they’re just out of a rehabilitation program or have been sober for years, she said.
“It’s so important to give people something to do after they get sober,” said O’Brien. “We have to keep people on the straight and narrow. You’d be surprised how successful this program is at doing just that.” O’Brien said about 300 people have gone through the program since its inception three years ago.
Participants are given prompts — such as “where I’m from,” “a morning in the middle of my addiction,” “a morning waking up clean,” “the text I never sent,” or “I began to notice” — and seven minutes to put down in words what the prompt inspires.
“We didn’t want people to think about grammar or how it will read,” said O’Brien, of Peacham, Vt. “Just write down what first comes to mind. It’s amazing how it works.”
Susan Walker, another participant in the Brattleboro workshop at Turning Point of Windham County these past several weeks, will also read her work at the library Monday. Walker, sober for more than 19 years, said she’s excited and grateful for the program.
“It fills a need in me that is so sweet and satisfying,” Walker said. “When we get the prompt, you go with the first inspiration. It so connects you with the present moment. I have found my voice in recovery.”
O’Brien is not an addict herself, but got the idea to develop the workshop when she was filming “The Hungry Heart,” a documentary about prescription drug abuse in Vermont.
She shot the film in St. Albans, Vt., from fall 2011 through spring 2012.
Through the experience, she witnessed firsthand how writing could change a sober person’s recovery for the better.
“I was blown away by the stories addicted people would tell,” she said. “I knew then their stories needed to be told. It was cathartic.”
O’Brien brought in writing instructor Gary Miller, author of a collection of short stories called “Museum of the Americas,” as creative director three years ago to run the programs.
“When people in Writers for Recovery write down their stories and read them in the group, they often speak words they have been afraid to say out loud, which is tremendously healing,” Miller, of Montpelier, Vt., said in an email. “When they read their work at a public reading, people in the audience get a chance to see these courageous people tell their stories, and it helps change how the public views addiction and people who suffer from it.”
Each workshop usually consists of about 10-12 people and is held once a week for about 90 minutes, O’Brien said. The program now is running consistently throughout Vermont recovery centers, the Vermont Department of Corrections and the Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in Colchester, Vt.
O’Brien is looking to expand the program more heavily into New Hampshire, where she has held sporadic workshops in Concord, Portsmouth and Nashua over the past few years. She is also taking the program to Canada in October to present the workshops to the Kanesatake First Nations tribe in Quebec.
Writers for Recovery also publishes books of the writers’ work. The group has published two volumes so far, O’Brien said.
O’Brien said gaining control of the opioid epidemic has not been successful, yet progress has been made. She pointed to the fact that people now are “at least aware there is a problem.”
“The crisis is still here,” she said. “That’s the bad news. We are dealing with some very real-life issues. People are dying. But people also are recovering, and there is hope.”