They are some of the country’s unknown heroes – young, strong yet vulnerable, and very brave. Most never viewed themselves as important, or believed their stories were of interest to anyone but themselves. But now, thanks to a unique mentorship program of the Writers Guild Initiative, these unsung heroes are giving voice to their stories.
The participants are the women and men who care for loved ones who have returned from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan with profound physical and/or psychic wounds. The writers are some of the country’s leading screenwriters, TV writers, playwrights and novelists. The two groups came together for the Writers Guild Initiative’s first Helen Deutsch Caregivers Workshop on November 5th and 6th, 2011 at the Writers Guild East offices in New York City, during which more than 20 writers — including Marsha Norman, Jenny Lumet and Tom Fontana — mentored 40-plus caregivers brought to New York City with the support and assistance of the Wounded Warrior Project.
The Helen Deutsch Writing Workshops (named for the late librettist/screenwriter who is benefactor of this program) began life as a series of workshops with veterans in Columbus and San Antonio in 2008. The 2011 Caregivers Workshop expanded the focus to include those who were equally affected by the wars but were more often overlooked and isolated.
Mentors and caregivers worked in small groups, typically comprised of 2 mentors with 5 caregivers. Some caregivers had begun writing their projects, others had been fearful of putting words to paper or computer screen. All wanted to share their stories. Some wished to write novels, others short stories, blogs, poems or screenplays. The mentors helped them develop the means to express themselves in words, offering insight into the process of writing, and practical skills for developing character, constructing dialogue and other narrative elements, through writing exercises and freeform exchange. The workshop provided the opportunity for caregivers to connect with others facing challenges similar to their own, and with mentors eager to help them express themselves and empower them to write about their personal journeys.
“The time spent with the caregivers has been profound for all of us, mentors and caregivers alike,” said WGI President Michael Weller. “For the professional writers to hear stories of the courage and devotion of these caregivers, and for the caregivers to have encouragement from writers whose shows they watch on television, movies screens and on stages, is special. It was inspiring to watch the incredible eagerness and hard work from everyone involved, all of whom donated their time and talents. It is a time together that none of us will ever forget.”
Caregiver Lisa Vallant had this to say: “It was something that I was excited to participate in as a recreational type of activity and it turns out, I love writing. Whether it turns into something published or not, who knows, but it’s something I intend to pursue throughout the rest of my life.”
“The writing workshop expanded the views of not only the attendees, but the mentors as well,” said Anna Frese, Director, Family Support, Wounded Warrior Project. “There was a profound sense of compassion from the mentors as they began to listen and understand the journey that many service members and their families travel after surviving a wound, illness or injury in service to country. It was humbling to then witness the extreme professionalism as the mentors empowered the attendees to harness their wide-ranging emotions and focus it in a positive direction towards writing about a topic that is meaningful to them. The attendees shared repeatedly that the creative process of writing was something they found to be a nice change of pace and extremely therapeutic,”
Workshop attendee Sandra Hemenger wrote: “I began to write a book about everything that has happened to us in the past four years. Although I still do not have a lot of time to write, I have a new found love for writing that I never knew existed. For some, they would say our story has taken a bad turn but to us it feels as if the bricks were taken off our chest and we can breathe again. My husband has sensed a change in me since I have been writing. I am no longer keeping everything bottled up inside and I have become a better person because of it.”
Arianna del Negro, another caregiver said, “Given today’s day and age there’s a sense of isolation in terms of what we go through, feeling like we’re the only ones, so being able to attend a workshop such as this enables everybody with somewhat commonalities to come together. And there’s a significant amount of camaraderie and support among each other.”
While the caregivers learned about writing from the mentors, it is the mentors who say they got more out of the workshop than those they were there to help.
Mentor Jessica Blank is a writer of The Exonerated and Liberty City, and actress in shows such as Law and Order: Criminal Intent, Rescue Me and One Life to Live, She team-mentored writer/actor Erik Jensen. Jessica said “I am learning about writing through the process of working with these people. It is amazing to watch people realize that they can write and have just as much right to do so as a professional writer. Everyone has a story, and it is an amazing thing is to see people realize they do have a story to tell.”
“I’ve been reminded about how important honesty is in writing. These women are honest, raw, and these are people and stories screaming to be heard. It is a vital pillar of writing to write from the heart, from strength, honesty and incredible courage, and these women are doing that,” said mentor Stephen Belber, screenwriter of The Laramie Project, Rescue Me and Law and Order.
When the workshops end, mentors and caregivers often continue to work together long-distance, and caregivers have formed online groups for mutual support. The workshop, they all say, has helped heal a lot of wounds, shared a lot of stories, and forged friendships and bonds that will last a lifetime.