Pittsburgh City Paper spoke with Erik Schuckers, one of the founders behind In Our Own Write, a writing program for LGBTQ people over the age of 50 in Pittsburgh, to find out more.
What was the drive behind starting this project? Is this the first year?
This will be the second year for In Our Own Write. Thanks to the University of Pittsburgh's Year of Engagement and Center for Creativity, I was able to lead a nine-week pilot session last year, with an initial cohort of students of all levels of experience.
A few years ago, as I got closer to turning 50 myself, I started to think more and more about this idea of creating some kind of space for older LGBTQ folks to explore our experiences through writing. I'd been writing and publishing poems and creative nonfiction for a long time, and knew firsthand how empowering it can be. Turning your experiences and stories into art, of any kind, helps you understand them better, and when you share that work, it lets others connect not just on an intellectual level, but on an emotional one. When the University of Pittsburgh announced 2020-21 as its Year of Engagement, and actively solicited proposals for ways to help make a difference in the broader Pittsburgh community, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to make a program like this happen. I approached my director at Pitt's Center for Creativity, where I work, and she threw her full support behind the idea.
Why is it important to hear stories by LGBTQ elders?
For so long, our stories, our experiences, as LGBTQ folks have been hidden — from the broader cultural narrative, certainly, but also sometimes from our families, our friends, even ourselves. As we get older, we can start to feel like our stories don't matter, like we're becoming invisible. But our stories do matter. Stories connect us, they help spark change — think of Edie Windsor's story, or Sylvia Rivera's or Marsha P. Johnson's or Matthew Shepard's. In sharing our stories, we connect not only with each other, but across generations, and they help us understand the ways in which the world has changed and the ways in which it hasn't.
We need to understand where we've been in order to understand where we are and to chart a path forward. I think there's a hunger on the part of younger LGBTQ folks to understand our stories, and those stories don't get told unless we tell them. I also think that communicating our experiences, transforming them into art, is a form of celebration. It can be a source of joy, and pride, even when those experiences themselves are dark or painful.
What does the program look like for the participants?
Students participate in a ten-week course that combines reading and discussion with the creation and workshopping of original work. On Wednesdays, we meet to talk about selected readings related to a particular theme (like family, the body, coming out, et cetera), and we start writing our own pieces about that theme through a prompt.
On Mondays, we get together to share our works in progress and discuss them. The aim is to create a community of passionate readers and writers, who support each others' efforts and contribute their unique skills to make our work better. I hold virtual office hours to talk one-on-one with students, as well, and we schedule a number of guest writers for special reading and Q&A sessions that students can attend if they like. Last year, we had great working writers like Jubi Arriola-Headley, Savannah Sipple, and Aaron Smith visit us virtually to share their work and provide their advice and points of view.
In addition, students are invited to participate in other events at the University that could be of interest, like the Pitt Writing Center's Writers' Cafes. The program is really designed to let students get as deep into the process as they like, but the core is our Monday/Wednesday 90-minute sessions. In our last cohort, we had folks who had never taken a writing class before, some who had written in college, and some who did things like grant or scientific writing in their professional lives. That's one of the magical things about a program like this: bringing together people of different backgrounds and experience levels to create this space where we can learn from and connect with each other.
Is there a final accumulation of the project that is shared with the public?
Last summer, after the first IOOW session ended, we hosted a virtual public reading/community open mic with the students, where they shared some of the work they'd done, and where other members of the Pittsburgh LGBTQ+ community, of all ages, were able to share their own work, as well. We plan a similar event to cap this year's session. Select work from IOOW students was also gathered into a limited edition chapbook, which was distributed to the students and archived in the University of Pittsburgh Library System. This year, we hope to work with the ULS again, and also with the Carnegie Library, to be able to preserve the students' work and offer it to the public.