Writing for Community – or – When Going Public Can Save Dignity and Lives

by Jerry Waxler

Read my book, Memoir Revolution, about how turning your life into a story can change the world.

Author Naomi Gal invited me to attend her book signing at Moravian Book Shop, an independent book store in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. In her native Israel, Gal was a novelist. Now she teaches creative writing at Moravian College. However, the event at the bookstore related to another aspect of her life. Gal leads a creative group at Turning Point, a shelter for abused women, and their collected testimonials were published in the book “Free To Be.” Last year, I interviewed Gal, asking her how life influences fiction. Now, I was looking to her latest project to learn another way real life finds its way to the page.

I have heard from authors that book signings can be lonely affairs, so I was surprised to see people streaming in to the store, one of them carrying a tray of snacks. The atmosphere seemed festive. I picked up a copy of the book and flipped through it. The entries were a mix of poetry and prose, revealing private worlds of fearful silence. In the expression of that danger, I felt the stirring of true courage.

I stood in the line that extended from Gal back into the store, and chatted with a writer I know from the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group. The line had been moving slowly, and when I reached the front, I understood why. Naomi was showering each of us with warm thanks and a few moments of chatter. By that time, the crowd had swelled to fifty or sixty and the hubbub swelled to a din. Despite the serious subject matter, everyone seemed courteous and friendly, happy to be together.

Then, a moderator interrupted the signing so Naomi could make a short speech, which consisted almost entirely of effusive thanks to the project’s many contributors. She praised the Turning Point organization and its leaders, and the writers. She also thanked Moravian College’s sorority, Alpha Sigma Alpha, who helped gather the pieces and publish the book.

She went on to explain that many of the pieces in the collection were anonymous, because one of the tragedies of domestic abuse is that defiance can trigger aggression and even deadly force. Several contributors stepped forward to read their work, poems about their need to escape their abusers, and to demand better treatment in their own home. One woman used her full name. The reason for her lack of fear was that she had already lost a daughter to domestic violence. The shift from festivity to dark reality shook me. How awful that people can hurt each other. The human condition can be so cruel.

And then the readings were over, and the organizer asked everyone to buy books, and that the money would go to supporting the women’s shelter. Someone said they were almost sold out. A small cheer went up, and the sorority leader choked up as she thanked everyone who had participated, and Naomi reached over to hug her. The hubbub and the mingling started again.

I felt I had witnessed a powerful event. These women found relief from their suffering at Turning Point where they received shelter and guidance, and forged bonds with each other. Creative writing turned them inward, a tool that helped them cope and grow. Now publishing turned their pain from private to public, to let the rest of us know what is going on in our midst. By sharing their words, they gave us an opportunity to reach back towards them, to offer hope and support.

The testimonials served a different purpose than most memoirs. Rather than being selected for literary merit or completeness of story, these pieces were selected for their moral courage and willingness to communicate. And while this particular book may not reach the best seller charts, its effects radiate far beyond these particular individuals. The gathering gives witness to the impact of the written word and I visualize similar groups in other communities, reaching out to each other to hear words that need to be spoken.

On the way out of the store, I glanced at the display of gourmet chocolates. The woman behind the counter caught my eye and asked, “Do you like pistachios?” I nodded and with a conspiratorial smile she handed me a chocolate covered one. The explosion of good taste jolted me back into my body. Out on the streets of historic Bethlehem, holding my copy of “Free to Be” and a bag of candy, the sun still yellow in the early spring evening, I strolled past quaint gift shops and buildings dating from the 18th century. Surrounded by a sense of normalcy and safety, I thought of a passage from Kate Braestrup’s memoir, “Here if you need me.”

In her work as a police chaplain, Braestrup often pondered suffering. After a particularly grisly kidnap and murder, she asks herself the age-old question, “How can a loving God permit the existence of evil?” Then she attempts to answer it. First she considers the power of evil, quoting the devil’s brag “We are legion.” Then Braestrup considers all the kind people who she regularly witnesses, who come pouring out of their homes to give aid to those who suffer. These neighbors and friends attempt to spread love in order to ease the burden. Swelling with the compassion and generosity of her own heart and the people she routinely encounters, Braestrup refutes the devil’s claim. “No,” she says, “We are legion.”

Note and Links for this Essay
Turning Point, Lehigh Valley Shelter for Women

Moravian Book Shop, Independent book and gift store in historic Bethlehem PA

Read my interview with Naomi Gal about the relationship between fiction and fact.

Read my essay about Kate Braestrup’s exploration of Good and Evil

Writers in the Lehigh Valley – visit the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group