I Found My Writer’s Group at Miriam’s Kitchen: Finding Community with the Homeless
By Will Schick
We gather for coffee and conversation on Monday mornings in the basement of Western Presbyterian Church, a short walk from Foggy Bottom metro station, across from George Washington University’s business school. I usually try to arrive early at around 7:45 AM. By now the mood in Miriam’s, where the kitchen is based, is lively. The bustle of trays from the serving window, the smell of coffee, tea, eggs and waffles wafting in the air give way to the roar of excited conversation amongst guests. Their combined voices blend into a serene melodious sound. Everyone here is happy. Breakfast is open for another thirty minutes, and I make my way around the tables to talk to guests.
Miriam’s Kitchen first opened its doors in 1983 as a joint venture between three local religious organizations: Western Presbyterian Church, Unity Church, and George Washington University’s Hillel. Back then, their mission was simple: serve breakfast to the homeless. Over the years, Miriam’s mission has evolved into a much more ambitious project.
Today, they aim to end chronic homelessness by helping their guests find affordable housing. To do so, Miriam’s expanded their services well beyond the kitchen. In addition to tacking on dinner to breakfast, Miriam’s brought on teams of social workers, nurses, psychiatrists, lawyers, and artists to help their guests tackle a wide range of problems that are beyond the scope of free meals.
I volunteer with Miriam’s weekly writer’s group with a dozen other members of the community. We are a diverse group of people. Our volunteer group counts among us university professors, ESL teachers, economists, scientists, undergraduate, and graduate students.
“What do you have for us this week, Will?”
After the final call for breakfast is made, a small group of guests start to wander over to the set of tables we have set up in the back of the dining area. I set a stack of blank paper and a pile of number two pencils in the middle of the table, and pass around the week’s reading.
We take turns reading the pieces aloud several times, savoring the words and sentences of that week’s author. Once the reading is complete, we go around and talk about theme, and structure and language, and for a moment, it’s like we’re going through a writer’s workshop in a graduate program.
My group has some serious literary talent, and often, their insights make me pause and reflect.
“Will, good fiction is like any other good writing. It’s good because it’s true.”
“Poetry doesn’t need to rhyme, Will. Poetry is about the flow.”
“Don’t be one of those writers who writes long, drawn-out pieces for the sake of writing something long and drawn-out. Real art happens in efficiency. You know what I mean, Will?”
During one group writing exercise this fall, I admitted to the group that I sometimes felt stuck when trying to write poetry. One of the guests inspired me by saying “Just start putting words on paper, Will. Trust me, the poetry will come.”
The guests in my group come from backgrounds as diverse as Miriam’s writer volunteers. In my writer’s group, we have former schoolteachers, veterans, and college graduates from all walks of life.
We end our weekly group sessions with fifteen to twenty-minute free-writing exercises. We always go around and ask if anyone would like to share with us what they wrote. Some of the best stories and poems I’ve ever heard were those that were read to me around the table at Miriam’s.
Miriam’s writing groups meet for an hour and a half every weekday at 8:15 AM and 2:30 PM. For more information on volunteering at Miriam’s, visit: https://miriamskitchen.org/volunteer/
Image: Michelle Obama visit to Miriam’s Kitchen, Wikimedia Commons
Will Schick is a guest contributor to Café MFA and a first-year candidate of American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.