Women of Will: A Feature with Words Without Walls

Words Without Walls is a creative writing outreach program that serves Allegheny County Jail and Sojourner House, a residential drug and alcohol treatment program for mothers and their children. Since 2009, creative writing classes have been taught by MFA students at Chatham University. Their program teaches 18 classes per year, serving over 300 men and women in the Pittsburgh area. In addition to teaching classes, Words Without Walls publishes chapbooks of their students’ best work, maintains a blog to showcase student and teacher writing, and awards the Sandra Gould Ford Prize annually to a student who shows outstanding promise and dedication to creative writing. By providing an atmosphere for creative growth and nurturing student work, Words Without Walls empowers students to express themselves on the page. Inspired by the passion, intelligence, and talent of the students with whom they have worked; the program’s primary goals are to help make their students’ writing better and to help make the best of their writing available for others via print and web publication. To learn more about the program, please visit www.wordswithoutwalls.com or email info@wordswithoutwalls.com.

Truth:  I drink my coffee black, standing barefoot in my kitchen and sitting in church basements at meetings that help me stay sober but almost never in hipster cafes, where I too often feel tragically unhip and frumpishly mom-like. I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t know the difference between a red eye and a macchiato.  

Truth:  I roll my eyes at the twentysomethings at basement meetings who fill their Styrofoam cups with three scoops of creamer and seven packets of sugar and then complain that the coffee isn’t strong enough. The inky sludge in my cup is somehow proof that my addictive behaviors are more potent.

Lie:  I believe the people in those basement meetings who tell me that recovery is about showing up early and making the coffee, following rules and being responsible, writing lists and making amends. I listen to them share their own experience, strength and hope, and I maintain my own recovery by following the recommended practices of self-flagellation and yoga.  


Truth:  I listen to Tori Amos and Liz Phair, and my friend Amy laughs at these “angry girl” playlists and labels me as a strident feminist. This makes me sad. I slip quotes by Cheryl Strayed into her sparkly pink notebook and tape magazine pictures of Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the stark white walls of our shared rehab bedroom. Amy paints my nails and curls my hair. We are figuring out what it means to be strong sober women together.

Truth:  Amy introduces me to her older brother: “This is Leanne, she’s 38 and she’s a lawyer.” I almost correct her. I am those things. I am also a wife, a stay-at-home-mom, a daughter, an alcoholic, a bake sale pastry cook, an uncoordinated dancer and a terribly off-key songstress. This list somehow still feels incomplete. I want to be the kind of woman who wears lipstick.

Lie:  I don’t think about replacing that coffee with vodka anymore, about slipping away and finding that other more broken version of myself, the me I used to be before all the bad things happened. I don’t miss that girl at all.


Truth:  I have been sober for 164 days. This is not the first time I’ve strung together days, weeks, months without drinking. I collect sobriety dates, written hastily in margins of big blue books, the ink now mostly smeared; maybe I’ll hold onto this one long enough for it to become valuable.

Truth:  I clean my house and find empty bottles of Rumplemintze hidden under the bed, stuffed into coat pockets, stowed away in the basement with the Christmas decorations. I am embarrassed by the wreckage and waste, so I scrub harder to remove the stains on my memory. Upstairs, my son babbles and hugs his dolls tightly, all cautiously toothy smiles now that Mama has come home.

Lie: This life I have now is satisfying. Sobriety and motherhood have been my greatest blessings. I have learned to be grateful, and I have let go of my anger and resentments about my past.  


Truth:  I read books about women who drank and now won’t, women who have struggled with food and depression and men and now don’t, women who were once silent and small and now aren’t. I am all those women. Some days these stories are uplifting, and I feel empowered. Some days I just want to crawl deeper into my blankets and wave the white flag of defeat in the face of the oppressive patriarchy, sleeping next to me in the forms of my husband and my son.

Truth:  People ask me how much I drank, or how many men I slept with, or if there’s a God. I find these questions tiresome and unnecessary. I am focused on paying bills and finishing laundry and wiping crayon off my walls. Things that matter.

Lie:  The details of my story are irrelevant. Life lived in clichés is safer and more predictable. Happiness is only twelve steps away.

Truckin', by Holly C. Spencer

You’re at the ‘Dead show. You hear Jerry singing “A Friend of the Devil” in the scratchy voice he uses for that song. It is the summer of 1987.

Steve and you carry a bulky cooler full of beer and ice even though you’re both only sixteen. You luck upon a spacious spot under a canopy of Elm trees. It’s an open spot, surprisingly, amongst all these dancing Dead Heads. He spreads out a blanket and you sit down.

You’re toasty from the Skunk weed you smoked on the hour-long road trip from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Buckeye Lake, Ohio. But the cocaine got wet and ruined and you just ran out of said weed. The bright spot is that you still have the acid. You’d probably be near to a panic if you didn’t have that.

Sitting, you pull two pieces of blotter acid, small tabs of paper—no bigger than your pinky fingernail and immersed in LSD—from a protective tinfoil envelope and stick them between your front teeth and your lip, your saliva slowly dissolving the small squares of bitter-tasting paper. 

You look around. The grass is matted with footprints. You smell the damp of dancing bodies, scents of sweat and hemp and weed vying for your attention. The sounds of guitar, one long melodic ranting after the next seeps inside you as the tempos increase and the swerving bodies around you become more frantic, one huge dancing orgy of swaying limbs and bloodshot eyes. You are thankful for the shade of this good tree.

It will take a few minutes before the acid kicks in, so Steve reaches for your hand and pulls you to your feet. He needs no words. His big brown eyes, crinkled by long hours of laughter, say, Let’s Dance. 

And, you do. You dance like Dead Heads everywhere dance: with twirling arms and spinning hips and twisting legs, following the rhythm of the guitar or the drums, whichever your ears hear best. 

Senseless, pointless, needless, free. 

You look over at Steve. He’s in a zone, his arms curling, his hips coiling, his legs bending. Lifting, spinning, kicking, weaving. You’re doing pretty much the same thing. Snaking, twining, looping. You feel the acid start to work because you start to see colorful trails where Steve’s arms used to be, floating in the air as he dances.

Steve is new to your school this year, but he knows almost as much about Led Zeppelin as you do. You know he likes you right away. He teaches you how to make brightly colored thread bracelets with intricate patterns and more threads in one bracelet than you can hold between your fingers. You get almost as good as him. 

It’s a sign of deep love and peace to give and receive a homemade bracelet, so when he presents you with a vibrant purple and metallic blue one, you kiss him. He says you that you taste like watermelon taffy. 

He tells you he loves you a week later. You’re sixteen and you don’t know much about love. When you think of love you think of marriage, maybe not with gold rings and a document of proof but, you think of forever, joined to someone, and you don’t see that with Steve. But you shrug and say it back because you’re selfish and painfully aware. You know he isn’t the best you can get, especially not compared to the others, the others who broke your heart, but you need a break, and he’s kind and a lot of fun. And you plan on keeping it as light as possible until it ends.  

Now, the trip is intensifying, the swirls become blinding, making you dizzy. You plop back down on the blanket, and stay rooted for a time. The flannel pattern begins to enlarge before your eyes, trailing, causing double vision like the deep drop of a roller coaster that gets to the top of the track and barrels down the steep arc, and right before it crashes to earth, it curves and sends you spiraling through a darkened tunnel, unable to see.

Your head lolls back and you come out of the tunnel, and when your eyes refocus you see a guy standing in front of you. He’s kneeling. His long, brown dreadlocks are tied off with a paisley ribbon. He smells of Hemp oil. He has a satchel slung over one shoulder, crossing his chest, settling on his hip. He takes your hand and turns it over, so it’s palm up, and pulls out a bag of weed, not Skunk, but it smells strong. 

He starts breaking it apart in your hand. It doesn’t crumble right away because it’s moist. That means it’s good. He breaks it up in your hand, separating buds from weeds, which he gently slides off your hand onto the ground, and a Bible verse comes to mind, something about separating the wheat from the chaff. 

“I have this second-generation weed, you’re gonna like it. I have coke, vikes, methadone. I have blotter, ‘Shrooms, Percodan, Percocet, Valium, Xanax, speed. I have heroin, codeine, yellow jackets. We’re traveling this whole show. Front row, every show. Pure freedom. We have room for you.”

You hear his words but you’re watching his deft fingers make trails from separating the buds. His hands are separating the wheat from the chaff, and you don’t look up as he rattles off the laundry list of drugs he’s holding until the last.

You look into his emerald eyes, his high eyes, and see he’s waiting for your answer. You can’t speak but, you hear the weed cry out against the breaking of its body. So, you shake your head. He nods. He folds your hand over the gift of weed and leans in to kiss you before he stands up. 

His lips are soft. They linger. Then he’s gone. 

Years later, when you remember him, the scent of hemp oil fills your nostrils and you are taken back. You think of that laundry list of drugs he mentioned while breaking up the pot in your hand. You think about the stages of your life, the checklist of bad decisions, and you realize that you’ve tried everything on his list. Except for yellow jackets. They were no longer in circulation by the time you realized what you missed.

You remember Steve and how you cringed from his offer of love, not realizing you were already bequeathed to another, maybe not with a ring or a pending document of proof, but a commitment of forever to this shadow forewarned, your lover, your concubine, your one and only.

Your high. Joined forever and ever amen.

On that day, you look over at Steve. You look over at him with your unblemished skin and smile your wide smile with good teeth and an innocence you would have denied having.  You stretch out on the blanket.

“Got us some weed.”

Just as Sure as I'm Singing This Song, by Janette Schafer

I believe in Jesus and his plan.
Mother sings, strums her guitar,

braids bedecked in beads
and click as she flings her cornrows.
I push my finger into the space between
the scalp and the weave of hair.

These were the days when Mom was happy,
before my father sleeps with the neighbor,
before the pastor’s wife says:
Sometimes the Lord is hard.
You must stay with your husband.

Mother tells her my aunt is only 17.
But God’s ways are not our ways.
This is an incomprehensible God,
this Being who makes her stay with a man
who gives her gonorrhea,
a man who tries to take by force
her youngest sister’s virginity.

I believe in Jesus and His plan,
I know that He holds the future in His hand.

I crave it.
The only way to say I Love You.

It’s erotic:
A black eye.

A fat lip.
A public display of affection.

Fighting is a turn on.
To know that you would die.

Or kill me.

Leanne McLaughlin, Holly C. Spencer, Janette Schafer, and Barbara Grimm

Leanne McLaughlin graduated with honors from Johns Hopkins University with degrees in political science and psychology, and received her Juris Doctor from the University of Virginia School of Law. She practiced criminal law in Georgia and Pennsylvania for nearly eight years but is currently taking a career break to focus on her family. Leanne lives in the suburbs of Pittsburgh with her husband and two-year-old son. She reads, writes, plays with blocks, and dreams of one day becoming Queen of PTA Bake Sales.

Holly Spencer lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with her three dogs and two cats. She attends Chatham University’s grad program as the Words Without Walls Fellowship Awardee. She has been published in Jet Fuel Review, Rise Up Review, Anti-Heroin Chic, Pink Panther Magazine, and Feckless Cunt Anthology. Her creative nonfiction piece, “Stuck,” was nominated by Jet Fuel Review for The Best of the Net, 2016. Holly is five years clean from all mood- and mind-altering chemicals, which is the best author note she could ever hope for.

Janette Schafer is a freelance writer, nature photographer, part-time singer, and full-time banker living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is a 2017 awardee of the Maenad Fellowship in writing through Chatham University and a 2015 awardee of the Arts MODE Fellowship in experimental theater through New Sun Rising LLC. She is pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University. Recent and upcoming publications include (b)oink Magazine, Nasty Women & Bad Hombres Anthology, Chatham University broadsides, PublicSource, and Calamus Journal.

Barbara Grimm is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She lives at home with her significant other and four children. She is currently a student at Penn State University and is enrolled in the Computer Information Technology and Sciences program. She is published in the Maenads Chapbook Don’t Call Me Brave and has been writing since the age of 12. Writing has been a tool for her, not only to deal with her father’s alcoholism as a child but her own addictions as an adult. With two and a half years clean, she is most proud of the mother she has become in her recovery process.

Tyler Champion

Tyler Champion is a freelance illustrator and designer. He grew up in Kentucky before moving to New Jersey to develop his passion at The Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art. After graduating in 2010, he headed back south to Nashville, TN, where he currently resides with his girlfriend Melissa and his son Jude. Tyler has produced work for magazines, comics, design companies, and children’s books, including work for Sony, Capstone Publishing, and Tell-a-graphics.


First Featured In: No. 13, spring 2019

The Comeback Issue

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