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A Pitt creative writing program is archiving local LGBTQ stories

Allegra Elson, photographed in her home in Swissvale. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Erik Schuckers believes that younger people in the LGBTQ community are eager to understand the experiences of older generations. That can only happen, though, if those who came before them are able to share their stories.

Schuckers leads the second cohort of the University of Pittsburgh’s creative writing program for LGBTQ community members 50 and older. The free 10-week workshop seeks to help participants hone their writing skills and tell their stories, but it also contributes to the documentation of LGBTQ history.

He recognizes the challenge of this work, but he sees the positives, too.

“Not just communicating our experiences, but turning them into art, can really transform how we understand those experiences,” said Schuckers, the programming and communications manager for Pitt’s Center for Creativity. “It’s kind of a celebration of our stories and our experiences, even if the things we’re writing about are painful or intense or dark.”

The class meets twice a week in the evenings. Students discuss assigned readings and begin a writing prompt on Wednesdays, and they workshop their subsequent nonfiction and poetry pieces on Mondays. Each week centers around a different topic, such as family, hometowns and coming out experiences.

After welcoming all 14 students to the program’s second Wednesday meeting in February, Schuckers reassured the new faces in his virtual classroom. Though some of their peers had attended the workshop before, every writer was starting from the same blank page.

He instructed the students to begin writing their own versions of “I Remember,” a prose-poem memoir by Joe Brainard. Each paragraph begins with the titular phrase and a memory: “… I remember how good a glass of water can taste after a dish of ice cream … I remember when, in high school, if you wore green and yellow on Thursday it meant that you were queer.”

Keep your hands moving, write without editing and avoid censoring yourself, he told the students.

Schuckers, 51, had begun to think about creating such a program — one that allows older people to support each other’s writing and validate their experiences — as he approached 50. “Oftentimes, as we get older, I think we feel invisible, and I think that’s especially true with LGBTQ folks,” he said. “We can feel like our stories don’t really matter.”

He received funding from Pitt to develop a pilot of the workshop, which ran last year. He sought to create a program that was accessible to those who lacked experience in creative writing, one that provided them with the guidance to explore the genres without restrictions and the opportunity to take risks. He won’t force anyone to write about experiences they’re uncomfortable with, though.

“I’m going to encourage them to go there because I think it’s often in those uncomfortable spaces that are the stories and the experiences that we need to tell the most,” Schuckers said. “I want people to understand and respect their own boundaries, but also not be afraid to push a little bit beyond them.”

The first cohort of 11 students often wrote about their relationships with family and partners as well as some of the discomfort they felt growing up in their hometowns. Many told Schuckers after the course ended that writing about those experiences made them feel like they were developing a relationship with themselves, he said.

Along with making her a more disciplined writer, last year’s workshop reaffirmed C.E. Pino’s identity and furthered her understanding of where she’s most comfortable being herself. Pino, 66, said the program provides a welcoming space for older members of the LGBTQ community to be vulnerable and discuss challenges they’ve faced in their lives.

“It’s important for me to talk about my experiences with people that have experienced a lot of the same things — I just never was in touch with them,” she said.

At the end of the program, pieces from all the students are compiled into a book, and a copy is stored in the University of Pittsburgh Library System.

Much of LGBTQ history is not written down and easily accessible, Schuckers said. Archiving the class’s work allows their stories to be passed along more easily, including to younger people.

That exchange is valuable to Chrissie Kaczkowski, 71, who participated in the program’s first cohort. Younger people are much more open and confident to declare who they are, she said, but that wasn’t the case for many who are older.

“I think it’s significant for us to tell people how, you know, how things were, I think kind of to let them know that they’re standing on our shoulders,” Kaczkowski said. “There were people who came before us, too. They laid the foundation, you know, that helped us along.”

This year, when Schuckers asked students why they chose to participate in the workshop, several said they want to write about more than their individual experiences. Many in this age group were teenagers or young adults during the AIDS crisis, and they want to honor the memories of friends and partners who are no longer with them, he said.

“It becomes this, not just connection to ourselves and to younger generations, but also a way to connect with people that we may have lost,” Schuckers said.

Allegra Elson, a student in this year’s cohort, is hoping the workshop helps stir up memories from her past. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

When the first year’s program was over, several students held their own writing group for a few weeks. Now, Pino and Kaczkowski are participating in the second iteration of the workshop. Joining them is Allegra Elson, 56, who signed up with a longtime friend.

The workshop is the first she’s taken that centers around LGBTQ themes, and she’s hoping it helps stir up memories from her past. After reading Brainard’s “I Remember,” she and her friend — who spent the late 1990s and early 2000s sharing heartbreaks and going out to bars together — texted each other brief messages recalling that era of their lives.

“Just that short line was able to take me right back to where we were, and who we were, at that time,” she said.

Elson wants to learn how to write more often and with less of a filter, and she’s excited to gain any insight into facets of the LGBTQ experience she may not know about. However, she would like the program to become more diverse, particularly racially, as it continues. Schuckers finds that important, too.

“I strongly believe that we need as diverse a cohort as we can get,” he said. “It’s been harder to reach older, queer folks of color. And so, I’m committed to trying to find out and figure out how to get the word out into those communities.”

On that following Monday in February, five students shared their “I Remember” pieces with the class. One student documented their memories from childhood. Elson wrote about the disappearance of lesbian bars as well as those she remembered. Another student — “nervous all day” about presenting — focused theirs on their first date and break-up with a man.

“And you read just fine,” Schuckers told the first student, who had also admitted to being uneasy. “You read wonderfully.”

Schuckers once told Pino that he hopes she continues to write. She has a lot to say, and he likes the humor she adds to her work, he said.

“I guess I’m taking that and continuing to write,” Pino said. “I want to believe that I have something to say.”

Emma Folts covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at emma@publicsource.org.

This story was fact-checked by Sophia Levin.

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