Writing Through, an organization that uses creative writing as a tool to develop thinking skills, language fluency, and self-esteem, is the brainchild of year-round resident Sue Guiney. The project is based on the belief that today’s world benefits from engaged and contributing citizens who are able to think conceptually and critically, know what they believe, and have the confidence and poise to stand up and say it in their own voices.
This international organization came about unexpectedly, but as Guiney says, “It’s a story of just being open and letting things happen.”
Growing up during the Vietnam War era, the last place Guiney expected to travel to, let alone fall in love with, was Cambodia. But while living in London for 26 years, having moved there for her husband’s work in 1990, Guiney was teaching writing workshops to high school students with learning disabilities in England and Ireland. In 2006, she and her husband decided to take their teenage son to Cambodia, thinking it would be a good growing experience for him. There they built houses in rural communities, worked in an orphanage, and traveled around the country. Guiney had been writing her first novel, but says, “The trip changed my life. I knew when we left that what I wanted to write about was Cambodia, which turned into a trilogy about Westerners working against the backdrop of politics in the post-Khmer Rouge era.”
She explains, “I also wanted to bring the fruit of that inspiration back to the people who inspired me. I was put in touch with a smallish educational shelter that provided a place for street kids to be when they weren’t in school. Because it was founded by photojournalists, they already had this idea that the arts are important, which was completely unheard of in Cambodia. I offered my writing workshop to them that I tweaked for English as a Second Language (ESL) learners.”
Guiney returned to Cambodia to teach every year for increasing periods of time. “It didn’t matter what their English level was, we would have a translator and write poetry and stories and then I would teach them how to present themselves.” At the end, each participant had to stand up to introduce themselves, state their age in English, and read what they had produced. “They were petrified, but it was an incredible self-esteem builder,” Guiney says. “You put all those skills together and I realized I had stumbled onto a unique formula.” She realized that although the workshops were ostensibly about poetry and story writing, it was the power of the literary arts that was unlocking participants’ critical and creative thinking. “They’re the key that gives you permission to think, see, and envision the world in new ways,” Guiney said.
Soon a well-established, 50-year-old French NGO set up in Cambodia engaged Guiney to run the workshop at one of their centers, which snowballed into facilitating them throughout all six of their locations.
At this point, Guiney asked herself if she wanted to keep the project small or let it grow. “I decided to allow it to be as big as it wanted. In 2015, I founded Writing Through. We are now in Cambodia, Singapore, Vietnam, Mexico, the United States, and soon Australia. We have developed the program so as well as being for ESL, it is also for native speakers. The mission is for people to develop their thinking skills, their voices, and their self-esteem — especially in marginalized and at-risk communities.”
This summer, Writing Through worked with Camp Jabberwocky. “All the participants had ideas in their heads that they wanted to get out and we gave them the tools and permission to do that,” Guiney says. They will be collaborating in February with Island libraries and the up-island Council on Aging and are also looking at ways to collaborate with other organizations, including in the Brazilian community.
Currently, the six-part workshops use the techniques of themes, prompts, and brainstorming in whole group, small group, and individual writing of poems, stories, and journal entries; developing public speaking skills, culminating in presenting what they produced. There is a magazine of participants’ writing for each workshop, and the organization has just completed a podcast, “From the Magic Pencil — Voices of Writing Through,” which you can hear at writingthrough.org/media/.
In recent years, Writing Through has trained some 60 people to facilitate the workshops, with some returning home to teach the workshops in marginalized communities. Guiney says, “We’ve realized it’s not just an ESL program but for the elderly, people with disabilities, immigrants … people who have been marginalized and either haven’t had the luck to have the education to develop their thinking skills or have those thinking skills but are in those segments of the community where no one is listening to them.
“Everybody has the right to look at their world, think about it, decide how they fit in and have a voice to express themselves. I know through my own experience and a lot of research that an important way to do this is through using language in creative ways.”