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November Caregivers Workshop II

Writer's Guild of America, East Foundation Members Help Give Voice to those Caring for Wounded Veterans

NEW YORK CITY - They are some of the country’s unknown heroes - young, strong yet vulnerable, and very brave. Most never viewed themselves as important nor ever believed their thoughts and stories were of interest to anyone but themselves. But, now thanks to some of the country’s leading writers - screenwriters, TV writers, playwrights and novelists – and a unique mentorship program of the Writers Guild of America, East Foundation, these unsung heroes are believing and giving voice to their stories.

The writers are members of the Writers Guild of America, East Foundation, which held its Helen Deutsch Writing Workshop on November 5th and 6th. During the two-day workshop, more than 20 WGAE Foundation members, including Marsha Norman, Jenny Lumet and Tom Fontana, mentored 40-plus caregivers brought to New York City with the support and assistance of the Wounded Warrior Project TM. These caregivers are assisting or providing care for service members who have been wounded either with physical or psychological damages of war. They face layers of bureaucracy stalling assistance, as well as feelings of isolation and unworthiness. The workshop helped them connect with other caregivers facing similar challenges and with mentors eager to help them express themselves and empower them to write about their personal journeys.

Mentors included: Marsha Norman, Tom Fontana, Jenny Lumet, Chris Albers, Stephen Belber, Jessica Blank, Amy Cohen, Rick Dresser, Anne Flett-Giordano, Gina Gionfriddo, Craig muMS Grant, Dave Hackel, Lulie Haddad, Erik Jensen, John Markus, Willie Reale, Susanna Styron, and Michael Weller. Three of the mentors had personal military experience – Ryan Kelly and David Tucker in Iraq and Matthew Eck in Somalia – which uniquely helped them understand the battles of war impacting these caregivers and their loved ones now.

“The WGAE Foundation is a group of volunteer writers, some of the most successful and celebrated in the country, who shares our skills with underserved populations of people, who for whatever reason have not had an opportunity to learn how to tell the stories they wish to tell about their lives. We have mentored injured veterans and now caregivers of severely wounded service members. The time spent with the caregivers has been profound for all of us, mentors and caregivers alike. For the professional writers to hear stories of the courage and devotion of these caregivers, and for the caregivers to have encouragement from writers whose shows they watch on television, movies screens and on stages, is special. It was inspiring to watch the incredible eagerness and hard work from everyone involved, all of who donated their time and talents. It is a time together that none of us will ever forget,’” said WGAE Foundation President Michael Weller.

Caregiver Lisa Vallant said, “It was something that I was excited to participate in as a recreational type of activity and it turns out, I love writing. Whether it turns into something published or not, who knows, but it’s something I intend to pursue throughout the rest of my life.”

The Helen Deutsch Writing Workshop initiative (named after Helen Deutsch, the late librettist/screenwriter who is the benefactor for this program) initially worked with veterans and conducted several workshops in Columbus and San Antonio. In 2011, the program focused its efforts on caregivers, who were equally affected by the wars but more often overlooked and very isolated. The first caregivers workshop was held in June 2011. The November workshop was the second time these groups met, although many mentors and caregivers had stayed in touch over the summer.

During the two-day workshop held at the WGAE offices in New York City, mentors and caregivers worked in small groups of 2-3 mentors working with 4-5 caregivers. Some caregivers had begun to write their stories; others were fearful to put words to paper or computer screen. All wanted to share their stories, first with family and friends, and then many hope to share their stories with everyone. Some want to write novels, others short stories, blogs, poems or screenplays. Mentors helped them find the courage to write their stories, as well as gave them insight into the process of writing, how to develop characters, dialogue writing, creating visuals with words, and the keys to success for different types of writing.

“The writing workshop expanded the views of not only the attendees, but the mentors as well. There was a profound sense of compassion from the mentors as they began to listen and understand the journey that many service members and their families travel after surviving a wound, illness or injury in service to country. It was humbling to then witness the extreme professionalism as the mentors empowered the attendees to harness their wide-ranging emotions and focus it in a positive direction towards writing about a topic that is meaningful to them. The attendees shared repeatedly that the creative process of writing was something they found to be a nice change of pace and extremely therapeutic,” said Anna Frese, Director, Family Support, Wounded Warrior Project.

“I began to write a book about everything that has happened to us in the past four years. Although I still do not have a lot of time to write, I have a new found love for writing that I never knew existed. For some, they would say our story has taken a bad turn but to us it feels as if the bricks were taken off our chest and we can breathe again,” wrote workshop attendee Sandra Hemenger, whose husband was injured in Iraq. “My husband has sensed a change in me since I have been writing. I am no longer keeping everything bottled up inside and I have become a better person because of it.”

Arianna del Negro, another caregiver said, "Given today’s day and age there’s a sense of isolation in terms of what we go through, feeling like we’re the only ones, so being able to attend a workshop such as this enables everybody with somewhat commonalities to come together. And there’s a significant amount of camaraderie and support among each other.”

While the caregivers learned about writing from the mentors, it is the mentors who say they got more out of the workshop than those they were there to help. “I am learning about writing through the process of working with these people. It is amazing to watch people realize that they can write and have just as much right to do so as a professional writer. Everyone has a story, and it is an amazing thing is to see people realize they do have a story to tell,” said mentor Jessica Blank, writer of The Exonerated and Liberty City, and actress in shows such as Law and Order: Criminal Intent, Rescue Me and One Life to Live, who mentored in a team with husband, writer/actor Erik Jensen.

“I’ve been reminded about how important honesty is in writing. These women are honest, raw, and these are people and stories screaming to be heard. It is a vital pillar of writing to write from the heart, from strength, honesty and incredible courage, and these women are doing that,” said mentor Stephen Belber, screenwriter The Laramie Project, Rescue Me and Law and Order.

The WGAE Foundation plans to host another caregiver workshop in spring 2012. But, the mentors and caregivers will continue to work together long-distance until then. The workshop, they all say, has helped heal a lot of wounds, shared a lot of stories, and forged friendships and bonds that will last a lifetime.