Meet Deborah Morgan
Deborah Morgan, the author of Writing Out Loud, is a very special person. She has devoted her life to working with people—mostly women—who live with a secret handicap: they are illiterate. Deborah has a handicap too: she lives with multiple sclerosis. But like the women whose lives she has helped to shape, she has is a survivor who has learned to celebrate life in joy and in service. A Canadian who lives in Camrose, Alberta, Deborah says that writing about life is not just something to do—it's a way to live, and a way to change lives. This interview, conducted by Susan Wittig Albert, originally appeared in The Story Circle Journal (Vol. 6, No. 2, June, 2002).
Visit Deborah's website.
Interviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 06/15/2002
You've been involved in the literacy field for nearly 20 years, Deborah. What led you to discover this work?
I think literacy work discovered me! I was a young mom, teaching craft courses. Mary, a Further Education Coordinator, approached me and asked if I'd sit on a literacy committee she was organizing to do a needs assessment in the community. I politely said no, several times, until one day I found in my mailbox a book called Illiterate America by Jonathan Kozol. After spending an hour with the book, I discovered a note from Mary, between the pages: "I thought this might be of interest to you." Oh my God, I thought. All this time I had been avoiding Mary (who was very involved in her church ) because I thought she wanted me to sit on a liturgy committee! She thought I was the right person for LITERACY work, and it turned out that she was right.
In 1986 our community set up a literacy program which trained volunteer tutors to work with adults who wished to improve their literacy skills. I was hired as the Coordinator of program and learned very early in my literacy work, that people involved in literacy (as learners or instructors) were special. The students were so brave and determined, yet so full of fear and shame. The tutors were compassionate, caring individuals who truly valued the ability to read and write, who selflessly went to great lengths to help others understand the written word. When the students and tutors connected with one another, built trust and friendships, magic happened. To me it was the best of the word "community." People came together to help one another, to learn from one another without judgment or unrealistic expectations. I worked hard too, but I mostly felt lucky to be part of it all.
You were diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1984. Can you tell us about this difficult and challenging experience?
When I applied for the position of program coordinator for the new literacy program, I desperately wanted the job. I had been diagnosed with MS two years before, so I didn't know how good my chances were.
At the interview, I was asked, "Why do you think we should hire you for this position?" I told the interview committee that I also had a hidden handicap, that I knew what it was like to have something about me that I didn't necessarily want others to know about. And I knew what it was like to be judged unfairly because of having a handicap, like people with literacy difficulties. I knew that feeling of wanting to been seen for me first, and my handicap second.
Having MS got me a job I loved, and a job that has lead to so many wonderful opportunities. I have been able to break through barriers and build trust with students because I have a chronic illness. Most of my students have experienced abusive relationships, prostitution, foster care, lost jobs, broken hearts and bad luck. They relaxed and welcomed me into their lives when they knew that my life wasn't perfect either.
But it hasn't been easy. MS cost me my marriage. My husband wasn't able to cope with the unpredictability of the disease and the responsibility of being a care giver. He chose to deal with his anger and frustrations by drinking. In 1994, my sons and I moved to a little house and started our lives over again, free of the demons of alcoholism-more realities that my students could relate to. It was, in fact, their care and support of me and my young boys that made it possible to take that desperately painful step. They helped me furnish our home with garage sale finds and the loan of bed linens and kitchen pots and pans. And once in a while, during those awful first months, I would come home from work and find a pot of bean soup and fresh baked bread on the doorstep.
I have been on my own for eight years. I use a wheelchair most of the time now, but I count my blessings daily, because I am still able to write. On days when my hands are weak and I can't type, I can still write freehand. And I am learning now how to use voice activated software. Sometimes I lash out and want to know how I'm supposed to manage when I have a mind that is active and a body that won't move and cries with pain. I struggle to understand how I'm supposed to keep doing the work I feel I am meant to do, without the strength of my body to support me. I survive by reminding myself, every day, that I don't need legs to love, feel joy or share a conversation with a friend. So I carry on.
In the early 90s you wrote a book called Opening Doors. What led you to write it? How is this book related to your own life's story and to the life stories of others?
International Literacy Year was celebrated in 1990. In my literacy work (by this time I was serving on the board of our provincial literacy organization and traveling frequently) I often heard fascinating, real-life stories of people (mostly women) working in literacy, and I kept thinking about the need to document these stories.
Grant money was available for special projects for International Literacy Year so I applied for and received a grant to compile an anthology of the stories I had been hearing. I contacted people from all over the province and asked if they would write their stories and send them to me. (This was before the convenience of email!) The stories didn't come. When I contacted the literacy workers, they said that they didn't think their stories were interesting enough, that they didn't have time or that they didn't feel their writing was good enough to include in the book. Frustrated, I asked for more money so I could travel to the literacy programs around the province, interview people, tape record their stories and write them myself! And that's what I did.
The happy ending to this is that Opening Doors (which came out in 1992) as a huge success. It put our stories out there and became a bible for new literacy workers, a reference for government funders and a powerful statement of what people can do when they work together. It gave me confidence in my own ability to write (I was a published author!) and afforded me the position of story teller and historian for our provincial literacy community. I have just received a new grant to write Still Opening Doors: Ten Years Later. It's a wonderful project that will allow me to go back and speak to all the people I met 10 years ago.
The Chapters project, a literacy and writing program for women receiving government support, began at your kitchen table. What was going on in your life and in the lives of the women you worked with that made this program happen?
In 1992, after Opening Doors came out, I decided to take what I thought would be a short-term nine-to-five position co-facilitating a job readiness program for people on social assistance. I was to help the program participants find employment in our community. When the social worker handed me the client files he gave me a sideways smile and said, "These are the bottom of the barrel. Good luck." The program was called SED: Severely Employment Disadvantaged. What an awful name! I was appalled by the way the participants were treated-and so were they, because at every possible opportunity, they broke the rules, disrupted the classroom, physically fought with one another and were fired from every job I found for them.
When the program ended, I asked some of the participants if they would be willing to meet with me to talk about designing a program that would better meet their needs. We literally sat around my kitchen table and talked about simple things, like starting the program at 9:30 instead of 8:30 a.m. so they could get their kids to school and finishing at 3:00 instead of 3:30 p.m. so that they could be at home when the kids got home from school. They wanted to have one day off a week for counseling, doctor's appointments, meetings with lawyers or social workers.
The women designed the program. They recognized that before they could look at finding a job, they had to get their lives in order. They needed to have a safe place to live, get their kids settled in school, and find help to deal with their addictions. These women were prostitutes with low literacy skills, waitresses with drug habits, and third-generation welfare recipients who had given up their children to foster care. They were surviving, but not living. They felt very little hope, and yet I saw their eyes sparkle when we dreamed together about a program that would truly help them.
Most literacy programs seem to be focused on reading. The Chapters program focuses on writing about life experience. What is there about writing about their lives that encourages these women to reshape their lives?
The women in the Chapters Program (funded from 1994-1997) were able to say that they wanted to move forward in their lives, but they honestly didn't know how. What had helped me most in my life when I felt stuck was writing-even the simple act of making lists of things I needed and wanted to do. So that's where we started.
I had already put together a set of modules as a framework for our learning, but as we wrote and read our writing out loud to one another, a new curriculum emerged. As the women wrote about their lives and what was important to them (from garage sales to menopause), topics surfaced and became our focus. That's why I called what we were doing "real life literacy." We were working on basic literacy skills-reading and writing-but the women were also practicing listening, speaking, and thinking about issues that were of real importance to them and affected the way they lived their lives and raised their children. The more the women wrote about their life experiences and had those experiences validated by the other women, the more their sense of self came alive. As they told their stories they started to laugh more. They cried a lot too, but we welcomed the healing tears. They helped each other identify the courage and strength that had gotten them through the roughest times. They began to see themselves as survivors, not losers, and their stories became a celebration of life. At the end of the first year, we published their writing in a book they titled Rediscover Learning-Rediscover Life.
Writing Out Loud came next. It was originally a notebook containing the best of our writing exercises, submitted with our final report. The funding agency was so impressed that they gave us money to print 200 copies. One hundred of those books were given to all the literacy workers in Alberta. We sold the rest and used the proceeds to print more copies. (A couple of the Chapters students worked with me to fill orders. They put a map of Canada up on the wall and marked where the books went!) We sold 1000 copies this way, until last year when Grass Roots Press in Edmonton agreed to publish the book for us, with an exciting new look.
Writing Out Loud was popular because literacy workers said it helped them teach writing to reluctant or new adult writers. And because it encourages teachers to write with students, the instructors found their own confidence growing. Sharing their stories, students and teachers laughed and cried together, and learned together. The student/teacher barriers began to disappear, trust developed, and the teachers found they were able to teach more effectively.
The Writing Out Loud approach became so popular that we were being inundated with requests to do workshops and presentations. Another grant allowed me to travel across Canada in 1999 with three students, giving what we called "Fearless Writing" workshops. Our year of travel was exhilarating, but also exhausting. We couldn't possibly keep up with the demand for workshops, so the next step was to train other literacy workers from across Canada to be able to take over the work we had been doing. We developed a five-month, on-line, distance education training program and we now have 34 Certified Writing Out Loud Instructors who are having a great time presenting workshops in their regions and provinces. And now, we have put together a second book, More Writing Out Loud, which will be ready for distribution on May 15.
Where do I see things five years from now? Well, already we are working on a third of the series of Writing Out Loud books. designed for groups with special needs: youth at risk, seniors, single moms, men in conflict with the law, etc. Already Writing Out Loud groups are happening all over the country in places we never imagined-in elementary, high school and university classes as well as in various social programs. We are being invited to present workshops in the United States and Writing Out Loud has now sold in England and Australia. This year we hope to have the book translated and adapted into French so that the French communities in Canada can have access to this resource.
What I am most looking forward to right now is a wonderful event we have planned in November. During the distance-education training we did, the women from all areas of Canada (some of them very remote) became good friends. They formed a solid on-line community that is still going strong, long after the training ended. So in November, with funding from the National Literacy Secretariat, all of the Writing Out Loud instructors will meet in Calgary, Alberta, to spend five days together to celebrate our learning and to help us determine ways to create and maintain an National Writing Network.
You lead a wonderfully full life, Deborah. Do you find time for your own lifewriting? If so, how does your life writing lead back into your life. Are you changed in any way by it?
One of the joys of doing this work is that I get to write all the time. But even though with writing is my work, I still keep a personal journal. I use writing as a way to know what I'm thinking. I am always aware of and sure of my emotions, but never as clear about my thinking. When I have decisions to make, I write pages and pages to clarify my thoughts. I come at the world from my heart. I need to make sure my head gets equal time or I can end up letting my emotions take over (which sometimes leads me into trouble!)
Writing every day helps me stay focused on what's truly important in my life. I feel less stressed when I write and I feel physically healthier when I stay committed to my daily writing practice. It's like yoga for the mind! I like to follow two rules when I am doing personal writing. I always date the page. Finding old (and intriguing) pieces of writing with no indication of when it was written is like finding old photographs and only being able to guess when the picture was taken. And I always end my personal writing with five things I'm grateful for. It's so easy to write about the negative and unhappy stuff in our lives, so I've learned to balance the angers and frustrations and disappointments with a recognition of what is good in my life.
I am working now with the idea of community writing. There are so many groups in our communities who would benefit from opportunities to write from the heart-lonely seniors who need to know that their lives have been of value, or women in shelters who are sad and full of fear. The women in SCN-which is also a community-know the value and benefits of writing. Many of them write with others and know the value of sharing stories with one another. There are so many people who could benefit from the knowledge and passion the women in SCN share. There are literacy programs, and social programs where a journaling group that focuses on hope could have a huge impact on the lives of the participants (and the facilitator!) So many people in our communities don't think that their stories are important or worth telling. It is people like the members of SCN who, through their love of writing, could change that thinking. And change lives in the process.