From Belle and Katharine Skinner, to Anna Sullivan and the factory workers, women have always been an important part of Holyoke’s history. Belle and Katharine Skinner not only built Wistariahurst but also the Skinner Coffee house, a gathering place for women workers. Women have contributed to Holyoke as workers, community leaders, activists, educators, innovators, caretakers, and many other positions in our community. We highlighted the experiences of women in both the Nuestras Abuelas de Holyoke and States of Incarceration exhibits hosted by Wistariahurst over the past year. The activism and progressivism of women will be the focus of our NEH Teaching Institute Women Making Change this summer. Women are an important part of the ongoing programs that invite our community members to share in exploring our history here in Holyoke.
This spring, we were able to provide an opportunity for residents of Holyoke and the surrounding communities to come together and learn about women through literature and writing. Twice a month, on Tuesday afternoons, Holyoke’s city museum is transformed into a community classroom where students explore the experiences of women in creative writing. Since January Wistariahurst has been hosting a free creative writing course taught by Western New England University adjunct professor Angela Sweeney. Throughout the duration of the course, students read the works of poets and authors like Julia de Burgos, Susan Yankowitz, and Junot Diaz. Students learn the foundational elements of creative writing and apply these to their own writing in workshop classes. Each individual class is designed to allow people to join in at any point throughout the course. The course runs through June, culminating in a reading for family and friends.
Whether the classroom pops up under the vaulted ceilings and marble pillars of the music room, or between the warm yellow walls of the gallery, Angela creates a space where anyone can walk through our doors and become a student. In this space, students learn to write their own stories, fictional or true, and edit each other’s work to offer guidance and critique in the process. They might start a given course with a quick writing prompt like a recent one to write a poem on the start of Spring, or they may have a specific goal to edit each other’s story dialogue with an eye to examine realism and whether the scene advances conflict. “I’m amazed by how far the writing of each participant has come in such a short time. They are all writing so differently about such different things, but all so well. It’s so inspiring to see this multigenerational group of women come together to support one another in a creative pursuit,” Angela said.
One of our students, Jo McNulty, had already begun writing her story in a course at the Holyoke Senior Center, prior to joining our class. This past week she brought a copy of the finished book, published in March, to class. Memoir of a Hospice Volunteer: A Love Story is a physical representation of what can come out of the work of classes like the ones taking place at Wistariahurst and the Senior Center. We are excited to have Jo and all the members of our creative writing course with us and look forward to providing more opportunities like this in the future.
To read more about Jo McNulty and her memoir, check out a feature article on Masslive here.