An Alpha House participant’s story written in pencil.

Most writers nowadays use a computer to write their stories. But what if you’re a homeless writer and you don’t have access to a laptop or an iPad? Then you use paper and a pen as several participants do in my memoir writing workshops.

I’ve been volunteering with the Calgary organization: This is My City (TMC) for just under a year now. TMC brings art and people together no matter what income bracket or social status. This past November I started facilitating a four-week life writing workshop at Alpha House, a shelter in the city that gives those whose lives are affected by alcohol and other drug dependencies a safe and caring home. During my workshops here we use paper and pen to write.

Writing longhand may be old-fashioned but the words still get out. In black or blue or red pen, sentences on the page are strung together to make paragraphs and the paragraphs form into the shape of a story. It could be a light story about what Alpha House participants hope for the future or a dark story about what they wish they could have changed in the past. Whatever the direction, it’s on the page.

I go to Alpha House on Tuesday mornings for an hour. In the detox centre I have between one to seven people at a time writing short snippets of their biographies. Almost all of them, except one, use a pen. Last week though, a woman used a pencil.

That’s OK by me, as long as she was writing. And she was. She wrote three good stories but didn’t want to keep them in the end. She passed her lined paper over to me and said I could have them. I put the anecdotes in a folder amongst scrap paper I collect for people who need something to write on.

Taking out the stories almost a week later, the penciled words have faded, they’re smudged. The tale is still readable but not easily. The paper looks like it’s dirty and I furrow my brow and squint my eyes as I attempt to read some of the middle lines.

The first word is clear. The only thing not blurry. I thought this was an interesting analogy to life and the paths we take. We are all born innocent babies – at the beginning of our life we are new and fresh. As we begin to grow we take on experiences, both good and bad. Lessons are learned the easy and the hard way. Some of us manage to only get a few bruises while others end up bumped and blemished and fade into the background. Like the woman’s handwriting. But her words are there, even if they’re pale and cloudy. She and her story exist. We just have a hard time seeing them and need to take a bit of extra time to decipher them.