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Attorney-student teaches writing at St. Francis House

Cheryl Buchanan, MFA ’15, likely left the community around Emerson in a better place than when she first arrived. 

As an attorney who worked with hundreds of survivors of the Catholic priest sexual abuse scandal in California for about a decade, Buchanan, formerly of the now-closed law firm Kiesel, Boucher & Larson, arrived at the College two years ago with unique perspectives and experiences compared to many of her student peers.

Cheryl Buchanan

Cheryl Buchanan, MFA '15, poses for a recent photo with a copy of Writers Without (to the right), a book she edited featuring the writing of clients at Boston's St. Francis House day shelter. (Courtesy Photo)

“I learned that when somebody had been through that [child sexual assault], silence was the norm and was something they were forced into,” Buchanan said. “The most common long-term side effects were addiction, mental health issues, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and problems with authority that could often lead to issues with employment and probably a criminal history.”

Buchanan, who in the spring obtained an MFA in Creative Writing through Emerson’s Writing, Literature and Publishing (WLP) Department, used the 2014–2015 year to launch a creative writing program for guests at St. Francis House, a day shelter on Boylston Street in Boston, which is less than one block from Emerson’s campus.

“It emulated a college writing workshop,” said Buchanan, who also teaches writing courses part-time at Emerson. “You can take writing that is valuable and…informed and bring it to a place where somebody is dealing with something very chaotic.”

Buchanan ran the St. Francis program in the Fall 2014 semester for academic credit as part of a directed study but continued it as a volunteer without receiving credit for the Spring 2015 semester.

“I didn’t feel like it was over,” she said.

Linda Dolph, who oversees the therapy programs at St. Francis House, said a creative writing program had not been in place for a long time until Buchanan started hers.

“She provided a different kind of outlet for people who might not want to do a music group or visual art,” Dolph said. “I was very happy about it.”

Buchanan said there is a wealth of research showing the benefits of bringing creative writing programs to places such as shelters and mental health treatment centers to enhance client therapy.

“For someone dealing with an isolating experience and bringing in that community connection…you understand your most unique life event is very universal,” she said. “That can be profoundly important for people.”

Buchanan’s St. Francis House program culminated with a printed publication, Writers Without Margins, of which 100 copies were printed with funding from WLP and the Graduate Student Association Special Project Award.

Writers Without Margins book cover

The cover of Writers Without Margins.

“A lot of times, volunteers get discouraged quickly, but Cheryl really stuck with it,” said Doug DiMartile, a St. Francis House manager. “Because she stuck with it, it had a huge impact on the folks in the writing program.”

Writers Without Margins includes poetry and short stories from six St. Francis House clients on a range of topics, including homelessness, addiction, prison sentences, and living with autism.

“One thing that was very enlightening to me was these were not generally sad stories,” Buchanan said. “They were really inspirational, powerful stories.

Writers Without Margins

A look at the inside of Writers Without Margins. These pages feature the work of a man who identifies as Al/Frank. 

“One person wrote about her whole experience training a service dog as an autistic adult,” she continued. “She wrote it chapter-by-chapter with humor and personality and creativity and originality. It was so good.”

As Buchanan writes the next chapter of her professional career, she is trying to form a nonprofit organization that would bring college writing students into organizations that specialize in mental health and addiction recovery to teach creative writing. She is attending writing fellowships this summer and plans to teach courses at Emerson in the fall.

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