APLA's Writers Workshop Begins Its Second Decade

Three writers -- two men and a woman -- take turns holding a huge prop pencil, as the photographer adjusts the settings of her camera.

That the writers should pose with the pencil -- a symbol of the writing craft -- for an article about AIDS Project Los Angeles' (APLA) Writers Workshop is an obvious, even corny idea. Pencils are fine for filling bubbles on SATs or scratching off items on a shopping list, but in the year 2000, computers are most writers' instrument of choice.

But the three writers are being good sports. They try to not appear self-conscious as the photographer, shooting with a rapidly diminishing supply of light, races against the setting sun.

After several group poses, each writer is then asked to stand alone with the pencil. As one of the men is photographed, the other fusses with his shirttail, wondering aloud whether he should tuck it in or leave it out.

Then the outsize prop is handed to the woman, dressed elegantly in long, black dress and white scarf. Clasped in her clutch, the pencil seems to take on a wild life of its own. It's a dance partner one moment; a Ticonderoga medium bronco the next. The woman seems outrageously at ease with her new playmate, and each member of her small audience is thoroughly entertained.

Over her career, Borger may have exhausted miles of lead, the equivalent in distance of hundreds of five-foot prop pencils.

For the past ten years, Borger has been a member of APLA's Client Services Division as the agency's part-time artist-in-residence. In addition to directing the CalArt/Alpert Award in the Arts and earning bylines in the Wall Street Journal, the Architectural Digest, the Los Angeles Times and other publications, Borger has led APLA's Writers Workshop.

Read that monosyllabic "led" as a catchall verb encompassing dozens of others describing Borger's activities in and for APLA's Writers Workshop. Verbs coming to mind include "founded," "advocated," "nurtured," "grew," "taught," "promoted," "inspired," "supported," "loved" and -- perhaps most of all -- "believed in."

In September, after ten years of leadership, Irene Borger turned over the reins to the workshop to Dan Nussbaum and John Fritzlen, former Writers Workshop participants who are carrying on the mission of their mentor while bringing their own unique gifts and creativity to the program.

The Writers Workshop does not boast the highest of profiles among programs within APLA's Client Services Division, a core of programs providing more than eight thousand people living with HIV/AIDS in Los Angeles County with food, dental care, counseling and treatment information, among other basic needs.

Indeed, someone researching the history of the Writers Workshop would stumble on references to the program as the "smallest" or "tiniest" program at AIDS Project Los Angeles. But there is nothing "small" or "tiny" about the impact of the Writers Workshop, the millions of words the program has spawned, or the almost mystical origin of the workshop in 1990.

"It came to me to start the workshop during a week of silence," recalls Irene Borger, interviewed recently at APLA with her two successors. "I was called. I heard it in my head."

It was 1989, and Borger was participating in a Buddhist retreat. The AIDS epidemic was raging throughout the United States, hitting the arts community deeply and the gay community the hardest.

Like many people, Borger was experiencing the epidemic on a personal level, having lost her yoga teacher in the early years of the crisis. Borger says that she spent the first five minutes of each morning scanning the obituaries published in The New York Times. Readers often needed to read in between the lines to detect an AIDS-associated obituary in those years, but the human cost of AIDS was undeniable.

In that environment of silence, the voice in Borger's head asked, "Why not start a writing workshop for people living with AIDS?" And her reply was "Well, why not?"

Such a workshop would combine Borger's writing and teaching disciplines. A friend led her to Louise Steinman of the Department of Cultural Affairs of the City of Los Angeles, and told her about possible funding, which resulted in launching the workshop at AIDS Project Los Angeles.

On a fall Saturday morning in 1990, the workshop met for the first time in a room usually used for support groups at APLA's Nancy Cole Sawaya Center on Romaine Street.

"There were twenty-two people at the first meeting, which was held in a big room at APLA," Borger recalls. "From that first meeting everybody wanted to write."

One group was launched in that first year. The group met weekly for three hours.

A workshop created by Deena Metzger served as a model for the structure of the workshop. The approach calls for writing during the course of the workshop session and reading during the session with supportive feedback. (Metzger's book Writing for Your Life: A Guide and Companion to the Inner Worlds was published by Harper San Francisco in 1995.)

Borger describes what happens after the door closes in a session of the Writers Workshop in From a Burning House: The AIDS Project Los Angeles Writers Workshop Collection (Washington Square Press).

"In case you're thinking that people trudge in and hunker down to draft mournful dirges," Borger wrote, "consider that they -- people who are HIV-positive or living with AIDS, and those who love, work, or live with people who are living with HIV/AIDS -- write about everything from arousal, lime-green high heels, plutonium, and the theater to, yes, morphine, warts and hospices."

Words like "passionate," "thrilling" and "intimate" pepper Irene Borger's speech when she reflects on the series of writers workshops that she led over the decade. "I can't imagine being as deeply moved by anything else," she explains.

"My goal is to try to get people to go as deeply as they can emotionally, and [to do some] wildly creative truth-telling," says Borger. "And to take risks. And to have a good time."

When the workshop was in session, "the door was always closed," Borger says. "People in the workshops felt safe, from the very beginning. I don't know why -- it's been a mystery to me -- but people have always said that."

Members of the original Writers Workshops continued to meet for nine months. Then, in June of 1991, the writers carried their work outside of the Romaine Street sanctuary when the Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown Los Angeles hosted the first public readings of work created by the Writers Workshop members.

"People were very unsure of themselves going out in public," Borger recalls. "Yet there were standing ovations at all three readings."

The reception from the arts and foundation communities to the Writers Workshop was also favorable. In future years, the program benefited from continued support from the California Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, the John M. Lloyd Foundation and the Audrey & Sydney Irmas Charitable Foundation, among other funding sources.

About one hundred and seventy five people have taken part in the AIDS Project Los Angeles Writers Workshop since its inception. That number, however, belies the impact that the program has had on the HIV community over the past decade.

Four collections of writing produced by workshop members have been published; titled Witness, the collections have been widely distributed. From a Burning House was commercially published in 1996 and remains available in book and cassette editions; the audiotape, in which Joel Grey, B.D. Wong, David Hyde Pierce and others read work produced in the Writers Workshop was even nominated for a Grammy Award in the spoken-word category. The Whitney Museum in New York featured the audiotape as the representation of HIV/AIDS in an exhibit capsulizing the 20th century. National Public Radio featured the workshop in a half-hour profile, and the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour broadcast a segment on the workshop.

Borger's "teaching the teacher" workshops, conducted over a two-year period beginning, have seeded similar writing workshops. The "teaching the teacher" training allowed about a dozen people to receive direct tutelage from Borger, which resulted in continuing workshops at other AIDS-service organizations.

And Borger's effort has spawned other writing workshops throughout the United States; Borger is aware of workshops in Albuquerque, Denver, Austin, Houston, New Orleans, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Boston that have used the APLA workshop as a model. Some of these workshops have been formed for individuals with health conditions other than HIV/AIDS, such as cancer and Epstein-Barr syndrome, and for transplant patients. Writing produced by workshop members is also being utilized in college classrooms.

"It's rather remarkable that work which touched -- and touches -- a small group so deeply has found its way into the 'big world,'" Borger smiles.

It is not uncommon to see visitors to AIDS Project Los Angeles pause to read the text on the wall in the central hallway between the dental clinic and the Necessities of Life Program.

The wall -- bearing excerpts of writing produced in the early years of the Writers Workshop -- serves as a time capsule of another era of the AIDS epidemic, a statement of the impact of AIDS and a tribute to the members of the Writers Workshop members -- living and dead -- who composed those words.

One gains a sense that Borger carries on hundred and seventy five flames within her, each one representing a past Writers Workshop member.

"Mike T. told me the workshop was the best AIDS service he received," Borger reflects. "Frank W. told his contact person at SSI that he was leaving therapy -- the workshop made him feel more whole. Three months before Victor H. died he wrote to tell me that if the writing workshop was the only thing he did all week, that would be enough. Tony G. told me he'd always wanted to become a writer and now he was. Joe H. told me his dream had been to publish a short story in a national magazine, and now he has."

Fortunately, goals of individual members of the Writers Workshop have evolved in recent years.

"In years past, each week had to be self-contained, to allow people with frail health to not 'miss' anything," Borger says. "Now we can do more progressive exercises, probe ongoing issues and deepen and continue strategies from week to week."

John Fritzlen, one of Borger's two successors as co-artist-in-residence, is writing a novel, and he is not the only one associated with the Writers Workshop doing so.

"That's a real sign," Borger says. "Before, people wrote fragments and short pieces. What began to happen was people were no longer in and out of the hospital, and feeling better, and even doing writing at home, that had not been the case before you start to get longer pieces and book-length works and also the feeling that if you're going to live maybe you could actually be a writer."

Speaking in the presence of the two new Writers Workshop leaders, Borger unreels memory after memory.

No single story quite sums up the essence of the program, but each reveals a bit. One of Borger's memories is about a workshop session in which Arthur Shafer was writing a piece about a friend's memorial service. Someone at the table broke a lugubrious mood by saying, "It's a blessing he's dead, because this outfit surely would have killed him."

As the laughter fades, Borger compares the writing emerging from the program to stories that she recalls from an old radio show that she enjoyed as a child, and still retains today.

"What I feel about stories is two things," she explains. "People's lives become images and language that go inside other people's minds. We carry each other's stories. That's what happens in the workshop, week after week after week. People who were still here and people who were gone inserted their lives inside of each other."

"People would say to me, 'Oh my God, how can you do that? Isn't that depressing?' I wouldn't say that it was depressing. Yes, it was so profoundly sad, yes, it was profoundly funny, yes, it was profoundly stunning. What I saw, every single week, people wanted to write stories that they were dying to tell, had to tell, before they die.

"There is a saying: 'Write as if your hair is on fire,'" Borger says. "Well, hair was on fire."

"I'm very sad to leave APLA," says Borger. "I feel it's been a home to me, but it is time to go."

The program she founded remains will remain in place under the leadership of co-artists-in-residence John Fritzlen and Dan Nussbaum. John Fritzlen, who leads the Thursday evening workshop, is a former teacher who left that profession in 1994, due to AIDS-associated illness. Despite bouts with Kaposi's sarcoma and cytomegalovirus pneumonia, Fritzlen sustained his commitment to the Writers Workshop, driving two hours to Hollywood each Saturday morning, and driving two hours back to his home in Palm Springs each Saturday evening.

Dan Nussbaum, leader of the Friday daytime workshop, has been a friend of Irene Borger for twenty-six years. Nussbaum, a professional writer, had the privilege of being one of the few "outsiders" permitted to visit a Writers Workshop session. Later, he participated in Borger's "teaching the teacher" program, and then went on to found a writing workshop at Being Alive. Borger says that she is "filled with joy" that Nussbaum and Fritzlen are continuing the workshops and believes that they are going to do "a magnificent job."

"These guys are my teachers," Borger declares. "They both have exactly what is needed to teach this workshop. They really know about writing from the inside, they love words, and they love stories. It's not theoretical -- they really are in it. It's in their blood, and they practice it. "They also both have the capacity to listen, to really listen deeply, to hear what's inside of something. They're really good at that."

Forging New Paths

In a recent interview at APLA, the two men seemed excited about continuing the direction defined by their predecessor, while forging new paths for the program.

The rapid pace of technological advances means that workshop members can share their writing in ways that could barely be imagined in 1990 when the program was founded. A presence on the Internet for the workshop, for example, poses "phenomenal possibilities," says Fritzlen.

The content of writing produced in the workshop is also evolving, driven by medical strides in treating HIV, both men agree. Fritzlen has firsthand knowledge of the benefits and limitations of combination therapy, and sees those issues being expressed in the workshop setting.

"There's a very important and deep question: 'What does one do with a life?'" says Fritzlen. "And how do you express that in writing?"

Variety of Experience

Nussbaum notes the diversity in HIV experience seen among workshop participants. "In a workshop like this, people who have lived with HIV for a long time can come into contact with people who have recently seroconverted," he observes. "Both groups have a lot to say to each other." And changes in location ahead for APLA will allow the workshop to be conducted closer to potential members, Nussbaum and Fritzlen agree.

In their workshops, Nussbaum and Fritzlen hope that participants will experiment with their capacity as writers and artists, and as Nussbaum says "ride the engine of creativity."

"People who don't think of themselves as writers can come into the workshop and find that they have everything they need to be writers." says Nussbaum. "The vantage that everyone has, when given voice, creates such wonderful things."

APLA's Writers Workshops, which will continue through July 2000, are open to new members when space in the workshops is available. For information about participation in John Fritzlen's workshop, which meets from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. each Thursday, call 323-993-1600, ext. 1136. For information about participation in Dan Nussbaum's workshop, which meets weekly from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. each Friday, call 323-993-1600, ext. 1038.

This article has been reprinted at The Body with the permission of AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA).