Wonder Writers from the Heights

By Rebecca Peters
& Madeline Quasebarth

The Women Writers of Northview Heights have almost reached their peak.

After nearly two years of writing, editing and rewriting, the group is finally working towards publication.

Originally the women started out as a support group, but quickly changed direction when members started reaching dead ends.

“How many self-esteem worksheets can we do?” the women echoed.

That’s when Hudson Rush, a local artist, was asked to step in. Rush heard about the women from Oreen Cohen, who was leading the support group at the time, at a Teaching Artist Symposium at Neu Kirche. The facility, a “dynamic contemporary art center dedicated to supporting women in the arts,” according to its website, is now closed.

Rush started using art, poetry, and autobiographical nonfiction to help the women turn their emotions into concrete representations.

It is these representations that they are hoping to publish later this year.

Hudson Rush

All of the women live in Northview Heights, a Pittsburgh neighborhood of 450 apartments. Rochell Preston, a Pittsburgh and Northview Heights native, attended the support group and witnessed the transition from frustrating, cyclical conversations to productive, relieving creation.

Rochell Preston

“I stayed with the support group even though I didn’t have any common interests. We were building a canopy for the garden and I said I’d rather be writing,” Preston, 56, said.

Rush came to the group that first day and has come every week since.

“One day we’re in group and in comes Hudson. I think to myself, ‘Who in the hell is this?’ She’s got a rag tied around her head,” Preston said.

Rush’s image is distinct. Her black overalls, Beats headphones and eclectic jewelry set her apart in Northview Heights, where 93 percent of the population is African American.

In December 2015, just five months after beginning their journey together, the writers had their first reading at Neu Kirche.

For Preston, the first reading presented the biggest climb, but the view from the top proved worthwhile.

Strangers who don’t even know you are appreciative of what you’ve done when you got up there and tell your story,” she said.

The biggest climb for Rush and the members is the community. Only 64 percent of the population in Northview Heights has completed the eighth grade. Approximately 7 percent have a Bachelor’s degree.

However, Rush stresses that an education is not necessary to validate emotions.

“There are all these myths about writing: that you have to have a background in art or have gone to school. That simply isn’t true,” she said.

Preston agrees, but thinks motivation is more of a factor.

“There is a writer in everybody, but not everybody chooses to be a writer,” she said. “This community is hard to get involved in. I don’t think they chase their interest.”

Members’ interests vary. Some write to overcome personal battles, such as self-image or health issues. Others write to overcome family issues, such as infidelity or death.

Janice Henry, a member of WWNVH, appreciates the group members because they work towards resolving their issues through writing.

“Nobody acts like they’re a victim. There are no pity parties in what they write, which is beautiful because people do have hard lives,” Henry, 70, said.

Henry previously lived in Harrisburg, where she attended another writing group.

“Other poetry readings are so full of angst. [WWNVH] aren’t trying to out do one another through negativity,” she said.

Despite the efforts of Rush, Preston, and Henry, the group’s size had been dwindling for a few months. To increase interest, the group plans to have a table at Northview Heights Community Day on July 13 from 12 to 5 p.m. in the neighborhood. To share the joy of writing with others, the women created a workshop for children and adults to try writing haikus and free form on their own to combat the myths about writing.

Janice Henry

“We thought about proofreading it and helping them with spelling, but part of the misspelling is who they are,” Preston said. “But if it’s ridiculous, we’ll fix it.”

Their biggest goal is publishing Preston and Henry’s 30-to-50 page compilations of poetry and nonfiction by the end of the year. In the meantime, though, the group works on a documentary sponsored by a One Northside grant from The Sprout Fund in partnership with the Buhl Foundation.

The writers are eager to share their works with the world.

“People need to be empowered and get over their insecurities,” Henry said. “This group is a challenge for me to be authentic.”

Northview Heights Family Support building on Hazlett St. where the writers’ meet

Story Credits

Writer: Rebecca Peters
Photographer: Madeline Quasebarth
Web Producer: Will Halim

Disclaimer: the narrative expressed in the article is solely those of the author(s).
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