At Poverello Center, writing workshops offer inspiration, change, recovery

Writer Barry Maxwell shares his own story of addiction, homelessness and recovery in hopes of inspiring and helping others. (Dave Stalling/Missoula Current)

Much has been written about the healing power of words. For Stephen Hayhurst, writing down his story helped save his life. 

Hayhurst is one of many who have benefited from a weekly writing workshop at the Poverello Center conducted by Barry Maxwell, a graduate student in the creative writing program at the University of Montana.

“It’s done me a lot of good,” Hayhurst said. “I write in my journal every day, and every week I get to share my stories and get good feedback.” 

Hayhurst struggled for years with alcohol and drug addiction. After leaving treatment in the summer of 2018, “broke and homeless,” as he put it, he moved into the Poverello homeless shelter in Missoula. To help stay “clean and sober,” he walked to the Mansfield Library on the University of Montana campus every morning and wrote before going back to the Poverello for lunch. Then he walked to Narcotic Anonymous meetings, then back to the Poverello to volunteer on projects such as painting and cleaning. 

Once a week, he attended Maxwell’s workshops.

Here are some of Hayhurst’s words, written last January:  

“While in treatment my journal writing became my life story. Lucky for me, Barry Maxwell and another volunteer named Amanda Wilgus, holds a creative writing workshop at the Poverello. With the Holy Spirit’s love, Poverello structure and support, narcotics anonymous guidance, Barry’s advice, and Julie’s (a librarian at the University) kindness I have been able to transfer 1,000 journal pages into a 300 page memoir.”

Now Hayhurst is enrolled at the university, working on a degree in social services. 

Maxwell, who came to Missoula from Texas, has a similar story.

“When I was living in the shelter, I took advantage of similar programs myself, and received a lot of help,” Maxwell said. “I’m sort of the poster child of what can happen when people try to do things right.”

Like many who struggle with addiction, Maxwell’s alcohol and drug use led him to some dark places. After losing his job, relationship, friends and his home, he sought help at a homeless shelter in Austin where he lived while attending a rehabilitation program. Afterwards, he moved into a nonprofit housing facility that required residents to get a job or volunteer in exchange for rent. Maxwell persuaded them to instead let him attend school to earn his GED. 

He won a scholarship to Austin Community College where he earned an associate degree  in creative writing. While there, he collected books and started a library for the homeless that came to be called Street Lit. He went on to graduate with a degree in English from the University of Texas, then moved to Missoula during the fall of 2017 to pursue his Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, nonfiction. 

He’s now in his final year of the of the MFA program and teaches fiction at UM. He was the 2018 winner of the program’s prestigious Merriam-Frontier Award.   

In May 2018, he launched a Street Lit writing workshop at the Poverello, and this past summer set up a Little Free Library in front of the center, where people are encouraged to drop off and borrow books. 

“I can’t not do this,” Maxwell said. “I can’t not do my part in the machinery of the world, and so I do what I can to help others.”

Barry Maxwell welcomes all to his writing workshops at the Poverello Center every Saturday at 1 p.m. (Dave Stalling/Missoula Current)

At his most recent workshop this past Saturday, four people attended. Maxwell provides complimentary coffee, snacks, notebooks, pens, pencils, books and an enthusiastic eagerness to share, listen and offer advice.

“Sometimes I get a good group, and sometimes nobody shows up,” he says. “We read, write, hang around or just shoot the breeze.”  

Hayhurst was there, and shared some poems he plans to work into his memoir. Another attendee, Daniel, called Hayhurst’s words “inspiring.” 

“Writing about the past can offer hope,” Daniel said. “And can help others change.” 

In one of his works in progress, Hayhurst put it this way:    

“While living at the Pov I coexist with others suffering from some form of hardship. People are here because of bad luck or bad decisions. There are people with mental challenges and people facing addiction. There are veterans struggling with the consequences of going to war. There are lots of reasons people are here but what I have learned is that we are all in this together and have to take care of each other.”