Reformer Profile: Matt Malyon of Underground Writing | Nations


21st April 2024

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Reformer Profile: Matt Malyon of Underground Writing

Matt Malyon is a writer, teacher, and jail chaplain living in Washington’s Skagit Valley. In 2015 he founded Underground Writing, a creative writing program serving migrant, incarcerated, recovery, and other at-risk communities through literary engagement and personal restoration.

Next week Underground Writing is releasing its first book, a selection of student work.
You can pre-order What No One Ever Tells You here.

Describe Underground Writing in 3 sentences. Describe it in 3 words.

We facilitate generative encounters with literature spanning the tradition—from ancient texts to those written in our workshops. Honoring the transforming power of the word, we believe that attentive reading leads to attentive writing, and that attentive writing has the power to assist in the restoration of communities, the imagination, and individual lives.

Three words? That’s difficult. Can I barter for four?

Raising voices through writing.

How did your own journey as a writer begin?

The call to words arrived early. My favorite book as a child was Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. I first started reading it in second or third grade. On my fourth renewal, the school librarian told me she thought it wasn’t appropriate for me to be reading at my age. I wore that book out, and smiled each time I handed it to the same librarian for another renewal.

There’s a photograph my parents took when I was four or five. I’m lying on my back on red carpet, framed in a patch of sunlight coming through the living room window in Portland, OR. Huge, white earphones nearly engulf my head. Through them spin the songs of Bob Dylan sung in the harmonious voices of Peter, Paul, & Mary. This too is how words arrived—in song. That’s where things started gathering momentum, those sweet harmonized words that—as Dylan himself said later on—could, if sung right, blow an entire army off the stage. I’d be grateful to form in my lifetime a few handful of poems that sing this way.

What personal transformations led you to found Underground Writing?

A number of events, actually. There were five deaths that occurred in my life from November 1999 to November 2000, including the suicide of a close friend, and the death of my father. Looking back, I’d say it was a period of trauma. At the time, I felt like I was drowning. I’m not sure exactly how we as a family made it through. One thing that I do know, without a doubt: writing—in part—saved me. I wrote a collection of interlinked stories in the wake of these deaths. These stories, admittedly literary in their aim, became much more important because they embodied the work of mourning. So much so, that by the end of the process I found myself surfacing. And I have realized only recently that the writing process I did at that time is similar in some ways to the process each student encounters in our workshops. Our groups write from where things are at, which for many students is a sense of immobilizing pain, and we write with a trajectory of hope.

Looking back, I’d say it was a period of trauma. At the time, I felt like I was drowning. I’m not sure exactly how we as a family made it through. One thing that I do know, without a doubt: writing—in part—saved me.

On my birthday in 2003, I watched Fog of War by Errol Morris, and midway through the film had some sort of experience. While bombs were being dropped out of planes in a scene from Dr. Strangelove, some sort of nearly palpable call occurred: I was to do something with my writing life in addition to my own writing. In 2006, I encountered Mark Salzman’s memoir about teaching with Inside Out Writers, a creative writing program for incarcerated juveniles in Los Angeles. It was a new idea to me. Things took off from there. I carried that vision through another degree program, did internships with writing initiatives situated in at-risk communities, and dreamed of what could be. In May 2015, the day after graduation, I sat in a meeting with the director of our local Juvenile Detention facility to propose Underground Writing. Things have been moving swiftly ever since, and I am beyond grateful.

What is the connection between story and restoration, between words and healing? How can storytelling change lives?

This is what I’d call a “productive tension”—a question or idea that I don’t ever fully resolve, but that drives me toward a deeper understanding and way of being. So, I don’t know if this is the connection, but it is perhaps one of them. And I will say this out of my own life, as well as what we’re experiencing in Underground Writing.

To speak our story, to tell it through writing or speaking, this helps us heal. It helps restore us. There is a power in language, and there is power in taking ownership of our narrative through the use of language. I wrote this in an essay about Underground Writing that was recently published:

In our line of work, my colleagues and I often talk about bringing life into places of death. Whatever a literal resurrection might entail, I’m learning most people need first to discover their entrapment. They also need hope, something that is in scarce supply for many of the students with whom we work. What little remains often needs to be exhumed.

We use creative writing as a shovel.

It’s hard work, but the willingness to dig is quickly evidenced in the discussions that follow our group reading of a text. And the soil, prepared by the literature, is pliant. By the time the writing prompts are finished, students—through some grace moving in language itself—have often dug down deep enough into the self to reach a grave.

This is what language does, what I’ve seen writing do. It breaks up the hard ground and begins the work at hand. The word “begin” here is important. Our aim is not only to discover a grave, but to restore, to resurrect. Writing and storytelling can do a great deal of work, but they can’t do everything. Writing changes lives. No doubt about it. Also, we need a strong and connected web of relationships to uphold us. We are in this together because we are literally in this together.

Why is it important for people who are “on the inside” to listen to the stories of people “on the margins”? What do stories told from the margins have to teach us?

If you’re honest, if you’re listening carefully, if you’re writing with clarity . . . fairly soon you begin to see that these others, what are often broadly termed “the marginalized,” these people are not as broken as one might expect . . . and I am not as whole as I unconsciously assume. We are all broken and in need of some sort of healing. So, when I hear stories from others—no matter in what demographic they find themselves categorized—I am moved toward compassion. My heart is adjusted toward the other and toward myself.

…these others, what are often broadly termed “the marginalized,” these people are not as broken as one might expect . . . and I am not as whole as I unconsciously assume. We are all broken and in need of some sort of healing.

On the other hand, if we humans are often quite similar in our inward life—the desire for love and joy, in our hopes for a peaceful life for family, etc.—we are not always so similar in our outward circumstances. What others have experienced in life, and how they have been treated, can be drastically different. I need to learn from others in this regard. They need to learn from me that I too have suffered, though admittedly in different, and often less dramatic, ways.

People who are “on the inside” need to listen to “people in the margins” because we have not always done so. We are not so good at it. History shows us this repeatedly. This is something larger than me, but it includes me. It includes many of us. We need to listen to those who are different than us so that we may recognize and honor the beauty in our differences. So that we can be moved to compassion. So our hearts can break and rejoice with those whom we encounter. We can then begin to build bridges across what seemingly divides us.

How can literature bring about justice and reconciliation in the world?

I think this is a very difficult question to answer. I will also say that this very issue remains yet another productive tension in my life. I’m always asking questions like this of myself, as well as asking them about our program. Is this making a difference? Is this changing anything? Etc.

These can be distracting questions—sometimes even veering toward vanity—if taken to the extreme (e.g., if the central question in one’s life becomes “Am I making a difference?”). That said, how art/writing interacts with the world, and how it can bring about reconciliation and justice, these are extremely important things to think through. I’ve resolved that I won’t solve these items, that they’re not questions to solve. They are questions to live. The tension holds one up, keeps one moving.

In my life, I live with a deep belief that literature does these very things via a dialogic interaction. Thinking of a poem as a living entity, as it were, I am changed as I dialogue with it. As I interact with the piece of writing, it interacts with me. As I attend, I am attended to—both by the writing, as well as something beyond the writing, something larger (and here, I admit, we edge into the deep mystery of language and art). I believe this. As I believe that we make true change in the world one person at a time, one relationship at a time.

We are not called to change the world. We’re called to be in relationship. Reading a poem, really knowing it, is often hard work. Writing one is as well. Being in relationship with other humans is hard. It’s often the most difficult and important work. And it’s transformative. As when a person interacts deeply and honestly with another human being and is changed, I believe something similar can happen with literature. I believe a person can be changed through reading and writing. Ideally, such a person goes on to work for justice and reconciliation. I’ve seen this happen. I believe and hope it’s happened—and is happening—to me.

How do you want a reader to feel when s/he finishes What No One Ever Tells You?

The writings are unvarnished, and we intentionally have not polished the pieces to a high shine. These are authentic voices. Some rise with words that aim toward the literary. Many pieces are simply poignant and honest truths, thoughts, dreams, hopes.

One ideal is for the book to nurture a deep compassion in the reader for those in their community who may have similar struggles. A deeper sense of empathy and kindness. A quote that’s been misattributed to a number of people comes to mind, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” Not sure we’ll ever know who really said that, but it has the ring of utter truth to me. I hope our book results in readers thinking along these lines.

Another ideal would be for the reader to close the book with a sense of being unsettled. By unsettled, I mean in the sense of a “productive tension,” in the way I’ve used this term in the answers above. The book contains myriad emotions. It’s brutal at points, it’s sad. It’s also beautiful, and often funny. Being in that unsettled state . . . I hope it causes people to think about how they might respond to folks in their own communities who are in similar situations.

Finally, I hope people take some action, particularly those readers who are also writers and teachers. Specifically, I hope a number of people think about doing similar types of writing workshops in their own communities. I love talking about this, but I also hope to help mobilize people through an initiative called One Year Writing in the Margins. It has this specific goal in mind: Inspiring people to do similar work in their own communities with an existing writing program, or—if there isn’t a program—starting one. Interested folks can visit the initiative here:

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