Over the past couple of years, I’ve heard Johnny O. speak about Matt Sallis often during our Thursday morning Volunteer-Biographer interviews. One day I asked John if he would introduce me to Matt so that I could interview him for our Spotlight Saturday feature. To my delight, John did, and Matt agreed.
Thank you, John, for the introduction. And thank you Matt for the gift of your time, and for all you and your wife do to facilitate healing through writing and connection.
NF: Thanks so much for your time today, Matt. I originally published a story about SAME Café last month where you teach a workshop. Our first poet for under1000skies.org, John Olander told me a little about the spoken-word open mic fundraiser your group did one night. How did that night go for you?
MS: The spoken word deal, yes! Both times John was the clutch guy.
NF: How did you start facilitating writing groups for SAME Café?
MS: The story of how I started running writing groups is a cool one. It wasn’t my intention to start a group. I had friends running a neighborhood magazine, Urban Life Wash Park, a hard copy magazine with a circulation of about 5,000 homes. I wrote an article for it once a month highlighting something interesting about serving the community.
One month I had the assignment to go and investigate a partnership between the Denver Public Library and Lighthouse Writers, a local organization. As you may know, Lighthouse is a literary hub for the homeless community in Denver. And that’s the case in many cities. They do a wide variety of classes. Writers give speeches there. The partnership with the library had to do with Hard Times Writing Workshops. The reason the library was involved is that it was also a hub.
So, the magazine sent an editor and facilitator once a week to teach a writing workshop. The format was the topic for the day. For example, “Write a super descriptive personal narrative.” And the facilitator would read an example. So, the prompt was for the folks there, and not all were homeless, just anyone having a rough time. The writers would write and, after 45 minutes, they would go around the room and everyone would read what they had written.
I said “I can I sit in. I want to write that article.” I sat in on the session, and while the writers were writing, I jotted down some thoughts of my own. I had very, very low expectations. But when people started reading, I broke out in a cold sweat. It wasn’t about knowing that I was going to be asked to read what I had written. As I listened to each writer read, I was blown away. Every piece was so vulnerable, well-crafted, heartfelt, and beautiful. I was so scared I didn’t take enough time to work on my narrative.
When I read that day, I felt nothing but love from the group. Here I was this new guy with his flailing attempt, and I felt nothing but love. I was mesmerized by the whole process. So, I joined the group, and I kept coming back, but instead of being there as an article writer, I came back as a student. One thing I was impressed with was that the facilitator always did a good job navigating the group. He worked with challenging people.
Before I did that, I had already started a blog called Sober and Unashamed where I wrote my story about addiction and recovery. It was a similar experience to many others. When I was vulnerable, most of the feedback was positive. I learned — and I try to explain this to people in recovery — “the more you talk about it or find an audience or support group or friends, the stronger you’re going to feel.”
The key is self-esteem. What I found in this writing process is that when we lay our hearts out and get really vulnerable, we get positive feedback. It’s better than a raise. When you have this kind of connection with people, you get to go deep, to be honest, and when you’re in a place where people show empathy and say, “I’ve been there too,” there’s just nothing like it.
So, in the Thursday writing group, the one with John, there are a lot of topics designed to bring people to that place of vulnerability.
NF: Do you teach how to facilitate groups?
MS: No. When I first tried to learn how to facilitate, there were very specific steps you had to know in order to work with people in active addiction. You had to be very cautious. When I started facilitating, there were times when I screwed up. One guy wouldn’t shut up. I kept trying to be polite and I lost control of the group. Most of the time, you’re creating beautiful bonds with other writers. But you can’t be vulnerable in every setting.
NF: So how many groups do you facilitate? And how did that get started?
MS: I worked with Lighthouse to try to expand the workshops. But due to some changing circumstances, I decided to leave and do it on my own.
So now I follow that same format. I do five regular workshops each week. I’d like to say it’s all altruistic, but the bottom line is, that I love it. I get so much out of it. It gives you the confidence to write your own stuff. Two of the workshops are in the City of Denver. The one at SAME Café is knowns as “the story writing workshop.”
It’s like that Brandi Carlisle song:
All of these lines across my face tell you the story of who I am… But these stories don’t mean anything when you have no one to tell them to…
There’s another group in Denver called “Housed Working & Healthy.” A lot of the folks in the group are now housed, working, and healthy. Some received culinary training. In Denver, there’s a program that gives shelter and semi-stability, and they go daily and do a training program for six weeks. Then they help them try to find a job. It’s not just about culinary training, but also about helping with mental health. So, I do a workshop there
My wife and I run three recovery workshops online. One is SHOUT Sobriety which is for early sobriety with high-functioning alcoholics. Another is “Echoes of Recovery” which is for the loved ones of alcoholics. That’s a group that has mostly been ignored. There’s not much out there besides al-anon. That group has really taken off.
Then we do “Marriage Evolution” and in that group, we bring couples together – the alcoholic in sobriety and the spouse. These couples are trying to recover their marriages and relationships. The group meets once a month. For that group, I use a different format which I learned from a guy in Vermont, “Writers for Recovery.” We do a seven-minute prompt method. It’s really quick. You sit down with a pen and paper and the prompt is something like, “A great morning when feeling good looks like this.” I use that with couples because, in some cases, one side is being dragged kicking and screaming to the group. So sitting for 40 minutes wouldn’t work. Seven minutes is doable.
What’s cool about the workshops is what you get vulnerable about, what your thing is. You make many connections. And what’s great about that and one of my favorite things is that it is the same with people I’ve known for years. They’ll hear me talk openly about alcoholism now, and they will open up and talk about their own struggles, even if it’s not about addiction. So, the connections are limitless.
Now I find if I’m in a social setting and people want to talk about the weather, I’m bored stiff because I’ve experienced too many awesome conversations to be satisfied with anything less.
I’m starting a program in September. I’m going for my Masters in Sexual Health at the University of Minnesota. It’s a degree program. It is not a subset of a psychology degree. What I have found is that our work bumps up against intimacy and gender issues and that’s where even vulnerable people clam up. I’ve learned a lot about addiction and psychology, but sexual health and intimacy are roadblocks for many people. I’ve written about sex and intimacy a lot. And people will say, “Been there, done that, but I can’t talk about it.”
I can’t learn about sexual health and intimacy the way I’ve learned other things. It’s taboo and unspoken but it’s fundamental to mental and relationship health. When we’re in addiction, we are constantly medicating, looking for that dopamine hit. Before sobriety, my relationship with my wife was transactional rather than loving. And this is a universal problem.
NF: With this knowledge, you’ll be able to help a lot of people.
MS. Yes. With group work or writing, connecting that way is right up my alley. The degree will give me insight I wouldn’t be able to learn otherwise. I’ve been a lifelong student.
NF: What is your best memory in recent years working with these writing groups?
MS: I have two memories that come to mind. The first one, I was moderating the writing group at SAME Café when our group was invited to do the spoken-word presentation at SAME’s annual fundraiser for their non-profits. The way we worked together was so cool.
Someone in the group would say “John, you should perform that piece about…” x-y-z. Or another person would say, “Use that story about your mom and the river. Tell that.”
It made me realize that the people in the group were not only there to write but that they were also really listening. If you can remember a story from six months ago, you’re a good listener.
It was fun supporting each other and pulling for each other at that event. It was an impactful moment for me, being in the group and having my fellow writers pulling for me, too. The core group is pretty much six regulars. There used to be two of us and now there are six, plus there are sometimes random drop-ins. I love the feedback. That group is one of the best parts of my week, a Thursday morning tradition. I bounce out of bed because I know I’m going to see my friends.
The second is not a memory, really. There is no specific instance, but at least every couple of months I have the realization that I am part of a group of friends that care about each other and who are working to improve their lives every week. I say that out loud in the group, too, and they agree.
I’ll give you an example. John just got an electric bike, battery-powered. The day he got it, he showed me all the buttons. He had a bag on the back with his phone. He told me about how he lost that bag, then found it again. A lot happens in everyone’s life every week. We don’t talk in between the meetings, though we’ll occasionally text in between.
People see each other at the Café, and they’ll say, “I haven’t seen you in a week, what’s going on?” I’m much closer to people in this group than to most people in my life save my immediate family.
NF: I can hear the joy in your voice when you talk about this group. That’s awesome.
MS: Everyone has made big progress in their lives. People with significant physical and emotional trauma which they have experienced recently are in the group. It’s not just about addiction. They are battling all kinds of things. Every week people are a little better. John, like every member, pours so much effort into his writing week after week.
NF: That mentality has helped me, too. Every day you’re better if you keep trying.
MS: Right. Some years ago, it stopped being about alcohol. Some people go to the same AA meeting and tell the same rock-bottom story once a week. That wouldn’t help me. I am a better father and I’m better at understanding the world because of these groups. The Thursday group – there’s really no category for that one.
NF: Thank you, Matt. Thank you for the work you’re doing in Denver and for your time today. I hope to speak to you again sometime.
MS: My pleasure.