It’s nearly ten on a Thursday morning, and I am sitting with eight other people in a spacious, window-lined room at New York City’s AIDS Service Center (ASC). A mural behind us depicts dozens of fortune cookies, each revealing the same fortune: survival. As we wait for a weekly creative writing workshop to begin, I leaf through ASC’s literary magazine and find a poem by a writing-group leader, Ruth Bryant; it’s an elegy to a beloved ASC client who died. The poem begins with what sounds like a cliché—“Into each life some rain must fall”—but then conjures and captures unimaginable grief: “The ceiling of ASC vaporized / The vapor became a tremendous deluge.”

For those attending ASC’s workshop, many of whom struggle with addiction, abuse and homelessness along with HIV, the ceilings and floors and walls of their lives, the bounds that provided grounding and safety, are gone. Now, they’re reconstructing their worlds word by word. The workshops typically begin with the reading and discussion of a poem; participants then write for 20 minutes. The poem offers a point of departure, leading to original and unexpected expressions.

On the day I attend, we read “A Qualification: Pat H.” by New York poet Joan Larkin. The poem’s speaker, recalling an alcoholic binge, says, “It’s a miracle I’m here to tell you this: / all those years I tried to be dead.” After two participants read the poem aloud, we discuss the first stanza, which describes the lure of rock bottom: a bathtub in which the poem’s speaker sits and drinks yet never bathes.  

While this stanza fascinates me, the group prefers the next one, with its -startling epiphany. “One day I sat looking at the glass in my hand,” Larkin writes, “and I knew. It was that sudden.” One of the workshop’s most vocal participants, a thirtyish woman, says of the poem’s narrator: “She’s talking about the madness she was in, but then something somewhere deep in her changes.” For workshop members, the epiphany reflects their own: With dependencies overcome, -physical and emotional health are now -suddenly a possibility.

“The group is really about building self-esteem, self-expression, self-management,” says Brenda Starks-Ross, ASC’s executive deputy director, adding that many members become mentors to clients facing addiction or HIV.

A new member, who asks to be identified as L.L., says she got her HIV diagnosis two months ago and is struggling with disclosure and confidentiality. Her neighbors, she says, would “treat me like a piece of dirt” if they knew. She recites the poem she’s just written, called “Change.”

“Isn’t it funny the way life can change in the blink of an eye?” she reads. “Family- gatherings have changed too—more or less due to birth or death.” But like Larkin’s recovering alcoholic, rising from her bathtub, L.L. is learning to live instead of waiting to die. Writing about HIV, she says, “helps me know that, yes, I have to deal with it.” She adds that the workshop and another support group are the only places where she talks about being positive, but she plans eventually to disclose to others.

The group’s members have had to get to where they are alone. But where they are now—this sunlit room filled with others who understand their words—is, for many, a first step toward good fortune.

Writing workshops can benefit anyone with HIV. To find a group near you, search’s local ASO directory.