Started in 2016, Down South Word of Mouth is a nonprofit serving incarcerated veterans of Hays, Travis and Tarrant counties through narrative therapy, which helps veterans deal with post-traumatic stress disorder and transitional stress that accompanies returning to civilian life.

Narrative therapy is a method of interacting with trauma through storytelling in a way that provides distance from the subject and allows the trauma to be examined from different perspectives.

“It’s the idea of understanding that there’s a certain truth existing within our experiences, and that a story is there to help us express that truth,” said Clayton Bradshaw, a teacher with DSWM.

Bradshaw teaches creative writing to veterans through DSWM and another nonprofit, Art Spark Texas, when he is not working toward his doctoral degree.

“What it does is allow us to create some distance between us and those experiences and allow us to access it. ... It’s thinking of it as a three-dimensional picture that exists [separate from the author],” Bradshaw said. “Now, I’m evaluating it, looking at it from this outside angle as opposed to just purely looking internally.”

DSWM spokesperson Erika Mitchell said the nonprofit has worked with several hundred inmates since it was founded by Brooke Pillifant, who teaches poetry in her classes and exposes her pupils to poets and writers including Walt Whitman, Maya Angelou and Rudyard Kipling.

“After that, you try to implement their work in your own way. That’s where the therapeutic part comes in,” Mitchell said. “It’s challenging the participants to bring out their creativity, but along the lines of whatever poem they read that week.”

Bradshaw, a former inmate, said he found his path back to society through the written word.

“I was sitting in the jails at Travis County and was reading Hemingway and pulled my life together—kind of in that moment—and became a writer,” he said.

The experience of living in the shoes of current inmates, he said, has helped him connect with them and even ingratiated him. This has in turn helped him deal with the stress of returning to jail, albeit this time around as a teacher.

“It meant that I was actually making some sort of impact on somebody, and I’m bringing a degree of positivity to them,” Bradshaw said. “When there’s a degree of purpose that’s felt, it tends to—at least for me—it tends to calm my nerves and propel me into, ‘OK, this is the job, this is something that I love to do and let me transfer my passion onto them.’”