Archive for August, 2008

But prison is boring…

Posted: August 31, 2008 in prison, general, teaching

Prison is exciting and prisoners want to write about their experiences on the inside.

Consider the above statement my debunked myth #1 about what it would be like to work with prisoners. My first night at Monroe, as Gloria and I talked with the guys about incorporating writing into our program I assumed they would want to write about their journey to, from and in prison. I’ve read the collections of published prisoner writing, and I thought, if it were me and I’d been sent to prison, I would want to write about it. How else would I make sense of things?

But the guys’ reactions were strong and clear.

“I live this life everyday. I want to write about something else.”

“It’s boring in here.”

“No one out there is going to be interested in my story.”

On the ferry ride back to Whidbey I thought about my assumption that these men would want to write about being in prison. The truth was I wanted to know about their lives in prison. I wanted the details. I was interested and curious. Then the harder truth — there is something about prison that invites a certain type of voyeurism, and I was guilty. Perhaps I felt I had a right to their stories. As if now that they are “caged” they are something to be watched against their will. I realized that night on the ferry that this experience was going to be less about what I could teach these men about writing and more about what they were going to teach me about myself.

There are many reasons one might want to volunteer in prison. Ninety-nine percent of them are likely the right reasons. But a prison volunteer (more so than perhaps volunteers with other institutions) has to be constantly examing the one percent.  Why am I here? If you can’t answer it honestly (even if it changes from month to month) then eventually you are only going to get in your own way. Eventually you’ll realize you’re not doing the prisoners any good, and only taking from them what they haven’t given you permission to take.

It occurs to me that it might be important sometime early in these posts to take a moment to describe the program I work with at Monroe. My apologies to those of you who think more linearly and would have thought to post this information first.

I met Gloria Kempton (workshop coordinator and faciliator) a few years ago through the Whidbey Island Writers Conference. Somehow in conversation it came up that she was working with prisoners at Monroe. You would think I would remember exactly how we got on the topic since it’s not exactly as common as remarking on the weather, but I don’t. What I do remember is logging the information away. I don’t claim any sort of ESP or anything, but teaching writing inside a prison has always been a dream of mine. One I don’t tell many people about, but a dream none the less. So, I never forgot Gloria and when it came to set up my internship for my graduate program in creative writing I called her up.

Gloria had just started a new program at Monroe called the Hero’s Journey Workshop. Based on work done by Chris Vogler in his book, A Writer’s Journey, and on Joseph Campbell’s mythology work, Gloria was facilitating discussions with prisoners on the stages of the hero’s journey (I’ll post those in brief soon). At the heart of the program is the belief that these men, despite their crimes, can see themselves as the heroes of their own lives.

About the time I called Gloria to see if she had any need for an intern the men in her workshop had begun to ask if they could do start writing based on the discussions in the group.  Perfect timing!

The Hero’s Journey Workshop is now a writing (and hopefully soon also arts) based program, approaching story through the stages of the hero’s journey. It sounds more complicated than it is and I’ll try to be good about providing enough information here to get a good feel for content of the workhop. Anyone who is familiar with Campbell’s work on this subject will know that a hero’s journey is more of an intuitive journey than anything and most of us are living at least one stage of it every day, whether we know it or not.

So, on a given Wednesday night we begin the group by asking a question that everyone will answer. Something like, in one word describe what being human means to you? or in one word describe your “ordinary world”? or describe in a sentence a time when you had to take a leap of faith? After we go around the room gathering answers (which are always honest and surprising) we then move into the discussion of the night’s topic. Gloria brings a set of questions to help the discussion along, but once it is going it usually isn’t a problem to fill the time. These men are smart. Some I would even describe as wise. They’re smart, and they really want to understand this hero’s journey business, so the conversations are often intense and in-depth.

After we discuss the night’s topic we let the men write, asking them to work with their own stories (whatever they might be writing) and incorporate what they took from the night’s conversation. When we come back as a group anyone who wants to share what they wrote is welcome to do so and the rest of us provide encouragement, ask questions and give a little feedback. I’ll have a lot more to say about critiquing prisoner work in upcoming posts. For my fellow MFA students, it’s nothing like having the luxury of telling you everything I think of your piece at once. With these guys the goal is to keep them writing, even if it means only finding things to praise in piece.

We usually ask the men to work on expanding their story one scene at a time between our time with them. For any of them that do, I offer to take home a few pages of their work and provide them written feedback. This has been one of the most rewarding experiences of the internship so far for me (more on that later as well…sorry, otherwise this will get way too long). 

So that’s the typical evening. We start at six, or whenever the guys arrive (you run on prison-time in a prison, not on your own) and end at about 8:45 when the men have to move back to their cells. Last week we had five! new participants, bringing us to about fifteen prisoners. Word seems to be spreading through the unit that ours is a group to attend, and given that we offer them no certificate or other reward for showing up, it’s pretty encouraging for us volunteers as well.

Another world…

Posted: August 28, 2008 in prisoner writing, teaching

When I pull into the Twin Rivers Unit of the Monroe Correctional Complex I have to stop at a speaker box to announce myself.  I silence my radio, afraid perhaps that my worthiness as a volunteer will somehow be judged by any music I might be listening to. I wait for a guard in a tower several hundred feet away to welcome me to the prison and ask how he can help me. The most I ever ask is for him to tell me where to park. I can’t help but wonder if he has to keep a firearm of some kind sighted on me — just in case.

As I pull away from the speaker box and the guard’s invisible voice there is no doubt I’m leaving one world to enter another. Here my vehicle and person can be searched. Here I have to exchange my driver’s license for a red prison badge with my photo (some potential volunteers have apparently not been able to make it passed this point — having their picture and name so visible to the prisoners), which hangs vertically as opposed to horizontally as the prisoners’ do (theortically this makes me easier to identify in case of an “emergency”). I have to lock away my keys, pass through a metal detector, have my hand stamped with invisible ink which I must show to the guard at the third doors I have to be buzzed through and sit in a room trying to help facilitate a workshop while guards monitor everything we do on video camera.

There’s no doubt who is in control in prison. It’s definitely not me.

Yet I keep going back. I go back because the men in the workshop keep coming back. They come despite the fact that they have limited or no access to computers, so they have to hand write their pages. They come back despite sharing an 8×10 cell with another man who may insist on having the television on all the time so there is no quiet time to write. They come back despite silence from their family. They come back despite violence. They come back to try and understand how they can see the story of their lives differently, not only as a convicted man who has harmed others, but also as a hero on a journey over which he can have some control, if he so chooses.

These men are poets, essayists, fiction writers and memoir writers. If you ask them though most will try to tell you they are anything but a writer, and they are certainly not heros. Yet as a writer I know that it takes great acts of courage to write when no one is applauding your efforts, when the “system” (whatever it might be, we all live in one or another) does not reward the sweat of creativity and when there is no promise of any reward greater than to have the words out of your head onto paper.