Archive for June, 2010

I’ve been thinking a great deal since my last trip to the prison about how to help the guys push the borders of their writing. How to help them find new avenues to approach their stories, avenues which will take them deeper and closer to the raw emotion of their life experiences. Writing can become so academic when in the classroom, and the mysteries of “good” writing can feel even more elusive. Once I’ve learned all the rules, why can’t I still get it right? One of the new guys brought a piece to read last time, but he prefaced his reading by saying that he was more of a poet and so writing in prose was hard. He’s trying to tell a fictional story based in the facts of his crime, and I can tell he’d rather do it via poetry and I can tell that if he’d dump the fiction part of it and tell it as he feels it, sees it, experienced it, the writing would be all the more powerful.

It’s a matter of needing to write from the dark places of our lives, the places we spend time trying to avoid. And for the guys in prison I think it’s a matter of 1) not wanting to scare us volunteers 2) being uncertain that the truth of their story, the way they want to write, is important enough to warrant writing it down and 3) still being new enough to the writing process to think that there is a “right” way to do things.

Also, it seems to me that if you’ve been told that your life is a crime, and you are a criminal, it might be hard to believe that the story of that life and that crime is a necessary story to be told. Not to mention when your day to day existence is made up of following the rules, and the punishment for not doing so is severe, it might be more than a little difficult to trust that in this classroom with these volunteers the rules can be bent as long as the story is getting told.

I told the new guy–the poet trying to write fiction out of a truth that is clearly so heavy on his heart–that he should write in the way that connects him to the work. And right now, this evening, I’m combing through my poetry, short story and essay collections looking for good examples of writers who have blended two, or even all three, forms. Stories told out of linear time. Poetry that reads like prose. Essays that don’t concern themselves so much with “then this and then that” but rather “it hurt here and smelled like this and made me remember when”. Hoping to inspire him to find his own form.

Hoping to remind myself that I can do the same.

I’m one of those people who never really picks a side on things like the possibility of coincidence or the existence of divine intervention. I like the idea of surreal influences on my life, except when I’m annoyed at how such influences might interfere with my day. Today, however, I’m pleased to feel like the universe, God, the “other” is speaking to me. Okay, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but the fact that on my local NPR station this morning was an interview with Frank Meeink, author of “Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead” and this evening I’m headed up to the prison AND I’m currently working on a novel (that I’m feeling a teensy bit overwhelmed by) that features an ex-con skinhead who has been released from prison you can see why I might think that someone is trying to get my attention.

The interview (listen: is more than worth a listen for many reasons. Meeink presents himself with few apologies and few excuses, and that’s refreshing. He seems to understand how he became a skinhead (absent, abusive parents primarily, but he repeats several times that he doesn’t say that as a “sob story”, but because it’s the way it was) and he talks about his experiences with the Aryan Nation in a way that no episode of Lockup: Raw or Gangland could ever do. Meeink has been “recoverying” for many years now–both from his experiences as a skinhead and as a former drug and alcohol addict. He know teaches kids, through a hockey program, about peace and forgiveness.

What I like about this interview is that it is one more example of my belief that these sorts of stories must be included in the national conversation. Instead of writing Meeink off as a waste of humanity, instead his story inspires. And even if it didn’t inspire, even if he hadn’t “recovered”, the perspective he could/can lend to national conversations on the rise in religious extremism, racism, violence and addiction are invaluable first hand experiences. In the interview he touches on how the recession coupled with Obama’s election will of course lead to a rise in hate groups. But he talks about this reality without all the political corrections or academic jargon that so often bog down these sorts of conversations. He doesn’t call for anyone to do a study or ask for more documented research, he simply knows that too many people, in times of distress and depression, look for someone to blame. And we always blame the “other”.

“We” (the general American populace) are drawn to these sorts of bad boy turned good guy stories (and here’s to hoping that Meeink isn’t actually our next James Fry in disguise). We like to know all the juicy details about their past, and we like to be relieved that they eventually “recovered”. This gives us hope for our own lives…because our lives are typically not as bad as “that” and we can continue to believe in rehabilitation and redemption at the end. This of course is not a bad thing in and of itself, but I confess, it annoys me. What I wish is that instead of listening to/reading stories like Meeink’s with a voyeuristic curiosity, we would pay attention as if our lives might depend on what we can learn from an experience so wholly different from our own. Instead of saying, “I’m glad my life is nothing like that!” We would instead search for the intersection between Meeink’s story and our own–because those intersections are there, and where we meet one another, where we find understanding and common ground, is where the real work that needs to be done, gets done.