If you knew he wrote it would you read it?

Posted: March 22, 2012 in prison, general, prisoner writing, story, teaching, The Hero's Journey Workshop, writing
Tags: , , ,

The last two classes at the prison have been focused on publishing. For prisoners, the want to see their work in published form is no less of a desire than it is for the rest of us still waiting to officially and professionally move into the class of “emerging” writers. Yet, the barriers to their goals are significant. No access to the internet means no electronic submissions, no ability to research current contests, submissions guidelines or current information on agents. Everything they have access to is outdated–Writer’s Digests from 2008, if they are lucky. They have no ability to create a Word document and send it to anyone as an attachment. Most of them cannot afford to purchase a typewriter, and even if they can, a typewritten page now a days only gets you so far. Entering contests requires money, and as many of us know those fees have only risen in recent years. A $10 entry fee is a half a month’s salary for most of the guys’ in our group–we asked. Despite all of that we have spent two full evenings walking them through the process of what an agent is and what they do, what an editor is and what they do, what a query letter is and the difference between submitting nonfiction proposals and finished fictional work. We’ve covered literary magazines, and talked about e-books and self publishing.

Yet, the most pressing question, the one they won’t take our word for, is whether or not, if they were to say publish a novel, if you as a book buyer and reader, saw in their author bios on the back covers they had or were currently serving time for violent offenses of whatever nature, would you still buy the book or would you put it back on the shelf? Why or why not?–they really want to know. Does it matter what the content of their work is? That is, if they are writing a a novel about prison are you more likely to buy it than say if they have written a young adult novel about a zombie apocolypse (as one of our guys has done and it’s quite good)? Are readers only interested in true stories by prisoners about prison, or can a prisoner write something else and still be trusted by a reader? Does the background of an author matter to you at all as a reader? Why or why not?

The guys asked if I’d be willing to ask these questions of my readers here on the blog, and so I am. If you are so inclined to respond, not only would I appreciate it, but I promise they would as well. And they don’t mind honesty, I promise. I will share any responses I receive, but will remove any identifying information (name, email address, etc).

All writers doubt anyone will care about what they’ve written, and most of us experience moments of doubt about whether or not we even have the right to write what we do. Who are we to think we are more of an expert on anything than someone else who clearly is? Yet, prisoners are already doubted in most ways on a daily basis. In prison, they are labeled manipulators, liars and cheats no matter how hard they are working at their own rehabilitation (given that the prison system no longer focuses on rehabilitation, only punishment). Out of prison, they are ex-cons not to be trusted–not with a job, not with housing. Do we trust them to tell us stories?

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Comments
  1. Cindy Zelman says:

    This is a fascinating question. I would buy such books because it would be so interesting to read an author who is not “free” as most of us are, meaning we are free to get up and walk around, and go about our lives pretty much as we’d like. They aren’t. I’d be interested in reading accounts of what it’s like to be in prison, memoir or fiction. We only know what it’s like to be in prison from non-prisoners who write or make movies. So, what’s it really like? I’m sure the prisoners write about many topics, as we all do, but the experience of prison from a prisoner would be one that interests me.

    I think it’s a shame that the writing resources are so scarce for these men. I know they’ve committed crimes, but if they are truly trying to rehabilitate themselves, writing is one way that could lead to such rehabilitation. Of course, as you say, prison is now only about punishment.

  2. Laura Elizabeth says:

    I’m trying to formulate my thoughts, so forgive me if I ramble a bit. I initially thought, “Why would I care if my writer is also a con or ex-con? I KNOW ex-cons. I like these guys. I don’t hold a criminal record against a person.”

    But then I had this rather different thought:

    When I was in high school, I was briefly stalked by an elderly but still physically imposing man who was, a short time later, given a life prison sentence after being convicted of the felony rape and murder of a young woman decades before. Though they could not prove it, it was suspected that this young woman was not his only victim; during the time that other young women had gone missing and been found similarly, technology didn’t exist to implicate anybody for the crime. During this period, I was never home alone. I spent months as a teenager under constant supervision, either staying at school until 5pm when a parent could pick me up, or riding with my mom’s boss’s wife to my mother’s workplace to work there until it was time to go home. Until he was put in prison for life, I lived in genuine fear, knowing that I’d been followed by someone who wished me harm, that I hadn’t had the savvy to notice it myself, that I had been in actual danger in supposed safe places like my home, my school, and the homes of my friends. My actions, appearance, and routines were documented and remembered. When I found out recently he’d died in prison, my reaction was, “Good. Fuck that evil bastard.”

    Clearly being happy an old man had died while incarcerated doesn’t line up well with my laissez-faire approach to other people I’ve known who have served time. So I guess my first caveat is, “I would totally read a book by a *non-violent* offender. Absolutely.”

    So here’s where it gets more tricky in my head: I thought about how I tend to enjoy books with a strong female lead overcoming obstacles. And I had this brief glimmer of thought: would it be different if I knew that the author of these stories about strong females overcoming oppressive forces… were written by men who had violated and/or murdered women? And the thought I had niggling in the back of my mind was, “How could I know that it was ‘just a story’ when it could be the systematic psychoses of criminally violent men, finding yet another way to dominate the life/behavior of a woman [albeit a fictional one]? If he writes a scene where characters are hurt… does he ENJOY writing it? Does he get off on literary murder?”

    The next question was, “Does it matter?” I mean, wouldn’t I rather that people with violent tendencies exert control over others through the literary manipulation of imagined people? And aren’t all writers kinda screwed up anyway? I mean, in my most current work I’ve got two women forcing a miscarriage on another woman; I’ve got murder, suicide, cannibalism; I’ve got removal of flesh, burning with fire, drowning, slow torture. I’ve gone dark as midnight in this book. But in a book about redemption, god knows you’ve got to have something worth regretting.

    They say to write what you know, but I like stories that are kind of dark, kind of twisty. Wolves eating Grandma, talking innocent girls into bad decisions. But I also like to think that these things are imaginary only. I like to think that the dark twisty things writers write come from the darkest recesses of their imaginations: they write things they can imagine, but can’t imagine DOING. I dislike the idea that a writer might be chronicling things they would actually act upon.

    And yet, I like memoir. I like travel writing. I like fiction that lurks suspiciously close to reality.

    So where in this is the supposed line? When do I stop appreciating the authenticity of writerly authority, and when do I start saying, “No. It’s too much. I don’t want to know this. I don’t want to think this.”? Do I stop approving of stories when they make me uncomfortable? Does the identity of the author really make a difference to the integrity of the story?

    Part of the answer, I suppose, is, “I don’t know.” I’ve never believed in censorship. I don’t think there should be a universal line in the sand of who should and who should not have a voice. There can only be personal limits of what we can bear to hear at any one time.

    So I guess my personal answer is, “If an incarcerated man or woman is writing the kinds of books I like reading, I’ll enjoy reading them. And if they’re writing the kinds of books I don’t want to read, I won’t buy them. But they should write anyway, and if they can get published, they should. Because SOMEONE will want to read their work, either in spite of, because of, or oblivious to the fact that they have committed crimes.”

    And that’s basically my same philosophy on ANYBODY’s writing: write because you can. Somebody wants to read it, even if that somebody isn’t always me.

    Sorry for the ramble. I hope it at least makes sense. Even if it doesn’t, it’s honest nonsense.

    • islandwriter says:

      Laura,
      I really appreciate your comment. It’s not nonsense and it is honest. It’s going to spark good discussion up at the prison next time. And yes, they are concerned that if they write violent scenes/stories–even if the scene comes only from their imagination and is not based on their actual crime–that readers will have concerns much like yours–are they playing out their violent tendencies through writing? In my experiences with our group (all be it a limited number of individuals out of a very large prison population) the men tend to shy away from violence or else write fantasy/sci-fi so as to take any violence out of reality. The violent scenes/stories tend to be them writing personal stories about their experiences so you know right away it is true and so in some way that helps. And often they are writing those stories in an attempt to understand what they did better, to hold themselves accountable publicly to the group and to, my opinion, work toward some self-forgiveness by putting the truth down on paper. More often what I see is overly idealistic writing–writing about love (which many of them have little experience with), about dreams and dream worlds where everything is better, good memories from their childhoods (if they have them). They live, eat and breathe violence, or the threat of violence, every day–often times they want to dwell in positive space in their writing…and then I’m the one telling them they have to try to push themselves to write toward what is difficult to write. The men who have pushed past only writing “nice” stories and poems are starting to produce some of the most moving work in the group to date.

      At any rate…you gave me lots to think about here, and I know the my students will appreciate your candor and it will lead to an interesting discussion. I’ll try to remember to come back here and update you on the conversation.

      All the best,
      Erika

      • Laura Elizabeth says:

        Thanks, Erika. I’d appreciate if you do let me know what they have to say, once you see them again.

  3. Kimberly says:

    The background of a writer doesn’t matter too much to me. I usually pick up a book based on title and read the synopsis. If it sounds good, I’ll take it. Sometimes I’ll flip to the author bio, but usually only if I’m getting non-fiction and I want to read the author’s background to make sure he’s knowledgeable about the subject. I can’t see why a prison background would matter at all in non-fiction. Actually, it adds a bit of intrigue and I’d be impressed that the author used her time in prison to write. So please encourage your students to keep writing and to keep an open mind about potential readers. If the story is good, the author will earn the readers respect.

    • Kimberly says:

      Oops. I meant “I can’t see why a prison background would matter at all in fiction.” guess I should have edited my comment!

    • islandwriter says:

      Thank you Kimberly. Earning a readers respect with good writing/good storytelling is essential. We have talked with them about that repeatedly. It will be helpful for them to know that someone else thinks the same besides their teachers 🙂 I appreciate you taking the time to comment.

      Best,
      Erika

  4. Melissa J. Varnavas says:

    I think your statement: “All writers doubt anyone will care about what they’ve written…” is the real point, here. They are just words on a page if you’re a writer, brushstrokes on canvas for a painter. The truth is no one cares. But you do. As the creator of the work, and owner of thoughts, you care. And pushing your work out into the world is the writers way of connecting with it. Of coming to appreciate our own value in this crazy life. Would I buy a book written by convict? Of course, if I was interested in the content and it was well written.
    http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/08/from-prisoner-to-poet/7639/
    http://www.pbs.org/now/shows/322/prison-poetry.html
    There’s a really famous one that I just can’t think of off the top of my head. I remember reading him in conjunction with Robert Bly. If I come up with the name/information I’ll let you know.
    Success need not depend on your past but on your dreams for the future. (Wow, must have been the morning walk made me so idyllic.)

  5. I have mixed feelings about it. If a violent crime was involved, I would want proceeds from the book to go to the victim’s family. I also might be reluctant to buy the book, if I thought money was going to someone who purposely caused great damage. On the other hand, I’m very interested in what life is like for prisoners, and of course I do read this blog on a fairly regular basis. Just the things you wrote surprised me: They don’t have access to the internet? They can’t send attachments? The small things I take for granted every day are denied to prisoners?

    We often hear people say that prisoners have it “easy” in prisons, with internet access, cable TV, workout rooms, etc. That is certainly not the feeling I get when I read this blog. Simply being denied the ability to go outdoors and drive somewhere would probably kill me. So I am interested in reading these stories and finding out more about the lives of men and women who are imprisoned. If there were a book of short stories written by prisoners, I would probably buy it, though I’d want to know where the proceeds are going. Do I think people who write should be paid for their efforts? Sure. I’m a writer. I get that. But I have a problem (emotionally) with my money going to someone who may have done something heinous. (If you’re wondering if I check out the background of other authors, I’d have to say no, I never do that.)

    Sorry if this is confusing. I hope parts are helpful. I encourage all writers to write write write, even if you have to use notebook paper and a pencil.

    • islandwriter says:

      This is a great comment, thank you. The issue of earning money off their writing is a concern I think many people on the outside would share (myself included, in all honesty). My understanding is they can’t earn money off of anything related to their crime. So, for example, they couldn’t write a memoir on their crime and profit from that. I’m not sure about if they write a novel or a short story that is not related to their crime however. Something for me to research for them, so thank you again for bringing it up. It will be interesting to discuss further with my students as well. My guess is they will fully understand a readers reluctance to think an individual who committed a violent crime and wrote about it is now profiting off it in anyway.

      And, yes, the myth that prison is “easy” is just that–a myth. There are no luxuries about being locked up. There really aren’t.

      Thank you for taking the time to comment.

      Best,
      Erika

  6. D Cornwell says:

    Umm, sure, maybe,

    The problem is my tastes are not really representative. Plus don’t all writers have to go through cycles of putting themselves out there and risking rejection?

    I mean, given my book budget (hah!) unless the thought is self-publishing, the more insteresting question is, would an agent work with it? Do you have agents you can ask?

  7. Mike says:

    I am a former inmate, and I am a writer. I was privileged to sit under the tutelage of this blog’s writer. If I may offer some thoughts, I will try to keep them brief (famous last words). It’s a good exercise for me to limit my words because I’m a storyteller. My response is to the inmate writers – how they can win an audience.

    In all great stories, the protagonist must experience a change. It’s not a journey if there’s no growth, no new insight, or no change of heart. And it’s not an adventure if there’s no conflict or pain.

    Therefore, my challenge to the inmates is this: Are you sharing your story of change – or are you just telling your side of the story? A man who wallows in self-pity and blame-shifting will find no pity and receive only blame. But a man who has traveled a road of destructiveness, faced his demons, and has returned with a remorseful heart will not only find an audience but, perhaps, forgiveness.

    I would say to them, “Write about your story if you have experienced a change. You will have an audience who will listen. But if you haven’t experienced a change, then your story isn’t finished yet.”

    • islandwriter says:

      Mike,
      Thank you. Your words, wisdom and insight will mean a lot to the guys in the group. I will share your thoughts with much pride in how far you’ve come and how hard you’ve worked to get there, as well as with much respect for all you also have taught me.

      Keep writing (as you know I love to say!).

      Erika

  8. Nicole says:

    Hi there,

    I stumbled across your blog and noticed your work with prison inmates. We at UC Denver are looking for inmates who are interested in being published in our poetry magazine. While it is not the hugest publication it makes it across the US and in Canada. We are curious if any of the prisoners you work with might be interested in submitting a piece to be published. There is no cost to enter beyond the stamp and the paper needed to submit the poem or creative writing. We also include others on the list to receive the publication. Art is welcome, too. If you think you know someone(s) who might be interested then please let me know! The link to our publication is as follows:

    http://prisonjusticeproject.org/capturedwords/

    I hope this sparks your interest!

    Thank you for your time,

    Nicole Palidwor

    • islandwriter says:

      Nicole,
      This is fantastic. I can certainly think of several our students who have work I would encourage them to submit. I will bring your information with me when I go to the prison next week. And I’ll spend some time reading your past issues so that I’m more familiar with what you are interested in. Thanks for reaching out, and best of luck with the magazine. What a great service.

      Erika

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