Posts Tagged ‘story’

I am an advocate for my students’ truth. I accept any story they want to tell–whether about fantastical worlds with fantastical characters, poetry about their memories and longings for the outside world or personal essays about their crime, their past, their family. It is typical to receive more of the former than the latter. Not surprisingly, men who have years, if not decades, to think on where they came from and how it is they came to be in prison aren’t always eager to spend their writing time on the same subject. Writing to many of them is escape, not a tool for therapy. They want to look out, forward, beyond. Not back, inward and to what is real. Real is concrete, barbed wire, custody officers, family who doesn’t visit, friends who no longer write. Real is not just a tough childhood, but a childhood most of us (and the movies) can’t imagine. So, I don’t push for the real, for the personal. But when there is an opportunity to encourage an exploration into the real, I do. Gently. With no expectation. And more often, with a warning to myself. Be careful what you ask for, Erika.

These men, when they decide to tell the real, tell the truth. They have stories locked inside hurt, locked inside pain, buried under trauma, wrapped with neglect, abuse and abandonment. When you ask for those stories you have to prepare yourself. What they give you will be real. What they give you has been waiting to be told. It is raw, but it is also polished from years of their own turning it over and over in their minds and their hearts. What they give you will surprise you even if you think you know what to expect.

I have gotten better at not being surprised, and better at protecting myself from these stories. Better at not seeing a student as solely a victim when he gives me a part of his story I did not know before. Even he knows where he comes from and what he has been through does not excuse what he did to be where he is now–behind bars. But it does shed some light, and it does evoke empathy. It does remind me, every time, we are not a moment of shitty decision making. We are a lifetime of circumstances. Some we chose. Many we do not. Some of our own doing. Many we had no control over. I read these stories and I simply breathe them in. Allow them to exist. Share them in creative space and time, which many of us know can also be healing space and time. Words to the page do not undo a past. Nor do they right it. They do however give it a place in the world. A rightful place.

The following piece is from one of our younger students. He might be twenty-one. He is hilarious, with a wicked sarcastic sense of humor. He talks fast, but he is thoughtful. He is writing a story–mostly true, but he calls it fiction–about his drug experiences and many attempts at sobriety. Out of that story, came the following piece, which is all true. He gave me permission to share it here.


Father of Mine
by J.W.

Father of mine, tell me where have you been… [Everclear]

Well, Dad, I know where you have been. I don’t know all the details, but I know some. I met Johnny. He married Mom a couple years ago. He explained why he killed you. He said when he met you he thought you were an intense guy. You had a look about you, like you were always on edge. Johnny told me you had a big heart, that you cared deeply for your friends and that was part of the reason you were so dangerous. Your heart got broken and you started beating up Johnny’s friends. He thought you had a knife (he said you usually did) and he shot you when you attacked him. He was afraid you would kill him, so he took your life.

Mom says I look like you–tall, blonde, blue eyes and lanky. My hair is shorter than yours. Yours went down to your butt. I don’t have your crooked teeth (except my bottom teeth). Mom is thankful I don’t have your beak of a nose. Since you died five months before I was born, we never got to meet. So let me fill you in…

At age two I went into foster care with my half sister, Jordan. Mom had/has a drug problem and she couldn’t take care of us. Your father doesn’t believe I’m yours, so I didn’t have much contact with your side of the family.

Foster care was rough. A lot of horrible things happened to me then. Like you, I found refuge in drugs. It was a pastime and a hobby. Something to numb the pain, and generate profit through middle and high school.

I pissed off some people through my drug deals and ended up in adult jail at sixteen. It got worse. I got out and got my parole revoked because of drugs. I went to prison. Dad, I hurt people, but I didn’t usually mean to. I just made dumb decisions. But enough about me.

Is it true you knew you would die young? Only a couple of months after your twenty-first birthday didn’t you predict before you turned twenty-one you would die? You were only a couple of months off. You were born in late February. A Pisces. I am a Scorpio. I’m sure we would’ve gotten along great.

Dad, there are those who say I should hate Johnny. That I should’ve killed him to avenge you, but there’s already so much hate in this world. I forgave him. Before he ever gave me his side of the story. I forgave him. I was nineteen, and he contacted Mom and she gave me the number. I cried because I never got to know you. My life could’ve been different if I had.

I figured that it had been nearly twenty years that it ate at him. If I were him I would hope for forgiveness. So I gave him what I could to ease the burden. I hope you don’t mind, but I felt it was the right thing to do. He’s a nice guy. I have love for him.

Dad, I want you to know I don’t hold anything against you. Not your lifestyle, not wanting an abortion. None of that. Being around the age all of that happened to you, I can understand how you felt. Even though we never met, I love you Dad.

Love always, your son.

P.S. Hey, Dad, you may have noticed I was named after you. I’ll make you proud.


A member of the Granta magazine team sent me the link to this piece recently published by Granta:

The piece is short, but also directly powerful. Honest. Unafraid of the prison powers-that-be that might read it (an issue I struggle with here on the blog and as I consider writing more formal pieces for publication). I was drawn to the phrases “air of infinite weariness” and “oppressive lethargy” because they are accurate descriptions of the mood that hangs over any prison complex. McConnell is right, you feel it as soon as you step onto the prison property (and you feel a sense of desperation to fight against it, to wake up the men you meet). A blanket of deep tiredness. Within the prison there are certainly men who fight against such lethargy and weariness (we had several in our group). The institution itself seems to promote it, preferring indifference and sluggishness on the part the prison’s residents (and maybe one can’t wholly fault the institution for this promotion as imagine trying to “guard” hundreds of motivated, inspired, and determined men).

I sympathize with McConnell when he writes, “For some reason I’ve always got along with social castoffs, not the people who nuture their marginality into some marvelous and fecund inner freedom, but the people who can’t: the damaged, the uneducated, prisoners, run-of-the-mill criminals.” I too am attracted to work that brings me into contact with people who seem to have the longest hills to climb to make something of their lives (“make something” as defined by who and against what standards I still don’t know). I am not yet as cynical as to believe that there are people who “can’t” as McConnell writes. I still believe at least one or two of the men from our program will succeed upon release. But I’ve certainly met people who “can’t” or “won’t” and I am equally as fascinated by their stories as I am by those who are struggling to prove they can. These relationships with people who have been written off–prisoners, specifically–make me ask so many questions: what makes a life? what makes a productive day/week/year? where does ambition come from and if you don’t have it, do you miss it? can you choose not to give a shit? about laws? about others? about yourself? and if you answer yes, are you lying? I think we consider prisoners easy to define–simple, uneducated, anti-social and not interested in playing by the rules–but I argue that to be so is in fact to be strangely complex…baffling even. Perhaps because I didn’t have to struggle nearly enough growing up, and now in adulthood have still managed to avoid the worst of circumstances visited upon others, I am drawn to “the damaged” not the way a passerby rubbernecks at a car accident, but the way a student, preparing for an exam she is certain the teacher (life) is going to give, desperately searches for answers to questions she can’t possibly know until the test actually lands on her desk (by way of tragedy, illness, death, violence). I feel the men in prison know things I won’t ever learn without them, important things, survival things. Perhaps that is McConnell’s fascination with “social castoffs” as well. Thrown out of the larger, socially acceptable, law-abiding (depending on your definition) tribe, who are these “castoffs” and what unique knowledge do they take with them when they go?

We’re not going back to the prison. At least not anytime soon. I have known this for over a week now, but writing about it seemed to make it too real, so I’ve shied away. We have been told that all non-religious programs, such as ours (though I’d argue we are a soulful program, a heart-mending program, an imagining the self in a new better light program…but that doesn’t seem to count) will have to submit our programs to the Department of Corrections again for review and possible reinstatement. They will select those allowed to return based on the program’s relevance to the DOC’s Strategic Plan (a plan I need to look up), but the reality is that the security and procedural changes taking place as a result of the murder which happened in the prison chapel almost three months ago simply means there will be fewer custody officers to staff volunteer programs. So, programs must be thinned to a new manageable number.

Much like knowing you are one of the smallest, less athletic kids standing in the lineup waiting to be picked for a baseball game during recess on the playground, it is hard to realize that despite the power of our program’s will and spirit (and effectiveness, in my personal opinion) our chances of getting picked as anything but an alternate are slim. We are not Alcoholics Anonymous. We are not an anger management class (you should hear what the guys say about the effectiveness of those classes!) or a nonviolent communication class (though perhaps we can argue we are the latter…pen to paper is not pen to the side of the neck…doesn’t that count as promoting nonviolent communication?). We don’t offer GEDs, technical degrees, bachelor’s degrees.

Writers always have a difficult time qualifying their work. The hours spent quietly putting pen to paper (in the case of the men at the prison…few have access to typewriters or computers) with months and months passing without a final product to show for it. The transformations that take place between the soul of the writer and the story on the page are difficult to describe. What you learn about yourself, your story, your understanding of the world, your interest in questions larger than yourself, how you change, what your characters teach you, what you want your characters to learn so that you can learn as well…these experiences are hard to put into words others, non-writers, understand (despite their valiant efforts to try). Despite the fact that the stories we are told and the stories we tell ourselves shape our lives, it can be difficult to get others to understand that when you help someone relook at his story, write it from a more honest perspective than perhaps he’s ever told it before or encourage him to write about the parts no one has ever asked about before you help to change him…in most cases for the better. The changes are subtle. A man who never talked in class and rarely completed assignments starts to bring 5 to 6 pages at a time asking if I’ll take them home and give him feedback. A man who has never talked about his abusive father writes a piece of prose poetry full of deep pain and childlike requests for love. A man who considered his crime “not that big of a deal” writes a story from his victim’s perspective and understands for the first time. Can I say with any certainty that any of these things will lead to a greater chance of any of these men not reoffending when they are released—not with any real authority (I’ve learned to try to stop predicting the behaviors of human beings—whether locked up or free). But is chance of recidivism the only marker we can use to determine whether a program has value, whether it is making change?

I will continue to write about our absence from the prison (as if I have a choice at the moment). This weekend we are filling out our “review form” on our program, which we just received Friday. Supposedly the prison will start reviewing these forms in early April. I’m preparing myself for a long wait before we hear anything from them—positive or negative. I don’t know how to prepare for being told our program wasn’t selected. Maybe it won’t come to that.

At the prison we teach the hero’s journey. I am now reminded that I’m on my own journey with this work. Everything has always gone so smooth for me at the prison, perhaps I should have expected an obstacle, a challenge, a conflict to arise sooner rather than later. It is the conflicts that make stories interesting after all, right?

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.

Three times yesterday I was asked, “Why do you do this work?” Or some variation of that question. The final question came at the end of our time at the prison. One guy who had been particularly quiet for the entire night took me aside as we were packing up to go and said, “I know there’s the feminine thing of wanting to help, but I still can’t figure out why you guys would want to spend your time up here with us.”

This isn’t the first time one of the inmates have asked this question. Typically, it comes from a place of wanting to know if we have an agenda. Motives, other than what we say are the goals of our program, for spending time at the prison. Some guys want to know if we are just there to collect their stories to use for our own. Some guys simply have a hard time understanding why, out of all the volunteer projects one would take on, anyone would choose working with inmates. Others have had experiences with volunteers who come in and are demeaning, disrespectful, judgemental and shaming. But when I was asked by this man last night I also wondered if the question has anything to do with their own ability to forgive themselves for their crime. Meaning, if their shame is still too great, perhaps it is difficult for them to accept that we might actually be there for no other reason than we choose to be. For this man, he told us about his young daughter who he never gets to see. So, I wondered if his family has rejected him how that plays into trusting that someone might not reject him — particularly someone who doesn’t even know him.

It is true that in order to go into the prison we have go in with a certain mindset. One that allows us to either see beyond the crimes in the room, or if that is difficult, which it is at times, to not let the impact of learning about a crime deter us from our efforts. The same guy who asked me the question about why I come to the prison, also said, “Despite what these guys say, it’s still prison, you know?” By which I think he meant that when the guys come to our group we see one side of them. He was reminding me that they are all there for a reason, and it’s not just because they are misunderstood. But most of the guys in our group would agree with that statement. They too are trying to reconcile the part of them that is capable of committing whatever crime they are serving time for with the part of them that is still a good human being, a creative individual, a father, a son, a reader, a spiritual man, etc. I watch their internal conflict with all the pieces of themselves play out over the course of our time there. They talk about what led them to prison and then talk about the struggle to serve their time in a way that will leave them better off when they came in.

This guy read me a quick piece of writing before he left, in which he referred to the death of his brother. Because the custody officer was calling for the inmates to line up, and because we don’t ever want to throw the prison off their rigid schedule, I did not have time to do anything but listen to his piece, tell him it was good and wish him a goodnight. This is the hardest part for me about my time at the prison –there’s never enough time it seems to say, “I’m sorry about your brother. What has that been like for you?” Or, “I’m sorry you don’t get to see your daughter. What is that like?” They disclose these painful moments from their past, I get to glimpse a piece of their story, and then we have to say goodbye. It’s difficult.

What I wish I had time to tell him is that I come to the prison because of stories like his. Because I care about the “rest” of his story. The part that doesn’t show up in his DOC file. The part that most others won’t ask about. I believe that all stories deserve to be heard, the full story. So, I keep coming in the hopes that, over time, they’ll be able to share their story — their full story — even if it only comes in small pieces, rushed at the end of an evening and meant to test whether I’m really there for the reasons I say I am.

A fictional piece (draft) inspired by work at the prison.

23 Hours
for s-

The situation: Sixty-two years old, black and displaced from Georgia to this northwest prison, I told the guard I would not get on my knees while he ransacked my cell. I have nothing to hide and it is easier to comply, but these old knees, this low back, my heavy-burdened soul is so tired of being told to stand down.

The punishment: Tell them no, refuse to bend, ask them why they have to come at you with pepper spray ready when they know you are too old to kneel, remind them you are human, try to remind them, say sir even though the word stings your mouth, and find yourself face flat to the concrete walkway, arms twisted behind your back, a knee piercing your ribs, a voice whispering in your ears, to the hole.

The place: I am a big man, in a small box. An old man practicing death. I lie still on this metal bed, stare at white-washed walls until I do not see them anymore and instead can feel the Georgia sun, see the pecan tree ahead where my father used to take me, smell peaches being sliced in the kitchen for a pie. Officers slide food through the door on a metal tray as if I might attack. I do not eat because I am not an animal.

The time: Passes. Does not pass. What does it matter? Twenty-three hours to pace from wall to wall, back again, turn, one more time. I’m too old for pushups, sit ups. I’m too old for slinging shit at the door to get attention and medication to dull the days into one blur of shadows passing. I’m too old to be dangerous. But, come the twenty-second hour, I sometimes think about killing somebody.

The hour: Twenty-three hours inside, one hour outside. It’s a cage outside as well. Fresh air, they say, is good for me. I pace for another hour, from one side of the cage to the other. I stretch my hands up, drag my fingers along my chain link roof, wonder if the guy in the tower has his scope centered on me now or if he’s resting, feet up, bullshitting with his girlfriend on the phone. An officer tells me to keep my hands down. At the fifty-ninth minute I take a deep breath, hoping to make the air last.

The return: Having learned my lesson, so they tell me, I am escorted back to general population. To be, once again, with my fellow thieves, murderers, rapists, drug dealers, thugs and some good men picked up for the wrong crimes. I do not speak, having grown accustomed over the past sixty days to keeping thoughts to myself. I think, perhaps better to keep to myself from here on out. To make peace with giving up the fight. Peace with being pushed and not pushing back. Standing up has only ever gotten me knocked down. I’m tired of picking up all my pieces.

Tonight was my first night at the prison in more than a month. It’s always strange to be gone for a period of time. I have just enough time to start to think that maybe I don’t have time for it. That I ought to be spending the five hours it takes to travel to the prison, teach and get home on my own writing. That perhaps I give too much of myself and time, distracting myself from my own work with the excuse of wanting to give to others.

But then I go, and I remember, within minutes of the guys walking into the room, why it is I need to be there. True, I give. But I also get so much out of my time there. I am inspired by the stories of these men. I’m inspired by their words and by their very act of writing. I am always reminded that all the excuses I have for not getting to my work are just that–excuses. Truth is, I have everything I need to write everyday. Mainly, the freedom to do so. I have a quiet space. I have friends and family readily accessible for support. I have access to the internet, classes, travel, books and on and on. In my two and a half hours of in class time I am reinspired to come home and write my heart out. To take advantage of every day I have to put words to the page. If these men are going to show up to every class with words to share, then I ought to always have words to show for my time as well.

I was surprised tonight to see one of our guys from our old group. He spent a month in the hole and then was transferred to WSR. It’s good to see a familiar face, even better to see him healthy and still standing. He’s due to get out in twenty days, or at least that’s when his court date is. He’s been at this point before, and though I don’t know for sure, I think he self sabotages his chances for release. Likely out of a fear of being out. A fear many of the guys share. Still, it was good to see him, to hear him read his work, to be reminded of the where I started on my first day up at the prison.

He wasn’t the only one to experience the hole during my absence. One of our best writers, an older black man from the south, is there now. I worry about him, holding up in solitary. One of our other guys just got out, and though normally quiet, I was discouraged by the look of resignation on his face tonight. All he told me was that with only a year left on his sentence he needs to stay away from people, keep to himself. That sounds like a terrible and tough way to spend a year. But I trust him to know what’s best.

There are new faces in the group as well. It’s good to meet new guys, as with each new member to the group I get to learn a new story, put a new face to stereotyped image of “prisoner”.

I’m happy to be back in the swing of things. Pleased to be inspired. Lucky, I think, to have these few hours to step out of myself and my life, so that when I return I can appreciate it for what it is. A good and decent life. Easy.

This article by Helen Epstein in The New York Review of Books is worth a read, particularly her discussion of race and rates of incarceration. Statistics such as, “nationally, one black man in nine between the ages of twenty and thirty-four is incarcerated, a rate six times higher than for whites in the same age group” are sobering. Also of interest is her discussion of “shame” as it relates to violence.

America’s Prisons: Is there hope?

From the ferry: 4/15/09

Posted: April 16, 2009 in from the ferry
Tags: ,

My commute to and from the prison includes a twenty minute ferry crossing plus however long I get to sit in line to wait to board. It’s a good time to reflect on the night at Monroe, to record first impressions and document those moments that are resonating with me the most before I have a chance to filter them or make them academic. I’ll post these thoughts from the ferry each time I go to Monroe.

This was perhaps the first night that I didn’t want to go up to Monroe. I’m frustrated over the revision work to be done on one of my stories, feeling lost with it and all consumed by thinking about it. I’m tired. I felt as if I’d have nothing to give. How can I go up there and try to teach others how to write, even encourage them to write, when I am feeling inadequate and discouraged?

I went only because I said I’d be there. It’s important to the guys, to keeping their trust and their respect, that you are there when you say you’ll be there and I had said I’d be there.

One of the men started off the group by thanking us for coming. “It’s like a visit,” he said. “I really appreciate that you are here.” Visits mean everything to these guys. Brief hours of contact with family and friends. I know that when we are there it’s about so much more than the work on the page, but tonight it was particularly important that I be reminded.

And it turns out I can still teach even when I’m frustrated with my own writing. Perhaps I’m even a better teacher because at that moment I am one of them. I’m just a beginner all over again trying to figure it out. I have been humbled. I can teach, but I also know I have a long ways to go. I can speak about craft and at the same time try to hear my own words, try to teach myself along with them.

Tonight one of the other volunteers read two children’s stories. The guys loved it. I loved it. Like being back in first grade and having story time. We talked about the elements of the hero’s journey as they appeared in the stories, but truly, the best part was listening to the volunteer read and having her hold the book so that we could all see the pictures. Everyone needs a good story to be read to them every now and then. I’d forgotten that.

We’ve got a new guy. He can write.

It was different without M- there tonight. The guys don’t seem to want to talk about him much. Is it hard for them to think about those who are now on the outside? I imagine.

I’m still tired. I’m still weary from the difficulties with this story I have yet to get right. But I’m glad I went tonight. To be around other writers. To teach. To listen. To wonder. To get away from my desk and my computer and my brooding and just be present for a few hours with these men – exactly what I needed.

My commute to and from the prison includes a twenty minute ferry crossing plus however long I get to sit in line to wait to board. It’s a good time to reflect on the night at Monroe, to record first impressions and document those moments that are resonating with me the most before I have a chance to filter them or make them academic. I’ll post these thoughts from the ferry each time I go to Monroe.

Tonight we talked about resurrection, the stage of the hero’s journey when the hero is on the road back home, about to return to the ordinary world that he left so long ago (or perhaps not so long ago — not all journeys are long, right?). At this stage in the journey the hero must both shed the parts of himself that no longer fit who he has become AND he must figure out how to go back to a world to which he, in many ways, no longer belongs.


The guys get this stage. They understand going away and returning and not recognizing themselves amongst their surroundings. They understand having changed, having grown, havng left behind old selves, but returning to a world that does not understand the journey they were on. A world that does not understand the dangers the hero has faced. A world that was perhaps hoping that the hero hasn’t changed much at all. I know my fellow MFA students can relate to this. We go away to our residencies in Boston, ten intensive days of being writers surrounded by writers, and when we return who really knows what we have gone through? How can we describe it? Does anyone really want to listen? Most of us discover that the journey was personal. It was shared only by those who were there with us and not those we left behind and so we must set aside our ego and even our enthusiasm and return to “normal” life. But we are changed aren’t we. We are walking amongst “normal” but we are changed. Now imagine going away for years, to prison, and then returning. One man wrote tonight about lives that have passed while he was “down” (locked up) and lives that have begun. One man talked about realizing that upon his release this time he won’t be able to return home. He has changed that much. There is no going back — not if he wants to keep from going back to prison. He has to give up the dream of his family, the desire for reunification. His journey forces him to let go of his dream of having what he’s never been able to hold on to, nurture, care for and face a new reality of having to go his own way. He’s scared. Shitless. Wouldn’t we all be?


Don’t we go on journeys hoping to be celebrated upon our return? How often does that happen anymore? Not often. Instead we go on journeys and perhaps people barely notice our absence. Or they are confused, frustrated, even angry that we are no longer the person that they knew and loved before.


I think about my journey with cancer. Am I just now in the stage of resurrecting a new life out of that whole experience? I think so. It can take a long time. I’ve been “down” for a year and a half and I’m well on my road back, but not everyone recognizes me and many who once knew me don’t know me anymore. So there is loss. There is grief. But at the same time there is rebirth. It’s a messy stage. A messy, beautiful stage. And if you can just keep from jumping off the path altogether (which is really impossible I think, if you are true to the journey — how can you deny that you have changed) then there is a new life, amongst the old life, to be created.


My therapist says, you can’t always expect folks to show up and give you a parade every time you make a significant change in your life. People may not cheer when you return. But you know. You know where you have been and what it has meant and you just have to hold on to that. Hold on tight.