Posts Tagged ‘teaching writing in prison’

It has almost been five years since I first stepped inside the prison to teach. Three years since we started working with our current group of students. There are nights inside the walls which feel routine to me. The towers aren’t as imposing as they once were. The delays in being processed in no longer take me by surprise. Walking through the yard to get to our classroom, feeling the eyes of dozens of men watching us, doesn’t make me nervous. I greet our students like they are good friends I’ve been looking forward to seeing—because they are. I sometimes take for granted their continued dedication to our class. What it means to them that we keep coming, month after month, year after year. I underestimate our impact on their lives, as confined and restricted as they are. I even underestimate their impact on my life.

Then there are nights like this past Tuesday. We go through the routines to get inside the prison. There are delays at processing. They’ve lost one our volunteer’s badges. There’s no stamp to ink our hands—required to pass the next security check much like you’re required to have a stamp to get in and out of a club. We’re now too late to get to our classroom before “movement”, which means we have to wait for the yard to clear, for guys to get to and from where they have ten minutes to get to and from within the prison. We wait. We take it in stride. This is just how it goes. Inside, you have no control. This fact has even become routine to me, a self-professed control freak.

Finally making it to our classroom, our students waited. We walked around the tables, shaking each man’s hand. Saying over and over, “It’s good to see you.” It always is. We started class. Their assignment from the last class was to write an affirmation for 2013 related to how they will use what they have learned about The Hero’s Journey (the story writing structure we teach) in the new year. How will The Hero’s Journey influence the way you (the hero) will show up in your world as a strong, compassionate and positive human being for yourself and the people around you?

I had a difficult time doing the darn exercise, imagine asking men locked down for decades to consider a response.

But they all responded. This has also become routine. They do their homework, respond to our questions, trust us to be leading them down a good path both with their writing and their lives.

One student had said a couple of classes before, after telling us how on Christmas his wife let him know she was filing for divorce, taking the kids and moving out of state, that he needed to share this with us, despite how hard it was for him to speak about it because, “We’re family, you know.”

And like family, sometimes you forget what you mean to one another. Sometimes you forget how you depend on one another, and you often forget how you need one another. Until, of course, you do need the people who know you best. The people you can trust. I’ve carried his statement (and his story) with me several weeks now. And I was reminded of its truth again this past Tuesday—a night which seemed, well, routine.
Two students volunteered to read aloud to the group essays they were working on. The first student started. I normally—per routine—take notes while a student reads (because we aren’t able to get copies made of each piece and so don’t have the pages in front of us to read along and refer back to during discussion of the piece). I usually jot down particularly good phrases. Images that are working. Themes which are strong. I make note of questions I have, what might not be working as well.

I doubt, however, this student go more than a paragraph into his piece before I put my pen down, closed my eyes, rested my chin in my hands and simply listened.

He was telling the story of his psychotic break. When he lost himself to the overwhelming reality of a thirty year sentence at only nineteen years of age. He described a young boy screaming into a dark room, no one listening, no one offering to help. Punching the plexi-glass window of his cell until it cracked. He told of being taken from the prison to the hospital and the treatment he received from those along the way. Custody officers who thought he was “faking it”. An EMT in the ambulance who was “nurturing, you know?”. How he was strapped to a board. Catheterized by force, without anesthetic, in order to obtain a urine sample because they were certain he had only managed to get his hands on some drugs and that’s all his behavior was really about. He talked about going crazy and thinking he might just stay in such a state for good. Why not?

I’ve known this man for three years. I didn’t know this. Like a family member who finally comes forward to tell a secret he’s been harboring for a long time and can no longer carry alone—the only thing you are required to do, as family, is bear witness. What else can you do when someone trusts you with one of his most terrifying stories?

And, like only family can do, the group, when he was done, thanked him, before they said anything else, for sharing. For giving voice to his truth.

The second student then read a piece I had already taken home and read. I knew what was coming, and I braced myself. I had already sat alone on my couch and cried over this piece, for this member of my family. Two shattering pieces in one night was going to take some composure on my part. I took a deep breath. I closed my eyes again. His story was about a moment of physical and sexual abuse when he was five years old. It’s written with so much tenderness for his five year old self you want only, as a reader, to pull him into your arms and hold him. This student is a handsome, thirty-something, big, strong, man. He never, ever, shares himself like this. Not with the whole group. Only recently with the pieces he’s been letting us volunteers take home and read privately. Now there he was, across the table from me, reading and trying to keep from crying as he did.

Again, I made no notes. I closed my eyes. I thought of the other students in the class who I know have been through the same thing. So much untold abuse in prison. So many boys trapped inside the bodies of men, screaming out in a dark room, no one coming to help them.

When he finished, I leaned forward on the table. I looked each man in the eye. I looked this particular student in his eyes. I said, “Before anything else is said, I want to say, I’m sorry. I’m sorry that happened to you. I’m sorry for anyone else here who has had a similar experience because I know many have. Thank you for sharing.”

We’re family. We might be better than most families in fact. I don’t know that these men can talk about these things out amongst the general prison population. I doubt it. Outside of our classroom they have to be tough, strong, thugs, unafraid. They have to be the grown men their experiences as little boys taught them to be. Inside our classroom though, somehow, we’ve created safe space. We’ve created trust. We’ve walked along with one another long enough we don’t have a choice but to take the good with the bad. There’s an acceptance amongst us—come as you are. This is where the stories get told, and more importantly honored and held.

It’s not routine. And it’s not a normal life. And it’s not okay. Not one bit of it. And as a member of their family—like a mother or a sister—I take my love for them seriously. Want to protect them. Want to see them grow. And I’m willing to bear witness as I would for any member of my family out here in the so-called real world. I wish so many more of you could hear what I hear, read what I read, know them as I know them. Imperfect. Certainly. Done wrong. Without a doubt. Still human. Yes, yes, yes.

It has been a while since the subject of cancer filtered into a conversation at the prison. A while since what was being discussed around the table made me think back to my moment of diagnosis, my first appointment with an oncologist, my trip on a gurney down a hospital hallway to an operating room. It has been five and a half years since my diagnosis. The memories, fears and worries do not plague me in the same way they once did. My experience with cancer always inhabits my thoughts, but more and more, thankfully, it hovers in the background, unobtrusive and no longer distracting. There are days I don’t think of it at all—like an ex-boyfriend one swears she’ll never get over, but then, one day, finds she has. Time, it turns out, doesn’t heal all wounds, but allows them to scab over, scar and become a part of you. A part you stop noticing in the mirror each and every morning.

Sometimes, though, the memories return fresh and strong. This happened during the last class at the prison when the guys offered up their stories of what it was like the weeks or days before they started serving their current sentences. The question specifically was: what did you do to prepare for this part of your journey? As teachers I think we expected responses about saying goodbye to family, spending time with children, making love to wives and girlfriends, visiting favorite restaurants and eating favorite meals, and taking long walks for as long as one wanted to walk. Our expectations only turned out to prove there is still much we have to learn about this experience called serving time.

Turns out, one doesn’t often get a chance to prepare for serving a prison sentence. One student did say something along the lines of, come on now, if you’re out in the streets doing dirt you always know you’re going to end up here. His argument being, if you are doing things that might get you arrested you would be wise to be prepared to go to prison any day. But beyond that general truth (Which reminds me of the saying: live every day as if it is your last. Good, but not necessarily practical advice.), it turns out most of our students were simply going about living their lives at the time of their arrest. They were not prepared. They had not discussed it with their families. They did not remember to do something they loved every day just in case tomorrow was the day they got caught. And once they had been arrested they stayed in jail until their trial was over, received their sentence and then went straight from jail to prison. There was no “time out” in the free world to prepare for the journey to prison. They were in their lives one day, and on their way to prison the next.

Cancer was like that for me. One moment I was a twenty-seven year old organic farmer living a fairly hippie and healthy lifestyle, the next moment, at 8am on a random Thursday, I was a cancer patient. I wasn’t sick. Then I was sick. In less than a few ticks of a clock. With only a few words from my doctor over the phone. Like the students in my group, I had to come to terms with my new reality after I was already existing within it. There was no considering. No trial period where if I decided this cancer business wasn’t for me I could give it back. People sometimes still ask me: don’t you feel like cancer taught you lessons you might not otherwise have ever learned? Maybe. Sure. What? I’ve never been one of those survivors to say after the fact that I was thankful for what cancer taught me. I learned the lessons I faced because I had no choice. But I would have taken them any other way. Without a doubt. I would have taken continuing to live my life in cancer-free bliss, saving the lessons for another day. I would have spared my family the months of fearing they were going to lose a daughter, a sister. I am not comfortable trying to package cancer up in a shiny bow of subversive self help. An unexpected path to enlightenment. It’s cancer. It can kill you. It could’ve killed me. Someday it still might. I would rather not have had it. That’s the truth.

There are experiences in life which change us profoundly. Rearrange our literal and figurative guts, redefine who we are, present us with questions we must answer whether we want to or not. How will you spend your time now that you’ve been sentenced to it? What is a life worth with a 50-year sentence? How do you want to die? These are not experiences you prepare for. They catch you by surprise. They are not a gift. They might have been inevitable, and maybe some part of you always saw it coming, but, you don’t prepare. Even if you could, what would you have done that would have made it any better? How many times could one of our students hug his children before going to prison to make not being able to hug them for years any less of a burden to bear? What would I have done the day before my diagnosis to feel alive that would have lessened my awareness of death the moment after my diagnosis?

What our conversation with the guys about preparation—or lack of—for entering prison reminded me is many stories start with the unexpected and the unpleasant. This does not mean there is no point to the story, but it can mean the point will take some time to find. And once the point is found it does not mean you have to be thankful for the journey. I don’t expect the men in our group to be thankful for 20, 30, 40 years behind bars no matter how much they change and grow into better men while serving their sentences. I do not expect cancer victims to be thankful in some way for their cancer experience. Such expectations are what those not walking these particular journeys want to hear to make themselves feel better about another person’s suffering. We wanted the guys to tell us they made the most of their final days in the free world, that they noticed how the air smelled and the way their wife smiled for what felt like the first time in their lives. We wanted them to say they were thankful in some way for the journey they were about to embark on. That they were ready, accepting and determined to make the best of it. It would have made us feel better to hear these things. The fact that they looked at us and said, “Why would you think we had a chance to prepare?” and, “How would I have prepared exactly?” was beautiful. It taught me what I had learned once with the cancer, but apparently forgot: there are some things in life you simply have to endure and survivor. If you come out on the other side a better person, well, then, as some say, there go I but by the grace of God.

A second question offered to this blog’s readers from some of our students is now posted under the heading “Q&A with our students” at the top of this page. This time they are curious to know how readers define freedom.

I offer: How do you know you are free? What defines your sense of freedom?

You can respond on the question page itself or here. Feel free to ask them questions in response. As a reminder, I’ll remove all identifying information from your comments before taking them into the guys to read.

Folks: for those of you who interact (frequently or infrequently) with this blog I wanted to let you know that I’m starting a new feature with a couple of my students. It’s a Q&A page (you can find it at the top of the homepage). They’ve given me a list of questions they’d like to dialogue with blog readers about and in turn are willing to respond to questions from readers. We’ll see how this goes…but if you are interested or have the time the first question (Do you believe people deserve a second chance?) is posted and ready for your thoughts. Note: You get to individual questions by hovering on the page title at the top of the homepage–“Q&A with our students”. The following link takes you to the general overview of what’s going on: https://teachingontheinside.wordpress.com/qa-with-our-students/

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?

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.