22 September, 2011

Writing Under Lock and Key


For the writer seeking refuge from distraction — a place to immerse himself in his craft — I would sooner recommend a crowded lunchtime deli counter, or a county fair's petting zoo, than prison. The idea that a stint in the slammer yields limitless opportunity to let thoughts flow freely from brain to page is so fallacious as to be ridiculous. Maybe in the solitary conditions of prisons past, where some of our great literary minds were jailed, this could have been otherwise. I envision Oscar Wilde in the dismal Reading Gaol, squinting at his quill marks in the darkness, his towering form hunched over the manuscript for De Profundus. Wilde almost certainly wrote nonstop, save to slurp watery spoonfuls from the bowls of slop slid under his door, and to use the chamber pot. Hardly an idyllic retreat, but in its way enviable — in that stone-walled stillness he obviously got some work done.

My imprisonment is less conducive to productivity. A deli counter could at least offer good food; a petting zoo, more civilized company. The noise is one matter — continual shouting, slammed dominoes, dueling radios. Noise has been endemic to prisons since time immemorial. But the personal intrusions are quite another. It's the price of being favorably known, I guess, to have other inmates stopping at my door throughout the day to ask, "What's up, you working on something there?"

Politeness is tough for me to maintain when I'm interrupted mid-thought, so I'm known to respond snippily: "Well, yes, I'm trying to."

With some visitors, I meet rudeness with rudeness. One odious little troll, a downstairs resident of my wing, has convinced my cellmate to save the butts of roll-your-own cigarettes for him. Sanitary concerns aside, most people would likely just drop the habit if they couldn't afford it. being of a different sort, however, Rumplestiltskin creeps his way up to our door sporadically, announcing his regrettable presence with a now-familiar potent stink of ashtray and unwashed hair. Each time he croaks, "I'm here to pick up Bertha Butt and the Butt sisters for our date!"

When swinging by my door, the odds of catching me seated at this desk, typing, editing, or reading, are better than nine in ten. Thus, the troll's arrival rarely fails to lop short whatever thought I happen to be working through. I wince at the pain of it every time. The old man then lingers like an egg fart, counting his newest haul of secondhand smokes, then initiates some religio-political conversation with my cellmate that I wouldn't want to hear even if it were intelligent and I had nothing else going on. My suspicion is that he arranged the ongoing butt deal just as a pretense for talking at my poor cellmate. Prior attempts at hinting Rumplestiltskin away have failed; the miniature stinkpot is oblivious. If his tiresome tirade doesn't exhaust him quickly and carry him out of my presence, I vent an exasperated hiss, hold my breath, and elbow past him through my obstructed doorway. Fleeing my own quarters until he skulks back into his dungeon is the nicest sensible alternative to losing my mind.

A cellmate incapable of keeping his interior monologue internalized; a hard-of-hearing cellmate whose headphones stay at such high volume as to obviate their use at all; a popular cellmate whose chatty pals are a continual, gabby presence — the possible types of live-in distractions are manifold. I've suffered them all, at one time or another. But noise isn't the only slayer of one's muse. If it were, my earplugs alone might let me plug away at this keyboard without pause. Life as a prisoner is often lived on someone else's clock: mealtimes are determined at random, by someone else; when we're required to report to other locations is similarly at someone else's discretion; and dropping everything to present ourselves for the numerous daily head counts is mandatory. Good luck fitting periods of complex introspection in edgewise.

I see ads for writers retreats all the time, in magazines like Poets & Writers and Writer's Digest, and daydream about committing wanton acts of prose in the privacy of a woodland clearing near a rented cabin, about the peace of isolated autumn weeks spent typing on a laptop by a still koi pond, or about sequestering myself in a spartan inner-city apartment with nothing but a month's supply of coffee and the beloved sounds of nearby traffic to sustain me as I compose whatever text my heart desires. Yes, I, who am supposed by others to have all the time in world to write, go moon-eyed when I think about places I could indulge in uninterrupted intellectual exercise.

Once the words are on paper, there are further blocks. While not outright banned, publication is hindered significantly by the policies of the Department of Corrections. I know a handful of prisoners who've published books — some with small presses, some with self-publishing outfits — and all but one (that I know of) have been subsequently issued conduct violations for "conducting business" or sued by the State under the Missouri Incarceration Reimbursement Act. A judgment in a MIRA suit places a permanent lien against the prisoner's account, so that ninety percent of all funds sent to him or her are seized, up to nearly $17,000 a year, irrespective of the funds' source. Keeping only ten cents of every dollar of your hard-earned royalties would be bad enough; keeping only that percentage of a gift from your kindly great-aunt Helen would merely add insult to injury.

It's not only book publication that could land an incarcerated author under the boot of MIRA or the yoke of disciplinary sanctions. Being paid for publication in a periodical also does the trick. Signing a contract, likewise. A writing career based exclusively on a few contributor copies, the occasional laudatory byline, and donated pieces is no less artistically respectable than one that yields a five-figure income, but how then to buy basic necessities — typewriter ribbon, stationary, and postage? Free-world writers may struggle financially, from time to time, but never like this.

And don't get me started on how MFA-centrism has restricted the field. The words I'd employ would be unpublishable.

In spite of the challenges, obviously, I manage to write. I also publish. It would be impossible not to; the words are in me. For any writer out there who wishes aloud for space and time enough to make your hobby your life, I have little sympathy. Writing is a discipline — sometimes a tremendously rewarding one — which means knuckling down, doing it, sacrificing "x, y, or z" to achieve your writerly ambitions. Nearly everyplace is unaccommodating and hectic. If you're serious about it, you'll find a quieter deli counter, or a petting zoo with fewer rowdier goats. Start searching now, don't expect an idyll, and try appreciate having options. Some of us have few, yet make do just the same.

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