24 June, 2013

A Writing Group for Prisoners: Yet Another Item on My Too-Long To-Do List

Some great contributions to the literary world were birthed behind the walls and iron bars of prisons. Works by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, John Bunyan, Oscar Wilde, the biblical apostle Paul, and Fyodor Dostoevsky spring most readily to mind. There are many others. Whether their writings possess merit equal to that of those just mentioned isn’t my point, but my time in this penitentiary has put me in contact with several writers who are also prisoners. I shouldn’t be surprised when I meet others here who are deeply engaged with the written word — some people think there’s no undertaking more suited to prison life — yet our meetings always catch me off guard.

We don’t always agree, these other writers and I. One prolific and widely published inmate by the name of Jon Marc Taylor used to be persistent in his efforts to induct me into the ranks of those who, like him, shouted into the void, so to speak, penning article after article about the desperate need for penological reform in the US. Every time I saw him in the library, Jon Marc showed me another photocopied magazine piece he’d just published somewhere prestigious. Didn’t I want to see my name in a well-regarded publication like The Economist, too, he asked, and maybe one day have a profile piece about me appear in Maxim? Well, I’ve dipped my toe in the journalism pool before and found it too tepid for my taste, so no. But thanks just the same, Jon Marc; keep fighting the good fight.

Then there was Rob Allen, who offered all sorts of theoretically useful advice on novel-writing, culled from how-to books he’d closely studied. Rob insisted that I didn’t want to keep squandering my talents with trifling short stories when the next great American novel needed to be written, and we practically wore a trench into the outskirts of the prison yard, during our recreation periods, debating such a book’s potential plots, characters, and symbolisms. Endless evocations of his beloved Mark Twain, for whom I have minimal enthusiasm (if substantial respect), fell on deaf ears, and Rob’s failure to share any of his own writing made me wonder if he was trying to convince me to author the book he himself couldn’t, thereby living his dream through me, vicariously. If our conversations had any effect at all on my writing, it was in convincing me that personal essays, poems, and short fiction were exactly what I was supposed to be working on. I didn’t have a book in me yet, and I wasn’t going to attempt to push one out.

Two questionable would-be mentors notwithstanding, I’ve found that the number of individuals scratching and clacking out their stories, screenplays, poems, and books in a literary vacuum, as I have — without an iota of peer advice or criticism, save from the occasional editor’s jotted remark on a form-letter rejection — is striking. These prisoners have, on their own, found the motivation to embrace that most crucial element in the process: actually writing.

They find me. As if I were some mountaintop guru, some go to lengths in seeking me out. Because I like to think I keep a low profile, this often crosses me up. But it’s a pleasant validation to be met with the question “Are you Byron? I hear you’re a writer.” Why, yes, as a matter of fact I am a writer.

The exchanges I have with these fellow devotees of the craft tend to be more informative, more interesting, and more mutually beneficial than anything on which the self-proclaimed experts held forth. Conversation versus lecture; the inherent value of shared experiences. In no time, we descend into subjects that I suspect are more common to writers conference after-parties and the hallways outside university classrooms than to the sally ports and walkways of penitentiary housing units. Shop talk, you could call it. The minutiae eclipse stark differences of genre, leaving us with metaphor, dialog, narrative pacing, the e-book market, author platforms, query letters, and other nuts-and-bolts matters universal to writers, whether their forte happens to be sword-and-sorcery fantasy, urban romance, or creative nonfiction. Being able to talk in depth about one of my passions, with someone who understands the ups and downs, ins and outs of this weird lifestyle, is a treat. Naturally, I’d love to indulge more often.

So, one of the many projects I undertook this year is to start an officially sanctioned writers club, here at Crossroads Correctional Center. The bureaucratic red tape involved in founding what are termed “offender organizations” is thick. One of the first hurdles to surmount was securing a sponsor — an individual or organization under whose auspices the envisioned Crossroads Writers Club could meet every fortnight, or maybe once a week. Can you fathom how difficult it is to find someone so passionate committed to the written word and humanitarian good deeds that he or she would undertake an obligation to drive an hour, one way, to spend ninety further minutes inside the perimeter of a maximum-security prison, mingling with a group of convicted men hungry for intellectual succor — then do it again seven days later? To give you an idea, I reached out to faculty and students at three area universities, staff at three nonprofits that exist solely to benefit writers (i.e, organizing workshops, offering financial aid, sponsoring conferences, et cetera) — and a facilitator of an active prison writing group near the East Coast, only to receive one response. Granted, it was an enthusiastic one.

I’m a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic. I don’t like to arrive at conclusions until ample information has come in, and, having been disappointed far too many times, I’m also unwilling to take people’s word as any kind of covenant. Early indicators lead me to believe, however, that the Crossroads Writers Club may have found itself a sponsor and at least one volunteer facilitator. The Department of Corrections has a vetting and orientation process that’ll have to be navigated by those interested in helping us. I don’t know what this process entails, how likely it is to frighten the nice people away, so I wait with bated breath to learn whether they pass the DOC’s tests, our second hurdle.

For a writer, the third is scarcely a hurdle at all, and that’s paperwork. I’ll have to compose the organization’s bylines, which will detail its structure, membership requirements, officer selection process, specific objectives, and other bland technicalities, for inclusion in the proposal packet that will be sent for approval by the Crossroads administration. I have several points that will make the group appealing to staff and inmates alike: fundraising drives to purchase classic books for the prison’s library; invitations to free-world writers to speak or do readings here; publication of a prisoner-written anthology, royalties to be donated to charity; adding this facility’s name to those recognized publicly as being where rehabilitation (through writing’s necessary practice of self-examination, observation, and empathy) is making a much-needed comeback. With the help of my fellow writers, I’ll probably come up with many more to add.

The benefits of prison writing groups, for inmates and society at large alike, have been repeatedly shown to be manifold and wide-ranging. Still, I know there’s a fair chance that the warden and his staff will quash our request without a second thought. But I haven’t survived twelve years, locked away, without possessing some measure of hopefulness. I think we’ve got a shot.

Even if it’s all for naught, if our nascent group is aborted by the powers that be, we imprisoned writers will go on walking our solitary paths, sharing ideas and experiences whenever those paths chance to cross, and doggedly working our craft, just as our predecessors did in years and centuries past, compelled by unknowable individual impetus. To look at history’s example and take a rosy view is to note that creating under a measure of oppression can better the literature that is a creator’s end product. Our writing will almost certainly improve with time, and time happens to be something we’ve got a lot of.

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