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.

18 June, 2013

The Illustrated Man in Extremus

I’ve heard it said that no one likes a caricature of himself. My firm belief that people take themselves too seriously makes this seem quite likely. I myself could do with a tad more self-seriousness, probably, and this exaggerated portrait of me typing gleefully away, recently drawn by a supporter, is evidence of that: I really like it. So I’m sharing it with you.

10 June, 2013

A Musing on Character, Plot, and My Current Writing Project

As do most grand plans, it began with a simple enough idea. The story I wanted to write would be about a young autistic shut-in oblivious to society’s disintegration around him in the midst of the zombie apocalypse. Only when his weekly grocery delivery doesn’t come does the character, Ethan, venture out for food. How would the autistic reliance on routines, Ethan’s disinterest in people (alive or undead), and his myopic worldview lead him to face the challenge of trekking across town amid shambling flesh-eaters — and how would he react when the comfort of his small apartment got obliterated by the inevitable collapse of the power grid? These were the questions I set out to answer in the form of my story. As I said, it started out simply.

The story I ended up with (mentioned briefly in this post, last summer) was twenty-eight pages — too long to submit to any magazine for publication, too short to be a book. Nonetheless, everyone thinks their offspring is beautiful and perfect, and I loved my monstrously obese brainchild. I just couldn’t show it off to anyone because it was too fat to go outside.

Writers do this all the time, committing to paper the commercially unusable, simply because a particular story demands to be told. It’s like demonic possession, minus the vomiting of pea soup. Knowing that I’m in good company for having created something ostensibly worthless did nothing to lessen the feeling that I wasted a couple of weeks of my life when I filed my story, “The Association, Ethan Birch,” into a folder bulging with other misfit works I’ve written under the influence of the Muse.

That Muse, she’s a capricious thing. Those weeks I spent writing, rewriting, and polishing “The Association, Ethan Birch” were actually time I was ignoring another, more ambitious project, a sci-fi novel I summarized inartfully (not to mention inaccurately) as “Rain Man on a spaceship.” After months of false starts and tens of hours of research into a motley array of subjects — weaving-loom operation, chromatophore reflection in cuttlefish, the possibility of Lorentzian wormhole traversal as a means of interstellar travel — I realized that my novel-in-progress could not overcome one critical stumbling block: all the factual correctness and theoretical plausibility in the universe couldn’t make up for the narrator, an autistic savant with a faculty for machines, being totally unrelatable.

To a great degree, character is story. Who a protagonist is determines much of a plot, far more than all the deus ex machina happening in bad TV may suggest. Desires, fears, quirks, curiosities, shortcomings — these shape a character’s decisions, and no matter how white-knuckled a writer may want to grip his story, no matter how many natural disasters, serious illnesses, or freak accidents he enlists to assert authorial control, the characters are the ones who decide how a narrative will unfold. At least, this is how it goes in effective fiction. A writer could presumably construct a story around nothing but elements that are beyond conscious human influence, but then he’d have a Michael Bay script: CARS’ BRAKES GIVE OUT, MILE-WIDE METEORITE COLLIDES WITH EARTH, VOLCANOES ERUPT... and so on.

Having interesting and believable characters is an obvious part of the challenge a writer faces. Ensuring that the anticipated story is flexible enough to accommodate those characters is another part. To make the novel I was writing work, the story had to be told in the first person. Yet the protagonist’s unrelatable otherness was irreducible. To change him would be to alter the plot; to alter the plot would be to fail to tell the tale I needed to tell — a situation too twisty to even call a catch-twenty-two. (And here’s a bit of dramatic irony: the working title I had for the novel was Singular.) Another, less flattering but more honest way of expressing this is to say that the tale I wanted to tell sucked.

I put the draft I’d been writing on indefinite hold, and it was then that I wrote “The Association, Ethan Birch,” a story that, for all its apparent simplicity, would launch me deep into thought and spawn a whole other project.

Ethan, the narrator of the story, encounters other people during the crosstown journey that comprises the first part of his ordeal. And although these people only appear in the story for a brief while, occasionally just mentioned in passing, perceiving them through the lens of Ethan’s super-exaggerated literalism and naiveté made me wonder who they really were, how they might view Ethan, and how the collapse of civilization would transform everyone into a blank slate, forcing many to reinvent themselves according to the standards of the new order. Identity, as apprehended and projected (sometimes misleadingly) was suddenly on my mind a lot.

My brain often floods when I think. Much of that spill-over ends up on paper. The ideas that flowed from my consideration of the characters throughout “The Association, Ethan Birch” came out in notes. Max from Humboldt is full of shit and Why is the woman at the church? were two. Then there were the more practical inquiries: What happened to Gina? and How did Trish and company end up as traveling companions? I hadn’t intended for any of them to be deeply considered; still, ostensibly throwaway characters haunted me. Like someone who put feeder mice into his pet python’s terrarium, only to soon afterward feel an empathetic urge to check on them, I wanted to get to better know the people I invented, and to find out how they fared in that wasteland I so callously cast them into.

I considered other hypothetical scenarios that might arise in my zombie hellscape, too, and have expanded on the inventory of personalities I began with. (Not being too well-versed in the genre, beyond George A. Romero movies, the novel World War Z, and the Walking Dead TV series, may have helped as easily as hindered me.) I wanted to explore who people become when their environment makes it nearly impossible to retain their full humanity, to delve into how they cope: what’s the first thing to go; what can’t be let go of? It should surprise no one that the aforementioned gamut of human experience makes excellent story fodder.

And just like that, I’m working on another book — a series of interweaving first-person accounts that are lurid and lovely, chaste and obscene, poetic and mundane as real life, but accentuated by the horror that’s become the everyday. It’s to be a novel-in-stories about somnambulists in a waking nightmare, a book whose plot lines are determined almost wholly by the whims of its characters — an about-face, in terms of technique, from the way Singular moved. I’m excited to see where this book’s inhabitants lead me.

03 June, 2013

Take the Quiz: Would You Make a Good Prison Cellmate?

Tally your score on these ten probing questions to see how well you’d get by, thrown into close quarters with another person for very long periods of time. 

* * * * *

Locked into a bathroom-sized space with a total stranger, what’s the first thing you’d do?
  • Introduce yourself, then quickly situate whatever belongings you have, keeping conversation to a minimum until certain boundaries are established. (2 points)

  • Announce your intention to liven up the place with your pencil drawings of Hollywood power couples. (-1 point)

  • Cry. (-2 points)

Which statement best describes your attitude toward personal hygiene?
  • “I wash my hands immediately after using the toilet, always cough and sneeze into my elbow, and appreciate a nice, long shower.” (2 points)

  • “Meh.” (-1 point)

  • “I take a birdbath in the sink twice a month, regardless of whether or not I need one.” (-2 points)

Complaining about the length of your sentence is:
  • Never acceptable. (2 points)

  • Acceptable if the person to whom you’re complaining has an equal or shorter sentence. (-1 point)

  • No big deal. (-2 points)

The mood in which you wake up can best be described as which of the following?
  • Peaceful and contemplative. (2 points)

  • Chipper and chatty. (0 points)

  • Variable, depending on whether or not you’ve been taking your medication. (-2 points)

“Hey, how about a courtesy flush, over there?”
  • “Sure thing.” Bah-whoosh. (2 points)

  • “What’s a courtesy flush?” (-1 point)

  • “Sorry, I believe in conserving water.” (-2 points)

Which of the following do you do while watching TV news?
  • Consider each story in thoughtful silence. (2 points)

  • Wonder what relevance world events could possibly have on your life behind bars. (0 points)

  • Shout obscenities at the screen. (-2 points)

Your opinion of the concept of sharing is best summed up by which of these statements?
  • “What’s mine is yours.” (2 points)

  • “I’m making burritos tomorrow — wanna throw in a bag of rice?” (0 points)

  • “Alright, punk, hand over all your coffee and cigarettes.” (-2 points)

Are you clever enough to generate your own personal forms of entertainment?
  • Yes. (2 points)

  • No. (-1 point)

  • Only if marathon masturbation sessions count as entertainment. (-2 points)

In the middle of a long afternoon, on the third day of a facility-wide lockdown, how would you most likely occupy yourself?
  • Write a letter or two. (2 points)

  • Calisthenics. (0 points)

  • Try out your falsetto skills on a few pop ballads... at least until dinner. (-2 points)

Which method for eking out a more materially comfortable prison existence strikes you as the most appealing?
  • Taking a presser job in the facility’s laundry. (2 points)

  • Slingin’ rock to ducks on the yard. (-1 point)

  • Finally putting that sweet, sweet caboose to work. (-2 points)

18–20 points — You make a great potential cellmate. Congratulations!
10–17 points — You’d have a few conflicts, but with a little luck would get along fine.
0–10 points — To cohabitate with you would probably be miserable. If you’re ever sent to prison, expect to be moved from cell to cell a lot.
Negative points — Look on the bright side: solitary confinement means never having to worry about cellmates again, after that initial succession of them beat you bloody.