An essay by Charles Patrick Norman
Prisoners carry their crimes and convictions in sacks thrown over their shoulders. Some have small bags that are almost empty, soon to be freed and on their own, free to leave their bags empty or refill them as they choose. Others struggle under the weight of heavy loads, so much time crammed into their packs that they can barely haul them around without stumbling, falling, and giving up. We all have our burdens, heavy or light.
It falls upon my shoulders, standing here in front of fifteen men dressed in cheap prison blue uniforms with white stripes down the sides, sitting at school desks designed for younger ones in a small classroom formerly used as the property room, to direct these men in the art and craft of creative writing.
That I am standing here at all, entrusted with instructing these men, poses no few questions in my own mind, fully cognizant of the irony that the same authorities who ordered me, “Norman, stop writing!” months before, the same ones who punished my creative writing by locking me in a solitary confinement cell for thirty days for refusing to stop writing, those same authorities have allocated this time and place to teach this class. When your jailer sets a ripe watermelon on a table surrounded by hungry men, they do not sit there and question the watermelon as to its motives. They eat.
To my right at a larger desk sits a young woman who takes the roll, calling out names and checking them off her list. She teaches a “transition class” for prisoners who are to be released soon, but she has this block of time open once a week, when she can sit in and monitor, supervise, or sponsor this voluntary program. The prison officials need assurance that we will use this time for creative writing and not incendiary or seditious acts. I have no intention of betraying the limited trust these people have bestowed on me. I’ve done this before, and welcome their observations. Let us eat the watermelon.
Do you have something to say? I ask. Do you have stories you want to tell? Memories of your life you want to preserve, so they will not be lost? Can creative writing be taught? Can you learn to be a better writer of poems, stories, memoirs, essays? Speaking for myself, the answer is yes to all of the above.
Writing is like fishing. Before you go fishing, you must have a desire to fish. Many people have never gone fishing, and neither intend to fish, nor learn to fish. Once you acknowledge the desire to learn to fish, how do you accomplish that desire?
First you need some tools: a fishing rod, line, hooks, bait. Then you need a body of water that contains fish: a river, creek, pond, lake, bay, or ocean. You won’t catch any fish casting your line on dry land. And you must learn the techniques of fishing, preferably from an experienced fisherman who will share his knowledge, show you how to bait your hook and where to cast your line. Hopefully, if all goes right, you’ll get a nibble, then land a fish, and another, and another.
I explain that, in writing, like fishing, you will be surprised at what you catch. Did you expect to land a salmon, or a short story? Hopefully, by putting yourself into position to write, inspiration will strike, and seemingly miraculous things will result.
One week I directed the students to choose a poem to read to the class the following week, one they wrote, or one they like, that speaks to them.
You must understand that prisoners are little different from “free people” in many ways. Countless times I’ve heard guards admit that the only difference between them and us is that they didn’t get caught. Men are men, in prison or out, and many men have difficulty expressing their thoughts, feelings, emotions, even to those closest to them. To put those thoughts on paper, to put them “out there,” to be read, scrutinized, or studied by strangers, is a task too daunting to risk for many. I break them in slowly, gently, talking about other people, an unforgettable person who had a positive impact on their lives, and one who had a negative impact. Opposites.
And so it went, oiling the rusty gears in each our minds, for I am susceptible to the same negative forces that affect everyone in prison, although I am much further down the road to self-discovery than most of my compatriots.
Several men read poems they’d written, and a few were surprisingly insightful, though lacking the technical skills I hope to impart over time. A few groused at the prospect of being forced to read poems, and expressed their hesitancy at studying something they weren’t interested in. I explained that the knowledge gained from reading and studying poetry made us better writers, no matter what the type of writing we pursued. Our class sponsor spoke up and commented on how change can be difficult perhaps awkward or painful, but that it is good to embrace change, to open ourselves to new experiences that could waken hidden talents. Well said.
Knowing the recalcitrant nature of prisoners, that a few would try to avoid the public reading assignment by claiming not to have been able to find a suitable poem, I trumped that argument by handing out books of famous poems I chose for them. The session went well. Little did they suspect what they would be called on to do for the next class.
I obtained some materials from Libby, my dear friend and researcher, a bio of Robert Frost, and a literary analysis of two of his most famous beloved poems, The Road Not Taken, and Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening. Our class sponsor made copies, and the students were instructed to study the material. Besides continuing writing their daily journal entries, the next assignment struck fear in a few hearts — write a poem. You can do it. Class dismissed.
I live in a “dorm,” a large room with bunks for seventy-two men sardined together with virtually no personal space in the cramped quarters. Everyone is exposed and open to everyone else, including the guards in their goldfish bowl “officer station,” where they look out over men sleeping, fighting, talking, reading, showering or sitting on toilets twenty-four hours a day. Forget privacy. Writing these words at this moment, I listen to Diane Rehm talking about Nelson Mandela on National Public Radio while trying to ignore the incessant, mindless chatter of a dozen men, all within spitting distance. Fortunately, I’ve developed the ability to train my concentration onto the lined paper before me, screening out prison bedlam, else I’d never be able to accomplish anything. The conditions are less than optimum for creative writing, but we make do.
A day or so after our class I noticed one of the students furiously scribbling, sitting on his bunk, tuning out those around him. That went on for hours.
The next day he came to me, smiling. I put down the new John Grisham book, Sycamore Row, that a friend had loaned me, sat up on my bunk, and asked him what he had.
“I wrote my first poem,” he said, proudly, thrusting a sheet of paper toward me. “I’ve never wrote a poem in my life. What do you think?”
I read it. The poem was pretty good. I liked it. “It’s good, man,” I said. “There are a couple of minor grammar things you can fix. Congratulations.”
He smiled bigger, and produced several more sheets of paper, thrusting them toward me. “I got inspired. Here’s five more. What do you think?”
I liked them. He was in a groove. I encouraged him to keep writing.
Those are the moments that teachers live for, that make all the headaches, hassles and obstructions worthwhile, when a light comes on in a student’s head, and it suddenly makes sense. My friend had paid attention to the lessons, dared to cast his line into unfamiliar waters, and pulled out a fish.
In a couple of weeks we will work on short stories, and see what kinds of stories they have to tell. Stay tuned.