I knew I was being played. It was the journals they were after. The aim was to score a free notebook, not to be in a writing group. What I didn't realize was how much value these blank books had in the prison setting, a place where personal possessions were limited, if not altogether absent.
"Hey, man, could I get one for my girlfriend? It would mean a lot to her."
The other inmates watched, waiting to see how soft I might be.
"No, sorry," I said. "Only one journal for each participant."
"Looks like there's more than that," a thin, pockmarked man, with a tattoo of some sort showing above his collar said. He'd printed "Lenny" on the name card that sat in front of him.
"There might be extra now," I said, at the same time gathering together the remaining journals and slipping them into my briefcase. "But we could get other writers in later. Or maybe someone will lose theirs and need a replacement."
Of course, the next week, lost journals were endemic.
So began the writing workshop that I was facilitating at a local jail, situated on the outskirts of North Portland. I had previously done workshops in homeless shelters, residential housing facilities and one for a senior LGBT group. Prison was different, though. Nobody fought over journals in my gay old-folks group, and I didn't have to count the number of pens returned to me in my workshop at the Old Town housing facility. No one there was likely to sneak one out to use as a shank. And I didn't have to go through a metal detector or empty out my pockets before entering those facilities.
On the other hand, I had found in my previous session at the jail, that once all the distractions and games were moved to the side, these guys proved to be some of the most serious and talented writers I had dealt with anywhere, including my ten years of college teaching. There was an almost palpable need to write I could feel in that locked, gray classroom. And once the group learned to trust me and each other, they looked forward to our sessions with unusual enthusiasm. "You know, this is the best two hours of my week," one guy confessed to me. Admittedly, I didn't have much competition.
From the moment you entered this "correctional facility," till the time you picked up your car keys and personal belongings from the front desk officer and signed out, there was no sense that any world existed outside of that grim place. When the head guard led me to the classroom I would use, he pointed out the red emergency button on the wall. "Only push that if you're really in a jam," he said. Then he added, "Of course, by the time we get here, it might be too late." I couldn't tell if he was joking.
I didn't kid myself that the guys I was working with were there for a reason. They had done bad things, hurt people, sometimes killed them. Although for my own sense of sanity and fairness, I decided I didn't want to know what their individual crimes were. Knowing a guy was an alleged murderer or a rapist or someone who beat the shit out of his wife might color my perception of him. The only way I wanted to know these men was through their writing. I wasn't there to be their friend or their judge. We were all there only as writers.
I told them, "I don't care about you." I paused and took in their stares, the incipient movement toward anger. "I only care about your stories." I'd let that sink in for a minute or two, watch the heads nod in recognition. This cat is interested in my work; he's treating me like a person. Usually, I couldn't help adding, after a minute or two, "Well, I do actually care about you." There would be laughter, a release. Then we could go ahead and write.
"Always come back to the writing. That's why we're there," my support person told me. I found that the best technique for getting writers to get real was to let the rest of the group have at them. Though all comments had to be positive, I told them. This could be perplexing. "How'm I gonna tell him what's wrong with his story if I can't say anything bad about it?" someone would invariably ask.
"Think of it as an observation. Not a judgment," I said. "Tell him what you think. Just don't tear the story down. You wouldn't like it if someone did that to you."
The writers would soon discover that you could say just about anything you wanted to as long as it was done in a gentle and supportive way. I thought more than a few times that many of the college writing classes and critique groups I'd been involved with over the years would have benefitted from this rule.
There wasn't a lot of prison bravado in our workshop sessions. And it was rare that a participant would write about his crime or the life that led him to it. They were happier with poetry and short fiction. Like most of us, they preferred escape to reality. After all, reality was smacking them across the jaw almost every other hour of the day. Much better to retreat to the solace and safety of a poem about rain, about the remembered trip to the Oregon Coast, about a baby daughter.
You were young and innocent
Gone before I knew it
If only I could
Build something with you
You were too little
To say good-bye
My heart still aches in sadness
No one will ever know
What it meant to lose you
Sure, there was the occasional prison philosopher, the guy who wouldn't let anyone else forget where they were and how (he thought) that world operated. He was the hard-edged guy with his book of con wisdom, cynicism as higher knowledge, hate masquerading as self-protection. Lenny filled that role in this workshop session. He was hardcore in every sense of the word. Lenny let the group know early and often that he'd spent 27 of his 44 years in the slammer. His attitude, the way he tensed his shoulders, the way he stared at me, all spoke the message: Nobody can break me, no matter what, 'cause I'm smarter and meaner than any of you bastards.
At the end of our second class, when I was about to buzz the guard to come and collect the men, he sidled up to me and handed me one of the ballpoint pens I handed out at the beginning of the class, and, neglectfully, had failed to collect from him. Lenny grinned as he handed it to me, See, man, he was saying without saying it, I can go right around you anytime I want. "You can take those apart and use them to shoot up," Lenny muttered. "At least that's what I've been told." I was embarrassed and a little pissed off, but still there was something about this man I admired, even as I feared him. It was probably the same response he got from the other inmates, a grudging, but careful, respect.
At first, I couldn't quite figure out why he wanted to be in the writing group. What was his game here? My first guess was that it was simply to ameliorate the boredom of incarceration and to have a soapbox for his posturing and platitudes. When given room, Lenny would go on for long stretches at a time, weaving his diatribe, his language as coarse as you might expect. I would stop him when he went on too long. Surprisingly, he didn't get angry when I told him it was time to let others speak or read or even when I asked him to respect the situation by not cursing. Another long-timer later explained to me, that, "Lenny's top dog in the dorm but, in here, you're the alpha man."
As the weeks went by, I started to see that the reason Lenny was in the writing group was not about getting over on anybody or avoiding work duty. He was there because he really wanted to write. As hard as his life had been and as tough as he was, underneath all the bullshit, what he wanted was to be heard. Lenny, just like all the other men, saw that writing was a way to escape the external situation he was in and find a place within him more worthwhile, something that hadn't been beaten out of him.
If I could go back,
I'd change the time
That I haven't spent
I'd change all the hurt
I put you through,
I'd change the fact
That I miss you.
Because I'd change
Every day that I'm
Away from you.
We ended our ten-week workshop with a reading. Of course, it couldn't be a public reading, but the guys would be allowed to invite one guest each from the rest of the prison population. My one ally at the jail, Jayne, a counselor, had helped me to arrange the program and, miraculously, had even managed to get doughnuts and sodas for the night of the reading—an unheard-of treat. I brought a typeset program that listed the names of all the readers and the names of their poems and stories. I handed one to each participant as they filed in and watched as they slowly took in what they were holding. Their shoulders squared, their eyes bright as they sat and inhaled their names off the page.
With eleven readers and eleven guests, the room felt crowded, and formal, in a very positive way. We managed to forget about the closed circuit TV cameras that were always watching. This was our event and as each man rose to read and was greeted by a respectful silence and enthusiastic applause when he finished, the sense of accomplishment continued to rise. In a room full of hardened men, I thought I noticed more than a few wet cheeks, including my own. And when the last reader was done and Jayne announced that it was time for refreshments, the men politely, even delicately, helped themselves to a doughnut and paper cup of soda. Nobody pushed or tried to take more than one. A box of doughnuts in the dorm would probably occasion a riot. Lenny sidled up to me as we were finishing up. "Thanks, man," he said. "You know I'm gonna keep on writing now."
"You better," I told him, and shook his hand.
That reading and the weeks preceding it proved to me yet again the power that writing has to transform lives and to allow one to rise above his circumstances, or at least to understand them. In here, in the depths of this damn jail, we had done just that.