06 March 2009

"I was so stressed, I wrote 23 poems."

One of the real joys of my job is doing something that is not in my job description. Twice a month, I facilitate a writers group. It's informal, meant to encourage creativity. The rules are few: bring something to read, tell us what kind of critique you want.

Over the years, there have been poetry, essays, stories, how-to articles, love letters, even a couple of books. We listen to it all, no more than three pages at a time. Every now and then I issue a challenge. A couple of years ago, I handed out index cards with five unrelated words on them. One of the participant got a card with "MTV, Singapore, desert, Jell-o, and in-bred" on it. Instead of 3-500 words, he wrote several thousand about a time travel device that was misfiring.

Dave came to the group more than five years ago and wanted to write about his life as a mechanic working the boats in Alaska. He had a fine knack for taking technical aspects and making them understandable to lay people, while still keeping the experts enthralled. Some nights it was just the two of us there. Dave worked on his writing as well as his reading. He struggled to be clear about what he had written. Over time, he finished two books. Now that he's been released from prison, he's looking for a publisher, and I've no doubt he'll be successful.

Last night, half a dozen men showed up. One man is working on an English course by correspondence. We've been listening to his assignments over the months. This one was a research paper on God, limited to eight pages. One of the other men asked him if the questions posed in his paper were his own questions, or were they posed by others? Duane said they were his own, that he was interested in learning more about God. We talked for a while about how it helps to have a subject you're interested in when you're assigned a research paper. Like anything else, motivation helps.

There are all sorts of artists in prison. They could be making real money on their talent. Instead, they are swapping it for coffee and another goodie from the store. Pictures are admired the most. Those verbal artists can sometimes be rare, but they do exist.

A popular item that was available in my office for a while was a composition book. You know those hard-backed, black and white marble covered books we used for school? or someone did. They can be expensive, but every now and then, especially in the run up to Labor Day, they can be found at Wal-Mart for fifty cents. I had a generous friend who'd donate dozens to me and a line would form outside my door as soon as the supply was in. "Do you have any journals?" (The composition books are now available through the offender store, so my benefactor is concentrating on other things.)

It's amazing how a little fifty cent book of lined pages can change a man. A couple of years after he got his first journal, Ted came through Shelton again and came looking for me. "That journal you gave me? I wrote letters to my kids in it. They were pretty young when I started and they'll be almost teenagers when I get out, but I've been able to share some things with them. I want them to know me, not just the few minutes we get on the phone or in the Visit Room. I really want them to know me."

The writer at our latest meeting said that writing had helped him get through some serious stresses, enough to write 23 poems.

Who knows what uproar is averted because a person has pen and paper and a few minutes alone?


St Edwards Blog said...

I am moved to tears at the idea of the sacramentality of a black and white notebook.

The ordinary is always the most sacred, isn't it?


Kedda said...

I agree -- the sacramentality of a black and white notebook. I was really moved by this post.