BootsnAll Travel Network

Prisoners and the shape of freedom.

For three years now, John and I have been facilitating a writing workshop at a men’s prison, a medical unit in Richmond, TX. Actually, I took a semester off to work on “deep practice” with a Zen teacher and discovered that my spiritual practice in working with prisoners was “deeper” (if such can be measured and compared) than my work at the Zen center; I returned to the workshop and left the Zen center. So the truth is that John has been doing this in Richmond for three years, and I’ve been doing this particular workshop for two and a half. I have been voluntarily walking into prisons for a long time. I started as a creative writing workshop leader in 1972. Working with prisoners is a calling for me. Last night, John and I “auditioned” six applicants for the two places in the writing workshop vacated when two prisoners were released last semester.

We met all the men at once, around a large table. All but one had brought samples of his work. John and I introduced ourselves and realized shamefacedly that we had forgotten to bring samples of our work, apologized for that, and asked them to talk about their work, read their samples, and give us their own sense of where writing fits in their lives and what they’d like to get from a writing workshop. We began polite, respectful, open to whatever might unfold in a room full of strangers. An hour and a half later we had laughed together; one man had cried; we had talked about why we write, about self-judgment and its relation to writer’s block, about the times when writing seems to come out of us as if it comes from “somewhere else.”

One reason I love working with prisoners is that there’s just no bullshit. Our time together is short. They’re going back into hell when it’s over. They’ll have to strip in front of male or female officers, spread their cheeks, lift their nut-sacks, stick out their tongues, lift their feet, walk on the right side of the yellow line, and submit to the daily indignities of prison life. John and I will walk out the front gate and go home. The usual posing that free-world people do, the adjusting of masks, the postures of self-importance that people use to introduce themselves to each other in the free world: there’s just no time for that. We get right to the heart. Or the gut.

One man arrived in a wheelchair, with one leg and no teeth. One was on crutches; he writes with great difficulty, his hands twisted with arthritis or muscular spasms. Another offered a story about a young man in a wheelchair and explained that he spent years in a wheelchair and has only recently begun to walk again. Yet another walks with a cane, one arm hanging limp and lifeless against his other side. Two are young, agile, with the spring of wild things in their gaits and no visible impairments. Not everyone in the “medical unit” is there for medical reasons. Some just landed there with the luck of the draw.

The moment that cut me open last night came when one of the men said he writes “thousands of poems” and throws them away, because they’re “garbage.” He only keeps the ones that come out “right” the first time. But he’s been having a dry spell. He can’t seem to write anything but garbage. One man suggested he might start reading other people’s poetry: “I find it gets me started sometimes,” this man said, gently. “I’ve read more in here than I read in my whole life before I came here.”

“Nah,” the stuck man said. “I hate poetry.”

“Then why do you write it?”

“I don’t know. I don’t want to. It just started pouring out of me after my stroke. That was twenty years ago. But now it’s stopped.” He looked lost.

I said, “I hear you being very judgmental about your work.”

“I am,” he nodded. “I’m very judgmental about everything. Especially myself.”

John and I nodded. We know what that’s like. I asked this man what he hopes to get out of a writer’s workshop. He shook his head, “I don’t know, really.”

Someone else said, “Freedom, maybe.”

“Yeah,” said the guy in the wheelchair. “You want freedom. If you could write again, that would be a kind of freedom.”

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