Today during the men’s class, the teacher asked one of the inmates how his novel was going. He had been having writer’s block for a while, as he didn’t know what to do with the hero’s lady character.
“So, how did you get over that writer’s block, Marcus?”
“I killed her,” he said.
Everyone laughed. It was halfway through the class, and the energy shifted from quiet and unfamiliar to a lively discussion. I watched strangers respond to each other’s writing, watched most of them raise their hands when asked who was serious about being published writers. They want the same things all amateur writers want. They want the same things I want. I felt the anxiety of teaching at a jail slowly lift from my neck and shoulders.
This week I shadowed both the men and women’s creative writing class at the ACJ. The more I walk through the bleak walls, the less I notice their suffocating boundaries. The classrooms are brightened by the inmates red scrubs, labels that mark them against gray walls with a color that’s hard to avoid. Op-Eds were the topic of discussion and as a class we looked closely at a couple of their pieces. Dashaun, the one with sleepy eyes, who moves his head so slowly when he talks that it seems he’s placing it down for the night to mold his thin pillow, wrote about mandatory drug laws. He wrote about how unjust they were for Black and Latino populations, how 5 grams of crack will get you five years whereas it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine to be sentenced the same jail time. He says it needs to be changed.
In the women’s class, I paced behind them as they typed their Op-Eds into computers. One wrote about domestic violence, the difficult struggle between staying and protecting the children vs. finding the courage to leave whilst putting the children in danger. Another wrote about the judicial system, its unfair process, its power to arrest and charge in a second upon entering a living room without any solid background information.
I started wondering what I was truly going to do to help their writing, where my knowledge would best be applied, to their structure? Their grammar? Their use of language? Marcus already knew that by killing off his protagonist’s lady he’d be allowing for more possibilities, the option to complicate plot and give the hero a reason to keep going, to seek revenge, to find closure, to search for another lover. Dashaun already knew that his Op-Ed needed heart and honesty but also specific examples to make a point. And the women already knew that their voices would be heard by writing down their pain, even if my eyes were the only ones to see it.
I realized I could teach these inmates all the grammar, structure and language in the world, but what they really needed was a reason to keep writing, a hope that their words could be better. And sitting in that classroom with no windows, I was forced to look at each inmate, to study the way they move and talk, to realize that anyone in their lives who might have been there to listen, to support, to encourage, has been “killed off” in one way or another. When they wrote the novel of their lives, before they were in this creative writing class, their words were spontaneous and passionate, wrongly laid out, chosen for instant gratification just like the actions that put them in this place; they were not toiled over and thought about, painstakingly read. I realized my job was going to be simple: I was going to help them revise their words. And I started to believe that new novels could be written.