A quote opens our lesson for the week: The art of revision is the art of writing: It’s something I’ve heard before, but I don’t know who said it. The men choose a piece of work that they feel good about, one that they put up on the projector and read aloud to the class. We have our first workshop, with revision in mind. I want all the students to think: How can it be better? What images stand out? How strong is voice? Where does the true heart lie?
Only five guys make it to class. At the jail, if you don’t make the first elevator down to the classroom, then you don’t go to class. The correctional officers don’t hold the doors. They don’t wait. They don’t come back for a second run. But it doesn’t matter this class, because these five men are ready to learn, ready to write, and ready to workshop. I watch them compliment each other on language and narrative arc, hear them respond with “Wow, man” and “No for real, this is good.” They get high off the energy that pervades a writing workshop, the same high that I get sitting in a circle, talking about creative writing. I think about how a lot of these guys are in here for getting high off something else, or for letting their anger take control of their reason, or for fighting a system that just wants to keep them down. And I can’t understand how these men, who are respectful, intelligent, funny, humble men in my class truly got to this place in their lives? I want to know what went wrong.
When Carl, the gentle-natured inmate with sweet eyes and a soft voice reads his piece about living in the ghetto, I feel the tingle that crawls through your cheeks right before your eyes well up and a tear or two flows. Carl is new to class. He’s never really written before, he tells me. He doesn’t think he’s a writer, or at least a writer good enough to read. After he reads his piece, we discuss how it works best as a poem. “This is a poem?” he asks. “Really? I wrote a poem? I never knew how to write a poem or what a poem was.”
“Yep, this is your first poem, Carl. And it’s good.”
I’m realizing how much work teaching at the jail entails. It takes up a lot of my time, planning lessons, putting together booklets with craft definitions and building blocks, quotes and excerpts. I feel myself becoming totally absorbed by these classes. I think about the inmates when I’m gone, I wonder what their lives are like outside of jail, I hurt because of what I see every week in their eyes.
I see pain because they’re longing for their wives or their kids. I see fear because they don’t know what this system will bring them. I see a sense of humor because they like to laugh in class just like the rest of us, passion because some of their words are put together so well and so creatively that I find myself taken aback, and hope, because these inmates have good in them. The kind of good it takes to think about the world around you, to observe the tiny details, to reflect on how these details make you feel and how they can make you better, to construct sentences that convey feeling, and to share this process with someone else, to connect on a human level through this stirring communication we call writing. And they smile through tired eyes the whole time.