Lock ‘em up and throw away the key. How many times do we hear that phrase used in the context of prisoners? If we mechanically process everyone together then we don’t have to see the individual, we don’t have to look at someone’s background, and we certainly don’t have to think about that person returning to our communities.
From my teaching experience, I know that creative writing provides a key…a key to unlocking ideas, unlocking insular thinking and unlocking potential. And with creativity you always begin with potential.
Creative writing changes our mindset, teaches us to think about others, to explore other lives and experiences, whether as fictional characters or as a self-reflection on our own life. We feel compassion, empathy, we connect to philosophies, we encounter character’s traits. We nurture and grow, we edit and revise. And what is rehabilitation if not the ability to recognise patterns of behaviour, to understand the need for change, and importantly to have the tools to input that change.
I remember years ago being asked by a friend if I would work with prisoners. I replied ‘No’. It was a blank, flat ‘No’. Fast forward to 2011, I needed work. I especially wanted to continue in the arts. The Playhouse in Derry asked if I would facilitate 12 weeks of Creative Writing Workshops in HMP Magilligan. I thought, ‘Alright, I could do 12 weeks’. Fast forward to 2018 and I’m still there. It has been a long twelve weeks, but I could never have imagined the potential, the achievements and the insights that I have gained during these 7 years.
I’ve never believed that writing should be locked away in a drawer or a file. We shouldn’t be afraid or embarrassed by our personal truths. Time In magazine provides the primary platform to reflect the creative output of the writers in Magilligan. It has evolved with the group and teaches research skills, journalism styles, computer and IT knowhow and provides an opportunity to consider what makes an interesting article or an engaging story. You learn to make decisions about content and form as well as the many techniques for creating any piece of writing.
The anthologies we put together with PAF’s support give the writing a function, in the sense of making a finished work which is showcased in print. This work gives the group the sense of belonging together. The work we share with each other in the class, teaches us how to critique and understand someone else’s work. I am deliberately emphasising that creative writing is work. The PAF exhibitions, the Koestler Trust Awards, The Listowel Awards and the Prison Reform Trust help us set goals with targets and meet deadlines.
How many of us have said, ‘I could write a book?’ But writing takes more than time, it takes focus and arduous discipline. I mean the discipline and skills of any craftsman except that in writing you are within an interior world. You need at least 75,000 words for a novel and that certainly takes focus, discipline, tenacity and staying power. And works of quality are even harder to achieve. Prison writing is a unique genre that communicates ideas, conveys thoughts, prejudices, love, hopes, regrets. Writing creates a safe space to step back and reflect upon ourselves, see our thoughts and those of others. It is not just a mirror of the self, it is a larger mirror to see others in all aspects of shared common humanity.
Bob Dylan says in his ‘Like A Rollin Stone’ song lyric… ‘when you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose, your invisible now, you’ve got no secrets to conceal…how does it feel?’ Creative writing not only tells us how it feels…but it gives a voice to the invisible.
So, who wants to listen to prisoners? Who wants to hear what they have to say? I won’t attempt to speak for those who aren’t here today, but I know they are grateful to PAF for the support, for realising that the arts play such a vitally important role in their lives, in how they revaluate themselves, and how they stay connected with their families, their wives, their mothers, their children, and with survival. I won’t pretend that creative writing is the cure all. It can be a great challenge to make a beginning and see it through to completion. What works for one person may not work for another…but without a doubt the arts have a place in prison because of the infinite possibilities of expression for the prisoner, for literature and definitely for rehabilitation since art creates a parallel world in which to view the actual world. Rather than the reductive concept of locking someone up and throwing away the key.
What have Christopher Marlowe, Daniel Defoe, Oscar Wilde, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, O. Henry, Paul Verlaine, William S. Burroughs, Dashiell Hammett, Ken Kesey, Jack London all got in common? These writers served time in prison. All these writers are among those who have given us some of the most eloquent, true, insightful and beautiful literature. Their struggle, pain and sufferings transformed into art is definitional. Good writing doesn’t come from an easy place, good literature has never been main-stream…that’s a historical fact, if we look at the cannon of great writers through time.
However, overcoming extreme personal situations, resolving inner conflicts and bringing the self to inner harmony are among the mysteries of creativity, writing, literature, music and art.
I would like to finish by including a poem that one of my students wrote a few weeks ago. I must make a plea that without your support, this poem would never have been written. And you know, and I see this every day that writing doesn’t have to be about something huge, it doesn’t have to be about an over towering outcome, but it is a way of getting though hour by hour, day by day. And it is often a simple act in creative writing, a few lines that, as if by magic connects one human being to another.
‘Poem’ by GS
Behind the walls and wire fences,
the locks and razor wire
a young man walks to writing class
and his youthful heart on fire
He’s learned to write good poetry
and he has a girl at home
and his love flows through the keyboard
as he writes his girl a poem.
He wrote it in his cell last night
while listening to their song
true love is in the words he writes
he says it won’t be long
until the gates are opened wide
and he wants her to be there
a smile upon her luscious lips
and sunlight in her hair.
In all the grey and loneliness
where every man’s alone
the young man walks to writing class
and writes his love a poem.