Dispatches | October 23, 2013

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Welcome back to our many part series where we share narratives from those who teach in prison, those who write from prison, or those who previously did either. If you have taught in prison or were formerly incarcerated and are writing, or know someone who currently is and would like to be a part of the series, please send an e-mail to us at literatureonlockdown@gmail.com. A physical mailing address can also be provided.

We’re pleased to present our interview with Wally Lamb. You might know him as the author of novels such as  Wishin’ and Hopin’, The Hour I First Believed, I Know This Much is True, and She’s Come Undone (the last two were Oprah’s Book Club picks.) His next novel, We Are Water, comes out later this month. Today, though, we will be speaking to Lamb about the two nonfiction essay volumes he edited,  Couldn’t Keep It to Myself and I’ll Fly Away. The collections feature essays from his writing workshop students at the York Correctional Institution, a women’s prison in Connecticut. Lamb has been volunteer facilitator at the prison for the past fourteen years. He generously spoke to our own Alison Balaskovits about what it’s like to teach the “incarcerated wounded,” lawsuits, and how these experiences have influenced his own work. 

couldnt keep

It’s been ten years since the publication of Couldn’t Keep it to Myself and six years since I’ll Fly Away was released. Has the attention garnered by the books changed the way that you approach the workshop?

No, not really. The women are primarily writing for themselves, and publication comes down the line if they work hard at it. But for many of them that is not their goal. For some of them it is. We have had some award winners in the Pen Prison Writers Program. I think four or five women have distinguished themselves in that way. Several of our women have been published in the Sun Magazine’s reader’s rights section, where they have the theme of the month and they write in. And there have been other publications as well. It’s not my goal for them, necessarily, unless that is what they want.

In the introduction to Couldn’t Keep it to Myself, you mention this concept of the walking wounded, an observation of the handful of students from your first year of teaching high school. Yet this seems to the theme of the two collections, our incarcerated wounded. You make the point that this begins not at the moment of the incarceration, but their entire lives have led up to this point.

Many of the women I’ve worked with, certainly the majority, have had wounded childhoods. In many cases that means sexual abuse, lots of times by somebody in the family or a neighbor or someone like that. Along with that, or subsequent to that, there is a secret-keeping they are threatened with. Many of them enter into a collusion with the perpetrators of the crime. They carry that within them. I think because they are female – certainly this is not across the board – more often than not females are more apt to implode than explode. A guy who has been sexually abused can go to a bar and, for better or worse, pop the guy on the stool next to him. I think women to be more self-destructive as they try to keep those secrets. I deal with a lot of women who tried to keep those horrible things inside and take care of everyone else. And then one horrible day they snapped and in many cases took a life or hurt someone in a very serious way. Not all, but a lot of them.

Was it difficult for these women to publish such personal narratives knowing that their private lives would be made public?

Many women chose not to take that road. One of the things that happens when these secrets that they have been carrying inside of them come out on the page, there is a kind of lightning, and it’s like the defusing of a bomb in some ways. When they take that next more important step of reading it to the class and hearing not only feedback on how to make a stronger draft but they also hear comfort and solidarity because similar things have happened to many of them. This burden that they’ve been carrying inside, suddenly there are twelve to fifteen people helping to carry it with them. I find that a lot of them who wanted to be assured that this was going to private or only I would read it or it would not go outside of the writing group, little by little, by stages, many of them let go of the terrible secrets and then want it to go public. I only know of only about three instances where a woman wanted to continue to protect the person who had injured her. Some of these perpetrators have died at this point. But sometimes other members of the family knew about it and bear some guilt. But by and large, once those secrets are out and have been made public to the group, there doesn’t seem to be that big of an issue to making it public in a larger circle.

It is really, when you think of it, pretty brave.

Have the women shared with how much these classes and the writing have gone towards healing these wounds?

We talk about that quite a bit.

First of all, I would have to say that we have qualifications to get into this writing group. The most important one is that they have to be discipline free for a period of six months before they enter the program. And if they are disciplined for something they did outside of the program then they are suspended, sort of like a high school thing, for a month or two months or so. So that means we tend to get self-motivated women who are interested in rehabilitation. I only see a percentage of the women who are on the compound. And these are largely the same women who will take advantage of other rehabilitative programs. Not that there’s too much, but the same woman in our program might also be in the dance program. We just recently added classes taught by professors from Wesleyan University. And that was after a lot of road blocks that the prison system put in. But the women are very excited about getting college credit for those classes too.

To get back to your question, yes. I have seen some really dramatic healing going on. I’ve seen women who were so bowled over in pain and embarrassment for what had happened or what they had done that they could not have direct eye contact with people. They were crying. A lot of the women, at first, cannot read their own work and so they pass it to someone who is a friend of theirs in the class or they pass it to me and one of us will read it. And little by little, I’ve seen this over and over again, a woman who is in the process of finding her voice will then allow that voice to get stronger and clearer.  Then there’s no stopping her. I’ve seen woman who were almost frightened to be in the program become the leaders. When you’re there for fourteen years you see this development over cool. For someone who has been an educator their entire life, it’s really cool. Or as we say in New England, it’s wicked cool.

What do you do in preparation for these classes?

My primary preparation is going through the writing that has come in. I’m there once every two weeks. I collect the work, either an assignment or something that they have self-assigned. I give them feedback in writing and I will shape a class around some of the women’s work. I might do a little grammar lesson to begin, point of view or subject verb problems. We don’t spend a whole lot of time on mechanics, but we might do a little of that as a warm up.

Sometimes I give them outside assignment assignments. We have used the Pushcart Prizes, those annual volumes that the Missouri Review is often well represented in. We have classroom sets of that, so I will assign a short story in there, or an essay. We get a global reaction and then pick it apart in a more technical way.

I have three people who are my co-facilitators. Once upon a time I was a high school teacher and the woman in the classroom across the hall retired and I knew she would work well with these woman, so I snagged her. Another woman’s field is in alcohol recovery, Susan, is an editorial writer, and a good one. So she coaches that aspect. More recently we have a guy named Doug who runs the stroke program for a community hospital and gets people back and running after they have had a stroke. He is also a very well published writer.

I don’t tell the women they must write this genre or that, but we have the bases covered as far as who is writing what.

What are some of the readings that you typically share in these workshops?

The most recent one that comes immediately to mind is a short story by Donald Hall, who I believe was the poet laureate of the U.S. not too long ago. He’s primarily a poet, but he has this beautiful story called “The Ideal Bakery”. It’s one of the stories that I have gone back to over and over again as a model. And it’s short enough to hold their attention.

I make sure that the women have paper and pencils in front of them and I’ll start reading the story aloud. At the halfway point I will stop and say, “Now I want you to write anything you want for ten minutes”, whether they have questions, observations, or if this reminds them of something from their life or something they’ve read. We reconvene after those ten minutes and we share what their reaction is. It almost becomes a pot-luck kind of thing and everyone brings a little something and we have this feast of reaction. I’ll continue the story, and when the story ends we have another ten minute writing time and we do the wrap-up. At that point we talk in terms of craft. They have to get the plot down first and then we’ll make observations. They really make astute observations. They have become amazingly good at literary criticism, not only the professionals but of one another. Regularly we have observers come in and their mouths drop open because they have certain assumptions about what women in prison can or cannot accomplish, and those assumptions are debunked so rapidly when they see the level of sophistication of those critical remarks.

Is there anything that the women not allowed to write about or you are not allowed to comment on?

It’s probably a self-protective thing for them to not go into details about their crime if their trial has not happened yet. Lots of times they are waiting for a couple of years if it is a serious or high-profile case. They don’t get before the judge and jury for a while. We steer them away if they are writing about that kind of thing.

There has been a lot of gang violence and gang members who are brought to prison. When you enter the prison you have to repudiate all of the gang signals and rituals and so on.  A woman who was in both of the books, Brenda Medina – she’s out now, thank goodness – but when she was in prison she had been a gang sister. She was afraid to write about her gang involvement, but it was important for her to do so because she was trying to figure out how she fell into that trap. We sought permission from the then-Warden, who thank goodness was a reasonable woman, and she gave permission for her to write about it. Had that not happened, the guards have a lot of power there, and for no stated purpose they can go into the cells and confiscate whatever they want. Had Brenda been writing about gang stuff without special permission to do so she may have gotten into serious trouble.

If the women want to criticize the prison system or the day to day stuff that’s going on, I ask that they give the guards or whoever they are writing negatively about a pseudonym. We don’t want to put anyone on trial unfairly. But they will get to the bottom of some of the behavior that is unethical.

Was Couldn’t Keep it to myself an idea that you pitched to your publisher or did they approach you and ask about your work at the prison?

It came quite by accident. I live in Connecticut and I was going down to New York. I hopped a train in New Haven and was off to see my then-editor Judith Regan. I was bringing my schoolwork, the things the women had handed in and I was writing comments. The meeting was to talk about the novel I was working on and was about to come out. And Judith said, “So, what else is new?” and I started talking about this class that I had been teaching at that point for about five years and I went on about how I couldn’t believe how good this writing was. She said, I think to be polite, “Oh, you’ll have to show me sometime”.

“Well as a matter of fact!” I reached into my briefcase and pulled out a piece by a writer named Nancy Whiteley, who writes very humorously but also pretty poignantly. It was about three hand-written pages or so. I looked up at Judith when I finished and she had tears. She’s a hard-boiled New York women and I had never seen tears before. She said, “Wally, this is better than 75% of the professional stuff that I see. Would you like to do a book?”

It wasn’t something I had considered, so I said I would have to go back and see how the women feel about it. I went back to the prison services and I said there was a possibility of a book, would you please guide me in terms of safety and security? And therein lies another tale. I don’t know if you know how we ended up on Sixty Minutes?

Oh, yes. The women were being sued for their writing?

They were suing them because of their writing. What they were suing them for was the cost of their imprisonment.

That’s so bizarre. It’s not as if they chose to be there.

Correct. But they overplayed their hand. I had just come from two very successful books that Oprah Winfrey had endorsed for her book club. The prison culture is one of fear. Everybody is afraid, particularly, of public criticism. I think they were so afraid that Oprah might pick this and make a bestseller out of it and the resulting outcry would be how dare these women profit from this?

Just the math of it: the book sold for about $75,000 and there were thirteen contributors. The women wanted to make a battered women’s shelter the fourteenth partner, because many of them had been battered women in these shelters. I edited the book but I didn’t take any money for it. That divided up into about $6,000 apiece per woman that she would be able to get once she was released. In other words, it would be held for her by the publisher.

The prison system was not after that money, that $6,000, they went after $117 per day times the number of days of their sentence. One woman, Bonnie Foreshaw, had three bucks in her account to buy overpriced toilet paper at the commissary, and suddenly she owed the state of Connecticut $917,000. It demoralized the women. I’m not a rabble-rouser and I’m not particularly an activist, but I got so pissed off that they were trying to shut down those voices just when they had acquired them. I went to battle against the State of Connecticut, and eventually it got flipped around.

I talk about this in the introduction to I’ll Fly Away, but what happened was the lawsuit languished for a year and a half.  I got a call from the PEN American Center. The lawsuit had gotten some publicity and someone remembered that and called my office and said, “At PEN we give a first amendment prize for someone whose freedom of speech is under attack. Could you nominate somebody from your group?”

I asked if I could nominate them as a group. They said no, it has to be an individual.

I nominated the hardest worker, one of the women who had the most amazing transformation because of her writing. And she won the award. It was funded by Paul Newman’s company, Newman’s Own, and carried a $25,000 prize. If you’ll excuse my language, that’s when the shit really hit the fan.

I was told I was no longer welcome at the prison. They said were investigating me and investigating the program. While this investigation was going on, they forbade the women to write anything for the program and they confiscated their floppy disks. We’re talking about ancient computer material. But the cruelest thing of all that they did was they wiped out the hard drives of all the women’s writing. We had these old Apple 2E computers and suddenly all their writing was deleted.

I got ahold of the PEN American Center and told them what was going on and PEN got ahold of 60 Minutes. 60 Minutes investigated and found out that I was telling the truth about what was going on and that the prison system was lying. Once they shined their TV cameras and lights on what was going on, suddenly the Attorney General did a back-flip: This is a wonderful program and we’re going to settle this lawsuit. It all ended okay, but before that it was a year and half of something very Kafkaesque. They were telling lies about me. I would pick up the newspaper and see these fictions they were writing– this program is sneaky, they didn’t know anything about it, and all of that was bogus.

Did they assume that you just walked in randomly and started teaching?

I don’t know what they were thinking. The spokesman for the Department of Correction was feeding lies to the Hartford Current, which is the big newspaper in the state. For instance, they said that they didn’t know anything about the book and that I had snuck book contracts in through the mail and they had confiscated them.

Now, that’s what I read in the newspaper. The real story was that I had submitted the manuscript for their approval and they never got back to me. I submitted copies of the contracts and they never got back on those. Nor would they answer calls from the lawyers at Harper Collins. They said that they had confiscated them from the mail? They were never mailed. I had passed them out in class one day assuming that they never said anything about the sample it was okay. It was bizarre and very scary, particularly for the women.

Are you considering doing a third book in this series?

I’ve got a couple of projects that are going to keep my busy for a while, but I am stockpiling the very fine writing that has accrued in the past five years or so. I may or may not do a book. I was thinking – although there are no immediate plans nor do I know how to do this – that this might be really interesting as a stage play, where the women’s writing becomes dramatic monologues and there might be five of them on the stage. Little by little they can tell their stories, both the tragic and the victorious. But this is a vague plan.

How have these experiences and these women telling their stories to you influenced your own art?

It has. With my fiction, I’ve never been afraid to go to the dark places, but I think the women have made me more daring. For instance, with my new book, We Are Water, because I have read so many stories of pedophiles that victimized a lot of these women, there is a pedophile in my story and I take the gag off of him and he tells his story. It was scary to write as this guy. I don’t think I would have had the nerve if they had not given me an education. I guess I would call myself a feminist in terms of what they have taught me about the inequality of women and men and the power structure between women and men and how some men are extremely abusive of that power. And some women too. There’s been a give and take, a flow back and forth between who is teaching what to whom. They’ve taught me a lot about life and I’ve taught them a few things about writing. It’s symbiotic, and I feel so lucky and so blessed to have them in my life and have this class to go to. It takes me about forty-five, fifty minutes to get down there by car. I get my homework done and I pack my stuff in the car and I am frustrated, I can’t believe I’m going to do this, I have my own stuff to do and I’m whining the all the way down there. Three or four hours go by and I’m driving off the compound and I’ve got a smile on my face. I’m just so glad that I went. They’ve become really important to me personally, and really important to me writer to writer.

Wally Photo 4Wally Lamb is the author of four New York Times bestselling novels: Wishin’ and Hopin’, The Hour I First Believed, I Know This Much is True, and She’s Come Undone. His fifth, We Are Water, is due out in October 2013. Lamb also edited Couldn’t Keep It to Myself and I’ll Fly Away, two volumes of essays from students in his writing workshop at York Correctional Institution, a women’s prison in Connecticut, where he has been a volunteer facilitator for the past fourteen years. He is a 1972 graduate of the University of Connecticut School of Education. He also holds a Master of Arts degree in Education from UConn and a Master of Fine Arts degree from Vermont College.

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