Literature on Lockdown: Elizabeth Tannen

litOnLockdown (2)

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 A physical mailing address can also be provided.

Today’s Writer is Elizabeth Tannen

Notes From a Prison Teacher: On Round Characters, Imagined and Real

Rob is reading a story about his daughter. In this scene, the narrator recalls watching her race up a hill by the Mississippi river when she was three. It’s fiction, but the class gets the sense he’s writing from life. Sure enough, when he’s done reading, Rob sets the loose leaf paper down on the table and tells us that it really happened, that the piece even bears his daughter’s name.

It’s one of those moments in which I catch myself feeling, at once, both a reflexive surprise—and surprise at the surprise.

What surprises me is the realization that Rob is a father. It shouldn’t. He’s probably in his mid-thirties, if not older. Like everyone in the room, like everyone, he’s got a family and a past I can’t immediately see. It shouldn’t have startled me, either, during a previous class when Jim, a student with white-hair, a nasal voice and an uncanny knack for humorous dialogue, took out a color snapshot of a baby girl and slid it across the table to show one of the other students—his granddaughter, he said.

But it did.

I know the men I teach are fathers. And grandfathers. And husbands. And brothers and friends. Painters and athletes and uncles and sons.

But they are also men who are incarcerated. And when I come to teach them in the blue-carpeted, florescent-lit library of the facility where most will continue to spend their days for years if not decades to come, I sometimes need to remind myself that they are more than only that.

There is much to work against.

All the men dress, roughly, the same: white t-shirts, light denim jeans with elastic waists, baby blue button down shirts. They’re given the same pairs of black plastic glasses. In most of their daily interactions, they are known by their last name or a long ID number issued by the Department of Corrections. They’re deprived small liberties most of us take for granted: the ability to access the internet, or to go to the bathroom without being watched.

I have opinions, of course, about this—about the effectiveness of our justice system and the common sense of rehabilitating people this way. But those opinions aren’t what motivate me to teach them creative writing. And what I want to talk about is what does.

Prisons reduce people to one thing. One identity, one persona: a person who committed a crime. That fact, I think, is one simple explanation for why I and many writers like me drive dozens of miles from home, undergo extensive trainings (to summarize: do not have any kind of sex with an offender) and pass through rigorous security regimens (beware: keys, rings, underwire bras) to talk with them about the craft of creative writing.

Here in Minneapolis, I’m part of a collective of about twenty writers who’ve banded together to do this work. But there are many like us around the country who do the same. Writers who, instead of volunteering to teach the ill or impoverished or otherwise disadvantaged, are drawn to these bleak exurban complexes—to men and women who’ve been convicted of crimes.

It is exceptionally rewarding work. In prison, writing becomes a primary mode of communication. The men who take our classes choose to take them, which usually means they’ve begun some process of self-reflection and self-work. Every prison teacher I’ve met would agree that our students are some of the most engaged we’ve taught anywhere: they dedicate themselves to craft, read voraciously, encourage one another. Most people with authority over our students are paid to enforce some rigid routines of prison life: to regard them as offenders. We have the privilege to swoop in and treat them as people. It’s an honor, and it feels good.

Still, writers are prone to ask why: to seek shapely narratives, context and meaning around the world and our own curious choices. So it’s no surprise that this why question has nagged at me since I began teaching in prison, about a year ago. Why these prisons? Why these men?

Every teacher has their own story. Some of my colleagues have relatives who’ve been incarcerated, or backgrounds in law. Some approach writing as a means of healing and catharsis. Some, like I, can’t explain our motivation in such neat terms.

But I try. And when I do, I keep returning to that peculiar, startled sensation that surfaces in moments like the one when Rob read about his daughter: to the way our students are reduced to one simple thing, and how that is something writers resist.

A few years ago, the novelist Jennifer Egan gave a craft talk on characterization at the Center for Fiction in New York. She advised the audience to avoid writing predictable characters.

“The thing about real people,” she said, “is that they’re not consistent.”

In fact, Creative Writing 101 teaches us to avoid flat, or stock characters. We in the writing field are constantly reminding ourselves that people are complicated: that they are good and then bad, generous and then stingy, hard and then soft. That they don’t do what you expect. And that, therefore, nor should those you create on the page. Writers traffic in human complexity. Our stories are not credible unless our characters are credible; and our characters are not credible unless they are complex.

Everything about the drably dressed men and dull cement walls of prison reject this. And that is partly why, I think, we feel pulled there. Because something in us is compelled to seek some humanity in the place where it may be most difficult to find.

I don’t look up the crimes my students committed. I trust many of them did grave, terrible things. I also expect that various factors, whether histories of oppression or childhood trauma or stretches of simple bad calls, contributed to the circumstances in which they did wrong. I’m not interested in excusing or minimizing their crimes. That said, it’s impossible not to suspect that few of them had access to the kind of economic and emotional privilege that I did, and that their paths may have led elsewhere if they had.

I can’t change these varied pasts. I’m not qualified to heal or pathologize them, or to make the kind of societal changes necessary to alter the course of their punishment and the hardness of their time.

But for a few hours a week, I can recognize them as something more than men who messed up. I can attempt, at least, to see them, first and foremost, as writers—a simple gesture that, I believe, is valuable for us all.

BODY headshotElizabeth Tannen is a teaching artist with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. She has work published or forthcoming on The Rumpus, Salon, The Morning News, NPR, and the Huffington Post and has done residencies with the Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos and the New York Mills Cultural Center in Minnesota. She writes the blog Dating in the Odyssey Years, and is currently attempting to revise a memoir, draft a novel, and become a poet. 

Photo credit: Karen Kopacz