Thursday, June 30, 2016

On Writing, Prison, and Sitting on a Plastic Chair in the Texas Heat

Was supposed to guest speak last night at a minimum security women’s prison facility where a friend is currently teaching creative writing. She’d gotten permission to bring in guest authors and so I was the first, but there was some snafu and when we arrived at five last night for the three hour class, I was somehow still not fully vetted. Some quiet drama ensued, although not on my part. Once you’ve taught a few decades in the public school system, you understand that sometimes, this is what happens in institutions and in this case, I really get it. You can’t just walk into a prison because you say you were invited. That kind of thing is no one’s friend.

Still. The education supervisor was called to attempt to sort things out. My friend went to teach her class. And I was instructed –okay, ordered actually—to sit on a hard plastic chair in the heat by Control and not move. And so I did until the supervisor eventually strode back. Honestly, it was relaxing: it’s a pretty place, more like a junior college campus if you ignore the barbed wire at the top of the fence—lots of trees and flowers and plants—and there was a breeze and I had my chair. I had left my cell in the car and so it was just me and nature and the guard behind the tinted glass and the occasional other contract worker checking in.

Mostly I thought about the questions the inmates had written for their instructor and which she had passed on to me—the things they wanted to know about writing and publishing and the act of creating art in this particular way—the ones I was going to talk about.

They were the usual sorts of things—questions about process and revision and what editors do, and how to find an agent and what if you’ve self-published and what to do about writer’s block and how you get paid.

But as I was on my plastic chair and they were in their classroom, I didn’t get to answer any of those. Instead, I sat and thought about how when my friend had received her training for this job she’d been reminded not to reveal any personal facts to her students. This makes sense in the setting and context. But how I wondered as I looked at the flowers and heard the traffic wooshing by on the road just outside the fence, do you talk about writing and inspiration without getting personal, other than in vague, general terms? It felt suspiciously like the time one of my former supervisors had informed the English department that it didn’t matter—not at all—what novels we taught or if we even taught just excerpts. We were there to teach skills. You could do that with anything.

Well, yeah. (And if that person is reading this, let me now say what was in my head during that department meeting: No. No. No. That’s kind of, um, bullshit. You know that, right?)

Anyway. It seemed that what was happening last night was a sort of metaphor for what they were collectively asking. Publishing is often, although not always, a series of amazing moments (when you get a story right; when someone acquires your book; when there’s a lovely review; when you type THE END) punctuated by frustration and dead ends and the occasional crushing disappointment. (Like wanting to hear a guest speaker who is stuck sitting on a plastic chair in the heat.)

If I had been in the room—and I know by now that you realize that matters were not sorted out last night and that eventually, the class ended early since the main attraction was not in attendance, the supervisor hugged me and said she was sorry, really sorry, and my friend and I went to the bar at the local Saltgrass for fried zucchini and a coke for her and a glass of cab for me—here is what I would have said about writing, the part that is in between the lines of my answers to all those many questions:

You can indeed save yourself through writing, but don’t expect writing to save you. There will be days when you get it right and still it doesn’t matter. There will be days when someone reads your story and really, really gets it and you feel there is nothing better in this world than having communicated your thoughts on what it means to be human—the good, the bad, the mundane, the glorious, the small, petty and awful and tragic (because that is what writing is about regardless of genre). By the next evening, you may equally feel that you are not quick enough, not smart enough, not talented in any way. You are too old or too young or not cool enough or too cool. (Is there such a thing?) You are too loud or too quiet. Your language is too rough or not rough enough.

You started too early. Or too late. Life intervened in a variety of ways. You are not the flavor of the week. Or you are and it’s overwhelming and you are afraid. Someone else has won the prize, gotten the golden ticket and there you are, fingers on the laptop keys, typing as fast as you can. You are trying to please the wrong people or the right people but in the wrong ways.

 You are stuck on a plastic chair in the heat.

Write anyway. Write the story only you can tell. Tell the truth on the page even if it’s hard and painful and scary. Treat it like a job not a hobby. Study. Read. Write some more. Your story has value. Tell it.

But don’t expect writing to give you anything in return. A thin, tricky line, that. Sometimes, you have to back away and let it go for a bit. Find a different way. Remind yourself to keep your eyes on your own paper.

Keep writing, I would have told them. Keep at it.