Friday, July 9, 2010

Creative Writing: The Accidental Writer: An Introduction

A guest A. W., one of my Creative Writing Students

I am twenty-six years old going on twenty-seven. I am without employment and lack any further education beyond high school. I am also a federal inmate serving a three-year sentence in a minimum security institution. I am an accidental writer.

"A criminal,' you say?


I am not at liberty to discuss my crime or how I came to be in the place I currently reside. The information possible for me to share is this: my crime was motivated by greed, with no violence involved. Does it make it more acceptable? No.

It does, however, explain my presence in a minimum security facility. And what are the perks of such a place? You might wonder...

Fortunately, for us, our Chaplin organized a writer's group. It takes place twice a month and is administered by a retired school teacher by the name of Jennifer Jilks. For reasons unknown to us, this woman visits us in her spare time in a voluntary capacity. Why she would want to help people such as myself is beyond my comprehension but I do not question it. Instead, I take advantage of it. I am, at heart, an opportunist.

To understand the grand accident which forced my hand to grip the pen and spill ink over thousands of sheets of paper we need to travel back in time. Backwards, nearly two years.

I am sitting in a maximum security penitentiary in Kingston, waiting to find out where I will be spending the next three years. Twenty-two hours a day I sit in a cell just large enough to contain a steel bed and a toilet. I stare at the 13" television day in and day out until my brainwaves degrade into a zombie-like pattern.

Oh, the humanity.
You're in jail, what do you expect?
Of course, a person in jail should surely suffer. I refused my suffering and tapped on the wall between my cell and person living next to me.

"Do you have a pen?" I shouted out the window.
"Yeah." a stern voice answered.
"And paper?"
"How many sheets you need?"
"A dozen. I'll return it next canteen."

Canteen is the 'gift shop' of a jail. Every two weeks we fill out order forms and wait with anxiety for all the great items available. Pens, paper, chips, pop and hygiene supplies. All the things that help you forget the wretched place that surrounds you.

A freckled arm reached out of the window beside me holding ten sheets of paper and a pen. I squeezed my left arm through the bars of my own window and retrieved the heavenly goods.

Only ten sheets of paper? No matter, I can write on both sides. I soon realized I had no idea of what I wished to write about. All that resided inside myself was anger. Anger towards myself and how I ended up in such a place. Anger towards the fact I never applied for college or university. Anger for those in my life who I believed had failed me. Soon, I would realize that it is only 'I' who had failed.

The pen felt stiff and foreign in my hand. Early words it wrote were ugly and illegible. So many years had passed without touching such a thing and my writing displayed that retardation without mercy.

That first night I wrote into the wee hours of the night. Page after page of blue ink formed a disorganized pile until finally I had used all the paper given to me on one side. It was clearly time to rest and rest I did. My slumber that evening rejuvenated my soul. The next day a new-found vigor tingled my every nerve.
"Hey!" I shouted, sometime around mid-day.
"Here, read this!" My arm squeezed through my iron bars waiting for the person next to me to pluck them from my grip.
"Git it!" The voice echoed and the papers left my grasp.
An hour later I could hear a knock on the concrete walls. I opened my window to listen to my neighbour speak.
"You a writer?" the cold voice questioned.
"No. I mean, I'm not, really, but I like writing." I replied. The words choked as they left my mouth.
"Keep writing." the voice echoed, "This is good."

Was I a writer? What constitutes being a writer? I had only written once before...
Flashback in time, again.
I'm nine years old now, sitting in a grade three classroom. I just finished reading a Hardy Boys novel. I have my own critique for the work. The author was entertaining but lacked a certain darkness only my mind could appreciate, even at the age of nine. There were no swear words and ever since I was told never to repeat them all I wished to do is repeat them.

The pen flowed by the power of my hand and a story evolved on the pages below. A story of John and Jake and every time they spoke something vulgar emanated from their lips. This story was a mere three pages long, but at the time I concluded it to be a masterful work of art. I passed it to the student next to me and he informed me he'd take it home to read that night.

The following day at school the teacher confronted me about my profane masterpiece. I'm not sure what hurt me more: the student telling on me or the teacher instructing me to never write something like that ever again!

My mother had a more reserved reaction. She first asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up and when I told her, 'a writer', she sighed immediately and informed me that writers don't make any money and the prospect was unrealistic. She never said anything about my story, she didn't need to because the discouragement had already seeded.

Fast forward to the near present. After a brief stint on parole and an official return to prison for 'deteriorating attitude'. I find myself here in what's commonly referred to as a 'camp.'

Since beginning my journey with the justice system I have started six novels and finished two with a third near ninety percent done.

I had all but lost motivation when the writer's group formed here, but after seeing the interest writing holds for so few it reminded me how important the craft is. Like sports, some athletes are naturally gifted and others push themselves daily to maintain the status quo. Writing may come naturally to some and others must practice and hone their skills. The important thing is to never give up and more importantly is the motivation you will find to make that a realistic goal.

Whether it be a cold room carved of brick and mortar or a band of misfits trying to express themselves, motivation is all around us but we need to recognize what pushes us towards our goal.

Today, I still struggle to push through second, third or fourth drafts of my works. Wondering, 'When will it ever be finished?' I've learned though that it is not always the final product that is important. It is the time you spend creating it.

If you ask me today if I am a writer, I will tell you I am. Not because I have published works or a career in the field. I am one because of boredom and frustration. I am one by mere accident.

A. W.

Creative Writing Class: Pen Men

My last post for my Creative Writing class was in April, since my daughter gave birth to her second child at home on May 7th! I haven't been back to the minimum security facility since then, and I miss my Pen Men. I brought home a severe respiratory infection, a gift of my first born granddaughter (2 yrs. old!). As a teacher, I managed to fight off most infections by eating well, and exercising. Doing night time burpings was quite a feat for someone my age!

The reason I facilitate the writing group is partly because of a request from the Chaplin at our local penitentiary for someone to run a creative writing group. There was someone doing it, a retired teacher, but she is now caring for an ill family member and cannot manage it. The idea appealed to me. They wanted to be there, no one was forcing them to do so.

In fact, the first session there were 11 men, that decreased to a regular 4 or 5, as they realized I was neither young, cute, and was middle-aged. No everyone wants to play with words and language.

I have told the men that I very much enjoyed teaching, but lost the patience for it when burned out being caregiver for my parents. With a M. Ed. in Curriculum, I love putting together curriculum units. It is rewarding having a purpose in life. After taking an early retirement, my volunteer work keeps me going.

I am going back to facilitating this class, it really isn't teaching, as it is more of a cooperative. We take ideas, share our work, and create writing exercises. It isn't work, and it spurs me to do more writing. The past two months have been whirlwind as we have put our house up for sale in the interest of moving closer to the grandkids. For many in institutions, one can find those with learning disabilities, or social or emotional issues that exacerbate the learning process. I thought that by helping improve the quality and quantity of writing, that I might make up for the horrible teachers some of these men had faced in their lives. For there are a few.

Next post I will feature a piece of writing one of my participants shared as an intro to our class. I hope you find it interesting.
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