A Certain Kind
For a recent MPWW public reading, we asked our student Timshel (not his real name) to write the closing remarks. These are his words, shared with his permission and that of the Minnesota Department of Corrections.
It's the sounds that lull you: the bells as a training device for animals, jingling of keys, an ever presence of authority, a constant murmur of voices until suddenly it stops. I grab the panel of steel bars and begin to close my own door, sliding on a track with the momentum of a roller coaster before the slam echoes in my core. These are the sounds that sink to silence leading you to believe this is an option you chose. I didn't have to fight anyone today, I probably won't fight tomorrow-but tonight, like every night, I'll fight the idea that I belong here, in this cage.
I think of all the men around me, with experience lying dormant under the soot of poor decisions. I know not many are scribbling in notebooks. I understand that when everything you've built is lost to a moment of impulse it is dangerous to believe that anything you craft is safe from your fire. It is a hard sell to convince a guy to start over and build on the shifty prison sands of an hourglass continually shaken. It's natural to focus on distraction and want to simply endure a prison sentence. It's sad to think that most of these stories, the ones truly worth telling. will perish in the dignity found in forgetting. Destruction begets destruction and prison kills your spirit; but creativity can resuscitate the soul. Unfortunately writing is not for everyone.
For a small number of men at Stillwater prison, it’s what we’ve devoted our lives to. I wish I could tell you how the Stillwater Writers' Collective is a band of brothers united and empowered by our efforts to prove how literature can change the prison culture, a cause most in the room have invested in. I wish I could spin a yarn of Hollywood proportion with Eye of the Tiger from Rocky playing over a montage of clips: us around the table engaged and focused, at a white board planning the next move, dappled with quick cuts of marches, picket lines, rattling fences, smoking quill pens and poems written on toilet paper rolls. But in truth, we live fractured lives and bear great baggage. We have our own motives; we've learned to be combative and are taught that everyone around us is coming to take the little we have left-be it dignity or possession. We are individualistic, selfish and starving for scraps of attention the caged crave. The nature of prison encapsulates you at your lowest hour and threatens to never let you go.
We are responsible for atrocious acts and this is no small thing to consider. Its protocol for people to want to take us for who we are today and shun the past moral barriers we have breached; but to deny these realities is to live in denial of the deepest darkest impulses that linger at the primal bedrock of the human condition. The problem lay in our inability to endure such contradicting emotions while holding people accountable. What do we do when a human being strays from the boundaries we set for humankind and how do we bring them back into the fold of humanity- once we have caged them? One way is writing. And that’s what we devote time to as a collective.
The Stillwater Writers' Collective began as most things do, with a couple of guys in front of a computer screen with a desire and an idea. It was backed by Stillwater's Education Director Pat Pawlak and influenced years before by Carleton's Deb Appleman. The Collective started as a resource for writers, a way to facilitate opportunities; but Jennifer Bowen-Hicks and MPWW made us a community. They brought us together in classroom settings with quality Instructors. They now provide mentor support and continue to broaden our definition of community. For most of us, anything past family and friends were considered enemies or strangers. MPWW shapes community through shared interest and new ideas of social obligation; they are teaching us how to relate to people outside our natural bounds. In writing we find the opportunity to develop a bond with society through audience. It's not simply about being heard, but about acknowledging the responsibility of listening. Through critiques, dissecting works and public readings we are taught how to pay attention to the world around us. In doing this, we cannot help but discover the thread that binds us all together in this human condition.
Writing is the epitome of self-rehabilitation. There are no certificates for a base file, no credits for a degree to show at the end of an investment. A simple work represents years of sweat and tears and might be submitted for rejection time and time again. But the writer emerges from that work with a new understanding. This is the creative life what Oscar Wilde called the long lovely suicide. If prison is a trapdoor at rock bottom, then writing is the mortar in between the bricks you must pry in order to dig your way out.
The truth of the matter is writing is hard. It takes a certain kind of crazed obsession no matter what your environment. If everyone has a story to tell, why aren't some ever told? How many of us have compromised the craft for family or friends, to raise children or teach others? Writing requires a balance of living a life worth writing about and doing the work. In the process you are changed and the moment of epiphany comes when you begin to read your life as a writer. Everything around you becomes part of the craft. You see the plot in the narratives unfolding in real time. You can realize relationships are complex characters making the decisions you may or may not agree with. People couldn't script some of the shit you go through, so you mold it as a lesson to be learned.
It takes a certain kind of will to begin to pick up shattered pieces of a life laid before us. It takes a certain kind of courage to mourn what was broken and confront the value of that which was lost by our hand. It takes a certain kind of creativity to craft those broken shards through audacity and hope, into something that pays respect to the past yet bears a responsibility to a future. And it takes a certain kind of benevolence to invest in the fallen--a complex compassion that can forgive without forgetting, that believes that moving on doesn't absolve accountability.
In my cramped cell, where I eat, work and sleep mere feet from a toilet, I sit and ponder how to use this fleeting moment—what to say to you lightning bugs who have wandered into our glass jars. Through continued support from MPWW, DOC education and partnered programming. convicts can come home better people; but the formula is flawed. Enduring a retributive prison sentence does little to honor our victims. It’s in taking hold of our story that we can still turn it around for a greater good. Only in finding a form of success can we get to a point where we can help others. We must combat that insurmountable debt-a debt we owe not to society, but to humanity.
Don't wait until we are released to invest in us. Everyone needs to be heard in order to know the value of their voice. The dignity of the damned must be redeemed. Thank you for all you have already done and all you are willing to do. Go tell your friends, family, co-workers, politicians, anyone who will listen that we exist—for better or worse. And we will continue to grow and refine our voice until it is amplified to the explosive degree that blows a hole in the wall. Not for us to escape, but for society to see inside and explore ideas of justice in a place we are all taught to fear and dismiss. Thank you and God bless.
Timshel is a student with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop and co-founder of the Stillwater Writers' Collective.