Ten Thousand Hearts
For a recent MPWW public reading, we asked our student O'Brien (not his real name) to write the opening welcome. These are his words, shared with his permission and that of the Minnesota Department of Corrections.
I became involved with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop in November 2011, back when it was just called Jen’s class. With nearly 10,000 inmates confined in Minnesota prisons, how can one person make a difference in the system? Jen’s answer was to walk into Lino Lakes Correctional Facility and teach six of us about writing. Her class was always the highlight of my week, not just because it broke up the monotony of doing time, but because every Friday from 1 to 4, we weren’t felons or inmates or convicts or offenders. We were students, and critics, and essayists, and so-so poets, and storytellers. This class offered us something rarely found inside the razor wire: dignity. We had opinions which were valued, a craft to sharpen, and voices worth listening to. At the end of the class, we read our work for an audience of teachers, therapists, corrections officers, and even the warden. We all left class better people than we came in, and knew we had done something we could be proud of.
Prison life conditions us to expect that whenever something good happens, it is an anomaly which will be corrected before it repeats itself, so I thought writing class would be a one-time thing. If it were, it would have been the highlight of my five-year sentence. But things only got better from there. Jen was back the next year and wanted a former student to serve as her teaching assistant. The other five graduates of her first class had already been released, so I became the best man for the job. I had already learned the basics the first year, so work with my writing class became less about how to keep my prose in the correct tense or what the heck a semicolon was, and more about how to create a piece of literature that affects anyone who reads it. That was when I realized writing wasn’t just something I had a knack for; it was my gift, and I wanted to share it with the world.
I was asked to pilot a correspondence program where MFA students and graduates would mentor incarcerated writers. That was when I began learning from Anika. We both agreed to a minimum of three correspondences and would decide if we wanted to continue from there. Twenty-one months later, we are on our fifteenth round of correspondence, with hundreds of pages of finished work, and I am still learning more from her with each passing packet.
In that time, I have taken a third class, read my work for a crowd of more than 200 inmates, made the warden cry, have been published in two international literary journals, and had the honor of having my work read for more than 120 guests at Hamline University in February.
Beyond the measurable successes, writing has helped me make sense of a life marked by senseless trauma and painful memories. When I came to prison, I brought the baggage of Combat PTSD from Iraq and the scars of coming from a family riddled with suicides. On countless nights in the confines of a dark cell, my therapists were the white space on my paper and a 30-cent black Bic pen. Through writing, I was able to face the horrors of my past, find bits of beauty among the ugliness, honor my losses, and move forward. Every person I’ve met in prison—whether through treatment, religion, education, or work programs—they all want something better. Thanks to the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, I have found more than I could have dreamed.
Along with my own successes, I’ve had the joy of watching MPWW’s efforts grow from our class of six into an organization with fifteen teachers who have taught hundreds of students, and a mentorship program with 22 active mentor/mentee pairings. To all the teachers and mentors, on behalf of all who have benefitted from it, thank you for the time and knowledge you have volunteered. Thank you also to Sue Lambert, and all the DOC education staff who have done so much amazing behind-the-scenes work to make, not only the classes, but a night like this possible.
Tonight, you will hear stories and poems written by a handful of men in prisons throughout Minnesota. Like me, they are men who have hurt people, ruined lives, and damaged their communities. Men deemed a danger to society. Men who threw away everything for the needle, the pipe, or the bottle. They are men who haven’t seen the stars in years. Men who have forgotten what good food tastes like, or the pleasure that comes with rolling the car windows down and letting the wind blow in their faces. Men who have watched their children grow up in visiting rooms. These stories are written by men who know what it is to be locked in a steel box with nothing but a mirror they can’t bring themselves to look into.
Some of you know these men. You already know they are more than what is said about them in court papers and police reports. You know their hopes and dreams, their pet peeves, and what they sound like when they laugh. Some of you even remember holding them as babies. Some of you in the audience may have been in the same situation as these men at some point, and could rattle off your six-digit Offender ID number by heart. Others here have never seen the inside of a prison or met the men behind these stories, but your very presence tonight is a testimony that despite our mistakes, there are still people willing to give us a chance. And some of you are just amazing therapists who have come to cheer for your most high-maintenance client. Whatever brings you here, on behalf of all incarcerated writers, thank you so much for your support.
The night my stories were read at Hamline, I sat alone in my cell and read them out loud. I knew that somewhere out there, in the world beyond the fence, my words were touching people’s hearts. When I called my family that night to hear all about it and received the audience comment cards a couple weeks later, I felt the warmth of the outside world reaching back. To most people, prisons don’t even exist. They are places where criminals are sent to and forgotten about until they have paid their debt to society. But as my words are read to you, close your eyes and picture ten thousand hearts beating in cages.
These stories and poems are a glimpse into just a few of those hearts.
O'Brien is a student with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop.