Composing Humanity in Prison Writing Workshops by Erec Toso

I am often asked about inmate writing when people find out I conduct prison workshops. After the big questions of “Why?” and “Aren’t you scared?” and “How can you spend time with those people?” the talk moves on to the actual work.

Most assume that inmates are mentally weak, if not ill, that they have nothing worthwhile to express, and that, most likely, they can’t spell. I can’t blame them. Most of the images that media portray of inmates are stereotypical to the point of ridiculousness. Think violent, incapable of remorse, loser, loner, sociopath, incapable of articulating an original thought.

Beyond misconceptions of the workshop population, I think these well-meaning, curious people assume that writing workshops are like bad writing classes that waste time teaching grammar in the hopes that it will improve student writing.

After working through the now familiar progression of myths many people have about the workshops and about writing in general, I begin the explain that the workshops are not “those kind” of writing experiences.

What is most difficult to explain is that the workshops are about the “big stuff:” life lessons, learning that effective expression requires a development of empathy, of becoming, for lack of a better expression, more human. Reading with a mind to learning, to soaking up rich language helps too. You gotta have the words if you’re roll with the big boys, after all.

Yes, I know that “human” covers everything that humans do: genocide, cheating, brutality, exploitation, and on and on. But what I am talking about here are the characteristics of being human that tend to be underdeveloped, both by inmates and successful examples of people out here in the “free world.” I am talking about emotional IQ, vulnerability, sincerity, and, yes, sensitivity.

These traits underlie good writing, writing that strives for literary merit. Stories worth hearing and telling usually deal with some truth of the human condition. They speak to shared challenges in the worlds of love, money, work, integrity, unfairness, and all kinds of misunderstanding. When someone talks about life challenges, about real, lived experience, one has to take some responsibility the consequences of bad decisions. Personal demons come out of the carefully kept world of looking good and announce that they make for part of a good story. The best work often deals with embarrassing moments, mistakes, character defects, failure, insights, comedy, and usually involves a hefty dose of contradiction. Nobody comes out looking entirely good or entirely bad, because we are, every one of us, a dance of devils and angels.

Life is complicated, and if writing is honest and worth anything, it needs to meet those complications head-on, or at least deal it a glancing blow. It is through contact with the “Big Questions” in other words, that writing workshops begin to compose and construct humanity, the humanity that is waiting, shy, and blushing on the sidelines.

Inmates tend to be experience-rich and confidence-poor when they begin the workshops. Some of the men will sit quietly for months before bringing their first piece in for response, and if they are up to it, critique. That takes a courage that is not taught in the puffed up bravado of the yard. They have to reach deep, sometimes digging around in the guts of memory to bring something forth that a developing human will find worth giving his attention to.

It is not only the inmates who are composing their humanities. The guy running the workshops is having his growing pains as well. That is another essay, one with its own aches and ruptures from stretching.

So when people tell me that inmates have small minds, hard hearts, and are somehow less than human, I want to say, “Put that in writing. We’ll see how your story holds up under the lights, the test of human empathy.”

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