Before I joined the creative writing workshops in Arizona’s Rincon and Santa Rita prison units, I had volunteered for ten years to visit four federal prisoners with very long sentences and no one to visit them. They included a mercenary, a self-professed sociopath, an illiterate man who told me his IQ was less than normal, and a man with only six teeth.
At first, I hadn’t known why I was drawn to visit men who were lonelier than I was. It takes courage to own a desire to help someone. It also requires acknowledgment of your own power. And mine was at its lowest ebb. Far from family and my beloved Australia, I was caring for a brilliant, scientist husband who’d been felled to the carpet by a stroke the day after we moved to Tucson. I was struggling to protect my eight-year-old daughter from the casual cruelty of a father who had lost a fifth of his brain. I needed help. I needed friends. The last thing I needed was a new claim on my time.
But very quickly, I realized that the decision to go into prison was the right one. I realized that the prisoners and I were on identical journeys. Our lives had shrunk. We were all struggling to regain ourselves, to deepen and grow lives that we no longer recognized.
I stayed with those four men until they had either been released or had transferred to lower security prisons. By which time, I was utterly convinced that four felons had given me more than I ever gave them.
So when Ken Lamberton asked if I were interested in leading two weekly creative writing workshops in a state prison, it surprised me that I was afraid. My previous prison visits had taken place in a well-guarded visiting room whereas I would be alone in the writing workshops, and my journeys through the prison yards and corridors would be unescorted.
I swallowed, staring up at Ken in his Tevas and sleeveless tee-shirt, thinking that my fear was ridiculous, because Ken, my curly-haired friend and mentor, had been a prisoner, too.
Outside, through an opened, salt-smeared, sliding glass window, white sand sloped down to the tidal pools of Mexico’s Gulf of California. We were on our annual writers’ group retreat. I was so happy to be there. Not only because for three days I was surrounded by my writing buddies. Patient people who had never complained that all I ever seemed to write about was loss, people who’d poked at my sloppy articulations with penknives until I understood what it was that I’d really been trying to say. I was also happy because now that I lived in a landlocked state, I longed for the sea’s drift, its swell, and its endless wanting.
I’d been fantasizing about riding one of those Sonoran waves all the way to my home on the Indian Ocean. To Fremantle, to Christmas dinners on the beach, to nights spent on my old boyfriend’s steel-hulled yacht, to my Coppertone childhood.
Ken’s kind hazel eyes took in the mixed emotions that must have been flitting across my face and he said, about leading the prison workshops, “I think you’d like it.” I thought it a funny thing to say. How could I like being locked up far from safety? How could I say critical things about heartfelt sludgy writing, outnumbered by men with compromised impulse control? I asked Ken for time to think.
Back in my shared beachside room, I lay on a mattress that I’d moved to the floor. Staring at an open-weaved white throw, my turbulent mind roared. Although my wounded-brain husband had left years prior because he didn’t believe I loved him anymore, I still teared up whenever I thought about the riptides that had shaped my life. I remembered the silly tender kiss with an American man that had led me to love. A kiss tasting of a wet mango that had swept me to the shores of the New World with a baby in my stomach. We’d lived a gypsy existence there, uprooting as Jon won one academic posting after another, until an errant blood clot surged through a previously undetected hole in his heart to his brain, changing my beloved into the imposter who wore the Fairisle sweater I’d knitted.
Struggling to understand stroke-house grief, my daughter and Jon wrote paragraphs that I combined into a story: a stroke seen from the perspective of a scientist and a little girl. My participation in their manuscript was simply to provide the glue. When their authorial interest flagged, I begged and cajoled but couldn’t get them to write more. So, I finished their story, becoming a writer by accident.
At the time that I started my prison visits, I had a single American friend. She told me about a writers’ workshop led by Ken Lamberton. But I’m not a writer, I thought. I don’t join groups. But Klara was persuasive. And when Jon left me without a job or a support network in a country that wasn’t my own, that writing group saved my life.
My head resting on an embroidered Mexican pillow, I rubbed my bare feet together, brushing grains of white beach sand to the sheets. It seemed like I’d lived my life like a sail that had let the wind decide. I wondered if prisoners felt similarly. Living in America because my daughter didn’t want to return to Australia made me feel like a ghosted translation without the proper grammar. But I’d set down American roots, I’d planted trees, and hefted slabs of pink flagstone to form a path to my front door. I wondered if that were the same reason men exiled to tiny, barred, grey prison cells called those cages houses. Not homes. But as close as they could make them.
Late that afternoon, Ken sauntered from the surf, split-bamboo fishing rod balanced on his shoulder, carrying a string of bass for dinner. I looked at his long lean shape remembering all the anguished pirate sentences he’d taught me to discipline. I wondered if he knew that in so doing, he’d taught me to fathom my depths, to perceive the rocks, and to chart a course to a new green harbor.
I started to think that I could do the prison workshops.
Now, with a few dozen behind me, I more than like it.
Initially, I avoided giving the prisoners writing exercises that delved into conscience; I avoided writing prompts like Why I Stole It, and I Never Told My Mother. I thought the men probably wanted a break from self-recrimination. But I slowly realized they liked to wrestle with such thorny issues. They were like me; even when I wrote a comedy, it dealt with loss.
I love this work because it matters. It matters to me. And I think it matters to the men who bend over their papers, working on their prose, poems, and penance, almost glowing in bright orange pants and tee-shirts.