What can prisoners teach you about writing?

Introducing winners from PEN American Center's writing contest for prisoners.
Introducing winners from PEN American Center’s writing contest for prisoners.

ONCE UPON A TIME, in another place and in another calling, I roamed a big territory for a big newspaper in pursuit of the big story.

When my travels took me anywhere near our state prison headquarters, I would drop by, since I considered it part of my extended journalistic beat.

Stories abounded there.

Always have.

Always will.

Maybe, perchance, to finally get the young man with the promising future who killed the two coeds to agree to an interview. Maybe the umpteenth try would be the charm and he would be ready to talk.

Maybe, perchance, to interview the professional who ruined his life and that of his family’s because he went out drinking one night and got smashed and got into a street rolling gunfight and killed a man and so now he was spending some of his best years behind bars while his damaged family members were back home trying to fend for themselves and cope as best they could.

Stories like that.

With a quarter million men and women in our state prison system, stories abound.

Among them were – and are – lawyers and doctor and teachers and truck drivers and journalists and plumbers and bookkeepers and people of means and people who are broke and . . .

Among them were – and are – those who have talents, abilities, knowledge, experience. Possibilities. Potential.

Like those in the free world.

Like some of those in the free world who, when it comes to being creative, imprison themselves.

Confine themselves.

Sell themselves short.

Roger Summers
Roger Summers

I remember the first time I wandered into the little prison building that housed and offered for sale the art work of some of the prisoners.

Such an enormous display of sheer creative talent.

Maybe some of it would make its way out of that display room – as some of it did as prospective buyers now and then would buy some of it and the money from the sale would be deposited into the account of the individual prisoner who painted it or drew it.

I marveled at the prison artists’ work.

I also wondered about the prison talent that would never even make it to this room, mainly because many prisoners with artistic ability just never tried.

Same thing goes for some with potential artistic ability in the free world.

For whatever reasons – lack of encouragement, lack of confidence, lack of will, laziness, whatever – maybe they just never tried.

Recently, I received the current newsletter from PEN American Center.

As writers, you no doubt know it as:

“. . . Working to ensure that people everywhere have the freedom to create literature, to convey information and ideas, to express their views, and to make it possible for everyone to access the views, ideas, and literatures of others. Together with our colleagues in the international PEN community, we have been bringing down barriers to free expression and reaching across borders to celebrate, through writing, our common humanity.”

In that newsletter, it published the list of winners in its annual prison writing contest, published some of the winners’ work.

There is some praiseworthy writing there, some enjoyable reading there.

As I read the splendid examples of writing – short stories, essays, poetry, more – I was reminded of how some with creative potential do not fully achieve it because we in countless ways confine ourselves, restrict ourselves.

Trip over ourselves.

Even imprison ourselves.

Consider writers. Or, should I say would-be writers?

Confine ourselves?

Imprison ourselves?

Do we ever.

Take the matter of finding time to write, for example.

Want to write a few hundred words daily but can’t find the time?

Go to bed late.

Or get up early.

Eat lunch at your desk and write out a hundred words.

Stop watching a few TV programs. Instead, write another few hundred words or more.

For a while, become unsociable on social networking. More writing time. More words.

If you are serious about writing, find the time.

In time, the result will be a poem, a short story, an essay, a novella, a novel.

You – and only you – hold the keys to your own prison cell.

Yes, these prison writers who won the contest may have a time advantage. They obviously will have time on their hands, time to spare, for a good while.

But, come to think of it, so do we.

We just must learn to say no to whatever claims that certain bit of time over there has on us, yes to this certain bit of time over here.

You’re the time warden.

Really want to write – or, for that matter, pursue any creative goals?

Time to end the self-confinement.

Time to write off the word excuse.

Time to throw away the keys.

Time for your release from whatever is holding you back.

Time to learn, to focus, to gain a bit of inspiration and direction from the prison inmates.

Roger Summers is a journalist, essayist and author. Roger’s latest book is The Ladies in Pink Hats and My Johnny.

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