“We are compelled to do the work of our heart, no matter how hard to start.”
~ LeAura Alderson, author, podcaster, entrepreneur, co-founder-iCreateDaily
This is the prompt for Day 10 of #iartdaily. It’s also Thursday, writing group day.
For more than 10 years, every Thursday (with exceptions made for Thanksgiving and Christmas Day and New Year’s Day if those holidays happen to fall on a Thursday) I’ve sat among writers from our rural county (and now beyond), creating. The first few years we met at a village library. Then we moved to a coffee shop two towns over. (I’m writing this from that coffee shop.)
When I worked for a local newspaper, I wrote a regular feature called “Person of the Week,” which shined a spotlight on community members who didn’t get the recognition they deserved for doing noteworthy or unusual things. In a town like ours, the same names can appear on the front page day after day, as if no one else exists. Stories level the playing field.
Our rural county has four state prisons, and storymakers and storytellers are there, too. For the past four years, on Thursday afternoons and Saturday mornings, I’ve endured shakedowns by (female) corrections officers in “the bubble,” removed shoes and socks to show them the bottoms of my feet, and opened my mouth wide, all to prove I wasn’t sneaking in contraband – meaning anything not on the volunteers’ approved list. Then I’ve snapped a PAL (a Personal Alarm Locator, with a large red button to push for help if needed) to my belt loop, and walked with a staff member to the recreation and school building.
What makes it worth going through this invasion of personal space is that I get to spend a couple of hours with amazing storytellers: men serving anywhere from 12-month to life sentences after being convicted of any number of felony crimes. (I’m not allowed to ask about their crimes and they aren’t allowed to discuss them with me.) Together we write and read our pieces of fiction, poetry, memoir and essay, and then offer thoughtful, supportive and positive feedback to one another.
I use the same facilitation method with the prison groups (and with the men’s and women’s groups in the county jail when I’m facilitating there) as I use with the coffee shop group, and usually the same writing prompts as well. The prison writers are equally intelligent, equally capable and equally creative; and perhaps more eager.
Family and friends have asked, “Aren’t you afraid to go into the prison?” The truth is I feel more comfortable there, among the outcast writers, than I do anywhere else.
In one of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, “The Curse of the Black Pearl,” Orlando Bloom’s character, Will Turner, says to Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow, “You cheated!” Jack points to himself and answers, “Pirate.”
Where I volunteer isn’t some romanticized version of prison. It’s real; these men are real. There is no pretense there. They are honest about who they are, where they’ve come from and what they’ve done to land where they are.
“You have a good heart. You want to believe the best about people, but not everyone in here is a nice person,” one of the prison writers cautioned me. I know not to let down my guard when I’m inside. I don’t forget where I am. And at the same time I know these men are more than their mistakes and worthy of rehabilitation and another chance.
In “the world,” as the prison writers call it, there are equally not-nice people roaming among us, but they can blend in, pretend they are who they aren’t. They can live next door, and they can be elected to high public office. I’d just as soon be where people lay their cards on the table, admit who they are and who they can be with some work.
I do love telling people’s stories, and I love listening to them tell their stories. But I’m trying to discern if my work at its heart is writing – or facilitating writing groups.
Maybe it’s both. Wherever writers gather, there my heart is also.