Do you ever feel like you’re writing the same old, same old? I did, and I needed a new way to look at my work. So naturally, I went to jail.
No, I wasn’t convicted of anything. Last fall I volunteered to teach a meditation and journaling program at a Massachusetts state prison. This wasn’t new for me. Thirteen years ago I had taught a similar program to inmates at a penitentiary in Connecticut. Back then I wanted to test the mechanics of meditation within a stressed-out population because I wanted to be a meditation teacher.
As it turned out I became a columnist. I love the teaching aspect of my career, and I give writing workshops based on guided imageries to enhance creativity and to mine memories for sensory details and emotions. This time at a prison I wanted to plumb the depths of storytelling.
In the past year my own creativity started to feel stale. The “sell, sell, sell” of authorship is fatiguing, as is keeping up with new technology. I needed a bold new challenge. So one morning a “Holy Ghost” moment hit me, “Stop your whining. Do something different. Offer a meditation/writing class at a prison.”
The director, enthused with my background, took it up a notch. “How do you feel about giving your class to protective custody?”
This gave me pause. Thirteen years ago, I had taught general population, folks convicted of your garden-variety assault, burglary, DUI, and narcotic violations.
I said, “Protective custody. You mean murderers and sex offenders?”
“Yes. They’re locked up 23 hours a day, and nobody ever offers to do programs for them.”
So every Tuesday, four to sixteen inmates meekly entered the library, all of them very broken men. I sensed shame, fear, insecurity, or strange detachment. I taught them meditation (self-hypnosis) as a way to relax, and to coax out thoughts or stories for journaling exercises. I had to find ways to secure their trust, to draw them out.
During the guided imagery exercises, the guys loved escaping to warm beaches or cool forests within. Though I hoped they would journal their thoughts, it didn’t happen. I felt discouraged.
Over time, they began to share small memories out loud, a grandmother’s kitchen, a family vacation by a lake, or goldfish swimming about in a home aquarium. One man, close to sixty, had been convicted of attempted murder. “Kenny” had been diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of eleven. One day he said, “I finally figured out why I kept thinking about me and my dad watching hockey together when I was nine. It was the last time I knew he really loved me.”
Volunteering at a prison was the best medicine for my frustration and self-doubt as a writer. I’d like to think the men were getting practice at expressing themselves, even as I honed the skill of interviewing-disguised-as-conversation. I learned kindness, not agenda-setting, unlocked rich terrain. But I never expected my own to be so richly seeded. This year, be bold. Explore beyond the conventional avenues of inspiration. My field isn’t fallow anymore.
She is the author of the Art of Column Writing, and the TV host of “It’s All Write with Suzette,” a Milton (MA) cable show about writing. Look for episodes on www.vimeo.com