Finding a Voice

Last Saturday afternoon I said my goodbyes of the season to the six women remaining in my creative writing class at Shakopee Women’s Correctional Facility.  I’m pleased that all six want to be included when I reconstitute the class in the fall.  I encouraged them to set some writing goals for themselves and then work at them independently over the summer.  They in turn asked me what goals I would set for them.  So I went around the room and gave each woman a quick summary of her strengths and what we might call her growing edges.

When I got to the young woman I’ll call C, I told her that she has many good, useful things to say about rather abstract subjects–love being a favorite–but they sometimes read as though they’re pulled out of the air or off a chart of affirmations.  I don’t sense a personal stake in them, a grounding in real experience, or what I would call an identifiable “voice.”  My goal for her is to see her develop a personal voice so that when we read her work, we trust that she is speaking to us out of her own knowledge and we can begin to recognize and listen for the distinct qualities that characterize her voice.  Her eyes widened and she looked straight at me.

“That’s what I’ve come to Shakopee to do,” she said.

Someone looking on from a distance would say she’s come to Shakopee because a judge sentenced her to 20 years’ incarceration, because she was found guilty of aiding and abetting second-degree murder. And that is objectively true. Yet she has come to Shakopee with a task of her own:  to find the purpose for her life and the voice to express it.  She went on to explain that she’s never had a voice, that she has never reflected on who she is, never had much self-knowledge.  Now is her chance to take on that quest and reconstruct her life.  I understood then that finding sources of love in a life that has never known much love is part of that process. We all smiled at how well my goals for her writing dovetail with her personal goals, and I took the opportunity to reiterate that writing is always a process of discovery–even for me at this late stage in my writing life–and so continuing in the class will support her larger project.

I realized on the way home that one piece of writing she had turned in actually did have a strong personal resonance.  It was her description of her ideal childhood, the kind of childhood she wished she’d had, and it traced a day from start to finish, beginning with being gently awakened in the morning and fed breakfast before being sent off to school with good wishes for the day.  Its expectations were so simple, so ordinary–no princess gowns, no castle, no unicorns.  This piece did seem grounded, and what grounded it was its opposite, the absence of an ordinary, loving childhood.  It impelled us readers to fill that void by imagining what childhood memories she carries instead.  The spareness of her unmet ideal was heartbreaking.

C’s desire for a voice is exactly what keeps me coming back to work with this group of women. There is an urgency to their writing, whether it’s memoir, fiction, or poetry.  They don’t write confessional pieces or even self-justifications. Their crimes are rarely the subject matter of their writing.  They do make demands on themselves, and they reward each other for honesty and authenticity. (Yes, grammar sometimes gets sloppy, discipline sometimes flags, they sometimes flinch at “hard” assignments.  But when I insist, they rally.) They write, simply stated, to find their voices, to find their purpose, to build responsible lives they can take some pride in.  Another woman in the group is at work on an essay that plays with the Department of Corrections’ shifting terminology:  Is living in a prison different from living in a correctional facility?  What kind of behavior, what kind of self-definition, does each require?  There is, she maintains, a big difference, and she’s mustering the voice to make that difference meaningful. I’m honored to be able to help.

1 comment to Finding a Voice

  • The essay on prison semantics interests me. We seem to change what we call things as a substitue for changing the situation. Imagine breakfast and a kind word on the way to school as a fantasy childhood – those were things my own children found maddening after a time. Thanks for sharing your interesting work.

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