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Category — Writing

Staying Sane

The way we begin each session of the writers’ group I run at the Oregon State Penitentiary is with a five-minute writing prompt. Every two weeks I come up with another prompt, generally a single word – trust, hope, friendship, power – that invites the guys to write about what they know and how they feel. Sometimes we do lists: 10 pieces of advice I’d offer to a new inmate; 10 things I’d do if I were prison superintendent for a day (an all-time favorite).

Last week I had them write a list of 10 things that keep them sane, that allow them to wake up every morning, morning after morning, year after year – some of them for more than 30 years – and keep on keeping on. The answers ranged from finding a sense of purpose to listening to music, from spiritual practice to indulging in Skittles. Faith. Will power. The knowledge that others have it worse. Books. Visitors. And, of course: WRITING.

I write along with them. They want me to, and I want to. It is part of the writers group atmosphere I work hard to establish. This isn’t a class. It’s a group of people trying to make sense of the world and themselves through writing.

So I wrote my list, in full realization that it is infinitely easier to stay sane if you are me, healthy and free. Still, there is enough out here in the “free world” to make you run out into the streets screaming, to bring you to your knees sobbing. I offer my list below in hopes that you, dear reader, will write in with yours. We all need to expand our keeping-sane repertoire.

1. Writing. Always, since those first leatherette diaries with locks that didn’t lock, I have used writing to make sense of my world, to capture experience so I can learn from it, to try to understand others, to talk sense to myself.

2. Reading. Since I read my first chapter book (My Friend Flicka) and disappeared into someone else’s world, reading has been for me both an intense exploration of and immersion in the other and the most glorious of escapes.

3. Lists. I make them. They bring order to chaos. They calm me. I’ve written about them here.

4. Sweaty, full-on, challenging physical activity: long-distance biking, running, hiking, ballet, barre, holding two-minute planks, mini-triathlons. Without exercise, my mood plummets. I can be awash in negativity.

5. Simon, the cat. Sonny, the cat. Tenderberry, the cat. Sally, the cat. For cat-lovers, I need say no more. For others, you wouldn’t understand.

6. Solitude.

7. The heart-stopping physical beauty of the place I call home. Plus clouds, from every angle, especially looking down from 30,000 feet.

8. Sleep. Yes, it does knit up the raveled sleeve of care. I’ve written about it here.

9. My stubborn belief that most people are kind.

10.My family. I put them last in recognition of the fact that they are also sometimes the cause of my temporary insanity.

Now your turn.

May 31, 2017   8 Comments

Doing time

For two hours every other Thursday we sit in an incongruously cavernous room around a rickety table drinking bad coffee out of Styrofoam cups and talking story. How to tell a story, why to tell a story, how writing is thinking, how writing lets you see what you ignore, remember what you forget, feel what you built a wall around feeling, how to craft a narrative of your own life so nobody but you can own it.

The other people around the table, eight of them, are Lifers, men who have been sentenced to either Life with or Life without. The “with” and “without” refer to the possibility of parole. Possibility. One of the guys is entering year 34 of a Life with sentence. He’s been denied parole eight times so far. Three of the guys were sentenced to Life when they were 17, one without the possibility of parole. The oldest in the group will be 79 next month. The youngest is 37.

You get a Life sentence for doing something bad, generally very bad. Not “just” murder, but aggravated murder. When I started working with these guys, coming into the maximum security prison to lead a writers group, I stayed purposely ignorant of the details of their crimes. I wanted to see them for the men they were now not who they were when they did the worst thing they’d ever done. I asked them not to tell me their last names so I wouldn’t be tempted to look them up in the system.

For a time, that worked. Now, for various reasons mostly having to do with references in their writing and conversations around the rickety table every other Thursday, I know. I know sometimes more than I want to know.

And here’s something odd and in a way wonderful and for me transformational: It doesn’t matter. I see clearly what they did. I see the horror and cruelty and amorality of it. But I also know who they have become. I see how almost all of them have, over time, faced the guilt, the shame, the pain they caused and continue to cause, the lives they ruined that they can never make amends for, the history they forever changed. I see that, against all odds, some are blooming where they have been planted. I see that change is possible, that emotional, psychological, moral rehabilitation is possible. I see that the cracks have let the light in.

I am learning so much more than I am teaching.

February 8, 2017   9 Comments

The REAL Elena Ferrante

GetFileAttachmentTo write, to write with purpose, to write better than I had already. And to study the stories of the past and the present to understand how they worked, and to learn, to learn everything about the world with the sole purpose of constructing living hearts, which no one could ever do better than me…

These are the thoughts of Elena Greco, the narrator of Elena Ferrante’s  stunning four-book series of Neapolitan novels. But this is also the author herself, proclaiming her purpose. It is every author proclaiming her purpose, setting her intentions.

And that’s why, as I read the novels, I was content not knowing who “Elena Ferrante” really was. I knew who she was. She was a woman writing. She was a woman giving voice not just to her narrator but to every woman who is bold and then doubts herself, who works for success and then questions whether she deserves it, who is wary because that’s what a woman has to be in this world, who pretends and knows she pretends and beats herself up for pretending and then pretends again. A woman whose interior monolog is richer and deeper and darker than anyone can imagine.

The author, despite extraordinary international acclaim, chose privacy. She chose to remain cloaked in a pseudonym, and I loved that. I loved it because it allowed me to feel the work, to be fully immersed in the work. I loved it because, at a time when every author (myself included) lusts for media attention and shouts me me me on any and all social media channels, this author was letting the work speak for itself. This author put the characters first. And the setting. And the force of culture and history.

And then…the revelation.

An Italian investigative reporter, who apparently had nothing more pressing to do (may I suggest, for starters, investigating the stranglehold the Camorra has on Naples? Italy’s astonishing unemployment rate?) took it upon himself to paw through financial records and real estate records and unmask the “real” Elena Ferrante.

Asked why he would want to delve into the identity of Ms. Ferrante, whose readers value her anonymity, the journalist, Claudio Gatti said he was just doing his job.


If his job is making a name for himself. If his job is (temporarily) one-upping the most widely read, most respected FEMALE novelist of our time. He is like so many of the male characters in Ferrante’s novels – loud voice, small mind, clueless about and simultaneously jealous of the power of a woman.

He wants to steal Elena Ferrante from us. But we know who she is, and we won’t let him.

October 5, 2016   2 Comments