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Category — Writing

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.

Right.

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