Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Good Stuff

It was not the best of moments. My stomach burned something fierce from the coffee I drank on the way to the prison. To distract myself from the gnawing acids, I looked up at the collapsing ceiling tiles and the big gaps that showed electrical wiring, galvanized pipes, and the guts of the Programs Building. I waited for Sargent T., the C.O. on duty, to unlock the classroom where we would meet the writing workshop.

The hallway narrowed to a vanishing point in both directions. I stood there in the middle, next to the drinking fountain, and decided I should use the time to write something. 

Just as I settled in, inmates began to show up, and we gathered there in from on the door, an informal, and likely unlawful, assembly.

Y.D., usually one of the first to arrive, noticed that I was writing, and wanted to share his week of work. He tended to minimize his efforts, repeatedly saying, "I'm no PhD." He told me that he had not done the assignment but rather was reading "Chozer," something the prison librarian had recommended. It took me a second to realize he meant Chaucer.

He said he had neglected the homework reading, a short story by T.C. Boyle, because he wanted to read some "serious stuff." He said it was tough going, but that he liked it, had heard that Chaucer had quite the bawdy sense of humor, and that he had published the first fart joke. He also said that the Boyle story was too "working class," too much about young guys making choices about violence and its place in growing into men.

I didn't know whether Chaucer published the first joke about flatulence, and agreed that Chaucer's Middle English could be tough going. But I wondered about the stigma, or bias, against writing that looked too much like life in the 21st century. I wanted to know more about what he meant by "serious stuff," so I asked him.

"You know, the stuff they read in college. Real literature. High brow reading, not the stuff that passes as 'good' these days."

I had to think about that. Here was a man who was a pretty good writer. He had published a few things in our inmate journal, Rain Shadow Review, and other magazines, like The Sun, but he felt that subjects that he knew, and that writing told in a contemporary voice, was somehow "less than."

To be sure, ,may popular, "genre," books do not past muster for "literary merit," but there was more going on here. Y.D. felt that his voice, his experience, his way of seeing things was not "correct" or "worthy" of literary attention. Y.D. was buying into the idea that "real writing" had to grow out of academic study, university training.

And yes, those are valuable endeavors. But writing from one's standpoint, one's place on the social hierarchy is also valuable and necessary. We readers need to hear more from the margins, from the underclasses, from the hard-knocks of having to scramble and fight for a living.

Too many men, I told him, live lives of noble struggle. They build our houses, roads, bridges. Pick up the trash. Raise families. Teach working sons and daughters how to navigate a society out to exploit them.

Movies don't get made about the dignity of work, the genius of stretching limited paychecks to provide rich, stimulating athletic, creative, or academic training for children.

Yes, craft in writing is important. Quality of ideas, language, and awareness of literary history all matter. And the voice of a writer who has lived the underside, who can speak truth to power, who finds a voice that inspires action -- all of these are what make writing good.

Before I could put these thoughts into words, Sargent T. showed up and unlocked the door. With a space to talk and write waiting, we entered.

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