Edit: Link fixed!
I recently read this article by Samantha Miller about writers who have gone to prison on account of their writing.
I think about this sometimes. What is it to stand by your work? What is it to write something worth standing by? It is easy, I think, for many of us to forget the importance of words, to forget their power. We love telling stories, we get them published or hope to do so, we think of a career… and yet there’s something more. It is with words we shape the world. A revolution is always spoken and written before it is acted. The words shape the struggle.
The writers mentioned in the article wrote against oppression, wrote in the face of it. The truths they understood were more important. The words were worth the risk, the sacrifice. Perhaps we will not all be in that situation, where our words mean so much.
But it’s important to remember the transformative power of words. These writers were feared for the truth they offered, for the convincingness of their words.
We, too, want to make someone feel, to make someone think. Or perhaps just make someone happy. The power of this is important, the movement from the abstractness of the page to the all too real reader. A connection.
I wonder how many of us would stand by our work in the face of such sacrifice? Prison, confinement, an end of freedom…
Yet it’s strange. I’m drawn to ideas of imprisonment, to stories about this. Perhaps there is something in the act of writing itself that draws a parallel, the sense of solitude and isolation. A writer has to create their own walls. They have to hold themselves inside, to think, to write, to find a story and its proper expression. It is a voluntary imprisonment, of course, and the food and accommodations are better. But there’s something about that idea of solitude, about the box of a prison, that draws me in.
Prison is a crucible. Some sacrifice and accept the risk of imprisonment, while others are imprisoned and find it is this crucible that comes to shape their conscience. I’m currently reading a novel by Chester Himes, The Big Gold Dream. He was a black American writer who grew up poor and in difficult times. In the 20s he was arrested and convicted of armed robbery. In prison he started to write. He had his first story published from there, in 1934. In 1936 he got out after eight years behind bars. And yet he’d found a path. Did the solitude of that cell push him this way?
He wrote. Literary novels. Protest novels about the culture of America, about racism and prejudice. Brutal and burning and probing stories, full of a terrible honesty. He couldn’t stay in America, leaving to live abroad, always searching for a place where he would be treated as a man. And yet he came back in his writing. He wrote crime novels, too, gritty detective novels featuring his detective team of Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, searching through old time Harlem. These books burn a little too, and yet in the light of that fire there is truth and honesty. A world peeled back.
In a cell, perhaps, you can reflect back. On experience, on the world you’ve known. And yet that is really just a way of facing yourself. I’m fascinated with this experience. I have a literary novel I’ve been writing (lost somewhere in the midst of ongoing revisions) about a woman who is kidnapped and placed in a cell.
I think I’m drawn to the sense of containment. A world bound down to its smallest form, its most minimal existence. Trapped with yourself. The story cannot help but operate inside the character, turning their souls inside out for inspection.
And isn’t that what we do? We sit down. We tap the keys. Alone. Alone we turn our souls inside out for inspection.