One Sentence at a Time: A Brief Review of Prison Writings

In the film adaptation of Michael Chabon’s book Wonder Boys, a creative writing professor quips about a budding student of his who has just been taken into police custody: “Between you and Officer Krupke, he can be the next Jean Genet. It’s been a long time since someone wrote a really good book in jail.”

I admit it. I was late to the game. I just read Orange is the New Black a few months ago. Having watched the series, I was  a bit surprised at how much the book differed from the show, with its near total lack of crazy antics. One of the things that author Piper Kerman focused on was how crucial writing was to her sanity and her ability to adapt to life in prison. For how many other authors of books written in prison is that true? How many authors have used their prison experiences as fodder for their writing, and how many have used their vast expanses of free time to write about things outside the walls?

cummings

E.E.Cummings’ passport application to join the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps (1917) portraitsofwar.wordpress.com

 

When stationed in France as an enlisted U.S. soldier during World War I, E. E. Cummings was arrested, along with a soldier friend of his, and imprisoned for four months. The cause of his arrest and imprisonment was unknown to him at the time. Apparently, his friend was writing and mailing politically inflammatory letters back to the U.S., so the French government interned them both in labor camps. Cummings’ family was initially (and presumably mistakenly) sent a letter informing them he was dead, then another letter came, this one saying he was alive, but missing. Out of this experience, Cummings wrote his first novel, The Enormous Room.

Given up for adoption when he was still an infant,  Jean Genet lived and prowled for years in the Paris underworld. A notorious thief, he was convicted at least ten times in French courts for stealing, at which point he was sentenced to life imprisonment. Although his sentence was later commuted, during its early years, he wrote his first published work, Our Lady of the Flowers. The novel tells, in non-chronological order, the story of an infamous Paris drag queen, Divine, and her eventual demise. A groundbreaking work in gay literature, Genet’s novel also deals explicitly with his attempts to occupy his time in prison.

Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Birmingham Jail (history.com)

Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Birmingham Jail (history.com)

For other writers, prison provided a different platform: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s  “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, and Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis are some examples. Civil Disobedience may stand apart from the rest of these works, because after all, Thoreau  spent only one night in prison, inspirational though it may have proved.

In some cases, like that of Genet and of the Marquis de Sade, writing during their imprisonment was forbidden. Genet had a reasonable draft of Our Lady of the Flowers, written on the brown paper given prisoners to construct bags. (This was work assigned to prisoners during their incarceration). Instead, Genet would secret these bags away and scribble on them, until his stash of writing was discovered, confiscated, and destroyed by a prison guard, forcing him to begin again.

More recently, Piper Kerman’s prison memoir Orange is the New Black created a pop culture maelstrom, spawning the enormously popular Netflix series of the same name. Kerman’s book differs from the rest of the group in some significant ways. The first, and perhaps most obvious, is that Kerman is a female author. Nearly all the other “prison books” are by men, unsurprisingly given the number of male prisoners compared to female ones, especially in bygone eras. While some of these books are fiction, some fictionalized autobiography, and some straight memoir, most express sorrow and self-pity, without demonstrating much narratively, that points to remorse.

Taylor Schilling, actress, & Piper Kerman, author, (snackcrackerwatch.com))

Taylor Schilling, actress, & Piper Kerman, author (snackcrackerwatch.com)

Orange is the New Black, however, is full of Kerman’s ownership of her misdeeds. Her story, for those only familiar with the TV series, or living in a cave, is that, just out of Smith College, she became romantically involved with a woman who participated in an international drug trafficking ring. Before long, Kerman was caught up in the operation as well. Then they broke up, Kerman moved, got a job, and eventually a fiancé. Several years passed. One day the FBI showed up at her apartment to arrest her for her youthful, albeit serious, indiscretions. After spending two years under observation and awaiting trial and sentencing, Kerman was sentenced to over a year at Danbury’s minimum correctional facility.

At several points in the book, Kerman discusses how letters she received, as well as her own writing, both eased her sentence and helped maintain her sanity. For most other authors of prison books, this also seems to hold true. Perhaps the nature of imprisonment is such that it creates or encourages writers where there weren’t ones before.

So what do you think: are writers born or made?

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6 thoughts on “One Sentence at a Time: A Brief Review of Prison Writings

  1. Born or made? Do the times make the man or the man ( person) make the times? Perhaps the opine reflects more on the personality of the person rather than the truth in the opinion?

  2. That’s sort of a chicken and egg question, but since writers need time and quiet–and a good subject–in order to write, it’s no surprise that prisoners have produced interesting and often high quality material. Orange Is the New Black hasn’t been on my radar either, but your review makes me want to read it.

  3. Bit of both? I still haven’t really read the prison great Cervantes but Dostoyevsky is a big fav of mine. Enforced reflection is definitely beneficial to the writing mind, but I think you have to possess an inherent genius/temperament to get it right:)

    Great article here! I totally think you should reframe the current dilemma in the young writing world – it’s no longer the simplistic “NYC or MFA” (credentials vs experience), it’s “NYC, MFA, or CF (correctional facility).”

  4. Great post! Fascinating to think about prison writings. Orange is the New Black is a favorite show in our family, but I knew nothing about the book. So, thx! Perhaps writers are both born and made—-that is, born with a desire for creative expression through art of one kind or another, and made according to what form of creativity is dictated, encouraged, or allowed by life’s circumstances—-whether writing, painting, dancing, acting, composing music, performing music, even building and making things. I don’t think anyone feels fully content without some kind of creative expression of self. And the more that self is restricted, the stronger the will to express it, perhaps accounting for the irony that war and oppression almost always produce more beautiful art of all forms.

  5. I agree that writers are both born and made – the whole inspiration/perspiration thing. But what I really want to mention is that Kerman had a mission when she wrote “Orange is the New Black” – judicial reform. In an interview, she described how many women who were serving time for minor drug offenses wouldn’t be there if they’d been able to afford a better lawyer. She then went on to advocate their right to work and vote like anyone else, once they’d done their time. Nice work, Jessica. Thanks for making us aware of the genre and how it has evolved.

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