What is to give light must endure burning.
I’ve taught creative writing in universities for about thirty years. For the last twelve of those, I’ve directed an MFA program and paid close attention to what other MFA programs are doing. In addition to constant worry about graduates finding jobs in a bleak economic climate, I also worry that some of our programs have fallen into a kind of elitism, focusing on mentorship that overemphasizes publication and self-promotion, and that ignores the world we live in outside of academia. Too few programs, I believe, make service to the community a central tenet of students’ MFA work, and some even devalue the use of writing for the purpose of healing or creating community. I offer this essay as a call for another way.
In the “real” world, deaths from substance abuse and suicides have risen to alarming levels. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of overdose deaths involving opioids increased 200 percent from 2000 to 2014. More than 33,000 people died from opioid overdose in 2015. And in 2016, the New York Times reported, “suicide in the United States … surged to the highest levels in nearly thirty years.”
The creative arts have been shown to have a positive effect in harm reduction for addiction as well as for the kinds of depression and hopelessness that sometimes lead to suicide. Why, then, shouldn’t creative writing programs show some leadership in shaping programs that target at-risk communities?
In 2009, writer Sarah Shotland and I co-founded Words Without Walls, a creative partnership between the Chatham University MFA program, the Allegheny County Jail, the State Correctional Institution of Pittsburgh, and Sojourner House, a residential drug and alcohol treatment facility for mothers and their children.
For the last eight years, Chatham MFA students, alums, and faculty have taught creative writing courses at these facilities, and nationally recognized writers whose work addresses substance abuse or incarceration—Jimmy Santiago Baca, R. Dwayne Betts, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Natalie Diaz, and Mary Karr, among others—have visited and interacted with our populations. The work we do has not just provided a much needed service for these populations but has also engaged and invigorated our MFA students, many of whom say that teaching in jails, prisons, and rehab facilities has been a transformative experience for them. Some have continued to teach with us as alums, and others, after graduation, have started programs like Words Without Walls in their home states. Last year, 70 percent of the students who applied to our program said they were interested in social justice and creative writing, specifically teaching in prisons and rehab facilities. Each year, more creative writing graduate students have asked to be intimately involved with communities outside of academia, and they are finding inspiration in working with and teaching those who are incarcerated or confined to a rehab facility.
Faculty have also been deeply affected by working with these groups. Some of us have been reminded of why we started writing to begin with and why—outside of the pressures of publication for promotion and tenure—it’s so important to write poems and tell stories.
Here’s my own tale about teaching creative writing in a rehabilitation facility.
Anna1All names of inmates or residents have been changed to protect their privacy. is twenty-five when she enters SoHo, as we call Sojourner House, a residential rehabilitation facility for women who have children. She’s come to us from Allegheny County Jail; she is a recovering heroin addict, drug dealer, and mother of a small boy. She also has an innate talent for writing. I’m struck, first of all, by the amount of writing Anna does—easily three times what the other women are doing—and then by the quality of her writing. I’m moved, too, by both her honesty and sense of story. I find myself looking forward to her presence, to her questions about narrative and structure, and to the increasing sophistication in the craft of her essays. She’s generous and insightful in her criticism and support of the other women’s work, and the workshop feels a little empty when she’s not there.
One day, she comes in, not her usual ebullient self. Her eyes are puffy; her face, swollen. She slumps down in her seat.
“All I know how to do is strip and cop drugs,” she sobs. “I have a baby now. It was a mistake, but I love him. How am I gonna get money to take care of him?” She puts her face down on the table, her bleached hair falling around her head like a frozen waterfall.
“Dude, chill,” Holly, a normally quiet woman, offers from across the room. “You can’t think about that right now. Just be where you are. Worry won’t help, dude. You still have four more months.”
Denise, a tall, dark-haired woman sitting next to Anna, takes Anna’s hand in hers but says nothing. Denise will be leaving SoHo next week. She has written about her own journey into prostitution to support her drug habit, and she is surely as worried as Anna but doesn’t show it.
I don’t have answers to Anna’s question, but I say something about her maybe publishing some of her writing. I mean it, too: Anna is a good writer, and her voice deserves to be heard. I can’t imagine a time when she, or most of the women we work with at SoHo, might be able to afford an MFA program. Even if they could afford tuition, it’s doubtful the women would get past “the box”—the question on college applications that asks about past arrests and convictions. And let’s not forget about childcare or transportation. One has to wonder about a system that privileges creative writing mentorship only for the few who can afford it.
A few of the writers we’ve worked with have won awards in the PEN Prison Writing Program. Eric, a talented young man who took creative writing classes with us while in the Allegheny County Jail, is one of them. We published one of his stories in our annual Words Without Walls anthology and encouraged him to submit it to the PEN contest. His piece won second place, and when he was released from jail, he was invited to do a reading in New York City with Joyce Carol Oates. Soon afterward, he was awarded a scholarship to an MFA program in New York City. Eric has now completed his MFA and is teaching for Words Without Walls. His story isn’t typical, but it shows that success isn’t impossible, either.
I tell Anna there are people who would be interested in hearing about her life—how she came to be an addict, her experience giving birth in prison, and her journey to recovery.
She looks up, eyes glistening. “Really?” She’s quiet for a moment, then wipes her eyes, and, after we talk a bit more, picks up her pen again.
Many of the women in SoHo, like Anna, have come here from jail, as part of the terms for their release or parole after completing their sentences. For some, a six-month stay here is required in lieu of jail or prison. Most of them have had at least one experience when they almost died from drug or alcohol poisoning. Some have sold their bodies for substances; some have been beaten almost to death because of drugs or alcohol. Others have children who are not allowed to see them. Many were addicted while pregnant, and there are often problems giving birth. One woman, who was pregnant when she started our program, delivered a stillborn infant while in SoHo. She knew it would be stillborn but chose to go through labor instead of having the baby cut out of her. Two days later, she was back in class, writing about the birth.
Anna’s drug is heroin, and she has written moving and disturbing pieces about being brought back from death. She’s not shy about sharing the details of her past life, and it’s painful to hear her read these stories in workshop. Still, the Anna I know in SoHo is sober and drug-free, eager to tell her stories, her eyes bright and curious.
We ask the women in SoHo to write personal essays about how they came to be in this exact place—the road to recovery or, if they wish, the road to ruin. Sarah and I write along with the women each week. When we first started the memoir module, I had to ask myself the same question I’d asked them: how had I come to be here, teaching writing in a rehab facility?
The easy answer: I have a soft spot for substance abusers. My mother’s sister died in her thirties of an overdose and my brother at twenty-three, and my father died of cirrhosis from alcoholism at fifty-nine. My son died at thirty of a heroin overdose. Both my son and my brother spent time in jail or prison. I’m in recovery myself, sober seven years and drug-free for three times that, but not a week goes by that I don’t think about drinking, and almost not a week, even after thirty-five years, that the image of a needle entering my vein, drawing up blood and shooting in pleasure, doesn’t float into my subconscious, however briefly. For years, I’ve written and published poems and essays about substance abuse, both my own and family members’, and I know firsthand how writing can encourage healing by giving shape to chaos. I’m certain I would not be alive without writing, and I have forty years of journals and several books of poetry and nonfiction to prove it.
Perhaps one reason I believe so strongly in programs that make use of creative writing in recovery is because I used it myself to structure and channel the turmoil of my life, and I’ve watched close friends do the same. To make and gift a poem, a story, an essay of something dark feels good, especially if you’re able to write toward insight or deeper questioning. To witness students do the same feels just as good.
I’m moved more than I can say by the untutored poems and stories of recovering addicts, especially poems and stories that reach for introspection. Every word matters to the addict in recovery. She has no choice but to interrogate the soul. One writer from the jail wrote about lighting up a bowl when his son was born, realizing at the moment of inhaling that he was in both heaven and hell. There, he found the entrance to a poem.
Anna, who spent time both in jail and at SoHo, wrote a story about being pregnant in jail and giving birth at a local hospital. Her child was taken away immediately, and she was led off in shackles back to the jail. She hated her child at first, she wrote, and dreamed of tossing him out the window; she even envisioned how his swaddling would balloon out as he fell. But she soon came to love the child, who is now with her in SoHo. Perhaps what draws me most to her stories, and others like them, is that they feel necessary, bristling with raw honesty and power. They feel true in the deepest sense; there’s always something at stake.
In a world that often seems numbingly cynical, it’s deeply affecting to witness the work of one for whom every word matters so deeply. One wrong word, and the story is a lie. All Anna has right now are words and the truth of how she came to be here. In one class, she wrote:
The only thing, besides high school, I have ever completed has been rehab. My self-esteem was not only low while in jail, it was straight up gone until I started creative writing. I wrote my pain and struggles, and when we shared with one another, I was praised with positive feedback. It was a work-in-progress to start to believe in myself. You can tell a schizophrenic that nobody’s in the corner—however, it isn’t going to matter what you say to him until he believes nobody’s in the corner.
I would look forward to creative writing like nothing else. It broke up the monotony of life behind bars, and for those two hours, we would feel like normal human beings again—not slaves.
Recently, some of the SoHo women gave a public reading at a neighborhood art gallery. Erica, who is now out and attending regular recovery meetings, read about her struggle to survive outside; Pam, a week away from being released, read about her return to her community church; Charmaine, a counselor who works at SoHo and is seven years clean, read about how she abandoned her children ten years ago and understands what the women are going through. My husband, watching me watching them, said he’d not seen me so happy in a long time.
Sarah and I were also proud of Bebe, who, despite her fears, volunteered to read first. She’d purchased a golden tunic with psychedelic, sixties-style designs from a nearby thrift store to wear to the event, and she read aloud about a recent experience that almost led to an overdose. An older man she’d fallen in love with had asked if she trusted him, and when she whispered yes, he grabbed her arm and pushed up her sleeve:
My heart starts to race, and my mouth fills with saliva and a numbing sensation I’ve never experienced. My head is ringing, and my sight blurs. I find myself releasing the breath I didn’t know I was holding, quickly inhaling again, desperate for air. He takes the needle out and presses a napkin to my arm, catching the blood. He bends a little to my level and asks, “Can you feel that?”
I looked around the room. All the women were listening, intent, quiet. She continued:
I stare back at him, unable to focus or respond, filled deep with a sensation I’ve never felt before, which to my disbelief, keeps intensifying. It scares me a little. I’ve never been this high before. I turn from him and stagger back to the living room. Legs shaking, I put my arm out, reaching for the wall. I can see myself touching the wall and taking small stumbling steps, but all I feel is numbness. By the time I make it to my bedroom window, my whole body is covered in a sticky sweat. I need fresh air. I try to open the lock on the window and wince in pain. I hold my arm up to the streetlight coming through the window and see the bandage around my wrist fill with blood again.
The piece ends with a haunting image: in her stumbling, she knocks over a vase and looks down at the floor to see the needle lying at her feet, rose petals scattered around it.
Can creative writing save an addict? Absolutely not. Some are so damaged that almost nothing can stop them from drowning in that river. Two weeks after the reading for the SoHo women, we learned Bebe had overdosed and died. Sarah and I and the women are still grieving as I write this, mourning the loss of a young woman who had been brave enough to write and share her life’s story.
It’s important not to enter this work with the romantic notion that you are saving people. You are, rather, engaging in a relationship with each and every student, a relationship that is mutually beneficial. You are not their counselor. You are not their sponsor. You are their writing coach, their writing cheerleader.
When Anna is released from SoHo, we hug, and she says she’ll keep in touch. I don’t hear from her, though, and I am not surprised. In the days and weeks following her release, I try to focus on the other women at SoHo, but she sneaks into my thoughts. Has she found a job? How about childcare for her son? Is she staying clean? Is she writing?
A few months later, I hear she’s been arrested again and is back in the jail where we run creative writing classes. I am due to go there for the students’ final reading of the term. I imagine she’ll be at the reading, and I steel myself for seeing her locked up.
At the jail, the men are led in first and take their seats in the room. I converse with them, keeping my eye on the door for the women. A few minutes later, the guards lead them in, and there is Anna, clutching a notebook, her hair having grown out darker, the lumpy orange-red jumpsuit covering her body. I almost don’t recognize her. She smiles when she sees me and runs over to give me a hug. I hug back, though the guards eye me suspiciously. We aren’t supposed to touch inmates.
Her eyes are bright but sad. “I’ve been writing,” she says, holding up the notebook and flipping through it to show me the sentences filling each page.
And then: “I relapsed,” she says.
“I know,” I say, bowing my head so she can’t see my eyes. I open her notebook and begin to read, the inky marks swirling, my eyes burning.
I don’t know what will become of Anna. But, then, I don’t know what will become of any of my students, whether in SoHo or the MFA program.
Internationally renowned doctor and author Gabor Maté recommends writing as part of therapy for addiction. Of his own addictive tendencies, he says:
I needed to write, to express myself through written language not only so that others might hear me but so that I could hear myself.
. . . To do so is healing for ourselves and for others; not to do so deadens our bodies and our spirits. When I did not write, I suffocated in silence.
A substantial body of research illustrates both the need for and value of creative therapies in the process of recovery from addiction. Writing, especially the writing of poetry and memoir, offers the opportunity to become more intimate with oneself and provides a form of expression for feelings that cannot be easily shared. The skills of creative writing, which include the ability to craft and imagine current realities and new futures, as well as the development of a confident, mature voice, are crucial for those who may be released from a prison or rehabilitation facility into a less-than-perfect world.
A few writers outside of academia have chosen to spend a significant amount of time teaching creative writing in prisons, most notably Wally Lamb (York Correctional Institution) and Judith Tannenbaum (San Quentin). Jimmy Santiago Baca, who learned to write poetry while incarcerated, still teaches regularly in prisons. R. Dwayne Betts, whose book about his years in prison, A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison, has received much praise, regularly visits detention centers and inner-city schools and talks to at-risk young people.
Many others, often unknown and unsung, without the support of a university, English department, or MFA program, strike out on their own. I think of Ralph Nazareth, who, over the last ten years, has taught in the Rising Hope program at maximum security prisons in New York, or Joseph Bathanti, who has taught writing in prisons for thirty-five years. I think of my former colleague at Iowa State, Steve Pett, who taught creative writing in prison, alongside graduate students, for many years in Iowa, and was an early inspiration for me.
I know of no MFA program, outside of ours at Chatham University, that teaches in rehabilitation facilities, although, paradoxically, there’s great interest in contemporary literature that comes out of substance abuse. One has only to look at Mary Karr’s Lit, Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec, Ann Marlowe’s How to Stop Time: Heroin from A to Z, David Carr’s The Night of the Gun, or, most recently, Tracey Helton Mitchell’s The Big Fix: Hope after Heroin. Of course, there’s also a long history of authors writing about drug use, including such luminaries as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas De Quincy, Charles Baudelaire, Robert Louis Stevenson, Aldous Huxley, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs, to name just a few.
Drug overdoses are currently the leading cause of accidental death in the United States. Despite the current “war on drugs,” it’s clear that imprisonment of addicts has not worked to curtail overdose deaths. While I don’t believe that creative arts therapy alone can do what our country has failed to do, I do believe the current crisis is at least partially a spiritual crisis and that creative writing can be a crucial tool as we try to work our way through this crisis. Should MFA programs continue to focus exclusively on craft and not consider strategies by which at least some of our thousands of graduates—3,000 to 4,000 MFA/PhD grads a year, according to a 2015 report from the Association of Writers and Writing Programs—could be given the opportunity to teach writing to those incarcerated or in recovery?
Most of us do this work in our “spare time.” Why don’t we put this kind of service at the center of more of our academic programming? I would argue that the path of continuing down the road of elitism, with our myopic focus on elite publishing and self-promotion, is not a sustainable one.
I could make the arguments here that others have forcefully made already—that creative arts therapy reduces recidivism in prisons and jails; that it produces better effects than group therapy; that it helps with PTSD; that it decreases violent behavior; that it decreases substance abuse and produces measurable benefits to physical health—but my suggestion is actually much smaller, though perhaps no less important. Let’s build MFA programs with more heart and generosity. Let’s share our knowledge, our strategies, our creative writing tools, and yes, even our students with those who could benefit from them but may not be able to afford them. Let’s think about what’s best for our culture, not just our programs and careers—and, along the way, we just might find the key to healing our sometimes incestuous MFA programs, inspiring our students with meaningful work and building a larger fellowship of writers.
For further reading
Betts, R. Dwayne. A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison. New York: Penguin/Avery, 2009.
Carr, David. The Night of the Gun: A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of His Life. His Own. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008.
Friedman, Howard S., ed. The Oxford Handbook of Health Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Lamb, Wally. Couldn’t Keep It to Myself: Wally Lamb and the Women of York Correctional Institution. New York: ReganBooks, 2003.
Marlowe, Ann. How to Stop Time: Heroin from A to Z. New York: Basic Books, 1999.
Maté, Gabor. In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2010.
Mitchell, Tracey Helton. The Big Fix: Hope After Heroin. Berkeley: Seal Press, 2016.
Pennebaker, James W. and John F. Evans. Expressive Writing: Words That Heal. Enumclaw: Idyll Arbor, 2014.
St. Germain, Sheryl and Sarah Shotland, eds. Words Without Walls: Writers on Addiction, Violence, and Incarceration. San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 2015.
Tannenbaum, Judith. Disguised as a Poem: My Years Teaching Poetry at San Quentin. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2000.
Programs That Promote Teaching Creative Writing in Prisons
Author’s note: These are university programs or nonprofit organizations where teaching underserved populations, specifically those who are incarcerated, is a core component. There may be others; these are the ones I am aware of.
Arizona State University, Prison Education Programming
Chatham University, Words Without Walls Program
Goddard College, Transformative Language Arts Concentration
National Association for Poetry Therapy
National Conference on Higher Education in Prison
University of Michigan, Prison Creative Arts Project
University of Wisconsin–Madison, Writers in Prison Project