Be the first to read this exclusive behind the scenes blog post from Lauren Kessler, as she explores the lives, feelings, and talents of inmates with no chance of release in her new book A Grip of Time: When Prison Is Your Life. Enter to win an advance copy and receive an exclusive promo code when you sign up for our monthly newsletter list. Coming to a bookstore near you on May 1, 2019.
“I just want to know one thing,” Jimmie said to me a few weeks ago. Jimmie is a stalwart member of the writers’ group I’ve been running for almost four years. He’s one of eight guys, all convicted murderers serving life sentences in a maximum security prison, who meet with me twice a month to write about their incarcerated lives.
Jimmie’s been inside for 38 years. He’ll be 61 in a couple of months. Another of my writers has spent the last 35 years of his life locked up. He’s 66. The oldest in the group just turned 79. The youngest, about to be 40, began serving his life sentence when he was 17.
When I started this group there were just three guys and me, me nervous and sweaty, me never having set foot in a prison before, me imagining every jailhouse movie cliché and wondering when I’d be shived. Or worse.
Now I don’t think of these men as convicts or inmates or felons or murderers. They are writers. Our agreement, early on, was this: I would teach them how to grab hold and make sense of the narrative of their lives. They would teach me what it was like to live those lives, day after day, year after year.
They learned. They learned so well that they began to love writing. They learned so well that a few of them won literary awards. One time, when there was a scheduling snafu, and they had all gathered but I wasn’t there, they assigned themselves a writing prompt, sat and wrote and then shared their work. They learned so well that they hardly needed me.
And I learned too. I learned from the stories they told. They wrote about trust and hope, about friendship and food, secrets and dreams, control, privacy, acceptance, forgiveness. Every session I’d come in with a writing prompt. And they would all sit around the metal table on uncomfortable folding chairs hunched over sheets of loose-leaf paper writing until I had to tell them it was time to stop. I learned so much about the hidden world of prisons, about the real lives they were living (not the Hollywood version that had fooled me into thinking I knew) that I too had to write.
And so I wrote A Grip of Time: When Prison is Your Life
to illuminate this hidden world, to grapple with questions of guilt and shame, punishment, rehabilitation and forgiveness. To show there was humor and humanity in the least likely of places. I had been reading excerpts of the book to them as I wrote. Then one day I told them I had finished the manuscript, that it was now in the hands of my publisher, that it would be a book in the spring.
That’s when Jimmie said, “I just want to know one thing.”
I looked across the table at him, at his deeply lined face. It was hard to know when Jimmie was worried. He always looked worried. “Are you going to leave us now?” he asked. “I mean now that the book is done.” His voice was low, but I could hear the catch in it. We all could.
I looked around the table. A few years ago, I could not have imagined being here. Now I could not imagine not being here.
“I’m in it for the long haul,” Jimmie,” I said. And then I gave them another prompt, and they all bent their heads to write.
Lauren Kessler is an award-winning author and (semi-) fearless immersion reporter. She is the author of ten works of narrative nonfiction, including Raising the Barre; Clever Girl; and The Happy Bottom Riding Club. Her books have been BookSense selections, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times bestsellers, Wall Street Journal and People magazine "best" selections, Pacific Northwest Book Award winners, and Oregon Book Award winners. Her journalism has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Los Angeles Times Magazine, O Magazine, salon.com, Utne Reader, the Nation, newsweek.com, Prevention, Ladies Home Journal, and elsewhere. Kessler is an international speaker and workshop leader.
She founded a writers' group for inmates of a maximum-security prison, teaches storytelling for social change to nonprofits in the U.S. and abroad, and works with traditional journalists who want to hone their storytelling skills. Follow her blog at www.laurenchronicles.com.