Some images from today’s writing exercises: 

Potato salad, cooling in the fridge while the family celebrates the 4th of July.
Warm sand on bare feet, holding a loved one’s hand on a beautiful beach.
The smell of coffee
Westerns on the television in a granddad’s bedroom

Sarah Saltwick, Austin playwright and MFA student in the Michener program at UT, led a writing workshop at the jail today. I have been impressed with Sarah’s work for some time – I contacted her after I saw one of her She-Creatures monologues at FronteraFest 2009 (or 08?). Her writing has a whimsy and magic to it that really strikes me.

We read two poems with the women, ‘It is Marvelous’ by Elizabeth Bishop and ‘The Clasp’ by Sharon Olds. Both are pieces that take small moments of time and render them haunting and complete. The women responded to more strongly to ‘The Clasp’, which tells of the moment a mother hurts her child trying to discipline her. As Ms. D said, “I really get this – that line about how suddenly the kid knows the mom; that’s happened to me. I’ve slapped my child.” We discussed how the poems specifically evoked the time and the place, and how the writer did that.

Then Sarah led them in an exercise that helped them create their own moment. It was similar to the one I brought in two weeks ago, in that the women built a piece of writing without knowing where it was going. It started with “describe a place to means something to you” and then went into adding details to it. Who’s there? When is it? What is in that spot? What are its textures, its colors, its sounds and smells? Then she asked them to pick the best three lines from them and write those on another sheet of paper. This part didn’t work quite as well as the others – we didn’t really have time to explain how the revision process works and how a writer can start with a whole page but only use parts of it in the final product.

Regardless, several women shared their writing and it was evocative. I wish I could put it up on the website but I can’t publish anything they write while they’re still at the Travis County jail. The flow from general to specific gave several of the pieces a small narrative and all of them resonated with longing. Even when we try to avoid the big emotions, these women’s longing to be free colors everything we do. If we say, think of a place, it’s probably a place they can’t go. Think of a person, it’s a person they’re missing. Think of food – well that’s just asking for trouble.

People who think that jails are too nice, are too soft, must not understand the toll being stripped of one’s freedom takes. To be taken away from life, from loved ones, from known joys and sorrows, and deposited in an institution that frankly, smells bad and forces one to live in a strange place with strange people… well that seems a great punishment to me, no matter how much television you’re allowed to watch. My continuous exposure to the jail has given me terrible dreams about being imprisoned, and I wake from them with utter relief and joy.

The class thanked Sarah and one women, Ms. K exclaimed that she had uncovered skills in herself that she never knew she had. She was quite impressed with her writing, and with good cause. “Come back!” she said.

-Katherine Craft


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