Writing in and Out of Jail.

These two pieces are  my personal celebration of  National Writing Day.

The first piece is  written by S., one of the many talented and interesting women I met when I was working as writer in Residence at a women’s prison. These women later inspired me to write my novel Paulie’s Web.51sXddw3FGL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_

The second piece – inspired also my prison experience – illustrated my own reflections on the connection between writing with freedom, whatever the confinement.

 

Writing in Jail by S,

When I came into prison I wanted to send a poem to my partner to let him know I was thinking of him and my family. I looked around the library but couldn’t find any poem which suited how I was feeling. I decided to write my own poem and found that word simply spilled onto the paper.

After being here six weeks I now have a varied collection of my own poems which are going into my own little book. Not that I want any kind of souvenirs of my time in prison but this book represents a period of my life. It is also a collection of my thoughts and the feelings I have gone through over this time.

The poems are in order from the first ones I wrote at the beginning of my sentence and through to the end. The beginning has poems that show the love I have for my family members, my mum my daughter. In the middle are poems between confusion and anger about the status of my soon to be ex-partner. The last poems are to friends and family. I found that writing these poems down on paper relieve the stress and anger I was feeling. I also felt proud to have produced an end product which made me feel happy in myself like I’d achieved something for myself

 

Writing is the Sound of the Soul Breathing. WR

Writing is the sound of the soul breathing –
it is measured, shapely, intended;
every breath out predicates every breath in;
each sentence brings forward another one –
every word a platform for the next jump in meaning

We breathe in and out, in and out

in lines, in paragraphs, in pages, in volumes –
the writer’s life laid out  in a million words –
each one separate, elegant, leaping off the page
instinct with meaning

Writing is the notation of the quiet soul –
not blasted out by clarinets and trumpets –
rather it is dark smoke rising in the air;
in the end the words lie there

just waiting for your eye.

They lie on the page in ranks and lines
waiting for you to add your sound
to my notation on the page –
creating a mutual world
new to your soul and mine.

 

Sharon Griffiths and Amity’s Angel.

Working with Sharon.

It was so  good  to work with  fellow professional –  journalist and novelist Sharon Griffiths,  in developing and publishing her  new novel Amity and the Angel. 

This is Sharon’s third published  novel, It is a marvelously perceptive venture into the exciting field of  future fiction – imagining life in a  future world which has been virtually destroyed after the destructive 21st Century Oil  Wars.

The heroine, teenager Amity, lives on a distant island which – in its own process of survival – has reverted to a restrictive religion-obsessed world. Amity  battles on with the restrictions, trying to assert her right to live a normal life.  Her  childhood sweetheart, who  had left the island, now returns strangely changed. One day on the beach  Amity  comes across a golden haired wounded figure whom she takes to be  an angel.

…GFinal Cover for sharon

 

More about Sharon Griffiths and Amity

Originally from Pembrokeshire, West Wales. Sharon ended up in the North East of England by way of    Bristol  University and Radio Oxford.   For some years she has written regular columns and feature articles for The Northern Echo   (http://tiny.cc/ia6lky)  and  the Eastern Daily Press in Norwich – as well as features for national newspapers.

Sharon’s columns and articles are widely popular for their intelligence, warmth and humour as well as  their insight into domestic, cultural and political life. Her previous novels, The Accidental Time Traveller and The Lost Guide to Life and Love, gained plaudits here and abroad.

With Amity and The Angel Sharon enters new territory. In this novel we flip back what appears to be medieval times in a severe Protestant island sect. However this is the contemporary world, after world-wide oil wars have destroyed much of the planet. (How resonant this is, of present day fears …)

The island is loosely connected to equally isolated mainland communities and is serviced by travelling tradesmen who  bring them news of the wider world. On the island there are no machines, few horses, no dancing, no singing, even in church, where there is much haranguing and instruction and bullying authority, There is  a chilling scene here, of the public shaming of a girl who has had a child out-of-wedlock

Amity does no fit into this oppressive community with is clerical hierarchy and gender based laws. Here own discontent is fed by the memories if the grandmother she takes care of, who has told her tales of times when there was singing and dancing, mobile phones, high heels and lipstick.

After Amity’s friend Finn leaves the island for the mainland, she finds solace in a creature she finds in a cave on the beach. She thinks of him as an Angel . Perhaps he can be a key to change and the restoration of normality both for her and the world community?

A wonderful and thought provoking read. W.R.

Amity cover

]

 

the accidental time traveller      lost guide to life and love

Wendy Robertson and The Bad Child

Here she writes about the time she completed her novel The Bad Child.

cover 3 sectiom

 The Bad Child is finished.  Now I’m floating free

 I’ve just completed my newest novel The Bad Child, about twelve year old Dee, the misfit in her family, who decides not to speak at all.

Now I’m breathing great sighs of relief and satisfaction. This novel has been a joy to write. To know it has been finished I have to be pleased with it and very sure it’s as perfect as I can make it.

The writing life is cyclic, offering different writing, emotional, inventive challenges at each point in the cycle. Writing a novel is an organic process, born of a glimpse, a thought, a new insight perhaps a year or two before. This could be a line from a book or a newspaper, an overheard conversation, an image that fixes in the mind, a linked memory from childhood. When I have embraced this core idea I cast around start to think, talk, scribble, and dream stories around this core idea in both my waking and sleeping life until it becomes a solid reality in my mind.

At last, into this mass of notes, ideas, research and story-telling, walks a distinctive character with a mind of her own.Then another. And another. These characters begin speaking to each other in different tones and accents, with different agendas and priorities in their lives. At one point I wake up with their conversations in my head.

And somehow out of this inchoate mass of stuff emerges a sense of a beginning, Eventually I manage to write a beginning that locks these characters in their certain time, their certain place, with their certain preoccupations. With my imagination now fully charged, the novel insinuates itself into my daily life, somewhere near the centre. And I write. And write.

Now and then, as I write on, I have to slow down just to check that the story I’m writing today has grown properly out of my yesterday’s prose, and that of the day before, and the week and even the year before.

So, after working for a year or so in this way I find that this self-willed creation begins to move towards  its close and I find myself looking for a sense of an ending. Now is the time to  slow down again to make the best ending that for this particular the story. If – as I do – you write close to real life, then ending a novel is not easy. The ending has to fit the narrative logic bedded in this story’s organic growth. As well as this, the ending has to imply a new logic, a new organic possibility, a spurt of new life – life beyond the story.

Once the end has been written, it’s time to put on my cap and gown and be my own editor – to check every word, every line, every paragraph for correct meaning, syntax, and spelling. I must check that time, place and characterisation serve the consistency and the dynamism of the story. At this point I usually read the prose out loud to check its that the sound flows.

Now the manuscript is as perfect as I can make it.

In the end, like any intelligent writer, I understand that my novel just cannot be perfect. The story has its own existence inside of me and I am not sufficiently objective to catch every flaw. And, like any intelligent writer, I know that my story needs a skilled, outside editor and proof-reader (not a ‘friendly reader’) before it can go out there into the cold world. This wizard of a person will inevitably pick up snags and flaws that I, with the narrative events printed on my soul, will have missed.

I discovered my own eagle-eyed editor/proof-reader  Clive Johnson two books* ago. Since then I’ve realised that once the manuscript been through his capable hands I can proceed with confidence to the further challenges of designing the cover and going through the process onto publication.

Then the book is published and walks out there in the world. For any reader to enjot/

Oh joy!  The time has come for me to start floating free again in the outside world, catching gossamer words and images in my mind that will eventually provide me with an organic core for an exciting new novel which will keep me alive and kicking, thinking, imagining and writing for the next eighteen months.

I am realising now that the nature of my floating-free process ensures that each novel is distinct from the others; a different species perhaps. This difference keeps me fascinated and- I hope – my valued readers intrigued.

Below  the initial  art work in Progress for the cover of  The Bad Child which will be out there walking alone in August.

 

Links

My regular writer’s life blog http://lifetwicetasted.blogspot.co.uk/

Writing at the Maison Bleue Kindle:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Writing-at-Maison-

Bleue-Novel-ebook/dp/B00T8423S6?ie=UTF8&ref_=asap_bc

Maison Bleue_

Book https://www.amazon.co.uk/Writing-Maison-Wendy-Hunter-

Robertson/dp/1500508772

 

The post-partum delights of editing

NB. Scroll down after ‘Editing’ to read  ‘Changing Lives’

‘It is very salutary to address someone else’s deep edit of your work,’ so said my professional proofreader Clive Johnson. I sent my baby away, sure that it would give him  an easy job of proofreading. I have been flattered before when he used the magic phrase ‘this is pretty clean’. Inevitably, after I sent the manuscript away I bit my nails with a degree of uncertainty. Later, reading the returned, proofed manuscript, I felt a slight reproof when he commented that was harder work than usual.

This might be down to the global changes I made when the novel was just about finished.  (I changed the names of two main characters towards the end.  I felt they were begging me to do this.) To do this I applied the useful instruction find and replace.  The old names were found and replaced with the new or modified names.

editing alice best (2)_LI

However,  in the final copy some of the new names were bizarrely buried in surrounding text and had to be disentangled. I thought I had caught all the anomalies in my final run through. But Clive knew better.  I hadn’t caught all of these. But by then I was probably a little bit word-blind. Like any mother, I was blind to even the minor faults in my beloved offspring.

Undaunted,  I settled down to go through Clive’s proofed copy line by line . Alongside my computer I have the notes from   my other first-readers who may or may not altogether agree with the file as it is now. I felt it would be useful us to compare them.

But Clive’s proofing was as near flawless as any piece of work can be.

All these concerns and approaches deepen and extend  the organic process of taking a novel to its final stage -of Making the Book*  the best it can be.

In some ways this has not been  unlike the process I experienced when I used to write for a large publisher. This process has been  equally meticulous but not quite so corporate* where departments as well as individuals combine to do the job

One principle of the processes of editing and proofreading is that the emerging text fully reflects the writer’s intention. It should not reflect the taste or predilection of the editor or proof-reader. One problem here in the more corporate method is that it can reflect the predilection of the market director regarding the taste of the readers.* I have always had rather more confidence than this in the intelligence and the perception of my readers and their ability to encounter and enjoy my story.

I am now looking so forward very soon to Making the Book called Becoming Alice 

 

*Footnote 1. To find out more about my process hit the Private Publishing tab in the header.
*Footnote 2. I did try to resist my publisher’s proposal to include the comparison of my work with that of Catherine Cookson on the cover.  I resisted this strongly  despite the fact that I honour and revere the astonishing ability of this writer to communicate stories across area and national boundaries. As writers we were as alike as trees and mountains. My resistance, because of my lack of power in that corporate situation, was ignored. The case is different now..

 

Changing Lives…

Note from Wendy R. I was talking to my friend H about the impact and function of reading groups and I thought of  the life-changing experience of visiting some reading groups  in Boston USA in 2000 when I was Writer in Residence at a women’s prison here in the UK. This radical experience confirmed my conviction that literature changes lives both in and out of prison.

Extract from Our Report.

‘The face-to-face interaction between the two groups – professionals and offenders, judges and judged – throughout the programme, was the key to its success. It centred on group discussions of literature chosen for its significance for the task at hand. All members of the group read the texts and participate on an equal, mutually respectful footing. The underlying proposition was that such discussion, under such circumstances, evokes such a level of participation, identification of motive and objectification of behaviour, that the lives of all the participants are changed.

I thought you might be interested in  the full report. If so click on the tab above entitled Changing Lives Through Literature.

I wondered if you had  a book or books that changed your life?

Wendy

Changing Lives Through Literature

 

 

The Challenge of Radical Sentencing: 
Erasing the Chasm Between the Bench and the Dock
An Experience in Boston, USA 
Wendy Robertson & Avril Joy
March 2000

Note from Wendy R. I was talking to my friend H about the impact and function of reading groups and I thought of  the life-changing experience of visiting some reading groups  in Boston USA in 2000 when I was Writer in Residence at a women’s prison here in the UK. This radical experience confirmed my conviction that literature changes lives both in and out of prison.

I thought you might be interested in my report. Here it is:

‘You have the ability through your own imagination to create your future. Your destiny is not locked in.’

Robert Waxler
Professor of English
University of Massachusetts
Director: Changing Lives Through Literature

The Returning Offender, In our work at HMP Low Newton, Durham, which in the case of Avril Joy had at that point gone back fifteen years, we had shared with colleagues our concern for prisoners who re-offend and return again and again to prison. We had also noted prisoners who have benefited from appropriate educative, creative and reflective opportunities in prison, and somehow changed inside themselves, become more capable in dealing with the interior chaos which often led them to offend. We wondered if it were possible for offenders to experience such opportunities outside prison – in the probation situation, for instance – would they make such changes in themselves? In this way, they would avoid the family break-up, social stigma and pariah status endowed by a prison sentence. This in itself can encourage re-offending.

The House of Commons Select Committee on Home Affairs Third Report of 1998 addressed, amongst other factors, new disposals for adult offenders in relation to probation . Buried at the back of the report are two allusions that caught our interest. One was the reference to a practice in France where a suspended sentence with supervision can be given to offenders who have committed serious crimes. The prison sentence is suspended on condition that, among numerous restrictions, the offender follows an academic or vocational course of study.

The other allusion was to the experiment in Massachusetts called Changing Lives Through Literature. On further investigation, the sheer simplicity and practicality of this model of probation was very appealing and chimed with the values and practices which we had been using inside prison.

The Power and the Story
In the year 2000  we had the opportunity to visit Boston, USA and experience this ground-breaking approach to probation for ourselves. Within some County Court Districts of Massachusetts, the ‘Changing Lives Through Literature Programme’ was offered as an alternative to ordinary probation orders. Offenders wer sentenced to a period of twelve weeks when they had to  meet every fortnight and to discuss a prescribed piece of literature alongside a professor, a judge and one or more probation officers.

The programme was brainchild of Professor Bob Waxler, professor of literature at the University of Massachusetts and Judge Robert Kane, Court Judge in New Bedford’s Third District. It had been operating for nearly ten years and at that point had active programmes across the States. Texas has a programme which uses the writings of Plato as part of its required reading. There are other programmes in Arizona, Maine and New York.

The face-to-face interaction between the two groups – professionals and offenders, judges and judged – throughout the programme, was the key to its success. It centred on group discussions of literature chosen for its significance for the task at hand. All members of the group read the texts and participate on an equal, mutually respectful footing. The underlying proposition was that such discussion, under such circumstances, evokes such a level of participation, identification of motive and objectification of behaviour, that the lives of all the participants are changed. Change on the part of judges, professors and probation officers might  lead to a greater insight into their clients. On the part of the offenders, participation was said to lead into greater insight regarding their experiences and motivations, and enable them to change their lives and ultimately, it is hoped, not re-offend.

The principle of procedure was this: individuals coming before the courts may, by their own agreement and referral to probation officers, be sentenced to participate in a reading group for twelve weeks. The attendance and participation was obligatory. The incentive for them was reduction of probation for the successful graduate. (The programme needed a strong incentive as it is seen as very challenging: some of these people have never read a whole story, never mind a novel. Inadequate participation on the part of the offenders would lead them back to court for  further   sentencing. This process of incentive was mediated by the probation officers who attend the group
This is our report of the experience: We were inspired to find out more about this American project following our fruitful experience at HMP Low Newton in Britain, working with sentenced women inside prison on a project planned along similar lines. In our reading group, the authority figure was the prison governor, rather than a judge. In our work we used a combination of reading high-quality literature and the practice of creative writing to allow the women to objectify and contemplate their own experience and develop the self-esteem and self-worth. We had no incentives to offer except the positive experiences of the process. In our work, in a more modest and limited fashion, we felt that we also had changed lives.

Our visit has been fruitful. In our time in Boston we met and talked with five judges, three professors, one teacher and seven probation officers who were involved in the operation of four programmes across the state of Massachusetts. We met twenty-one offenders who had committed a broad range of offences and we participated in two groups in action. We sat with Professor Jean Trounstine and watched videos of her working with her group and listened also to her accounts of teaching Shakespeare behind bars in Boston’s Framingham women’s prison.

This report attempts to put impressions of all this together and to propose the value of the use of such approaches in the British system, in the probation setting as well as in prison. By definition this report is illuminative. It is a snapshot of practice which may be inspirational for others.

 The Powerhouse In his office at the university Professor Waxler talked enthusiastically of his firm belief that literature, encountered in an appropriate setting could indeed change the lives of offenders. The layers and subtlety of language, the complexity of character and motivation – Waxler asserts that the analysis of these allows an individual to view her or his own life more objectively. This objectification leads to the growth of intellectual and emotional control in lives which are often chaotic. It follows, then, that such experience, if it is sufficiently profound, will help the individuals to organise their lives so that the option of re-offending is less compelling. This is his belief.

The context of sharing the stories is a crucial aspect of Waxler’s model. The discussions are at the University and are based on equal discourse, respect, and the presence in the group of a professor, judges, and probation officers, all of whom must have read the prescribed texts.
 

A Group of Men. The men’s group which we join is in the fine premises of the University of Massachusetts, South Dartmouth, and is the final meeting of the men’s group. It is led by Professor Waxler and attended by Judge Kane and Probation Officer Wayne St Pierre. The girlfriend of one member sits beside him.

Here we sit around the table where it all began, where the idea originated with the first group set up by Waxler and Judge Kane. Waxler considers the round table, with its built-in democracy, essential to the process.

Tonight’s texts, two Raymond Carver short stories, have been read by Professor Waxler, Judge Kane, Wayne St Pierre, and all the male participants. The contents of these stories, illuminating as they do uncompromising images of men in extremis, reflect the rest of Waxler’s list which includes Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, and Elie Wiesel. In these tough discussions, there is nowhere for any man to hide.

The participants, who reflect the broad ethnic mix of the whole Boston community, instantly embark on a vigorous discussion of the various strands of the Carver stories, weaving their own life stories into their elaborations and explanations. Their interpretations have subtlety, a sensitivity to ambiguity.

With the Carver story What do We Talk About When We Talk About Love? the topic that emerges is what is love? For more than an hour, we sit and listen as this group of men, operating on various sides of the law, talk expansively about love.

The judge sits back listening intently; he says his piece only when a point strikes him in the flow of the discussion. He has obviously appreciated Carver’s story. The probation officer challenges Waxler politely on a point of interpretation. Some of the guys nod. Alternative views are obviously normally accepted. There is no ‘party line’ on fiction. One man in his thirties eloquently pursues the notion of what might constitute bullying of men by women. Another tells the story of his bewilderment when, returning from a fishing trip, he rang his partner for a lift, only to find another man’s voice relaying the message on his answer-phone. Two of the men say they would never lay a hand on a woman. Not ever. The youngest member, aged nineteen, pursues his own theme that there are various kinds of love, not just one. Another describes a couple he knows who were devoted through sixty years of marriage. How do you stay, not just together, but loving people after sixty years of marriage? There was bewilderment all round the table. That was a hard question for all of us.

The discussion ranged through dilemmas in relationships, aspects of domestic power, problems with communication leading to expression through violence, verbal and physical. They ranged between significance of aspects of the stories we have read, and elements in their own lives.

The intense and developed level of discussion reflects the fact that this is the last meeting of the group. They are used to the process. They all have experience of each other. They have learned to be members of this community round the table. The judge – who might have intimidated the settling-in process – did not join till the third week. By that time the group had welded into a team that respected the text and respected each other, who were keen to get their views out there as well as listen to others. Since then, the comradeship has built up and the group round the table truly is a community.

Professor Waxler runs the group with intent, forceful concentration. His attention to the text is close, but his demeanour is something like a football coach enabling his team to participate at their highest, allowing them to play to their strengths. All the stories – Carver’s fine text and the more immediate oral tales of the participants – are woven by the group into a larger meaning. There are no own-goals.

The sense of fellowship and community is manifest in this group. Because this was the very last meeting there were some reflections on this. One member said he would miss the group because ‘At first it was just a commitment you had to make, but then I started to enjoy it. I’ve bought all the books myself. I just like talking to you guys about these things. I liked the books but I liked talking to you guys, listening to your experience. I like the books but I liked the talking best. Now when I’m bored, now I know I can just pick up a book and read again.’

At the end, because this is the last meeting, there is a ‘Graduation’ ,complete with certificates emblazoned with the university’s imprimatur and seal. There is a presentation of a fine edition of John Steinbeck’s novels for each member, donated by the National Library of America. The room is filled with a sense of celebration and pride. The members of the group linger after the end. They don’t want to leave. They shake hands with each other, with the professor, the judge, the probation officer, with us. They are sorry there is nothing more, nothing further, no more meetings.

A Group of Women
This meeting is at the University of Massachusetts’ Boston campus, in a room normally used by the university students. The fourteen women, in the main African-American and Hispanic, arrive quietly. They greet each other, open their folders, peer again at their texts. They hand sheets of writing to Gretchen Hunt their teacher. (Gretchen is a law student who first majored in English literature.) It could be any university group. The two probation officers, Dee Kennedy and Teresa Owens, come in, greeting various women on the way to their seats. Judge Sydney Hanlon (a woman) hurries in. It is her first visit to the group as this is only its third week. The circle here consists of moveable study chairs; a round table (which was used with the men’s group)  is unavailable.

The texts are Grace Paley’s short story, An Interest in Life, and an abstract from Roddy Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked into Doors. (Note: Apart from this text, the bias in the lists for the women’s groups is towards literature from women writers. Apart from Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the list for the men’s groups are all novels and stories by male writers.)

Through astute and enabling questioning, Gretchen sets the ball rolling in the discussion. The women begin to unravel the first story and its implications for them. In the process, they begin to put forward questions and their own ideas about Virginia and her life. They ask questions of the tutor and each other. They are appropriately tentative. ‘It seemed like …’, ‘It felt like …’. Respect for each other’s views and opinions is always there, along with a quest for answers and explanations and a lively exploration of motive. There is some exasperation regarding Virginia’s action and the motivations of her ambiguous visitor. There is frustration regarding the ending of the story which may or may not have been A Dream.

The Roddy Doyle extract, with its central, brilliantly-written focus on domestic abuse, raises many more powerful reactions as it evidently cuts close to the bone with some of these women. All the women are eventually involved with the discussion, listening to and responding to each other. The level of articulation is always impressive. The women are very able to unpick the complex, deeper levels of meaning in the story. They offer remarkable insight into the process. Of Paula’s story, one woman says, ‘The way she says it and the context she says it in lets the reader know that she knows it is not her fault, but like you said, she is in denial.’

The women start to tell their own stories, to link the narrative to their own lives and histories. Themes of serial- and cycles of abuse are explored. A woman with tight plaits volunteers, ‘This story kicked up a whole bunch of feeling for me. I watched violence. My mom getting beat down, so I was really angry when I read that story. She would say to me don’t ever let a man do this to you. Wait till he’s lay down and asleep, then kill him.’

The women are sitting forward now. There are mutters of agreement, referring back to Grace Paley’s story. ‘She’s gunna be hurt all over again,’ ‘She was happy but for how long?’, ‘She blamed everything on herself, I can relate to that.’ The woman with plaits offers, ‘The first time you are a victim, the second time you’re a volunteer.’

A large woman, who has been silent almost to the end, responds to talk about the character, Charlo, by launching into her own story. ‘What do you do with a man who all the time plots to get you into jail? A man who does things to you, makes you think you’re losing your mind? Moves things in the house and swears they were there before?’

Another woman nods. ‘Yes this happens to me.’

The large woman goes on. ‘He beats up on you and phones the police and tells them some other guy beat you up. He threatens your children and you have to take your children to City Hall and leave them there for protection. This man he gets you into jail for things you ain’t done and the police, they believe him. One day the police they knock on the door and say ‘Are you the woman?’ You say, ‘What woman?’ They say ‘The woman who beats up on the old man?’ That old man, he is my husband. He is old when I marry him when I am a young woman. I say ‘No I beat up on no old man.’ But still they arrest me. Still I go to jail cause he plays his little tricks. He ain’t never been to prison. He black my eyes and break my bones then locks me in and don’t let me get no policeman. He plays tricks so I think I’m losing my mind.’ She responds to further murmurs of sympathy and recognition, and changes gear. ‘But now I got this counsellor. My counsellor I bless the day I met her. I seen her now once a week for two years. Every week I go there and talk. Three weeks, four weeks, all I do is cry. Then after that all I do is talk. So much to say.’

There is a respectful, listening silence in the room. The another woman speaks up.  ‘You know me? I seen my sister shot before my eyes. Shot and I was right beside her, right by her. I throw my body right over her. Blood running out of her. And I see my other sister stabbed twenty times. I come and find her, stabbed twenty times.. She pauses. @I gotta counsellor. And I never tell these things before I talk to this counsellor. Shut down, shut down, see? Then I cry to her and this floods outta me. Before it was shut down, see? But this counsellor she’s some woman. I can give you her name. She can help any woman in this room. Any woman whose story I hear in this room.’

’She make a difference. Otherwise I couldn’t tell you this here in this room with no tear in my eye. I can tell you this story. I can tell you this story without a tear in my eye. She make a difference. I see my daughter now and she’s helping me get my children together. I can give you this woman’s name. She can help you.’

This is a delicate moment. (As there  was with the point in the men’s group where the man told the tale of returning from the fishing trip.) It is an explicit part of the rules of engagement in this project that the groups are not ‘encounter’ or ‘therapy’ groups, that the discussion of the characters and the action in the fiction must remain at the centre of the discussion. The judge in the women’s group said later she was concerned at this moment.

However we, as outsiders, felt that this story earned its place in the discussion. Every one of us, when we read literature, transcribe it through our own story onto our own mental map, whether we tell our story out loud or not. The trust within the group has allowed the woman to voice her story. She is not asking for help. Her story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is self limiting. The stories we have read have enriched and validated her own, even more dramatic, story. There is dignity and self-knowledge in this.

There is no emotional panic. This woman’s story does not lead to a degeneration of the discussion. Teacher Gretchen guides the meeting to a useful conclusion with calls for writing and plans for the next meeting. There is a discussion about the logistics of writing one’s own story. There is a bustle in the room. The probation officers change role and enquire closely about some individuals who have missed a meeting.

There is a sense of society here. As with the men’s group, the members linger to talk, unwilling to stop the experience. Professor Taylor Stoehr, who leads the parallel Dorchester men’s group, later says that helping men arrive at a new sense of their own society through the group and their interaction with each other is central to his philosophy.

The Judges
According to Judge Kane, who founded the project with Professor Waxler, the judges who had become involved were self-selecting in that they all loved literature themselves and welcomed the opportunity to participate in such a project. Judge Joe Dever. Presiding Justice of Lynn District Court, who joined Professor Jean Trounstine’s women’s group at Middlesex Community College, said the group was the joy of his judging, that it erased the chasm between the distance between the bench and the dock. Judge Dever travels to the meeting in the same van as the women. ‘At first there was dead silence in the van. But after a couple of meetings, it buzzed with talk. Now sometimes they talk all the way there and sing all the way back, he says.’

Judge Kane relishes the interplay between men of privilege and men of little power. ‘We become human to each other. We are transformed by the context as are they. In the end we see the man who comes before us as a whole human being. By participating in the process ourselves we see the transformation before our eyes.’

The Dorchester judge, Tom May, says that defendants never speak in court. Their defence lawyer speaks for them. In the traditional situation they are voiceless. ‘It refreshes my soul to hear these men articulate their ideas. I know this is humanity.‘

Judge Hanlon, who already knew about this programme, introduced it in the Dorchester Court District as soon a she became Presiding Justice of this court. With her support there are, in this District, a men’s and a women’s group with numbers of up to twenty. She says, ‘In this business it seems we never get any good news. This programme brings good news.’

Judge Tom May mentions that even if members of the group do come up before him they are more likely to take responsibility for their offence. They are more inclined to say ‘I screwed up’.

Professor Stoehr, who runs the Dorchester men’s group, says ‘You need two things to run this programme: someone in power who gives permission, this is the judges, and you need someone who will be there every time, these are the probation officers.’

Probation Officers
The probation officers, like the judges, volunteer for the programme. Like the judges, they love literature. The officers at the Dorchester court have their own staff reading group. They have a mixed role in the programme. It is their task to negotiate suitable referrals. Apart from sex offenders, anyone can be referred to the programme as long as they have an appropriate reading level and are clean of all substances during the programme. One of the policy documents of the programme states: ‘Repeat offenders with prior incarcerations and the distinct possibility of re-incarceration are preferred.’

The probation officers read the texts and participate in the discussions. Dee Kennedy, at Dorchester, saw the need sometimes to guide the discussion. As well as this, the probation officers are obliged to change hats and monitor the level of attendance and discussion, and apply the sanction of exclusion for backsliders. If a member does not meet her obligations, in the first place they warn her. If it continues, they return her to the court for further sentencing.

Bobby Spencer, an officer attached to the men’s group at Dorchester, does not find his position in the group ambiguous. ‘In that group I am a just member. I am one of the guys.’  Another officer, John Christopher, joined the group because he heard that a white professor was going to follow Huckleberry Finn with Richard Wright’s Black Boy. ‘I wanted to see what he did with that. I saw, and I stayed along with the group. I’m still there.’

Bobby Spencer told the tale of the graduate from one group who started up his own reading group with a few of the guys from the neighbourhood which lasted a year. Professor Stoehr told of the member who joined the group, but hid under his baseball cap and turned off Walkman for the first two weeks. Then Judge May joined the group and was in a small group discussion with this man. After that, Bobby Spencer said the man came out from under his baseball cap and started to participate. It’s not so much what the judge said or did. Just that he survived that session at close quarters with any judge.

The probation officers argue that referral to the programme is not a soft option. Dee Kennedy has worked out that although a number of weeks attached to the programme is shorter than the alternative, the actual contact time with probation officers in the series of two-and-a-half hour meetings is longer. On the other hand, because the officer is in contact with several clients at once at the meeting, it can reduce the officer workload.

Probation Officer, Bobby Hasset, who works with Professor Trounstine at Middlesex Community College in Lowell, enjoys the optimistic nature of the programme. He has carried out research among their clients which shows a statistical measure of success regarding recidivism. Researcher Roger Jarjoura’s external study seems to support this. (See Waxler & Trounstine 1999). Teresa Owens on the Dorchester project is also embarking on an evaluation and tracking study which may express more graphically the success of their project. John Owens of Dorchester is more laid back about the technicalities of what counts as success: ‘A judge asked me “What if this doesn’t work?” I said, “Judge, I do things every day which don’t work. Don’t you? Aren’t they still worth trying?”’

Bobby Hasset also described for us their post-programme work which builds on the success of the project with work which involved life-skills and job-search skills. The emphasis here is planning for a non-offending future.

The Professors
The personality and approach of each discussion-group leader – Professors Waxler, Trounstine, and Stoehr, and teacher Gretchen Hunt – inevitably informs both the similarities and differences between programmes. There is individuality in their choice of texts and their understanding of the needs of different groups. Trounstine tends to use a list of women writers whose intense, powerful stories reflect distinctive women’s issues. Hunt uses an adapted version of this list. The Roddy Doyle text, which was particularly successful at the meeting we saw, was a departure from the list. Waxler’s list reflects his concern with male identity and the function of violence in their lives. Stoehr adapts his list according to his perception of the needs of a particular group.

The main role of the professors is to facilitate the voicing of members’ responses and stories and mediate the meaning – literary or otherwise – which is made of a particular text. Most importantly, it is they who build the sense of community round the table. They distil the invisible code of listening, reflecting and speaking. This may be the key to changing the interior view of the individual, preparing him or her to take the power to develop themselves, perhaps even to change their own lives.

Above all, the professors on this programme do what all good teachers do, in all educational settings, with all categories of student. This is what we try to do in our teaching in prison. It is salutary to think that this might be the first time these offenders have worked intensively with a good teacher. Some might argue that the very compulsion implicit in the programme is the only thing which would impel this encounter.

Evaluation
One does respect attempts, within and outside the programme, to gain quantitative data on the success of these programmes. Restrained studies seem to indicate a lessening of recidivism. However, by their very dynamism, programmes such as these resist quantification. Not only do situations and personnel change from programme to programme, they change within cohorts of the same programme. The variables are like chimera. Numbers, however comforting or discomforting to the people concerned, may only, in such situations, be illusory.

It is necessary to have faith in more qualitative, illuminative material to judge such projects. Some of the material in this report would count as this. So would self-reporting by participants, be they offenders, judges, professors or probation officers. Biographies of alumni and anecdotal material of their lives should be treated with respect.

This is, after all, how we have judged the success, and the partial success, of educational processes through the millennia. The great universities, the great teachers, did not in the past have to tailor their mystery to the leaden chastity belt of the input-output model.

In the light of this view, the Changing Lives Programme seems to us to have clarified a very successful process which brings distinctive benefits to the people who share the experience. These benefits are much greater than those they would experience in prison or in a more perfunctory probationary experience. Common sense tells you that some of these people will re-offend. From the round-table community and the fine university buildings, they return to the challenge of disadvantaged social settings, and social groupings where crime is the norm.

Where the offence is linked, however, to lack of self-knowledge or self-esteem, or where a criminal act is to do with the anger at having ‘no say in society’, one might propose that these people go on from the programme better prepared to meet the challenge, with some tools to make order out of chaos. In this it is to the benefit of the whole society.

Of course, one cannot translate processes directly from one judicial system to an other. US District Court judges, for instance, are somewhere between UK judges and senior magistrates. In the US, probation officers are officers of the court working directly with judges. Would the very dignified English judges or magistrates greet the notion of bridging the chasm between the bench and the dock with a shudder?

It would be interesting to see such a humane and creative approach tried out here in the English system. Sentencing people to literature might be a good alternative to the ubiquitous ‘community service’, or to suspended sentences where no real change is made in the offender. Our experience of the Massachusetts experiment convinces us that some of the women we have met in prison could have been very much helped by such a project and even perhaps have drawn back from re-offending without further experience of prison.

We have created new connections. We have connected them with a world from which they were formerly cut off.  We have given them their voices back. 
Professor Robert Waxler

© Wendy Robertson, Avril Joy. March 2000

 

 

Sharon Griffiths and Amity

Working with Sharon.

It’s so good  to work with  fellow professional –  journalist and novelist Sharon Griffiths,  in developing and publishing her  new novel.

We have spent the last few days putting final touches to the cover of  Sharon’s exciting new novel Amity and the Angel. I

This is Sharon’s third published  novel, It is a marvelously perceptive venture into the exciting field of  future fiction – imagining life in a  future world which has been virtually destroyed after the destructive 21st Century Oil  Wars.

The heroine, teenager Amity, lives on a distant island which – in its own process of survival – has reverted to a restrictive religion-obsessed world. Amity  battles on with the restrictions, trying to assert her right to live a normal life.  Her  childhood sweetheart, who  had left the island, now returns strangely changed,  .One day on the beach  Amity  comes across a golden haired wounded figure whom she takes to be  an angel.

…GFinal Cover for sharon

 

More about Sharon Griffiths and Amity

Originally from Pembrokeshire, West Wales. Sharon ended up in the North East of England by way of    Bristol  University and Radio Oxford.   For some years she has written regular columns and feature articles for The Northern Echo   (http://tiny.cc/ia6lky)  and  the Eastern Daily Press in Norwich – as well as features for national newspapers.

Sharon’s columns and articles are widely popular for their intelligence, warmth and humour as well as  their insight into domestic, cultural and political life. Her previous novels, The Accidental Time Traveller and The Lost Guide to Life and Love, gained plaudits here and abroad.

With Amity and The Angel Sharon enters new territory. In this novel we flip back what appears to be medieval times in a severe Protestant island sect. However this is the contemporary world, after world-wide oil wars have destroyed much of the planet. (How resonant this is, of present day fears …)

The island is loosely connected to equally isolated mainland communities and is serviced by travelling tradesmen who  bring them news of the wider world. On the island there are no machines, few horses, no dancing, no singing, even in church, where there is much haranguing and instruction and bullying authority, There is  a chilling scene here, of the public shaming of a girl who has had a child out-of-wedlock

Amity does no fit into this oppressive community with is clerical hierarchy and gender based laws. Here own discontent is fed by the memories if the grandmother she takes care of, who has told her tales of times when there was singing and dancing, mobile phones, high heels and lipstick.

After Amity’s friend Finn leaves the island for the mainland, she finds solace in a creature she finds in a cave on the beach. She thinks of him as an Angel . Perhaps he can be a key to change and the restoration of normality both for her and the world community?

A wonderful and thought provoking read. W.R.

Amity cover

]

 

the accidental time traveller      lost guide to life and love

Amity & the Angel: New novel by Sharon Griffiths

Damselfly Editorial are delighted to be working with author Sharon Griffiths on her new, strangely prescient novel Amity and the Angel

 

Originally from Pembrokeshire, West Wales. Sharon ended up in the North East of England by way of    Bristol  University and Radio Oxford.   For some years she has written regular columns and feature articles for The Northern Echo   (http://tiny.cc/ia6lky)  and  the Eastern Daily Press in Norwich – as well as features for national newspapers. 

Sharon’s columns and articles are widely popular for their intelligence, warmth and humour as well as  their insight into domestic, cultural and political life. Her previous novels, The Accidental Time Traveller and The Lost Guide to Life and Love, gained plaudits here and abroad.

With Amity and The Angel Sharon enters new territory. In this novel we flip back what appears to be medieval times in a severe Protestant island sect. However this is the contemporary world, after world-wide oil wars have destroyed much of the planet. (How resonant this is, of present day fears …)

The island is loosely connected to equally isolated mainland communities and is serviced by travelling tradesmen who  bring them news of the wider world. On the island there are no machines, few horses, no dancing, no singing, even in church, where there is much haranguing and instruction and bullying authority, There is  a chilling scene here, of the public shaming of a girl who has had a child out-of-wedlock

Amity does no fit into this oppressive community with is clerical hierarchy and gender based laws. Here own discontent is fed by the memories if the grandmother she takes care of, who has told her tales of times when there was singing and dancing, mobile phones, high heels and lipstick.

After Amity’s friend Finn leaves the island for the mainland, she finds solace in a creature she finds in a cave on the beach. She thinks of him as an Angel . Perhaps he can be a key to change and the restoration of normality both for her and the world community?

Amity and the  Angel promises to be  a very special novel

We are working on the cover. Thought you’d like to see
our work in progress…Amity cover

]

 

the accidental time traveller      lost guide to life and love

Character Building

The thing that separates the professional writer from the amateur writer is the strength of their characterisation.

Have fun with the following – as you start to build the characters in your short story or your novel.

Characters – where to start?

You may recall characters who live on outside the story where they were born:
Think of Bill Sykes and Fagin
Think of Elizabeth Bennet and Rupert Bear
Think of Hannibal Lecter and Scarlett O’Hara
Think of Molly Bloom and Paul Morel
Think of Huckleberry Finn and Holly Golightly

Remember:

The characters in a story are the most important element.

  1. They are the colour and the depth In your narative,
  2. They carry the story forward in their wake
  3. They are the medium and the message.
  4. They are the parts and the sum

Points to remember.

1. The character may share many of your insights and experiences but s/he is not you.(This is, of course, very liberating….)
2  Only boring characters are all-good, or all bad.
3  However outrageous and outlandish a character’s actions and sayings are, they must be within the logic of this character. There is some kind of inner explanation for everything, even if you don’t explain it within the story. 

You, the writer, are becoming the expert in these people. 

Naming your Character
Names can give us personal, regional, national, historic and idiosyncratic clues to character. Do not choose a name lightly. If you choose not to name your character it should be a deliberate artistic choice, not a copping out.  (Read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, where the narrator is not named.)

Seeing/Feeling/Smelling/ Hearing your Character
It could be that you  never mention the appearance of your character in your story, but you need to see him or her in your own mind. Characteristics will filter into your storytelling.     Close your eyes.  SEE!

For instance

  • Is s/he tall or short? Tallish, shortish?
  • Is s/he thin with thick ankles?
  • Is s/he fat with beautiful legs?
  • Does s/he smell of cinnamon or chicken-fat?
  • Lavender or old sweat? Machine oil or patchouli?
  • Is his or her skin smooth or rough to the touch?
  • Does s/he have spots or old boils, Tattoos or needle marks?
  • Is it golden, white greys, brown, black, pink or sallow?
  • Does s/he have large or small hands?
  • Are they clean or dirty?
  • Are they used to manual work or non-manual work?
  • Are they masculine or feminine hands?
  • What do you know from the way he or she speaks?
  • Describe the timbre of her voice
  • How does s/he make you, the storyteller, feel?
    Where did you first see her/him?
    How does s/he speak? Does s/he have speech mannerisms?

Contradictions
Interesting characters are often perverse. Think of the vegetarian butcher, the gentle torturer, the plain seductress, the beautiful loser, the mild murderer, the loving betrayer, the rich thief, the fit invalid, the superstitious scientist, the child hating teacher …
Can you add to this list?

Try-Out Your Character!
NB, No matter whether or not you mention any of the above characteristics, they will be implicit in the prose you use in these try-outs.
Try …

  • Write ten lines in the first person about your character’s fifth birthday.
  • Write their own view of the star sign under which they were they born
  • Write a sentence written by them about a scar they have on their body.
  • Write ten lines about the view from their window when they were (or will be …) 25 years old.
  • Write three lines from their school report when they were thirteen. What do their teachers say?
  • Write five lines of dialogue between them and their father or their mother.
  • Write a first person account (ten lines…) of the first time they fell in love.
  • Write a first person account (ten lines …) of the first time they broke the law.
  • Write a monologue of them trying to make someone give them a job they desperately want.
  • Write a monologue of a friend trying to describe them to a very interested police officer.

 

NOW! Put them in your story.

© Wendy Robertson 2016

 

 

The Place Where Meaning May Lie: Toni Morrison

All readers and writers have novels which are their benchmark for quality, creativity, and literary verve.
This novel is my benchmark, my lifelong inspiration.imgres.jpg

 

Like Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs Dalloway’, Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’ exploded my views on how language works. Like George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’, this novel stunned me with its subtle view on the politics of a complicated world at a certain time in history,.

However Toni Morrison’ed ‘Beloved’, was the first great novel I read without bidding from scholar or teacher on page or in person. It was 1987 when I first read this novel and felt it to be great. I did not know then that ‘Beloved’ would win the Pulitzer Prize, or its author the Nobel Prize for Literature.

I read this novel once, then reread it instantly to find out why it had made such an impact on me. Then I read it again, to ignite more fireworks in my head with Toni Morrison’s words, her prisms of meaning, her verbal music. That was years ago. This week, I read it again and, the catherine-wheels have started to spin, spitting off fresh insights to be encoded into my idea of ‘Beloved’.

At the centre of this glittering catherine-wheel of a novel are Sethe, her flesh-daughter Denver and her-ghost daughter Beloved. Spinning around these three is Baby Suggs, shamanistic woman of great heart, mother to Sethe’s absent husband, Halle, who worked years of Sundays to buy his beloved mother’s freedom,

Spinning around them is is the incident in the shed of a house on the banks of the Ohio eighteen years before. Here, rather than have her baby daughter returned to the spoilage of a slave’s life, Sethe kills her with a saw.

Towards the edge of catherine-wheel spins Sweet Home, the plantation where Sethe was born, where Baby Suggs worked in the kitchen and where Halle, Paul D and the other ‘Sweet Home men’, worked the land for the apparently benevolent Mr Garner, who kindly allowed Halle to work years of his free Sundays to buy his mother’s freedom.

Further out beyond Sweet Home spins the sea, from where came Sethe’s mother who spoke a language Sethe could not understand, and who ended at the end of a hangman’s rope.

And beyond the sea spins Africa, always Africa.

Time is given little linear respect in this novel: it flashes inwards and outwards, backwards and forwards to allow us a deeper and deeper sense of the interior landscapes not just of Sethe and Baby Suggs, but of Denver and of Paul D, who comes to Ohio to find Sethe; and of old Stamp Paid who rescues slaves on the banks of the Ohio.

The palest, whitest, most glittering light shines on the interior landscape of ‘Beloved’, the aggressive mischievous ghost finally embodied as a girl, ‘who had new skin, lineless and smooth, including the knuckles of her hands.’

The novel inhabits not only light but music, in the layering and counterpointing of word and word and word, and in its incantatory prose rhythms. Buried in there too is the syncopated development of motif, which spreads, divides, then fuses in the artfully artless manner of jazz. Music also lives in the novel in plain sight: Upstairs Beloved was dancing. A little two step, two step, make a new step, slide slide and strut on down.

Already praised for her earlier novels, Morrison changed gear as a writer with ‘Beloved’. She took her sense of the essential music of language to greater heights in her later novel, ‘Jazz’, set in 1920’s Harlem. Then came ‘Paradise’, which Morrison wrote as the final instalment of a trilogy that began with ‘Beloved’. ‘Paradise’ begins with the best first lines, ‘They shoot the white girl first…’ but for me ‘Beloved’ is the best, the first great begetting.

Morrison, a career academic, is a highly7 conscious creator. Straight narrative, plain talk, fancy allegory, elliptical forms, metaphoric language, magic and music are her fingertip tools. In her Nobel Prize speech, she said, ‘The vitality of language lies in its ability to limn the actual, imagined and possible lives of its speakers, readers and writers. Although its poise is sometimes a displacing experience, it is not a substitute for it. It arcs towards the place where meaning may lie.’

Now that ‘Beloved’ is on firmly fixed on curriculum lists we are treated to a wide range of analytical perspectives of the novel and its writer. However, arguments regarding the informing issues of race or of gender seem to me cripplingly reductive. Morrison herself said, in an article in Time Magazine ‘Race is the least reliable information you can have about something. It’s real information, but it tells you next to nothing.’ 

The race under the microscope here is the human race.

And gender? Well the feminist in me finds much to cherish in the closeness, the high definition and elaboration of the female characters: their strengths and their discreet consuming passions; in the elevation here of female sensuality in food and colour, appetite and domestic routine. But the tenderness and acute perception which Morrison also shows Paul D and Stamp Paid, and even the absent Halle, properly includes men in this universe of pain and redemption.

‘Beloved’ shoots out light, life and even hope in all directions, including ours. It’s the best.
Read it!

(NB This article was first published in Mslexia Magazine. They edited out my admonition ‘Read it!’ I have restored it here,)