Even as I grew and began stringing words together into simple sentences and clunky paragraphs, writing was still only writing. I wrote book reports, thank you notes to relatives, and essays about what I did the previous summer because it was required of me. It was not until junior high school that writing poems or short stories entered the picture, and then only briefly. There was no awareness of what writing can do to readers. I read as much as most kids my age – which is to say not very much – so I didn’t understand the connection between reading and writing for many years to come. It would eventually take prison.
My adolescence was marked by an inability to express my thoughts and emotions. I floundered with how to speak my mind and these unsaid things turned into hungry rats gnawing on my nerves. Communicating as a shy teenager is hard enough, but instead of overcoming my social anxieties and reaching out to those who could help me I chose less idealistic ways. Writing about the difficulties plaguing my life never occurred to me. In my mind there was too much garbage crowding out common sense and good ideas.
My first real understanding of writing as a way of communicating arrived without fanfare. I was locked up in the Maine Youth Center and had no access to a phone. The only way to reach the outside world was by letter and this required a rudimentary knowledge of writing. Most of us asked family members to come visit and bring plenty of change for the vending machines, but there were a few kids who received a lot of mail and responded in kind. They were anomalies.
The letter was our most important method of communication, more so than the sign language used to pass brief, illegal messages, or the war stories about the streets traded in whispers. None of us really viewed writing as anything other than a means to an end. In some cases essay writing was used as punishment by the youth center's staff in an effort to help us understand the errors of our delinquent ways. We resented it and resisted because we didn’t care to see “the big picture”. Our thoughts were for getting back to the excitement of unadulterated freedom – not the benefits of writing.
It was not until my imprisonment on death row at the age of 21 that I began to fully realize how important writing can be. Initially, my letters to friends and family were unclear and fell short of what I wanted to say. How do you explain a situation like facing execution? It took time, a lot of practice, and this overwhelming need to be understood before my writing could evolve enough to help others see from my eyes.
About eight years into my incarceration I was granted the opportunity to enroll in some college courses. Though my education ended with a GED attained when I was 17, I was more than ready to take up the challenge of a higher education. Among the first few things to open my mind was that everything I read had to be conveyed in the clearest possible manner.
Demonstrating this in writing went hand-in-hand with comprehension. Maybe, if I paid more attention in school and didn’t drop out my sophomore year comprehensive reading and writing wouldn’t have seemed like some new and fabulous skill that swelled my chest with its potential.
It helps that since coming to prison I’ve fallen in love with reading. I began reading to take my mind away from the things beyond my control. This in turn revealed to me the power of writing to influence minds. Not exactly new, groundbreaking stuff, but to me this was an epiphany. The writing and psychology courses showed me that reading requires reflection and analysis just like our lives do. Understanding the nuances of the English language and value of being proficient with it has greatly improved how I write and think. Writing makes life possible in any circumstance.
In the years since my incarceration I’ve found that writing is a tool more useful than any other, one that always existed in my life. Since learning how to use it, writing has become a crucial element of my survival in prison because it is the only way I can prove my continued existence to the rest of the world. Edward Bulver-Lytton may have said the pen is mightier than the sword, but for me it has become the skeleton key for every locked door barring my way. I seek now to find the door it has yet to open, appreciating the power of writing throughout my journey.
Note: This post was entered in the 2015 PrisonReform101.com writing contest.