My story, entitled No Seconds (see the following post) was fairly PG compared to some of the others, but this was intentional. The stories I hear from guys on the block are anything but family friendly and rarely contain any threads of wisdom. Most of the time they are attempts to brag about what material wealth was gained, various sexploits, and tales of violence. This is not an exaggeration or oversimplification – it’s prison talk in the condensed form. Jerry Springer a cappella.
Since I don’t really come from a background where selling drugs, gang warfare, domestic violence, and whatnot is common my stories are kind of tame. As a writer with creative license though it is my duty to make tame things interesting and lame things funny. So it was with No Seconds. I utilized all of the acting and gesticulating learned from 12 Angry Men and Serving Life to put on a show. Oh, and I memorized the hell out of about 750 words in a week.
Despite being high strung with anxiety and caffeine I was the seventh to tell my story with three other guys to tell their stories after me. I was fairly confident my hard work and new theater knowledge would pay off and it did. The audience laughed a lot. It was pretty funny. After all, who brings their first date in high school to see a movie about . . .
Anyway, everyone finishes telling their story and the judging begins. Stories are graded on a scale of 1-5 with categories for creativity, structure, presentation and so on for a total possible score of 30 points. I felt good about my chances for placing second. There were two stories I believed would beat me out based on emotional value and presentation. One was about an incident of domestic violence being halted in its tracks and the other was about a beat up car with a hole in the floor and a good motor.
The car story placed second. Not a big surprise, but it left me wondering if I was in the running for first place against the domestic violence story. Was my story on that level?
The winning story perplexed a number of people I’ve since talked with about the Story Slam. It violated the only rules ever set down for story content—no stories about institutional violence and no profanities. In addition to this it was not vetted in class prior to the slam, unless it was given to the instructor privately, out of the view and feedback of the class. There were other inconsistencies with the story that do not match up with things some of us know about the teller—but that is neither here nor there. Truth was deemphasized during our preparatory classes. It does beg the question: why was a story that violated every rule mad the winner instead of being disqualified?
My first thought is that this was done intentionally as a way of catering to the interests of certain people. Prisoner politics being what they are, was it possible the judges were swayed? Probably not. Only one of the judges had any real interest in seeing the story that won, succeed. Scoring is a bit tricky too. For this second Story Slam the audience and the judges scored and those two numbers were combined to create an average. Unless the average was somehow changed, mess with the scoring is pretty unlikely.
By the second day my anger cooled to the degree where I really wondered how this guy won with a story that was no different from any I’ve heard on the cell block. At this point, it no longer mattered I hadn’t placed. Sure I was disappointed, but writing is about trying and failing and trying again. When success in publication and readership comes, it’s sweeter for being infrequent. Hard work and effort is rewarded because the writer finds ways to work within a defined system of rules of the craft. The more you write, the more dedicated to the craft and details of the English language (for those of us who write in English) you become. It gets easy to recognize flaws in structure and violations of rules that have been set for a very good reason.
Stories of institutional violence deal with assaults by prisoners on other prisoners, staff or vice versa. They are common and gritty because prison is a hard place containing harder people. This content was originally banned because it seemed to upset or rankle some of the higher ups. No problem. Eliminate such stories and tone down any violence or offensive language. PG-13, tops. The whole reason for the vetting process prior to the Story Slam—or so I assumed was to make certain the stories followed the rules. Apparently not.
This is not the lesson I took away from the experience. Life is never fair and telling tales in prison is the last place I would look for such a thing. No, my lesson came on a much deeper level and had to do with the victims’ families who may hear or learn of the success of whichever prisoner is responsible for their loss and maybe think: “How dare they?” It was a well-deserved cold bucket of water to my remaining anger. “How dare they thwart punishment with reform—they’re breaking a well-defined system of rules! They need to suffer!”
I seriously doubt this line of thinking was the purpose behind the second story slam, but I’ll run with it since there is real value in the perspective of the victim’s family. I think this gets lost in the struggle. I will certainly try much harder to include them in my efforts to write and evolve as a human being. Even though the law prevents prisoners from even contacting the victim’s family I believe this is one element that should be central to our lives in prison. They have lost more than us and it stands to reason we owe our potential, time, energy and ability to them.