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Reading Incarcerated Writers

For the past two and a half years, I have been responding to the writing of incarcerated people from around the United States as a volunteer reader for College Guild. College Guild is a small nonprofit in Maine that offers a variety of unaccredited correspondence courses to all incarcerated people. It is intentionally unaccredited because certain people—such as those in solitary confinement, on death row, or in prison for life—do not have access to accredited courses. (That was shocking to me.) Right now College Guild has approximately 300 readers serving 580 students.

This has been some of the most rewarding volunteer work of my life. Every three weeks, unless I request otherwise, I receive a notification that a new student’s work is waiting for me. Because I am a writer, College Guild almost always sends those working on the writing courses my way. Some of their work is fairly rudimentary, but—as we know from Amherst Writers & Artists (AWA) workshops—there is always something to appreciate and encourage. Other students’ work has been profoundly moving and well written.

For the past six months I have been working periodically with Steven, who is taking the advanced Short Story course. All we know of each other is our first names, but we make a connection over language, story, the challenges of revision, and the difficulty of making time to write. In his first unit of the course, he made a request:

“This is a story I really like, but it’s missing something. I hope you can help me take it to the next level. Please know, I have an inch thick skin. I give you permission to Let. Me. Have. It. I want you to take out your critical jackhammer and tell me what’s wrong with this story. My family and friends mean well, but they seem to think everything I write is made of diamonds and dipped in platinum. I feel like I’m stuck in amateurland, and won’t get out until someone is brutally honest with me.”

If you know me, you know I don’t believe in “brutal” critique, but I do give him honest feedback, ask questions, and give suggestions for revision. I encourage him to keep going, and to honor his passion for writing.

What makes this work so satisfying is not just the time and energy I’m giving to these students; whether they know it or not, they give to me, too. These are people who show up to the page because they want to learn. I imagine them, heads bent over their notebooks, blocking out the clang and roar of the prison soundscape as they write. Every time I read an incarcerated person’s work, I am reminded that they are not the faceless, nameless, to-be-feared mass of people our culture encourages us to believe. They are individuals with dreams, desires, families, and regrets who have made some poor choices. Through their writing, they show me worlds I would not see otherwise. They expand my perspective. And sometimes, they even share some wisdom about the writing life. This is from Gary, the last student whose work I read:

“So often, we say, ‘I’m gonna write a book,’ and then get sidetracked with life and never accomplish it. I hope to do so. My grandmother was writing a mystery novel about a little old granny that gets into trouble all the time solving mysteries. Sounds more like an auto-biography if you ask ones close to her. She will be missed, however her story will never be read because she didn’t finish it. Nor do I know where it is. So thank you for encouraging me to do better.”

College Guild is always looking for readers, and you can learn all about the organization here. Feel free to contact me about it, too. I’m happy to answer questions. If you decide to sign up, please tell Tracey, the volunteer coordinator, that I sent you!

From the Testimonials section of the College Guild website.

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