07 June 2017

1. It can happen to anyone

When I tell people I’ve visited prisons, the first thing they say is ‘what were they like?’ They say it as if ‘they’ might be monsters, or aliens. But ‘they’ are no different from ‘us’. I’ve met clever women, funny and creative and curious women, women of all ages, races and backgrounds, women who can write and speak with serious aplomb; they also happen to be in prison. Many of these women have experienced serious difficulties — domestic and childhood abuse, poverty, addiction — but they are all individuals. When writing All the Good Things, one of my main concerns was to make Beth and the other women she meets in prison as unique  as possible. I want readers to see themselves in these characters, or the selves they could so easily be were a few things to go wrong.

2. Perspective

You know when you totally freak out because the supermarket runs out of your favourite cereal, or the train is five minutes late, or your partner fails to do the washing up or just because? It’s so easy to lose perspective in our choice-saturated lives. Going to prison can too often mean losing many things; home, job, family, possessions, and small choices, like when or what to eat for breakfast, when to leave a room.

One thing it can give you, however, is perspective. The women I met spoke about their own lives, and life more generally, with a wit and honestly I have rarely encountered on ‘the outside’; perhaps this is because it’s easy to go on kidding ourselves we’ve done things right, perhaps it’s because they’ve had so much taken away and so much time to reflect. They’d talk about simple things such as sitting on their friend’s sofa or going to the corner shop as if these activities were rare and extravagant, which, when you are locked in a cell for a significant portion of each day, they are.

Beth’s list of good things is in many ways an exercise in perspective; of working out what matters and what doesn’t. In recounting her experience growing up in south London, she is keenly aware of the absurdity and beauty of everyday life. Simple things such as watching strangers play football in a park or walking down a busy street becomes opportunities for wonder and awe. If only I could remember this the next time my train is delayed…

Teaching creative writing in prisons

Words can also free a person; the women knew this

3. Words matter

Words can trap a person, and many of the women knew this: 'when you're in here, you become a number. But we're more than just a number.' 'We're seen as bad people, but we're not. We've just made mistakes.' Words can also free a person; the women knew this, too. Many have taken up reading and writing in the course of their sentences. It can pass the time; it can also be a lifeline. When you are so physically limited, the page is a place where you can exert power. Beth’s relationship to the written word changes her relationship to herself and with other people; she makes an important friend through helping her to write letters to her son.

4. Women need more support

Prison can be a place of respite; from domestic abuse, from poverty, from abusive pasts. For many women I met, it was the first time they’d felt safe, the first time they’d been able to open up about some of the difficulties they’d encountered or got any proper mental health support or educational opportunities. It was great to see their transformations and how much they supported one another, yet tragic they did not get the help when they needed it — and which might very well have prevented them going to prison in the first place. Some talked about their former selves or lives almost as if they were different people and it was this that I wanted to explore through Beth's character: how so much of what we assume we are is not static but dependent upon the situations we find ourselves in. For Beth, as for many of the women I met, being in prison can bring opportunities as well as difficulties. 

5. Creativity builds confidence

One of the joys of teaching — whatever it is you’re teaching and wherever it is you’re doing it — is watching your students gain confidence. The transformation was particularly steep amongst some of the women I’ve worked with in prison. I had one student who was too embarrassed to speak in the first session, let alone write anything; another who felt her grasp of English wasn’t good enough for her to take part. But with time and encouragement, not only from me but, crucially, from the more experienced writers in the group, they began to try. By the last session, some of the shyest students were volunteering to read out their work. In daring to write a list of good things about herself, Beth dares to challenge the labels —  bad prison, bad mother, prisoner - that have been stuck to her. This changes how she sees herself and how she behaves with the other women; she begins to reach out and make the connections that will be essential to her survival. 

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