2paragraphs: What can a writer/artist learn about creating from teaching incarcerated prisoners?
Ryan Blacketter: When I taught a week-long fiction workshop at North Idaho Correctional in 2006, most of my students were rebels, with a store of anger and a taste for booze. I felt comfortable with these men. I even liked their outfits. They wore identical pants and shirts of gray cloth that had each been patched a hundred times, like the garb of some outland era. Outside the window, the fence was topped with concertina wire that shone in the sun. In the distance were pine hills and blue sky. It seemed that the beautiful day had come for the sole purpose of taunting these kindred men.
At the start of the first class I told my students how I had landed before a judge twice as a teenager. Some of them leaned forward, out of their straight-backed positions, and their faces relaxed. One lanky handsome kid, who seemed built for dangerous fun, grinned and laughed right out loud. I was pleased that I had befriended them, and I pointed over my shoulder with a thumb to indicate the whole damn place. “These fuckers hate people like us,” I said. At my words half of their faces went downcast, and I saw it was the wrong thing to say—even though the lanky kid had clapped once in agreement. A chubby man in a crew cut said, “I’m here after my third DUI. I need to straighten my life out.” This man had another trait of the writer, the ability to spot a lie instantly. Even if I had spent a few nights in juvie and went through the courts as a kid, I had since gotten it together enough to complete two master’s degrees and to publish short stories and teach, and I was not in jail. Most of them didn’t want to romanticize their crimes. They didn’t want to assuage their guilt with talk of “social justice” or “the system.” They simply wished to talk and write honestly about their experiences. And so for the remaining classes I dropped the bad-boy persona, and we did some writing.
—Ryan Blacketter is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He has received a literary grant from Oregon Regional Arts and a prison teaching grant from Idaho Humanities Council. His most recent novel is Down in the River, published by Slant Books. You can read the first 2paragraphs here.