By Catherine Gentile
Photographs by Greta Rybus
Breaking Down Barriers and Forming a Fellowship of Women Writers.
“Walking down the corridors and hearing 12 sets of doors locking behind me is the hardest part. But once I reach the women’s unit and I see the smiling faces waiting for me,
I forget I’m in a prison.”
Author Monica Wood knows that the women at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham are inmates, but she refuses to use the term to describe them. “I want them to think of themselves as more than inmates, more than whatever they’ve done wrong.” Speaking of the women who have become her students, her eyes sparkle.
As the author of the novels My Only Story, Secret Language, Any Bitter Thing, and her recent memoir, When We Were the Kennedys, Wood has participated in many gatherings of book lovers, but never one like this. The women connected deeply with the characters in her novel, Ernie’s Ark. Wood was intrigued. She couldn’t stop thinking about the expressions on their faces and the power of their insightful questions. The group’s diversity—from those convicted of OUIs and of murder, to the highly educated and those who have yet to earn their high school diplomas—rendered the love they shared of reading all the more compelling. The richness of their thoughts drew Wood to them and “called” her to return.
Although she’d never written a grant or worked in a prison, she wrote a proposal for a program called “Meet the Authors” and presented it to Martina Duncan and Victoria Bonebakker at the Maine Humanities Council. Her goal? To further the women’s “intellectual thirst” by cultivating their interest in a variety of literary genres. Her hook? A cadre of successful female authors—former poet laureate Betsy Sholl, science writer Hannah Holmes, essayist Elizabeth Peavey, and children’s author Amy MacDonald would make guest appearances.
She discussed her project with Scott Burnheimer, the superintendent of the Maine Correctional Center. He instantly loved the idea. His “go-ahead,” was exactly what Wood hoped for. Two weeks later, she received a check from the Maine Humanities Council to buy books. She was thrilled; the pieces had fallen into place.
As the third iteration of Wood’s program gathers on a Friday morning, the students smile at me, the visitor they’ve been expecting. Fresh from their morning rituals, hair not yet rumpled from the day, they wear uniform shirts and carefully applied makeup. Their eyes, bright with anticipation, say it all—Friday mornings are special. The cinder-block room, an all-purpose meeting space with square tables arranged in a U-shape, is large, sunny, and graciously supplied with a plastic pitcher of water and paper cups. Outside the expansive windows, a distant ribbon of mountains can be seen against brilliant blue skies. Closer in, razor wire dances along the perimeter fencing, reminding us where we are.
Smartly dressed in the bright colors the women love, Wood starts class, saying, “Time to ‘bubble up.’ Faces light with recognition: the women spread their arms above their heads, signaling the start of their sacred ritual. In unison, they pull metaphorical bubbles around themselves and proclaim, “Within this bubble, we are only readers and writers.” They chant with the dedication of believers, experienced in the bubble’s power to remove them from the monotony of a life confined.
At Wood’s urging, each woman shares her intention for the class. “To read my work aloud, to enjoy others’,” says one. “To prove that I am or am not a writer,” says another, to which Wood responds with an unequivocal, “You are a writer.” This validation settles comfortably among the writers.
A student volunteers to read what she’s written for this week’s assignment and asks for feedback. Wood—no stranger to the task of winnowing through commentary in which personal taste is often mistaken for constructive feedback—knows how grueling this process can be and has prepared her class. They’ve discussed how they would like to be treated during this exchange and agreed upon a basic rule—everyone will deliver and receive suggestions with kindness and respect. Confident that the agreed-upon parameters will guide them through the delicate interactions, Wood listens intently yet at ease. A quiet tension tingles within the class. When the student finishes, Wood praises the narrator’s “satirical snooty-boots voice,” and everyone laughs. Wood asks the author if she could see herself compressing her piece to include only the most important parts. “Try for 650 words. See if you like it that way,” she says.
To me, the synergy of the women and Wood’s unflagging support create magic—a magic that envelops both teacher and students. According to Wood, this aura gives rise to “…the women, connecting with the parts of themselves that are humane, creative, optimistic, and generous.” When her students replicate the writerly fellowship she teaches, Wood glows. “This is the best thing I’ve ever done,” she says.
For Wood, a couple of experiences capture the importance of the class: “One woman wrote a letter to her sister and later said ‘it led to healing rather than rage.'” Two other women engaged their children in writing children’s books by exchanging chapters through the mail. The optimism with which the women approach the challenge of writing is what attracted Wood to them; their willingness to apply their writing to their own lives, her prize.
Reflecting on the 100 percent attendance at her sessions—unprecedented for classes at the correctional unit—Wood says, “The world of books and ideas is a weekly oasis from the rest of our lives.” Her assignments provide legitimate reasons for the women to work together during the week. As a result, “intellectually engaging” friendships have reached beyond established cliques. Delighted as Wood is with this outcome, she is thrilled when students help one another and exchange constructive feedback when she’s not there. She smiles knowingly. Students applying their own guidelines? What more could a teacher ask for?
Armed with a new sense of self-confidence, the women make decisions about the direction of their reading and writing, and—importantly, since it is a skill that applies to every relationship—whether they’ll accept or reject what others say about them and their work. Dignity is the gift decision-making leaves in its wake. Wood calls this “the redemptive power of literature,” and her class “a modest stepping-stone,” one she hopes will sustain these women writers on their journey of rehabilitation.
When the class is over, Wood packs her things. She is still thinking about the women. “Sharing a talent that fits someone else’s needs…is the best part of this experience.” She pauses. “They’ve changed my life,” she says, as though unwrapping words from within her heart. “The line between them and me is finer than I ever imagined…it’s not a small thing to understand.”
A realist, Wood entertains no illusions that she will alter the course of these women’s lives, but hopes that “this class gives them something tangible to take with them…a new approach to reading and writing, to thinking and responding. The experience has made my life rich and deep. I hope it will do the same for them.”