Writing: A Healing Art

Ed GriffinGuest Post
by Ed Griffin

Aristotle said, “Art releases unconscious tensions and purges the soul.”

I volunteered to teach creative writing first in a maximum security prison in Wisconsin where I lived. When we moved to Canada in 1988 I volunteered again, but the prison administrator told me I wasn’t needed because Simon Fraser ran a university program at Matsqui prison. A year later the program was cancelled and I started to teach creative writing.

That was twenty years ago and I made Aristotle’s quote my motto. Writing was an art, and it helped people understand themselves. I remember giving an assignment, “Write about a safe place you knew as a child.” Nothing was more productive than this. “Me and my brother, we had a fort behind the house where we went when ma was looking for us.” “My safe place was under the steps. I hid there when my old man came home drunk.”

If a guy stayed with the class, he got beyond “F…. the system,” though I was glad to see him write that, rather than act it out. Only a few guys in all those years turned into ‘real writers,’ but that didn’t make any difference to me.

For one thing they had a few hours every week where they got to live in a different world, the world of art. In the prison there really was no art, no drama, no theater, no painting and no music. This last bothered me a lot. Society learned long ago that music helps people, helps them find peace.

Programs are the current magic bullets in the prison system. Anger management, cog (cognitive) skills and so forth. Guys don’t sit down with management and pick the programs they think they should take, no, they are assigned programs. As you can imagine, this doesn’t work very well.

The men appreciate volunteers, people who give of their time and come into the prison to teach. They feel that these volunteers respect them and care about them. Twice a year we ran weekend writing retreats, which taught us outsiders a lot about prison and gave the insiders a feeling that they were normal people, engaged in learning about a craft.

I hope others will volunteer to teach writing in prison. There are three levels of prison: Provincial (any sentence under two years), Federal (any sentence over two years) and remand centers. I think the USA has a different line-up, minimum security to maximum security. People who want to volunteer in prison have to go through a training program. Here in Canada it’s a one night course.

It’s not only writing that needs volunteers, it’s all the arts. Sadly they’re missing in most prisons and yet they are very therapeutic. They come to a man or woman with this attitude, “You have talent and we’re here to help you develop that talent.” Programs approach a person with the attitude that they’re sick and need help.

I taught a class once about writing romances, and I said that men often write these, using a pen name. The next week one of my students came down to class with the opening chapter of Breach of the Heart.” This inmate was a boxer and he looked it. He read the chapter in class and the guys liked it. “Tell me, how did you get inside that chick’s head so good,” one of his classmates asked. He looked around the room and said, “Hell, I just got in touch with the female part of myself.”

I know it was only a man like him who could have said that in prison and lived.

Think about it. That chapter took him most of a week. So he spent his week writing, not smoking dope, not beating up on someone.

He’s out today and has his own business. At least in his case, “Art releases unconscious tensions and purges the soul.”

Ed Griffin has published poetry, plays, short stories and a newspaper column.  His writing has won several awards and the American Humanist Society has honored him as the teacher of a prize-winning inmate writer. Griffin believes that all the arts, including writing, should be encouraged in prison. He is the author of six books and founder of Western Canada’s largest writer’s conference, the Surrey Writers’ Conference. You may learn more about Ed on his website and his Author Central page.

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41 thoughts on “Writing: A Healing Art”

  1. You have one tangible success in that man with his own business. I am sure there are others less tangible.

    We all need an outlet to express ourselves, one that gets us in touch with the ‘real’ self and validates it. I think that it is the repression of that ‘real’ self, usually in order to survive, that drives many to act out, sometimes in crime. That makes the work you do truly healing.

  2. Ed, I’ve been fortunate enough to hear your story a number of times, in person, and yet your post really hit it home for me. It is such important work you and the other volunteers have been doing for twenty years. It is sad, indeed, that the program has been stopped.

    1. The old saying is that you can’t keep a good man down. My former students write to me and let me know what’s happening. It’s not the same as being there, but it’s a good substitute. And yesterday, I heard of the John Howard Society awarding $500 to two students and 250 to another for their efforts at higher education. They can use this money to pay for post-secondary classes, since the prison system won’t pay for anything beyond grade 12. So the bursary is working, slowly, but surely.

    1. well, writing has kept me sane, Lynne. I know that when the doctor said “You’ve got cancer,” I wrote and wrote until I had created a guy on paper who could do it. He could face the world and say I’ve got cancer. Then I released it to my local paper to make sure my friends read it. So now I have to live up to it.
      Thanks for your comment, Lynne

  3. What a wonderful post! I would love to see this turn into a grassroots effort that rolls across the continent and around the world. Art as therapy (or just plain mental health) has been lingering in the shadows forever; it would be wonderful to see it come into its own, to be recognized as a tool for all humans, regardless of levels of talent. Thanks so much for sharing, Ed, and keep up the good work!

    1. Thank you, Melissa. I agree with you that people should hear this wonderful news than art is therapy. I know there are university courses related to this. If only the prison system learned about this. Painting, theater, music, writing — they would all be encouraged. I’m sad to say they are treated just the opposite now.

  4. I would agree with Anne. This is more NEED than anything. Thankfully you are blessed with such a gift. Always good to follow your passion… and your heart.

    Great post!

    1. I meant Lynne. I was thinking, it ends with an E. Haha! Sorry. I was tweeting all hours of the night. 😉

  5. It’s been a busy week for me so I’ve fallen behind on blog reads. I’m so glad I decided to catch up, or I would’ve missed this wonderful post. That is so great that you volunteered in prisons teaching writing. Unfortunately, most penal systems focus on the punishment part and make very little effort at reform, or helping the people who would be open to it. I think prison writing programs are a great way to do that. People just want to be heard, often. And teaching people how to be heard in constructive ways is a great asset.

    1. I think you should be the warden of a prison, RJ. When you change things, don’t forget the other arts besides writing. Music. How sad it is NOT to hear music in prison, not even elevator music. And Painting — people can express their feelings on life by how they paint.
      If only — if only you were a warden, RJ

  6. What a brilliant, uplifting article. I’m not sure I’d have the courage to do what you do, but you are making a real contribution to the lives of people the rest of us ignore. Thank you.

    1. It’s really not that courageous. When an outsider becomes a volunteer, the guys protect that volunteer. They are happy that someone has honored them by coming to prison to work with them. I’m safer in jail then I am in some neighborhoods near my house.
      Thank you for your comment

  7. I’ve had the good fortune to have attended a number of Ed’s workshops in a local prison, and I can attest to the incredibly powerful connections people make when these silly boundaries between “criminals” and “the rest of us” are removed. Because they don’t exist. Most people in prison probably don’t belong in prison while many of us on the outside could well have ended up there given a moment of bad luck. I’ve said it before and no doubt I’ll say it again—just like my Grandad used to tell the same stories over and over, bless him—but I’ve met some of the most thoughtful people in prisons, men who’ve stopped and taken stock, who’ve asked themselves why they’re in the situation they’re in, and answered with searing honesty, while quite honestly they’re far more interesting people than your average suburban dad whose deepest contemplations tend to revolve around his truck and his lawn.

    But yes, Ed still manages to keep the focus on writing and not therapy, even though the whole experience itself can be effectively therapeutic, simply through the merging of “inside” with “outside.”

    1. Thanks, David. You make an excellent point about the arts changing us without our even knowing it. The guys in prison who wrote, concentrated on the writing, seldom thinking that it was an art. So they ended up changed, but also many of them had a short story or an article or even a novel to show for their efforts.

  8. We all are imprisoned by something. There are concrete prisons. And there are velvet prisons. Creative expression is the ultimate parole.

    I have attended Ed’s writing class for years. He is a true gift.

    1. Thank you, Carla. I like how you point out that there are many prisons and all of us are in prison in one form or another. Great. Thank you.

  9. Ed, thank you for sharing your thoughts and writing talent as a volunteer, and for taking the time to help us understand the experience. Just reading this, I can imagine the insight and calm you bring to your writing classes.

    1. Thank you, Jo-Anne. But you give me too much credit. I try to keep my classes very lively. Someone yawning drives me up the wall. I feel that I’ve failed as a teacher. Teaching itself is an art, a difficult one to learn.

  10. Hello Ed,
    Thank you for posting that piece. You were such an immensely positive influence to all the fellows at Matsqui and other prisons and I’m sure many inmates fondly remember the time they have spent in your classes just like many volunteers (like me) remember the good times that were shared in your prison classrooms. You have such a wonderful way of making students believe in the goodness within themselves and you helped so many to express themselves openly and clearly and feel so much better about their situation and life in general. Your classes were always so inspirational; thank you.

    1. Thank you for your comments, Andrea. You make me wonder if I made a mistake by writing my blog about prison. Prison Uncensored. That’s the real reason I got the boot and am not able to teach in prison anymore. I must just do a good job teaching on the outside and in writing about prison.

  11. Ed, you’ve made such a huge difference – both in and out of prison. Thank you.

  12. Using our passions to reach out to others is one of the few really effective methods of communication. You’ve shown passion for what you do and I’m sure you’ve made a significant impact in the lives of those you worked with.

    (I attended a funeral today for a man who loved people with a passion and spent his whole life trying to make a difference for them in one way or another. He was 89 and still actively involved in M2W2 until three months ago when health problems intervened.)

    1. I’m sorry to hear that, Carol. I know some of those guys in M2W2 and they work hard and develop strong relationships. I hope it was nobody I knew.

  13. Ed,
    You’ve touched so many lives. Knowing you, you’d want the focus to be, not on you, but on the students in your article. Kudos to the guys for having the courage to attend your class and open themselves up to the healing power of writing. Thank you for leading the way and encouraging us to follow in your footsteps.

    1. And thanks to you and many others like you who encouraged me and helped me keep focused on the positive side of things rather than the negative. Kudos to YOU and those like you.

    1. Thank you, David. A teacher does not exist in a vacuum. He or she responds to their students and I responded to you and others. It was great to see you writing. You carried on the lessons to actually using them in your writing. You paid me the ultimate thank you by writing well.

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