I recently received an email from a woman who runs a book club at a South Dakota women’s prison. She is having the members read The Girl who Sang to the Buffalo and was wondering if I’d write them a letter so the experience would have a personal feel. Having done some work in prisons, and believing that you need to honor you readers for the gift they give you of their time and attention, I was happy to oblige.
When the letter was done, I realized that it might be worth posting here, as well. I’d be curious as to what any of you think of it. Spot on? Naive? Worthy counsel?
Here it is:
Hello, my friends.
I’m sorry to hear you’re in prison. I hope you’ve taken a look into your hearts to see what got you there and to see if its something that should have been avoided and can be avoided in the future. And I hope the experience of being there doesn’t leave scars that don’t heal.
But I also hope you will take a look at the prison experience and the experience of your life and see them for what they are: your unique life experience that prepares you in a unique way for some task in life that might be different from what you expect.
Let me explain. When people ask me what was the most significant element in making me a writer, I tell them that it was the dark experience of going with my dad on his job as a disaster worker for the Red Cross when I was a teenager. He would get me out of bed in the middle of the night to have me accompany him to fires and drownings and things that a young person would hope not to see.
I remember one time in deep winter at an apartment fire in Minneapolis where he told me to wait in the car with an old woman who had been displaced. She lived alone and was sobbing as we sat there. “My cat is in there,” she pleaded. “Please have them get my cat. She’s everything to me.”
Even at that age, I knew that there was no way the fire fighters were going back into a flaming apartment building to save a cat. But, what could I do? What could I say? All I was able to do was bear witness to her grief and to try to comfort her as best I could.
Later in the night, as the sun was coming up, we drove back through the wintry streets to my warm home just in time for me to get ready for school. Suddenly I was back in the world of wondering if some girl liked me, or if the coach would let me play in the game on Friday, or if my hair was cool.
And I realized in a deep and visceral way that my life was not significant compared to the life of that woman and that her world was, in so many ways, much more real than mine.
At plane crashes, at floods, at drownings where I was told to wait with a sobbing mother on the dark shore while the rescue people dragged the lake until they came up with her son’s body, the experience repeated itself again and again.
I ceased being able to take myself and my teenage concerns so seriously. I became a watcher and an observer.
This shaped me forever. It made me into someone who wanted to see the significant moments in other people’s lives rather than my own, and to tell their stories. I didn’t want to get rich; I didn’t want to get famous. I just wanted to watch the world and share what I saw. I needed to be a story teller.
I was lucky. I found writing as an outlet. Had I not, I might have fallen into a deep sadness and depression from which there would have been no easy escape.
But the point is, I became what I am because of something quite unrelated to the field I ended up in. Yes, I worked hard at my craft. Yes, I got a few breaks. But none of that made me a writer. It was the darkness of my childhood experiences as an observer of other people’s pain and suffering that shaped my heart. The rest of it was just finding a means of giving voice to that heart.
You each have a unique experience. Forget whether it was fair. Forget whether or not you drew a bad hand. Those things are irrelevant. You got what you got and you drew the hand that you did. If it is less than you might have wished, so be it. What matters is that your heart has been touched in a unique way by your circumstances. Racism, rape, incest, petty thievery, violence by or against you, whatever. These are your life and they are your gifts. Yes, gifts. No one else who has not experienced them can understand them like you do.
The question before you is how you infuse those experiences with light and how you turn them somehow toward the good. You have a chance to touch other people because of what you know through your life experience. There is no greater sense of quiet satisfaction than hearing someone say, either in words or through the look in their eyes, “You understand me.”
Who do you understand? Who can you help, and how?
It’s rough, especially if you don’t have a lot of skills and if you carry lots of unresolved anger that weighs you down and refuses to loose its grip on you.
But that’s where you have to get tough with yourself. If you’re stuck on the streets of Rapid or Sioux falls without a dime to your name, or you’re trying to get a piece of junk car through the gumbo on Pine Ridge to make it to a meeting with your parole officer, or if you have an abusive husband or lover or three hungry kids who are living with grandma, it seems impossible to find a way to even begin thinking about going to school or getting skills that will allow you to give voice to the wisdom you have in your heart. But you have to do it. It’s the only way to move your life forward, and the only way, ultimately, to feel good about yourself.
Though this may sound to you like I’m really clueless and naïve, I’m not. You should look at this time in prison as a rare opportunity to make a start. Find out who you are, what your unique experience is that animates you and gives shape to your understanding. Then start directing that to some goal. Of course you’re counting the days until you get out. Of course there are the dramas and stresses of living at close quarters in a place that you cannot leave. But in some fundamental way you are freer now than you will be when you walk out on the street and the challenges and complexities of everyday survival come surging in on you.
Take advantage of this. Look at it as a gift, though a dark one. In some strange and convoluted way, you are freer now than you will ever be again.
Thanks for taking the time to read my book (I hope you will also look at the two others in the series, Neither Wolf nor Dog and The Wolf at Twilight). And thanks for taking the time to listen to this long letter.
Life isn’t easy for any of us, but it is a heck of a lot better than the alternative.