Throughout my time at college, my perception of what “good” writing is has changed immensely. Before college, writing was a hobby. I enjoyed the simple act of writing; it was natural to me. I wasn’t holding myself to any standard or abiding by any rules. My writing was a full expression of myself, uninfluenced by “great” literature or renowned writers or publication guidelines. I was sometimes praised for my writing and encouraged to formally pursue writing in my education.
I eventually did decide to formally pursue writing, and have been doing so for the past three years. I’ve taken many workshop classes at the University of Michigan as well as New York University. I’ve attended countless writing conferences, readings and events. I’ve written a number of essay collections that I still can’t believe I finished. I’ve won some awards and have come close to winning others.
Somehow, though, I feel like less of a writer than I was at 17.
My experience with writing sometimes feels surreal, even though I haven’t, by any terms, “made it” as a writer. I began as a girl with a journal in her nightstand drawer, and now, somehow, I’m here. I’ve heard accomplished writers speak and I have worked closely with many of them. I’ve learned what to write and when, how to get published and where. I’ve written and edited and re-written and re-edited pieces. I’ve completed this cycle so many times that some of my work doesn’t even feel like mine. I’ve learned so much about writing that sometimes I forget how to write; I’m paralyzed by the thought of flow and tone and recognition, which I’ve internalized as the singular pillar of artistic accomplishment.
I’ve lost touch with myself as an artist in the pressure to be a “good” writer by the implicit standards of literary achievement — standards that, after many nights of frustration, agony and subsequent soul-searching, I’ve decided are illusory on the premise of their elitism. Literary knowledge, allusions and inclusion in high-brow social groups — Fitzgerald, Capote, Didion – have played a role in shaping these standards, while living in complete isolation and selling your soul to the craft of writing (in conjunction with illicit substances) has, too — Hemingway, Salinger, Thoreau.
In other words, the road to literary success has been defined, and, to most, is unavailable.
On Thursdays, I go to Cotton Correctional Facility in Jackson. I facilitate a creative writing workshop with three other members of the Prison Creative Arts Project for incarcerated men. We push the tables in the classroom together and sit in a circle. We play games, do writing exercises and share our pieces with each other. For every piece shared comes a round of poetry snapping and warm smiles, compassionate head shakes or intelligent feedback, regardless of whether it’s positive or negative.
Before I’d gone to Cotton, when I’d told my friends and family about the workshop I’d be facilitating, they’d assured me that I’d teach the men a lot. They knew that I knew how to write — I’d been doing it forever, and I’d studied the craft extensively. But I was never under the impression that I had anything to teach these men. In fact, I knew I’d be the one learning.
I was right in knowing that I didn’t have anything to offer the men, aside from giving them the space to express themselves. What I didn’t anticipate, though, was the amount of wisdom and passion and knowledge that they have shown me. It’s one thing to learn from something, but it’s another to have it change you — which is what the men at Cotton did.
In that classroom, I’ve encountered the most powerful writing I’ve read. These men have faced nearly insurmountable adversity. They’ve experienced enough pain for 10 lifetimes. They’ve been robbed of resources that I, and many of my peers, have had access to our whole lives. And they’re the best artists I’ve ever met.
The men at Cotton have stripped the art of writing down to its essence. Its essence is not elite — it’s not knowledge or culture or even recognition. It’s genuineness. Their writing is magnetic, organic.
Through their authenticity, these men have inspired me to become who I am, both as a writer and as a person. Because of them, what I’ve been taught about what writing is supposed to be is unraveling. The best writers are the ones who are fully themselves.
Because of them, I’ve decided to forget what I know and become the writer I was at 17. Because of them, I’ve realized that the best art is often not celebrated, because it’s raw, messy and imperfect. The best writing doesn’t adhere to a standard or yearn for recognition — it only exists in its purest form, despite whether or not it’s loved.