Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Writing Life: Doing Double Duty

As writers we know how time away from our desks can provide better stories and make us better writers. It also works the other way. Being a writer can make us better at what we do when we aren't writing.

The reason I haven't posted in several days is that this weekend I was volunteering at the county Youth Center––as in adjudicated youth. I'm working with a program called Thresholds originally created to teach adult inmates decision making skills but modified by some volunteers in our area so that it can be taught to younger people as well. Since joining the program I have worked with several adult inmates over an eight-week period and this is my first weekend program with youth.

I joined the program because I wanted to do my small part to fight the 60-70 percent recidivism rates most states are reporting. I joined because locking up more individuals than any other industrialized nation in what amounts to criminal holding tanks doesn't appear to be having a major beneficial effect on our crime rates. I joined because I believe too many young people are being hardened rather than rehabilitated. I also joined because I know the playing field we call life was heavily tilted in my favor and I want to do something for those for whom life has been an uphill struggle.

While I make a point of not writing anything recognizable about a client I've worked with, seeing another side of life can't help but inform my writing. What I realize now is that being a writer has helped me in my work with inmates.

It is far easier to teach skills when you've gained someone's trust and part of gaining that trust involves listening––really listening––not just taking down the facts. I find that good writers are also good listeners, because we try to hear not just the words but the meaning behind them. We take note of expressions and body language that might say "I am uncomfortable with this" even when the words say, "no, I'm cool with it."

In the program we are encouraged to empathize even when we cannot sympathize. This again is something writers do well. Like actors we try on different skins. We need to understand why a person would take a certain action even if that action is totally antithetical to what we believe.

Finally, the same approach doesn't work with all individuals. One inmate may do all his homework between sessions and be very motivated to learn new skills, so all I need to do is act as a guide. Another might have requested the program just to ease the boredom. In that case I need to be encouraging and motivating. Still another may be trying to scam me––it happens––taking the program to get out of her cell or her prison job, with no real motivation to turn her life around. In that case I need to take a harder line and sometimes lay down some ground rules to stay with the program.

I find that as a writer, I know that each story, like each person, requires a different approach. One may work better in the first person present another in third omniscient. Some stories just flow without much work. Some need to be coaxed out. Some just won't cooperate at all and we have to let them go.

All these writing skills have helped me as I try to help others find ways to turn their lives around. As with writing a story, sometimes I'm successful. When I am, I can just feel it. Sometimes I have trouble in the beginning, but I persist and it turns out well. Sometimes it just isn't working and I have to give up, and sometimes––maybe more often than I like––I send my work out there and it doesn't do as well as expected. But I keep trying, because I can't not do it.

As a writer I know how not to let the "failures" bring me down.

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