Tag Archives: prison writing

Collaborative Writing

“A little nonsense now and then, is cherished by the wisest men.” –Roald Dahl

Today in class we did a collaborative writing activity that, for you and I, probably harkens back to our days in elementary or middle school. You know, the one in which one person starts a story with one line, the next person picks up writing their own sentence, and so on–all the while folding over the piece of paper so you can only see the one sentence/entry before you are to write yours. The end result is usually a silly, nonsensical mini-story. But most of my students had not had the opportunity to engage in this sort of activity. In fact, only one had done it previously.

We each started with a fresh sheet of paper (myself included). We went ’round and ’round, passing our sheets clockwise. The room quickly filled with excitement:

Our Stories

Our Stories


“How the?”

“Ooooh I got a good one!”

“Dude this is crazy”

“Nah, what the hell am I supposed to do with this?!”

“This is gonna be hilarious.”

After each sheet was almost done and someone noticed there was room for only one sentence, it was that person’s duty to somehow “tie together” or write an “ending” to a story they knew little about. Some stories made it around further than others. In the end, everyone had a tightly rolled sheet of paper. Everyone wanted to eagerly unroll their sheets to reveal the story within. They were looking at these pieces of paper with the anticipation a child looks at the biggest present under the tree. Again, we went around, one by one,  in a circle; each student unrolled their paper like an ancient scroll and read aloud to the group what was written.

Or, I should say, attempted to read. The amount of laughter was uncontrollable. People stumbled over sentences, caught in a fit of laughter. Tears were wiped. Stories were started, then stopped, then started again after breaths were caught. Re-reads were requested because nothing could be heard over the howling. Heads were tossed back in disbelief of the silliness. Faces were red. None of this is hyperbole.

“I haven’t laughed like this in forever.”

“Dude I’m gonna remember this in like, years from now. I’m still gonna be laughing.”

“Man, I needed that.”

I write of this moment, this activity, to share my observations of the impact of this exercise, as I believe it demonstrates a basic tenet of writing (and reading) which is its ability to take us to places unknown.  We can forget about our lives and our surroundings through the written word, whether engaging in writing or reading.

Afterwards, amidst all the excited energy, we discussed the importance of working together, trying out new ideas, sticking with something and seeing it through even if you’re confused. While the students were engaged in that discussion, they mainly wanted to know, “can we do this again next week?” I smiled and realized their cheeks probably hurt as much as mine did.

How 1 Man Spent 10 Years Behind Bars

“Days in prison have a sameness to them, and my most meaningful and frequent conversations were with authors.” –Daniel Genis

An interesting post on The New Yorker details the author’s conversation with a man, Daniel Genis, recently released from prison. The article mostly discusses what Genis did during his 10 years and 3 months in prison: read. It appears Genis read everything he could get his hands on from classics to the more obscure–for example–books on sumo wrestling and sausages.

While incarcerated, Genis kept a journal documenting all the books he read with commentary provided for each entry. He notes that he “started out with books that helped me make sense of the situation around me.” These titles included The House of the Dead by Fyodor Dostoevsky and The Autobiography of Malcolm x.  He obtained his books from his father, prison libraries, or ordered from catalogs.

Genis speaks of not wasting time in prison because that virtually wastes your life. Instead, he says that reading Proust instilled in him the need to write in order to exist outside of prison. To that end, Genis completed a novel while incarcerated.

Find out more of what Genis read while incarcerated by reading the article here.