Those Who Can Do, Those Who Can’t…

(Prompted by re-reading George Orwell’s essay, Why I Write)

I was searching for something to bring to the writing class when I came across Orwell’s essay. I was attracted by how the tone and attitude made him sound like any ordinary Joe Soap, and because he says early in the essay that he wrote to counteract being a failure in his everyday life. My understanding was that most writers, or would-be writers, carried plenty of self-negating thoughts like that, but in prison, where I worked, it would be safe to say that the volume of such thoughts would be much greater.

I recall, when I brought the essay into class, nobody scraped back a chair and said, I’m going for a smoke, or just upped and left as people in prison education are free to do. This was good: I was learning as I went along that in prison authenticity was a valuable, commodity which communicated itself to everybody. It had often struck me that prison was a markedly authentic place. On the outside, value seemed to be placed on a person’s ability to adopt and maintain a stance, or mask, whereas inside, no-one tried too hard to replace the face lost on the journey which had ended with incarceration (it would be foolish to try.) As a result, the prevailing atmosphere inside was forthright; a refreshing kind of freedom, I always felt. Years earlier when I was working in Wheatfield Prison, I was reading Yeats’s poem, AedhWishes for the Cloths of Heaven, with a group of young men who were working toward their Junior Cert

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

…and when I’d finished reading the poem, and pointing out the vulnerability and the romance, one of the young men piped up,

Well I don’t think so! Sure he was a real cheapskate, he wouldn’t buy her nothing!

I was 28, and college wasn’t that far behind me, so Yeats and all the other greats from the literary canon were still unquestionably sacrosanct, and suddenly here in a prison classroom, was this young… young…. rapscallion, criticising the mighty Yeats.

It was brilliant! I loved the originality and bare-faced cheek – and he was right: Yeats hadn’t bought Maud Gonne anything in the way proper boyfriends should! He’d only given her dreams, and sure what good are they unless you can bring them down to earth.

One of my own non-earthed dreams was to be a writer. I had for many years, scribbled in notebooks while sitting on benches, in parks, on trains, wherever, but I had yet to apply myself with discipline. Writing, I absently thought, was something I would do in the future, and when I got to that nebulous point, it would flow out of me as naturally as rain.

Needless to say, that never happened.

However, all was not completely lost: the job of delivering Writing classes in prison proved advantageous because even though I wasn’t writing, I was forced in having to prepare, to stay in touch with writing and its practice. I was also delivering Leaving Cert English, so this made sure I was not only reading the work of excellent novelists, playwrights and poets (which I would have done anyway) but, like any teacher, had to study the texts inside out and prepare lessons based on them.

There was a period of about six weeks, while working in Castlerea, when I was out on leave with a shoulder injury. When I returned, I discovered the teacher who had covered the Writing class (a poet called Geraldine Lavin) had been a much better Writing teacher than I was, because she was an actual practising writer. And later, when I met up with the men who attended my class, they all commented on what a nice woman Geraldine was and how interesting her classes.

I felt like a real fraud. On top of that, while reacquainting myself with my classroom, I found left behind from Geraldine’s classes, a handout from the first section of  Julie Cameron’s, The Artist Way, which I hadn’t up to that point encountered, and when I read about shadow artists, I had no trouble recognising myself.

Shadow artists often choose shadow careers – those close to the desired art, even parallel to it, but not the art itself… where they can use their gift without taking the plunge into their dreamed-of career. Intended artists may become artist managers… artists themselves but ignorant of their true identity.’

(from Week 1, Recovering A Sense of Safety)

Though I was undoubtedly doing worthy work in the prisons, I had undeniably become the epitome of Cameron’s definition. Not only was I the shadow writing teacher, I was the shadow director putting on drama productions, I was the shadow editor who with my colleague Jane Meally in Portaloise, put together the first anthology of Prison Writing. I was the non-writer always organising events which supported established writers and student writers. The list of writers I invited and who came into Castlerea over the years includes, Dermot Healy, Mary O’ Malley, Mike McCormack, Kate Thompson, John McGahern, Rita Kelly, Yvonne Cullen, Eddie Lenihan, Carmen Cullen, Julian Gough, Seamus Ruttledge, Colm Keegan.

Galway’s Cuirt Festival (under the direction of Maura Kennedy) sent in Moris Farhi, Mairead Byrne, Erwin James, Nick Flynn, Brian Turner, John Healy, Nuala Ni Chonchuir, and there was I welcoming them as organiser, not writer, and while always delighted to meet and learn from them, I was simultaneously beating myself up for not practising my art like they did.

In 2009, Dermot Healy, who had worked on a couple of projects in Castlerea, was editing a prison magazine with us. I asked him to consider a poem of mine written in response to the newly built prison wing. It was the first thing I’d written which I felt captured the essence of my teaching-in-prisons experience. Dermot included the poem. However, despite this acknowledgement, and even along with Dermot’s inclusion of another poem of mine in Force 10, I continued to drag my heels, dogged by the notgood-enough mantra which clomped around inside my head, preventing me from ever taking my notions of being a writer seriously.

Three years later, I took a writing course with the Open University, and this finally got me to set up a writing discipline. You have to show up I kept reading, and there was great emphasis put on morning pages, but being too busy getting myself and my daughter out the door in the mornings, I decided I’d show up at lunchtime instead, after morning classes had finished, when there was a yawning two-hour gap in the middle of the prison day.

With students back in their cells, colleagues gone to lunch, and the school corridor quiet, I banged-out the door of my classroom, blocked up its glass and sat to write. In winter I’d hear crows squawk and flap across the exercise yard, or an exchange between prisoners out of the windows in the cellblock opposite. In summer, with the sash windows open, swallows landed, and I’d marvel at their littleness, the lustre of their navy feathers, and the seeming urgency of their chattering. Through all seasons I could hear the whirr of the giant-sized food mixer from the main prison kitchen on the floor below me; hear the blurred sporadic voices, and always somewhere in the building, the reminder; the rattle of keys, a clanging gate.

It was a good place to write, and even if I was to still harbour the nagging not-good-enough voice, I was learning to persist whether the voice was with me or not; to let it be the monkey on my back, what about it? For finally I was making a disciplined effort to bring my dream to earth, and as I sat in my prison classroom, I felt grateful for the inspiring surroundings, the many years of my prison-teaching experience, and for the people who’d taught me that there was no mistaking the power of authenticity.

No Escape

The view is cancelled from the classroom.
We can no longer see the colour of the bog
change, year in and year out.

Nor can we see the gorse, wither
and bend against the wind
like an old woman in winter.
Or the stone bridge,
made little by distance
or the silver river, where,
as one scholar noticed,
someone fished.

There is no more expanse of bright sky,
no ribbon road to running freedom.

No escape.

There is no place left for
thought to wander.

No space.

Filling the scene, is a grey wall
and a wire-topped fence,
the new wing of the prison

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About the contributor

Galway-based writer and educator, Bern Butler holds an MA in Writing ((NUIG). Her work has featured in Force 10, The Grey Castle, Ropes Anthology, The Galway Review, Vox Galvia, North West Words and She has been a featured reader in Galway City Library’s 'Over the Edge' Library Readings.

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