Washtenaw County Jail (WCJ) is the one place where I have felt safe as a writer. Usually jail and safe don’t go in the same sentence, but in this case, being a workshop leader in a creative writing program at WCJ offered me the safe space that I never knew I needed. Project Community found me at freshman orientation. I had no idea what classes I wanted to take, what I wanted to major in, or if I even wanted to be at U of M. When I learned about a program at orientation where students went into local jails and prisons to lead creative writing workshops, I was intrigued. I signed up, not really knowing what Project Community would be.
At WCJ, I could write whatever I wanted. As a safety protocol, we went by first names only and did not provide any identifying information about ourselves. We also all agreed to confidentiality and to never share what we learned about each other through our writing with anyone outside our small plexiglass classroom. I spent Monday nights writing at WCJ for the majority of my college career. Before I found comfort in sharing my most personal stories at the jail, I never knew that I was holding back my best writing. I could write my stories candidly, not worried that those who were a part of them would object or feel hurt by their portrayal. I could write about my personal struggles, not worried that those closest to me would change how they look at me.
Not every writing community offers the same security and anonymity that WCJ provided me. I’m also part of the academic community that is the University of Michigan. I took English 325 and then English 425– both of which were about my favorite type of writing: creative nonfiction. Both also were set in a manner where we workshopped each other’s writing. Under the direction of experienced writers/U of M professors, my writing improved quite a bit. I learned a lot about the craft of writing, but I think that I was writing scared in this community. Worried that people outside the safe community that I had at WCJ knew people I wrote about or would not understand or respect me if they knew some of my stories, I always found myself holding back.
Sometimes it was difficult when I had a story I wanted to tell in one of my classes. One I thought would let me apply what I learned. One I thought would earn me a good grade. But, I would tuck it away and save it for where I knew it would be safe. Where I knew it would never be heard or told outside the walls of the jail. I wonder if some day I will have the courage to write those stories for the world to see. My writing got progressively better as I took what I learned in my academic community and applied it to the writing I did at WCJ. Maybe the world would want to read these stories now, but I am not ready. Maybe some day I will learn the type of courage it takes to risk letting people read very personal things.
My journey as a writer at U of M has been anything but uneventful. Even if the academic writing I produced was hesitant, I have found a way to still produce and share work that I am proud of, that I have won awards for. But, I have also produced some terribly dreadful writing– so bad that I shredded all hard copies and wiped my computer clean of any trace that those combinations of words ever came from me.
But I’m okay with that, because I know that I am still learning and growing as a writer. Not everything I write will be great nor will everything I write be terrible. The writing communities that I have taken part in have been instrumental in making me into the writer that I am today. More than the things that they taught me that I carry over into my writing now, the experiences of two very different communities that I was a part of were important in the moments where I was engrained in them. On the same day, I would go from an extremely privileged community of elite university students and top tier instructors to a county jail. It might be expected that I should have benefited more from a class of U of M students led by impressive faculty, but I am not sure that is true. Sure, I learned a lot in those classes, but…
I think there is something to be said about the fact that Washtenaw County Jail saw the best writing I have ever produced.