The Sentences that Create Us
Reading The Sentences that Create Us raises a question: how do we handle the adjectives that are appended to descriptions of writers? “Southern” writer. “African American” writer. The adjectives often encapsulate the heart of the writing. But they can also carry an implied—and often condescending—”only” (She is only a feminist writer.) Given the way the world is stratified, that slant runs the risk of relegating the writing to a limited shelf when everyone reading good writing should pick it up. I’m here to tell you the writing wisdom in The Sentences that Create Us is absolutely that of writers knowledgable about the carceral system. It’s also genius advice for all of us who call ourselves any-adjective writers.
The Sentences that Create Us (Haymarket Books, 2022) introduces us to the wisdom of prison writers and those you mentor them. You can read here how the book has already impacted my daily life. The title of the book, edited by Caits Meissner (Director of PEN America Prison and Justice Writing) is a play on words. The writers’ sentences sent them to prison. Plus, written word sentences create them as writers. The content puts the truth to the title.
Foundations of Creative Writing
The first 150 pages of the book discuss the foundations of creative writing. Poetry, fiction, graphic novels, podcasts, investigative journalism, playwriting—it’s all in here. Even if you’ve been writing an embarrassingly long time as I have, you’ll learn—or be reminded of—what you need to know. Ryan Gattis: “The most important question you can ask yourself during editing is, Does the sentence have a purpose?” (Ellen: Sure it does—it’s supposed to be pretty). My favorite might be the brilliant chapter on Learning How to Transition by Emile DeWeaver. For a writer whose blog analysis ALWAYS says “You need more transition words!” this chapter was gold.
Creating a Writers Life
Part II turns to crafting a writers life in prison. I’m not in prison, but I can’t tell you how many sentences I underlined in this section. I love this jewel from Curtis Dawkins’ essay on The Most Important Thing (and a Few Other Rules): “Don’t lose the edge and energy that comes with being a novice. Continue to invent.” While reading this Part II, I decided to write a letter to my porch glider (“I stole you, I know I did”–stay tuned.)
Creating Writing Community
The third section focuses on building writing community. It reminded me of the joy of communal projects. The vulnerability of sharing writing goals. And the overarching value of storytelling to heal and connect, not exploit and expose.
The Sentences that Create Us: Top Two Take-Aways
Overall, two things stood out. First, the discipline. I thought I had logged commitment to my writing. In telling my story, I often say, “I led a weekly writing group of homeless men and women for eight years,” then pause so the listener can be impressed with the eight years. Eight years is chicken shit compared to the roads these writers have walked. Twelve years to publication. In prison since life without parole at age 16. Just incredible the timespans we’re talking about.
Second, the focus on cultivating an honest inner life. This is similar to what my first writing mentor, Rebecca McClanahan, taught: particularly if you’re writing about others, you must turn the rock over on yourself. She wanted us to look clearly at our own faults, the bugs and rolly-pollys lurking in the dark. The writers in The Sentences that Create Us are clear that only with this honest gaze can writers reveal something about human nature, which they repeatedly name as the point of all this writing stuff.
So, yes. These are prison writers and prison writer mentors. Thankfully for the rest of us, they are brilliant writers gifting us with their bountiful wisdom on writing.
BONUS: The Sentences that Create Us in NOLA!
Caits Meissner, the editor of The Sentences that Create Us, will be the keynote speaker for this year’s One Book One New Orleans Literary Festival. Meissner will be speaking November 17 for the Lunch and Literature session. Nicole Shawan Junior, Deputy Director of PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing, will also be there. The conversation will be facilitated by Sha’Condria “iCon” Sibley, a local teaching artist in the jail who had a residency at A Studio In the Woods. The entire festival promises to be amazing—stay tuned for more info.