A few heads nodded. They were giving me the benefit of the doubt.
The women in my eight-week creative writing class all knew each other. I was just beginning to learn about them, to see the individuals inside their jail-house jumpsuits. One was a helpful chatterbox. Another, a seemingly benign grandmother. A self-segregated trio seemed more like middle-schoolers than grown women, as they exchanged whispers at a table apart.
Their first in-class assignment: write 500 words about how they were named.
Gasps – 500 words! Why, that topic could be tossed off in a sentence or two.
Give it color, I urged. What is your namesake like? Are you similar or different? Help me to see them. Do you like your name? Has it helped shape who you are? How? Did you ever wish you had another name?
Eight heads bent over their composition books, stubby number 2 pencils scratching. They wrote, read, erased, thought and wrote some more. Time up.
One by one, they volunteered to stand at the front of the class and share personal thoughts. Their stories were as different as they were. One woman said her name meant “bittersweet,” but it didn’t fit, and she recalled her sweet grandmother and namesake. Another reflected that her name had made her tough, quick to fight, while a third said her mother had given her “the most beautiful name she could think of.” The words of one of the whispering trio brought her hometown into such sharp focus that her classmates murmured their approval when she sat down.
These women didn’t know each other as well as they thought they did. The words they shared pierced their exteriors and cracked a window to their hearts.
In future classes, they will discover writing techniques, learn to identify them in writing samples and begin to consciously use them in their own writing. By the end of the program, I hope each of my students will consciously shape their work to communicate their thoughts more clearly.
I don’t know what these women have done to be locked away, some for a very long time. I don’t want to know. I do know that when they stood in front of the class and read the words they had written, they glowed. Writing, I told them, is empowering. And good writing is powerful. I hope that long after I am gone, they will continue filling their composition books.