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News & Features » October 2014 » William Scott Lyon: A Pathos in Prison

William Scott Lyon: A Pathos in Prison

To celebrate the release of Prison Noir — the latest release in Akashic’s Noir Series and edited by National Book Award winner Joyce Carol Oates we’re very pleased to bring you a guest post by William Scott Lyon, who facilitates a creative writing workshop on death row in Nashville, Tennessee.

PrisonNoirA Pathos in Prison

For the past two years, I have had the privilege of working with a group of men for whom writing does not always come easy. They sometimes do not have pens or paper, and none of them has access to a reliable word processor. But despite the circumstances, they are some of the most dedicated writers in Tennessee, and they all live on death row.

The nature of the crimes for which these men have been sentenced is troubling—so troubling, in fact, that the state imprisons our collective ability to understand the crimes right along with the individuals it holds responsible. (Although it is a myth that capital punishment is reserved for the most horrific cases; it has more to do with legal counsel, i.e. the economics of the accused.) In so doing, the state prevents us from reckoning with the forces beyond individual malevolence that may lead to these acts. Put another way, the reasons a person commits a violent crime are manifold, and involve complex social factors well beyond my comprehension—factors that implicate us all. This is not easy to consider or accept. We do not want to believe that our own murkiest tendencies might somehow contribute to the fog. Individual responsibility is paramount, yes. But what do we gain when we shunt it all away, reduce truth and justice to punishment, quarantine our fears, warehouse our children, concentrate illegality, and perpetuate an increasingly heinous cycle of violence in the name of the state?

And yet violence is a staple of fiction. In fiction we are allowed to wrestle with the ugliest truths of our humanity, and we are asked to empathize with characters whose choices we do not condone. We gain access through a certain formal distance created by voice, figuration, and arc. There is a sense that we will have an end, a way out. But that is pure illusion, and we recognize the illusion just as we convince ourselves of its semblance of experience. This is the power of fiction: it is the lie that tells a truth, so the saying goes. And some truths are apparently too difficult to ascertain without the lie. We know about the inheritance of trauma, how it moves through communities and down generational lines, and yet we continue to want to believe otherwise. As readers, we expect trauma to have an ending, some beautifully rendered finale that will situate this particular story into its proper, isolated place. As citizens, we seek that same kind of closure—and rely on our jurisprudence to provide it—but we find none.

In reading and discussing the work of these men, I find myself better understanding the artifice of fiction more broadly. They ask questions about problems I take for granted. I ask myself questions I would never have asked before. What does it mean to “write what you know” when your only window is the size of a yardstick? When you have not felt grass beneath your feet in thirty years? Why write fiction at all when the hard truth is so apparent in the facts of your life? These are not questions we reduce to answers, but a kind of substrate to which we return again and again in our workshops. Because these men have never stopped thinking, hard as the state has tried. They have not stopped breathing, much as the governor might wish. They live on, alongside the rest of us on the outside, thinking through our problems, searching our problems for answers, and struggling with the realities and the horrors of their own lives, as well as the lives of the free—this despite a deep and willful neglect shining back at them from beyond the walls.

I do not mean to speak for anyone. Their work bears all this out. It has pathos—full of empathy and tragedy and humor and vice. And through their work I have come to recognize the artificiality in my own writing. My standards for literature are higher than they were before. I have less patience for fiction that does not risk everything for its cause. Because why write fiction if the truth is in the facts? I could fumble for an answer, retreat to a hope in irony or story or language, but ultimately I don’t have one, and that troubles me. So I do what I know to do—I keep writing. And I keep returning to the prison, week after week, learning as much as I might teach.

Through the craft of writing, through insisting on their personhood in their own words, these men engage themselves in some small (but significant) way with the greater conversation about their own histories and lives. Together—our group from the outside convening with our group from the inside—we form a kind of writing community, practicing our craft. And what is writing if not a practice? We get better, we dig deeper, and we examine how language shapes us, how it fails us, how it can set us free. Meanwhile, between meetings I keep reading, holding literature to a simple criterion, one to which my colleagues are held every day: that it must prove, by dint of humanity, its right to exist.


 william scott lyon

WILLIAM SCOTT LYON lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where he facilitates a creative writing workshop with men on death row. He is the editor of an anthology of their writing, So I Can Live. His work has appeared recently on the blog Philantopic. Currently, he is pursuing his MFA in fiction at Vanderbilt University.

Posted: Oct 1, 2014

Category: Akashic in Good Company | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,