Sam handed out the spiral-bound notebooks to the class. She scanned the faces before her. Most of the women were creeping toward middle age, or looked like it. The reformatory’s information packet said that the average age of its population was 35 but these women looked older, harder.
As a new volunteer, Sam didn’t know what to expect – would a fight break out? Will they ignore her? Neither, actually. They joked with each other, or kept their heads down. Forty-two women registered for the class but only 20 were accepted. The rest, Sam heard, would take the class by proxy — through their cell mates.
Sam tapped a pen against her chair to get the group’s attention, introduced herself, and talked about writing. Writing saved her life, she said. It was a passport to another land, a license to speak her mind; it was her birth certificate. She saw several inmates sit up taller, and Sam thought, “Yes, these are the ones who want to be saved.”
The first assignment was a prompt: describe a door. Any door. The door to your childhood home, your fifth grade classroom, your addiction, your heart. Write 100 words and show me what that door was like, Sam said.
Sam returned to the reformatory a week later. On the outside, the prison looked a lot like the local community college dressed up in colonial architecture, until you turned your gaze to the layers of fencing and the rough-scrabble yard where the women spent time outdoors. The sun was setting earlier each day and Sam dreaded the daylight savings change ahead when dark would come at 5:00. The woolly sky and falling leaves signaled the transition from fall to winter, through another door.
As she headed to the room, the guard assigned to her class approached Sam with a piece of paper. “Another inmate wanted you to have this. The warden said it was OK to give to you,” she said, her hand on her belt. Her voice was low and easy. “You can read it later.”
The inmates strolled in with their notebooks and sat down at the tables arranged in a large square. “OK, great. Let’s get started,” Sam smiled. She asked each woman to read her essay aloud. Denise, a 32-year-old serving time for theft and drug possession, shared first: her door was invisible and led to heaven and she thought she had been through it more than once. Cassandra, 23, convicted of assault: a barn door with hatch marks on it for the number of pigs slaughtered by her dad. Jackie, 37, drug trafficking: the inside of the bathroom door where she shot up heroin for the last time. And on they went, around the table, seeing doors, hearing knocks, shaking their heads with understanding and pity and regret. Sam thought she heard music or ocean waves between the lines.
It wasn’t until later, when she got home and lit a cigarette, that she read the piece of paper the guard handed her. She leaned into the couch and inhaled.
The guard told me about the writing class and the thing about doors. I need to write this to. I got none to give it to so I give it to you–
This doors metal and blood. Its the biggest door anybody seen. This doors the door to my daughters heart. Theres a big heavy lock and alot of other locks, each with a different and small key. She dont hear me in there with her tunes turned up loud. I want to tell her goodbye. Dont be like yur mama. Grow Go the other way. May no mans hand hit you. Learn yourself. Then open that door wide. Hold that head high.
Sam sighed. She read the name: Jeanette Hooker. She slept uneasily that night, picturing all those doors and locks and hatch marks.
The next morning, Sam turned on the news, waited for the weather report, made her coffee. The local morning anchor said something about a prison. Hearing the reformatory’s name, she turned her attention to the broadcast. “Jeanette Hooker, a 54-year-old woman convicted of murdering her husband and son, will be the first woman in a decade to be electrocuted.”
“Oh,” She breathed sharply. “All those locks.” Sam picked up Jeanette’s note from the coffee table and paced. She put the paper in the safety box, among her lease and divorce papers. Another lock, another door. Another woolly day. But Sam was never the same again.
Wow. Best one I’ve read so far. This is really, really good. Like a breath of fresh air to read something like this. My favorite so far. I’m voting for you for sure.
Wow. Thanks so much, CB (see that? I abbreviated in the interest of brevity!). I’m honored by your kind words. I worried that this wouldn’t work — you know how you can read something a dozen times and then have no idea how it sounds? So glad you liked it. As for publishing, I feel like I need to practice some more before submitting. I’ve been on the other side of reviewing submissions and it is such a grueling business. Not sure I’m ready for rejection. 😉 Thanks again…I deeply appreciate your support.
You’re welcome. 🙂
You were a submissions reader? Where? Which literary magazines did you review for? Just wondering. 🙂
Well, I read submissions when we were slammed with them–we always had a huge backlog. I was managing editor of the Kenyon Review. I didn’t get to select work (you gotta have a PhD for that)…my job was to manage the production side and keep us in the black. I was fortunate to work with some amazing writers.
Managing Editor of the Kenyon Review, wow. You must really have some connections in publishing then, an insider’s view. Any tips, advice? 😉
I’m really bad about making contacts at work–never wanted to take advantage of people, which I realize is kinda stupid. There are a few writers/editors I keep in touch with, but I left KR seven years ago…I still do work with them (and I’m good friends with the staff) but it is grant writing. Advice or tips? If you can afford it, go to workshops, like KR, Iowa, Sewanee. You get to work with some amazing authors. Most important, though, is to write for yourself, write because you love to write. Litmag publishing is shrinking more every day, except for those with endowments. It is more competitive. The upside is that many are now publishing online, usually focusing on emerging authors. Doesn’t pay as well, but who is looking to get rich? 😉
Sometimes (or maybe many times) exposure and prestige and recognition are more valuable than money for creative writing pieces, or could maybe lead to money or other stuff if your writing’s seen by the right person at the right time.
Sometimes money and prestige and recognition go hand in hand, although those types of contests and opportunities are really hard to come by, and can be really hard to get into and actually have a chance at.
I read something the other day about one author who’d had stuff published in literary magazines who said every time he had something published an agent or somebody related to writing contacted him about it. Now I don’t believe that at all. Every time, come on, hardly ever happens, probably really rarely, once in a blue moon or something like that. But it can happen, maybe, and that’s really valuable if that happens.
Thanks for your response and for taking the time to respond, really appreciate your insights and your perspective Meg.
You know, you could really think about submitting this somewhere. Delete it off your blog first and then submit it though, because most places won’t take anything that’s been previously posted anywhere. Look up some magazines and journals and stuff. Think about it.
I wanted to reply to your comment in the comment above but I ran out of response boxes (I’ll have to fix that). Anyway, the writer who said that every time he/she got something published in a lit mag, they heard from an agent? For fiction, anyway, it was probably true. I heard this from authors and I heard from agents trying to get in touch with authors. Agents of literary fiction do read the lit mags. This doesn’t necessarily mean they end up with book deals but some did while I was there.
Wow, that’s good to know. Thanks so much for the information. Even more reason to submit to literary magazines then!
PS: Does the same thing apply for literary magazine websites or just for the print versions? I’d hope it’d be the same for websites…And why only fiction and not poetry? Doesn’t anyone ever get contacted for poetry?
I honestly don’t know if it does for websites. I left before KR started accepting work for the site. As for poetry, there just isn’t much of a market. There are some small publishing houses but agents probably don’t make much $ off poets. I should add that not every fiction writer who gets published in a litmag gets a call from an agent. But agents def. read litmags.
I got goosebumps when the inmate ended up being the one that wrote the note to her. The last paragraph was a perfect ending!
I got goosebumps reading your comment! Thanks so much, Janna!
Wow. This is a wonderful piece. Very deep and painful. Kudos to you!
Thank you for your kind words and for reading, Yeshu!
You took me there. Again. This will stick with me for a good, long time. Excellent writing!
Yay! Thanks so much, Susan. Really appreciate the thoughtful read.
This was breathtaking for me. Have to appreciate the irony, even in doom.
I’m so glad you liked it. And that you saw irony. Thank you very much for reading and commenting!
This says more than it says on the surface.. does that make sense? lol I don’t know how to explain myself. It’s just really darn good!
Absolutely, it makes sense and I’m grateful it read deeper to you. Thanks a bunch for reading and commenting, as always, Jen.
I really liked the little details you picked out, giving the story a sense of reportage, e.g. ‘She saw several inmates sit up taller, and Sam thought, “Yes, these are the ones who want to be saved.”’
Thank you! I’m still thinking about regret kicking its shoes off and making itself at home. 😉
From the beginning to end this story hooked me. A very moving haunting story in every way believable. Got a shiver when I read the inmate would be executed for murder…
Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Bastet. Glad it hooked you!
Me too! Love a good read.
How do I pick out a thing to say… The names, the faces, the internal consistency … Oh, I loved the shift in literacy for Jeanette’s piece. That. I really liked that.
You’re the best, saroful. Thank you for this. Really happy that Jeanette’s voice was credible. (Having read some FB posts that are horrifyingly full of errors, it wasn’t too hard to imitate.)
Such a meaningful story. I re-read it I liked it so much. I liked the little details you provide which seem on their own to be maybe inconsequential but all add up to create layers of depth, like the mention of Sam’s lease and divorce papers. There’s so much you say without saying it, you know? I also like the term “wooly day.”
Thank you, Silver! I’m learning to be more mindful of details that mean something, or show an aspect to the character’s life. (I love the word “woolly”!)
I love how your writing tends to build up to revelations: “It was a passport to another land, a license to speak her mind; it was her birth certificate.” So many documents in this piece. I’m still pondering their inclusion. Also, ages. You make a point to mention them. I’m thinking through that, too.
So, so emotionally changed, Meg. I get the sense that Sam is broken like her students, but upon rereading I can’t pinpoint why. You must have put subliminal messages in there.
In addition to being a great writer, you are such a good reader, Nate. I did deliberately line up the documents in those sentences — the passport, license, birth certificate. I think I was picturing those things that allow you to get through life as an identifiable person. Can’t tell you why but I was thinking about it. The ages were listed as a kind of hat tip to reporting — you know how all those crime stories in the newspaper immediately identify the person’s age?
You’re absolutely right. Sam is broken like her students. I don’t really say why but hint at it through the dread of winter, sleeplessness, the divorce papers, and the stuffing away of Jeanette’s letter.
I bet you are a damn good editor. Thanks so much for the close read. <3
Shucks. I edit elementary school books mostly these days. I don’t get to flex my fiction editing muscles much. But it has its own rewards.
Beautifully written and so heart-wrenching. I love the parallels between Sam and those she teaches. Great take on the prompts! 🙂
Thank you, Suzanne, and thanks for noticing the parallels. Very grateful for your reading and commenting!
Yep, I’m just going to join in and say this was incredible. So powerful, and I loved the way you captured Jeanette’s voice in her story. Then the realization at the end is like a punch to the gut. Beautiful.
Thanks so much, Brian! I loved your piece too (and voted for it…had to…it was so damn good). I do appreciate your reading and commenting.
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I thought I commented days ago when I first read this but apparently it was only through mental telepathy. This was marvelous, Meg. I love how you combined the prompts and made Jeanette so real in so few words. That is something I am still struggling with and I learn from you every week. Plus it was a wonderful read! A very well deserved “double award” winner for sure.
Awww, thanks so much, Splendid! I’m learning too!
Congrats Meg. Well deserved. 🙂
Thanks so much, CB! xoxo
What a story! Perfect. Absolutely perfect.
Thank you, Kate! I really appreciate your kind words.
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