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Writers@Work: Prison Stories by Elaine Blanchard

I met Elaine Blanchard in 2006 at Washington National Cathedral’s College of Preachers. We’d both received fellowships to study writing. After long days of writing, workshops, and eating amazing food, we’d head out to walk the neighborhood and talk. Since then, we’ve both started teaching writing in unique communities: I teach children at inner city libraries and Elaine teaches women in prison. But Elaine’s teaching does not end there. Read on to see how Elaine weaves stories into plays and why she believes that telling our stories to one another is necessary for all of us.

elaineblanchardWriters@Work: Prison Stories by Elaine Blanchard

I can no longer stay out of jail. At first I went to jail in an effort to test a theory. My theory was this: If people are given the opportunity to tell their stories to someone who listens respectfully and compassionately, then those who tell their stories will value themselves and each other more than they did before they were heard. I wanted to test the theory because of my own experience. I had written and performed a play, “For Goodness Sake,” about my life. Since the play was initially staged, I have experienced profound healing. Audiences respond to my performance with respect and compassion. Their responses contribute to my healing process while my story inspires audience members to compassionately and respectfully reflect on their own life stories. The decision to test my theory with women who are living at the county jail came when I wondered who in our community might most benefit from the experience of being respected, receiving compassion and feeling valued. I’ve been going to jail for three years now. And it looks as though I can no longer stay out of jail.

Groups of women meet twice a week over a four-month period. The class reads, writes and listens. We read stories written by other women. We write stories about our relationships, memories, dreams and future plans. I write a script from the stories that are shared. And a performance is staged for audiences inside the jail and outside the jail.  Walls come down and connections are made. “Is this art or is it therapy?” a man asked in a recent talk-back session following a Prison Stories performance. My answer is, “Both.” This creative, community building process has the power to heal us and set us free from the traps and limitations that keep us from enjoying life itself. I keep going to jail because I can see what the creative writing and performance means to the class participants. I feel grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the common good by using my own gifts as a listener and a writer.

In her book, Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future, Margaret J. Wheatley says, “In my own experience, I notice that I like myself better when I am generous and open-hearted. I don’t like who I become when I’m afraid of others, or angry at them. There are many people whose actions anger me and make me afraid—but I don’t like how I feel when I respond to them from fear. At those times, I don’t feel more human, but less. I become more fully human only when I extend myself. This is how I define for myself what it means to have a vocation to be fully human.” (63) At another place in her book on simple conversations she says, “When we don’t talk to each other, we give up our humanity.” (30)

The world where we live seems so divided and polarized by our differences. Those who have a home feel different than those who live without a home or a permanent address. The difference seems large and keeps us apart. Those who live with the privileges that come with being white feel different than those who live with the challenges that come with being black. The difference seems large and keeps us apart. Those who live in heterosexual relationships feel different than those who live in homosexual relationships. The difference seems large and keeps us apart.  More and more moments in our lives become defined by differences: Christian vs. Muslim, Republican vs. Democrat, citizen vs. immigrant. We build privacy fences around our yards and put alarm systems on everything we own. We secure ourselves and all of our possessions in an effort to remain separate from others. Our fears mount as we become isolated and lonelier.

Margaret Wheatley’s book invites all of us to take a risk, step out from behind our walls and engage in simple conversation. Listening to each other is a way to create community and a way to increase our sense of personal security. So many of our significant relationships are with people on the screen, either television or the computer screen, and too many of those relationships are one-sided. While I may enjoy watching Rachael Ray cook every single afternoon, it is highly unlikely that she will start inviting me over to dinner after she finishes her work for the day. If I do not nurture face-to-face friendships with people in my neighborhood, it is possible that my one-sided relationships will leave me feeling insignificant and as if I have less to contribute to the world than people who have their own television show. Simple conversations can awaken us to the stardom within ourselves and bring to the surface the unique gifts we have to give to real people in our own neighborhoods. We are far more alike than we are different. Engaging in conversation can allow us to discover our striking similarities.

The women I meet in jail are not my family but they are part of my community. I need to contribute to my community. We need each other; we belong to each other as surely as the rain belongs to the dry earth, as certainly as the roots of a tree belong to the rich soil around it. We are no more free than our fears will allow us to be. Language is liberating in its power to connect us to our own courage and to each other. When the women are released from jail they walk into their freedom knowing that they have been recognized as writers of powerful stories. They have been heard and valued. They are free to begin new stories. Our shared hope is that the new story keeps them out of jail forever.

Your turn: Where do you share your stories?

About the Author: Elaine Blanchard is a storyteller who finds inspiration in her own life experiences. She grew up in Gainesville, Florida and she found her own storytelling voice by listening to others tell stories. Flannery O’Conner says, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” Elaine survived and thrives as she creates entertaining stories from her childhood experiences.

A company member with the theatre company, Voices of the South, Elaine acts and tells stories on stage and on tour. She created a storytelling and performance program, Prison Stories, for women in the Shelby County Jail. Pilgrim Press (Cleveland, OH) published a collection of her Bible stories, Help Me Remember (2005). Elaine is an ordained minister and a registered nurse. Her life partner, Anna Neal, is a music librarian at the University of Memphis.  Her daughter, Jennifer Brewer, is a children’s librarian in Jackson, Tennessee.

Shelby County Division of Corrections named Elaine “Volunteer of the Year” in 2012. In 2011, Elaine was designated as an Upstander by Facing History and Ourselves for her work with people who have been marginalized in our society. And she was granted the Jefferson Award for Community Service in 2011. She was named “One of the 16 Memphians who has Made a Difference in 2011” by the Commercial Appeal.

Elaine believes there is more to storytelling than mere entertainment. Being together and focusing on a narrative engages listeners and inspires them to look through their own memories for stories that long to be shared. Elaine tells stories, writes stories and creates safe space for others to remember, respect and tell their own life stories. Story sharing builds meaningful relationships and Elaine is dedicated to the work of connecting people and creating safer communities. Visit Elaine online at: www.ElaineBlanchard.Com


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