More than two decades after his tales of trauma and redemption catapulted him to literary success, best-selling author Wally Lamb is still inspired by the human struggle—and the power of story to heal. From giving voice to the suffering of a traumatized overweight girl in She’s Come Undone to exploring mental illness and family abuse in I Know This Much Is True, the novels of Wally Lamb have spoken to a generation of readers who recognize their own struggles within his characters. But it may be through his work teaching writing to women prisoners in Connecticut that Lamb, a former high school English teacher, most embodies the idea of the healing power of storytelling.
“So many of these women had dark secrets from their past. I could see they were getting better—stronger—as they let those secrets go and found their writing voices,” says Lamb, who also edited two critically acclaimed collections of inmates’ essays. “I could see their burden lightened.”
Lamb says he was facing his own struggles when he began volunteering at the prison. He’d been stricken with writer’s block, unable to find his footing on a novel he was under contract to complete. And he was sinking into depression as he coped with moving his parents into a nursing home and adopting his emotionally challenged four-year-old nephew.
It was his writing class of prisoners who inspired him to start writing again. And getting back to work—on the novel that eventually became The Hour I First Believed—helped him overcome his struggles. “I did experience the lifting of my depression while writing for five or six hours each day,” he says. “I became immersed in somebody else’s life.”
Lamb’s power as a storyteller seems to come from that ability to fully dive into the minds and hearts of his characters, as well as from his willingness to hold his heart open to the pain and hardship of others. “I don’t love to write, but I love figuring out what’s going to happen to these characters I worry about,” he says. “I feel parental toward them, and I worry that they’ll come out okay. Some of my best days are when they surprise me.”
In addition to Lamb’s work at the prison, Lamb gives back to his readers and other writers when he can. “The real gift of having my first two novels chosen as Oprah favorites was all of the letters from readers I started receiving—even more than the royalties or the fame,” he says. “I still have barrels of letters, and I answer every one.”
One letter that caught Lamb’s attention came from a young man who said he’d recently been released from a psychiatric hospital, just like Dolores in She’s Come Undone.
“He was a ‘razor man,’” Lamb says. “He started cutting himself after college. [He said] Dolores helped to save his life.”
Lamb struck up a correspondence with the man and encouraged him to write about his experiences. David Fitzpatrick went on to write the critically acclaimed memoir Sharp.
Lamb says his work teaching prisoners and mentoring writers isn’t just a side project; he considers it to be deeply connected to his literary success. “Creativity and altruism are boiled down to action and reaction,” he says. “If you have enough creativity to create a novel that’s widely accepted, that requires a reaction from you.”