Wally Lamb talks about the healing power of stories

Best-selling author's writing workshops with women in prison.

Posted Mar 01, 2011

At least one of Wally Lamb's novels is bound to be on your list of must read again books, and two were Oprah Book Club selections. It's so easy to connect with his characters because they are us. Here's more from Wally about his work with women inmates, helping them to tell their stories, and what he gets from them in return:

Jennifer Haupt: When did you first start conducting writing workshops with women inmates at York Correctional Institute in Connecticut? What prompted you to do this?

Wally Lamb: I began the workshop during the summer of 1999. There had been cutbacks in psychiatric services, the security staff had been para-militarized, and two of the women had committed suicide. The teaching staff was canvassing members of the community, asking them to visit the prison and talk to the women about their work. I said yes to a one-time 90-minute session. That was twelve years and hundreds of workshop sessions ago.

JH: How difficult was it to get clearance from the prison to do this?

WL: This was shortly after two of my novels had been featured as Oprah's Book Club selections, so clearance was not a problem initially because of the name recognition. During that first class, when I asked the inmates if they had questions about writing, several students raised their hands, and their writing-related questions were mostly about Oprah: what was she like? What was she wearing when I met her? Did I really meet her?

Oprah pick

JH: Do you still conduct these workshops on a regular basis?

WL: Yes, I'm at the prison every other week, but the workshop runs during the weeks when I'm not there, thanks to my terrific co-facilitators, Susan Cole and Careen Jennings. We run two groups-one for beginners and one for our "veterans"-and there's a long waiting list of students wanting to start the program.

JH: What do you get out of spending your time with these women? What do you learn from them?

WL: I'm grateful to have learned as much, if not more, from the women as I've taught them. I've been a teacher my whole adult life (high school students first, then university students) but I have never worked with classes that are as appreciative, eager to learn, and invested in the writing process as my students at the prison.Because most of them choose to write autobiographically, they are invested in reflecting on the hows and whys of their having become incarcerated. Their writing and sharing often leads to greater and deeper personal insights. That's exciting to witness. The most valuable thing I've learned is that the crime-and-punishment equation is a complex one, not simply a matter of "good" and "bad" people. Many of the inmates I work with have committed crimes in which there were victims, but these inmates were victims of criminal behavior first. There is a high correlation between female crime and earlier incest victimhood.

JH: Have any of the women you met at York become incorporated into your characters? (I suspect this is true of The Hour First Believed.)

WL: None of the women from York have become characters in The Hour I First Believed or my other novels. They own their lives; I don't. But while I was writing the novel, my students were great "research assistants," teaching me about the day-to-day of prison life: visiting room rules, the way in which commissary items become a type of currency in the absence of cash, etc.

JH: I love the essay you wrote for Oprah.com about how writing their life stories sets these women free, and how anyone can use that same technique. Can you give me an example or two of how you've seen this work with the women at York?

WL: One of my students was incarcerated for theft but could never understand how, or why, her uncontrollable urge to steal originated. When, through her writing, she connected it back to the withholding of her mother's love, it was an emotional breakthrough and that gave her valuable insight. She was released from prison a few years ago and is doing well, personally and professionally.

Many of these women have been harboring secrets about sexual abuse since they were children. When they release those secrets to the page, and then to the group, they often experience a healthy liberation from debilitating and misplaced guilt. My most valuable function at the prison may have more to do with bearing witness than teaching writing skills.

JH: Does writing your stories, even though they are fiction, set a part of you free?

WL: On a good day, writing fiction feels liberating. On a bad day, it can feel imprisoning. Because I write in the first person as people other than myself, this allows me to move past the boundaries and limitations of my own life and better understand the un-me, the other. When I hear actors talk about their work, they seem to describe a similar phenomenon.

JH: Couldn't Keep It To Myself and I'll Fly Away are both powerful collection of life stories by some of the women you've worked with at York Correctional Institute. Is there a third collection in the works?

WL: There's a stockpile of great writing by the women at York. As yet, there are no plans for a third volume. As for the first two books, however, writing from these has been translated into dance, theater, and performance art.

JH: When can we expect to read your next novel, and can you tell us anything about it?

WL: My next novel, tentatively titled We Are Water, is due at the publisher's in 2014, but I'm working ahead of schedule for once-a new experience for me! The story investigates the subjects of racism, same-sex marriage, the uses and misuses of power, and the correlation between trauma and the creation of visual art.

Wally Lamb is the author of She's Come Undone and I Know This Much Is True, both Oprah Book Club selections, as well as The Hour I first Believed, and Wishing and Hoping. He's also the editor of Couldn't Keep It To Myself and I'll Fly Away, two volumes of writing from the writing workshop he runs at York Correctional Institution. These portraits, vignettes, and stories are painted in many colors: innocence and pain, denial, redemption, and transcendence. At their heart, they all testify to the same core truth: the universal value of knowing oneself, and changing one's life, through the power of the written word. Lamb was the director of the Writing Center at the Norwich Free Academy in Norwich, Connecticut from 1989-1998 and an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Connecticut. He holds a B.A. and an M.A. in Education from the University of Connecticut and an M.F.A. in Writing from Vermont College.