C.S. Lewis once wrote: “Aim at heaven and you will get the earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.”
He was talking about the Christian’s journey toward sanctification, but I have found this to be true in every part of life. I exercise harder when I tell myself, thus far falsely, that this year I’m finally going to run that triathlon than when I show up at the gym thinking about “health.” I’m a better teacher when I think about the flourishing people I want my students to be instead of some bureaucrat’s list of decontextualized “skills.”
When I began editing the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing—a journal made up of exactly what the title says—it was important to me to downplay the rehabilitative or therapeutic aspects of prison arts programs. I assumed that there were people in Michigan prisons who loved writing, as I do, for its own sake, and I wanted them to have a place to publish. Loving an activity for its own sake is therapeutic. And it’s no accident that America’s enormous prison population is drawn mostly from the ranks of people whose schools and cities never offered them a chance to discover what it is they love to do.
I am now three years deep into editing the Review, and one thing is clear: I was right about there being serious writers in prison. (Interested readers are hereby directed towww.prisonarts.org, where you can purchase current and back issues of the Review. Pieces by Cozine Welch, Chris Dankovich, Nicole Deschermeier, Dylan Pruden, Steven Montez, Tarajee Maynor, and the late, much-missed Tom Engel all make good starting points.)
But my thinking has also shifted. I still view the journal as an outlet for serious writers. I now realize that it is also, in its way, a charitable work. The charity is that of our writers, who gift a society that utterly scorns them with work that, at its best, enriches that society with its sensitivity and imagination. It is the readers’ responsibility—and privilege—to receive those gifts.