Visible Men: Creative Writing in a Massachusetts Prison

Published in the New York Times Magazine:

Together, they excavate a home, a reference point, a goodness that was sown, a point at which they lost the way. They discover something to draw upon in a world defined by absence, where they grapple with the pain and loss they have suffered and caused. We push on, identifying ways to make the leap from life to fiction, and coaxing out detail. They probe for what matters, showing compassion, owning responsibility. Writers dream of going to the heart of things, and I am amazed at the brief access I’m given to the inner lives of men.

Early on, I struggled to reconcile what I knew about their crimes with what I saw and heard in that classroom. Now I try to hold before me the truths of their offenses, alongside the truths of the brotherhood, honesty and generosity I see them call forth. The forces that bring us to our present lives are tangled and complex. Each of our stories contains both wrongdoing and grace, and it is not my job to unravel the skein of their guilt, to judge or absolve. I am here as a witness. I am here in the name of story and its power to transform.

Read more from “Visible Men”.

Helen Elaine Lee

About Helen Elaine Lee

Helen Elaine Lee is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School. Her first novel, The Serpent's Gift, was published by Atheneum and her second novel, Water Marked, was published by Scribner. Her short story “Blood Knot” appeared in the spring 2017 issue of Ploughshares and the story “Lesser Crimes” appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of Callaloo. She recently finished The Unlocked Room, a novel about a group of people who are incarcerated in two neighboring U.S. prisons and the woman who comes to teach them poetry as she searches for her lost brother, and Pomegranate, a novel about a recovering addict who gets out of prison and strives to stay clean and get her kids back. Stories from The Unlocked Room have appeared in Callaloo, Prairie Schooner, Hanging Loose, Best African American Fiction 2009 (Bantam Books), and Helen was on the board of PEN New England for ten years, and she served on its Freedom to Write Committee and volunteered with its Prison Creative Writing Program, which she helped to start. She has written about the experience of teaching creative writing in prison in a New York Times Book Review essay, “Visible Men”. She is currently the Director of MIT’s Program in Women’s & Gender Studies.


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