Members of the Indiana Prison Writers Workshop Meet “Kurt Vonnegut”
A Short Discussion by Debra Des Vignes,
Founder of the Indiana Prison Writers Workshop
and Chris Lafave, Curator of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library
The Indiana Prison Writers Workshop invited Chris Lafave, curator with the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library (KVML) to the Correctional Industrial Facility (CIF) in Pendleton, Ind., on January 16 to share the good work of Hoosier author Kurt Vonnegut.
On behalf of KVML, Chris handed out complimentary copies of Vonnegut’s most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five to each of the offenders enrolled in the creative writing workshop. Vonnegut, held in prison himself after his capture in WWII, understood the hopelessness that incarceration breeds, and it’s the work of the Indiana Prison Writers Workshop to help remedy this dynamic by improving the lives of those incarcerated through writing and expression. It seemed especially fitting to introduce this particular book at this particular time, as 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of this masterpiece, which focuses on incarceration and the absurdities of war and life in general. Vonnegut experienced many absurdities in life, as have the participants in the workshop.
There is a lot of absurdity in Slaughterhouse-Five. The inmates seemed to really relate to Vonnegut’s life story of very intense trials and tribulations because they’ve experienced similar situations. They sympathized with the tragedies Vonnegut faced in his life (war, death by probable suicide of his mother, the effects of the Great Depression on his family, the loss of his sister to cancer and her husband two days earlier in a train accident, and much more). They also appreciated his somewhat rebellious spirit. The men especially liked hearing that Vonnegut was a failed SAAB dealer who refused to let potential buyers test drive the cars. Instead, HE drove and scared any would-be customers away. That got some laughs from the inmates.
Humor was important to Vonnegut. I tried to use examples in the novel of humor being used to explain painful parts of life, and I read out loud the entire series where the main character, Billy Pilgrim, watches a movie backwards, which means the war ends, and everyone who is dead is alive again, and then … babies.
I’m a former journalist, and I decided to create the Workshop in January 2018 to engage offenders in self-reflective, intellectual, and therapeutic writing through weekly writing prompts, access to meaningful literature, and discussions like the one Chris held.
We talked about various writing techniques and styles; about using dashes to create longer pauses than commas. Debra suggested we write a quote on the wall, and after a few laughs about how nearly every quote in the novel deserves about a page of context, we settled on:
“There is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.”
It’s true, that’s one of my favorite lines in the novel.
The first time I read Slaughterhouse-Five, it made very little sense to me. It was only after repeated reads that I continued to peel back the intensity of the story, bit by bit. I loved that Vonnegut did that intentionally. I loved that he went out of his way to disorient the reader because war and prison disorients human beings.
Actually, though, I believe the line about bugs being trapped in amber would have been more appropriate for this group:
“Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?”
Billy, in fact, had a paperweight in his office which was a blob of polished amber with three lady-bugs embedded in it.
“Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”
This program has a “why,” and I’m thrilled to say it’s making a difference, and we’ve expanded to three Indiana correctional facilities in our first year. These workshops are important. By using writing as a tool, offenders report finding new confidence and courage while prison staff reports fewer disciplinary write-ups in the facilities that host the workshop.
As the prisoners read their own writing about their personal experiences, I heard quite a bit of remorse, and more than a few stories about how bad luck or less-than-good situations simply got out of hand, and that for all of the talk about personal responsibility our society gets into, we still have to live with the reality that once we’re on the bottom, it’s pretty challenging to climb our way back out.
One of the prisoners had an essay about his own obituary, the tone of which suggested that once you’re in the system, you’re never really trusted again, and you’re playing defense for the rest of your life. Another prisoner talked about how the rich get richer because they know the system, and the poor get poorer because they have no leverage or power. Like I said, eventually you find yourself at the bottom. Most people do at one or two points in their lives, or at least that’s my experience.
Vonnegut was facing a different kind of bottom, but he still used the concept of free will being illusory as a way to handle trauma. After all, there was nothing he could do about his situation in Dresden as a prisoner of war. I imagine it gave him comfort to think of the world and himself running on auto pilot. I know that same thought brought me comfort living in Chicago during the great recession. Most of my friends and I did not have enough money to live on, so it was comforting to think of the situation as humorously inescapable. Sometimes humor or writing is what gets you through the tough spots. The members of the writing workshop clearly understood that.
In an environment where life is regimented and bleak, Chris provided a bright light filled with writing ideas and motivation after sharing the work of Kurt Vonnegut with the men. The goal of Indiana Prison Writers Workshop is to expose offenders to powerful written work and also foster a love of storytelling. We were able to accomplish both through a heartfelt and engaging discussion. My thoughts on the day leave me on a roller coaster of a ride because it was filled with such reflection, sadness, laughter, and joy. The offenders asked questions. They were curious. We all took away a greater sense of purpose and renewed hope. I am thankful for the experience.
Here’s a challenge, Dear Readers: In this 50th anniversary year of Slaughterhouse-Five, we invite each of you to read or reread this special novel. As Chris said, each time you read it, you see or experience something new. Perhaps you could read it keeping in mind the perspective of someone who is incarcerated – Vonnegut as a POW or the inmates at the correctional facility. Think about how this changes your understanding of this book, imprisonment, and the absurdities of life. We’d love to hear your thoughts. Enjoy the read!