Category Archives: current events

Is Blogging A Threat to Quality Writing?

Literary expression takes many forms; from short stories to expanded documentation covering myriad subjects.  Throughout history, authors have set themselves apart offering written works as diverse as romantic novels and epic tales of adventure, spanning several volumes.  Within each genre, sub-specialists write in styles running the gamut from concise academic form, to sprawling embellishments of everyday encounters.  Thanks to technology and the proliferation of the World Wide Web, there is a relatively new player on the field, begging the question:  Are bloggers a threat to literary integrity?

Motivation Dictates Value

Before people had pencils and pens, drawings and symbols left on cave walls were effective communication.  So who took responsibility for preserving thoughts in this way?  The cave people skilled at drawing most likely bore much of the burden, but lesser illustrators surely weighed in too.  As communication became more important to society, formalizing language and alphabets, more and more people took up writing as a form of expression.  Early writers were not necessarily highly-skilled. But they wrote anyway, because they could. So the slippery slope of unskilled writers sharing ideas, whether or not they have the slightest clue how to do it properly, is nothing new.

It could even be argued that the same motivation existed for cave drawers as for some of today’s bloggers.  Fame and recognition, the desire to be heard and remembered, are motivators for taking pens to paper, charcoal to cave walls, and most recently, fingertips to keyboards.  What has changed over time is the relative importance of fame, heightened in an information age placing great emphasis on celebrity and adulation.

The evolution of the World Wide Web continues to change the landscape for fame-seekers.  An instant audience, perhaps millions, is a powerful draw for those committed to being noticed.  As a result, many bloggers put the cart before the horse; adding to the blogosphere, before they really have something to say.  Blogging’s greatest threat to quality writing is found among ‘vanity’ blogs, serving only their authors; rather than informative, relevant content shared by capable writers blogging online.

Blog Economics

In addition to personal rewards for bloggers, the practice of sharing online carries cash benefits, once bloggers establish followings.  Unfortunately, poorly written blogs yield returns for bloggers able to draw traffic, in spite of themselves.  When poor content is rewarded with cash, it might appear as though it undermines quality writing, but it may be too soon to judge.

Blogging is an evolving pursuit, subject to corrections as it matures into a long-term phenomenon. And just as competition influences other economic trends, bloggers face free market influences, which may eventually serve to elevate good writing and take incentives away from bloggers spewing drivel.

Purely promotional blog content, disguised as education, is increasingly being called-out for what it is, filtering-out blogs without intrinsic value. Spam gives blogs a bad name, but it also makes legitimate content shine amid the noise.  In other words, bloggers with something meaningful to share will prevail, but only with a firm commitment to high quality content, and perseverance sharing their messages.

Discouraging signs may show themselves in the short-term, but blogging is not a threat to quality writing over the long haul.

 

This guest post is contributed by Rebecca Gray, who writes for Backgroundchecks.org. She welcomes your comments at her email: GrayRebecca14@gmail.com

Les Miserables and the Criminal Justice System

By Joe Suhre

If you love literature, may I suggest you read the unabridged English translation of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo—yes, all 1500 pages; that is unless you want to skip the fifty plus pages describing, in oozing detail, the extensive French sewer system. The work is a tour de force of literature, reflecting the optimistic 19th Century view of redemption and the social struggle between justice and mercy.

Although the setting for Les Miserables is early 19th Century France, its message is timeless. It connects with the reader on a primal level; holds up a mirror and says, “This is who you are.” Change the time and the setting and the entire novel could take place in present-day Chicago.

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The modern courtroom

In my criminal defense firm and in my interactions with prosecutors and judges, I encounter different variations of Javert, Jean Valjean, and Bishop Myriel every day. Victor Hugo’s characters seem alive and well.

I often represent Jean Valjean in court. I glance over at the prosecutor. I know him. He is Javert. I have a struggle on my hands. I look at the judge. She is a Bishop Myriel. Despite everything she has seen, she hasn’t lost faith in humanity. She wants to extend mercy but a congress of Javerts has tied her hands with mandatory sentences. The police arrested my client for allegedly “stealing a loaf of bread.” Now he could face ten years in prison without parole.

Verbal shorthand

I like it when I know people who have read Les Miserables. I am able to describe the criminal justice system with just a few words. For instance, if you haven’t read Les Miserables, the above paragraph might seem like gibberish.

Part of the reason I think I see Javert so often in my work is in the designation, “Criminal Justice System.” Otherwise, it might be the “Criminal Mercy and Rehabilitation System.”

Javert against drinking and driving

One area of law that sometimes feels like it has been hijacked by Javert, is DUI law. From the initial stop to the automatic suspension of your license and arraignment, the stern face of Javert is there to greet you. Forget the fact that you are innocent. If you were arrested, you must be guilty.

I sometimes try to explain the typical DUI stop to people in a way that allows them to understand how questionable that procedure actually is. I find that Jean Valjean’s statement in defense of Champmathieu actually describes a DUI stop quite well.

 “If I speak, I am condemned.

If I stay silent, I am damned!”

The crucible of humanity

 I believe two places where humanity comes face to face with itself are the battlefield and in the courtroom. I haven’t been on a battlefield but I often find myself fighting a real war against people who are screaming justice, when mercy may be the solution.

The value of literature like Les Miserables is that it allows people to see the world differently. The criminal justice system, as I mentioned above, is a stage where humanity reveals its true self. I am front row center to the future of our race. Great literature, whether it was written 200 years ago or yesterday, will help shape that future; but only if we open a book or at least download it to our iPad and read it.

If we continue to allow our time to read great literature give way to video games and action movies, future generations may find themselves in a state of moral confusion akin to Javert looking down at the river Seine. If you don’t know what I mean by that, I know a good book you can read.

Victor Hugo himself stated,

“So long as ignorance and poverty exist on earth, books of the nature of Les Miserables cannot fail to be of use.”

 

Joe Suhre is a DUI attorney and principal of Suhre & Associates in Chicago, IL. He received a Criminal Justice degree from Xavier University and worked for 6 years as an auxiliary police officer. He later received his Juris Doctorate from the University of Cincinnati.

The Writing Woman and Queenie the Bag Lady

By Wendy Robertson

Recent government proposals to build large super-prisons, involving the closure of smaller local prisons like Northallerton, have chilled my heart. We all have opinions about prisons, depending on whether our views are about justice, rehabilitation, revenge, or restitution. For some people, prisons can seem hidden, secret places. But others have more personal experiences with them that may involve working in prison or having an acquaintance, friend or family member serving time inside.

Some people here in the North East will be in this position – having a sister, mother, daughter or niece serving a sentence behind bars. I know this because, over several years, for two days a week, I was Writer in Residence at HMP Low Newton just outside Durham City.

Inside this prison, I worked with women from County Durham, as well as women from all other parts of the country. Generally, they were ordinary people, women you might see any day in Bishop Auckland’s Newgate Street or Darlington’s Cornmill Shopping Centre.

In fact, I was once walking down Newgate Street  when a young woman wheeling a baby in a buggy with her mother by her side  swerved to a stop, saying, ‘Hi Wendy!’ She turned to her mother, saying ‘This is her I was telling you about from Low Newton – The Writing Woman.’

When I started being a ‘Writing Woman’, I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. But what happened to me in prison was the most life-enhancing, the most life changing experience. Afterwards, I was a different person, a different writer.

My job was to help these women of all ages to find their voice through private, written words on the page. In my time at HMP Low Newton we published two substantial collected editions of women’s writing – editions that traveled the length of the country. We wrote poems, prose fragments, short stories, plays. We had two open-to-the-public performances inside the prison, of the women’s work. We ran a parallel Litfest Inside at the time of the Durham Litfest. One woman had her story broadcast on the BBC. We had our own Orange Prize Project… and so on.

We had lots of purposeful fun and rueful laughter. The women learned that ‘writing down’ was making sense of things. Writing down can give order to what might be a chaotic life. In those small workshops, we all learned a lot about ourselves. Some stories, well-formed and written down, stayed in the woman’s possession and – by their own decision – never saw the light of day because the content was too raw.

These positive experiences were only possible because of my collaboration with  teacher and Head of Learning and Skills, Avril Joy, (now a published writer herself), and the compassionate support of the then governor Mike Kirby, to whom my new novel Paulie’s Web is dedicated.

Paulie’s Web is a novel, not a documentary account. But its true nature was inspired by hundreds and hundreds of days working shoulder to shoulder with a whole range of women who defied the reductive stereotype one finds in some fiction and dramas – even in some documentaries where the researchers clearly find the story they’re already looking for.

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My novel is not a case study. It is a work of fiction that tells a special truth in distilling the tragedies, comedies and ironies of five women’s lives, not just behind bars, but out in society. These women meet each other in the white van on their way to their first prison. In addition to Paulie – rebel, ex teacher and emerging writer – there is Queenie, the old bag lady who sees giants and angels, Maritza who has disguised her life-long pain with an ultra-conventional life, and serious drug addict, Lilah, who has been the apple of her mother’s eye. Then there is the tragic Christine – the one with the real scars, inside and out.

In Paulie’s Web, there is the light and shade that I found in prison. Likewise there is the laughter, comradeship and tears. There is the bullying and night-time fear. There is the learning and self–revelation.

The stories of these five women merge as Paulie – free now after six years – goes looking for the women she first met in the white prison van. The truth of their lives unravels as, one by one, she finds them and what they have made of their lives ‘on the out’.

On the surface, this novel might seem to be a straightforward read. But as you read, you might recognize, as I did, that there, but for the grace of God, go your mother, your daughter, your sister or your friend, who have fallen seriously foul of normal expectations of how a woman should be, what a woman should do.

The women I met and worked with took responsibility for what they had done and served their time. In their writing, they looked inside themselves, made some sense of their experience and looked to the future. If Paulie’s Web expresses a fraction of this truth and alters to any degree the public perception of women who end up in prison, then Paulie has done her job, and the novel will fulfil my hope that fiction will reach places where stereotyped facts will never reach.

After relishing and surviving academic life, Wendy Robertson became a full time writer twenty years ago. She has written twenty novels – including the recently released “Paulie’s Web” – both historical and contemporary, many short stories and continues to write occasional articles on issues close to her heart. She was writer in residence at HMP Low Newton, encouraging a wide range of women to raise their self esteem and realize their potential through original writing. She lives among the rolling hills of South Durham, in a Victorian house that has played a role in more than one of her novels. Her blog can be found here. 

Changing Lives through Literature in Action

The following post was written for the Massachusetts Trial Court Law Libraries blog. The personal story that is included, I feel, exemplifies what is at the heart of the Changing Lives through Literature program. The original post can be found here.

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An alternative sentencing program has been reducing recidivism in Massachusetts for over twenty years.  In 1991, UMASS-Dartmouth Literature Professor Robert Waxler, Judge Robert Kane and Probation Officer Wayne St. Pierre started the program called “Changing Lives Through Literature.”  For 12 to 14 weeks, probationers, Judges and probation officers read and discuss six or seven literary works. The program ends with a graduation ceremony in a full courtroom.
 At the twenty year anniversary, the Trial Court participated in a day-long symposium to assess the program’s  impact. Numerous testimonials and studies proving the success of the program have been listed on the CLTL website.
“I was walking through the streets of the city the other night,” a student in Robert Waxler’s class told him once. “It could have been any city, any street, any of us. ‘And I was thinking about Santiago [ in Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea ],’ he continued. ‘I came to a corner where all my old buddies hang out up the street. You know, I’ve been struggling to stay clean for a long time. But I was depressed. So I began to make the turn, to go down that street, back to the old neighborhood. Then I heard him, the old man. It was like listening to his voice. I remembered how he had gone out each day for almost three months without catching a fish. He hadn’t caught anything, but he still got up each morning, tried it again. He must have felt terrible, but he didn’t give up. So I didn’t make the turn that day. Stayed strong. Thanks to the old man. I heard him.’ “
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                                                                               Photo by Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig

Last May, the Trial Court announced that it will be expanding the program to reach more Courts and more probationers. Herein is “What you need to know about Changing Lives Through Literature.”

Celebrate National Library Week – April 14-20, 2013

American Library Association National Library Week promotional image with Caroline Kennedy and girlBy Nancy E. Oliveira, Editor

The American Library Association encourages you to celebrate National Library Week, April 14-20, with the theme Communities matter @ your library.

Local free public libraries continue to provide equal access to literature—from the classics to the latest best-sellers—to all members of their communities. Whether you’re wealthy or poor, educated or not, libraries provide you with great works of literature.

Literature has the power to transform lives. Libraries provide the books—the tangible resources—to help make those transformations happen.

Whether you’re running a Changing Lives Through Literature alternative sentencing group or some other literature discussion group, encourage your members to continue reading and thinking about literature.

Find out how your community matters to your local library by visiting your library during National Library Week. Comment on this blog post to share with us how you participated in National Library Week.

For more information visit American Library Association – National Library Week.

Image provided by American Library Association.

What’s green and read all over?

The Great American Book Drive.

Bring Us Your Books!

Ever wonder what to do with all those books collecting dust on your shelves, piling up in your closet, or hiding under your bed? Put them to work for the Prison Book Program and City Mission Society by bringing them to the 5th annual Great American Book Drive. Choose to support reuse, help open doors for prisoners, and promote social justice by donating your gently used books.

Saturday, April 13
10 am – 3 pm
The Nonprofit Center
89 South Street (near South Station)
Boston, MA (directions)

Better World Books will sell them to people all over the world who will cherish them…and the Prison Book Program and the City Mission Society will benefit with every sale.  It’s about literacy, not landfill.

For complete information visit www.prisonbookprogram.org/bookdrive.

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Pam Boiros of the Prison Book Program provided the above information. Thank you to JoAnne Breault for sharing Pam’s book drive information with our blog readers.

Unbound: Books Behind Bars

Boston Book Festival panel discussion covers remorse, redemption, and resiliency

By JoAnne Breault

JoAnne Breault, author

“When you are in prison, you don’t get to make a lot of choices and you have a lot of time to think about why you are there. You lose your sense of time,” explained former inmate William Gaul to a crowd at the Boston Public Library.

Many prisoners have little or no access to education, mental health treatment, or rehabilitation opportunities. “The Prison Book Program was a godsend to me,” said Gaul. “I began reading in prison and books had a profound meaning.”

Gaul was one of four panelists at Unbound: Books Behind Bars, a panel discussion at this year’s Boston Book Festival, New England’s largest annual literary event.  Gaul served his eight-year sentence and graduated from college with a BA in Biblical Theology. He then worked as a coordinator for a criminal justice program and advocated for criminal offenders at American Friends Service Committee. He has been both a client and a volunteer with the Prison Book Program, a Quincy, MA non-profit organization. “While in prison, I traveled the world through reading. I want to give that back,” said Gaul.

Boston Book Festival panel discussion; Unbound: Books Behind Bars moderator and panelists

Far left: Moderator Dr. Robert P. Waxler; L to R: Panelists William Gaul, Judge Robert Kane, Michael Krupa, and Edson Monteiro

Stories of remorse, redemption, and resiliency resonated throughout the panel discussion as representatives of literacy organizations and former criminal offenders interacted with each other. Independent studies show that criminal offenders who participate in literacy programs are less likely to re-offend.

In addition to former inmate Gaul, the panelists included Judge Robert Kane, Edson Monteiro, and Michael Krupa.

Dr. Robert P. Waxler, author and Professor of English at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, moderated the panel. “Books create an opportunity,” said Waxler. “They can liberate beyond the steel of a rigid prison.”

Dr. Waxler and Judge Kane co-founded Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL), an alternative sentencing program. CLTL gives criminal offenders opportunities to participate in reading discussion groups—a probation requirement for some.

Panelist Edson Monteiro, an urbane young man, told his compelling story of being diagnosed with Leukemia as a college varsity soccer player. Plagued with surmounting medical bills, Monteiro quit school. “I made some bad decisions,” admitted Monteiro.

Boston Book Festival panel discussion--Unbound: Books Behind Bars panelists Michael Krupa and Edson Monteiro shake hands

Panelists Michael Krupa (l) and Edson Monteiro (r) shake hands.

Monteiro was convicted of a crime. While serving his time, he began reading books about managing finances, business, buying stocks, and religion. “I sought books that would help me excel in life and expand my knowledge,” he said.

Today Monteiro represents a prison success story. He graduated from college in 2010 with a Bachelor of Science degree and has started his own IT company. Books remain an important part of his life.

Panelist Michael Krupa serves as the board chair of Concord (MA) Prison Outreach and leads weekly book discussion groups at MCI Concord and the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley, MA. “As volunteers we come into the prison system and try and humanize their experience,” said Krupa.

During the panel’s question and answer period, Katelyn, a young blonde woman in a tight ponytail, bravely made her way to the podium. She labeled herself as a byproduct of Boston’s inner city. She confided that she had gotten into trouble and ended up in a juvenile detention center. “It was not until after I was incarcerated that I developed an interest in reading books.” Today she attends community college and aspires to become a journalist.

2.2 million people are incarcerated in the United States today. According to the Massachusetts Department of Correction, it costs taxpayers $43,000 per year to incarcerate a prisoner. Programs like the Prison Book Program and Changing Lives Through Literature only cost approximately $500.00 per participant. The end result is a reduction in recidivism.

JoAnne Breault is seeking her Master’s Degree in Professional Writing at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. She hopes to pursue a career in public relations writing.

Photos by JoAnne Breault.