As I mentioned in my last post, much of my life for the past several months has been focused on caring for my Mom. I am uncharacteristically unmoored from theatrical projects right now because the future seems so uncertain. However, there is one really interesting dynamic in my life that connects me to the worlds of writing and performance: my mentorship of incarcerated playwright Keith S.
I don’t usually write about Keith here–have I ever?–because I want to protect his privacy. Also, Keith would urge me to protect the privacy of the families he gravely injured when he killed two people while drunk about 26 years ago. (I do not know the details of his crime, although he would tell me if I asked directly. I have not yet asked.) But I must write about him, because he is a significant part of my life now. I will try to respect all concerned. I do respect all concerned.
Keith has been in prison in Texas for more than half of his life and may never be released. But I am his mentor because he won me in a writing contest.
Back in 2011, I was looking for volunteer opportunities working with prisoners. There are few such programs in New Hampshire and the way in is not clear. Apparently you can’t just knock on the prison door and announce your good intentions and be received. But my research turned up the PEN American Center’s Prison Writing Program, which encourages scholarship and writing among the prison population by hosting annual competitions in various genres. The winners are awarded a modest cash prize and also paired with a volunteer mentor in their chosen genre. I applied to be a mentor and it turned out that my timing was perfect: they were about to pick the year’s winners and needed a Drama mentor. I was asked to commit to three passes at the winner’s manuscript. Our correspondence was handled through PEN America, so my address would not be provided to the prisoner. But mentors and mentees are allowed to continue correspondence beyond the required commitment, and they can even choose to correspond directly if they want. You can do the math: I have been corresponding with Keith for four years now, and our correspondence is now direct. One of my more protective male friends spluttered with outrage to my husband, “How can you let her DO this, write to this guy, give him your address?” My husband (whom I have consulted every step of the way in this mentorship process) could only say, “I don’t “LET” her do anything!” And, on Christmas Day, 2014, with much preparation, and after wrangling with both Verizon and the Texas Penal System, I received my first phone call from Keith. I now talk to him for 20 minutes once a week, when his unit isn’t in lockdown.
Keith is an extraordinary man. He has earned an AA in General Liberal Arts, a BS in Behavioral Psych, and an MA in Literature while inside. He has never seen a live play (although he did throw rocks at an outdoor Shakespeare troupe’s rehearsal as a child). He wears a white shirt and pants every day and is surrounded by white walls. His world was unsettled quite a bit two years ago by the arrival of color television. He quotes philosophers regularly, with Nietzsche a clear favorite. He thinks he may be a bit Aspergian and his letters do have that little professor tone. I was shocked when I heard his voice: he really is a Texan and he drawls. He drawls philosophy and he drawls about his Process. He drawls about the bad food and he drawls questions about things he’s never experienced, like the smell of patchouli. So now I try to read his little professor letters in a drawl in my head.
Keith’s handwriting is tiny and cramped like the cell he writes in and the precious stash of paper he owns. The plays he writes for the PEN contests are intentionally formulaic and written in hopes of winning the cash prize. The plays he prefers to write are realistic in form but often Surreal in premise and informed by his very literal experiences of the Kafkaesque. Any money Keith wins through play submissions or through the vague “hustle” of prison life goes towards paper and postage as he pursues a career writing plays he may never see produced. He is an atheist and wishes that American atheists would learn from the gay rights movement and get themselves recognized in politics and culture. He has no family or friends on the outside and castigates himself for not knowing how to interact, even as he pushes himself to interact with me and, through me, in a collaborative art. He is funny and deeply self-conscious and so his letters are peppered with smiley faces. He will not let himself off the hook for anything. His plays are not bad at all and show increasing sparks of exhilarating life.
All of this assumes that the contents of his letters and his playscripts are all authentically his own work, and true, and not an elaborate and lengthy con. I don’t think he is conning me because he gets nothing from me but attention. What con could possibly have as a goal this amount of literary attention and so little else? Above all, my relationship with Keith is an exercise in faith. I choose to believe. I could choose to disbelieve, but I have no way of proving most of what he tells me to be either true or false, so I choose to think the best of him instead of giving in to cynicism.
I find so much to admire in Keith’s discipline, his aesthetic, his self-generated moral code, and his good humor. Daily, he faces his own failings and the failures of the system that punishes him repeatedly with no real promise of “rehabilitation” or reintegration to society. His work to better himself and to create a better world through writing is almost entirely unrecognized (PEN may have noticed him, but the parole board sees only his crime). On my worst days, I feel deeply ashamed not to have built more on the foundation of all that I have, all the resources and privilege and luck that have accrued in my life. On my better days, I am inspired by Keith to be the best writing mentor I possibly can and to revive and reinvestigate my own work, take it further. Always, no matter the day, I am grateful for the chance to work with him and for his trust in me. What a strange set of circumstances. What an amazing friendship I have with a man I know and yet don’t know.
There is no picture to accompany this post. I don’t know what Keith looks like. He tells me he looks ordinary. The most ordinary person you could ever see, he says.
I can hear him, but I can’t see him.
Can you see him?
***I edited this post after I sent it to Keith and he corrected three facts I had misremembered, which I have corrected. He also sent me a picture of himself with a group of professors and fellow inmates at a graduation in 2003. He said, “Why didn’t you ask me for a picture? Do you think we don’t have pictures in here? We do. I have one. Please send it back when you’re done with it.” So I looked and looked and looked at it. I scanned it and filed it away where I can look at it again. And then I wrapped a letter around it and sent it back.