“I feel like the story needs to mention what you did to end up in there. I mean, you went to prison so you obviously did something. If you don’t say what it was, it’s going to be a distraction for your readers.”
For a long moment, you consider diving across the table and strangling this person. Technically, that wouldn’t be against the rules. The leader of the workshop made it clear at the start of the session that insults and verbal attacks would not be tolerated, but attempting to kill another student was never mentioned.
There is the question of whether you would even win the fight. This student is a veteran. Certainly stronger and faster than you, and probably knows 137 ways to kill you using only her pinkie finger and a bag of flour tortillas—or whatever armed forces mythology would have you believe.
You’ve got nothing. Yes, you’ve been to prison, but that doesn’t make you any better at this kind of thing. It gives you mystique, creates the impression that you must be a real badass, have tricks of your own up your sleeve. But you don’t, and you know it.
Don’t play into her hand, you think. Don’t prove her point. That’s not the kind of person you are. Besides it’s bad optics—a convicted felon assaulting a veteran. Just smile, be grateful for the feedback, and make a few small points.
That not everyone in prison is there for good reason. That such an assumption implies its even more ridiculous opposite, namely that those who haven’t been to prison have avoided it for good reason—their virtue, strong character, high morals. That this is laughable, and ignores a veritable mountain of luck, chance, privilege. That everyone who doesn’t know this is naive.
That everybody in this room ought to brush up on their Phil Ochs. That if they’d like you can quote him from memory:
Show me a pris’ner whose face has grown pale / And I’ll show you a young man / With many reasons why / There but for fortune, go you or I.
That there aren’t enough documentary crews on earth to make a nicely packaged HBO or Netflix special every time someone ends up in prison for nothing. That watching those documentaries and shaking your head as you swirl your merlot doesn’t make you a champion of criminal justice reform.
That anyone who expects ex-cons to open every conversation or piece of writing with a quick recap of their charges—to give “the rest of us” a chance to decide whether they’re worth talking or listening to, if they’re telling the truth—must tell everyone they come across the worst thing they’ve ever been accused of, completely out of context and without explanation, for the rest of their lives.
“Yeah I agree,” says someone else. “We don’t know what the stakes are until we know why you’re there.”
You know you definitely can’t strangle two people at once. They aren’t even sitting next to each other.
You look around the room at all the nodding heads. You must have done something to end up in there. You obviously did something.
Michael Fischer was released from state prison in 2015 and is currently earning an MFA in Creative Writing from Sierra Nevada College. He is an editor of the school’s literary journal, Sierra Nevada Review, and a Moth Chicago StorySlam winner. His work is forthcoming in Hotel Amerika, Cleaver, Hippocampus, and the 2016 TulipTree Review anthology.