My grandmamma Eleanor used to worry that my mom worked too hard. She would say, “You poor thing, I wish you could take a break from that writing because look how exhausted it makes you.” To which my mom would point out that it wasn’t the work itself that was so exhausting—it was the life stuff that had to be dealt with on top of the work, things like cleaning the house and doing the shopping and cooking the meals and getting the car serviced and running the errands and paying the bills and returning the emails, etc.
Mom and I are always saying, in a half-joking, half-wistful way, that we might write better in prison, where we wouldn’t have any of these things to deal with, and where we would have lots and lots of free time to ourselves with nothing to do but write and work and exercise and think.
Recently I happened to be researching French prisons for book number six, Velva Jean Learns to Spy (or perhaps Velva Jean Goes to War—I’m still playing with the title), and I came across this bit of info, which seems to support our theory beautifully:
During World War 2, French mathematician André Weil—one of the greatest mathematicians of the twentieth century—was falsely accused of spying, and was sentenced to Rouen Prison, where he wrote this letter to his wife:
“My mathematics work is proceeding beyond my wildest hopes, and I am even a bit worried - if it's only in prison that I work so well, will I have to arrange to spend two or three months locked up every year? In the meantime, I am contemplating writing a report to the proper authorities, as follows: ‘To the Director of Scientific Research: Having recently been in a position to discover through personal experience the considerable advantages afforded to pure and disinterested research by a stay in the establishments of the Penitentiary System, I take the liberty of, etc. etc.’ As for my work, it is going so well that I am very pleased with it, and especially because of where it was written (it must be a first in the history of mathematics). I am thrilled by the beauty of my theorems.”
Weil isn’t the only one whose work thrived behind bars. In no particular order, Saint Paul, Cervantes, Machiavelli, Ezra Pound, O. Henry, Oscar Wilde, Jean Genet, and even Gandhi did some damn good writing in prison.
Of course, I know prison isn’t a picnic, but neither is life as a writer. As Jessamyn West said, “Writing is so difficult that I often feel that writers, having had their hell on earth, will escape all punishment hereafter.”
Causes Jennifer Niven Supports
Alley Cat Allies
The American Cancer Society