“Everyone [attending the retreat] wanted the same thing: to be reminded of what it felt like to be pulled toward his or her work, and to be unable to resist.”

~Mark Salzman, author of The Man in the Empty Boat

By Brian Kaufman

I’ve talked to writers who entertain the fantasy of writing a novel in prison. There are good reasons for this. We lead busy lives, and daily chores must take precedence. We work. We care for family members. We even rest and recharge.

And we procrastinate.

In prison, we imagine, writing time presents itself in abundance. We are not distracted by our electronics. If there’s a window, it’s small, has bars, and the view is limited. What better way to force ourselves to do what we all yearn to do?

The prison dream is not without elements of reality.

Chester Himes, for example, was convicted of an armed robbery at 19. He began writing hard-boiled detective fiction in prison. Himes published short stories while incarcerated. When he earned early release, he went on to a fine career as a novelist. You may be familiar with some of his novels, including Rage in Harlem and Cotton Comes to Harlem.

Mystery writer Anne Perry (her real name was Juliet Hulme) spent five years in prison for her part in the murder of her best friend’s mother. She was 15 at the time of the crime. (The film Heavenly Creatures recounts the story of the murder.) Her first novel was published in 1979, and she’s since published dozens of popular books.

Some famous books have been written in prison, including Paul Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and Bertrand Russell’s Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy. 

The reality of prison life is obviously harsher than the novelist’s fantasy, but writing a book behind bars is still possible. Prisoners have free time to fill. Most are given access to a pen, pencil, and paper. Computer access is usually restricted, but it’s not unusual for prisoners to ask prison employees for help in getting pages reviewed and scanned. The inmate often sends a book off a page at a time to friends and family.

By contrast, some writers choose to go to a retreat rather than break laws or take ideologically prohibited stances. Both prison and retreats serve to focus activity and remove distractions, but writer’s retreats have several distinct advantages:

  • Nicer cellmates: The company you keep at a retreat is first-rate. Being surrounded by other creative types, conversing about art and process, and sharing ideas and philosophies synergize. Living and dining with other writers create the kind of community that is hard to replicate in the real world.
  • Access to the tools of the trade. Rather than a pencil and paper, you can choose to write on a computer. (I find that it’s faster and allows unlimited editing; helpful when your rough drafts look like mine.)
  • A better view. Many retreats boast amazing scenic views. For example, the NCW fall retreat will be held at the Barclay Retreat Lodge in Estes Park. I probably don’t need to convince you of the beauty of the Colorado mountains. By contrast, prisons offer a view of the yard and perhaps a guard tower.
  • Delicious food. Retreats are part work and part vacation. Food is often provided. Meals can approach gourmet quality, easily outdistancing prison mush and biscuits. 
  • It’s a matter of choice. When you sign up for a writer’s retreat, you consciously set aside daily obligations and indulge the writing muse. Having made a choice, your usual excuses may evaporate. That can be empowering. Prison, the ultimate daily commitment, is seldom voluntary.
  • Retreats are a (positive) life-changer. Sometimes, an experience can change how you look at yourself and your dreams. Perhaps you’ll begin to see yourself as a professional or legitimate part of a vibrant creative community. At the minimum, a retreat will cause you to rededicate yourself in a way that might be hard to achieve while mired in your busy work week.
Prison and writing retreats are not mutually exclusive, of course. You might consider doing both.

Chetan Mahajan was a new hire for a large company in India. When the company’s CEO disappeared, he became the fall guy for the company’s financial indiscretions. He was eventually cleared, but Mahajan wrote a book about his experiences while in prison.

Upon his release, he signed a contract with Penguin books, and The Bad Boys of Bokaro Jail was published. Having enjoyed a taste of the writer’s life, Mahajan went on to study his craft. He later founded a Himalayan Writing Retreat that focuses on inspiration from incredible scenery and a distraction-free writing experience that does not require committing a crime to enjoy. 

Retreat Adventures

NCW Writing Retreat

Writing Residency

Published by Writing Heights Writing Bug

A blog by writers for everyone interested in books, reading, writing, and just about everything in between.


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