If you’ve ever wondered whether you’re strong enough to keep going… the answer is a resounding yes.
It’s exhausting being a creative these days.
Yes, I know, everyone is exhausted. But this post is especially for the creative types out there, those who–like me–feel driven to express themselves through writing (or painting, cooking, dance, or any of a multitude of other media), who are keen observers of the world… and are sick to their collective stomachs at what’s happening right now in American politics.
I know some writers who have been able to keep on pounding away, day after day, throughout this existential hell that is the Trump ‘administration’. Somehow, as they watch our civil liberties erode, our social norms vanish, and any pretense of bipartisanship go out the window, they are still managing to write and publish. Good on them! I’m impressed.
I, on the other hand, have spent most of the past four years in a state of creative suspension. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m experiencing writer’s block. I would say instead that I’m simply absorbing everything that’s going on in a perpetual state of open-mouthed horror, knowing that someday, somehow, it’s going to be processed by my weird writer’s mind into a fictional re-telling of what’s going on.
I’ve been living in Canada for the past twenty years, but time and space have in no way left me feeling distant from the events taking place in the Homeland. Eventually, I plan to allow my impressions to coalesce into a new novel, one that brings together my thoughts and feelings about how human nature performs under emerging fascist dictatorships–for that is precisely what Trump is–but it’s going to be a while before that happens.
Meanwhile, I got to thinking about creativity and how it performs under adversity. There have been a number of writers throughout history who have managed to produce great work in terrible conditions. One wonders if the art they produced might have been so great had they not suffered, in fact. (Is suffering necessary for the creation of art? This is a question I tackle in my free e-book on writing, which you can learn more about here.)
What is the worst thing that can happen to a free thinker? Well, one is that they get thrown into prison simply for being who they are. I can think of no greater hell than being separated from my friends and family, locked away in a cell indefinitely, just because I’ve spoken out against injustices perpetuated by the ruling class. Forget keeping up a writing routine. How would I even stay sane?
This is a question many writers have had to ask themselves in the past, because that was exactly the situation they faced.
I got the idea to start making a list of these writers… those who have actually been imprisoned and managed to write during or after their incarceration. The list below is not intended to be exhaustive. It’s barely even a sampling. It’s just meant to provide you with a bit of inspiration. If you’ve ever wondered whether you’re strong enough to keep on going, the answer is: yes, you are. The human spirit is indomitable. If they can do it, so can you.
A note to consider: writers suffering oppression is not just a part of ancient history. It’s happening now, all around the world. And it’s not just something that happens in ‘other countries’, i.e. what many Americans think of as places where people live in mud huts and wear loincloths. It’s happened here at home before, it’s happening here now, and it will happen again for as long as we tolerate it.
Finally, I would ask you to copy this quote and paste it somewhere you’re likely to see it a lot:
“The world’s free writers should use their freedom of expression as a weapon in the war on oppression.”
–Ensar Haider Mohammed
Writers who have written books in prison (or after getting out)
In 1982, when she was just sixteen years old, Marina Nemat–the descendant of Russian immigrants to Iran–was arrested by Iranian authorities, imprisoned, tortured, and sentenced to death, all for speaking out against the Revolution. (When I was sixteen, my biggest concern was how to get my hair to look like the guys in Duran Duran.)
Nemat later immigrated to Canada and wrote a memoir, Prisoner of Tehran, while working at a Swiss Chalet in Aurora, Ontario. Her book has since been published and translated around the world, and Nemat has received numerous literary and human rights awards.
This Iranian-born Kurd is a journalist, film producer, and human rights activist. After fleeing Iran and arriving in Australia by boat, he was imprisoned by the Australian government on Manus Island from 2013 to 2019. During this time, he wrote a book exposing prison conditions on his cell phone, which he had smuggled in. That book is called No Friend But the Mountains, and it won Australia’s Victorian Prize for Literature in 2020. Boochani was later granted refugee status in New Zealand, where he will be allowed to remain indefinitely.
Born in 1854 to intellectual parents in Dublin, Wilde was well known for his biting wit, his flamboyant style, and his plays about London society, which were the most popular of his time and made him both famous and wealthy. He also wrote a single novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was so famous it’s still frequently referred to in modern culture. His imprisonment came about after a lawsuit for libel he launched against the Marquess of Queensberry, the father of his lover, backfired and led to his conviction for ‘gross indecency’. It’s common today to say that Wilde was arrested for being gay, but that doesn’t quite cover it; his real ‘crime’ was to have dared to go after the Marquess in court in the first place. After spending two years at hard labour, from 1895 to 1897, Wilde produced two more works, Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Gaol.
Miguel de Cervantes
Cervantes, probably born in 1547, was the author of Don Quixote, widely considered to be the first modern novel, as well as one of the best novels in the history of literature. He also authored a number of plays and other lesser-known novels. In his twenties, while serving in the military during a war against the Ottoman Empire, he was badly wounded, then captured and spent five years languishing in prison because his family could not afford to free him. Though he was eventually ransomed, he was to be imprisoned several more times during his subsequent career as a tax collector. All this is to say that Cervantes was no stranger to the inside of a jail cell by the time he wrote his best-known work, which was published when he was 58 years old. Volume Two of Don Quixote was published ten years later. Cervantes is therefore also an excellent example of how there’s no such thing as too old to write a good book.
Born in Chicago in 1952, Kathy Kelly is a peace activist and author who spent nine months in federal prison for trespassing at a nuclear facility, where she and other activists planted corn at the site of a missile silo. According to her Wikipedia page, she’s been arrested over sixty times. She has also led over two dozen humanitarian delegations to Iraq, and was threatened with a further twelve years’ imprisonment by then-Attorney General Janet Reno after vowing to continue in those efforts. In 2004 she spent another three months in federal prison in Illinois, which was the source of many of the essays in her book Other Lands Have Dreams.
Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn
After serving in World War II in the army of the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn spent eight years in a labour camp as punishment for derogatory comments about Josef Stalin, which he made in personal letters to a friend. On his release, he was exiled to Kazhakstan. Solzhenitsyn suffered numerous arrests, interrogations, and other hardships, yet somehow managed to produce seven novels. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970 “for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature”.
Abdul Jalil al-Singace
Trained as an engineer, al-Singace held the post of Chief of the Mechanical Engineering Dept. until 2005, when he was demoted for his human rights work to associate professor. In 2010, during the Arab Spring, he was arrested by the authorities of Bahrain for writing blog posts critical of the government, and for further criticisms during a speech he delivered in England. Al-singace has been deprived of basic human rights since his imprisonment and has suffered physical and mental torture, as well as sexual abuse, at the hands of his Bahraini captors. He remains in prison today. If you would like to write to the Bahraini government to protest his treatment, you can do so here.
W.S. “Jack” Kuniczak
Born in Poland in 1930, Kuniczak fled his birth country with his mother and sister after Germany invaded Poland in 1939. At first, his family settled in England. Kuniczak then moved to the United States, where he joined the U.S. Army and served in Korea, eventually rising to the rank of sergeant. After being wounded, he was honorably discharged and began a career as a journalist. While in Turkey, Kuniczak was arrested for possession of hashish and thrown into prison for nine months. During that time, he told me, he was often chained around the neck. He also began writing, scratching out words on the stones of his cell floor and walls with a pebble. When he ran out of space, he memorized what he had written, and upon his release, which was secured for him by his agent, he began typing out what he’d memorised. Then he simply kept typing. Eventually, he produced his first novel, The Thousand-Hour Day, a monumental work of the Nazi German invasion of Poland. Kuniczak, a dear friend and mentor of mine, passed away in 2000.