How to Write from Prison (Part III)

“You want to be a journalist, my son?” said my late father, himself a journalist on the now-defunct Montreal Star, when I announced at a very young age my intentions to follow in his footsteps.

By Colin McGregor

“To write, he said, “You have to suffer.”

In the 1980s, in my past life: strolling Montreal’s downtown armed with a camera with a zoom lens, a notebook, a pen and a small tape recorder, I could, in one day, fill the blank pages of several employers’ publications. The area between Atwater and St-Denis was my turf. In a day, I could amass enough material for a week’s worth of journalistic production, including a radio show.

Then there was the phone, which, when it rang, was full of ideas for new pieces. Perhaps someone disgruntled with their working conditions who wanted to spill something “juicy” to get back at their boss. Or maybe a citizen outraged at some policy concerning women, or children, or homelessness. Or maybe it was about love in the time of the new cholera of the age, AIDS.

Within prison walls it’s different. There is very little material you can write about. There are visitors and chapel volunteers, access to a radio and a TV, and magazines in the library. Aside from that, you’re pretty much cut off from the outside world.

So you concentrate on yourself. There’s no one and nothing but the mirror on your cell wall to tell you that you exist; nothing to combat that great enemy of journalism, egotism, as it filters your perceptions.

How do you generate light from the depths of the shadows?

Reflet de Société’s primary mission is societal healing. That became my mission too. You have to stay positive.  

A prison, after all, is a collection of human beings trying to overcome great internal and external challenges. The indigenous, the trans-gender, the suicidal, the addict; stories of drug abuse, prostitution, violence, sickness…

Many roads lead to the abyss.

Without hurting anyone, without breaching their anonymity, without rationalizing or justifying, one finds a way to tell their stories.

First seen in: Reflet de Société, Vol. 27, no. 2, printemps (spring) 2019, pages 26-27.

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