The Confinement that Leads to Writing

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Confinement. A place of limitations, being held back, a lack of freedom. Yet the places of confinement in our lives often yield the greatest creativity. That’s why some of the classics in literature and history have been written in prison. Think of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letters from a Birmingham Jail, or Nelson Mandela writing a diary and letters during 27 years in prison in South Africa collected partly in Conversations with Myself, or the Psalms of David written from a cave, or the letters of Paul in the New Testament written from a jail cell, and many more.

Recently I started reading a compilation of letters to his daughter by the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru. They are brought together and published as Glimpses of World History. I had never read the whole work of 992 pages, but have been fascinated to remember that these letters, bringing the history of the world to future Prime Minister Indira Nehru (Gandhi), then a teenager, were written primarily during periods of imprisonment that totaled over 12 years.

It is interesting to read how Nehru reflects on writing history from jail in his preface to the original edition published in 1934. He had conceived the idea of letters of this nature many years before, but his busy life did not give any room. But then, the British put him in confinement.  “Prison gave me the chance I needed”, Nehru writes, “and I seized it.” Writing for most of us during a busy life is very difficult, and periods of confinement in whatever way they come are often needed. But, like Nehru, we must seize the opportunity.

Reflecting on the advantages of prison, which apply equally to less severe confinements for solitude and creativity, Nehru writes: “Prison-life has its advantages; it brings both leisure and a measure of detachment. But the disadvantages are obvious. There are no libraries or reference books at the command of the prisoner, and, under these conditions, to write on any subject, and especially history, is a foolhardy undertaking. A number of books came to me, but they could not be kept. They came and went.”

Looking over Nehru’s massive book on the history of the world, and other books he wrote in prison, it is incredible to think of the detail he described of events and facts. He had of course a brilliant mind, and a grasp of the big picture of world events and strategic events. But the future Prime Minister had also developed habits of mind and recall that most writers must also practice in various ways. This is now Nehru describes his own habits of learning: “Twelve years ago, however, when, in common with large numbers of my countrymen and countrywomen, I started my pilgrimage to prison, I developed the habit of making notes of the books I read. My note-books grew in number and they came to my rescue when I started writing.”

Keeping notebooks of what he had read, and he was a consummate reader over his life, enabled Nehru to have access to material for writings from prison. (thankfully his British  jailers allowed him to keep the notebooks.) But there are other stories in history where prisoners composed works in their minds, then committing them to whatever scraps of material they could find before smuggling them out to freedom.

The place of confinement, whether imposed externally like a prison or hospital bed, or internally by our own choices to get away from the busyness of life for a time, can yield a greater measure of creativity arising from the silence of the depths. For writer Annie Dillard, the starkest settings in nature create places of repose that correspond to her stark places within. But it is out of those wastelands, and in those wastelands, that the richness of life’s tapestries unfold.

Dillard writes: “Appealing places are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.” Sounds like a jail cell. Annie Dillard often chooses her own jail cells in nature, whether in remote areas of the Pacific Northwest, or a cell like reading space in an urban library in Virginia. Writing is hard work, and requires places where our imaginations can truly “meet memory in the dark.”

For me, I love to write in a room downstairs in a house I spend parts of each year. But it does have a window to the outside, and sometimes even that is too much distraction. On the other hand, I also can find creative periods of writing at coffee shops. (depending on the level of noise and what kind of irritating music is in the background.) I find it very hard to write during parts of my year when I’m traveling and engaging in lots of meetings and other kinds of public speaking and activity. So it does require me to look over my year schedule and find those periods I can devote to writing.

What about you? Where do you write? What kinds of environments do you need? Most of us, thankfully,  will not experience years of confinement in prison. But we all experience times of confinement in other ways, whether due to illness, transitions in job or life that lead to lessened activity, or weather and seasonal changes that require more in-door time, among others.

Writing must be a choice we make. As I have written elsewhere, it must be a choice that is wrenched from us. We write because we have to. Not just because we want to. 

Find your cave, your jail cell, your hermit’s hut, your coffee shop. And get to writing. You, and the generations to come, will be glad you did. 

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