This writing life can bring us into all sorts of unexpected places, including prison, as Wally Wood’s Moment shows. But Wally’s Moment also shows a great deal more. As writers we pursue our art and craft largely in isolation. Even if we’re lucky enough to be published, and people read our work, we don’t often know what effect it may be having. If a page is read in a forest, does the writer hear? Wally was given the opportunity for his words not only to wind up in someone’s hands, but also in their heart. He really changed somebody’s life. And in the end, isn’t that what all we storytellers hope to do?
Shortly after my wife and I moved into our house twenty years ago, the recently-opened men’s prison in town suffered a riot and an escape. These confirmed the worst fears of the townspeople, who’d fought the state over the prison. A number of prison staff—the chaplain, head of recreation, head of volunteer services, and several others—held an informational meeting at a local church to talk to residents about the situation. They said they would welcome volunteers to work with the prisoners. I volunteered.
As a former magazine reporter and editor and as someone who supports his fiction habit by ghostwriting business books, I developed and taught six writing units: fiction, journals poetry, articles, plays, letters. The students volunteered for the classes and they had to bring a piece of writing every night as a ticket of admission. No ticket (a barely-literate short paragraph was fine), no class. Miss a class and no certificate at the end of the six weeks.
Because I was never a teacher in a classroom, I hadn’t had the experience before of watching a student catch fire and begin to thrive—like watching a flower bloom in stop-action photography. Still, you never truly know what effect you’re having and prison conditions (no contact outside of class, no phone calls, abrupt transfers to another facility) make it even more difficult. You would like to think you’re making a difference, but you cannot know.
All this background sets a context for my Made it Moment. One of my students was doing a sentence for murder. He was released on parole a year ago and he spoke to a newspaper reporter. I happened across the article in which my student said he began to change his life in prison, attended substance abuse programs, enrolled in the college classes that were available, and exercised regularly, which helped him release negative energy.
But, writes the reporter, “his most important bit of therapy was when he enrolled in writing classes offered at the prison. He said that these classes were his ‘emotional release’ that allowed him to put his thoughts on paper. He said that it was the writing classes that truly ‘helped him get through.'”
Wally Wood—not related to the late comic book artist Wally Wood—has written two novels about love, loss, and relationships while making a living writing business books. A member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, he has woven his lifelong love of Japan into both novels.
Wally got the idea for his debut novel, Getting Oriented: A Novel about Japan (2011), a few years after serving as a first-time tour guide for Americans vacationing in Japan. His second novel, The Girl in the Photo (2013), grew out of his experience rubbing shoulders with surgeons while stationed at an Army hospital in Japan after the end of the Korean War. The book follows the emotional journey of a middle-aged brother and sister as they mourn the death of their surgeon father and discover a romance he’d kept hidden for 50 years.