Chip’s Writing Lessons #93


In this issue:

Writers Speak: Simone de Beauvoir on the consequences of not writing

Four Questions with Christopher Blackwell


A day in which I don’t write leaves a taste of ashes.

—Simone de Beauvoir


Christopher Blackwell is serving a 45-year prison sentence in Washington State. He co-founded Look 2 Justice, an organization that provides civic education to system-impacted communities and actively works to pass sentence and policy reform legislation. He is currently working towards publishing a book on solitary confinement. His writing has been published by The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Huff Post, and many other outlets. He is a contributing writer at Jewish Currents, a contributing editor at The Appeal, and works closely with the prison writing program Empowerment Avenue. You can follow him and be in touch on X (formerly known as Twitter) @chriswblackwell.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?

That my words have real-life power. They can educate and help people see the harm taking place in areas that are often left to the dark corners of our carceral system. However, they can also cause harm if not used in the right way. It is important to remember that when I write and speak for the body of incarcerated people, I don’t cause harm by doing so. My goal is to shed light on the system and the bad actors within it, not sell drama for a good story or use someone’s story without first asking them if they are willing to allow me to tell their story.

A couple of years ago, I was writing a piece about an outbreak of COVID at the prison where I lived. I told a story about the first prisoner who contracted the virus in our living unit, and because of the failure of the medical staff to do their job properly, they allowed this individual to spread the virus, ultimately infecting the majority of the population at our prison—hundreds of people got sick. And sadly, an elderly prisoner lost his life due to the spread of the virus.

Not long after the story came out, we were all back in our living units from our trip to solitary confinement—what the Department of Corrections claimed was “medical isolation,” but in reality was nothing more than a cold, uncomfortable, concrete box—and the prisoner approached me and asked why I’d used his story without talking to him first. I explained that I wanted to hold DOC medical staff responsible for their negligence in failing to do their job to keep the general population safe. With a frustrated look on his face, he said, “But now it sounds like it was my fault that man died. That because I was sick, I had a hand in him getting sick and losing his life.” He went on to say I should have asked him before I used him as a key role within my piece, even if I didn’t name him, which I didn’t. He continued by saying everyone knew who I was talking about, even his loved ones on the outside. 

I was crushed by the harm my writing had caused this person. I wanted to help my fellow prisoners, not harm them. And knowing that he was sitting there with this heavy guilt, feeling like that elderly man losing his life was on his hands. Knowing what I wrote only fed that guilt. I felt horrible. It was at this moment that I realized it doesn’t matter what your intention is, only the outcome.

During this time, I was new to journalism. I had failed a key role of our job in telling a story. I had caused harm to someone! And what was worse, I couldn’t fix it or recall the story—the damage had been done.

Since this happened, I have always made it a key point to consult anyone I use in my stories. It doesn’t matter if I name them or not. I make sure I think of all the effects my piece could have and that I am telling a story in the right way.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

How far my writing has reached. I never expected to see my voice travel so far. When I hear from all the different people who read my words, it really is something special. I’ve spent over half of my life—25 years—incarcerated, and for the majority of that time, I have felt like our voices don’t matter, that people don’t care what is happening inside the prisons and institutions across the country. But I now know people do care. We just had to take the time to show them—to expose what happens in the shadows. Through sharing our stories—and humanizing the people behind these towering walls and razor wire fences—we will allow society to see that we must change this system. 

If you had to use a metaphor to define yourself as a writer, what would it be and why?

A man trying to free-climb Mount. Everest without any gear. I sometimes feel like what I’m doing—working to tear down the harms created through the carceral system—is an impossible task. That no matter what I or other incarcerated journalists do, we will never be able to dismantle the harm these systems produce. But I continue to climb by putting one foot in front of the other. I know with each step taken, I get one step closer to the summit.

What is the simple best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?

I honestly don’t know if there is just one piece that outshines all the others. Each style of writing requires different skills, and each of the skills I’ve come to develop came from different writers/mentors.

Jamie taught me how to tell personal parts of my life through descriptive narratives that allow readers to feel and see what I saw as a young man struggling to survive a neighborhood filled with gangs, drugs and over-policing. She helped me develop the skills to vividly paint what a cold, dirty concrete cell looks like in a solitary confinement unit. 

But Jessica taught me how to investigate. She showed me how to dig for a story and how to find and obtain strong sources that bring a story to life. Really paint a harm taking place by shining a bright light on it. She taught me structure and countless other little journalist tricks related to the trade. She taught me how to be a legitimate reporter from a prison cell.

It was these pieces of advice from strong mentors along the way that allowed my writing to become what it is today. And I continue to learn from the talented writers who enter my life. 

So the best advice is to surround yourself with good writers and listen to what they have to teach. Find the people who are willing to invest in you and let them mold and shape you through the skills they’ve acquired over their careers. And most importantly, stay humble. This profession is ALL about relationships. Building long-lasting ones will allow a writer to stay relevant, and nothing is more important in the world of writing.

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