By Sarah W. Bartlett
MER contributor and book reviewer Sarah W. Bartlett shares the step-by-step process for creating and publishing Life Lines, a book of writings by incarcerated women.
BRIEF OVERVIEW OF THE BOOK
Vermont’s incarcerated women tell their first-person accounts of addiction and mental illness within the prison setting, highlighting the challenges these women face in moving forward with their lives. Paired with discussion guides to encourage community involvement in understanding and acting upon issues raised, the book serves a dual educational and advocacy role.
The intended impact is to provide:
- unedited words of women on the inside arising directly from daily lived experience
- an opportunity to defuse myths and stereotypes about incarcerated women
- validation for those whose stories, while unique and heart-rending, nonetheless form a picture of systemic dysfunction which must be addressed and changed
- a literary entree to a current political and cultural moment
- a challenge to readers’ own courage and sense of urgency to become involved as they are able to help change these stories
- a restorative justice mind-set through discussion
- an immediacy of experience that moves readers to action
BACKGROUND TO ITS CREATION
Each week for ten years, Vermont’s sole women’s prison opened its doors to a pair of volunteers from writinginsideVT, a program developed specifically for them. On Thursday evenings, a dozen or more incarcerated women could be found circled up at a table with us, prepared to honor their truths and let their words spill uncensored from hearts and pens. Their raw unedited writings cry pain, beg for help, whisper despair, suggest remorse, seek hope, and demand second chances. Such release of layered emotions – along with the opportunity to be heard, validated and encouraged to reflect – has, in the words of many writinginsideVT writers, “provided a lifeline” through their incarceration.
After ten years of writinginsideVT, we had gathered hundreds of poems and stories. Many were initially shared on our public blog; all were collected into quarterly anthologies made available only to the writers. With all this material transcribed on my computer, we had only to read through everything … with an eye to choosing those writings most relevant to our twin themes of mental health and addiction. In addition to having ready content, we had previously created a thorough permission-granting system.
GETTING WRITER PERMISSIONS
No personal identifying information could appear within the work itself (names, locations, specific details of events that could be recognized); and we would identify writers by initials only. At a participant’s first session with us, she signed a general permission form granting or withholding permission for her work to appear on the blog. For the book’s wider audience, we created a second tier of permissions: one came from the facility itself; the other stated very specifically what pieces would appear in the book. And, for the book, each woman chose whether to use her first name only or her initials. It may not seem surprising that they WANTED to be read, heard, affirmed. The main obstacles to obtaining permissions were simply logistical.
The perfect team for this project created itself. As program founder, I proposed the project, secured grant funding and created the final manuscript. A new volunteer, Bianca, fell in love with both program and project without ever having written with us. She threw herself in 1000% from inception through launch, a full two years, sifting through the most recent six years’ worth of writing with fresh unbiased eyes to help select the final content. Our long-time volunteer/newly minted attorney, Kassie, took on legal research and advocacy issues both within VT and more broadly. And our main facilitator/director, Meg, provided fabulous pen drawings for section illustrations and cover art.
Each woman worked her assigned ‘area.’ Periodically we gathered to share our findings and shape the work. After much discussion, we chose five categories for the work: Whisper to Voice; Loss and Longing: Creativity Within; When Patterns are Broken; And Still We Hope.
I saw this – our final program publication – as an opportunity to involve local community. So in addition to obtaining local funding, with the promise of local participation in the launch and subsequent group discussions, I chose to work with a local publisher.
PUBLISHING THE BOOK
Ours was an unusual project because I had experience formatting and providing a print-ready manuscript. This meant our publisher essentially acted as intermediary between us and her on-demand print service. Our initial order of books ran out immediately – four months ahead of the time it even appeared on the publisher’s and her extended networks’ sites! As luck would have it, a different set of unusual circumstances – including illness, overextension, and pandemic related constraints – tumbled one upon the other to delay additional printing. And here we are. Two years to the month since its initial release, we are reprinting the book with a relaunch/rebranding of our writinginsideVT website. The book continues to be available through Amazon and Ingram.
The launch, subsequent talks and presentations, and final report were all received with strong interest and support. We remain a dedicated team both experienced in and determined to market our book in myriad creative ways; to bring the book’s issues and discussions alive around the state and beyond through academic and local initiatives; and to continue the activism already begun with our work inside. With the book’s relaunch, we are excited to expand those efforts still further.
Life LInes: Rewriting LIves from Inside Out
by Bianca Viñas (Editor), Sarah W. Bartlett (Editor), Kassie Tibbott (Editor), Meg Reynolds (Illustrator)
Green Writers Press (August 6, 2019)
Paperback : 178 pages
ISBN-13 : 978-1950584178
Sarah W. Bartlett has authored two poetry chapbooks with Finishing Line Press, “Slow Blooming Gratitudes” (New Women’s Voices Finalist #130, 2017) and “Into the Great Blue” (2011). She has also brought two books into the world from writinginsideVT, her program for Vermont’s incarcerated women (2010 – 2020): “Life Lines: Re-Writing Lives from Inside Out” (GreenWritersPress, 2019; UnpackPublishing, 2021); and “Hear Me, See Me: Incarcerated Women Write” (Orbis Books, 2013). Personal creative writing appears in Adanna, Ars Medica, the Aurorean, Chrysalis, Colere, Lilipoh, Minerva Rising, Mom Egg Review, PMS:PoemMemoirStory, Women’s Review of Books; and numerous anthologies, including the award-winning “Women on Poetry,” (McFarland & Co. Inc., 2012). Word-midwife, grandmother and gardener, she celebrates nature’s healing wisdom and the human spirit’s landscapes. Author website https://sarahwbartlett.com; program website https://writinginsideVT.com.