My first introduction to the ‘core group’ of the Distant Voices project came at its second residential meeting. I was interested in joining the project as I had been involved in the organisation of the first Vox session held at HMP Inverness, where I work as a prison officer. I was struck by how powerful both the process and the end product was, and I was keen to explore the possibilities the project has in supporting the reintegration of those in prisons back into their communities.
I was not really sure what to expect of the two days, so approached it with a mix of curiosity and trepidation. I had met a few of the folks there before but it was my first time meeting the others. The theme for the two days was the ‘danger of the single story,’ and it struck me that we are all guilty of this as we make-up narratives about the lives of those around us. To me these are like the light drawings an artist places on the canvas prior to layering the colour, depth and warmth. It’s a pencil picture of the subject, full of gaps. I wondered what different stories had been created about me.
Early on day one I was introduced to the first chapter of the story (which you can read here) through reading then building origami houses out of the text. The story project was initiated by Phil Thomas: the research associate on Distant Voices. Her idea was to create a science fiction narrative which also worked as a reflection on the first core group meeting (you can read more about it here). Phil invited us to continue writing the story if we wanted to, and by the end of the two days I was keen to try and explore some of my previous thoughts through the writing of chapter two. I tried to write it in a similar style to chapter one, but quickly realised that I was forcing the narrative into a direction which was at odds with what I was trying to say. So I decided to write it through my own eyes, and to record the flashes of memory that the location had triggered, and the growth and warmth of the relationships formed as we created songs together during the workshop. I wrote the chapter from the perspective of an officer from the ‘winter beds’ program introduced in chapter one, because of similarities to my role in working life. I wanted to share a human side to prison staff and to challenge the stigma around what we do. I also wanted to try and include the songs produced during our workshop in some way, I felt that they were important and this needed to be reflected in what I wrote. In the end I did this by referencing some titles, imagery from the songs and our discussions about them, for example one of the songs was about an eagle, and I used another member’s reflections on what he called the ‘shame pit.’
The process of writing was not easy, and I struggled with my perceptions of what I was writing and the fear that it would upset or offend the group members referenced within it when read out aloud. It started to take on an importance which to me seemed greater than the words written. I wanted to do justice to the people, the group and to chapter one. When we met for our third meeting, the experience of having my chapter two read out by the group was an “uncomfortable” one. By that I mean I felt I had a responsibility to have represented them correctly and sensitively; also chapter one was of an extremely high quality I was worried that chapter two would fall short and in some way devalue what I felt was a fantastic way to record the core group meetings. It’s like a chronicle of a voyage and I did not want to be the one who had run it aground at chapter two!!!
I hope someone picks up the writing of chapter three as the possibilities are endless…
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