I went to prison not long ago to visit an inmate and to hear her story. I needed to know first-hand if she was who my client said she was. My client, her best friend on the outside, is writing a story of forgiveness between two women. I spent two hours in a small room listening as she spoke more words than my male ears could possibly take in. But I was riveted.
Outside in the main visiting area, dozens of inmates visited with parents, friends, children. Eating vending machine food, playing cards, laughing and trying to find a bit of normal in their season of isolation from the world for their public sins.
Her words filled the air for about 95 percent of our time together. She radiated the Lord like few I’ve come in contact with on the outside. Twenty-two years behind bars for a cold-blooded murder that she readily admits to committing. Many more years lie ahead. She killed the best friend of her best friend, the woman I mentioned in the first paragraph. Tears of regret come easy for the life she took, the lives of children she altered (including her own, one of whom was only 18 months old at the time and whom she has not seen since), even a city she threw into turmoil.
The good part of the story is that she’s now had 22 years of learning what it means to know, love, serve and wrestle with the Lord.
“Though I have the privilege of keeping a small TV in my cell, I have few distractions. I get up at 6:00, make coffee in my little coffee maker, and spend time with God in the Word.” She prays…a lot. She writes songs, words and lyrics, which are truly inspired. She’s an advocate for other prisoners trying to navigate a system that, by its nature, has to be more concerned with incarceration than care, with towing the line instead of grace. She understands. “It’s just the way it is.”
“There are 1,000 women here,” she says, “about 600 I would say know the Lord, probably 400 attend one of the four ‘church’ services offered once a week. Three of the services are the fire and brimstone variety, only one of the pastors of one church talks about the grace of God.”
“As if people here need more shame,” I say, attempting to understand a bit of what prisoners feel when they’re locked up for years at a time. She agrees that most of the women are so full of shame they don’t need the heaping coals of judgment to go along with it.
Before I can ask the question, she says, “That’s why books get passed around here so often. Books communicate, through story, God’s grace and the love of Jesus in a form that women can grasp. A woman can get swept away into the love of God through a story, well told. Jerry Jenkins’ book, Riven, is a favorite here, we have four copies. Francine Rivers is passed around a lot, and of course Karen Kingsbury.” Ted Dekker is mentioned, Gary Chapman, John Eldredge, as are several other familiar novelists and nonfiction authors.
You and I both know writers can’t invest their precious time writing solely to prisoners incarcerated for not playing by life’s rules. But in a bigger sense, that’s exactly what you’re doing every time you get behind your computer to tell the story God’s given you to write. We’re all prisoners to our own story in ways unseen, locked-up to our own daily grind. We all hear too much condemnation and not enough grace and love, and we all need those continual reminders that God is involved in the details but also looking out for the big picture.
And we all need to hear that He is constantly trying to inspire us to move closer to Him, His Kingdom, and communicating the true love He has to those who can’t readily touch it.
Books do that. Perhaps the book you’re writing right now does that.
So in the truest sense, you do what you do for the prisoners. You labor long hours in research, in writing and rewriting, in obeying the editorial instructions of your agent and editors. And most of the time you do it for a pretty low hourly paycheck. You hone your craft to tell the story better. You endure bad reviews and confusing royalty reports. It’s often hard and thankless and lonely.
But you do it for the prisoners.
Greg Johnson is president of WordServe Literary Group and has been a literary agent for 18 years serving Christian authors.