David A. Pickett was awarded honorable mention in Essay in the 2020 Prison Writing Contest.

Every year, hundreds of imprisoned people from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population.

This piece is also featured in Breathe Into the Ground, the 2020 Prison Writing Awards Anthology.


I write because I am supposed to write. Because I am in a writing class, and it’s assigned as homework. Because I’m locked up in prison, and there is a long tradition of writers in prison: because of The Ballad of Reading Gaol, because of “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” because of In the Belly of the Beast, because of This Is Where I Am. Because I grew up poor, and the world needs to hear from people who grew up poor.

I write because I’m not supposed to write. I grew up poor, and the world doesn’t want to hear from people who are poor, or at least people who were poor and did not become rich. Because I am in prison, and am supposed to shut up and do my time, embrace my punishment in silence and sorrow, disappear from the human world and never be seen or heard from again. Because I am white, and male, and there have been far too many white men talking too loudly and for too long. Because my crimes were heinous, and by them I have forfeited my rights to speak and to be heard.

I write because I want to be heard by those who cannot hear me: my mother, my grandfather, my uncle, who are dead; my father, who never knew me, or even knew I existed; my family, who will not speak to me; the world, who do not want to hear me, know me, know I exist, or am human, or have anything to say. I write because paint is too expensive, and too bulky, and what would I do with a bunch of damn paintings anyway? I write because I cannot get wood, or clay, or stone. I write because knitting and crocheting annoy me, and what would I do with a bunch of damn scarves and hats and stuffed animals anyway? I write because it’s one of the few (legal) ways I might be able to earn extra money while in prison.

I write because my life had so much potential, and I threw it all away. Because writing is a way to salvage something from the ruins, to scavenge a few gold coins from the shipwreck. I write because I can never be a Silicon Valley titan, an astronaut, a physicist, a millionaire, a college professor, a good father, a successful painter or sculptor or DJ, a productive member of society with a positive net worth. I write because I want to live forever, but can’t. Because the world will end, and sooner than you think. Because others can’t write—because Armenia, Auschwitz, Biafra, Bosnia, Iraq, Rwanda, Syria, 9/11, famine, plague, suicide, old age. I write because I have always written, because I want to write, because I don’t want to write, because I don’t know how to not write. Because, in the end, writing is all I have left, the first thing I ever truly owned and the last thing to be taken from me.

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