You start to get an idea of how Wally Lamb, the editor of Couldn't Keep It to Myself, feels about the authors in his anthology of incarcerated female writers simply from the book's subtitle: Testimonies from Our Imprisoned Sisters. The book's genesis was a writing workshop Lamb co-facilitated in a Connecticut prison, and the 11 writers whose work is showcased do give "testimonies," mostly harrowing ones. Their contributions bear witness to domestic violence, sexual abuse, addiction, and poverty. While these are the kinds of experiences you might expect to hear about from a group of women who have done or are still doing time in a maximum-security institution such as York Correctional, what you wouldn't necessarily expect is the charm and personality of many of their accounts.
The various pieces, though edited by Lamb and sometimes uneven, almost always combine a verve and vivid intensity that's hard to resist. Each writer's voice and style is distinct, which is a relief because, as Lamb explains in the introduction, some pieces were merely tweaked by his editorial hand, while others were almost co-written by him. Whatever the degree of his involvement, the alchemy of his editing and the women's writing has produced some powerful work.
Lamb, of course, is the much-loved author of the novels She's Come Undone and I Know This Much is True. His commitment to teaching and the real kinship he feels with the women whose work appears in Couldn't Keep It to Myself is evident in his own contribution to the book. In the opening piece, Lamb reveals his own development as a teacher, how from the age of 8 he knew he wanted to teach, and how he eventually came to feel called to work with the most difficult students—the burnouts, addicts, and "hard nuts."