The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

April 27, 2013

VIDEO | Bards behind bars

No production, no parole from Windber Writer’s Jail

Justin Dennis

WINDBER — Blair Murphy pleaded with the employees at Main Moon Chinese Restaurant to make a dish for him that wasn’t on the menu.

He wasn’t even sure what it was going to be – the only thing he wanted was something that looked like “weird fish.”

He told the staff the food wasn’t actually for him, it was for the people he had chained up in his house.

For Murphy, who is caretaker of the Grand Midway Hotel in Windber, eccentrism comes with his historic, centuries–old territory. After winning the allegedly haunted colonial house through an eBay auction, he’s spent the past several years finding creative new uses for the old miners’ hotel – pop–horror conventions or private cos­tume bashes for Halloween – but it functions primarily as an artists commune.

In his latest endeavor, the 33–room house might be refitted to become a penitentiary – a commune for delinquents, but specifically for delinquent writers. He calls it “Writer’s Jail,” and it serves the artistic community by forcing writers to do the one thing they often cannot bring themselves to do: Actually write.

Procrastination kills

“A lot of writers would agree that procrastination is an animal that plays a role in their creative process,” Murphy said. “You know you should sit down and summon something on a blank page, but maybe it’s, ‘I need a bagel first.’ ”

At the Writer’s Jail, inmates are literally chained in a room, with a bar grate covering the window. Chaperoned walks through the yard are the only form of recreation – aside from the recreational writing they ignored when they were free men. The only means of parole or escape is a completed work, drafted while doing hard time at “SCI–Midway.”

As if being locked up in a chilly, heatless manse by a seemingly deranged warden wasn’t punishment enough, a “prison board” comprised of folks from the social media audience gets to make the prisoners’ stay more interesting by injecting silly characters or situations into their drafts or voting on what inmates will eat that day – hence the “weird fish” that Murphy procured from Main Moon in Johns­town.

“It sort of came out of social media in the first place,” Murphy said, although the idea was tested first on his friends – writer-filmmakers Brian Cano and Chris Mancuso.

Cameras rolled 24/7, capturing the inmates’ painful and slow spiral into insanity – and productivity. A few minutes of the best footage was taken from each day. Once the two had finished their screenplay, titled “Frank’s Big Break,” the made–for–TV antics were compiled into a half–hour episode that ended in a parole hearing.

“In the end, these guys came up with a professional product – something they could sell the next day,” Murphy said. “And they’re doing that right now.”

‘You gotta deliver’

Murphy said the response to his little social experiment was overwhelmingly positive. Since Cano and Mancuso broke out almost two weeks ago, he’s had complete strangers approach him, begging to be committed.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm coming our way ... And it’s a neat reflection of our area,” Murphy said, painting the region as scenic, quiet and relatively disconnected – ideal for a writer’s retreat. “It’s almost like Siberia. I go to this remote place out in the Appalachian Mountains and they lock me up.”

Forcing oneself to overcome is the cure for the grave affliction that is writer’s block. So is being forced, as Writer’s Jail has proven.

There came a time, halfway through the writers’ weeklong stay, when the two felt they couldn’t get the job done. Murphy was having none of it.

“You talk yourself out of why you can’t make your deadlines or why you’re going to fail,” he said. “I just told them, ‘You gotta deliver. Good luck with that.’ ”

One can also hit some bumps in the road. Aside from the persistent, all–consuming time–sink that is the Internet, procrastination takes many forms – but it always comes from within.

“There’s a phrase that some writers use: ‘Cat vacuuming,’ ” explained Kristy Baxter, a local young adult novelist. “It’s when you’ve done all the chores in the house to put off writing and then the only thing left is to vacuum the cat.”

Last year Baxter wrapped up her sixth full–length novel, “Shatter and Fall.” She said her ideal daily output is somewhere around 1,000 words, although often, as is the case with most writers, life gets in the way. If they’re not getting regular royalty checks, writers might need to juggle a second job to pay the bills. Baxter also teaches fiction writing classes at Pennsylvania Highlands Community College but tries to devote as much personal time to her craft as she can.

“There’s a guilty feeling, definitely. I feel guilty toward myself when I don’t produce,” she said.

“There’s also a sense of time lost, as well. Each day, I have a chance to get 1,000 words in. If I only get 800 or 500, I feel like I’ve wasted time I could use to get this done a lot faster.”

Search for the cure

In November, many aspiring authors undertake a spree of reckless literary abandon known as National Novel Writing Month, or “NaNoWriMo” – a sort of a marathon in chapters and lines. Participants must complete a 50,000–word novel in that month.

The only prize is the satisfaction of seeing their big idea from start to finish, as well as a cohesive, marketable work.

“Having a completed thing in your hand is breaking the barrier to writing the rest of the book,” said Jared Mason, narrative designer for video game developer Schell Games in Pittsburgh. “Everything past there is refinement, and that’s just way easier.”

Mason has run the NaNoWriMo gamut six times. Although he said he doesn’t consider any of those works “finished,” it’s more about getting to “the end.”

“The experiences I took from writing these stories are relevant and more useful than the stories themselves,” Mason said.

“NaNoWriMo is such a beneficial experience for a writer to learn more about their writing – how to pace a story, how to develop characters – anything you can learn about yourself as a writer is beneficial.”

Learning how to best motivate oneself and keep distractions at bay is paramount when making the magic happen. Baxter said she compiles a playlist while working. Listening to the songs she feels portray the mood of her work can put her right back in that groove.

“Headphones are a must,” said Mason, adding that his writing sound tracks don’t have lyrics, as words coming in that can muddle those coming out.

“You need to be enveloped in the screen you’re working on … and (have) a good amount of time where no one’s going to bother you.”

The weak–willed writer can install programs that disable potential productivity killers – Web browsers, games or chat clients – or even punish slackers.

Temptation Blocker is one such. Give it a list of sites or applications that can lead to dawdling and it makes sure they can’t be accessed while writing.

Write or Die is much more masochistic – while writing in “kamikaze” mode, words will start disappearing if new ones aren’t being typed.

While both Mason and Baxter found the Writer’s Jail concept to be unique, creative and something they’d certainly consider signing up for, it might not be the panacea every frustrated wordsmith seeks.

“What works for one person may not work for another,” Baxter said. “It definitely sounds like quite the experience. I’ve heard people say there’s reality shows about every artistic experience, but not writing.”

Murphy said he’s hoping to make his the first. He’s been shopping the concept around Hollywood.

“It would be delicious fun to play the warden for an entire prison of procrastinating writers,” he said.

“I’m always game to try,” Baxter said.



Stuck on a clean first page?

Download Write or Die at, Temptation Blocker at or learn more about National Novel Writing Month at

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