Every Thursday from 5:30 to 7:00 PM I join author Kent Zimmerman in teaching a class on writing at the California Men’s Facility (CMF) in Vacaville, California.
We cover fiction, memoir, poetry, even screenplays—whatever the men submit. Most of the manuscripts show a need for basic grammar, spelling, and syntax skills, while a few are as accomplished in style as anything I get from students outside, with stories that hands-down, in subject matter if nothing else, beat most of what I’ve seen from MFA candidates.
As Joe Loya, himself an ex-con (he served eight years in federal stir for bank robbery, and is the author of The Man Who Outgrew His Prison Cell), once remarked: Every convict has at least one great story—the story of his arrest.
The most surprising element of the writing, though, across the board?
Honesty. The men in my class have highly tuned BS meters, and have little patience for self-serving piety or glad-handing, from each other or from Kent or me. It’s made me far more aware of when I’m holding something back, or shading something to make it sound more interesting or less offensive than it really is. And that in turn has taught me to listen more carefully, and not to judge.
That lack of judgment is important. The men don’t need me to judge them. They need me to listen and help them write better, period. Funny thing, though. In the process, we’ve build a genuine bond of respect, fondness, and mutual concern.
A little background: Kent’s a long veteran of teaching in prison. He and his twin brother, Keith, taught at San Quentin for nearly a decade before submitting a grant proposal to expand their program to other prisons. Just as this effort was bearing fruit, Keith’s Scottish wife desperately wanted to return home to Glasgow, and so Kent was suddenly not only deprived of his lifelong sidekick and co-writer (working together, they’ve written a number of books on the music business, Hells Angels, the Chicago mob, and more), he lacked someone to help him teach some of these now far-flung classes, ranging geographically from Folsom to Chowchilla, 150 miles apart. Vacaville’s not far from where I live, he asked if I’d like to come aboard, and I said yes.
That was two years ago. Some of the men in the class have moved on, either through release or transfer, including a car thief nicknamed Sideshow who wrote some of the funniest, craziest, most interesting stories it’s ever been my pleasure as a teacher to read.
Several others, especially a core group of particularly strong and insightful writers, remain. At least six of them are serving sentences for murder.
What can you learn from a murderer? [Read more…]