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The Writing Process Goes to San Quentin.

The writing prompts that the 15 lifers like best are the ones Ms. Juska, and eventually they, make up on the spot. They go like this: "Give me a color." "Red." "Give me a body part." "Teeth." "Give me some weather." "Thunder." "Let's write."

SAN QUENTIN Prison looms over San Francisco Bay. It offers one of the world's most beautiful views and houses 6,000 men, among them the world's most violent offenders. It is the home of California's Death Row. A little west of Death Row is my classroom building. Downstairs, in Room 2, for three hours every Wednesday night, I meet 15 students who are serving life sentences and who have elected to take my course, English 101: Reading and Writing Fiction.


A so-called pre-writing activity may simply be another activity done for its own sake - a discussion, improvisation . . .

James Moffett, Active Voice1

Rasheed and Max are yelling at each other across what Max has named our "Circle of Kings Plus One." "You can't have empathy with my situation!" shouts Max for the third time. He pushes his glasses back up to the bridge of his nose, where they tilt, smudged and crazily askew.

"I can!" yells back Rasheed. "That's what I been telling you!" Rasheed stretches his heavily muscled upper body out from his chair, so does Max, and the fingers they point at each other look like God's and Adam's on Michelangelo's ceiling.

Where is my whistle? The prison authorities directed me to wear a whistle around my neck at all times. Either that or carry the beeper they offered to lend me. "But be careful," a guard warned as he held the beeper aloft. "This is extremely sensitive. If it goes off, we go on lockdown with guns out." So I don't carry a beeper, and the whistle I bought to abide by the rules is somewhere not around my neck. This is the first time in the eight weeks I have met with my class that I have been nervous, though not for my own safety. I introduced the word "empathy" because I wanted my students to establish characters in their writing with whom the reader would have it. Look where that led.

The argument stems from the fact that Max is doing life without a date. Rasheed is serving 15 to life, which means a possibility of parole after 15 years. "If a person's got no date," explains Max, "nobody can understand."

"I can," insists Rasheed, and thus it goes.

The other students, some with dates, most without, listen respectfully. Dwinell winks at me in silent reassurance. I forget about my whistle.

L. C. says in his elegant baritone, "Listen, y'all, I'm going to tell you a story." We turn to him. "Since, let me remind you," he smiles, "that's what we're here for." We smile back; Max and Rasheed smile, too, though not at each other. L. C. soothes us, as he has before, with his lilting tones. "When I was a little boy, I saw a certain film time and time again. Scared me half to death, don't know why. It was called The Onion Field. In case you don't know, it's about this guy who goes berserk and kills a cop; they called him the Onion Field Killer because that's where it happened. Or so I have been led to believe." Am I the only one in here, I wonder, who knows that Max is in for murder? Rasheed knows, I'll bet.

"When I grew up, one of the places I got myself into was Folsom Prison, y'all know where that is. I was a young man then." L. C. has relaxed in his chair, his long legs stretched out before him, his hands locked behind his head. He looks above our heads, staring at a time and space beyond the walls of our classroom. He is enjoying himself. He says, "One of the first nights I was there, come time to see a film. And guess what that film was. Yes, indeed, it was The Onion Field. And I was sitting there watching and remembering when suddenly the guy next to me, an older guy he was, says, 'That's me.' I look over and he's pointing at the screen. It was the Onion Field Killer himself."

What a story! We are entranced, we are impressed, we are having the time of our lives. Now comes the lesson, because L. C. unfolds his hands, returns to a more formal position in his chair, and looks around the circle at us. "What I want to say is, I wasn't terrified of this fella. We both were serving life sentences. And I could go along with him. I believe that's what you call 'empathy.'"

We are quiet for a moment. Then Max says, "Yeah, I still say . . ."

Hectar, who rarely speaks in class, raises his hand and says, "Can we go on now?" It is truly amazing how often they answer yes.

I remember where my whistle is: in my briefcase, which sits in the corner of the classroom, outside our circle, where it belongs.

Stan stays after class, which means he will miss showers. He tells me about an inmate, in here 22 years, asking him, "Tell me what it feels like to pet a dog." Stan tries to describe his own dog's coat, the dog he hasn't seen for seven years. "What does a dog's bark sound like?" the man asks. Stan barks. Still another inmate wants Stan to tell him how BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) works. He's seen it on TV but has been in longer than BART has been around. Stan does all this. He wants to know, Is he making empathy?

Two men on Death Row want to sign up for more than one course. Most inmates will take only one since they work in the prison 40 hours a week. Those on the Row, exempt from prison work, will sign up for more. One writes, "I want a degree and I don't have all that much time." Because of the unusual circumstances, I ask them for a writing sample: "Write about someone or something that had a strong influence in your life."

One response:

And the other:

I guess I would have to say it's my mom who influenced me the most. When I was three, she taught me to get candy out of the gumball machine. At five, I could open any hotel door with a credit card. I guess if it wasn't for my mom, I wouldn't be where I am today.

Both passed.

Most of my students have been in prison longer than the writing process has been in town, so early in the course I give the presentation I have given so many times in so many institutions, "An Introduction to the Writing Process." I make a big noise about revision, about how less is more, slow is fast. They listen politely, they even take notes, and at the end Jonas says, "I know this story I want to write has to have people talking; otherwise, it isn't a story. But there's something about those marks (he holds up his hands and curls the first two fingers of each hand) that I never learned. I'm not writing any story until I know what to do about those marks." He crosses his arms over his chest and narrows his eyes into what passes for a belligerent stare. Correctness comes first for these men. It is what they failed to learn in school; not following the rules has gotten them into trouble.

"Gimme some rules!" Thomas demands. "Coach me!"


Members of a writing workshop may come together only for one session . . . or they may stay together for weeks or months and enjoy the benefits of increasing trust and familiarity.

James Moffett2

With or without rules, the students are fluent, though they don't know it. Once I have convinced them that writing is not only about spelling and punctuation - which we can worry about down the line - then their favorite part of the class, they will tell me in their end-of-semester course evaluation, is when I say, "Let's write." At that signal, we all fall quiet for 10 or 15 minutes. And afterwards, just about everybody reads. The prompts they like best are the ones I, and eventually they, make up on the spot. They go like this: "Give me a color." "Red." "Give me a body part." "Teeth." "Give me some weather." "Thunder." "Let's write."

Sometimes, we write from what John Gardner tells us: "Write a dialogue in which each of the two characters has a secret. Do not reveal the secret but make the reader intuit it." Intuit becomes a favorite word. But this John Gardner stuff is hard, we agree, so we take it "home" and work on it. Is that revision? I wonder.


After a writer has done some version of her composition or begun to put together some material she has collected, it's often helpful to get advance audience reactions while changes can still be made. . . .

James Moffett3

Donald, a former cop, sits far away from the rest of us, unwilling to join us in anything, let alone a response group. No amount of encouragement from me will budge him. Eventually, after a few of the other students motion him out of his corner, he joins our circle and writes about his experiences with the Black Panthers.

"Donald, this is supposed to be a story, not a police report," I tell him to no avail. The final draft, complete with dialogue, interior monologue, and figurative language, still sounds like a police report: "It was alleged that night had fallen."

Though I demonstrate and talk about the value of writing groups, and though the students get into them once in a while, they are never convinced that their writing might benefit from peer response, if that's what this is. No, the response that matters is the teacher's. Conferencing is big.

We sit behind my desk. Each student in his turn pulls his chair close to mine, and I become aware of the powerful smell of men in prison. It is dark and musty and enormously sad. Though we sit close together, neither our knees nor our shoulders, nor even our fingers touch. Yet it is one of the most intimate experiences of my life.

Max has written the following and brought it to conference:

Snail-like brown muddy water dribbling down, the magical melting chocolate river, you see the saint get ducked, comes up anew in funk. Sweet brown sugar residue still in the corner of the mind like the Python leaving the scene on full. The bridge was taken long ago, hypnotized, intoxicated, now victimized without bail.

I am impressed and say so. "This is a prose poem."

"Yeah?" he says. "Is that good?"

"Yes," I say, "but I wonder what it's about. Do you think, when you revise, you could -" Max's face falls, and he looks at me through his glasses, smudged and crooked on his nose.

"It's my mind, man! It's my mind on heroin!" He wipes his sleeve across his nose. "And it could happen again! Don't you get it?" I do, so I shut up.

Stan wants to show me a story he's working on in which the main character is getting ready to leave for the golf course. He describes his sleeping wife, with whom he has made long night's love. "She lies there not moving, pale, slender, her breasts twin globes," etc., etc. I ask, "Stan, is she alive?"

"Oh, yes," he assures me. "And then just after that the cops dropped out of nowhere and slapped the cuffs on me. The next thing I know I'm standing in front of the judge for sentencing."

"Wow," I say, and shut up again.


All writing has to be an edited and revised version of the inner speech someone produces at a particular moment under the influence of random or controlled circumstances.

James Moffett4

Victor begs me, "Please, Professor, fix my verbs." Do I tell him to go back to his group? No. Besides, the groups seem to have dissolved while I was fixing Victor's verbs.

One night, Tom tells me, "I been reading my writing to my cellmate. He likes it and all but thinks it's kind of long. What do you think?" I think he's got a smart cellmate, and I tell him so.

L. C. tells us, "I find that since I have been discussing my writing, I have more to talk about with other folks. My conversation is much more interesting."


A cardinal rule is "Put writing to some realistic use after it is done, and make clear in advance of writing what purpose and audience are."

James Moffett5

I am insistent on two requirements. In the syllabus I hand out the first night of class, I have written:

1. At the end of this course, you will submit to me and to your classmates a portfolio of your work, complete with drafts and cover letters.

2. You will submit at least one of your pieces to a newspaper, magazine, or journal for publication.

When a few students murmur that they have no typewriters, no stamps, no envelopes (no confidence, I would add), I do not relent. "We're doing this," I say and nod grimly.

"You tell 'em, Professor," says Kareem.

It's a nightmare. Prisoners are not allowed to buy stamps. The prison must see and pass on everything that is sent out from the prison. Those are the rules. Add to the rules the fact that the inmates are paid an average of 14 cents an hour for their work, and so I pay considerable money for the materials necessary to uphold my dictum. Then there is the matter of where to send their stuff. I buy Writer's Market. I keep buying. Victor gets increasingly anxious over completing the requirements: "Here I am doing time, and I haven't got any." It's okay, they're going to do it. And they do, every last one of them. The last night of class looks like this:

We are enjoying ourselves. Tony and Jack write furiously, so does Tui. Bob and Tom and Jonas and Donald exchange portfolios, bend into them, read quickly, and write their remarks on stick-on notes. Occasionally they laugh, tease one another. "I couldn't get over you, man," Jonas teases Tom. "There you are in your cell, banging away on your new typewriter, and there's no paper in it!" What has happened is that Tom has cleaned out his prison account (his life savings) and sent away for an electronic typewriter. He explains to me that the typewriter is necessary "so I won't lose my hard-earned writing skills." I nod and smile and return to my own writing.

Every once in a while, someone motions me over. Jack wants to be sure he puts the address in the right spot on the envelope. "Where," he says, "show me exactly where." I draw a square on the envelope. "Okay, thanks."

The sun has begun to go down behind the wall-sized, multipaned window. In the winter the radiator against this wall bangs and hisses throughout class. This spring the sun has beaten its way onto our heads and into our eyes so that sometimes, until evening comes on, we find ourselves huddled together in the corner of the room the sun has yet to scorch. Now it is cool and quiet. Near the end of class, as people make ready to leave, I say almost to myself, "I always feel better after this class."

Tony's smile breaks across his face. "Me, too," he says. "By the end, I always feel good." He hands me his portfolio. "You know, I took this class because I thought it would be fun. And it was, but the work! You worked us hard! Whew!" and he wipes his hand across his brow.

As they file out of class, we shake hands, all my prisoners and I, and they say nice things. "What I could say about you . . ." says Tom. "Boy, you'd feel like a queen." (Later, at the end-of-the-year ceremony, he does and I do.) Smiles all around.

We will miss one another. We will miss the quiet concentration on reading and writing and talking that takes them (and me) far away from the night that descends on us in the yard on our way back to our cells. We will miss the way we like one another. Max asks, "Do you think we've grown as a class? You know, like a unit?" Yes, I do.

"We get along good, don't we?" says Tony. Yes, we do.


The benefits will transfer to future writing.

James Moffett6

Teaching in prison gets turned all around. Not just the writing process, but every expectation. Surely, unlike high school, absences and tardies do not exist; my students will all be in class; where else could they go? Turns out, they can go lots of places, like the hole, which is where I am told Hectar is: "Don't expect him back anytime soon." And the teacher's ideas of what teaching is about get shaken up until lord knows they could drop right out of you. To wit: Here I come armed with my Pollyanna smile and 30 years of practicing homilies in the classroom. The truth shall make you free. Knowledge is power. Writing is power. Writing can give you knowledge. And power. And freedom. I said it over and over to myself and to my high school students. During my first few weeks of teaching in San Quentin, I revise my thinking. Knowledge is powerful. It can stir one up; it can make a whirlwind inside the head, a windmill in the gut. What is my responsibility to my students for opening a can of worms that smells to high heaven? I don't want it. I write about it in my journal:

They are talking about their truth. Will they write it? What purpose is served by talk of the truth of despair, anger, pain? Wasn't it better for them to stick to politeness? Maybe it's good we meet only 10 times. Let's Pretend served us well for most of the quarter.

So for this class they have written about any damn thing they want to, and not a one of them has chosen to write about what got him sentenced to life in prison. Jonas will tell us frequently, "I participated in the taking of another human life," but he won't write about it. And I do not insist. I get humbler all the time.

And the writing process, where did it go? Well, in fact, it never went anywhere at all. It was right there all the time, getting jerked around by living human beings just as it got messed with by the high school students. Sometimes, it looked as though it would get blasted right out of existence. But it didn't. It shifted here and there, ducked some powerful artillery, fluttered in the winds of discourse, but held its ground. In the end, talking and writing and talking some more, then rewriting, got this from David:

My first engine was an International Harvester DT 4656, an inline six- cylinder diesel engine for a grain mill. She was like my first girlfriend. Once you've been down deep into an engine all the way down to the pistons and have held them in your hands, and have held and cleaned every single part and assembled every piece with care hoping it will be a success and last forever, it's like an intimate relationship. If the engine runs well and doesn't blow up, well then that relationship was a success, and you don't want to give the truck back to the owner, he won't know how to take care of her. Seeing the trucks rolling down the highway that I have had involvement with is like seeing old girlfriends. You remember the long, intimate nights together, like women you really love but don't own and and can't hold on to, you wish the trucks well and send them on their way.

And that's the truth.

1. James Moffett, Active Voice: A Writing Program Across the Curriculum, 2nd ed. (Portsmouth, N.H.: Boynton/Cook, 1992), p. 16.

2. Ibid., p. 24.

3. Ibid., p. 19.

4. Ibid., p. 27.

5. Ibid., p. 23.

6. Ibid., p. 24. K

JANE JUSKA is an instructor in the teacher education program at St. Mary's College, Moraga, Calif., and a teacher consultant for the Bay Area Writing Project, Berkeley.
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Author:Juska, Jane
Publication:Phi Delta Kappan
Date:Jun 1, 1999
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