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Getting It Out

What Was Supposed To Be An Ex-Offenders Workshop Has Spawned A Creative Community Hive Of Writers

Jefferson Jackson Steele
Workshop participant Irene Trueheart

By Bret McCabe | Posted 6/6/2007

"So what do people pray about?" Jennifer Wallace asks the class. "What are prayers for?"

The tall, lean Wallace, a professor of language, literature, and culture at the Maryland Institute College of Art, gets up from her seat at the head of the large rectangular table in the room and goes to the dry-erase board behind her. A voice responds from the class of about seven students. "Praise," it offers. Wallace writes it on the board.

The class has just read through an eclectic assortment of photocopied prayer poems that Wallace passed out. Included were the observationally acute reverence of American poet Mary Oliver's "Making the House Ready for the Lord," the reflective mysticism of Rainer Maria Rilke's "You, God, who lives next door," and the straightforward elegance of Penny Jessye's Deathbed Spiritual.

Wallace presented this small packet as samples of different types of prayers, but one suspects the class already understands the form's multifaceted nature. Soon they're responding pell-mell: forgiveness, hope, doubt, seeking knowledge or wisdom or strength, gratitude, condemnation, benediction, affirmation. Wallace writes them all on the board, and then she returns to her seat. She tells the class that for the next 15 or so minutes she wants them to write their own prayers.

Every writer starts with the same thing: the blank slate. And anybody who has ever suffered through a required undergraduate writing course knows--or, sometimes even worse, a seasoned writer starting something new after spending weeks, months, years on a project recently finished--often the hardest mark to make is the very first one that turns an ordinary blank page into something that will give you headaches, trouble sleep, fuel obsessions, and take over that part of the brain that makes friends, significant others, and family members wonder why you're not always there even when you're in the room.

And if you've ever had to teach a writing class, you probably also know that getting people to write can sometimes be harder than making teenagers put down their cell phones. Not in this class. Almost immediately pen tops are tracing ice-skating routines in the air as people's hands move back and forth across their notebooks. The room quickly settles into a focused quiet as everyone writes almost nonstop until Wallace says time is up.

"They are always willing," Wallace says about the students during a phone interview a few weeks after this class. "Many of them were writing memoirs and fiction and they were a little timid about poems, but they dove right in. If anything, I see them as being more expansive in the kinds of things that they're willing to entertain when we throw it their way."

The class is no ordinary writing seminar. The instructors are all unpaid volunteers. The students aren't getting credit, grades, or any of the other typical incentives. The students, in fact, are all adults with jobs, families, and lives. Everybody comes because they want to. The only real requirement to attend is also the only requirement anybody needs in order to be a writer: the desire.

Since May 2006 this writing class, which was originally started as a writing workshop for ex-offenders re-entering society, has met every Tuesday from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Northwest Career Center in Mondawmin Mall. The free-of-charge classes, which range from three to four to upward of 15 participants, is overseen by a rotating group of local college instructors and professional writers, who commit to a continuous four-week session.

The participants sound glad for the opportunity. "Each [instructor] has given me something," says registered nurse Irene Trueheart, 49, who started attending the class in summer 2006. "I can't remember all their names but I can pretty much tell you what some of the instructors have given me. In one class I would be thinking about some of my writing, and I asked, `So how do you get this to sound like something that somebody would actually want to read?' And we talked about characterization, about how you build your characters and how you build your imagery and things like that. And those were things I didn't know or understand. I always just wrote from the heart, but they helped input some of the things that need to go into a good piece."

Some of those good pieces will be read at the Enoch Pratt Central Library on Tuesday, June 12. Wallace and two other workshop instructors, Betsy Boyd and Linda Campbell Franklin, read aloud from their work at the library, along with three members of the class: Dwayne Campbell, Bernard Johnson, and Geraldine Wright-Bey. A previous reading took place in December 2006.

As the instructors of this workshop discover, though, these writers are already capable of compelling work--they just needed an outlet for their ideas. Community-based arts programs are usually associated with social outreach that emphasizes community at the expense of the art. That is no longer the case, as so many local community arts programs and endeavors attest. And it's certainly not the case for these writers.

Writing, however, is a harder nut to crack: It is a primarily solo enterprise that benefits most from practice and constructive input from peers--luxuries typically only found in a classroom setting. This workshop provides those opportunities for the participants, and their writing stands as a testament to some salient facts. One, everybody has stories to tell. Two, writing is one of the best ways to tell those stories. And three, perhaps the most unassailable, everybody can and should write.

 

"I have this horror of inserting myself into the story and I don't feel that I am the story at all," says Lucy Bucknell, the woman who started this writing workshop. "My experience of the class--who cares? I'm just really afraid that I'm going to say something stupid that's going to end up in the newspaper."

Bucknell has nothing to worry about. The petite, focused, and unfussy senior lecturer in the Film and Media Studies Program at the Johns Hopkins University sits perfectly poised on one of the bad posture-inducing couches in the impromptu school-year coffee shop just inside Gilman Hall on the Homewood campus. She exudes a quiet air of authority, and she answers questions with detailed clarity, without pauses for reflective deliberation. Her desire to deflect herself from the story isn't self-deprecation or coy modesty, it's quite simply how she feels.

Bucknell started the every Tuesday workshops, which grew out of a four-week writing workshop she conducted at Anne Arundel County's Jennifer Road Detention Center in Annapolis, in late 2005. She had wanted to donate some books to the jail's library, and in the process she met its librarian, Jerhretta Suite, and they hit it off. Bucknell's book-donation visit concluded with her and Suite talking in the parking lot in the rain and deciding they would conduct a four-week writing workshop in the jail.

The workshops took place from December 2005 through January 2006. Many inmates brought writing to the class, but Bucknell and Suite also had them write something during that first class. "I was amazed," Bucknell says of the prisoners' writing. "Many of the men in the jail workshop wrote things before I came, and they were very dutiful, such careful penmanship, and very personal essays, what-I did-this-summer kind of things. And then we wrote in class and they just went crazy. I had been teaching, here [Hopkins], to these very well-prepared, thoughtful 19-year-olds to whom the worst thing to ever happen to them is maybe their grandmother had died, but nothing has ever happened in their lives, and it shows. And these guys, their experiences are so extreme, and no editor--whatever comes out comes out.

"And it was really exciting," she continues. "I didn't have a sense of, `Oh, diamonds in the rough' that I'm finding. It was just engaging. And their reaction was--it was almost cliché the number of times I heard, `You went to college and you're telling me I can write,' or, `No one ever told me I was funny or that I was smart before.' The gratification went both ways immediately in that setting."

That experience led some of the inmates to inquire about similar programs on the outside. "They all asked, `What are we going to do when we get out?'" Bucknell recalls. "And one of the guys was actually getting out. So I told them I was going to help. And I phoned all around Baltimore City trying to find a writing program, and there wasn't anything."

Bucknell's futile efforts were distressing. Official re-entry services she contacted didn't return calls, or the phones rang and were never answered, or lines were constantly busy. "It was hard to find any services at all," Bucknell says. "And a writing program? There was no community writing [programs]. There were very few writing classes at all--and there certainly weren't any that they could have afforded. And then I called Felix Mata, at the Re-entry Center, and he was great."

Mata, 38 is the project director at the Re-entry Center at the Northwest One-Stop Career Center in Mondawmin Mall. The Re-entry Center is part of the city's Ex-Offender Initiative, started in March 2004 by former mayor Martin O'Malley's Office of Employment Development. The Re-entry Center helps the ex-prison population obtain and secure not only employment, housing, education, and training, but also such basics as identification and Social Security cards and papers and access to health care.

Mata told Bucknell the Re-entry Center didn't have any writing programs either, but he liked the idea. "We thought the writing program would be a good mental-health component for our ex-offender population, just to give them a place to tell their stores," Mata says over the phone.

So Bucknell told Mata that she'd like to start one. "And he said, `You can't just teach one, because nobody will know about it, and when they finally find out about it they'll come to me and I'll have to tell them it's over and it breaks my heart,'" Bucknell says. "So then I thought I'll just call all my friends, and they'll all want to do it and it'll be great."

Naturally, organizing the workshop wasn't as easy as she imagined. "So then I had to become an administrator, which I'm not," Bucknell says. "And I contacted Goucher and I contacted Towson just trying to find writers or teachers who were willing to volunteer for four-meeting sessions. And I managed to cobble together enough volunteers to do four months of sessions."

The workshops began under freelancer and writing instructor Betsy Boyd, who was teaching at Maryland Institute College of Art at the time. Boyd met Bucknell when she attended Hopkins' graduate writing program in 2002-'04. "I was a little scared because I knew these folks were ex-offenders, so I was a little apprehensive about that," says Boyd, 34, over the phone while on an early summer holiday in North Carolina. "I had pictured all of these thugs--I did. I pictured myself being afraid in the room, but I immediately felt comfortable. They were as confident as I and they wanted to converse and socialize and they all wanted to write--as much as I want to write. It was just like being around a bunch of adults with whom I had a lot in common.

"And I wasn't quite sure, at first, how I should structure it, what level it should be on," Boyd continues. "So I just drummed up some exercises that I thought would be fun and I tried to get them to write about their life experiences. So I brought in a photograph of an old Gypsy performer who had a pet bear on a leash and just told them to write a story from her point of view."

This basic writing exercise is a useful starting point. It's an easy, immediate way to get a sense of what students are capable of and willing to do. And the results informed Boyd that she wasn't dealing with beginners.

"I was shocked at the quality of the work," Boyd says. "I thought it was going to be horrible drivel, and it was not. When I gave that photograph assignment, one man wrote a beautiful two-page story in her voice about how she had always been in a cocoon in her life, how her marriage was like a cocoon, she felt trapped in it. Her circus performing was like a cocoon--and now that her husband had just died, she was going to leave the circus and have this rebirth, and she just felt free for the first time at age 75.

"It was so specific and it was really good. He had no preconceived notions--he just came forth with this amazing piece of short fiction. And I was surprised. And it was a great reminder: People who want to write can write, and people who put in the time write good things."

 

The four instructors interviewed for this story share similar sentiments about the writers in the class. It may have started for people re-entering society, but it is not a roomful of ex-offenders working out issues. It has evolved into a focused, community-based effort of dedicated writers.

"Before I taught my first class I went to a reading they had over the [2006] holiday season," says Lionel Foster, who taught two classes back in January. The 27-year-old Urbanite writer met Bucknell as a Hopkins Writing Seminars undergrad. "So I came to that and I was actually pretty impressed at the quality of the work. So my fear going in was, frankly, that I wouldn't be able to teach them anything because they write very well. But what I found was that they really appreciated and respected that I write for a magazine. So I offered any insight that I could give them to what it's like to write for a publication. Basically, my goal was to give them confirmation that they're already good enough to do the type of stuff that I do."

"This group is really, really reliable, they're so dedicated," says MICA's Jennifer Wallace. Wallace was pulled into the workshop's fold through Boyd, although she had helped start a similar program herself. As a late-'90s grad student at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., Wallace was part of an instructor and student team that started Right to Write, a workshop at Westchester County Department of Correction in nearby Valhalla. Wallace has also been involved with other community writing programs, at homeless shelters and senior centers.

"Usually with community work you need to come up with stuff that will be realizable in one session because you can't be sure that people will be sure to come to the next session," Wallace says. With this group, "I see them just as being serious writers. We're always trying to help people get in touch with their truths and their material, whatever that material is, and come up with different ways of talking about what makes language engaging."

Over the past year Bucknell, Boyd, Foster, Wallace, and local writers/instructors Marya Flanagan, Linda Campbell Franklin, John Messler, and Jenn Plum have taught the class. Bucknell even recruited former Sun reporter and The Wire staff writer Bill Zorzi to address one class. The short tenures mean that it's difficult to achieve any long-term writing goals, but the participants appreciate the variety of ideas that they encounter.

"That's the best part--because there's all kinds of teachers that are coming in from different colleges, and some of them have written books and poetry and it's just a wide assortment of things we get to participate in," says Tracy E. Williams, one of the workshop participants. A thirtysomething student at the University of Maryland pursuing a master's in business administration, Williams heard about the workshops through a community flier. ("It didn't necessarily say that you had to be in prison to participate, so I just went on the day that it was scheduled," she notes.) And she was interested because she wanted to improve her writing skills.

"I wanted to get better at writing," Williams says. "And the group encourages me. I'm a procrastinator, but you can't be a procrastinator when it comes to submitting term papers, and the further your education goes the more that you're required to do in writing. And all of this is free so you just participate. All you have to do is show up."

Williams' comments highlight how we live in a culture that demands more and more sophisticated levels of communication that requires a basic writing foundation. Constant information exchange is a daily given, and writing is that information transaction that every adult supposedly already knows.

The heinous fact is not that people can't write--it's that people can write the stories they want to tell, only the demand for them is simply not there. The culture of the contemporary work force places little to no value on such stories. "Writing for yourself' runs along a spectrum of romantic self-aggrandizement at one end and blogging on the other. Sure, you can do it, but, you know, real writers get paid for their writing.

And like any muscle, creativity unused atrophies. "I thought it was going to be really, really basic, and I was a little surprised because after I heard some of the writing, they were really good," says Trueheart, the nurse, over the phone. "And I got really excited about it when I went home, and that's when I wrote the poem `Inspire Me.'

"I used to write a lot when I was young," Trueheart continues. "I'm not big on cards that you buy in the store because, when we were little, my mom always made a big deal out of writing this really nice thing about you when she made a card and we always made cards for birthdays and anniversaries. And I did a lot of writing until I started having my kids. I did a lot of journals, even when they were small. And then it pretty much stopped except for writing papers for school."

Such is the case for many, many people. In the work force, writing, per se, is purely teleological--a mere conveyance of information. And like any rewarding personal endeavor, writing requires what so few people have anymore: time. "I have a hard time finding time to write on my own," Trueheart says. "Actually, I thought everything creative about me had died. And I remember sitting at work one day, and I had this project to do, and I got so frustrated and I said to myself, `How can I do this? I am not creative.' And for some reason I just stopped and said, `But you were creative--what happened to you?' And I was like, that's a good question: What happened to me?'

"But sometimes those things lie dormant and you don't have anything to put activity to them," Trueheart says. "So the class, just getting back in and seeing it flow, I was really surprised, because you think those things are dead. And you think you can never do this again and you don't even know if you really can."

 

"One of the results of working with the writers in [the] workshop is that I'm no longer sure which is the driving force--writers or the stories writers tell," Foster says in an e-mail following an interview. "The participants I met don't just like to write, it's obvious that they need to write. Perhaps the only difference between them and professionals is that professionals have a few more tricks for shaping and channeling the creative impulse. We all had a desperate need to articulate something. It was wonderful and humbling for me to see that power in such a raw form."

"I was reminded how working with writers in a nonacademic setting can help me be a better reader--a better and more accepting reader," Wallace says of her teaching experience. "You know, so maybe they're not writing with 100 percent really great English grammar or maybe they don't have some of the sophistication of a Pulitzer Prize winner, but that doesn't mean that whatever it is that they're writing isn't powerful, true, and potent."

A year into its run, though, Bucknell isn't quite sure where the workshops are going. "I don't know what the long-term benefit is," Bucknell says. "My initial thought was really to try to create space--I hate that kind of language--try to create a space for these ex-offenders to feel safe and that they could share. That hasn't really been the case, and it's become something quite different and something I didn't quite expect. And most of the people who come seem to appreciate it, even when they come erratically. So I've kind of given up having an idea of what it's about or how to do it, it's just keep doing it. It sounds crazy, but I think, yes, we'll just keep pedaling. And even if I can't see into the science of it, we're going to carry it on as long as we can."

Even more troubling is the immediate future. Bucknell has teachers lined up through September, but after that she's a little anxious. "I need to make another push to try to get new people in, but I'm worried because I feel like I've approached all the institutions that I could think of and I tried all my different stories and I came up with a very small group," she says. "And I don't know how long I can hold this together on my own. I don't really have a long-term plan to go forward and I would feel very sorry to have to take it away from the people who have continued to come."

The class has already given Trueheart the confidence to move forward with her work. She admits that she probably wouldn't have started writing again if it wasn't for the workshop, and now she has a project she's actively pursuing. She attended a writing workshop at 2006 Baltimore Book Festival that included a familiar exercise--writing from a photograph starting point. At this workshop, the photo featured an early-1900s ministerial board that included three women.

"There was a woman sitting in the first row and I just got fixated on her," Trueheart says. "She looked very strong spirited, she was reasonably young, and I'm trying to think, Why is she on the ministerial board? What capacity is she? Is she someone's wife? You know, because back then women weren't allowed to minister."

Since then Trueheart has researched into women's roles in ministering in the era, discovering that many women did so but usually through marrying ministers or deacons or traveling to Europe. And her research is entering her writing. "So I started writing this story about her, this strong woman who knew the calling of God was for her life, but she wasn't able to exercise it. So she had to work around it the best she could and she wasn't willing to let anyone break her down," she says. "I haven't gotten as far as I'd like to be, but that's something I want to continue to work on and build on. And the more I learn in class the more I'm able to put into that story, and this is something I'm not ready to let go."

Jennifer Wallace reads at the Enoch Pratt Central Library June 12 at 6:30 p.m. with Betsy Boyd, Dwayne Campbell, Linda Franklin Campbell, Bernard Johnson, and Geraldine Wright-Bey. For more information visit prattlibrary.org. For more information about participating in the workshop please contact the Re-entry Center at (410) 523-1060. For more information about becoming a teaching volunteer contact Lucy Bucknell at lbucknell[at]jhu.edu.

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