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 anything I’ve ever seen from an MFA candidate.
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 than it really was. And that in turn has taught me to listen more carefully, and not to judge.
But that’s only one lesson I’ve learned. There’s more.
A little background: Kent’s a 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? How one moment of your life can change it for the worst forever. Two of the men convicted of homicide in my class committed their crimes in the grip of a rage they could not control. Several others did so when either blind drunk or high on drugs. (There too is a lesson: yes, drugs are a scourge, a fact that the War on Drugs has done virtually nothing to change.)
Every one of these men has taught me that, despite what cynics and ideologues—and far too many jurors, judges, and law enforcement officers—want all of us to believe, people can change. Yes, for each of these men it took a horrifying moment they could not take back—but who changes absent some crisis?
We in the writing biz call it the “change-or-die moment” for a reason. Blake Snyder, in his writing guide Save the Cat, refers to the “whiff of death” as the pivotal moment late in the story when the protagonist makes a fundamental change, usually because the threat—or reality—of death has become inescapable. Those of us who have made major changes in our lives can most likely point to a moment when death or mortality made an indelible, inescapable impression on how we thought about ourselves and our lives. Basically, we found ourselves saying, “I can’t do this anymore. I don’t want to be this person anymore.”
The most essential necessity for such a moment is the capacity for honest, unsparing insight. Each of these men have shown me that.
One has learned Braille, and become an expert in transcribing science and math textbooks for the blind. He also volunteers for the hospice unit. (CMF has the only hospice unit in the California prison system; inmates too sick or too old to recover from their illnesses before release go there to die.) I asked this inmate why he volunteered. He responded, “I like helping the guys make a peaceful transition from this life to whatever comes after. I denied that to somebody once, and I’d like to make up for that somehow if I can.”
He recently petitioned the court for early release under new state guidelines. He was the first inmate in California to do so, setting a high bar for those who follow given his model inmate status. The judge, however, denied the motion for a hearing—despite a glowing letter not just from the CMF warden but the inmate’s brother-in-law, the sibling of the murdered wife (and numerous others, including me).
I could tell you that this has taught me: Never set your hopes too high, or put your faith in the system. Both are legitimate takeaways. Instead, it’s taught me the importance of forgiveness.
In our training, we are constantly cautioned against getting too close to the prisoners, feeling too sympathetic, or disclosing personal information about ourselves. The inmates are considered intrinsically manipulative, constantly seeking out human weakness in order to exploit it.
Part of the training in this regard includes a film about a prison guard in Southern California named Felix who started by being friendly with one inmate in particular, then doing favors for the inmate’s family, and eventually buying drugs and bringing them into the prison. Felix is now incarcerated himself, and the training film ended with this stern admonition: Don’t be a Felix!
I relayed this to my class, telling them I’d been warned about just how devious and manipulative they are. One of them—who writes wonderfully about growing up black in Sacramento during the 1980s—responded, “Damn straight. And I’m not just manipulative—I’m patient. Give me about 20 years? I’m gonna hit you up for a cigarette.”
And that’s one last thing I’m learning. These guys are funny. They almost have to be.
But the most important takeaway of all? I have it every Thursday evening right around 7:00 PM.
I get to leave.