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Becoming a Writer



When you teach in prison, sometimes you get unlikely but gratifying feedback. This time it came to us second hand, well sorta.

A new student, let's call him Sal, began attending the class. Just to give you a picture, he's white, quite rotund and apparently was becoming more and more withdrawn. He spent hours on his bunk, overeating. His wife was petitioning him for divorce. Depression set in. At the behest of a couple of our students, one a longtime inmate, Billy, who hails from Orange County with a deep love for punk rock and skateboard culture, Sal decided to give our writing class a whirl. Except he'd never written in his life. What prompted Billy to push him were the stories that Sal told at the chow hall. Hilarious stories that took place in Orange County.

"Man, you need to get these stories down on paper. They're priceless."


So Sal attended the class. His first day, we read back a particularly excellent story written by one of our best writers, Cole. Except things sort of backfired and Cole's story had the opposite effect. It intimidated Sal. He planned on quitting outright.

Billy kept on him. Eventually Sal took the challenge. He managed to find a typewriter -- never having typed -- and with one finger, typed up his first couple of stories word by word, finger by finger, onto a couple of sheets of lined notebook paper now filled with words.


Turns out, Sal is a real natural. The following week, we typed up his crudely typed stories, two tales detailing his SoCal adventures with characters right out of a Tom Waits album or a Hunter Thompson short story. Dynamic and humorous. Killer dialogue. Superb structure. Punchline endings. Sal's stories came alive and jumped off the page. As is the class custom, it was Cole who volunteered to read those stories to the class, as Sal was still somewhat timid. Yet he discovered something important; that he had hidden writing talent that flowed effortlessly...he truly is a natural.


Over the weeks, according to Billy, Sal has gotten into the groove of writing. He's contacted his wife. They're talking again. He's working on patching things up. He's gaining insight into his life through writing. He's a new man. Last week he turned in several more funky pages for us to type up, pass out to the class and read back. Can't wait to see what Sal comes up with next.


Kent Zimmerman