Fishbowls, Werewolves, and Workshops on the Yard, or: How I Learned to Love Prison Teaching
The first time I drove to my writing class at a prison deep in Arizona’s Sonoran desert it was Friday morning and I hit a wall of downpour on highway 60 heading east. My driver’s side windshield wiper didn’t work, and I could see nothing in front of me but the steam on the window — my breath — and walls of water outside. I’d drive under an overpass and for a pulse it would stop, but seconds later pick up again on the other side, relentless. I was scared, didn’t know if I should pull over, even if I could. Besides, if I had found safe haven at a gas station, which would have been smart, I would have been late for my first day of prison class. And who knew what these incarcerated men enrolled in my Introduction to Creative Writing would think of me then?
By the time I passed Gold Canyon, the floodwaters had receded. I had pushed through. But I was still shaken and late. When I told my fiction class later, those ten or so men sitting at round tables in the prison visitation room, they told me to be careful next time.
Really, they said, “You should fix your windshield wipers.”
And: “You hurried here for us?”
I’d driven to prison a week before class started to see the grounds. The workshop was set up through a prison teaching internship at Arizona State University, where I work in the creative writing office. Most grad student interns taught in pairs on the north yard while I, with some teaching experience, was assigned solo to the south. I didn’t know what that meant at the time.
A female officer walked me through the yard, where we fielded looks from almost every man we passed. The officer wasn’t sure yet where the class would be held. She showed me a white plaster rec room with no furniture and surprisingly high ceilings. I imagined us all sitting on the floor. She couldn’t guarantee that tables would be in there, she said, but she’d look into it. I was learning to accept the not-knowing that sometimes went with prison culture; they’d work it out in the end.
On the way back to the front office, as we passed several dorms, the rec area, and a circle of cacti meticulously cared for near the entrance, I asked what crimes these guys had committed. I didn’t know. I expected violence and theft, stolen cars, that sort of thing.
“This is the sex offender yard,” she said.
My stomach fell. She’d said it casually, not breaking her stride as we crossed the yard.
“So some of the students may have raped or molested people?” I remember asking.
“Yes,” she said. Some of them were involved in underage relationships, she said, but that’s only some. There were many other reasons they were in here. By her voice, it seemed the story was old to her, something you said to visitors. “You’ll be fine,” she assured me. She didn’t look me in the eye when she said it, and somehow that felt ominous.
I thanked her and started the drive west back to ASU. I’d be going back to work that afternoon, as I would every Friday once school started. That morning, though, I remember having to pull over somewhere between Florence and Gold Canyon. I’d just turned off the desolate two-laned road leading to the prison. In seven or eight more miles I’d come upon gas stations, a Jack in the Box, and other signs of commerce; before that, turnoffs for trailer lots and trailheads for the Superstition Mountains.
I kept thinking, Some of my students might be rapists. I was having trouble processing and parked on the side of the road in a subdivision. It was a model neighborhood. Heavy yellow sun fell through the windshield. Shadows pulling away from the cacti on the side of the road were heavy, too. Many will have molested other people. I looked down at the road and then to the mountain range. And I’ll be in a room with them, teaching by myself. I might have called my mom, a teacher, but it was in the middle of her school day and I didn’t want to worry her. I sat with myself in the desert wondering if I was up for this.
I ended up posting on Facebook: excited to teach a creative writing class in a prison this fall. just found out that all my students will come from the sex offender unit. now a little terrified.
And I was.
But the first morning of class, I was too rushed to feel scared. I’d survived the seventy-mile drive, hadn’t died in the blinding rain. Walking up to the gate then waiting for the buzzer were both a blur. Once inside, I handed over my transparent plastic case of papers for inspection.
“Keys? Phone? More than forty dollars cash?” the guard asked, then urged me through the metal detector. “Cross your arms in front of your chest and go sideways if you have to,” she said, “for underwires.”
By then I was already late and lightheaded, wondering how it would go. Were these men dangerous? Would they leer at me?
“You can see the guard’s station from the classroom,” prison workers had emphasized. “Anything happens, they’ll see it.” And they’d given me a walkie-talkie the size of a fire extinguisher.
Still, questions buzzed: Would I feel threatened? Would I ever have to call on a guard to intervene? Would the students even like me?
Past the first round of security, I handed over my ID at the guard’s station and was directed to a set of heavy metal doors leading to visitation, my classroom for the next fifteen weeks. The vestibule between doors was the size of a motel bathroom. Waiting for the second door, I took one last look at the guard station, gas masks hanging from one wall, a series of surveillance screens, and the guard on the phone writing with his free hand. Once the second door opened, I’d be in class, in front of everyone, trying to lead discussions, trying to find their trust.
“Think of it as a fishbowl,” one of the prison coordinators had told me. “And you’re the fish. They’re going to try things. They’re going to try to manipulate you. Just remember that. They’ll be testing you.”
“Testing me?” I said.
“Don’t tell them too much about yourself,” the coordinator had said. “They’ll be listening for details. They’ll remember everything. And one day they may try to use it.”
“Against me?” I remember asking him.
“Not necessarily against you. But to make you do favors. They’re all going to request favors of you,” he said, “but you’re not going to know they’re favors. Be incredibly vigilant.”
The second metal door clanked open and before me was the sprawling cafeteria-like room, lined with vending machines and about forty faux-wood round tables. A bank of windows on one side looked towards the parking lot, and another opened toward the gravel yard, behind it dorm buildings and beyond that, smokestacks and the far silhouette of administration buildings. (“Executions happen over there,” one of the students would tell me later. “They don’t really publicize it, but we always know.”)
And then there were the students. About ten of them already sitting at the first two rows of tables, joking among themselves then politely saying hello when I arrived.
“I am a fish,” I remember thinking, “and these men are sex offenders.” But I didn’t want to feel that way. I didn’t want to start out with distrust, on some misguided assumption that I was any better of a person for not having committed the crimes that they had. Any better because I could drive home after class when they couldn’t.
One student came up immediately, before I could even set anything down. His orange t-shirt matched the orange pants, just like everyone else. Mid-forties. Clean cut. I learned later he was a history teacher and went by the name T. “I want to tell you how glad we are that you’re here,” he said. “I wanted to thank you. We know you didn’t have to come.”
Already I was flustered. I’d planned to reach Florence early, grab coffee from the McDonalds half a mile away, and hide out in the empty room preparing, alone. I hadn’t anticipated almost dying in torrential rain. I’d planned to steel myself and organize the photocopies I’d brought — Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl,” Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” a Graham Greene story in case we needed more to talk about. Instead, I walked in late with everyone waiting for me.
At the front of the room, prison personnel were checking in stragglers, noting badge numbers and dorm codes for the official count. There was some confusion about who belonged in class and who didn’t.
“Go ahead and start,” they said, “the classroom’s all yours.”
Pretend there wasn’t this official counting and filing going on at the desk.
“Thank you,” I told T. who was sitting again.
It was difficult not to be distracted.
The first class I talked about empathy. All fiction is about empathy, I told them, about understanding others’ experiences, living other lives. I felt a sense of duty saying that. I remember thinking that the students probably lacked that recognition of other people, that it must be what brought them there. How else could you commit those crimes unless you had no understanding of the other person? I remember even thinking that I wanted them to feel sorry for what they’d done, that this fiction class would bring them that kind of enlightenment.
I underestimated all of them.
They proved to be talkative and smart and in many cases grief-stricken. They asked me a ton of questions and vowed to do the homework for next time. “Many sex offenders were educators,” I was told later. “They’ll do anything to keep their brains occupied.”
I didn’t feel tested, not even once.
At the beginning I was very careful about the stories I brought to discuss, specifically avoiding narratives with small children, sexual violence, or adolescent love. So many stories became off limits, especially those depicting childhood. Certain Junot Díaz stories, out; some Susan Minot, nope; James Joyce, careful there.
I was fine with serial killer stories, though, with hard, dark stories about alcoholics and personal redemption. I brought in Raymond Carver and Flannery O’Connor and Richard Ford. But to my disappointment, the students weren’t keen on them. Any MFA student in the country would recognize the merits of Carver, O’Connor, and Ford, but somehow these guys were missing it. About “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” they said, “What’s the point if everyone dies at the end?” After reading Richard Ford’s “Communist” — “Anyone can get published, can’t they?” I decided it must be my fault; I wasn’t explaining the stories well. And then sometimes I thought, “Maybe these guys aren’t actually writers.”
The first breakthrough story was John Updike’s “A&P.” This one they appreciated. I mean, really enjoyed. This one we read aloud in class and that afternoon I posted on Facebook:
finally found a story the prison students like: updike's a&p. (yes, i know it has a line calling a woman's breasts "the two smoothest scoops of vanilla..." - i'm sure that had nothing to do with it.)
We had good characters that first semester in the visitation room. Marvin with his matriarchal werewolf novel set in the San Fernando Valley, where a community of she-wolves spent days adoring the man they had kidnapped and transformed. The protagonist must have slept with eighteen she-wolves before the end of page three.
Then there was tall, white-haired Ollie who chose to write about a talking egg for his first writing exercise about characterization. He didn’t know what else to write about, he said. His egg was kind.
Then Todd, the former masseuse and now Buddhist, wrote about a rainbow keeping a lonely inmate company. He later turned this into a moving poem about the isolation of prison where no love could reach him. Todd’s wife had already remarried and their kids lived with the new guy.
That day I’d posted:
one of my prison students cried in class today when reading his piece about loneliness and his daughters’ new stepfather. my heart goes out to him. several of the guys hugged him afterwards.
Since August 2012, I’ve posted about my prison class on Facebook almost weekly. These posts show the workshop’s progression even better than I can remember it:
Important questions that came up in today's prison workshop:
"Do werewolves wear shorts?"
"Do they wear clothes at all?"
"Well, Teen Wolf wore clothes. Remember his clothes?”
the new guy in my prison class keeps writing about moonshine.
excited to talk about Denis Johnson's "Emergency" with prison students this week. and cool to learn from Johnson's bio that he also taught in a prison in Florence, AZ.
today one of the prison students talked about his first year in prison: “For a year I thought I was a corpse. I lay on my bed and didn’t move for a year. Didn’t know what to do. After a year, I was surprised I still had a pulse. I hadn’t died yet. I had to go do something with my life.” (his something = Buddhism, running endlessly around a track, and writing stories in our workshop).
in prison class today we learned that Satan's real name is Herbert.
new prison class started today. they told me that when they receive letters there, even if the letters aren't perfumed (and most of them aren't), the letters still have familiar scents that transport them away from prison momentarily. this is very important, they said.
so out of nowhere one of the prison students asks if i've heard of "this guy George Saunders" because he (the student) would like to make a request. a good moment in prison workshop history.
in prison workshop today: a fictional account of a man wrestling with “addiction to lust.” it’s the first time we’ve talked about this openly in class — and without awkwardness. “we’re all in here because of some form of that addiction,” T. said.
After a year and a half, my workshop students no longer seem like prisoners. Or perhaps the newness of the experience has worn off. More likely, they have grown as writers and now seem more like university students, some even better than. The Fall 2012 class began with about ten guys. Over time most have moved on — some assigned work duty, others getting out of prison and moving north — and new students have cycled in, many saying they’re not sure if they like writing but they’ll try this. “All we have around here is time,” they say.
And despite the migrations and movements of most of the class, two have stayed with it the whole time: T. and Roger (not their real names).
T. is the history teacher who often gives me teaching tips — “You’ll want to tighten the reins a little on this new group,” he said recently. Early on he asked me to read an essay he wrote for a law journal contest in which he described his crime in detail. It was what you might expect in a sex offender yard (and certainly not excused by the fact that he’d been similarly abused as a kid). I remember feeling sad once I knew about the crime and thought I’d see him differently, which is to say maybe I wouldn’t see him at all. But we moved past that. T. has expressed so much sorrow and grief in class, both in his writing and conversation that I’ve come to trust him. Now he struggles from inside the prison to deal with aging parents on the outside. One of them is schizophrenic. T. may never see him again.
I haven’t found out Roger’s crime. I don’t know if I’ll ever know. I do know that his wife died about fourteen years ago and he’d been raising his four daughters on his own since then. He dedicates most of his workshop stories to them. Sometimes he copies his stories onto fresh paper and mails them home. If his stories lack clarity sometimes, he says his daughters will understand them, and that’s the only audience he’s writing for.
It makes me sad to think of people as damaged, though we all are. Last summer one of the guys submitted a 700-page handwritten novel. We broke it down into chunks and discussed it over several months. It was a sprawling project about a young man’s experience with abuse, from religious figures, his father, older neighbors… it was almost a catalog of all that had been done to this character and how he responded (not well). It was fairly pornographic and painful to read because, though it was a novel, the writer reported that most of it came from his life. He showed us family photos and told us who each one was in the book. On top of that, he superimposed a murder mystery and tried to pepper clues throughout the novel to lead us to a big realization at the end. It was a huge, busy mess but there were definite moments that felt authentic. Despite all the problems, there was an honest voice beneath all this, trying to tell something true. That student ended up leaving once we finished talking about the book. I don’t think he liked our feedback. I wonder, too, if he was the best teller of his own story, and I feel sad for him for having lived it.
“It’s gotten rougher in here since last class,” T. said recently.
“What do you mean?”
“There’s more violence here,” he said. “They’ve put some people in here that shouldn’t really be here.”
He didn’t elaborate. I remember reading in several accounts that sex offenders are safest when separated into their own yards. In a yard of non-sex offender inmates, there’s a greater chance of violence.
“How do you keep yourself safe?” I asked him, thinking the old advice of keeping your head down and moving forward would apply.
And maybe it would a little. “Respect everyone,” he said.
I wanted to ask him more, but we’d made it to the classroom by then.
“There’s a very confused looking old couple at the front gate,” one guard told another one. I saw through the glass doors a white-haired couple cupping their eyes against the sun. Saturdays were visitation days.
“This is going to be hard for them,” the guard said, buzzing them in.
My first creative writing workshop session of 2014 had just ended. We’d talked about shifting power dynamics in scenes. Students had written about characters taken from photographs in the Triple A magazine. Lots of ridiculously happy people on boats or watching sunsets from their mountain bikes, or the mechanic firmly advising the lady driver. “Give them each a name,” I’d told them. “Make one of the characters more powerful. Then figure out how to shift that power.”
Just before break in December, I’d given the students a copy of one of my stories, which ran in a recent Colorado Review. (Around then, I’d posted: my copies of Colorado Review have arrived. showing my prison class first. am weirdly nervous about this.)
Returning to the classroom in January, I pretended I’d forgotten. Self-consciousness filled me. I wasn’t sure I wanted their reaction and wasn’t sure I trusted it yet.
T. and Roger had been asking for over a year to see some of my fiction. In my usual fashion as a shy short story writer, I had evaded their requests for months. They told me last fall that if I didn’t share my work, it would be a sign that I didn’t trust them, that I didn’t really think their feedback was valuable — and by extension, that I didn’t think they as people were valuable. We had a frank discussion about it. I told them that wouldn’t be the case at all. They were still very important people no matter whether they lived in a prison or not. They shook their heads, and it was clear they didn’t feel like it. I’ve often wondered how any shred of self-confidence could remain intact during incarceration. They wanted to know that I trusted their feedback, they said.
“You should trust it,” they said. “You’ve been teaching us.”
So finally I gave them a copy of the story just before class ended for Christmas break. The first meeting back, when I reluctantly took my spot at the workshop table, turning the walkie-talkie dial to mute, Roger unfolded a list he’d made of all the phrases he’d liked in my story. It was a long handwritten list. He started reading from it, and T. joined in.
“Near the end, for a line you switch to second person,” T. said. “I wanted to ask you about that.” A year before, he probably would have missed that entirely.
That day, any time we had a lull during the two-hour workshop, Roger would bring out the list and read from it. Just before the meeting ended, he said, “There were some things I didn’t like, too.”
Several students grew quiet.
Roger shrugged. “Can’t like everything,” he said, then referred to the story: “You’ve never been a tour bus driver, have you?”
No, I told him, although my protagonist was.
“It shows,” he said. “The way she’s driving, it seems like this is the first time she’s ever driven a bus. But she’s done it three years, right?” He looked at T.
“Right, three years,” T. said.
They knew my story better than I did.
Roger had other suggestions that he said respectfully, suggestions that spoke to authenticity, to the very detailed texture that will convince or not convince, great suggestions that a roomful of MFA students hadn’t noticed and that I had been blind to myself. The feedback helped. I trusted him.
“If I ever revise this one for my collection,” I told him, “I’ll run it by you first.”
I meant it.
Sometimes people wonder why I keep going back to this group semester after semester.
“This is the only thing I’ve ever liked my whole time in prison,” a very talented student, Mills, said recently.
“You don’t like the honeybuns?” a classmate asked.
“Honeybuns?” I said.
“Honeybuns are currency on the yard,” T. said.
“And no, not even honeybuns,” Mills said. Then he went back to his writing exercise, said he would turn in a new story next week.
That’s why I keep going. That’s why it’s worthwhile.about the author