Ed. Note: We’re excited to bring you the first in this three-part series by author Christina Hoag, which describes her experiences teaching a variety of at-risk students the basics of creative writing. Her first column is below, and her second and third will appear in June and July.
The P.A. announces that the writers’ workshop is about to start and students shuffle in. They’re exceptionally polite, shaking my hand and thanking me for coming. All are well groomed with creases like axe blades ironed into their trouser legs, hair neatly combed. I’m keenly aware of their gaze on me, but I know their interest is natural. They see few outsiders. They are maximum security inmates at California State Prison Los Angeles County, and most are LWOPs, sentenced to life without parole.
I was invited to the class by author Christopher J. Lynch, who writes a nifty series about a professional blackmailer. Chris has been volunteer-teaching the monthly workshop for nearly two years. “It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve done in my life,” he says.
It takes devotion. The prison sprawls 90 miles northeast of Los Angeles in the high desert, a bleak expanse of sun-punished, windswept grit. Inmate uniforms necessarily include black sunglasses.
We have about a dozen students, many are salty-haired and paunchy and have been locked up for a decade or two. They’re model inmates from the “contract yard,” where admittance is via a signed pledge to eschew gangs, racism, and other disruptive behavior. In return, they get to do their time peacefully and receive access to extras such as art, music, and a program where they train shelter dogs for adoption.
The aim of the writing workshop is to get short stories polished for submission to a contest and literary journals. Since use of computers is limited, we get about half the stories penned by hand. Like any class of beginners, there are varying levels of talent. Some show a natural flair for writing, others not so much. They make the same mistakes every novice makes: clichés, switching POV and verb tenses, relying on hair and eye color to describe characters.
They display a healthy range of creativity: speculative fiction about good and evil conjoined twins; realistic slices-of-life of a prison beat down and a gang setup; nostalgia for a teen romance.
James, a Vietnam veteran with two Bronze Stars and a Louisiana drawl, combines his military expertise with current events in North Korea in an espionage story. Kicking Horse, a Choctaw Indian who makes intricately designed bead pendants, uses the assignment to complete a prison sweat lodge vow to share tribal folktales. It wasn’t what was requested, but his words flow.
The world beyond the razor wire coils is largely limited to their fraying memories. Without Internet access, they use TV and newspapers to keep up with things like cellphone flashlights and Uber to include in their stories. Still, there are gaps.
Dallas, a pudgy well-spoken man working on his memoir (which several are doing), asks how he can find San Francisco street names since inmates aren’t allowed maps. We advise him to fudge it. Street names usually aren’t very important.
A writing prompt arises from a comment by Lester, a hulking, articulate man. “I did not get judged by a jury of my peers,” he growls. Afraid this will digress into a discussion about being railroaded, a favorite prisoner topic, I suggest they write about their juries, which they readily gravitate to. They’re not shy about reading their pieces aloud. Damon, a lanky bookish guy with glasses, gets applause when he compares his jurors to his judgmental exes.
When Bill, a wiry, decorated ex-Marine who served in Vietnam, reads his piece, a distinctive name sounds familiar. On the drive back to L.A., Chris tells me that while he never asks about the students’ crimes, he had figured out that Bill was the hit man in a sensational L.A. murder case in the eighties. I had read a book about the case some years before. I’m flabbergasted at this coincidence.
Prisons are little more than costly warehouses of shipwrecked lives. In fact, California spends more on corrections than on education. I can’t help think that, if the proportion were inverse, maybe these men would have made better decisions than the disasters they wrought on others and themselves.
But that’s the system we have.
Writing offers them a chance for introspection and reflection, a way to build self-esteem and a sense of achievement, to make their lives worthy in some small way. So Chris and I plan our next class.
Christina Hoag is a former journalist for the Miami Herald and Associated Press, and reported from Latin America for Time, Business Week, Financial Times and the New York Times, among other media. She is the author of YA romantic thriller Girl on the Brink, which was named to Suspense Magazine’s Best of 2016 list, and Skin of Tattoos, a noir novel set in L.A.’s gangland. She also co-authored Peace in the Hood: Working with Gang Members to End the Violence. She lives in Los Angeles. www.christinahoag.com.
To learn more about Girl on the Brink, click on the cover below: