Several weeks ago, an amazing young woman named Sara, who teaches non-fiction and poetry, offered me the opportunity to teach a one-time class on writing mysteries to her students at a nearby prison. My initial reaction was to decline and offer to find someone else. Strange as it may seem, it wasn’t the thought of being with the prisoners that gave me second thoughts. I’m not a teacher. I’ve never taught a class before. Secondly, I’ve only two published books and four short stories included in anthologies. There are lots of mystery writers more qualified than I am. Then Sara told me I was referred by a mystery writer they had asked first, one for whom I have the greatest respect and admiration, and whose books have appeared on the New York Times Best Sellers list.
So I got to thinking, what are my qualifications? There are the fiction and screenwriting classes I took at UCLA, USC, Beyond Baroque, and Rice University. There are the mystery writing classes and countless workshops I attended. I have both attended and participated on conference panels and even been a featured speaker. More important are my critique groups who pointed out to me what I was doing wrong and have continued to support my writing for years, not to mention the film producers who hired me to write screenplays. Not only have I been writing most of my life, I have benefited from all those amazing teachers and fellow writers that have given their time and expertise to teach me.
I accepted Sara’s offer because I wanted to pay forward what I have been given. I decided I could and should share some of what I’ve learned to men who could benefit the most and were soon getting out of prison. They had been preparing for life on the outside since being moved to this medium security prison from where they were serving time because their release date was coming soon.
I arrived at the prison with Sara. Twenty-one prisoners rewarded me with their attention, their enthusiasm, and insight. I know I got as much out of that class as they did. I don’t know their backgrounds or why they were incarcerated, nor did I care. All of them were preparing to get out of prison and back into the outside world. They had stories to tell and wanted their voices heard.
Some were writing novels, others screenplays, some were using poetry. All wanted to know more about the publishing world and what it took to get published. I came with lessons on creating characters, how to use setting, on editing, and steps on building the plot for a mystery. They in turn shared their ideas and what they were working on. We had a question and answer session. In two hours, we built something that will last in my mind for a long time and, hopefully, will impact their lives as well.
The program that brought me to the prison is PEP, or Prison Entrepreneurship Program. Established in 2004, PEP is a Houston-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. They have pioneered programs that connect the nation’s top executives, entrepreneurs, and MBA students with convicted felons.
The Creative Writing Program is just one of several that these men were participating in. They took computer classes, attended programs by CEO’s and lawyers, learned to write a business plan, and were offered housing when they got out. It’s a rehabilitation program that I never knew existed in the state of Texas. It took a non-profit and many volunteers to offer an opportunity to reformed inmates who thrive on challenge and accountability to get a fresh start.
The following week after I gave the class, I got another call. For the men’s final session with the Creative Writing Program, they will be reading what they have written. They were given the opportunity to invite up to two volunteers to attend. I was privileged to be given one of these invitations. In two days I will return to the prison at their request. I’m looking forward to being in the audience this time and learning from them.
For more about this program, go to http://www.pep.org.