The Writing Process Goes to San Quentin

The writing prompts that the 15 lifers like best are the ones Ms. Juska, and eventually they, make up on the spot. They go like this: “Give me a color.” “Red.” “Give me a body part.” “Teeth.” “Give me some weather.” “Thunder.” “Let’s write.”

  1. San Quentin Prison looms over San Francisco Bay. It offers one of the world’s most beautiful views and houses 6,000 men, among them the world’s most violent offenders. It is the home of California’s Death Row. A little west of Death Row is my classroom building. Downstairs, in Room 2, for three hours every Wednesday night, I meet 15 students who are serving life sentences and who have elected to take my course, English 101: Reading and Writing Fiction.


    PREWRITING: “A so-called prewriting activity may simply be another activity done for its own sake—a discussion, improvisation, … ”—James Moffett in Active Voice

    Rasheed and Max are yelling at each other across what Max has named our “Circle of Kings Plus One.” “You can’t have empathy with my situation,” shouts Max for the third time. He pushes his glasses back up to the bridge of his nose where they tilt, smudged and crazily askew.

    “I can!” yells back Rasheed, “That’s what I been telling you!” Rasheed stretches his heavily muscled upper body out from his chair, so does Max, and the fingers they point at each other like God’s and Adam’s on Michelangelo’s ceiling.

    Where is my whistle. The prison authorities directed me to wear a whistle around my neck at all times. Either that or carry the beeper they offered to lend me. “But be careful,” they warned. “This is extremely sensitive … ”—the guard held the beeper aloft—“if it goes off, we go on lockdown with guns out.” So I don’t carry a beeper, and the whistle I bought to abi...

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