Teaching a Writing Workshop at Otisville Correctional Facility

Teaching a Writing Workshop at Otisville Correctional Facility

Teaching a Writing Workshop at Otisville Correctional Facility

For the first time, the Prisoner Reentry Institute’s Prison-to-College Pipeline (P2CP) program hosted a series of summer workshops and seminars for P2CP students. John Jay’s Senior Editor/Writer, Andrea Dawn Clark, was given the honor of teaching a creative writing workshop to the students. For her allotted three-hour session she detailed her journey as a professional writer, facilitated a discussion about two acclaimed short stories that the students read beforehand in preparation of the class, and guided the students through a creative writing exercise. 

Nothing to Worry About

Visiting Otisville Correctional Facility and the Prison-to-College Pipeline (P2CP) students wasn’t a new experience for me. I was fortunate enough to sit down and have a meal with our P2CP students during our “Night at Otisville” event, and I had the chance to join our P2CP students during one of their classes for our Justice Matters “Educating at Otisville” article. What I hadn’t done was stand up before the students and actually lead a workshop of my own.

I knew the students were incredibly smart, thoughtful, and polite, but did they really want to listen to me talk about some of my favorite short stories? Could they relate to my experience as a writer? And, would they enjoy the writing exercise I came up with? Turns out, I had nothing to worry about.    

Hearing Their Aspirations

Listening to a P2CP student’s point of view
Listening to a P2CP student’s point of view 

I started off the workshop by asking the students if any of them were aspiring writers. Several hands flew up. They were interested in technical writing, memoir writing, and fiction writing. The students were avid readers and often wrote in journals and created short stories of their own. They wanted to know how I started my journey as a professional writer—I climbed my way up national magazine mastheads. They wanted to know how I came up with ideas—more often than not, the ideas came from necessity instead of creativity. And, they listened intently as I read a speech I wrote for the College’s leadership. But the class really took off when we started talking about the short stories they read beforehand. Honestly, I was blown away with their analytical skills.

Understanding Storytelling

picture of Andrea Clark talking about writing to the P2CP students
Andrea Clark talking about writing to the P2CP students

“They noticed even the smallest nuance—the writer’s quick shift from third to first person—and they asked me smart questions about style and language. In short, I was very impressed.” —Andrea Clark

Like all good English majors, I fell in love with particular authors’ writing styles when I was in college—the concise, Hemingwayesque style of Raymond Carver, and the dreamy, reality-meets-fantasy style of Gabriel García Márquez. We started with García Márquez’s The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World. The students easily unpacked the concepts of magical realism, mankind’s need to create heroes, and the parable-like transformation the characters achieved. Some of the students related the short story to their own Latinx heritage—and were genuinely interested when I told them more about García Márquez’s personal history—while others compared the narrative to modern-day society. They noticed even the smallest nuance in the words—the writer’s quick shift from third to first person—and they asked me smart questions about style and language choice. In short, I was very impressed.

When we got to Carver’s A Small Good Thing, they picked up on everything—Carver’s ability to amplify ordinary events, the changes the protagonist experienced throughout the story, the themes of privilege and isolation, and the idea that anyone’s life could easily change on a dime. When I asked them how the two short stories related to each other, they pondered the question for an extended moment, then they astutely explained how both stories detailed an event that brought about a transformation, taking the characters out of isolation and bringing them into a wider community.

Sharing Their Stories

Picture of P2CP students during the writing exercise
P2CP students during the writing exercise

The class took on a completely different spirit when we started the writing exercise. They sailed through the different styles of narration, easily understanding the distinctions between first, second, and third person—some students went even deeper, grasping the difference between third-person omniscient and third-person limited. They explained why they like to write in different styles—some liking third person for its wide-reaching ability, while others preferred the closeness of first-person narration, citing a journaling style of writing. As each of them picked a story point of entry, character traits, an important event, and finally a scene that they wrote up right there on the spot, I witnessed the group’s true talent.

Picture of a P2CP student sharing his scene
A P2CP student sharing his scene

“As every student read their scenes out loud, their fellow classmates clapped and correctly identified the style of narration.” —Andrea Clark

One student described in vivid detail the first time he jumped out of a plane when he was in the military. Another student brilliantly anthropomorphized a wolf-like character fighting his way out of a pack. They came up with ideas that I could never have imagined—a baby sitting all by herself in her carrier, placed at the edge of a subway platform, with a little pink crown on her head. I told the student what an interesting detail that pink crown was, and that I sincerely wanted to know what was going to happen to the baby—the sign of a great story. I was extremely touched when a student raised his hand during the writing exercise asking for help. He had chosen to write about his baby son. He was there when the child was born, but he hadn’t experienced the child’s life as a toddler. His dilemma: He only had the child’s birth as point of entry that he actually witnessed, but he wanted to write about recent scenes in the child’s life. After some deliberation, and my assurance that it was okay to imagine and write about events without experiencing them in real life, the student wrote a very poignant scene depicting his son going to Sesame Place. The toddler bravely took on every new experience, but he froze out of fear when a butterfly landed on his shoulder. The stories were extremely varied—from an action-packed football scene, to a teenage joyride in a stolen car—but as every student read their scenes out loud, their fellow classmates clapped and correctly identified the style of narration.

Being Inspired

I walked away from this workshop uplifted by the P2CP students. I wanted them to continue their writing. I wanted to do more personal writing of my own. And, I wanted to come back and work with them again. When I asked the students what narration style they liked to write in, I didn’t tell them what style I personally prefer. The truth is, I often write in third person, shying away from the more personal first-person narration. But for this essay, and for them, I moved out of my comfort zone. Thanks P2CP students for giving me a little transformation of my own.