I have a confession: I am not good at saying no. I tend to view new opportunities with an open mind. When I was approached by a young woman named Sara, who got my name from another writer, I listened to her talk about The Creative Writing Program she was currently teaching. She offered me the chance to teach a one day session on mystery writing. I was stunned. I had never taught a class before. What made her think I was even qualified? So I thought about it for almost a week before calling her back to say, “Let’s meet.”
We agreed to meet at Panera Bread. There she told me that I would be teaching the class at a men’s prison in Cleveland, Texas. She hurriedly added that it was perfectly safe. She went on to explain that the prisoners were sent to this medium security prison from other prisons around the country because the men were getting prepared to be released.
Sara was a volunteer with the 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 to prepare them for the outside world. These included computers classes, how to make a business plan, how to enter the business world and what to expect.
Sara was a college student from another state. She was young, attractive, idealistic, and filled with a passion for this program. She organized and started the eight-week Creative Writing Program because she knew that, through writing, the student prisoners would learn something valuable about themselves by expressing their feelings in a non-aggressive way. Sara’s expertise was poetry and creative non-fiction. What was needed, she decided, was a published mystery writer who could give the men solid tips about writing and what it took to get published.
Sara’s enthusiasm was boundless and overwhelming, and contagious. By the end of our short meeting, I told her I was in. A couple of weeks later I arrived at the prison with Sara. Twenty-one prisoners were waiting with an eagerness that surprised me. Thank goodness Sara stayed right by my side the whole time. She introduced me and the men introduced themselves one by one, giving their name and the name they went by at the prison.
I told them about myself and my writing and publishing experiencing then asked them what they were working on. Some were writing novels, a couple were working on screenplays, many were working on poetry. I used the material I had from Mystery Writers of America – University, which I had recently attended – creating characters, how to use setting, on editing, and steps on building the plot for a mystery. They had questions – lots of them, which made it easy for me. In four hours, we built something that will last in my mind for a long time and, hopefully, will impact their lives as well.
The following week after I gave the class, I got another call. The second to the last class would be a presentation by the men to read aloud what they had written for their final grade to an audience of volunteer teachers, attorneys, CEOs and technical instructors. The men could invite two volunteers who they felt had impacted their lives. I felt privileged to be given one of these invitations. I never found out who had specifically invited me.
It was a performance I will never forget. The men wrote from their heart. Poetry, essays, letters to their children, and you could tell they worked hard on them. There were sparks of real talent. Some readings brought tears to my eyes, others were humorous. After they finished, the group mingled, prisoners and their mentors, alike, among coffee and desserts. Gratitude and respect for each other spilled out in hugs and laughter. You would never know these men were convicts. It was a day I’ll never forget.
For more about this program, go to http://www.pep.org.
Laura Elvebak is the author of Less Dead (2008) and Lost Witness (2009), (L&L Dreamspell), both awarded five star reviews on Amazon, which features Niki Alexander, an ex-cop turned teen counselor. Her short stories are “Searching for Rachel” featured in A Death in Texas, and “Dying For Chocolate” in the award winning A Box of Texas Chocolates.