I teach creative writing at the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC), a federal detention facility in downtown Chicago. Most of the prison population is there for relatively short periods as they interact with lawyers and attend court hearings at the federal court a block away. Everyone wears orange jumpsuits. The men I work with, called the cadre, have longer stays. They work in parts of the prison that require ongoing support (cafeteria, maintenance, library, etc.). To distinguish them from the others, they’re required to wear green uniforms. When classes were in-person, there was a good bit of casual humor. On March 17, as students were filing in to the classroom, one said to me, “In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, we all decided to wear green.”
For three years my classes were face-to-face inside the facility. Everything came to an abrupt halt when COVID hit. Recently, the Education Department worked out a way to conduct classes remotely. Not via Zoom but old-school remote, in which I email a lesson to the head of Education, who makes copies for each student. A week later she collects their assignments, scans them, and sends them to me for my comments. Time-consuming and not as effective as in-person instruction, but it works.
The students have a wide range of backgrounds—some grew up in affluent suburbs, others in poor inner-city neighborhoods, some lived their childhoods in other countries. As they share their lives through writing, it’s striking how varied and “ordinary” everyone’s experiences are.
Most of these men have graduated from high school; some have college degrees. Beyond their formal education, they all want to improve the primary way they communicate with the world, which is through writing—whether they want to be clearer and more persuasive in communicating with their lawyers or the court system, or if they are reaching out to their kids, spouses, or loved ones and want to write more expressive letters.
The course I teach is five weeks long. Primarily I have them focus on improving their descriptive skills. I tell them that including vivid description in their writing brings the reader more completely into their world and helps the reader identify with their point of view. As a result, whether they’re writing an argument, a request, or an expression of love, skillful use of description can make their writing stronger, more compelling.
It’s not a natural inclination for some. If, as a beginning exercise, I ask them to describe a good time they had with their families, I might get back from them something like “When I was a kid, we’d go over to my grandma’s house. She made us hot dogs and BBQ chicken. It was really good.”
I push for more details: what kind of day it was, what smells were in the air, who else was there, what were people wearing, what did they talk about, etc. I give them poems and short stories with vivid descriptions that are central to the work and I ask the students to point out descriptions they find effective. This is followed by writing assignments in which I ask them to provide similar descriptions.
When I was preparing lessons for my remote class, I spoke to my good friend poet and educator Mark Turcotte, about wanting to encourage descriptive writing. He suggested an exercise he developed for his undergraduate students:
Begin with a simple sentence such as, “I grew up in a small two-flat on the south side.” Then write the sentence over again with more detail to it: “I grew up in a small red-brick two-flat on 87th Street on the south side.” Follow it up with at least two more sentences, each one adding more detail than the previous one, so that the final sentence is the richest description of your childhood home.
What I didn’t realize when I gave the assignment was that this was not only an effective learning tool, it was actually a framework for creating interesting and moving pieces. The work I received a week later seemed unexpectedly to have progressed from student assignments to poems. Here’s one (all examples are presented with the writers’ permission):
I grew up in a small two-flat on the west side.
I grew up in a small two-flat on the west side near Humboldt Park.
I grew up with my aunt in a small, brown two-flat on Division Street on the west side near Humboldt Park.
I grew up with my aunt who was on drugs in a small, browngated two-flat on Division Street on the west side near Humboldt Park.
In a brief five weeks, there isn’t time to discuss how the selection of certain details—the rediscovery of them—can be used in subtle ways to uncover insights into the personal life of the author. But many of these students seem to gain an intuitive knowledge of it. In the response above, the writer moves from “I grew up with my aunt,” to “I grew up with my aunt who was on drugs.” The new information is delivered in the same flat, matter-of-fact tone used to describe the brown color of the gate. The reader may finish the sentence saying wait, what was that? When all five sentences are presented in sequence, the understated delivery combined with the momentum created by the repetition and the new details give the last sentence great strength, in just the same way a poem might develop into a surprising turn or revelation in its last line.
I grew up in a home in Pakistan.
I grew up in a warm home in Karachi, Pakistan.
I grew up in a warm, Muslim, family-oriented home near the ocean in beautiful Karachi, Pakistan.
I grew up with my three sisters and two brothers in a warm, Muslim, family-oriented home near the ocean where I could feel the soft breezes in beautiful Karachi, Pakistan.
Each sentence here progresses as an unfolding of additional information. The accumulation of details intensifies the emotion. By the last sentence, the overflowing of descriptive details enacts an overflowing affection and honesty about the author’s family and homeland. Again, the structure of the exercise heightens the impact. Beginning with the neutral “I grew up in a home in Pakistan” gives no indication of the emotionally laden descriptions to come. The intensity of memory, as the author slowly reveals his affection for his home, grows in each sentence.
I grew up in a three-level house with a basement in the outer beltway in Virginia.
I grew up with my father, mother, and sister in a middle class three-level house with a basement in the outer beltway in Virginia.
I grew up with my airfreight agent father, homemaker mother, and older sister in a middle class, three-level house with a basement on Gage Road in the outer beltway in a suburb in Alexandria, Virginia.
I grew up in the 1970s with my airfreight agent father, homemaker mother and older sister in a four-bedroom, middle class, three-level house with a basement on Gage Road in the outer beltway in a suburb in Alexandria, Virginia.
I grew up in the 1970s with my airfreight agent father, homemaker mother and older sister of my estranged family in a four-bedroom, middle class, three-level house with a basement on Gage Road with friends and childhood heroes in the outer beltway in a suburb near Pinewood Lake in Alexandria, Virginia, yet I grew up alone.
The ending statement “I grew up alone” and the adjective “estranged” earlier in the last sentence are the only variations to the reportorial approach of the rest of the piece; everything else is an objective observation. The list of all the people he grew up with makes “I grew up alone” a statement of the speaker’s internal, psychological state. The placement is a clue that this clever writer knew he was throwing a curve ball to the reader at the very end.
I grew up in a project in Alabama.
I grew up in a rough project in Auburn, Alabama.
I grew up in a rough project in Auburn, Alabama on the west side across the tracks from Auburn University and was shot on my front porch.
I grew up in a rough project in Auburn, Alabama on the west side across the tracks from Auburn University and, at sixteen, was shot on my front porch ending my football career.
Here’s another example of how the structure intensifies the impact of the information added in the third and fourth sentences. The repetition of details from one sentence to the next has an incantatory effect and when we get to “and was shot on my front porch,” that revelation is a jolt.
Knowing these students are incarcerated pressurizes their writing. The reader takes in not only the words but the author’s situation. One senses the loss and longing behind the words of someone who is denied access to any semblance of a normal life.
I invite my students to be open to surprise and discovery in their writing, to know that it can move in an unexpected direction. When that happens, they can follow it and see where it takes them.
As with any class, surprise can happen for the instructor as well. These assignments touched me in a way I didn’t expect. Not only was this an exercise to improve the students’ writing; the completed assignments have provided insight into the lives of these incarcerated men.