On a warm, sunny Saturday in November, more than 60 guests from outside the prison traversed the lower yard – past a football game, a basketball game and men doing pushups and stretches – to the ARC building to attend the ninth annual “Brothers in Pen” public reading.
This event, introduced by creative writing instructor Zoe Mullery and with JulianGlenn “Luke” Padgett serving ably as master of ceremonies, featured short readings of fiction or memoir (or some combination of the two) from 19 gifted writers.
Intelligent, insightful and intimate, some of the stories were nostalgic, some autobiographical, some pure fantasy. Writing styles ran the gamut from humorous to gritty, raw and edgy, tender and sensitive, light and dark, creative and entertaining … each touching on personal truth in a wide variety of ways.
The readings began with Arnulfo T. Garcia’s “The Counselor,” an excerpt from the first chapter of his memoir – written for his daughter so that she could understand who her father is – and concluded with Michael Zell’s “Wisdom Exhortation,” a story about the mystery of finding wisdom in a place where it is difficult to know how to share it.
Each piece segued seamlessly, one to another. Listening to this collective of talented writers, the audience was reminded that they are far more than incarcerated “men in blue.” They are also fathers, sons, husbands, lovers, friends, brothers, former businessmen and students. The writer Ella Turenne wrote in a Huffington Post article about a previous Brothers in Pen reading: “In each of these stories lay the foundation of humanity. In word, inflection and intention was the truth: everyone has a story. One story is no better than the other, but collectively, they make up life as we know it.” (huffingtonpost.com/ella-turenne/brothers-in-pen_b_1002433.html)
Ron Koehler’s “Letter’s End, Heart’s Beginning” is a sweet and tender memory of his toddler son’s embodiment of innocence. “There were birds he attracted, too, his spirit pulling them right out of the sky, a baby-blue boy heaven above the Penn State Campus, blue birds with proud chests and courageously continuous songs of flying delight. Sky droplets of God’s joy.” The love permeating the story aches from the first sentence: “My son’s letters stopped coming, but my heart remembered.”
Wayne Boatwright’s “500 Lbs of Happiness” is a tale of how a child’s small gesture produced a quarter ton of happiness for two incarcerated men. The story brought a smile to everyone’s face.
Emile DeWeaver’s “Crumbling Brick Dreams” was reminiscent of O’Henry’s style of short story writing, using wit, wordplay, warm characterization and a clever ending.
Rahsaan Thomas’s “Institutionalized” pulled the listener in from the get-go, with a driving pace and musical rhythm to his phrasing to give form to the meaning of his tale.
Eric Curtis’ “Not So Ugly Anymore” is a story where the “bullied” comes to the rescue of the “bullier.”
Kenneth Brydon, who read a story entitled “Mad World,” was recently published in an anthology titled “Prison Noir,” edited by Joyce Carol Oates.
The readings were followed by a brief Q&A period revealing deeper insights. When asked: “Writing is hard work. What helps?” some responses were:
“I love writing. Writing is its own reward.”
“Writing is like breathing.”
“It’s freedom. It’s how I share my inner world, through imagery.”
“It helps me to untangle my thoughts to gain deeper self perception.”
“Writing serves as therapy.”
And a facetious single word: “Lockdowns.”
When asked by a woman who was struggling with confidence in her own work: “What makes you think that you have the right to share your stories?” the men responded in persuasive fashion:
“Every human being has a right to tell their own story.”
“It’s a fundamental human trait to share through storytelling. To NOT do so is to deny your humanity and identity.”
“To create is an essential gift of freedom!”
One of the guests was asked what she liked best about the event. She replied, “Hearing the men read their own story lends a vastly different experience for me than reading their stories myself. It reveals a whole other dimension since their emotions and unique individual personalities came through.”
The Brothers in Pen class is a place where the men find their voices to work through their struggles to cope while serving their terms and find an essential sense of dignity, acknowledgment and empowerment through personal creative expression.
A blog at brothersinpen.wordpress.com has information about the anthologies and occasional updates about the class.
The class is sponsored by the William James Association’s Prison Arts Project (williamjamesassociation.org ). Heartfelt thanks were communicated to Community Partnership Manager Steve Emrick, San Quentin’s Public Information Officer Lt. Samuel Robinson, Executive Director of the William James Association Laurie Brooks, as well as Carol Newborg, Cory Georgeson, Peter Merts (photographer who has been documenting Prison Arts Projects events for years) and Walkenhorst (represented by Natalie Tovar) for providing snacks for all. The late Jeffrey Little, a former member of the class who died shortly after paroling last year, was honored and remembered.
Zoe Mullery began the day by quoting celebrated short story writer Tobias Wolff, who visited the “Brothers in Pen” creative writing class several years ago, from his foreword to one of the anthologies: “We are story-telling animals … It’s how we organize the past, and try to make sense of it – to see the patterns our actions and inactions create, to see how those patterns break or repeat themselves. Stories are the embodiment of those patterns, and in them – even in the stories of others – we can begin to recognize ourselves.”