Every Friday evening a small group of inmates assembles in San Quentin’s H-Unit education room to practice and discuss writing techniques, guided by bestselling-authors Kent and Keith Zimmerman.
“One time I estimated and added up all the hours spent behind the walls of San Quentin; I figure I’ve done close to three weeks of time,” Kent Zimmerman quips.
H-Unit is much newer than the main prison and is neatly tucked away on the other side of San Quentin’s perimeter wall that towers overhead like a medieval fortress.
Compared to the main prison facility, which houses over 3,300 inmates, H-Unit is an attached small population compound, currently housing 380 inmates.
Here, inmates who choose to participate receive tips, pointers, and advice from the twin brother team of accomplished professional writers.
Each class session typically begins in an informal manner, with a lively mix of jests and quips, a few wisecracks, and other sidebar comments, as the men in the class gradually settle into their seats for the weekly forum.
Before long, however, an attentive focus takes over the room, prompted by Kent or Keith, who skillfully introduce a topic or noteworthy event and the class officially begins.
Unlike some classroom environments, the atmosphere is strikingly personal and down to earth, like a group of work colleagues gathered together at the lunch hour enjoying each other’s company.
“We urge the guys to write in their own voice,” says Kent Zimmerman. “That way it’s honest, and never intellectually distant.”
The Zimmerman brothers have been conducting their San Quentin creative writing class for more than 12 years.
They also conduct classes at the Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy, but San Quentin was their first class. The prisons are “as different as they are the same,” Kent says, “both environmentally and in how the classes evolve and are run; we like to cater to what each group expects and wants out of us.”
Asked how many published books they’ve written, Kent says, “Frankly I’ve lost count, although my brother (Keith) claims it’s 20 and I have no reason to doubt him.”
The Zimmerman brothers were introduced to San Quentin by a college professor friend from San Francisco State who told them “I taught at San Quentin for 11 years, and it was the best experience ever.”
|“The writing here is infinitely more interesting, edgy, and way more honest, not as ‘correct’”|
Students in the class love the experience too, as expressed by longtime participant Mike Little: “The class has definitely helped my writing. It has helped me to understand not to be embarrassed by your writing; just put pen to paper.”
New to the class and sharing his reaction to it, Nyerere Jase says, “It is a very informative and friendly atmosphere. I write urban fiction; the class may offer me some tips to enhance my writing.”
Although the Zimmermans do not have any urban fiction titles in their portfolio of writings, they do share an appreciation for grittiness. Speaking about writing from behind the walls, Kent says “The writing here is infinitely more interesting, edgy, and way more honest, not as ‘correct’.”
The Zimmermans, however, are by no means strangers to counterculture and other subjects that may raise eyebrows. Their book “Hell’s Angel,” co-authored with biker Sonny Barger, made The New York Times bestseller list. Their four follow-up books on the subject also made the list.
Other successful titles written by the Zimmermans include: “Huey: Spirit of the Panther,” written with David Hilliard,” a Chicago mob/outfit book, “Operation Family Secrets,” and books with Alice Cooper and Earth Wind & Fire.
Kent talks about his and his brother’s strong bent toward music and entertainment. “Our first book was with Johnny Rotten (of Sex Pistols fame), which made the London Times bestseller list. We did a signing in Piccadilly Square and for one week outsold Harry Potter.”
Inmate Mike Little confesses his interest in music as well. “I love music.” The Zimmerman brothers talk about “pop culture” and things going on. “The class kinda’ gives an outside perspective on things.”
Little is quick to add, “Also, there are no race lines in the class; you get to sit down with people that you normally wouldn’t, and hear people’s stories, and get different takes on things.”
Kent says that one of his and his brother’s favorite projects came in response to a “Funny where life takes you” idea, which led to their book titled “H-Unit,” about their experiences at San Quentin. “It celebrates the class and a general spirit of volunteerism, about how we ended up here, and why, and how.”
Reflecting on their more than 12-year experience at San Quentin, Kent declares that “the administration has been ultra supportive of all of our efforts.”
Additionally, he is eager to say that San Quentin provides him and his brother the human interaction needed after long and solitary periods of writing.
Kent says that he and his brother are currently working on projects with Kool and The Gang, and the Hooters restaurant franchise. “When pursuing work, as part of our pitch we tell prospective clients that we teach this class – it’s very important that they know the work that we do in the prison.” Furthermore, he adds, “I’m sure that our association with the prison has helped us get gigs.”
To students in the class, Kent’s major bit of advice about writing is: “Show, don’t tell! That’s the golden rule.” His saying is similar to the popular prison yard adage “Don’t talk about it; be about it.”
“It is my longstanding belief that there is power in the written word that transcends verbal communication. I appreciate the creative feedback from well-established published authors,” says regular class participant Elron Mings.