Worlds Apart: Conflicts and Resolutions in Maps

The worlds that materialize from the swift pens and swifter minds of the students in the women’s creative writing class reach beyond the walls of Allegheny County Jail. This summer semester, the class’s theme was ‘maps.’ In one exercise, we provided copies of a map of fictional Winesburg, Ohio. We asked students who might live in the town, what they might do there, in which buildings they lived and worked. In the time I took to create a single family on my worksheet, our students had each named every resident, knew how they were related, what their jobs were, what kind of pets they had, and had created conflicts and resolutions for their characters to face.

Also included in the semester was a challenge to map their cells and write about how they are able to make a uniform space their own. These essays will now be submitted to a map-themed literary journal for consideration. But just the fact that they wrote essays isn’t what has blown me away. It’s the caliber of writing, the scope of creativity, and the honesty with which they write that has captured my admiration.

One student played with formatting, breaking her essay into sections based on each cell she resided in. Another took a prompt to discuss what the cell will look like in the future as an opportunity to explore a Pittsburgh in which aliens reside. The essays depict monotony, conversations with inanimate objects, longing, and even links between the cells and the country at large.

No student’s work is the same. Each paper reflects the personality of the student who wrote it, each voice as distinct on the page as in the classroom. A stereotype exists of what people in jail look like, what they act like. In the classroom, our students are able to be just that: students. In some ways, they are indistinguishable from students in any other classroom. Each student has their own strengths, their own interests. I have seen very few weaknesses. Over the course of the short summer semester, I have witnessed growth in curiosity, ability, and, perhaps most importantly, confidence. They should be proud of the work they have created. I know that I am proud of them.

Melanie DeStefano, Words Without Walls Teacher

Imaginary Places

               This summer I co-teach the women’s class at the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ). This is my first term teaching the women. I’m usually with the men on Thursday or Friday. My students have a keen interest in creating fictional worlds. Melanie, my co-teacher, and I gave the students a map of Winesburg, OH, an artist’s rendering of a made-up town from Sherwood Anderson’s short story cycle of the same name. We asked the students to tell us what’s happening beyond what they see on the map. Who lives in the houses? Who shops in the hardware stores? The students surpassed the exercise. They made up characters with ear-catching names like Canaan and Lil’ Canaan, connected the characters back stories to create elaborate family trees. Cousin Nina is fighting with Cousin Tina. One student described the physicality of her character: “She has a temper, and she’s 400 lbs.” In short, all of them had the seeds for fascinating short stories, or even novels, based on the characters they created.

               Before teaching the women’s class, other teachers had told me that the women were reserved and didn’t want to share much about themselves. And they didn’t want to write about themselves. I disagree. In writing, even when you aren’t overtly confessing or writing explicitly about your own life, who you are always finds its way to the page. For instance, in class, when I complimented a student for her descriptive 400 lb. character, she said, “Oh, that’s my daughter. My daughter is 400 lb., but she can dance and move it with the rest of ‘em.” Another student, Alicia, told me her characters were named after her actual family members. The women are putting themselves into the work. They are pulling from their own lives to create rich scenes and poetic lines. I know that, with me, every one of my poems may not be overt stories from my own life, but when I write about spirituality, it is my experiences and opinions that shape the work. As a person with a conflicted relationship with organized religion, I have a very different take than someone who has fit neatly into the Baptist church for their entire life. I’m looking forward to this week. The homework: draw a map of your cell and write about it. I’m interested to see what the women share, what they tell about the pain, laughs, boredom, and fear they’ve felt in this one small room. I’m excited as well to sit down, shut up, and listen.

--Cedric Rudolph, Words Without Walls Teacher

First Day at ACJ

It was Thursday at four in the afternoon and our first class at Allegheny County Jail. Mike and I sat waiting in our classroom. The inmates couldn’t be sent down until count had cleared, so we sat and twiddled our thumbs as an hour of class time slipped away. I paced and rubbed my hands together quickly. We had six classes, three hours each. Eighteen hours to impart something on these men. Now, already, one of those precious hours was gone.

Finally, they started to trickle in, coming down as their different pods were called. All of them shook my hand and introduced themselves. I could feel sweat bead at the base of my neck, this was one of my first experiences in charge of a classroom. Luckily, Mike was there with me. We worked well together, picking up where another left off or didn’t adequately respond, ending awkward silences. Despite my consternation, we got to do all our preliminary activities, explored a poem and an essay related to place, wrote, shared stories and talked about living in Pittsburgh.

What struck me most was how engaged all our students were. Every single one of them participated in discussion, read something aloud and/or asked questions. They all wanted to be there, they all wanted to learn. The quieter men intrigued me. David, covered in tattoos, who shared a beautiful memory of his mother but mostly remained silent and thoughtful. Damian, who stroked his beard next to me and asked intelligent, thoughtful questions. Brian, who came up to me at the end of class and said: “I never knew my perspective could change so much in so little time.” What Brian said was so wonderful to hear and so important to writing. Perspective. Learning about a new point of view or trying to take on a new perspective to make your writing better. Putting your own situation in perspective. Exploring what the future could hold.

Hopefully, I can help my students explore new perspectives. They’re already helping me.

-Elia Hohauser-Thatcher, Words Without Walls Teacher

Maenad Reading and Fundraiser

Our Maenad reading and fundraiser was a huge success!  We'd like to extend our gratitude to everyone who contributed through donations, and the Angel donors who purchased tickets for others to attend. Our Maenad fellows read their work to a packed house, and we witnessed the power of true community in action.

We were honored to have guest readers Tony Norman, Damon Young, and Davon Magwood read three pieces of work from our students at SCI Pittsburgh.  Colorful broadsides of work from the Maenads and our SCI students were on display and available for purchase.  Our readers stood in front of artwork by Lindsey Peck, and photography from Mark Perrot and Teake Zuidema.  

What a great way to end the first year of our Maenad Fellowship.  We look forward to continuing our efforts to build a supportive community for writers facing addiction and incarceration. 

Write on!

Tony Norman reads work from one of our students at SCI Pittsburgh

Tony Norman reads work from one of our students at SCI Pittsburgh

Damon Young reads another short essay from our SCI class  

Damon Young reads another short essay from our SCI class


Thanks to all of our Angel donors

Thanks to all of our Angel donors

Way of the Master

Confucius. The 6th Century philosopher and teacher isn’t a hot topic for twenty-somethings nowadays. But for Steve, a twenty-something student in my Words Without Walls class at Allegheny County Jail, Confucius is important. He’s brought up Confucius every class. I hate to admit that even though he’s asked me to bring in Confucius quotes, I’ve forgotten for the past two classes. So when he asks again today, totally off topic from the Jamaica Kincaid story we’re reading, out of curiosity or frustration, I ask, “I don’t have any quotes today, but do you have a favorite quote you could recite for us?” Steve responds with his signature smirk, pauses, then says, “It’s something like ‘When one rules by the means of virtue he is like the North Star. All other stars pay homage to him.” That quote is awesome, of course. And I tell him and ask him to tell us what he thinks it means. It means wisdom is important, he says, and there are lots more where that came from.

Steve’s rep proceeds him. When I finally type up a page of Confucius quotes and bring them to class, he’s being held up on his pod for a minor infraction. The other students don’t seem surprised that he’s gotten himself in trouble. “Typical Steve” seems to be the look on the other students’ faces. But there’s nothing typical about Steve. There’s nothing “typical” about any of the men in my class. One minute they’re remembering hard theft from their past, the next they’re spinning metaphors and telling me, “Don’t just say my poem is good. What do I need to fix?” But none of us are typical, for that matter. I defy people’s expectations all the time. Being Black and Southern are just two descriptors that people use to turn me into a stereotype.

I research Confucius. He was a man who dedicated his life to learning, to teaching others various arts. Archery to music. Confucius also held poetry in high regard. Steve darkens his notebook with ink, responding immediately to any prompt my teaching partner, Mike, and I give him. Student and teacher alike can only get better by practice. If Steve lived in 6th Century China, Confucius would have gladly taken him in, teaching him the virtuous ways but also laughing along with Steve’s perfectly timed jokes.

--Cedric Rudolph, Words Without Walls Teacher