Writing Lessons: Jessica Pishko

In our Writing Lessons series, writers and writing students will discuss lessons learned, epiphanies about craft, and the challenges of studying writing. This week, we hear from Jessica Pishko, a composition teacher at San Francisco State University and at the Prison University Project at San Quentin State Prison. You can follow her on Twitter @jesspish—Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor

headshot2In order to get into San Quentin, I pass through two sets of gates, signing my name each time. The anxiety isn’t that you shouldn’t be there, but rather to ensure that you are permitted to leave.

Once I’m inside the gates and in the classroom, my students—all inmates serving time at San Quentin—are just my students. I don’t know why they are there, and I don’t want to. To me, they are their research interests, their questioning minds, and their individual journeys towards mastering the craft of writing.

But when I ask them to consider their audience, they seem momentarily confused. Picture someone else reading your work, I urge them. Tell me why a reader should care.

This is advice I give to all of my composition students. To these students, however, the idea of an outside audience signals something else entirely—the whole world outside the gates, a world into which they will eventually reenter.

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