Writing Lessons: Jessica Pishko

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Prison bars

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.

While my other students labor inside and outside the classroom, balancing jobs with reading and revising, these students work under different conditions. Their every move is circumscribed. They are forbidden access to sugar packets. They can’t even conduct their own research; the program where I teach has volunteers who pull relevant articles for the students. At the same time, they struggle with the things every writing teacher sees: moving beyond the thicket of writer-centered prose, making sense of the idea of feedback, trying to revise.

Most of my students have been incarcerated for some time, and the inside of the prison is dreadfully familiar. They mostly submit handwritten essays on loose-leaf paper, carefully skipping every other line. It’s their only copy. In my other composition classes, I talk to my students about digital publishing and how the changing face of written communication alters the meaning of audience and discourse. At San Quentin, one of my students asked me to describe the internet because he had never seen it before.

Yet, imagining an audience outside the prison walls is all the more important for my San Quentin students. Most of them don’t envision coming back once they are released, even though the California Department of Corrections estimates that over 60% of adults previously incarcerated for a felony conviction return to prison within three years. Part of the problem can be attributed to a lack of social resources: individuals with a felony conviction can’t obtain credit, have trouble renting a home, and can be denied employment. They are stripped of the right to vote, at least until their parole is over.

Everywhere they turn, my students may be told that their voice doesn’t matter, that it isn’t valuable. But that simply isn’t true. By pointing out to them that an audience is listening, I help them see that they do matter, that what they say has an impact on the community outside of the gates.

Writing, for them, is freedom.

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