Teaching Creative Writing in Prison

Maidy Clark lectures for The Open University and the University of Winchester in creative writing and creative non-fiction, and has taught creative writing in HMP Winchester, HMP Kingston and HMP Birmingham. The View From Here's Shanta Everington talks to her about her work and research teaching creative writing in prison. 

Hello Maidy and welcome to The View from Here. Can you tell me a bit about your background and how you became involved in teaching creative writing in prison?

I was working as a hypnotherapist and psychotherapist when I decided to do an MA in Creative Writing in Personal Development with the University of Sussex. Initially, I thought I would integrate the tool of creative writing into my practice as a therapist but along the way, I decided on a career change into teaching. During the MA, I read about creative writing work in prisons. After completing the MA, I was teaching literacy and numeracy to offenders on community service, I then sent my CV to the local prison, detailing my experience and interest in teaching creative autobiography. I was invited to interview almost immediately and started straight away.

What do you think the main benefits are for the prisoners engaged in creative writing?

The main benefit is giving prisoners a voice to express themselves, teaching them to have a voice. It can be very powerful and self therapeutic. One prison student said about creative writing, 'It helps me to stop and think first so I can use my thoughts before I hit out.' So the benefits are far wider than anything one would traditionally associate with a writing class.

Have you been surprised by any of your prison students' writing?

Many times. Prison students have written the most fabulous things. One of the guys who had never written poetry before wrote an amazing poem about the MP expenses scandal, entitled Criminister. It was something a lot of them felt strongly about, especially those who were sentenced for theft. He also wrote an outstanding trilogy about the life of a daffodil. His poems became published but it isn't just publishable work that excites me. Autobiographical prison writing often has a rawness about it, an honesty which can result in some incredible writing. That can quickly get lost when people start worrying about whether their writing is publishable.

I'm guessing you have to be quite creative yourself in terms of finding ways to engage with some prisoners. What sort of techniques do you use?

Some of the prisoners had no idea what creative writing was. One thought it was calligraphy! Many of them had negative prior experiences of education. As soon as they arrive in the classroom, I tell them not to worry about spelling or grammar, just get the words down on paper. I focus on making things fun and gently encouraging them to read their work out. We started with writing simple instructions, such as how to make beans on toast. They would then read out their instructions and respond to one another about how they might have done it differently, for example, by adding sauce. By the end of the first three sessions, everyone had read something out. Another way to encourage feedback in a non-threatening way is to develop a basic questionnaire for prisoners to give to others for feedback. It puts them in control, which is important.

Tell me a bit about the research you are doing?

After my MA, I decided that I wanted to research the benefits of creative autobiography to prisoners. I was in a very fortunate position to get a job teaching creative writing in a prison so soon after my MA. Once my job was secure, I approached the Education Manager about my research plans and he was very supportive. I registered as a part-time PhD student with The University of Winchester in 2009. My proposal was accepted as a dual discipline PhD, jointly supervised by the Head of Creative writing and a Professor of Social Sciences. The research involved a mixed methodology of quantitative and qualitative research: questionnaires, personal narratives, participant observation and naturally occurring data, such as quotes from prison students. I have finished gathering my data now and am in the process of writing up my 75,000 word thesis, which I hope to finish in November 2013.

Has the experience influenced your own writing practice at all?

I've always believed strongly in the power of creative autobiography; I've always kept a journal and written morning pages. For my research, I kept a journal about my prison work. I am also writing a novel about a murderer and feel I have the confidence to write authentically about life in prison.

What advice would you give to other writers who are considering teaching in prisons?

Visit a prison first. It is a very different environment to the outside. You can't do the same things in prison as you can do in other writing classes. For example, for writing workshops outside prisons, I sometimes take in sweets when we are working on using the senses. You can't take things like that into prison; you can't say go for a walk and write about it. You need to understand the environment and the atmosphere; it can be a stressful place to teach, very oppressive. I started out with an idealistic point of view but became quite cynical.

How can interested writers find out more?

You can contact the Writers in Prisons Network, which puts writers and creative artists into prisons to deliver creative writing, drama, video, music, oral storytelling, journalism, creative reading and publishing programmes. Visit www.writersinprisonnetwork.org
If you are interested in the wider therapeutic benefits of creative writing, you can also contact Lapidus, an organisation promoting creative writing for health and wellbeing. Visit www.lapidus.org.uk

Thank you, Maidy, and all the best with completing your research.

Top picture: A prison student's evaluation form.

1 comment:

Fellow writing teacher said...

Thank you for sharing your experience! I am considering teaching in a local jail and I found your story inspiring. It's great to hear some emphasis on the positive and the benefits to you as a teacher rather than so much hounding on the tough parts! Hats off to you for your persistence!