Going Behind The Fence – Year Two

In 2016, I went up to the Lane Murray Unit every week to facilitate Truth Be Told (TBT)’s Talk To Me Writing curriculum. Why? Well, full disclosure, I was drafting a novel about a young woman who goes to prison for thirty years and I thought doing service work with TBT would be a great way to do research. It was, but little did I know that I would fall in love (read: build unforgettable relationships) with the these women. When December came, the women couldn’t believe that Carol Waid would move on to other classes and that we would leave them. One of the women looked at me and said, “What are you going to do?” I didn’t know. Like them, I felt bereft but I also knew that I couldn’t maintain a weekly eight hour commitment. Someone said, “What about a monthly, on going, support group?” They looked at me, “Could you lead it?”

A few weeks later, the warden okays our monthly class, and we call it Pay It Forward. Over the coming year, the women and I develop the class. It becomes one part support group, one part teaching, and a whole lot of exploring what works. No matter what we do, we follow TBT’s principles of community building, communication skills, creativity and self-care.


I went behind the fence last night to start our monthly class. In answer to the question: What does ‘pay it forward’ mean to you? One woman said, “What I put in my life gets reflected out.” And then we talked about kindness. How to give and receive kindness. We agree to think about kindness for the month: to observe kindness in themselves and others and notice when they give and receive acts of kindness even if it’s as small as smiling or holding a door or letting something go when you might have reacted. Yeah, paying attention to kindness this month. (January)

Next month, one of the women said, “You know, kindness in here can get you a case. When we do something nice for someone else. Like give them a bar of soap, it’s called “Trafficking and Trading. We aren’t supposed to give what we have to anyone else.” Another woman chimed in, “I think it’s human nature to want to be compassionate. But in here, we have to stop ourselves. We have to work against our nature. When we get out, it’s hard to be compassionate again. It’s like we have to fight to get ourselves back.”  (February)

A lot of women in the class are seeing parole right now. Seeing parole means an inmate meets with a parole secretary for an interview. That secretary makes a recommendation to the parole board. A few weeks later, the inmate hears if they’ve made parole or gotten set off for another year or more. One woman in our group received parole and will be out in December after serving fifteen years of her eighteen year sentence. There are many restrictions and stipulations to her release. Some of them are hard and made her angry. She was having trouble focusing on the good thing that just happened until one woman leaned forward and said, “You have no idea of the blessings and gifts ahead of you. Yeah, it’s gonna be hard. But there will be blessings ahead. You need to remember that or you’re gonna miss them.”  The student becomes the teacher. (April)

Over the past month there have been more than a few deaths at Lane Murray. One woman had a seizure and died in her bed. Three women committed suicide. One woman attempted suicide. Each death hits the women hard. As soon as our circle forms, they begin to talk: “When you first come in here, people outside write and visit but after a while they stop and it feels like you’re forgotten. It’s hard. You want to give up.” “We try to take care of ourselves. We try to stay well. But when you have something wrong, the nurses act like you’re a burden.” “It’s scary when you need medicine because you don’t know if you’re going to get it and you don’t know if they will adjust the dosage if you need it.” “It feels like it’s too much trouble to care about us.” (May)

The leader of this week’s class asked us to think about what kind of animal we’d like to be and why. Here are some of the women’s answers. “An eagle because they are freedom;” “A Red Bird because they are supposed to be lucky and I could use a little luck;” “A lemur because this place is a jungle;” “A monkey because I like to play;” “A chameleon because they blend in and no one bothers them;” “A skunk because everyone is respectful of them and keeps their distance.” (September)

This week’s class is led by a woman who is serving a 90 year sentence. She won’t see her first parole hearing until 2031. She is 52. Her homework for us this month was to think about “Why are you thankful?” Not: what are you thankful for but why. She wrote a long speech. This is how it began: To be thankful is power. (November)

Okay, so you’ve got to get this: The warden gives us permission to bring in Pizza Hut pizzas and chocolate chip cookies for an end of the year celebration. We forego the usual opening meditation and dig into the mini celebration of having food from the free world behind the fence.The women are talking about their Christmas, secret Santas, presents of gumbo packets made from commissary food (Yeah, that’s a post for another time) and what the women want to do in the next year of classes. It was so normal, you know? Just a bunch of women sitting around talking. I ask who would like to be the leader of the January class and the hand of one of the shyer women shot up. We were all a little surprised but it seemed like a little gift, right? We’re all smiling. So I ask her, “What’s our homework for the month?” Without hesitation (like she’s been waiting all month), she says, ‘If you could write a letter to your younger self, what would you say?” Without missing a beat, another woman says, “Don’t pull the damn trigger.” We all fall on the floor, laughing. (December)

And what did I learn from this year of leading Pay It Forward? That Paying it Forward is about service. And real service is about showing up no matter what. At some point during the year, I realized that my vision for Pay It Forward is that I never want to see these women’s faces again. Strange, yes? My vision for this class is to never see their faces behind the fence again.

Writing In Mosaic: Evolution and Creation

This summer I stood before Jack Whitten’s beautiful mosaic “paintings,” and thought, “This is how I write. Bit by bit, scene by scene until they form a beautiful whole.” A few weeks later, I led a six-week class using the mosaic method to test the premise.

Join me on Saturday, January 25 in the home of Kerry Tate, where I am offering a six-hour workshop from 10 am to 4 pm.

Jack Whitten said, “Evolution is the symbol I am trying to capture. That’s why each work is so different, it is still in the act of evolving.” That idea is the inspirational force behind this workshop. Writing is an evolutionary process.

Each writer will send me their big topic/idea by January 18. I will create a series of 20-24 individualized prompts for each writer’s big subject. (I may interview you so my prompts can be more targeted and fruitful.) On January 25th we will gather and write, write, write. Each writer will have their own personalized set of prompts. Each prompt will be timed. By the day’s end, you will have created twenty to twenty four pieces of your big subject. Each will, I hope, catch the different light and weight of the piece you are creating whether you are writing fiction, memoir, poetry or non-fiction.

Cost is $125. Lunch, snacks and drinks will be provided. Please bring your own writing tools. The class size is limited. If you have any questions, please email or message!

To learn more about Jack Whitten check out this video: https://art21.org/watch/extended-play/jack-whitten-an-artists-life-short/

Going Behind The Fence-Year One

In January 2016, I started volunteering with Truth Be Told to learn to be a facilitator in a women’s prison. Every week, I drove two hours with Carol Waid to Gatesville to the Lane Murray Unit where we led an amazing group of women in a series of classes: Talk To Me Writing, Discovery and Living Deeper and Freer. It was a beautiful progression. First, they told the stories of what led to incarceration in Talk To Me. Then they wrote about the women they want to become in the Discovery. Finally,  they learned how to source their own wisdom every day through Living Deeper and Freer. Throughout that year, I kept a kind of journal of quotes and perceptions. Here are a few of them.

“I’m 49. I’ve been in and out of prison since I was fifteen. I want to be in this program because someday I’m going to get out and I know people will judge me for being in here. I want to be able to tell my story without feeling bad, you know, ashamed.” January 28, 2016

“When I was little, my daddy beat me a lot. If I cried, he beat me harder. At my trial, everyone said I showed no remorse. I didn’t know how. I didn’t know how.” February 4, 2016

If you were facing your first lockdown, what would you imagine? Shackles? Chains? One inmate, after living through her first one, came to class so elated to find it wasn’t as bad as she imagined. She spent the two weeks reading her bible, finding solace in those pages and thinking about the goodness of humanity. Her conclusion after her two week study? “God Don’t Make No Junk.” April 8, 2016

“There are two ways for me to look at the time I’m in prison: One is all the time I’m here is a big waste and I have to wait around ’til I get out before I can live again. The other is God set me down here because before I got here, I couldn’t go nowhere without a half gallon of vodka in the back of my car. God set me down here before I killed someone so that I could use this time to be a better person before I go out in the world again.” April 22, 2016

Today we did a guided meditation with the women to get them in touch with their inner, wiser selves. Then they wrote letters from these wiser selves to their younger selves. Afterwards, one woman shared, “If I had been able to hear this wiser me just once, if I’d known she was inside me, I wouldn’t be here.” April  28, 2016

“Last night was a night of deep talking.  One woman said, “I’ve lived among people a long time. Fifteen years in prison. This is the first time I’ve felt community. This is the first time I’ve understood community.” August 12, 2016

“My youngest was three years old when I got put in here. He’s 20 now. He came to see me for the first time last month and promised that he would come see me again. And he did. Last week. God has me. He knows right where I am. I have to keep trusting. Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” August 28, 2016

At the beginning of class, we ask this question: What are you present to? It helps everyone get centered. “I am present to how I have changed. I had the shell of an armadillo when I first came to this class. I hated everyone. My mother gave me away to my grandmother when I was six weeks old and I was abused all the time by my uncles. I dropped out of school in the 8th grade. Since I’ve been in here, I got my GED, my Associates Degree and now I’m taking university classes from Texas A&M. I feel excited about my life. My heart has softened so much. I may never get out of here but I’m going to make something of myself.” December 1, 2016

This week was graduation. We only knew the titles of their pieces. We did not know what they would say. One by one by one, they stood tall and shared themselves with the audience. What was amazing to me was how they talked about their crimes. They owned them as something they had done; not who they are. They weren’t ashamed. Regretful, yes. But not ashamed. And because shame didn’t hang on them, their intelligence, their hearts, their innate beauty shined in a way I hadn’t ever seen. In an environment which can often cruel and mean, they stood tall in their worthiness. On my knees. Grateful. Awed.   December 10, 2016

And that was just the first year…To be continued…


November Book Launches-Austin

Hey There Friends,

I’m reorienting my social media presence (less FaceBook), and, once a month on my blog, I will post about all the book launches in my community of book writing pals. Yes, there are a lot more book launches in the bookish town of Austin but I am noting the ones of people I know and love.

So here they are:

On Saturday, November 2 at 2pm, at the Lark & Owl Booksellers in Georgetown, PJ Hoover is launching her newest book Hidden Code. PJ is a fabulous storyteller and writes these middle grade adventure novels that kids seem to gobble up.

On Sunday, November 3 at 2pm, at BookPeople in the heart of Austin, Cate Berry is launching her hilarious counting picture book, Chicken Break. This book makes me want to have babies all over again. Well sorta.

And because I love this video of Chicken Break, I’m sharing it here:

Okay, friends, keep reading and have fun.


Co-Teaching at the Amazing Highlights Foundation

On October 24-26, I get to do three very special things. 1) Teach at Highlights. 2) With my mentor, friend, colleague Kathi Appelt. 3) And meet Sona Charaipotra who will be teaching with us.

If you have never been to Highlights, hie thee hither. This is a magic place to commune with words and writers. It is beautiful. It is quiet. It serves yummy food and the accommodations are so sweet.

Kathi Appelt is an extraordinary human, writer, teacher, poet. It has been my privilege to know her for many years and I love her intelligent compassionate heart and how she brings all of it to the page whether it is hers or yours.

Sona Charaipotra…I am so looking forward to meeting Sona and coming to know how she teaches and thinks and writes.

What, you ask, are we teaching? Unlocking the form and genre of your story. And what is that? Well, please eavesdrop on this conversation between Kathi and me as we talk about the creation of this class. And then join us. It will be a wonderful weekend. There are only two slots left!

Highlights Foundation Campus

L2: Kathi, what would we say is the idea behind this workshop?

KA: First off, we wanted to do something that would be valuable for any writer in any genre.  So, when the notion of  “any genre” entered into the conversation, we realized that there were plenty of things to talk about—character, structure, voice, etc.  However, in general, those topics are widely covered.  But what about form?

I first studied form as a graduate student when I picked up a copy of Susanne Langer’s book, Feeling and Form. That was where I began to think of the form of a story as a kind of “cup” that holds the content.  Sort of like a frame, but more like a container. The shape of the container, the way it falls out on the page, all of that impacts the story itself.  But it also does something a little more mysterious: if the story is in the correct form, it actually gives rise to feeling/emotions. The form, in other words, serves as a subtext.  So, for me, I wanted to invite participants to take a story and actually try it out in different forms–poetry, short story, script, etc.–to see what happens.

Thinking about form naturally led to consideration of genres–picture books, young adult, middle grade, nonfiction–to study the ways that the content impacts the form.

So, what we’ll be doing then is looking at (1) the ways that form gives rise to feeling, and (2) the ways that content informs the structure.

I know it sounds a bit abstract, and at a certain level it will be.  But on another level it’s all about experimentation, and looking below the surface of the story itself, while at the same time recognizing that the surface is part of the story too.

It’s going to be very cool.

KA: So now my question to you. Fortunately you—master of the short story, writer of plays, essays, articles, television/film scripts, and brilliant teacher—agreed to co-lead with me. Because of your own experience in writing across genres and forms, what are your hopes and goals for the workshop?

LL: My hope for the workshop is for participants to take a manuscript or even a section of a manuscript, one that is rebuffing their efforts to go deeper, and crack open that stuck place so the story can pulse again.

I know we’ve both had the experience when we are starting a story that it could go in a zillion different directions. It feels wild and exciting. With each word, choice and page, the story starts to set. Sometimes, it loses its juice. The story becomes one thing after another. How do we look at that story and allow ourselves permission to shake it up, turn it upside and find a form that supports the energy of the story?

It is a marvelous time for storytelling right now. I feel like we are in a golden age of rule breaking and genre bending. And I think readers are terrifically sophisticated. I would love for writers in this workshop to bring a draft of a story or an idea of a story and walk away with a big permission slip to tell that story in a form that gives the writer and the story more vitality and energy.

Back to you, my dear friend, how are we going to accomplish that not very small feat? What kinds of cracking tools will we use to assist these dear writers in finding the form that supports and breathes life into their stories?

KA:  One of the most important cracking tools (I love that image, by the way) is taking a good look at some excellent work by our peers.  Some titles that I hope we can discuss, and that we recommend workshoppers consider before they arrive are:

WHAT I LEAVE BEHIND, by Alison McGhee.

LONG WAY DOWN, by Jason Reynolds

BROWN GIRL DREAMING, by Jacquelyn Woodson

COUNTDOWN and REVOLUTION, by Deborah Wiles


SHOUT, by Laurie Halse Anderson


JUMPED, by Rita Williams Garcia

Of course, everyone should read EVIDENCE OF THINGS NOT SEEN, by Lindsey!

I realize, looking at that list that those are all largely YA titles—a mix of fiction and nonfiction, written in prose, poetry, graphics.  Do you have titles for the younger set that you recommend?  I’m thinking a series, like Debbie Michiko Florence’s “Jasmine Toguchi” would be fun to consider.  What else, oh sage of Story?  What else?

LL: I think some of the best crackers are George Saunders for short story (“Tenth of December” and “Victory Lap”) and Kari Anne Holt for middle grade (RHYME SCHEMER). And let’s not forget the “Baby Mouse” books by Jennifer and Matthew Holmes for graphic novels.  I also think reading poetry and examining scene work in television and film can fire the imagination and serve the writer to think outside conventional form and push us to look at what form will serve the story and bring that subtext alive.

Because this is a weekend workshop, I’d love to ask our participants to do focused readings, which we can dig into together at Highlights. But I would also like to provide the time and space for them to crack open their own work and share it. Not just once. But two or three times so they can get a sense of how changing form might serve their story. What do you think?

KA:  Yes! We’ll do some close reading, some re-rendering, and some fun experimentation, so that when all of us leave, we’ll have some new ways of looking at our stories.  We will have done some cracking!

I love it. So I hope that all of our participants will get their hands on at least some of the above-mentioned titles, gather up some of their own works-in-progress, or at least an idea that they want to explore, and then we’ll all “jump write in.”

Any final words?

LL: Only this…So, my eavesdropping friends, join us. Bring us your stuck, your weary, your hard-worn pages and let’s rediscover the pulse that drew you to the page. Let’s crack your manuscript open, put it in different forms and see what happens. See you on October 24.