Prison inmates learn from writing coaches
JACKSON, Tenn. (BP) -- Tears came to Carolyn Tomlin's eyes as she opened a Christmas card from 50 inmates at the DeSoto Correctional Institution in Florida.
Each man had scrawled a message to Tomlin, using tiny print so everyone's note could fit on the card.
Tomlin met the inmates when she and Denise George, cofounders of Boot Camp for Christian Writers, spent two days at the prison last fall teaching them about writing and publishing magazine articles and books.
Tomlin was impressed at how appreciated and respected she felt among the inmates. She and George worked with a Prison Fellowship ministry that enables Christian inmates to take Bible classes, including Greek and Hebrew, in an 18-month program that leads to a certificate of completion. Many of the graduates subsequently become small-group Bible study leaders among their fellow inmates.
Chuck Colson formed Prison Fellowship, the world's largest prison ministry, to serve prisoners and their families. Colson, who died in April 2012, developed the prison ministry and became an influential evangelical leader after serving seven months in prison in 1974 for his involvement in the Watergate scandal.
By law, Florida prisoners may not profit from writing about their crimes, Tomlin said, but the prisoners at DeSoto have many other topics on which they can write.
"When you're in prison, your body cannot escape, but no one can control your mind," Tomlin said.
The prisoners may publish their writing in a newspaper within the prison and, for those without life sentences, use their writing skills after they are released, Tomlin said.
"When a person has been in prison, it's very difficult to get a job sometimes because of their records," she said. "You can make a living out of writing if you work at it."
Before Tomlin and George left, they gave each of the men in their writing seminars a copy of "Stories from the Manger: Dramatic Narratives on the Nativity," a book by Carolyn Tomlin's husband Matt. The book tells about the birth of Jesus from 13 perspectives, some drawn from people mentioned in the Gospels, others imagined.
The men in DeSoto prison often take books and turn them into theatrical productions, Carolyn Tomlin said. The inmates performed what Tomlin called a "tremendous" play from a story in the Bible while she and George were visiting there. Tomlin said she and George hope to return to the prison again and, when they do, perhaps see a play of a story or two from her husband's book.
Tomlin has taken the writing seminars around the world, most recently to Cuba. But the DeSoto Correctional Institution was the first time for Tomlin and George to work with convicted criminals. And it likely will not be the last. They would like to teach their seminars at women's prisons, as well, Tomlin said.
Past Christians leaders have left legacies of writing in prison, Tomlin said, noting German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer's writings from a prison cell and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Nobel Prize-winning literature based on his time in a Soviet Union forced labor camp.
"The apostle Paul -- look what he accomplished in prison," Tomlin said.
The women started writing years before they began their Boot Camp for Christian Writers ministry in 2009. Tomlin, of Jackson, Tenn., has written more than 4,000 articles in magazines and newspapers. George, of Birmingham, Ala., has published 25 books and more than 1,500 articles.
"So many people were talking to us about, 'How do you write? How do you publish?'" Tomlin said of the beginnings of their work as writing coaches. "We thought, you know, instead of just telling people here and there and everywhere, let's put a time together where we'll meet together -- about once every six weeks -- so we can bring people in and teach them."
Tomlin and George host up to eight writing boot camps each year at Union University in Jackson and Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Birmingham, two universities where they have close ties. Tomlin taught in Union's education department for many years; George teaches at Beeson and is married to the divinity school's founding dean, Timothy George.
The seminars focus on such topics as networking, identifying audiences, finding publishers and using the latest technology. Participants are from a multitude of backgrounds and age groups, Tomlin said. "Our oldest participant I think was 87 years old," she said. "Christians from all denominations participate."
Seminar attendees often keep in touch with Tomlin, George and each other, Tomlin said.
"We have become a family, and families pray for each other," Tomlin said. "This is what makes ours different from any place [of which] I've ever heard. It certainly has expanded my life. As we try to help other people, we're the ones who have been blessed."
Samantha Adams, a student at Union University, is a correspondent for the Baptist and Reflector (www.tnbaptist.org/BRNews.asp), newsjournal of the Tennessee Baptist Convention. To learn more about Boot Camp for Christian Writers and see what seminar attendees have published recently, visit christianwritersbootcamp.blogspot.com. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).