Help me get my Pfeiffer on?
October 17, 2012 8:48 PM   Subscribe

What short stories and essays and what methods could I use in mentoring incarcerated youth who would like to improve their writing?

I volunteer one-on-one with a teenage incarcerated male and his goal for the end of the 10-week program is to improve his writing w/r/t essays and short stories. I'm a strong writer but that's more intuitive for me, so I'm not really sure how to teach it. I'm currently reading through Beat Not the Poor Desk and mining my former English teachers for ideas.

In order to teach him how to write short stories and essays, I wanted to show him examples of good writing but he seems to be a reluctant reader so what I like and what he likes may differ. He says from what he's read before that he likes what he describes as "hood books" but would be willing to branch into other types of books. He's also interested in chemistry, physics and math--admittedly not my areas of expertise. Suggestions for short literature that resonates strongly with young men are highly appreciated.

We have a one-hour block of time each week to work together so I'd also appreciate ideas for exercises to be completed during that time and exercises to be completed by himself throughout the week. He's very against the idea of writing poetry and other "touchy-feely things" and is also adamantly against free-writing journals.
posted by apophenia to Education (19 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Would short stories by Junot Diaz be appropriate?
posted by availablelight at 8:54 PM on October 17, 2012

Thanks for reminding me, availablelight!

The screening rules for materials to be brought in are quite strict, and nudity, violence or profanity in literature are not permitted, although the program coordinator told me that she generally trusts the judgement of the mentors and will only briefly skim potential material. I loved Oscar Wao but I have yet to read Drown or This Is How You Lose Her so I don't know what, if any, of his stories are appropriate. I will definitely look into it though.
posted by apophenia at 9:01 PM on October 17, 2012

The Pugilist at Rest by Thom Jones

Longitude by Dava Sobel, a cool science novella on the history of determining longitude

Street Soldier by Joseph Marshall

Cathedral by Raymond Carver
posted by shoesietart at 9:02 PM on October 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

How about The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More by Roald Dahl?

Seconding Raymond Carver.
posted by lakersfan1222 at 9:04 PM on October 17, 2012

There are more than a few short stories in Junot Diaz's This is How You Lose Her that might appeal to him, especially if you talk to him about how Diaz grew up.

Is The Outsiders out of the question?

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian might be interesting. Not exactly hood-rat stuff but there are similar chords.

These are all stories told by smarter-than-their-surroundings boys struggling to survive and grow in an environment that seems to be designed to beat them down. There is minor violence in some of these, but it's dealt with in an intellectual or personal way; it's not gratuitous and it makes you question its presence.

Also, being against "writing poetry" doesn't mean he's against rhyming, singing, rapping. Rapping is a valid, masculine expression of feeling. Nothing wrong with pouring your writing into verbal song and then putting it down on paper. You don't have to relate it to poetry, per se. It's just rhyming and expression. If he's into stuff like math and chemistry, maybe play him some goofy stuff like MC Chris?
posted by erst at 9:41 PM on October 17, 2012

What about "In a Grove"? It's very short, and on its face its about the failure of eyewitnesses to a crime to correctly see it, and the complicated motivations of the three parties to the crime. On deeper examination its about worldly priests, greedy samurai, skilled highwaymen, savvy virgins, and nothing in the world being quite as it ought to be.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:44 PM on October 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Longer then are looking for as a whole, but how about a few chapters from You Can't Win.
posted by St. Sorryass at 9:54 PM on October 17, 2012

Since he's motivated to improve his writing but he's not very interested in reading new-to-him material, I wonder if you'd get farther with:

1. Reading and analyzing the kind of writing that you already know he likes. If he likes hood books (which are, by the way, the subject of some academic interest), then ask him for some good examples and read them with him. Give him some analytical tools for breaking down what he likes about the books, how they engage a reader's imagination, how they use language to paint a scene, etc.

2. Writing drills. If he's not into freewriting, maybe he'd find structured exercises more productive. I've never taught creative writing, so I don't know good drills offhand, but I imagine you could work on things like describing a scene using all five senses, or writing three alternate endings for a story he's written, that kind of thing—where you might not use the results of the exercise directly in the finished story or essay, but you exercise different abilities and give him more control over his writing.
posted by Orinda at 9:56 PM on October 17, 2012

What is his current writing level?

I'm a strong writer, but I tend to over-think things, and I would get caught-up in producing essays in high school. I first started to see success when a history teacher finally pounded the 5-paragraph essay into my head (link chosen because it was the first hit in Google that summarized this concept well). This template is a "good enough" baseline to do very well for most high school writing assignments, using the least amount of time. It's perfect for in-class essays, and for essays that you have procrastinated on for far too long.

I'm now a professional working in communications, and I receive very positive feedback on my writing for its creative and consistent quality. However, for high school, I credit my passing grades to this super-simple 5-paragraph formula. If he doesn't already have this down, I highly suggest you use the short stories as inspiration, and then help him craft 5-paragraph essays (or essay outlines) as the response / homework / writing product.
posted by samthemander at 10:50 PM on October 17, 2012

Oh, and for science-y material, consider photocopying a chapter or two from some of Mary Roach's books (I'm thinking of Stiff or Packing for Mars).

For the more literary end, PLEASE consider going to your local library and looking for copies of Cicada. It's awesome. I loved it when I was teen.
posted by samthemander at 11:01 PM on October 17, 2012

The Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner would be an obvious recommendation. It is a short story. The central character is a [British] teenager in youth detention (borstal). It's a bit dark and gloomy and might be a bit British and of its time. But is all about fighting the man and being true to yourself and perhaps a way to give a different perspective on a similar experience.

There is also a movie, but it is pretty dated now. Bonus points: there are lots of stage adaptations, so if that was something that might feature in the future for a group of incarcerated youth it might be a good book to work with.
posted by MuffinMan at 1:37 AM on October 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

I wonder whether you could present a selection from Edward Bunker's Education of a Felon... I haven't read it in a while, and it is a memoir of his "career criminal" years, but as I recollect the detail is rich and there ought to be lengthy passages (if not entire chapters) that should pass inspection.

Bunker did a lot of time in the '50s and '60s, where he began writing fiction. He eventually made good, as it were, writing a few screenplays and appearing in a few films (most notably Reservoir Dogs). It seems to me that he might serve as an aspirational role model of sorts, as he certainly rose from the bottom.
posted by mr. digits at 4:46 AM on October 18, 2012

The safest genre might be famous speeches, which are helpful for struggling readers/writers because they're generally short. I'd start contemporary (simpler language) and work my way back through time.
posted by smirkette at 7:15 AM on October 18, 2012

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer is a fantastic book for reluctant readers -- an easy read, compelling plot, and lots of poignant themes that would resonate well with an alienated teenager.
posted by susanvance at 8:36 AM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Would the Jack London story "The Mexican" be suitable? It contains graphic scenes of boxing, and maybe a little violence (?). Plus, it must be public domain by now, no?
posted by mr. digits at 5:49 PM on October 18, 2012

Maybe some of Stephen King's short stories, if there are any without swear words. And you could look through
posted by lakeroon at 7:21 PM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

The first thing I would do is gift to your student a copy of The Elements of Style and begin work on the Sentence Structure and Essay sections.

Give him two weeks and two simple projects/assignments. Once he gets a feel for structure and mechanics, he'll be able to write whatever he wants with some eloquence and confidence.

Good luck and you're doing great work!
posted by snsranch at 8:14 PM on October 18, 2012

« Older Why is Ozzy = Ossie with Black Sabbath?   |   Investing the $$$ I have? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.