Minnesota man founds writing program for the incarcerated

Before he founded FreeWriters in the fall of 2019, Nate Johnson worked as a prosecutor in southern Minnesota. Now, the free-writing program has raked in more than three thousand pieces of writing from more than a thousand inmates.

During his prosecutorial career in southern Minnesota, Nate Johnson mentored “a highly gifted young man named Joe,” who was serving a probationary sentence after “an extremely traumatic childhood.” While sitting down for an interview with the Star Tribune, Johnson said Joe eventually violated the terms of his probation in the fall of 2019, serving a sixty-day jail sentence with nothing but Bible lessons and twelve-step meetings to accompany him. Drawing from his experience with a workshop at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, Johnson taught Joe the art of free-writing “to help him stay sane;” this would evolve into the prison writing program “FreeWriters,” which encourages participants to complete three five-minute writing exercises per class.

If you’ve ever jaywalked or loitered in the United States, you’ve broken the law – that’s why Johnson’s efforts are so commendable in a country with the largest prison population in the world, where more citizens are incarcerated per capita than any military dictatorship. More than one inmate-writer claims FreeWriters positively impacted their mental health. “Thank you for getting me outta the unit,” one is quoted as saying.

How to write about gentrification in a setting

Jendella Benson’s debut novel, “Hope and Glory,” takes place in the London neighborhood of Peckham, (in)famous for its gentrification. As she approaches this setting with the same eye for world-building as writers of fantasy of science fiction, Benson learns something new about her own community.

In her contribution to Literary Hub, Jendella Benson dismisses the word “gentrification” as “cliché.” She writes, “It is a flat term that speaks of boxy rooms in new build apartments and nameless hipsters and craft beer.” Instead, her debut novel, Hope and Glory, seeks to characterize the gentrified (Benson herself can’t afford to live in the setting for her own book anymore), whilst acknowledging the systemic and institutional phenomenon of “gentrification” at the same time.

Although I haven’t experienced gentrification as a white American who grew up in the Middle Class neighborhoods of South Metro Denver, I’ve witnessed it firsthand. People can’t afford to live in their own communities, turned out onto the streets after one delinquent rent payment too many, where drugs are their only solace and crime is their only access to our society’s capitalistic resources for survival. I may not be the right one who can speak to it, but I call upon all the Jendella Bensons of the world to do it for themselves.

A writer of climate fantasy faces the future more fearlessly in her fiction

Rebecca Scherm began writing “A House Between Earth and the Moon” while pregnant in 2014 to ease her anxieties about the world her first child would inherit. Much like childbirth, the process was painful, but miraculous.

For many expecting mothers, the world today can strike the fear of God into the heart; for writers like Rebecca Scherm, that dread is an opportunity “not to calm myself, exactly, but to run my imagination all the way out, until it exhausts itself.” Contributing to Literary Hub, Scherm describes the creative process behind her science fiction novel, A House Between Earth and the Moon, which follows a family as they flee the dying planet for a space station in 2033. In forcing herself to research the realities of climate change she’d once upon a time avoided, Scherm writes, “This novel changed me from someone who writes about a need for change into someone desperate to bring those changes to life.”

As loath as I am to regurgitate pull quote after pull quote (especially in a blog post this brief), Scherm is the best writer I’d never heard of before today, and she deserves the same recognition as all the other women authors dominating the post-J.K. Rowling marketplace; Gillian Flynn springs most readily to mind as a worthy contemporary. Anyway, Scherm speaks for herself with more of a voice than anyone else could hope to capture, such as with the course-correction in lifestyle she outlines here: “I started down a path of climate activism through native plant gardening—for biodiversity, for carbon capture, for reacquainting people with the more-than-human world around them—and this path has felt like a kind of salvation.” Sometimes, meaningful action is as deceptively simple as the hope native plant gardening brings to a new mother, and Scherm has her own imaginative literature to thank for that “salvation.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning Anthony Doerr on his planning process

Doerr, who won the Pulitzer Prize for the modern classic “All the Light We Cannot See,” discusses with Julianne Gee of the Boise State University “Arbiter” how drawing engages him to write with greater complexity. Doerr briefly worked with their creative writing department.

After the publication of his latest book, Cloud Cuckoo Land, in September, Anthony Doerr sat down for an interview with The Arbiter in Idaho. Doerr is quoted as saying, “Growing up, you always think good novelists live in Brazil and Buenos Aires or Paris or they’re dead. Every day you have to give yourself permission and say, ‘You know, even though I live right here in Boise, it’s okay to try to make something that people might read in Brazil or in Paris.'”

We study Doerr extensively in the Master of Arts program for professional creative writing at the University of Denver; he is, without hyperbole, one of the most gifted authors working today, and you could do far worse than learn from his comedic timing in his sentences, or the grander storytelling structures he erects out of this acumen for the micro level. Like all masters of the written word, he knows how to make it appear as though he comes by this skillset naturally, but, during the prewriting phase for Cloud Cuckoo Land, he reveals he scaffolded the outline with a diagram. As for what inspired him to write with such wealth and depth, Doerr attributes it to his grandmother’s Alzheimer’s disease – “I just thought I’m going to try the most complicated thing I can try right now, while I still can,” he says.

The rhizome concept is represented as a tangled web of roots in this sketch.
This drawing of a “rhizome,” or underground root system, mirrors the intricacy of Anthony Doerr’s own “map” for “Cloud Cuckoo Land.” (Image Courtesy: The Arbiter).