Professors discuss using writing to create new lives, opportunities

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The last Patrick Hayes Writer Series event of 2018 featured David Coogan and Kelvin Belton, authors of “Writing Our Way Out: Memoirs from Jail.” MAX MINOGUE / THE FLAT HAT

Virginia Commonwealth University writing professor David Coogan and former inmate Kelvin Belton came to the College of William and Mary to speak about their book, “Writing Our Way Out: Memoirs from Jail” as the last Patrick Hayes Writer Series event of 2018. The series, funded by an endowment from the Patrick Hayes estate in 1991, invites writers to speak at public events on campus. 

Dean Turner, a former inmate and participant in Coogan’s program who also authored the book, was scheduled to speak alongside the professor and Belton but was unable to attend.

The book follows Coogan in his career as a professor creating a writer’s collective at the Richmond County Jail and working with Belton and other inmates to create memoirs, which are integrated into the novel. 

“I went in with this question: Is it possible for you to write your way out of one life, and into another life?” Coogan said. 

Coogan explained how the book follows himself and the inmates as they work together in the writing class and beyond the bars of prison. 

“This took a while — from the very first class to the publication of this book, it was about 10 years,” Coogan said. “So, if you’re thinking of writing a book with the incarcerated, just give yourself 10 years and you’ll be alright.”

When the inmates were moved to different prisons across the state of Virginia, they communicated with Coogan through letters. Finally, when all of Coogan’s students were released from prison, they met Coogan at VCU with their completed memoirs. 

“This took a while — from the very first class to the publication of this book, it was about 10 years,” Coogan said. “So, if you’re thinking of writing a book with the incarcerated, just give yourself 10 years and you’ll be alright.”

Coogan then read a selection from the first part of the book, which documented the first writing class he held at Richmond County Jail. 

“If our lives are like stories, ourselves the main characters, our actions the plot, won’t these men want to write a new chapter, develop their character, redirect their plots?” Coogan said.

Coogan then passed the microphone over to Belton, a former inmate, to read from his own memoir, as the latter recalled childhood trauma and the path that led him toward becoming a drug dealer. 

“I was an opportunist,” Belton said. “Every time I saw an opportunity to get more, I jumped at it. And because of that, I played a part in destroying the lives of many people. Which makes me wonder why so many people love me, even today.”

Coogan went on to read from a later section of the book, recalling difficulties he had working with students at the Richmond County Jail as they kept getting shipped to different prisons. 

Afterwards, Belton read a different, more essay-like part of his memoir that outlined the similarities between slavery and mass incarceration. 

“With slavery, we as a people were packed together on boats of all sizes, small and large, bound and shackled, bunched up side by side without any room to move around and no window to allow us to see the ocean,” Belton said. “With incarceration, we as a people are bunched into vans and buses of all sizes and bound together by a linked chain.”

Belton informed the audience that while he has now written three books, he is currently focusing on coaching basketball for local youths. 

Coogan and Belton are also working on a program called Open Minds which is designed to divert low-level offenders away from incarceration by allowing them instead to take classes at VCU.

In addition, they are developing a program similar to the one Coogan taught at the Richmond County Jail that is targeted toward kids at the Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center outside Richmond, Virginia.

Emily Fernandez ’18 and Sarah Sheridan ’18 attended the talk and both said that they enjoyed it. 

After receiving an English major newsletter, Fernandez decided to attend and was excited to have a unique perspective represented on the College campus.

“It combined my interest in writing and publishing and books with my interest in social justice and incarceration, and [we heard] a perspective that we never hear much about,” Fernandez said. 

Sheridan said she appreciated how the program Coogan created helped inmates like Belton grow. 

“The point that stuck with me was when Kelvin said that, all of the times he had been to jail before, he never learned anything,” Sheridan said. “He just came out of jail the same way he was. But it was programs like this that, didn’t necessarily teach him something, but helped him realize that he already had it within himself.”

Elise Mitchell ’20 attended the lecture upon suggestion from a writing professor, but said she had some issues with the book. 

“I have some difficulties that I plan on talking with them about, because it seemed a lot like an entitled white man’s journey through self-actualization, and using these men to publish a book,” Mitchell said. 

“I have some difficulties that I plan on talking with them about, because it seemed a lot like an entitled white man’s journey through self-actualization, and using these men to publish a book,” Mitchell said. 

Mitchell explained that this could also just be her own biases, and also admitted that she has to read the book to decide what she really thinks about the novel and program. Although she had problems with the book, she said she agreed with the ideas to help inmates behind the larger context of the writing program.

“I think [Kelvin] said it best — he didn’t know the means, but he had it in him all along. That’s way more the truth — nobody is giving it to them, it’s more just showing them the way,” Mitchell said.