Catching up


Tobias Wolff at San Quentin, June 15, 2016

Wouldn’t it be nice if I wrote about all the interesting things that happen on Wednesday nights in our classroom?

But we must face reality as it is. And the reality is that I do not update often.

Some highlights:

On June 15, 2016 we had another wonderful visit from Tobias Wolff. Our third? fourth? I can’t remember. It has been quite awhile since he came. Are there more gracious, attentive, and intelligent writers out there than Tobias Wolff?  He offers himself with genuine humility and generosity. Someone said after he left,”He just shakes your hand and looks you in the eye, treats you like a regular person.” He is clearly more curious about other people than he is interested in being the center of attention or some kind of expert. That said, he had many valuable things to share with the class, and led a provocative discussion of whether Jamaica Kincaid’s story “Girl” is a story. It got quite heated. He was obviously in his element, sitting comfortably in the circle, remembering people’s names and building on their reflections. I wish I could be in Tobias Wolff’s creative writing class.moody

Then on August 24, we had as our guest the writer Bill Moody. Bill is a mystery author as well as jazz drummer, and his stories set fictional detective Evan Horne in the world of jazz. His understanding of a story as having much in common with a piece of music resonated strongly with many of us in the class.

On September 17, W. Kamau Bellkamau-bell-and-rahsaan-thomas-photo-lance-knobel returned to San Quentin to host Prison Renaissance‘s first event, “Artistic Rebirth.” This was not specifically a “Brothers in Pen” event but many creative writing students were involved. Rahsaan Thomas and Emile DeWeaver are the heartbeat of the Prison Renaissance and now Kamau (or Kapow, as co-MC Rahsaan kept calling him) is part of it too.

In September we also had a return visit from our now-regular guest, comedy writer Mike Larsen. He’s come so often they’re going to let him start wearing blue, and several of the class members have been having fun working on creating a sitcom with him.

In October, poet Jennifer Richter and fiction writer Keith Scribner visited the class as they were in town for a readinjen-richter-and-keith-scribnerg. Jen’s recent book of poetry, “No Acute Distress,” came out recently, and she read several pieces to the rapt attention of the class. Keith, author of several novels, has visited before, and piqued interest in his  new unfinished novel with a character-rich excerpt. Unfortunately for us, we couldn’t turn over all our time to them as we were intently dress-rehearsing for our eleventh annual public literary reading–tomorrow! Several writers got to present their pieces and get both Jen and Keith’s incisive and generous comments on their work.

As far as alumni of the class, I can’t even keep up with all they’re up to. Watani Stiner is constantly speaking at universities and churches and all kinds of gatherings. It turns out Watani is quite a good public speaker, and especially loves talking to youth. He still isn’t QUITE done with his memoir, but is telling me he’s on the home stretch. It’s also hard to keep up with Troy Williams who has too many projects going to list, but he also seems to be in demand as a speaker and I’m sure the creative writing skills he honed in the class are serving him well. He’s doing a one-man show at the Marsh Theater this month. We recently “lost” Aly Tamboura to freedom and I will post an update when I get one–I hear through the grapevine he’s doing great. Jerry Elster is an activist working for peace–I see his name frequently in the news. Ernie Laszlo called me recently to let me know he had succeeded in winning a gold panning award… the exact name now escapes me… Next time I post I’ll try and get some news from other alums.

Our reading tomorrow will be recorded by veteran radio reporter and writer Nancy Mullane, and will be a featured episode on Life of the Law–I believe next week! I’ll post about that, and also all the new and beautiful portraits we’ll get from Peter Merts tomorrow.

I feel like I’m forgetting important things. Our scrappy little classroom is a cornucopia of happenings and inspiration. Not to mention the day-in, day-out good work of just working on stories, revising, revising, listening, revising some more. Let’s not make it seem that celebrity guests outshine that goodness. That’s what it’s all about–the stories.

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Snap Judgment, United Shades of America, and Open Engagement

So much going on all the time … even if I were good at this it would be hard to keep up.

Our own Watani Stiner is telling stories on the air this week. The nationally syndicated radio show Snap Judgment features Watani this week, telling stories about his early days in San Quentin, being interviewed by Truman Capote, his escape, and more. Check out “For Love and Revolution” here.

He is also on Pop-up Magazine’s new feature, Phone Stories. For a limited time (not sure how long), you can call this number: 415-529-6057, and you’ll hear Watani tell you a 2-minute story about his escape. Eventually it’ll be archived on the site.

The next excitement is Episode 2 of W. Kamau Bell’s new show, United Shades of America, featuring a number of San Quentin Creative Writing Class members.



Yesterday at the Open Engagement arts conference at the Oakland Museum, Troy Williams and Watani Stiner, along with other former Arts in Corrections artists Isiah Daniels, Henry Frank, and Dennis Crookes, spoke about their experiences in the arts program at San Quentin. It was one of those moments where it’s just so obvious how important it is, and it feels really good to be a part of it. I was very grateful I got to be there and hear their insights and inspiration.

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Prison Renaissance is Born! (reborn?)


photo by Peter Merts

There is a new movement afoot–or perhaps the movement is not new, but now named. Two Brothers in Pen, Emile DeWeaver and Rahsaan Thomas, have co-founded Prison Renaissance. Let me give it to you in their own words, from their new website,

What is Prison Renaissance?

The Renaissance of the 1400s brought the rebirth of reason in Europe, and the 1920s saw the rebirth of African-American art & literature in the Harlem Renaissance and its echoes.

Prison Renaissance began with a group of incarcerated artists who experienced a rebirth of their human values. Artistic expression changed the way they see themselves. Art and education will allow them to help change how other incarcerated people see themselves — as citizens and community builders instead of outsiders and burdens. We hope that a return to civic duty among incarcerated-Americans will change how the public views its incarcerated population — the largest in the world.

Our Mission & Goals

To use the art and community to create a culture of transformation to end cycles of incarceration

To reduce prison populations

To inspire civic responsibility in incarcerated people, as a step toward rehabilitation and reintegration into society

To use art as a vehicle to create proximity between the general public and incarcerated people

To use art as a vehicle to transform the lives of incarcerated people


Co-founder/Editor: Emile DeWeaver
Co-founder: Rahsaan Thomas
Administrator/Editor: Camille Griep

These two eloquent writers are giving shape to an energy that is already on the move. Please take a look at their website and be a participant in and a champion of this emergent movement. #prisonrenaissance !

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Two Brothers in Pen members on NBC

Check out extremely eloquent Brothers in Pen Rahsaan Thomas and Emile DeWeaver, along with other incarcerated Americans at San Quentin, speaking with NBC Bay Area reporter Steven Stock. The first link is the longer “Behind the Scenes” interview, and the second is the shorter news story which was broadcast on Feb. 26.

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Brothers in Pen, in pictures

How is it that I never posted anything about our amazing 10th Annual Public Reading in November? How much amazingness does it take for me to get around to putting something on this blog?

It was a fantastic day. We had a record number of guests. Unfortunately, due to a communication glitch, we missed out on being in the ARC building and ended up in the Multifaith Chapel, which was very nice except that it only had room for our outside guests and no San Quentin guests.

Peter Merts, as always, took fantastic pictures of the event, along with portraits of the writers, and you can see them here:

Here are a few more, but you can see them all at the link above:


The San Quentin News wrote a story about the day, which you can read on page 5 of the January edition:

Watch this space for more news on some of the publishing accomplishments of class members, Life of the Law podcasts, as well as the recent TEDx event which featured former Brother in Pen Troy Williams, among others.

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The Ninth Annual Reading Anthology is out … just in time for the Tenth Annual Reading!

9th Annual Reading front coverSo I’m a little slow… took me nearly a year to get to completing the slim volume of last year’s 5-minute readings. But it has been out now for about a month and its appearance is coinciding with excitement about the upcoming reading on November 14.

The cover for this anthology features a painting by San Quentin artist (soon to be free) Mwasi Fuvi, entitled “Faith.” The writers include Wayne Boatwright, Kenneth R. Brydon, Micheal “Yahya” Cooke, Eric Curtis, Emile DeWeaver, Arnulfo T. Garcia, Ron Koehler, “Killa Clown” Medvin, James R. Metters Jr., JulianGlenn Padgett, Kevin D. Sawyer, Ivan Skrblinsky (aka Juan Haines), Paul Stauffer, Watani Stiner, Aly Tamboura, David Taylor, Rahsaan Thomas, Kevin Valvardi, and Michael Zell.

Ursula K. LeGuin said, The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story. How much more alive does it become when the author is reading it aloud, and when the audience listens with a kind of holy attention, nourishing it with dignity and curiosity. Once a year the San Quentin Wednesday Night Creative Writing Class, a.k.a. Brothers in Pen, holds an Annual Public Reading where an outside audience is invited in, along with other men in blue, to listen to 5-minute pieces crafted by the writers especially for this event. For weeks in advance, the writing and revision process is underway, and the authors also push each other to improve in the particular skill of reading a story aloud. This book represents the product of that labor in an event which took place in the ARC building on the lower yard of San Quentin State Prison on November 15, 2014. It was the ninth such event in the history of this particular class. The stories in their written for9th Annual Reading back coverm have a different kind of
life than they do when read aloud by their authors, but are no less worthwhile.

To purchase this anthology (or any of the other ones), go to

Please leave reviews and feedback about the stories on the Lulu site or this site, or email to brothersinpen [at]

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The Next Reading is Coming!

San Quentin’s Brothers in Pen TENTH Annual Public Reading

(I was erroneously  calling this the Ninth… which was last year!)

Saturday, November 14, 2015 • 11am – 3:30pm

It’s that time again… time for the Brothers in Pen Annual Public Reading! A self-selected crew will come inside San Quentin to attend a reading of works by the Creative Writing class, a.k.a. Brothers in Pen. Each of the 24 members of the class will read a 5-minute work of fiction or memoir, and there will be time for Q&A. If you have ever attended one of these public readings, you know what an engaging, lively and unforgettable event this is.  

And we made last year’s readings into a small anthology which will be available very soon.

Stay tuned!Ron Koehler

Last year’s reading, November 15, 2014

(photo by Peter Merts)
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