David Scott Milton taught me playwriting at USC. I'd never written a play before, but when I attended the Master of Professional Writing Program, I needed to study in three genres. I wanted to write novels and screenplays, which is why I joined the program at USC, but a third genre? I'd heard great things about Milton's class, and he had a play on Broadway. I figured writing plays was similar to screenwriting, so I took his class and then another.
After I graduated, all I did was write plays for the longest time. Three were produced. I came to review theatre for Daily Variety for nine years. I still love the theatre.
After I graduated, David also started teaching to murderers in the maximum security yard at the California Correctional Institution at Tehachapi. He lived in Tehachapi and had met the associate warden who invited him to teach there. No guards would be in his classroom. He was told, "Oh, you'll be there by yourself, but we'll give you a little remote device, which is an alarm. Of course, it's only good if they're trying to do damage to each other: If they're after you, you're done..."
That must have been an interesting split in his life: teaching to motivated graduate students at the University of Southern Calfornia who looked to the future like mice to cheese, and teaching to murderers with gray eyes, serving life without parole.
I convinced David a while back to start a blog in Red Room, and his most recent blog is how one of his prisoners, Kenneth Hartman, has gone on to write a book about life behind bars, winning much acclaim. David is one of my favorite writers around, and his blog, at http://www.redroom.com/blog/david-scott-milton/book-%E2%80%98mother-california-a-story-redemption-behind-bars%E2%80%9D-kenneth-e-hartman, goes into how he taught Hartman and others at Tehachapi for nearly fifteen years.
One thing his blog does not mention but his play, "Murderers Are My Life," does is that that the two strands of his life came sadly together when one of my fellow playwrights in David's class, a man named Aziz, grew so despondent over his wife who wanted a divorce that Aziz murdered his wife, one of his children, then himself. Perhaps that will make another blog for David to write.
To give you a taste of David's blog, I'll quote from it. The following talks about how Hartman came to David's class at the prison:
His first day in my class was unsettling. He was large and muscular and coolly tense. There was a barely contained ferocity about him. His reputation as a ruthless shot-caller had preceded him. He stood tall, thick, jaw-raised, and he would stare at you. His eyes were dead.
He introduced himself as “Horse”, a nickname I later learned he had carried since he was a kid. He told me he just wanted to sit in on the class. He probably would not write anything: this was a creative writing class and, although he was well-read, prison-library educated, his writing was limited to legal, technical work and an occasional essay. Knowing that he had been a white gang leader, I assumed he had some skinhead Nazi sympathies. I thought it reasonable to let him know up front that I was a Jew. There was a flash of surprise in his otherwise completely dead eyes. “I wouldn’t have thought that,” he said.
I told him he could come to the class and write as he wished. The class was not limited to fiction. He could write whatever he wanted, or nothing at all.
He stayed for that first class and returned and just kept coming back. He began to write about his life. Within a short while he was the best writer I had, honest, diligent, ferociously hard-working, a man eager to become something other than what he had been.
I had always believed that if the arts had any power of suasion in prison, it would be to remind men of their humanity and to awaken them to humane impulses. I would tell the men that I did not regard them as convicts in my class, but as fellow writers exploring what it was to be a human being. “We are here to discover compassion,” I told them.
Ken took that in; it had meaning for him. He had married while in prison and during a conjugal visit had made his wife pregnant and through this relationship he was re-discovering what it was to be human. I could see it in his writing and in his eyes. Over the next months and eventually years, life gradually returned to his eyes.
He had been writing essays on prison existence and problems and sending them out to various newspapers and magazines in California. They were rejected. I told him that I thought they were too polemical, that the average person outside of prison has no concern about the hardships of prison life. “People outside think you have it too good,” I said. “They want you locked in a dungeon round the clock and fed on stale bread and water. If you’re going to write about prison, write about your life. And I think it might be good if you wrote about what brought you into prison.”
He read an article to the class. As I recall, it opened like this: “Today is the anniversary of the death of a homeless man, Thomas Allen Fellowes. I’m the only person who knows this. I’m the man who killed him.” He went on to voice remorse for what he had done and pay homage to the poor soul whose life he had extinguished in a moment of drug and alcohol fueled rage. In the article he did not try to excuse his actions. He just told it the way it had happened, the fury, the coldness, the bleak pathology of it all.
The members of the class were deeply affected by the piece. There was a sense of shock in the room. One of the men wept.
There's much more to the blog. Try it out at http://www.redroom.com/blog/david-scott-milton/book-%E2%80%98mother-california-a-story-redemption-behind-bars%E2%80%9D-kenneth-e-hartman
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