Creative Connections

By IPR writing instructor Nell Morningstar

Photo by Jessica Hegland

One evening a week, when most people are driving home, or out for dinner, I drive out to one of the Minnesota Department of Corrections facilities surrounding the metro area. I am not a visitor; I am a volunteer. I teach creative writing classes for inmates through Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. Started just three years ago by Jennifer Bowen Hicks, MPWW now has over a dozen teaching writers inside the prisons, and another several dozen writers mentoring our students by mail once the students have completed a class.

When I imagined myself teaching after completing my degree, the prison system was not even on my radar. Now, in the midst of my third year of teaching, both creative writing through MPWW and college composition classes through the Department of Corrections, I am grateful for the opportunity. I am inspired constantly by all of my students. But the open, enthusiastic welcome that I receive from students inside the prison facilities is especially rewarding. Once through security and guided to the classroom by a guard, I am alone with students who are wrestling with the same  challenges that all writers deal with, and we become simply writers. We discuss the readings, converse about craft issues, write together in class, and share what we have written. We strive to give constructive and useful feedback to each writer, and we celebrate breakthroughs and polished drafts.

I have always believed that art has the capacity to heal, and during the last few years I have had the chance to act on this belief. I am even more convinced of this after witnessing the change, growth and empowerment that occurs as my students find their voices. It is this reward that keeps me engaged and returning to the classroom, both in and outside of the prisons.

Nell Morningstar teaches Creative Writing, Composition, Foundations of Writing, and Speech Communications at IPR.

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