Writing Program highlights ‘Stories from the Truly Free’ in anthology
Aiding a local nonprofit that helps former prisoners rejoin society, USC Dornsife’s Writing Program helps the men through the creative process of writing.

Writing Program highlights ‘Stories from the Truly Free’ in anthology

A collection of essays, short stories and poems marks the crowning achievement of a USC Dornsife writers’ workshop for men who are now free after years in prison.
Emily Gersema

They’ve learned what it’s like to endure a rigorous edit, watching words fall off the page and new words squeeze in. In composition notebooks, the men have filled pages with their regrets, fears and painful acknowledgements, and with their clarity on the fragility of freedom and life. 

Eight men who are transitioning back into society after years of incarceration have been participating in a writers’ workshop at the USC Dornsife Writing Program for years. Now, with help from a $7,300 USC Good Neighbors Campaign grant, they have reached the milestone that all writers hope for to legitimize their craft: Their work has been published.

Copies of the 48th Street Anthology: Stories from the Truly Free debuted this summer. The book is available at no cost upon request.

The former prisoners and their Writing Program mentors celebrated the achievement recently with a night of readings at the With Love Café, near USC’s University Park campus.

Stephanie Bower and John Murray, both associate professors (teaching) of writing at USC Dornsife, have worked closely with The Francisco Homes transition program for more than a decade, but launched the workshop for men there two years ago after learning about a pop-up writing workshop for underserved populations. Assistant Professor (Teaching) of Writing Emily Artiano and Lecturer Benjamin Pack joined them in coaching the men, helping them to hone their craft.

“We offered to help people with CVs and letters, but it became immediately clear that was not what these men were interested in doing,” says Artiano. “But they were interested in telling their stories.” 

Ever since the workshop began, the men have met with the professors and lecturers for 90 minutes nearly once a week, sharing their writings and discussing their craft.

“The authors whose stories are included in this collection provide a rare opportunity for readers to better understand the lives of people who have served decades-long prison sentences,” writes Murray in a foreword to the anthology.

The stories, essays and poems that fill the pages touch on themes such as liberation, joy, forgiveness and loss. They describe painful childhoods and the inescapable burden of regret.

“A rubber hose, slicing air with malice, welts the back of a naked boy tied helplessly to a tree,” writes Johnny Salmon. “As the welts burst into tears, tiny lungs erupt into screams of familiar pain, to the whimpers of a beaten dog.”

An eye-to-eye examination of a gorilla leads David Smith to the painful realization that a zoo is a prison.

“There was a point in his life where he was a proud king; a ruler of his domain. Running, swinging in trees… whatever it is gorillas do, I could see. Now the loss of that life shows through his tearful eyes,” Smith writes. “It seems as though he wants to place his hands on the window, so without thinking I place my hand there. He is staring back at me with a look of what could only be sorrow.”

K.L. Kristiansen recalls how a tower loomed over the prison, with a bird’s eye view of all below, inside and outside the walls. “Has it come to an ending, or is this a start? / Do you stand by a justice, that made you so strong, / Or blind to the horrors, and be damned the wrong?”

The anthology is available upon request by contacting Bower at sbower@usc.edu.