Reviewed by Sarah Wilson
In a time of rejuvenated discourse on racial inequality and criminal justice reform, it seemed appropriate to revisit David Coogan’s 2016 memoir, Writing Our Way Out: Memoirs from Jail. Billed as a memoir about Coogan’s experience teaching writing to prisoners, it is really a collective of stories and reflections by incarcerated men, tied together by classroom narratives. David Coogan is a professor of English and rhetoric at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). He founded Open Minds, a program that enables VCU students and inmates at the Richmond City Jail to participate in humanities courses together—“to journey toward a new understanding of their shared humanity.”
It was my own experience with the Open Minds program that first drew me to this memoir. I had returned to VCU to complete the undergraduate degree I’d left incomplete in order to pursue a career in professional drinking. The drinking career didn’t work out, so I thought it best to return to school. Dave’s class opened up for me a new mindset about the creative power of nonfiction. The men I met on the sixth floor of the Richmond City Jail wrote beautifully, honestly, and without any inhibition.
Dave founded Open Minds in 2010 and I participated in the program in 2016. At that time, Dave’s ability to incorporate lessons of rhetoric, social justice, and creative writing workshops into a fairly rowdy classroom seemed effortless. Writing Our Way Out: Memoirs from Jail is the story before the story. Dave Coogan acknowledges the obstacles of his own privilege as he navigated the new confines of the Richmond City Jail.
Coogan, threads his experience creating a writing classroom through essays written by the men he taught. Their relationships and dynamics becoming visible in Coogan’s narrative often juxtapose the personal narratives written about the men’s lives prior to incarceration. Sometimes striking is Coogan’s seemingly never-ending optimism—his belief that writing can and will save these men, if only they would let it. This idealism is smashed by the narratives of Kelvin, Karl, Stanley, Nani…hell, all of the incarcerated men. They are the grounding force of the memoir that truly makes it palatable. They are the realists who do not expect writing to save them from themselves, but to instead give them an agency of expression.
This memoirs dives past the healing power of narrative writing and the idealism of a young white professor hoping to make a difference in the lives of predominantly black inmates. If that’s all this memoir was, I would skip it and watch Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds. Happily, Coogan is able to navigate past the role of the white savior. He is able to step aside and allow his students voices to be the predominant force of the book. The essays do not feel curated, though they often adhere to many of the same themes—race, inequity, desperation, hope, redemption.
Unique to this prison memoir is the inclusion of the writing and publication process. This process lives up to be just as engaging as the woven narratives and reflections of how these men ended up incarcerated. By illuminating the writing process, the reader is able to further understand why these stories need to be told. Coogan views his classroom as “that exhilarating experience of inquiry and discovery.”
More than a memoir about prisoners, this is a story of ten men and their instructor learning about and from their shared experiences. Each man delivers a story of profound change and enlightenment. Furthermore, Coogan was able to create a narrative that highlights the change that can come from allowing those who have been silenced to speak.