Around the time that “Hell’s Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger” made the NY Times bestseller list in 2000, the lives of authors Keith and Kent Zimmerman, the writing duo from Oakland, took a turn. But not in ways they had expected.
For years the twins worked in the music industry, writing about rock legends like the Sex Pistols and Alice Cooper. But in 2000 they witnessed the music business unraveling at an alarming speed. They were 50 and felt disenchanted. “We both felt a void,” Kent Zimmerman said, “and we looked around for ways to snuff out the void.” They played with the idea of teaching what they loved best — creative writing.
Then, in 2003, Kent’s former college teacher pushed San Quentin prison’s phone number into his hand. “Contact them, this is the best teaching experience out there,” Kent recalled him saying. One cold phone call later and the twins were on their way to the H unit to teach short-timers — men locked up for up to five years. They’ve been teaching there for the last seven years.
Going into class, the brothers felt apprehensive. “We were scared to encounter the stereotypes — mother-rapers, father-rapers, all the mythology spread by TV shows like Oz,” Kent said. But the reality was different. “These were guys you would be sitting next to in the bus.” They were shocked to find that at San Quentin, apart for some Alcoholics Anonymous sessions, there were no programs for inmates who would be back on the streets in a few months or years.
Their start as teachers did not go as expected. “In our first class, only five guys showed up, sitting cross-armed and -legged, looking at us like, What do you want? Why are you here?” Kent remembers. The brothers went into teaching overdrive to develop their own methods.
Every Friday the twins start by offering the inmates a look into the secrets of the publishing industry. The inmates are the first to read the Zimmermans’ proofs, to see the terrible cover art suggested by the editors, to hear about their race to meet deadlines.
In return, the inmates share their personal stories in writing. The class gets 30 minutes to write about a weekly theme. There are no rules about grammar or structure. It’s all about putting something down on paper.
The brothers take their students’ work seriously. Every single piece is typed up and copied at Kinko’s, ready for them to read to the class the following Friday. “We read really good, very dramatically, even the most illiterate stuff. There’s nothing like hearing your own work back like that,” Kent said.
Why do the brothers do it, week in and week out? “We are no huggathugs … we’re not out to save the world, or hold their hands. We are not selfless enough.
“When they don’t show up to class, I get pissed off. I’m not there to smile and get hustled out of pens and papers — that’s not what I’m there for. I am there to do some writing.”
As for filling the void? “Well,” Kent said, “sometimes you find the answer in the damnedest of places.”