“There are millions of stories locked behind bars, along with the millions of people our nation has caged. This astonishing book has the power to set those stories free.”
—Michelle Alexander, author of
The New Jim Crow

The Sentences That Create Us book cover

THE SENTENCES THAT CREATE US

Crafting A Writer’s Life in Prison

By PEN America
Edited by Caits Meissner
Director, Prison and Justice Writing

Published by Haymarket Books

A road map for incarcerated people and their allies to have a thriving writing life behind bars—and shared beyond the walls—that draws on the unique insights of more than fifty contributors, most themselves justice-involved, to offer advice, inspiration and resources.

On Sale: January 11, 2022

With generous support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, we will be donating and distributing 75,000 copies of the book in classroom sets to as many prison libraries nationwide as possible, as well as to higher education and creative writing programs working with justice-involved communities.

Inquire about free copies for your organization, classroom or an incarcerated loved one »

Praise for The Sentences That Create Us

“A book rich with craft and the vitality of necessity.”

“This is one of the best books on writing that I’ve ever read. I couldn’t put it down. There are millions of stories locked behind bars, along with the millions of people our nation has caged. This astonishing book has the power to set those stories free. And I believe the truths contained in those stories just might free us all.”

—Michelle Alexander,
author of The New Jim Crow

“When I was inside, I had no access to this manual. It didn’t exist. And so, I scraped along the best way I could. I talked to friends who plotted out novels by riffing on rap albums. I talked to friends who’d written hundreds of pages, by hand, fantasy novels that only they and I and those walking the yard would read. And we were all writers. But had we had this book—we would have been better writers.”

—Reginald Dwayne Betts,
from the foreword

The Sentences That Create Us feels like a cosmic reminder that the most radical, life-giving art is created and received from the inside to the inside(s). This book, unlike any other I’ve read, takes seriously the beating hearts and curious minds behind the bars of a nation obsessed with punishing the most vulnerable.”

—Kiese Laymon,
author of Heavy

“Not only a powerful guidebook for all who are curious about developing a writing practice, this radical collection also demonstrates how people surviving and resisting the prison industrial complex reimagine and rebuild our world. With entries including narratives of writing lives and communities behind bars, definitions of key concepts and terms, and samples and examples across genres (from poetry to journalism and more), this fierce resource equips readers with all the tools to write ourselves into freedom.”

—Erica R. Meiners,
co-author of Abolition. Feminism. Now.

The Sentences That Create Us offers an illuminating array of tutorials and testimonials, reckonings and brass tacks. But above all, this volume is an homage to the power of writing to deliver each of us from our individual confines into the soaring infinity of our imaginations.”

—Jennifer Egan,
author of A Visit from the Goon Squad

The Sentences That Create Us, PEN America’s new handbook, is both metaphor for the system and means of reinterpreting it. These writers—made on the inside—reveal the many ways that denial of a creative intellectual life on the outside is one of the pillars of our current carceral dependency. Shooting stars on every page, this book is instructional beyond its promise. Through it, we may just learn that we have always had better solutions than bars and walls.”

—Gina Dent,
co-author of Abolition. Feminism. Now.

“Having taught college-level English courses in prison for more than a decade, I am thrilled for a volume like this one: chock full of prose that is not only beautiful, inspirational and wise, but hugely helpful in a pedagogical sense—a perfect addition to all syllabi that involve writing in the carceral space.”

—Baz Dreisinger,
author of Incarceration Nations

“A book rich with craft and the vitality of necessity. An essential collection and a gift to the world.”

—Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah,
author of Friday Black

The Sentences That Create Us is a wonderful immersive guide into the world of writing (and reading) that will explain, reinterpret and transform genres you thought you knew. It is a profound reminder that writing, when nurtured by those denied, has redemptive power not only to examine and interpret our lives, but also to change them.”

—Donna Murch,
author of Assata Taught Me

“Take advantage of every word, Caits Meissner tells readers of this powerful anthology. Its authors certainly have. The Sentences That Create Us is a practical tool of the ways currently and formerly incarcerated people and their allies, gifted writers all, seize the written word to do what prison refuses: celebrate the human. Here is a moving, hands-on guide to freedom writing.”

—Dan Berger,
author of Captive Nation

About the Book

The Sentences That Create Us draws from the unique insights of over fifty justice-involved contributors and their allies to offer inspiration and resources for creating a literary life in prison. Centering in the philosophy that writers in prison can be as vibrant and capable as writers on the outside, and have much to offer readers everywhere, The Sentences That Create Us aims to propel writers in prison to launch their work into the world beyond the walls, while also embracing and supporting the creative community within the walls.

The Sentences That Create Us is a comprehensive resource writers can grow with, beginning with the foundations of creative writing. A roster of impressive contributors including Reginald Dwayne Betts (Felon: Poems), Mitchell S. Jackson (Survival Math), Wilbert Rideau (In the Place of Justice) and Piper Kerman (Orange is the New Black), among many others, address working within and around the severe institutional, emotional, psychological and physical limitations of writing prison through compelling first-person narratives. The book’s authors offer pragmatic advice on editing techniques, pathways to publication, writing routines, launching incarcerated-run prison publications and writing groups, lesson plans from prison educators and next-step resources.

Threaded throughout the book is the running theme of addressing lived trauma in writing, and writing’s capacity to support an authentic healing journey centered in accountability and restoration. While written towards people in the justice system, this book can serve anyone seeking hard won lessons and inspiration for their own creative—and human—journey.

The Sentences That Create Us includes contributions from Alexa Alemanni; Raquel Almazan; Ellen Bass; Reginald Dwayne Betts; Keri Blakinger; Jennifer Bowen; Zeke Caligiuri; Sterling Cunio; Chris Daley; Curtis Dawkins; Emile DeWeaver; Casey Donahue; Ryan Gattis; Eli Hager; Ashley Hamilton, PhD; Kenneth Hartman; Elizabeth Hawes; Randall Horton; Spoon Jackson; Mitchell S. Jackson; Nicole Shawan Junior; Yukari Iwatani Kane, Shaheen Pasha, and Kate McQueen of The Prison Journalism Project; Piper Kerman; Lauren Kessler; Johnny Kovatch; Doran Larson; Victoria Law; Jaeah Lee; John J. Lennon; Arthur Longworth; T Kira Mahealani Madden; J. D. Mathes; Justin Rovillos Monson; Lateef Mtima, JD; Vivian D. Nixon; Patrick O’Neil; Liza Jessie Peterson; Wilbert Rideau; Alejo Rodriguez; Luis J. Rodriguez; Susan Rosenberg; Geraldine Sealey; Sarah Shourd; Sarah Shourd; Anderson Smith, PhD; Derek R. Trumbo Sr.; Louise K. WaaKaa’igan; Andy Warner; Thomas Bartlett Whitaker; John R. Whitman, PhD; Saint James Harris Wood; Earlonne Woods and Nigel Poor of Ear Hustle; and Jeffery L. Young.

The Sentences That Create Us book cover

On Sale: January 11, 2022

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About Caits Meissner

Caits Meissner is the director of Prison and Justice Writing at PEN America. She has taught, consulted, and co-created extensively for over 15 years across a wide spectrum of communities with a focus on prisons, public schools, and college classrooms at The New School and The City College of New York. In 2017, Meissner reenvisioned the concept of book tour for her illustrated poetry collection Let It Die Hungry, pairing public speaking engagements with opportunities to work with incarcerated writers across the United States.

Caits Meissner headshot

Photo by Beowulf Sheehan

About PEN America’s Prison Writing Program

For more than four decades, PEN America’s Prison Writing Program has amplified the writing of thousands of imprisoned writers by providing free resources, skilled mentors, and audiences for their writing. Sign up for news and updates from Works of Justice, our online series that features content connected to the Prison and Justice Writing Program »

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