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I know why the caged bird sings

You know how sometimes you work really hard, I mean really hard, and you have the best of intentions, and you’re surrounded by people who are also working hard—and nothing happens?

This is not one of those times.

This is one of those times that commitment and passion and focus and hard work lead to something wonderful.

This is one of those times that good things happen to people for whom good things need to happen. One of those times that people who have been labeled as losers, who have been treated as losers, get to be winners. Because they worked for it. Because they deserve it.

And so I announce, with enormous pride, that two Oregon State Penitentiary men have won awards in the prestigious, national Pen America Prison Writing Contest: James Anderson placed first in the memoir category. Sterling Cunio placed second in the essay category.

To put this in perspective, Pen received more than 5,000 entries from prison writers all across the country.

To put this in perspective, neither James nor Sterling finished high school before they went to prison. James was 17, Sterling, 16 when they committed their crimes. To put this in perspective, Sterling turned 41 the day before he received the letter announcing the award.

Both these men, along with (give or take) 8 others, are part of a writers’ group I started for Lifers at OSP almost 3 years ago. Six men in the group began working on the Pen submissions more than a half a year before the due date.

I have never worked with writers hungrier for feedback, more eager to be edited, to revise and re-imagine, to work through multiple drafts without losing focus or energy. I have never worked with writers who had more important stories to tell.

Learning to tell your own story is powerful stuff. Particularly, especially, spectacularly for those whose only freedom is expression.

Pen will be publishing the winners at its site.

If you’d like to congratulate these winners, leave a comment and I will take it with me into the prison.


1 Barb Bolsen { 04.25.18 at 6:24 pm }

Proud to call you friend, friend! You can’t underestimate the power of sharing your story. ❤️

2 Lauren { 04.25.18 at 9:26 pm }

And back at you, con brio!

3 Steven Finster { 04.25.18 at 9:37 pm }

Cannot wait to see those pieces up on the PEN website!!

4 Joe McAvoy { 04.26.18 at 2:25 am }

This is just so damned LIFE AFFIRMING. Congrats to James and Sterling and all the others who are doing their best to push through the guilt and shame and despair to make something bigger than themselves, to reflect and make penance (yeah, heavy catholic origins here) and to create!. And to their teacher, Lauren, well, you get to be Saint Lauren for a day at the very least (see previous parenthetical remark). You should be proud. Listen to ‘Transit’ by Richard Shindell. It could be about you.

5 Lauren { 04.26.18 at 5:46 pm }

Their writing, which reflects their experience, is all about creating a life of meaning in a place designed to rob one of purpose and meaning. The rest of us could learn big lessons from this.

6 Ruth { 04.26.18 at 4:36 pm }

The deepest joy in teaching comes from what we learn from our students. Congratulations to them, and to you Lauren!

7 Terra { 04.30.18 at 5:42 am }

Impressive and congratulations to them and you for showing them their voice. Now we get to hear them and that might be bigger than we know.

8 Lauren { 04.30.18 at 11:55 pm }

It IS “bigger than we know,” I think. These men have taught me far more (not just about life in prison but about shame and guilt and forgiveness and trying to find meaning in life) than I am teaching them.

9 Kelley { 05.07.18 at 4:48 pm }

James and Sterling,
Congratulations to you! What you have accomplished is so admirable. As the wife of a 37-yr-old man who has been incarcerated for about 14 years of his adulthood, I know you experience many challenges. I cannot imagine the tenacity you have had to have to get where you are today. I pray that you will use the gifts you have been given to be a blessing to those who are around you each day to inspire and encourage, both the inmates and staff alike. I applaud you on your accomplishments and encourage you in your pursuit of fulfillment hoping that you with seek truth and share it with others. I look forward to reading your stories.

Lauren, I met you at a coffee shop in Manzanita, now live near Gateway Mall in Springfield, and hope I run into you again someday. I was so excited to see this new post. Thank you for all you are doing for our culture and world to be a better place!

10 Lauren { 05.07.18 at 5:53 pm }

I remember our conversation well, Kelley. Thanks so much for checking in at the blog. I will pass along your comments to James and Sterling, both of whom began their sentences as teenagers. I will post news about the book, called “A Grip of Time,” when I get the publication date from my publisher. Meanwhile, I hope for the best with your own situation and also hope our paths cross again.

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