Authors are always asked when they knew that they wanted to be a writer. It never occurred to me that I would one-day be a published author. When I retired early my friends urged me to write about my twenty-year career with the Michigan Department of Corrections including as a warden of a men’s maximum security prison. But I brushed them off. After all the most exciting material I had written all those years were my monthly reports and annual budgets. Trust me, these don’t make best-seller material.
The transition from a challenging work world to retirement might have been easier if I had mapped out my future. The only plan I had made was when I could access my retirement money. Yet all that agonizing about what I would do with the rest of my life didn’t foretell the direction my future would take. That revelation came to me after one specific event.
Tired of staring at the walls in my home, I determined to do what so many of my predecessors had done. I became a consultant. Within a month of that decision I got my first job. I was hired to be a keynote speaker at the Massachusetts Sheriffs’ Association conference on the female offender. I was flown to Boston, put up in a nice hotel, chauffeured around and paid $500 for a thirty-minute speech. I was delighted and knew I had made the correct choice. I couldn’t make that much money for a half hour of writing, especially when I didn’t have the skills. I left Boston flying high on my success and good career move.
When I got home I promptly deposited my $500 check and made plans on how to spend it. Shortly after, the bank notified me that the check bounced. I was stunned.
The administrative assistant to the association’s executive director apologized and sent a money order. Little did I know that by the time I had contacted the association, the executive director was under investigation for mismanagement of funds. When I discovered this, I decided that perhaps I should try writing.
As a former warden, I could relate to the hard work and persistence it takes to be a published writer. It was the writing part that had me scared. So after a conversation with a friend, I followed his advice and took creative writing classes. But first, I bought a computer and learned how to type.
Though the decision to write opened up an exciting and dynamic world to me, I wasn’t prepared for the humiliation and rejection it also brought. As a warden, I had developed a thick skin and stubborn streak. Yet even armed with those traits, I often found myself curled into a fetal position sucking my thumb after being rejected by an editor thirty years younger than I.
My training as a warden did pay off because I was persistent despite the rejections. I've endured because of my new- found colleagues that I have met through workshops, conferences, associations and my critique group. They not only persuaded me to never give up, they have also made me a better writer.
However, I had to be willing to take chances, accept a significant life-change, make mistakes, face rejections, while exercising perseverance and seizing opportunities. I also learned that money isn’t the reason I write. It is the joy of creating something that is thought provoking and stimulates others to action. Joy for me is found in the letters I receive from readers. One example is the letter from a former female gang member who now works with troubled youth and attributes her change to reading my first memoir The Warden Wore Pink.
Another example is the letter from a teenager that heard me speak to her high school street law class. At that time she was under house arrest and wore an ankle monitor. Whatever I said that day inspired her to read both my memoirs. She graduated from high school and went to college to study criminal justice.
Yet nothing prepared me for the telephone call I received from Jeff Deskovic, a native of New York State. At the age of seventeen, Jeff was found guilty and sentenced to prison for fifteen years to life based on a coerced confession of the rape and murder of a schoolmate. After sixteen years in prison Jeff had exhausted all his appeals and was denied parole. He faced the bleak reality that he would never be exonerated and perhaps never be released from prison.
I believe that providence plays a major role in our lives. It did in Jeff’s. He borrowed Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul from the prison library (there is a Chicken Soup for everyone’s soul) Jeff read an essay I had written about a mentally ill prisoner titled, “The Feeling of Success.” Jeff checked my credentials at the back of the book and discovered my first memoir, The Warden Wore Pink. Jeff wrote to the publisher and my friend, Julie Zimmerman and told Julie his story. She then contacted our mutual friend, Claudia an advocate for the wrongly accused. Claudia took up Jeff’s cause and convinced The Innocence Project to handle his case although they had previously turned down Jeff’s request to work on his behalf. The Innocence Project then persuaded the district attorney to run the existing DNA evidence from the original crime scene. The result proved Jeff’s innocence. Jeff, at the age of 33 and after 16 years, was released from prison on September 20, 2006.
I learned from all three readers that there is no amount of money we can earn from our writing that can replace the reward we get from giving back a person’s life.
So why do we write? Author, Ann Lamott said it best in her book, Bird by Bird: “Because of the spirit, I say. Because of the heart. Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again.”
Today I am delighted that people approach me and ask, “Are you Tekla Miller, the author?”
After being known as “The Warden” for so many years and now recognized as an author, I am proud to answer, “Yes, I am.”
Tekla Dennison Miller
Mother Rabbit: Oak Tree Press
The Warden Wore Pink
A Bowl of Cherries