Story Can Set You Free: Releasing your Inner Writer with Jim Reese

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Finding redemption on the page

Award-winning author and educator believes everyone has a story and telling it will help you find purpose in life and work – as well as redemption from past mistakes.

Jim Reese believes writing helps people process who they are and what they’ve done. Whether he’s working with prison inmates or college students, he finds everyone has a story to tell – and that story can be the key to unlock the person they are meant to be.

The author and college professor was interviewed by Lynne Golodner on Episode 73 of the Make Meaning Podcast. In the conversation, Lynne and Jim discussed his work teaching creative writing in federal prison as well as his tenure as a professor at Mount Marty University in Yankton, South Dakota. 


Helping prison inmates look within, confront their demons, process their crimes and make peace with who they have been ultimately helps them decide who they want to be, he said. 

Therein lies a compelling purpose that might keep them from returning to jail.

“You need to create an environment where people feel safe enough to tell their stories,” Jim says. “All stories matter. We have to share each others’ stories, so we can make the world a better place.”

Since she began her career as a journalist and is the author of nine books, Lynne Golodner is particularly interested in how writing helps individuals and organizations find their purpose. Her marketing agency, Your People LLC, is based on the belief that brands connect with customers best through storytelling, and her team helps clients find the right words to express who they are – and who they want to be.

An entire chapter in her upcoming book, What’s Your Why, is devoted to why you might just want to write a book as a way to make your platform bigger. This is advice that Jim Reese can get on board with. Jim became a guest after hearing his friend and fellow writer, literary activist M.L. Liebler, as a guest on the 68th episode of the Make Meaning Podcast. Lynne was particularly interested to speak with Jim about his work with prisoners and his writing process. 

Jim has won numerous awards for his five books, but he says his greatest purpose lies in helping others find their voice. 

In addition to all his teaching and personal writing, the Nebraska native directs the Great Plains Writers Tour

As National Endowment of the Arts Writer in Residence at Federal Prison Camp in Yankton, he leads inmates in writing workshops which culminate in an annual creative writing journal called 4 P.M. Count.

Tips for telling your own story

Here, we compiled some writing advice Jim shares on the podcast to help people tell the stories that matter and find meaning in their life and work.

Use Prompts

Jim believes good writing prompts force you to face hard questions. He often gives his students the prompt ‘What has no one ever asked me?’

“It’s amazing how quickly they fill pages. Sometimes I wonder how often people have a chance to use their voice at all,” he says.

Jim Reese recommends the books “Writing Poetry to Save Your Life” and “Words Without Walls” for prompts.

Enter the Cave

Be willing to “shake the crow off your shoulder” and confront your inner darkness.  “When you get that feeling in your gut that says ‘I want to say this, but I can’t. I don’t want to tell anybody,’ that’s exactly what you need to be writing,” Jim says. “Stop worrying about what other people are gonna think; that’s where true writing comes from.”

Be Yourself

Aligned with Lynne in his belief that we are each on this planet for a reason, Jim says we all have the ability to uniquely impact others. Even if you don’t feel you have a monumental story to tell, write about what it’s like to be you.

“You don’t have to be extraordinary to be inspiring,” Jim says. 

Recruit a Reader

Once you’ve got something on paper, find someone who will give you thoughtful feedback. When Jim was writing his latest book “Bone Chalk,” a friend suggested he frame the essays in a new way, based on his experience with crime. Jim cut pages, reordered chapters, and it worked. “I’m glad I did,” he says.

Have Humor

Readers often connect with Jim’s “failures and screw-ups.” He’s learned through letter exchanges with famed humorist David Sedaris that it’s important to mix humor with tragedy. “For humor to matter, you need to add weight to your stories,” he says.


Find Your Meaning

Jim says he accepted the job to teach writing in prisons because he thought it would sound cool when he told his friends. It took five years to get through his own ego and realize his purpose was to serve his students. “Getting men and women to come to terms with their emotional instabilities through writing really does help them not return to prison,” he says.  Writing can help unlock meaning in your life. “It’s a courageous act to use your voice and to empower others to do it,” Jim says.

Find ways to articulate your own story at Lynne’s upcoming Meaning Session, “What’s Your Story?” set for 3 p.m. Tuesday, April 20, in honor of National Poetry Month. The workshop will help you explore the words you need to be your best self. Register for the free virtual session here

Download our printable writing prompt!