Complementing my interviews, today’s Author Spotlight, the three hundred and eighty-second, is of memoirist, non-fiction author and novelist Tekla Dennison Miller. If you would like to take part in an author spotlight, take a look at author-spotlights.
Tekla Dennison Miller is a former prison warden who managed two prisons simultaneously (a men’s maximum and a multi-level women’s) outside Detroit, Michigan. Her published memoir, The Warden Wore Pink, Biddle Publishing is about her twenty-year career in corrections and is required reading in criminal justice and women’s studies courses at several colleges and universities.
A second memoir, A Bowl of Cherries, released January 2003, is about Tekla’s challenging childhood in Central New York and California. At the age of 23, Alyce, Tekla’s older sister, became Tekla’s guardian when their mother committed suicide. Their father had died four years before. A Bowl of Cherries is about their relationship and Alyce’s escape from an abusive marriage.
A third and most recent publication is a nonfiction / biography, Mother Rabbit, released by Oak Tree Press on June 23, 2014’ It is about her sister Alyce Bonura who as a single mother became the Bunny Mother of the Chicago Playboy Club in 1966 to pursue a career that guaranteed financial freedom and upward mobility. Unfortunately, all was not what was assured or expected.
Tekla also has published two works of fiction: Life Sentences, and Inevitable Sentences released by Medallion Press. The first novel in this Chad Wilbanks series is about women that love men who murder. The second is about sexual abuse and domestic violence and the courage to survive.
Tekla taught children in South Central Los Angeles after the 1965 riots, worked with mentally challenged enlisted men while employed with the US Special Services in Germany, was the first female probation officer in Oakland County, Michigan and the supervisor of the first prison camp for women in Michigan. Tekla is a social activist, writer and national speaker focusing on women’s issues and criminal justice reform. She has had several nonfiction articles published in these areas. She also has had articles about dogs in prison published in Good Dog and Dog Fancy Magazines.
Tekla has appeared on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross and has been featured in many radio, newspaper and journal interviews. Tekla was a technical consultant for Granada Entertainment / TNT on a TV movie and series about a woman warden and for NBC’s news special about women prisoners. As an adjunct professor, Tekla has taught a course on Prisons and Prisoners. In 2001 she was a contestant on the TV quiz show “To Tell the Truth.”
Tekla was among the women in law enforcement and criminal justice honored by the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 1997. In 2001 The Criminal Justice Women of Michigan again honored Tekla with the Josephine Davis Community Service Award. In 2004 Tekla received the Distinguished Alumni Award from Cazenovia College, New York. In May 2007 she was the commencement speaker at Cazenovia College and received an honorary doctorate in humane letters degree.
Tekla is a member of the American Correctional Association, Association of Women Executives in Corrections, North American Association of Wardens and Superintendents, Association of American University Women, La Plata county Women’s Resource Center, League of Women Voters, Sisters in Crime (National and Los Angeles chapter), and Southwest Writers’ Association. She is an advisory member for College Guild, a nontraditional educational program for prisoners and My Sisters Inc., a program working with incarcerated women that were victims of domestic violence.
Tekla received her AA from Cazenovia College, her BA from the University of California at Los Angeles and her MA from Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan.
Tekla lives in Colorado with her husband, Chet, a retired Ford Motor Design Engineer, and 2 rescued dogs. Throughout their 39 years of marriage she and her husband have rescued many dogs. Tekla has 3 stepsons, and 3 grandchildren.
And now from the author herself:
This year my mantra is a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in that year.” However my all-time favorite quote was said by Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the women I most admire. She said, “You can gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along. You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” Although it may be difficult at times, I try to live my life by these words.
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, however, 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 career 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.
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. “How can this be?” I asked the teller. “It’s written on the Sheriffs’ Association’s account?”
Little did I know that by the time I had contacted the association about this error, the executive director was under investigation for mismanagement of funds. When I discovered this, I told myself, “Perhaps consulting isn’t meant for me. I should try writing. What did I have to lose? I couldn’t have a worse experience.”
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 foetal position sucking my thumb after being rejected by an editor thirty years younger than I who probably never saw the movie The Bird Man of Alcatraz.
My training as a warden did pay off because I was persistent despite the rejections. Yet I’ve endured because of my new-found colleagues / friends – seasoned authors – I have met through workshops, conferences, associations and my critique group. They persuaded me to never give up. My critique group has also become my true writing teachers. Because of their encouragement I have pursued a writing career and have reaped many rewards.
However I had to be willing to take chances, 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 who was on house arrest and after meeting me and reading both my memoirs is now studying criminal justice. No money can replace these kinds of rewards for my writing.
I am thrilled to get messages from readers who tell me I’ve made them laugh or helped them to reflect on the absurdity of life. For me creating a written piece deepens and expands my life. I can only hope it touches others.
It took me a moment to respond because I had only been known as “The Warden.” After a quick review of my achievements over the past years, I proudly answered, “Yes, I am.”
What a wonderful feeling! Joy and freedom weren’t immediate results of my departure from corrections. These came after many trials and errors and a great deal of soul searching. All of this forced me to embark on a new life of writing that to me is like being on a vacation. The only fear I have is that someone is going to tell me to pack up and go home.
Thank you, Tekla. What an interesting life you’ve had. No wonder you’ve written about it.
You can find more about Tekla and her writing via… www.teklamiller.com
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