How an inmate’s work in a prison writing program inspired the film.

Acts of Kindness

Grace of a Stranger began when Aaron Keel, an inmate in the Arizona State Prison system, took action to change his circumstances through the simple act of telling a story.

Aaron, a participant in the Arizona Prison Creative Writing Workshops, was tasked by the Workshop’s instructor, Erec Toso, to write about an act of kindness. The story Aaron chose to write was autobiographical — as a homeless teenager, Keel had experienced a simple act of kindness from a stranger that had renewed his sense of hope.

The story was published in the Prison Creative Writing Workshops’s literary journal, Rain Shadow Review.

One evening earlier this year, Grace producer/director Troy Hollar was listening NPR when he heard Toso, a University of Arizona English professor, being interviewed about the Workshops. Hollar’s interest was piqued by hearing why Toso spends every Saturday behind bars teaching men — often violent men with no apparent future — how to express themselves through writing. Then Toso read Keel’s story. It was simple and elegant: A homeless and penniless young man loses the only thing that gives him any sense of hope, and yet he refuses to give up until he encounters a stranger who has the power to give it back to him. The story was a powerful portrait of the resilience of the human spirit and the extraordinary impact a simple act of kindness can have in a person’s life.

The next day, Hollar contacted Toso, who in turn put him in touch with Keel. Within a few weeks, Hollar had optioned the story and begun the process of developing the project.

» Read Aaron Keel’s original short story, “Acts of Kindness”

About the Arizona Prison Creative Writing Workshops

Founded by Richard Shelton in 1974 to give Arizona State Prison Complex inmates the opportunity to work on crafted expression, the Arizona Prison Creative Writing Workshops have produced hundreds of graduates, many of whom have been published in journals, books, and in the Workshops’ own literary journal, Rain Shadow Review. Under the auspices of the University of Arizona Poetry Center, the Workshops are generously supported by the Lannan Foundation.