How I spent 4 1/2 years in 10 prisons in 5 States and managed to stay sane
First year of law school I was about 250 pages into a novel, started editing it during a particularly brutal contracts class. Class over, my study partner snatched the pages and demurely said she was taking it home to read. Three days later, she handed it back, slightly tattered but otherwise intact. She told me, with a bluntness I can really only appreciate now, that I should walk out of law school and write. That was also the opinion of the co-workers she had taken it upon herself to show it to. She worked at HBO.
Flash forward a decade and a half, I’m in twenty-two and a half hour total lockdown conditions in pre-trial incarceration (if you think that sounds wrong, you’re right), and had a lot of time to dwell on that evening in 1990, to rue my ‘decision’. It was not a mild rue, it was, in fact, fairly brutal, because here’s the thing: every time I drove long distance, or stared out the window of a plane, or did something brainless like reorganize the garage, I was assaulted with scenes, strings of dialogue, plots, characters, a litany of images jumbled, decidedly out of context, but there and startlingly clear – like someone diced up a dozen movies, put them in a bingo barrel, spun it and started splicing.
I wasn’t bored carrying that menagerie around, but I was frustrated – between running a business, coaching teams in several sports, playing soccer, doing a hundred family/school things a day, and everything else that comes with life, I was haunted without an outlet. I wrote not a word of fiction for fifteen years.
In a six by ten foot cell, with no access to the library, books as rare as an intelligent CO, I faced a choice between watching Jerry Springer or disciplining myself to sit and write (I had burned through self-pity in the first few weeks, anger in a few days, thus narrowing my options). The choice was obvious and I started writing with voracity – to the point where I believe, absolutely, in the Muses.
I started writing and I never stopped – in the silence of a tiny tin cell at McDougall; the unpredictable din of Wyatt in Central Falls R.I.; picnic benches and classrooms at Ft. Dix; among the mentally and physically broken in FMC Devens; the glass enclosed, explosively kinetic ‘day’ room in HCCC; a metal table in the middle of 114 crammed-in men at Willard C.I.
The conditions I wrote under made my writing better than it ever was, better than it ever was going to be, unfortunately, sailing along on a pretty okay life
Having it ripped away; shuffling from humiliation to humiliation; suffering through a deep sense of loss; dealing, almost moment to moment, with psychopaths of every stripe – inmate and staff alike; surviving six fights and a dozen threats; staying relatively sane over seven weeks in the SHU . . . all had an effect on every aspect of my writing.
It made the violence more real, the humor blacker and sharper, the sex honest, disillusionment and betrayal more heartfelt, emotions more raw . . . .