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Back to work

Five years ago, I was flipping through a writing magazine on autopilot, dismissing various poets and essayists based on appearance — basically being a shallow, troglodyte male — when I spotted a pretty face next to an article. I stopped to see what the author had to say… and was immediately hooked.

She was an adjunct professor at a university up north, was also a memoirist, recovering heroin addict, and former dominatrix in a Manhattan dungeon. Her essay dealt with interviewing for writing faculty positions, packing up her girlfriend and her dog and moving to Brooklyn, and working on her book during the long public transit commute to and from the university.

Although it’s been five years and four prisons since I read the article, I remember this sentence clearly: “The psychic immersion required to write a full-length novel is not conducive to the guy in the next seat on the bus munching pork skins…”

I felt her. Attempting to write books in prison is a similar experience. Only the dude munching pork skins is always there, and the bus never stops. I decided to write her a letter. Why not? We were both scribes. Both part of the same community. Consider the Dragonfly was racking up positive reviews by this time and With Arms Unbound appeared in Writers Digest magazine for an honorable mention in their annual book awards. But when you write in a vacuum — when you live in a vacuum — there’s always that nagging question: Am I really a writer? So in the opening paragraph of my letter, I didn’t just acknowledge the elephant in the room, I grabbed Babar by the trunk.

I don’t remember exactly what I said but it was something like “I’m intimidated by you. Not only because you’re a beautiful lesbian, not only because you’re a published author, but because you’re an adjunct professor. Please don’t grade this letter…”

While I was waiting for her to respond, I ordered her book. Like her article, it was brilliantly written. Unlike her article, it gave a detailed account of her work in the sex trade. Most of her clientele were investment bankers and wealthy hedge fund types who wanted to dress up in diapers and have her shout at them, smack them around, tie them up. Seems like there was something about a catheter too. I’m not sure. I was pretty traumatized before the midway point of the book. Not by the rich guys and their weird sexual fetishes. But by my own words. I told her I was “intimidated” by her. Did she think I was, like, into being intimidated? Was she confusing me with those billionaires in baby bibs? To add insult to injury, she meets a guy at the end of the book who becomes her fiancé and they live happily ever after. In my letter I called her a beautiful lesbian. Oops.

When you write complete strangers from a correctional institution, there’s always a chance that you’ll be mistaken for a deranged stalker. This is why I stick to the one letter rule. Just send it out and let the Universe deal with the rest. Whether it’s an agent, a reviewer, a sentencing judge, or the President of the United States. If I never hear back, then I can breathe easy knowing I gave it my best shot. But this was different. I had to write her again. If only to clarify. So after six months and no response, I did just that.

“First of all, I want to apologize for calling you a beautiful lesbian. I didn’t realize you were engaged to a guy until I read your memoir. Second, when I said I was intimidated by you, I didn’t mean it as a come-on. I’m not into being beat up or wearing diapers and the only time I’ve ever endured a catheter was when I woke up in ICU after a car accident that resulted in brain surgery. A highly unpleasant experience that I hope I never go through again…”

Two weeks later, I heard my name at mail call. I knew it was her when I saw the envelope. She said that she had been meaning to write since my first letter arrived, that time had just gotten away from her, that it never crossed her mind that I was into intimidation, but she got a good laugh out of me worrying she would think that. Finally, she said she IS a beautiful lesbian. So there was no need to feel like a jackass. Her happily-ever-after ended before her book was even published and all her subsequent happily-ever-afters had been women.

I received one more letter from her after that. It was somewhere between Thanksgiving and Christmas of 2016. I was in solitary confinement at Santa Rosa, and Trump had just been elected. Things looked pretty bleak. But I was moved by her words: “The morning of November 9 was one of the worst of my life. At least as an American. That day I had this overwhelming feeling, like I wanted someone (Mom? Obama?) to swoop in and rescue us. But then I realized that I am an adult writer and educator and activist, and it is my job to rescue us. Whatever complacency my generation has enjoyed as a result of the struggles of our parents, that shit is over. It’s time to work!”

I recently came across that letter when I was straightening out my locker. Crazy, that three years have passed since the Newly Crowned King proclaimed his inauguration a glowing success with unprecedented attendance. Three years of illiterate tweets, climate pact pullouts, hush money payouts, inner circle indictments, hurricane map embellishments, ally alienation, enemy enabling, hate group coddling, war hero disrespecting, constitutional nose-thumbing, wedge-driving, name calling, obstructive, divisive, classless, clueless leadership. But we’re in the homestretch now. Last leg of the journey. November 2020 is 10 months away. I took last year off. I didn’t want to participate in the toxic polemic and political vitriol that is driving families and friends and neighbors apart. So I just focused on humanizing the people in my orbit. But my professor friend is correct. Too much is at stake to be complacent. It’s time to get to work.

George

There’s this line in Eat Pray Love about Quest Physics. The idea that life is a spiritual journey and everyone we encounter along the way is our teacher, nudging us down the path to enlightenment. I believe this. My most recent teacher is Big George. He moved into the bunk next to me when my friend Menu went home. The exchange was about as seamless as the Obama/Trump White House transition.

George is a 300-pound, 47-year-old man, but mentally he’s somewhere around age 10. It took all of two seconds of conversation to realize this. From the moment he dragged his property down my row and plopped down across from me, I knew he was going to be a character. I had no idea…

“Can I borrow some cookies? What are you writing? Are you eating again? Who sent you that letter? The Dolphins suck!” Big George has not shut up since he moved in. At first it was funny. Then it was irritating. Finally, it reached the point where I had to keep my headphones in at all times. Dude is driven by the compulsion to contaminate every precious sliver of silence with mindless chatter. He can’t help himself. Even as I write this, he’s sitting over there, two feet to my left, narrating the comings and goings of the dorm in his signature whiny nasal voice. Big George doesn’t talk. He squawks. The only time he ever shuts up is when he’s shoveling food into his face.

A few months ago he says, “You think you’re so cool just because you wrote a book. I’m gonna write a book and it’s gonna be way better than yours.” Then a couple weeks later, “Hey Malcolm! You wanna be in my book? I’m a CIA agent with two samurai swords and I own a car dealership with a strip bar on the roof. Buy a car and get a free lap dance!” He’s been over there writing away ever since.

Full disclosure: I was dealing with a vicious bout of writers block for most of 2019 so it was especially infuriating to look over and see his pen gliding effortlessly across his notebook while I thrashed and groped for words. Occasionally, he would catch me staring at the blank page and hit me with that halfwit smile of his. “What are you doing over there? You haven’t written anything! I’m already on page 85.”

Grrrr.

“Wanna read a little bit?” he offered one day.
I did not. But there’s this egocentric part of me that looks in the mirror and sees a writing instructor, sent to assist the unwashed and illiterate. So I sighed and held out my hand.

It was worse than I imagined. Third-grader handwriting, atrocious punctuation, no indentation. The words that weren’t misspelled just trailed off into scribble. I looked up to find him smiling like an expectant chef who had just served up the house special. He raised his eyebrows.

I told him it was garbage. Told him he was trying to fly before he could walk. Told him he should learn the fundamentals first. He needed to write good sentences before he could write good paragraphs, much less good books. He was highly indignant, insisted that I read more. I shook my head and handed him back his manuscript.

“Write me one good sentence and I’ll think about it,” I said. “One simple sentence, but it has to be capitalized, punctuated, and spelled correctly. Can you do that?” He tore a piece of paper from his notebook and went straight to work, tongue out, brow furrowed in concentration as he made his letters. When he finished he passed it across the aisle and gave me the chef look again, obviously very pleased with himself. I glanced down at the paper. “My name is Georg!” Almost, man.

It didn’t take long for the rest of the dorm to smell blood in the water. Prison is similar to the schoolyard. Remember the bullies from your childhood? They didn’t have spiritual awakenings and change their lives. They grew up and came here, where they perfected their methods of cruelty. “Look at you,” one sneered at him the other day. “It’s people like you who make me realize that things aren’t so bad after all.”

He shrugged innocently. “Why? What’s so special about me?”
See what I’m saying? Clueless. Big George was born with a “kick me” sign on his ass. Of course, he doesn’t make things any easier by constantly drawing attention to himself. I’ve even gotten in on the action. One day when he wouldn’t shut up, Mr. Benevolent Writing Professor himself pulled back a rubber band and snapped him right on a fat roll. “Ouch!” he exclaimed. “What’d you do that for?” It left a red welt. Not one of my finest moments.

But it may have been a defining moment. Quest Physics. Life is a spiritual journey and everyone we encounter along the way is our teacher. Even the Big Georges of the world. Especially the Big Georges. That’s not me. Prison is oppressive enough without some dick popping you with a rubber band just because you’re different.

Which brings me to New Year’s… The best holiday in my little corner of the universe. Way better than Christmas. Nothing like another year down, another year closer to home. I spent the final week of 2019 like many citizens of the world, taking personal inventory, getting my house in order, figuring out my goals and resolutions for 2020. For me, it’s the usual suspects — finish current novel, write more essays, build strength, increase flexibility, hydrate, read more, listen better, be more efficient with time… But this year, kindness and tolerance surge back to the top of the leader board. I lost my way over the last 12 months. It took a CIA agent with samurai swords to lead me out of the wilderness. They say that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. I’m fortunate to have crossed paths with Big Georg.
Love you guys. Happy 2020!