I was 13 years old and in juvie for stealing car stereos when I read my first novel, a thousand-page colossus of a book by Larry McMurtry titled Lonesome Dove. I recognized it from my father’s nightstand at home and snagged it off the detention center library cart thinking it would give me something to discuss with the old man at visitation. It turned out to be an epic adventure better than any movie I’d ever seen. That was more than 30 years ago, but the twined themes of confinement and reading have been constants in my life that persist to this day.
I was a high school student at Booker T. Washington in Pensacola, Florida, when I graduated from the Juvenile Justice System to the Department of Corrections. The petty thefts and marijuana possessions of my early teens eventually devolved into heavier stuff like cocaine and burglary. By my 18th birthday, I was headed to state prison and would not see the free world again for nine years, seven months, and twenty-one days.
A one-man locust plague
In his bestselling novel Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell writes, “Although reading is no true escape, it can stop a mind from scratching itself raw.” This is especially true in the world of prison. A lot of things happened between 1992 and 2002. My father died, ex-girlfriends had babies, the Internet, Waco, the OJ Simpson trial, Oklahoma City, Monica Lewinsky, Eminem, Y2K, 9/11 … The world on the other side of the razor wire was changing. All I could do was read. I started with Stephen King, then moved on to Sidney Sheldon, then Harold Robbins, Dean Koontz, Jackie Collins, Jean Amel, Pat Conroy, Ken Follett, James Clavell. I went through prison libraries like a one-man locust plague, devouring entire catalogs, an author at a time.
A few other things happened over that lost decade: I shot cocaine for the first time. I learned to be a convict. I learned how to play poker. I observed some of the best and worst of human nature, not only in my fellow prisoners and the guards, but in myself as well. I learned to play guitar, I learned Spanish, I fought, I worked out. But mostly, I read. Historical fiction, women’s fiction, westerns, techno thrillers, fantasy, suspense, even urban authors such as Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim. I didn’t discriminate. If it was on the shelf, it eventually found its way under my pillow. Looking back, I think the rhythm of the story crept into my subconscious and down into my bones over all those nights reading by the light coming through the cell bars.
Making up for lost time
When I finally bingo’d up out of there and returned to the land of the living, I had a handful of hopes and dreams but no concrete goals and no real direction. Just a vague plan of never going back. Even though I was 28, I’d been living in a time capsule for almost 10 years, so emotionally I was still somewhere around age 18. Prison will stunt your growth like that. Every sentence handed down should come with a Surgeon General’s warning. I just wanted to make up for all that lost time.
In his excellent book, The Untethered Soul, Michael Singer explains that if you pull a pendulum thirty degrees to the right, it will swing back thirty degrees to the left. “… all the laws are the same – inner laws and outer laws. The same principles drive everything in this world. If you pull a pendulum out one way, it will swing back just that far the other way. If you’ve been starving for days and somebody puts food in front of you, you won’t be polite when you’re eating. You’ll shove that food in your mouth like an animal.” That’s how I attacked freedom; with the savage desperation of a starving man. Wherever life pulsed hardest and fastest, that’s where I wanted to be: raves, casinos, strip bars, drug holes, Bourbon Street. During my brief vacation in that wild, thundering free world, I lived life without brakes. I fell madly in love, crashed three different cars, got seventy staples in my head from brain surgery, played guitar on New Orleans street corners, became hooked on the most soul-sucking drug ever invented, lost everything, robbed two gas stations, got mutilated by police canines, got stomped, arrested, and dumped back in the county jail with the most serious charges I’ve ever faced. I remember wandering around the booking area swathed in bandages from the dog bites, so emaciated that bones were sticking out of my face, scoping out the ceilings for a good place to hang myself. Broken. Miserable. Hopeless.
Months later, when the dope smoke finally worked its way from between my ears, I would lay in my bunk wondering if some people were just destined to live their lives in cages. I’d been in and out of institutions since I was 12 years old. Was this all I was meant to be? Was it written in the stars that I be a career criminal? A crackhead? There had to be a higher purpose. I needed there to be some deeper reason for the mess I’d made of my life.
I was eventually sentenced to twenty years mandatory in state prison. Then, in a weird twist, the federal government swooped in and indicted me as well, sentencing me to an additional 379 months. I knew my life was pretty much over so I did the one thing I’d been doing since Juvenile Hall. I found a book and I read.
David Baldacci, Wilbur Smith, Bernard Cornwell, Barbara Kingsolver, Danielle Steel, George R. R. Martin, Conn Iggulden, Patrick Rothfuss, Anne Rice … I lost myself in palace intrigue, in distant lands and battles and adventures and romances. But there was a subtle difference between this middle-aged me and my younger self that I was growing increasingly aware of with each book: I had begun using protagonists as measuring sticks. Was I that brave? Was I that honorable? Was I that loyal? Was I that kind? What did real manhood look like? The face staring back in the mirror? The killers on the yard? Harold Robbins’ Nevada Smith? Hesse’s Siddhartha?
The existential questions I was flirting with in the county jail only gained momentum as the years passed. Now the books that found their way into my hands seemed to carry personal messages from the universe. Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love taught me about the two forces at play in an acorn. Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth introduced me to the egoic mind. Bo Lozoff’s We’re All Doing Time made me see myself as a monk and the prison as a monastery.
But the most influential book I’ve ever read, the book that changed my life, will remain unnamed. Because it sucked. I won’t bash another author, that’s not my style, but the book was a bestseller about prison of all things, a subject I’m fairly familiar with. Midway through, I slammed it shut for the final time and thought, “I can do better.”
That’s how all this started.
Miles Davis once said, “You have to play a long time in order to play like yourself.” I’ve never taken a creative writing course. I earned my GED in prison when I was 19 but that’s about the extent of my formal education aside from a failed half-semester at community college. The majority of my writing over the last 25 years has been in the form of letters, mostly unanswered; to exes, old friends and distant relatives. I saw it as a challenge to draft the best letters possible, to write how I talk, to make them crave my words, to leave them no choice but to respond. I was rarely successful. But I was cool with that. After a while I realized I wasn’t writing them anyway. I was writing me. Now I write the whole world letters in the form of my books.
‘Write what you know’
There’s an old adage among writers: “Write what you know.” John Grisham was a lawyer before he was a bestselling author. Robin Cook was a doctor. Michael Connelly was a crime beat reporter. Joseph Wambaugh was a cop. I am a prisoner. The stories I tell are based on over a quarter-century of experience living in one of the most notoriously corrupt prison systems in U.S. history: The Florida Department of Corrections. Just as other authors’ various backgrounds inform their stories, my life on this side of the razor wire makes me uniquely qualified to tell my own.
When I began writing Consider the Dragonfly in February 2011, I had no idea what I was doing. How long was a chapter? What constituted a scene? I assumed adverbs were weapons of word wizardry and semicolons made for brilliant writing. I learned how to write dialogue by copying Susan Collins’ The Hunger Games and action sequences from the late great David Gemmell, author of the Troy trilogy. Around chapter nine, I received The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell and realized that cocky as I was, I really didn’t know jack about writing. Mr. Bell’s book taught me about word quotas, the show-don’t-tell rule, clichés, villains, subplots, the three-act structure. I had to go back and scratch out all those amateurish adverbs and those “transvestite hermaphrodite semicolons.” A dog-eared copy of that same book is sitting on my bunk right now. When you have a rap sheet as long as mine and you dare call yourself a writer, people are just waiting to dismiss you as a stupid criminal. I may be one – I definitely used to be – but it was the firm wisdom of James Scott Bell that kept me from rushing out into public with my fly open.
They say, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” After releasing Consider the Dragonfly I became friends with a freelance editor and author named Kelly Conrad who also happens to have a master’s degree in mental health counseling (bonus!). If my second novel, With Arms Unbound, is stronger, tighter, or more fluid than the first, it’s because of her gentle yet masterful insights.
I finished my third novel, On the Shoulders of Giants, in the summer of 2016 and it was released in late fall. It’s centered around foster care, race relations, and the infamous Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys. If you’ve never heard of the place, Google it. They’re still digging up the bodies.
My books are my kids
My prison release date is still a long way off. I’ll be pushing 60 by then, much too old to start a family. My kids are the books I write. Each cover is tatted on my skin, just as my fellow inmates have the names of their children inked in their flesh. Consider the Dragonfly is my son, With Arms Unbound is my daughter, On the Shoulders of Giants and every book that follows will be my legacy. And just as every parent has big dreams for their kids, I hope mine grow up to do great things too. Maybe one will even change the world, or at least the prison system.
In 2014, I watched along with the rest of the country as Lupita Nyong’o won an Oscar. I was so inspired when in her acceptance speech she said, “No matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid.” When I look around my dorm today I see guys reading books that I wrote. It is a rush that no chemical could rival. Trust the expert on this one. But it’s not an ego thing. It’s because I know that beneath the broken characters and violent landscapes that I write about, behind the moral messages of kindness and self-mastery that are woven into the story lines, there is a deeper meaning to the books, a truth that transcends even the most intricate plot: they were written by a fellow nobody. A career criminal. A loser. A crackhead. All those years ago when that skinny, suicidal, canine-ravaged version of myself stared up at the cell ceiling, hoping there was some higher purpose for the embarrassing mess I’d made of my life, it turns out there was. I was going to be a writer. It was written in the stars.