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Letter to President Obama
Earlier this week, I sent a letter to President Obama, along with my first two novels, Consider the Dragonfly and With Arms Unbound. The letter I wrote to him to accompany those books is below. I wanted to share it with you…

Dear President Obama,
Hello. Although I know the odds of this ever reaching your desk are long, it is still an honor to be writing to you. Very cool. I’m an incarcerated author. I write under the pseudonym Malcolm Ivey. I’ve been in prison for almost 12 years of a 30-year Federal prison sentence. I robbed two gas stations with a gun I stole from a neighbor. I didn’t hurt anyone. I’ve never even fired a gun. My plan was to rob and get high until I was cornered and then turn the pistol on myself. I couldn’t even get that right. Embarrassing to admit that to a man who’s reached the level of success that you have, but in my defense I was an unconscious, strung-out, pitiful thing out there. As the saying goes, “I didn’t get arrested, I got rescued.”

I’ve been a drug abuser for most of my life, both in and outside of prison (you’d be amazed at how accessible drugs are in America’s gated communities). Eight years ago, with age 40 rapidly approaching and nothing to show for my life except a criminal record that dates back to the seventh grade, I got it in my head that writing a book would somehow validate me. I’m not sure about validation, but I know it saved my life. My first two novels are enclosed. I’m aware that your schedule is pretty jammed right now, but I’m hoping that you will have some downtime after January, once the fate and weight of the free world no longer rests on your shoulders. Consider the Dragonfly is the story of a bullied teen who finds himself in the school-to-prison pipeline. With Arms Unbound deals with domestic violence and the horrors of crystal meth. My third novel will be out this fall. It’s called On the Shoulders of Giants. If the title sounds familiar it’s because I lifted it from one of your speeches. I know the word “lifted” may imply theft, but this was more of a tribute to you than a return to my criminal past. You even make a cameo. This book focuses on race, the infamous Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, and the redemptive power of writing. I think it’s my best.

In a way, your historic run to the White House was a catalyst for many of the changes that I’ve made in my own life. In your acceptance speech at Grant Park you asked America, “When are we going to realize that we are the ones we’ve been waiting for?” Those words resonated with me, as I’m sure they did with many people around the world. Over the last eight years, I have evolved on this prison bunk as a writer and a man, just as you have evolved in the Oval Office as Commander in Chief. And although my contributions to humanity pale in comparison to what you’ve done for prisoners, the environment, the auto industry, the uninsured, the LGBT community, and future generations of Americans, I’m still doing everything I can from where I am. Just wanted you to know.

Thanks for the inspiration.

Paradox and reluctant compassion

Every writer loves a good paradox. Our brains are trained to sniff out life’s Catch 22’s and spin them into plot points:

A doctor must decide between saving a pregnant  mother or her unborn child. A cop with a drug dealer son must choose between loyalty to the job and loyalty to his family. A general has to decide between bombing a village or letting an international terrorist slip away…

These agonizing decisions are the beating heart of good fiction. They keep the pages turning and the reader engaged. But in real life, such dilemmas are a lot less fun. Consider the most recent in my world…

You’ve probably heard me talk about the blind man. He’s been in prison since 1986. I met him a couple of months ago when I moved into my current dormitory. He challenged me to a game of knock gin with his Braille playing cards and we’ve been cool ever since. I walk with him to the chow hall for meals, and most evenings we listen to Braves games together.

For the record, I am not friendly and I don’t require camaraderie. I think of myself as fully self-contained. I could do years on this bunk without speaking to a soul and be perfectly fine. I really prefer the conversation in my head to the conversations around me, and get cranky whenever someone interrupts. But I was intrigued by the blind man. Although my latest novel, On the Shoulders of Giants, touches on a form of blindness called retinopathy, I’ve never actually hung out with a blind person and I was curious to learn how accurate my assumptions were. Plus, this dude has a sunny disposition in spite of his handicap and I admired his self-sufficiency.

The more I got to know him, the more I liked him. He told me stories about riding bicycles while flanked tightly by his two brothers who kept his course true, about the one time he drove a car (!), about his proficiency at the sport of wrestling as a kid in the 50s. When I asked him about the school for the blind where he lived from ages 5 to 18, his usual smile faded. “There were some nice people there, but some were just plain evil.”

I shouldn’t have looked him up. I usually don’t. Nobody is in prison for going to church, and I’d rather not know the sordid details of people’s criminal histories. But there are a couple of exceptions: 1) if we’re cellmates; and 2) if we’re friends. Then I need to know.

In hindsight, it was pretty obvious. What else could he be in prison for? Racketeering? Arson? A blind armed robber? I think I just assumed it was murder. I mean, he does have a life sentence. Turns out, it was something much uglier. Sexual battery. The worst kind. On a child younger than 12. Enter the paradox.

I know what you’re thinking: What paradox? He’s a diaper sniper. Case closed. I feel you. In the hierarchy of prison, child molesters are at the very bottom of the food chain, just below punks and snitches. During my quarter-century in the joint, I’ve witnessed them get turned out, pimped out, and traded like baseball cards until they eventually either commit suicide or check into protective custody. Those who manage to escape that fate are still robbed, extorted, or at the very least, slapped around and relentlessly ridiculed. Although I don’t participate in the abuse, I don’t have any sympathy either. I see it as karmic law in action.

I’m sure there are parents out there who take small solace in the fact that these men are being tormented in here. I know if one of my nieces or nephews were victimized, I would transfer to every prison in the state until I found the predator and punished him for his actions.

But this blind man… I can’t make myself hate him, or even be cold to him, in spite of whatever he did thirty years ago. This is a big-time conflict of interest. No self-respecting convict would ever treat a cho-mo like a human being. I keep rationalizing, maybe he’s innocent. It seems like the only thing worse than being a child molester is being an innocent man wrongly convicted of those charges.

And then there’s the evil he alluded to at the school for the blind. They say most predators were once victims. The idea of a little blind kid, hundreds of miles from home, being abused by some twisted staff member is as sickening as it is heartbreaking. I couldn’t hate that kid, even though he is now pushing 70. The best that I can do is this reluctant compassion.

But see what I mean? Paradox.

The opinionated voice in my head

I don’t know about you, but my brain came equipped with a paranoid and self-conscious backseat driver who is constantly bumping his gums about every catastrophic and humiliating potentiality that is mathematically possible in a given situation.

This is probably part of the reason why I continued getting high long after the party was over – silencing the inner noise, separating self from brain chatter. Although sometimes this backfired and the dope was like giving the voice in my head a bullhorn.

But this isn’t another of my anti-drug rants. I don’t even consider myself anti-drug. I just can’t use them. For me, drugs come with the curious side effect of landing in the back of police cars. In fact, I’m currently 11 years into a 30-year sentence for actions resulting from my voracious, insatiable appetite for mind-altering substances. But again, this is not about the drugs. This is about the voice.

If you’re thinking “Malcolm is a psycho, he’s got a voice in his head,” that would be the same voice I’m referring to. We’ve all got it. This highly opinionated, ultra-sensitive, threat-assessing, judgment-casting inner narrator who edits the inflow of the world through the senses with various degrees of inflection. Mine happened to be squawking this morning. I’ll explain…

I’ve been wanting to try yoga for a while, ever since I read Bo Lozoff’s We’re All Doing Time. I’ve been incarcerated for most of my life and I grew up hanging from the pull-up and dip bars on rec yards across the state of Florida. These sorts of exercises are a given, as routine as chow and count. There’s a reason why your crackhead nephew gets arrested skinny enough to hide behind a pine tree, and gets out with pecs like Lou Ferrigno. We get buff in here. It’s part of the prison experience.

Yoga has a different draw: flexibility, supple internal organs, reduced stress, increased energy, focus, concentration, peace of mind. At 42 years old, these things seem more important to me now than having massive biceps. So this morning I woke up, brushed my teeth, slammed a bottle of water, and settled into the Corpse pose in the space beside my bunk.

Almost immediately, the voice piped up: “You look weird, man.” I ignored it and climbed to my feet to attempt the Sun Salutation. The voice was silent for a moment, but by the time I reached Downward Dog, it was back with a nervous vengeance: “Dude, what the hell? People are staring. They’re gonna think you’re soft or gay or crazy.” The voice was right. Yoga postures aren’t exactly the most prison-friendly exercises. The last thing I wanted was some rapist checking me out while I attempted the Plough.

I couldn’t help it. I opened an eye and surveyed the dorm. The guy across the aisle was zoned out on psych meds, another had toothpaste slathered over his face, the old man behind me was in a heated debate with an invisible opponent. No one was paying any attention to what I was doing.

I had to laugh at myself. Why was I sweating appearances when I live in a crazy house? Probably because my paranoid backseat driver convinced me yet again that my reputation, manhood, and very existence depended on it.

Here’s hoping your voice is more laid-back than mine.

Nothing feels better than kindness
I’ve been in a slump lately. I think it’s some kind of writer’s postpartum. Now that On the Shoulders of Giants is complete and in the editing phase, I don’t know what to do with myself. Without a working project, I feel adrift. Anchorless. And my old diversions only leave me hollow and unfulfilled.

So I was already grumpy when I sat down with the blind man this morning, but the USA Today Sports Weekly doesn’t come in Braille and I gave him my word. (Dude is a die-hard Braves fan. He listens to their games every night on AM radio. He’s also a baseball historian. Pretty amazing, really. Born blind and can still see the game in vivid detail. I never knew the difference between a sinker and a slider until he broke it down for me.)

I’m usually in awe of the blind man. Just the sound of his stick tapping the concrete will make me smile. He’s a good guy with good energy. Both are rarities in here. But today I wasn’t feeling it. I was wrapped up in my own problems: No book to consume me, no woman to love me, no rec yard, no mail, and a release date that is still thousands of days away. Me and my problems. Me me me.

But something happened as I began rattling off batting averages, OBPs, and ERAs to this guy who’s been in prison since 1986 and blind since birth. When I glanced up from the magazine and saw his unseeing eyes darting right and left, processing the information I was relaying, relishing it, I realized I was no longer annoyed. My heart was suddenly wide open, my troubles were forgotten, and in that moment, I was happy.

Why do I always forget this simple truth until it sneaks up on me? Nothing feels better than kindness. I need to practice it more often.

Magical number 9
I’ve always had a thing for the number 9. When I was a kid, there was a local graffiti artist who used to tag it all over South Miami. I remember riding in the back of our family car and seeing it spray-painted on bus stops and the sides of businesses. Once I was conditioned to look for it, the number began popping up everywhere. Highlighted on taxicabs, gas station price signs, and math homework assignments.

When I was 18 (1+8=9), I came to prison and discovered Coast to Coast with Art Bell on AM radio. One of his guests was a numerologist who spent an entire segment on the number 9, pointing out its unique properties, relating it to the Mayans and ancient mathematicians. It was like he was talking about a childhood friend.

My life is full of 9’s. My mom had me when she was 27 (2+7=9). Her mom had her when she was 18 (1+8=9). When the universe blesses me with a love interest and I find out her birthday, my mind instantly begins its calculations (“7/5/1984: 7+5+1+9+8+4=34 and 3+4=7. Damn. Almost. If only she’d been born in September.”). When my nieces and nephews turn 9, they get a long, rambling card pointing out the magic of the age and encouraging them to make the most of it. Many of the cell numbers and dates that appear in Consider the Dragonfly and With Arms Unbound are nods to 9. There’s a full-blown tribute to the number via the character Scarlett McGhee in On the Shoulders of Giants.

So, of course, 2016 was destined to be a gigantic year (2+0+1+6=9) and after a sluggish start, it is now surpassing expectations. My third novel is in the pipeline, the Miami Dolphins drafted Laremy Tunsil, With Arms Unbound received Honorable Mention in Writer’s Digest magazine, and a recent Supreme Court ruling may reduce my release date from 2032 (don’t bother, it’s 7) to 2025 (2+0+2+5=9) and it’s only May!

Good old 9. What’s your favorite number?

The universe has a sense of humor
Besides my books, the crowning achievement of my middle-age years is the fact that I haven’t received a disciplinary report (DR) since 2009. A major feat, considering that my prison history is littered with rule infractions — contraband, fighting, multiple positive drug urinalyses, disrespect. I’ve probably been to the hole 50 times (my last stay was for more than eight months). I’ve lost all my gain time, been sprayed with gas, roughed up, cased up, stripped, shipped, and — most painfully — had my visitation privileges yanked. It’s been a long journey.

And even when I started focusing on changing my thought patterns and behaviors, even when I committed to reinventing myself, there was still no guarantee that I could remain DR-free. The wrong guard in the wrong mood on the wrong day could result in a 30-day trip to the hole. There’s no such thing as innocence here. Every inmate is guilty “based on an officer’s statement.” This is not some injustice I’m lamenting. This is just part of the prison experience. This is life.

So it was a minor miracle that I made it seven years without incident. Unfortunately, that streak came to an end last month.

There’s this new rule designating the showers “off limits” from 7:45 to 8 p.m. for everyone except transgender inmates. Whether enacted from genuine kindness or some future lawsuit paranoia, I’m not sure. But even if it is a heavy-handed reaction to what’s going on out there in the real world, it’s probably a good rule. I mean, if it stops even one person from being assaulted or gives them a few minutes of peace and security in this hostile and violent place, it’s a good rule, right?

The reason I violated it is simple: I forgot. As I said, the rule is brand new and anyway, there were no transgender inmates living in the dorm. So at 7:55, fully soaped and mentally entrenched in the epilogue of my latest novel, I was confronted by a guard and informed that I was being written a DR for entering the shower during the transgender-specified time frame. How did he know I didn’t identify as transgender? Training? Expert analysis? He had a lip full of tobacco and a Confederate flag tat. I’m pretty sure he’s no expert on the subject.

But that’s not the story. Neither is the story my historic run of years coming to an end. The interesting thing about all of this is that the DR raised my custody level, which changed my housing level, which means I am now in a new dorm. My neighbors went from those with release dates within the next 15 to 20 years to mostly lifers. There’s an amputee to my left doing a mandatory 40, a blind man to my right who’s been in since 1986, and the dude across the aisle is fresh off death row. Ironic because the book I just finished writing includes an amputee, a blind man, and a death row subplot. Either the universe has a sense of humor, or its satellites are delayed. Where were these guys while I was researching On the Shoulders of Giants?

Over the next few months, I want to tell you about some of the faces and the stories on my block.

Don’t get it twisted

Two years ago I read an article in ESPN Magazine about a student athlete from New Jersey. Beautiful girl, soccer player, loving family, on scholarship to one of the east coast Ivy League schools.

I’m going from memory here so my facts may not be spot-on. For instance, she may have actually been from Connecticut or on scholarship for track. The one thing I remember clearly about the story is that one day, this beautiful, intelligent young girl took a running start from the top level of a parking garage and leapt to her death.

Although no one knows for sure why she chose to end her life, the general consensus among her friends and family is that she fell into a dark place comparing and measuring herself against the airbrushed lives and Photoshopped pics of her Facebook friends … and found herself lacking.

How tragic.

It made me think about my own online presence. All the motivational quotes and do-gooder posts, all the sanctimonious talk of conquering self and soul evolution. All these books.

Don’t get it twisted. I’ve spent three-quarters of my life in prisons and juvenile facilities. I’ve been locked up eleven years this time. Last time, I did ten. I can barely remember my brief vacation of freedom in between because I was so faded on dope and pills. I’ve let down everyone who’s ever loved me. Most are long gone. Now, at age 42, there’s white in my beard, lines on my face, and ugly scars everywhere. No airbrushing here.

If you’re feeling imperfect, flawed, lacking, congratulations! You’re part of the human race. We are seven billion strong. Some of us are just more adept at concealing, disguising, and revising than others.

Keep your head up.

As if nobody’s watching
There is this middle-aged dude in my dorm. Six-four, probably 240 pounds, mean as a snake and nuttier than squirrel shit. You know those articles in the paper about mentally ill inmates falling through the cracks in the system? This guy is Exhibit A. He rarely speaks, just grunts and mean mugs. Occasionally he’ll howl. But the most noteworthy thing about him is that every day when the mid-day mix comes on the local R&B station, he stands up and begins to dance. Totally oblivious to the cat-calls and laughter from the rest of the dorm, he busts all the old-school moves: the Cabbagepatch, the Wop, the Running Man, even the Roger Rabbit.

While I watch him gyrate from the corner of my eye, a part of me thinks “what a psycho.” I mean, who does that? But deep down, there’s another part of me that kinda respects his crazy, his utter indifference to what anyone thinks about him. A part of me that secretly thinks “I wish I could dance.”

‘Maximum Maternal Velocity’
When I was a little kid, it was a big deal to tie a rope to the seat of a friend’s bike and get pulled around on a skateboard through the potholed back streets of South Miami. Wipeouts were inevitable. I remember coming home with bloody knees and my mom crying as she picked the gravel from my wounds and cleaned them with peroxide. She would beg me not to do it again. Of course, I didn’t listen. I was back at it before the scabs even formed.

When I started skipping school in the seventh grade, she tried everything to get me to stop — threats, punishments, even bribery. I blew her off. She had to work 12-hour days to support our family and I knew she couldn’t be in two places at once. She wept when I landed in juvie for the first time. She told me I wasn’t a bad kid, I was a good kid who sometimes did bad things. Her position never changed, even though I would return again and again.

When I graduated to the adult system at 18, she pleaded with the judge to give me another chance. She told him I was worth saving. Despite her pleas, I was sentenced to nine years in the department of corrections. Over the next decade, she spent most of her weekends on the interstate, headed to one prison or another to visit me. She’d sometimes drive hundreds of miles, only to be informed at the gate that I was in disciplinary confinement and she couldn’t see me. I repeatedly let her down, took her for granted, and manipulated her for money to pay my dope debts (yes, there is dope in prison).

When I was finally released, guess who was waiting in the parking lot, hopping up and down like the next contestant on The Price is Right? She gave me a place to live, bought me job interview clothes, even gave me her old car. And all I did was continue to unravel. The skinned knees of my reckless youth that once made her cry were now ICU visits: punctured lungs, broken ribs, head trauma, brain surgery. As my appetite for chemicals grew voracious, so too did my desperation to get more. Until my brief experiment with freedom came to a screeching halt and I was arrested for armed robbery.

If it was humiliating for Mom, as a county government employee, to have her crackhead son’s face plastered all over the news, she never showed it. She came to every court date, kept telling me that God had a plan for me, kept telling me I wasn’t a bad kid. I was a good kid who sometimes did bad things (even though I was 30 by then). She kept believing in me when everyone else — understandably — washed their hands. I think when my mom looked at me, she didn’t see my rap sheet or my numerous failures and weaknesses, or the 31-year Federal prison sentence I’d just received. She saw her baby.

In Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild, she writes that her mother loved her with “maximum maternal velocity.” I know that feeling. My mom is the Rocky Balboa of mothers. She’s Shel Silverstein’s Giving Tree. Most addicts wear down their families and push them away. My mom wore ME down with her unconditional love. Every word in every book I’ve written is typed by her. I get all the credit, but there is no Malcolm Ivey without her. The coolest thing about this writing journey isn’t the new friends (whom I love), or the good reviews (which I appreciate). It’s the thought of my amazing mom handing one of my books to a neighbor, or an old friend, or a former co-worker and saying, “My son wrote this.”

I love you, Mom. Happy Mother’s Day.


On my block
Last year my 79-year-old neighbor went into my locker while I was on the yard and stole a bag of Doritos. He was positively identified by an eyewitness, a slightly younger old man (74) with eyes like a hawk and no reason to lie.

It put me in a difficult position. A man can’t allow people to steal from him in prison. But on the other hand, come on … the dude is a senior citizen. Spoiler alert: there was no fist fight. I didn’t even want to embarrass him by calling him out on his behavior.

Maybe he was suffering from a bout of dementia and didn’t even remember going into my locker. Maybe he just wanted someone to smash him and put him out of his misery. Or maybe he was just hungry, broke and desperate. In our three years as bunkies, I’ve never seen him receive a money receipt or even a letter.

In the end, I pulled him aside, said I was missing some food and that while I had no idea who stole it, IF it was him, all he had to do was ask. He stopped speaking to me after that. It was no big loss. This is not your stereotypical grandfatherly old man. He’s so abrasive, so grumpy, so racially insensitive that some of the younger inmates nicknamed him Hitler. He snores, his dentures slide halfway out of his mouth when he sleeps. He has tufts of gray hair sprouting from his ears, and he never covers his mouth when he coughs or sneezes. His boycotting of me was more of a blessing than a punishment. He barely existed in my universe anyway. For almost a year we didn’t speak.

Until last night, when out of the blue, he looked over at me and started talking again.

He was born in 1935. He turns 80 this year. He never had a run-in with the law until 1998 when his wife of 41 years died of cancer. Since then it’s been one DUI after the next. As I listened to his story, I could almost physically feel my heart opening. That’s when it hit me. It’s funny how I can do weeks, months, years on autopilot — head down, chest out, face set in a natural prison yard scowl. Me against the world. But then I’ll have a conversation like that and suddenly I’ll remember: “Oh, yeah. Kindness. This feels awesome. This is what it’s all about.”

Unfortunately, the moment always fades and as the days pass, I slip back into unconscious living and forget again. Until the next time. Only kindness matters.

Party animal
I live on a steel bunk in a warehouse. Everything I own in this world is in the footlocker beneath me. It ain’t much; a photo album, a stack of letters, a few books. I’ve been in prison 10 years this time. My release date is 2032. A few hazy, drug-soaked months of strip bars, casinos, and fast living cost me most of my adult life.

I run across old friends and associates from that era on the yard sometimes. They look bad — rotten teeth, track marks, gnawed nails on shaky hands. They give me news of other old friends who weren’t as lucky: overdoses, shootings, suicides. Occasionally I’ll recognize the names of women in the arrest report of my hometown newspaper. Those wide-eyed college girls who were just beginning to experiment with coke and ecstasy in 2003 are now haggard streetwalkers, hardened repeat-offender prostitutes.

This is the natural evolution of drug abuse. Cause and effect. I know you’re thinking it won’t happen to you. I thought I was an exception too. Believe me, no one plans on destroying their life and coming to prison. No little kid daydreams about growing up to rob gas stations for dope money, or getting doused with pepper spray and beaten half to death by abusive guards in a confinement cell, or dying alone in a motel room with a needle in his arm… We call getting high “partying” and like any party, there’s always a mess when the party is over. In fact, the bigger the party, the bigger the mess.

The irony is that the kids we label squares and lames and dorks because they refuse to party grow up to be the doctors who resuscitate us when we overdose, the psychologists who attempt to help us put our broken lives back together, the lawyers who represent us in court when we’re arrested, the judges who sentence us to prison, and the men who step into our families and become the fathers and husbands we failed at being.

So if you’re 15 (or 17 or 24) and you’re popping bars, snorting Roxys or dabbling in meth or molly or whatever, this is what middle-aged drug life looks like. Guaranteed. And if you think it won’t happen to you, we can talk more about it when you move into my dorm. The bunk behind mine is open right now. We’ll leave a light on for you. The one from the gun tower.

Dysfunction junction
There are 32 teams in the NFL and 53 players on each active roster. That’s 1,696 men. Throw in another 300 or so for each team’s practice squad and P.U.P. list and we’re talking about 2,000 people. Now imagine if that was a town. Dysfunction Junction. Population 2000.

But this is no rural community with an economy on life support, or some fading rust belt township. This is a town full of millionaires. Of mansions and Maseratis. Where the average income is higher than the Hamptons, but the crime rate per capita is worse than Camden, NJ. Think about all the arrests over the past two years. Not just the high profile cases that made the national news, but the other less publicized domestic violence cases, the assaults, the possession charges, the numerous DUIs. There was even an underwear theft in November. And when you include former citizens of this figurative small town, the statistics become even more alarming. Ex-Patriot Aaron Hernandez is about to begin trial for murder with more potential charges pending, and Ex-Saint Darren Sharper is an alleged serial rapist.

Most towns with such minuscule populations have little more than a holding tank in a police substation to house the town drunkard overnight. Think Mayberry. NFLville would need a jail as big as Rikers Island to hold all the defendants. But then again, hardly any of them would ever go to jail because their high-priced attorneys would ensure that they got off with a few months’ probation and community service.

Do I sound bitter? I’m not. I live for the Fall. The Miami Dolphins are right behind Momma on my list of loyalties. And the NFL is not all bad. For every ugly story there are ten that will warm your heart and give you faith in humanity. But I live in a prison dorm and the same can be said for the dudes in the neighboring bunks. I just think it’s amazing that such a small, affluent community could be so rife with crime and self-sabotage.

Makes you wonder if there’s something in the Gatorade.

Did you see it?
If you weren’t paying attention, you might have missed it. I’m surprised the cameras even caught it. But last night at the AMAs during her performance of “The Heart Wants What It Wants,” Selina Gomez closed her eyes and mouthed the words, “Thank you Jesus.” I admit that I am not the most devout man in the world, and I normally roll my eyes when some millionaire pop icon plays the God card, but there was something different about this. Maybe because it was so subtle. It was almost as if she was asking for and receiving strength mid-performance. It just felt genuine.

I won’t pretend to know all about Selina Gomez, but I’ve watched enough Hollywood Extra to know that she is the on-again, off-again girlfriend of Justin Beiber. I’m assuming that “The Heart Wants What It Wants” is about him, but I don’t know. I do know that great art is supposed to draw you in, to make you feel, to move you. And last night, it wasn’t Ariana Grande’s vocal acrobatics that moved me the most, or Taylor Swift’s brilliant choreography, or even JLo and Iggy Azalea’s booty popping. It was Selena Gomez, beautiful, elegant, vulnerable, standing before the world, leaning on her God and whispering “Thank you Jesus.”

Form vs. substance
We’ve all known loudmouths. There’s one in every hood, every club, every schoolyard, every basketball court, every prison dorm. They’re everywhere, beating on their chests, threatening, bullying, shadowboxing, trumpeting their own toughness. And most of the time, we believe them. So it’s always surprising when someone comes along and knocks them on their ass. They were all form and no substance.

How about that dude who’s constantly spouting off about politics? He’s brilliant and he wants to make certain that you know he’s brilliant. What’s this guy even doing working a 9 to 5 job? He should be hosting Face the Nation. Yet when engaged in conversation with him, it becomes clear that he’s merely repeating the opinions of others, that he’s woven a mask from the words of Fox News analysts and talk-radio blowhards. And underneath there is no substance.

Have you ever met a beautiful person whose good looks were nullified by a selfish, shallow personality? An intellectual with no common sense? A loyal church-goer with no compassion? Form is vinyl siding; substance is a house’s foundation. Form is candy paint and chrome rims; substance is a V8 engine. Rippling muscle, hairpieces, tats, piercings, boob jobs: form. Courage, honor, faithfulness, sixteen-hour workdays during Christmas: substance.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not bashing form. There’s something to be said for a nice body, a sparkling white smile, a sick tattoo. But if there’s no substance, then all the shiny outside stuff is basically expensive wrapping paper over a pair of tube socks.

How would I know? What qualifies me to speak on this subject? The short answer is: I’m a master of form. I am all of the above (minus the hairpiece and boob job) and after spending the better part of 40 years creating the illusion of instead of being, my chameleonic ways have left me feeling empty, phony, insubstantial. That’s what has led me on this fantastic journey of self-exploration, of spinal fortification, of reconciling inner with outer. Form never lasts. Pretty words evaporate. Skin sags, teeth rot, hair eventually falls out. It’s inevitable. When I’m 90, do I want to be a miserable clot of fears and complaints and regret, or a beacon of light? The relentless pursuit of character is Botox for the soul. Choose substance.

The case for not being a lick
Do you know what a lick is? Not the generic definition. This has nothing to do with the tongue or fire or even defeating something. I’m talking slang here. For those of you who have never tasted the misery of being enslaved by a chemical, a “lick” is what a drug dealer calls his customer. The guy who pawns his mother’s lawnmower for crack money is someone’s lick. So is the woman who sells her body for a 20 rock, or a shot of ice, or a Roxy 30. A drug dealer may pretend to like you, he may act oblivious to your rumpled clothing and declining weight, he may even chill with you for a while after money and merchandise are exchanged. But make no mistake, inwardly he’s smirking at your weakness. Regardless of the illusion of equal footing, this is not some business transaction. You are sick and desperate for what he has in his pocket, and he has all the power. You’re his sucker, his chump, his lick. Pointblank. He’s buying clothes and cars and bling while your life is crumbling all around you.

It’s humiliating to admit this, but I’ve been a lick for most of my life. As of this writing, I’m not even halfway through a 379-month prison sentence for robbing gas stations. Not because I was starving or because there was a recession and I was desperate to feed my family. No. I wish, but no. I was just a lick trying to scrape up money to bring to my dopeman. So you get it, right? Drugs are bad. I know what you’re thinking: “Thank you very much, Diane Sawyer, but this is not breaking news.” There are millions upon millions of stories out there about the soul-sucking consequences of drug abuse.

But this is not an anti-drug rant. This is an anti-lick rant.

At the risk of sounding like the illegitimate child of Tipper Gore and Joe McCarthy, I’ll attempt to explain. The predatory paradigm of dopeman and lick is not restricted to drug culture; it’s everywhere. Millionaire rappers laugh all the way to the bank while the kids who mindlessly, hypnotically repeat their lyrics get shot down in the streets, or come to prison with life sentences for trying to live out these murderous, unsustainable fairy tales that are being spoon-fed to them under the label of “cool.” Metal bands romanticize suicides and overdoses as if they were heroic acts. Violent video games, sexting, internet porn; it makes sense that kids are the biggest licks because they are the most inexperienced and therefore vulnerable. But it’s not just kids. Big Pharma is a billion-dollar industry. Middle Eastern turf wars are reported as ideological clashes but are really all about oil and who gets to sell it to us. Think we’re not China’s licks? Check out the “Made in” sticker on the back of any product sold at the local Super Walmart. Everybody wants a piece.

The Eagles have a terrific lyric in the song “Already Gone” – “So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains, and we never even know we have the key.” In this case, the key is awareness, knowledge, moderation. Don’t be a lick.

The radical choice of militant kindness

This post also appeared on Huffington Post in November 2014
The first lesson every young man learns upon entering the prison system is that aggression is king and violence is law. The traits that are valued in the real world — honesty, generosity, friendliness — are viewed as weaknesses in prison. Weaknesses that are pounced upon and exploited. Survival in this world depends on at least the perception of brutality and if you’re not particularly brutal, you had better be a damn good actor.

So that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 22 years. Acting. Acting tough, acting hard, acting cold. Acting as if I don’t see the loneliness and sadness and brokenness that surrounds me. Why? Simple: Fear.

In 1992, a scrawny teenage version of myself looked around at the savage world of prison and said to my mind, “Help! I don’t wanna be jumped or stabbed or raped or beaten to death by abusive guards. I wanna make it back home in one piece!” And my mind, amazing babbling problem-solver that it is, said, “I got this,” and went to work on building a wall and posting the ultra-sensitive ego as a sentry to ward off any potential threats. My job was to act. And act I did. I spent so much time acting that I almost lost myself inside the façade that was supposed to be protecting me. Almost.

But looking at prison through the eyes of a 40-year-old man is a much different experience than seeing it through the eyes of a scared little 18-year-old kid. And recently, after decades of fortifying this hardened exterior and living with a conditioned mindset that places toughness over all other attributes, a series of books, films, and extraordinary people have wandered into my life with an unmistakable message: there is nothing more honorable, more radical, more standup than the path of kindness. Especially in such a hopeless world.

Suddenly — no, not suddenly — gradually, I wanted this more than anything else. Militant kindness. Love without fear. A wide open heart. For someone who has spent years coveting the appearance of fearlessness and physical strength, the concept of kindness, regardless of consequence, was a revelation. A last shot at a life of meaning and authenticity. I wanted to get back to the me I was before all of this acting BS began, back to the kid I built these walls to protect.

Kindness. It seems like such an easy choice. But a crazy thing happens when you drop your guard and step from behind that icy standoffish barrier: people become comfortable around you. Comfortable enough to open up, to confide in you, and occasionally, comfortable enough to hurt you. Or at least say things that are damaging to your ego. But that is what we want, isn’t it? It’s what I want. This lonely half-life of keeping the world at arm’s length for a false sense of safety and to defend the ego is a fool’s game and the exhaustive struggle to continue propping up an illusion is not only cowardice, it’s treasonous. Only kindness matter

A fresh take on prison reform
Another day, another article involving prison reform. The same politicians who were once shaking their trembling fists and promising to get tough on crime are now calling for an end to the war on drugs. The crocodilian Beltway suits are coming out of the woodwork to be at the forefront of this hot-button issue, even (gasp!) reaching across the aisle, which has been a rarity since our 44th president coached Chief Justice Roberts through his inaugural swear-in.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the numbers. They’re almost a catch phrase by now. The U.S. makes up only 5% of the world’s population, yet a whopping 25% of the world’s prisoners are confined right here in the U.S. of A. The world’s freest country owns the dubious distinction of being the world’s leading incarcerator, and it ain’t even close.

Prisoners and prisoners’ rights groups know these numbers and facts by heart but lately they’ve been surfacing in the unlikeliest of places — conservative op-ed pieces. Tea Party congressmen sound bites, even the old guard of “lock ’em up and throw away the key” talk-radio blowhards are suddenly Gandhi-like in their benevolence.

The winds of change are picking up momentum and the prison industrial complex, with its multibillion-dollar, tax-guzzling budget and draconian policies, is slowly drifting into the national crosshairs. But each time the numbers are trotted out and prison reform is mentioned, there’s the accompanying political escape hatch of an asterisk. *Any relief would be strictly for non-violent drug offenders.

Here’s the thing: An overwhelming majority of these “non-violent drug offenders” are the same traffickers and dealers pumping dope into communities. Selling drugs is purported to be a victimless crime, yet anyone who lives in a neighborhood where drugs are sold can plainly see the victims in the form of crackheads and junkies shuffling up and down the block like zombies. Most violent offenders were not out robbing gas stations to build their stock portfolios. They were just sick and desperate for money or anything else of value to exchange with their local non-violent, victimless dope dealer for their coveted medication.

The recently deceased truth seeker and international friend of prisoners, Bo Lozoff, once said, “Every joint smoked, every drink drunk, every pill popped, every crime committed, is just to get some relief. Just to feel good, to feel safe or powerful. It’s like going crazy from a toothache without knowing what to do about it; we blindly grope around in pain, and some people do it more violently than others.”

Prison reform will be a major milestone in the evolution of this country and it’s refreshing to see President Obama, the Department of Justice, and members of congress working tirelessly to eradicate minimum mandatory sentences and the heavy-handed policies of the war on drugs. But rather than blanket relief for non-violent drug offenders, why not a renewed focus on rehabilitation, a revamping of the parole system, and the powerful incentive of hope for all?

The heavy gift of forbidden love

By Marcus S. Conrad, Guest blogger
Since the days of William Shakespeare, writers have been using every tool and contrivance imaginable to bring together two unlikely characters. A flicker of attraction builds to a healthy dose of white-hot passion, then inevitable conflict snaps to life and suddenly, the reader is teetering on the edge as the two struggle their way back to each other. For some, the most engaging part of the story is seeing how they conquer obstacles to find each other again … as we know they will. As we hope they will.

Some say they don’t read romance novels because the genre tends toward the formulaic and predictable. Malcolm Ivey’s second novel, With Arms Unbound, is not strictly of the romance genre, but it does have a romantic subplot which is anything but formulaic and predictable.

The two characters who become lovers meet in the most unlikely of places. From one comes suspicion and aversion, while the other fast-forwards directly to hatred. A thoughtless remark is followed by an unexpected apology, and the ice between them begins to thaw. He risks vulnerability and opens his soul to her, she listens gently and touches his cheek. The author describes the feeling of her touch as “gold dust swirling around in his mouth, down his throat, into his lungs.” This simple gesture is restorative, transformative, astonishing.

Their attraction is hungry and raw, their love fragile and forbidden. Discovery would be disastrous for both. Among the others, they must act like nothing has changed. They must walk through their day outwardly embracing their roles as adversaries, while inwardly carrying this heavy and wonderful gift they’ve given to each other.

Knowing he uses sign language to communicate discreetly with his peers, she decides to learn it as well. From across the room, he watches as her delicate fingers form the letters of words that convey her deepening affection, the electricity of their sweet secret. When she leaves work one afternoon, she knows he’s watching her walk to her car. She appears to be adjusting the shoulder strap of her purse, while signing the letters “I-L-Y” toward his window. Her message hits its mark and he soars into thrilling distraction.

In a private moment, he teaches her the Spanish phrase “Te adoro.” She signs the endearment to him when they are separated. He is nothing like anyone she’s known before; he feels as if every day of his life has been leading up to the day he met her.

But the obstacles are staggering. Eventually, she allows a pessimistic inner voice to cast doubt on the truth, while he languishes in a torturous hell.

The author clearly knows what it’s like to yearn, to crave, to need, to cherish. He reaches into the vast underground of his own soul to dredge up the pain of the past, as well as the buoyant excitement of new love, when delightfully obsessive thoughts of the other person crowd out all reason.

With his skillful pen, Malcolm Ivey takes you back to when you would have recklessly sacrificed anything for just a stolen moment with the one who seems too good to be true and you don’t even care. You can taste the abandonment of your better judgment because you’re floating so high that nothing can even nibble at the edges of your bliss. The author also knows what it’s like to tumble head-first into the despair of loss, the grinding agony of separation.

This tale of forbidden love comes to a logical and satisfying conclusion. The difficult path finally leads home in a most unexpected way. Malcolm Ivey weaves this romantic narrative into his characters’ lives with spot-on mastery, and we are drawn in to accompany them.

Rewriting the code
By Kelly Z. Conrad, Guest Blogger
One of my favorite chapters in the Malcolm Ivey novel, With Arms Unbound, is called “Rewriting the Code” in Part Three. The character of Weasel, befriended and mentored by Kevin, has taken his teacher’s wisdom to heart. While he’s ashamed of a recent backslide into weakness, Weasel decides to avenge a wrong committed against his friend. Sometimes it’s easier to fight for a friend than for oneself.

With Kevin’s guidance, Weasel had begun to see the world and himself with new eyes, and from a fresh perspective. Even while he’s slipping into weakness, Weasel feels the strong pull of conscience. He knows that Kevin would disapprove of his recent choices and there’s a part of him that’s glad Kevin is locked away in confinement and unaware of his lapse in judgment. Weasel actually considers suicide, but doesn’t want to die a coward, and that alone keeps him from acting on it.

Then his opportunity comes. The bully who wronged his friend by taking a silver chain given to him by his deceased brother, is open and unsuspecting. Who would ever suspect Weasel? The scrawny geek who’s been invisible his whole life, easy prey for predators, the object of ridicule, the kid who’s always been too meek and awkward and scared to fight back.

Except on this day. Weasel takes a running charge, jumps and swings as he was taught, and knocks the guy to the ground. He lands another solid punch, then reclaims Kevin’s chain. Instead of simply getting up and accepting his punishment immediately, Weasel takes off in a wild sprint around the rec yard, to the growing cheers of his fellow inmates. He is liberated, joyous, a newborn man. He can hardly believe what just happened. His entire life, he bought the definition that others assigned to him. No one ever considered him because no one ever noticed him. Cowardice, weakness, invisibility were his birthright, written into the very code of his DNA.

Until today. He took action, avenged the crime of theft, stood in for his friend who couldn’t right the wrong himself, and rewrote the code.

This is a powerful lesson for all of us. We do not have to accept the box into which we’ve been placed, either by others or by ourselves. Settling for a lesser definition of who we are is the escape hatch of the lazy, the unevolved, the immature. It absolves us from taking responsibility for ourselves and our choices, which many are all too eager to do. Sure, you can lie down and passively allow yourself to be limited, restrained by the world’s labels. Or you can choose to rewrite the code.

If you’d like help rewriting the code, ask God for assistance.
“Who’s your enemy?” Kevin drilled Weasel during their training sessions.
“Not my opponent,” Weasel would answer.
“Who then?”
“Fear, panic, rage, doubt.”
“Good. Remember this, the opposite of fear isn’t courage. The opposite of fear is faith.”

How Scriptural is that? This dialogue could easily be an exchange between God and any of His children. While the author does not draw a direct line between faith and God, he leaves the door open for the reader.

Nestled among the raw, everyday realities of life depicted in this book are important life lessons, learned the hardest way possible, then illustrated for us by an astute and gifted writer. A man in the truest sense of the word, who began his difficult journey as a child, eventually saw the sense in choosing to rewrite his own code, and became an adult.

His writing is brimming with insight, shrewd and unflinching, into human behavior, human needs and desires, shortcomings and faults, violence, betrayal, tenderness, loyalty, compassion. He brings you crashing into his world, shows you around, and watches your reaction as you try to wrap your mind around, then take in, what has become boring routine for him. He takes you on a wild ride and leaves you off a changed person, inspired to rewrite your own code.

How to make a REAL difference
There is something unsustainable going on in this country. It’s happening in every project building and trailer park across the nation. Babies are being born into poverty, if they are lucky enough to make it that far, as many are discarded with the trash.

These kids grow up like weeds, forgotten by incarcerated and addicted parents — many of whom are still kids themselves — ignored by society, bouncing around state foster care systems and juvenile detention centers, raised by the streets.

When I was smoking crack, I remember driving to my local ghetto to score some dope one morning. I was amazed by how many kids mobbed my car. Eleven and 12-year-olds, pushing and shoving each other outside my window, holding out baggies of the rock cocaine I sought, vying to make the coveted sell. Even in my drug-addled mind, I remember wondering why these kids weren’t in school.

Now, ten years into a 30-year prison sentence, I see those same kids moving into the neighboring bunks in my dorm; 18-year-old boys with 50- and 60-year sentences, their lives already over. I know people will say they made their own choices, but when a child grows up unraised and unloved, when he has to hustle and scrap for everything he gets, when the only environment he knows is one of crime and violence, when the heroes of his community are gangsters and criminals, when the music he’s been listening to his entire life trumpets murder, robbery, and dope-dealing as a realistic, viable life path … it’s difficult to wake up one day and decide to get a GED. Maybe in Hollywood; rarely in real life.

The newspapers say crime is down 4 percent in this country. Somebody is skewing those numbers. With the rise of physically addictive prescription drugs, and heroin rearing its ugly head, there is no way the crime rate is dropping. The problem is not going to go away. It is a festering sore on the face of society that is expanding exponentially. And there’s only one way to stop it: Love.

Naïve as it may sound, if every child in this country were loved and nurtured, there would be a lot less violent crime in America 15 years from now. So let’s set aside the whales and the trees and the ozone for a minute. If we really want to make a difference, we need to save the kids.

Because there is no them; only us.

E = mc2
My father’s father was a writer and the son of a philanthropist. His name was E. Malcolm Collins II. I never met him, but his novel, Angel Blood, was a permanent fixture on the bookshelf in our apartment when I was growing up.

The story passed down through the family was that he was an alcoholic and drug abuser, and in December 1971, he ran a bath of scalding hot water, stepped in, slipped and banged his head. He died in the tub. He left behind one daughter, my Aunt Carole, who also struggled with alcoholism and depression, and one son, my father “Mac,” E. M. Collins III, who had his own issues with drug abuse and compulsive behavior.

In 1990, Aunt Carole checked into a hotel room and shot herself in the heart. Three and a half years later, my father died of congestive heart failure. A lifetime of Camel non-filters and horrible eating habits finally caught up with him. Aunt Carole had two daughters: Kelly and Ginger. Mac had four sons: Scott, Keith, Jeff and me.

Not to air any dirty family laundry, but I think deep down my brothers and cousins would agree that there’s a little crazy swimming in our DNA; a compulsive gene, a predisposition to addiction, maybe even a touch of psychosis. But there’s also an overwhelming amount of love and music and laughter.

September 5, 2014 is the 21st anniversary of my father’s death. It’s hard to believe that over two decades have passed since the prison chaplain gave me the news. At age 40, I can see the evidence of his genetic fingerprints all over my life; and not just in my evaporating hairline or the blue eyes staring back at me in the mirror. I recognize him in my passion for sports, my own struggles with drug abuse, my love for the Blackjack tables in Biloxi, my affinity for cheesecake. There are signs of E. M. Collins II in me too, and his father, and the echoes of countless generations before them.

When I began writing novels, I took the pseudonym Malcolm Ivey as a nod to those men: Malcolm I, II, and III, the philanthropist, the writer, and the banker. The Ivey represents the Roman numeral IV, Malcolm the fourth, my father’s son to the bone and the youngest of four brothers. Ivey.

Today, September the 5th, I will raise a bottle of water to my reflection and salute the Malcolms in me, blemishes and all. As the brilliant Albert Einstein put it, “Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another.” I drink to that.

Think of yourself as a nation
There is a villain in my second novel, With Arms Unbound, with the unfortunate name of Festus Mulgrew. He’s a meth cook from central Florida with a pet spider named Junior and a problem making eye contact. Like any decent villain on the page or the screen, Festus wasn’t born bad. There are reasons why he is the way he is. But that doesn’t make him any less dangerous. If anything, his humanity makes him even scarier, or at least more believable.

I can’t do the mustache twirling bad guy any more than I can do the square jawed puppy saving hero. I’ve never met anyone like that. My heroes are flawed and my villains have at least a couple of redeeming qualities. Just like in real life.

When sketching the character of Festus “Methlab” Mulgrew, in addition to giving him a backstory rife with abuse and abandonment, I gave him a personal philosophy for survival under harsh conditions. That philosophy is also my own. The difference is that while Festus used it in a negative way, it has helped me to quit drugs, adhere to a strict workout regimen, manage money, develop discipline, be assertive, and focus long enough to write a few books.

If anyone within the sound of this pen is struggling with self-mastery, this may help: Think of yourself as a nation. I am the United Federation of Malcolm Ivey and like any other sovereign country, I am composed of the following:

~ Borders – these are my boundaries, thou shalt not cross
~ Allies – my homeboys, every nation has alliances
~ Enemies – other hostile nations, in my world there are many
~ Military – my defense system: keep strong and confident through regular exercise and stand ready to protect my borders and allies against any threat
~ National Debt – the money I owe
~ GDP – the money I earn

You can even give yourself a national bird and your own anthem if you want. The point is to take a hard look at all the various agencies that make up your nation and ask yourself if they’re being run efficiently. We ultimately have the power to mold ourselves into nations with robust economies, plentiful natural resources, and solid foreign relations. We can eliminate our deficits, strengthen our alliances and win our wars. Whether we choose to be super powers or third world countries is entirely up to us.

10% Happier
I just finished reading an amazing book, 10% Happier by Dan Harris. Mr. Harris is the ABC news correspondent who had a nationally televised panic attack on Good Morning America in 2004. 10% Happier is the hilarious account of his journey as both skeptic and seeker. It centers largely on the benefits of meditation (I can almost see the five people reading this page rolling their eyes simultaneously). While there is a definite unearned stigma attached to meditation, I’ll leave that for the holy men and gurus to sort out. No sermon here. Promise. I just want to touch on the parallel between meditation and writing.

If there’s such a thing as Attention Deficit Disorder, I’ve got it. I have the attention span of a butterfly which makes the discipline of writing a daily battle. I’ll be one or two sentences into a scene when something hooks my attention – a bird on a window, a voice in the hall, the smell of food – and I’m off “chasing the wishes from dandelions” as my friend Sheena says.

As one distraction leads to the next, it’s sometimes hours before I remember the project only to find it right where I left it, suspended in mid-sentence – sometimes mid-word – so I grab my pen, search for the mental thread of the story and begin again. It’s the coming back that’s the thing.

Meditation is similar in that you focus on the breath flowing in and out of your nostrils, the expansion and contraction of your lungs. When thoughts arise and you notice yourself being swept away on that tidal wave of mental chatter, you return to your breath. Every time. Notice and return, over and over.

I’ve mentioned before that the discipline of writing saved me. Up until the year that I began Consider the Dragonfly, life was all about drugs, gambling, and adrenaline. The tendency to drift toward the extremes is scribbled in the helix of my DNA. But the written word is my anchor. It centers me. The words on the page are the meditative breath that I keep returning to. My om.

I’m not claiming enlightenment or even rehabilitation. The distractions still come like Craig Kimbrel fastballs. All it takes is a Sophia Vergara commercial, a Black Crowes song or Miami Dolphins breaking news and I hit the ground running. But once I regain awareness and realize that yet again I’ve been lured down the hallways of always, I shake my head and return to my work, to the open notebook that awaits me.

It’s the coming back that’s the thing.

Writing: A transformative craft
“If your life were a book, would you like your character?”

These words have been nibbling at my conscience for years, surfacing at the most inopportune times – while cheating on a girlfriend, stealing from a family member, cooking cocaine in a spoon … The answer was always the same: “No, I would not like my character. I would HATE my character.”

There are few things in this world as unsustainable and soul-sucking as drug abuse. This is far from breaking news. The hard math states that someone in your orbit is suffering right now, be it your child, sibling, significant other, friend, neighbor, co-worker or yourself.  For most, the needle and the crack pipe are a life sentence of enslavement; however, there are exceptions … some find Jesus, others escape through a 12-step program, and I would never underestimate the healing properties in the love of a woman. But for me, the way out was through the written word.

When I first began Consider the Dragonfly I did so in desperation. It was a Hail Mary, a half-court buzzer beater, my last shot to escape the quicksand of my old patterns and do something honorable. The universe gave me the bonus plan. Barely a few pages into the first chapter, the characters shimmered to life. Protagonists and antagonists whispered backstory into my heart, explaining why they were the way they were, confiding secrets and fears and dreams, drawing me deeper into the world of story … and while I was busy being a conduit, head down, scribbling furiously, a sort of alchemy was taking place in my own world. Impulsivity was converted to discipline. Recklessness was exchanged for structure. I was suddenly protective of my remaining brain cells and mournful of those I have squandered. The craft was changing me.

There is something empowering about writing a novel, something spiritual about plugging into the collective consciousness and transcribing the flow of words from the ether, something transformative. I’ve been clean for a few years now. My second book, With Arms Unbound, will be out this summer and I’m presently knee-deep in a new project. Some will say that I’ve merely swapped addictions. Maybe so. I’m cool with that. Because today, when that old question pops into my head – “If your life were a book, would you like your character?” – The answer is a resounding HELL, YEAH!



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