The Journey from Pen to Ink

(From the Huffington Post)

In the 4th grade, I wrote my first magnum opus, a short story vaguely based on about Uncle’s Roger’s participation in the French underground during the Second World War. My handwriting was messy even then, to put it charitably, so when computers came along a few years later, they were a godsend. I certainly never imagined I would ever go back to the writing anything longer than a page or two by hand. And then I spent nine months in the California State Prison system. I didn’t have to imagine the circumstances of having to write the old-fashioned way – I was living them.

At first, all we had were nubby little golf pencils, but I was immediately prolific nonetheless. The revelation of my secret life as a drug dealer had shocked a large and loving family on both sides of the Atlantic, and I had to at least try to explain my insane trajectory – in two languages, without erasers. I did the best I could, but definitely fell short. Clarity about the reasons behind my prodigious descent would only come with a distance not yet available to me. Besides, I was rapidly discovering there was plenty to write about just by sharing what was happening right in front of me.

I decided to pretend that I was a reporter who’d gone deep undercover to document the experience of prison from the inside. This little mind trick was extremely effective. When I found myself on the verge of despair, I repeated a little mantra to buck myself up. You chose to be here, remember? So stop complaining and do your job. (This was, in a way, true. I’d had so many chances to course-correct my life that I had to wonder if, on some level, I had chosen to be there And I certainly was embracing my life’s vocation as a writer with nothing short of ferocity.)

I wrote about Jack Hammer and Scraggly Boy and Undertaker and Cooley and Drifter and Thumper, giving a face to the kind of men who I’d driven past in Twin Towers or on a desert freeway a hundred times, shuddering with gratitude that I wasn’t in their shoes, whitely certain that I could never be. Now I was cheek-to-jowl with them, having conversations I could never have invented in a million years. Being so intently observed by me was not a source of resentment, though – rather the contrary. At Delano, in fact, I was commissioned to write a love poem for my bunkie’s girlfriend back home. “A Rose Without a Thorn” was so popular that inmates passed it amongst each other, recopying it to impress their own sweethearts. Playing Cyrano de Bergerac earned me at least twelve shots of coffee.

A few months into my sentence, during my weekly collect call to my sister, she had a proposal: “Your letters are blowing my mind. I want to start a blog for you.” I didn’t even know what a blog was, (they were fairly nascent in 2004) but it sounded exciting. Sure enough, every morning my sister would type up one of my letters and post it on line, and first my friends, then total strangers, started to follow my life inside on a daily basis. The men around me seemed to step up, as if they gathered each morning in a secret meeting to determine what kind of suitably theatrical moment they could create for me to document. Sometimes I had a feature role in the play of the day. A gay man comfortable with this sexuality was an exotic creature to them, and a lot of them had questions. Mostly, as word spread that they were being described to the outside world, they shyly asked if they had “made the blog.” This was an open invitation to inquire about their lives, and my willingness to hear the answers turned out to afford me protection, and even friendship. Most of these guys had never really been listened to, but absolutely all of them had a story.

A month or so in, I began to wonder if I could turn the blog into book – something that would actually do well. My fantasies of bestsellerdom had a rude awakening when I finally sat down with all 300 pages of it upon my release. What read as a suspenseful page-turner when the author was behind bars lacked the dramatic tension to make it cohesive in a long-form narrative. One friend said it was like the 4 hours of raw footage of a potentially excellent documentary – I just needed to extract the right 90 minutes. I wrestled for a year with making it work, but I simply could not tell what to keep and what to throw out. Then there were riots at Chino, and my very particular experience got my foot in the door at the Huffington Post. Maybe blogging was the 21st century skill that destiny had in mind for me after all? I put the book aside as I pursued a new career as an internet journalist. (If you’re reading this, you’re probably one too, and know exactly how much that pays.)

I finally went back to school and obtained a Masters the Humanities with a specialization in Creative Writing, as teaching and shopping screenplays seem like a good plan B. The prison record was a disqualifier for the former, and though I’ll stack my scripts against anything out there, there’s one in every desk drawer in L.A. I placed in a few contests but could not land a agent. I finally managed to cobble together a living editing subtitles – work I love and for which I am immensely grateful. (I even work on translations of Netflix shows like Orange is the New Black.)

When my mother died, in 2015, I surprised myself with a sudden willingness to revisit this project. For the first time, I could reread what I wrote back then without imagining what my mom had felt a decade before, when she had first read those same words. Time gave me another gift as well: the perspective completely absent when I was just released. I also made a counter-intuitive, even paradoxical discovery. Writing memoir sometimes requires not remembering too much.

In ten years I had forgotten just enough. The fat had melted off my memories, leaving me with bone and muscle. Everything that was important remained right where I’d left it, just waiting to be found again.

Ink from the Pen: A Prison Memoir (Nuance Titles) can be ordered at https://www.amazon.com/Ink-Pen-Prison-Mark-Olmsted/dp/0692784144 either as a paperback, Kindle, or both. The website is Lavender is the New Black. (I’m told, despite the serious subject matter, the book is way more entertaining than it has any right to be. If you agree, please review it on Amazon and Goodreads.)

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