The following blog post is the preface of a book club member P.P.'s manuscript.
I’ve always loved the written word – almost all of it; from fiction, to journalism, lyrics, philosophy and poems. I’ve forever been especially fond of how writers can manipulate and shape words to tug at the reader’s heart, soul and mind. The large majority of the things I have learned come from reading. I’ve always been able to find peace of mind in the stacks of books available in any library or book store; where there was material to help me quench my raging thirst for knowledge and which also offered me escape from my doubts and feelings. In these books I was able to gain entry into realms worlds away from the tedium vita of my daily life, some I never knew existed, some I could only fantasize about. I learned to interpret the world through what I read. Books were a haven. They let me build an enormous frame of reference that enabled me to become a writer in my own right. They helped me discover the larger world that my mistakes, my life, and my circumstances had deprived me of. My life would not have evolved the way it did without the world of books.
My love for the written word, I wanted to take it to the next level, I began to practice transferring my own thoughts and experiences on paper.
The writings of this manuscript originally come from quips of journal musings that I wrote throughout the length of my incarceration. Daily journalizing was (and still is) important to me, it has been throughout my entire imprisonment. I always had a journal by my side, scribbling whatever came into my mind, right there and then.
Writing, like thinking, is magical, but has a dark side. It’s easy to get lost in the words. Occasionally, I questioned its effect on my heart and mind. This manuscript is writings that describe my journey in and out of hard core addiction, as well as of the depravity of physical and mental prisons; it dwells into some of the darkest recesses and brightest openings of the human spirit.
Prison became my canvas and my opportunity. I documented the almost fiction like things that I was witnessing and experiencing. I felt like all of this needed to be put down on paper “sans sugar coating.” It needed to be shared, the stories needed to be told. Prison life resembles a concentrated “microbe” of life on the outside; it’s a place where social norms are distorted and amplified to dangerous proportions. I wanted to run the gantlet between brutally candid and matter of fact accounts of the inhumane conditions of life in the “steel hotel.” I also needed to document reflections on the little things that make living worthwhile – despite the harsh conditions. I began to write a “potpourri” of anecdotes, facts and musings. It began to happen: words started flowing out. I wrote an insider’s perspective.
Since description and analysis require time, I often could capture the experience only once it was gone. Thus, writing tended to pull me out of the present moment and mute the intensity of the experience – unless I remained clearly aware of the actual process of writing. In fact, it was not actual journalizing that became distracting, but thinking beforehand about what I would write and mentally describing to myself what I was seeing and feeling. There are many positive aspects to writing, and I am glad I wrote as much as I did. Putting an experience into words encouraged me to look more closely and reflect more deeply. When I look back on them, my journals allow and invite me back into days and months of nostalgia and revelations.
The pages of this manuscript are about taking it one step further, putting it all down appropriately – by means of deeper philosophical reflection, through the messy process of discovery, and by trying to make some sense of it all, all while practicing proper grammar and writing skills, rather than just scribbling journal entries. Resulting, hopefully, in something far more enlightening, intimate and wise. The original journal entries themselves scooped only scattered dollops from the vast swirl of daily experience; they told one among many possible tales. I have, though, both in the original journal entries and in the editing process, tried to tell my truth as I lived it; even painful and shameful passages – I believe these are significant. I’ve also tempered the profanity that peppered the original journals. Swearing was an important part of how I felt and how I recorded my feelings. There is pain as well as satisfaction and joy in writing as nakedly as I have.
The conditions and the challenges of survival through years of hardcore addiction followed by my prison sentence, and the resulting experiences of physical and emotional pain were substantial - sometimes overwhelmingly so. The physicality of prison grounded my mind and my body; it contextualized my psychological and spiritual experiences. I wanted to learn about myself and what got me here. I wanted to explore the reality of the social misfits, the dysfunctional ones, and the addicts, criminals that become convicts and fill up our prisons at alarming rates. The works needed to be poignant – and needed to resonate true. I personalized it and inventoried some of the realities that left me on society’s underside. Most important, I wanted to poke a stick in the “proverbial eye” of those who find themselves a world apart from such daily existences of struggle, pain and despair. I wanted to illustrate the human context within.
In writing the manuscript, through observations, research, and by editing original journal entries, I at first believed I should carve that mass using a single consistent voice for the whole thing. The idea slowly faded as I started writing with this goal of trying to develop a coherent plan. I finally gave up and let each passage emerge in its own way. I have frequently rearranged and restructured paragraphs within any given subject to smooth their flow. Instead of one, there are many voices; some cultured and insightful, full of analytic critique and aesthetic caress. But there are also frightening, enraged, and uncivilized voices- howling from dark and distant places. The different points of view, fluctuating emotions, and variable states of consciousness sometimes seem (and perhaps are) contradictory. It remains rough and irregular in places, not well rounded or nicely squared at the corners. It’s incomplete, and full of unanswered questions.
The heart of the story beats within the hours, days, and months of these journal entries; the immediate intensity of my experiences into solitude, discovery, and suffering. These factors have the power to catalyze shifts in consciousness. As soon as the solitary being begins to speak, even by writing to an imagined reader, he is no longer alone. I journalized as a form of self-monitoring and to document the observations of the surreal world I found myself in. I still fluctuate between experiencing myself primarily as a member of society and feeling myself to be a solitary being embedded in the inhumane incarcerated world.
Within the pages of these journals I can distinguish different stages during my years behind bars. The stages are not distinct or mutually exclusive, but they do reflect my shifting focus of attention as time passed. At first I was dealing with surviving in the extreme environment, the challenges, the harsh realities and the physical discomforts. As time passed where loneliness and solitude gathered me in, I was able to somewhat let go of the physical part and settled deeply into spiritual exploration. In this sometimes painful transformation, I was able to free myself from the limiting perspective of my social identity and constricted beliefs. Inner and outer storms continued to pound, but my relationship to them changed. I also grew weary of recording the difficult times and began to notice how infrequently I described the joyful ones. When I settled into the moment, I seldom felt the urge to write about it, and so the original journals were unbalanced towards the painful.
These stages loosely track changes in my inner and outer experiences, leading me to the notion of progress and to my belief that inner transformation would create a more dynamic personal story – one that would hopefully signify a successful conclusion to this entire venture.
Most stories have a beginning, middle, and end, and they draw us into some other time and place. This story is different; it’s all middle – with no clear beginning, no definite end – and it slips out of time into the eternal now.