Not too long ago I had tweeted about my blog on the hunger strike in California prisons. Someone responded and said it was thoughtful and on the nose, and they mentioned in passing that they had been a student of mine. I didn’t recognize the name, John Nelson, or the photo of the tweeter and assumed it had been someone who studied with me at USC. I taught graduate playwriting and screenwriting for 33 years there and from time to time one of my old students would contact me and often I had no memory of them.
The tweeter responded to my reply tweet, asked for my e-mail address, and a sense began to stir in me of who this might be. 23 years ago I had had a very young man as a creative writing student in Wasco State Prison. He had been serving time for bank robbery and the name John Nelson brought up an image very different from the picture on his twitter page. I tweeted back asking him if he hadn’t been young and thin and in Wasco prison for bank robbery. Hadn’t he shown an early literary bent by robbing bookstores, eventually moving up to banks?
John Nelson e-mailed me back:
“Of course I was young and thin back then. I was 23. I’m 46 now; puffy and barnacled. It’s so good to have reconnected with you.
“In describing why, I reveal a personal touchstone of lasting change in my life that you and other instructors and civilian employees found worthy of encouraging. I was, and remain, an admirer, and I’m grateful for the many letters we exchanged. You made me feel like I was worth communicating with, like my ideas mattered. You were evidence that I had places to go and people to meet.
“Yes, we met at Wasco, not long after it opened. From there I was transferred to Folsom’s old Level-4 yard… And yes, indeed I did rob banks, though I ‘worked my way up’ to FDIC-insured settings from chain bookstores.
“It’s been a long, long journey since my release in ’94. Upon parole, I discovered how much more there was in store for me in learning about character, life, and the choices we make…
“I’m very happy to be writing to you today, David; the last time I did was with an IBM Selectric III (one of God’s finest machines). I’ve literally carried your words of encouragement with me all this time in the form of a stack of letters you sent, wherein you always gave me reason to push myself to write. (My memoir) Where Excuses Go to Die was inspired by the impact of our correspondence.
“I’m sure you’ve heard stuff like this from other former students, but A) I’m among the elite of those who clung to your guidance as if it was JFK’s wristwatch, and B) I wrote the goddamned book you implored me to write. And I’ll tell ‘ya what – it’s good…”
I went to John’s website and learned that indeed he had come out of prison, had married, and had become a professional writer of some accomplishment, with magazine articles, newspaper work, and awards show remarks and speeches — even for members of the very L.A. County Sheriff’s Department whose custody he once endured.
I was astounded. For fourteen years I taught in the California prison system, mostly in maximum-security prisons, occasionally in high medium or medium security. I had had a few prisoners who accomplished things literarily, most notably Kenneth Hartman whose memoir, Mother California, had started in my class and went on to national critical acclaim, but Hartman is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. I had not had an inmate who paroled and then built a life as a writer. At least not that I’d known.
John Nelson in my class at Wasco State Prison was smart, personable, and talented. I knew he would eventually parole, and I hoped the best for him, but I was afraid he would never have much of a future. I feared that whatever forces pushed him into robbing banks, psychological, emotional, chemical, would ultimately nudge him down a rat hole of self-destructiveness: self-destructiveness that permeates the convict mentality, badass compulsions that flourishes like weeds in the criminal psyche. I had respect for his abilities, but no optimism that he would ever remain out of the joint, that he would ever lead a responsible life. My years of teaching in the prison system had made me cynical.
After a number of months in Wasco, John was transferred to a level 4 yard in Folsom, maximum security. We corresponded for some time and I tried to encourage him. I gave him advice, offered what meager wisdom I might have gleaned from the pro writer’s school of hard knocks. I did all the things one might do to try to salvage someone, but I always felt deep down that it was a lost cause. When someone is 23 and robbing banks, when they’ve exploded with such powerfully destructive and self-destructive behavior, what intense criminal pathology was at work? It was very hard for me to believe that Nelson could or would pull out of it. The miscreant’s rat hole is a deep, devious, maze.
Eventually our correspondence ended and I thought of Nelson less and less and ultimately forgot him completely.
And now, after 23 years we had reconnected! I answered him:
“I was immensely moved by your e-mail. I do these things, teach, and communicate with younger folk, and over the years come in contact, as you can imagine, with scads of miscreants and incarcerated stumblers, hoping that I’ve made some small difference in their lives, and sometimes I do, but often I never hear of it. Ken Hartman was one & I had been in touch with him over the years and he’s done exceptionally well, even though he’s serving life without. I don’t know if you know his book, Mother California, but it’s strong, very powerful. He was probably up in Folsom at the same time you were. He writes of Folsom and Tehachapi and his redemption. He talks about my writing class and how much it meant to him and again it’s all very moving to me…
“I think you’ll find value in (my one man show) Murderers Are My Life. It’s as good as anything I’ve ever done … I want as many people as possible to see it. If I could leave anything after shuffling off this mortal coil, it would probably be this.”
John emailed back after viewing Murderers Are My Life:
“What a great job you did…very gratifying to have watched this. In one of the many breaks I took to sit still and weigh things for a moment before going on, I re-read a couple of your letters…
“It’s difficult not to be moved by your performance when pieces of what you’re sharing with the audience were things you shared with me as they occurred…
“Your gestures, the way you speak, and that cement truck voice of yours consumed me as I watched, giving my old memories a newly productive, excitingly relevant role to play…”
I e-mailed back:
“I was surprised at how much of the material you were familiar with. I knew we had corresponded, but thought it was a couple of letters…
“I think (the one man show) is worthy & I think a lot of people’s ideas of criminals and criminality are stunted, formed by ignorance and prejudice– all convicts are the same, should be fed on bread and water, locked in dungeons and the keys thrown away… Your story of success and redemption I think could be important to a number of people. I’ve always felt that the humanizing quality of art, its ability to show us to ourselves, to give insight into our actions, beliefs, foolishness, madness can have a strong effect on people striving to climb out of the abyss of destructiveness, really self-destructiveness; that abyss that so many people plunge themselves, their families, all those who come in contact with them, into.”
John Nelson’s reaction to my mentoring has affected me deeply: I’ve taught for many years in universities and in prisons and while I always hoped that in some small way I had inspired my students, it’s been rare that I’ve realized this. People study and move on and neither teacher nor student articulates what the experience meant to them. I had a strong effect on John Nelson and if it hadn’t been for the accident of a twitter blog I would have never known this.
Since I was very young, I’ve had enormous respect for the power of art, how it humanizes people, how it even can help redeem people. Art has done this for John Nelson, former bad-boy bank robber, now accomplished professional writer. It’s wonderful, the saving grace of art.
John Espinosa Nelson’s memoir Where Excuses Go To Die will be available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble as of September 17, 2013. Please see his website for more information.