After more than thirty years teaching writing and a career of over fifty years as a professional writer, I’ve learned a few things. Students come to you eager to discover how they can develop their craft. They want to learn the tricks of the trade, how to get started, how to establish a schedule, how to proceed. They want all the technical details of how to write dialogue, character, plot. They also want to know about practical matters: how many hours do you write a day, where do you write, do you use a typewriter, computer, pen and paper? Where do you get your material? All salient matters, important matters to do with the craft of writing.
And yet– underneath it all is a question that rarely gets asked, but one that all of these writers, neophytes and veterans, are compulsively pondering: how can I earn a living? How can I build a career? How can I become successful? Read More
I have been amazingly fortunate. Two writers from my prison classes have produced exceptional works. Ken Hartman, a convicted murderer serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole, worked on a memoir in my class at Tehachapi Prison. It was eventually published as Mother California: A Story of Redemption Behind Bars.It won the Eric Hoffer award for a memoir and received spectacular reviews. It’s a powerful work, profound, frightening, moving. And now another student of mine, John Nelson, has come up with an equally stunning work, also a prison memoir: Where Excuses Go To Die.
“Where Excuses Go To Die” is funny, touching, wise. Nelson gives you the desperate, grinding prison reality in fire-cracker language that has you shaking your head in admiration. This guy has an eye and an ear and an instinct for what really goes on behind the walls, what criminals are truly like, the relationships between staff and convict, how the whole circus cartwheels along. Want to know how a bright, middle-class kid ends up a convict, serving seven years for bank robbery? Want to know, feel, taste the innards of California prisons in hilarious, disturbing detail, how one survives or doesn’t in fantastical situations absurd, brutal, terrifying? I spent thirteen years teaching in maximum-security prisons. My one-man show, Murderers Are My Life, is a revelation of that world—I thought I had seen it all– but John Nelson pulled the curtains aside and showed me the core of incarceration, stuff that I never could have imagined.
I’ve led a good life and that life has been filled with an abundance of books, many great books that have enriched me and given my life direction and meaning. When I found a writer that I was taken with, I would read virtually everything he or she had written. Early on I had gone through all of Joyce, Dreiser, Nabokov, Dostoyevsky, Simenon, Hemingway, Fitzgerald. Some, like Joyce and Nabokov, I had read through many times. Occasionally, I would come across a writer that stunned and staggered me and I would read two or three of their books and then they would disappear. Some wrote one great book and never wrote another— I think of Leonard Gardiner and “Fat City.” Some like George V. Higgins wrote one or two great books and continued to write, but their later work grew less and less interesting.
And then there was Earl Thompson. I read him in the early seventies. His first novel, “Garden of Sand”, was as powerful as anything I had ever read—not literary like Joyce and Nabokov, but great in an awkward, primitive way, clumsy, but deeply felt.
I have a great affection for roman noir and film noir, but lately I find myself bored and impatient and even a little fed up. The best of the noirs present us with central characters who though cynical and tough are recognizably human: Marlowe, Sam Spade, the Continental Op. They are a mixture of good and bad, as most of us are, but we sense that at their heart something true stirs; they know good from evil.
Ten years ago I made the first notes on “Iron City”. It began as a stage play, became a screenplay, and eventually was written as a novel. It’s a companion work to my earlier novel, “Kabbalah”, though I hadn’t planned it that way. Both take place in Pittsburgh, Pa., the Squirrel Hill and Greenfield sections, and both involve murder. Read More