07 May 09

Mentored (Part 4)

Thanks to the Koestler Trust, I am now being mentored by Sally Hinchcliffe, a published author with an M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of London. Sally recently read chapter 26 of my jail memoir, Green Bologna and Pink Boxers: Surviving Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Jail. Here’s the start of chapter 26, followed by her comments.


I spent half a day in holding cells before arriving at a small two-man cell on the second floor of the Madison Street jail. It was about 2am. Light from the day room was filtering into the dark cell through oblong gaps in the door, illuminating my new cellmate cocooned in a white sheet, snoring lightly on the top bunk about two thirds of the way up the back wall. As I’d just come from a jail where men were prone to fight over the bottom bunk, I was grateful he’d taken the top. Delirious from two-days’ sleep deprivation, I was looking forward to a good rest. I thought my standard of living had improved – two-man cell, bottom bunk – until I noticed movement on the cement-block walls. Putting the movement down to hallucinations, I blinked several times. Still movement. Stepping closer, I saw the wall was alive with insects, and I flinched. So many insects, I wondered if they were a colony of ants on the move just like you see in documentaries. To get a better look, I put my face to within inches of the wall, and saw they were mostly the size of almonds and had antennae. American cockroaches! I’d seen them before downstairs in The Horseshoe, but nothing like this. A chill spread over my body. I backed away. As my night vision picked up, I spotted more insect shapes circulating on the ceiling, going in and out of the base of the fluorescent strip light. Every so often one dropped onto the concrete, and resumed crawling. Examining my bunk, it dawned as to why my cellmate had opted to sleep at a higher elevation: cockroaches were pouring out of gaps in the wall at the level of the bottom bunk. The area was thick with them. Placing my mattress on the bunk scattered them. I walked to the toilet, crushing some of them under my shower sandals. I urinated and grabbed the toilet roll. A cockroach darted from the centre of the roll onto my hand, tickling my fingers. My arm jerked as if it had a mind of its own, losing the cockroach and the toilet roll.

Using a towel, I wiped the bulk of them off the bottom bunk, stopping only to shake the odd one off my hand. I unrolled my mattress. They began to regroup and harass my mattress. My adrenaline was pumping so much I was losing my general fatigue. Nauseated, I sat on the stool and contemplated how best to get to sleep. I wondered how my cellmate was managing to sleep through the infestation and my arrival. I decided to copy his technique. I cocooned myself in a white sheet and lay down, crushing a few more cockroaches. The only way they could get to me now was through the breathing hole I’d left in the sheet by the lower half of my face. Inhaling their strange musty odour, I closed my eyes. I couldn’t sleep. I could sense them crawling on the sheet around my feet. Worried they were infiltrating my breathing hole, I constantly opened my eyes. Cramps caused me to shift onto my other side. Watching the wall, I was repulsed by so many of them just inches away from my face. I returned to my original side. The sheet trapped the desert heat to my body, coating me in sweat. I grew so uncomfortable, I had to open my cocoon to waft the heat out. Trickles of sweat tickled my body, tricking my mind into thinking the cockroaches had infiltrated and were crawling on me. It took a while to drift to sleep, and I only managed a few hours. I awoke stuck to the sweaty sheet, disgusted by the cockroach carcasses compressed to the mattress.

The cockroaches plagued my new home until dawn appeared at the dots in the protective metal grid over a begrimed strip of four-inch-thick glass at the top of the back wall – the cell’s only source of outdoor light. Then they disappeared into the cracks in the walls, like vampire mist retreating from sunlight. But not all of them. There had been so many on the night shift that even their vastly reduced number was still too many to dispose of. And they acted like they knew this. They roamed around my feet with attitude, as if to let me know I was trespassing on their stomping ground.


Sally’s comments on chapter 26:

– Good stuff. Very strong.
– Takes you right into the moment.
– Ends at exactly the right place.
– The writing does service to the story.
– Not too much extraneous detail.


For our fourth session, Sally asked me to meet her at the British Library, a building in Central London that Prince Charles once described as a “monstrous ziggurat,” and a “school for secret policemen.”

It’s a library quite like no other. Let’s start with the collection: over 150 million items (including 14 million books), that require 625 km of shelves; over 3 million new items added every year, requiring another 12 km of shelf space. The library receives a copy of every publication produced in the UK and Ireland. Its treasures include the Magna Carta and Leonardo da Vinci's Notebook.

Entering the library, I felt small. It was the largest building constructed in England in the last century, taking up 10 million bricks, and 180,000 tonnes of concrete. It has nine floors above ground, and five below. The foyer was like the check-in area of a grandiose hotel. I crossed the polished stone floor, and joined one of the many trails of student-looking types disappearing into the building. Further inside, many people were sat on the floor. There were rows of them at the foot of every wall, with laptops on their thighs, and cables running into the wall sockets. The screen glow reflecting on their faces added a ghostly aura to expressions mostly within the range of deep-thinking to tunnel vision.

It took a few flights of stairs for my first sighting of England’s Grande Armée of literature. The books were on shelves enclosed in glass columns bigger than most buildings. Mini skyscrapers shooting up out of sight, with row after row of books pressed against the glass, like prisoners watching their visitors arrive.

I tried to enter one of the reading rooms, where older highbrow types with eccentric asexual faces were gravitating, but I was rebuffed as I had no ticket.

In the café, Sally bought me a delicious pear juice.


In the last three mentored blogs, I’ve been polishing up the opening of the book. Sally put that to rest with this comment: “This is fine now. Be careful of over-polishing the first few chapters. Better to press on and revisit the beginning in the light of the rest of the book.”

Now we’ve seen what Sally likes, let’s look at Sally’s comments on chapters 8 to 11:

– These four chapters all feel a little thin. Perhaps stripped back too much.
– Might be an opportunity to introduce more about the jail system and why it’s so brutalising.
– At this point you can afford to introduce some moral ambiguity of your own, taking the readers with you.
– It’s difficult to balance introducing your own personal changes with avoiding editorialising. Do this by making your emotions more directly felt rather than summarised.

Let’s concentrate on Sally’s first and last comment. The writing has been pared back too much in certain areas and I am making the reoccurring error of editorialising. I’ve found a specific paragraph in chapter 8 that incorporates both of these weaknesses. The paragraph is about Alejandro who has already been introduced to the reader as a four-hundred-pound youngster arrested for shooting a car full of rival gang members with an AK-47. Here’s the paragraph:



Some of Alejandro’s victims were in critical condition, and if any of them died, he would be facing death by lethal injection. For a week, the condition of his victims made nightly headline news. Stunned by the shock of this inextricable linking of his fate with theirs, Alejandro watched these reports on the lone TV affixed high on the day-room wall.

Sally underlined the sentence in bold and wrote: Editorialising. Instead show us Alejandro’s reaction. Make it real.

Ok, I’m going to expand it, and try to make it real. Here I go:



Every night, just in time for the beginning of the news, Alejandro emerged from his cell with a look of dread, and positioned himself at the back of the two dozen or so noisy prisoners clustered in front of the old TV set fixed high on the day-room wall. When the news started, he’d move forward as if yanked by its familiar jingle. Sweating far more than the rest, he’d urge everyone to hush. Out of deference for the gravity of his situation, the heads of all of the races would order their youngsters to shut up. By the time the condition of his victims was reported, the unusual quiet – which in the jail meant something bad was happening to somebody somewhere – had drew the attention of the card and domino players, and even brought the hermits from their cells, doubling the size of the audience. I was sure that all of the men watching from the balcony and every corner and table of the day room were thinking the same as me: Will a victim die? What’s it like to be facing the death penalty? Alejandro would stand there, arms folded, his bulk swaying slightly, with a fear in his eyes as if he were not looking at a battered TV set that barely tuned in, but at a gun pointed at him by an executioner. The prisoners usually remained quiet, except for the night a reporter revealed that one of Alejandro’s bullets had exited through a girl’s nipple. That caused many groans and other sounds of displeasure. The reports invariably ended with his victims in critical but stable condition, none dead. After digesting this, Alejandro would set off relieved. He’d trudge up the metal-grid stairs, the hermits disappearing into the cells in front of him and the noise in the day room picking up behind him.

I'd like to end this blog entry with a big thank you to the people at Koestler. The progress I've made with Sally over just these four sessions has exceeded my expectations. I couldn't have been assigned a better mentor!

Click here to read Mentored Part 3.

If you are a publisher or an agent and wish to read sample chapters from my jail memoir, please email writeinside@hotmail.com.

Email comments to writeinside@hotmail.com or post them below. To post a comment if you do not have a Google/Blogger account, just select anonymous for your identity.

Shaun P. Attwood

16 comments:

abraxas said...

From reading everything you could get, to writing your "memoirs"
You're going great man!!
peace ;-)

Anonymous said...

I couldn't really see how Sally was improving your writing until this post. I mean its really coming on strong now. The difference in the 2 Alejandro paragraphs is immense. The cockroach stuff, well I guess you have to have lived with them to nail the detail like that. I could feel them trying to get in your breathing hole.

I second Abraxas, stay with it, man!

Ghost

Anonymous said...

Hey Shaun,

So the book seems to be coming along, how much of it do you have written now? This chapter you've excerpted is pretty solid, though you may want to slow down the pace of it a bit and make it a little denser in terms of details. For instance, how big was the cell and how was it laid out? What did you first walk into the cell with, just the sleeping mattress or did you have other items? Did the cell door close with a loud clang or a gentle click when you first walked in, and what did the guard look like that brought you there? These are minor details, yet help to build up the image of your environment and better immerse the reader in the surroundings.

You mentioned it made you feel nauseated that the roaches were only inches from your face, but can you make that feeling more visceral like saying you felt "a rising, bubbling sickness writhing its way from deep within your stomach as the incessant chittering and outpouring of squirming legs and bodies overflowed from the walls only inches from your nose, a pressing mass of filth like living and biting garbage, their heavy and oppressive odor steadily filling the sole tiny link to the only source of fresh air you had, as you pulled the sheet of your breathing space ever tighter against the probing invaders."

Also, try throwing in some other details like what happened when one of them inevitably got into your sheet? Did they bite, leave marks, lay eggs? Did you ever pull one out of your ear, nose, or wake up with one in your mouth? Did you ever wake up to find one wiggling in your butt? I mean, maybe not but that seems like it would be a story in and of itself. Since it was dark, try also focusing on smells and sounds. I'm sure that many moving bugs must have made some kind of noise, especially if it was otherwise pretty quiet, what was it like? Did it grate on your nerves, the unyielding heat of Arizona magnified by the blanket, balanced against the need for protection from the unruly mob? Did you ever feel like you were going to just lose it that night, break down in either utter rage or total hopelessness?

When I took a creative writing class a few years back, our teacher would tell us to hold out or arm and bite it. That is how all of your details should be, vibrant and visceral, not just describing what happened, but actually making the reader feel a little bit ill when they read the story. (or frightened, despondent, cautious, fearful; however you were feeling at that moment)

Anyway, good to see the book is coming along and I hope everything else is going well for you. I look forward to the finished product!

--Bill

Anonymous said...

Shaun:

Terrific! I like the short sentences, the details, the easy reading of a compelling story. The fact that you are safely home in the UK allows you to write such a story without fear of retribution.

Dr.S

Anonymous said...

Very nice Shaun. I'm loving your evolution. It is maturing. I feel intent in your writing. You are taking the time to explain, and never did I feel the urge to skip reading lines or words out of boredom or expectation.

Beautiful.

Cat Eyes

Sue O. (aka Joannie, SS) said...

"I tried to enter one of the reading rooms, where older highbrow types with eccentric asexual faces were gravitating, but I was rebuffed as I had no ticket."
I could picture this! Chuckle! My friend, you don't even have to try any more. Seriously, it was great to read chapter 26 and as I told you, the writing fits much in a context that being sort of herky-jerky. It still has delicacy, and it needs to, because the reader needs to remember who you are. Also the contrast between you and the other men needs to remain even as you learned to identity with them...that's what makes for such great reading.

Anonymous said...

That's AWESOME! Keep the faith Shaun ~One Love~ BlueJay

Anonymous said...

Bloke,

Just read this Blog entry. Good stuff! Brings back memories of that dungeon.

Weird Al

Sue O. (aka Joannie, SS) said...

I think I must have put alcohol in my coffee today-writing way too fast. I meant the writing fits more into context than feeling disconnected chapter to chapter. Geez, gotta lay off those fancy creamers...

Anonymous said...

Wow. Things are really coming together in your writing with your mentor. Looking good homeboy! -Jose in San Diego

Jon said...

Thank you for your kind remarks and constructive feedback.

In response to Bill's question: Green Bologna and Pink Boxers is presently 108,490 words long or 355 pages of double-spaced type.

Last month, I finished getting the entire story down. Now I'm adding details from the hundreds of letters I wrote from the jail. I have a whole box of letters I sent to Claudia alone. The letters are rich in details I couldn't possibly remember, including various smells and the the tastes of the different meals. The letters are also full of dialogue. Just last week I found pages of the chief visitation officer's warning lecture to the jail visitors. I'm lucky to have written so much down at the time. I have copies of grievance forms documenting the cockroach infestation and the medical issues that came about because of the conditions.

Once I've layered more details in, I'm going to begin the polishing.

Cheers!

Shaun Attwood

Chris Phoenix said...

Reading this...

"I crossed the polished stone floor, and joined one of the many trails of student-looking types disappearing into the building. Further inside, many people were sat on the floor. There were rows of them at the foot of every wall, with laptops on their thighs, and cables running into the wall sockets."

I flashed back on the cockroaches. Is it just me?

Once again, I have to disagree with Sally. What's editorializing about stating the fact that his condition was linked with theirs? So it makes your readers think a bit, so what?

I do like the new paragraph, though it's maybe even a bit too heavy on the details. But it's simply a different paragraph than the original.

Oh well, I'm sure the book will be excellent despite all Sally can do. You're just too good a writer to let bad advice mess you up (which is why you may ignore mine).

Chris

Anonymous said...

Jon,

I read your story about trying to sleep with hundreds (thousands?) of cockroach cellmates. An hour or so later I decided to hit the couch for an afternoon nap. As I was drifting off I kept feeling those damned roaches crawling on me!

Talk about evocative writing... good job on giving me the willies.

Jon said...

Chris,

Thanks for the comment! I do value everyone's opinion, and the more varied the better. The spectrum of opinions I am receiving is helping my development as a writer.

Cheers!

Shaun Attwood

Anonymous said...

Afternoon

This excerpt was very good, much better than the last stuff I read. Makes me realise that prison is not the place for me!

Hope all is well in Guildford. You are better to be down South, much closer to whats happening in the real world.

Take care

Aza

PI said...

My son pointed me in your direction and I found the mentoring very illuminating and a bit daunting.
You are fortunate to have Sally Hinchcliffe as a mentor. Her book 'Out of a clear Sky' is excellent.
I have have just been accepted by an agent I like and I hope to have - before I shrug my mortal coil - an editor like Sally.
The best of luck with your book. I think it is a great story