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.
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Shaun P. Attwood