20 Jun 08

Question Time

Sue (AKA Joannie) sent these questions. After her son was arrested for third-degree murder, Sue wrote to me at Tucson prison and our pen-pal relationship blossomed. Her son was sentenced to 6 to 12 years.

It was funny to find out that you began to love and appreciate finer literature in prison, and Don Quixote was a favorite first read. That was a huge leap from stockbroker and party guy. Was there a moment you could point to and say you knew you could be a writer, or the thought entered your head? Were you surprised about your subsequent successes?

Are you saying Don Quixote wasn’t a party guy? It was such a good read because I related to his misbehaviour.
I never set out to be a writer. I blogged to expose the jail conditions to my family and friends. Then I became addicted to writing.
Back in late 2004, when literary agents who had read the blog got in touch suggesting I write a book, I started giving the possibility of becoming an author some serious thought.
Getting a book published is a long process. Although I am far along in that process, I am still a would-be writer/author until I have a book in the book stores.
I was and still am surprised by the success of the blog in terms of readership, feedback and support for myself and the prisoners I write about. It’s a blessing.

We both more or less shared minor delusions of grandeur writing about our career goals. While our compliments to each other were effusive and full of certainty, have your experiences trying to become a writer while out of prison met with expectations inside? Here's an excerpt from a letter you wrote to me on August 20, 2007, “We must break away from the pack. Look at how Kierkegaard and Nietzsche despised herd mentality. And don’t expect people, including those closest to you, to understand that your inner being is calling you to a life of creative adventure. It is your passion that should enable you to transcend any fears and doubts.” A quote you included in the same letter, “To be independent of public opinion is the first formal condition of achieving anything great. G.W.F. Hegel."

In prison, I knew I had a long hard journey ahead of me when I got out. I knew that attempting to become an author would involve certain sacrifices. Right now I could get a job and have more of a social life, but I’ve got a shot at making a career out of something I love, so I’m going for it.
I’m motivated by what I read inside about the struggles of other authors. A few times I’ve mentioned what Solzhenitsyn went through after getting out of the gulags. And look at Faulkner. It took him years to succed. He worked from 6pm to 6am at a power station shovelling coal. From midnight to 4am there was no coal to shovel so he wrote. Pondering the odds they overcame, I feel mollycoddled in comparison.
This attempt at becoming an author is the culmination of six years of hard work. In prison I built the base. Where else can you read 268 books in one year? I certainly can’t now. Now I am drawing on everything I learned in order to break through as a published author.
I’m fortunate to be in a position where I can write all day. I’m satisfied with the progress thus far. What I’m experiencing isn’t matching my delusions of grandeur but is on a par with the realistic expectations I formulated while in prison. Now if only I could realise my delusions of grandeur.

Are your goals outside still the same or have you made adjustments and changes? From a letter dated September 22, 2007, “…I still feel that certain immaturities of mine are holding me back from having the full ability to penetrate the human soul - which emanates from the stories written by the likes of Tolstoy and Chekhov. At least I’m confident that my direction will be increasingly guided as I continue to mature.”

The long-range goals I formulated while in prison are intact. Every day I am working toward those goals. The writer’s life is not one of wanton idleness as I had hoped, but one of staring at a computer screen until your vision goes blurry and your head aches and you can’t take it any more. I’m lucky to be in an environment conducive to the achievement of my goals – and that’s mostly thanks to the support and roof over my head provided by my parents.
Progress on my immaturities moves ahead at a slow pace. I’m doomed to be immature in certain ways. But at least I have an endless source of amusement if the form of what a fool I am.

The events leading up to your release were so filled with tension and explosive moments of fear and joy. How have your feelings changed from that moment of finally being free after so long, to now adjusting a bit? How are your relationships with family and friends after settling in? Do you feel any disillusion, disappointment? Unexpected joys or fears that never really materialized? From a letter written in August, 2007, on the time before release and feelings of mania, “It’s as if I’m possessed by a whirlwind, a whirlwind that just comes on and devastates common sense and reason. So, perhaps I need to go through these things, as a final test of my character. I am learning more about myself. It’s like a mirror is being held up to me just before my release.”

I’ve gone through the adjustment process. The torrent of mixed feelings associated with returning home after almost two decades tapered off months ago. I’m ready for my next adventure.
The mental whirlwinds still come and go. One month I wanted to throw myself under a train, and the next I was in the living room dancing to an electronica Irish jig and videotaping myself as evidence of the mood swing. I am mostly happy hypomanic though - some times I am so happy I feel as if I'm losing my mind.
My relationship with my family is as good as ever. I opt not to have much of a social life so I can stay on the computer all day and keep writing. It’s not easy and I do get lonely.
The longer I’ve been out the less fearful I’ve become. After being in prison, the world feels like a playground. It’s almost as if I’m seeing it once again through the eyes I had as a child.
Although confident of success, I am aware that moments of great stress often arise before major breakthroughs, and I’ve certainly had some of those moments.
In terms of disillusionment and disappointment, I sometimes have to stop my mind from dwelling on everything I had and lost. I didn’t get released back to my fiancee and our place in Scottsdale. Back then I had transportation and savings and I could do whatever I wanted. Now I’m a displaced person rebuilding from scratch. I am restricted by virtue of my limited resources. But rebuilding is an enjoyable challenge and puts meaning into my life.

You had huge fears about your own sexuality upon leaving prison-that you would not be able to perform or that women would reject you. Obviously we know that is not the case, but have your expectations changed in the relationship department? What are you looking for now? From a letter dated April 5, 2007, in answer to a question about being married before, “…my immaturity was such that I just did them for fun without telling my parents. I don’t consider myself ever married in a serious invite-the-family sense….the nihilism in me meant that I didn’t recognize the institution of marriage. They were all larks.”

My previous marriages involved agreements for green cards. Fortunately none of them lasted long enough for me to acquire U.S. citizenship or else I would still be in prison.
I never considered being in love a lark. I miss not having someone to give my heart to. But considering where I am at in life perhaps now is not the optimal time for that to happen.
Oh, to meet a lively intelligent woman, to fall in love, to become lifelong partners and best friends! That would be ideal. But I’m concentrating so hard on writing, seeking someone isn’t a priority right now. As usual, something will probably happen when I’m least expecting it. That’s part of the fun of life.

In my opinion you have been able to strike an amazing balance in befriending many types of people, especially inmates who are notoriously private and hard to know. Do you feel like this has been an asset in learning to deal with people outside? Why do inmates trust you so much? From a letter dated May 15, 2007, one of my favorite letters, “I think the artistic temperament is an empathogenic temperament. I also believe that a positive effect of doing Ecstasy that I experienced was the group empathy. We are walking a parallel road via different means, and I feel for your struggle against yourself. We’re helping each other mend. Most people, sadly, don’t spend time thinking about such things, getting to know themselves and others properly.”

Dealing with the spectrum of character types in America’s prisons has certainly improved my people-handling skills.
Building up trust with the prisoners took many years. Being a harmless goofy Brit who the prisoners would often find stood on his head probably helped. I was also uniquely placed to offer my friends in prison a bridge to the outside world via the blog.

Did your time in prison leave you with less hope for humanity or more? From the same May 15 letter, on inmate’s reaction to the Ironman workout results, “The workouts have caused my appetite to soar to that of a wild beast, and the prison rations just don’t cut it…Black Nine is yelling through our adjoined ventilation system at me, ‘Ozzie Ozzie Ozzie’, and now singing, ‘Whattaya gonna do with all that junk…all that junk…up in your trunk. I am so very gay...’ Not as homoerotic as my downstairs neighbour - a hefty wood - earlier dancing on the run with his penis and balls out, thrusting and wiggling, singing, “Dontcha wish your girlfriend was hot like me.’” (This bit had me crying laughing.)

Prisoner mistreatment, especially by the Arpaio regime, revealed whole new levels of inhumanity.
The pockets of humanity among the prisoners raised my hope for humanity.
And I experienced a wave of humanity from family, friends and blog readers.
So on the whole, my hope for humanity was raised.

Sue is a talented artist. Here’s the link to her site: http://obazart.com/gallery.htm

Email comments to writeinside@hotmail.com or post them below

Copyright © 2007-2008 Shaun P. Attwood


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

Oh well, seeing as I can never keep my fingers still or my mouth shut, thanks, my friend. What a ride! I remember the first letter coming in the mail, your funny, spidery handwriting and polite British demeanor that came through so clearly even in writing. I never expected you to write in the first place because your blog pic looked like this James St. James party boy around 22. But you did, and became a dear friend, an inspiration, someone who made prison life in all its surreal aspects, silliness, horror, mind-numbing and endless day after dayness, understandable and bearable regarding my son.

I know you and I know you will succeed because you are too stubborn, too hard-working and too talented not to. Oh, I'm using this as a commercial for my blog link-any inmate families out there, I'm doing inmate portraits...My heart is with you and I'll work with anyone who desires to have work done (http://inmateportraits.blogspot.com)

Chris H said...

Big Dawg / Joannie

It's like there are 4 people in those letters. The first 2 start off very deep and involved with noted authors and philosophers being discussed (many long words from the Big Dawg, praise be to Google!). Then the other 2 go on to talk about men running round with their balls out and singing.

I like it.

Are you a single mum? Do you think you might be the "lively intelligent woman" that our mutual friend will hopefully find one day? have you two ever met face to face? It may have been blogged but I just can't remember.

Big Dawg!,
Hope you don't mind me saying "mutual friend"... I've been in semi-regular comunication with you for a few years now and would like to think that were the case. How much of your book is complete? Do you have an estimation of when it'll be ready out? Do you ever make it down south? I'd love to buy you a beer and a pack of peanuts!!

Hugs and kisses all round,

Chris H

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

Thanks, Chris, for your comments! No, I'm not a single lady-I'm married with three children. But your comment about the range of the friendship is really true, and all I can say is, c'mon girls-he's a great catch, a gentleman, scholar and crazy fun all rolled up in one! We did meet when Shaun was in Tucson, and had a great time like two old hens. We were the noisiest people in the visitation room.

Chris H said...

Big Dawg,

You not gonna respond sir??

Hugs and kisses,

Chris H