Prison and writing

There are many connections between being in prison and writing for a living. A few of them are good, most of them are not so good, but none of them are the things I’m going to talk about.

A little background for this story: my stepmother Elaine was on the police force for 20 years. She was the first woman to graduate first in class at the Tucson Police Academy and she worked her way up through the ranks to become one of the very few woman police chiefs for a major metro area in this country. I’m enormously proud of her. Okay, with that in place, we’re ready to go….

Some years ago, I was talking to Elaine on the phone. I was near the end of a book at that time and I asked her if, as I suspected, she had noticed a stage in the writing of any book that I just became really grumpy with the project and had a hard time working on it, regardless of how much fun the book was and how much money I expected to make from it.

Elaine said, “Yes, this is the same thing that happens with prisoners who are about to be released.”

I said “Oh, you are required to say more at this point!” And she did. She told me something that I think will be interesting and educational for all of us in this silly business.

Elaine said that the worst point for escapes and attempted escapes is right before prisoners are due to be released. This has been recognized in incarceration for decades, possibly centuries. This is because you’ve been incarcerated for however long and you can see the end in sight but it’s not there yet and it really pisses you off.

What they generally do for prisoners as they get to be short-timers is put them in solitary and lock them up tight so they can’t get out. This isn’t really done out of any sense of charity for the prisoners, who don’t appreciate being put in lockdown at all for some odd reason. No, the jailers’ idea is to prevent escapes because it looks bad on their records. But it’s still the best thing you can do for the prisoners, too, who don’t need to try to escape and get time added to their sentences.

What “short time” is varies from prisoner to prisoner. It can be 6 months before the end of a 20-year sentence, but Elaine said that this can and does happen as close as 2 weeks before release: The prisoners just hit the wall and they say to themselves “I’m due to get out of here and I can’t take it any more!” She says that you can see that the end is in sight and you really resent the last effing bit!

Elaine went on to say that this is much the same with any major project. She went through much the same thing, she says, when she retired from the police force. As she was getting down to the last couple months of her 20, she was having more and more motivational problems with heading to work. However, she had structured it so she had enough vacation time to give her an escape hatch if she just couldn’t deal with it, so she could phone in on vacation for her final 5-6 weeks if she needed to. 🙂

What can we learn from this?

  1. Writers will always feel cranky right near the end of a project.
  2. Possibly the truest and best kindness an editor or a publisher (or even a manager) can do for writers is to tighten the thumbscrews and make sure they don’t leave their desks as the deadline approaches.

Changing careers

Many years ago (in 1986, to be exact), I was out looking for a job. I’d been a tech writer at Accountants Microsystems, Inc., (who’ve long since vanished from the scene) for a couple years. As a matter of fact, it was my first official job as a technical writer. I’d survived three layoffs at AMI but not the fourth, so I was on the streets. I was interviewing with someone by the name of Susan.

At one point during the interview, Susan asked the old “Where do you see yourself in five years?” question. (I’d never thought much of this question even before this incident.) Well, it’d been quite a while since I’d interviewed and I hadn’t thought about this for some time, so I thought… and I thought… and I thought some more. About 20 seconds had passed and I was still thinking about this very hard and Susan was looking very nervous and finally said hurriedly, “That’s okay; you don’t have to answer that!” and I burst out laughing and said “Actually, Susan, I just realized I have no idea where I’m going to be in five years and I’d like to tell you about it.”

I said, “Five years ago, I was a programmer and I really loved programming and I wanted to know more about programming and do more with it. If you had told me then that in five years that I would have given up programming forever to become a tech writer, I would’ve thought you were high. And if you told me that I’d give it all up in three years, never to look back, I’d have been sure of it. But that’s exactly what happened. So when you ask me where I’m going to be in five years, I can honestly say that I don’t know, but it’s going to be something bigger and grander and more glorious than I can possibly imagine.”

Ummmm, so, I didn’t get that job. (Susan didn’t think that not knowing where I was going to be in five years was such a hot flippin’ answer.) But five years later, in June of 1991, I thought about that interview. In the intervening five years, I’d become a freelance writer and had worked for Microsoft and a lot of other clients, I’d written and published a number of magazine articles and three books and was already working on books #4 and #5, I’d managed a writing department for a couple years, I’d won a number of writing awards, and I’d done training and some consulting for companies, and I had helped found and then run a very popular group for freelance writers in the Puget Sound area. Most of this had been great fun and it had certainly been profitable. I’d grown enormously as a writer and a professional, but there’s no way I could have predicted this from where I sat in June of 1986.

And, as it turned out, I wasn’t able to predict the next five years, either. Or the five after that, or the five after that, or the four since then that bring me up to the present. At this point, I figure if I can accurately predict next week, I’m doing okay.

So the point of all of this somewhere is that, when it comes to career planning, I’m reminded of several things:

  • Be open to change. If you try to solidify your plans too much, you’re going to squeeze out every opportunity for serendipity to happen and you need serendipity in your life or there’s Just No Point.
  • Be ready to grab a new opportunity and take a few risks. If you haven’t fallen flat on your face in a muddy heap at least once, you’ve probably never risked anything meaningful. (Writing that line makes me feel better about some of the flat-out failures I’ve had.)
  • Things will happen you didn’t plan on. I’m going to post something about how to be immortal shortly that talks about this, but figure that there will be bumps in the road.
  • While it’s true that the unexamined life is not worth living, it’s also true that the unlived life is not worth examining.

I haven’t a clue where all this is going to end up, but I’m determined to have fun and make money along the way. As John Lennon said, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”

Addendum, February 7, 2011: The Oatmeal has an article on the The 6 Crappiest Interview Questions. The question about “Where do you see yourself in 5 years” question is the first one in their list. Amazing how that works out….

Thoughts on being rich and famous

I talked to a judge recently who’s working on a mystery novel based on personal experiences while a prosecutor. (I’m not saying anything more than that because it’s not my story to tell.) I may be able to give him a bit of help in figuring out the process for writing and selling a mystery novel, which’d be nice. I wanted to share a thought or two in passing on writing and its compensations.

I’ve always been fond of a quote from Dr. Johnson, quoted in Boswell’s Life of Johnson: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” (Isn’t it amazing how some things don’t change over the centuries?) Boswell cites Johnson as responsible for any number of timeless epigrams (many of which seem to be frequently attributed to Oscar Wilde roughly a century later), including this particularly apt one: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” It’s worth looking up some of Johnson’s other thoughts, particularly if you’re a writer. He’s got a lot to say about writing and money, particularly along the lines of how good it is to conjoin the two as much as possible. Along the same lines, someone also once told me that Judith Merrill (noted science-fiction writer) said, “Writing books may get you fame and glory–not money, mind you, but fame and glory.”

All these sound bites about writing and money got me to thinking about my own thoughts on fame and fortune. But the most signficant example of what to focus on happened to me directly. They aren’t nearly as epigrammatic, sadly, but they make for an okay story naytheless:

Back in November 1988, I was in the middle of my 2nd & 3rd books at the same time (hot tip: do not try this at home!). I remember that I was feeling very full of myself and I can still see myself coming home from my day job, walking through the front door, and saying to my then-wife something fatuous about “being rich and famous.”

She looked at me and said, “You know, Bill Murray was being interviewed on TV today and the interviewer started flipping him a raft and said ‘You know, you haven’t handled fame very well.’ And Bill Murray got real bristly and looked right into the TV camera and he said ‘All you boys and girls out there in Television-land who think you’d like to grow up rich and famous, let me give you a piece of advice: Try “rich” first, and see if that doesn’t do it for yuh!'”


Ever since then, I have held to the idea that I would do what I could to go for “rich” first. Fame (well, “notoriety” perhaps) I figured I could take care of on my own.

Being a hack

Donna Barr posted a few things on Facebook recently about being a hack, which she says is a good thing. I tend to agree. Work is work, after all, and 99% of what we all do is not Great Art or Great Literature, as the case may be.

Decades ago, Harlan Ellison wrote the introduction to a short story in a collection of short stories. He said that he’d hated the character, hated the story, hated the resolution, and sold it to a magazine he didn’t normally do business with… but he made 3x as much money for this as he would’ve otherwise. His final paragraph of this brief exposition was “Moral of the story: I may prostitute my art, but at least I’m not a cheap whore.”

John Ciardi once wrote:

“Dear Virginia:
See the poet.
The poet is fat.
The poet is fifty.
The poet is making a living.”

There is no sin in hackwork. It pays the bills. Sometimes, rather handsomely.