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?
- Writers will always feel cranky right near the end of a project.
- 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.
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