The Trials of a Prison Writer

Scared beyond the ability of words to describe, I entered the behemoth of modern day social control known as the Texas Prison system, A*K*A the belly of the beast, at the tender age of 19 – facing a lengthy prison sentence for a crime I didn’t commit, but that’s another story for a future post.

Upon completing classification the equivalent of a human filing system, I was assigned to a 1960’s era 4,500 man red brick dungeon of a prison in East Texas. I faced an immediate set of do or die choices related to my involuntary stay in State Hotel. Since the state had so graciously agreed to provide me with three 4 Star meals a day, a cozy dove feathered antique bed, and warm shower (you can laugh now), the choices that confronted me weren’t of the necessity of life kind. Although most of us are loathed to find out the truth is, human beings actually require very little to survive, or at least simply to physically survive — living is a different matter altogether. But my decisions had to do with what has been labeled the higher aspects of life, namely intellectual and spiritual pursuits.

Being a new convert to Christianity at the time, I was still in the process of learning the value of spirituality and of paying proper attention to the inner man, and not just the cuter reflection seen in the mirror.

In the process I found myself extremely lacking in one crucial area, the life of the mind. After years of being a poor performer in a poor performing school, I dropped out altogether in the 8th grade, a bad decision that seems like a good one at the time. Go figure. Now however I was in the process of rediscovering the joy of intellectual pursuits.

With a renewed appetite for knowledge I earned my GED along with an Associate’s degree. In the process I became a voracious reader. Reading books on history, culture, religion, and business often four or five different titles a month.

Filled with optimism by the new world knowledge was opening up to me and thinking that I might be the next Bob Johnson (Former owner of BET and the Charlotte Bobcats),I subscribed to the Wall Street Journal.

In addition to convincing me I could manage a mutual fund better than Franklin Templeton based on my daily paper trades if someone would so kindly entrust me with the billions to do it. The Journal ushered in my foray into the writer’s life.

During the later part of 2002, I came across an article about the newly emerging popularity of the self-publishing market. Which really wasn’t all that new as countless authors throughout history have utilized self-publishing to get their books to the masses, including Nikki Giovanni, Zane, Omar Tyree, to name a few of the more modern ones. But the old tends to get rediscovered at least once in every generation.
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One new aspect of self-publishing which the article highlighted was the merging of the internet and P.O.D (Print On Demand) technology. The pairing of these two pieces of tech had significantly decreased the cost associated with self-publishing a small number of books. Thereby putting it in reach of writers like me who were big on promise, but short on cash. And in my case the phrase, ”short on cash” didn’t do justice to my financial situation.

The publishing company featured in the article was a company by the name of Xlibris who had a publishing package for under 5500. Excited by the prospect of being able to have my ideas and thoughts in print for such a low fee, I was immediately sieged with the ideal for my first book, ”Beauty In Chains”, an anthology of conscious poetry by myself and seven other prisoners. After collecting the poems and using another poetry book for my template, I wrote the introduction and compiled the individual poems in a coherent order.

With the book nearly complete, I ran into my first problem. One of my fellow inmate scribes had been erroneously counseled by another inmate that I was going to use his 15 poems to make a boat load of money and not give him an Indian penny since we didn’t have a contract.

I had to patiently explain to him that being that we didn’t have the status of Alice Walker or Maya Angelou, it was extremely doubtful that there would be a line outside of Barnes and Noble at 3 AM before the store opened waiting to purchase our self-published book and that being the case we were likely to see very little proceeds if any at all. It was a hard sale but I managed to convince him that although I was in prison like him I wasn’t a crook, and should we just so happen to make the New York Times Bestseller list even though they don’t cover poetry he would get his cut.

The hard part was done and the book was ready, or so I thought. This was in the middle of 2003.Following the advice of a self-publishing guide in a attempt to raise capital I sent out letters to family and friends seeking financial help in getting this project published.

Three months and one encouraging response later, I contacted Xlibris, the publisher from the article manuscript in hand, ready to become the next self-publishing phenomenon. Wrong.

Remember the old saying about reading the fine print. It means just that, “read the fine print.” As it turned out, what was making P.O.D. self-publishing so economically friendly was that the author and the author alone was responsible for getting every aspect of the book ready for printing. Which included the cover layout, interior formatting, along with spelling and grammar corrections. Basically the only thing the self-publisher was doing was printing the books.

For the average person with a home computer and a basic word processing program this wasn’t a major obstacle. But for a inmate with a old-school Smith Corona typewriter, it was like Pharoh telling the Israelites to make brick without giving them straw.

Lacking the ability to get the book formatted, before long the financing soon evaporated and ”Beauty in Chains” appeared to be on its way to the ”another good idea graveyard.”

But one good thing had arises from the ordeal and it was that the writing bug had sunk its fangs into me and I was off and running. Before long, I discovered Trafford, a Canadian self-publisher still willing to accept a old school snail mail type written manuscript. Leading to my publication of “A Windowless Room”, an 86 page book of essays and poems.

Why “A Windowless Room” instead of “Beauty in Chains”? The short answer is that he or she who controls the purse strings controls the process, pure and simple. It was control of the purse strings that led me to publishing my second literary effort as opposed to my first. A family member who had found out that I was writing a book said they were willing to finance the book for me, but not the anthology with my fellow inmate scribes. Not understanding that Beauty in Chains was my baby, my first born that I had put countless hours into conceiving, their perspective was that all the authors should contribute equally to the publishing price. Since that wasn’t going to happen and I knew better than to look a “gift horse in the mouth”, A Windowless Room was born.

Still I never abandoned my wayward child and six years after its conception, I was finally able to publish “Beauty in Chains.” But the time wasn’t spent idle as I had turned into a regular scribe, writing a complete collection of novels including “A Christmas in Harlem, ”The Gift”, ”The Lion of Judah” along with ”Tagger.”

With the completion of each novel I would began the tedious process of hounding agents and publishers with query letter and unsolicited manuscripts for their slush pile. Hoping against hope. And though I’m not particularly proud of it over the years with the large number of manuscripts I snail mailed, I’m responsible for the death of at least ten trees.

As the form rejection letter poured in from the few publishers and agents who took the time to respond with SASE I provided, I became more and more committed to being a repeat offender, as far as self-publishing was concerned. As I had already resolved that if the only way the world would hear my voice was if I financed it myself, so be it.

Which is not to say that I felt my works lacked the quality required of a commercial publishing house. But rather that I recognized that incarcerated men and women are society’s modern day lepers. And just as it was in Jesus day very few people are willing to be affiliated with society’s outcast.

Now that I’m approaching my thirteenth year of incarceration and since beginning this writer’s life, I have 10 books under my belt: A Windowless Room, Beauty In Chains, Street Capitalist, Twins: Double the Blessing, A Christmas In Harlem, The Gift, Tagger, The Lion of Judah, Clutch City Concierge, and The Young African American’s Survival Guide.

Although all the books are complete, I have only succeeded in publishing the first five. I like to say that the other five are in the pipeline for lack of a better euphemism. At 10 books, I’m 3 shy of my current goal which is to have one book for every year of my incarceration, then to continue to write a book for each subsequent year of my incarceration. With two novels on the drawing board, I hope to be at a one book deficiency by the time Saint Nick and his reindeer roll into town.

Having completed the 290 page, “The Young African American Survival Guide”, a book for troubled youth, I have once again crossed my fingers and begun the agonizing process of sending out queries to publishers, which I must admit has by now become a meaningless ritual. But what is hope if not the substance of things hoped for. And this time I actually have a leg up, as two publishers have previously expressed interest.

Wish me luck and I’ll keep you posted. 

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One thought on “The Trials of a Prison Writer

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