Life sentences

Novelist Mark Salzman, who spent four years teaching locked-up young hoods in L.A., talks about his students, their writing and how they inspired him to have a child of his own.

By Sheerly Avni

Published September 18, 2003 8:50PM (EDT)

The plot is pure Lifetime television: Pulitzer Prize-nominated novelist struggles with writer's block and tortured self-doubt while working on third novel. Novelist reluctantly agrees to teach a writing class for violent offenders in the local juvenile hall. After an initial stage of mutual distrust, he and his students redeem each other: The hoodlums learn to love themselves and the word, and the novelist emerges from the experience with a critically acclaimed book, a refreshed outlook on life and new insight into the True Meaning of Writing.

The only hitch is that the story is real. "True Notebooks," Mark Salzman's memoir of the four years he spent teaching creative writing in Los Angeles Central Juvenile Hall, is an unexpected delight, with not a treacly or self-consciously "inspiring" moment to be found. At the story's onset, it's 1997 and a minor character in Salzman's stuttering work-in-progress is a juvenile delinquent. Needing more concrete information about a demographic he knows very little about, he reluctantly takes up a friend's offer to attend a writing class and meet some locked-up teens face-to-face. He is full of trepidation: He doesn't much like teenagers, especially the criminal kind, and he is both mildly pro-death penalty and comfortable with the idea of trying children as adults. In his own words, he "wishes we could tilt L.A. County and shake it until everybody with a shaved head and tattoos falls into the ocean." Furthermore, burdened with his own memories of being teased and bullied as a teenager, he's terrified that he won't be able to win his students' respect.

As Salzman and the reader quickly realize, his own personal issues are simply not that important. It is the young men -- boys, really -- who quickly take center stage. There is Francisco, an earnest recovering gangbanger studying for his confirmation test in the Catholic Church, who despite his newfound relationship with God cannot go five minutes without cursing; Benny Wong, an undersized, geeky outcast whom Salzman cannot protect from the others' relentless hazing; and Kevin Jackson, a shy and "sweet-faced" young man whose murder trial Salzman ends up attending. These boys don't need to be taught the importance of self-expression. Through their spirited class discussions and the immediacy and honesty of their own work, they emerge as complicated but fascinating characters, writers in their own right, whose humor, dark wit and surprising innocence hold the reader's attention and affection as surely as they do Salzman's.

Salzman spoke with Salon from his home in Los Angeles about the act of writing, what he's learned about the American criminal justice system and how after hundreds of hours with the boys he still doesn't like hip-hop -- even though at this students' urging, he has written a rhyme or two of his own, under the nickname of "M.C. Powdered Donut."

You started working with kids in juvenile hall while you were writing your novel "Lying Awake," about a Carmelite nun suffering from a crisis of faith. Meanwhile, you were having a crisis of faith about your worth as a writer, and working with a bunch of kids who were also in crisis: The kids were trying to keep faith in themselves and hope for the future alive. Did teaching this class help you in your own work?

Seeing the kids' ability to shut out their fears and focus and write -- because they somehow knew that when it was done they would feel better -- was deeply reassuring to me at a time when my own writing was causing me so much suffering. I was feeling so lost and wondering if I was meant to write, and if I were meant to do it, wouldn't I be doing it better?

But if the only measure of your work is the result -- whether you get it published, or how it is judged by others, then as a writer you are in a terrible fix. The kids made me see that the experience of working has value, on its own, regardless of the future outcome.

Did you have any reservations about writing up the experience in "True Notebooks"?

I had two reservations: One, how do I present this story without seeming self-serving -- it should be about the kids' stories, not mine. This led to another: It should be about what they went through, and that means it should have an arc of some sort, something to leave the reader satisfied. But there weren't any success stories here -- not with kids getting life sentences, or disappearing from class one day unexpectedly because they'd been moved to another facility. But then I thought, my book "Iron and Silk " didn't have a big beginning, middle, and end story either -- I was just trying to write about the experience of living in China. I decided that I would try to write another fragmentary and ephemeral book, but try to make it as satisfying as my time in the workshops.

How did you manage to keep yourself out of the book?

With editing. As I went through the different drafts, I could smell me coming out like a rotting carcass. So I'd just yank myself out each time, and do my best to let the kids take over.

Did you have moments when you were intimidated by the kids, or angry with them, when they showed their "thug" sides?

Oh sure. It would happen if they were goofing around, if they weren't concentrating, and there was that moment when all the kids picked on Benny Wong. Oh God, did I hate those kids at that point. All of my experiences being picked on by bullies in junior high and high school came flooding back, and I wanted to just boil them in oil!

But then, a few minutes later, a kid would do something that was so touching and so vulnerable and so generous. And I would realize that this is exactly it: They are a complex mixture. They're not misunderstood angels, they're not monsters. Wherever they grew up, these are kids who would probably have been restless, the kinds of kids who are natural thrill seekers or risk takers. In a positive environment, I'm pretty sure nine out of 10 of them would have ended up being successful. But in the environments they grew up in, that restlessness got twisted into negative behavior.

Did you see your students as men or boys?

As boys. Before I worked in juvenile hall, I had pretty much accepted the idea that trying minors as adults was appropriate in some cases. Frankly, if I read about a gang member getting three consecutive life terms -- say, if he had opened fire into a group of people because he was pissed off because some enemy had flashed him a gang sign -- I just thought, "Fine. It's sad, it's tragic, but this person has forfeited the right to participate in society."

But after meeting these kids, the deepest and most sudden impression I had was a shocking recognition that they were children. In fact I'd say that emotionally they were younger than other kids their age. It's just that they want to believe that no one can hurt them: Out of jail and out on the streets, they have adopted this persona of hardness, of invulnerability.

One of the most poignant moments is Kevin Jackson's murder trial. Throughout the book, he seems like one of the most thoughtful, most loving, most soft-spoken of all the kids you meet. And then at his trial, we learn that not only did he shoot and kill another boy in front of a movie theater, but afterwards he went to another theater and watched the movie. How did you integrate the two pictures you had of this boy, the sensitive writer and the callous killer?

For a while after that trial I was heartbroken, but I also came to accept that it is possible for a person to respond in drastically different ways to different situations. A person can be capable of great love and affection, but also great violence, great hatred.

Before I worked at juvy, I felt that if someone is awful, if someone is evil, then they had to be evil all the way through. And that was my justification for having no moral qualms about seeing criminals punished. Isn't there a part of all of us that wants criminals to suffer because we are so angry at them?

But meeting kids like Kevin made me realize that it is possible to hold people responsible for what they do without hating them. It's changed how I see the death penalty; it's changed how I relate to the idea of trying children as adults.

One boy described receiving a life term as "dying without a funeral." Now that Kevin is certainly going to spend his life in prison, do you see any hope for him, or is his life over?

I'm still in touch with Kevin, and he's been out of trouble since he's been in jail. He has a job in the prison library, he's been reading a lot, and he's been doing a lot of writing. There is a prison culture, which like any culture is affected by strong-minded, charismatic people of real commitment and passion, and I think it's entirely possible that someone like him could have a positive effect on the people he is in contact with, within that society.

Was it hard not to judge the kids' work, to notice bad grammar, or clichés?

No! That was the beauty of it! Teaching creative writing to college students was just so awful, because I was aware of the technical mistakes but I was also bored to tears by the writing itself. So much of what I read was about young people trying on fancy styles, so they could convince the world that they were Really Great Writers.

But the kids in juvy just told their stories, and most of the things that they described were inherently interesting because they were so intense. So I didn't care about spelling mistakes and clichés because the foundational idea was so vibrant.

You didn't seem to want the kids to use rhymes or raps in their writing. What is it about hip-hop that you don't like?

With hip-hop and rap the emphasis on clever rhymes tends to distract from genuine expression. The other night I had to go listen to a rapper who had been in juvenile hall, and now he's "made good" because he's decided to be a rapper. His lyrics were: "Oh baby let's go out to the club/ let's find a place where we can make lub." There's been such an emphasis on the virtuosity of rhyming, that often the lyrics will serve the rhymes rather than the rhymes serving the meaning.

Plus there's this overall gestalt in hip-hop, a posturing. The fundamental defining characteristic of rap in my opinion is the posture that the rapper is exhilaratingly powerful and in-your-face. I know there is a lot of great rap out there, but personally, most of it just turns me off: "You better watch out for your girlfriends cause here I come, I'm the best rapper in town and all you other suckermotherfuckers blah blah blah."

I know I'm such a dinosaur when it comes to this. But when I'd ask my students to just make the rap into an essay, they'd immediately quit the whole "blasting on foes/calling up hoes/drinking 40 ounces to the neck" persona. Oh God, I'm sure this will be a very unpopular opinion. In fact, I think the term my students used for me was "playa hata."

Do you like any rap at all?

Yeah, I used to love Ice-T's old stuff. There was so much humor in it. And who was that guy with the big clock around his neck?

Flavor Flav?

Yeah, him! And it's true, one time the kids challenged me; they said, 'You make us write your way, now you write our way,' and I did and called myself M.C. Powdered Donut. I can't remember what it was now, but I think I just played around with the kids' expectations of profanity, setting the rhyme up so you'd expect "motherfucker" and instead they got "chicken plucker." Oh, we had fun.

So, speaking of powdered donut: As a white man, how did it feel going into juvenile hall, where most of the the kids were not white? How did differences in race and class play out in the classroom?

Let's face it, do I have any street cred? I was brought up in a leafy suburb in Connecticut. But they made me feel comfortable very quickly because their responses to me were based on pure curiosity: "You're a writer? What does a writer do?" The writing was what was important to them.

Which parts of the kids did you identify with most? What reminded you most of being a teenager yourself?

Well, mostly when I'd hear them talking about how desperately they wanted to please some older guy -- who was usually a jerk, a brute, a thug -- but they wanted that guy's approval so bad. They didn't want to be seen as soft. That was the root of my whole obsession with martial arts growing up. I was the teacher's pet, such a fearful kid, and I hoped that martial arts would transform me into this glistening blade of a boy that other people would respect and fear.

Did it work?

Of course not! It was a total fantasy. I remember before martial arts, I'd ask a girl out and -- you know, I was the shortest kid, with the highest voice -- and she'd say "you're like a little brother to me." And then after a couple of years of martial arts, of meditation and being one with the universe, I asked a girl out on a date and she said, "You're like a weird little brother to me."

The last thing you write -- not even in the book but in your acknowledgements -- was that it was your experience with the kids at Los Angeles Central Juvenile Hall that inspired you to have children, and now you're the blissful stay-at-home dad of a toddler. How did that happen?

I'd been married for 14 years, and I had all sorts of rational reasons for thinking that I would not be a good father. Chief among them was that I did not feel any instinctive desire to have a child. Since I didn't feel this desire to have kids, I thought it was a sign that I just wouldn't bond with a child. Then, after time in Juvy, I was so surprised that I could actually come to like -- even love -- those kids, that it just started to dawn on me, that if I could love these kids then of course I could love my own child.

What lessons did the kids teach you about fatherhood?

That fathers are really important. (Laughs)

If I had to identify one single factor that all of the kids I worked with shared, it was that none of them had an adequate relationship with their father. Having a father figure who cares -- it doesn't have to be a father necessarily, just a father figure -- clearly seems important in order for people to grow up with a sense of security, and a self-image that can withstand all the pummeling that life brings.

Finally, what lessons, if any, did they teach you about writing, and what it means?

It's sort of like that Gandhi quote: "Everything is futile but you must do it anyway, because effort is full victory." Writing -- their writing, my writing, the effort we all make -- is so satisfying; it's about satisfying a hunger we all share, and it's why I'm still writing. That effort is what redeems the experience.

Sheerly Avni

Sheerly Avni is a freelance writer living in Oakland.

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