"You gotta write from the heart, got it?"

An excerpt from Mark Salzman's new memoir, "True Notebooks."

By Mark Salzman

Published September 18, 2003 8:00AM (EDT)

[From Chapter 1: Just Say No]

When I can't make up my mind about something, I start a notebook. I use it to think aloud; I fill it with questions, arguments, and reassuring cliches. My notebook from August 1997 read:


-- students all gangbangers; feel unqualified to evaluate poems about AK-47s
-- still angry about getting mugged in 1978
-- still angry about having apartment robbed in 1986
-- still angry about my wife's car being stolen in 1992
-- wish we could tilt LA County and shake it until everybody with a shaved head and tattoos falls into the ocean
-- feel uncomfortable around teenagers

On the next page, I wrote:


-- have never seen the inside of a jail
-- pretended to be enthusiastic when Duane mentioned it

The trouble started after I mentioned to Duane Noriyuki, a friend and writer for the Los Angeles Times, that I was having problems with my novel about a cloistered nun. "What kind of problems?" he asked. I didn't want to reveal the full extent of it: the plot had collapsed, the main characters seemed lifeless, the dialogue ran false, I had lost sight of the theme, and the setting felt wrong -- so I limited myself to telling him about Carlos. Carlos was a minor character in the story, a juvenile delinquent with a terminal illness. Although I had given Carlos tattoos and a bald head, he failed to impress my editor. She thought he needed a personality. And "please please please," she urged in one of her notes, "give him a different name."

Los Angeles is the youth capital of the world, so I figured Duane must have had to write about them at some point. I asked if he could recommend any good books about juvenile delinquents that I could use for research. He thought about it, then answered, "not really."

I figured that was the end of that, but then he said, "But I volunteer down at juvenile hall twice a week. I teach a writing class there. If you'd like to come down and visit sometime, the guys could tell you more than any book." I didn't respond immediately; I wanted him to think I was giving it serious thought. Then I asked, "Could you recommend some not-so-good books?"

- - - - - - - - - - - -


-- Jack Henry Abbott/Norman Mailer debacle. Who cares if thugs write well? They're still thugs.
-- Crime victims don't get free writing classes, why should the criminals?
-- I gave free readings for the L.A. Library and Planned Parenthood this year, I did my bit.

There was one more reason I did not want to visit Duane's class but it was too depressing to face, even in the privacy of my notebook. What if Duane's students asked if I believed writing was worth the effort?

If they were as cunning as their reputations suggested, they might sense how lost I felt as a writer and realize that I had nothing to offer them. Then, I imagined, they would beat me up.

My notebook for that season ends with a solution:

Remove juvenile delinquent character from novel.

[From Chapter 5: Collision]

The female guard leaned against the doorframe and crossed her arms over her chest. "So what kind of writing are you guys doing?"

"We're takin' the negative and turnin' it into somethin' positive," Francisco answered. He held up his essay for her to see, as if to prove that he wasn't lying.

"That's good," she said. "Writing's important."

"That's just what we were talkin' about," Francisco said, erasing the gang moniker he had doodled at the bottom of the page.

"Sometimes you can't think of anything positive," Jimmy said, his eyes fixed on the table. "All you can think about is the negative, because that's all there is in your life. What're you supposed to write about then?"

The guard looked over her shoulder and waved toward the staff room, indicating that there were no "nurse regulars" in the library. Then she said to Jimmy, "You write about the negative, then. If you can write about it, you get it out in the open. It eases the pressure."

"It doesn't change the reality, though. You're still stuck in your fucked-up life. Nothing changes."

"I disagree," she said, pushing off the doorframe. "You make the reality. That's my opinion."

When she'd left, Francisco asked me if I knew what a nurse regular was. I said I didn't have any idea.

"Every night a nurse comes in with psych meds. The guys who want 'em line up over there." He pointed to a line of boys standing with their backs to the far wall. One at a time, they went into the staff room and came out a few seconds later.

"What kind of psych meds?" I asked.

"I don't know, but they're strong as fuck. It comes in a little paper cup. You take 'em and you be like -" Francisco's face went slack, his tongue lolled out of his mouth, and he started drooling. "I'd never take that shit. It turns you into a fuckin' zombie."

"If I was stressed enough, I would," Jimmy said. He stuffed his essay into his folder and looked out the window at the yard. "I mean, what good does it do us to hope for anything? It doesn't matter what we do anymore. Nobody cares about a bunch of criminals. When I was on the outs, I never thought once about people in jail, so why should I expect anyone to think about me?"

"Don't say that kinda shit, Wu," Francisco said, hunching over his notepad and writing as he spoke. "You gotta have hope, otherwise you go all crazy and shit. Fuck it, I'ma write something good tonight."

"How can you do that?" Jimmy asked.

"'Cause there's shit-all else to do, that's how."

"No -- I mean how can you write and talk at the same time?"

Francisco snorted. "Cause I got a fucking split personality, which is what I'm tryin' a write about, so shut up already and write, otherwise Mark ain't gonna come here no more 'cause all we do is fuck around."

Kevin smiled. "Not enough writeage."

"Yeah, so write another one of them depressing stories, Wu. Fat-ass Jenkins said he was gonna make sure we all wrote something tonight, or he wouldn't let us come out of our rooms next week."

The boys settled down and wrote for twenty minutes, but the noise from the dayroom was a distraction. They kept looking up from their work to see what was going on out there, and to mouth silent questions to cell mates and friends. When it looked like they had all finished, I asked who would like to read aloud first.

Once again, no one volunteered. "Do I always got to be the one who goes first?" Francisco complained. Before anyone could respond, he said, "Fuck it, I'll read. I call this 'Collision,' 'cause it's, uh ... well, 'cause it's ... fuck it, if I tell you what it's about, then what's the point a readin' it? I'ma just read it."

The angel is coming at full speed in one direction, while the devil comes in the other. The devil with his pitchfork, running at full speed, aiming to hit the angel in the chest, all of a sudden stops with the force of the angel's power. The devil tells the angel that he is going to kill him and that he is going to go to hell, but the angel responds "I am with God, and the only place where I'm going to is paradise." The devil then strikes him, sending him to eternal fire. The angel on his knees, weak, all of a sudden gets his energy back and strikes the devil with his wings and sends him to heaven. There they are, throwing blows, wrestling, doing what they can to win.

All of a sudden they're running full speed towards each other when they collide and become one. That one is me.

"That's real, " Jimmy said. "Everybody in here wakes up in this place hoping that at last, the bad part of him is gone and everything's gonna turn around. But something always happens. Somebody says something, or looks at you a certain way, or you remember that you've ruined your life, and the bad part all comes back. You're back where you started."

Kevin raised his arms over his head to stretch, then yawned, his face settling into a weary smile. "It's a collision all right, but it's like watchin' a car crash on video where the replay button is stuck. They keep crashin' over and over, but the people in the cars never get it right."

"Yeah! Sometimes I wish I could put my whole life on pause, homes. Just make everything stop for a while so I can figure shit out."

"Not me," Jimmy said. "I want mine on fast-forward. I just want to get to the end. Fuck it."

"What did you write about tonight?" I asked Jimmy.

He looked at the piece of paper in front of him, considered it for a moment then crushed it into a ball. "I'll try to write something on Saturday. I can't think straight tonight." I told him not to worry, that he didn't have to write something every session. I said that writing was hard to do and that all of us have days when we feel stuck.

"So that leaves Jackson at the end again," Francisco said.

"Hit us with it."

Kevin stretched again, then slid his essay from the table onto his lap.

"Don't got a title for it," he said. "I just thought of it while we were talking before."

Late at night when the reality of being locked up starts to set in, I begin to wonder why was I ever created if I'm gonna spend the rest of my life in prison? The feeling of meaninglessness starts to set deep in within my soul as each day goes by ...

I know that if I do get the blessing of receiving my freedom back, I will try to do something that will help me to feel like I have a meaning on this earth, but I only have one problem with that, I don't know what I want to be. I don't feel that I'm very good at anything and that just adds to my stress. Sometimes I almost believe myself when I say that I'm a good-for-nothing piece of shit.

"But your life ain't meaningless," Francisco objected. "The Bible says so."

"Yeah, I know. But so far I just can't see it."

"God loves you, homes, you just gotta love him back and then he'll tell you what to do with your life."

Jimmy's eyes narrowed. "My brother loves God and look at all the good it's done him. He got a disease that'll kill him before he's twenty years old."

Francisco threw up his hands. "All I'm sayin' is, Jackson's life ain't meaningless, OK?" He looked at me. "Help me out here, you're the teacher! Tell Jackson his life ain't meaningless."

"If I did that, he would know that I was saying it just to be nice. He has to work it out for himself, which he's already doing. My job is to encourage him to keep working."

Francisco's brow scrunched up for a moment, then relaxed.

"That's right," he affirmed, putting his name on the folder I'd given him. "Whatever you just said, that's what I fuckin' meant."

Excerpted from the book "True Notebooks" by Mark Salzman. Copyright (c) 2003 by Mark Salzman. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.

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