Hello everyone. Welcome to Writing Our Way Out, the Podcast. My name is Dave Coogan. And this is the show about writing your way toward the true core of life. This show is based on the writing workshops I have been teaching at the Richmond City Jail for close to fifteen years now, often with college students from Virginia Commonwealth University in there with me. Your life may have nothing to do with jail, but if you are stuck in a prison of the mind, I feel like I know you and might even be able to help you.
The class I started at the jail in 2006 later became the basis for Writing Our Way Out Memoirs from Jail, published in 2015 and co-authored with the men from that class. Kelvin Belton, Stan Craddock, Dean Turner, Andre Simpson, Ron Fountain, Tony Martin, Brad Greene, Karl Black, Naji Mujahid, and Terence Scruggs. Some have joined me on this podcast, and will again, for sure. But here in my quarantine, in the midst of this global pandemic, we’re going to take a little detour from the originally scheduled programming of live shows with my co-authors, guest experts, and of course you in the audience. We are going to call this Season 1.5 The Quarantine Episodes. This is Episode 1, The Writing and the Living.
Yeah, we are going to switch up the format for the show before COVID-19, and travel a different path in these essays that I have been working for my new book, Writing Your Way Out. That book, this show, will take you through the experience of touching the relics of childhood, holding them up to the light, turning your memories around in your mind as you grip down in the truth about what happened, contend with problems that you have known, the punishments or consequences that came your way after you developed a story about yourself from that history and started to act a certain way, to expect things a certain way, to see people a certain way . . . this show is going to take you through that process until you can land softly in the hopeful possibilities, flourishing in the vitality of the life you envisioned, the one that eluded you for so long.
The psychologist, Abraham Maslow calls the core experience of life “self-actualization”—a flourishing of vitality, creativity, self-sufficiency and authentic purpose. A meaningful life. The poet, Clayton Eshleman, says “think of meaning as that which you can utter, which you can express, for if you can, having digested it, you are creative.” He wants us to “digest” and create something from experience, and he urges us to do that with the full awareness that we often fail. That’s a key point. The problem is not just that we sometimes fail to make sense of what’s happened to us but that we might not know how to make sense, or worse, we do not know how to care for ourselves as we struggle for meaning, to be kind to ourselves so that can heal.
I first learned how hard this can be after a violent crime took place in my neighborhood. It started out a robbery of young white couple that became a gang rape of the woman by four younger African-Americans, characterized in the media variously as high school students with learning disabilities, reading behind their grade level, some who had been suspended, others who had dropped out, all from the nearby public housing community just north of Libby Hill Park where the incident took place. Libby: a gentrified, predominantly white enclave in a much larger, poorer, black neighborhood, Church Hill, Richmond, Virginia.
I had just moved to this neighborhood in Richmond a few months before the crime took place. I had never lived near a crime scene before, and I was new to the South. And the racial politics of this event resonated in the media and in the words of the people I was just coming to know. And by resonate I mean teetered at times from outright racist “I hope they get those (N word),” to the more distant polite fear of the unknown with which I was more familiar from my upper middle-class suburban upbringing in Connecticut.
The more time that passed since the gang rape in 2004, the less time I thought about it and the more time I spent thinking about the general situation vulnerable people face at the bottom end of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs; the struggle to meet their physical needs, then their needs for safety, love, friendship, family, belonging, self-esteem, respect, recognition—all that before they reach the pinnacle, self-actualization.
While I am writing this, remembering, I am also watching the news out of Minneapolis and the aftermath: the death of George Floyd, a black man murdered by a white police officer, Derek Chauvin. It’s weighing on me. It really hurts. On May 25, Floyd was handcuffed and pinned face down on the ground. Chauvin kneeled on his neck, his hand in the pocket, presumably for leverage on that kneeling leg, but creating a terrifying, casual cruelty. He stayed on him for 8 minutes and 46 seconds until Floyd died. Chauvin’s accomplices, the other officers, watched and kept the concerned crowd away. The officers had nothing to fear in the unarmed George Floyd except his humanity. To be human is to discover how to flourish in community. We discover ourselves, when we share our lives with others who return us back into ourselves, who refract our spirit, making us even more deeply human. This is what Chauvin failed to discover about himself and about life, which is what made it possible for him to kill. To block someone else’s humanity is to block your own.
Unlike the young men in Libby Hill Park who raped that young woman, brandished a gun, beat her boyfriend, and stole their property, George Floyd did not hurt anyone. But even people like them struggling in life who end up committing a crime are not making a rational choice to hurt people. They feel cornered in a life without meaningful choice. They might not even know how their lives have unfolded this way. Or if they have a hunch, maybe they have not yet taken the time, or been given the support, to connect the dots between what happened when they were young and what’s happening their lives now. This is how I talked to myself then. If I could become their writing teacher, maybe I could help them take control over their plots and develop their character in ways that could help them stay out of jail?
The guy I’m going to tell you about in today’s show, G. G was one of the ones who took the class at the old jail in 2006. A lot of people came through that class who did not make it through and into the book. G’s attention was like a lighter that can’t keep a flame. I never knew which spark would catch. In one class, I asked everyone to work on this writing prompt: “What were your dreams for yourself as a kid? What were your parents dreams for you at this time?” G stood tall to read, his voice much lighter than his body: “My Moms dreams for me? None! She was getting high! She wasn’t thinking about me!”
At 14 he was on his own. He left the projects in New York. Just bouncing from one foster home to another, stealing from people in each home, fighting in each neighborhood, riding the train all day and sometimes all night. On one ride, G and his little crew watched a group of young, white people having fun, bunched up at the end of the car. They were laughing, self-involved. He described them as rich with nice coats, the women with little jewels. With each stop of the train, they moved closer to them. Soon they surrounded them. And when the lights cut out in the tunnel, they robbed them. They had something G wanted.
I took plenty of trips into The City from Connecticut with my high school friends. They were white like me, oblivious. Getting robbed on the subway could have been a part of my story. But I was not thinking of me as I listened to G in the cinderblock chapel of the Richmond City Jail. I was straining to see the boy in this man; the child abandoned by his mother in plain sight, who watched his father nod off into his dinner, high on heroin before he disappeared from G’s life.
Sharing his pain was the beginning of his healing. But just the beginning. Diagnosed with ADHD, held back in school, always fighting, alone with these challenges and no one to cultivate him, G internalized the pain, the anger, the pessimism. Listening to the man try to describe what the boy was going through, I could see G was still imprisoned in a plot that blocked him from developing into the person he wanted to be. He was angry. He did not think he was derailing from life when he robbed those people on the train. He was just looking for some leverage over his pain.
As a homeless teen he had to fight. It helped that he was tall, broad-shouldered, and in touch with his anger. He only lost one fight, too, his first one, and he learned from the experience. He told me fear is just an irrational response to the unknown. To survive New York and later prison he had to conquer that fear of the unknown. He explained how he did it in a letter he sent after he got transferred from the Richmond City Jail to some prison in Virginia. It was a draft of his story, a scene that took place years ago, the second time he got sent to prison. A light-skinned dude with dreads stepped toward him. G made it seem like he didn’t care. Then when the dude came back to the pod, G went, as he put it, “buck nutty” on him with a box cutter. After that, the dude got transferred to another prison. G was putting this into this story, he explained, because he wanted me to know he was doing his time differently now. He didn’t want to be that guy anymore. He wanted to be better.
When he got out, he started visiting me in my office in the English Department at Virginia Commonwealth University. There’s a picture of him one day in my prison literature class, leaning against the teacher’s table, holding his story, holding his own. He’s got faded jeans and a baggy white T. Short-trimmed beard. Some bling. After he read his story, someone asked him why he wrote about his life in prison and why he shared it with me. He smiled, hunching his shoulders. “I don’t know, really. I just figured I could go on feeling like shit.” He paused, his baby-face round with mischief, “Or put it in a letter to Dave!”
I took his shit. It seemed the right thing to do. He wasn’t fighting anymore. He seemed optimistic when he would visit, sit in the office. I helped him write a resume. He got a job with a moving company. These were wins. He lost the job with the moving company, but then he met a friend who worked for Verizon. Rode in the van and did the parts of the job this guy didn’t want to do. Got paid in cash. That ended randomly just the way it started. Then he got with this other guy, an ex-offender who was starting a business just for ex-offenders selling shirts and ties door to door. On his next visit to campus, he showed up in a suit. Boy, was he smiling walking in there clean! In fact, he was so happy that he was doing well, he even showed me his medication for bipolar, proud to let me know he was taking it again. I did not know he had stopped. I never knew he had bipolar. But I added these little bits of news to the “win” column just the same.
I never imagined becoming an arbiter when I became his writing teacher. But when he brought his mother in to meet me, I could not avoid the new role. He wanted me to meet the one who had hurt him. It wasn’t over between them, I could see. Their plot was unresolved. She was thick like G with tired eyes. He explained to her how the class started in the jail, how he had finished writing his memoir, that he was trying to heal, and that this man here, this professor, was going to get it published. She looked down, nodding. He began reading a part about the old days in New York, concluding, “The problem for a kid when the parents are on drugs,” he wrote, “is that the drugs get all of the attention.” She cried a little and raised her head to me. “I know that I’m getting back what I put in then as a mother. I know that.” I hadn’t asked that. I hadn’t even thought that.
G finished his memoir. I had it edited alongside the others by Stan, Dean, Kelvin, Andre, Terence, Brad, Karl, Tony, Naji, and Ron. But a gap was opening up between the man who wrote the memoir and the one moving through life. He admitted he still carried a gun in certain situations. He wouldn’t elaborate. He had a girlfriend. When I asked how he met her, he grinned saying, “For real, I was going to rob her. I was chillin’ with my homeboy out on Broad when we saw her. He said to me, yo! that’s where the money’s at! But when I got talking with her I dropped that plan.” He finished eating the lunch he had brought to the office. “She tells me to bring this back to the crib,” he said gesturing to the Tupperware before shaking his head and throwing it out.
He started using crack again, disappearing. I found out when he called from a rehab facility in Kentucky. He was asking for money. I refused. Then he was in Chicago. I do not know why. I gave up trying to figure things out. His phone number kept changing. Months passed, and I thought he was gone for good. Then he called again to come visit me in my office. He needed to vent. His baby mama’s house had been shot up last night. I had not met the mama he had written about but was now meeting the baby, a toddler. While G sat and we talked, she drew pictures on the back of old Xerox paper I was recycling, a student’s essay on the other side or maybe an earlier draft of Writing Our Way Out. She had large brown eyes, a round face just like his, and a flat stare. She never smiled. She never spoke. Just sat still and colored with either concentration or concern, I could not tell.
“Why did they shoot up the house?” I asked.
“Hey, I stuck to the script.” But the other guys he was with did not. They started selling the heroin that they had brought back from New Jersey on someone else’s block. I could not believe what I was hearing. The whole purpose of the project was to write your way out of plots like this.
“Do you like to gamble?” I asked when he was done. We were both staring out the window from the fourth floor of my building, taking in the scene, students down there doing their thing. He looked over at me like I hadn’t heard any of what he had just said about the bullets that went through the wall, everyone on the ground screaming, because these idiots made a last minute move to sell the pack on their own, thinking they could handle it.
“Yeah, I’ll go online sometimes. Play poker.”
“You like to gamble with life?” That wince again. Like I’d shoved him, just as my writing prompt had shoved him in the jail years ago. “Because that’s what you did when you got off I-95 and drove back to your baby mama’s house. That was the wager, their lives.” He shook his head, snorting like I just did not get it. I looked at his daughter, her eyes locked on the emerging picture.
When I told a friend about this story that I had heard in the office—the trip up I-95 to Jersey, the pack of drugs, then back home in Richmond, the house shot up with his woman and her child inside—she shook her head sadly. Then her eyes came alive. “It’s like The Wire!” I had heard about this show but had not seen it. She insisted I see it. I started that week. I loved it, but not for the same reasons I loved teaching people like G.
In Season 2, D’Angelo, the nephew of the handsome drug kingpin, takes a trip up I-95 from Baltimore toward New York. He’s going to fetch some drugs. And in a powerfully plotted betrayal involving that kingpin and some people involved with D’Angelo’s mother, D’Angelo gets arrested. How could this be when the kingpin rules the interstate? Well, the young protégé moving up the hierarchy in the drug world had become another pawn toppled in a master chessman’s strategy beyond his comprehension. The focus, in other words, is on the machinations of the kingpin. And that’s cool. The reality on the ground, off the screen, in real life, is grittier, and much harder to watch. It is an overweight man with bipolar, anger, and unresolved trauma risking his family’s life to make some money, any money.
G grew impatient. The book we had been working on with the other guys from the class wasn’t published yet. I assured him it would happen, but I needed more time to find a publisher. He felt he should already be making money from the writing he had contributed. He needed money. He was entitled. I owed him! When I pointed out that there could be no money without a book to sell, and that he had signed an agreement with me to publish his story that stated all of this, he said he wanted out. “Write a new agreement that gets me out of it!” I told him the only thing you are getting out of is one day having a book to sell and getting a small but consistent royalty check once or twice a year. More money later, maybe, with speaking engagements. He wanted out. So I wrote what he wanted on a piece of lined paper. “I, Dave, will not publish the memoir by G in the book that I am editing.” I signed it and gave it to him. Then I started a new page. “I, G, will not ask to have my story put back in the book that Dave is editing.” I made him sign it.
That was the last time I saw him. But I got news about him from his co-author, Dean. New Yorkers in the south stick together! Dean had landed a job as a cook when he got out of jail. He taught himself how to cook looking up recipes and techniques on his phone. And it worked. So when he got the job cooking and G started asking about jobs and Dean found out they were hiring dishwashers, he set it up. He got him a job.
The night before his first day at the job, G went out celebrating with a girl at a club in downtown Richmond. Early that morning when they were leaving, two guys asked if they could get a ride. G and the girl said sure, and they set out east toward Fulton Hill in a Chrysler 300. The guys were in the back, G in the passenger seat, the woman driving. At some point, the guys flashed a gun, saying this is a robbery. The girl jumped out of the car. The gun went off. G died trying to get out of the car. The guys took off running.
“Dave, I just got him a job!” Dean told me over the phone, stunned to be telling me the story. “He was going to start that day he died, Dave. Damn!” I found out later that the police caught the ones who killed G. It gave me no comfort. G was gone. No more sparking the lighter of his story together.
Why did he and the woman let those guys into the car? Were they all partying and feeling like they belonged together, like they were in it together? Maybe all of them were out there comforting each other in their collective struggle for something that gave them some recognition, some love, something beyond the basic physical needs and the needs for safety and security, which they had not actually secured, at least, not those two guys in the back of the car. I mean why else would they rob G and his date if they did not have something that they wanted?
Writing your way out is an ongoing process of struggling to become the one you developed lovingly, forgivingly, in your memoir. It involves claiming the meaning you need, to move closer toward the horizon of your authentic purpose. G did this in fits and starts. Was he off his meds again? Was he using crack? Or was he just too angry and impulsive still?
I have met hundreds of writers like G who struggle along this path—some incarcerated, some free—in the last fifteen years. Struggling like he did with mental health issue. Or they struggle with racism, colorism, misogyny. Addicted to alcohol, drugs, cutting, overeating, money. Traumatized people: silenced, ashamed, resentful, angry, afraid of disappointing people, afraid of striking out on their own and asserting to their people that that their life really matters, that their feelings count. People pleasers, pessimistic people, people struggling with low self-esteem, people pained by perceptions of the past they keep alive and that block their freedom, people caught in their parent’s narratives, or lost in a cultural narrative that marginalizes them. People tempted to avenge old enemies spitefully, losing each time to themselves.
And yet, I have rarely met people at whatever level of Maslow’s hierarchy, with whatever history or sense of self, who cannot be coaxed into trying to write their way out of all that; who will not admit from the outset that the story about themselves they have been telling is not working. When we do not know our own story, we are more likely to develop our character in a plot that takes us away from our true calling. And when we do not know another person’s story we are more than likely to supply one: to generalize, categorize, stereotype, discriminate. I tread cautiously around the edges of a person, the so-called facts of their gender, race, age, status, orientation, and the like—until they have had a chance to show their complexity in their story. I am grateful I had the chance to see G in his vulnerability.
Have you ever had the chance to see someone like that? In one class at the jail, I gave a writing prompt to tell a story about a time when you felt boxed in by your gender. One of the college students, Alex, a white guy who describes himself as queer, shared a story of being bullied in high school for his sexuality and this one time, pushed too far, he fought back! He hated fighting, though. He was—and is—a sensitive guy. I can relate. But he was proud he stood his ground. When Alex finished reading, one of the incarcerated writers, Mark Lee, thanked him and said he wished he could be more like him. This took some time for everyone to absorb: Mark Lee is straight, tall, black, muscular, with a commanding baritone voice. Why would he want to be like Alex? He explained if he had been more sensitive, more in touch with his feelings, maybe he could have avoided all the fights he got into in high school, which was the start of all his trouble, that moment when he became the flat character that the kids around him imagined him, needed him to be: the craziest, the biggest, the blackest. This is the kind of insight G made, too: this was G at his best, understanding he did not have to be the person who fought, who carried a gun, who robbed, who used drugs. I smiled watching Alex smile at Mark Lee. “And if I could have been more like you,” Alex reciprocated, “maybe I would have won more fights!”
To Clatyon Eshleman, the poet I mentioned in the outset of the show, writing and expressing makes you creative. I believe this. Eshleman goes on to say that writing honestly can lead to a better world. He calls that world “paradise—or a word that suggests the utmost of our longing and desires for ourselves and others.” This was what Alex and Mark Lee shared in that moment. And it was what G struggled to see off the page; that his longing and desire to be better could make the world better.
I hope you will write, then, not just for yourself, but toward a world we can share that is more humane, more accommodating, more generous and sane; a world where there is less derailing and less pain, a world in which we can all flourish and know that even our longing to flourish matters. Thanks for writing.
And thanks for listening! Today’s show was produced by Robb Crocker, a PhD student in Media, Art, and Text at Virginia Commonwealth University, the host of his own sports podcast, Robb Unfiltered. Robb is also a graduate of the writing your way out class—he took it when he was an undergraduate—and he is a journalist. You will be hearing more from him on this show.
The theme music was written and produced by brother, Chris Coogan. You can learn more about him at https://www.cooganmusic.com/.
If you want to learn more about this show, hear old shows, see the writing prompts that are in the book, the same ones I talked about in this show, go to www.writingourwayout.com. And you can listen to this show on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. I hope you’ll subscribe. There’s a spot on the website where you can share your feedback, which I would absolutely love. You can also reach us on Twitter and Facebook, under our book title, Writing Our Way Out.
On the next show – Watching. Who did you watch when you were growing up? As you were forming your story, who filled your imagination with a sense of possibility? In this show we’ll look into the lives of the ones who made up our life to figure out just how they did it and how we can write about it.
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