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June 22, 2010

sq throwdown
Photo by Nancy Mullane

The Great San Quentin Literary Throwdown

On June 11th and 18th, 2010, Bay Area authors Keith and Kent Zimmerman, in association with Litquake, hosted the very first Literary Throwdown inside the walls of San Quentin State Prison. It took place at the Zimmerman brothers' Creative Writing Class on the San Quentin H-Unit yard.

David joined five other authors from the outside—Joe Loya, Bucky Sinister, Jack Bouleware, Anne Marino and Alan Black—competing against six inmate writers selected from the class.

Three Hollywood authors/screenwriters—Michael Tolkin plus Noah and Logan Miller served as judges at the June 18 class.

I was asked by Jack Bouleware to write something in the aftermath of the class that he could post on Litquake's website. Here's what I wrote:

In trying to reflect on what moved me most about the San Quentin Throwdown, I keep coming back to the intensity and generosity and humility of the men in that writing program. A number of them reminded me of former clients I had, working as a private investigator—guys who were not what society said they were, but had made mistakes, sometimes serious ones, or who had suffered black periods of shoddy luck so savagely overwhelming they'd succumbed. Some had plunged face-first into oblivion—alcohol, drugs, rage—and all but drowned. Some had given in to the seduction of power crime provides, and waken up on the sharp end of its consequences.

They had names like Rolf, Pitt, Frenchy, Banks, Mister Morrison, Big H, Daleadamown, Jo Jo and JFK, even Dinero D the Dynamic "P" and, yes, Buckshot (his given name, oddly enough). But they also were William and Tim, Dennis and Daniel, Kent, Michael, Raul, Andrew, Christopher, James, Jonathan, Todd. Almost to a man they possessed insight into what had brought them to this place, this prison, insight into their natures, revealing a depth of self-examination often rare in people on the outside, which was what made their writing so compelling.

And they were grateful. They appreciated the fact someone bothered to show up, pay attention, not dictate but share.

They also understood things about writing itself I wish more of my own students grasped so instinctively: Tell a good story, don't waste time, momentum matters, be honest, focus on specifics, make it funny. And God, those guys can be funny. They can also break your heart.

Don't get me wrong: I didn't think I'd been transported to some kind of testosterone wonderland. There was bullshit on both sides, and a lot of feeling each other out, the natural cagey distrust of men with men, inside or outside, though accentuated by the higher level of scrutiny inmates live with day in, day out. They look at you carefully, assess you hard. By and large they were incredibly gracious and accepting in their welcomes, but they were also sizing us up. I wouldn't be surprised if they got us a hell of a lot more than we got them.

That sense guided me when I wrote my own piece. I knew that whatever I wrote, it had to be real, it had to be true, it had to strike hard and deep. Anything less was chickenshit, and the whole room would know it.

It wasn't just the inmates who impressed me.

Memoirist Joe Loya, himself a veteran of crime and prison, reached out to those men in a way none of the rest of us could. He let them know they had strengths and virtues every writer needs: a high tolerance for ambiguity, a knack for risk, a long experience of story-telling that lacked patience for vagueness, dishonesty or digression.

Screenwriter and novelist Michael Tolkin told them that he was blown away by the stories he heard—they were actually about something—and how strong they were compared to the recent offerings by the newly anointed geniuses in the New Yorker's fabled summer fiction issue.

And Bucky Sinister read a poem from his collection All Blacked Out and Nowhere to Go that blew me down, it hit everybody hard. The kind of magical moment that can't be faked. I was grateful, for I didn't feel I'd given back as much as I'd been given. Mister Sinister bailed me out.

For a good long while there's been an upsurge of the throw-away-the-key zeitgeist in this country, a knee-jerk belief that people don't change and everyone in prison deserves what they get, or worse. Criminals are animals to be kenneled and quarantined. My experience with these men in this classroom reminded me of just how mendacious and self-serving and plain fucking wrong that is.

Insight matters, and writing requires it. Men who write about themselves this honestly have what it takes to begin the long hard fight to change. I left that prison wanting to say one simple thing: Listen to them. Hear their stories.

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