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This Is Personal

I’m sitting in a coffee bar on G street. I’m not a coffee bar writer, or at least not especially a coffee bar writer. Truth is, I could always write any old place, and I often did: a doctor’s waiting room, a park bench, the front seat of a my (parked) car. Even at home. It didn’t matter. I always carried a crummy spiral bound notebook and a couple of ballpoints with me. I wrote six novels and a memoir using that method.

Things have changed. In truth, I’ve had to seriously consider whether I’m even a writer anymore, whether that’s really an accurate way of identifying myself. Not to others — I’ve rarely ever called myself a writer — but to myself. Is that still a defining part of my identity?

I’m not normally one for a lot of existential soul searching, and certainly not one for doing this kind of thing in public. It doesn’t interest me very much, and I’m damned sure it wouldn’t interest anyone else. But I’ve been pretty scarce around these boards lately. I’ve been a poor member of this community for the last year or so, and I think it’s time I explained what’s been going on, about what led me to this grim precipice.

And no, I’m not going to jump. The time for desperate measures has passed.

About a year and a half ago, my son was arrested. He had just turned 18. It was a violent crime. Mercifully, no one was hurt, but they could have been. People could have died, and he would’ve been at least partly to blame.

He sat in the local jail for almost a year waiting for trial. I visited him twice a week (which was about all that he was allowed). He called several more times a week. We didn’t talk about his crime very much. Everything you say on a jail phone is recorded; everything you write is copied and kept: it can all be used against you. He didn’t see his lawyers (he had three at various times, all public defenders) often, but the one thing they were adamant about was that he shouldn’t be talking about his crime. So we didn’t. It was okay. At first, of course, my curiosity was eating me up, but I understood the need NOT to talk about it, and after a while, I almost stopped caring, hard as that may be to believe. I’m still curious about what happened that night, but I don’t need to know anymore. I have assumed the worst. I’ve stared into that particular horror, and the truth is, I still love my son. I still hope and believe that when he finally gets out, he can still have a decent life ahead of him. I don’t think he is evil. I think he made a lot of stupid decisions, at an age when most people make stupid decisions. His were worse than most…

But I’m getting off the topic. About six months ago, he took a plea deal. His lawyer, incidentally, believed his story, but his partner-in-crime, his co-perpetrator, put all the blame on my son, and the lawyer said going to trial was risky. If the jury found against him, he could’ve gotten a life sentence. So he took a deal. It was a lousy deal. In truth, I think he got rooked by the DA’s office (who seemed to be highly motivated to show how tough she was on middle class criminals in our crime ridden city) but that’s off topic as well. He’s still responsible for his actions, and he’s the first to admit it. To his credit, he’s never tried to shuffle off blame or complained about the apparent unfairness. He wants to pay for his crime. And pay he will. There are still factors that could change his eventual sentence, but the most likely scenario is that he will spend about ten years in a state penitentiary.

That’s where he is now. We haven’t been able to visit him yet (there is a whole process of getting permission which is time consuming and bureaucratically convoluted). He has called once, but apparently gets few opportunities to use the phone. Even letters are infrequent and unpredictable, for various reasons. But he says he is okay for now.

Ten years to go.

I’ve never been a conscientious writer. There have been times when I have dutifully managed to produce a daily word count, but that hasn’t been the norm. I’ve had fallow periods before, but nothing quite like what I’ve experienced in the last 18 months. It’s hard not to blame it on my kid the criminal, my son the jail bird, my child the prison inmate. We’ve found out things about his life before the crime that we certainly never wanted to know, and that no parent should ever have to know, but all too many of us must. It has made me question almost everything. It certainly shifted the stupid novel I was working on to the back burner. Hell! Back burner? The whole stove was off. I wasn’t even going into that mental kitchen anymore.

Really, I blame him for a lot of things, but I can’t blame him for my writerly crisis of faith. Writing is a choice and a discipline. You can’t blame anybody but yourself, and really, you shouldn’t blame anyone. Not writing is also a valid choice, just a sad one — for the writer anyway. As far as readers go, well, there are plenty of other books to read. The world will get along just fine if I never write another word.

So this is really about me. And — spoiler alert — no, I haven’t given up. I haven’t jumped into that particular abyss of self. For the last couple of months, I’ve been making this daily pilgrimage to this charming, noisy, college town coffee shop. I have my laptop. I have my notebooks, in which are scrawled the words I wrote — some almost two years ago — the very rough draft of a novel that, it turns out, is probably nearly 500 pages long. I sit, drink a dark roast, and spend an hour, maybe two, unearthing this erstwhile corpse. It isn’t bad. I don’t know what I’m going to do with it when I finish it. I suppose I’ll self-publish it (I am so past the whole find-a-publisher part of the process, though I imagine I probably could. I’ve done it before.)

But that’s another topic, and for right now, it isn’t the important part. I need to finish this book. I need to do this every day. After all, I have other books to write.

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