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Writing Well From Prison
Photo by Kelly Sikkema via Unsplash

I had just finished a deep-dive interview and was daydreaming in my cell, listening to Halsey on my tablet through Audio Technica headphones. I was pacing and thinking about the material. I tend to get emotional when I think about my subjects because I often relate to their struggle — externally, internally — to overcome the complications of this prison life.

That’s empathy. That’s what journalism has taught me.

I imagine what the story will look like in the slicks (glossy magazines), how the illustration or photography will pop in the well — the splashy two-page spreads in the back of magazines. I see “the deck,” the few lines that tease the story. Those are feature stories, the pinnacle of print journalism. That’s what I do. From my cell.

I’ve been locked up nearly 19 years now. Back in 2010, I started learning how to write in an Attica creative writing workshop taught by Doran Larson, a volunteer English professor. A handful of prisoners attended once a month. Spotting a great opportunity is like seeing a great story — you’re not going to have a voice whispering in your ear telling you “this is it.”

I was cocky, hardly Larson’s favorite, but I hung on to his every word and never missed a class. The workshop was geared toward published work, and a few of my first essays were rigorously critiqued in class before I mailed them to magazines, and they were published. I developed my signature style: journalism meshed with memoir.

Today I’m a contributing editor for Esquire and a contributing writer for The Marshall Project. Recently I was asked to be an advisor for the Prison Journalism Project. 

In this essay I’ll describe my writing process and how I consider story. I’m writing mostly to the aspiring prison writer and journalist. We’ve partnered with several publications with the hope that this piece will find its way inside.

As a feature magazine writer, I substitute the who, what, where, when and why that a traditional reporter uses in a news story with character, theme, plot, scenes, chronology and motive. In “This Place is Crazy,” a story that appeared in the 2018 summer issue of Esquire, I wrote about Joe Cardo, who suffered from schizoaffective disorder and used to pick up cigarette clips in the Attica yard. I observed him and nestled next to him.

When he told me his story, it reminded me of my brother Eugene’s struggle with mental illness, and so I wove those memories through the story. The piece wound up having three narratives — Joe’s, Eugene’s and mine. It took two years of restructuring and rewriting, with help from a great editor. The story’s peg, which is journalism lingo for a topic that is relevant in society, was this: Ten out of every eleven psychiatric patients housed by the government are incarcerated. Ground the specific in the general. That’s the key.

According to Graydon Carter, Vanity Fair’s former editor in chief, the best magazine stories have these elements: access, narrative, disclosure, and — always — conflict. When you think about it, who’s got better access to story than the prisoner? I mean, we live among some of society’s most colorful characters.

Other journalists parachute into prisons, conduct interviews, and then leave. They can’t truly know the characters they interview or the prison culture. They don’t breathe the air, eat the food, feel the tension. They aren’t affected by prison politics and violence and monotony. The scenes they write are almost all reconstructed instead of witnessed firsthand, which produces some of the best writing. My access has been my edge.

Narrative is simply how you set up the chronology of events. Thing is, there’s nothing simple about it. Knowing where to put scenes and how to keep the tension and when to break for digressions is tricky.

If you want to learn how to spin a yarn, I’d say you have to always analyze the stories you consume — a movie, an NPR segment, a magazine article. Structurally, feature pieces in magazines have a lot going on. I reverse engineer them. I underline, write in the margins, bracket the opening hooks, the nut grafs (the core premise of the article), the exposition on history of the issue to which the stories are pegged, the backstories on the protagonist, then back to the rising action scenes.

Not every story has all these elements. The legendary writer John McPhee says that structure is not a template. I read the pieces front to back, back to front. “The art exists purely in the arrangement of the words,” says Philip Gerard, a writer and professor at University of North Carolina Wilmington. 

A bit about disclosure and conflict. “This Place is Crazy” was a personal story with characters, scenes and action. After the opening scene in the yard, where I introduce Joe Cardo and explain his situation, I digress and blend in important information on the history: “By locking up people with psychiatric diagnoses, we’ve boomeranged back to the way things were done in antebellum America.” Then I go on for a bit about the history. That’s disclosure: teaching the reader. Most people prefer to learn while being told a good story. Magazines do that well. 

There’s a measure of conflict every time an incarcerated person (especially one like me, convicted of murder) publishes in a national magazine. But I’m a big believer in telling the reader why you’re in prison, even if it has nothing to do with the story. Guys that write stories for, say, San Quentin News don’t necessarily need to confront this, because it’s a prison newspaper and readers know the context.

But the context is different with freelancing — when readers are on the outside. Your stories will be among those of traditional writers. That can make it both jarring and fascinating for readers to see your story in a national magazine, which is why you need to explain how you wound up in prison. They can handle it. (I get that this can be difficult, especially with heinous crimes and innocence claims, and I’ll probably write a whole other piece on prison writers revealing their crimes, but you can be candid and contrite — even if you say something like this: “Look, I’m ashamed of what I did ten years ago. I’m not asking for your forgiveness. I’ve yet to forgive myself. But I do want to tell you this story about …)

But what’s the story? Here’s “Writing for Story” author Jon Franklin’s definition: “A story consists of a sequence of actions that occur when a sympathetic character encounters a complicated situation that he confronts and solves.” Character — their wants and desires — drives story. If it’s a personal narrative, you are the character.

In “The Apology Letter,” published last November in the Washington Post Magazine, I explained coming to terms with remorse and how I came to feel summoned to write an apology letter to the family of my victim. With a more journalistic piece, I would say the story, and theme too, comes from the character you are writing about.

To find story, then, you should always be in conversation with your peers. Tell them your story, listen to theirs. Writing is a solitary act, but reporting and hunting the story is not.

Hollywood loves happy endings. But real-life resolutions are often more internal and abstract in magazine features. Characters, as Jon Franklin suggests, don’t always resolve their situations. At the end of “This Place is Crazy,” my brother dies, Joe Cardo is released but still struggles on the outside, and I’m still in prison. But in another sense, I’ve arrived as the writer. At the end of the “Apology Letter,” I’m grappling with my identity, one of the major themes in the piece. “Am I the writer or the murderer? I’ve come to realize, regretfully, that I will always be both.” 

When I’m stuck and unsure with material or about to embark on a big story, I turn to my favorite craft book. The ingredients for success are in the chapters: story, structure, point of view, character, scene, action, dialogue, theme, reporting, story narratives, ethics.

Jack Hart’s “Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction” is written from the editor’s perspective, which is important because editors are the gatekeepers. They say what’s hot and what’s not.

I’m constantly in conversation with editors. They’re not teachers, they’re doers. I learn by watching what they do to my stories: They restructure paragraphs so the chronology of the narrative flows smoother, and they cut and cut — to increase the story’s velocity. While the editors I’ve worked with might not tell me what they are doing, reading Hart I see how they operate—that’s his genius. He also borrows from other craft experts — Robert McKee, Jon Franklin, William Blundell, Ted Conover — and assembles what’s relevant in utterly readable prose.

Hart’s book is the kind that jolts ideas from vague notions into real story pegs. When reading the chapter on explanatory narratives, I came up with an idea to pitch Sports Illustrated on a story about parlay betting and fantasy football in Sing Sing. An explanatory narrative doesn’t follow the character-complication-resolution story arc; rather, it describes a process with “close-to-the-ground specificity” with scenes (action) and digressions (explanation), back and forth. The story ran earlier this year in the pre-Super Bowl issue.

It wound up causing me some problems down the line, because some people around me felt I had revealed too much. Unlike other journalists who often vanish from the lives of their subjects once stories run, I remain here, in the middle of the action. That’s the complication of being a journalist in the joint: you’ve got to face the heat. Later, a prison administrator asked me, “Why would you write a story knowing it could cause you problems?” I responded, “Because I took a shot!”

I say we all need to take a shot. Dream up big stories, imagine your name in the bylines of the slicks. At the same time, be humble enough to know what you don’t know. Mail your essays to professors and writers and editors and beg them for blood on the pages. I’m not a good writer, but I am a good rewriter.

The Prison Journalism Project is a good place to start. They’ll give you some feedback, not a whole lot, but take what you can get. They may post it, or even help you get into a major publication. Keep in mind that I started with shorter pieces, about a thousand words, until I got a grasp of narrative.  

Check this out. I once sent an essay to a woman who created a website for prison writers. She was paying $10 for pieces about salacious prison experiences. She was a true-crime TV producer, and I suspected that she was looking for material. She read my essay and told me it was good, but I was being unrealistic to think a national magazine would publish me. I felt stupid. Then I rewrote the piece and sent it to Esquire.

It went on to become the National Magazine Award finalist in feature writing and was anthologized in The 2019 Best American Magazine Writing. Esquire paid me a good amount of money for the piece. Because the Washington Post Magazine essay was about my crime, I donated the money I received; the issue, written and illustrated by currently and formerly incarcerated people, won the 2020 National Magazine Award.

Now there you have a happy ending.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

John J. Lennon is a writer and journalist incarcerated in New York and a PJP advisor. He hosted a podcast at Sing Sing, where he was previously incarcerated, and he is a contributing editor for Esquire Magazine and The Marshall Project. Lennon was a finalist for the 2019 National Magazine Awards in Feature Writing and received an Honorable Mention for the 2019 Molly National Journalism Award. (Photo by Christaan Felber)