David Armand

A Blog About Writing, Publishing, and Random Thoughts

Month: March, 2013

Prison Literature

Ever since I was young, I’ve been fascinated by prisons and prisoners. Perhaps this started when my father was put in jail for drunk driving and resisting arrest: this, unfortunately, became a regular occurrence as his alcoholism worsened and his behavior became more violent and erratic. At one point, his driver’s license was revoked, yet he still drove and in his increasing paranoia (due to the alcoholism), started keeping a sawed-off shotgun under the driver’s seat of his car. (He once told us in total sincerity that the FBI had our phones tapped and that we had to be extremely careful about what we said in our conversations: but that was later, when I was a teenager.) At this point, however, he was simply paranoid of the police, probably within right since he was often inebriated and unlicensed yet driving nonetheless. It became a regular event to get phone calls at three in the morning from him, telling my mother to call her parents so they could put their property up for his bond.

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When I was in fourth grade, my teacher took our class to the parish jail for a field trip. In her cynicism, she thought she was doing us a favor. We, at nine years old, were such degenerates in her eyes that visiting the jail would be an eye-opening experience to help us mend our ways. Little did she know (nor anyone else in my class) that my father was actually in the jail during the time she had scheduled the field trip. I was mortified. I told my mother about this when I got home and she cried. Then we talked about what we could do. I knew if I stayed home that day and if one of my classmates recognized my dad that I would never hear the end of their taunting and ridicule. I also knew that if I went on the field trip and saw my dad behind the steel bars, and if he saw me and spoke to me, the ridicule would still occur and likely be more direct. I didn’t know what to do.

The day of the field trip, my mom called the jail and told them the situation: fortunately, the guards were very sympathetic and they hid my father in a cell that wouldn’t be seen by the visiting students. To take further precaution, I found out later, my dad lied in his bunk with a sheet pulled over him the entire day just to make certain no one in my class (or I) saw him.

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I remember the men we saw: the desperation and wildness in their eyes and in their actions. They hollered at us and jumped out at us when they could, laughing at our fear. It was an intimidating experience. I tried to imagine my father among these men and how he handled himself: I later learned that on his first day in there, he got into a fight with a large black man and beat the black man down. After that, everyone called my dad “chief” and the gaurds, perturbed or angered by this, gave my dad a hard time, as if to make up for the ease with which his fellow inmates treated him after this initial altercation.

My dad taught me to have a general distrust for authority: directly by his words and indirectly (and ironically) by his own actions. He told me not to like police, for one, and also that the IRS was going to come to our house one day and take all of our belongings since he owed them so much money. I remember hiding my favorite toys under my bed and in air vents to keep this horrifying thing from happening. When I was young, all of this seemed totally plausible.

(If one reads my forthcoming novel, Harlow, one will see a lot of these events transcribed there. In fact, I dedicate the novel to him and my grandfather.)

When I was nineteen, my dad died. As horrible as it sounds, it was a relief in one way, but I still miss him. He will never see my children, and he will never know me as a father now. But his legacy, for better or for worse, will live on. I have to believe that. And the fact that prison life and prisons have made such an indelible mark on my psyche is, in part, owed to him.

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Some good books to read on prison life and culture are (and forgive me for the myriad books I know I’m probably leaving out here):

In the Place of Justice by Wilbert Rideau

God of the Rodeo by Daniel Bergner

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

Life After Death by Damien Echols

“Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption” by Stephen King

The Green Mile by Stephen King

Lancelot by Walker Percy

Dead Man Walking by Sister Helen Prejean

Suttree and All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy have two of the best prison scenes I’ve ever read

I’m currently reading Falconer by John Cheever

And Tim Gautreaux, my writing teacher from college, has a great story that doesn’t appear in either one of his collections which is called “Just Turn Like a Gear” which depicts prison and prisoners and those who care about them very wonderfully, and which can be found here (though I think you need to be a subscriber to read it): http://www.jstor.org/stable/25089708?seq=1

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Both of my novels, as well as the third one I’m currently writing, have scenes which take place in prison. The entire latter half of my third novel will take place in a prison, hence all of the reading and research and thinking about this topic. I hope to visit the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for additional research.

But the bottom line of all of this, what moves me the most, is the idea that man, at his most desperate point, can still retain hope for living and for the possibility of love. That’s what I write for, that’s what I see behind bars.

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Mental Illness and Creativity

Last year, my mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia. This was after a suicide attempt and several months in and out of mental institutions and group homes across Louisiana and Mississippi. I had to have her “committed” several times, gain legal custody of her and her affairs, and I’m still caring for her needs today: things like basic hygiene and finances seem to elude her.

But she, like most people in her shoes I suspect, is highly intelligent. She is a gifted artist and pianist: I have programs for piano recitals in which she played Debussy’s wonderful piece Claire de Lune at the age of sixteen before a large audience in a New Orleans auditorium. After all these years, without so much as seeing a piano, she can still sit down on that bench and play the entire piece from memory with accuracy and feeling.

She has a sort of autistic memory: she remembers times and dates and conversations verbatim, but she cannot remember to clip her fingernails or wash her hair.

When she was a teenager, she stayed nearly a year in a mental institution and received electroshock therapy, I’m told, but of course to no avail. She also hoards compulsively, filling her small trailer up with clothes and useless items that seem so important to her but is ultimately unsanitary garbage. She lives in squalor.

Ever since I was young, I couldn’t help but be afraid that one day I would end up like her, the disease (or whatever it is) slowly creeping up on me and taking hold of my life. But I’ve been lucky so far. I must confess that I’ve been diagnosed with moderate to severe obsessive compulsive disorder, but I am able to manage that and keep control of my life.

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One thing I’m very interested in reading lately is biographies of people whose work or lives in some way has impacted my own life. I’ve read biographies of John Steinbeck, Robert Frost, Albert Einstein, Raymond Carver, John Nash, Louis Armstrong, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Huey P. Long, and Jack London, to name only several.

One thread that all of these artists share is that of mental illness or some form of it. I’ve always feared winding up mentally ill, as it is in my genes and runs back in my family as far as anyone is able to trace, not to mention alcoholism and other addictions. But it is a comfort to know that so many minds have balanced mental strains with robust creative output, suggesting perhaps that the two go hand-in-hand. That the latter, in a way, requires the former in order to thrive.

I should end this by saying that mental illness is not romantic, and I hope in no way to capitalize on my experiences with it: mental illness is ugly, terrifying, and painful and real. Not just for the mentally ill person, but for those who love them and care for them. I have seen places and have been through things with my mother that I would never wish on anyone, and I would change everything in her and my life if I could.

A great book to read on this topic is called The Dynamics of Creation by Anthony Storr, as well as the wonderful biography A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar, which of course was made into the award-winning film starring Russell Crowe, also highly recommended.

david-sue

(my mother and me, circa 1982)

Some Notes on Style

Style is perhaps one of the most elusive things we can try to talk about when we talk about art. What is style? How does one develop it? Is it something that can be defined? When I am interacting with art (whether it be a painting, a film, a book), I am trying to get an overall feeling from the piece: that is, do all the small parts lead one to an overall “unity of effect,” as Edgar Allan Poe called it? But that effect is intangible, it is a feeling you walk away with, and it is nearly impossible to explain. It’s like the feeling you have after watching a David Lynch movie, for example. You don’t necessarily know what it was about, but you know it made you feel a certain way. That’s part of Lynch’s genius.

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Raymond Carver said that art is not self-expression, it is communication. And when we want to communicate, we want to do so clearly and efficiently, with economy. I don’t believe art should be about our feelings and emotions, but should somehow convey a feeling indirectly with the employment of style and technique.

Now when considering all of these small parts, I very consciously think about structure, for one. My first novel is told from multiple points-of-view, shifting time periods, shifting verb tense. My second novel is told in five long chapters, unnumbered, each from a different point-of-view (alternating between the boy Leslie and his father Harlow), and my third novel is told in short parabolic sections, no chapters at all.

I further remove any extraneous punctuation such as quotation marks around dialogue, apostrophes on negative contractions, semi-colons, exclamation points, as well as commas that aren’t imperative to the flow/movement of the sentence. This can make for difficult reading if the writing is not done with exactness and precision. The removal of punctuation is intended to make the reading/communication easier, not the opposite. The minimalistic use of punctuation also serves to offset the sort of “maximalist” prose style, thus hopefully making for an evenly-paced read. I do use colons, as they are a strong form of terminal punctuation that allow the sentence to keep breathing. The King James Bible uses colons a great deal, and it makes for a strong, powerful text.

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e. e. cummings said: “since feeling is first / who pays any attention / to the syntax of things / will never wholly kiss you.” While the inherent contradiction of these lines lies in the fact that by simply acknowledging not paying attention to the syntax of things, one is paying attention to them, I think what the poet means is that one can focus so much on the making of something (e.g. plot, thematic elements, imagery, etc.) that all feeling is lost. There has to be a balance, preferably leaning the scale toward the side of feeling/emotion. There has to be a leap of faith taken wherein the poet simply trusts the process of creation and forgets, momentarily, what he’s learned, what he’s been taught.

When it comes down to style, I’m also interested in movement, pacing, much like a filmmaker, exploring the technique of mise en scene, particularly in the climactic scenes of my books, where the same moment is played out in a sort of quick tableau, but told from multiple perspectives so that the climax happens more than once and becomes altered, depending on whose point of view it’s in. Some of my favorite artists (Quentin Tarantino, Shakespeare, and the Coen brothers) do this masterfully.

Lastly, I study the cadence and rhythm of texts such as the King James Bible, Shakespeare, William Faulkner, and of course, Cormac McCarthy: All of this in an effort to get a feel for my work.

Being a lifelong Southerner, I also feel it is my duty to concern myself with establishing an authentic sense of place in my books as well. This is something that seems uniquely important to Southern writers, as this flat Pine Belt geography where I’m from almost becomes a character itself in the great Southern literary canon. My novels ground themselves in very unique, very specific, and very real places: Sun, Franklinton, and Greensburg, Louisiana. And although I fictionalize the towns in my books, I do attempt to make the places universal ones, ones in which someone in New York, California, or Missouri may be able to see a bit of their own landscape portrayed—if not the physical landscape, the emotional one that accompanies it. Indeed, this landscape is a prominent character in many great Southern works that I admire, such as those by William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy, to name several, whose work and style I have studied and admired, and which I try to emulate in my own writing. As Eudora Welty once said, “One place understood helps us understand all other places better,” and this is my ultimate goal, for one of the most powerful aspects of literature is how “the most intensely regional [stories] are often the most universal,” to borrow from yet another one of my favorite writers, Ron Rash.

My prose has often been criticized for being circuitous, meandering, overwritten. I was trained as a poet, where economy of language is essential, but with novel writing, I feel as if I have more room. I would never write a poem, an essay, or short story, in the same style as one of my novels. Novels give us space: whether it’s more space to mess up and make mistakes, as Faulkner said, or just more space to feel out the possibilities of what we’re making, one should simply take advantage of that room whenever one can. I can just hope I have been at least somewhat successful utilizing that space thus far.