Episode 7: Locked Up

Time-Stamped Show Notes

[0:00] – ADVERTISEMENT: Visual Quill.

[0:40] – SEGMENT ONE: Michael Zinkowski, an English Language Arts teacher at Robert S. Farrell High School at Hillcrest Youth Correctional Facility, recalls a discussion with one of his students.

[3:15] – INTRO: In this episode of From the Margins, we hear stories from writers who have spent time locked up. How does being a prisoner affect a person’s writing? How does it affect how society sees the writer, or how the writer sees himself?

[5:17] SEGMENT TWO: Michael Zinkowski tells stories about various writing students he’s worked with.

  • [8:42] – His students become absorbed in their writing assignments; they want to do more with their projects, beyond the classroom.
  • [9:11] – For some students, the writing process has challenged or changed long-standing beliefs.
  • [13:59] – For some prisoners, writing can serve as a pastime, but for others, it’s a way to help heal from trauma.

[19:07]SEGMENT THREE: Mitchell S. Jackson tells the story of how he began writing behind bars, and how that experience changed the course of his life.

  • [19:35] – In his teens, Mitchell started dealing drugs to help support his family. But he still kept school a high priority.
  • [19:52] – Mitchell recounts the day he was arrested; it was a symbolic end to his dealing days.
  • [25:23] – During his time in prison, Mitchell says, he learned more about what it means to be human.
  • [26:00] – Near the end of his sentence, Mitchell started writing to pass the time.
  • [26:47] – Terry McMillan’s How Stella Got Her Groove Back was the only book written by a black author available at the prison, and it was his first literary inspiration.
  • [27:05] – After prison, Mitchell was accepted into New York University’s Creative Writing Program. Mitchell then published his autobiographical novel, The Residue Years, which has earned high acclaim in the literary community.
  • [27:30] – Mitchell realized that the people actually reading his book were not his intended audience.

[30:55]ADVERTISEMENT: Visual Quill (custom book trailer).

  • [31:17] –Visual Quill’s creative director, Steven Ahlbom, understands the marketing value of letting readers get to know the authors they love through social media.
  • [31:50] – Visual Quill ad that supplies a special offer code for a free consultation.

[32:09] SEGMENT FOUR: We hear from Kristin Mehus-Roe, the executive director of publishing initiatives at Girl Friday, about the delicate nature of prison memoir.

  • [33:00] – Kristin explains how prison memoir shares the same basic pitfall as general memoir, which is the fallacy of memory.
  • [33:22] – But she also explains how prison memoir by nature is a trickier subgenre because the subject matter inherently addresses trauma, details can be incriminating, and much of the story can be fact-checked by anyone.
  • [34:09] – Publishers are wary to offer book deals to prison memoirists for the above reasons.
  • [36:18] – To grab a reader’s attention and hold it, a prison memoirist must use his/her personal experience as an example of a larger trend or universality.

[37:29] – SEGMENT FIVE: Franco Baldasso tells the story of Primo Levi, who was a Holocaust survivor and an author who struggled to break free from his identity as a “Holocaust writer.”

  • [38:48] – Because Levi was a chemist, he was able to survive for a year in the concentration camp. His laboratory work shielded him from the harsh Polish winter in 1944.
  • [40:17] – In Levi’s book, Survival in Auschwitz, he begins with, “It was my good fortune . . .”
  • [41:04] – He wrote in a unique, universal way that did not put himself in the center of the narration.
  • [42:23] – When Levi tried to branch out into different genres, critics were surprised.
  • [43:04] – Levi struggled with the label of “Holocaust writer” throughout his career.
  • [44:25] – Levi died in 1987 when he fell from the third story of his apartment building.
  • [44:41] – History recognizes Levi for literary achievements other than his Holocaust writings. The Royal Institution of Great Britain called his book of science essays, The Periodic Table, “The best science book ever written.”

[45:21] – SEGMENT SIX: Girl Friday correspondent Page Buono records a hike with Ken Lamberton, an author who wrote about the outdoors while in prison for twelve years.

  • [46:13] – When Ken was twenty-seven years old and teaching science in Mesa, Arizona, he was named Teacher of the Year. A few months later, he was arrested and charged with child molestation.
  • [50:10] – Writing served as an escape for Ken. The writing workshops in prison were a refuge that brought all kinds of people together.
  • [50:50] – Ken says that writing is a way for prisoners to preserve a part of their humanity in a system designed to take it away.
  • [51:12] – One thing Ken learned while in prison was how to observe and appreciate the things he could still see in nature.

 [54:21] – CLOSING: Ken reads a passage from his book Wilderness and Razor Wire

Key Points

  • Michael Zinkowski shares stories about his writing students, and how the writing process has shifted their previously held beliefs.
  • Mitchell S. Jackson explains how his time in prison inspired him to write, and how the process of publishing and promoting his first novel illuminated the disparity between his intended readership and his actual readership.
  • Kristin Mehus-Roe illustrates the delicate nature of writing prison memoir.
  • Franco Baldasso discusses how Primo Levi was labeled a “Holocaust writer,” but eventually broke free from that identity as an author.
  • Ken Lamberton tells the story of his time in prison, and how, through his nature writing, he was able to preserve his own humanity.

Find Out More About the Writers and Guests

Kristin Mehus-Roe


Franco Baldasso