ON DISTRACTION

Material distractions are the easiest ones for me to deal with. By now I know all about them. They take the form of a messy workspace, including what I call “the clot,” a pile of items, mostly documents, that I’m supposed to deal with but haven’t. I’ve learned from bitter experience (heat shut offs, lapsed insurance) to keep bills out of the clot, but just about anything else can end up there. Over time they get dealt with, they probably even get the attention they deserve, but one way to give in to distraction is to deal with them NOW! I do that a lot, but not when I’m writing. I just won’t.

Mental distractions are much harder to overcome. Good writing, especially fiction, but non-fiction as well, comes from a free-flowing imagination, so putting the brakes on one’s thoughts can be counter-productive. Nevertheless, that’s what overcoming mental distractions consists of. I try not to be too philosophical about these things, but I sometimes do wonder who this “I” is who wants to write the narrative of a particular crime, for example, and who this “I” is whose thoughts drift back to that day in a bar in 1973 when two cops walked in and arrested the guy sitting next to me. Are they one writer (me) circumnavigating the general topic of crime in the guise of two selves in order to find something insightful to say about the crime I am writing about, or are they a writer and his nemesis, The Distractor? They could be either. The method I’ve fallen into for deciding is to step back and see whether what I’m writing, or worse yet what I’m writing about, is boring.

There is no excuse for boring writing. People who read it will become distracted and give up. An honest writer will spot it first and save them the trouble. I’ve gotten pretty good at spotting my own boring writing (other people’s is easy) and throwing it out. A more difficult task is doing that two or three times and then deciding that the topic itself is a black hole of boredom. Either way, it’s part of the writer’s task, and The Distractor is your best ally. If he keeps popping up it’s probably time for a rethink.

Locked Up Forever

Life without parole sentences are referred to as “a living death” in an ACLU report concerning that unique form of torture. It’s worth reading.

The torture might arguably be justifiable when the crime is taking another human life (I don’t think so but I can see how someone might), but for anything less it certainly is not. It is particularly excruciating when you’re in prison forever for something you didn’t do. I wrote a story for Chicago Magazine in 1990 about four men who were doing mandatory life for a crime they didn’t commit, and they told me what it was like slogging through one day after another with the knowledge that death was the only way out.

My story prompted the Governor of Illinois to pardon those four men, and shortly after he did I got a call from an inmate at the MCC, the holding facility in Chicago where prisoners who have cases before the federal court are held. The caller’s name was Rudy Martinez, and he wondered if I could help him. He was a first offender awaiting assignment to a federal prison to begin serving a mandatory life sentence for a non-violent crime which he did commit, but there was a pretty compelling case for reducing his sentence.

That call came in 1991, and Martinez is still in prison. I’ve tried to help him over the years. Now his petition for clemency is before a special Justice Department task force called Clemency Project 2014. You can read about Martinez in an anthology of true crime stories I’ve written – The Family That Couldn’t Sleep at Night, published by Calumet Editions. The story in which Martinez appears is “Welcome to Pine County”. If you believe, as I do, that twenty-four years is enough and it’s time for him to be released, write a letter to President Obama.

The story that prompted Governor Thompson to pardon los cuatro inocentes, titled “The Milwaukee Avenue Massacre”, is in there too.

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