On writing “An Insider’s Guide to Jailhouse Cuisine”
by Sean Rowe
I’ve been making my living as a writer since I was seventeen and now I’m forty-five. In that time I’ve never received so much response to a story as I have to this one. I’m not sure why that is.
A young guy five states away wrote me an e-mail and said this story was the funniest thing he’d read in quite a while. An older friend read it and scratched his ear and said it was “edgy” and “angry.” Margaret, my favorite gal pal, said she thought it was funny and edgy and angry but also a “brave” story. Of course I’d like to believe that.
Mostly I’ve written for other people: the people who paid me, the people who were the subjects of my stories, and the readers, of course. This is one of the few stories I’ve written for myself, about myself. That’s a dangerous practice. It’s dangerous because the more personal you get in a story, the harder it is to stay honest. Here I think I pulled it off, but at a price: I had to reveal things I’m not proud of to get at something bigger than me.
I’ve written fiction, but I prefer to read and write nonfiction. There’s a reality check to it. My most recent ex-fiancee lives alone in the Vermont woods in a cabin she built with her own hands. She’s a painter. In addition to her cabin she has a nice warm studio with two woodstoves. But she prefers to wander around outdoors getting bit by black flies and flirting with frostbite, painting what she sees in the actual world. Imagination in a bottle doesn’t cut it. She likes to uncork the bottle and let the contents collide with “reality.”
One thing I didn’t mention in this story is how it feels when they let you out of jail. It doesn’t feel how you thought it would. The door swings open and there’s the guard and you stop and look back at the guys you’re leaving behind.
This story’s for them. And for the total stranger I’ll never meet but still care about. That’s you.