Reverse-Gentrification of the Literary World

Akashic Books

||| |||

News & Features » September 2014 » Eric Boyd: Swimming Lessons

Eric Boyd: Swimming Lessons

To celebrate the release of Prison Noir — the latest release in Akashic’s Noir Series and edited by National Book Award winner Joyce Carol Oates — we’re pleased to feature a guest post from contributor Eric Boyd, who gives insight into what it’s like to write while incarcerated. You can also check out Eric Boyd’s contributions to our Mondays Are Murder series: “Promises” and “A Fine Catch.”

PrisonNoirWriters never get enough time to work. Even just having an evening to read a book is hard to come by. Most writers have commitments outside of literature: bills, jobs, families, friends, pets. Everything piles up, and it isn’t uncommon for an author to lament over a project because they didn’t have the time to do it right. But that’s life. It’s difficult to picture writing without things always getting in the way. Try to imagine, though. Think of a place without any responsibilities, barely a hint of the outside world creeping in; think of being submerged in books and poetry and prose, having nothing but time to sit and think and read and write. It sounds like paradise. It isn’t.

Before being incarcerated, I worked at a multiplex, different hours week to week and making just enough to pay the rent on my first apartment. I had a lovely girlfriend, a cat, and friends. Basically, I had a life. And life can easily complicate the practice of writing. Since age fourteen I had been doing everything from screenplays to poems—I even made some money now and then. But once the world cornered me, all that dripped away and I merely floated by. I found myself working doubles to cover bills for a place I barely stayed at. I thanked the gods when my front porch collapsed because I got fifty dollars deducted from the rent. I lived off unsold hot dogs from the movie theater. I started one or two writing projects and never came close to completing them. And the whole time there was this court case staring at me, but I just tried to ignore that. I probably shouldn’t have ignored that.

Inside the Allegheny County Jail, I was greeted by the works of Rimbaud, Céline, O’Connor, Bukowski, and Simone Weil. It was staggering to see such work in that environment, not because it was unexpected, but because it belonged there. Being part of a world of misfits—burglars and gamblers and wet brains—reading the work of misfits is natural. It’s enough to spark that interest in writing again, if for no other reason than because there’s nothing else to do.

I began taking creative writing classes. I’d never truly tackled short fiction before, and the class helped me learn things like formatting and tone. I sent off for a PEN Prison Writing Handbook and wrote my first real short story—a story that Joyce Carol Oates ended up selecting to be in Akashic Books’s Prison Noir anthology.

Toward the end of my stretch, the memoirist Mary Karr visited the ACJ and gave a speech to us all. I had my first public reading at the jail. And every week that we met for class, the entire room pulled up their chairs when it was my turn to share. It was an amazing feeling because impressing inmates is hard—as I mentioned already, they read some pretty good shit. I cursed myself plenty for deserting that feeling before—for watching the writing go adrift—and I promised not to do it again.


After being released in the winter of 2011, that promise was harder to keep than I thought it’d be. I was able to hang on to my girlfriend and my cat and my family was still around, but I lost most of my friends. The theater couldn’t take me back, and I owed thousands in unpaid utility bills. It took forever to land a job, and my parole officer was an asshole. I had piss tests, mental evals, and mandatory classes for ex-cons backhandedly titled “How to Think for a Change.” Writing was the last thing on my mind. Several weeks went by where I didn’t even look at a notebook. There was never a chance to get my mind to flow correctly, I told myself. No time.

Months later, during late summer, I was rummaging through old jail things and saw the PEN Prison Writing contest that was mentioned in the handbook I sent off for; I convinced myself the contest was the only way I could begin redeeming my soul. I forced myself to write some things, submitted work and, after some struggles, won second place in the fiction category. In November of 2012 I read my work at the Strand bookstore for a PEN event and that feeling came back, seeing people gasp and laugh at the right moments in a story, sharing things that nobody else could. There are few things like that in life; it’s hard to reach in the real world. All those responsibilities keep coming. However, jail is a bubble—it cannot sustain someone, in any manner, for very long.

In the real world a writer must live their life and work around it, with it. Anyone that surrounds themselves with nothing but writing is sure to drown in it. So after a while I realized my daily life was not hindering me—I was. There’s no reason I can’t spend the day with my loved ones, make money however I can, and write a story later on. That’s just how it goes. There’s no place where dedication simply thrusts itself upon somebody. Inspiration is not an overwhelming tidal wave, but a small, hidden oasis—a tucked away pond one must have the intense desire to dive into and explore. So go ahead: live and work wherever, do whatever—but accept the need to visit that pond from time to time. It is beautiful in daylight and wondrous in moonglow. You’ve always got enough time if you make time. And you must make time. There’s no other way.

Now go.




ERIC BOYD is a short-story writer living in Pittsburgh. He is an advising editor for theNewerYork; his own writing has been featured in several publications. Boyd is a winner of the 2012 PEN Prison Writing Contest, a program for which he is now a mentor. In 2008, he briefly studied at the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa; currently he commutes, via bus, to New York every week to study at the Writer’s Foundry MFA in Brooklyn. You can visit Boyd’s website here.

Posted: Sep 3, 2014

Category: Akashic Insider | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,