I Just Got Out of Jail
by Tim O’Mara
I just got out of jail.
Just like I do every Thursday at approximately eight o’clock at night. Tonight there’s a biting—and for mid-November unexpected—breeze coming off the East River onto the Island. It punches me in the face as I exit the housing unit and do my best to admire the Manhattan skyline a few miles in the distance. Not even the single-digit “Real Feel” temperature can chill the heated excitement coursing through my veins.
For the past four hours, I’d been working with incarcerated young men—eighteen to twenty years old—reading and writing. My partners and I show them a piece of poetry or prose, ask for reflections, and then try to get them to write something in a similar vein. The work we get from these young men is never short of astounding—if not always in “quality,” then always in honesty.
This day, I had given a small group of young men one of my favorite writing exercises: write a scene using just dialogue. No setting, no attributions, just dialogue. The only other rule is that both speakers must be in conflict with each other. Quite often they come up with stuff they choose to work on after my time with them is over.
And every once in a while, I get something to take home with me.
One of our more reluctant writers, a young man of about twenty, had taken ten minutes to write only four lines, each character taking two turns to speak. Not a big output, but the last line stood out: “I’ma kill you.”
“Why,” I asked, “is this character threatening to kill the other?”
“It’s like this,” the young man began. “The last time they was playing dice, the one guy lost and didn’t have the money to pay the other guy. Ya feel me? So the guy said he could wait. So now they gonna play again and if the guy who lost last time loses again and doesn’t have the money like he says he does, the other guy’s gonna kill him. Ya feel me?”
“Does that happen?” I asked. “Over dice?”
The young man gave me a smile that would make Jack Nicholson envious. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “Lemme tell ya something.”
However reluctant a writer he was, he was the exact opposite as a storyteller. What came out of his mouth for the next twenty-plus minutes was nothing short of a dissertation in the world of underground—sometimes literally, as many games are played in the basements of Brooklyn housing developments and brownstones—dice playing and the folks who play.
When I was sure he was finished, I looked at him and said, “You know I’m going to steal that, don’t you?”
Knowing I was a novelist, he smiled and said, “Really?”
“Yeah. Really.” And then I added, “Ya feel me?”
Without realizing it, this incarcerated youth—whose incarceration for drug use makes none of us any safer—had given me setting, characters, and plot development. The next day, I stopped writing the scene I’d been working on, and wrote a new one where my protagonist Raymond Donne—ex-cop turned New York City schoolteacher—gets taken to a dice game in search of the murder victim’s former drug dealer.
This is one of the more obvious reasons I’ve never believed in writer’s block. I live in New York City; here “writers block” is a street where two or more authors live. If I ever get stuck for an idea, I step outside and go for a walk. (Or to prison.) Soon enough, someone will say something, do something, or remind me of something I can get down on paper and make fit into what I’m working on.
I’m not suggesting you head off to the nearest house of detention to get your ideas. After thirty years in the New York City public schools, I’ve always wanted to work with incarcerated youth. (Thanks to Prison Writes—www.prisonwrites.org—I now have that opportunity.) I am suggesting that when you find yourself stuck in the middle of your work-in-progress, and it’s not working or progressing, get up off your seat and get out into the world.
Go to the store and observe. Go to McDonald’s and listen. Go to the nearest wooded area and smell. Taste and touch using your own judgment. There’s no link on your laptop that leads to inspiration.
You’ve got five senses. Get up, get out, and use them.
Ya feel me?
TIM O’MARA is best known for his Raymond Donne mysteries about an ex-cop who now teaches in the same Williamsburg, Brooklyn, neighborhood he once policed: Sacrifice Fly (2012), Crooked Numbers (2013), Dead Red (2015), Nasty Cutter (2017), published by Minotaur Books (#1–#3) and Severn House (#4). O’Mara’s short story The Tip is featured in the 2016 anthology Unloaded: Crime Writers Writing Without Guns, and his novellas Smoked and Jammed appear in 2016 and 2018 crime trilogies from Down & Out Books. O’Mara taught special education for 30 years in the public middle schools of New York City, where he now teaches adult writers and still lives. In addition to writing his next Raymond novel, The Hook, and the stand-alone high-school-based crime drama, So Close to Me, O’Mara recently finished curating the short-story anthology, Down to the River, to benefit the non-profit American Rivers.