Are Writers Better Behind Bars?

Arlo in "Checkmate"

Arlo as the Chessboard Killer in the independent film "Checkmate"

Marina, California.  On Friday The New York Times featured an essay entitled Why Writers Belong Behind Bars.  It’s a fascinating look at what makes some writers especially prolific and how forced imprisonment has often catalyzed the most productive years of writer’s lives. The article then leads into the somewhat more light topic on techniques of modern writers to self-impose periods of isolation.  An especially interesting aspect of the piece was how the modern era of the Internet causes a constant problem for serious writers in that it’s a constant distraction. For all of the benefits it offers writers – connections with other authors and publishers, unlimited research potential, and a means to get their work out – it can also be an enormous hindrance to productivity as even the most disciplined of souls are tempted to check e-mails, chat on Facebook or simply catch the latest breaking news – via video no less!  Some writers have taken extreme measures to combat this, even shutting off Internet access for large blocks of the day and altering computer equipment so the World Wide Web cannot be accessed.  This is a challenge I understand all too well and think many of us out there – writers or not – can relate to.  How do you reap the benefits of the information age without succumbing to its dark side charms?  I think the writers profiled in the essay are a little braver than I – but it’s definitely something to consider!

On another level, I found the piece to have personal relevance under my present circumstances.  I’m by no means imprisoned, but my life here in Marina is a great deal more restricted than I’ve ever been accustomed to.  In jest, my roommate Tali Manouki and I often refer to it as “The Manouki Prison”.  I’m just kind of sequestered in a no man’s land of fog and abandoned military buildings, without a lot of immediate options for getting out and exploring the wider world.  Unlike the Marquis de Sade barricaded in the Bastille, my present situation will change dramatically in a few months time.  But in this period of temporary isolation, could I be better using my time and talents to churn out some big writing projects?  I’d like to hope so.    In addition to my travel writing work for Gogobot and the various natural history consultancies I currently have under my belt, I’m looking at a few major book projects.  Check out these concepts I’m working on and, if you have a moment, I’d appreciate any feedback on your thoughts:

The California Project – is what I’m calling a currently unnamed effort to reflect on the duality of beauty and horror that is the modern State of California. It’s part memoir, part essay on this great state that so many people both love and hate.  Writing from the personal perspective of my four tumultuous years here, I want to look at both the golden allure of it’s natural beauty and economic wealth as well as the corrupted and bankrupt underbelly of the State system that threatens to take this whole place to hell.  I’ve had a unique set of experiences here – from international conservation efforts, oceanographic studies, acting and producing films in Hollywood, getting a sour taste for the broken legal system, and working with everyone from local non-profits and major universities.  I’ve also had one-on-one close encounters with a whirlwind menagerie of hippies, dot com entrepreneurs, celebrities, scientists, politicians, filmmakers, struggling actors, meth addicts and surfers – the smorgasbord of all that epitomizes California, crammed into a few short years!  Is this a story you’d be interested in hearing?

Broken Leashes and Fake Ice Cream – is one of numerous working titles I have for a collaborative effort on short surf travel tales.  Written from the alter-ego nickname of LoBag Rex, along with my buddies Rabbit and Boca, we want to share the best, worst and funniest of our haphazard and totally unplanned adventures throughout Latin America over a 15 year time frame.  It’s meant to be a collection of short stories from the voice of three surfer adventurers, looking for good waves and good times in foreign lands.  I can’t wait to get started on this one – it’s fun just talking about!  What do you think?

OK, I gotta get back to my cell now…

3 Responses to “Are Writers Better Behind Bars?”

  1. Virginia says:

    Excellent post Arlo, brave and right on!

    I agree complete on the need to refrain from excessive distractions in order to develop a writing legacy of one’s own, and the difficulties of achieving this in the era of Internet. I have recently started myself developing habits to foster my creativity, following Julia Cameron’s famous book “The Artist Way”. One of the tools recommended by the book, reading deprivation week, clearly meant for me a deprivation from surfing the web and visiting Facebook. It proved to be difficult only for the first couple of days. For the rest of the week, a refreshing feeling of creative silence and of increasing control over my time prevailed. Having said this, I believe that each writer (or writer-to-be) needs to learn to know one’s self and find a personal balance that simply works. Taking advantage of a forced partial retreat to undertake your writing projects is a terrific idea. Both projects you mention here are great: the California project is much more ambitious in its scope and audience, and probably more difficult to write, so it would probably require more drastic measures than the second one, so why not going for it now that you can’t surf? 😉

    • Arlo Hemphill says:

      Thanks Virginia! That week of no reading terrifies me to no end – ja ja! Its amazing you were able to do it!

      Both of the projects are present projects – it’s not a choice between one or the other, but rather which theme plays best to my inspiration. I plan to move regularly between them. And the latter doesn’t require surfing now. These are tales of travel adventures more than essays on the art of surfing… And one big positive on that project is that those short stories are a lot easier to share with everyone here on the blog!

  2. […] created an entire criminal class that need not exist.Other than for the possible exception of professional writers, incarceration rarely has a positive effect on the prisoner or society. In this case, here’s a guy […]

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