Last month, Batya Swift Yasgur also blogged for this site, and I recommend that anyone who missed it take a look at that earlier post: It has some commonalities with this new piece. The author began her fiction-writing career in the pages of EQMM, with the Robert L. Fish Award-winning story “Me and Mr. Harry.” Her most recent story for us, “Poof,” is in the January/February 2019 issue.—Janet Hutchings
“Truth is stranger than fiction” is a well-known and well-worn cliche. But statements become cliches because they express something real. The intersection of truth and fiction has interested me ever since my early attempts at writing fiction (somewhere around age twelve). I was advised by well-intentioned teachers to “write about what I know” so that my fiction would have the “ring of truth to it.” My father used to encourage me to make sure my fiction had “verisimilitude,” and I dutifully did my best.
About twenty years later, I was employed at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency, reading and critiquing manuscripts submitted for potential publication. Some hapless author had submitted a novel with a twist that stretched the limits of credulity. I don’t remember the author, the plot, or anything else, but I did learn an important lesson that has stayed with me.
When I rejected the novel, citing its lack of believability, the author complained that what he wrote about actually does sometimes happen in real life. I showed the letter to my wise mentor and colleague, Barry Malzberg, who was also employed at SMLA at the time (and has powerfully conveyed his experiences there in his essay “Tripping with the Alchemist”). Barry said, “Reality can afford to be a lot less plausible than fiction, because reality has nothing to prove. There it is and that’s that. Fiction, on the other hand, must continually prove its reality to the reader.”
Let’s leave that aside for a moment and jump several more decades to my experience of reading a book called That Bird Has My Wings: the Autobiography of an Innocent Man on Death Row, by Jarvis Jay Masters (HarperOne, 2009). The book is the memoir of a man currently incarcerated on death row at San Quentin for a crime he did not commit.
If I were to invent a person like Jarvis out of my imagination and write a story or novel, readers would say that my tale lacked believability. After, all, people like Jarvis don’t exist in real life, right? But the truth is that Jarvis does exist. And he has a remarkable story.
Jarvis was convicted of armed robbery and incarcerated in 1981 at the age of nineteen. He did not kill anyone during that robbery. In 1985, a corrections officer was stabbed to death. While the murder was taking place, Jarvis was locked in his cell elsewhere in the facility, but was later accused of sharpening a piece of metal allegedly used to make the weapon that stabbed the officer. He received the death sentence in 1988 and was sent to death row in 1990.
Through his thirty-seven years of incarceration, twenty-eight of which have been on death row (an absolutely mind-boggling number), Jarvis has unwaveringly maintained his innocence. Multiple appeals have been filed and rejected. A habeas corpus appeal containing new evidence supporting his innocence has been filed. He has been waiting for six years for the appeal to be heard.
During his death sentencing, Jarvis was introduced to Buddhist writings and became a Buddhist practitioner. I came across his books because my own spiritual path is primarily Buddhist and I enjoy reading memoirs of people who have gone through spiritual transformations.
I was blown away by his story—the pain and brutality he endured as a child in his birth home, in foster homes, and in the larger juvenile system, the life of crime he embarked upon, his incarceration, the murder of the prison guard, his being framed as an accomplice to the crime, and his unjust sentence. Even more importantly, I was incredibly inspired by his spiritual journey and personal transformation from an angry young man to a Buddhist who is an asset to society beyond the prison. (For example, Jarvis corresponds with young people, helping to steer them away from a life of crime.) He describes more about his spiritual journey in his book Finding Freedom: Writings from Death Row (Padma Publishing, 1997).
Whenever I meditate and find myself complaining about how my knees or back hurt, or how I’m distracted by the sound of a car honking outside my window or two people arguing in the next apartment, I think of Jarvis. I picture him meditating in his cramped, tiny cell, to the background cacophony of other prisoners yelling and cursing, doors clanging, the stone walls and floor of his cell cold and unyielding and so much less hospitable than my own “meditation room,” with its soft colors and creature comforts.
I’m not the only one he has inspired, by the way. His current spiritual mentor is the bestselling Buddhist author Pema Chödrön. And Jarvis’s updated memoir will be published later this year, this time written by David Sheff, author of Beautiful Boy. He has a large worldwide following that goes beyond the Buddhist community.
After some years of carrying around a “mental Jarvis,” I decided to contact him through a website run by a group of his friends and supporters. They put me in touch with him and we began corresponding and talking on the phone. I now regard Jarvis as a dear friend.
I briefly wondered about whether any of his story could be adapted and fictionalized. After all, what better literary inspiration for mystery writing than an actual crime story, filled with drama, sorrow, injustice, and personal growth? And yet, as I continued to get to know Jarvis, I returned to the truth-vs-fiction motif that I had contemplated years earlier. Fiction can reach into the soul and bring forth a deeper truth about a person or situation. But the truth of someone like Jarvis can never be rivaled or augmented in any fictional work. And there is no need to do so. His memoir itself is a page-turner.
There is a spiritual practice (perhaps originating in Buddhism, but don’t hold me to that) to detach one’s feelings from the circumstances that created them so that one is simply sitting with the raw sensations or emotions rather than being mired in the surrounding narrative. Meeting the feelings directly, unmediated by Story, is an opportunity to release them and find healing.
If I look beyond Jarvis the person, with a history, a narrative, and a personality, and look at the qualities he evokes in me, I discover that they take on a life of their own that I am sure will find its way into my fiction at some point. I will find myself writing a story that ostensibly has nothing to do with Jarvis, but brings the themes of injustice, imprisonment, steadfast honesty, and spiritual resilience into a new context.
There’s another way that Jarvis inspires my writing. Jarvis penned both of his books. And when I say “pen,” I literally mean using a pen. He didn’t have access to a computer or even a typewriter. And because the hard plastic outer tube of a Bic pen could theoretically be used as a weapon, it was forbidden by the prison authorities. So the ink-filled soft inner tube of the pen was removed and Jarvis wrote his two books (and all his correspondence) by grasping the inner tube between his thumb and index finger.
That alone is quite a feat. I’m lucky if I can sign my name on a piece of paper, and am wholly dependent on my computer, with its seductively easy keyboard, spell check, and opportunity to change my mind a thousand times about a given sentence or word. Delete, retype, delete, retype, revise, begin anew, delete, and begin again. I can’t imagine writing an article or short story, let alone an entire book, without a computer.
As I write these words, my fingers flying over the keyboard, I think of how disgruntled I get when the computer is slow, the software goes awry, or the screen freezes. Then I compare my process of writing to that of Jarvis, laboriously moving his pen across the paper. I think of generations of great writers and how they produced their work. Did Arthur Conan Doyle—one of my early literary heroes—have a computer? Did Shakespeare have a typewriter? And I celebrate whatever technological magic I have instead of grumbling when it doesn’t work.
Here is the greatest truth I have learned from Jarvis: A person can be spiritually free, even behind bars. That doesn’t mean, of course, that I regard him as a cardboard saint who should be left to sit in beatific bliss behind bars while incarcerated for the rest of his life, merely because his spirit is soaring beyond his cell. Obviously, I will participate in whatever way possible toward his release. (His website and Facebook page have more information about that.) But in the end, I know that I too can find freedom from whatever oppresses me. That freedom will manifest in my writing and in all other facets of my life.