Wednesday, December 25, 2013


 An essay by Charles Patrick Norman

Prisoners carry their crimes and convictions in sacks thrown over their shoulders. Some have small bags that are almost empty, soon to be freed and on their own, free to leave their bags empty or refill them as they choose. Others struggle under the weight of heavy loads, so much time crammed into their packs that they can barely haul them around without stumbling, falling, and giving up. We all have our burdens, heavy or light.

It falls upon my shoulders, standing here in front of fifteen men dressed in cheap prison blue uniforms with white stripes down the sides, sitting at school desks designed for younger ones in a small classroom formerly used as the property room, to direct these men in the art and craft of creative writing.

That I am standing here at all, entrusted with instructing these men, poses no few questions in my own mind, fully cognizant of the irony that the same authorities who ordered me, “Norman, stop writing!” months before, the same ones who punished my creative writing by locking me in a solitary confinement cell for thirty days for refusing to stop writing, those same authorities have allocated this time and place to teach this class. When your jailer sets a ripe watermelon on a table surrounded by hungry men, they do not sit there and question the watermelon as to its motives. They eat.

To my right at a larger desk sits a young woman who takes the roll, calling out names and checking them off her list. She teaches a “transition class” for prisoners who are to be released soon, but she has this block of time open once a week, when she can sit in and monitor, supervise, or sponsor this voluntary program. The prison officials need assurance that we will use this time for creative writing and not incendiary or seditious acts. I have no intention of betraying the limited trust these people have bestowed on me. I’ve done this before, and welcome their observations. Let us eat the watermelon.

Do you have something to say? I ask. Do you have stories you want to tell? Memories of your life you want to preserve, so they will not be lost? Can creative writing be taught? Can you learn to be a better writer of poems, stories, memoirs, essays? Speaking for myself, the answer is yes to all of the above.

Writing is like fishing. Before you go fishing, you must have a desire to fish. Many people have never gone fishing, and neither intend to fish, nor learn to fish. Once you acknowledge the desire to learn to fish, how do you accomplish that desire?

First you need some tools: a fishing rod, line, hooks, bait. Then you need a body of water that contains fish: a river, creek, pond, lake, bay, or ocean. You won’t catch any fish casting your line on dry land. And you must learn the techniques of fishing, preferably from an experienced fisherman who will share his knowledge, show you how to bait your hook and where to cast your line. Hopefully, if all goes right, you’ll get a nibble, then land a fish, and another, and another.

I explain that, in writing, like fishing, you will be surprised at what you catch. Did you expect to land a salmon, or a short story? Hopefully, by putting yourself into position to write, inspiration will strike, and seemingly miraculous things will result.

One week I directed the students to choose a poem to read to the class the following week, one they wrote, or one they like, that speaks to them.

You must understand that prisoners are little different from “free people” in many ways. Countless times I’ve heard guards admit that the only  difference between them and us is that they didn’t get caught. Men are men, in prison or out, and many men have difficulty expressing their thoughts, feelings, emotions, even to those closest to them. To put those thoughts on paper, to put them “out there,” to be read, scrutinized, or studied by strangers, is a task too daunting to risk for many. I break them in slowly, gently, talking about other people, an unforgettable person who had a positive impact on their lives, and one who had a negative impact. Opposites.

And so it went, oiling the rusty gears in each our minds, for I am susceptible to the same negative forces that affect everyone in prison, although I am much further down the road to self-discovery than most of my compatriots.

Several men read poems they’d written, and a few were surprisingly insightful, though lacking the technical skills I hope to impart over time. A few groused at the prospect of being forced to read poems, and expressed their hesitancy at studying something they weren’t interested in. I explained that the knowledge gained from reading and studying poetry made us better writers, no matter what the type of writing we pursued. Our class sponsor spoke up and commented on how change can be difficult perhaps awkward or painful, but that it is good to embrace change, to open ourselves to new experiences that could waken hidden talents. Well said.

Knowing the recalcitrant nature of prisoners, that a few would try to avoid the public reading assignment by claiming not to have been able to find a suitable poem, I trumped that argument by handing out books of famous poems I chose for them. The session went well. Little did they suspect what they would be called on to do for the next class.

I obtained some materials from Libby, my dear friend and researcher, a bio of Robert Frost, and a literary analysis of two of his most famous beloved poems, The Road Not Taken, and Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening. Our class sponsor made copies, and the students were instructed to study the material. Besides continuing writing their daily journal entries, the next assignment struck fear in a few hearts — write a poem. You can do it. Class dismissed.

I live in a “dorm,” a large room with bunks for seventy-two men sardined together with virtually no personal space in the cramped quarters. Everyone is exposed and open to everyone else, including the guards in their goldfish bowl “officer station,” where they look out over men sleeping, fighting, talking, reading, showering or sitting on toilets twenty-four hours a day. Forget privacy. Writing these words at this moment, I listen to Diane Rehm talking about Nelson Mandela on National Public Radio while trying to ignore the incessant, mindless chatter of a dozen men, all within spitting distance. Fortunately, I’ve developed the ability to train my concentration onto the lined paper before me, screening out prison bedlam, else I’d never be able to accomplish anything. The conditions are less than optimum for creative writing, but we make do.

A day or so after our class I noticed one of the students furiously scribbling, sitting on his bunk, tuning out those around him. That went on for hours.

The next day he came to me, smiling. I put down the new John Grisham book, Sycamore Row, that a friend had loaned me, sat up on my bunk, and asked him what he had.

“I wrote my first poem,” he said, proudly, thrusting a sheet of paper toward me. “I’ve never wrote a poem in my life. What do you think?”

I read it. The poem was pretty good. I liked it. “It’s good, man,” I said. “There are a couple of minor grammar things you can fix. Congratulations.”

He smiled bigger, and produced several more sheets of paper, thrusting them toward me. “I got inspired. Here’s five more. What do you think?”

I liked them. He was in a groove. I encouraged him to keep writing.

Those are the moments that teachers live for, that make all the headaches, hassles and obstructions worthwhile, when a light comes on in a student’s head, and it suddenly makes sense. My friend had paid attention to the lessons, dared to cast his line into unfamiliar waters, and pulled out a fish.

In a couple of weeks we will work on short stories, and see what kinds of stories they have to tell. Stay tuned.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Welcome Visit by Charlie’s cousin, Bill Odom Dec. 7, 2013

This morning early they called me to the visiting park. My cousin, Bill Odom, drove from Nashville to visit for the day. I hadn’t seen him since 2000, and it was a great day to be reunited after so much time. Although we come from similar backgrounds – Bill’s late mother, Ruthie Jean, and my mother were sisters — in the summer of my twelfth year, in Sulphur Springs, Texas, we both played on the little league baseball team that Bill’s father, John Odom, managed and coached, our paths diverged, and we led entirely different lives.

While I was serving a life sentence, Bill embarked on a career as a court reporter, married and raised three children, worked for the Speaker of the House in the U.S. Capitol, met presidents, and recently retired from the federal government. Now he is taking time to travel the country and reconnect with relatives. All the things I lot, or never had, Bill was blessed to have, through faith and diligent work. We had a lot to talk about.

The time raced by too quickly, and it seemed that we’d barely eaten our canteen hamburgers and taken the above photo before it was time to go. We shared prayers of thanks and faith, that God protect us both, hugged, and Bill was gone. He’ll spend a few days visiting other relatives, my mother, and my aunt in Tampa, before returning to Nashville, where he now lives.

Below is a photo of my mother and Bill’s mother in Texarkana, sometime around 1948, before either of us was born. Bill said he had never seen it. My mother, Lucille Walker, at left, and Bill’s mother, Ruthie Jean Walker, were carefree teens who had no idea what the future would bring. It is one of my favorite photos. I’ve asked my mother what she was thinking, what they were doing, and who took the photo, but she couldn’t remember.

Bill promised he would stay in touch, and not let so much time pass between visits, and  I’m looking forward to seeing him again. After enjoying a visit with my mother and Phil in October, four days of visits with Libby over Thanksgiving, following up with my cousin’s visit, I’ve had a multitude of blessings.


Tuesday, December 10, 2013


DECEMBER 10 2013: A year ago today, on the occasion
of my late father’s birthday, I wrote this poem.

Eugene Norman would be  85 today. He died at 56.
I miss him still.



By Charles Patrick Norman

Had my father lived,
He would be pale and creaky,
His once-strong back bent with age,
Hobbling toward his car with cane in hand,
Determined to make the long trek
To whatever distant prison held his eldest son.

Through the chain-link fences I would see
His shock of white hair neatly trimmed, a G.I. flattop,
His spectacles thick now, glinting in the sunlight
As he checked his wallet, locked his car
In the prison parking lot, then slowly made
His way to the prison gate, alone.

Entering the visiting room his dimming eyes
Would squint and seek me out, and he would smile,
Yet I would know his heart wept at his son’s loss,
I would smile in return, embrace him in my strong arms,
And grieve for the fading of the vital man
He once had been, when we were young.

He would have stood in the long canteen line with me,
Suppressing the wince of pain every step evinced,
Demand that we order food and drink and eat,
Always the provider for his loved ones
Even though the effort cost him dearly, then
Would leave the prisoner in the window a healthy tip.

He would not have much to say, that was not his way,
But he would answer my every question
To my satisfaction and his exhaustion,
I would have to insist he take his leave
And leave me behind to my unknown fate,
He would shed one tear, he would have been eighty-four.

Sunday, December 8, 2013


Here's a new poem from Charlie;
we hope you enjoy it, and we welcome your comments.


by Charles Patrick Norman

The producer, director, video and sound men
follow me down the catwalk to my cell.
I don’t like the idea of this going live
around the world, but, what the hell.
“This is great stuff,” the producer says,
As I turn from the camera to take a piss.
The sound guy holds the mic down by the bowl,
As I flush, he says, “This shot we don’t want to miss.”

The bell rings twice, chow time, we file out down the hall,
Other prisoners step out of our way with odd looks.
They’ve been told what will happen if they interfere at all,
After lunch, it’s the library to check out some books.
They tell me to head to the yard in search of some action,
A thousand rough men without shirts work out and run.
The tech crew will edit my talks with one faction,
Two groups start fighting like gladiators in the sun.

They shoot closeups of bloody men with stab wounds,
I had to cut a couple myself to make it look good.
The guards fired warning shots and scattered tear gas,
When that didn’t stop them they broke out the wood.
We helped haul the worst injured to the prison clinic,
The nurse took a smoke break, so I did some stitches.
The producer was giddy at the thought of such ratings,
I was tempted to give them to the bikers as bitches.

Later on they took shots of prison wine and some drinking,
Some cons broke out the weed and began smoking.
They video’d soaped-up men in the shower without thinking,
When the scene got x-rated they realized the boys were not joking.
While the cameras were running the crew got tattoos.
The warden took off, said he didn’t want to know.
He was going to a bar to get tanked on real booze,
And left me to live in the prison reality show.