Mark Salzman seems an unlikely individual to end up teaching writing to juvenile felons at Las Angeles's Central Juvenile Hall. Having grown up in an upper middle class home in the Connecticut suburbs, Mark's key interests were martial arts and the cello. But when writer friend, Duane Noriyuki invited Mark to accompany him to one of the classes, he couldn't refuse.
The author of three novels in addition to "Lost in Place," a memoir of his childhood and "Iron & Silk," an account of his two years in China, Mark Salzman is a veteran of the craft. But even seasoned writers sometimes find that their muse has gone off on holiday, leaving them bereft of inspiration. Salzman seeks out Noriyuki, knowing that he volunteers at the correctional facility, in hopes that Noriyuki can help him flesh out a minor character in his latest novel, that of a juvenile delinquent. As is often the case, seemingly insignificant decisions are the seeds monumental change in our lives. So it is that Mark Salzman finds himself teaching writing to a class of incarcerated teenage murderers.
"True Notebooks" is the story of Salzman's discovery of what lies behind the gates of Central Juvenile Hall. It is also the story of the kids that come to learn writing twice a week. With a self-critiquing eye, Salzman bares his initial prejudice against his classmates and shows how he comes to understand and like several of them. He freely admits that the classes were not recorded, so the accounts he writes are from memory and as such, not wholly accurate. But the striking aspect of "True Notebooks" is the inclusion of numerous actual writing samples from the inmates, many of which are surprising in their content and their construction:
"Someone who made a big difference in my life was my partner. Well, I should say my ex-partner, hate. Hate was always there for me at night when I was all alone and the air-conditioning was on too high in my room. Hate would keep me warm. I should say he was like my father 'cause for the seven years that my father was gone, hate taught me how to speak, hate taught me how to love, and eventually hate taught me how to hate. My best friend, my mother, my father, hate was all that. Hate helped me grow, or was dat wrong? I asked myself this question one day when I was lookin' into a six-by-nine mirror in my cell. I was wearing somebody else's clothes, underwear, and socks full of holes. Hate had left me to duel with misery and pain. Thanks, hate."
At times, Salzman's narrative grows tiring - perhaps because the characters are real and we see them one-dimensionally, as they behave in Salzman's classroom. On the other hand, therein lies the soul of the book. Over time, we witness a transformation among the inmates in the class, as well as one in their teacher. For those of us on the outs, "True Notebooks" is a fascinating peak inside the heart of America's delinquent youth.