The Mark Blog

The Freedom to Write

I just finished up the Jury Duty I wrote about last week. It was a criminal case, robbery and petty theft. We found the defendant not guilty of all charges. The issue was his intent. He’s either the worst thief ever or a smooth criminal who figured out how to beat the law. It was all highly unsatisfying: we felt he’d done something wrong, but he wasn’t guilty of the charges brought against him. After the fact, we learned it was a Third Strike case. If the defendant had been convicted he would have received a sentence of life in prison.

For stealing an iPod.

There are very few countries in the world where a defendant would get to face his accuser, or where twelve citizens would be called on to use their best sense and logic to determine if the prosecuting attorney had proven the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. In some countries people are jailed and little is heard from them again. Writers are jailed and even killed for things they write.

I mention this because of how I got involved with PEN Center USA, the Emerging Voices Fellowship, and now, the Mark Program.

PEN has been on my radar since college because I've always admired the work they do on behalf of jailed writers - mainly journalists in war-torn countries. Investigative journalists, war correspondents, people that risk a lot to get the truth told are the people I’ve always admired the most in life. No offense to the Mark Program or to PEN in the Classroom, but the Freedom to Write program is still, in my mind, the most important thing PEN does.

Later, I learned of the work PEN Center USA does on behalf of writers who are not in jail and saw that they had started up a fellowship program for lowly emerging writers. I applied, because if there’s one organization I’d be proud to receive a fellowship from, it’s PEN.

I was deeply saddened by the death, a couple weeks ago, of Anthony Shadid. That’s the sort of guy I think of when I think of the word "hero": intelligent, likeable, and gutsy, all in service of getting truths out that could be revealed no other way.

I don’t have those sorts of guts. I wanted to be a journalist when I was younger, but I’m a little to non-confrontational, and I didn’t want to do the newspaper dog paddle of moving from one small-town paper to the next, then to a mid-sized city paper, and so on. I had rock bands and other relationships to keep together in Los Angeles alone, plus a deep aversion to real danger.

But I do try to keep journalists in mind while I stay in the shallow-end of fiction. I try to write as truthfully as I can. Right now, I’m investigating the truthfulness of the emotions in my writing, making sure I know what’s what as I rewrite for the deadlines. I'm asking incisive questions of my work, and like a journalist treading through a fast current of information, I'm trying to keep up with the Mark Program's relentless pace.

Really, I just want to use this space to write that the world will miss Anthony Shadid, and countless others like him, even if they don’t know who he is. Tributes continue for Whitney Houston, and now Davy Jones. Anyone who knows me knows how important music is in my life. But who I really look up to are people like Shadid, and organizations like PEN that work to recognize their value.