I am Recovering from Writing

I am recovering from writing. In the month of November, I wrote every single day. Not just words for my job, either. I wrote part of my novel – a new novel – every day. Some days I wrote only 200 words, less than half a page. My highest word count day was about 4500. I went across the board, some days spending hours locked in my study while the words poured out, and others where even getting a few paragraphs down seemed as futile as giving an espresso to a two-year-old and then trying to put him in bed (note: I have never done this, but it seems hard.)

Up until about two days before the start of November, I had planned to work on a new novel idea I had started last year, about a woman who escaped from a serial killer as a child only to have that same killer kidnap her daughter twenty years later.

I thought it was a cool idea, but I had no passion for it. So I pushed it aside and thought about what made me angry instead.

With all of the crap going on in our world lately, coming up with a list of things that piss me off isn’t hard. In fact, in another window from this one, I’m in the middle of writing all the ranty things I can think of about guns and all the pro-gun arguments I’m so sick and tired of hearing while innocent people are slaughtered going to class or watching a movie or doing their shopping.

But that’s not what I’m writing my novel about.

My new novel, without going into too much detail, is about how easy it is to put the wrong person away in prison, and about how easy it is to get the wrong person to confess to a crime he didn’t commit.

It’s about a justice system that rewards police officers for getting convictions, not for finding the truth, and how often those aren’t the same thing.

It’s about how hard it is to be on the right side of justice, to be a prosecutor or a detective who knows that they know that they know that this guy is guilty, but he gets off on a technicality and goes out to hurt other people.

It’s about two questions:

  1. Which is worse: locking an innocent man up in prison or letting a guilty one go free?

  2. If we know that there are innocent people in prison, how can we in good conscience allow the death penalty to still exist?

It is possible to come back from imprisoning an innocent man or woman. Reparations can be made, livelihoods restored. It will never be the same for that person, but as much as possible, the state can attempt to right its wrong.

There is no coming back from an execution.

So far, I have 51,000 words on this cheery topic. It’s not because I’m a glutton for punishment or that I like reading about someone like Anthony Graves, who was wrongfully imprisoned for 18 years on death row and subjected to conditions that other countries would consider torture. Listening to his testimony made me bawl my eyes out.

I’m writing about this because I think the consequences of allowing a justice system to continue to function this way are terrifying and incredibly serious. And I’m writing about this because there are a lot of stories to be told. The person who falsely confesses isn’t always a bad person. The cop who puts away an innocent man isn’t always a bad person. The prosecutor who buries evidence – while breaking the law – isn’t always a bad person.

The man sitting on death row after being convicted of a horrible crime isn’t always a bad person.

The wildly popular podcast Serial has brought renewed attention to the problems inherent in our justice system and the reality of racism and religious intolerance that can also play a huge part in the wrong guy being thrown in jail. As difficult as it is, I'm convinced this is a topic that needs to be talked about even more than it already is. Unlike so many of the other horrific, unfair, cruel things that happen on this earth, our justice system and the way it operates is something we have a say in as a society.

That's what I'm writing about, so you can probably imagine why I say that I am recovering from writing. Sometimes, when you're writing a dark topic like this, you need to take a break. But if you or anyone you know plays any part in the American legal system (police, lawyer, prosecutor, judge -- anything) I would love to have a chat with them. I don't want to tell just one side of things because I think there is always more going on than meets the eye. Help me tell your story too.

Feature image credit: Claire / Flickr / 2012