by Mark Salzman
True Notebooks by Mark Salzman (Lying Awake; Iron and Silk) recounts his experiences teaching creative writing at Central Juvenile Hall, a Los Angeles County detention center for high-risk juvenile offenders. Introduced to the Inside Out Writers program by a friend, he was initially skeptical about being involved, but was won over by the quality of the boys’ writing and by Sister Janet Harris’s philosophy that “these young people [need] a chance to express themselves, and feel that someone is listening.” Salzman’s beautifully descriptive narrative brings his teaching sessions with the students vividly to life. However, for me, the treasures of the book were really the students’ pieces of writing. Given the violent nature of their crimes, I found the vulnerability and thoughtfulness of their written work surprising.
When challenged by friends and family about the usefulness of his working with “serious criminals,” Salzman’s response is “a little good has got to be better than no good at all.” I believe most readers who have the pleasure of getting to know his students and read their writing will agree.