I came across this article on The Millions this morning, just about a week after I printed out blowups of two photos from the web and taped them to the wall next to my desk. When a colleague asked Edan Lepucki if she had any visuals that helped her in understanding the novel she was working on, it inspired her to ask several other writers what they kept nearby as they wrote.
Family photos, art, random objects, sometimes just a note that says “Work.” It can relate to a specific work-in-progress or serve as a reminder of who you are as a writer, what inspired you to write in the first place, or…
My visuals are fairly specific — the faces of two men, one of whom died in 1947, and one who will undoubtedly die sometime within the next few years.
Victor Serge was a Russian revolutionary and anarchist, who was also a novelist. I’ve only read one of his books so far, Men in Prison, written from his own experiences in prison. It’s a strange book, both in structure and viewpoint, but fascinating and moving. It is, in its own way, a protest novel, and I can see from this one example, why he is still influential as a political thinker, even if he’s largely unknown in the United States. He died in exile, in Mexico, at the age of 57
The other man lives on death row in a southern state. We have become friends over the last year and a half, not an easy process, given the desire of the state to isolate death row prisoners, and deny them even what they’re legally entitled to, such as mail. My friend is also a radical, a fighter who willingly suffers the retaliations that are the price of fighting for prisoners’ rights — not just his own, but the rights of the others who share his hell.
He is partly responsible for the book I’m writing about the death penalty, though there are many other influences. Most of all, when I look at his picture, I’m constantly reminded of the difference in the choices available to us. When I’m overwhelmed with the human tragedies of our “justice” system, I can turn my back, temporarily, on the research and the effort to express what an appalling institution the death penalty is. He lives with it every day, inescapably surrounded by dehumanization and death.
Both men make me feel like a coward when I look at their pictures and realize that I’ve frittered away another day trying to avoid the pain of writing about what they experienced at first hand.