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Why Fiction Matters


Photo of Mitchell S. Jackson

Mitchell S. Jackson

Mitch Jackson photographed by John Ricard.

Let me tell you how I got popped. Let me start with a couple of hours pre the arrest, when I was in medias res cooking dope in the house I shared—a blatant disregard of her wishes—with my then girlfriend.

By an act of Arm & Hammer legerdemain—it was my first time too; how’s that for irony?—I’d cooked up near double-digit extra grams of crack. Cooked it and cut it and bagged it and cleaned up and bounced out the house and stashed the sack of rocks under my seat and my pistol under the dash in my ’86 Honda. Common sense says I should’ve headed straight for the suburban apartment where I housed my dope, but on the contrary my sense-deficient self rolled to play hoop with my boys at an indoor gym. We balled a couple hours and afterward, though at that point I fordamnsure should’ve drove to the suburbs, my sillyass instead went and picked up this pretty young thing. We weren’t more than a few blocks from that pick-up when the cops swooped behind me. They followed a block or so and hit me with flashers the first turn I made. “Don’t worry, don’t worry,” I told myself first and my PYT second. Said it because I had a license and valid insurance and knew how to speak assimilated Negro English. Said it because I’d been pulled over riding dirty on occasion and had gone free. So I rolled my window down with that false peace, and no sooner than I said, “Officer, may I ask why you —“ I heard his partner yell, “HE’S GOT A GUN!” from the passenger side.

Sidebar: The PYT is not the girlfriend and never is.

Now I’d made those sense-deficient sillyass moves, but I didn’t so much as twitch before the white men with guns and badges barked, “EVERYONE PUT YOUR HANDS WHERE I CAN SEE THEM!” It was dark; it was raining; I was wearing an ever-obfuscating puffy black coat, and real talk, if those officers were having a bad day, had the wrong bias, or a nervous digitus secundus manus, I could’ve ended up the kind of headline that makes a mother weep eternal. They didn’t shoot (hallelujah!) but what they did do was order me out my ride and handcuff me and my pretty young thing and stuff us in the backseat of their patrol car and proceed to seize my 9mm Smith and Wesson and, after an avid search, find the sandwich bag of packaged crack hidden under my seat.

Maybe what they mean by kismet is the fact that the baggie was laden with those extra grams I mentioned a second ago.

“Look…what…we… found…here,” the cop said in slo-mo. He held the tumid baggie to twitching streetlight.

That was March. In June His Honor Henry Kantor sentenced me to Oregon state prison time. No doubt it was a sadface moment for me and mines, but on the other hand, if Judge Kantor, say, had one of those days, was overwhelmed with his caseload, or just wanted to send a message of less-than-zero tolerance, he could’ve turned over my case to the federal courts, in which case if I mattered enough, which I didn’t, I could’ve ended up this superdupersadface headline:


Instead I spent sixteen months in first Mill Creek and then Santiam prison. My last few months at Santiam, I scribbled on loose-leaf paper the first paragraphs of what became my novel. Puffed up off calisthenics (how cliché?) I paroled in the summer of 1998 and whether I realized it then or not—and for the most part I didn’t—I began to revise.

Let me rap to you good folks about revision, or rather, let me rap to you about what revision ain’t: editing or proofing. Editing is finding minor problems. It’s addressing those minor problems with easy fixes such as deleting a word or sentence or copying and pasting a paragraph elsewhere. Proofing is seeing the work as static. Proofing is correction; it’s fixing a comma splice or a misspelled word or faulty subject/verb agreement—a.k.a. applying the rules of convention.

Revision is a philosophy; revision is revolution.

But revision, now that’s another thing. Revision might include editing or proofing but will always move beyond them. Revision is seeing the work in progress. Revision is seeing the work in context. Revision is recognizing the parts of a text and how they work to form a whole. Revision is seeing what could and should and shouldn’t be there and conceiving of ways to make it so. Revision is discovering what’s right and imagining how to make it more right; it’s pursuing a new way of seeing and being. Revision is a philosophy; revision is revolution.

Thank God I have learned to revise my work. Thank God, the angels, the saints, and a few heathens I’ve been given chances to revise my life. The philosopher A. K. Coomaraswamy once said, “The artist is not a special kind of person; rather each person is a special kind of artist,” and that premise leads to my nutgraf: You can, no you should, apply the tactics of revising for the page to revising a life. And that revision or re-visioning could alter what might’ve felt like or may very well have been one’s fate.

A gunman fired one shot and killed an 18-year-old man Saturday afternoon at the Towne Plaza Apartments. Kevan Hai Miller died at the scene with a gunshot wound to the chest.

Kev and me met freshman year during daily doubles football practice. That season he was a starting star safety and I was a frail second-string defensive back. Kev was the one who talked courage into me when I didn’t want no part of our Heads Up drills. Kev was one of the first to slap my shoulder pads when I lucked up on an interception during our last game of the season. Off the field, Kev was a bona fide math savant who had an easy smile and one those voices that made you lean in for a listen. Never knew what set Kev claimed, but most days the homie wore creased Dickies, Nike Cortez, a figurative fitted cap with no bend in the brim, and beaucoup red, a get-up that let you know he was an aspiring or affiliated or wannabe Blood. No doubt he was down with gangster metaphor, though it never ceased seeming to me that he was playing dress-up.

Sidebar: He never even earned a handle, and it’s a natural fact that a gangster with no nickname is one of negligent lore.

The last time I can remember seeing Kev alive was the summer after we graduated from high school. We were in my basement bedroom and I was showing off the low-grade weed I’d bought from whoknowswho when my might’ve been clairvoyant grandmother crept up on us. Me, I was stunned into a gap-mouthed stupor, but Kev copped to it swift: “It’s mine, Mrs. Jackson. It’s mine.” My grandmother stabbed a finger toward the door and yelled, “You leave now. Leave now and don’t ever come back!”

But Kev’s banishment didn’t much matter. He was murdered within a half-year.

How to Revise: Step 1

These days I teach writing to undergrads. But what if, instead, I was in a classroom facing the young live versions of The Homies? Picture me in lecture mode, a PowerPoint beaming on a SMART board, my notes laid out on the lectern. I’d open with the etymology of the French word essai. How it translates “to try” or “attempt.” How the godfather of the form Michel “Mr. What-do-I-Know?” de Montaigne named his grand collection Essais because he understood the primal need for revision. What more proof do we need than the fact that he wrote, published, and reworked them for over two decades? If I peeped even an inkling of affirmation, I’d try to persuade The Homies that whether they considered themselves artists or not, they should deem themselves essayists—always working to sharpen their ideas. And if that theory went over, I’d propose that furthermore they should consider themselves the essay itself—that they are, that we all are, in effect trial runs.
No way I’d dismiss class without making the point that revision is a process, without explaining that the first stage of that process is assessing content. This is the stage where you ask questions, I’d tell them. When you ask, who’s your audience? What’s your purpose? What’s your argument(s)? Who and/or what is supporting your claims?

One on one, I’d pitch to Kev that there’s another way of seeing. I’d tell him about critic Edmund Wilson’s claim that “Your wound is your bow.” Whether Kev knew it or not, and it’s a safe bet he didn’t, his wound was his difference. Those of us who bothered looking could see it in the way he presented himself to the world, in the way he downplayed his superior brain, in the way he was seldom vocal in a group. If I were plying him to see the strength in his difference, I’d tell Kev how the whole time he’d known me and years before, I was embarrassed to the hilt about my mother’s drug habit, that it was my wound even before I knew to call it one. I’d tell him how when I got the mind to write forreal forreal, I was petrified to speak honest about my life for fear that I’d be judged. I’d be sure to tell him how my work was weak as fuck because, among other flaws, there was much too much evading the hard truths. No way I’d let him leave without me telling him how, along the way, I realized that my harms were a resource, that exposing them on the page could make the work stronger, could make me stronger. The grown me wonders how things would’ve turned out for Kev if I’d persuaded him to embrace what set him apart rather than flee it, if he’d accepted the belief that things he was ashamed of might one day accrue him the most strength.

A 20-year-old Portland man was shot and killed early Thursday after arguing with a man outside a nude dance club in Northeast Portland.

Me and Lil Anthony knew each other from almost the womb. In fact, our mothers were so close we considered ourselves cousins. One of my earliest memories of Lil Anthony—my junior by a couple years–was when he and I were in grade school and staying over our auntie’s house. Anthony had an outie belly button that we used to tease him about something vicious, and this particular day, I duped him into submitting to the crackpot theory—not sure where it came from—that we could “fix” his belly button by taping nickels over it. Poor boy, you should’ve seen his face when it didn’t work.

The last time I saw my cousin alive was the day Judge Kantor dropped the gavel on me. The bailiffs marched me out of the courtroom and onto an elevator and off the elevator and toward a holding cell on the upper floors of the Multnomah County Courthouse. My head was dropped and my eyes were wet—wasn’t no fronting as a Man of Maraging Steel—but I perked up when I heard Anthony’s familiar voice yelling, “Cousin, cousin, I heard you was comin’,” from inside a cell. Lil Anthony, who I should mention, pledged allegiance to the Crips in his tweens, told me he was headed to court to seek bail on his case. “If they give me bail I’m gone,” he said.

Sidebar: Lil Anthony’s gang name was Lil Smurf. He was the proud deuce of a dude named Big Smurf. And boy oh boy, that boy was supercalifragilistic with his gangbanging. For evidence I offer exhibit A: There’s a documentary about his life titled Killingsworth, that alleges at one point Lil Anthony, a.k.a. Lil Smurf, was responsible for “half the gang shootings in the city, either as the shooter or the target.”

The judge gave Lil Anthony, a.k.a. Lil Smurf bail.

He was dead and gone six months from then.

How to Revise: Step 2

Revision is process, I’d remind The Homies. And the second stage of that process is Organization. This is the stage where you ask yourself if you’ve found the right structure, if you’ve ordered your ideas and paragraphs to produce maximum effect. The second stage is when you judge whether you’ve created proper transitions.
If the grown me could pull the young living version of Lil Anthony aside, I’d ply him to believe in another way of being, would mention to him Barry Hannah’s belief that you have to “Be a master such as you have.” I’d segue from Hannah’s advice into a confession: I’d tell my cousin how I admired his resilience—his and my mom both had long-term drug habits—in dealing with his mom’s addiction, how even though he was younger than me, I looked to him as a measure of what could be survived. For sure I’d tell my cousin how acute I have felt my literary dearths, would explain how minor I feel compared to writers who can claim childhoods as voracious readers, who learned Latin in grade school, studied abroad as biddy brainiacs, who earned a Rhodes scholarship, or fought as front-line soldiers, or spent Post Doc time as a motherfucking African missionary. Before we parted, he’d know of one of my strongest fears, the dread that all I lack will be obvious in my work, that somewhere in me there exists the belief that I’m an insufficient scribe. But I’d also tell him how the kind of childhood he and I had can bestow gifts, how the preachers and pimps and hustlers I loved and loathed as a youngster have become the muses that inform my writing voice, and how that voice has given me reason to believe I belong.

I wish I could’ve seeded him with that conviction, that I could’ve made him see that mastery might alter what might’ve felt foreordained.

Lil Anthony had much to master. He had a smile that made grown folks fawn. He was courageous enough to walk the streets (albeit wearing a bullet-proof vest) while there was a rumored hit out on him. True story, the boy used to stack phone books in his seat to see over the wheel—if that ain’t ambitious, you tell me what is—as he drove around the neighborhood in buckets on may-pop-at-any-time tires. With his resilience, his charm, his courage, his ambition, he could’ve been just about anything he wanted—CEO, comic, a damn good motivational speaker…and I wish I could’ve seeded him with that conviction, that I could’ve made him see that mastery might alter what might’ve felt foreordained.

_______ fails to get the judge to allow him to change his pleas.[5]

Me and my boy Black—he was a grade above me—attended the same Catholic school. From the jump, I admired him because he was a Prison Ball braveheart—he’d catch a speedball toeing the line or blast you almost off your feet from a good distance—and he was the best basketball player in the school. As a matter fact, Black was the guy who took me to join my first basketball team, and by that I mean walked me to the gym, introduced me to the coach, and waited to make sure I didn’t punk out and jet before tryouts. He pulled the same big brother move when it came to me playing little league baseball. Black and I went to different middle schools but wound up attending the same magnet high school. My freshman year, I was an astonished fanboy cheering from the stands while Black as a sophomore lived out what in those days was my most coveted dream: He was starting and playing big minutes in the state basketball tournament. It was him squeaking across the Coliseum floor, stealing balls, hustling for steals, and scoring mid-range jumpers and dipsey-do layups, him who posed post-game with the championship trophy.

One of my last memories of Black and me as freedmen on streets was when we were both in our twenties and dealing dope. He called me over one night and when his girlfriend let me in, I saw Black in his living room, shirtless in hoop shorts with scrapes everywhere. “Goddamn bro, what happened to you?” I said. Black told me about an episode the night before where he’d had a bad trip on ecstasy, ran out of his clothes into the street, and after being tackled, (hence the scrapes) ended up in detox. “Bro, I’m only telling you this because I love you,” he said. “Don’t ever fuck with that shit.”

Black was damn near invincible to me back then. Not only had he won that state championship as a fearless guard, on the streets— Black was a Crip, a fact I’m mentioning since I mentioned what the others claimed—he seemed afraid of no one. There were stories galore of Black’s panache for doling natural ass whoopings to foes of all height and girth. Like the legend of him putting hands on Fat Fred (RIP), a guy who—no hype—was thrice Black’s weight. The night in his apartment sticks with me because it was the first and only time he exposed a weakness to me. Memorable too because it was one time he admitted in word what he’d showed me in deed: that his care for me was beyond friend for friend.

How to Revise: Step 3

The third stage of revision is Expression, I’d tell The Homies. This is where you start to consider your voice, or in other words, the way you say what you need to say. This is the place to make more specific choices of style, where you choose diction, where you make conscious choices about how to affect the tone you want.

Sidebar: To date I’ve visited Black once since he’s been locked down. And that one time was to film him in prison. Those facts make me no small part of irredeemable fraud.

Black and I have exchanged a few letters, which don’t make up for my fraudulence but does present a chance for me to tell him about this philosophy I cribbed from a once-upon-a-time writing mentor of mine named Gordon Lish: “What comes next is always behind you.” Lish calls the method recursion. What I plan to tell Black is how much of a boon it was in the late stages of editing my novel, how there was this scene—we could call it the climax—toward the end that I kept reading and reading and wanting to be right when I knew in my heart it was wrong. For days I read and re-read the scenes that preceded it and asked myself, “what’s next, what’s next?” Then one day I recalled that idea of moving forward by looking back, and ended up writing a last scene—a damn good one if you ask me—based on one of the first scenes in the book.

My big homie, no, my big brother comes home soon, and I hope takes a long look back as well. It might be tough. There’s beaucoup benefits, especially when you’re locked down, to disremembering, much profit in focusing on what’s to come. But I hope Black at least tries recursion, that he conjures how brave he was, and that that courage might serve him if ever a job search protracts, if ever he needs to dismiss the lure of dope sack, if ever he needs to turn a cheek to an old foe. I hope Black can resurrect the grit it took to win it all, the feeling of being hero to us freshmen and JV plebes. Should my friend, no, my big brother find himself becoming too much of the self he’d rather not be, I pray he recalls the compassion that made him warn me from danger.


It was old Nabokov who said his “pencils outlast their erasers,” which was a clever way of hinting at the level of hope one needs to revise. Hope for more and for better is at the heart of revision. Now, I’m not trying to get all dour on you, but I have to say this: Revision don’t work so well at preempting first trouble. In fact, it’s liable only to work—you’ve got to endure some serious strife to have a real sense of its efficacy—on those who’ve been baptized by grave moral or mortal grief. And let me say this too: As much as I believe revision could’ve helped my homeboys, will help my homeboy, I know deep down that some dudes are beyond it. Some dudes, the best you can do is stay the fuck out their way. Where I’m from, these dudes got a raison d’être nada and a handle that lets you know what they’re about: Pistol, Menace, Stitches, Killa. They anesthetize from wake-up and flaunt yield-colored sclera and super-scorched lower lips. These dudes have kids they don’t see and parents they don’t love and mugshots galore and ain’t worried about boxes—coffins nor cells. You can bet they own knife and/or bullet wounds and wear hats dipped low and sport tattoo tears on their cheeks and affiliations and RIPs on their necks and arms and bruised knuckles and don’t bother with the grime under their jagged nails. But check it, you can most know them by how slow they move—hurry implies a kind of hope, and by how they negotiate the world, by which I mean how, no matter their size, they claim a preponderance of physical and psychic space; they claim it and damn near dare you to enter it. Double dare you so they can show you what they’re made of. Or rather what they’re made for, which is the crime that will make them most infamous. Trust me on this, please, these nefarious dudes live by credos that push them far outside peace and revision and prayer and any attempt to soften their slow-ticking atheist hearts. As evidence I offer exhibit B: I was once in a small crowd watching two guys argue, one who I knew to be the kind of guy I mentioned a second ago. “You don’t want it with me,” he told his foe, with what seemed every fiber in him. “I will bring violence to your life.”

Hope for more and for better is at the heart of revision.


That was my actual headline. They ran it right before I moved to New York for grad school. This was a couple of years after I paroled, and I was ecstatic about the chances I had received to re-envision my life. At the time they ran this, though, I could still be seen bending corners in my money green ’94 Lexus, could still be seen decked in repeat-print Versace jeans, gleaming Air Force One Nikes, and spanking new white t-shirts never to be worn twice. Those days, no small part of my public self was based on the fact of me being a former dope dealer. This is why “seeking benefactors” made me feel like a beggar or a lowlife or worse. Now that I look back, though, my actual headline was the genesis of me coming to realize another important aspect of revision: collaboration. At every stage of my development as a writer, shit, my development as a human, there have been folks urging me ahead: writing teachers, grad school professors, editors, first readers who never refuse a request for comments on my drafts.

Now here’s the ask: Who are you going to collaborate with? I ask because what you’ve read thus far would be for damn near naught if you—yes, you—do nothing. Not asking you to save the world or stage some theatric intervention but to prosecute at least one meaningful action toward helping another human avoid a death sentence or a life sentence or a so-much-of-their-life-there’s-not-much-life-left sentence. Here’s the ask in other words: What physical act can you—yes, you—and me and we do to help the next Kevan or Lil Anthony or young Black see themselves in context, see their lives in progress, discover what’s right about themselves and imagine ways to make it more right?

How to Revise: Step 4

Before I dismissed class, I’d tell The Homies about the last stage of revision— Mechanics and Format. This stage involves checking things like grammar and misspellings and punctuation errors and omitted words. It’s also the stage where you format your work, and if need be, apply the rules of APA or MLA or The Chicago Manual of Style.

Near the end of class, I’d tell them one last story about revision—this one about handing in my novel at last, after eleven, twelve, thirteen—my heart had to stop counting—or more years of revising. Let me start with the week in mid-May when my “final pass” draft was due, a week at the end of which I was booked to catch a flight to Atlanta to chaperone my daughter’s Field Day. That week my life was no more than teaching all day and coming home to scarf a meal and edit and proof and in some cases—more cases than affirm good sense—revise my “last pass” pages till right before the sun rose. Then I’d shower and dress and leave and teach and do it all again, once, twice…and so on.

Thursday rolled around and I was clinging to the wispy hope that I could meet what my editor confirmed to me was my Capital D drop-dead due date—a.k.a. the deadline that if flouted would mean the book would miss its publication date, along with a gang more fallout. Proactive me worked a deal to have my girlfriend messenger the pages to the publisher that Friday, which seemed well within the realm of mortal means. Seemed possible until I looked at the clock on my computer and at the stack of unread pages of my manuscript and understood, as if a prophet had whispered in my ear, that there was no way no how in the known world I’d finish before my flight. This truth prompted the email to my editor that asked if I perhaps—I never say perhaps in real life, so it was a synonym for perhaps—could deliver it to her on Monday. She, however, shot that idea down. She needed the manuscript by close of business Friday—5 p.m. and not a second past. This truth sent me in the wee hours huffing the few blocks from my girlfriend’s apartment to a college where I teach. Once there, I convinced a wary security guard that I had to get into my office for an emergency and went upstairs and prayed the last thirty pages out of a dubious printer.

There was just enough time after that to grab my bag and head to the airport and, oh so delirious, board my flight. Maybe I edited a page or a paragraph on the flight. Maybe I didn’t. What I can tell you is my brain wasn’t broadcasting right. What I know is my daughter’s mother picked me up and we zoomed over to my daughter’s school where I was told my job was to man a Field Day station where kids tried to balance golf balls on spoons with a hand behind their back—Golf Ball Boxing. There I stood, the physical me at least, for what must’ve been eons in Southern spring heat, and when the games at last at last were done, I sprinted for the car, grabbed those last twenty or so pages and scratched what felt to me like the most important words I would ever write in this life or the next. To keep it 100, what I did was more editing and proofing than revising but, let the church say Amen, I finished my business just about the time Field Day finished and we—the we being my daughter, her mother, and dematerializing me—set out on a mission to find the nearest print/copy outpost. Per all available artificial intelligence, the closest one might as well have been in Timbuktu. We’re talking serious miles, but we trekked to that joint and after the albatrosses of being coerced to purchase a zillion-dollar flash drive and submit to an impossible line of computer traffic and suffer a thwartrific log-on experience, after being forced to wait on the slowest copy center worker on planet Earth because the center’s baby ENIAC computer couldn’t find my thumb drive, after the ordeal of an internet connection the speed of human evolution—this all happened; my word is my bond—I let my daughter hit send on my “final pass” pages seconds before the fall-out-and-die deadline.

The Princess and I walked out—her smiling and me feeling my tight chest loosen.

“We did it,” I said.

“Yes we did, Dad,” she said, and looped her arm in mine. “Does this mean you’re done?”

About the Author

Mitchell S. Jackson

Mitchell S. Jackson’s debut novel The Residue Years won the Ernest Gaines Prize for literary excellence. It was also a finalist for the PEN / Hemingway Award, The Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel prize, and the Hurston Wright Legacy award. Jackson has been awarded fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, Bread Loaf, The Center For Fiction, and TED talks. He serves on the faculty at New York University and Columbia University.