True notebooks

by Mark Salzman

Hardcover, 2003




New York : Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 2003.


Chronicles the author's first years teaching at Central Juvenile Hall, a lockup for Los Angeles's most violent teenage offenders.

User reviews

LibraryThing member tibobi
I have to be honest, True Notebooks is not a book I would have picked up on my own. As far as childhoods go, mine was pretty rough. There were lots of opportunities for me to give-in to my surroundings, to let the environment dictate the type of life that I would live down the line, but for whatever reason, I chose not to go that route. I made a choice.

For this reason, I was not excited about True Notebooks. Reading a bunch of essays written by juvenile delinquents that are being tried for murder? Not my cup of tea but I dug in and read a chapter or two and before too long I was hooked.

Mark Salzman was writing a book on nuns and was completely stuck. His friend suggested that he visit L.A.'s Central Juvenile Hall because there was a nun there by the name of Sister Janet Harris that ran a writing program for the inmates. Perhaps he could talk to her about her experiences as a nun, and the writing would begin to flow more easily. Mark could also sit in on one of the writing classes he teaches, just to experience the program. Reluctantly, Mark makes the visit. What he finds there, so moves him, that he decides to teach his own writing class and quickly becomes an active part of the Inside Out Writers program, offering classes on Wednesdays and Saturdays to the male inmates of the K/L unit.

True Notebooks is a collection of Salzman's thoughts as he struggles to gain their acceptance. Each chapter includes samples of the writing which is unaltered except for the spelling and punctuation suggestions made by Salzman. For this reason, there is profanity and crude dialogue but as the reader gets to know each boy through his writings, the language used, loses its punch. I learned not to pay too much attention to it.

As the students learn about themselves through their writing, Salzman also grows as a human being. Since many of the inmates in the K/L unit are being tried for murder, they are often transferred to County once they are old enough, or transferred to prison once sentenced. Since their outcomes are often bleak, Salzman had many opportunities to wonder about these questions: What are the values of a positive experience if it is only temporary? How do you weigh the advantages against the disadvantages of affection, or as aspiration? His answer, "A little good has got to be better than no good at all."

Here's a brief passage of one of the student entries:

"Deep down inside, this angry person awakens. Another day facing perpetual incarceration behind no mercy walls, as we are inmates.

Deep down inside this angry person there is an image of a rejoiceful person who's facing perpetual incarceration behind no mercy walls. Just like your fellow inmates, as you think about the happiness in the past you'll like to shout out for mercy upon your life. But living in darkness for so long, you are taught not to express certain emotions. The voice no one hears is the voice that yells out for freedom in the mind of a forbidden child."

After reading this book, I do feel as if I am more understanding to youths that have been dealt a tough hand. They had choices, but without role models they often made the wrong choice. Even though I did not have strong parental role models growing up, I did have the kindness of strangers that touched me and taught me how to be a good person. Many of these boys did not have that.

I'm so glad I decided to read this book and I will be recommending it to the panel come our meeting in January.
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LibraryThing member debnance
Mark Salzman is one of the authors I'd have never found on my own. He is unusual in that he writes both fiction and nonfiction equally well. True Notebooks opens with Salzman having trouble with a character in a novel he's writing. Almost before he realizes it, he somehow finds himself teaching a class to a group of teenage boys in a juvenile detention facility. All the boys are under age seventeen and all are facing murder charges. Though Salzman is at first apprehensive, he is amazed at the quality of the boys' writing. Last November, I carefully set So Many Books, So Little Time aside, to be saved for my first read of 2004. But I picked up True Notebooks late on New Year's Eve and couldn't put it down till I finished it on January 1st.… (more)
LibraryThing member Djupstrom
This is a very interesting project. It is kind of like Freedom writers, but with juvenile offenders. It proves that there are no "hopeless" cases. Funny at times, tragic throughout.
LibraryThing member Alirambles
This book manages to be inspiring without anything resembling a happy ending. The kids Salzman works with are almost all awaiting trial or sentencing for murder. Salzman can't save them from that. But he can treat them with respect, he can teach them the joy and sorrow of writing from the heart, he can be someone they can count on to show up. Does it make a difference? Salzman doesn't claim that it did, except in his own life. But reading the words of these kids, both spoken and written, you have to believe that it made a difference to them, too.… (more)
LibraryThing member EricaKline
This book, about a writing program given in Juvenile detention in Los Angeles, reminded me of the human side of "criminals".
LibraryThing member missmel58
Mark Salzman paints a vivid and engaging portrait of the young men with whom he works in California Juvenile Justice System. The violent offenders come alive and appear endearing, with the stroke of his pen.
Salzman approaches his subject matter with his readers in mind; he appears to be aware that we will agree with his father in thinking that perhaps this is a little insane and very unsafe. But by the time we arrive at Kevin’s trial we are rooting for him. The project that the book presents, represents, Inside Out Writers remains successful in the Los Angeles area despite the fact that most of the adolescents the program works with are violent offenders with little hope of moving outside of the system.
From a craft perspective, I did not expect to find the text engaging. I was impressed with Salzman’s insertion of his personal notebook entries. He related his fears and hopes on a very intimate level. He kept his reader aware of his own ambivalence towards this project while never letting go of his desire to support these broken children in our society. The juxtaposition of these opposing feelings make the read profound and engaging. Throughout, Salzman reminds the reader that he understands his reader may think him irrational. He allows his reader to scrutinize him and make their own judgments about how rational or irrational this endeavor is. I have not read any of Salzman’s other work, but would be surprised if he did not use this approach elsewhere it seemed such a natural fit to his writing style.
He chose from what had to be depressing visits to a maximum security juvenile facility moments of brightness and humor. The Mr. Rodgers episode springs immediately to mind. In one small scene he conveys the painful past these young men have experienced as well as their tender years and jaded perspective on life. Salzman has a sharp eye and a keen wit –both of which served him well in the situation.
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LibraryThing member livebug
I don't think True Notebooks, wherein Mark Salzman teaches a writing class to kids in youth-prison awaiting trials mostly for murder, really breaks any new ground. Guess what -- the kids in his class really want to learn, and in their hearts they are still kids, no matter what they've done, and their writing is deeply moving and echoes the harrowing losses they've already experienced and the fear of what's to come. But wow, was it ever inspirational. For one, it made me want to parent my own child better -- live up to my own responsibilities and be an adult, which in many cases seemed to be all these kids originally needed.

Plus it was really funny in parts. Delinquent kids can lay down some freestyle rap!
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LibraryThing member Laurenbdavis
I like Mark Salzman, and liked his novel LYING AWAKE very much. This book is a memoir of the year he spent teaching creative writing in a juvenile detention center. He is candid and honest about his fears and concerns going into the project, and watching his prejudices melt away is quite fascinating, as the reader can't help be identify with the emotional ride. Where the book is less strong, in my opinion, is in the writing from the actual students, which takes up probably a third of the book. I understand Salzman wanting to 1) give these boys a voice and 2) reveal something of the boys' interior landscapes. The problem is the writing is repetitious after a while, and since it isn't very good (although some does have undeniable impact) it begins to feel tedious. Salzman's portraits of the boys themselves, as well as those of a fiercely activist nun, and several surprisingly sympathetic staff members, is much more rewarding, and poignant.… (more)
LibraryThing member sumariotter
This book really moved me. What makes it so moving is the spare, unsentimental way Mark Salzman tells the story. I haven't read any of Salzman's other books but I see mention of Zen in a couple of the titles. This does not surprise me at all, because there Salzman is such a clear observer. This is the kind of book that makes you want to get involved, somehow, anyhow in prison reform/outreach. I highly recommend it.… (more)
LibraryThing member satyridae
Salzman finds himself teaching writing to the high-risk inmates at a juvenile prison. Wrenching, gritty and real, this book has an immediacy that reached out and pulled me in. The kids are engaging, and like Salzman, sometimes I forgot that they were murderers and thieves. Salzman's self-deprecating style is calm, observant, amusing. Some of the inmates' writings reproduced herein are heartbreaking. This book made me think.… (more)
LibraryThing member karriethelibrarian
Inspiring and eye-opening.
LibraryThing member Caitdub
It isn't that the writing was excellent in this one. I just really enjoyed the topic. Ever since high school, I desperately wanted to do something along these lines... volunteer in a juvenile hall. I still want to work with kids and teach them how to use writing as a survival tool. Anyone know of an opportunity like this on the South Shore of MA? Let me know.… (more)
LibraryThing member Cheryl_in_CC_NV
Oh for cripes sake. Salzman is genius. He keeps writing about things I imagine myself to have no interest in, and I keep falling under his spell and becoming fascinated by his subjects. Can you imagine lol'ing several times in an exposition about guiding teenage murderers to express their hearts in writing? Well, I did, and I bet if you read this you will too. But of course mostly you'll be moved and have your perceptions of the juvenile criminal system and its participants shaken upside-down.

Only one thing I want to say is that, if at first the writing seems to show too much talent, Salzman to have too much success, for this to be true, I advise you to: 1. keep reading and 2. remember that these are just a few of the kids, the ones who really wanted to be in this class... many of the other kids are probably similarly intelligent and sensitive, but don't want to be in a (sissy? academic? futile?) writing class.

Oh, also, keep reading to the very end, the acknowledgements and everything.

Seriously. Stop reading my review and go read this book.
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LibraryThing member engpunk77
I loved this book! I don't even know how I came about reading it or where the book came from--I just found it on my bookshelf.
With this book, Salzman and his writers/juvenile criminals lifted me by the feet and shook up my beliefs and ideas that I thought were pretty firm in their place. What a mess they are now! Salzman isn't preachy and I'm not sure what his message is....I admire that he admits that he doesn't know either. He gives a sincere account of his experiences and lets the reader share them for what its worth...

This book caused me to explore my beliefs and my own approach to volunteer work. I'm inspired by his dedication--I've faced similar annoyances in my own work such as arriving to class on schedule to find that they're on lock-down and he made the trip for nothing--but handled them with much less grace and let these setbacks rationalize my decision to quit. He, however, never lost sight of the commitment he made to his kids. I respect his honesty in sharing embarrassing moments and making himself completely vulnerable to us and to his kids who try so hard to harden themselves---he is a true role model. Kevin's north star poem at the end had me sobbing at my kitchen table. My feeling now is a longing to find out what's become of the subjects of this book---I'm especially attached to kevin and Francisco Javier....I want them to really know how much their writing has affected me.
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