I am afraid, not just that the books I’ve written may not be well received. The whole idea my work may be unfairly judged once my name is added to the registry in 2026, that scares me the most. But people want us to be afraid; it gives them power. But when one of us chooses to live out loud, be seen doing the right things, it disarms them. Being afraid doesn’t mean you quit fighting.
But unfortunately, hated for the artist often becomes hatred for the art. This was the risk I was taking by selfishly or perhaps arrogantly slathering my name across two covers. I insisted that I did the work, I wanted the credit, deserved it just like someone who didn’t break the law.
But was that my first mistake? Was publishing?
My first book, “Destination Unknown,” was originally penned in 2015 after I took an advertising class taught by a former ad exec. It showed me I could still write. After unsuccessfully trying to get agent representation, I managed to find a publisher willing to work with me for a fee, that being Word Out Books, an imprint of Winding Hall Publishers, Eugene, Oregon. My book debuted October 7th, 2019. On release date, it sold two copes to Australia but hasn’t been a commercial success.
“Dead in Space” (2022) was penned in 2016. I searched out a new publisher with more services but also higher prices, that being Page Publishing, Conneaut Lake, Pennsylvania, in the hopes this one might prop up the first one.
COVID-19 ramped up in 2020, greatly slowing my progress and pushing the release date to April 2022, a full two years after submission.
Accomplishing anything while in prison is tough. I’ve lived it. Many prisons that claim to be correctional institutions aren’t. There’s not much correcting going on.
But what’s it really like? I faced an uphill battle from the onset, from the mountains of paper and hundreds of pens I burned though, fighting for a typewriter (they still use them), many hours of edits, rewrites, months of waiting, and my struggle to prove I’m not running a business, I’ve managed to publish twice.
Yes, they tried to accuse me of that. They finally said, “Just don’t have your royalties sent here.” They haven’t been.
I’ve also faced taunting, ridicule, shaming, and physical attacks from others here who have seemingly nothing going for them, so they hate anyone who does. Just because you’re published, especially when you’re accused of a sex-related crime, doesn’t mean you’re respected for what you’ve done. Who do you think hates me most? Sex offenders.
I have a permanent dent on my pen support finger and a callus that won’t go away. I’ve often written until my hand aches, the callus bursts open, and still I painfully went on trying to capture my thoughts on paper before they disappeared. If not for a handful of encouraging fans to bolster me when I wanted to give up, I never would’ve made it this far. Never disappoint your public.
One man we call Lucky. He’s Native American, from the Crow Tribe, and my brother from another mother. He worked with me in FCI Englewood’s chow hall when I was doing these books. He sat, asked questions, and gave me suggestions. So, it was no wonder I gave him signed copies of both books.
Lucky writes song and when he picks a Blues guitar, something amazing happens – sparks fly, and magic comes out of his guitar. I’ve had the pleasure of listening to him play. The man is on fire and sure to become a fantastic talent once released.
But writing is something you love and hate, often at the same time. It’s not recognized as a productive activity for the First Step Act, which purposefully left sex offenders behind by preventing us from earning good time credits.
So why bother? Jackson Taylor is the director for PEN Prison Writing Program, a division of International PEN, the world’s oldest human rights and literary organization. He wrote on page three of their free “Handbook for Writers in Prison,” “Writing is a skill that can be practiced – even behind the walls of a prison – and writing with skill is a legitimate form of power.”
Founded in 1922 and made up from 2,900 distinguished writers, editors, and translators, they work to advance literature, defend free expression, and foster international literary fellowship.
One of their key values, besides working to dispel national, ethnic, and racial hatreds and to promote understanding among all countries is the restorative and rehabilitative power of writing. They also believe good writing can come from any background. This is what I hope it does for me. Although, I can’t fully say I believe this stigma society places upon us, regardless of how long we serve in prison or the therapy we take, will ever filly redeem us, but I have to try, if not for myself, then for the thousands waiting for someone to come along to help change things. And with my freedoms gone, it is my only way out beyond these walls. For now.
My first publisher once told me via email that he was blown away by how well constructed my first book was. He could hardly believe it was an inspired, original work. Yet, not so surprising is that I was a newspaper reporter and trained to craft words into interesting and entertaining narratives.
Both my editors put me through my paces proofreading and copy editing. I was kept in the loop every step of the way. I was also challenged to try to outdo myself with the second novel. I think I’ve done that. But what is it like to write in such a forbidding and unforgiving place like a prison? There are concentration issues behind bars when some inmates don’t understand the concept of inside voices. This often causes me to work many late nights or early mornings when all is calm and quiet in the housing unit.
I’ve even had to battle my own faith and commitments to my projects. I’ve wanted to quit. I’ve wanted to fight on, and that first moment when you finally hold your printed words in your hand fills you with elation. That new book, at least in my case, promptly goes to my nose for a deep inhale of the crisp, new paper.
But as I’ve passed the sophomore slump that plagues so many writers, there comes a time of insecurity and even depression. I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that old urge to give up comes roaring back to me, but I know I can’t.
Being published is a drug. Holding a printed book with your name on it is, frankly, a high, but a good one. Pride in your work is most of it; the urge to shout from the rooftops, “I did it!” I’ve pestered a lot of people in the showing off of both books. I’m telling you, anyone can do what I do. It takes imagination, passion, deep commitment, and yes, a healthy bit of stubbornness. Writers are a different, often misunderstood breed of people, but everyone has a story to tell.
But the trap would-be authors often fall into is comparing their work to someone else’s. I’ve done this out of my insecurities. Somewhere along the way, I lost that journalistic thick skin I was taught to develop. Never, never, never do this. A great writer is one that’s well-read, and any writer who’d sit you down and tell you, much to the chagrin of generations of English teachers, how to do it doesn’t understand how it’s done at all.
Some writers are stiff, outline everything, and waste precious time on the planning when they should be writing. I don’t do this. I get a notion how I think it should go, and I write entirely unrestricted, never knowing how I’m going to reach my end point. That’s what rewrites are for: reign in your plot and toss what doesn’t work. Don’t try to pin down your imagination.
Anyone can do this, even if on the registry. Do it on Amazon’s Create Space virtually for free. My advice to you is read all you can, develop your own style, but never believe your work is inferior compared to someone else’s. Study them, get better, but try to enjoy at least most of your journey.
Daniel K. Talburt, 53, is a former newspaper reporter, editor, photographer, and now author of two science fictions books, “Destination Unknown” and “Dead in Space.” He is scheduled for release in December 2026, and can be reached by mail at:
Daniel K. Talburt #25847-045FCI Englewood 9595 W. Quincy Avenue Littleton, CO 80123
For a copy of PEN American Center’s “Handbook for Writers in Prison,” write to:
PEN American Center588 Broadway, Suite 303 New York, NY 10012