Writing for Salvation
Author: Sara Hottman, Photos by John Ricard
Posted: April 21, 2014


Alumnus Mitchell Jackson found his voice and a path leading away from drug dealing and prison.

MITCHELL JACKSON stands at a podium in front of a group of hardened prisoners who are leaning back in their chairs, arms crossed, jaws stiff.

He's reading from the autobiographical novel he started in prison, The Residue Years, published last year. As Jackson proceeds through the prologue, the inmates lean forward, resting their elbows on their knees, nodding to the prose.

Jackson ends: "This place ain't built for dreams." His audience applauds.

This scene shot at Salem's Santiam Correctional Institution is from a documentary Jackson took on once his book was complete. The film is also titled The Residue Years."One guy said to me after a reading, 'What you wrote is exactly how I feel,'" Jackson says of the scene. "That's exactly what I wanted."

Jackson, 38, made the film to document his journey from young Portland drug dealer through college and graduate school at Portland State, to published author and college instructor in New York City. As a young black man in 1990s northeast Portland, his start wasn't unique, but his path has been.

"I feel like my book is my salvation," Jackson says. "I was an average black man"—growing up in a single-parent home amid adults who were in and out of prison, then selling drugs and serving his own time, a fate that disproportionately falls on young black men in America. "But the book makes me more than average."

This year Jackson plans to debut his documentary at film festivals. He's finishing a collection of short essays exploring the shame of manipulation and deceit, titled Head Down, Palm Up, an expression from his stepfather, who as a pimp, told it to his prostitutes.

JACKSON'S LIFE as a writer began at PSU, where he earned a bachelor's in speech communication in 1999 and a master's in writing in 2002.

His college experience was distinctive: He attended on a scholarship for under-represented minority students, and on the side he was a drug dealer "hustling" crack cocaine.

Jackson was 15 years old when he started selling crack. Stick-thin and baby-faced, he had people stealing his drugs before an uncle who had been a big-time dealer in the 1970s and '80s showed him the ropes, Jackson says. "That's when things took off."

He hustled through high school. Childhood friends in the documentary say they couldn't believe that "Square Bear Mitch"—known for his intelligence and love of basketball—was dealing. But a life among drugs was familiar to him: When he was 10 years old his mother started experimenting with crack and became an addict, serving time in prison and rehab.

"I justified that by saying at least Mitchell had 10 years with me," his mother says in the film.

Steve Lawrence gave Jackson his first pills to sell. In the documentary, Jackson visits his old friend in prison, where he's serving 17 years, and Lawrence diagnoses their choices: "You needed a father figure," he says. Lawrence's father and grandfather were "pimping and hustling" through his childhood. Jackson's stepfather was a pimp and did time for robbery. "He was dad," agrees Jackson.

Michael McGregor, PSU English professor who had Jackson in graduate writing classes, says students from less-than-perfect backgrounds bring a diversity of experience and realness to the classroom.

"It forces other students to think beyond the smallness of their white, middle-class background, " McGregor says. "Even struggles of grammar and punctuation are indicative of real-world problems," McGregor says.

While college is valorized as a way out of difficult circumstances, for Jackson school was a connection outside the underworld in which he remained.

"I felt very much like a student," he adds, "except on days when I took drugs to school."

As a dealer, Jackson was making $4,000 a night—"the kind of money that no degree I was going to earn could make me," he says. At 19 he had accumulated $20,000 in cash; he considered investing it. "Then I went out and bought a Lexus," he says.

IN HIS DOCUMENTARY Jackson says his lowest point was when his mother begged him for drugs, for a fix.

"Mom was always on drugs so I became apathetic to selling drugs to someone else's mother," he says. But "that made me think, 'What the hell are you doing?'"

A year into his bachelor's degree, he was arrested for possession of a gun and crack, a lot of crack. It was the first time he'd gotten in trouble; he'd never even been suspended from school. He took a break from PSU to serve his 16-month sentence.

"Had I not made that mistake, I wouldn't have that experience to draw from as a writer," Jackson says.

He started his novel in prison, infusing The Residue Years with observations that could only come from someone who's been there. "And believe me," his character muses in prison, "sometimes it's as if I could die here, fall comatose on a mattress so thin, it takes a prayer for a wink of sleep." He writes about job hunting as an ex-convict: "The first few times you tell the truth and hope for goodwill, but afterwards you take your chance on lie."

He continued writing after college in PSU's Master of Writing program.

"I wasn't much of a reader," Jackson says. He felt like he was behind other students, but "I saw the work other people were producing and felt like I could catch up. That heartened me. I started to think I could really be a writer."

McGregor remembers that while writing seemed new to Jackson, he was driven by enthusiasm.

"Converts are the most zealous about things," McGregor says. "He took the bull by the horns and was one of three people in the class that got a piece published."

Jackson's first published piece appeared in the Portland Tribune, and was about three friends from Jefferson High School whom he thought should make it to the NBA. The story gave Jackson a chance to write about the world as he saw it—"a world where frankly most of our students don't have experience," McGregor says.

For Jackson, sharing a personal experience, having a teacher invest in the final product, and seeing his byline uncovered a passion for the craft.

"I've had students who were strippers, drug addicts, alcoholics," McGregor says. "Students who write about their stories, especially in nonfiction, find their story has worth in other people's eyes and adds to their ability to overcome their circumstances.

"They have tangible results," McGregor adds. "They don't just learn something, they bring something out into the world and people respond to it."

AFTER HE EARNED his master's, Jackson moved to New York City—where the writers live, he says—and started a second master's program in creative writing at New York University. There he read a short story by John Edgar Wideman, an African American author whose writing style resonated with Jackson. "It opened up my sense of voice," he says. "I had been under the impression that I had to sound like a writer. He understood where I was from--both parts of my life."

Wideman inspired him to return to the novel he'd started in prison, beginning a long path to publication. The book had soul—what The New York Times book review called "warmth and wit, and a hard-won wisdom about the intersection of race and poverty in America"—but not structure. Jackson wrote, revised, rewrote and re-revised The Residue Years until finally an agent agreed to pitch it to publishers. It was rejected repeatedly—"we stopped counting at like 18," Jackson says—until eventually Bloomsbury picked it up. The novel has since won glowing reviews.

Growing up in northeast Portland, everyone had a dream of getting out, Jackson says in his documentary: "The sexiest dream is to be a basketball star. The second is to be a hustler."

"The expectation is that you're not going to make it," he says. "I made my way through life like that until I realized that I could be great."

Sara Hottman is a PSU political science student and a graduate assistant in the Office of University Communications.

Caption bottom photo: Mitchell Jackson promotes his novel at a the 2013 Bookexpo America in New York City.