08/14/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Letters From the Pen: A Review

A man looks at himself by looking at what he looks at.
- William Least Heat Moon

Dale McCurry is a writer, an editor and an ex-con. He was incarcerated in 1999 for non-violent, yet serious, white-collar crimes.

For four of the nearly five years he was locked up, he wrote weekly columns for the Lovely County Citizen, published in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. He had a job as a reporter and features writer with the Citizen waiting for him when he was released. Eighteen months later, he was the editor. In 2007, Boian Books published a compilation of McCurry's essays called Letters from the Pen.

It is the job of a reviewer to deconstruct the thing he is reviewing, so let me say that Letters has little to do with correctional facilities or the experience of being held in a correctional facility. It is about being shackled or breaking free as a prisoner; but the prison can be anything that ails us: addictions or neuroses, bad relationships or mounting debt, physical handicaps or emotional challenges. Letters from the Pen is certainly about McCurry particularly -- if only by looking at what he looks at -- but it is also about people generally and how they can -- or cannot -- make their lives mean something.

"I survived by writing" McCurry said, speaking earlier this year at The Prison Project, a multi-media art show at The Little Room in Pittsburg, Kansas. "I wrote, and it turned my life around. For someone else it would be running a flower shop or shoeing horses or whatever, but for me, it was writing.

"For me, recording the journey was part of the path -- a necessary component of the map home. It was a requirement for me to open a vein, dip the quill and let the bloodletting begin. I knew my only hope was to search my heart and gut for something that had eluded me for so long.


And the "truth," surprised even McCurry.

"I thought the stories would be about being an inmate," he said. "I'm in prison and my readers are out there and isn't it interesting to read about me in here? blah, blah, yada, yada.

"But make no mistake, Letters isn't about prison life, it's about my life ... in prison. No one else there saw the same story.

"I was an inmate; someone else is missing a foot; someone else is bankrupt ... You know, we all have our stuff; we all have our trials."

But McCurry didn't require the distance of years of freedom to recognize the lessons of a road less traveled.

"I can name far harsher sentences than incarceration," he wrote in 2003. "I can name, and so can you, people who have endured them. I can build them memorial walls and stitch their quilts and read their names in somber ceremony. I can send them a card. I can pray for them. I can offer a smile and its subtle, sacred language. But enduring my trials by spotting and clinging to the afflictions of the ever-present someone who has it worse seems to me a sin as covetous as eyeing another's greener pastures."

Written over the course of four years of introspection and observation, Letters offers an opportunity to witness a man in an unusual, if not unique, situation as he fine-tunes his craft and his understanding of the human condition.

"Our addresses and situations affect us but they don't define us," McCurry writes. "Neither freedom nor imprisonment is made of stone and razor wire, nor the lack thereof. It is made of something that lives in the gut where the butterflies and the tremors dwell."

Letters from the Pen celebrates paradoxes -- by helping us to see what is Good, and to forgive what we think is less Good.

"The walls I live behind have suddenly become the Alamo," McCurry writes of a close prison-yard bocce match with two formidable Latino opponents, "and Jose is grinning like Santa Anna when I hear martins. I stop just as my arm moves forward with the ball. "What!" screams my partner, his arms question marks ascending to a perfect May sky.

"Martins," I say, as if an adequate answer. "I hear martins."

To read Letters from the Pen is to hear martins, or to learn how to hear martins. It is to visit and revisit -- with hope -- that place in the gut where the butterflies and the tremors dwell.

To purchase Letters from the Pen or to obtain information regarding McCurry as a public speaker, contact