Story and photo by Aubrey Salm / Contributing Writer
On Oct. 6, Middle Tennessee State University hosted Mitchell Jackson, author and Pulitzer Prize winner.
Born in Portland, Oregon, the Phoenix-based author received critical acclaim when he won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in feature writing for his article, “12 Minutes and a Life,” chronicling the life and killing of Ahmaud Arbery.
Jackson’s work has also been featured on This American Life, The New Yorker, Esquire, where he writes regularly, Harper’s Bazaar and many other publications.
He grew up in Portland, and while in middle school, his mother went to prison. At the age of 17, Jackson began to sell drugs which ultimately led him to be incarcerated for over a year. With a mother who battled addiction, Jackson’s tumultuous childhood sparked his first novel “The Residue Years,” which won him the Ernest J. Gaines Award for literary excellence.
Jackson credited his writing skills to several things: his philosophies, his mentor Gordan Lish and his limitations after his imprisonment.
He envisioned his life and the pieces he wrote guided by author Edwin Wilson and his axiom “Your wound is your bone.”
Jackson realized that the physiological harm that he faced in his early life could also propel him forward to produce works that divulge his life in a way that would inspire others.
Unlike Jackson, in his essay “12 Minutes and a Life,” Ahmaud Arbery could not overcome his wounds of not being able to make it to the NFL. Instead, his life was cut short when he was shot at the age of 25 while jogging.
For Arbery, the healing process never happened, and his life ended abruptly.
Jackson wanted it to be known that his job as a writer was to “be able to see how your humanity is connected to another’s humanity.”
The essay did just that, and within “12 Minutes to a Life,” Jackson connected his life to Arbery.
Besides philosophies, Gordan Lish was a huge influence over Jackson.
Jackson first met Lish at The Center for Fiction. The 80-year-old editor hosted a seven-hour lecture that Jackson attended. The relationship grew as Lish eventually became his mentor and helped Jackson secure his first book deal.
Jackson said, “It took me a long time to find out that I had talent. It took Gordon Lish saying ‘you got an ear’ at 35 before I could believe I could write.”
It was a long process for Jackson to discover his passion for writing, and having been in prison restricted his possibilities.
While in prison, Jackson did not see many options for jobs being a convicted felon. He went back to school to receive a master’s degree in writing to become more marketable.
A senior and non-traditional student at MTSU, Darby McCarthy came to Jackson’s event for a journalism professional development class.
McCarthy said, “In his story, Jackson didn’t get started in life till he was 35, and Ahmaud Arbery…died before he reached 26…it put it into perspective for me because sometimes I get it into my head that I am behind, that there is an ideal timeline.”
For Jackson and the rest of the attendees of the lecture, the message is clear. There is no timeline for life.
Jackson stated, “Revision is seeing the work in context, in progress, recognizing the part of something and how they work to form a whole. Revision is seeing what could and should and shouldn’t be there and conceiving the ways to make it so.”
Revision is what Jackson was afforded by just being alive and overcoming his wounds; Arbery never had the chance.
In the end, Jackson reflected that he didn’t read books for pleasure as a kid and that he could not imagine this life until he was a published author.
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