Writing has taught me a lot.
One is to be authentic and to stay true to yourself. In some ways, as a writer, that’s all you have.
The second is that while I met Dennis Cockerham in prison, his impact on my life will reach way beyond it.
A while ago, I wrote a piece called, Impact, it discusses five people, who I met in prison, that has changed my life. I knew Dennis at the time, but he hadn’t made the list, until yesterday. He spoke to me in a way that nobody has ever spoken to me before, with cold hard honesty, and it was after he read the first version of my, No Happy Endings, book review.
Dennis is my sponsor. We meet every night at 9 pm at the top of the staircase on my side of the unit. It’s the most secluded piece of real-estate that we can find. When I ran into him earlier, he told me that I am a strategic writer, like a chess player. I thought he was giving me a compliment. He said the post was interesting and we would discuss it at our meeting. He brought the post and set it on the table next to me, at the top of the stairs.
We typically work on my steps for our 12-step program, but tonight went in a different direction. I asked him what he thought of my book review, written in the form of a letter to the author. He asked if I wanted his honest opinion. I paused and nodded.
He said, “Clearly you had an agenda and if I was being honest I would say it’s a strategic, fake, piece of trash that not only makes me question our relationship but every personal piece of information I have ever shared with you.”
My face froze. Up until this point, I had thought he liked it.
He said, “I don’t know who wrote this but it wasn’t you, because you are one of the most real people I have ever met.”
He said the reason people are listening to what I have to say is that I tell it straight and you can’t let your ego or agenda get in the way of that. He mimicked a typing motion and bobbed his head around with an exaggerated expression on his face while saying, “Hey you guys like me! Well, now you are really going to like me!”
Those comments cut deep not just because they were coming from Dennis. I felt the fakeness when I was writing but I brushed it off. I thought the piece was powerful enough to pull it off.
I shook my head, “Damn, dude. Is the whole thing trash?”
He said, “No, of course not, it’s funny and entertaining, but I can see right through it. You come off as arrogant. And if I can see it, so will other people.”
As Dennis was talking, a guy from our unit walked up, sat down, and listened to the Dennis’ advice. Once Dennis was done he said, “Noah when I first got to this compound a few years ago, I noticed you right away. You stuck out as a good guy, someone who people like to follow, and you acted in a way that you don’t typically see inmates in prison act. You had your long hair and I could tell you were a real person.”
Dennis jumped back in, “I can tell from what you wrote you enjoyed the book, you obviously have something to say to her, so say it, but make sure it comes from here (he touched his heart).”
We sat there for a while longer but I was in a daze. I was shaken by their comments and grateful for their praises. Most of all I knew they were right. I had veered away from what matters. Dennis says he is just along for the ride in building resilience2reform but reminded me that he will get off the second we start doing it for the wrong reasons.
Deception and manipulation are two things I knew too well when I was in the middle of my addiction and criminal activity. Now the drugs are gone but those traits are still popping up. It’s an old habit that I need to keep an eye on.
Authenticity is everything. As soon as you realize somebody is even partially full of shit, everything about them is called into question. My buddy Ben once said it me, “Even if somebody is truthful 90% of the time and only dishonest the other 10%, it’s no longer worth your time trying to decipher, what’s real, and what’s not.”
It doesn’t matter if you are writing, sharing in a meeting, talking with your spouse or your boss at work if you aren’t being authentic, sooner or later you will be figured out. It didn’t feel good to hear it, but I am glad someone had the guts to give it to me straight.
He had it before but now more than ever, Dennis has my trust and attention.
Together we want to create a message that is built on honesty in the hope that it will help anyone who needs it.