If You Want To Write A Great Book, Go To Prison

by Uzor Maxim Uzoatu

I am allergic to dictators, even if they somehow manage to dress up in democratic robes.

Nigerians cannot ever forget in a hurry how some time ago all the five political parties of a leprous hand manufactured by General Sani Abacha nominated the no-nonsense dictator as Nigeria’s would-be democratic president.

Some of us had to resort to guerrilla journalism to stop the dark-goggled evil general in his tracks.

Abacha jailed a good number of the journalists and killed some others, a sad example being Bagauda Kaltho.

Just the other day, I wrote on how Abacha’s security goons sent me a postal slip in the bid to entrap me but true to my character of “snake no dey go prison” I beat them in their game by not going to the post office to pick up the satanic parcel.

Well, my great friend and brother, Muritala Sule, MS for short, felt scandalized that “Maxim nor get liver” because he, MS, could “have sworn you’d take the bait of that slip for an opportunity to write your equivalent of The Man Died and show that you are a die-hard student of the ‘elewon’ professor.”

Of course, one surefire way of writing a compelling book is going to prison first, but then any arrest by Sergeant Rogers is a death sentence. It does not matter whether you have liver or not!

Even so, there can be funny matters arising out of going to prison.

The great American playwright Arthur Miller, author of Death of a Salesman, was the President of the worldwide writers’ body, International PEN, when Soyinka was detained in prison during the Biafra war.

Arthur Miller wrote in his autobiography Timebends that he was persuaded to send a telegram to General Yakubu Gowon asking for the release of Soyinka.

According to Arthur Miller, when Gowon was informed that the playwright who sent him the telegram was the husband of the legendary actress of captivating beauty, Marilyn Monroe, Gowon immediately released Soyinka!

The pen may be mightier than the sword but a beautiful woman happens to be the mightiest of them all!

Moving ahead, Soyinka was of course not the only writer who spent time in prison and came out with books that rocked the world.

Miguel de Cervantes began writing his inimitable novel Don Quixote when he was in jail in Seville, Spain back in 1597, and it is from that classic book we learn this truism: “The truth may be stretched thin, but it never breaks, and it always surfaces above lies, as oil floats on water.”

Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, served time in Newgate Prison, London in 1703, and he left us with these wise words: “Fear of danger is ten thousand times more terrifying than danger itself.”

John Bunyan penned his immortal Pilgrim’s Progress during the 11 years he spent in Bedford County Jail, Britain in the 17th century, and his words are wisdom writ large:


He that is down needs fear no fall
He that is low, no pride
He that is humble ever shall
Have God to be his guide.


The master short story writer, O. Henry, wrote some of his deathless short stories while being jailed for embezzlement as a teller at First National Bank in Austin, Texas, but his short fiction with their twists in the tail and surprise endings are enduring forever with stunning insight such as these words of his: “We can’t buy one minute of time with cash; if we could, rich people would live longer.”

Oscar Wilde, author of De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Gaol, was jailed for two years over homosexuality but his thoughts in prison are timeless as rendered thusly:


Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard
Some do it with a bitter look
Some with a flattering word
The coward does it with a kiss
The brave man with a sword


Even dictators can go to prison to forge world-changing books, as Adolf Hitler did in writing Mein Kampf while he was incarcerated at the fortress at Landsberg for organizing the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923.

Here is the thinking of Hitler: “I know that fewer people are won over by the written word than by the spoken word and that every great movement on this earth owes its growth to great speakers and not to great writers.”

The point really is that anybody living in Nigeria today is serving heavy prison sentence and does not need to go to any other prison to write the needed great book.

We are all prisoners here, and we must somehow find the afflatus and the scabies scribendi to put out the books.

I have spoken!

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