Interview with John K. McLaughlin, Author of Lifeline to a Soul: The Life-Changing Perspective I Gained While Teaching Entrepreneurship to Prisoners
I won a few writing contests in my youth and always wanted to write a book, but I never thought I had an interesting enough story to tell. My wife and I once saw two people riding a tandem bicycle on TV and we thought it was the funniest thing we had ever seen. Years later, we bought a tandem bike and shortly after that a horse suit and we rode our bike in costume in local parades which was a big hit with the kids. We told each other that one day we would write a children’s book that explained why the horse was riding a bike. When Covid-19 hit, I told her, “this is our time”. The experience of writing and promoting A Bike for Buster paved the way for Lifeline to a Soul, I learned that in this day and time all the resources necessary to write and publish a book are readily available.
What inspired you to write about your experiences as a teacher in prison? Why was now the right time to publish it?
When I lost my prison teaching job, I told my father’s wife that I wouldn’t have any more interesting prison stories for her and she challenged me to write a book about the experience. As soon as she said those words, I knew I was going to do it.
The teaching experience radically changed my perspective of the incarcerated. I met a lot of men that had great potential, but had made some bad decisions. Our prison systems are designed to dehumanize, and I get that, it’s how you run an orderly prison. But the dehumanization process provides very few resources for those who want to make positive life changes. The class I created was helping a handful of men at a time. I thought that by writing about the experience, I could change how hundreds or possibly thousands of people viewed those with felonies on their record. Hopefully, this would lead to some people getting the second chance they need to move forward in life and leave their past behind.
I have taken a less active role in the company I founded and now have the time and financial resources to promote Lifeline to a Soul and I am really enjoying the process. This is a great time in life for me and the book has provided me with some great experiences that I otherwise would have missed.
Great question, Marilyn! A perfect writing day for me is an early morning run or bike on the greenway that runs behind our neighborhood followed by a hot cup of coffee. An hour or two of quiet time with a keyboard and the writing flows. Later in the day I seem to struggle with words, but early morning to me is always best. That said, there have been times when I have gotten up in the middle of the night and written down some thoughts, you never know when inspiration might hit you.
As an author - what do you enjoy most about the writing process or comes easily to you? What feels most like a chore - a struggle?
Probably the best advice I ever got about writing is “show me, don’t tell me”. I love to write descriptively in such a way that the reader can experience what I experienced. When I describe a person, I want the reader to be able to “see” them the way I did. When I describe the dayroom where I taught, I want the reader to be able to “see” the faded checkered tile floor and “smell” the watered down bleach smell that was so prevalent. When I am able to do that, it’s far and away my favorite part about writing.
What I typically struggle with is in the editing process, deciding which parts of the story to remove. I got a lot of help from some very talented editors and almost always took their advice as to what should stay in the book and what should go. I thought they had a much better perspective than I did.
You learned so much from working with these men. Can you share with readers what you feel was your one most important take-away? How did this experience change you and/or how you viewed life?
Writing the memoir forced me to re-live parts of my past that were long ago forgotten and realize the values that were instilled in me when I was young were put there by people who cared about me and my future. These values played a huge role in my life and made me the person I am today. Before writing about it, I had never put all those pieces together.
I also discovered that our criminal justice system discriminates heavily against people of color, the uneducated, and people with low incomes. My big takeaway from this experience is that I am not much different from many of the people sentenced to spend years of their lives in prison, I am just a lot luckier. Lucky to be born white and upper middle class and lucky that I never got caught doing the irresponsible things I did in my youth.
What would you most like readers to know about you?
When I was fifteen, I begged my mom to let me quit the Boy Scouts. She wouldn’t let me do it until I achieved the rank of eagle. When things got tough in my business, my partner and best friend talked me out of quitting. When my wife and I hit a bump in the road, we worked through it instead of calling it quits. So, although I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot in my life, everything I have that’s worth having did not come easy. I’ve learned that the only way to get what you want in this world is to keep working towards it until you get it. The day you quit is the day you give up on your dream.
I would most like readers to know that life taught me to be a very determined person. If you read the book, that message should come through loud and clear. It would be great if someone who was ready to quit the pursuit of something they really wanted to accomplish got my message and decided to give it one last try, that’s usually when you get your breakthrough.
I'd love to close with a quote, one of your favourites that inspires you regularly.
“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might. . .”
I really wanted to be a teacher and the prison provided the only job offer in my eight year job search. I accepted the job knowing that I was going to have to construct a ninety-nine hour class from scratch. I was going to have to deliver it in a place where the internet and computers don’t exist. The only teaching tools the prison provided me with was a crooked marker board and a Dave Ramsey book. I knew it would be a monumental task to build my class, but I also knew myself well enough to know that I would make it happen no matter what it took.
My ancestors were mostly farmers and laborers and they placed a value on people based on how much work they could accomplish, so I was taught that working hard is the right way to live your life. This philosophy has served me well.