Published as "Letters from the Literati: XII. Donald Lowrie" found in The Editor: The Journal of Information for Literary Workers, December 1912.

My first literary effort was made by the light of an oil lamp in a deoxygenated, 7’x5′, white-washed cell at San Quentin, one of California’s overpopulated penitentiaries. It consisted of a series of articles contributed gratis1free; without charge to The American Theosophist.2American Theosophist was published in Albany, New York, by L. W. Rogers from April 1908 to October 1909. Friends who read these articles wrote and urged me to adopt writing as a profession. Acting on the suggestions I began studying the magazines. I also subscribed to The Editor, which I found very helpful. I think that the most valuable suggestion I gleaned from The Editor was in an article published three or four years ago, in which the writer urged literary aspirants to read the best novels for style, but not to read one at a time because the interest of the story would almost invariably prove potent enough to make the reader forget the object of his reading. The suggestion was that several books should be read coordinately: that is, a chapter from Vanity Fair should be followed by a chapter from A Tale of Two Cities, and that, in turn, by a chapter from The Wandering Jew, etc.

After two years’ study I essayed my first story, “Doga-Da-Yell,” which was immediately accepted by The Pacific Monthly—now merged with the Sunset Magazine—for which I received $35.3Adjusted for inflation, approximately $1,075 today. Ten years previously I had worked as a “jerry” on a railroad section. For three weeks’ hard work I received $21,4Adjusted for inflation, approximately $730 today. over and above my board, and with no idea at the time that the experience was valuable. “Doga-Da-Yell” was a story dealing with the life of section hands. It was followed by “No Violence, Gentlemen,” a story of the police “third degree,” which was published in the same magazine, for which I received $40.5Adjusted for inflation, approximately $1,230 today.

Encouraged, though still wearing stripes, I sent contributions to Life and The Atlantic Monthly, both of which sent letters of acceptance, with generous checks.

It was at this point that Fremont Older, managing editor of The San Francisco Bulletin, loomed on the horizon of my life. Warden Hoyle of San Quentin prison acquainted the editor with the fact that he had a “successful author” behind the grim walls, and Mr. Older asked to see me. At the interview I was offered a place on the staff of The Bulletin, and on the strength of this offer, assisted by Mr. Older, I secured a parole—after ten years in prison.

Imbued with a desire to ameliorate6make better the condition of prisoners I essayed a story of my experiences, and of prison conditions as I knew them. Being truthful, this story—published daily in the columns of The Bulletin—attracted the attention of California. The circulation of the paper went up from 70,000 to 105,000 copies daily.

That story, My Life in Prison, has been published in book form by Mitchell Kennerly of New York, and also by John Lane of London. It is shortly to be reserialized and published in the Hearst string of newspapers.

At present I am employed as a special writer for The San Francisco Bulletin, but, for the sake of the experience, I am doing regular reporting work also. Though still a tyro7a beginner; novice in literature, perhaps I may offer what I conceive to be three essentials for success in writing. First, and most important, write nothing without a purpose higher than that of making money. Second, learn to observe; be ready to tell the color of the eyes of the last person you spoke to, if asked to do so. Third, never become satisfied with your work. Self-satisfaction is fatal; it means stagnation.


If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out My Life in Prison.

Donald Lowrie

Donald Lowrie