Mamk's Lee Stringer Gives "Internal View" of a Difficult Life

bu Judy Silberstein

(February 16, 2006) The flap over the fictionalized memoir A Million Little Pieces may have temporarily obscured reasons why Oprah Winfrey and thousands of others were drawn to the book in the first place: “It offered much insight into a broken life and how to put it together again,” explained one reader.

Insight into his own broken life is exactly what Mamaroneck’s Lee Stringer offered in his own first book, Grand Central Winter, begun while he was homeless on the streets of New York City and still struggling with addiction to crack cocaine.. Insight – for himself and his readers – is what Mr. Stringer is continuing to provide as he works on a third book and on his first novel. He is also continuing to impart the lessons learned, not just through his literary work but in speeches and workshops with community and school groups and prison inmates.

He was reading from his first book last week at Westchester County Department of Corrections in Valhalla when the “truth” issue came up, he recounted: “Hearing you read from your book,” an inmate remarked, “I know it’s true.”

“Personally I feel there is less danger of fraud in the kind of book I have written which is predominantly internal,” explained Mr. Stringer. “It is not fantastic events, but the interior reflections on them that make the thing. There are other memoirs that are given the fiction treatment--that is to say mined for and structured around plot and drama. In my books I leave the edges jagged--don't tidy outcome. There is, therefore, very little need for concoction.”

That is not to say that the details of Mr. Stringer’s life don’t make for a compelling narrative, particularly for readers trying to understand the difficulties of growing up poor and African-American in a predominately affluent, mostly Caucasian suburb. Mr. Stringer explained how he came to writing: “One day I took the stub of a pencil that I used as a drug implement to pack down the screens of my crack pipe and decided to use it for its intended purpose.”

“I was out to kill time but discovered a new high in writing – one that wasn’t self destructive,” he said.

Although it was not overnight, writing for himself and for Street News, a newspaper distributed by homeless people in New York City, helped him leave the streets and begin a new life in 1996. Now eight years after his first book was published in 1998, he lives in Mamaroneck, makes a living writing, speaking and conducting workshops, serves as president of the Mamaroneck Friends of the Library and is on the board of Youth Shelter, a Westchester program that helps steer young people away from crime. And he’s still writing.

Lee Stringer at the Marfa, Texas retreat supplied by the Lannan Foundation no longer relies on a pencil stub for his writing.

It was his dual activities – writer and motivator – that earned him a prestigious residency fellowship in Marfa, Texas with the Lannan Foundation for 2005. The exact criteria and selection process is kept a mystery by the foundation – you don’t apply, but are nominated without your knowledge by someone who knows your work. At the end of last year, he was able to make considerable headway on his writing as he spent two months, all expenses paid, in a beautiful desert retreat owned by the foundation. This was quite a contrast from his original writing “retreat” – underneath Grand Central Station.

Mr. Stringer continues to share the details of his life – the third book catalogs his life after high school. “I’ve just graduated from MHS and the 60’s have hit Mamaroneck. I’ve been drafted – though I didn’t go,” he said. “To learn how I did that, you’ll have to read the book,” he joked.

The narrative matters for him, as does the style, which differs in each of his books, but Mr. Stringer would like the emphasis to be on “lessons learned” and not just the drama.