“Psych one, psych two. What do you know? All your life is channel 13…”

I saw and read and watched on TV a lot of things as a kid that certainly my parents wouldn’t have wanted me to see.  On the down-low, of course.  Nowadays though, the ‘rents would be considered downright negligent.  Still, I relate to this, from Michael Sarko on Popdose…

I admit I’m nostalgic for the days of TV’s unbidden bizarreness, but I know each generation has its own thing. Indie theaters, cavernous book stores, random pamphlets, underground newspapers– They’re all sources of weird throughout the history of pop culture. One way or another, a kid needs to have that strange fruit to fuel creativity and open-mindedness.

Some of the weirdness to which I was exposed between the ages of 8 and 16: The Exorcist (the film and William Peter Blatty’s novel), The Young Ones, and thanks to unsupervised late-night cable-access TV-watching, my first therapist in The Asylum for Shut-Ins: Video Psychotherapy.

He tells it like it is…

But, he’s really not that stuffy. He’s kinda easy-going, really…

He’s really helped my creativity and open-mindedness. I’ve turned out all right, I think.


“Funny days in the park. Every day’s the Fourth of July.”

More pics from this year’s Ithaca Festival at Stewart Park.  The weather was beautiful, so it was pretty crowded.  I didn’t stay long and didn’t really pay as much attention to individuals as I did the other day.  I visited the drum circle and saw a smattering of bands, but I spent most of my time watching the Ithaca Shakespeare Company’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  I’m sure you’ll be able to suss out those pics.

I have to say, I think that was the true highlight of my festival this year.  Not only did I like the performance, but it was fun watching little kids get into it, and reacting to what was in front of them, rather than to “The Bard.”

Here are the rest…

“People talking, people laughing. A man selling ice cream, singing Italian songs…”

The weather might’ve slowed the Ithaca Festival down a bit, but once the sun came out, so did most of the people.  The only things missing were some of the bands I’d seen on the Saturday part of the Ithaca Festival for years.  They either just aren’t on the schedule or were playing on different days.  But still, I had my camera, and therefore, more potential story prompts.  More importantly, I ran into some cool folks!

Some friends of mine had a booth for the second (maybe third) year in a row, doing business as Flying Whale Studios.

I’ve talked a bit before about artist Jime Grabowski.  I first saw her work at the local comics show a few years ago.  A print of “The Doll Factory” hangs in my home office, and I can pretty much stare at it for a good hour or two at a time. 

Check out her site Prettylines.  Trust me, just go there now.

Anyway, here’s the lot.  Every year, I want to call the album “Saturday in the Park,” like the Chicago song.  But the park–i.e. Stewart Park–is tomorrow.

“I am an artist. I LOVE a good party. So, truce. Commence au festival!”

Summer in Ithaca has officially started, with the Ithaca Festival Parade, after which will follow three days of some of the best people-watching a writer could ask for!  I realize how prickish that must sound, and I’ll cop to saying/feeling that in a prickish manner when I experienced my first Ithaca Festival.  I’m not sure what changed, but I feel like it was something more than a mere moment of clarity. Anywho, the fact remains that every parade, I get a bunch of potential new story ideas, which is why my camera is my best friend this time of year…

My pals, the Ithaca League of Women Rollers (mostly Bluestockings, with a smattering of Sufferjets), were rolling at the parade, too.  Unfortunately, they were rolling a little too fast for me to get better pictures. 

April in Paris Goes Fourth

As long as I’m still in the 2010 catch-up mood, I noticed this in the queue: Number four in a series of thoughts and meditations on the words of some of my favorite writers from their interviews in The Paris Review.

Bow your heads as we read from St. Raymond’s epistle…

The fiction I’m most interested in has lines of reference to the real world. None of my stories really happened, of course. But there’s always something, some element, something said to me or that I witnessed, that may be the starting place. Here’s an example: “That’s the last Christmas you’ll ever ruin for us!” I was drunk when I heard that, but I remembered it. And later, much later, when I was sober, using only that one line and other things I imagined, imagined so accurately that they could have happened, I made a story—“A Serious Talk.” But the fiction I’m most interested in, whether it’s Tolstoy’s fiction, Chekhov, Barry Hannah, Richard Ford, Hemingway, Isaac Babel, Ann Beattie, or Anne Tyler, strikes me as autobiographical to some extent.

The Paris Review – The Art of Fiction No. 76, Raymond Carver

I don’t know if I can come up with as concrete an example as Carver, but looking back, even my most fantastical stories have a speck of something like that in them.  It might not even be something central to the story, but it was something with enough resonance to me and enough relevance (I felt) to the story at hand.  Sometimes, there are bits of conversations I’ve overheard.  Sometimes, bits of conversations I want to have with someone.  Some of my grievances, real or perceived, have poked their heads into my stories.  People I know and their peccadilloes, too. 

I don’t have a formula.  I don’t just swap initials.  I don’t have a rule about making a male female just so I can use his life details.  What I do involves a lot of remixing and blending.  So much so that if you look at something I wrote and ask, “Is this based on your life?” or “Is that character based on me?”  I can honestly answer, “Well, sort of… not really.  Kinda.”

The best example I can give isn’t my own work, but someone else’s. 

Unbeknownst to the band The New Pornographers, the video for their song “The Laws Have Changed” pretty much encapsulates how I lost my religion (and this is probably the only time I’ll bring this up here).  Seriously, I see every last bit of it captured here.  Metaphorically, in some places; literally, in others.  And not necessarily in line with the metaphorical or literal bits of the video itself.  Only I know which bit pertains to what, and so it goes with what I write. 

How much of me is in my stories?  As much of me that’s in this video. 



April in Paris, Part the Third

Number three in a series of thoughts and meditations on the words of some of my favorite writers from their interviews in The Paris Review.  Actually, this week you’ll get two for the price of one.

That’s why I like short stories. You’re always trying to keep the person interested. In fiction, you don’t need to have the facts up front, but you have to have something that will grab the reader right away. It can be your voice. Some writers feel that when they write, there are people out there who just can’t wait to hear everything they have to say. But I go in with the opposite attitude, the expectation that they’re just dying to get away from me.

The Paris Review – The Art of Fiction No. 176, Amy Hempel

That last bit might be true of me if I was a short-story reader instead of a wannabe short-story writer.  I fight my way through to the end of a lot of stories that I probably wouldn’t if I wasn’t trying to figure out how to write them.  I actually forced my way through an entire anthology once.  Believe me, I really was dying to get away from some of those stories.

It’d probably help me to adopt Hempel’s attitude toward my stories.  I have it when it comes to editors and slush readers–I know they only need the slightest excuse to reject me.  It’s okay, though.  I don’t hate the players.  I don’t even hate the game.  Of course, there’s the matter of what “the game” is, exactly.  This is where folks in some circles talk about “the death of the short story,” or how it’s irrelevant, or how short stories are written “not to entertain people, but rather to help improve the resumés of the people writing them.”

Let me pause to beg you folks: No “literary vs. genre” or “character- vs. plot-driven” “Great taste/less filling” debate in the comments?  Please and thank you.

Anyway, the fact is, whoever you’re writing for, you don’t have a lot of room to maneuver in a short story.  Every word you write matters, and in the best shorts, sometimes the words you leave out have an impact. This is what’s always intrigued me the most about the form.  That, and the myriad of available techniques for keeping a reader interested because the one tool you just don’t have is the room you have in longer forms, like the novel.

There’s another side to the time factor when it comes to short story writing.  I was going to use a different bit of Raymond Carver’s Paris Review interview in a future post, but he did make a comment that’s relevant here.

After years of working crap jobs and raising kids and trying to write, I realized I needed to write things I could finish and be done with in a hurry. There was no way I could undertake a novel, a two- or three-year stretch of work on a single project. I needed to write something I could get some kind of a payoff from immediately, not next year, or three years from now. Hence, poems and stories. I was beginning to see that my life was not—let’s say it was not what I wanted it to be.

I don’t have kids, but I can relate to that desperate sense of urgency.  I mean, I didn’t start this writing thing until I was thirty.  And it’s taken me seven years to reach the my current rank of “Small Potatoes” by trying to figure out this writing thing with short stories.  I’ve learned a lot about what works and doesn’t work, and it’s been important to my process to get feedback through submission and rejection–and even acceptance and subsequent editing. 

Lots of my writer-friends ask me, “When are you gonna get that novel out?”  I do have an outline or five, but the truth is, I’ll get that novel out when the idea of working 2-3 years on a single piece of work that could all end up in the toilet doesn’t scare the shit out of me.  I’ve only now gotten to the point where I can accept that notion for a 3,000-5,000 word piece that maybe took me a month or two.

I watch all of you novel-writers in my circle very carefully.  Each and every one of you, without exception, has guts that I just don’t have.  You continue to struggle with your first drafts, or your tenth drafts, or your query letters, or with getting or even keeping agents… I’m getting the shakes just thinking about it.

Still, I know it’s a YMMV kinda thing.  I’ve heard more than one novelist talk about how difficult short stories are to write.  I remember in my previous life in mental health work, I worked primarily with adolescents and knew a guy who primarily worked with homeless adults, literally, in the streets.  I’ll never forget what he said to me once.  “You’re a better man than me.  Adolescents?  No way.  I’ll take my psychotics and drug addicts any day of the week.”

We writers pick our poison, I guess, just like everyone else.  And short stories are mine.

Next time: The kinds of stories I like.

April in Paris, Part the Second

Here’s the second in a series of thoughts and meditations on the words of some of my favorite writers from their interviews in The Paris Review.

It turns out it’s not that I hate to write. I hate, simply, to work. I just hate to work, period. I am profoundly slothful. Practically inert. I have no energy. I never have. I just have no desire to be productive. Now that I realize I don’t hate to write, that I just hate to work, it makes writing easier.

The Paris Review – A Humorist at Work, Fran Lebowitz

Unlike Fran, I desire to be productive.  Thirty or forty years from now, I’d love to have a phone-book-sized tome of The Complete Short Fiction of Don P. published, like Bradbury, or Ballard, or Card, or Ellison.  But like her, though, I am got’damn lazy.  Now, I have my own methods for tricking myself out of my own laziness.  I couldn’t possibly list them all, and different methods will work at different times.  But this post isn’t about that.  It’s about giving a name to whatever it is that blocks your writing–not the 101 reasons you might have for not getting shit done, but that single cause that’s there once you boil away your rationale.

Every writer I know or know of has reasons for not getting writing done.  Jobs, problems, spouses, children, children with special needs, parents with special needs, &c.  And yet, they publish.  But, while I firmly believe that if people who work their dayjobs while undergoing chemotherapy can still get their writing done, you can, too, this isn’t a guilt-trip post either.  I’m not going to tell you to just STFU and get it done.  Not in this post (especially since I already have in others). 

What I will encourage a writer to do is to get to the core of whatever it is that stops you and, aside from doing whatever you have to do to overcome it, to first just get off your own back about it.

See, I know exactly when I’m not writing for no other reason than “I’m just not feeling it,” which is fucking unacceptable.  Or, “I’m too tired.”  Or, “I’ve had a hard day at work and I’m just emotionally drained right now.”  Or, “I’m blocked.”  Pfft.  Bullshit.  I may or may not be treating myself fairly, but to me all those reasons have my personal laziness as their root.  And knowing that makes the next step surprisingly simple.  Because what am I going to do?  Cry about it?  To what end? 

Better to just make a choice.  To either CHOOSE to be okay and sit with the regret and irritation that comes along with not writing, or CHOOSE to use one of my aforementioned tricks to get myself back on the ball.  Because bitching about how I’m not writing gets old really, really fast.  Just ask Mrs. P.

Next time: The reason I write short stories.

April in Paris, Part the First

As promised, the first in a series of thoughts and meditations on the words of some of my favorite writers from their interviews in The Paris Review.

The short story, if you really are intense and you have an exciting idea, writes itself in a few hours.  I try to encourage my student friends and my writer friends to write a short story in one day so it has a skin around it, its own intensity, its own life, its own reason for being.  There’s a reason why the idea occurred to you at that hour anyway, so go with that and investigate it, get it down.  Two or three thousand words in a few hours is not that hard.  Don’t let people interfere with you.  Boot ’em out, turn off the phone, hide away, get it done.  If you carry a short story over to the next day you may overnight intellectualize something about it and try to make it too fancy, try to please someone.

 The Paris Review – The Art of Fiction No. 203, Ray Bradbury

It’s tempting for anyone who’s read Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing, or even the rest of this Paris Review interview, to dismiss his “just do it” work ethic with, “That’s easy for him to say.”  I mean, I’ve certainly never cranked out “two or three thousand words in a few hours” without some difficulty.  And it’s been a pipe dream of mine for years to meet Bradbury’s suggested goal in Zen of one short story a week.   In fact, I’ve tried and failed at this for quite some years now.

But Bradbury’s approach doesn’t just represent a metric to me.  It’s a way of writing that has finally shown that, like everyone says, it’s about the journey.

Let me be clear: I’m not talking about “it’s the journey” in some head-in-the-clouds, stop-and-smell-the-roses, appreciate-the-here-and-now kind of way.  I’m talking about a journey that fucking makes me a better writer.  And I attribute every piece of (my pretty meager) success to that journey.

Why?  Because my personal writing journey–that attitude of “just fucking do it”–is fed by one aspect of my personality: my inherent stubbornness.  And it’s only been that stubbornness that’s been able to defeat another aspect of my personality.  the one that gets in the way of my writing: my inherent laziness.

(Edited to add) What fuels your artistic journey?

Next time: The other ways I beat my laziness.

“April in Paris”*

What you’re supposed to do is act like a fucking professional.

-Mr. White, Reservoir Dogs

You know how folks would get excited knowing that their favorite TV series were on, say, Hulu, in their entirety?  I felt exactly the same way when I read that The Paris Review has put all of their writer interviews online.  After years of passing up on purchasing the interview compilations, I gouged on them like a starving man.  I found–in a couple of cases, rediscovered–some real gems, which I’ve posted on my Tumblr.

You want to know how some real professionals get shit done?  Then you could do worse than to peer into the brains of the likes of Dorothy Parker, Raymond Carver, Barry Hannah, Amy Hempel, and–for us genre folks–Ray Bradbury!

So I think over the next few days I’m going to post bits of their interviews, along with some accompanying thoughts.  Meditations, I guess you could call them. 

*Sorry, I’m still on the Count Basie Orhcestra tip from a few weeks ago.

Showing Fools How It’s Done for 75 Years

Few things give me as much satisfaction as watching a consummate professional, in any field, at work.  Last Sunday night, I saw and heard a group of them–the 17-piece horn section, 4-piece rhythm section, vocalist, and conductor of the legendary Count Basie Orchestra.

I was expecting trombonist Bill Hughes to direct, but as it turns out, he retired last month. The band is now in the capable hands of Dennis Mackrel, one of the last members of the band to be hired by The Count himself.

I’d seen them play twice in college in the early ’90s.  The trumpet player in the pic above, Scotty Barnhart, was in the band back then, along with a few others.  If memory serves, he was the person who sold me the Live at El Morocco CD out of a duffle bag during an intermission.  See, I love that–even after 75 years, they’re still a working band.  Still on the hustle.  You can tell by the tour bus parked outside the theater.  The same kind of bus I used to ride on what were loosely called “gigs.”

My college flashbacks weren’t helped by the fact that I was also drinking cheap beer during the show.

The CBO in the vid below, directed by the equally legendary Frank Foster, was more or less the configuration that I saw in college.  My personal favorite song, “Corner Pocket” by Freddie Green and arranged by Ernie Wilkins, is at 2’40”.  I didn’t hear it on Sunday, which made me sad.  But the show still kicked ass. After 75 years and the inevitable personnel changes, the Count Basie Orchestra is still a group of what’s known in jazz circles as monsters and bad-ass motherfuckers.

Sort of makes me wonder if I can polish up the trumpet and revive my long-dead lead trumpet chops. I have to say, it’s been a long time since I’ve missed playing as badly as I did last night.