Chapter XXXVII

Today, Chapter XXXVII of my life begins.

“I’m 37. I’m not old.”
-Dennis, Monty Python and the Holy Grail

I’m starting this chapter off right with a two-and-a-half week vacation from my dayjob, a trip next week to Readercon, a camping trip with friends the following weekend, and after that, my next NSO gig at the next home derby bout.

Role ModelsFor the past couple years, I’ve tried to obtain writing-related birthday gifts. This year, though, I dusted off my Audible account, and treated myself to Role Models by John Waters.  I quoted it a lot recently, having read snippets from it and heard various podcast interviews and readings.

I’m listening to the first few chapters now, and thinking about my own role models.  I’ll blog about them some other time.  But this book is making me give some thought to who’s influenced, not just my art, but my life as an artist.  In Waters, I think I’ve found a new one.  Just look out the quotes I’ve used recently as well as the links below.  If you’ve been paying any attention to how I feel about writing and how I pursue it, I’m sure you’ll understand why. 

“Come to see victory/ In the land called Fantasy”

Apparently, I just can’t seem to get enough of the Ithaca League of Women Rollers and watching home bouts. I drove to an away bout last night to watch the Sufferjets play the Utica Roller Girls.

I’ve been engrossed in my share of sporting events, but I just don’t know what it is about roller derby.  Yeah, yeah, I know–it all has to do with prurient fantasies brought on by watching women play rough with each other, right?  Sure, being a straight male, I’m certainly not above anything like that.  I’m comfortable admitting the possibility that I’m just a slimeball.  But that’s not it.

After all, the point of having a fantasy is sitting back and imagining yourself being engaged with the object(s) of your fantasy, right?  But do I have slimeball thoughts about these ladies?  Despite basic biological tendencies, not really.  Between being taken, being of advanced age, and knowing that my deteriorating eskrima skills would be of little use against a roller-girl beatdown–those are enough to keep those types of fantasies in check.

I hear you scoffing, “You are so full of shit!” like Jack Lemon to Kevin Spacey in Glengarry Glen Ross.  But hear me out.

I’m thinking back to the John Waters quote on discipline from his “10 Best Pieces of Advice for Functional Freaks.”  Especially the bit about how…

Discipline is not anal compulsion; it’s a lifestyle that breeds power.

I think that’s the real object of my fantasy where roller derby folks are concerned.  Any derby organization consists of folks busting their asses to do something out of pure love.  I’m not just talking about the skaters putting in hours-upon-hours into training, either.  They and the whole gaggle of folks behind them–volunteers who officiate, run the merch tables, run the scoreboard, &c.–put in a crapton of work to put a season of bouts together, to say nothing about the service projects they do.

I’ve watched these bouts over the past couple of years and I realized that their power isn’t in the fact that they skate and whoop ass at the same time.  Their power is in their willingness to do whatever they have to do in order to get to skate and whoop ass, and do it for the love.  That’s a little difficult for me to get my head around.

Sure, I love to write.  But while I may not have any expectations about making enough money off it to quit my dayjob, I also love the fact that the one piece I got into the McSweeney’s website still gives me some juice with other writers five years later.  And that folks seem to like my writing enough to publish it and sometimes, pay me for it. I am not one of those writers who go, “Oh, I’d do this even if I never got published.” 

The point is, it’s inspiring to watch a group of people can put in so much work into something other than their own self-aggrandizement.  The least I can do with that inspiration is to get back on my horse and keep putting in my time in the ‘shed, despite the writing troubles I’ve been bitching about lately.  I’ve got upcoming story deadlines, stories that need revision, and rejected pieces to resubmit. Not to mention, a conference to prepare for.

And I’m getting to all that right now. Well, after I look at the pics I took one last time…

“Everybody needs a little time away…” Part III

I took one final day yesterday to relax from the stresses of life, the dayjob, and my writing. I know what most writers say about needing to write every single day and the thing is, I agree 100%. It’s just that I’ve come to the realization that I can’t do it.  I should, and I should keep working toward that.  But if I treat writing like another job, then like any other job, I need a break.

Yesterday was the third and final day of the annual summer festival. Whereas Saturday was sunny and hot, almost to the point where I was worried about heat stroke, Sunday was gray, drizzling at times, and about 20 degrees cooler. I thought all I needed was a thicker polo shirt, but I was wrong. Still, some hot chocolate warmed me up enough to enjoy what I saw: People dancing to a circle of drummers, folks doing Yoga in the cold, and a local group of bagpipers which includes a sci-fi writer who is a frequent contributor to Analog as well as Asimov’s Science Fiction and other places.

If nothing else, I’ve got a third day’s worth of potential character sketches, here. 

Now, I’m getting slowly back on the wagon. I’m finally getting the first draft of my story for Rigor Amortis together, building it around the skeleton of an unrelated flash fiction I wrote about 6 or 8 months ago. I figure if Carol Emshwiller can include “Acceptance Speech” and “Report to the Men’s Club” in the same collection, then I can make a story “the same, but different” than one I’ve previously written (not that I’m 1/10th of the writer she is, but still).

“Everybody needs a little time away…” Part II

It’s actually taken a lot for me to realize just how much I needed a break from this year of hell at the dayjob, even after an extra-long long holiday weekend.  My writing suffered.  I’m not talking about how much I haven’t been writing lately, but the fact that I was convinced that somehow I could get it done if I’d just whipped myself a little harder.  But I think I was, literally, beating a dead horse.

So, I went for another day of frolicking in the sun at the annual summer festival, the one time and place in the year when I don’t mind running into coworkers.

And again, the best part is that this batch of photos is ripe with character ideas!  I’ve already begged off critique group tomorrow to go to the festival’s last day.

“Everybody needs a little time away…”

As if my “wrojo” (i.e. “writing mojo” — brought to you by Regan) wasn’t low enough, there’s been so much more to distract me this past week. There’s been an upsurge in work in my dayjob capacity as the Special Projects Bitch. To unwind, I’ve been taking advantage of the nice weather conciding with my town’s annual summer festival. But hey, sometimes you need some time off from writing and to recharge. And it’s only recently that loafing is only a small part of recharging. The other part, at least for me, is being charged with something–in this case, the energy that drew me to live here in the first place.

Traditionally, the festival starts off with a Thursday night parade.

My favorite part of the parade was the Ithaca League of Women Rollers and their Chia Skate float!

The best part is, there’s at least a half-dozen character ideas in just these photographs.

More to come, as I’ve just spent most of my Saturday. And I plan to spend some of my Sunday, as well.

“…snatching laughs and love between amputations and penicillin.”

My Sunday started out with brunch with some friends and mimosas! I think I’ve found something to replace my love of riesling.  But that wasn’t why I made a two-hour drive.

As part of a benefit for the JCC of Greater Rochester, actor Elliott Gould was in the region for a 40th Anniversary Screening of the film MASH, one of my all-time favorite films.  Seemed like a good reason for a roadtrip.  One of my friends from overseas even (jokingly) threatened me with death if I squandered the opportunity and didn’t go.

Gould did a brief introduction before the screening.  His presence was definitely worth the price of admission.  I’d have paid double if Donald Sutherland would’ve been there, too.  After all, my favorite line in the film was about his Hawkeye Pierce.

Hot Lips O’Houlihan: “I wonder how a degenerated  person like that could’ve reached a position of responsibility in the Army Medical Corps.”

Father Mulcahy: “He was drafted.”

During the Q&A afterward, Gould (justifiably) credited the series for keeping Altman’s film alive. Now, if I wasn’t so tired, I’d go on about how much more I like the film than I ever liked the TV series. I understand that film and TV are two completely different animals, and how some of what I liked about film just wouldn’t translate.  Still, the film’s tone was more my speed.

I’d made jokes beforehand about how I was going to ask lame questions like, “Gee, did you realize 40 years ago that you were making a classic?”  Or the sort of stuff Chris Farley would ask: “Remember… that scene… when you punched out Robert Duvall?  Remember?  ‘Cos he made that kid cry.  Remember that?

“That was awesome.”

I think that by making those jokes, I’d realized, at least on a subconscious level, that those are the sorts of questions that always get asked whenever you open a forum up to “the general public.”  It happened when I saw writer Joyce Carol Oates speak last year.  She was there to talk about a non-fiction project she was doing at the time.  Now, as disappointing as that was–I’d wanted to her about her fiction, of course–it would never occur to me to ask the question most writers dread hearing, “Where do you get your ideas from?” 

Now, not every question Gould was asked was at that level, but it was pretty close.  As a result, I didn’t hear Gould say anything I didn’t already know from watching the MASH DVD extras–except for the fact that apparently director Martin Scorsese didn’t understand the game of football until he watched the football scene in MASH.  

I know that must make me sound like a total snob.

Still, the opportunity just to be present at an event like this, honoring a piece of art with one of the people involved in making it was pretty breathtaking.  Just the thing to get my creative juices flowing….

Practical Magic

Let me tell you something
I’ve met men in jail who had more style
than the people who hang around colleges
and go to poetry readings
They’re bloodsuckers who come to see
if the poet’s socks are dirty
or if he smells under the arms
Believe me I won’t disappoint em

-Raymond Carver, “You Don’t Know What Love Is (An Evening with Charles Bukowski)”

I did not to a poetry reading last Friday night, but I did go to a Paint Off–an annual fundraiser featuring local artists who had one hour to create artpiece which would be auctioned off to benefit a local summer festival.

I wasn’t the only one gawking at them and taking pictures, and I admit going with some romanticized delusion about watching a piece of art being conjured out of thin air from nothing but the Muse’s direction.  I’m willing to bet I wasn’t the only one doing that, either. Then I gave the matter a second’s thought and I finally realized that these weren’t “artistes” whose socks were dirty or who smell under the arms. They were artists who were working.

I saw people with their sleeves rolled up, sweating, scrambling, and getting their hands dirty.  I saw noses put to the grindstone. 

This is the real magic of art to me, whether it’s painting, sculpting, music–or even writing.  This is the level of professionalism I want to attain. 

This inspires me.


Getting Things Done, For Longer Than I’ve Been Alive

Jim Lehrer, host of the PBS NewsHour (formerly known as, among other things, The MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour) for over 35 years, is one of my biggest writing influences. During his long and storied career in journalism, he’s written and published nineteen novels. This makes him one of my writing heroes, despite the fact that I haven’t read word one of his books.

So what makes him my influence? He wrote those books while he was anchoring, reporting in, and producing award-winning news shows. And he’s not some Johnny-Come-Lately who decided to “follow his real dream” once he got the NewsHour gig and after getting a bit of fame behind him. His first novel Viva, Max! was published in 1966, seven years before he teamed up with Robert MacNeil, at the beginning of a career that would garner him numerous awards for excellence in journalism.

Do a thought experiment with me. Lehrer’s books get fair-to-middlin’ reviews but let’s assume–purely for the sake of argument–that each and every one of his novels is utter crap (Again, I don’t know this, because I haven’t read any of them). Imagine how much work it would take to produce and publish nineteen bad novels, and you’ll see why I’m impressed.

In short, he’s a guy who gets his writing done, and in the interviews I’ve seen over the years in which he talks about his fiction, he gets it done anywhere and everywhere he can, every day.

I’ve met writers who hold down day jobs and/or are parents (some, of kids with special needs), and/or who are adult caregivers, and/or who are dealing with their own or someone else’s medical/mental/emotional problems. And I look at these folks, and at Jim Lehrer, and ask myself, “What the fuck excuse do I have?”

Does it make you ask the same?

How Don Is About to Get His Groove Back

As I slogged through my horrendous backlog of Google Reader items last week, I read one of the best writing-related posts I’d ever seen from entitled “12 Secrets to Being a Super-Prolific Short-Story Writer.” I actually know some of these…

  1. Know how your story ends before you begin it.
  2. Don’t just write the same story over and over again, or you’ll bore yourself.
  3. Start crude, then work on refining.
  4. Have a bunch of stories on the back burner, and keep rotating.
  5. Don’t be afraid to stare at the blank screen for a few hours.
  6. Write a bunch of stories in a shared world.
  7. Some stories are just the turning point in the story, not the whole story from beginning to end.
  8. Try creating a character study, or a collection of potent images, instead of just a series of plot twists.
  9. If you’re getting bogged down in a particular story, you probably haven’t found what it’s about yet.
  10. Try an exercise, like rewriting a well-known story from a different viewpoint.
  11. Don’t be afraid to take crazy risks.
  12. Write for different markets.

It’s no secret to anyone that I’m weeks overdue on delivering my Four Horsemen Contest story, for a number of reasons I won’t go into here. But every inch of the teeth-pulling progress I’ve made on the damn thing thus far was made by re-learning these two pieces of advice.

5) Don’t be afraid to stare at the blank screen for a few hours. Sometimes you gotta spend some time chewing over the turning point in your story. Sometimes the ending you thought was so crystal clear when you started out has turned mushy. Sometimes you have to throw out a thousand words of perfectly good story because it rang false and didn’t feel like the direction the story should be going in. There’s no substitute, on occasion, for sitting and sweating it out. Think about the characters, and what they’re actually thinking and feeling in the situation you’ve set up. Think about the themes you’ve established and what sort of resolution they’re leading to. Take the time to visualize the right ending for this story, or put it aside…

I’ve seriously forgotten how to just sit and sweat it out. I’d sit and get frustrated that nothing was coming. I’d make myself scribble some words down. Then I’d hit the backspace key and delete. Then I’d hit Ctrl-Z and put it all back. Rinse and repeat.

It’s a life issue, really. I’ve never had any trouble bleeding, sweating, or crying to keep my momentum going. I’ve had stuff knock me down, and I’ve had to get back up. But when something just stalls? When I’m working and working, and I’m just spinning my wheels? That’s often when I want to give up.

But I’m getting better.

9) If you’re getting bogged down in a particular story, you probably haven’t found what it’s about yet. This is sort of an extension of tip #5, I guess. Maybe you’re trying to make your characters care about what you want them to care about, instead of what it makes sense for them to care about. Maybe you’re focusing on a supporting character, while your main character is wandering around just outside the frame. Maybe the real theme or idea of your story is something you’ve only touched on in passing. The power of storytelling is so great, that when you find what your story is actually about, you may feel it propelling you forward with its unstoppable logic. The characters will be motivated to move forward, the mysteries will feel more and more urgent until someone solves them, and the underlying themes will get clearer and clearer until they form into some kind of potent image. That’s the idea, anyway.

And, I’m almost there.

Part of the problem (and no, I don’t really count the hell my work life has been the past few weeks) is that my writing process has moved soooo far away from starting with an idea. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with “First contact with mutual attraction between the species.” But I had a hell of a time starting with that because that idea, in itself, said nothing to me at first. Given the right germ of a scene, maybe a character interaction or a piece of dialogue, that idea might’ve occurred to me.

But, I’m not bitching! It took a bit of struggle, but I’ve actually found something resembling a theme, related to the “First contact with mutual attraction between the species” idea, that I can sink my teeth into, based on the characters and situations that have already presented themselves in the puke draft. And that’s what I’ve been working on, trying to hammer it into shape in the Forge of Vulcan (i.e. my netbook).

Yep, I can feel my groove coming back, slowly but surely.

Because Reading is Fundamental

An author I met at Astronomicon, Daniel Rabuzzi (The Choir Boats), has been blogging a multipart Year-in-Review of his favorite speculative and fabulistic art. His review of short fiction was of particular interest. I’m in the process of reading most of the anthologies he listed, and can personally second his opinions of two particular pieces: the short story “Rats” by Veronica Schanoes (from the Interfictions anthology) and Benjamin Rosenbaum’s collection The Ant King: and Other Stories.

My list of favorite short stories of 2009 won’t be half as comprehensive. While I’ve certainly done my share of short-story reading, it’s basically been in service of my writing education. My primary focus was dissection to figure out what made them tick. Still, certain stories and collections stuck out in my mind in 2009–though this is not a comment on the quality of everything else I read, unless where explicitly stated.

We Never Talk About My Brother by Peter S. Beagle. Rarely do I enjoy each and every single story in a given collection. It’s only happened three other times, with M. Rickert’s Map of Dreams, Howard Waldrop’s Howard, Who?, and Ray Vukcevich’s Meet Me in the Moon Room. I saw a lot of similarities in theme between Beagle’s collection and Steven Millhauser’s Dangerous Laughter: Thirteen Stories (Daniel cites Millhauser’s story “Dangerous Laughter” as a favorite. I liked it a little less.) but Beagle’s stories resonate a little better with me.

The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God by Etgar Keret. The novella “Kneller’s Happy Campers” alone (on which the film Wristcutters: A Love Story is based) is worth the price of the book. There isn’t much I could add to RJ Burgess’s review on Strange Horizons other than, “Just read it.”

Black Glass by Karen Joy Fowler. I have yet to read any of Fowler’s novels, but I’ve opened their covers at bookstores and it boggles my mind that I’ve seen no reference to her short fiction. Okay, that’s a lie–I’m not all that surprised there might be those who’d rather not know the Fowler who wrote The Jane Austen Book Club, Wit’s End, and Sarah Canary is the same one whose stories still appear every so often in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

“Pride & Prometheus” by John Kessel. Why does it seem that a lot of my favorite writers do Jane Austen riffs? In any case, it was a deserving 2008 Nebula winner.

“Absalom’s Mother” by Louise Marley. This was a real diamond in the rough that I discovered in the anthology Futureshocks. Don’t even get me started on what I thought about it, but it was worth finding the single story with strong emotional resonance. Because few things resonate more than a mother’s love for her child.