Missing the Magnetic Je Ne Sais Quoi

2011

I’ll forever know 2016 as The Year of Silenced Voices. The  year we lost Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, not to mention all manner of actors, writers, is broadcasters, will be the year we lost Miss Sharon Jones.

I know the whole Daptone Records thing is sometimes seen as retro at best and white hipster appropriation at worst. I heard the some of the same criticisms of the so-called “Young Lions” of jazz back in the ’80s, who made music that Miles called “warmed-over turkey.” But I always appreciated the Daptone vibe and the aesthetic, and Sharon Jones will always be at the forefront of that in my mind.

I watched – more importantly, heard – that vibe in action in 2011, when Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings came to my neck of the woods. And after the show, I got to exchange words with Sharon and some of the other members of the band. I got to see firsthand what a true artistic collective looks like; how a group can make a single member’s voice shine and how that single member highlights the rest of the group. Sharon herself, of course, is one of the best examples I’ll ever encounter of someone who succeeds by fighting to do what she does, whether it’s ANR people’s perceptions or cancer. That, to me, was her magnetic je ne sais quoi.

Today’s playlist: the whole SJDK catalog. Probably for the rest of the week too, I think.

A Voice Missed

In this age of media distrust and echo chambering, the loss of Gwen Ifill’s voice in the news landscape saddens me.

I’m a regular PBS Newshour viewer, going back to when Jim Lehrer was still running the show. I remember noticing near the end of his tenure, the growing prominence of Ifill, Judy Woodruff, and a few others. From my perspective, it was done quietly, almost subversively. I remember thinking for sure it’d be Margaret Warner at the desk after Lehrer left, but seeing Ifill and Woodruff center stage gave me real hope for the future of good reporting. Reporting that really sought to deliver us the news from as many different perspectives as possible.

People point to institutions (every institution, really) all the time with justified criticism, but most folks can point to individuals in those institutions who represent the ideal. The ones about whom even reasonable detractors can say, “If everyone in that instituion had the professional skills and personal integrity as X, I’d have no problem.”

Gwen Ifill was one of those folks. I’ll miss her presence and her voice, especially during these trying times.

A New Old Writing Manifesto

I was reading the latest issue of Warren Ellis’s ORBITAL OPERATIONS newsletter this morning and while I myself didn’t expect a Spider Jerusalem rant, this shouldn’t have surprised me:

I’m sure some of you tuned in today expecting a Spider Jerusalem-scale political rant. Some of you may even have been wincing in expectation of it. But I’m not Spider Jerusalem. He was my Id from twenty years ago. Going off here would be empty virtue-signalling from someone with no serious skin in this particular game. Whatever I say next, it’ll be through the work.

And so it immediately brings to mind how I resolve that conflict as I write. How do I make whatever I say come through the work? As always, I’ve had the answer all along…

What are you dealing with now in terms of plot points, themes, concerns now? The world and everything in it: Hunger, poverty, the anguish of the human race, the desperate sense of self destruction that we entertain all the time, the deep pervading gloom that comes with our inability to cope. Of course, you’re going to over-concern yourself with issues. It’s right that you should do so, and it’s expected… this year. Next year. But not three years from now.

Leave that soapbox behind. Carry with you, at all times, your sense of caring and your concern. But put it into the mouths of flesh and blood people. If not, write tracts.

Now, not to be critical, but I think it’s fair to say there’s a certain privilege in being allowed three years before transforming your soapbox feelings to good fiction writing. But that part of the prescription isn’t important, really. And I don’t want to dismiss tract and pamphlet writing, either; lots of folks do both. But the principle is sound.

As for me and my writing though, I have the motive, and now I have the means. And now I have some writing to get back to.

##

Today’s soundtrack: BLACKLISTED by Neko Case

“Suddenly some old familiar music…”

I’m still in shock over the election to come up with my own words. My Twitter feed has been mostly retweets. I don’t feel too, too bad because signal boosting serves a purpose. But all my personal fears and hopes (in that order) are bubbling to the surface — for my friends, my loved ones, all the friends of friends who are, even as of yesterday, are being directly intimidated, immediately faced with losing livelihoods. And for all those who are, just days after, dying as a result.

The words are almost here. I hope. They have to come. Don’t they? Because I can’t keep living the way I have been living anymore…

We hide behind the veil of our own success
While we’re following the rules
Our eyes refuse to see past our little hands
To the never changing truth
Freedom needs to speak a little louder
Justice needs to try her other arm
Some of us could push a little harder
To sound the alarm

World Fantasy Con 2016

It’s a shame there couldn’t be another World Fantasy Convention without yet another controversy. Because of it, people either resold their memberships or failing that (or to even give them away), simply didn’t go. I had my doubts about going until the 11th hour, given the time, money, blood, sweat, and tears I’d put into Viable Paradise the week before. I wasn’t even that jazzed about continuing my streak of being a panelist at every WFC I’d attended.

Nonetheless, I made the trip to Columbus, OH, my second adopted hometown. It’s a bittersweet place of personal demons I managed by and large to put to rest. I relived some good memories, like sitting for lunch at the North Market once a week eating stromboli from Serafino’s. I even sat in the same section; it really was like traveling back in time. I saw old hangouts, walked old downtown walks, and visited places I didn’t get to 15 years ago. And to add to the surrealism of it all, I sat at the hotel bar watching Cleveland in the World Series.

2016… or, was it 2001?

But in-between my trips on and off the carousel, I was there for a purpose: to fulfill the commitment I’d made to be on the new and improved “Spicy Oriental Zeppelin Stories” panel, d.b.a. “A Golden Age of Contemporary Fantasy.” The panel – the revision for which I strongly suspect was influenced by Guerilla WFC – lived up to its new and improved name, in my opinion. I admit though, I’m still chewing over the audience reaction. (Rightly or wrongly, it bothered me a bit; haven’t completely processed it yet, though.) And while I was still a zombie from the previous week and didn’t connect with as many people who were there as I’d wanted, I did manage to say hey to a couple old friends and maybe make a couple more. I even got to a some of the other panels. So between all of that, and helping to brighten up (at least, I hope I did) a corner of my field that needed it, it wasn’t a bad way to spend a weekend.

And hey, congrats to all the World Fantasy Award winners!

Refilling the Life Bar

I’m still piecing my mind back together from the two wildest weeks in my writer life, with Viable Paradise three weeks ago followed by World Fantasy the next week (note to self: do that post soon), followed a week back at the dayjob during which I still wasn’t sleeping sensibly. It’s my own fault; it’s been 21 years since my hometown (racist mascot, and all) got to be in the World Series.

This leaves me drinking coffee past when I should on a Saturday night, trying to do a little more catching up since I took most of last night and most of today hibernating and flushing my brain. I finally have a little bit of energy that I don’t immediately have to burn on another commitment, like the dayjob. But it’s a precarious state. The bed, the couch, The Commonwealth are all calling to me. It’s okay, though. If rest is what I need and I can get it while picking away at my to-do lists and maybe a little bit of editing, I’m good.

Viable Paradise XX (or, A Career Rebooted)

I haven’t fully processed my experience at the 2016 Viable Paradise Writing Workshop, a.k.a “VP20” or “VPXX” (Like a Chicago album!) as it was the workshop’s twentieth year. I traveled to Martha’s Vineyard from my patch of “10 Square Miles Surrounded by Reality”, survived the workshop including The Horror That Is Thursday, traveled back to NY and sat with a thousand-yard-stare on my face for about two days before heading to Columbus, OH (a place of bittersweet memories in my home state) for the World Fantasy Convention.

But I’ve pieced together some thoughts about my VP experience and here they are, in order of life-changing impact:

CONNECTION. The first face I saw when I disembarked from the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard was that of a VP staffer/alum who I’d met a few years prior at a Readercon and who remembered me. Seeing a familiar face, I thought, was an ideal way to head into the workshop. I’d figured that everyone I was going to meet that week was there for a single purpose so I’d have an instant in, socially. These were all thoughts borne out of anxiety. It was an unnecessary worry. I don’t think there’s another environment where I could’ve played “Thing” with total strangers by incorporating elements of my favorite episode of The Twilight Zone. These people got me, or got me enough that opening up was strangely easy. I can only hope I was the same way for some of them.

CRAFT. By a certain instructor’s own admission, you don’t get anything at Viable Paradise that you couldn’t get elsewhere. Anyone who’s even half-serious about the writing game can find small-scale professional workshops and critique groups just about anywhere, face-to-face and online. But what you get at Viable Paradise is all of that stuff, a lot faster. You know how once in a great while, as you plod along looking for writing wisdom on your own, you randomly come across a piece of advice that surges your writing forward, sort of like finding a needle of gold in a haystack full of bullshit? At VP, (a) there is no bullshit and (b) I personally found no less than three of those needles. I think everyone in my class got something. Some got what they wanted; some got what they needed.

PERSONAL CHALLENGE. There are classes, colloquia, group and one-on-one critiques, and Mandatory Fun. While those things alone are enough to wear anyone out, you can do these bare essentials and not lose a lot of sleep or (more importantly to me) introvert points. I decided, Fuck all that.

It may have been unwise of me to get four hours of sleep the night I got there just to go on the first of Uncle Jim’s 6 am walks to watch the sunrise. I went to one of the many off-book lunchtime sessions with a bowl of spaghetti in my hands. I made myself walk to see a harvest moon, luminescent jellyfish, and Methodist Munchkin Land when my mind and body begged me to just take some time and curl up under a blanket. I stayed up too late, and maybe drank more than I do in an average month. In fact, I don’t think I got more than 4.5 hours of sleep per night except the night before I left the island. No regrets.

Now, I am not telling anyone to disregard what they need for their mental, emotional, and physical health — there was even an off-book lecture on writer self-care (which I didn’t make). I am saying, with the usual YMMV caveats, that Viable Paradise is an opportunity to stretch yourself a little bit beyond your comfort levels in relative safety, and not just with writing. Taking advantage of as much as I could outside the workshop proper was a life lesson in deciding, in a calculated manner, to push myself just a little bit further. Something at which I’ve become a little rusty.

The Motto of Room 48

THE HORROR THAT IS THURSDAY. If you’re looking into Viable Paradise, you’ve no doubt come across this phrase by now. The legends are true. It’s a crucible. And when you come out the other side, you’ll sincerely believe you’ve created an abomination against literature. You’ll want to hide it. You might even consider killing it to spare it the pain of living what’s surely to be a short, bleak existence in a cruel, uncaring world.

But those options will be taken out of your hands. And when you and your classmates are forced to reckon with what you (and they) have produced, you’ll feel an odd sense of pride. It won’t make any sense. You won’t care that it doesn’t.

A PERSONAL TRUTH. My classmates will have their own individual takeaways. I speculate that some of those takeaways will be very personal. Mine definitely are. It’s been two weeks now and I’m still unraveling them.

But one thing became abundantly clear to me: My entire Viable Paradise experience — my one-on-one critiques, my group critique, the Horror That Is Thursday, every lost hour of sleep, every lost introvert point — and everything I got out of it is perfectly and unironically summed up by the ending of the film CIRCLE OF IRON:

And once I recovered from this realization, I was left with one thing…

A CAREER REBOOTED. I won’t give my litany of excuses for my stalled writing career. And I’m not saying that in a “Boo-hoo, poor me” kind of way. But it’s accurate to say, I lost some things along my path before losing the path altogether.

But after the general lessons I’ve learned about writing, some personal lessons about my writing in particular, and all the people I met (every classmate, every instructor, every staff member, no matter how many or how few words I spoke with each of them), I feel my writing career is back on track. I’ve looked my core problems in the face as well as some core solutions. From this point forward it’s “Put up or shut up,” with literally nothing standing in my way.

A Little Ghost Story

It’s Halloween and while I feel dead, I’m not quite there (yet). The past two weeks of “vacation” from the dayjob consisted of the Viable Paradise Writing Workshop (VPXX represent!) followed almost immediately by the World Fantasy Convention, to say nothing about all the requisite travel. So given the holiday and my current state, how about I share an old ghost story…

***

Sitting in the kitchen, staring out the patio door into the darkness past the deck, I’m reminded of the story of my grandmother, one of many things my mother handed down to me:

At midnight, every night for months, my Lola dressed in her finest Spanish gown, went out on to her front porch, and screamed for her husband to come home. No one tried to stop her. See, her generation wasn’t unfamiliar with visits from the dead. A young woman calling out into the humid, Philippine night, was pitiable, but not beyond the bounds of reason. My grandmother’s family and townmates shrugged it off, until the night the screaming stopped after only a few moments. They rushed outside, afraid she’d hurt herself, or worse. Instead, they found her standing on the porch, smiling.

“He heard me,” Lola told them. “He came home.”

***
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Chapter XLIII

Sorry I’m getting to this a day late, but it’s been a hectic couple of weeks. Chapter XLIII of my life began yesterday, and I’m hoping for some big things. I ended Chapter XLII with two major accomplishments: a promotion at the dayjob to a managerial position which not only gives me an office with a door I can close, but also the funds to attend the 2016 Viable Paradise writing workshop. That’s VP20, everyone! Or, is it VPXX? I’m partial to the latter myself, because it reminds me of a Chicago album.

Speaking of which, the song below is from Chicago XXXVI. With things to look forward to, I’ve been wondering if a new year requires a new attitude…

I think it’s time for you to lose that cynical suit, now.
You’ve worn it out and man, the jacket don’t fit you no more.
–Chicago, “Something’s Coming, I Know”

Let’s give it a shot…

“Agony in the Garden” in THE CLEVELAND NEIGHBORHOOD GUIDEBOOK

I mentioned this was coming, but now it’s here: THE CLEVELAND NEIGHBORHOOD GUIDEBOOK from Belt Publishing, which has a bit in it by me called “Agony in the Garden.” I got a kick from reading it out of my contributor’s copy. I have to say, these are really nice books!


If you’re in the 216, you have several options for getting yours: The folks at Belt will have a booth at the Cleveland Flea on June 11 and will be holding a launch party at the Market Garden Brewery on June 22. (Alas, the dayjob prevents me from making the trip from NY.) I’m also told the books should be available now at Mac’s Backs, Loganberry Books, CLE Clothing, Cosmic Bobbins, and Native Cleveland.

If you’re not, or are just anxious to get your hands on “The Least Practical, Most Literary Guide to Cleveland,” get yours now!