On Writing: Workshop Tips and an Adorable Otter

Supportive Otter Believes in You

Most writers have lots of experiences in critique groups or workshops but not all of these experiences are awesome and helpful. Sometimes changing your approach as a participant can make them more awesome and helpful though. So for what it’s worth, here’s my workshop manifesto (part 1).

Tip: Set Your Expectations Appropriately

Workshops can really vary in format, intention, mood, snacks, etc. If you go into a workshop expecting one thing (cookies) and get a different thing (cupcakes) you might be disappointed. I recommend doing your homework. Read up on everything the workshop or group organizers say about it. If it applies, ask former participants. Go into the experience meeting the workshop on the workshop’s terms. After you’ve participated in some, let’s arbitrarily say four workshops or groups, you will have a better sense of what works well and what doesn’t for you.

Tip: Discomfort Can be Good

I never advocate putting yourself in a position that feels unsafe personally or creatively but there’s a lot of space between unsafe and being cozy in your comfort zone. If your goal with a workshop or critique group is to improve your writing, approaching it from an all-new angle can shake up or affirm your creative instincts. By necessity so much of the writing process is internal. A group allows you to “road test” your act like a stand up comedian or musician. Sometimes you want a new crowd for that sort of thing. You might find that you can expand your work to be more accessible to more people that way.

Tip: This Isn’t Mandatory

To be clear, workshopping/critiquing is never required. You can write your glorious amazing words without ever getting notes or criticisms (constructive or no) from anyone. You can write for yourself. You can attend groups that are purely about support. That’s great and essential! My process involves sharing my roughest work with only people who will love and support it first (my wife, number one superfan) before I introduce it to anyone. There were points in my writing development when all I needed a cheer squad, not a red pen. There are pieces of writing that are still too tender for me to subject them to anyone else’s approval or disapproval and that’s valid as fuck.

Also, a tangential point: a lot of writing events start or end up in bars but not all writers drink. I don’t drink much and almost never when I’m in training for a running event. It’s awkward sometimes but there are usually other people ordering sodas. We share meaningful, sober looks. There are also people who just don’t go into bars for all sorts of reasons. I’m tremendously sensitive to cigarette smoke and I have to leave events sometimes if I’m somewhere with smokers (usually patios these days). You need to remember that your health comes first and anyone or any group that pressures you to do things that aren’t healthy for you is not a good fit. Setting boundaries is important and if anyone ever gives you a hard time about it they are telling you to GTFO.

Tip: Don’t be an Asshole

As mentioned, workshops vary a lot. Some devote a lot of time to each writer giving their feedback verbally or in writing, some are primarily about the thoughts of a teacher or workshop organizer. Some get into a groove of cutting straight to the criticism. Some do a “compliment sandwich” approach (say something nice, something critical, something nice again). Whatever works for the writers, the workshop, the organizers, the most important golden rule for behavior is just don’t be mean. If you are giving your thoughts on something, keep it focused on the page not the person. Try to put yourself in the other writer’s place. What would help you? What would hurt you? Just, be cool. Don’t monopolize the conversation. Don’t speak over overs. Behave like a grown up decent person who can social. The process is stressful enough already. Being a big ego meanie know-it-all is just uncouth and uncalled for. This may seem like real basic kindergarten advice but a truly unfortunate number of writers believe workshops and critique groups are places to demonstrate how much they know and how great they are and <big eye roll>, that’s not it at all. Groups like this exist to help. They exist to teach, demonstrate, and encourage. It is not and never will be your duty to brutally break down another writer and remake them Robocop style into your vision. You will find some writers and some pieces need more help than others and it may be tough to say or express all of the things you think need attention. That’s okay. Offer what you can in good faith when you can, with respect and patience, and you get the gold star.

Tip: Workshops are NOT All About You

I think there are four stages of workshop/critique engagement. In the first stage you are focused primarily on how your work, your precious words, will be received and what guidance you will get. That occupies most of your time and seems like the biggest priority. You wait for your turn, almost tuning everything else out until the focus is on you. Then you get to stage two and realize that other writer’s work and the feedback they receive really helps you learn your craft. Sometimes someone will use a device you were thinking of using or have used but haven’t brought in and you can get a sense how well it goes over. Sometimes you learn a new trick. The third stage is when you learn enough about writing that what you see in other writer’s work and your thoughts help both of you. It’s a great big ah ha! moment when this first happens. Explaining a thing to another person sometimes (often even) improves your understanding and appreciation of that thing. A lot of writers think this is the ultimate stage, the goal. I don’t. Stage four is when you learn enough about yourself and about writing and enough about other writers that you can see the story from their perspective and give them insights to help them get what they want. It’s an easy trap to tell all writers to write more like the way you write but what you really want to do is tell all writers to be more like the unique writers they truly are. I love so many writers (as a reader, a friend, a critique partner) that write things I would never write in ways I would never write them. There are some universal concepts in storytelling, I blog about them sometimes, but there is more room for personal and unique expression and vision than you might think. When I read a story I want to understand the story the way the writer understands it, not the way I would tell it, and I do my best to get out of the way, suppress my own biases, and tell them how to get there. That’s workshop magic.

Tip: Come Back to My Blog for More Tips (Probably)

I could just go on and on about workshops and writing and the great big creative hug I want to give the whole world but we’ve all got stuff to do right? So, I’ll leave you with just these tips for now. Maybe there will be a sequel. Maybe even in 3D! Good luck with your words and your writers’ groups. Try to take a break to look at otters. Stay hydrated.

On Writing: It’s All Memoir

Darkness behind, camera flash up ahead.

A lot of people have stories they want to tell about their lives and some of them have come up to me and say “hey Erik, you’re a writer,” (accurate) “I want to write this memoir…” My responses to this are probably not what they might expect. First off, memoir is a totally different publishing universe than fiction and while I have a kind of maybe if you squint understanding of how the fiction machine works, I don’t know anything at all about memoir business. I do know something about storytelling though and what makes a readable book. So that’s where I focus my advice and it starts with above all else, lie.

Storytelling is about what you choose to say, when, and in what order and it’s equally about what you choose not to say. The instinct when setting down to write a memoir is to tell a story from beginning to end. Start with your cousin Steve because he was there, oh and also that neighbor across street, and it was probably 1996 because Bob Dole was all over the news, and then and then. That’s not a story. That’s a recitation. It’s a grocery list of events. It might be interesting to the people that are on the grocery list but to everyone else it’s lacking the compelling parts that make stories universal. Which doesn’t mean your memoir ISN’T compelling or universal. It just means you need to fight the grocery list urge and edit. You need to lie. I know your cousin Steve was there but <magic flash!> now he’s gone! Also, Bob Dole? We can move on from Bob Dole.

Good storytelling is focused. It’s intentional. It’s not the same thing as talking to your friends at a party about That One Time. Your friends have context. They have YOU. Go into a room of strangers and you’d tell the story differently. Like, maybe say “hi” and put on a “My Name Is” sticker with your name on it. When you write a story your audience, ideally, are all strangers. You need to introduce yourself. You need to introduce everyone. And cousin Steve isn’t important just because he was there. Cousin Steve, in fact, is hurting your memoir. You need to get rid of him and everything else that doesn’t serve your story’s purpose.

“Wait,” you are maybe asking me right now in this imagined conversation we are having: “but what is my story’s purpose?” Easy answer: I don’t know! You need to know that. THAT is, in fact, the first thing you need to decide before you commit yourself to a story(fiction or memoir). What do you want out of writing a story? Common answers are to entertain, inform, relate, or evoke some kind of emotional response or responses in readers. Some memoirs are about grief and the grief process. Some are about hope. You might be thinking “well my memoir’s purpose is to make me all that fat memoirist money” and that, my theoretical uninformed capitalist friend, is not it.

You might also be thinking that writing your story down would be therapeutic. That 1996 election with Bob Dole was really upsetting for you and you have feelings about it you want to work that out. I think that’s awesome! But that’s therapy. That’s not writing a book. Writing a book can also be therapy (usually is actually) but there should be more to it. You need to remember that the story is as much about the audience as the storyteller and if the audience isn’t connecting to it, you have a problem. Audiences connect with shared emotion and experience and I hate to break it to you, not a lot of people are still having nightmares about Bob Dole.

The good news is that people are fundamentally similar beasts and we all want to find common ground. You might be surprised how easy it is for a person to relate to a totally unexpected thing in a totally unexpected way if the give them the space and opportunity to do it. And you guessed it: you create space in a story by getting rid of cousin Steve. You create opportunity in a story by lying. You don’t have to wholesale invent new things (hey there, James Frey) but you might move things around a little. When I say “moved around a little” I don’t mean (necessarily) moving your memoir’s climax from the October 16th 1996 debate between incumbent president Bill Clinton and Former Senator Bob Dole at the University of San Diego moderated by America’s most trusted newsman, Jim Lehrer. I mean moving around when you present this climax. Some people assume stories start at the beginning, chronologically, and end with the end, chronologically. This is grocery list thinking. Stories move around. They digress. You memoir could start with election night and then flashback. It could start in modern day. It could start anywhere. It can hop. Your story is a frog. You choose where it lands based on your chosen purposes. You lie (edit) to present the story that you need to present.

You still with me? Because here’s where we go ask Alice. Memoir and fiction– they’re coming from you and they slip back and forth. I wrote an autobiographical thing once and spent a paragraph on this close friend of mine’s sad blue eyes. My close friend has brown eyes. I didn’t do this on purpose. Fiction accidentally slipped into my memoir. And it will happen a lot because memory is imprecise and you fill bits in as you go. On the flip side, fiction will always have “real” things slip in. Sometimes you write a story down and it takes years before you look at it and realize “oh boy this is actually about Ross Perot being excluded by the presidential debate commission.” A story well-told is a part of you and you are all memoir whether you want to be or not.

Anyway. That’s what I say to people that want to write memoir.

RIP Norm Macdonald.

Bad Dream Factories

Top Hat Means Business

It’s important from time to time to refresh your skills. Challenge your assumptions. Do something Dangerous.

For the last few months I’ve been studying writing with Chuck Palahniuk and Chelsea Cain in their Bad Dream Factory writer’s workshop and for six weeks or so I have also had the privilege to be their teaching assistant. These two best-selling mad geniuses are generous and inspirational. I’ve learned a lot from their examples, experience, prompts, and challenges. I won’t really get into much of that here (there’s that whole Blood Oath and First Rule of Write Club thing after all) except to say that Chuck has started a Substack newsletter that, I think, is pretty worth your time if you’re a writer or an enjoyer of Chuck’s unique perspective on the world.

I encourage you to take a step back from your writing practice (or your running practice or your <insert here> practice) and ask yourself “is this still working?” and “could this be working better?” Sometimes the internal dialog this prompts is invaluable. It’s easy to get in a rut, operate out of routine rather than enthusiasm. Enthusiasm has been hard to come by lately but I think you deserve, fine reader of these words, a shot at it. Try chasing it back to the root. What started your love of writing? Can you reconnect with that? Can you evolve from that? Can you try?

I think you can.

Of Minotaurs and Sad Round Boys

In which the author implores you buy my story and tells another for free.

When I was a sad round boy I used to call my middle school teachers at home when I was lonely. I just wanted someone to pick up the phone. I had this one teacher, Mr. S. I thought he was someone that understood me. I thought he was my sad round boy mentor but, in retrospect, he was not someone a sad round boy should have been left alone with.

I used to imprint on older men, follow them with big round boy puppy eyes, collecting their tossed off affections and approvals. I wanted to be a better sad round boy and I thought they could tell me how. I wanted my brother back, my dad, my favorite ghosts. I admired charming monsters and sometimes they looked at me with vicious sad round boy devouring eyes and I thought I heard them say “sad round boy, you can do this” but they never did.

So I got taller, less round. I paid a lot for therapy. And taxes. And a custom URL. But I always had this unresolved craving for a Mentor with the big letters. I imagined a Punk Rock Novelist. Blue collar. Self-made. He would tell me How it Was and he would be foul mouthed and honest and vulnerable and he’d tell me he’d been through 37 kinds of Hell, had a closet full of souvenirs and matching scars, and he’d say “I understand you and believe me because of the 37 kinds of Hell thing we just talked about, Erik: you can fucking do this.”

There is no Punk Rock Novelist. He’s just a character I wrote because I needed him. And maybe I still imprinted on him. Maybe I still wanted his tossed off affections and approvals. Maybe I thought I needed them. Turns out, I didn’t.

So, Space Cocaine. Zip zap COVID-19 fun times short fiction hell yeah. Some very wonderful people invited me to join their madcap adult supervision recommended anthology, Space Cocaine: the Zoom Situation, and I wrote them a story called “Whispers.” I wrote it when I was lonely and just wanted someone to pick up the phone and understand me. It’s about our hero, Vanessa. She’s blue collar, self-made, foul mouthed, honest, and vulnerable. She really doesn’t have a clue how it is but she’s been through 37 kinds of Hell and she’s so scarred and she’s so scared to open the door and go outside. But she needs to save the girl, doesn’t she? She’s our hero. Our hero, she needs a Mentor with the big letters and she gets one. It’s the one she never expected and the one she’s always needed.

I’m the Punk Rock Novelist. I’m the Mentor with the big letters and I swear, frequently and through 37 kinds of Hell and back, you can fucking do this. Every sad round boy, every funny shaped sloppy feeling person in the whole infinite multiverse, you are stronger than a minotaur and you can do the thing that scares you. Believe me.

The Life of the World in Flux

Life, as it tends to do if you’re very lucky, goes on. As I continue to shake some of the static from the last year it seems a great time to short blog a little bit about Erik Stuff and Things Optimistic Post-Pandemic Edition.

I have been doing my hustle thing and haven’t fully updated you, my faithful readers (hi, Joel! how’re the cats?). First up, catch me guest podcast hosting and generally being associated with the very excellent Overcast podcast. Subscribe and tell your friends! I am specifically the host-y voice of episodes 145 and 148. If you clap and make laser sounds into the mirror I might even be back!

Next, I am incredibly proud to be associated with and share pages with the excellent weirdos of the Space Cocaine anthology Volume 2: the Zoom Situation! We have a reading coming up super soon where I will be Live and In Person at the Rose City Book Pub Tuesday June 1st! There is also going to be a Zoooooooooom (and in the Future a YouTube recording)! Check out the event description!

Finally, I continue to write and run in the world and there’s a lot of cool things coming up! I am excited to participate in a writing workshop run by Chelsea Cain and Chuck Palahniuk starting soon in a haunted movie theater! I continue to query agents that have never heard of me for a Dirty Space Opera with Wizards and Sad book and I signed a contract for my first professional short fiction sale for a Christmas-y kind of thing that will appear later this year to get you in the a holly jolly mood! I am working on lots of poorly conceived shenanigans and just so so enthusiastic about emerging from the shadow of COVID-19 into a new, unpredictable future.

Stay tuned! Get vaccinated! Tell a friend you haven’t seen in a while that you miss them! Drink plenty of water!

So You Want to Run Away From Your Problems (A How To Guide)

Marathon 3

I have become, as some of you may already know, a running evangelist. I talk about it and do it with very obnoxious frequency. I’m sorry! But also, why don’t you come along?  It’s fun! I present to you some plans for various skills and backgrounds to run so fast life can’t catch up with you. (Caveat: Life can still totally catch up with you but it’s fun!)

Starting from the Couch

You’ve maybe heard of Couch 2 5k. The program is an accessible onramp for folks that have never been runners and might be running-curious. It’s a 9 week program (sort of)  where in the beginning, you can only run a little bit and by the end you could conceivably run a 5k race (which is about 3 miles or around a half hour of running).  I did C25K and it was my onramp to talking about running like your weird Reddit cousin talks about cryptocurrency. It’s fun!

This program has been around for a while and it’s key selling features are that you can do it in about 3 half hour increments a week and there are plenty of cool apps that you can put on your phone to help with timing. The official c25K works pretty well. It’s what I used on iPhone and I expect it’s also on Android. You can also find the details online. Here’s a good one.

The program uses a walk/run/walk cadence which is good for muscle training but also heart rate recovery. Your heart, it turns out, gets stronger by being cajoled into beating fast and then getting a chance to slow down and then cajoled into beating fast again. Your heart is very weird. Some pointers/tips on C25K:

  • You can and should definitely repeat exercise or weeks if you need. Some weeks scale up considerably.
  • Don’t be fixated on speed. Endurance > speed. Speed will follow naturally. You decide the definition of “running” when you alternate between walking and running. As long as it’s quicker than your walking pace you are kicking ass.
  • Don’t get too self-conscious or competitive. Everyone looks silly running (or, you know, living) sometimes.
  • Sprinting is actually kinda dumb. When you run longer distances  (that is longer than a middle school gym basketball court) you generally want to hold back upfront so you can save your strength for later on. Don’t just go as fast as you can as soon as you start running. You’ll maybe hurt yourself and wear  yourself out.
  • Make sure you have good shoes. Go to a proper running store and invest in them. I swear it matters. You don’t want to wreck yourself running bad shoes. In the Portland environs wherein I do my foot slapping, I recommend Foot Traffic.

Leveling Up Before you become a recreational runner you understand that there are weirdos out there that run in strange hordes sometimes. And after you start running,  you can join us. Obviously Covid-19 remains a giant problem and running events are not what they used to be. On the plus side, many are going virtual which means you can be part of a virtual strange horde. It’s fun! The most common distances for these strange hordes are: 5K, 10k, Half-Marathon (13.1 miles), and Marathon (26.2). After you get comfortable running for a half hour or more you might feel like setting the next challenge. I am going to focus on the 10k but I have done and continue to do half-marathons and marathons. Watch for a blog sequel! Anyway: 10k Time Scaling up from running 5 to 10k is pretty straight-forward. There are different methodologies but here’s the simplest way to do it: run 3 times a week, increase your longest distance a little bit each week. Here’s a sample 9 week plan I’m giving you as a place to start out.

  Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4 Week 5 Week 6 Week 7 Week 8  Week 9
Run 1 2 miles 2.5 miles 3 miles 3 miles 3 miles 3 miles 3 miles 3 miles 3 miles
Run 2 2 miles 2.5 miles 3 miles 3 miles 3 miles 3 miles 3 miles 3 miles 3 miles
Run 3 3 miles 3.5 miles 3 miles 3.5 miles 4 miles 4.5 miles 5 miles 5.5 miles 6 miles

Some tips on longer mileage:

  • Don’t forget to NOT run! There’s a reason this plan (and most running plans) only recommend 3-4 runs a week. That is to allow you rest your running muscles or, if you feel inclined to do so, do other exercise for cross-training.
  • Electrolytes are important. It will take you around an hour to do the longer runs on this plan and your body will lose a lot of nutrients with the sweat. Replenish with a good diet and maybe some supplements.
  • Good shoes.  FOR REAL.

Making a Plan for the End of the World – A Personal Blog

Unrelated Chihuahua Yawn

Maybe you’ve heard this one before. How do you make God laugh? Make a plan.

Back in February I was talking to my counselor about the future. It used to be that committing to anything more than a few months in advance was challenging for me. It seems naive somehow, revealing your intentions to a fickle and arbitrarily malicious world. In eight months I’m going to go on vacation is dangerously vulnerable. If I put that on the calendar, someone’s going to get cancer or my house is going to burn down. I don’t like it but those are the rules. That’s life as I know it. I have receipts. Don’t get me wrong- I’ve always allowed myself aspirations as long as I remained sufficiently cynical about achieving them and never got too specific about when they might happen. This has all been generally manageable (I vacation rarely or spontaneously) but for mental health and marital/adult life reasons it’s not terribly sustainable. So, I’ve been working on it and earlier this year, I felt bold, and I looked across at my longtime counselor and I said I was ready. Buoyed by taking the first real vacation that required actual advanced planning I’ve gone on in ever last December, I had this whole 2020 masterplan worked out. I was going to do so many amazing things. And we high-fived (we didn’t high-five) and I decided that part of 2020 Erik’s Bold Masterplan was to take a break from regular counseling for a couple of months. Me and the world had an understanding. I was going to put things on my calendar (not too many, and all of them tentative of course I’m not a daredevil) and the world wasn’t going to give me house fire cancer. it was good and it was growth and I felt like a real grown up.

Enter Covid-19 stage left.

Yeah, that’s my fault everybody. I’m sorry. I made a plan.

Fuck.

I joke about this a little bit because I don’t have other viable coping mechanisms. My many amazing things for 2020 are insignificant shit things compared to the toll in life and community this unprecedented pandemic has wrought. Nothing I’ve ever wanted or could ever want is worth people dying. I’m so scared and angry and hurt at all this *flails arms, screams* that I just feel numb. I am, like a lot of the world, simply paralyzed.

Proof of life

Life- my life certainly but definitely not exclusively- is basically a tragicomic chaos buffet. You get your tray and you stand in line and sometimes you get chicken nuggets shaped like dinosaurs and sometimes you lose your job or someone you love too much finds the meth again. You cross your fingers for overcooked green beans but you know diabetic organ failure is coming out of the kitchen sooner or later. And the worst stuff is always the stuff you never even imagined. I was ready for slimy canned peaches or broken wine bottle soup or suicidal text messages or any number of calamities but I was not ready for Plague, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and his sidekick Proud Public Ignorance. Right after I got married a life insurance salesman asked me “BUT WHAT IF YOU GET DECAPITATED?” That was on my radar. I leave the house and I make sure I have my keys, my wallet, my phone, and my head still attached because I don’t want to be caught off guard. But this?

Fuck.

*deep breath*

Motherfucker

So what’s the plan now? I’m an adult man with multiple couches (they’re all from IKEA but they count, okay?) and equity in bank-owned things and at least three or four people that I’ve convinced that I have my shit together. I’m not willing to regress back to being scared of calendars.

The good news is that I’m really good in a crisis. Like plenty of totally well-adjusted maniac people, my brain operates best in a state of adrenalized panic. Like a moth born from a dysfunctional family flame, I am drawn to a vaguely sketched out metaphor for emergencies that I should really fix in the second draft. I’m thinking something something PTSD joke? Don’t worry folks. I can fix it in revisions! I can fix it all in revisions. *crazy man laugh turning to desperate hug-me arms* But I digress.

Anyway, I look in my trusty tool box and I’ve got bad jokes, good at crazy fucksplosions, running for far too long, and this. Writing. And that really seems like it should be the answer for me, right? I should be able to write my way to peace and the future and fixing that metaphor joke bit in the last paragraph.

Yeah, no.

(That metaphor joke bit isn’t going to be fixed in revision. There is no revision. The revision is a lie.)

Being creative- as a lot of creative people can absolutely tell you- is quite difficult right now. Some people can do it better than other people and even I’ve had days where it just came together but I can’t plan on work (writing is work) to give me solace right now. What I can do is go deeper, really set the way back memory time machine to the reasons and skills that led me to putting words together in fancy sentences (that’s what we, The Writers, call it). This journey of self-reflection leads me to two core concepts that insert jokey metaphor that’s maybe something about house foundations or concrete or something that I should maybe Google and what do you mean you don’t think I’m actually going to do that and this is just another joke bit? I’m not that predictable.

Anyway.

Two things: Vulnerability and empathy. They’re why I write. They’re what I look for in every story and my plan is to cling to them like a drowning man in a scary calendar sea lousy with Covid-19 sharks.

I asked my wife last night while I was lying in bed gripped by dread and uncertainty (like you do, #2020) if I’m Too Much? It’s something I worry about a lot. Do I talk too much? Am I too intense? Do I gesticulate my bony man paws too forcefully? I chatter when I’m nervous. And gesticulate. I’m always fucking gesticulating. I was a pretty quiet kid for a lot of my youth. I remember being afraid of speaking up too much because of what uncomfortable home drama I might accidentally vomit out. I felt like I was a dam holding back an ocean of feelings all the time and if I let anything through the dam would be washed away and suddenly I’d be telling the bus driver what that ambulance was all about in front of my house and a hundred other truths kids aren’t supposed to know or say or live with but I did because hey hey clap your hands for the childhood family trauma show. I felt a lot. I still feel a lot. Maybe too much. No one gives you the tools to measure these things but I’m pretty sure I have mid 90s McDonalds Super Size Me feelings. As I got older I needed a release for all of that Too Much and one release I found was writing about it. In a story (or blog post), no one can see you gesticulate (I AM GESTICULATING SO HARD RIGHT NOW AND YOU CAN’T JUDGE ME) and Too Much is often rewarded with approval. So, I was this weird kid that was sometimes rigidly self-repressed and sometimes Too Much and when I was Too Much people got uncomfortable and offered fake laugh excuses to leave and that felt Real Bad. But if I wrote a story or a poem or something I could just unleash that Too Much and teachers gave me extra credit. Sometimes they said I was brave which, and I am overdosing on the digressions here, but can we take a moment to reflect on how fucked up it is that me (a man in particular) being Too Emotional is upsetting but if I make it into a product other people can buy it’s socially acceptable?

Anyway. Thusward and undigressed, this was the genesis of a lifelong passion and a spiffy maladaptive coping mechanism. I invested a lot of years to learning how to communicate feelings outside of fiction. My first girlfriend one time when I was flustered asked me, “do you want to write it down?” and that pretty clearly defined my college years. Our relationship was largely built on emails and in-person I was curiously mute or when I was able to say something it was the wrong thing. It wasn’t what I really felt. It was something mangled and anxious and silly. I taught myself to be a present emotive person like a robot might and I’ve gotten pretty good at it. But now I need to self-monitor for Too Much again. My wife said I’m direct by the way. I speak my mind. She’s diplomatic. I probably overshare too much. Invite me to your house party and you too can hear stories about burnt heroin spoons and the still Too Much pain I have set aside for special occasions!

And there’s the other thing, the other foundational thing at the core of my desire to write: empathy. A lot of people have done things I don’t like to me or others or my dog. In my Too Much autoclave it turns to white-hot anger. Some motherfucker abandoned my dog before I rescued him. What kind of hellbeast monster person would leave a little dog to die on the streets of Bakersfield, California? Bakersfield is undeniably the worst place in California and my dog is the sweetest dog in the universe. I’m capable of hating that person but I don’t want to. Or actually, if I’m being honest, I can’t. It’s one of those ha ha ha oh right the trauma side effects of having the people that are supposed to be ones you love and trust being the ones that neglect and hurt you; you learn to excuse them because the alternative is being the kind of hellbeast monster person that hates the people that are supposed to be the ones that you love and trust. If I carried around all the rage my Too Much autoclave is capable of producing, I’d be overwhelmed by it. So some of the storytelling has always been to come up with reasons why. That motherfucker that abandoned my dog surely had a preponderance of bad choices and terrible circumstances. Maybe it was a dumb kid that wasn’t allowed to have a dog and had to choose between letting him go or being homeless. Maybe there was an accident and he wasn’t supposed to be abandoned. There are better versions of the story that make better people. A lot of why I write is to give those better versions of the story a chance. I need empathy. I need to understand why people do wrong things sometimes (or even always). I can’t hate anyone, not completely, because if I hate anyone I’m not sure I wouldn’t slip into hating everyone. Maybe I cover it well (ha!) but I can be an awfully cynical person that struggles to not expect the worst. The world is already a cruel arbitrary place. I need people on my side.

Bringing it back to around to a circuitous point: I write so I have permission to be vulnerable. I want to be vulnerable. I want to be seen and understood. I imagine we all do. And I write so I can see the possibility in other people. I write to remind myself how to be empathetic. So, while I might not be able to write my 2020 plans back or write away the pandemic, I think the solution is what it’s always been for me, if I can just get the jokes and cynicism out of the way:

Hey everyone. I’m scared and I’m trying my best every damn day. I think you are too. I don’t know if we’re going to be okay. I don’t know what okay means exactly. But I know I’m here and so are you and that means something to me at least. I’m going to tell you who I am when I can and I’m going to listen with patience and empathy and all the stupid sincere love I’ve got. The tragicomic chaos buffet has to have your favorite food sooner or later, right?

That’s my plan.

With love and butt stuff jokes,

Erik

You Won’t Be Here Long – A Personal Essay

When you grow up with a lot of chaos, tragedy, and trauma “normal” transforms into this two-headed beast that you’re always chasing and running away from at the same time. When I was 22, freshly dropped out of college, depressed, lost, living with my mom and on the precipice of being thrown out to couch surf with friends, I was in training for a seasonal dead-end job and I wrote a note to myself on a piece of paper: “You won’t be here long.” I folded that note up and kept it in my wallet. I kept it for years, transferring it from wallet to wallet and finally just saving it with a trove of other random mementos. That note was my mantra and it meant– and still means– so many things to me. It was reassurance. No matter how bad things are, they won’t last for forever. I would think of it in times of uncertainty and in times of outright misery and it soothed me somehow. It was also a warning. Savor every good thing because change is the only constant. There’s a carpe diem kind of romance in it but there’s also constant fear. I’ve had moments of contentment interrupted by that note. It’s a distillation of anxiety, grief, and helplessness. There’s no agency in that mantra. There’s no choice.

One of my favorite songs is by Wolf Parade — “Dear Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts” — and this is my favorite line:

Now we’ll say it’s in God’s hands
But God doesn’t always have the god damn plans, does He?

Life chooses for you and in my experience, life doesn’t generally have your best interests in mind.

So, this afternoon I was folding my laundry. About half of my closet is occupied with big bags of clothes I can’t wear anymore. Since I’m roughly an entire adult male lighter than I was a couple of years ago, I’ve had to completely replace everything except for some socks but I haven’t given away, donated, or thrown out hardly any of it. I got to thinking about why. I realized there’s a Venn diagram of reasons for this and as I consciously engaged with those reasons, my head filled up with scattered memories connected by my own peculiar psychological algorithms. I felt a lot of sadness but I also understood something new about myself and that note from a long time ago.

I guess I always start thinking about these things close to my birthday. August is a haunted house for me. My mom’s first big psychotic break happened the morning after my 10th birthday party. It’s one of the most vivid memories I have from back then. (A lot of my memories are Swiss cheese for a few years there). I remember the sun filtered through lousy curtains on the cheap mobile home carpet. I remember she told me that she had to get some help and the neighbors would look in on us and I couldn’t quite make eye contact.

Then, right before I turned 11, I regressed. After the first suicide attempt that I knew about and after a year of emergency room interventions, state hospitals, and what seemed like a Russian Roulette guessing game of psychiatric medications, my mom was home. We were very poor, she was unemployed, and ignoring calls from bill collectors and we lived far enough in the country away from other family or friends that the world felt tiny. I started sleeping in my mom’s bed next to her just about every night.

I was supposed to go to this great summer academic camp at the state college an hour away. My teachers pulled strings to get me in at the last minute because they knew my family was a disaster and I was a smart kid. My elementary school principle was the first counselor I had and he believed in me. Mr. Blue. He was one of the first in a long succession of strangers I would cry in front of. But when the time came to go away to camp– it would have been a week staying in a dorm– I couldn’t go. The idea of being away from home was too much for me to handle. I got next to my mom under an ugly blue and tan comforter that smelled like Merit Lights and I felt trapped. I was next to her then. I was safe. She was safe. But it wouldn’t last. It couldn’t. I felt it with an unshakeable certainty.

You won’t be here long.

My brother and I went to Washington DC that summer to stay with an aunt and uncle that I’d only ever talked to on the phone. I don’t think we’d been there a week before my mom was back in the hospital. I found out relatively recently as an adult that there was another suicide attempt. We had to stay in DC longer than originally planned– all summer, through my birthday– and I was fucking mess. I was fragile and emotional and clingy and it’s taken me a lot of counseling and maturity to have compassion for myself. For the longest time I would think back on my behavior at 10 and 11 and just think “quit your whining.”

Over the years that followed, things evolved and devolved in predictable patterns. My mom got worse. And then my brother. Yadda yadda yadda. Psych wards and methadone clinics in McDonalds and sundry felonies, suicide notes and a whole lot therapy. The full house of dysfunctional hereditary bad decisions. I’ve written all the trauma poetry about it so forgive my nonchalance. I got through most of it with only a weekend stay in the mental health ward at 21 and a lot of overthinking and baggage. Even now I feel a knee-jerk shame for all of it and how it feels when I remember it. There’s this vicious voice in my head: does the little whiny baby want his mommy? Does the sad little fake grown up want his big brother to give him a hug? Does the lonely bastard boy want a daddy? I’m almost 39 years old and I’m pretty sure that voice is never going to go away.

Mostly, I got through all of my childhood and adulthood fat. It’s inaccurate to say trauma caused my obesity because obesity is a super complicated thing (and really, that’s a loaded word anyway) but I definitely sought and found comfort in food. Most people do, I guess. It’s your birthday! Have some cake! Your grandma died 😦 Have some cake! Food is so often the emotional punctuation of our lives. I’ve spent the last couple years not so much denying that but learning new grammar for food. Instead of standing barefoot at night on thin sticky vinyl in the middle of a trailer park permeated with poverty and desperation eating white bread and sliced cheese until my stomach feels like it will burst just so I can feel something better than the alternative, now I have a plum. Again, food and fatness and all of the threads between them are super super super super complicated and I’m being glib here partially because well, gallows humor, and partially because I have written so many other substantive blogs about it. This essay isn’t about food and trauma. That’s just a digression. This essay is about the clothes in my closet.

I don’t know what it’s like for other people that lose a lot of weight. I know that I do a lot of work trying not to obsess about the number on the scale but I kinda do anyway. I have this not-so-secret fear of losing control and “falling off the wagon.” Like, I might suddenly go into a fugue and black out only to wake up having eaten 37 pizzas and 89 deep fried Twinkies and I’ll have gained three hundred pounds and I’ll be live-streamed on Twitter, farting, while people point and call me names. It’s beyond ridiculous for so many reasons. It’s the same fear I have about suddenly losing my mind and ending up a drug addict or schizophrenic. Or losing everything I own and ending up back in that trailer park. In my head, I’m always barely not poor, not crazy, not drunk, not fat. In my head, I’m always barely not alone. The lowest point, the worst thing I can imagine, has a gravity for me. It always has.

You won’t be here long.

So those clothes. Those 2XL shirts and big and tall jeans. Those poncho sized t-shirts and shorts that literally fall off of me without a belt much tighter than the belts in that closet that could wrap around me with a dozen inches to spare. I need them don’t I? Because no matter where I go, I won’t be there long. Elastic snaps me back. Gravity pulls me down. I am a marathon running, happily married, professionally successful man living in a half million dollar house lousy with stone fruit and I am also a 10 year old boy crawled next to a volatile open wound of a childhood every single night, teeth chattering afraid of everything just going away because God doesn’t always have the best god damn plans, does He?

“Quit your whining.”

“You won’t be here long.”

But.

I’m happy. I am so, so happy. And my life is good. It’s really good. I am healthy and I am strong and I laugh and sometimes close to my birthday I think about all the strangers I’ve cried in front of and I know it’s healthy. Sadness is like the itch you feel when a scab is healing.

Something Counselor 3.0 (or maybe 4.0, hard to keep all my mental health professionals separate) told me twenty years ago comes to mind. Life isn’t a straight line. It’s a spiral. You don’t get farther away from the past. You actually get closer. Everything gets closer. Progress isn’t distance. It’s integration. I’m thinking about that right now. I’m thinking about my mom and 10 year old me. I’m thinking about 22 year old me and that note. I’m thinking about all the bad and the good and the rest. I understand a little bit more and understanding is a lot closer to compassion and compassion is a lot closer to acceptance. There have been times– some pretty recently– where I’ve wanted to fight the world. I’ve wanted to swing until my knuckles split and scream until my throat ached. I was just a little kid. Kids cry. And sometimes they get fat. And sometimes moms are sick and dad’s are dead and brothers get lost and it’s not fair and it’s not okay. It makes me angry and it should. If I have kids they won’t have grandparents. They won’t have uncles. That hurts so much. But after that anger and that hurt, in stupid little moments, folding clothes, there’s this memory origami, there’s an epiphany.

So those clothes. Those fucking clothes. Time to take them to Goodwill, right?