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On Writing: Past Prologues and the Lie of Scarcity

blue-title-page

I was doing some picking up and light reorganization in my living room when I found a black binder behind some things on a bookshelf. When I pulled it out I found that it was a printed copy of a manuscript I wrote more than 10 years ago called Blue. Blue was envisioned as a big family drama heavily inspired by episodes of “Six Feet Under” and Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. I don’t think I have a digital copy of this book anymore. I lost a hard drive in late ’06 and then another a few years later so most of my work from this time period is lost. Over the last week or so I’ve been reading sections from it aloud to my wife before bed and boy, do I have some thoughts about it now. It almost seems unfair that my wife gets this perfectly preserved window into who I was when I was 24 years old. More than a photo album, this book- a great big emo time capsule overcrowded with song quotes from early 21st century indie bands- says a lot about who I was then and what I thought life was all about. It also gives me a lot of insight into my evolution as a writer and, in it’s raw poorly edited form, highlights my biggest creative Achilles Heel.

vincent-adultmanFirst off, on a very personal level, there are a lot of funny 24 old delusions that I see now in Blue and they make me laugh. Like how all of the “mature” characters were accountants. I thought I really understood stuff back then and wrote characters that were 10, 20, or 30 years older with the kind of confidence that only idiots and fools can manage. At 24 I was barely out of college and literally started writing this book while I was staying with my mom. I barely had a real job let alone a career. I had more debt than income and I don’t think I owned a piece of furniture that wasn’t very second hand. But I was damn sure I knew what the inner life of a 60 year old woman was all about.

businesscat

GET ME ACCOUNTS PAYABLE RIGHT MEOW, YOU GUYS

I was also surprised to discover that there was a lot of doing it happening in the book and by doing it I mean the sex which I was clearly an absolute master of at 24, as all 24 year old are. The truth of course is that I started writing this on Valentine’s Day after going out stag to a party that depressed the shit out of me because I was nursing a relatively fresh heartbreak. I remember that I sat in my car in the parking lot in my mother’s apartment complex after bailing on that party either waiting for her- that haunting 24 year old her- to call or pick up her phone or say what I wanted her to say or say something at all and she didn’t. I took all that rejection and awkward longing and I started writing this book. So, it’s not surprising that it’s crazy thick with sexual and romantic frustration but back then I thought that was subtext. I thought I hid my feelings the way writers can in thoughtfully obscured characters and plots but reading it now it reads like a business cat emoji, self-conscious tear stains, Neutral Milk Hotel songs, a dirty cartoon of stick figures doing it, and a tiny note scrawled in the margins that says “but why didn’t the pretty girl…?”

Anyway, as satisfying as it is to kick my younger self around a little bit for being young, the constructive thing I’m getting out of re-reading Blue is seeing a really bad writing habit on full display without any hint of self-consciousness. It’s like my creative super-villain is just hanging out in that book, totally not hiding at all, kind of waving at me and pretending we’re best friends. Part of me is like, “dang 24 year old Erik, he was right fucking there and you just invited him over to watch Gilmore Girls WTF?” and the another part of me sees the value in getting to know my enemy, the Lie of Scarcity.

The Lie of Scarcity is the lie that creators tell themselves when they are convinced that the thing they are making needs to have everything in there because there will never be another opportunity to create a thing ever. It’s a lie that there’s a finite number of creations you can create, a scarcity of creative output, and therefore you better stuff it all in there whether it fits or doesn’t fit. It’s a lie I catch myself believing all the time. It’s a lie I find myself whispering right now. “Put more in this blog post, Erik. ALL THE JOKES. ALL THE THEMES. MORE PICTURES OF OTTERS.” I have to say no, shut up, this blog post has enough in it, and otters don’t even have anything to do with this so why would I put them in here? But in Blue, I did not say no. I gathered up my feelings and experiences and reflections of my entire life and I put them on the page and I’m telling you guys, that make the page pretty crowded.

others-cute-baby-sea-otters-free_189729

god damn it

In no particular order here are some of the big ticket plot points in Blue (SPOILERS): mental illness, cancer, bad sex, alcoholism, the death of a spouse, sex addiction, bulimia, coming out as gay to friends and family for the first time, suicide, good sex, abortion, chemotherapy, Catholicism, puritanism, drugs (obviously), weird sex, turning 30, 12 step programs, genital lice, homophobia, divorce, and kind of boring sex. I’m probably missing some of the sex in there and some of the other drama but you get the general idea that there was not a life event I knew anything about that wasn’t included. I was clearly ambitious but in a book that was around 400 pages long there was nowhere near enough room to cover each of these elements (and the NINE main characters) with appropriate care and consideration. Some things came out as well-thought out, if a bit lacking in depth and wisdom, and others were well under half-baked. I got feedback that it was challenging to keep track of everyone and everything that was going on back then but I discounted it. I couldn’t imagine the narrative working without all the switchbacks and subplots and reading it now, I know I was right. The narrative wouldn’t work which is why I needed to fundamentally reconsider the narrative itself. I needed to get past that Lie of Scarcity, tell my anxious writer brain that wants to write every writing thing every time I write, and find the beating heart of the story, the part of the story that was true and necessary and personal. I know now, and I knew then, what that was but I complicated it. It would have been better to write 3 books with some elbow room in them than to write 1 standing room only but I guess when I was 24 the only future I could imagine was becoming an accountant and I needed to say what I had to say before the accountant truck picked me and took me to the business things store to get my ties and highlighters.

No kids! It's a trap! The Post-It Notes are a TRAP!

No kids! It’s a trap! The Post-It Notes are a TRAP!

I wish that I could read this book now and not relate to the anxious urgency 24 year old Erik felt writing it but I can’t. I still feel it. I don’t know what story will be my first to break through, to be my published success story. As I write this, it’s the one year anniversary of my literary agent expressing interest in representing me. A year ago, I was sure that was it. I was sure I was on the fast-track to my dreams. But I’m still writing. Will the book that initially got my agent’s attention be the one? Will the next one I wrote? Will the one I’m working on right now? Those questions are with me when I sit down to write and the Lie of Scarcity tells me I better be sure I’m writing enough. I never know what story will be my first impression and I never know which one will be my last. No writer ever does. It’s why the Lie of Scarcity can be so insidious. It’s also why you should keep your old shitty writing to remind yourself what’s at stake.

On Writing: Censorship and Book Deals for Trolls

F*ckin kittens

F*ckin kittens

There’s a media personality popular with a certain kinds of internet folks and the alt-right political movement that got a book deal and it’s all over the news. I’m not going to name him because he’s built a reputation of galvanizing a lot of shitty people to do a lot of shitty things to people that criticize him online. It’s not that I’m afraid of Pepe the Frog loving “u mad?” bros- it’s that I have a lot of other better things to do with my time and don’t want to give this fellow any more publicity than he already has. Anyway, this book deal he’s made with an imprint of Simon & Schuster known for incendiary political nonsense is worth some money and has led to a lot progressives calling for public shame and a boycott for the publisher. To counter this, the fans of Mr. If Women Don’t Like Being Harassed Online They Should Quit the Internet have cried out CENSORSHIP CENSORSHIP FREE SPEECH U MAD? and come out of the woodwork to find every social media or news post with a comments section discussing this to argue about how the SJWs are persecuting them etc. This is exactly what the provocateur and the marketing people at the publisher want. It would be sad funny if it wasn’t so sad cynical.

This whole debacle is an interesting prism to consider what free speech means and doesn’t mean. First, the primary source for many of these arguments in the US is the First Amendment in the Constitution. It reads a little something like this:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The first key takeaway from this, really, the first word, is that this is about Congress and/or the federal government. Congress can’t take away your condescending Willy Wonka memes because that’s a violation of the First Amendment but if you post one of them in a comment on my webpage, I can delete the fuck out of it. This extends to other people’s web pages, and yeah, it includes stuff like Twitter and Google. There is no constitutional protection for being an asshole on webpages you don’t own and/or host on the internet. This extends further to other private industries. Coca-Cola has no obligation to print that Coca-Cola tastes like brown pee on their cans just because I have opinions and want them to and book publishers have no legal obligation to publish my erotic sasquatch Battlestar Galactica versus Sharknado fan fiction even though they obviously should because C’MON. This means that Captain Fat-Shaming Works and his just tellin’ like it is sycophants are not having their legal First Amendment rights violated if any website, book publisher, or crazy sign carrying street masturbator decline to peddle their smug shitty propaganda.

So that’s it! Argument over! … Well, not quite.

There’s a big chasm between what is legally okay or not okay and what is morally okay and not okay. There’s a famous (misattributed) quote from my second favorite Frenchman, Voltaire that reads:

My #1 Frenchman (obviously)

My #1 Frenchman (obviously)

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

Now despite all the gifs you’ll find with this quote and Voltaire’s 18th century French mug this quote is a paraphrase or possibly even a completely invented sentiment. That doesn’t mean that it’s not worth thinking about. Free speech remains free because people fight and suffer for it’s freedom. I don’t like anything about this particular Purveyor of Mean-Spirited Fart Noises Translated into English but if his free speech is being impinged, I’ll (reluctantly, gosh) stand up for him.

Phew. Well, there’s a reversal. And… scene! … Nope.

u mad?

Boycotting and protest are also free speech and they should not be curtailed or denigrated by your racist cousin or misguided college friend who unironically call people SJWs on Facebook. So, if the meticulous coiffed cretin upsets you (he should, he really should – he’s awful), I think it’s not only legal and right but totally awesome to boycott him and make fun of him as often as possible. Free speech is messy and it’s supposed to be messy. We want to hear dissenting opinions. We also want to be able to tell those weird hateful dissenting opinions to shut up and leave Leslie Jones alone because the Ghostbusters remake was a pretty good movie that was only really hampered by audience expectations and the typical big budget movie foibles and god dammit I want to see a sequel because that cast is cool.

That’s it. That’s really it. Unless the government itself tells Author X he can’t write his ugly snarky poke-the-libruls-because-LOL dreck, it’s all fair for criticism and think pieces and protesting (though -again- you know this is what he wants, right?). I’ve read some people get upset that student groups got organized and got him uninvited or even banned (THE HORROR) from college campuses and I think those are slightly murkier waters as those institutions are paid, in part, by federal dollars, but most schools empower the student body to make choices for themselves. If enough students say they don’t want a lousy troll oil salesman to come and insult women, minorities, or people with the temerity to not be skinny, then that’s also freedom. So shut up about it. I mean, you can still complain about it, legally, but it would be really nice of you to just do it into a pillow in your closet so that the rest of us don’t have to listen to it all the time. Maybe if you tried doing that people wouldn’t hate you so much and they might even invite you to parties that have chips and dip. Just a thought.

My second least favorite meme after Lipton Kermit.

The real question to me is should we let this guy get under our skin? He wants to get under our skin. That’s his promotion engine and for every voice of outrage there’s some petty butt hole that latches on to it to believe he’s being marginalized when really it’s just that no one likes him because he’s a petty butt hole. Calling him out is the definition of feeding the trolls and we all know that’s not a good idea from the prescient documentary on the matter Gremlins 2: the New Batch. But not calling him out allows him and his ilk to normalize. We’re seeing the alt-right go mainstream in our media and politics right now. We’re seeing people who would have been marginal whackos elevated and placed next to normal, reasonable people as if they are equivalent (I’m looking at you, Alex Jones) and if reasonable people don’t say, “hey that guy is literally a neo-Nazi!” than we could have some real big problems coming up.

So I think people, especially young people who have the energy to stay up until past 10 o’clock at night on Tuesdays like super heroes, should engage and speak their minds. Sometimes that’s going to sound, to outsiders, like it’s overly sensitive or even shame police-y. I get that. You can’t write content for anywhere and not be aware that it’s pretty easy to offend someone these days and that there are a lot ways for that offense to explode and become a story that overshadows the intention of what you wanted to write. I’ll be honest and say it’s not ideal. I wish I didn’t have to worry so much about it and I wish that if I offended someone they would give me the benefit of the doubt that it was unintentional and not necessarily representative of everything I’ve ever done or will do but that’s not where we’re at. If/when people find my screeds about sending all double-jointed mutant freaks back to Minnesota where their cursed kind escaped from the Devil’s North Wind, I’ll just have to face that criticism like a professional. As much as all of these alt-right acolytes think that “political correctness” has run amok and we need to get back to the good old days when a comedian could just tell a rape joke and have people slap knees and say, “god dang, sex assault is HILARIOUS!” we’re not going to go back to that. Personally, I’m okay with that trade. I can be more careful with what I say if historically oppressed groups get a chance to recover from millennia of self-centered straight white dudes running the show. Just so long as we don’t let any of those double-jointers get into positions of power. They can’t be trusted because ropes can never hold them.

So in conclusion, I don’t have the answers to how we should interact with and push back against people like My Little Racist Pony and the great news for me (and the world frankly) is that I don’t need to have an answer. I’m not supposed to have an answer. No one needs to have an answer because we all get to express our version of our answer however we like because freedom of speech, you guys. Open dialog is important and with ideas bouncing off of other ideas, I have confidence that we’ll sort it out

But seriously. Not Otis is a real fermented sack of vomit and hair product, right? Can someone please make me a Chrome plugin for me that replaces his name with a smiling poop emoji and a great sucking sound as if all worthwhile conversation and human decency has left the room?

Looking for Uriel – A Personal Essay

When I was 18 years old I met a monster. His name was Adam*. He was a few years older than I was and had an apartment with his girlfriend Amy* near the University of Oregon campus. He was charming and funny and he convinced me to take my first shot of straight everclear and one time, when he was beating up Amy, he broke her arm.

I met Adam through a Werewolf: the Apocalypse role-playing game group run by an old friend of mine. I’m pretty sure I was told that Adam and Amy joined the  group through an ad at Emerald City Comics or maybe they were friends of someone else that saw that ad or maybe there’s some other sequence of events. I don’t remember exactly how it happened but I got along with Adam and Amy and they invited me to other games and other events at their apartment and pretty quickly I started spending most of my free time there. Adam and Amy’s apartment was a hub and most times there were a bunch of different people there. I was new to the city and new to living on my own. Adam and Amy were my first new adult college friends. They were both smart and nothing like most of the people I’d ever known in my small town growing up. Amy could speak a little bit of Japanese and Adam had stories about going to a small liberal arts college in Vermont where he met Chloe Sevigny, a story so oddly specific and obscure that I’ve always assumed it was true even though there’s no reference to Chloe ever going to a small liberal arts college in Vermont on her Wikipedia page.

In the months that followed I developed the kind of close intense friendships with both of them that only seem possible when you’re 18 and staying up all night talking about video games or vampire clans. Amy was the first grown up woman that I’d really gotten to know very well that wasn’t a parent or teacher. She was creative and just needed to get a few things sorted out so she could get enrolled back at the university. She made ramen noodles with all kinds of different ingredients and she smoked just enough pot that it seemed casual and contrary to the horror stories spread by drug abuse pamphlets. I remember that Amy had great taste in music and I remember thinking that someday I would like to date a girl like Amy, someone that seemed so fully-formed and so independent. Adam meanwhile fit into the role of proxy older brother. I looked up to him and, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously, I mimicked him. When he teased or made mean-spirited jokes about Dave*, a friendly, sincere mutual friend of ours who had done nothing to deserve it, I teased and made jokes too because Adam was cool and I wanted to be like that. All these years later when I look back on it I see myself following Adam around like a lost puppy and it makes me sick and ashamed.

The signs of Adam’s abuse were always there. If anything, they were too obvious, and because they were so on-the-nose, I presumed they were bullshit. One time Amy had big visible bruises and she said she got them falling down the stairs from their loft bedroom. It was like a line right out of an after school special. I joked about it. Sure, Amy. Fell down the stairs- onto Adam’s fist. And she joked back. I don’t actually know for sure that Amy falling down the stairs was a cover-up. She might have literally fallen down the stairs that time but in context with everything else, everything that followed, it sure seems suspicious and I wish I’d done more than make jokes about it.

One time a few of us went to Amy when she was alone and asked her sincerely if she was okay. We asked her if Adam hurt her. She insisted that he didn’t and that she was okay and she was convincing and we believed her because she was Amy and Amy seemed so fully-formed and so independent.It’s easy in a situation like that for everyone to just lie if the lie feels better than the truth. I felt consoled by Amy’s insistence that there was nothing wrong. I felt like I’d done the right thing and there was nothing more I could do and if there was something more to it, that was on Amy and my hands were clean. That’s the lie that makes me feel better.

Adam was, to put it generously, a dominant presence in any social setting. To put it less generously he was a bully. He was a massive guy, standing several inches taller than me with plenty of muscle. He had long dark hair that he pulled back into a ponytail and a beard. He had dark eyes and sometimes he would just glower at you with this displeased intensity that would make you feel really uncomfortable. He had a potent combination of charisma, confidence, wit, and physical presence that made him difficult to resist. He also had a temper, a temper unlike anything I’d ever seen before.

In our Werewolf: the Apocalypse game we were all playing a pack of eco-warrior werewolves defending our territory in central Oregon from evil. At some point our pack needed a new designated leader, or alpha. I had been playing in this game for the better part of a year and had been engineering my character to have an arc that led to him becoming the pack alpha so when this opportunity presented itself, I volunteered to take it. Adam, who had joined up very recently, decided he wanted his character to be alpha. He picked up his dice and locked me in his glare and he rolled and he beat me. His character was the pack alpha and I don’t think he even really cared about it. I think he did it because he knew I wanted it. I think he did it to show me, not my werewolf character but real life insecure 18 year old me, that he was the alpha.

Adam seemed to pick favorite people and for a while that person would always be on Adam’s good side. He would say flattering things. He would make little gestures or give little gifts. He would plan things around you. He’d call to check on you if he hadn’t seen you in a while. He would talk about you when you weren’t there and make everyone else feel insecure. After he took pack alpha, I was his favorite person for a couple of months. But Adam’s favor didn’t last and he would take it away just when you were getting used to it, just when you were feeling special to him.

The first time I really saw Adam’s temper I was already drifting out of his limelight. I had made some other friends that I spent time with away from him and Amy and pushed back a little harder on some of his behavior. One time when I wasn’t at Adam and Amy’s, Dave stood up for himself one time too many and Adam roared at him to get out. Not long after that I was over at their apartment, walking on egg shells to avoid making Adam mad. Sometimes Adam had bad days, Amy explained to us. It was low blood sugar or he had a headache. Those days he was mean to just about everyone just about all the time and it was a bad idea to be around him. Amy told me to leave once because Adam was in one of his moods. That day Adam must have had low blood sugar or a headache or some other explanation that Amy would rattle off. He was impatient and snippy. I was supposed to just be there for a couple hours before Adam had to go to work but he decided to call in sick and that we would all spend the day together. The afternoon didn’t really go the way Adam wanted it to – I can’t even remember why because it was pointless then and even more pointless now. He started snapping at people for ruining his day and reminding them that he had called in sick to work to spend time with all of them. Everyone was quiet and miserable and Adam kept jabbing. Finally, I told him that no one had done anything to ruin his day and that he had made the choice to call in sick to work and we didn’t ask him to do it. Adam stood up from his chair and stepped toward me, furious. Amy shouted out, “don’t you hit him, Adam!” and I realized that’s exactly what he was going to do. It had never even occurred to me that he might just hit me for talking back. Adam was a giant and he was angry and he wanted to hit me for having the temerity to question him. Amy’s intervention stopped him. Instead of hitting me, Adam shouted that I needed to get out of his apartment and I got my things and left. I found Dave and we kind of laughed and felt like we were in a club of people Adam had thrown out. We shared horror stories about Adam’s shitty temper and we walked around the neighborhood and I almost felt energized by it, I almost felt good about myself. After months of being timid, I stood up to him. I poked the bear and the bear was ultimately toothless. Of course the bear wasn’t toothless. I know that now just like I know that it must have been terrifying for Amy to be left alone with him after my valiant social stand. A day or two later, I found Amy and asked her if it was safe to return, if Adam had calmed down. She said he had and I came back to the apartment like nothing had happened.

When the summer came I had to move back home and fell out of contact with Amy and Adam. I saw them once or twice on weekends but the longer I was outside of the circle the easier it was to just not go back. I got a new apartment only a half dozen blocks away from theirs but Adam and Amy never came over. Adam seemed reluctant to go anywhere outside of his apartment or his job at the campus convenience store and that made it simple to avoid him. Dave, to his credit, never went back after he was thrown out the first time, and that Fall I started spending a lot more time with Dave and Dave’s friends. When I did go back to Amy and Adam’s I wasn’t a favored son anymore, I was just a visitor. Adam wasn’t mean to me but he wasn’t kind either. I felt anonymous in the crowd of new kids at their apartment and, passively as possible, I just detached and we weren’t friends anymore.

I had a friend or two that still went over there and sometimes I would get gossip about what was happening at Adam and Amy’s. It was through that gossip that I found out when Adam broke Amy’s arm. The story that was I told was that he just grabbed it and snapped it, like he was breaking a twig. I believed the story immediately and remembered every sign, every hint, that anticipated it. The days Amy just seemed scared. The way that she knew what Adam getting up to hit someone would look like. I don’t know if he hit her often or rarely. I don’t know exactly how Amy’s arm was broken. I’ve seen police reports online and saw Amy once, fleetingly, in a supermarket with a cast, so I know her arm was broken and cops were called but most of it is just terrible speculation. Even if Adam didn’t hit her regularly, he controlled her like he tried to control the rest of us, like he succeeded for a while in controlling me. When I saw Amy that one final time she said she had moved out and she seemed happy like I hadn’t seen her before. I realized that the Amy I had known had been dimmed the whole time. I can’t even really imagine what that was like for her. I totally understand why she dated Adam, why she moved in with him. Most of the time he could be a great person, he could make you feel like a great person. For years Adam groomed her to accept his episodes, to cover for him and advocate for him. He gave her a giant spotlight and then shattered it and came in to help her pick up the pieces.

When I was 10 I had to stay with my uncle and younger cousins for a little while. While I was there my uncle talked to me and showered me with me praise until I upset him right after my cousins went to sleep for an afternoon nap. He chased me down the stairs and knocked me to the ground. He grabbed a wooden chair and held it over me menacingly, his face red and terrifying. He shouted things at me that I couldn’t really hear or process. I hyperventilated and felt dizzy. He put the chair down and told me to go upstairs to his room. He explained that we were going to take a nap. He put out a cot and started to undress and then the door bell rang. He went downstairs and I stayed behind in his bedroom, shaking, sobbing, terrified. I looked across the hall to my cousins and they looked back at me, awake but frozen. I looked out the window and imagined jumping out. I wondered how much it would hurt to land from the two story drop and if I could climb over the wrought iron fence and get to a pay phone to call for help. I was so paralyzed and so afraid. I knew something awful was going to happen to me if my uncle came back. Finally, I decided to go down the front stairs and see if I could get out the front door. When I got to the bottom of the stairs my uncle called over to me, sweet and kind as he had been ever other moment. He was sitting with his priest and asked if I’d like some lemonade. When I told my mom about what happened on the phone later, I explained it was all a misunderstanding. My uncle hadn’t knocked me down. I tripped on the rug. He hadn’t threatened me with the chair, he had moved it to stop me from hitting my head. My mom did not believe me or the stories my uncle convinced me were true and made sure I was immediately taken out of my uncle’s house.

Adam is what an abuser looks like, it’s what an abuser acts like. Funny, social, likeable. The kind of guy who could convince you to take a shot of everclear and laugh with you when it came out your nose and you couldn’t stop crying. The images I’d seen of abusers before Adam were all scary looking greasy men that may as well have been carry signs announcing their villainy. Adam was more complicated. The scariest monsters always are. I’ve wondered if he struggled with mental illness, if maybe his mood swings were a manifestation of a mood disorder or other chemical imbalance. I’ve wondered what his life must have been like to make him into what he was. And I’ve wondered if things with him and Amy maybe weren’t so simple, if maybe her arm was broken on accident or if she had been violent with him too. Most of me hates him without reservation, loathes him for what he did to Amy and also, selfishly, for what he did to me, for making me feel so stupid, for tricking me and making me complicit in his abuse. But a tiny part of me misses him. That’s the worst part of an abuser. To be really hurt, you have to really care and caring lingers even if you don’t want it to.

While I was friends with Adam, I started running my own role-playing game, a Vampire: the Masquerade game, and Adam played a character in it named Uriel. Adam knew the mechanics of the system very well and carefully constructed this character to be a nightmare. Uriel was, on paper, sickly and small, but Adam had given him vampiric super powers that allowed him to instantly become an impossible force. Uriel wore heavy kevlar armor and carried around double-barreled shotguns that he could fire one-handed. He was virtually unstoppable and for every absurd feat Adam could point to a line in a rulebook that said that’s how it was supposed to work. Uriel intimidated everyone in the game. He intimidated the other players to the extent that people told me privately they didn’t want to come anymore. After I stopped inviting Adam to come to the games, I took over Uriel and made him into a villain for the other players to fight. I played Uriel as cold and cruel and simply evil. I made him an avatar for Adam. I made him simple and terrible and when he was defeated heroically it felt like catharsis.

I never saw my uncle again after I stayed with him when I was 10 but I did hear that several years later my cousins ran away. They went to the police and explained that they had been beaten and sexually abused for years. Now when I know people who are going to Kentucky, I always joke that they should find my uncle and beat him with a baseball bat, beat him bloody, beat him broken, beat him until he can’t move, and he feels a fraction of how scared it feels to be a kid trapped by him. It’s not as much of a joke as it should be.

Some time after Amy left Adam I ran into Adam once and it was the last time I’ve seem him. He rode by me on a bicycle and made some token motion of recognition but kept going. I never got to confront him. I never got to be the white knight that said, “don’t fucking touch Amy, you piece of shit!” For years I’ve stewed in the guilt and the shame and the speculation of what I could or should have done differently both to help Amy and to be more like the strong person I envision myself to be. Seventeen plus years later and I find myself Googling Adam, trying to find signs of him. Maybe he’s a grocer in a Portland neighborhood now. Maybe he went to high school with a colleague my wife used to know that I’m Facebook friends with. I remember exactly what he looked like, the kind of shoes he wore even, and I remember his middle and last name and details about his background, where he grew up, stories about his mom. I remember much less about Amy. I have to admit to myself that despite these vivid surface details, I hardly knew the real Adam, and looking for him on Google isn’t about confronting him about what he did or who he was. It’s barely even about him at all. It’s about me wanting to turn this story into something that makes sense, into a narrative where there’s a hero and a villain, where I’m a hero, and not a dumb kid that should have known better, a dumb kid that believed his uncle more than he believed his own memories, that believed Amy fell down those stairs. It’s about a lie that will make me feel better.

(*These names are changed but the story is as true as my memories)

On Writing: Of Galaxies Far Away and a Long Time Ago

star-wars-posterI’m a writer because of Star Wars. Those laser swords and space ships exploded my childhood imagination and created a gateway into a fantastic world where heroes win because the Force is with them and even the most terrible monster can be brought back from the Dark Side. I adore the mythology and the imagery and the simple earnestness of it. There’s a little bit of it in every story I’ve ever written.

The element of Star Wars that I think is the most important, and the most glaring when it’s missing, is hope and ultimately the realization of that hope. When times are dour, when the good guys are outnumbered by the bad, there is always the corny certainty of hope. I’ve written a lot of blogs about writing and expressed a lot of different points of view on this site but this is a message that’s central and critical and most personal to me: do it with hope, always. Write. Live. Watch the news. Buy a movie ticket for another Star Wars movie and hope it doesn’t have Jar Jar Binks and poo jokes in it. Do it all with hope.

That’s it’s for now. More soon. Happy Life Day everybody!

 

PS: Rogue One was pretty, pretty sweet, you guys. STAR WAR!

On Writing: The Audacity of Sincerity

baby-monkey-2Babies are the worst. They’re loud and needy and smell terrible. And I’m not just talking about human babies here. Dog babies and cat babies and otter babies and deer babies and little monkey babies – all babies are awful. They ruin everything and we should really be doing something about it. I think the only good baby is a chicken baby that’s still in the egg because you can use that baby to make an omelette. Basically the only good baby is an edible baby. People are always so excited to show off babies in pictures and in person and all I can think is, if we had gotten to that baby sooner we could have made it into a pie.

Sorry. I got some troll in my throat. Where was I? Oh, yeah. A writing blog.

Surprise is an essential element of creating a story. If you can catch the audience off guard you can heighten the emotional impact of a moment. A scare that is unanticipated is scarier. A joke you don’t see coming is funnier. A defeat that catches you off guard is more crushing. Surprise isn’t much of a reaction on it’s own though. For example, it’d be pretty surprising if you were reading this and I just

 

porcini

Yeah. I GOT YOU. MUSHROOM FOR NO REASON. PORCINI MOTHERFUCKER

Anyway…

Surprise for it’s own sake might be novel. I mean, it is by definition surprising. But what’s the value in that? It’s not particularly entertaining for the audience and it doesn’t really do much to improve a story. Honestly, surprise for no good reason is mostly just a great way to irritate people.

Which is where we’re at now as a culture. In the 21st century, in modern America, being contrary because it’s unexpected, being a knee jerk Devil’s Advocate, has been elevated to a celebrated pastime. I do it sometimes. We all do it sometimes. We have allowed this lazy cynical childish nonsense to take over our discourse, our media, and even our political leaders. If you find an ugly hat, you should put it on because who would wear an ugly hat OH MY GOD? If you see a lot of people enjoying a television show or movie or band or ugly hat you should definitely go up and well, actually because liking a thing just because you do is so gauche. If it’s not ironic, if it’s not done for LOLs, it’s not worth doing, right?

lockers

Male privilege and casual misogyny included!

I obviously take a dim view of this trend and yeah, I’m pretty impatient with it now. There’s a whole spectrum of contrary smugness from the trucker hatted hipster drinking cheap beer that’s not really hurting anyone (except wine cooler “vintners” and beret milliners) to the predictably shitty goblins that are attracted to every comment section on every website to that piece of human excrement that sicced a horde of cretins with keyboards on Leslie Jones because of something about an old B-movie and lady on the internet. I’m painting it all with the same brush here and that might not be fair but fuck it. I’ve seen too many links to listicles explaining the top 10 reasons why X is overrated or Y is not as cool as you thought it was. I’ve had too many arguments about whether incendiary rhetoric is sincere or just trolling. Just trolling. This is a thing we have to wonder now. Is the creep that sends a barrage of rape threats to a female comedian a serious threat or “just a troll?” Is the spray-painted swastika for real? And what the hell locker room is all that talking happening in? Is it a magical wink, wink, no for real though, boys will be boys locker room where you can just say things you don’t mean because the lockers are full of bullshit excuses to avoid taking personal accountability?

NOPE

NOPE

I know there has always been hyperbole and there will always be some jerk that throws a rock at the pretty girl and some oddball eccentric that will try to convince us that Vegemite isn’t salty hate sewage and that like most things the internet and mass media proliferation has just put a magnifying on it but I can’t help but feel it’s still more than that. I’ve seen some argue that the increase in trolling is in response to “Social Justice Warriors”, the new term for the straw man “PC Police” (the 90s are back, you guys). The argument is that everyone is so sensitive and so serious -remember the Joker’s catchphrase? trolls love the Joker- that the trolls just have to take them down a notch. Really they’re the heroes here. This is where my ability to write really fails me because I don’t know the right word that captures the sound of a wet shit and an eye roll and a middle finger and pure undiluted contempt that I think is the appropriate response to that. I mean, there’s so much wrong with that idea that it gets caught in my throat while I’m shame vomiting that I struggle to even have to respond to it. I’ll try to distill it though. These people that the trolls are trying to take down are mostly from communities that are already down several pegs or are speaking out in favor of those communities and the trolls are most often the ones already privileged above everyone else. Trolls aren’t fighting the power. They are the power. They aren’t standing up to the Man. They are pushing down folks that are already down because they’re petty, pathetic, monster people. And that’s it. That’s all the nuance they deserve. Fuck them. You know. For LOLs.

I think I understand trolls just a little bit and that understanding all goes back to big surprises in a story. When there’s a plot twist in one of my stories I’m always really excited to know if a reader saw it coming. 99% this is because I want to know if the story works, if it entertains or evokes the emotion I want it to evoke, if the surprise manages to sneak around their defenses and bring along my real point. But 1% of it, I’m ashamed to admit, is about just knowing if I pulled it off. Did the trick work? Not the deeper narrative stuff, no – I want to know, did I get you? And if I did, I know it means I understood you a little bit and there’s a tiny sense of control and satisfaction in that. Me fooling you in a story is my version of me outrunning you on a football field. It’s a momentary jolt that for just that moment, for just that thing, I was better and I won. I think every ironically tacky fashion accessory, every sorry/not sorry, every Top 10 Reasons Why Alf Was the WORST buzzfeed post, every racist troll comment is about them getting you. People have become addicted to surprise and the rush of shocking someone else.

We live in an era where we are always social, where we are always being broadcast. The sense of private self is shrinking. This is an unintended side effect of social media and our internet connected lives in general, I think. It’s this world, like we’re all characters on the Truman Show, that creates the addiction to surprise and shock. It’s a distorted Hawthorne Effect ; we are observed and we feel a compulsion to reject the observers. But the observers are literally everyone. There are billions of Big Brothers now. So, I get it. There’s a certain punk rock refutation of the status quo going on here but at a certain point when everyone is a punk rocker, isn’t it most punk rock to be Pat Boone? When irony is no longer surprising, I certainly hope we will see a resurgence of sincerity.

 

On Writing: What Happens Next – Or – Send in the Clowns

Say, theoretically, something unexpectedly bad happens to you, your family, your world and you’re stunned and you’re trying to figure out what happens next. Here’s what happens next: next happens next. It just does and you won’t be completely sure what next is going to look like but it’s going to happen and then it’s going to happen again. There’s an inescapable gravity to next. It takes you kicking and screaming toward the future and doesn’t always do it politely.

What you feel, what you think, what you need, it’s going to vary based on the situation, the person, and the likelihood, however remote, of a new Tom Waits album. But you’ll need a next and fighting against it or expecting it to be different than it is for you or others, well, it’s as futile as fighting against the sunset. So the first thing you do is accept your next and if someone else is there with you and they’re also spun around upside down scared/sad/hurt/freaked out, you accept their next too.

And next will lead to next and that will lead to next again and I think you get the picture.

I’m in a philosophical mood about unexpected twist and turns and nexts tonight so I hope you’ll indulge me a bit. I don’t mean to be obtuse or to obfuscate the source of this mood. Yesterday was our Election Day and while I don’t like to get overly political here I think most people that know me or have read my work can guess I was With Her and I was pretty decidedly Not With Him. Anyway, the election is resolved and it didn’t go down the way I expected or wanted and about a half of us are now pretty stunned and maybe a little afraid. Maybe we’re a lot afraid. So I’m writing this for all of us but really I’m writing it for me. Writing this down reminds me.

I know it’s just politics but I also know a lot of people, myself included, feel this an awful lot.

There are commonly quoted stages of grief but I don’t necessarily put all my confidence in them. We’re not commonly quoted people and oftentimes commonly quoted wisdom just doesn’t fit right. What I do have confidence in is that sooner or later you’re going to want to stop with all the fucking nexts, all the thinking, and all the feeling, and you’re just going to need something that takes your mind off of things and that’s not only totally acceptable, it’s completely healthy. This is why we have troubadours and storytellers. This is why we have Channing Tatum.

That’s why, in this last part of a strange rambling blog, I’m calling on all of you. We comedians so work on your jokes. We need songs so practice your instruments. We need men in capes so sharpen your pencils and draw them. We need storytellers so tell us a good one.

I’ve been introspective and I’ve been depressed. I’ve been looking for my purpose and at least for now I’ve remembered what it is. I’m a clown and I swear I’m gonna go all out to make you laugh. I’m a storyteller and I’m going to do my best to earn your attention, to earn your distraction.

Take care of yourselves and the world around you. Be patient with yourself and with everyone else. Accept next on next’s terms because next isn’t going to negotiate with you. And when you’re ready, put on a big red nose and some silly shoes and help get the world back to normal.

And if right now you’re over the moon and celebratory because things went your way? Well, not everyone is and we’d all appreciate it if you were gracious and patient with us.

On Writing: Hey Ho! Let’s Go! The Ramones Way

 

“Ramones”

[1st verse:]
New York City, N.Y.C.,
Pretty mean when it wants to be,
Black leather, knee-hole pants,
Can’t play no high school dance,
First tone, hear ’em go,
Hear ’em on the radio,[Chorus:]
Misfits, twilight zone,
R-A-M-O-N-E-S
R-A-M-O-N-E-S
RAMONES

[2nd verse:]
Bad boy rock, bad boy roll,
Gabba gabba, see them go,
C.J. now hit the gas,
Hear Marky kick some ass,
Go Johnny, go, go, go
Tommy o-way-o,

[Chorus]

[3rd verse:]
Bad boys then, bad boys now,
Good buddies, mau-mau-mau
Keep it up, rock’n’roll,
Good music save your soul,
Dee Dee, he left home,
Joey call me on the phone.

[Chorus]

Writing is never not hard. Even if it’s fun or fulfilling or meaningful, it’s always hard, and the hard part is especially hard for me right now. I’m having a kind of existential crisis. I’m thinking a lot about what I’m trying to do and if it matters and where I’m going next and if it’s worth it. It’s a funk it’s been in for a few weeks and it’s really lousy. Maybe it’s the weather. Maybe I took some criticism on the chin a little too hard. Or maybe it’s some kind of late 30s “why hasn’t it happened for me yet?” self-pity. I don’t know where it’s coming from or how to address it exactly but over the weekend I heard a radio story about a street being renamed in Queens and it reminded me of the best Christmas morning in the history of Christmas mornings.

addWhen I was 11 years old I received four amazing Christmas gifts that forever changed my life; the 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook, a set of clear green dice, and two cassettes – Mötorhead’s 1916 and the Ramones All the Stuff (and More) Volume 2. I liked Mötorhead a lot (who doesn’t?) but I fucking loved the Ramones. I listened to that tape until it was worn out. Since that Christmas I have never been without the Ramones. I had tapes and then I had CDs and now I have digital collections. While my taste in music has sometimes changed (the less we talk about that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles tape I got from Pizza Hut the better), the Ramones have been in constant rotation since the first time I heard “Beat on the Brat” in my friend Shawn’s living room.

There’s a Ramones song for just about everything I’ve ever felt or done. I learned more about dating from “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” and “I Just Want to Have Something To Do” than I think is strictly healthy and as I got older and struggled with anger and isolation and depression I replayed “I Wanna Live,” “I Wanna Be Sedated,” “Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment,” and latter favorites “Strength to Endure” and “Poison Heart” until I felt understood and my foot tapped more than my heart punched my brain. There is never a bad mood or wrong time for me to listen to the Ramones. They are, as weird and possibly personally condemning as it may be, my collective spirit animal. Yes, if you get past all that Hemingway and Chabon and DeLillo and all the snarky jokes and even past the D20s and X-Men comics, you’ll find the very center of my soul is kept company by four awkward bony-kneed punk rockers with bad haircuts and leather jackets that started playing their nervous two minute songs years before I was born thousands of miles away. ramones-crest

Creatively, the Ramones were always one of my biggest inspirations. They started something in a garage in Queens, something that was a little bit of a throwback, a little bit amateur, and a lot cocky. They imagined punk rock as a thing they could just do. They didn’t need anyone’s permission or approval. They didn’t care if they weren’t classically trained musicians. They had these weird catchy songs, a mix of nihilism and humor, and a lot of energy and they just did it and it went around the world and across generations to inspire musicians in London and Seattle and even awkward lonely wanna be writers in 1991 Southern Oregon. My lifelong love of the Ramones and punk rock instilled in me the creative virtue of making things just because you want to, because you feel it, even if it’s not cool or worthy or successful.

So here I am twenty-five years later still listening to the Ramones years after all of the founding members have died and here I am still being inspired. The questions I’ve been asking myself lately have answers in these familiar songs.

In the radio story I linked above there’s a quote by Monte Melnick, the band’s long-time tour manager, that’s stuck with me since I heard it:

“They did what they could with what they had, which was their music. That’s the Ramones way.”

 

ramones-banner

On Sexism and Gender Bias

This isn’t a blog about writing and it’s not fiction. This is a blog about gender politics and I am implicitly allowed to write my thoughts about it here because I want to and because I have toxic male privilege and I’m protected.

That I am implicitly allowed to write my thoughts about sexism and post it on the internet and not really fear significant reprisal for it is the definition of toxic male privilege. Honestly, as a middle class heterosexual white male I’m pretty sure I’m implicitly allowed to write my thoughts about anything I want and if anyone objects to it I can get righteously angry about being excluded. I probably won’t get rape threats emailed to me. I probably won’t get harassed on Twitter. Even if I do, I don’t imagine I’ll find them very intimidating. I’m a middle class heterosexual white male – there’s a pretty big infrastructure of support for me to lean on if anything gets scary and even if that infrastructure fails me, I’m a big guy and no one really threatens me. It’s not that I’m a bad ass pugilist that can drop kick my way out of any confrontation – it’s that I’m physically tall and physically big enough that usually no one confronts me. I walk around bad neighborhoods at night and I scare other people without meaning to. I can write whatever I want and no one can say anything about it. Superman is cooler than Batman because Batman is dumb and traditional masculinity is a systemic virus that needs to be confronted.

It’s not bold for me to point out toxic male privilege because I have toxic male privilege and I’m protected. But I’m not done pointing out what I want to point out and I get to go on as long as I want, so sit tight, dear reader, because I’m backing up the knowledge truck.

I don’t think most people see a woman and immediately think misogynistic crazy things anymore. Sure, there’s a vocal subsection of trilby-wearing M’lady “nice guys” with creepy Asian culture fetishes and YouTube channels about why the new Ghostbusters movie is a pogrom against men, but most men and women are less overt about the bias. Then again, I’m a middle class heterosexual white male and if men are immediately thinking crazy misogynistic thoughts about women still they aren’t telling me about it because I have toxic male privilege and I’m protected. Anyway, what I think is far more insidious than the cretinous knuckle-draggers that see a woman and think “LADY MENSTRUATION FEMINAZI BAD”, is the way that traditional masculinity has so dominated our culture that even feminism needs to be more masculine to be taken seriously.

Somehow as a society we’ve determined that these traits are the traits of a a straight-shooting go-getter that’s probably honest and competent : boldness, brashness, loudness, anger, aggression. These are, not coincidentally, traits often associated with masculinity. These are also the traits on clear display with some of our current US presidential candidates. The opposite traits are traits generally associated with a docile 1950s housewife: demureness, politeness, quiet, gentleness, willingness to compromise. These are also the traits we consider signs of weakness and of someone that’s easily manipulated even if we don’t consciously admit it. We’ve been programmed to believe that someone yelling his opinion with conviction without reading from a teleprompter is genuine and someone cautiously exploring nuance and allowing for compromise is wishy-washy. A funny grammatical note here – I had to use his as a pronoun in that last sentence because male gendered pronouns are the standard and when you use a “hers” in place of a “his” it’s a political statement. I also used his because let’s be honest, that first example is almost certainly a dude or maybe just a man-hating lesbian that really needs to lighten up. The second example should probably shout some more or just let her husband shout for her so she doesn’t seem shrill. If I seem glibly angry and cynical here it’s because I am and I get to be because I have toxic male privilege and I’m protected.

Here’s the takeaway, folks – masculine behavior is so much the implicit norm that just by consciously or unconsciously supporting these behaviors and discouraging their counterpoints we are perpetuating toxic male privilege. We are perpetuating sexism. If I have a conversation with another man and he doesn’t get angry and isn’t bold enough and if I tell him that he’s weak I’m being a fucking sexist even if there isn’t a woman within 100 miles. It’s not that masculinity is bad or that these traits are bad it’s about balance and it’s about accepting that traditionally masculine traits and traditionally feminine traits are not inherently better or worse than each other. Men, especially online where toxic masculinity is endemic, should endeavor to be more demure, more polite, more willing to compromise and women should feel empowered to be more bold, to be express anger in whatever way they want without fearing reprisal. When a  man shuts up and listens, it’s sexist to dismiss him as “stupid SJW” and when a woman stands tall and speaks her mind it’s sexist to tell her #NotAllMen because sexism is both about literal gender identity and the gender identity that’s coupled with gendered traits.

I don’t think we need to eliminate either set of gendered traits but we need to equalize them and create space for men and women to be both when appropriate without the toxic masculine infrastructure smacking down anyone that steps out of line. We need to celebrate traditionally feminine behaviors much more and we need to maybe reconsider our Pavlovian response to demagogues and straight-talking macho bullies. Anger should not be conflated with sincerity and loudness should not be mistaken for righteousness any more than politeness should be conflated with docility or willingness to compromise dismissed as spinelessness.

As a writer and a former editor, the saddest and most predictable thing I encounter when I talk to other writers is that women are all too often too self-deprecating, shy, and insecure and men are all too often cocksure and overconfident and neither have any honest correlation to the work. I take it for granted that I write well. I’ve always been told I write well. I work hard at it and I’m a middle class heterosexual white male so I’m implicitly going to be given the benefit of the doubt from a lot of readers. Just like how when I was in college and raised my hand during writing workshops I was absolutely confident that my contributions were going to be essential to everyone else. Just like how I get to write this blog and have confidence that it’s pretty smart and I might get some high fives. I might even get the link retweeted and go viral and that’s not scary – it’s awesome because nothing bad can really happen to me on the internet. That confidence and validation is sexist. I have the direct and undeniable benefit of toxic masculinity both because of my biology and because I, like a lot of men, really embody those traditional masculine traits we were shown in comic books and Arnold Schwarzenegger action movies at formative ages while the girls were being told not to interrupt and to not dress too slutty or drink too much at parties.

I think the internet makes it worse and I think it’s because this technology really favors men. Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and the comments sections of everything reward controversy, brevity, and volume. While not implicitly made for men these online socially spaces definitely favor boldness, brashness, loudness, anger, and aggression over demureness, politeness, quiet, gentleness, and willingness to compromise. It’s built into the algorithm. Facebook hides long posts because if you’re not LOUD and BRASH in your opening couple lines, who cares? There are tools to engage in longer form discourse that embody some of those counter traits for sure – Tumblr and personal blogs like this – but these spaces are kept effectively separate and to get people outside of these communities they must go through Dudetown. It’s not that Twitter and Facebook and Reddit need to shut it all down and remake themselves more aligned to these traditionally feminine traits, it’s that we need to recognize the impact of gender bias implicit in these tools and try to be better people when using them.

In a just world, I should be shouted at by men and women for my presumptuousness, for having the arrogance to interject my point of view about sexism from my lofty man throne while women are being harassed for reporting news, or criticizing video games, or drawing comic books wrong, or wearing the wrong clothes. And I certainly shouldn’t be gloating about my inherent masculine power while women are still being sexually assaulted behind dumpsters by promising young athletes that used to eat so much more steak before being caught digitally raping unconscious women. But arrogance and presumption are traditionally masculine traits and I’m pretty confident no one is going to be call me out on it – and if they do, just one last reminder, I have toxic male privilege and I’m protected.