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On Writing: NaNoWriMo Diary 2017 – Day 1

People like images so: MONKEY ON A BICYCLE

Hey all. I’m participating in NaNoWriMo which is what the cool kids call National Novel Writing Month. If you’re not familiar with NaNoWriMo, it’s both an awesome 501(c)(3) and a month long writing contest where us masochistic few write a 50,000 word novel by 11:59 on November 30th. Here’s NaNoWriMo’s mission statement:

National Novel Writing Month believes in the transformational power of creativity. We provide the structure, community, and encouragement to help people find their voices, achieve creative goals, and build new worlds—on and off the page.

NaNoWriMo (the organization) also does other great educational and creative programs and you should check them out right after you read my blog!

November 1, 2017:

Started the first day of this month-long marathon pretty casually. I had a morning appointment downtown, then met some friends for lunch, before heading over to meet my agent and talk about how we’re going to make hundreds upon hundreds of dollars selling my books. He had updates on a couple of projects we’re shopping around and we talked about some future stuff. Good author/agent conversation. Good coffee.

Metal, you guys.

I mentioned I’m doing NaNoWriMo to get my weird out before I start work on some more marketable prospects. He expressed tentative support for my alien brain process as long as I get him the materials I owe him for a proposal while I’m listening to Iron Maiden and thinking about Santa Claus. I agreed to this because I like to be an agreeable author and he is going to make us hundreds upon hundreds of dollars selling my books

After our meeting I decided to walk home instead of doing what a normal not alien brained person would do. It was a nice afternoon in Portland and only a little over 5 miles. I figured the time alone wandering the streets of my city would help percolate my alien brain juices and I was right. I spent some time thinking about listening to Iron Maiden (I forgot my earbuds so this was a music free 5+ mile stroll) and thinking about Santa Claus. I thought about a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles covered in ashes and full of skeletons and demons. I thought about elves on motorbikes and the Backstreet Boys, standing a sad suburban vigil in a fictional mall. Yeah. That’s the stuff. This book is going to be real weird. 

While I didn’t get any words down today, I got excited about my project and worked through some of the finer points of my plot.

It’s important, even in the mad dash race to the finish line of NaNoWriMo that you take the time to daydream about your story. You might not need a 5+ mile walk from the Willamette River to far SE Portland to do that but if you do, hopefully the weather is still nice.

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On Writing: Star Trek: Discovery

 

I have other stuff to do but I blog very rarely and also there’s a new Star Trek TV show and I watched it. So. Here’s a little review/response and then a little bit about the impact of audience expectations/branding.

Real quick no spoilers review: I liked the first two episodes of Star Trek Discovery. Sonequa Martin-Green is great. Doug Jones is great. Michelle Yeoh is great. The production design is lush and manages some big budget gravitas. There are things I liked more and things I liked less. I have big picture reservations about the CBS All-Access model and the nature of the show as a prequel. I also think it’s kind of a bummer to watch so far and strains a little more than I expected against my expectations of Star Trek. I’m going to blog about more of that below.

First, the Star Trek bonafides preamble: I’ve been watching Star Trek all of my life. I grew up on the shows and the movies. I’ve seen every movie for the last 30 years on opening weekend and I’ve seen the majority of the TV episodes multiple times* (there’s an asterisk here because I really didn’t like Voyager or Enterprise). When Star Trek: Deep Space Nine first premiered it played at 11 PM on Sunday nights in my area. I was in middle school but I stayed up every Sunday until midnight to watch it and went to school bleary eyed. I’m not a convention-going Vulcan-ear-having fan but I’m more inclined to give the brand a chance than literally any other property I can think of based on the strength of my affection and nostalgia for spaceships and budget SFX and phaser sounds. That said, half of the Star Trek TV shows and movies have been pretty bad and William Shatner is not doing his legacy any favors with Twitter. I will always happily give Star Trek a shot but Star Trek: Nemesis happened, you guys, and I’ll never forget.

Here’s what you should know about Star Trek: Discovery. I’m not going to summarize the whole plot but there will be some details that you may want to avoid if you want to watch it without any advanced knowledge. The show’s titular ship, the Discovery, does not appear in the first two hours of the show. The bulk of the cast also does not appear in these first two episodes. This is not an ensemble show in the Star Trek model. It’s a show with a clear protagonist (Martin-Green’s Michael Burnham) and it seems determined to upend some of the familiar Trek conventions. The good news there is that Martin-Green is a charismatic and versatile performer and she can more than carry a show. The decision to give the show a central character and to pin the emotional and storytelling stakes on her is a good one and if the show ultimately goes on to have a long and celebrated life it will be a big part of why. The first two episodes unfold directly as a result of Burnham’s actions – and those actions are not all heroic or sympathetic. That’s a pretty significant change to the usually squeaky clean boy scout image most associated with Star Trek (mostly, to be fair, from Star Trek: the Next Generation onward). The show is steeped in interpersonal conflict and that really creates narrative possibilities we haven’t seen in this property before. I can dig it.

Here’s some other things you should know about Star Trek: Discovery. It doesn’t feel much like Star Trek yet. The characters use Star Trek words and interact with Star Trek things but despite the title it isn’t terribly interested (so far) in strange new worlds, new life, new civilizations, etc. Klingons feature very prominently in these opening two episodes (and, based on what happens, will probably be pretty involved for the rest of the first season at least) and there is some philosophical debate around inter-species contact, but more than ever before these Klingons feel particularly contemporary and familiar rather than strange and new. Where the original iteration of Klingons seemed to cast them as grumpy mustached space Russians, Discovery makes them religious nationalists eager to restore the Klingon empire to glory. That might sound familiar to viewers because we see these sorts of characters on the nightly news. This observation isn’t necessarily a criticism but it gives the show a weary cynicism. At it’s best Star Trek is buoyant and optimistic and this is a little bit dour. It may be that the show runners intend to start with dour, to show a journey through hopelessness and out the other side, but for viewers like me that could do with a little bit more aspiration it’s a little bit disappointing. There’s not really any warmth or humor or wonder. The ending of episode 2 is, frankly, pretty bleak.

There are other things that Discovery does that I liked a lot. The opening credits are beautiful and the makeup is really next level, particularly for Doug Jones’s Saru. Unfortunately, the script has some real weak points that only seem worse with further scrutiny and the pacing, especially in episode 2, is a little too decompressed. I’m also not convinced that this show needs to be a prequel or that they really needed to go back to the most famous Star Trek IP; Klingons and Vulcans. The same story and themes could be explored with new ideas. It makes the universe feel too small to me and the storytelling feel too timid. By opting to go this direction, the show necessitates comparisons with prior iterations and for a franchise that started out with all-new ideas that’s totally unnecessary.

Ultimately, I think Star Trek: Discovery is an appealing television show with a strong, interesting lead and compelling visual design. I am definitely interested in seeing more but it’s a poor fit for the Star Trek brand – especially right now. If Discovery had been released in context with other more traditional Trek content it would seem like a bold alternative and I think would be easier to embrace. But this is the first Star Trek show in 12 years. A lot of fans, and casual viewers, might rightly expect it to feel something like the franchise they know.

Branding is a powerful presence in a story (or content). “Star Trek” has a meaning for people. I show up for “Star Trek.” That’s to the property’s advantage but if they stray too far from what “Star Trek” means for people they create disappointment that they didn’t need to create. There seems to me to be a lot more latter-day Battlestar Galactica in this show than bolding going where no one has gone before. In fact, these seems to be a lot of similarities between these Klingons and Cylons. That really creates a backlash for me with the brand, I’m afraid.

Similarly, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to why I so aggressively hate the CBS All-Access distribution model and it has a lot to do with the name and the associations the name generates for me and how it forces me to compare it to other alternative services. I don’t mind paying for TV. I subscribe to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and HBO Go. I buy TV shows I want to watch that don’t air on those services on Amazon. I would pay up to $3 for each episode of Star Trek: Discovery and feel pretty good about it. That’s more than CBS is asking for with All-Access. My complaint isn’t about money. I value good content and I pay for it. I think that’s part of being an ethical grown up consumer. No, my reticence is about not wanting to get another user name and password, give out my credit card to another company that might will probably Equifax me on a long enough timeline, install another app, learn another UI, learn all new bugs and quirks. I don’t want that. I think most consumers are sick of that. I would probably pay for an add-on channel on Amazon or Hulu for CBS All-Access.

More than my app fatigue though, CBS All-Access does not compare favorably to its competitors. To get the commercial free version they want a comparable amount of money to HBO Go, Netflix, and Hulu and it does not compare in terms of content available even a little bit. Out of context, it seems like a pretty decent deal. I could watch Star Trek: Discovery and, uh, well, I literally would watch nothing else because CBS is not a network that makes content for me, but if I was the CBS target demo (older, whiter somehow), I could get a lot of enjoyment out of 2 Broke Girls and NCIS and all the fucking Macguyver. I assume. The thing is that Netflix and Hulu and HBO Go make content for multiple kinds of audiences so I can not watch that show with the scientologist guy from That 70s Show that doesn’t appeal to me and still watch the show with the scientologist lady from That 70s Show that does. Next to the alternatives CBS All-Access is real thin. Also, it’s CBS. My whole life CBS has been a TV station you can watch for free with an antenna and it had that comparble quality. Star Trek: Discovery seems like a real stretch in terms of budget and content for that CBS but it’s still called CBS so I expect CBS. The previews of upcoming episodes of Discovery look more like the CBS I expect – the effects look worse and there’s a lot more white dudes – so I have to wonder, are these two episodes of Discovery a bait and switch? If the service wasn’t called CBS All-Access I might be less skeptical. This is the downside of branding. I show up for “Star Trek.” I change the channel on “CBS” before Mark Harmon shows up. These two big brands crash into each other for Star Trek: Discovery and I’m not sure what to do. I want CBS All-Access to fail so it sends a message to stop making new subscription services for every damn thing maybe more than I want this cynical post-Trump new Star Trek.

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?

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.”

 

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