Odd Questions About Writing

So, with all the writing I have been doing lately, I am afraid to look at my wordcounts. They are arbitrary anyway and really only serve the purpose to myself that yes, I am writing. No, I’m not screwing around. I try not to be one of these people who go around telling people that they are writers, but only do so to serve the purpose of getting into a party with a bunch of cool kids.

Writers aren’t cool. They might look cool on the outside, but inside they aren’t. They think too much about things, and that isn’t cool. Cool people are dismissive, they know everything already. They don’t need to waste their time putting their thoughts to paper because hey, like, whatever man.

The other day I hit a snag. I was buying Legos with my kid and the girl at the cash register recognized me from the other times I had been there. She reminds me a little of myself at her age. She writes stories and even had a Lego character clipped to her name tag that was from one of her books. She writes Fantasy and told me that a bunch of other writers were in that day building characters for their books. When I told her (reminded, since she’s heard the same thing from me for the last year whenver I go in) that I write too, she asked what I wrote.

I told her I used to write steampunk and fantasy, but recently I was working on a literary piece based on life experiences, she glazed over. I remember that feeling too. I remember when I wrote fantasy that I often felt that my work wasn’t taken seriously. But on the other side of that now, I felt like I had tresspassed. Sorry, but I did my time in the genres. I will probably go back to it eventually. But here, I felt like an interloper. Not that it matters.

I remember being in that place years ago. Most people who consider themselves writers, especially if it is fan fiction or dreams of becoming the next Tolkien or GRRM or Robert Jordan don’t read anything any of their friends writes either. It’s a lot of conversations where you are just listening well enough to know when it’s your turn to talk. But oddly enough, I felt like I no longer had that authenticity because I’m not writing fantasy right now. Listen, I just do what the story tells me to do. Sometimes I don’t have a choice.

I expect to die young because the story will no longer have any need for me and it will finally let me expire. Thanks, story. I’m glad I didn’t sleep right and wrecked my health for years for you.

Anyway, I bring up the word counts because I am writing my guts out lately–even though it isn’t genre fiction–and I had a few questions that keep popping up in my head.

  1. How much do I actually need to tell?
  2. How much sex needs to go into the story before it is less War and Peace and more 50 Shades? I want to stop before it gets to Tropic of Cancer.
  3. If I write about topics that aren’t considered popular opinions in the mainstream, will that ruin my chances of being published?
  4. All these words and paragraphs and chapters…how many will I wind up shaving it down to anyway? Is that why it takes two weeks to read a book that took five years to write?
  5. If I write it well enough to get my car egged if I drive through my home town after it is published, is that a good sign or a bad one? Asking for a friend.
  6. If I sell in mainstream/literary fiction, will I be cast out of the Garden of Genre forever?
  7. If I piss people off with this and become friendless, is it okay if I cry myself to sleep on a pillow stuffed with one hundred dollar bills?

I promise not to think I’m cool if this book is published. I know I’m not cool. I’ve had 45 years of the world’s abuse to remind me of such things.

The New Normal

I wrote this two months ago, shortly after receiving some bad news. I decided then not to publish it. The pain was still too raw. Today I’m publishing it because I liked the writing and the voice.

I shaved my face again today. It had been a couple months since the last time. Every time I do this, I drag the razor across my face, filling the sink with the clumps of beard hair that fall. A proud salt and pepper beard, this time more salt than pepper. It gets whiter each time. A little while back, I saw a picture of myself with two of my kids at a swimming pool. How long ago was that? Three, four summers past?

Tonight is the kind of night that reflects my mood. It’s the second day of May, 2020, and much of the world is still on lockdown. A reflection of the hysteria that hasn’t happened since the days of mutually assured nuclear annihilation. Very little has changed in the last several weeks except people can’t eat at restaurants anymore. All around town, you see people walking, riding their bikes, roaming the neighborhoods with their dogs or kids, wearing surgical masks. The masks don’t do much, so they are mandatory. I’m going to go more with “suggested” since I don’t wear one, and so far, nobody has hauled me off to Coronavirus prison for breach of social contract. The small businesses were hit hard by the lockdown, but people who have their hearts in the right place are reminding us to stay at home to save a life. No mention of the lives of the people who rely on those small businesses to live. No mention of these masks everyone is supposed to wear being more of an annoyance.

The barrista adjusts the mask on her face no fewer than nine times when I roll up to the drive thru window. I recognize her by her eyes. My thoughts take me to fundamentalist Islamic countries. I think about how beautiful eyes must become when that is all you see. You notice little differences. A small freckle in the iris of her left eye. I take my coffee, I answer a few questions about my day. Chit chat.

I was never good at chit chat.

She comps my coffee, even though I already paid. The news is bad enough to get me a free Americano. For that sixty second window, she takes on my pain. She’s saddened by the news. I thank her and decide to tip double the next time to make up for it. It was my bad news. I figure the going rate for a sad story is $3.50. Good for an Americano, hot, three sugars and one cream.

I spend the day trying to think through the sludge of my thoughts. This go around I haven’t been playing and replaying my mistakes like some feel-good Disney sports movie so the coach can figure out how to win the big game. Everything was perfect. It would be like watching a highlight reel of an undefeated season. But here we are. Gathering up things and putting them in a box.

My thoughts are more on the way things had been playing out in my head for the last ten months. The moments that hadn’t happened yet. Snippets of conversation. Jokes. That special way she would look at me and even her eyes were smiling.

Today with my mood reflected in the grey skies and thunder that you can feel in your chest.

The why of it is understood. And I agreed. It was the best thing to do considering the situation. How much easier it had been if there had ever been mind games, arguments, fundamental disagreements. We never even got to have our first fight. I never knew it could be this good.

For the last several years, I have put in the work. I have survived a divorce, a non-committal relationship of convenience, a few dating experiences which bordered on the absurd, a friend who thought we were much more than that, and now this. Tonight I’m not in agony. I’m not blaming her, I’m not even blaming myself. I just…hurt.

When you try to fine tune yourself, you start to recognize all the ways that you are messing up your own life. It’s like we are hard-wired to do it. You recognize the drama and missteps and self-destruction in those around you. You get cocky. You start to feel immune to it. That is something that happens to other people.

When you feel yourself grow, you begin to feel what therapists used to call “well-adjusted.” You respond instead of react. You breathe through a problem instead of feeling that punch of adrenaline in your gut. Until you don’t. Until you are lying awake by yourself one night with your mind running non-stop and you decide to have a drink to slow the hamster wheel from spinning and spinning. Something has changed. You blame it on the lockdown. You blame it on the layoff. The weather. Instead what has happened is when you set out to make good boundaries in a relationship, those boundaries apply to yourself too. You get to stop and ask yourself questions instead of rushing headlong into a burning building over and over like you have seen on TV. Or you have seen with your parents. Or you have seen with your friends and family, brothers and sisters, or anyone else who dared to navigate this world with someone else.

It’s not as easy as it looks. Those adorable old couples celebrating their 60th, only to pass away within hours of each other in a hospital room with one propped up in a chair with the book they were reading aloud open in their lap. Those boundaries you both set up to protect yourselves and each other are important. Throw the brakes before the train runs off the tracks. Being emotionally healthy can also keep you very single. It’s not bad company if you try it.

I’ve always had a flair for the overdramatic. I shaved my beard as a sign of mourning. I watched the man I was underneath emerge. No longer was that sharp-toothed smile a flash of light in that mess of black and white. A younger man came forward. Smooth-faced. A smaller chin than I remember. Sadness in his eyes. This mask is off and I can no longer hide.

I think about this phrase that I’ve heard lately about the quarantine. “The New Normal.” This isn’t normal. That’s a euphemism to gaslight people. It’s telling people something might look, feel, smell, taste, and just be wrong, but calling it a different variety of “normal” makes it okay. I can’t watch the news anymore, and I sure as hell can’t read it online. Contradictory reports, very few facts, emotional manipulation, bias, fear mongering, obtuse rules. Wear the mask, don’t wear it, flatten the curve, shelter in place, stay home, unless it is to get outside, wash your groceries, don’t talk to others, stay with your family. Wait for the pyroclastic flow to engulf you like those citizens of Herculaneum who became statues overnight. You would have thought Medusa herself was walking the streets

The new normal might save our lives, but it’s killing our spirits. In my estimation, our monkey brains haven’t evolved yet to handle the information we are given. Remember than not long ago, a Library at Alexandria, Egypt was burned many times over the course of 1,000 years. With it was lost the wisdom of the ancients. Physics, art and drama, philosophy, astronomy. People have never been able to handle their liquor or their knowledge.

In the last 25 years, we have connected the dots on all the libraries of the world. We have allowed anyone with a smartphone to walk around with the known expanse of human knowledge in their pocket. Like a first year medical student, we learned too much too quickly. We stood in our own echo chambers and became enamored by the sounds of our own voices. FaceBook, Instagram, Twitter, Porn, and emails, each of us feeding the constant dopamine drip of instant gratification to our brains with likes and smileys and sexting pics and little chirps and chimes and pings to alert us that we aren’t alone. Constant connection. Constant information. Affirmation. Addiction.

How many first year med students wash out because of their first semester of studying infectious diseases? Some become hypochondriacs. They get too much information. Their brains can’t handle it. The have to fight or run. The press told us to do both. They made us aware of something that would have followed its course pretty much the same without the widespread panic. Yes, people would have died. Just like they do every day. Smoking, car accidents, malaria, bad drinking water, alcoholism, and opioids all kill more people than Coronovirus. But we killed the patient to save the patient.

The world we wake up to once the delirium of shelter in place leaves us and we just say “fuck it” is not the place we once knew. It’s a place where we lost ourselves along the way. The world is not the “new normal.” It has changed. A little bit of the magic we once knew before is gone. Like the end of the 1930s when the world entered into a war between good and evil. These are the end times. The end of what used to be. When you could still meet someone and chat them up for an evening, fall in love, and then just get to sit there in our own thoughts, or worse, stewing our brains gradually with spirits to numb the solitude. The plans we once made canceled, no longer a possiblility.

It was nice that it rained today.

The air feels clean. The birds still sing, oblivious to the torment we are all putting ourselves through. A bird’s life is frightening, and very short. But they still sing. I got to sing with someone for nearly a year. Now that voice is silent.

Tonight I said goodbye to my best friend, and other than already missing her and feeling the pain of it all, glacial, carving channels and valleys and gorges into my heart, I’m fine. She had clear reasons. We chatted and laughed and loved until the very end when we said goodnight.

In the end, it was not either of us, but a no-win situation. A disease that has plagued me for most of my adult life, which has hurt my children, caused me immeasurable suffering. And at this crossroads, it was the last moment we could decide whether or not it was going to cause suffering onto yet another innocent bystander.

It was her choice to make. Either pretend the conflict didn’t bother her and wear a mask and let it eat her up, or leave before things got bad and we lost sight of each other.

So many emotions right now, but this end was for good reasons. The right reasons. A hard decision. Tonight I’m mourning the loss of possibilities. So many perfect moments, and many yet to come we had both hoped. We parted as people perfect for each other in a situation that would have eventually destroyed us.

Part of me thinks that this is a continuation of my past keeping me from finding happiness. How do I process this without giving those sad choices the satisfaction? How do I not fall into bitterness because “nice guys don’t finish last?” That would be making it about me. Making me a victim.

I’m not. I was a participant in this, and though I am in mourning over the loss of what was possible, I also know that this was one of those things that was all for the best too.

I get to work on myself, my upcoming career, and my son.

Mondays…something, something, Garfield, probably.

This Monday morning, Memorial Day 2020, is rough, I’m not gonna sugar coat it. I was up until 3:00am, unable to sleep, anticipating having to get up at 7 to take my son back to his mom’s house. Of course, he woke me up at 6, banging around the house, getting a snack, firing up the iPad to watch YouTube videos. I slept for shit anyway. Bad dreams.

Today, I wanted nothing more than to just get the day going with some writing. It’s nearly 10:30am and after an attempt to go back to bed, get showered, and an Americano to start the day, not necessarily in any semblance of that order, I am up. Forcing myself to put my butt in the chair and write. So I decided to start here.

I could probably benefit from getting some exercise in this morning. Maybe do some kettlebells, or take a bike ride around the area. I have to do something to get my brain to start working because whatever I’ve done so far today sure as hell isn’t working.

I’ve been thinking about a few things regarding writing, and in the last few days, I have been fortunate enough to see three examples of good writing that made it to the screen.

First of all, the show Fleabag. Phoebe Waller-Bridge is a goddamned genius. This show, based on a play she wrote and also starred in was brilliant. Seeing something like this makes you want to just give up and say, “I’m not a writer. Not when there is something like this around. Nope.” It was that good. I binge watched both seasons on Amazon Prime last week. I wish I had known about this sooner. If you haven’t seen it, check it out.

The next piece of writing I have enjoyed was the series, Peaky Blinders. Not only for how everything is put together, but also from the acting. The juxtapositioning of the modern soundtrack and Wes Anderson type slow-mo walking and looking like badasses throughout, as well as underappreciated actor, Cillian Murphy and his cohorts who could really benefit from a decent fade at a barber shop.

The third piece of work that I have enjoyed thoroughly has been Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The N-word free Tarantino film (even Inglorious Basterds got one in there), and honestly, one of his best films yet. I’ve watched it 3.5 times already. I look at a movie like that and from concept to writing to executing on a film-making level, it is also intimidating. The guys from Half in the Bag consider it to quite possibly be the last great American film that will ever be made. It’s entirely possible. I don’t see movie theatres coming back after this pandemic. Not that there is anything really worth seeing out there anyway. It would be nice if books came back.

As far as movies go, I think last summer saw Apex Marvel and throwing in phase 325 of the MCU will just bring out a bunch of obscure characters nobody knows or cares about, a lot of “woke” Disney fuckery/puritanism, and honestly after ten years of Marvel movies blowing their wad on Thanos in the last one, we are collectively owed a nap and some orange juice for the next five or six years to recover. I haven’t seen the last Star Wars movie, and I probably never will. The Mandalorian set the bar pretty high for that, and it’s because it’s all about the Characters, stupid.

Today, I planned on working on my own book. The forerunner to Song of the Cinder, which has elements of stories that have been knocking around in my skull for most of my life. Some of these ideas stem from a comic that I drew when I was in the Fifth or Sixth grade. Which I’m sure my mom threw out along with various other treasures because I decided I didn’t need to clean my room, but rather just shuffle my feet through the piles of toys if I wanted to go from point A to point B. The world that finally took shape from a Tolkienesque high-fantasy world to the alternative history fantasy world of Cinder came about because some things really bothered me about fantasy writing.

Everybody just loves Tolkien, but I have the same problem with him as I do everyone else. There are familiar elements to our world that have absolutely no business even existing in the stories. Take for instance, the use of the days of the week in the Hobbit and LotR. If it’s a pre-history, then why the hell is there a Monday-Sunday week? So many things in fantasy books are anachronistic. Either it’s another world, or it’s this world. Even language, if it’s another world, has things based in Latin and Greek roots, French, and even Asian languages. Armor, weapons, all of it is basically a bunch of furniture hoarded up in the attic of a Dungeons and Dragons-esque compendium of tropes and tidbits that just get hauled out whenever someone needs a monster, or a cool sword, or something sampled from another writer/world/game whenever the mood suits them.

So, anyway, my story evolved from the same ripped-off high fantasy story to something else. Something that was more recognizable and I didn’t have to go about reinventing things like weapons and language because I learned too much and understood its origins. And how much they rely on roots that are deeply set into our own world, with centuries of religion, nation-building, folk-lore, and other elements that you cannot deny.

I think I need a nap.