Thursday, October 27, 2011

Broken Brakes

A couple minor administrative details and an announcement before I get going. In case anyone is interested, I fixed the otherwise convoluted process of posting comments to blog entries (I think). The default setting required the commenter to maneuver through some hoops, establish a Google profile, start a blog, build a fire in a snowstorm (with two soggy matches), donate a kidney and have sex with one of my cousins. I did away with most of that. Feel free to click through to find out which hoops remain. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised. Also, there is now a way to follow my blog via email, just sign up. I'm not at all sure how this works, but if somebody wants to try it and then fill me in, I'd be happy to share your experience with my millions of other followers.

Announcement: tonight (October 27) at 6:30 my best bud, fellow local native and favorite writer, Ron Currie, will be reading from his forthcoming novel at our beloved (and newly renovated: thank you, Sarah Anne Sugden) Waterville Public Library. If you're in or near Waterville tonight, get there, you won't be disappointed. His Q&A is a veritable S&M of T&A -- by which I mean he nails it. Plus he's honest and super hot -- old, bald and white notwithstanding.

Speaking of honesty . . .

Well, first of all I want to say thank you to everyone who has taken time out of what I know are busy days to read my little ramblings. There's a feature that allows me limited access to the readership of this blog. I know what percentage of you use Macs vs. PCs, how many are on Androids and Blackberrys and iPads. I know I have one follower in New Zealand (hey Justine -- how goes the WOOFing?) and one in Germany (am I the blogging equivalent of Hasselhoff? because that would be awesome). Last night I peeked at the stats and found we'd surpassed a number I'd had in my head, and all I can say is, thanks. Ultimately there's only one thing a writer can and should do: write it, whatever it is. I mean, of course there's a lot more that goes into writing it: write it well, write it honestly, write it with care. But do that, and then if you're fortunate enough to find some readers, say thank you. Sincerely, kids, my gratitude far exceeds the words I have to express it.

On to honesty. Yesterday I wrote about something with which I am not entirely comfortable, and something I know makes the people who care about me uncomfortable: being broke and hungry. The people closest to me (and I'm fortunate to be able to count a remarkable number in that category) have watched me struggle in this way for almost three years now, and I know that it is depressing, discouraging, occasionally infuriating. They are generous people, and at times they have each and every one stepped up to carry me in one fashion or another. They have taken turns giving me a fish, knowing full well that I was long ago taught to fish, and at times I'm sure they've thought to themselves (as well they should), "Fish, goddammit!" And I do fish, for a while, and we are all greatly relieved. Then I go back to the Cave, tap the keys for ten, twelve, fourteen hours, picking away at my catch in that underlying biological-imperative way we sustain ourselves through necessity rather than any particular passion for what we're consuming (our passions being indivisible from the other concurrent pursuit). When at last my head emerges from the fog of writing and I find on my plate nothing but a pile of already thoroughly sucked bones, I gaze around the room, more than a little chagrined that I've forgotten the way back to the stream.

These are all details, the point is this: I didn't write about that so that anyone would feel sorry for me or worry about me. Don't and please don't. I wrote about it precisely because it is uncomfortable. I wrote about it because it is one of my discomfiting, embarrassing, shameful truths: this is part of what I've done to myself, and it is something of which no one should ever be proud. I'm almost forty-three years old. I have a daughter who adores me. Three years ago I had sixty-large in the bank, I owned a house, I picked up tabs and floated loans. Now I live in a windowless cave, I eat potted meat, and I only see my daughter a couple hours a week, for lunch, when I have the money to pay for it (which last weekend I didn't, and this weekend I may not). It's appalling. It's despicable. And it's the truth.

So why am I telling you this? Why am I outing my bad self here for dozens upon dozens of people to see?

Because if you can't be honest with yourself, how can you ever expect to be honest in your writing? If character is what we do when no one is watching, then the measure of a writer must have something to do with the space that exists between what our readers believe of us and what we know ourselves to be. Which is not to say that a writer must forge an intimate bond with his readers, replete with excruciating details about the author's life history (unless of course the writer is Irish). But a writer must, above all else, be credible, and that credibility must be earned. What is more satisfying than when a writer makes an entirely unexpected choice in a narrative, the thing nobody saw coming? We like surprises, they thrill and delight us. What we don't like is being left feeling even a little bit incredulous. Who among us who have sat in writing workshops has not heard this answer in response to a reader's reservations about a dubious detail: "But that's how it actually happened." Well, tough shit, pal, because I don't believe it for a second.

The notion that absolute truth makes for compelling narrative is surprisingly hard to dislodge once it takes hold, and I would argue that, in this era of reality television and best-selling memoirs, the roots have found bedrock. We are cannibalistic voyeurs, devouring each other's "true" stories with feral eyes and blood-soaked lips. We've developed such a taste for the salty forbidden flesh of other people's secret lives, we've forgotten to ask ourselves the most fundamental question: Why should I care? Well, fuck it, I'll ask: Why should any of us care? Answer: We shouldn't. Unless it's honest.

A few weeks ago I sat down to revise a story I'd written months before, a story that is in large part based on some things that sort of actually happened. There was a scene in the original version in which the two characters pass a motel aptly named "Lovely's," and they take note of it, make a joke, but don't stop. There was something about the integrity of events as they happened in real life that, as I wrote that early draft, I found myself clinging to: the girl and I did not get a room in a motel, not once, ever. Nothing ever passed between us that could have been construed as lurid or unkind to anyone who deserved better, i.e., she didn't cheat on her boyfriend with me, and I didn't ask her to. I wrote that scene as though I was telling it to a friend, sticking to the facts because, after all, the facts presented us in the light in which I wanted us both, in the real world, to be seen. But that wasn't true to the narrative, which was really about how the relationship between these two characters had mutated into something neither could control or define any longer. It was an elaborate game of chicken, equally enticing to both characters, and when I realized that and saw this gargantuan missed opportunity, I rewrote that scene, made the young woman steer them boldly, precipitously toward the motel parking lot. It turned out to be a fortuitous choice because, in the course of the larger narrative, it helps to establish how high the stakes of this game of chicken prove to be.

It's informative to note that, in the course of discussing the actual relationship that spawned that story (and well over three-hundred pages of other related stories), the sorts of questions I've fielded go something like this: Seriously, you didn't get a room at the motel? Really, you never slept with her? If "seriously" and "really" precede the questions about your actual life stories, rest assured, nobody will bother to ask those questions of your fictional stories -- they simply won't read them. And they shouldn't.

Now, you may be asking yourself how I can speak about telling the truth in one breath, and then describe rewriting a scene so that it doesn't tell the truth. It's because what I wanted in that moment in real life was two contradictory things: I both wanted her to go to a motel with me, and I wanted us to be some version of better than that. This is what we call conflict. What I want for those two characters is that they earn, through their actions, what they appear to feel for each other, as well as the price they both will pay for their affection. The only way for me to do that in a way that felt genuine in the narrative was to be straight with myself about who these characters are, what they want, why they make their choices, and why I care about them. Ultimately, it turns out I care about them, about the story that binds them, because of the nature of the conflict that exists between them. I don't know a thing about that conflict unless I look at it honestly, and I can't do that unless I'm honest with myself about who I am, what I want, why I make the choices I do, etc. Because they may be characters on a page, but somebody has to drive the bus, and in the end that gig falls to me. I damn sure better know which one's the gas and which one's the brake. And because brakes sometimes fail, I'd better have something in mind for when the bus starts hurtling toward a cliff. I like to think I'm getting there. Honestly, I know I am. Thanks again for getting on the bus.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


Ever been to a pawnshop? Have you ever pawned something? It's an uneasy experience, isn't it? The first thing that struck me was the collection of pawnshop guys milling about. It felt a little like the old general store when I was a kid, how there was always at least one local character perched on a stool in the corner (sitting on his brains, my grandmother used to say), swapping gossip and remember-when's with the storekeeper, chatting up customers. The atmosphere in the pawnshop is different, though. There's an air of knowing something you don't. There is furtiveness and cunning and a strange sort of disdain. I pawned three small items, one of which held a particularly sinister resonance for me and I was glad to get rid of it. But basically I pawned three baubles that meant next to nothing to me, and got next to nothing in return: just a bit more than the cost of a pack of Camel Lights. Under the circumstances, I was (and am) quite satisfied. When you're broke and you're hungry and you can't wrap your head around much of anything, up to a point a pack of smokes, it turns out, can improve your mood much more effectively than a sandwich.

I'm in one of those in-between stretches that have become all too familiar over the last three years: first the work dries up, and then in short order the money dries up, and for a few days I find myself foraging until the work resurfaces. It's disconcerting certainly, but I'm luckier than a lot of people, and what bothers me most about my current ongoing circumstances is, ultimately, something I'm not going to discuss in a blog. Buy me a drink and we'll talk.

I used to have a regular job, one that for almost seven years I did very well and, until the last year I was there, truly loved. I spent the last twelve months of that job fighting a culture shift I saw developing, one that divided the company into classes based less on effort and contribution than on title and tenure. It pissed me off to see hardworking people demeaned and debased, especially while a small cluster of simpering sycophants prospered. It was a losing battle because I was the lone voice for the worker bees, while the voice of the sycophants happened to be the guy who shared a bed with the boss. I'm no dumbfuck idealist, I knew I was licked before I even started. Still, right's right, and I'd do it all again tomorrow. A day like today I wouldn't mind having that income again, along with the company car and various ancillary benefits. But not at the cost of not being able to look myself in the eye. I'd starve first and die with both middle fingers pointing straight at you, Paul Garelli, president and publisher of Center Point Large Print.

Not unexpectedly, times like these can feel pretty miserable. When I woke up this morning, honestly, I didn't even want to get out of bed. But I did. Except for a stretch about a year ago, I get up and get to it every day, but not because I manage to bolster myself with abstract reminders that there are people in the world who have it much, much worse than I do. I know all that, but I prefer the concrete: I think about friends who have it pretty bad but manage to do a better job than I do most days, as well as friends and acquaintances who too often forget how good they have it and focus instead on what Grace Paley called the little disturbances of man. Most days that's enough, but on my worst days I think about that guy who sometimes didn't get out of bed last year. I see him as though through a snowglobe, his appearance somewhat distorted by the curve of the glass and the swirl of synthetic flakes, his features nearly indiscernible but for these: a pair of utterly lifeless eyes, and hands hanging limp at his sides. In that state, if I didn't know him by name, I wouldn't know him at all. When morning comes and I open my eyes, I kick back the covers and throw myself out of bed if for no other reason than to keep that still, insensate figure unrecognizable to me. He's my personal bogeyman, the monster under the bed, and his face is the last thing you ever want to see gazing back at you from the mirror. He is the ultimate incentive. After all, almost nothing is unbearable after you've once given up.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Your Biggest Fan

I sat down to write yesterday -- write write, not blog -- but found myself getting nowhere, so I decided to tap out a blog. Nothing doing, I was overwhelmingly distracted. I'd promised my friend Milly another blog and felt bad: I'm hard on myself when I fail to deliver on promises. I sent her a text, told her it was a struggle, and her simple, straightforward response was right on the mark: "Blogging shouldn't involve struggle. Write the blog of least resistance, right?" Absolutely. Blogging is a lot like daydreaming. If you're determined to daydream but instead find yourself, I don't know, building a birdhouse or learning German, well shit, build the birdhouse, man. Sprechen some Deutsch. Don't pin yourself to a pointless pursuit when your heart has already moved in another direction. I didn't have any lofty ambitions yesterday, so I just crept from the Bear Cave, took a long walk in the sunshine, and then spent the rest of my day reading All Quiet on the Western Front (hence the German on my brain). I'm tempted to write about that, but I can tell you right now, a story about young men at war would not constitute the blog of least resistance. I would get angry. So I'm going to write about girls and women instead.

Someone -- a girl, actually, one of whom I was once exceedingly fond -- told me some eighteen months ago I have tragically bad taste in women. I've been around for a pretty long time, and I have to tell you (as I should have told her, but I'm pretty sure I just smiled and waited for the next nugget of wisdom to fall from her twenty-four year old lips), I don't think there's any such thing. To quote my favorite fictional writer, Hank Moody, "I love women. I have all their albums." It's possible to have tragically bad expectations, of anyone or anything, but taste, little girl, taste is a matter of taste. But for a few singles featuring admittedly rare B-sides, I have all your albums, even the live stuff. And I dig the shit out of 'em.

In the summer of 2009 I started writing a book the working title of which was A Brief History of Girls and Women. It was going to be loosely based on my own experiences, from the first girl I kissed (Jennifer Simon, when we were both five) all the way to the brink of turning forty. We've had some times. I still like the concept, and I really like the title, but after a few months I had to put that book away. I had slipped up in ways that made me feel like I wasn't the right guy at that time to be writing that particular book. After the collapse of the most substantial relationship of my life -- the one that by great good fortune resulted in the existence of my super cool daughter -- I chose to embrace my own personal primum non nocere. I didn't want to be consequential to any woman, for a variety of reasons, but not least because now I had in my life a girl who had a right to expect to not have to deal with the fallout from what I did when she wasn't around -- angry phone calls, slashed tires, stray bullets, that sort of thing. As Jeff Tweedy says in the song "Hummingbird," "His goal in life was to be an echo/Riding alone town after town, toll after toll." Just like the Incredible Hulk. Well, sort of -- I wasn't hiding out. As a former assistant of mine liked to say, "Hey, if you're single, mingle." (I gave her a big raise after that.) In other words, there's no sense sitting home alone crying into your lube. But I was both blunt and honest. Lying is a bad habit anyway, there's no long-term profit in it, but it's also only about half a stride this side of rape if you lie to women to get them to sleep with you. So I don't lie to girls, but I'm also blunt because leaving anything to the imagination can lead to the echo's least favorite thing: misunderstanding.

For a while I lived up to my self-prescribed ethic, but at some point I got a little turned around and started to do a bad job: I got a few hopes up, induced some tears, generated a little disappointment. I wasn't doing anything differently, I simply wasn't paying close attention, and minor tempests resulted. All of which should have been enough to straighten me up, but then I did something much worse: I fell in love with the girl who told me I have tragically bad taste in women. Not surprisingly, she very slowly set about fulfilling her own prophecy. Regardless, I did my part, too -- I went there knowing better. Suddenly I had become everything I'd spent more than a dozen years avoiding: first a breaker of hearts, and then the victim of one. So you see, I was, for the time being at least, no longer qualified to write A Brief History of Girls and Women.

I've had a handful of bad relationships, the kind of bad that I've seen turn other guys off of women, or at least make them wary and/or mean. I collected so many "women suck" stories from my friends over the years, I started taking notes for a tongue-in-cheek book I intended to title The Misogynist's Handbook. I've tapped away at that one a handful of times over the last fifteen years, but as it turns out, it's really hard to write that book and not make it seem mean-spirited. I hear a collective "Well, duh," but don't rush to judgment. The title notwithstanding, this isn't the story of how women suck and they're crazy and they mistreat good men and blah blah blah. It's the story of how we all fundamentally suck because we have the wrong ideas about so many basic things. I'll pull that book off someday. Right now, today, I'm more interested in the premise than the details.

It's too easy to blame your woes on somebody who makes you crazy and subsequently breaks your heart. It's not only too easy, it's also lazy, and it's fundamentally self-deceiving if who or what you're blaming is, in sort of a global sense, something you love. For instance, I have a particular fondness for booze. I enjoy it, I enjoy spending the evening with it, and as a result, I find myself with the occasional big head and funky stomach the next day. Do I blame the booze? Hell no I don't. If there is blame, it is the blame of Othello, "of one that loved not wisely but too well." I've gone off the rails over girls and women, and in the aftermath I've sent my own shots back across their respective bows, but I resist the urge to apply the broad brush. Because in a very real sense, some of my best friends are women. Because in the course of considerable research I've discovered I like kissing women a lot more than I like kissing dudes. Because spending quality time with the right girl, I've learned, can teach you things about yourself you can stand to know. And because, in spite of all the perceived contradictions, we are in truth quite complementary.

So, Milly, here at last is the blog I promised, such as it is. It's about girls and women, but really it's about you. Because you are in fact really smart and very attractive, but you're also sweet and patient and insightful. Plus you indulge my endless verbarrhea. Plus you don't reinterpret what I say. Plus you let me nap. Plus a whole lot of other stuff. And I'm glad you've reminded me why I like girls.

And I kinda miss you.