In It to Lose It – Your Dreams Just Begat Responsibilities

I have never been prone to realistic thinking.

Meaning, when confronted with the ample evidence that a situation has ceased being healthy, enjoyable, sensible, my mind flips into idealistic mode to get me past the multiple inputs that are telling me that right now, this moment, well, this moment sucks.

Anyone who reads this blog (thank you) knows that I’ve been working on this trait of mine and attempting—slowly, painfully—to recognize when I shift from realistic thinking into imaginative, magical or otherwise unrealistic cogitating. For me, realistic thinking—acknowledging the reality of a situation and not judging it as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but letting the moment be—is also about acknowledging truth. It’s not that ideals or dreams or inspirations aren’t truth, exactly, but when you don’t pair the idealism with the grit of grounded realism, of what’s happening right now, those dreams and visions become a hallucinatory delusion.

The vision has to be backed up by attention and by action.

This is as true in writing as it is in all other worthwhile endeavors.

At crucial times in my life, I’ve had my share of profound realistic thoughts that I’ve subsequently ignored, but these three, even I had to pay attention to:

I don’t need to be married

I don’t need to have kids

I don’t need to write

Here’s what I mean.

Of the many takeaways I gathered from the wrecked train of my first marriage, the one that stuck out above all others is that at any given moment during a marriage (however truncated) one or the other or even both participants can simply walk. They can quit. There is nothing to stop this from occurring. Nothing. No vows or promises or inconveniences are truly going to stop a spouse from bailing if s/he has set his or her mind on this outcome.

Regarding my two sons. At some point during the past 5 bleary years, the thought dawned on me that I didn’t need to have children, that I didn’t need to be a parent, that I could have avoided this whole parenting Sisyphean task and been just fine. This is the sort of realization that I could only come to once I was eyebrow deep in being parent because that’s just the type of person I am, but yeah, I’ll say it again: I could have lived a fulfilled life without being a father.

And writing. Well, writing is hard. It’s not glamorous. The pay is shit. The rewards few. When you strip away the artistic romance of the endeavor, you’re really left with slogging away word by word and wringing your heart and soul over the deformed structure and hoping that someone somewhere can look at the mess you made and think it’s worthwhile, too.

These three lessons—that I don’t need to be married, that I don’t need to be a father, that I don’t need to be a writer—are true. And they’re real. Any of us who happen to be married and or have children or who labor at writing can stop doing these activities at any time we wish. You know this as well as I do.

It may not help you to acknowledge this reality (and don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of fear in even voicing the giddy liberation that quitting evokes), but for me, it’s encouraging because it reminds me why I won’t quit my marriage or why I won’t abandon my children or why I won’t stop writing. I need to know I can quit because I need to also be reminded that I’ve chosen this.

I chose to be married to the woman I love, and I chose to be the father of these two boys whom I literally can’t imagine living without and I chose to be a writer. When you strip out the idealism, and you get to what at times are shitty moments by any rational standard, I have the power to choose how I act and react, how I behave, how I fail.

Failing or losing, these are outcomes. My wife could finally wise up and end our marriage. My sons could loathe me as the worst of all fathers. I could never complete my novels or they could linger forever on my computer, unread and unpublished. But these are results.

It’s quitting that’s the choice. We can’t choose if we lose, but we can choose if we quit.

The way to honor our dreams is to accept the difficult work that is our moment by moment responsibility. 

Influences - JM DeMatteis

Many geeks will tell you (and many non-geeks should learn) that the 1980s were a vibrant era for the comic book form.

Lucky for me (and the world, too, I reckon), I was an impressionable teenager building the foundation of my writerly self at the time.

And I happened to collect comics.

In the 1980s, both mainstream and independent comic book publishers were pushing the medium to tell complex stories, sometimes with superheroes and sometimes not, typically pairing innovative story-telling with stunning, genre-busting art work. (The first painted comics—as opposed to the historical pencil/ink creations—began appearing in the mid-1980s.)

There was a wondrous, ground-breaking series hitting shelves every week. Maybe it’s nostalgia speaking, but to someone who favored comic books to almost any other art form, the 1980s were a comic book renaissance.

One writer, though, was the writer I needed during that tumultuous time of my life. While my peers were discovering punk rock and ‘Catcher in the Rye,’ I was discovering the writing of JM DeMatteis.

What sets DeMatteis apart from the likes of Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman is the raw, personal and spiritual bent DeMatteis brings to his scripts. Reading into comments I’ve absorbed from DeMatteis, as well as the works themselves, he takes on each creative project with ideas in mind but without knowing where precisely the project will take him. That’s a risky artistic stance in a deadline-driven medium like comic books, and I have to guess DeMatteis has endured his share of sleepless nights while serving his muse.

Put simply: this honest, vulnerable, authentic approach to his artistic process is as risky as it is inspiring.

DeMatteis wrote several influential works in the 1980s, but the ones that made the deepest impression were Blood: A Tale, Moonshadow, his runs on Forever People and Doctor Fate, and his Martian Manhunter miniseries. Blood for its depiction of the spiritual searcher in a world where fallible humans write the scriptures, Forever People for its emphasis on the importance of owning the family you find, Doctor Fate for its contemplation of past lives and the soul-connections we have with our fellow wanderers, and Martian Manhunter for its gravitas and lyricism.

Each of the above works, as disparate as they may be, asks a spiritually-rooted question, almost like a koan. One of my favorite sequences in Blood: A Tale is when the protagonist vampire is transported to modern day New York and embodies the life of a wayward, disenfranchised artist-type who never executes his dreams. I read and re-read this sequence with all the solemnity a seventeen year old can muster. (And I must say that as a forty-plus-year-old, the sequence is frightening for how it accurately captures parts of my current existence.)

Moonshadow, though, was my ‘Catcher in the Rye.’ I read the collected graphic novel the summer of 1989 when I was waiting to finally jettison for college. The confluence between DeMatteis’ words and Jon J Muth’s art is one of the exceptional collaborations in comics. And Muth’s image of the seeker treading the tight-rope is one of those indelible images of the creative and spiritual life that I will carry with me forever.

It’s that perfect.

DeMatteis’ great strength as a writer is that he knows how to pose a fraught, complicated and lovely question, even in the supposedly base medium of comic books. He doesn’t expect to find the answers (art should never presume to know the answers, anyway), but instinctively, he and the visual artists with whom he has worked know that if the question is posed in just the right way, the answer is inherent in the spiritual and artistic journey itself, not in the end of a comic’s run or in the meeting of a deadline.

These many years later, with a literature degree or two shoved into my back pocket, I can appreciate the contradiction in finding the beautiful and the profound in the 'trashy' 'pop-culture' world of comic books. I love capital L Literature as much as the next English major. But we expect to find big ideas in dusty texts. We don't expect them in a medium supposedly aimed at children and adolescents. That element of surprise, of catching you sideways, is what I still love about reading comic books. 

Grace in the low places. Profundity in the seemingly mundane. DeMatteis' work embodies this aesthetic better than any other comic book writer working today.

10

Mark Chapman murdered John Lennon the day before my tenth birthday.

News of Lennon’s death  interrupted evening TV viewing—we were likely watching Monday Night Football http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n73GFvAyIjs – and then shifted by degrees to live broadcasts in front of the Dakota Apartments, where he was gunned down, and in Central Park where throngs of the distressed gathered to mourn.

I remember standing beside the television (I can still feel our retched carpet beneath my toes) as the cameras panned along the ever-growing crowd. People now had signs—the most famous asking the single but essential question WHY?--and were weeping with naked despair.

I had never experienced anything like it.

And without knowing what I was doing, or why I was doing it, I vowed to continue doing Lennon’s work.

Yeah.

Anyway, I knew well who John Lennon was; he was the singer of my favorite rock band. I grew up with the ‘post-LSD’ Beatles harmonizing my ears, and ‘Abbey Road’ was the soundtrack of ages 0-5. (‘Abbey’ is still, because everything is all about me all of the time, my favorite Beatles album.) I favored studying the record covers of the earlier Beatles releases because of the moody, clean-cut images (Yes, I know that in the mid-60s those Beatles haircuts were considered shaggy but by the early 70s, those mop tops were practically flat-tops.)

I doubt I’m the only child born of hippies that found aesthetic solace in the sharp styles and clear lines of the 50s and early 60s. In the 70s there was just so much…hair.

Not unrelated: My parents were Southern California surfer hippies (this genus of hippie did in fact exist), and Lennon and Yoko Ono guided their lifestyles. All those tired clichés of the 60s—the peace activism (which in my parents' peer group was mostly draft dodging the war in Vietnam), the drugs, the sexual mores—this was where I grew up. Lennon and Ono together served as an oracle sending messages from on high. Such singular cultural influence is difficult to imagine now, but there was a reason that Lennon hid away in the mid-1970s – when everyone is hanging on your every whim and word, living with that responsibility is daunting if not crushing.

Back to that ten year old at the television. I felt loss. Not only for myself but for my parents. The silence in the room was telling. I knew I was in the midst of an important moment, and I responded in the way a child on the cusp of moving into double-digit age would: with a ridiculous pronouncement I couldn’t possibly live up to.

And yet, Lennon’s life and death still shadow my days. Especially my birthday. He was there for me as a teenager when I needed a roguish father figure to tell me that living an artistic life was possible. He was there for me when Christianity failed to provide me with a satisfying spiritual vocabulary. He was there to instruct me how to articulate my feelings about my conflicted relationship with my own mother, with my own distant father. When my own two sons were born, he was there with perhaps the best parenting advice I’ve received: be there. No matter how you’re feeling in the moment, just be there.

One of my all-time favorite comic book writers JM Dematteis has an amazing account of actually meeting Lennon http://www.jmdematteis.com/2010/04/meeting-lennon-part-one.html that speaks so well to the level of obsessive personal worship and shiny-eyed fandom each of us has for the man. It’s impossible not to feel like we knew him, that he was right here next to us up until the moment when Chapman stole him away.

It’s probably a cliché at this point to acknowledge that I’ve now lived longer than Lennon. And that in that time I’ve accomplished far, far less as an artist. But there it is. I can’t say that I became a writer because of that day in 1980, but then again, that damned ten year old probably knew what he was doing when he committed us to a creative path we couldn’t possibly complete and one that we can’t possibly deny.

Rest well, John. 

NaNo-What Now?

November is NaNoWriMo.

What the hell is that, you ask? (I did.) You can find out more about it here: http://nanowrimo.org/ but the gist is that it's a writing contest where participants strive to write as much of a novel as they can in one month's time. 

Maybe the rest of you aren't as erudite and cultured as I am (ahem), so I'll admit that I was initially skeptical (perhaps even dismissive) of the idea. NaNoWriMo embraces anyone who has a month to throw word count after word count at it, and there's a hint of favoring production over almighty art. It's purposefully democratic. And one could extend its philosophy to the rise of self-publishing and e-books.

I wasn't sure of this at first. I carried with me a very outmoded idea of what the art and craft of writing should be. 

But I was wrong. Wrong about self-publishing and wrong about NaNoWriMo.

The awesome and insanely prolific Beth Shelby introduced me to NaNoWriMo a couple years ago. Along with Stephen King's On Writing, I credit the NaNoWriMo primer  No Plot, No Problem for prompting me to actually complete my novel The Ten Vanished Memories of Charles McManus. This is my mea culpa.

For those of you who aren't writers and who don't care to be, you should know that we writers often have neurotic tics. (Understatement.) Most of us ritualize the act of writing. This is an understandable adaptive behavior when you consider that writers spend much of their time caught within the mystery of their own writing process - be it in their own heads or at a computer or some combination in-between. Sometimes the ideas and words flow with ease, sometimes they flow and we can't stop them, and sometimes the words never come and we beg and we plead for any scrap of an idea.

One of my favorite examples of writing neurosis in action is that of the great TV writer David Milch. In a very excellent New Yorker profile, those of you unfamilair with why writers are such freaks can marvel at Milch's tale of his time in a creative writing program when he would type and re-type the same pages, word for word, over and over again. Sadly, Milch's struggles make perfect sense to me.

One of my tics is that I will endlessly revise. Endlessly. I have revised my first novel, which is still in process, for over ten years. This isn't good. Yes, it's possible that I'm a great writer of the Donna Tartt variety who just takes forever to get a novel complete. But the much more likely scenario is that I'm stuck, and I'm too afraid to make the necessary changes or cuts or, the worst option, admit defeat and move on. 

NaNoWriMo changed me. So, OK, Ten Vanished Memories has so far taken me almost four years, and it's a short novel with a pretty clear narrative through-line, but the beauty and genius of NaNo is that it pushes you to draft without looking back. Just write and keep going. I couldn't have gotten the novel to where it is now without adopting and embracing NaNo's philosophy.

I've mentioned elsewhere that, to me, the art of writing is in the revising. Once the words are on the page, that's when work transcends to art. But getting the words onto the page, getting an entire novel down before you revise, that's a difficult but necessary challenge. I want to go back and tinker. The urge is compulsive and so seductive. And I can tell myself--lie to myself--that I'm writing when all I'm doing is snipping and pruning. Endlessly.

Full disclosure: I don't participate in the NaNoWriMo contest, nor do I limit my drafting to November. Given the constraints on my time, a little every day is the only workable model. (Although I can understand why writers hole themselves up in order to get their drafts down.) But in terms of freeing me from the prison of my own process, NaNoWriMo has been an invaluable asset.

It is for the self-described non-writers that I think NaNoWriMo is the true revelation, though. You will never be the same after you let yourself write hour upon hour, day after day, for an entire month. Give it a try. 

 

Influences - In Search Of

"This series presents information based in part on theory and conjecture. The producer's purpose is to suggest some possible explanations, but not necessarily the only ones, to the mysteries we will examine."

Ironic how the disclaimer that led off one of the GREATEST TV SERIES OF ALL TIME would also apply to writing fiction. 

For those of you who don't know there was, in the late 70s and early 80s, only one show that dared to address questions that your typical eight year old would consider vital: Does Bigfoot exist? What exactly is in Loch Ness? Was there really a Wolf Man?

Yes, only one show scared and enthralled, captivated and horrified, like In Search Of

Hosted with the just-right gravitas of Leonard Nimoy, whom I was aware of thanks to Star Trek reruns (plus the animated Star Trek series), In Search Of struck the essential balance between hokey and frightening that any kid (and I suppose adult) would find intoxicating. I mean, what other shows at the time seriously examined the possible existence of, say, UFOs with a combination of found footage, interviews with 'experts' and re-enactments?

That's right. None.  

I've made mention on this site and in my blog about how much my aesthetic was shaped (i.e., twisted) by the syndicated episodes of The Twilight Zone. I had almost forgotten about TTZ's shadow twin In Search Of. Interestingly, Rod Serling hosted the first In Search Of documentaries and would have continued to do so for the series proper had he not passed away. No further pop culture blessing need be applied, thank you very much. 

I suppose one could quibble about the, well, factual accuracy of the show. One could throw around words like 'scientific method' 'evidence' 'proof' if one wanted to be an absolute kill-joy. That's missing the point. Setting aside the dangers that some folks will believe anything they see on TV (which is admittedly a pretty massive set-aside) In Search Of's greatness resided in its ability to instill wonder and awe in the world around us.

Who doesn't want to believe that, just down that way, there is a Bermuda Triangle that will slurp you into a trans-dimensional vortex? I mean, come on. 

And I have to admit that even as an adult I'm still intrigued by a story like the one about Coral Castle. It's just so...odd and magical. 

Thank you You Tube. And thank YOU In Search Of.