How to Feel Inadequate

Coming Down

This will be a story about two things, poorly organized.

It’s been about two weeks since I gave my manuscript the final read through and sent it off to my editors. My eyes stung, my body reeked, my brain frayed on sugar and caffeine overdose. Almost bankrupt from the work shifts I’d given away to write it. Two weeks on my finances are still kind of dicey. It could be another six to eight months before I see a dime from the thing, if not more. It’s almost enough to make a man wonder why he bothers.

Almost.

People have constantly asked me throughout this process, But aren’t you excited?! I am but I’m not. The 18 months I proposed, researched and wrote this book were a time of intense personal loss, on a few different levels, not the least of which was the breakdown of my six-year relationship, compounded by the loss of the woman who saw me through that breakup and made sure I stayed above water. There are lessons of self-sufficiency to be found there, I’m sure, but I don’t care to excavate them today. Suffice to say, I learned the hard way what most writers already know: any project may turn into a collaborative process, but in the thick of it, it’s just you, the screen and the words. And in my case, a dead man.

That’s been the strangest part of all this, now that I’m “over the mountain,” as it were.  I spent large portions of every day with this guy in my head, listening to his music, researching his life, reading what people who knew him had to say. I don’t need to do that anymore. I need to let him go. And I’ve started to, but I kind of already miss him.

After I mailed the draft in, I got nine hours of sleep, went to work for a quick shift and tended to the business of cleaning my sty of an apartment after weeks of neglect. I had Songza on for accompaniment, I think it was an 80’s party playlist. Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out” came on. I was hungry, so I took a moment to eat some yogurt and take stock of what I’d done and what still needed cleaning. And I don’t know, something about the breeze coming in my window, realizing I’d gotten enough of my life back to actually clean the house, Joe Jackson reminding me we’re all young but getting old before our time… I felt something resembling pride in my accomplishment. It didn’t matter who was supposed to be there when I finished,the point was finishing.

Details have trickled in over the last couple of weeks. A cover design, a release date, a listing on the publisher site [you can find all these details on the recently redesigned page for the book, just click ’33 1/3 Donuts’ above]. Currently my editor’s looking at the manuscript, she’ll send it back to me hacked to shit with ideas on how to make it better, I will spend a month rewriting based on her suggestions and then my tiny little hype machine will kick into high gear, and I’ll really be in trouble, because eventually someone’s going to ask the [reasonable] question, “Who the fuck is this guy, and why does he get to write about Dilla?!” And I don’t have an answer. I’m told most creative types, especially writers, live with the anxiety that we’re all just frauds and one day someone will realize it and tell the world.

Neil Gaiman has lived with this anxiety. Despite winning multiple awards for his writing, building a career that’s endured over 30 years and proving he can write everything from films to children’s books to comics and radio plays, he still worries that one day someone will knock on his door, confiscate his notepads and force him to get a real job.  He discussed this fear in a speech he made to the 2012 graduating class at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts. He put everything he knew about trying to build a career in the arts into those 20 minutes, and of course it went viral online, eventually being collected in a slim volume designed by Chip Kidd called Fantastic Mistakes. Knowing Gaiman was stopping in Toronto as part of his “Last Signing Tour” a mere five days after my draft day, the speech, with its dedication to everyone wondering “Now what?” [which I most certainly was] it seemed like a suitable item for him to sign [since I’d forgotten to bring my copy of Sandman #1 back from my parents’ house].

The first time I met Gaiman, I told him about being 10 or 11 years old and stumbling across an interview of his on the old TVOntatio show Prisoners of Gravity, and how I thought he was the coolest guy I’d ever seen, and started reading Sandman shortly afterward. His stories changed my life; where books like Dark Knight Returns or Arkham Asylum left a marked impression on me, Sandman didn’t have any of the nihilism those books did, there was always a humanity and optimism in them, something that spoke to me then like it spoke to me in his latest book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane (no lie, my favourite thing of his in years. No shots, just personal taste). Four years ago, he’d seemed genuinely touched by the story, looked up and smiled, then shook my hand, something I hadn’t seen him do much with the other people in line.

When I saw him a couple weeks ago, he was personable, if a little weary, and I launched into an off the cuff monologue about why I was having him sign the speech, and my book coming out, and how I took the advice to ‘make good art” very seriously, considering the circumstances surrounding my book’s inception (great fun watching his publicist try to piece that one together, as the woman I used to date was standing next to me in line). And for the second consecutive time, he paused, looked up at me and offered his hand, pen still threaded in his fingers. I think this means we’re best friends now.

Last Holiday I was speaking with a friend who’d recently separated from her husband and told her that for the first time in my life, I really didn’t know what the next 12 months were going to hold, for any of us. Most of the time, we go through our lives with at least a small degree of certainty: X and Y will remain married, you will live in this certain city, work at this certain job, etc. At the end of 2012, I couldn’t speak to any of that. Relationships were ending, careers were changing, people were moving. I had no idea what the gameboard was going to look like a year from then. Almost 3/4 through this year, I have even less of an idea. The book’s in, it could be the start of the career I’ve always wanted, or it could be some footnote on my life, a cool thing I did once.I probably don’t need to know that right now, which is rare for me, and extremely liberating. All I need to know right now is that trying to make good art and trusting my instincts is what got me here, and continuing to do the same is what will see me through.

You can read or watch the “Make Good Art’ speech here.

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Uhh…. Now What?

I haven’t shaved since Thursday. I don’t think I’ve eaten a proper vegetable in longer than that. My four-month-old Macbook blew a pixel somewhere during the process. My fluid consumption hasn’t been caffeine-free since last Saturday. But I pulled it off.

Yes, friends, I finished it. I submitted it. It’s fate rests in the good hands of the folks at the publisher.

If you squint at that photo you can suss out what it was for. I won’t openly acknowledge it since I’m superstitious like that. I should know either way within the next couple of months. Me and all the other cranks who took advantage of the open call, ha.

Whether or not it gets accepted or not is kind of irrelevant, though. It was a good idea, and it’ll still be a good idea if they decide it’s not a good fit for them right now. I’ll find somewhere else for it.

What’s more important is the education this whole whirlwind provided me. Chief among the lessons: This is what I love to do. Waking up at 6.00 a.m. some days was still a pain in the ass, but once I got the coffee maker working, sitting down to work on it was a joy. I’m sure this was partially due to the pressure of the oncoming deadline thanks to my brain’s inability to summon an idea until just over a week before the due date, but it was more to do with loving what I was doing. The hardest part now is waking up tomorrow and not have to immediately rush to the cafe or the kitchen table to get some work in before I went to my job.

I hope it will be habit forming. This last week was the only time in recent memory I wrote every day. On something I valued, not cranking out a blog entry to distract myself from short stories or anything else I had on the go. Working on the proposal only served to affirm how much I love to make things, whether that’s podcasts or stories or blogs. These are the things that bring meaning to my life. Some of you probably knew that all along. I’ve always been a bit of a dullard when it comes to these things.

Thankfully, I have two other writing projects to try and finish this week, along with the aforementioned Macbook display issue to try and remedy, so I’ll be able to keep busy. Turns out, I kinda like busy.

Before I collapse in slumber, I would be remiss if I did not thank some people for their love and support this past week. I can be….,, unpleasant to deal with when immersed in a project like this. It lives in my head and consumes my thoughts, which can lead me to expect people around me to read my mind by osmosis, or to understand what I mean with little explanation. This can…strain some relationships occasionally. My thanks to those who gritted their teeth and let me go crazy, or kicked my ass when I was needing it.

To Richelle Gratton, Tera Brasel, Jeff Meloche, Khaiam Dar, Caitlin MacKinnon, Sarah Jacobs and Nicole Bryant: you all get shouts in the acknowledgements. And I hate acknowledgement sections in books.

Now, I think I’ll go pass out.

Speaking Softly: On ‘Quiet,’ by Susan Cain

During my brief and infrequent stints in an office environment, the one criticism consistently lobbed at me by managers and superiors was my perceived unwillingness to engage with people, to favor email over face-to-face communication, for vocalizing my ideas in the casual debriefing we would have after meetings. I was told, explicitly and implicitly, that my preferred method of conducting myself was something I needed to “get over,” and with no small amount of time and difficulty, I did to an extent. But the second my boss presented me with a request for information from somewhere in the company I’d never dealt with before, I would sit at my desk and have to psych myself up for something as simple as an email, then pore over every word, read the thing out loud to ensure the information was related clearly, then get irritated when my carefully constructed email would snag a two-line reply.

How lovely, then, to come across a book arguing that not only is it okay to be how I am, sometimes it’s even preferable.

Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking isn’t a 300-page excuse for the introverted to retreatfurther into themselves, rather it’s an indictment of a certain type of Western worldview that puts a premium on the dynamic, go-getter extroverted types at the expense of the more reserved among us who would prefer to make decisions more slowly.  Cain travels everywhere from the Harvard Business School to Cupertino, California to an Anthony Robbins Seminar, marveling at how sharp the dichotomy is between introverts and extroverts really is, and how painful the struggle is for introverts trying to fake it in a world that doesn’t value them or what they can contribute [like the guy at the Harvard Business School who pulls great grades but feels he’s wasting his education because he can’t muster the energy to attend the multiple social outings he was expected to attend every week].

The worlds of business and education come under the harshest scrutiny from Cain, with their unrelenting emphasis on forced collaborations that sometimes do more to stifle innovation than encourage it.  I mean, I was a low rung on the ladder when I was in the office, my busiest day might have involved three meetings at the most.  That’s still at least three hours of the day that I’m not working, at least not under my definition of the word.  I can only imagine what it’s like for people who are actually busy there.

But, the book doesn’t let introverts off the hook, examining the ways in which they can stretch themselves into pretend extroverts to better make their way in the world. It can be done, but it’s important to note, and the book does so frequently, that it really only works when introverts believe fully and passionately about the things they are stretching themselves for: I was able to finally start speaking up in meetings because I fully cared about the ideas we were sharing; I can talk to someone I’ve never met at the bookstore for fifteen minutes or more because I’m passionate about books and reading and want to help a stranger in their reading experience.

While I adored the book, I found I enjoyed it the most when I was able to most recognize my experience in it; when Cain wrote about things like the science of introversion and extroversion or how to encourage introverted kids [subjects I agree the book needed to address] I found myself skimming ahead.

All told, Quiet was a fantastic read, and pretty mandatory for anyone who’s ever been made to feel like there’s something wrong with them because their idea of an amazing Friday night involves a pizza and a movie at home more than a house party crammed with people.

For the interested but lazy, check out Cain’s 16-point ‘Quiet Manifesto,’ [taken from her website] as well as her recent TED Talk on the subject.

1. There’s a word for “people who are in their heads too much”: thinkers.

2. Our culture rightly admires risk-takers, but we need our “heed-takers” more than ever.

3. Solitude is a catalyst for innovation.

4. Texting is popular because in an overly extroverted society, everyone craves asynchronyous, non-F2F communication.

5. We teach kids in group classrooms not because this is the best way to learn but because it’s cost-efficient, and what else would we do with the children while all the grown-ups are at work? If your child prefers to work autonomously and socialize one-on-one, there’s nothing wrong with her; she just happens not to fit the model.

6. The next generation of quiet kids can and should be raised to know their own strength.

7. Sometimes it helps to be a pretend-extrovert. There’s always time to be quiet later.

8. But in the long run, staying true to your temperament is the key to finding work you love and work that matters.

9. Everyone shines, given the right lighting. For some, it’s a Broadway spotlight, for others, a lamplit desk.

10. Rule of thumb for networking events: one genuine new relationship is worth a fistful of business cards.

11. It’s OK to cross the street to avoid making small talk.

12. “Quiet leadership” is not an oxymoron.

13. The universal longing for heaven is not about immortality so much as the wish for a world in which everyone is always kind.

14. If the task of the first half of life is to put yourself out there, the task of the second half is to make sense of where you’ve been.

15. Love is essential, gregariousness is optional.

16. “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” – Gandhi

Where Jordan Be?

My Wrestlemania moment, when a friend in attendance at WM23 held up a sign informing the world that I smelled.

The long overdue housekeeping post.

Despite the recent flurry of activity around here, I can’t stand here all proud of myself for the quality content I’ve been providing you, friends, because as always, it comes on the heels of another screeching halt.  That tends to be the routine around here: flurry of activity, screeching halt.  I try to blame it on the dark days of February, but as someone recently said to me, ‘February comes every year,’ and well, it is April now, isn’t it?

I’m not exactly a shining example of the rhythm method of blogging, since I never seem to get into one, but I’m slowly trying to take all of this more seriously, to actually believe what I talk about when I talk about PFG. Maybe it’s all the wrestling writing I’ve been doing here lately [I should really look for an outlet for that], paying attention to the art of the promo, maybe it’s the book I’m reading when I’m not reading short stories: Susan Cain’s Quiet, all about the realities faced by introverts in a world where the Extrovert is the ideal [full review forthcoming when I finish].   But, whether I believe it in my heart that I’m good at what I do around here, as The Rock would say, “It doesn’t matter what I think.” I need to act like I do. 

I have a friend convincing me to take my writerly endeavours more seriously from a business perspective, and as I start to think about it in that fashion, I already feel the shift in me taking it more seriously, all the things I want to do but wouldn’t, due to financial constraints, even the measly seventeen dollars it would take me to remove that .wordpress from my URL.  But if I’m gonna promote, it sends a message right there that I don’t believe in myself enough to invest the cash to own this domain outright. Time to get serious…er.

That said, even in those periods of silence, I can still be found writing here and there. I shout them out on Twitter, but I undertsand not everyone follows me there [though you really should, I’m pretty funny sometimes].  You can find some of my writing on books over at the Chapters/Indigo Blog [I’m personally fond of the piece on The Annotated Sandman], and I do a monthly column for the Comic Book Fandom Group at the University of Toronto.  

I’ll be looking to update the bio page in the coming days, once I figure out what to say about myself, and there’s always the few samples of journalism, fiction and poetry I have in the ‘Works’ section.  One of the pieces recently got some unexpected attention, which may have sent me scurrying back into the foxhole I was in, but frankly I can’t afford to think like that anymore.

So read, friends. Appreciate. If you’d like to contract my services, get at me.  I still might not know what PFG is for, what it’s supposed to do.

But goddammit, I know it does it better than most.

Thirty Days of Stories: Day Twelve

Title: We and They

Author: Antonya Nelson

Appears in: Nothing Right [2009]

Premise: A progressive family in the early 90’s struggles to understand their adopted mix-race daughter.

Thoughts:  While my paperback copy of this collection is missing them, I’m fairly certain the hardcover enticed me with a murderer’s row of cover blurbs by everyone from Raymond Carver to Michael Chabon to David Foster Wallace.  Quite the endorsements.  The depressing thing is, Nelson deserves every one of them.

There’s a lot more going on in this story than that one line synopsis I provided would suggest, primarily the relationship between the adoptive family [The Landerses] and their relationship with the Catholic family across the street [The Pierces], the clash of values between them, and the reasoning for the Landerses adoption of the mixed-race toddlers Otis and Angel.

What I found the most striking about this story [and most stories in this collection, I’ve picked it apart pretty thoroughly as the margin scribbles throughout will attest; We and They was one of two stories I had yet to read in it] is how natural Nelson’s prose is.  Compare it to something like the Grace Paley story we looked at last time, where the writing is fantastic but moves at a slower pace, demands more concentration, Nelson’s writing just zips along, reading it is like cruising in a vintage roadster with the top down.  That isn’t to say the writing isn’t good, far from it. It just means, even at its most descriptive,  at its funniest, the prose is so relaxed and natural it never feels like any work went into it at all, which is of course the first sign that something is genius-level good.

I suspect, purely conjecture, that Nelson reads her work aloud a lot. In my experience it’s the only way to get prose that sounds that natural.  One of the few things I can admit that I do well is write dialogue, and a lot of that comes from reading out what I’ve written after a day of writing.  If it don’t sound right in your ear, it won’t sound right in a reader’s head.  Of course, you do run the danger there of tying your characters too tightly to the vision you have of them in your head, robbing them of the chance to live and breathe on their own [I admit, this is something I still have never had happened to me, they’ve never surprised me because they’re never alive to me, they’re just end up me in costume].  But if you’re going to find your ‘voice’, something I’m still not sure I have, then that’s the way to do it.

Lesson: Read out loud. Relinquish control of your characters. Really think of them as people, and not players you’re directing.

Favourite Line: “Our large family was not the result of Catholic faith and we didn’t attend Blessed Sacrament church or school, despite the fact that it was a stone’s throw away from our house. We threw stones, so we knew.”

Thirty Days of Stories: Day Seven

Title: A Good Man is Hard to Find

Author: Flannery O’Connor

Appears in: A Good Man is Hard to Find [1955]; The Complete Stories [1971]. You can read it online here.

Premise: A Grandmother and her family take a wrong turn on a vacation road trip and run into the serial murderer known in the papers as The Misfit.

Thoughts: Widely considered one of the greatest American short stories ever written, I shamefully admit I’d never read O’Connor’s masterpiece from beginning to end, despite having passages of it excerpted in at least 70% of creative writing books.  I’m not going to bother with telling you if the story’s good or not because it is, one of the rare examples of a writer deliberately layering symbolism on her work without it damaging the finished product: it’s the story that launched a million undergrad English essays. I’m also not going to break down my own interpretation of the story [though mine falls in line with popular academic opinion]. What I will tell you about are the choices O’Connor made that I admire. I admire that the mother’s name is never given, only ever referred to as ‘the children’s mother’; because the grandmother is the point of view for the story, and she’s selfish and vain, the children’s mother isn’t worth a mention by name, being no blood kin of hers.  The same with calling the murderous villain the family meets at the end of the story The Misfit.  He’s not a character, he’s a force of nature; I doubt Flannery O’Connor was one for superhero comics, which is intriguing since she essentially wrote The Joker into her best known work.

But the primary reason I wanted to make a point to read this story was because of its appearance in an essay I read recently on how even words as simple as ‘the’ and ‘a’ can add a layer of meaning to what a writer is saying, and are a choice, even if the words themselves are so innocuous.

The scene from AGMIHTF cited in the essay comes near the story’s end, where The Misfit’s accomplice has taken the grandmother’s son and grandson into the woods to shoot them. Throughout the story, O’Connor makes a point of drawing a reader’s attention to the grandmother’s son Bernie’s shirt, a yellow sport shirt with blue parrots on it. After Bernie and her grandson are killed, The Misfit’s accomplices return:

“Bobby Lee and Hiram came ambling back from the woods. Bobby Lee was dragging a yellow shirt with bright blue parrots in it.”

Bobby Lee tosses the shirt to The Misfit, who puts it on, beginning the story’s final movement. But what the essay I read was drawing attention to was O’Connor’s use of the word a.  ‘A yellow shirt.’  As readers, we know who the shirt belonged to.  If O’Connor had written it, ‘Bobby Lee was dragging the yellow shirt with bright blue parrots on it,’ the entire meaning of the scene changes.  The grandmother’s mental state, how she’s processing the horror going on around her, and how she’s not, all hinges on swapping out the for a. 

Isn’t that so ridiculous it’s amazing?

I’ll likely never write anything as good as the ending of this story [I found the first 2/3 far weaker, but they’re necessary for the ending to work], but I can remember that every story is a like a crystal, and every word choice an angle cut on it, that changes the way the light of a reader’s eye catches it.

Lesson: Every word is a choice. Every one.

Favourite line: “She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

Thirty Days of Stories: Day Four

Title: There Will Come Soft Rains

Author: Ray Bradbury

Appears in: The Martian Chronicles [1950]. You can read it online here.

Premise: In the year 2026, in the aftermath of nuclear devastation, an automated house in Allendale, California continues to perform its duties for residents that will never return.

Thoughts: It’s totally hypocritical for a guy who grew up reading superhero comics to chide and roll his eyes at science fiction for being pulpy in its narration, but those are still the moments that rang false to me here, despite thinking the story was great overall.

I’ve finally managed to develop the habit of looking at narration and asking myself and taking note of ‘who owns this?’ Who’s speaking it?  Bradbury’s working in a third-person “omniscient” style here, directing the narrative like a crane shot on a film camera, working through the house room by room as it performs its duties according to time of day. The world he builds in so few pages is identifiable, a reader can grasp the situation and the environment immediately [the first running theme in these stories]. Even though it appears in a collection of interconnected stories that fully flesh out an overarching story, it doesn’t matter for the purposes of ‘Soft Rains.’

What I like most about the story is Bradbury’s attention to detail, or maybe better put, his preparation. He knew every detail of that house before he wrote the first word. He knew every inch of the floor plan and every function of every imagined automated feature of the house, from the mice who clean tracked-in leaves and dirt, to the animated jungle scene that plays out in the nursery.

But there’s this flash of emotion that comes during the story’s climax that gave the story a sort of pulpy hysteria I didn’t think matched the rest of the work.  Probably by design, but it still struck me as off. It didn’t do anything to diminish my enjoyment of the story, though. Bradbury begins the story’s final sequence with a brutally casual statement of fact that actually made me gasp [though I might have still been reeling from tonight’s episode of The Walking Dead].  When the ultimate finish becomes clear, all you can do as a reader is watch, despairing, though you don’t know why, as all the living people in the story are long dead.

Lesson: Visualize your setting and your characters in their entirety, even if you don’t plan on ever using it. A reader can see through it if you try to half-ass it.

Favourite Line[s]: The entire west face of the house was black, save for five places. Here the silhouette in paint of a man mowing a lawn. Here,as in a photograph, a woman bent to pick flowers. Still farther over, their images burned on wood in one titanic instant, a small boy, hands flung into the air; higher up, the image of a thrown ball, and opposite him a girl,  ands raised to catch a ball which never came down.

Thirty Days of Stories: Day Three

Title: Surprised by Joy

Author: Charles Baxter

Appears in: Through the Safety Net [1985]; Gryphon: New and Selected Stories [2011]

Premise: A couple take a trip to New Mexico in an attempt to overcome their grief after the accidental death of their three year old child.

Thoughts: If we were interested in opinion for these purposes, I would argue that this was a strange story to get through. Most of Baxter’s stories are strange and difficult for me to get through, due to their Michigan settings echoing the drab mundanity of 1980s Amherstburg, Ontario.  This story never really fired off for me until the closing moments, which is likely by design; Baxter’s too masterful a stylist for it not to be.  We see the couple, Jeremy and Harriet [I find the name selection troubling, I associate it with elderly women, not the mothers of toddlers] in their grey moments of grief, the effort it takes to survive one hour to the next, the moment it becomes clear they need additional help, and the moment Harriet, to Jeremy’s sadness, puts her grief aside to see the beauty around her. Baxter keeps the tone of the story cold for the first half, mirroring the mental state of his characters. Even the use of a chapter break between the Michigan scenes and the New Mexico scenes denote the shift that will be occurring, up to the heartbreaking moment it becomes clear to Jeremy his wife has left him alone with his despair. Like Lipsyte, Baxter sprinkles the character details throughout to keep the Michigan moments from feeling like a total slog [Jeremy’s ‘Jazz from Mars,’ the conflict with the Jehovah’s Witnesses], and gives a cathartic emotional payoff by the story’s conclusion, surprising the reader with joy as much as his characters.

Lesson: Pacing is like fishing; know when to give some line, and know when to reel it in.

Favourite Line: “I don’t want to be all right!” he said, his voice rising, a horrible smile appearing on his face: it was a devil’s face, Harriet saw, and it was radiant and calm. Swear poured off his forehead, and his skin had started to flush pink. “It’s my pleasure not to be all right. Do you see that? My pleasure.”