Why I Write Stories

Recently a friend asked: “What draws you to writing books instead of say screenplays? Why literature? Why that over any other type of writing?”

Aside from his generosity in referring to my scribbles as “literature”, I was struck by this simple question, which — so far as I can recall — I’ve never gotten from a student in 20 years of classroom teaching. It sent me thinking, and I’m not sure I have a satisfying answer to give. But that’s never stopped me before, and (like Sarah Kay) I find that sometimes the writing itself can lead to answers.

I think the easiest answer is the most obvious: I was surrounded by books from birth, and I fell in love with the worlds they led me to. The Belgariad by David Eddings and the Amber novels by Roger Zelazny whisked me to realms of fantasy and wonder. I wanted to create universes of my own.

I’ve written elsewhere about the iconography of writing, and to this day that remains a potent influence. Above my desk — as I write these words — is a photo of the writing table of Florida novelist Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. So when I fell in love with books and images of writers, the next step was to produce writing of my own.

I didn’t know any other kind of writing as a child. There were essays for school (ick) and stories. Make a story long enough and you got a novel. I watched movies and played role-playing games, but I didn’t make the connection between those media and the writing that created them until later. Meanwhile, I wrote lots of silly stories, and began work on my first novel at the age of 13.

Those things did provide inspiration for story ideas, though. And by “inspiration” I mean “I copied them”. One of my earliest writing memories is of seeing the VHS box art for Robocop (my mom wouldn’t let us kids watch such violent films, nor did I want to at the time) and writing a story that was identical to what I imagined that movie was like.

As I grew older and my writing became more sophisticated, I did branch out into other forms. I wrote longer nonfiction pieces to inform the world about global economics (so I could share my very limited understanding) and tried my hand at hip-hop lyrics starting in 1999. I continued writing stories (longer, more serious fare, like the works in This Ain’t What You Rung For), and finished my fourth novel in 2010. (All four are, as yet, unpublished.)

But I never considered screenplays or radio dramas. Those formats hold allure for me, but they require other ways of telling the story. They need to be formatted differently, too, which leads me to suspect that I keep writing short stories and novels simply because I’m too lazy to explore other approaches.

Then there’s the even-more-formidable obstacles to distribution. When I write a story, I can submit it to a magazine. (I’m currently working on a story I plan to submit to Asimov’s Science Fiction.) Or I can print up copies to give to friends. Someday maybe I’ll get a novel published by a traditional publishing company. On the other hand, that’s probably not a sensible dream. The point is that I have lots of control over what happens to my words. When I self-publish, I get to take all the action as quickly as I like — I’m pretty impatient sometimes — and I get to choose how the cover looks, which fonts to use in the layout, etc.

As for “literature”, that’s more about subject matter, and the truth is that I’ve always written lots of different types of stories. I started out with fantasy and science fiction, because that’s what I loved reading. After college I stepped toward realist fiction, because I wanted to explore some themes in everyday modern human life. But my fourth novel is magical realism, my current project is post-apocalyptic zombie SF, and I even wrote a romance story in This Ain’t.

Sarah Kay said, in her awesome TED Talk (linked above): “I’m always trying to find the best way to tell each story.” I suppose I do this too, but usually the format precedes the topic for me. Sometimes I get an idea for a song and I’m all “Okay time to rap in the voice of Martin Shkreli.” Sometimes I’ll have a tiny idea for a story, and pound out a one-page dealie like “The Envelope”. And of course I write plenty of nonfiction too. I’ve got a book about teaching I’m trying to finish up, and my book about politics will hopefully be out in the summer of this year.

I hope that answers your question, my friend. I’m always humbled and flattered when anyone takes time to read my words, and even more so when people inquire about the thought process that underlies it all. So thank you (and anyone reading these words) for your interest.

Beats in the ‘Cloud

I put some INS beats on SoundCloud. Now you don’t have to deal with annoying MP3s. Make sure you spell my name right on the MacArthur Grant.

Deer, Me

There I am, driving in to Sun Prairie this morning on Highway N like I do every day. Public Enemy is on full, Terminator X pounding through my system. I’m getting psyched for the day ahead as I pass the BP station, ready to wake some heads and rattle some cages.

Then BAM something hits my car — OH MY GOD I hit a deer — and there’s a black piece of something stuck to the door, dragging alongside the car and flipping up to hit the window. I’m freaking out and I kill the radio. My hands are shaking and I almost drop my bagel. I take crazy rapid breaths, trying to calm down as I pull over. I put the bagel in the dish beside me and hit the emergency lights.

It was a deer oh god I hit a deer! How could I hit a deer? I’m always so careful. People who hit deers aren’t paying attention but I hit a deer so I guess I wasn’t paying attention oh god that poor animal why did my industrial machine have to kill it? Is my car totally broken now? What the hell just happened?

I get out of the car and realize that a strip of plastic from the bumper is jammed in the the wheel well. I yank it out and drop it in front of the car. I expect blood and deer body parts, but there’s nothing. The bumper gap has exposed a plastic tank, and it’s dripping onto the pavement. I put my hand under — which I immediately realize is stupid, since it could be really hot or corrosive or something — and sniff the liquid. It doesn’t smell of anything.

A guy who lives in the house across the street comes over and assures me that it happens all the time. I ask if I should call the police and he says “Sheriff’s Department.” I ask if I can use his cell phone because I don’t own one. He dials and talks to someone. I look at my car. There’s no deer parts around, and the splotches look more like mud than anything. I look at my hands, which are filthy. I take the strip of broken bumper plastic to the trunk and put it inside. The towel I expect to find is missing. I look back at the road and there’s the deer corpse in the middle of it. Cars are slowly moving around it.

“They’re sending someone,” the homeowner says, hanging up his cell phone. I thank him and try to laugh.

“Whenever I hear about people hitting a deer,” I say, talking really fast, “I always think Oh they weren’t paying attention. What’s wrong with people? But you don’t realize how fast it can happen until it happens to you.”

He nods and says he needs to start packing up his truck for work. We’re a bit of a contrast — here I am in my suit with my pink shirt and pink tie (I totally forget about the LGBTQ-solidarity rainbow flag lapel pin, which surely adds an interesting element into the dynamic), and there he goes with his jeans and Packers jacket, ready to move stuff into his truck as his kids wait for the bus. I worry that I’m coming off like some effete intellectual (which I am), and I think about the perceived class difference and the probable actual class difference and my brain’s just racing.

Two people pull over and a woman asks if I’m alright. I say yes and she drives off. A second guy in a Notre Dame cap nods and stands near me, tapping his cell phone. I tell him he doesn’t have to wait because I’m fine and the car seems okay and the other dude called the sheriff. He just nods and I think Okay that’s weird. Then I look at his white SUV and I realize one of the headlights is gone.

“Oh wait,” I say, “did you hit it too?”

“Yeah,” he says. “I was going the other way and I guess it bounced off of me and hit you.”  He does that thing Scott McCloud describes in Understanding Comics Chapter Two:

The vehicle becomes an extension of our body. It absorbs our sense of identity. We become the car. If one car hits another, the driver of the vehicle being struck is much more likely to say “Hey! He HIT me!” than “He hit my car” or “His car hit my car”, for that matter.

Oh, so I didn’t hit the deer. I mean, I did, but only because it ricocheted off the other guy’s car. Maybe he wasn’t paying attention. Wait, really? Weren’t you just talking about how stupid it is to jump to conclusions like that?

These are the conversations that go on in my head all day every day.

“It could be worse,” the Notre Dame cap guy says. “At least it’s not raining.” He gestures to the sky. “We can enjoy this sunrise.”

“Yeah,” I say. I pull out my iPod and take a photo of the sunrise, which I often do anyway. Oh man he probably thinks I’m some weird arty geek (which I am) but he doesn’t realize I often take photos of the sunrise when I get to school. My brain continues racing. I get some napkins out of the glove box and wipe some of the dirt off my hands. I get out the manual and find a diagram of the engine area. The leaky plastic tank is for windshield washer fluid. Whew.

We wait. I practice being here now and count my breaths. Notre Dame Cap Guy points out that someone is pulling the deer corpse off the road into the ditch. We wave thanks.

The teacher who teaches next door to me pulls over. As soon as I see that it’s her I laugh and approach her car. “I’m fine,” I say as she rolls down the passenger window. “Everything’s fine. We hit a deer.” She asks if I need a ride and I say no. “Thanks, though. I should be in soon.” She nods and heads off.

We wait some more. Eventually a cop car pulls up and an officer approaches us. I think about Philando Castile and Alton Sterling and how different I might feel in this moment if I were a black man. The officer takes down our info — I’m visibly delighted to see that I have an up-to-date insurance card in my wallet — and goes back to his cruiser. A minute later he comes back with a report number scribbled on his business card. We thank him.

“So you’re both okay?” he asks. We nod.

He pauses. “Do either of you want the deer?” he asks. We say no, but I wonder if maybe one of the hunter kids at school would like the meat. Oh well. We pack up and drive off.

I feel really bad for the deer. I hear the line from My Cousin Vinny, in Marisa Tomei’s thick New York accent. “Imagine you’re a deer.” The only thing that animal did wrong was frolic through the prairie at the wrong time. Our industrial automotive fixation killed it, as it kills thousands of other animals every day. One of those hideous, acceptable tragedies that probably could be avoided if we transformed our entire society.

Oh well. It could have been worse.

Back in the Day

While home over the holiday, I digitized some photos from back in the day.

The Worst Part of Writing

I have started the most frustrating, demoralizing, and tedious activity every writer has to endure: I have begun begging agents and publishers to promote my work.

I’m a damn good writer. I’ve been doing it for decades, and I know I’ve got skills. When I took a writing class this summer, the instructor (a nationally known writer with years of experience in the industry) said: “I can’t help you with the writing.” Fortunately she offered plenty of assistance with the publishing process, which has been a great benefit.

I can’t stand this stuff. A 2012 article by Michael Bourne explains — with an insider’s perspective — what I despise about the business of publishing:

If that sounds like I’m saying, “It’s all about who you know,” that’s because that is exactly what I’m saying. You can rail about how unfair that is, and how it makes publishing into an incestuous little club, and to a degree you would be right: a lot of very dumb books get published because somebody knew somebody. But that’s the way the machine is built, people.

He says if you want to get published “you have to immerse yourself in the literary community”. He explains his own poor results with “cold-calling” submissions to agents and publishers, and how the response rate skyrocketed after he “went to a couple writing conferences” and “met agents in person and told them about [his] book”.

Well, there’s a problem here: Those conferences cost a lot of money — money most schoolteachers don’t have. They also require lots of time, which is also in desperately short supply for someone like me. Meanwhile, spending hundreds of dollars to attend these things is no guarantee, and the chances are slim that agents I do meet will have any interests that align with my book. I hate the thought of turning myself into a sniveling self-important toady, following agents around and begging them to consider my writing.

Yesterday I got a very nice rejection email which included the sentence: “You seem like a really cool person and an amazing teacher.” It went on to explain that, given the woeful market for books today, most publishers simply will not take a chance on a first-time nobody.

In other words: It doesn’t matter how good my book is. It doesn’t matter if I’ve got important things to say to the world, or how well I can say them. It doesn’t matter how much skill I have in writing about video games and education — I’m nobody, and therefore no one cares about my writing.

Dead Prez said it best in their song “It’s Bigger than Hip Hop”:

This fake a** industry — gotta pay to get a song on the radio
Really though, DP’s gon’ let you know
It’s just a game of pimps and hoes
And it’s all ’bout who you know
Not who we are, or how we grow

 I can’t imagine my favorite writers — Nelson Algren, Stanislaw Lem, Marge Piercy — paying hundreds of dollars to shmooze with industry folk in the scant hope of scoring a few seconds of one-on-one time to bloviate about their writing. The whole thing turns my stomach.

As I’ve often said, the only alternative is for some well-connected individual to stumble upon my writing and make it a personal mission to link me with an agent or publisher. And obviously that ain’t happening, so I gotta just keep at it.

Vomit.