Tag: writing

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 (All four are, as yet, unpublished.)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.

Writing Under the Gun

So there’s a new app called Flowstate that forces you to keep writing, or else all your words vanish. It’s supposed to liberate you from thinking too much and instead learn to trust your core creative self. (What Natalie Goldberg calls “burning through the first thoughts”.)

There’s also a free web version and a Slate article about it which mentions “gamelike qualities” including “flow” — which I view with skepticism as a fair bit of malarkey, unless it’s the psychological concept coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi — but I’m curious so I gave it a try.

I can’t imagine why anyone would want to read this twaddle, but here it is regardless.

well I didn’t want to write for five minutes straight, but I guess I’ll have to, since there’s no way to set it for only two minutes. I’ve had this recommended to me by two people now, which means I have to try it. There’s obviously no wait to use italics, which is weird, because I really wanted to italicize that word “have” in the previous sentence. I also worry that I’m focused too much on proper spelling, because delete doesn’t work — or I should say it doesn’t count as actually typing when you’re being measured by this clock in the upper-right corner of the screen. Then again I guess I cannot be too angry at that, because Natalie Goldberg in her book _Writing Down the Bones_ says that when you’re writing a first draft, you shouldn’t even bother to crrect mistakes. There, klook — I kept that typo in, manh that is really againsty my nature but i’m into trying new things so let’s see what happens when I don’t bother with fixing things as I go. I suppose it’s supposed to open some new door of my consciousness, like a Rider on the Storm, but I don’t really believe that’s likely. On the other hand, who knows what will happen when I try to fight the internal censor? Then again I’m just sorta writing for the purpose of writing and I think the pressure of the clock is more hurtful than helpful here. I mean, I want to kin of organize my thoughts but I can’t, because I’m paranoid that if I do the wrong thing all my writing is going to disappear and there are few things in life worse than the idea that something I’ve worked really hard for will just vanish. Then again, that’s kind of what happens when a minecraft server wipes, so you’d think I’d be used to that by now. In a way, maybe this new format is kind of like a Tibetan Mandala, and it6’s healthy for5 us to consider the value of working really hard on something for a very long time only to see it get blown away to remind us of the transitory nature of all things. I wonder how this will read when I’m done — part of me thinks I’ll be all proud of myself to show off all the things I wrote when I’m done, not to mention the impressive 73 WPM that I achieved and DFANGIT i made another typo because it’s actually 83 wpm but I dare not co.. hey look the top of the thing says “WIN!” So I guess I won. Hooray for me.

This whole thing began in elementary school. Hard as it may be to believe, I wasn’t one of the “cool” kids. I wasn’t athletic, and I read too much, and I didn’t like the music everyone else liked. During recess I would wander the playground clutching a boom box blaring either Run-DMC or Twisted Sister.

This was the earliest incarnation of the cycle — it’s not that I didn’t want to hang out with other kids, but I just wasn’t interested in what they were interested in. Sports bored me, and I didn’t care about Madonna or Prince or the other pop stars. I could have faked it, I suppose, but instead I retreated into the self. I read books and drew weird cartoons and made friends with myself.

As a result, I developed a reputation as the “weird” kid. Actually I was one of several, since our school attracted them. Unfortunately we weirdos were estranged from each other as well; I watched Revenge of the Nerds and fantasized about finding a tribe of my own, but it sure wasn’t happening at school.

Secondary Stuff

Throughout middle school the cycle deepened. People saw me as odd, so they kept their distance. As a result I said “To heck with them” and did my own thing. I found a few people who shared my interest in the comic strips Bloom County and Calvin and Hobbes, but mostly it was my best friend Koven and me. (My friend Carson was into hip-hop like I was, but that didn’t go very far. I kinda became friends with Megan, who lived down the block, but she was arcing into a different social sphere.)

High school was even worse. Everyone’s hyper-conscious of their status during those years, and there’s all kinds of new drama and social anxiety. I gravitated to the outcasts in the school newspaper and drama club, and found some kindred spirits there. We shared a love of Monty Python and Weird Al Yankovic. Some of them, though, became convinced that I was just a “poser” who pretended to love thrash metal groups like Corrosion of Conformity. Cliques and weird social circles quickly developed within the outcast communities, and I found myself alienated from even them. (I remember throwing a “Python-a-thon” movie party and being devastated when no one showed up.)

New College, New Social Existence

When I made it to New College in 1993, I finally found the lost tribe I had been desperate to reach. The campus was filled with people like me — too intelligent for their own good, a little socially awkward, and magnetically attracted to all manner of weirdness. I somehow landed in a tightly-knit group of friends that really supported and nurtured me, through good times and bad. They remain some of my closest friends.

Unfortunately, the cycles of isolation did not end in college. Various forms of alienation and differentiation persisted, and I continued to feel set apart from most people, even though I had by this time developed some life-saving techniques of solitude and solace.

As a result, I came to feel fine with being alone, although it wasn’t really a conscious choice. I was thrust into a position of isolation, so I made myself comfortable there. Most of the time this is fine, especially because I have been unbelievably blessed to meet, woo, and marry the most incredible woman on the planet. (So I’m not totally alone, as some people are.) But there’s a deep, lingering sense of alienation and loneliness that spikes at certain painful, soul-crushing moments.

Right Here, Right Now

In case you can’t tell, I’m experiencing one of those moments now. For reasons I shan’t dig into, I’m immersed in an episode of shame, regret, and severe self-loathing. Suffice it to say that I might someday learn that not everyone is charmed by my caustic use of irony when pretending to critique the writing of other people.

Like Elizabeth Bennet’s shock and horror at misjudging Mr. Darcy (spoiler alert), I am paralyzed by an acute sense of absurdity caused by the fact that this social catastrophe results from a defect in precisely the area of which I had thought myself so keen and skilled. (In Liza’s case, judging the character of others; in my case, writing.) This is not the first time such a bumbling atrocity has resulted from my writing, and it has crossed my mind that perhaps I could save myself (and other people) a great deal of suffering and pain if I just stopped writing altogether.

I won’t, of course. (Perhaps the most ludicrous consequence of this entire affair has been the outpouring of melodrama from my own mouth, which — trust me — bores and annoys me much more than it does anyone else.) But I am infuriated by my inability — my repeated, excruciating inability — to parse my audience correctly and make myself understood.

The Real Problem?

The failures, though painful, don’t last very long and are eventually swept back under the enormous carpet of my supersized ego. But the final irony is that my self-confidence (especially with regard to my writing) may lie at the heart of the dysfunction in the first place.

Perhaps my bombastic ego makes people nervous. Maybe my pomposity drives people away. Maybe I’m too exhausting to be around, or maybe I’m just not as much fun as I think I am. (I’m obviously doing something wrong, but I’ll be damned if I can figure out what.)

The point is that I am severely isolated. I barely speak to my friends from New College, and most of that is in tiny word-splatters on Facebook or Twitter. As sad as it seems to me, two of my closest friends (with whom I record a weekly video game podcast) live on a different continent and I’ve never actually met them in person. (I am reminded of the guy in high school who was even more socially awkward than myself, with whom I had never spent a single minute outside of school, who rose one day in Spanish class to announce that I was his best friend.)

The people I teach with are all lovely people, but we’re acquaintances at best. (cf. The Simpsons episode 3F24, “El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer (The Mysterious Voyage of Homer)”, in which Homer is told by various patrons of Moe’s Tavern that they are, to him, an “associate”, a “contemporary”, and “a well-wisher, in that I don’t wish you any specific harm”.) Our neighbors are delightful and friendly, but I can’t call them up and ask if they wanna watch a movie. My brother and my mom are fantastic people, and they offer me support when I need it, but family is different. My amazing wife Diane is a friend, because marriage is about spending your life with your best friend, and (again) for that I am eternally grateful.

To make it plain, however: If a friend is someone you spend time with on a regular basis more often than a lazy Christian goes to church, I have exactly one friend in the entire United States of America.

Some people have just moved away and started new lives. Other people are busy with kids, and they (naturally) bond with other people who have kids. Various other obstacles — life, work, chaos, stuff — comes up and I don’t begrudge anyone their own tempests of turmoil that preclude being closer to me. (And, for the record, this is as good a place as any to make clear that I am not looking for pity phone calls or emails — and, in fact, nothing would compound my misery more.)

There’s a chasm of communication between me and all those people I would like to be friends with, and I can’t shake the feeling that it’s largely of my own creation. I’m a good, caring, sensitive, compassionate person — but I keep all that stuff behind a veneer of obnoxiousness, anger, and biting sarcasm. Like Mr. Darcy, I expect people to work through that false front. And I get mad when they don’t. How does that make sense?

On the other hand, we were always told (as we tell kids today): “Be yourself.” Well, this is who I am — I have a right to be angry at the world, what with its genocide in East Timor and its police killings of unarmed black men and its unwillingness to rein in apocalyptic greed on Wall Street. I channel my anger into sly jokes, and I’ve worked hard to develop my vocabulary and wit, so that I can be cutting and snarky. I like making jokes that only a few people get — it makes the humor more satisfying for me and for them. I don’t mind being alienated from 70% of the crowd.

So if this is who I am, and no one wants to be around me, where does that leave me? As Lisa Simpson said in episode 3F22, “Summer of 4 Ft. 2”: “Being myself didn’t work. Being someone else didn’t work. Maybe I just wasn’t meant to have friends.”

Maybe I wasn’t.

I, of the Storm

There are basically two responses to this dilemma. The first, How To Be Alone, urges us to embrace the solitude.

This is a lovely video, demonstrating the beautiful possibilities of singularity: “You’ll find it’s fine to be alone once you’re embracing it.” This neatly reflects the warm, happy place in my head where I live most of the time. Who needs friends, right? I can be my own best friend, and plus Diane, so what’s the problem? I’ve become safe and strong in my own heart, so what does it matter if people don’t return my phone calls? (No one makes phone calls anymore anyway. So who cares if people don’t return my text messages?)

The other response, from Bob Newhart’s glorious cameo on MadTV, is even more direct: Stop It.

“S-T-O-P, new word, I-T.” Easy. Just be more open, less snarky, more pleasant, less bitter.

If only it were that simple. For one thing, at 40 years old, it’s very hard for me to change my ways. For another, my gruff-on-the-outside-warm-fuzzy-on-the-inside persona is one that helps me to connect vibrantly to certain students (who wouldn’t trust a more open-book approach, and who desperately need to find kindred spirits in the world). And for a third — as noted — this jigsaw puzzle identity has been forged from thirty years of conscious activity, mostly designed to protect myself from the heartbreak of rejection.

Which brings us back to the cyclical nature of the problem, and the crushing difficulty of addressing it. I tell my students all the time: Those of you who are more socially adept, be more accepting of weird people. And to the weird people, tone down the weird a little.

And the crazy part is that I have toned down the weird. I’ve grown infinitely more casual, friendly, and open over the years. I work very hard to engage people in conversation, ask questions, show genuine interest, add humor, and support those around me. I reach out to those going through hard times and offer assistance when I can, in my own oddball way. Yet here I am, wallowing in my own isolation yet again.

The Wrong Stuff

Part of the latest round of crisis has to do with my nearly total inability to break into the cutthroat Wisconsin writing establishment. With my book of stories, suggestions for presentations, and assorted nonfiction pieces, I have tried — and failed — to catch the critical attention of the following outlets:

  • The Wisconsin Book Festival
  • To The Best of Our Knowledge (via Wisconsin Public Radio)
  • The Isthmus
  • The Capital Times
  • The Wisconsin State Journal
  • Radio Literature (via WORT-FM)
  • Midwest Prairie Review

I read about people on Twitter getting starred Kirkus reviews, and listen to interviews with famous writers on podcasts, and I think: “I can’t even get the community radio station to give me time of day. What chance do I have of ever getting anywhere with this nonsense?”

I was selected to present at the UW Writers Institute, which was one of the best days of my life — an exciting whirlwind of conversations and interactions. That seems more reflective of my skills as a teacher, but I do recognize it as a valuable affirmation of my writing skills. (I also got a brief mention in the Cap Times about an event I held at A Room of One’s Own, which has been superbly supportive. The Sun Prairie Star also did a very nondescript article promoting my event at the SP library.)

Still, the occasional (minor) success doesn’t disguise the fact that this is a regimented pattern of failure. I know every good writer encounters such frustrations, but then again bad writers also encounter them, and mostly they’re too oblivious to recognize the sign from the universe which, properly translated, reads: “You’re wasting your time. No one cares.”

In other words, there is an inescapable parallelism to my writing woes and my loneliness woes: At what point do I decide that it’s just not worth the trouble, and give up? Well, of course, the answer is “probably never”, but it’s always gnawing at the back of my skull.

Words, Words, Words

The irony that this bellyaching of mine (which I can barely stand to type, much less verbalize to anyone — although Diane insists that I stop apologizing for going through a hard time) will probably never be read by anyone is not lost on me. I can’t remember the last time I got any kind of serious feedback or conversation about something I wrote on this blog. (I think it was about Game of Thrones and that was more an argument than a conversation.)

Writing lately has begun to feel more like a solitary catharsis than a form of reaching other people, sad as that is. Kurt Vonnegut said, in his last novel Timequake, put it like this:

Still and all, why bother? Here’s my answer. Many people need desperately to receive this message: I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.

I’ve always looked forward to this sort of “meeting of the minds” (as Stephen King calls it), but the truth is that it’s incredibly rare. (I might adjust the start of the quote to change “Many” to “A tiny group”.) Most people ignore the stuff I write, and those who do read it never discuss it with me. Those who do discuss it only react to surface elements.

Which makes me sound like the bloated, pompous video game developer Jonathan Blow, who whined about how no one really got his 2008 video game Braid, despite the fact that it won every award under the sun and was universally lauded by critics around the world.

I know that I’m lucky to have friends and colleagues and family members support my writing — lots of people don’t even get that. But the truth is that I want more. I want to reach wider audiences, and I want to get some kind of institutional confirmation that my capacity to combine words is somehow relevant.

Whatever Nevermind

As Moe Szyslak says, “Time heals all wounds.” So it is here. This too shall pass, I know. I just need a few days to stew in my misery and then I’ll bounce back, more secure and confident than ever.

In the meantime, however, I will thank Diane for giving me the only truly appropriate response anyone can ever give me while I’m in this blue mood, also from The Simpsons: “If you want to be sad, honey, be sad. We’ll ride it out with you, and when you get finished feeling sad, we’ll still be there.”

And to everyone else willing to ride it out with me: Thank you.

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.


Many years ago I read a book about rap music called Signifying Rappers, which bragged about its status as the first scholarly book-length analysis of rap music. It annoyed me, it bored me, and I remember it getting certain facts wrong.

I was frustrated by every page, and I lost complete respect for the authors, two ivory-tower academics who made a big deal about how white they were and how uncomfortable they felt in the middle of their love for hip-hop.

At first I thought I would appreciate their perspective, since I grew up a nerdy white kid feeling very much like an ivory-tower egghead who could never really feel like a part of the community. But these guys wore their difference like a badge of honor, and droned endlessly about how they felt singled out for the color of their skin. (This distracted constantly from the points they were supposed to be making about the music and society.)

At one point they complained about how their tires got slashed by someone during a rap concert. They tied this incident into their racial identity for some reason, as if the perpetrator had singled them out for the property damage. Then, almost as an afterthought, they added something like: “Maybe it wasn’t just us. Turns out everyone else had their tires slashed too.”

I don’t stop reading books if I can help it, so I made it all the way through. Then I awarded it the title “Worst Book Ever Written About Hip-Hop” and threw it away.

Today I began writing a chapter about hip-hop for my new book The Six Animals. Imagine my shock and alarm when I realized that one of the authors was David Foster Wallace. Holy crap! There is no American writer for whom I have more respect. I won’t win any awards for social originality when I say it, but This Is Water changed my life and stands as one of my favorite nonfiction pieces ever written.

Have I been wrong about this book? Is it truly as terrible as I remember it? Is it possible that the great DFW wrote something so insipid and useless? Apparently the critics didn’t like it when it came out, and Wallace himself rarely spoke about it. Now, however, it’s been re-issued and celebrated by retrospective essays. I have to wonder, however, if this isn’t a case of idol worship instead of dispassionate consideration.

I need to find this book and read it again. I doubt I’ll be able to consume it objectively, but I’ll try. If nothing else, it will be a profound challenge to my brain’s capacity to reconcile extreme love for the writer and extreme hatred for my memory of the book.