“Let’s all go to the parade,” my wife said. There was a 4th of July parade in a nearby small town.
I have a history with small-town parades. I grew up in Morris, Illinois surrounded by corn, soy, and nuclear power. They have the Grundy County Corn Festival. There is a Corn Queen. There is a parade. People bring lawn chairs out the night before. They duct tape them together and rope them off and make small signs. There is drama, about the chairs.
It had been ten years since my last sweltering small-town parade, so I agreed to go. Our son was excited. He is only two, and was captivated from the moment we crested a hill, half a mile from our parked car, to discover the first set of parading tractors and a group of teenage boys revving dirt bikes. We hurried down, hoping for a good view. Unfortunately, lawn chairs had spent the night. Tape, you understand. Ropes.
From behind lawn chairs, giant hats, and umbrellas, I learned the main qualification for entering this parade was the ability to throw candy at the first three rows of parade goers. You could throw candy from a wagon. You could throw candy from the undecorated trailer of an unremarkable truck. You could throw candy from the window of a Volkswagen Jetta.
People screamed and clapped. A young girl bloodied her knee diving for Laffy Taffy. Her mother told her this was her last parade.
The parade entered hour two. If you had no candy to throw, you could still join the parade if your vehicle was unusually loud or slow-moving. Sirens were a plus. Outside the 8-block stretch of the parade route, Lane County’s rural communities would be hard-pressed to handle a fire, death in the family, or field in desperate need of tilling. During a short break in sirens and farm machinery, a mob of white men advanced, wielding signs for a local Republican congressional candidate. They held the signs as if in protest. This particular candidate believes all public schools should be abolished.
“About time for some common sense,” the man next to me said.
I felt sick at that point. It may have been the 90 degree weather, or the ringing in my ears. At hour two and a half, it was if the entire parade had been one giant, unsuccessful emergency response effort, with all parties still circling to find the source of the trauma.
Eventually, we made it back over the hill to our car. The drive home was like a faster parade of the things we’d just seen. People standing on the side of the street. Tractors running in fields. Emergency vehicles, likely traveling to or from other small-town parades. It became even more like the parade as we entered our own neighborhood. Traffic thickened – beeping bulldozers, flashing lights.
This is because they are doing major construction on the road directly in front of our house. There are three signs on the way to the torn-up road. ROAD CLOSED AHEAD, is the first sign. ROAD CLOSED is the second sign. The third sign is the same as the second, but is punctuated by a two foot vertical edge which drops onto a bed of gravel.
All day, people drive past the first two signs and stop at the vertical edge beside our house. They lean out their windows. They throw up their hands. They get out, stare down at the gravel, and shake their heads at the complexity of it all. Two cars have gone over the edge. When this happens, a line of emergency vehicles rumbles down toward our house. All the while, everyone makes U-turns in our driveway. A new U-turn every five or so minutes. Moving vans. Trucks with trailers. Classic cars. Sometimes, the people wave.
Yesterday, I went outside with a lawn chair. “Come on out, baby,” I called into the house. “Come watch the parade.” But I was the only one watching.
The Booyakasha, the finger pop, the dip-snap, the Aww, Snap. A gesture by any other name would probably make you look like less of a douchebag. But could any other gesture save your life?
I first saw it while studying in Newcastle, Australia. A sophomore named John Win who had a silver choker chain and immaculately spiked hair snapped his right finger like a mating call across campus for the entire 6 months I was there, generally accompanied by the cry “Booyakasha!”
You could hear his assholery coming for kilometers. I hated John Win — largely because of his silver chain, his love of “imported” Budweiser, and his tendency to get laid far more frequently than I did. But his snap. That, I envied. It’s my firm belief that The Snap, once seen, is a skill secretly coveted in every man’s reptile brain until the point of mastery.
It’s a primal thing.
Without meaning to, I started trying to snap while I was on the phone. Then I practiced in front of the mirror. My friend Leo, further along in his SnapQuest than I, would offer the occasional tip: “No, no. You gotta hit this finger, here. Just put in your time, mate. There are no shortcuts.”
I never mastered The Snap in Australia.
A year later, I was hiking in Italy with an old friend from Chicago. Although many of my ambitions for our three-week trek were ill-conceived (self-discovery, Coming To Terms With Myself as a Writer), I had one reassuringly concrete goal: I would master The Snap by the end of the trip. So I practiced. Over mountains and through streams, at the base of waterfalls and on fogged summits, I hiked behind my friend and flopped my hand around like an idiot until my wrist ached and my fingers throbbed. Then – one day I heard a dull thack in the middle of a field of wildflowers. I remember it distinctly.
“Did you hear that?” I asked, stopping.
“The snap! I did it!”
“Oh, God. Is that what you’ve been doing back there?”
You bet your ass. And after the first satisfying crack, I could steer my finger-snapping development with live audio feedback. I got louder. I took the lead on the hike, happily snapping at Alpine streams, songbirds, Italian huts, mountain goats, oncoming hikers. Then during the third week, midway through a rough scramble up a scree slope, I heard a dull thack behind me.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Shut up,” my friend said, rubbing his wrist. Like I said. Guys. We can’t help ourselves.
Sadly, wives and girlfriends almost universally hate The Snap. Probably because it makes their men too attractive to single women.
“No, Jeff. I hate it because it’s annoying. And because you do it ALL THE TIME,” my girlfriend, Lea said. We were living in Italy.
“It’s a life skill,” I said. “Like riding a bike.”
While living in Italy, I both snapped and rode a bike every day. I worked at a school about two miles away from where we lived, and my lead teacher was an affable man from Calabria with an giant smile and adorably exaggerated gestures, even for an Italian.
“Davide,” I asked him one day. “My girlfriend – she hates The Snap. Do Italian women hate it as much as American women?”
“This ‘snap,’” he said, shrugging and screwing up his face. “What is this?”
So I showed him:
“Oh, yes,” Davide said. “Where did you learn that?”
I told him about Australia. My time in the Alps.
“Yes,” he said. “Takes time to learn. Here it is used mostly in the military. It is what you do to new people. The youngest people, when they come in. It means ‘you know nothing.’ You do it to the new recruits – kind of like messing with them.”
David reached out and impressively rat-a-tat snapped my right ear. I flinched, feeling like I’d just been bitten in the neck by the Alpha male. Like I said — primal.
“Sorry, babe,” I told Lea when I got home. “It looks like this – *SNAP* – has cultural significance.”
“I miss America,” she said.
Luckily for Lea, we were going back soon. We were taking a final, three-week tour of southern Italy, then flying back to the east coast just in time for the leaves to change. Lea had southern Italian ancestry, so we talked to Davide about good places to visit in Calabria, where both he and her grandparents were from. He raved about the food, the wine, and the warmth of the people.
I’d heard the warning before. We took down a few of Davide’s travel tips in our guidebook and began our journey south. We visited Naples, had a blast on the Amalfi coast, and were making the final plunge toward Calabria on a 12 hour train ride south.
From the start, it was the worst train ride I’d taken in Italy. The cars were standing room only, and the humidity was like breathing though a hot towel. Open windows had let in so much dust that no one could stop coughing and wiping yellow grit off their bags and glasses.
Lea and I ended up wedged in a compartment between two coach cars. It had a hinged steel floor that twisted and jerked with every bend in the tracks, toppling our suitcases and oversized backpacks every 5 minutes. At each station, more people piled in. In Salerno, we sat on our bags to make room for the flood of people boarding the train.
Three men immediately slid into the space our bags had vacated. These were not the trim fashionistas from Milano. Their clothing was torn and dirty. One of them had a black eye, and the youngest had a chain collar, spiked hair, and a wide gap between his front teeth he breathed through, air hissing over his tongue.
Lea and I balanced ourselves on our stack of shifting bags. The men hadn’t stopped looking at them. They didn’t appear to be carrying anything.
“Lots of bags,” the one with the black eye said in heavily-accented Italian.
“Too many,” the one with the gap said. They laughed, and their conversation turned to talking about home – Calabria. They had work waiting for them, and were anxious to start. They’d lost money in Naples. It had been a bad trip, and they had explaining to do. Occasionally the conversation would slip into dialect I couldn’t understand.
“What are they saying?” Lea asked.
“Nothing,” I said. But I’d hooked a leg over our bags, and stuffed my wallet as far as I could into the front pocket of my jeans.
“There’s just one guy,” the oldest one said after a pause. I tried not to react.
“I’ve still got a knife,” The Gap said. “Two knives. One for each. Plenty.”
“They let you keep those knives in the military?” Black Eye said. “I can’t believe they trust you with anything pointed. It’s your first year.”
“Everything so new and exciting,” the older one said. “It’s cute.” He rubbed his hair. The Gap flinched away from him.
I didn’t even think about it. The surge traveled through my brain and down the length of my arm. Then I did it. I raised my hand, looked The Gap dead in the eye, and hit him rapid-fire.
Lea grabbed my arm “Jeff, JEFF.”
The Gap stared, wide eyed. The other men looked at me. Smiles broke over their faces – so wide and warm they could’ve been Davide’s cousins. Then, roaring laughter as the men raised their fingers and snapped The Gap, encouraging me to join in.
“Parla Italiano!” Black Eye said. He was tickled, and not the least bit embarrassed about the stabbing and thievery business.
“Si, certo!” I said.
“How did you know about the military tradition? This is wonderful! You teach in Lodi – ah, with a countryman from Calabria. Where are you going on your journey?”
I told them, then brought out Davide’s Calabria tip sheet and they added their own recommendations to the list. They strongly disagreed with his top pizzerias, but did so respectfully. We talked and laughed for the next three hours, and when they left, they demanded I rise for a hug. The two older men made me snap The Gap again and they slapped him on the back, shoving him around as they crossed the train platform onto the street, laughter audible until the door hissed shut.
Lea looked down at our bags.
“I’m glad you speak Italian,” she said.
“It wasn’t the Italian,” I said, cracking my knuckles.
No one gives a damn about local authors. That’s the take-away from Boys Don’t Read’s latest effort to support area book stores.
Our goal: To bolster the sagging profits of brick-and-mortar booksellers by offering them a first shot at selling a Boys Don’t Read exclusive:
DRAGONOCALYPSE: A HERO’S TALE
A modern epistolary novel for our time
by Uther Blackstone (BDR pen name)
Log Line: In a world still recovering from the zombie, then vampire, then sun/moon-related apocalypses, a sixteen-year-old suburban girl is coming into her own through a series of thoughtful journal entries. Then, the dragons descend.
With a YA market ripe for Armageddon, and the word “Dragonocalypse” still relatively free of copyright issues, this was going to be a win-win for local markets and the currently non-existent profit margin for the Boys Don’t Read blog.
We decided to first offer this juicy opportunity to Powell’s City of Books. We figured they were big, but also doing more good for local authors than most of the other brick-and-mortar bookstores we’ve stopped going to.
Call with Powell’s City of Books:
Store Operator: Hello, Powell’s City of Books.
BDR: Hello. I’m a local author interested in selling my book at your store. Can you tell me which steps I need to take to be on your shelves?
Store Operator: We actually have a phone recording you can listen to. It’s extension #5600. There’s a lot of information.
BDR: Right, right. But what’s the real extension?
Store Operator: For what?
BDR: The real authors. The big ones.
Store Operator: That’s our only extension for local authors.
BDR: I see. Does the name “Uther Blackstone” mean anything to you?
Store Operator: I’m sorry, it doesn’t.
BDR: Then maybe you’re not really interested in carrying DRAGONOCALYPSE: A HERO’S TALE. A book that will literally sell millions of copies.
Store Operator: I can’t say if we’d be interested or not. But the extension will have all the information you need. Can I transfer you now?
BDR: If you must.
Store Operator: Okay. Thank you!
Naturally, we hung up. We don’t have time for recordings when we’re in possession of a book that is already setting market trends from where it sits, unread, on a desk in Eugene, Oregon. So screw it. The independents don’t want to play ball? Let them cry into their Stumptown lattes while the national chains laugh all the way to the bank.
Call with Barnes & Noble:
The first two Barnes & Noble stores were (predictably) filled with human cogs and widgets incapable of making decisions. At the third store, it was clear I was working with a Dealmaker.
B&N Dealmaker: Hello, Barnes and Noble.
BDR: Hello. I’m a local author wondering about your policy for carrying my book.
B&N Dealmaker: Well. We use the same system for carrying all of our books no matter where the author is from. So I can go ahead and see if you’re in our distribution system.
B&N Dealmaker: Do you have the ISBN number?
B&N Dealmaker: The title should do. Or your name.
BDR: Certainly. My name is Uther Blackstone.
B&N Dealmaker: Luther?
BDR: Uther. It’s medieval.
B&N Dealmaker: Okay. And the title?
B&N Dealmaker: Can you spell that?
BDR: D-R-A-G-O-N, and then an O. That’s what trips people up. Then C-A-L-Y-P-S-E.
B&N Dealmaker: Okay. Well I don’t see you in our system.
BDR: Oh. You probably need the full title, which is: DRAGONOCALYPSE: A HERO’S TALE. A modern epistolary novel for our time.
B&N Dealmaker (pause, clacking keys): Mmm. Still not seeing it.
BDR: Really. That’s so strange.
B&N Dealmaker: Is there a house you’re with? Or a distributor?
BDR: Yes, a house. I’m at a house right now.
B&N Dealmaker: A publishing house?
BDR: No. Kind of. I did publish this book at my house.
B&N Dealmaker: So it’s a self-published book.
BDR: Self-printed, actually.
B&N Dealmaker: So you aren’t working with a distributor.
BDR: What do you think I’m doing right now? Distributing.
B&N Dealmaker: (silence)
BDR: Look. This hits all the trends. Girls. Journals. Dragons. The apocalypse. Do you have any idea how hot this stuff is right now?
B&N Dealmaker: It sounds very interesting, but we really need to have you work with a distributor. Have you tried Ingram or Small Press Distribution?
BDR: There is nothing small about this book. It’s 200,000 words. It’s actually bigger than my head. I’m holding it right now. It’s really heavy.
B&N Dealmaker: That’s very impressive. It sounds wonderful, but we have our company policy and there’s really nothing we can do. I can look up the phone numbers of a few distributors if you like.
BDR: Fine. You seem nice. We’ll knock the price down. How much will you pay?
B&N Dealmaker: We have no way to pay you without a distributor.
BDR: I am the distributor!
B&N Dealmaker: Right. But we don’t currently work with you.
BDR: That’s the problem. This book is called DRAGONOCALYPSE. Do you want to hear the log line?
B&N Dealmaker: I’d be happy to hear it, but it won’t change what we’re able to do.
BDR: We’ll see. (Reads log line.)
B&N Dealmaker: That’s funny, actually. Is it a comedy?
BDR: No. It’s a modern epistolary novel for our time.
B&N Dealmaker: I do wish you the best. I hope you’re able to make it into the system.
BDR: So this is over? This is it?
B&N Dealmaker: I think so. I’m sorry.
And it was very nearly over. DRAGONOCALYPSE, a literary time bomb wired to explode money into the faces of everyone around it, was in the process of being diffused by small-minded corporate shills and hipster elitists.
But we couldn’t let that happen. So we did what any self-respecting artist would do. We rubber-banded the only copy of our manuscript, doused it in glitter, and left it on the shelves of the Barnes & Noble YA section.
I know what you’re thinking. We’re just giving it away???! Look – Amazon didn’t turn a profit for five years, and now they’re gobbling up independent booksellers faster than dragons can swallow thoughtful teenagers and their journals.
So our lesson to you, local authors: If you know what’s good for you, follow Boys Don’t Read’s Two Steps to Success.
1) Print out your unpublished manuscript on 8 ½ x 11 paper.
2) Shove it in the YA section of your nearest bookstore.
You’ll eliminate the need for agents, publishers, marketing executives, booksellers, reviewers, and the people in New York who might’ve otherwise written you checks – and route your story directly from your genius head and into the hands of your reader(s).
As Ursula K. Le Guin once said: “Trying to get rich writing is a damn-fool idea.” So do it for the love. Do it for the art. Do it – for the Dragonocalypse.
It’s getting nice outside, which will be nothing but pure hell for your daily word count. But worry not: Boys Don’t Read will help keep your eyes glazed, your skin pale, and your butt in the seat where it belongs. Here are our top ten ways to cope with nice weather:
10. Sleep until noon. If you sleep until noon, you’ve already succeeding in pissing away half the day. This means less remaining sunlight to tempt you away from finishing your novel. DRAWBACKS: Loss of day job and family.
9. Start playing World of Warcraft.
You can’t buy apathy toward nature and physical fitness much more cheaply than the $14.99 per month you’ll pay for a subscription to World of Warcraft. DRAWBACKS: You will write even less. World of Warcraft is more addictive than sunshine.
8. Take your computer outside.
Why not just write outside? WIN WIN!!! DRAWBACKS: Remember what you learned when your high school English teacher decided to have class outside? Oh, that’s right. NOTHING. If you’re outside, you aren’t writing. You’re having recess with your computer.
7. Invest in a sensory deprivation chamber.
For a small price and a little DIY innovation, you can construct a sensory deprivation chamber in which you can while away the daylight hours deprived of sight, hearing, and touch, while an otherwise-distracting sunny day drifts by unnoticed. There you’ll be, alone with your thoughts. Just your thoughts. And you. All day long. DRAWBACKS: Madness.
6. Start taking tetracycline antibiotics.
Aside from taking the edge off any chlamydia you might have picked up recently, tetracycline antibiotics create such severe phototoxicity that you are more likely to burn and potentially die from sun exposure. Take a couple of pills before your next writing session, and watch your willpower grow! DRAWBACKS: Children will suspect you’re a vampire. Your family will suspect you have chlamydia.
5. Live in your parents’ basement.
Nothing blocks out sunlight and meaningful adult relationships like a parent’s basement. Hang a blackout curtain over the window well, turn on a lava lamp, and let the good times roll. DRAWBACKS: You will have an even harder time getting laid.
4. Move to Oregon.
It’s never sunny in Oregon. DRAWBACKS: Everyone in Oregon is a writer.
3. Wear sunglasses constantly.
You will be immune to UV rays and daylight’s counterproductive allure. You will also believe yourself to be more attractive. DRAWBACKS: You secretly look like a douchebag when the sun goes down.
2. Never leave the casino bar.
With their thick curtains, lack of clocks, and seedy clientele, casino bars are as timeless as prostitution. After a week or two inside, you’ll have enough material for a three-book series and no hope of ever writing one. DRAWBACK: Hangovers. Being broke. Reinforcing writer stereotypes.
1. Get incarcerated.
If you’re going this route, make sure you go all the way. Jail is much less interesting than prison, and if the crime’s not big enough to get picked up by the Associated Press, your chances of being offered a book deal drop way off. The good news: While in the big house, you can take after literary giants like Thoreau and Machiavelli. You’ll have plenty of time to write, and a foolproof safety net of steel bars and concrete when your “sunny day” willpower fails you. DRAWBACKS: Complete loss of freedom.
We hope today’s post has kept you inside, and given you some practical tips to improve your writing. Now close the blinds, turn off your phone, and get to work.
There are a few common facial ticks people have when I tell them I write for young adults: 1) a rapid downturn of the eyes, 2) a consolatory “o” of the lips, or 3) a vacant stare. It’s the same range of expressions I used to get at Safeway when my card was declined. Embarrassment, followed by the earnest desire to help.
Now, instead of: Would you like to try a different card?, people say: Oh, you write for kids. That’s great. Like Twilight? Harry Potter?
This need to peg young adult fiction to a specific series of books baffles me. When I told people I was playwright, they never asked: What, like MACBETH? Like CATS, or something? When I declared myself a writer of speculative short fiction, people nodded and looked impressed. This, despite that no one outside of a critique group or gaming convention knows what the hell speculative short fiction is.
But it was fiction for adults. That much was clear.
And I was thus revered in the arthouse dinner party circuit. Sometime during cocktail hour, I’d unveil my profession to a table of shining eyes. I’d wax on, swirling a glass of wine or bourbon or whatever best suited my writerly affectation for the evening. A writer, they’d say to friends with a nod. We’d discuss literacy and the death of print and the folly of Dan Brown’s prose. It felt good; it felt decidedly adult.
These days I feel like more like a thirteen-year-old straddling the line between white carpet and linoleum, echos of Martin Amis and Meghan Cox Gurdon ringing in my ears. When the adult writers do beckon me over, the table seems to come up to my chin. I overcompensate, inflating syllables, downplaying my collection of Stephen King novels, quoting Truman Capote because no, really, I’m one of you!
This is because writing novels about teens continues to be seen as the bunny hill of literature; at best, training for more serious work. Why? Does the age of our target audience define our ability? This is akin to believing all 10th grade teachers are twice as intelligent as 5th grade teachers. The argument’s premise is that everyone would prefer an audience of adults, if only they had the ability to cultivate one. This belief arises from ignorance, and it is a fallacy.
At a recent SCBWI Conference, Carolrhoda Books Editor Andrew Karre challenged his audience to look at the young adult genre as books about the teenage experience as opposed to books for teenagers. So is writing about teenagers inherently less important than writing about adults? It it easier to capture the human experience at a particular age? Was THE CATCHER IN THE RYE less artfully written than RABBIT, RUN? Literary fiction aside, are the mountains of contrived adult legal thrillers somehow superior to the mountains of equally contrived tales of teenage vampirism?
Readers have their own opinion.
According to an American Association of Publishers report released in March, 2012, children’s and young adult hardcover and paperbacks showed an over 60% growth from 2011 to 2012, while children’s and young adult eBooks showed a 475% increase. Yes. That’s FOUR HUNDRED AND SEVENTY-FIVE PERCENT. Adult books increased a modest 22.6% and 49.4% respectively.
You don’t have to be a 5th grade teacher to do the math. The adult table is eating pot roast; the kids’ table just got steak.
The writing process isn’t sexy. It doesn’t have the PR appeal of “creative spark,” or voice, or the seven-point plot. So I don’t expect this week’s series of posts to spark a firestorm in the Twitterverse – but it’s important. It’s what we do every day, or as often as we can.
I’ve always been fascinated by the specifics of how writers get their ideas down on paper – so here are mine:
I’m best between 3 PM and 7 PM. People have told me this is strange. What I find strange are writers who finish before sunrise and are bright, cheery, and accomplished when all the humans wake up. Man was not meant to rise before the sun.
I write for at least one hour a day, but don’t feel good about myself unless I write for two. The first hour contains a good deal of sighing and the occasional forehead against the desk when I haven’t had enough sleep. The second hour is always more productive than the first, and hours two and three, when I can get them, are golden. Words flow, characters talk without being asked – I’m drumming my hands on my desk, laughing out loud, part of the fictional world. Hour four is always a stretch. I’m strung out, rubbing my eyes, forcing my way through. There should never, under any circumstances, be an hour five.
I always listen to music when I write. It’s the same album for every story or draft of a book. The latest version of my current project has racked up a play count of 284 for The Decemberists’ The Hazards of Love. I used to blast the music and sing along when I got excited. Now that I’m married, I wear headphones. But I still sing.
Ritual is critical. I make sure my desk is completely clean before I start my session. I want to walk into my office and feel like I’ve just taken a breath of fresh air. Coffee is also important. Even more important than the Zen bullshit I just said about my office. I always use the AeroPress to make my pre-writing cup. The press takes time. There are tools, methods, and measurements. It gives me something to do with my hands, and it tells my mind get ready. I don’t allow myself to start sipping my afternoon cup until the moment I sit down to write. I reward myself like a dog. Or drug addict. It’s been highly effective.
I use to slog through stories a word at a time. I’d write a sentence. Read the sentence, re-write, delete, curse, repeat. Then, while part of the Wordos writing group in Eugene, Jerry Oltion gave a lecture on writing fast. He talked about racing through your first draft as fast as your fingers would carry you, paying little attention to word choice or grammar or even characters’ names. He found over the course of the multitudes of books he’d written that the ones written quickly tended to hang together better overall, even if they required more revisions.
I was so excited by Jerry’s talk I came home and tried it for the first time on a novella. It was 17,000 words and finished in under two weeks. It took me almost two months to revise. When I was done, it was the best story I’d ever written, and members of my critique group liked it so much they took me out and bought me a beer.
I’ve never looked back.
A Well-Deserved Break
I try not to write more than 45 minutes to an hour without taking a walk. There’s brain-based research behind doing this. Writing is hard work, and I used to pound my head against a story until I was too exhausted to continue – food, water, and lack of sunlight be damned. But I got less done. My sessions were still between two and four hours, but by hour three my word count would start to tank and my dialog would turn to plastic. The breaks have increased my daily output, and made it more enjoyable to write. Plus, walking is good for you. Win win.
So walking, listening to music, and drinking coffee. Like I said: not sexy. No chicken scratches on bar napkins. No continuous roll of paper and an Underwood portable, no daily hallucinogenic drug regime. But don’t worry – Bryan and Steve will post later this week.
Up until recently, I held the unshakable belief that I was born to write. That some as-yet-unidentified higher power had chosen me as the 6’3″ long instrument through which to trumpet its message. If I did my part, surrounded myself with the right influences, and hammered away at my craft, I could create an unobstructed airway through which these words could be blown across oceans, translated into 50 languages, shouted from atop the peak of the New York Times Bestseller list. I’ve felt this since high school.
So I went back to what I wrote in high school, and unearthed a gem: an anthology project from my senior year, sealed in a black notebook titled “Steps in the Twilight.”
And she's buying the stairway to heeeeeeeaaaaaaavennnn.
Surely, this collection of my poetry, fiction, and essays would be the keystone in my claim to divinely-ordained natural ability. Who would this young, unpolished intellectual remind me of? Shades of Dave Eggers, perhaps? Jonathan Safran Foer? Jonathan Lethem? Pshaw. Stop. No, no. Not a young Mr. Lethem . . . yet perhaps.
A firm no. I read it twice, just to be sure.
Nothing in this black book screamed “GENIUS.” It didn’t even whisper. Compared to student work I’ve read at the high school level, the material only excelled in using an excessive vocabulary and being distinctly pompous. But don’t take my word for it.
Strap on a pair of rubber boots, and prepare to take a few STEPS IN THE TWILIGHT:
“Nonesuch” is the best poem in the notebook. Probably because it’s not supposed to make sense. Note the nice penciled in the margins. Nailed it.
Excerpt from “A Lack of Interest” by Jeff Geiger (age 18)
Michael Davey slumped in his seat and prepared to endure eternity. He glanced furtively around him, observing his helpless brethren who, like him, had been saddled with the unavoidable situation. He saw his emotions mirrored in many around him, but was only able to hold their attention momentarily before they darted off again to desperately hunt for a pair of orbs that showed less desperation, apprehension, and dread. Micheal tilted his head slowly backward and felt the muscles in his throat pull taut under his unshaved shadow of a beard. The humidity seemed to shackle the unfortunate in the room, and Michael continued to lean his head backward. A small rivulet of sweat slid from his nose and plopped in his eye.
I’ve cashed in “orbs,” “unshaved shadow of a beard,” and “rivulet,” and this is only the first half of my first paragraph. It’s twenty-six pages long, and someone had to read all twenty-six pages. Think about that before you malign a language arts teacher.
Excerpt from “Democracy: Above and Beyond” by Jeff Geiger (age 17)
It can be argued that nearly every American citizen that gives commentary on the U.S. government is being a bullcrit. A bullcrit is someone who criticizes something that he or she isn’t familiar with; giving commentary on a topic on which he or she severely lacks knowledge or understanding. I, for one, do not want to be a bullcrit. You see, I am fully aware that America is the best, the brightest, and the happiest country in the world today.
I won an award for this essay. It was ranked the third best essay in the tri-county area. They were pretty small counties.
What have I learned?
Lesson one: High school language arts teachers should be required to use Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style in every creative writing course.
Lesson two: I am a beautiful and unique snowflake. But not the way I thought I was.
Lesson three: We need to redefine creative potential.
I wasn’t born to write. I was born with a lot to say: creative thoughts, voice, and persistence. But it was the writing that made the difference. Work, not genius. Not even a little. And this realization doesn’t depress me. It gives me hope. For me, and students I’ve taught and will continue to teach. Being a genius is something you’re either born with or not. The work is something you can control.
So let me step up to the lectern for the shortest and most effective creative writing lecture I’ve ever given:
Want to be writer? Listen up. Sure, natural born geniuses are out there. But most of them suffer from psychotic breaks or die tragically before they’re 30. So if you’re not uncommonly talented, don’t sweat it. Time is on your side.
Here’s what you do. Read one book a week. Don’t use adverbs. Find someone who can tolerate you, and read your work to them out loud before you send it off to strangers. Revise and write more. Do this for about 10,000 hours.
If you can pull it off, you might get mistaken for a genius at a dinner party. And you’ll probably live to be 30. If you’re 18 now, you’ll need to clock about 16 hours a week until then. That’s what you get for not being a genius. Stop complaining. You’ll need the energy.
I don’t mean self-publish your book. I mean you, baby. Self-publish YOURSELF.
Sit down and put your feet up. I’m gonna give this to you straight.
You’re the story. And you need to start acting like it. How long were you waiting in reception? Does everyone out there know what your book is about?
Why. The hell. Not.
When you walk into a room, people need to know it. They should stop and think – shit. That’s a novelist, is what that is. Do it right and their mouths will be hanging open. That’s your cue to start talking. Press a card into their hand and hit them with your query. Then the synopsis. Don’t stop until you run out of breath.
Yeah, yeah. Of course they told you not to pitch people at your Newbie Conference Orientation. Remember what I told you: Writing conferences are conventions for unpublishable mobs with disposable income. And what the hell were you doing at the newcomers’ orientation? Next time, do me a favor. Take a picture, blow it up, and label it “Losers I Don’t Need to Waste My Time Talking To.”
Sessions are a waste. Same with workshops. And keynotes.
Spend your time on the elevators. Just ride those little sonsabitches up and down. Sooner or later – JACKPOT. Agents and editors never take the stairs. Do your homework. They usually have little bio pics on their websites. Make flash cards if you have to. You’ve gotta be fast. Who has time to read name tags? Plus, agents are tricky. They print their affiliations in small fonts: 10 point, Times. That’s industry standard. And they’ve been known to get haircuts right before conferences. Shave their beards, just to throw you. Hell yes, I’m serious.
Success is bank, baby. Cash money. They got it, you want it.
It’s not a conference. It’s a casino. Get me? You can’t win if you don’t play. Think of every hand you shake like the arm of a slot machine. Ka-ching! Ka-ching! You just keep pullin’ those bastards down and eventually – bling, bling, bling – you’re gonna light someone up like a goddamn Christmas tree. Cash, money, prizes. Pump those hands. And not just agents or editors. You may take one look at granny’s nametag or puppy-dog sweater and think she’s got nothing to offer.
Sure, a lot of these chumps are walking penny slots. But don’t forget: People can make a shitload of money on penny slots.
So you pitch everyone. Everyone. If someone walks out of a room without your business card in their hand and your log line ringing between their ears, you’ve missed an opportunity. There goes your future, sashaying its pretty ass into the next session on Making the Most of Social Media. And why the hell aren’t you going to that session? You could use it. Your Twitter handle is harder to remember than my goddamn driver’s license number.
Yes. Of course you should pay for a manuscript consultation. Pay for all of them. Find the top producer, then buy 10 consecutive blocks of their time using different names. When they ask you to leave, come back wearing different glasses. Put on a moustache. Make it cute. That’s what out-of-the-box means.
Your manuscript? Who gives a damn about your manuscript. They didn’t read it. Nobody reads in this business but interns. If they did read it, they read it on the plane or half in the bag from the drugs they scored the night before. They’re not in this business to read. They’re in this business to be impressed.
Let me ask you something: Ever go out for a five-star meal? Ever in your life? Well, you should. You might learn something.
You go to Chez Panisse and they turn a 5 dollar piece of meat and 10 cents worth of parsley into a $70 dinner. How? Lighting. Tablecloths. Nice plates. Spoons you can see yourself in. People get that. You hear about that study where people figure the same bottle of wine tastes better when it costs $75 more? That because people know value when they see it – they just don’t know what the hell it tastes like.
So get your face out of those books. Close the laptop. It’s not about the writing. You’re the story, gorgeous. You. So get out there and publish yourself.
They’ll be standing in line to buy, and in this business – you get what you pay for.
I’m still at work because it isn’t noon yet, and one of my co-workers brings a new hire around to meet me.
“This is Jeff,” my co-worker says, pointing to me. “Jeff — how do you introduce yourself these days?”
I’m not sure what she means.
“When I had my first kid, I started introducing myself as a mom. Do you introduce yourself as a dad now?”
I’ve never thought about this, and the new hire is looking to me for an answer.
“I usually introduce myself as a writer,” I say. This wasn’t always true, but my wife told me it was important. That if I was going to be a writer, I needed to introduce myself as one. I’ve been with my wife seven years, and have been introducing myself as a writer for six of them.
“I think it’s different for dads,” my co-worker explains to the new hire. “There’s career pressure, I think. I don’t think any guy would ever introduce themselves as ‘Dad.’”
I don’t know whether or not this is true. I shake the new hire’s hand. When she walks away, I realize she still has no idea what I do.
I’m walking outside with my fifteen-month-old son and he’s teetering along a badly-cracked sidewalk. He’s making a sweeping motion with his hand, index finger and pinkie sticking out. He waves his arm back and forth, buzzing his lips, staring at the sky.
When I hear the roar, I look up.
He sees an airplane. The airplane streaks across the sky, and he claps. He’s dancing, and I have to hold him by the shoulder so his excitement doesn’t topple him into a ditch. When the roar recedes and the airplane disappears into a bank of clouds, he looks up at me with his not-quite-blue, not-quite-hazel eyes and makes the motion again.
“This,” he says. Everything is this. If he were asked how he introduced himself, he would say This. He says it again, repeating it, stomping. He’s beginning to look sad. He waves his arm again, frantically, back and forth.
This This This This
The airplane. He wants the airplane to come back, and wonders why it isn’t happening. I want there to be another airplane. I don’t want him to know I can’t make them come.
A co-worker taps her watch. It’s 11: 55 AM, and I’m leaving to pick up my son.
“Leaving early,” she says with a smile. Nearly all my co-workers are women, and they all have children. Some of their children are my age, or older.
“Time to go home and be Mom for the day,” another co-worker says.
They laugh as I leave, and the laughter is not mean-spirited.
In my car, it occurs to me there’s a better term for what I do than being Mom. I wonder why it takes me until I’m half-way home to realize this.
When we get to the playground and I take my son out of the wagon, I catch a flash of movement on the wooden play structure. Young teenagers, a boy and a girl. Maybe they were kissing, or just holding each other, but they’re startled by our presence.
My son wants to play on the swings. I put him on my lap, but when I swing too high he says on, on which means he wants off. As soon as I set him down, he says on, on, which means he wants back on. We continue to do this.
The boy and the girl are sitting closer now, talking quietly. They no longer notice us, but their friends have shown up on bicycles. Two boys who know them, talking with increasing volume, introducing curse words.
One of these new boys rides his bike to the edge of the woodchips and jumps off. The bike continues, unmanned, then flops over. The girl laughs, so the other new boy does the unmanned bike trick, and does it faster. Within minutes, they’re throwing the bikes. They go up a short distance, then summersault onto the playground, scattering woodchips, banging into equipment.
My son no longer wants to swing. He wants to see what these boys are doing.
They are throwing their bikes higher and cursing louder, getting them closer to the boy and girl who are holding each other in the play structure. The girl is still laughing, but the boy is not.
One of the bikes goes wild, lands close enough to my son that I feel a shot of adrenaline.
“Knock it off,” I say.
They snicker and they stop, but not for long. They go back to jumping off the bikes. One kid throws his a little, watching me. The other throws his a little higher. I pick up my son and put him back in the wagon.
I remember being on the swingset, and I remember throwing bikes. I am not those boys. I’m the one who says knock it off.
There is a video of me and three other fathers dancing with their infant children. My son demands the video every night before his bath, pointing at my office, waving his hand until I put him on my lap in front of the computer. The video is one minute and thirty-eight seconds long, and I’ve memorized the recorded conversations. They are otherwise forgettable exchanges that have been canonized by this video. I know the words better than any poem.
Once I learned the words, I started looking at the faces. The fathers look so happy. All of them smiling, throwing their babies, whirling them around. Except me. I’m in the video and I don’t look happy. My face is a grimace. When I first notice this, I whisper to the video.
Smile. C’mon. Once.
But I don’t smile. I wonder if I’ve been grimacing for fifteen months, and if so, why no one has ever said anything. I wonder if I enjoy all this dancing as much as I think I do.
“This, this,” my son says. He wants to watch the video again.
The roar above us goes quiet, and there is no longer anything to look at.
“This, this,” my son says.
I pick him up and hold him close to my chest. I am relieved that I remain responsible for airplanes.
“Must be nice,” my co-worker says, glancing at the clock as I leave at noon.
Sometimes it is.
I do not enjoy the mall, but there’s a play area there with a giant gray seal my son likes to climb on. At home, he claps his hands, which means “seal.” He is demanding we go to the mall. Sometimes it’s easier to go.
At the mall’s play structure, I am the only father. Two girls who are older than my son are pushing past him to get on the slide. He doesn’t seem to mind, but his parents pull the girls back.
“Let him go,” they say. “He’s just a baby.”
He stands at the top of the slide until I help him down.
When I do, I see they’ve changed the advertisement on the back of the mall directory. It’s gone from an explosion of fresh fruit and frozen yogurt to an image of a young girl with her arms out in a superhero position. She is supported by a set of large feet planted in her chest, shrieking with delight, dark curls spilling down the sides of her face.
Have you been a Dad today? the poster asks.
I look back at the play structure. My son is standing by the seal, clapping his hands.
“Daddy,” he says. “Daddy, Daddy.”
I size him up. My son is too young to do this move, but not for long.
J.D. Salinger didn’t give a damn about social networking.
No Twitter. No Facebook. And don’t play the “he was too old” card. He wasn’t on MySpace either.
Nope. Salinger was a badass hermit who carried firearms. You know what his social media platform was? Guns. That’s what.
Maybe that’s how he wrote some of the world’s best literature by the time he was thirty-five. He, like Cormac McCarthy, Emily Dickenson, and Bill Waterson, didn’t waste time fiddling with the wording on 1000 different Facebook posts or figuring out how to impress new followers with a hashtag. These authors successfully cultivated their inner hermits. And we can learn from them.
The Art of Hermitude protects two key ingredients to any writer’s success: energy and time. And we never have enough of either.
I picture my daily supply of creative energy like Link’s hearts in Legend of Zelda. After I shake off the cobwebs with a cup of coffee, my brain is shooting swords. Pow! Concepts fly from my brain and explode onto the page. Emotional honesty! Insight! All hanging on an intricate scaffolding of three-act-structures, character arcs, try-fail cycles. It just works.
Until it doesn’t.
As the day goes on, I get shot by a couple Octoroks. Have my shield eaten by a Like Like. The structure collapses. Then the insight. I take a few more hits. Self-doubt. Fatigue. A caffeine crash. My hearts are low. Flashing red. I realize I will not leave my writing dungeon with the Triforceintact, and retire to replenish my energy. If all goes well, I wake up the next day shooting swords. Just like new.
Here’s the problem with social media:
Twitter eats my hearts. So does Facebook. I’m told these activities are meant to be easy. That I should “be myself.” Look. If I’m being myself, I’m wearing sweatpants, drinking beer, and watching B-horror movies. I’m not sitting around reading 140-character bursts and trying to be clever. Interacting on social media sites is a public affair. Authors tweet and comment and blog for all sorts of reasons, but I don’t think it’s “to find the most authentic me.”
It’s work. Work can be fun sometimes. And it can pay dividends. I’ve made excellent professional contacts through Twitter. My writing has improved because of this blog. But I resent the constant listening-in. The quantifying. How many friends? How many followers? How many hits and RTs? It’s designed as a never-ending feedback loop, which is not how writers do their best work.
So two weeks ago, I took a stand. For the purposes of artistic integrity, I left my Motorola Droid on a beach in Maui. That’s right. A $500+ phone. Just WALKED AWAY. To the casual observer, this may have occurred because I was irresponsibly drunk after a wedding, standing on a beach and threatening to swim to Kauai if my wife didn’t get in the ocean with me. But clearly my artistic subconscious was at work. If others failed to notice, it’s because they were too busy staring at their phones.
In my time without a smartphone, I’ve had a few revelations. Most notably, my writing productivity has improved. So when I buy the Droid’s inevitable replacement, I’m making a few changes: 1) No more blinking light notifications every time someone mentions, Tweets, or thinks about me across six different media platforms and five email accounts. It’s distracting, self-serving, and counterproductive. 2) No more staring at my phone when I’m bored, waiting for something to happen like I’m on an A.D.D. vision quest only Verizon Wireless can fulfill. 3) When I go to a wedding, I’m leaving my phone at home.
And I’ll no longer write with it in the room.
Because writers need to be solitary. It’s how we do our best work. And if your agent or publisher demands you take on a web persona, I recommend you cultivate hermit status. Tell them it’s a proven strategy. It sells books. It builds legends.
And if they still won’t listen – buy a gun. Then unplug, hole up, and do what you were born to do: