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Renaissance Oaf

A lifelong writer and artist talks about his struggles and rewards on the road to becoming a professional. "When the going gets weird the weird turn pro." -- Hunter S. Thompson

Updated: 2017-11-25T01:01:51.814-08:00


Miserable Bastard Syndrome


The sky is bothering me on this one. I can't tell whether to keep it, replace it with a flat gray, or use a smooth gradient. I hate it when a creative problem boils down to, "Try and be less tacky."So it's time for the blog to come back. While I used it primarily as an outlet for casual writing, its real worth to me has been therapeutic -- for instance, when I'm going through a crisis period, it can be useful to see if I was going through a similar crisis around the same date in previous years.And I'm going through a crisis right now, and it might be good for me to write about it.A while back -- and if I'd kept up on my blog, I'd be able to put a date to it -- it became clear that drinking was becoming a problem in my life, so I made the transition from drunk to alcoholic. By which I mean I started going to meetings. Not AA, it's a secular group called Lifering. And since then, I've mostly stopped drinking.But I've gotten drunk twice in the last three days. Once I could call a slip, but twice so close together is obviously an act of self destruction. I'd like to publicly apologize to the missus. She puts up with a lot from me, and I genuinely regret that she has to be around me when I'm wresttling with my demons.And that is what I am facing right now. My deepest and most abiding problems have been forced out of hiding, and when exposed to the light, they seem obvious to the point of cliche. I drink when in crisis because that is how all the adults in my life coped when I was a child, and I am self-destructive because people told me I was bad. Given the history of mental illness in my heritage, I'd be a little screwy no matter what, but what I'm dealing with right now actually is that simple.Right now, my life is really good. And that is why I am not in a position to ignore my issues anymore. I do not have the option of blaming the world at this point. There have been times when I have suffered real misfortunes, but that isn't going on right now.So the fact that I have been dealing with one of the bleakest periods of extended depression in my life is something I have to really own. As I told my shrink, "It used to be that when I fell off the tightrope, I went down into the dirt and was mangled and I had to heal up before I could get back on the rope. Then in my mid-twenties I was able to get a safety net put in. And once I started getting some recognition as an artist, it was like getting a safety tether. Now when I fall, I only drop about six feet and I can climb right back up. The thing is, for the first time I can actually see the drop and it's intimidating the fuck out of me."I am looking square at the fact that on a certain level I do not believe I have the right to be alive, that I see my existence as an objectively bad thing. (The ability to maintain that belief is definively subjective. I KNOW.) What makes this fun to contemplate is that one of the main roots of this attitude is a response to the reaction of the adults in my life to my childhood depression.We had a friend named Aggie who was very fond of telling this joke when I was in earshot. "If you took Duncan (my brother, deceased) and put him into a barn filled with horseshit, you'd come back six hours later and he'd be digging away, saying, 'There's got to be a pony in here somewhere!' And if you put Sean in a room full of presents, you'd come back six hours later and he'd be sitting in the middle of the floor crying, and if you asked him why he'd say, 'if I open one of these presents I'll break it and then I'll be in trouble.'"See the cat? See the cradle?When I was a kid, I wished more than anything else that I lived in Berkeley, that I had a cute chubby girlfriend, that I was big and tough and smart and talented and nice, that I was good at stuff, that people liked me, and so on and so forth and I've got everything I wanted as a child at this point. I really do. While I am always on the lookout for more compliments and attention, I've actually gotten enough of both to last me the rest of my life if I use them conservatively. I have heard everything I want[...]

Cultivating Desire


This one is going to get a little rough. But this blog is part of my therapeutic process, and I need to put this up for my own sake. So quit reading if it’s going to make you unhappy.I’m coming to realize that as complicated as my mental health issues are, there is one specific problem that if addressed could radically improve my quality of life. My needs and desires do not motivate me to action. This is the case to a genuinely pathological degree; it is a life-threatening condition. Anorexia, dehydration, apnea — “I guess I should breathe,” was a thought that ran through my mind early this morning — there are very real physical risks I face on a regular basis. It took me a long time to recognize this because I’ve become habituated to this kind of self-abuse…… but then I noticed that the concern the missus expresses over my well-being when she’s out of town included a component of real fear. And my therapist had the same reaction. It was pointed out that when I haven’t had a woman monitoring my food intake, my hundred-and-forty-five pound steady weight was the result of chronic malnutrition. When people ask me, “What do you want?” I almost never respond in an appropriate fashion. I always find a way to defer to someone else. A few months into therapy, my shrink said, “You aren’t motivated by desire, you’re motivated by principle.” I asked the missus, my dad, my closest friends, and they all confirmed that opinion.But it isn’t principle so much as compulsion. From time to time, I’ll run across someone who will raise a corrective forefinger when I say, “I have to —“ and then they’ll wag it at me and say, “No, you don’t have to. You choose to.”People who can think that way are incapable of understanding me. Dealing with them is like dealing with someone from another planet. (Are they even people?) I only act when I feel as though my choices have been reduced to necessities. This is a big part of my cycle of extended periods of depressive passivity broken by productive phases of hypomania.I am fortunate to be achieving an interesting position as a cultural figure. And every success has had its roots in someone else’s desires. People ask me to do stuff and I try to do what I’m told.Because I try to be a good boy.But that is not the same as having a drive to succeed. In many ways, I’m still trying to hide from the world.The missus is out of town now, and is going out of town again. So this stuff has been a subject of discussion. And in the last couple of weeks, I’ve had a few realizations.One is that I do not feel lonely when I work for other people, while pursuing my own ends makes me feel panicky and abandoned. Not to go into the details, but that comes from a shabby old set of Mommy issues.The other came after a day of eating no, drinking yes. The next morning, the calm, reasonable voice in my head said, “You do understand that you’re a public concern now, and what you did yesterday was vandalism. That’s not what a good boy does.” I swear, that bastard is starting to play dirty. And something big and hopeful has entered the picture. Over the course of this last year, I’ve had three discrete periods of real happiness that lasted for weeks or months. It seems that when I get a certain amount of what I want in life, I’m basically happy. And some of what I want is to be of service to others, and some of it is to feel pride in what I do. Sex, cooking for others, beautiful scenery, exercise, intimate conversation, the praise of knowledgable people, the exercise of mastery in my skills, the rough edge of learning a new skill, proudly displaying myself in public, the option of getting something fresh to read or look at or listen to, going out every once in a while, nice clothes, access to media gadgetry and musical instruments, the company of animals. I know what I want, and I know what’s good for me.But it just doesn’t motivate me. I can regard any level of physical and emotional discomfort with a certain cool, unsympatheti[...]

How To Be A Literary Writer or Overweening For Beginners


With unconvincing apologies to my friends and teachers in the worlds of science fiction, fantasy, and horror.

Once in a while I ask myself the question, "How do you get away with calling yourself a literary writer? And why bother?" The second question is easily answered. Vanity. On some level, for some reason, I regard myself as a special bunny, and I don't have enough enough of an audience to legitimize those feelings. (I hope you're satisfied.) The first is a little more involved. If you look at my ouvre, miniscule as it is, you see wall-to-wall alien torture demons, carrion landscapes, and talking chickens. My next novel will have dinosaurs and spaceships both. And yet no one has ever called me on my shit. How do I manage this grotesque imposture?

Concern yourself primarily with style, theme, character, and the formal elements of prose, relegating plot and incident to support positions.

This is a big one. The real trick is to lack plotting skills early in your career, so you're forced to do other stuff well enough to compensate. But if you work hard enough, you can even fool the actual literati. And talk it up. Don't let people forget you regard 'story' as an awkward necessity.

The down side of this is that when you finally learn to plot, it will make you feel twice as fraudulent -- once for passing yourself off as a writer when you couldn't even tell a goddamned story, and again for transforming yourself from a genuinely interesting minor artist into a drag-ass no-talent commercial hack.

Work visibly outside of genre.

It isn't enough to leave the zap guns out of a piece every once in a while. Make sure you point at your obviously non-genre work, make a little noise, give the impression that it is more characteristic of your inner self than the stuff with the alien invasions and so on. That way when you start dishing out bug-eyed monsters you can do so with a slight elevation of the nose. I spread my hands apologetically -- "I can't stay away from the kitsch, what can you do?"

Here's a twist on the concept -- deliver genre material to a non-genre venue. As the man once asked me, would you rather be a booger in a Dixie cup or hot snot in a champagne glass?

And now the most important part. Nothing will help you if you can't do this.

Say, "I regard myself primarily as a literary writer," with both a straight face and the tiniest, most tasteful hint of physical intimidation.

I never claimed this game was for everyone.

Spoiler Alert: Plot of Wonder Woman Movie Revealed!


Oh, it's Wonder Woman all right. You just can't see the Golden Lasso.You may or may not know this about me, but I first wrote professionally for an animated movie review show. There was another animated movie review show with a similar underworld-meets-Siskel-and-Ebert schtick going around, and we had contrasting approaches to the movie review process. One show would watch the movies, write the scripts, record the sound, animate the show, and then review the movie six months after it came out when nobody cared. The other show would make use of shadowy media contacts and gossip columns and so on, prejudicially guess at what the movie was going to be like, usually with some measure of juvenile spite, and then release the review slightly in advance of the movie so as to take advantage of the collateral publicity, which, along with the employment practices, made it an amazingly amoral job. I had the chance to write with a number of respectable comedians, but you notice how I don’t name them or the show?Anyway, I stand by the reviews I wrote. Seriously, the way movies are made? If you can’t tell pretty much what you’re getting six months in advance, people haven’t been doing their jobs.So I have maintained, as they say, shadowy media contacts. And in the public interest, I am going to let you in on a little secret. I have some pals who will be salivating over this information.I know the storyline of the upcoming Wonder Woman movie.And I am going to take a chance and share it with you.The basic origin story, what with old Steve Trevor crashing on Amazon Island and all that, takes place over the opening credits. The actual story starts with Steve and Diana on their first date. Steve is telling Diana – who is Wonder Woman, I think it’s Diana Prince or Price or something, but when she’s dressed in real lady clothes she’s Diana – he’s telling her how much he loves planes, and how he loved planes so much when he was a kid it turned him into a pilot. He’s in love with planes so much it sounds like a medical condition, which turns out to be the case.So Diana says, “I’ve got a plane!”Steve Trevor says, “Can I see it?”And Diana says, “No, it’s invisible,” and unconsciously folds her butter knife. There is sweat on her forehead so you can tell she’s nervous.Steve says, “Well, can I touch it then?”Diana gulps visibly, and says, “You can’t because I brought it from Amazon Island and it’s a girl plane so if a boy touches it, it goes away.”And Steve goes, “Aw, man. Well, can I see you fly it?”Diana gulps and sweats and just balls her butter knife up like it was aluminum foil. “Sure!” she says. “I’ll show you my invisible plane next Friday!” And if the actress does her job, you can tell she gets calm all of a sudden. “Probably next Friday, if my plane’s still okay. If it isn’t, I might have to do it later.”And now Steve is the one that’s worried. He says, “I really hope your plane’s okay. If a plane gets hurt, it makes me feel the way a normal person feels if a pony gets hurt, and the pills the doctor gave me for it totally, utterly, and completely kill my sex drive so I don’t take them all the time and I like you so much I haven’t been taking them. Honest, I like you a whole lot, but I just don’t know what my doctor will prescribe if anything happens to that plane.”What a pickle!Wonder Woman calls up her friend Etta Candy and asks for advice. Etta says, “I’m a sidekick so I don’t know much about boys. If Steve has the initials L.L. you should ask Batman for advice, but otherwise Superman is the romance expert.”Cut to Antarctica, which is the continent of romance because the cold encourages snuggling. We are at the Fortress of Solitude, so-named to get a reaction out of Lois Lane. (This isn’t in the movie, I just know a lot of Superman stuff.) Superman and Wonder Woman are standing outside in the wind and snow screaming at each other in their supervoices while wear[...]

How I Happened: Ancestry and Infancy


Photo once again courtesy of dedicated oaf wrangler Deborah Kuchar.(So in conversation with my shrink, I realized that she didn't have a clear map of my life, especially in relation to my state of mental health. I think I'm going to try and construct some kind of therapeutic autobiography here...)When the missus met my paternal grandmother for the first time, she turned to me on the drive home, and said, "So you don't have any sane grandparents.""Pretty much," I said. Things tend to get diagnosed more often on my dad's side of the family, but both of my grandfathers were alcoholics, as were both of my parents. My paternal grandfather died of heart failure in a psychiatric institution. He had grown obese while institutionalized, probably a result of his medication. Of course, he had been locked up for getting naked and saying he was Jesus, so there's that side of it. My other grandfather had been reported dead by my grandmother, who told me dozens of different stories about the alcohol-related incident that had taken him when they lived in the Philippines. My cousin has since found evidence that he actually moved to Japan and had another family, who does not wish contact with us. A friend of my mother's spotted a photo of her father with his best friend. My mother's friend had been an MP in the Pacific theater during World War II; he pointed at my grandfather's best friend, and said, "That son-of-a-bitch was the biggest diamond smuggler in Southeast Asia."I have always felt as if I were a cross between my two grandfathers. They are nameless and faceless to me, and they will never go away.My grandmother would certainly have been diagnosed with OCD and depression if she'd been diagnosed. I have been told that from time to time she would tell third parties, in an ominous tone, that she was the only one who really understood me. This suggests to me that people knew there was something up before I did, and that she may have had more dramatic symptoms than she let people know about. She maintained a reputation as eccentric rather than crazy. Her most visible oddity was her devotion to Christian Science, which, sorry, Monitor, is a cult, and is just as whacky as all get-out. Lots of religious fanaticism on both sides of the family, and I think religion disguises a lot of nuts, don't you?My mother also suffered from depression, which she treated with alcohol and denial. She began drinking heavily in her early teens, and stopped just before her death when it became impossible for her to hold a beer can. From time to time during my childhood, she would erupt into a self-righteous speech about how she would never drink or smoke during pregnancy.I have been diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome.My mother feared her mother. When I was engendered, she kept the news to herself for a while. She was nineteen then, and had no real direction, and wasn't married. So for the first part of the pregnancy -- I know the next statement is true, though I have no evidence for it aside from myself -- she sat in her room, smoking and drinking. At first she didn't know, and then she was in denial.Finally, she told my dad. They fled the state, they married, they travelled cross-country in the company of a working con artist, and my mom had me in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, because that's where you go when it's fucking February. She claimed to have been too broke to eat during the weeks prior to my birth.People who are red-headed tend to be sensitive to stress. All my gray hairs were once red. People who are left-handed tend to be sensitive to stress. I've got some weird issues from having been switched from left- to right-handed.There's a theory that left-handedness results from stress experienced by the mother during pregnancy. It sounds silly to me, but I have an affection for that theory.My family moved back to the Bay Area. I lived in San Francisco for a couple of years, and then we settled in Richmond. I was a precocious child, talking at an adult [...]

What's Going On


Too tacky to use as art, but how often am I holding a camera when a pelican launches itself?When I started this blog, it was intended more for self-amusement than anything else. After a while, I noticed that it was a very handy means of tracking my moods and mental states. But as I've gotten more in the public eye, I've been reluctant to simply hop on the blog and put up a post that says, "I'm feeling crappy because I'm an inferior specimen."And that's why I haven't been posting much in the past months.In 2010, I reached a crisis point. I was hospitalized after vomiting blood for three days. This was a stress reaction rather than a gastrointestinal issue, and I was inserted into the public health apparatus. It was disastrous; I was given powerful, addictive, inappropriate medications for just long enough to develop dependency, and then denied them without warning or preparation. They crapped me out of the system without ever telling me what they were doing.At that point, dealing with my psychiatric issues became my number-one priority in life. Not to go into the (infinitely fascinating) clinical details at this point, but while I am a gentle, peaceful man, I am drawn from the pool that produces killers and suicides, and when I turn that will on myself, blood flows. On one hand I am a bit of a hypochondriac, always wondering if any particular symptom has come to stay or is indicative of further unpleasantness to come. However, there is such a thing as pscychogenic disease, and I get psychogenic diseases like crazy. If I am sufficiently unhappy, my body falls apart, and that is less of an exaggeration than anyone likes.But, as I said, dealing with this became my primary occupation at the end of 2010. The missus very generously arranged for me to consult with a good therapist who has taken me on for free. Because she's a generous and committed person, of course, but also because I'm a fun client. We have a very relaxed, unconventional therapeutic relationship, and it's worked out very well for me. She isn't responsible for my therapy, but she keeps me focused and in touch with reality, and there have been times when her guidance has proven invaluable..Up until last spring, the course of my work went very well indeed. My shrink says she's never seen improvement like that before, and I reply that I'm turning my artistic skills on the medium of myself. But  there's a concept called 'the healing crisis.' This can take a lot of forms, but what I'm dealing with is perspective. I've made a lot of serious progress, tackled issues I'd thought unconquerable. I'm not scared of gatherings of people anymore, I'm not overwhelmed by crowds. I'm developing some real affection for myself, and have reached a point with my self-care where the missus is no longer worried about leaving me at home alone for extended periods of time.And that's been the problem right there. I've gotten well enough to get a clearer view of how I look from the outside, and Jesus. It isn't as simple as just being messed up. Every psychiatric issue I have is connected to some unusual mental or spiritual gift. This isn't typical, it's something out of a story rather than a textbook, but there it is.Last spring I was finally facing the idea that I might have to apply for SSI and Social Security and so on. And it started getting to me. It wasn't the only thing, but it was the extra thing that was getting to me. I have had people telling me to do this for years, I had even been contacted by a homeless outreach program and began the process at that point, but I'd let it go.Among other things, my shrink spent a long time working for Social Security, evaluating cases. She was one of the people who decide who deserves a check and who doesn't. So when she told me, very seriously, that I needed and deserved disability income, I had to take her seriously.That was when I started losing weight. By early summer, I was down to about 180, which[...]

Why I Sinned, And How


Click Here For Free Flash Fiction!My run at this year's Flash Fiction Fest is now up. Eight short-short stories (which was what we called flash fiction back in the pre-Cambrian), all for free. And in addition, there are works from P.T. Dilloway and Neil Vogler, who brought me in to participate in last year's We Are Now. New December House writers Daryn Guarino, Jess Leather, J Freese, Philip Leslie, and Simon Kewin. (Sorry, Simon, the link clicked to Philip.)Last year, I did a serial that turned out to be the seed of a novel. The reviews were... kind, but unimpressed. I had a hard time arguing. I wanted better than that this time around, so I made each story stand alone, and I tried to do a little fancy footwork here and there, a little showy technique for the sake of skylarking. I had a good time with these. I wouldn't mind the opportunity to give them an extra layer of varnish, but what the hell.At The Eden(Lust)At The Eden came first, before I'd considered the notion of the seven deadly sins. I've always had a fondness for goofy bar stories -- the Drone's club, the White Hart, Jorkens, Gavagan's Bar, and so on. I work a lot with Rob Pierce, and bars crop up in his work regularly. I'm not a bar drinker. I don't like the noise, the difficulty in holding a conversation, the expense.... but I love bar stories.This one started with the voice, and the setting. I lived through the seventies, and there were certain public spaces that were like being drowned in rainbow sherbet while choking on cigarette smoke. And I didn't much like church back then, either.The Language Of Women(Pride)The Language Of Women grows out of my interest in gender, and specifically the times when culture diverges so far as to result in gender-specific languages. I'm by no means a scholar on the subject, but from time to time I run across something interesting, and the factoids have been accreting over the years, and here we are.This story is derived from a specific quirk of history. In Japan, during the time immediately before the Warring States period (sic, probably, I have no idea what the real nomenclature is), there was a period where the Chinese script was the written language of scholars, and there was a separate script for women. If you don't believe my story is true, go to a bookstore, and look for, say, The Tale Of Genji or The Pillow Book Of Sei Shonagon. Then try and find works by male writers who were their contemporaries.On the first round through, it was all written in the style of the passages dealing with women's language, and all the readers reacted with wary suspicion. So I pulled out my utility-grade poetry and got to work. (You wouldn't want to read a whole fucking book of my poetry, but I can slide a little in here and there without feeling like too much of a jackass.)Alternatives(Malice)I had an ongoing mental argument with an imaginary Jennie McCarthy for a long time. The missus plays video poker, I fight in my head, we all need hobbies. Anyway, it blows me away that someone can torment, mutilate, and kill children with nothing more than trick boobs and hubris, and never, ever be held responsible for the toll of human suffering on her slate.I'd been turning this one over in my mind when I was presented with the Seven Deadly sins. I thought to myself, "The Eden story will do for Lust, Language works for Pride, and this will be Malice."But Malice is not a deadly sin. December House took it anyway, but this is one of the reasons I was bushwhacked at the last moment. I"d forgotten all about Pride.But go read A Leaven Of Malice, by Robertson Davies. It's real good if you're in a mood for Canadian bacon.A Poor Man's Prayer(Greed)Right now, I am in a very odd socioeconomic position. I've been financially dependent for about a year now, and am applying for SSI and Social Security. But my daily life is one of relative comfort and prosperity. I am closely connected t[...]

Deadly Sins


Sign Up Here To Get Free Fiction Throughout November!So! Starting on Friday, my (oh, my goodness) publisher, December House, is releasing this year's Flash Fiction Festival -- Deadly Sins, a collection of stories on the subject of Lovecraftian themes in a Steampunk setting. My character is a vampire bounty-hunter working for Azathoth, but despite the love they share, she's starting to think there's something wrong with his agenda -- lethally wrong for the human race. Unless she wants to live off of ichor for the rest of eternity, she's got to face down not only her lover, but all the other horrors out of space and time. I guess with all the tentacle stuff it's kind of anime too. What do they call it? Hentai? Yeah, like that.It was Harry Potter when I wrote it the first time, but they made me fix it better except I had to take out the pictures because you could tell who everyone was, because they were very realistic and very canon both.Okay, just to be clear? I'm joking. This is a collection of short-short stories on the theme of the Seven Deadly Sins. P.T. Dilloway and Neil Vogler. the original team from last year, are in there along with a number of new writers.So here's the release schedule for my stories, along with a sample. Forgive the typographical issues; I cut & paste from Word.Sunday, November 3GluttonyHer request bothered him. It was as much about getting him to do something as what he was going to do. Aaron and Caroline hadn’t been together long, but he could already sense the lines of contest in the relationship, and he wasn’t quite at ease with them.Tuesday, November 5Pride The words of men were strong as iron, bright as brass, whena brush stroked paper it rang like ahammer striking sparks from a new sword.Each spark a word, each word a picture, each pictureheld its thousand words.It was spring between wars, they weredrunk on peace, and kept their beautifulwords within a drunk man’s reach. Friday, November 8Greed You, who are beautiful as a green river with golden banks, you who are as mighty as a dragon scaled in coins, you who are kingdom itself, industry at your right hand and the wrath of war at your left, enthroned on the church and cushioned in pleasures;Forgive me. Monday, November 11SlothI might make it. I might not. Either way, my wife was going to come home to my emaciated body stretched out in bed. She would ask, “What happened to him?” and she would be informed, “Sometimes they just stop working.” Thursday, November 14Lust “I don’t know,” Eve said, “It’s just that everything is beautiful, you know? It’s all beautiful. It’s like there are atoms and everything is made out of atoms, and what the atoms are made out of is beautiful.” She stroked the orange vinyl bench, and it was as if she’d run a fingernail along the staples closing the incision in Adam’s side, zzzzziiiiiiiiiiiiiiiip.“Do you know what’s beautiful?” the snake said. Adam cringed and thought, oh, for Christ’s sake. “You’re beautiful,” the snake said. “Those atoms must be made out of you.”Saturday, November 16Bonus Sin --Malice!Would this make Carol one of those Munchausen’s people? Probably not: they wanted attention, and Carol just wanted five minutes of quiet.Tuesday, November 19Wrath Christ, and will you look at that. That dude might be the most stunning world-class worthless piece of egregious shit you have ever seen. Texting while riding a bike no-handed on the sidewalk, flip-flops and no shirt, blonde dreads halfway down his back, sporting a fucking NO FEAR tattoo that needs to be rendered ironic. He is going to sail right through that red light, isn’t he? Friday, November 22Envy My wife regrets that she has to make due with a small quivering wire-haired animal with halitosis when there is something larger with softer fur available just on the other side of her spouse. If she [...]

On Becoming A Commercial Novelist


Photo by Deborah KucharDefine Commercial FictionFiction intended to make money. And in today's literary culture, that means conventional storytelling -- providing vicarious experience, a guided exercise in let's-pretend, characters that the reader either identifies with or finds amusing, a sense of rising action and immersion in an imaginary world, and so on. Dramatic fiction, in other words.The Case AgainstThis is a juvenile activity on the parts of both the audience and the creator. The highest forms of literary expression deal with literary issues, not those of an imagined life. This kind of work can be pure hell for those of us who can sustain ourselves on the beauty of prose separate from any other concern. The marketplace used to be a snakepit, but has since been thrown into utter chaos.I don't read fiction for pleasure very often. Since I don't read, how do I put myself in relationship to the audience? (For those who don't know, it's not like I'm unread. I was a compulsive reader up until I learned how to write properly, and went through a minimum of a book a day ranging up to five for most of my life. Yes, sometimes I read at freak speeds. I have one of those brains.)I hate the idea that I might write down to my audience. I feel a little woozy and hubristic at the idea of writing for an audience.I have no audience. What the hell am I thinking? I write stuff that makes demands on the reader. Nobody wants that crap.And these days I look down on a lot of fiction. I mean, I read people like Steinbeck and Fitzgerald (to name a couple of writers who are too dead to be offended) and get irritated and judgmental. If I've developed a distaste for the form, how can I hope to do it well?And there is nothing about the transmission of fiction that leaves me feeling good. I love bookstores and bookstore owners, but once you've seen a dumpster full of books or a row of carts filled with shelf-damaged books returned without payment from chain bookstores. I'd always dreamed of e-books, but now that they're here, I regard them as ugly ecological and labor disasters, part of the internet company store that is helping strip the planet bare as fast as possible while impoverishing as many as possible.And what am I going to do, go on and do the same kind of project over and over just because I can do it? What about higher artistic goals?The Case ForI have wanted to be a writer since I was a kid. Everyone around me has regarded me as a nascent writer my whole life. And now I actually have the goods. I can write a deep, solid novel in less than a year, and I have a backlog of ideas that could fill my life if I never came up with anything else.And I still love the form. I just am not in the audience anymore. The act of writing is terrific. The skill of projecting myself into another writer's work has been turned on itself, and the results are a hell of a lot of fun. I get more escapist pleasure out of writing than I ever did from reading, and the sense of being in control of the work resonates through my life, and makes me a stronger, happier, more confident person. The pleasure I take in writing imbues itself into the work. This isn't a masturbatory pleasure. It is a means of engaging with the world. I cannot give pleasure unless I experience it. The bargain we work with the world is more complex than I'll ever understand.Reading fiction is a good hobby. It's one of those things like athletics that has a cascade of beneficial secondary effects. It is actually good for people. And the type of fiction I write -- dense, evocative, intellectually stimulating and demanding, highly emotional, rich in sensory detail -- really gives the brain a workout. I've seen enough responses to my art to know it works for the right audience. It's good for people and it makes them happy.I do have an audience. The are personally connected with [...]

Reading And Writing Violently


In an on-line group of genre fiction writers I'm affiliated with, there's a discussion going on about violence in writing. It's centered around this essay by Warren Ellis. While Ellis is widely experienced as a scriptwriter, essayist, and novelist, he's best known as a comic book writer. He's one of the best working in the mainstream these days, or at least he was a few years back when I was current with the industry. For the record? This post may seem as if I'm arguing with him. I'm not. I'm explaining myself to my friends.I got called on losing my temper in the discussion, or at least showing signs of tension. I was a little irked by the essay. I thought it dismissed the actual failings of Ellis's work at its worst, and failed his work at its best. Which is a polite way of saying I thought it was a bunch of self-rationalizing horseshit. HIs position is that many people are confused by the presence of violence, and it's up to works like his to help them understand.Given my own habit of writing on violence, this would seem to be the kind of statement I'd support. But I think this is a paper tiger. I do not think people who can't understand violence have a problem or represent a problem. And if they do, I don't think violent pop fiction will help them. I'm wrestling with the issues involved in violence in the media very intimately right now, and this statement from whose work I've enjoyed and in some cases admired bothered me.For those who are not familiar with Ellis's work, as I said, he's one of the standout writers in comics these days. He has written works that he could point to in defense of his position, Fell coming to mind immediately. There hasn't been a better historical comic than Crécy, which is as violent as you could ask for.But in the majority of his comics work, violence is used as it is most typically used in conventional adventure fiction. It is there to make the lead characters appealingly potent, to establish their value and authenticity. It is there to titillate the reader, and it is frequently executed by lightly- clad men and women intended to appeal to the shallow male gaze. Most troublesome to me, it is portrayed as a legitimate and functional first response to problematic situations, especially useful as a means of establishing and maintaining hierarchy.I am not arguing that he needs to defend that work.  I have bought much of it, read much of it, and will pick it up and read it with pleasure again.But it's frequently nasty entertainment. It's not wholesome. That's why I like it. There is a certain British culture of grinning, brutal violence that appeals to me, and Ellis is a fine practitioner of the tradition. But I don't always approve of the things I enjoy. And I won't argue that they have social virtue, because I don't believe it.When I was in high school, I worked as a teacher's aide and janitor at a day care center. This was during the late seventies, early eighties, and there was a brief Marvel Comics trend as a result of the Hulk TV show. Fights were unusual at the day care center; the kids were upper-middle class, and didn't get hit much at home, so they had to come up with their own sources for the violent impulse. T-shirts were useful in this connection. If a kid wore a Spiderman shirt, they would probably get into a fight by the end of the day. If they wore a Hulk shirt? They would fight. Every time.I could say that it was because the Hulk TV show taught kids that losing your temper and breaking things fixed problems, but that would be bullshit. It was the image of the strong, violent man that possessed them. If you watched them, you could see them puffing and flexing as the shirt convinced them that they were the Hulk.The shirt work the kid, and the shirt started the fights. My feeling about violence and the med[...]

Binary Clod


(Photo by Deborah Kuchar)Confronting my social anxieties and sense of alienation has led me to have a much greater interest in people, and the more I find out about them, the more I understand just how weird I actually am.On one hand, I am nearly fifty years old, in debt, and conventionally unemployable. On the other hand, I am an oddly accomplished and impressive individual. "I'm worried that you might be experiencing grandiosity, but it's hard to tell," my counselor told me at one particularly ebullient point, only to qualify that statement later in the session with, "No, you're definitely not grandiose, you actually are what you look like. But we might want to keep an eye on things."I am dead broke. Have been for years. Despite this, between my hobbies and my friends, I live a middle-class teenage dream life in many ways. And I have to fight to appreciate my prosperity, while the poverty is slowly smothering me.To tell a homeless man that I can't give him money feels terrible. To do it on the way to the store with exactly enough money for a pre-decided purchase makes me feel like a turd with a cherry on top. But this guy has told at least one woman my name, and now I have to say no to her as well. And he has medical coverage and I don't.The trivialities of the pleasures which sustain us are impossible to rationalize when held against the cost to the world as a whole, and if I do not engage myself thoroughly and productively in the world of trivial pleasures, it causes hardship to those immediately around me.Again, from counseling: "The thing is, all of these mental illnesses and symptoms are actually advantages under the right circumstances. When I'm really functioning, it's all useful." My counselor said, "That's not the way it usually works, but in your case it's true."I have always regarded myself as a cipher, an invisible man, a social and sexual nonentity. Oh, brother, who was I trying to kid? The problem is that I am the exact opposite. I am a projector, I am one of the people who sets the tone of the room. The problem is that a lot of the time I am fucking miserable.But when I'm not, holy shit. Nobody warned me about this. It turns out that thing I do with animals and kids works fine on adults, I just never thought to try it. Now I have to be fucking careful not to let it get out of control. People pushing me ahead in line, cashiers giving me discounts, people starting conversations with me and then asking me if I'm an artist or writer and then asking where they can find my work. I seem to look as if I'm a big deal of some kind.It is like an on/off switch. Either I scowl at the ground, or I am socially engaged. I was never invisible. I was just refusing to respond to the people around me. Given my early years, of course I refused to respond to the people around me.It was only on Friday that I finally understood the look. I frequently find people giving me a look that is all eyes and no mouth, a straight stare that always impressed me as hostile, always aroused a feeling of physical defensiveness. And a lot of the time, it comes from people I find attractive. This is one of the main reasons I've always assumed that women have a specific distaste for me. (Most of my closest friends have been women, and I usually wind up bitching to them about this, and yes. Yes, there is irony here.) You know what the look is? It's someone who's been caught staring, and who doesn't know how to respond, and can't quit.A lot of what I've experienced as hostility in life makes more sense if I assume that I'm someone capable of arousing strong emotions in people, and sometimes those emotions cannot be fully controlled, and sometimes they don't feel good. I always knew this was true of everyone else, but now I know I'm in the game. And I'm not used to it. It's intim[...]

What's Up


Dave Kirk of Aunt Dofe's Hall of Recent Memory and I confer on the hanging.So here's what's going on. For the last few years, one central metaphor for my life has been poverty and glory racing neck and neck. Well, they collided. The bad news is that I am broke, and I need all the basic accoutrements of life upgraded. New computer, new wardrobe, a phone, a card, a real website, I need to get a license and learn to drive, back taxes and student loans, the whole thing. I need to join civilization, basically. The good news is that a good friend gave me a boost, primarily in moral. It's now obvious that I am capable of earning a living, if given appropriate opportunities. I've got a couple of things going on right now in writing and editing that are getting me a bit of money, and I'm starting the process of hunting for a 'real' job. If I can get ten to twenty hours a week at twenty-five to fifty, I'll be fine. I suspect that I should be able to pull down at least a hundred an hour once I get established.Doing what is anyone's guess. The job I just lost/quit (mutual recognition of untenable situation followed by decision to retain friendship, and that's all you need to know) potentially involved everything from analysis of technical documents and writing polemics to tough guy crap, and the work I did was terrific. The demands on my time and skills really brought me to life. I want more of that. So, I'm lookin'...So this morning, I ran through my to-do list, and found myself cleaning up all the manuscripts from around my work area. I have one novel and four short stories in the works, and it's time to get moving on all. (Why am I so poorly known? Because I publish infrequently in the small press and then hide the evidence.) I've also decided to re-write the ending of Ghost Rock, extending it by a couple of full sub-plots and some forty to sixty pages. I ran the idea by the missus, she-who-was-sick-of-my-rewrites, and she agreed. So there's that as well.Next up is the problem of finding musical backing. When I performed at Aunt Dofe's with Blue and Dan of Fear Eats The Soul backing me, it was something else again. I run crude voltage; they provided a circuit. I need that to bring my performances up to their proper level, and Blue and Dan ain't here. While I'm currently leaning toward experimental jazz, art rock or even blues might be made to work. It's really going to come down to personal chemistry in the end, so I'm ambivalent about putting too many expectations on particulars. But let's put it out into the atmosphere, I'm looking for an experimental, improvisational band interested in working with a reader/performer from time to time. The first project is going to be my three best pieces from Lip Service West, all viewable here on Vimeo. I'm going to combine them, remove redundancies, trim excess tissue, and divide into sections to allow for musical interludes -- I figure that as a show it would be between forty-five minutes and an hour, depending on how the music goes.I don't know where it's going to play the second time, but I think I have an angle on where it can make a debut... And that should keep me fairly well occupied for the next two or three months, he said innocently...[...]

Swill 7 Will Be Relased At Beastcrawl!


All right! Tomorrow night, the launch for Swill 7 takes place at Shashamane in Oakland. In the last few months, there have been three career eventsthat have been exerting a lot of influence on my life. One wasbeginning my second novel for my e-publisher December House. Thesecond was the art show at Aunt Dofe's Hall of Recent Memory, where Iwas able to find myself comfortable in a surprisingly elevated sphere.(And where the Swillistrations were officially pronounced worthy...)And tomorrow is the third, the introduction of both the new magazineand the new series of... I guess at this point they're photos. Seesamples above. Thirteen pages of interior images, folks, and allbearing a fascinatingly oblique relationship to the associatedfiction, one that attempts to add an additional layer of resonance.And to be able to introduce this at Beastcrawl! What a hoot.See, that makes Swill part of the establishment. Which has been ourstated position from the beginning, but yeah. We're part of thesystem.Wheeeeeee!So here's the issue.The Lazarus Effect by Amy Yolanda Castillo features what I regard asthe premier circus animal attack of the issue, and then works to aclimax.Til She Fill My Mouth With Laughing by Lisa Nohealani Morton is thekind of submission I'd order out of a catalog if I had the option.Smart, literate, it's got your footnotes and your Fabre quotes and allthe stuff that makes me smile. Plus, there's justifies nepotism, myfavorite kind. Of course, I bear an onus for abetting an oathbreaker,but I'll take an onus for a good story any day.Oblivion, by Holly Day, is a neat slice of fantastic naturalism withreal emotional tension. Think Serling, Matheson, even good King astouchstones. And it's by the author of the For Dummies books onComposition and Music Theory, which I probably will pick up at somepoint.Kevin Grows Up was a story written entirely out of spite, and asalways, I wound up living it in real life. Okay, I don't want to pointfingers and name names, because I'm a passive-aggressive shitheadsometimes. But let's say there was a magazine that published genrefiction, okay? A very well-established magazine with a reputation forliterary standards above those typical for genre fiction. PublishedKurt Vonnegut, Shirley Jackson, Gore Vidal, a list of genuineluminaries as long as your arm, as well as a lot of the best-writtenfantastic fiction done inside of genre, with authors such as UrsulaleGuin, Jack Vance, and Avram Davidson being featured regularly duringthe heights of their careers.We're talking a fairly heavy cultural artifact.When I read the current editor state that his target audienceconsisted of twelve-year-old boys, I lost most of my interest inpublishing with them, but I suddenly needed to write a story thatwould make a twelve-year-old boy feel horrible. And so I wrote KevinGrows Up.But remember, I published it in Swill. So no twelve-year-old boy willever see it.Shana Graham's Newark has elements of romance, noir, and surrealism,and is pleasing in its resistance to being pinned-down. Too sharp fora dream, too dizzy for reality. Reading this feels like being awakefor too long, and that's a compliment.There were a number of Viet Nam veterens in my life when I was growingup, and Gene Hines's Women In The River did not set off my bullshitalarm, for whatever that's worth. Because of this, the story got alittle extra graphic something. Mr Hines, by the way, has publishedwith us before.Stephan McQuiggan gives us a jolly old-fashioned bit of sadism inSusannah Quietly. I could never resist poisoned candy...Pancake Collection by Rob Pierce is 'typical' Pierce story in that itcombines alcohol, failed romance, physical violence, and a devestatedemotional affect ito damage the reader's equilibrium. He's p[...]

Metropolitan Montana


Here's Dave Kirk in the gallery space at Aunt Dofe's Hall of Recent Memory. Everybody has to be nice to Dave from now on.So they take me out to a back road in Montana, and I figured this was my chance to do some Western art. "Here I am, doing Western art," I thought to myself, and when I was done, I showed it to people and said, "See? I'm not afraid of Western art." I drew a cow, as well. I'll let you see it later.When I got home and looked at my 'Western' art, I laughed out loud at what happens if you go far enough west...Every day is backwards day. So of course, when I went to Montana for my show at Aunt Dofe's Hall of Recent Memory, I spent my time entirely in the company of people from the arts, academia, and broadcasting. The one civilian I listened to for any length of time turned out to write a column for a fishing magazine. And most of 'em were probably more conscientious lefties than I.So go figure.It was a ridiculously gratifying experience. I was treated as a precious object, I behaved as a humble servant, and the results were pleasing and harmonious. My pal Deborah (familiar to long-time readers) made sure I ate and walked every day, and arranged regular encounters with animals. I need a certain amount of physical affection, and without the missus and our dogs, horses, dogs, cats, cattle, and observed wild animals serve as palliative drugs. (Deborah's comment at the end of the trip -- "Animals compete for your attention, and people give you stuff. What's up with that?" -- was the last nail in the coffin of my former self-image. I am not an outcast, but rather one of those who glitters when he walks, and that boils up a whole fucking other kettle of worms. If I act like the sullen wretch I am, it comes across as arrogant or threatening rather than pathetic. I'm starting to feel that smiling and acting nice are responsibilities I've been shirking.)But the whole scene wasn't about me, and I liked that. I was one of the main engines of the event, but an engine isn't an aeroplane. Dave Kirk, the curator of Aunt Dofe's, had gone through a fallow period, and this had been (or at least this is the impression people gave me) a source of hardship in the creative community. "Dave/Aunt Dofe's is the best thing to happen to Montana in a long time," was a statement I heard repeated from many mouths with the regularity of a chirping cricket. So a new season of shows at Aunt Dofe's was exciting news, a sort of cultural springtime.Working on the sort of budget one gets for art produced outside the academic or commercial worlds, with access to any number of friends and colleagues who are known in the world of the arts, who have shows ready to go, who have pull and connections and collectors and so on, Dave, like an arrow straight to Hell, chose to go with an almost completely unknown artist, working in an eccentric, somewhat kitschy style, who would need complete sponsorship in order to participate.On the night of the opening, I heard two phrases repeated over and over from a lot of different people. The fishing columnist (who I'm not ribbing) wasn't there, so it was all, you know. Arts types. Real arts types. Working, academics, broadcasting, like I said.Some of them fixed me with an intense gaze, obviously meaning to drive some thought into my brain with the force of a wooden stake. "You do understand that this is one of the best gallery spaces in the world, and Dave is one of the best curators in the world, right? You do understand what that means?"Well, I'm still in the process of understanding that one, but yeah, I kind of get it.The other thing people said? "Thank you."Like I said,  still processing, kind of get it.Here's the thing.I'm proud of the show. There are two[...]

My First Solo Art Show


The above two images are the covers of two pamphlet-format publications. They will be used at my upcoming show this month at Aunt Dofe's Hall of Recent Memory. That's right, I'm going to be traveling to Montana, and if anyone can guide me in the direction of some Zappa-themed novelty floss, I'd be mighty grateful. And yes, A Bad Part of Town is going to have its spine to the right, and will be read back to front, and the whole show is full of that kind of crap because what the hell were you expecting from me?Okay, folks. This may or may not be the last post for this site, but I've got a brief moment where I have the option of telling y'all what's going on.I am, among other things, in the final stages of preparing for my first solo art show. This show will bring together my writing, my visual art, and my performance in one package, and if I can pull this off, you can expect more along those lines.I had two conceptual issues to face in this project. The first is one that came to light in discussion with one of my oldest friends. (Those close to me have been startled by a recent burst of personal progress; it is the result of this friend going to great effort on my behalf, and I acknowledge this with much gratitude.) We were discussing the nature of art, and specifically the nature of printmaking. I'm a digital artist. Have been from the first time I held a Wacom stylus in my hand and I knew there was a way of communicating with a computer. I've been using Photoshop since it came on floppies, okay?But now there really is no comparison between a woodblock or an etching and the object that rolls out of a printer. I argued against it at the time, but in retrospect, the idea grew in me that simply producing a print isn't enough.I was also facing the idea that the museum, the gallery, and even the publication, for better or worse, outrank the art. They are there for the sake of the art, but they frame it, enclose it, and give the experience of art it its most essential physical qualities.This realization depressed me, until I realized that it meant I had to take responsibility for the interaction between art and publication, or, in this case, between art and the gallery. What happens in the gallery space is the art, not the individual images on the walls. The images are offered for sale as much as memorabilia of an event as artworks in themselves. My job was not to produce images for display; my job was to take years worth of my art and writing and use them to convert the space into something unified and meaningful.I could not engage directly with the gallery, although Dave Kirk, the owner, gave me some solid pointers on lighting. I did have the floorplan. At first, I used it simply as a means of referencing the measurements of the walls, but after poring over it blindly, I suddenly saw the essential shape of the space, the way it was divided, and the way people entering it as a gallery might move.The four walls resolved themselves into two facing L-shapes, separated by doors. The short arms of the Ls receive west light, which is strong and varied, and seem to be the most visible from the street. So they get saturated colors, strong contrasts, skulls, monsters, and so on.The pieces are in two parts. One is the image, and the other is a short poem functioning as a title. Most of the images are fifteen inches wide by twenty inches high; the poem/titles are on placards about nine inches by three inches. On the right side of the studio, the poems are aligned to the left of the placard, and the left edge of the placard is parallel to the left edge of the image. This unbalanced composition will lead the eye down and to the left, so that it will be natur[...]

The Next Phase Has Begun


I can't tell you much about what happened over the last week. Let me put it this way.

Best. Sean. Story. So far. An amazingly fictional, mythological experience just choking with extremes and intensity. Ask me in person. It's mind-bending. James Herriot meets Rupert Pupkin.

But to cut to the chase.

I am as a phoenix risen from the flame. I am able. I am employed as an apprentice in a fascinating and lucrative profession, and I'm getting in through a side door. I have begun training to shape my body into a beautiful weapon. I have finally begun my course of instruction at Man School. I am being prepared to take a place in the one percent.

I know what I am now. There aren't any words for it these days, but there is a class of people like me. I have a fellowship, a guild, a history. Our core values are intellectualism, aesthetism, valor, honor, and excellence. I had the first two and the last, but without valor and honor I was part of a man. Now I am whole.

I have started taking steps toward real, actual adulthood. I will be engaging with the world on its own terms instead of dictating my own and grinning as the world flays me in response. My purity is over. I will have to contend with my core values as obstacles as well as virtues.

And I will need to access pleasures previously too -- sinful? degraded? -- for my previous self. Pride, vanity, competition, desire, all have to be embraced if I am going to be able to move in the circles into which I am being pulled. I'm going to be swimming with sharks, so this gator needs to smooth his moves and sharpen his teeth.

I'll be starting a new blog with a different title. Self-deprecation isn't appropriate for my current path. And I'll be going over this blog and reducing it to a 'best-of' collection, with all references to my personal frailties excised. I no longer approach life from the perspective of a victim, and wish to distance myself from that stance. No insult to anyone else; my attitude toward others is unchanged. But I've let fear govern my life to too great a degree for too long, and now things are different.

My life as an artist will continue unabated, and can only benefit from this new direction. Most of my independence has been left to me; what has been taken is the opportunity and desire for indolence.

Aspects of my character that have previously been unbending laws will now have to be guidelines and preferences. The fierce purity I have maintained through my life is no longer compatible with a course of honor.

And so.

Don't worry about me any more. I thrive. Don't think I'm going away. I will be more in touch than I was before. I'm thrashing with my new computer set-up, but I should be fully back on-line in short order. There will be a phone, and a mailing list, and business cards, and all the happy paraphernalia of a professional approach to life.

Now I'm going to go walk around and feel something strange thrum through my body as I absorb the fact that I don't hurt and I'm not doomed and tomorrow will see me stronger than today. See y'all around, and give my best to your family.

My Computer's Dead


Hey, all.

My computer has died. The missus has graciously decided to get me a low-end Mac with eight gigs of RAM, which will be a little better than the seven-year old machine it's replacing. This isn't going to happen immediately, and it does represent a financial hardship. But I'm not going away, and I will be back to work in the near future, and when I come back, I'll be able to comment on blogs and open .docx documents and so on.

I will be checking my email on the missus's machine. I will be available by phone. I am not vanishing.

That will be all for now.

How I Learned To Tell A Story


Right now the Taos Toolbox writer's workshop is actively seeking applicants. In addition to their coverage of issues specifically relating to genre fiction, they provide the finest education in the practical techniques of fiction I know of, and excellent advice and support regarding the writer's life.But the most useful thing I took from Taos was from Walter's casual discussion of his martial arts practice. "Most of it is about maintaining a heroic stance," he said. Ever since then, I've had the heroic stance at the back of my mind. I mean, you can't say, 'I want to be heroic,' but you can take a stance.And I can't tell you how grateful I am for the friends and colleagues I met there, and I suspect that some of us will be in communication for life. Hey, sometimes you get lucky.I made my first attempt at writing when I was in elementary school, another in junior high, another two in high school, and three more times in colleges during my twenties. My last teacher summed it up when she said, "You've got everything but a story, and without that, you have nothing."I responded by writing a Jim Thompson-influenced version of the Three Little Pigs. It was my first real story, and the only one I was able to pull off for another ten years.Story is hard, story is a bitch, story breaks more wannabe-fiction writers than anything but laziness. I spent my life bouncing off the problem of story. It felt as if there was something wrong with me that was keeping some essential secret hidden from me.This turned out to be true.Some people say storytelling is used-up, played-out, every story has been told and what's the point? Since I'm not seeing the great storytellers addressing the issues of the day, and I see lots of people reading stories, this sounds like goony talk to me. And other people say that there is nothing without story, and I think of how non-fiction outsells fiction ten-to-one, and that sounds like goony talk as well.But if you're a writer and you can't tell a story, it hampers you.In my late thirties, after I got out of rehab for my back injury, I fell into a job writing cartoon scripts for Mondo Media. I was initially hired to write and direct my own show, but my weak storytelling skills screwed that up for me. But by the time my hypothetical series had died, my story editor, Megan McDonald (who is currently a rising poet), had taught me enough basic storytelling so that I was brought on to work on a number of different shows, mainly Thugs On Film. (Incidentally, this was directed by Kamau Bell. Y'all seen Kamau recently? TV show and everything.)This was fun, and it gave me a chance to work in a format that was sufficiently limited to understand. Three and a half minutes, a movie review, one smart guy, one stupid guy, both dopes and criminals, an adventure playing off the movie, go!Creativity thrives on rules and limitations. This is important. The greatest gift I got from scriptwriting was the habit of working almost entirely in dialog and sensory information.I came out of that, and after reading an interview with Megan, I did as she did and joined a writer's group. This was when I started getting some traction. My fictional models were Saki, John Collier, Shirley Jackson, Roald Dahl's adult fiction, Fredric Brown, and so-on -- cruelly amusing moralistic entertainments, possibly featuring an element of the fantastic.But while I was working on those reasonably-successful short works, I was thrashing around with my novel like it was a fucking anaconda in the mud. I read everyone from Freytag to Frey, even that old Robert McKee and Morphology of the Fairy Tale and ever[...]

A St. Patrick's Day In San Francisco


The neighborhood we were in was so punk the pigeons had mohawks.Photo courtesy of Justine Clifford. Thanks, Justine!So I had an interesting time on Sunday. Actually, I had a great time, but in a very odd way. Joe Clifford's got a new book on the way. It's the one he wrote first, a memoir called Junkie Love, and he wanted to shoot a promotional video for it. Last week he put out a call for thuggish types, and I decided to see if he could use me. I like Joe, I like seeing myself on video, I've always thought I'd make a good movie heavy, what the hell. I figured I'd put off my haircut for a few days to keep my looks as seedy as possible, and volunteered on that basis.A year or so ago, maybe even as recently as six or eight months ago, I wouldn't have done it. But these days, I like socializing and meeting new people. My decision to really join the human race has paid off in unexpected fun. It used to be that going to any kind of real social occasion was painful for me, worse than physical violence, but things changed. Part of it is getting to be more comfortable with people, part of it is getting to be more comfortable with myself, part of it is realizing that when I feel miserably fearful and intimidated and on the verge of tearful flight, I probably come across as a stuck-up jerk, possible side-order of macho, and I'd rather be thought of as a nice guy.I'm still figuring out how to present myself in public -- for instance, I have NO FUCKING IDEA what to say when someone asks me, "So, what do you do?" My compulsion to honesty makes this one a stone bitch. No matter what I say, I'll feel as though I'm either aggrandizing myself or poor-mouthing, and either way I'm trying to draw attention to myself, which is also the impression I give when I try and dodge the question. You know what? Next time I think I'll just say 'starving artist type,' and if they need any details, they can fucking ask.So on St. Patrick's Day I took BART out, and went to look for an Alkane Hotel in the neighborhood of Sixth and Mission in San Francisco.This was a bad neighborhood. Needles underfoot if you stepped off the main street. You could see people dying as they walked by; a substantial portion of the community was visibly malnourished, most of them older people. And among the obvious poor was a sprinkling of rock-and-roll types. As the man said, a cheap holiday in other people's misery. I found a place called the Keane Hotel, and hoped this was the place. I pulled out my book, and started to wait. And then after seeing four or five tiny, emaciated, elderly black people enter and leave, a lovely young blonde woman in her late teens or early twenties swept through the door.Tall, clear skin, radiant with physical vigor, she did not belong here. She wore a punk uniform, brand new, leather and chrome and Docs. I used to have a lot of attitude about this kind of thing, but Establishment Punk serves a purpose for a lot of people, and it's actually part of my history and world, and they're nice kids. Sometimes they can tell I used to be the Only Mohawk in Town, and it's really adorable and how can you not like that? But the combination of the affluence necessary to assemble an outfit like that, to get the right tattoos, with the environment...Her T-shirt screwed with my head. It was a Gits shirt. My old buddy Anthony introduced me to the Gits way back when. If you want real details, look it up, but here's the story I keep in my head for ready reference. The Gits were a band from Portland or Seattle, someplace up North, and they were pretty good. Their lead singer was murde[...]

Pursuing Disability Income


Read my latest piece, Easy Off, at the online noir magazine The Big Click. For the record, the accompanying image is perfect. Writing and performing this was real therapy for me -- by the time I was done, I'd lost my fear of myself.Not everyone has that reaction.So, I've been forced to make a very difficult decision. For those unfamiliar with the story, a couple of years back, I was hospitalized after vomiting blood for three days. I was told that my problem was stress, and was sent to a public mental health clinic, where I was diagnosed with PTSD, OCD, a particularly intricate mixed-state bipolar condition, fetal alcohol syndrome, and a debated and hypothetical big brain injury of some kind. There was one point when the shrink interviewing me put her hand on my arm and gently asked, "So, can you go out at all, or do  you have to stay inside?" The word 'unemployable' was repeated over and over, like a mantra.I have a back condition, and the accompanying chronic pain that I've dealt with revealed itself in the wake of this situation. I'd allowed my stomach to get into such bad shape because at its very worst, the pain in my stomach was about two-thirds of my chronic sciatica. I've been reporting that pain as threes and fours on a scale of one to ten, and it easily beats hot stomach acid on an open wound.And sometimes the pain in my back is serious. If I make bad decisions, sometimes all I can do is lay down and hurt.I have done everything I can to try and find a way to make a living that allows me to generate an income while living with the constant possibility that I might lose my ability to function at any time, and in some cases I might be out of it for months. It hasn't been wasted effort. Even with my down-time, I produce a reasonable amount of work in a year. There is a very real chance that I will make it as an artist and writer at some point. I've sold to the big-money end of the market, and have been made to feel welcome there. But while things are happening for me, money isn't a big part of it yet. And I'm the kind of artist where going after the dollar hard might screw me up.So for a while now, friends and family have been encouraging me to apply for disability.I have resisted, but things are looking a little grim around here. This week my dad flat-out told me it was time, and when I spoke to my counselor, she agreed, and told me to contact the doctor for my back and the mental health facility where I was 'treated.' (The medication they gave me screwed with my bipolar, and for a few months we were worried that I might have to be institutionalized. Their handling of the situation was thoroughly irresponsible.)This is one of the reasons I haven't been posting much lately. On one hand, my career is swell. I have exciting projects, full control over my creative life, and what seems to be a growing reputation; you would not believe the crap people say about me. It would make you vomit. That people are proud to introduce me to their friends and so on and so forth is delightful. It is bringing me to life. I'm a new man, and much happier. My counselor says she's never seen anyone make the kind of progress in therapy that I have.So I feel whiplashed between the conditions that I regard -- emotionally, not intellectually -- as the very top and bottom of the social ladder. That I actually am on a first name basis with a certain number of people in the top and bottom one per-cent, that I actually see what life is like for the very poor and the fairly rich, is a source of tension.I see two potentially ser[...]

Plotting, Pantsing, and the Old Cut-Up Gimmick


Well, I guess I'm going to go back in and change the shape of the highlight in the Colonel's eye to make him seem more friendly, and then the coloring of the lettering on my name should probably be a nice medium-dark blue, and...So after years of study and contemplation, after consulting with experts at the highest levels of achievement, I seem to have developed the most complicated and arduous method of long-form storytelling possible. I'm writing it down so I don't forget it again -- I could have saved myself a month of mopey obsession if I'd remembered one of the basic rules.The traditional rift in approaching plot and story in fiction has been between those who like to sit down and write and see what comes, and those who figure it all out ahead of time and then go in and fill in the blanks. Those who fly by the seat of their pants are called 'pantsers' and those who plan in advance are called 'plotters.'(These are the kinds of things writers call themselves, so you shouldn't be surprised at what they call you.)The virtues associated with pantsing are originality, an inspirational connection between language and story, and the excitement delivered by an ongoing sense of discovery on the part of the writer. Pantsing fails when it fails to deliver a story, or when the story it delivers is a half-baked cliche unconsciously stolen by the writer from TV or the movies. And so on.The virtues associated with plotting are coherence, narrative drive, and a sense of control. The failings of plotted fiction are predictability and mundanity, and so on.The division between the two might be regarded as the difference between art and craft, but my critical perspective holds that there is no great art without great craft, and that craft pursued with sufficient diligence can transform itself to art. So of course I have to combine the most laborious parts of both methods. Because that is the kind of lever monkey the world has made me.I wrote my first novel this way, swore I would never work in that fashion again, and immediately fell backwards into the same fucking trap with Helping Henry. So here is my magic recipe for instant storytelling.1. Write a stand-alone story that doesn't quite satisfy.2. Extend it. Add crap. See how events lead into one another, find out what the characters are doing, where they're going. Get them there. Think in terms of consequences, of thought to action to reaction to response.3. Look at the pile with dismay. Realize that you're dealing with a novelistic structure, and that you have an obligation to bring it to proper fruition.4. Panic.5. Inspect the manuscript until you find a beginning and an end that have a meaningful relationship with one another.6. At this point, the manuscript is comparable to the block of marble in the old joke about the sculptor. "How do you do it?" "I just knock off everything that doesn't look like a donkey."At this step, you're looking for the donkey. You cannot regard the current manuscript as anything but raw material. Everything is disposable.Look at your beginning, and look at your ending. If you are trying to write conventional dramatic narrative -- by which I mean a story where things happen that people can understand, a story that may be read by someone who is not a fiction specialist of some kind -- the beginning and the end have to be connected by an UNBROKEN CHAIN OF CONSEQUENCE, where each event leads to the next.7. This is the hard part. This hurts. It is also the most important part. This is where the creature lives or dies.Knock[...]

The Little Friend of My Little Friend...


This is the bed in our guest room. This is our dog -- my dog -- Laszlo.And that is Laszlo's little friend.When I say Laszlo is my dog, I don't mean I went out and selected him. Other way round. Here's what happened. When our Australian shepherd Amanda died, we said it would be a while before we replaced her. But our terrier (rat and Jack Russell mix) Roxxie started getting the crazies within weeks of Amanda's passing. Roxxie is one of those high-pitched individuals who doesn't get along in the world in general, and the loss of her friend really got to her.So the missus got in touch with some animal rescue people, and Laszlo was the first dog they suggested for us. We drove out to the valley one day and met the rescue worker who was handling Laszlo (unnamed at that juncture) at a park.According to what she said, Laszlo had been abandoned on the street and then rescued. "He's a dog person, not a people person," we were told, which, given the circumstances, sounded good. When we met him, he wouldn't approach me, wouldn't respond to me when I called him. I am an animal person -- not all animals love me, but if they don't, I wonder what the hell has gone wrong with the world. When this little guy wouldn't meet my gaze or let me near him, I figured something was wrong. Really wrong. This animal had been abused, and as much as I wanted to help, I didn't want a dog who didn't want me. So I started to harden myself to say we wouldn't be going home with the little mooch.I fell into conversation with the woman who was caring for Laszlo, and while we were talking, she looked past me and smiled. "He sure likes you," she said. I followed her gaze, and looked down to my right rear. The young Laszlo was sitting directly behind me. He wasn't touching me, but he was as close as he could get without making contact. His body was curved around my right calf, and he was gazing up at me with an expression on his face that said, "Please. I want this. Please, please, please..."We took him home.For the first couple of weeks, he wouldn't approach me from the front or respond to my calls, but he stayed as close to me as he could, and if I let him sneak up behind me, he'd let me pet him. The combination of love and fear was heartbreaking -- but he got over it.Roxxie the terrier has always slept in our bed. The missus uses her as a sort of hairy hot-water bottle. I'm an insomniac. If I get more than five hours of sleep a night, I'm okay. If I get less, I'm a miserable neurotic wretch. And due to my back pain, there's a limit to how long I can lay down comfortably. So I usually get up for a couple of hours in the early morning. One night after Laszlo had been with us a couple of weeks, I came back to bed and saw him curled up all by himself on our couch. I thought of the missus and Roxxie and myself warm and cozy, and I scooped the little guy up and took him back to bed with me.It was purely an act of affection influenced by pity, but it was one of the best decisions I've ever made.When I'm laying in bed in the dark, I am at the mercy of my mind. I usually go through three or four fairly serious stress reactions a night in response to compulsive fantasies of violence or other misfortunes. The missus is a lovely person, but I have made it a practice not to roll over and clutch at her, shuddering and hyperventilating, more than three or four times a year. It is not my intention to establish a hostile work environment.But get this. These days, when it's time to go to bed? Laszlo da[...]

Every Path Turns


So in my last post, I wrote that all I needed to get back on  my feet was either a solid accomplishment or a piece of unexpected good news... and then  my computer started acting screwy. After six or seven crashes in half an hour or so, I just shut it down.That afternoon, I went to lunch with a good friend, and I was able to help her with the synopsis for her novel. So that made me feel good.And when I got home, Joe Clifford had put out an emergency call for for someone to read at Lip Service that night. I was the first to volunteer, so I got in. When I was there, I met a number of friends, including Nick Mamatas, who will be publishing the piece I read over at his Big Click noir site. I was taped, which means the performance will probably be available on Vimeo at some point, along with the other two in the sequence. We had a lovely dinner afterward, with a number of literary luminaries including Nick, Rob Pierce, newly-met Jason Ridler, and a couple of civilians who probably don't want their names bandied about. There actually is a scene here, and I am part of it.So that made me feel good.When I opened my computer up, it worked. And after I went and dumped a bunch of files, it worked better. I am very conscious of the machine's mortality -- it's five years old at this point -- but this scare led the missus and I to make contingency plans, so I'm no longer worried that I'll simply disappear from the internet and the world of the arts when my computer does break.So that made me feel good.My current writing project has been vexing me during my winter slough. But I was able to tap an expert for advice, the story editor who taught me scriptwriting -- the advice will probably be, "Just keep doing your thing, big guy," but sometimes I need to hear that from an authority. I think I've figured out the problem, and I think the thing that's bothering me the most can be solved very easily, with just a few lines of expository thought.So that made me feel good.The day after the missus and I had our awful breakdown fight, while I was still sick with the flu, I coped with the sick weight of guilt (since soothed by a calmly witnessed ten-point dismount from the moral high ground, and I bet your relationships are perfectly simple) by sending out a submission to an agent. (I'd gotten discouraged when Michael Chabon's agent didn't want to look at my manuscript, because I am a ridiculous person with a damaged brain.) I was expecting a reply in six-to-eight weeks.Yesterday, the reply came. I won't tell you who it came from, because it's too early, and who knows how things are going to go and all the usual precautionary hand-waving intended to propitiate the spirits. But the letter inside the envelope was on heavy linen stock, and the glaringly understated letterhead is printed in gilt, and they want to look at Ghost Rock. Regardless of how this particular encounter goes, this makes me feel a hell of a lot more confident about my ability to get my work out there at a high professional level. It's given me back the feeling that I'm a when, not an if. (Fingers crossed, wood knocked, a humble imploring glance at the sky.)And that makes me feel very good indeed.[...]

The Current Shambles


So there's this guy in the neighborhood. He's homeless, from Louisiana, and for some reason, I've wound up being part of his life. I've had difficulties with him -- he's shown up on the porch at three in the morning more than once, and I assume anyone asking for money at three in the morning is going to be using it to buy the kind of drugs that require a needle or a glass pipe for full satisfaction and enjoyment. Another time, he showed me a vent in his chest, a green-tipped plastic sleeve that looked as if it should have been used to dispense soda. So there's real need, and real shiftiness, and it's an uneasy relationship. He wants me to be there for him when he's in trouble, and I don't want him to think that's cool, and we have been dancing around this for about a decade. It's made me a more guarded person. I find it mildly amusing that he has health care and I don't. We bottom-dwellers notice these things.Lately he's taken to spending the mornings laying in the driveway of the row houses on Sacramento, watching the corner of the schoolyard where his girlfriend was shot. When I heard about the shooting, I assumed that it was one of two women --  or, possibly, one woman. Because one was sober, called me Sean, and was very pleasant. She was an asset to the neighborhood. The other was kind of sleazy and called me Shane, and was always drunk or out of it on something. And they looked very much alike, and I always wondered if they were one or two people. I'd never been introduced to them; they just started addressing me by name and asking for change and I always assumed my three-in-the-morning buddy had passed on the word that I was a soft touch. That's why I stopped handing out change. It's too easy to form relationships.Well, last Friday, my music buddy and I were coming back to the studio and the sleazy Shane lady passed me. Which means it was the nice woman who got shot. And if I get up and walk down the street, my pal will be laying there in the sun pretending his eyes are closed while he stares at the spot where she died.So I know people with problems. I don't have problems, I've got issues. But this last month slammed me. Right before things got bad, I was feeling very self-congratulatory. I currently have my first major solo publication and my first solo art show in preparation. Even better, I'd managed to successfully address my most serious personal issues through performance. My counselor told me she'd never seen anyone make the kind of progress I'd made in the time we'd been working together. There's even a new issue of Swill in the works!But then winter hit me. I started to worry. Am I going to be able to make Helping Henry good enough that it would make sense to ask my old teachers for blurbs? Why aren't I trying to sell my work harder?That guy with the gallery really seems to take me seriously. Is this some kind of trick? So my insomnia kicked in -- my insomnia is the result of obsessive patterns of thought that induce stress reactions. If I can get more than five hours of sleep a night, I'm sane. I wasn't getting my five hours in. So after a few days of this, I took a dose of melatonin.  I slept, but I woke up with my back out.Some months back, I was laying in bed thinking about pain. I had the usual dull pain in my stomach, and I realized that I'd been dismissing that pain because it never approached the levels of chronic pain I get from my back. I asked myself how I'd respond to[...]

Why I Haven't Been Posting Lately


When the missus and I walk in the morning, this is the view we see from the top of the trail. It really does limit how much bitching I'm actually allowed to do.1. My winter depression is making me prone to unfortunate negative comments.2. Despite this, it's been the best year of my life, and it's hard for me to talk about it without feeling as if I'm trying to incite envy or admiration.3. I do have some very real difficulties in my life, and it's hard for me to talk about them without feeling as if I'm begging for assistance or wallowing in self-pity.4. A lot of this stuff is too personal for me to be willing to go into it in public, out of respect for the privacy of others. My personal life is intertwined with my creative work, but there are other people in my life, and it is impossible to write on some of these subjects without dragging their trash out into the yard. Oh, well.5. My personal identity is currently in a state of flux. This is always true, but over the last few years most of my identifying characteristics have reversed polarity or vanished like boojums. The ugly duckling experience is fantastic fun, let me tell you, but nobody really prepares you for it.6. And talk about things they don't prepare you for. Now that the dust is clearing and I'm starting to get a view of the story I'm telling myself about myself? It turns out I might be the kind of person who really doesn't get to talk about himself. That if I say, "Look at me, I am this," it will turn out that what I am is a grandiose asshole. Other people are already using the words, and I should keep my mouth shut about myself and just do my work.7. A lot of what I'm facing involved mental illness and its relationship to violence, and right now there are things going on bim, bam, boom, that tie into my personal experiences in a way that would make any discussion seemed timed to associate my personal journey with any number of public and private tragedies. And if you will excuse me, fuck that noise.8. My performance work has become my preferred outlet for my personal writing, and while I have taken at least one piece from a blog post, I kind of feel as if I'm working with a limited pool of material, and I know what I want to do with it at this point.9. And that has me wondering what the purpose of the blog is in the long run. Right now it would be very good for me to post regularly, and I have a few thoughts as to where I should go with it. But right now, the 'personal blog' just doesn't seem to be working for me. This sounds dopey. But right now, I am finding out that a lot of my personality and the way I present myself is rooted in both defensiveness and a need for recognition. I don't think it's something awful, but it turns out that as I've become more secure, my motivations for interacting with the world are changing. If my needs are being met, I'm less interested in using the blog toward those ends, and more interested in finding ways of advancing my cultural ends and comrades. But how to do that?10. It's become kind of obvious to me over the past few months that there is a real split in my presentation here, and my presentation in real life. Here on the blog? It is the real me, but you wouldn't get this tone from me unless you were a good friend and we were getting a buzz on.Now that I'm getting to be known a little more, there are people reading the blog who have not met me, and it might not be a bad idea [...]