Thirty-five. There was a time when I seriously didn’t think I’d make it to this age. Some of that was just being young and unimaginative, but there was one time, the first time I failed out of college, that I gave myself the unimaginable goal of being “known” the world over by the time I was 25, or I promised I would kill myself. Of course, the internet happened, I made friends as far away as New Zealand, and I was spared coming up with a ridiculous excuse for why I wouldn’t take what I considered the coward’s way out. The truth is, it was little more than a sad, depressed note I’d left myself somewhere, and I never would have committed suicide, but there it was. I’m a little ashamed that I ever even put that thought into the world.
When I was in high school, I wrote a screed about how we had three options in life. We could join the mindless, mind-numbing zombies of the MTV generation. We could give up, admit defeat and take ourselves out. Or we could wear what Grant Morrison called “The Blank Badge” in The Invisibles. The idea was that we could choose, for ourselves, who we were, or we could be the failures of conformity society wanted us to be. I went off in that handwritten manifesto about how those who committed suicide were selfish and worthless, and deserved none of the sympathy some might give them. I said that suicide was still the failure of conformity, because it meant that you admitted that you had settled for someone else’s standards instead of your own. Essentially, if you took your own life, you won nothing and deserved nothing. There’s a lot of me that still believes that. I might add, now that I’m older, exceptions for the terminally ill, but then again, why not fight to the bitter end? I think about mortality a lot. I fear death in many ways, but I fear not satisfying myself more than I do death itself. But I digress.
I have had two people I cared about, though from a distance because I’ve slowly become more and more agoraphobic as I’ve aged, commit suicide in recent years. I miss them, but I am not sad for them. If anything, I’m angry at them. Even more angry when I consider them amongst those I looked up to when I was 19 and telling myself I only had until I was 25 to make it in the world. I wish they were still around. I wish they hadn’t been selfish. I sometimes start thinking about what might have been if I’d gotten over my self-imposed hermitage and reached out, but I stop myself. They never reached out to me either, so it’s not my cross to bear. Sorry, guys. I love you, but fuck you.
Here I am, ten years past one milestone, and now facing a new one. I’m the age required by law to run for the office of President of the United States. I won’t, mind you, because I curse too much, do not suffer fools, and I’m an atheist who likes porn, smoking, and English Football more than the NFL. Still, if I wanted to, I could. I was thinking about the idea of milestones tonight and I realized a few things. First, after 35, the age milestones are silly. At 16 you can drive. At 18 you can vote. Then at 21 you can drink, and 25 your insurance rates go down. The one at 35 is kind of deflating. Next is 65 and Social Security eligibility? Yuck. Second, milestones are what we make of them. It goes back to that Blank Badge idea, and something one of my former professors asked me once.
We were studying Virginia Woolf and I asked him why we studied her instead of someone more popular like Agatha Christie. I admit, my prejudice against suicides may have had something to do with my bias And besides, I told him, Agatha Christie was clearly the more successful of the two women. Dr. Russell asked me, “By what standard of success are you measuring?” Yeah, threw me for a loop. Sure, people still made movies out of Christie’s work, and her books have been read by more people, but have her books had an impact on anyone anywhere near the level of Woolf? Most people don’t know it, but when they get excited to get a glimpse inside the head of their favorite character, when the author gives them the ability to understand where a character is psychologically, it’s because the ghost of Virginia Woolf haunts all writers today. We explore epiphany and inner motivations because Woolf is our DNA. She changed the game. She forced writers and readers to do something new. Woolf is a weird case for me. She clearly embraced The Blank Badge, and for that, bravo. Yet, she was also a suicide, and for that choice I can’t help but feel animosity toward her. My thoughts on the issue are more complex than I feel I can deal with here. Woolf had a lot of milestones in her career, and while I’m tempted to compare myself to her and other writers, I know, deep down, that I cannot.
Chuck Wendig gave me some advice the other day. He said, “You’ll come back to it.” You see, I finished my novel a couple months back, and I want to do one more draft of the damn thing. I feel like I am afraid to start this last draft though, thus Chuck’s advice. I want this to be the first of many books I write, and so I want it to be as good as I can get it on my own before I start shopping it around. In my mind, finishing the book was a bigger milestone than any birthday has been. I do not have to bind myself to any age. I can and should set my own goals. If I don’t, I’m not embracing The Blank Badge. So, here’s to another year on the planet, but what I’m looking forward to this year isn’t some silly celebration with cake, but writing more, editing more, and hopefully selling my first YA novel. Cheers!
What’s a god to a non-believer? I have no clue, but Jay-Z and Kanye West ask it, and it gets my juices flowing. I read a lot of posts from other writers talking about music, and most of the time I’m unimpressed. I mean, if you’re a white guy and you write Nerdcore shit, you probably listen to Prog-rock, or maybe something from the 80s. Last week you probably got excited about My Bloody Valentine. You have a special place in your heart for some New Wave, or maybe your youth was all about Alterna-rock.
Don’t get me wrong, I like a lot of this stuff too, but I like a lot more than that too. Lately it’s been all about hip-hop. And let me tell you, it is not easy writing about a teenaged boy that hates hip-hop when you love hip hop. For the record, I’m a HOVA fan, and while I like Nas okay, if I had to take sides, fuck Nas. I don’t get into the whole East/West thing, mostly because I hated rap when that all went down. When the world lost Biggy and 2-Pac, I had two friends named Laurel and Rachel who had to explain it to me. They tried really, really hard, and I finally gave up… But something happened over the course of my life that I fellin love with rap music. The first for me was Dre’s “2001”. I don’t smoke weed, and my only real experience with gangs as a kid was staying out of their way because I wasn’t Latino or black, so they wanted nothing to do with me anyway. But that album wasn’t really about drugs or gangs, not really. It was about success and respect. It was about inspiration and mentorship. It was poetry, and I wish I hadn’t waited to see that.
Today I sat outside of my son’s school waiting for him to get out. He’s a freshman, and I’m that embarrassing dad who sits outside blaring his music. What? Dads don’t usually do that? Big brothers you say? Well, shit… I’m my own man I guess. Anyway… I was sitting out in front of the school, across the street actually, because since 9/11 it’s illegal to park in front, but I’m sitting there, and my music is thumping along. And I’m listening to this:
That’s Sage Francis, a rapper from the Twin Cities. He’s a “slam poet”, and I think his music is fucking awesome. The kids leaving the school in today’s blizzard seemed to dig it too. The non-hipster kids at least. They’d never heard this shit before though. They might have been more familiar with this:
That’s Jay-Z and Kanye. Great song. Great video. It's like the Tottenham riots brought to life and made into a sculpture of light and shadow! These are some of the songs that get me pumped. I get psyched hearing these songs. Saul Williams, T.I., Ludacris… These people aren’t just musicians, they’re poets. MC Lars, mc chris, even The Lonely Island… All poets. I don’t care if they make you laugh, they reach out and do something that I, as a writer, only wish I could do: They touch your soul. There’s something primordial that rap and hiphop taps into. Wretch 32, Example, The Streets… These voices aren’t just black, urban, and American. They’re universal, and they tap into something that’s inside all of us. Maybe it’s the rhyming, I don’t know, but damn if I don’t feel like dancing when Lupe Fiasco or Missy Elliot comes on. Look, if you’re a writer and you limit what you have coming in, you limit what you can put out as well. Shit, Ferlinghetti and Bukowski would be rappers today, and they’d be damn good too. If you don’t listen to rap or hiphop currently, I really, really encourage you to broaden your horizons. It’s a wildly diverse genre, full of men and women who bend words like Neo bent space/time; like Wesley Gibson bent bullets. What do you have to lose in partaking in a journey through some of the names I’ve mentioned? Come on, Sam-I-Am, try them and you may I say! Just for shits and grins, here's a fun one from Macklemore and Ryan Lewis:
I agree with Chuck that artists, especially writers, should get paid. I wouldn't work in this field if I didn't. I might finish editing my novel to a “ready to submit to agents” level even if I didn't imagine I could make some scratch on it, but not with the sense of urgency I have. And I certainly wouldn't put up with some of the negativity I get from some of the people I edit for now if it didn't pay well. But I don't worry about piracy. Let me make myself unpopular for a moment.
I was poor growing up. I'm talking “Toys-For-Tots, powdered milk, and government cheese” poor. Most of my neighbors didn't speak English. I was lucky and eventually escaped because I'm white, and let's face it, that makes it easier. A few months ago, one of my old classmates was arrested for being one of the biggest coke dealers in Chicagoland. Like I said, we were poor, but I was also really into books.
I rode my bike to the library every couple of days for something new to read. I exhausted my age category by the end of the third grade, and moved on to adult sci-fi in the fourth. The books got heavier, but I kept going back. In fifth grade, we moved to a nicer neighborhood and I was still poor, but within walking/biking distance of a comic shop and a used bookstore. I traded paperbacks from whomever would give them to me for “new to me” books at that used bookstore for years. Then, when I was done reading those I'd trade them again. The lady who ran the shop must have liked me because she seldom made a profit off me after the first year. I read everything, from Choose Your Own Adventure to Stephen King and Ray Bradbury. I still have a few of those books. My comic shop also had a .25¢ bin. I used that a lot too, just to get a fix of The Hulk or The Fantastic Four.
When I was old enough to work, I learned how to game the system. First it was being the first to request a new book at the library. If they got enough requests for the book, even fake ones, they'd order the book and I'd get to read it first. I got a job at a video store and they gave me free copies of movies. Then I worked at a record shop and we would get to keep the promo copies that came in, just like the video store. I spent very little money on these things, electing instead to buy my own car and my own insurance so I could get to these jobs, but I discovered all sorts of great art through these free copies, like Reservoir Dogs and Bad Religion. I took a job at a bookstore and learned I was allowed five books a month for free as long as we tore the cover off and sent it back to the publisher. The Koran, The Story of O, and even the latest Star Wars pulp were game.
Oh, and I also had friends. Friends meant I could borrow and lend even more. I read Watchmen this way, and exposed my friends to Arkham Asylum. Novels, comics, movies... We traded it all. I still have the Maxell copy of Pearl Jam's “Vs.” I got from one friend, and I watched Akira and Vampire Hunter D until the VHS copies I had of those crapped out utterly.
So what’s my point? The secondary market has always existed. I didn’t pay anything for most of the media I consumed growing up, but I don’t consider the notion that I “stole” any of these books, movies, or music. I’ve purchased books, and I’ve borrowed books, and I’ve traded books, and I’ve given books away just as freely as they’ve been given. But I refuse to believe that if I set off this very moment and downloaded a copy of someone’s book, I’d be doing more harm now than I ever did with any of the things I mention above. For me, sharing has always been part of the culture of consuming art and media.
I accept what we cheekily call “piracy” for what it is: massive sharing. The difference is that if I have one copy to share of a physical book, that’s only one sale they miss out on, but if I can make infinite copies and give them all away, that’s an infinite amount of sales lost, right? On the surface that makes sense, but is it really an issue? Look at The Pirate Bay for a moment. Just surf on over some time and look up authors who are “mid-list” or bigger. As of this very moment, around noon on February 5, 2013, Margaret Atwood has 26 people “leeching” her book. That’s 26 people actively downloading torrents of her books on the biggest torrent site on the planet. John Scalzi has 8. Joe Hill has 7. Chuck Wendig has zero. Joe Hill’s dad, Stephen King, has a lot more, but he’s also written a lot more. His biggest single leech count is 7, on the book “11.22.63”. A search for Neil Gaiman leads to a surprisingly small list of titles, and including comics and audio books, a total of 53 people are downloading his work without paying for it.
So, if this is a problem, and not getting paid always is, it isn't as big as what Disney faces with pirated copies of The Avengers. But that already made a billion dollars and everyone involved got filthy rich. The bigger and more popular something is, the more it gets pirated. So, the only way us writers will come to a point of having to truly worry about piracy effecting us in meaningful ways is if we get filthy rich and popular off it first. I'm having a hard time seeing what about that makes people panic.
If anyone knows the value of a dollar, it’s me. I get the economy is tight. I’ve lived in welfare conditions, and it ain’t easy. Writing isn’t a great gig for getting rich, and never has been. Sure, you might gain “fame”, but all that means is that more people know who you are than you actually know yourself. That doesn’t put bread and cheese on the table. Writers really should be able to expect to make a living. They contribute to our society greatly and bring us much joy, so why shouldn’t they. All artists should. The problem isn’t the people sharing though. Calling it “piracy” is a ruse, because it isn’t like all these other people are making profits from someone else’s work. The problem is that the market itself devalues the writer and all artists really. When Amazon can sell your work for less than what it is worth, THAT is a problem. When the publishers, recording companies, and movie studios take more than their fair share, THAT is the problem. When self-styled “indies” try to get around the system by giving away their work or pricing it cheap in order to compete with the predatory pricing tactics of the big companies, THAT is the problem too.
So share away. Support your favorite artists however you can, and as directly as you can. If you love something, and you bought it, share it with others. Get them to buy more art too. Most of all, stop whining about piracy unless you find a knock off of your work in a store somewhere. The secondary market is valuable in its own way, and it’s always been there, even if it takes a new form now. For all the music, books, comics and movies I didn’t pay for as a kid, I still bought t-shirts, posters, buttons, etc. We all did. We still do. When we love something, especially as dorks and nerds, we support that thing. We make movies into blockbusters. We vault writers to the tops of best seller lists. We give Disney a reason to turn Darkhawk into the next big comic-to-movie franchise. Okay, that’s wishful thinking, but we really need to try and stay calm about things like “piracy” because it distracts us from our real problems, like bad deals from mega-corporations and writing as prolifically as Stephen King. We don’t need a “Please Don’t Pirate My Book” day. We never have.
It's National Coming Out Day, and I'm wading slowly through the editing process on Dark Days, so like any good author trying to finish a book, I'm procrastinating with what's in front of me. I also haven't posted in a while, and I know that's a cardinal sin, even if I only have something like ten readers. The truth is, it feels good to unleash my typing fingers, flex the word babble a bit, and do ANYTHING besides read through passages trying to figure out exactly what words to tweek.
So, Coming Out Day... It was about 20 years ago that my first friend "came out", though it was only to me and a few others at the time. I sat in my mother's kitchen on the land-line phone in a three-way call with this friend and another. I remember that there was this build up about revealing a secret, and then WHAM! I was told. I guess I was supposed to be blown away, but the truth was, I kind of suspected it was the "secret". After all, I have two uncles who have been together for a very very long time, and though no one ever talked about it openly in the family, it was pretty evident to anyone who paid attention. My reaction to my friend coming out to me was a resounding, "So?"
"So"? Okay, maybe I should have been more sensitive. After all, over the coming years I would see him power through some amazing bullshit. There was the show choir camp we went to where no one but me would room with him. The most vehement homophobe of that group would later come out himself in a college editorial. I should have been better prepared to defend the ever loving hell out of my friend, but my response to anyone who trashed him on the grounds of him being gay was also usually, "So?". I didn't care what his sexuality was. I liked girls, but I didn't like ALL girls, so why should anyone assume that my friend liked ALL boys. In fact, he didn't. He did find a few mentors, one of which killed himself after struggling to survive the ravages of HIV/AIDS, and he was lucky enough that we had a very young, open-minded new choir director who befriended him. His family loved him, and his mom was supportive. His family even took me in when I needed a place to live at the age of 16. My friend didn't have it easy, but he was certainly lucky to have these people in his life.
FLASHFORWARD to last year. This part isn't going to make sense at first, but stick with me through the divergence, and I promise it will. Last year I was in a novel writing class and started working on a project I've been toying with for ages. The basic gist is that it's a horror satire of the TV biz and horror hosts like Elvira and Son of Svengoolie. I got a lot of bad advice on it from the meddling professor and a few of the other students, all of which were decidedly not fans of the genre I was trying to lampoon. They didn't get why I had to be so specific about someone driving a 1958 Plymouth Fury, or why it was funny that the local pizza joint was named Dellamorte's. Most of all, they didn't get why the successful female TV producer didn't have a sexual history with the preening jerk-face TV host/bad boy character.
Facepalm. I was dealing with a group of women who thought it would be more interesting if I turned my horror satire into a cut-rate romance novel. They didn't care if I insisted that she would never have fallen for his "charms", that she was career minded and had "taste". They didn't care that all my heroine cared about was running a successful television show. They wanted to know more about how he had broken her heart and how she was going to save him from his drunken, womanizing ways. Never mind the fact that they'd sen the plot outline and that there was none of that in there, that's what they wanted. I got an A- in the class after refusing to whore her out. In fact, I went so far as to make her a lesbian.
J.K. Rowling famously outed Dumbeldore as gay after her series was finished. I'd planned on making my character gay in the same way. It was happenstance. It was "So?". But in the year since that class I haven't touched the novel. Not once. I've been focused on finishing my YA Horror novel Dark Days, but I've thought about what I'd done a lot. Her sexuality didn't define her, and whenever I get back to her, I doubt I'll even make it an issue on the page anymore. Authors of fiction, in print or video, are the only ones with the power to magically make someone gay. Should we make their sexuality a matter of happenstance? I don't see why not. I think we take for granted heterosexuality, so why not homosexuality as well? I said before that my response to my friend, my "So?", was somewhat insensitive, but I want to look forward to a world where teenagers who come out don't have to torture themselves over it and their friends are as unperturbed at the revelation as they would be if that friend came by one day and said, "I like cake.", because who cares if someone likes cake or not?
I worry sometimes that we writers focus too much on things like "the character is gay" or "the character is a woman". Yes, those are defining characteristics, but they can't be the ONLY thing that makes the character who they are. Fantasy writers who are good at their craft just happen to have characters who are half-man/half-beast. Sci-Fi writers who have any lick of talent just happen to tell stories about robo-aliens who fight future crime. The plots, saving the kingdom, or catching the cyber-killer, are more important than dwelling on the social ramifications of difference. Yes, sometimes those things can be used as well-spun allegory, but more often than not, if a writer spends too much time on gender, sexuality, race, creed, color, or any other difference, it comes off as preachy and that's no good for anyone. Get your readers to acknowledge it, accept it, and move on. After all, isn't that what anyone who musters the courage to join in on National Coming Out Day wants? To have their difference acknowledged and accepted so we can all move on to more important things like catching cyber-killers? Love your friends, your family, and your fictional characters for who they are, because there's only one of those three you can change, and that one should matter least of all.
The curse of the creative mind is that it will always question the validity of what it dreams up. At its heart, that’s actually okay. We are creative because we question. We are constantly seeking out new possibilities, and that’s where our ideas come from. We are constantly asking, “What if?”, and the answers to that question are often most interesting and varied. Those answers are also influenced by our moods. If we are wallowing in our latest defeat, maybe a rejection, or worse, silence from a critical body, our answers to that question can suddenly turn inward, and that’s when our creativity becomes dangerous and cannibalistic.
Rejection is part of life as a creative. We constantly seek validation in the form of gallery showings, publication, fandom, and a myriad of other outlets. We create in order to be heard, even if only to be heard by those around us. For some, the praise of friends and family is enough, and that’s where vanity publishing, or in the digital age, self-publishing an e-book, comes in to play. Most of us, however, also dream of touching strangers in ways that won’t get us arrested. We want to share our work with the masses and we want to know that we have created something that resonates with others. Here is where we have to, as Chuck Wendig so succinctly put it, “Harden the fuck up, Care Bear”. Part of the path we travel as creatives, be it as actors, painters, or writers, is that we have to accept that we will be torn apart. We will be told “no” a million times. Worse yet, we’ll be ignored. And when this happens, we seek to explain it. After all, what we do is ask “What if?”, and this is as valid a point to ask that question of as any.
What if I suck? What if I’m listening to the wrong people? What if I’m not really cut out to be creative? All are questions we ask ourselves. Those are healthy questions for anyone to ask, and maybe they’re true, but if you find yourself coming up with answers, you need to fucking stop it. If you find yourself developing a narrative about how you’ve wasted your life and everyone’s time, and some alien race later in history will discover your shit and decide we were the most cultureless society ever, fucking stop. If you look at your art and start coming up with ways it should be better, tell your inner critic to shut the fuck up and let you think. If you start thinking in terms of anything other than “Huh, I guess I’ll find something else to do” you’ve just proven to yourself that you’re a creative. You’re an artist, and you can’t help it. Sorry, kid, but you’re never going to shake this curse. Deal with it.
At the time it might see, counter-intuitive. You’ve just had a mental breakthrough where you’ve determined that the reason you flop every audition is that you suck. You suck because you read every line handed to you as though you’re channeling Humphrey Bogart and you have to leave Ingrid Bergman at airport. Which makes sense, because you have been auditioning for a ton of noir pieces, and who is more noir than Bogie? It just makes sense to your depressed, Bogie-adled brain to give up and embrace your future as a dish washer to the stars. Except, it doesn’t, don’t you see?
Or maybe you’re a painter who hasn’t painted in a while. You’ve been making ends meet posing nude for your old art school, living off of ramen and sriracha sauce and the only ideas you come up with are ones where you take that damn smiley face off the Maruchan packages and use it to replace the heads of everyone in your favorite paintings. Of course, you’re mostly copying, and you’re not even sure that it counts as collage if you do it the easy way, but in that moment it is a sure sign, to your thinking, that you need to question your entire future as a painter because you clearly are not creative enough. Maybe you actually give it a go, and it doesn’t turn out anything like what you had planned, and so you take that as final proof that you just don’t have the creative spark within you.
FUCKING STOP IT! Don’t you get it yet? The non-creative never would have come up with that idea? The non-creative, the asshole who does your taxes and snickers about how little you make each year, he couldn’t have put Bogart in a situation to be shilling laundry detergent. He couldn’t replace the faces of Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte with smiley faces in his head. Hell, he probably doesn’t even own a pair of scissors.
This act of self-destruction you engage in is, itself, creative. Maybe what you’ve been working on right now sucks, or maybe you haven’t found the right audience, but do not, for a second, think that you aren’t creative. This act, call it creative cannibalism, hits all of us. Even if you’re a published author, a world renowned actor, or a famous multi-media artist, you get saddled with doubt from time to time. If you don’t think Banksy looks at his shit and says, “I’m losing my touch,” from time to time, you’re nuts. The trick is that you need to get back up and keep plugging away. Keep making art. Cut all the faces off your damn ramen packets and get yourself busy with some glue stick. Even if it turns out shitty, you’re at least making art, and the only way we get better at our art is by making more art and continuing to put it out there in the world. Even if no one likes your work now, if you are creative, create and keep getting better. Jot down a short story when you get stuck in your novel. Keep sketching a million different doodles when you don’t have time to pick up the paint brush. Memorize your favorite scenes and perform them for your cat. Just don’t stop creating, because that’s a form of suicide for your soul, and deep down you already know that. So, stop reading this, stop doubting yourself, and go create something. You know you already have a billion ideas, so go do that. In the meantime, I’ve got some ramen I need to eat.