Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Writer's Block My Ass!

Who the hell do we think we are?

We writers, we sit around acting like our writing is possibly the most important thing that could be done on the entire Earth ever. Earthquakes are rocking the East Coast. There's wars devastating countries from Libya to Afghanistan to places most never even think about or see on the news until someone makes a movie. The economy has been swirling around in the toilet for three years waiting for someone to finally flush us into the next Great Depression. Armageddon is basically staring us in the face, but to us writers, writing the next great American novel, a poem worth reading, or even our own freakin' memoir (talk about conceited) is "oh, so important" that we yell at our kids and spouses when they "just don't understand," we blog, tweet, and update our statuses with constant updates on "how the new project is coming along," and when we're struggling, when we can't think of how to get from point C to L without compromising the meaning of A or B, we retreat into the oldest, most pretentious excuse for lack of production ever conceived by humankind...

Writer's block. What the hell is that? Seriously? When Congress is faced with the toughest questions ever posed to the race of man on this Earth, and they get together and argue it out for months and come up with a compromise that pisses everyone off, we say they are a lazy, "do-nothing" Congress. But when we can't figure out how to have our protagonist steal from his mother without compromising his likability, we call it writer's block.

When Frodo and Sam were stuck on the side of Mount Doom, staring death, failure, and the end of all Middle Earth square in the eye--they hadn't eaten in days, had nothing to drink, and were weighed down with the burden of the single most evil fashion accessory ever to be spewed out of a black valcano of doom--did they sit around in their boxer shorts staring at Facebook and Twitter yelling at their wives to leave them alone while they "worked." No. No, they didn't. Even a fatass like Samwise Gamgee picked a dude up and hauled his ass up the side of a goddamn mountainside to destroy that mofo. That's getting something done. Writer's block my ass!

What about the soldiers risking their lives for our freedom. Think of those guys sitting there planning how to take down Osama bin Laden. Seems impossible right? Impenetrable fortress. Armed guards. No guarantee he's even in there. The only real sources of intel being some of the most despicable humans in the world. They tell us he's hiding in caves humping camels one day and that he's ordering Dominos in his bunny slippers in a mansion the next. What the hell? Give up, right? Forget that, right? Sit back and claim to have intelligence block or espionage block or international diplomacy block or whatever you want to call it, right? Hell's to the no! You fly a freakin' helicopter into his back yard, break down the goddamn doors, and shoot the bastard no matter which one of his wives tries to stand in your way. That's right. You get 'er done! Writer's block. Are you kidding me?

So, when you're sitting on your couch in your robe with fourteen different tabs open on Firefox, setting up your NFL fantasy football, reading book reviews of all the books on your "list" that you know you'll never get to, updating the world on your revolutionarily important progress on your flash fiction piece, sorting through your inbox full of agent rejections, and cataloging your internet porn while Microsoft Word is still open to the same page of your novel it was on three days ago, don't blame writer's block. Writer's block is not why you can't get your conflict to be complex or your character to be complex or your plot to be complex. It's because you're being fucking lazy. Close Firefox, retreat into the natural born creativity that's gotten you this far, think of all the people out there that can't afford to not work and blame whatever-it-is-they-do-for-a-living block, and write another chapter for crying out loud.

Writer's block, indeed!

Now that I've given you that inspirational kick in the pants, it would probably be a bad time for me to tell you I wrote this blog because I'm having writer's block working on my novel, right? Just asking.

Thursday, August 18, 2011


Here's the scoop. I'm 22,000 words into a novel that seems to be going nowhere. I've just finished an MFA program where I churned out two novels that I'm currently peppering agents with. No leads as of yet. I've got an idea I can't shake from my mind, but it's nothing like anything I've ever written. I am most certainly at a crossroads. Not a Britney Spears "I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman" kind of crossroads either.

I took a little break from the aforementioned train wreck novel, a project that's even boring me to write, so I'm sure readers wouldn't be able to stand it, and wrote a couple flash pieces and some prose poetry. When I went back to it, hoping some time away and a fresh outlook would help me ressurect it. No dice. It seems worse now than ever. As bad as, say, Britney Spears acting in a movie about a girl that's not a girl but not yet a woman.

I think I'm going to kill it. It's about a murderer, so that would be fitting. What does that leave. School is about to start, so time to write will be limited. Do I take a break from larger projects, maybe do some reading for inspiration, write some more stories and poems, and let the new ideas simmer to make sure they are up to my standards before setting off to write a time-wasting 22,000-word steaming pile of crap? Like, you know...Britney and all that.

The big idea, the one I've been waiting for, the one that I can't stop thinking about, happens to be a dark, cyber-punk, epic adventure novel--something I've never even thought about attempting. I blame The Marbury Lens, along with various metal lyrics, for drumming this bad boy up. Can I write something like this? What qualifies me? And to complicate things, the new idea will only work in third person, I think, and I've only done novels in first person. I'm not sure I can be omniscient. It sounds so daunting.

My first instinct is to read. There are the Collins books--The Hunger Games and the like--that could be a good starting point. But do I want to risk replicating instead of innovating? And what if I'm just getting swept up in the distopian novel hullabaloo and only think this is my greatest idea ever? What if I'm subconsciously just trying to capture the lightening in the bottle that distopian YA has created and by the time I write it, the whole genre is passe. Like ex-Mouskateers making it big as pop singers.

But I'm pretty sure this is the story I want to tell, not because it's in, but because I'm obsessed with the idea. It's more of a classic throwback to things like Conan the Barbarian, The Lord of the Rings, and even some Star Wars. My future isn't about technology; it's about retreating into superstition and post-apocalyptic self-preservation. A little Mad-Maxy maybe with a tinge of fifteenth century Eastern European blood bath? It's hard to describe. All with a boy from modern times as the protagonist stuck in this future world of despair. And he gets there without time travel--how cool is that?

So, part of me wants to mull this over more, read a bit in the genre, try some things out in flash fiction and poetic forms, especially with third person narration, and attack this next summer when the idea is fully encrusted in my artistic sensibility and I have time to devote to it full time. But part of me wants to strike while the iron is hot. Let my vision and imagination just run wild and guide me. Capture the primitive violence of this experiment in the primitive and violent pages of this novel. Could it even be a series? A movie?

My mind is getting a cramp just thinking about it. If you have any advice or thoughts on the subject, please share. If you have any suggested reading based on what I've just shared concerning this project, please share. If you have anything at all for me, please share. Thanks!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Write Time to Right

The sun creeps up over the horizon, sending a beautiful orange rippling over the lake. Sitting on the rocker on my wraparound porch, lazy cat by my side, I fire up the MacBook Pro and open a blank word document. A bird sings a merry song to my left. A deer rustles out of the woods to my right and looks me dead in the eye before saluting and diving back, inspiring me toward the days first work of flash fiction. I cut through the dew and the New England October chill with a large cup of Dunkin white hot chocolate. My big boy coffee. Creativity brews like morning java straight through to lunch. Alone I conquer the worlds I create. Alone I thrive.

Yeah, right!

Of course YA Highway's road trip Wednesday asked when I LIKE to write. So with that in mind, I've told the truth. That's how I imagine it. That's how I'd be most productive. The fact of the matter is, this little fantasy is just that. It's impossible. Reality bites.

First off, my house--with no wraparound porch--overlooks a pond, not a lake, and until the dead of winter, my view is completely obscured by trees and pricker bushes. It's nice enough--sure beats the two bedroom apartment in New London--but a New England retirement treasure it is not. Unfortunately, October only lasts thirty-one days, and my cats are indoor only. I can't afford the white hot chocolate daily, and the birds just yelp and shit on my deck furniture. The MacBook Pro was a fantasy, too.

Alas, as a writer struggling to make it with a full time teaching job, which includes advising both the school paper and the yearbook, two young children demanding time, and limited funds, I have to make due. So when do I really write? Ugh.

Summer is the easy answer. I'm unemployed for lack of a better word all summer, so there's ample'd think. But with the children and other facts of life, it sure doesn't seem like it. My routine goes as follows. Wake up. Eat breakfast. Brush teeth. Sit at computer checking facebook, email, Twitter, etc. Send out 1000 emails to my editors at the paper and yearbook. Figure out what's trying to derail that program and stop it. THEN, I set to writing.

My daughter has been going to Girl Scout camp this summer, so only my son is home, but so is my wife, and he's kind of docile until after his nap anyway--the kid loves to sleep--so that is when I go to town. Will it be a blog? Some chapters of novel number three? Revisions of number two? Submitting to agents? Some prose poetry? Flash fiction? Who knows. Whatever happens, happens. Most days I try to take a walk when baby boy naps with his mom, and maybe when I get home I churn something out, the residue of the inspiration I got walking through scenic Niantic, CT. By the time he wakes up at about 2:30, that's it. Inspiration's gone. I'm a dad then until bed time. After their asleep, it's time to work on ideas and lessons for the upcoming school year--which usually turns into working on something for the journalism program.

When it's not summer? Not so good. Basically, there's weekends, but often I have papers to grade and publications to proof, and on and on and on... Writing during the school year is hard. I tend to try and knock my big works out during the summer and revise them bit by bit during the school year. Other than that, a flash piece or two might pop out and a bunch of poetry. But still, that's some writing coming, and a novel every twelve months is quite prolific if I do say so myself.

So, in short, in my perfect world, my life would be that first paragraph. I wanna be that guy. I imagine after lunch in that fantasy world I'd play golf and then spend the evening playing Madden on PS3. But until that day comes--and I'm a big enough romantic to still think it will once I'm a published author and the kids are away at college--I think I'm doing pretty well for myself.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Sell Out?

"I'd love to read more as soon as you get rid of the incest." Sure, in most of our daily lives, having less incest is typically a good thing. Unless you've got a Play Boy Bunny sister you've never met lurking out there somewhere, I'm guessing having no incest at all is at the top of your daily goal list. And to be sure, I've never met anyone with "have sex with my sister" on his bucket list. But when your entire novel is based on a pair of teenage twins coming to grips with their incestuous secret and their feelings about one another, the quote above is hard to process.

So when I sat across from an agent who I liked a great deal after her panel presentation and certainly respected the opinion of and heard those words, I should have been devastated. The fact is, however, I anticipated such a conundrum from the beginning. Daniel Asa Rose and I had already discussed this possibility and ways to get around it. Step-sister? Adoption? Just an inner lust without action? All could work. But by eliminating the edgiest content in the novel, am I a sellout? Am I throwing away all of my artistic integrity to get published and make a buck? Certainly some would see it that way.

My response? I don't think so.

First off, my desire to get published has very little to do with making a buck...or a quarter or penny for that matter. The dream isn't about money, it's about widespread global adoration and validation--duh! Actually, the truth is that nobody can be confronted with the ideas in the novel and struggle with the moral ambiguity presented in it unless they read it. And in order for anyone other than me, my wife, my brother, a close friend, and a few people who read part of it and give up or never get back to you after begging for a chance to read it (you know those types...we've all got 'em), it has to get published.

Secondly, I think I've found a way to make sure a good portion of readers will still be uncomfortable with the subject matter and will still be forced to contemplate those same issues. They will kiss (in a drunken haze), which will still enable Allan, the protagonist, to be ostracized for his incestuous thoughts. He will still be attracted to his sister throughout, and he'll even fantasize about her and a world where they can be together forever happily. It just won't happen. Even in the original version he didn't end up with her and realized he was confused about his emotions, so the results are still the same without them actually doing the deed.

In the end, readers will get the same effect without getting myself blacklisted. Like most things in life, it's perfectly fine to have a twisted thought, we all have one from time to time, but acting on it is just unacceptable. Probably as it should be.

And as for that agent, I'm hoping once I'm convinced the changes are just right that she'll be interested in representing me. I really liked her and can easily imagine working with her on starting my career. I got a second opinion, and it was basically the same anyway, so no resentment. For now I'm making the changes to The House on Bittersweet Trail while she digests my query for Scout's Honor.

So have I sold out? I'm interested in hearing what y'all have to say.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Post-residency Blues

Although I only made it to three days of Western Connecticut State University's MFA summer residency, I'm still feeling that bizarre culture shock I can only refer to as "the post-residency blues." Yes, back to real life, where we have to deal with muggles who don't know what it's like to "open a vein," as the immortal Don Snyder once put it, in order to perfect your craft and create your art. It almost seems as if each time we return to Danbury, it's as if no time has passed at all, like stepping through the wardrobe once again, as if we were just dreaming the rest of our existence and just woke up in the lobby of the Maron ready to be full-time writers again, if only for a few days.

This time had a particularly bitter-sweet feel for me, as I am now a graduate and the reality is that while many will continue to return for the atmosphere, camaraderie, and insanity that is The Rez, many, due to finances and/or geography, will not. I fear I may have seen some of my dearest friends for the last time. We'll keep in touch of course. Facebook, blogs, email, and I'm even on Twitter now, but something will just not be the same. There's no way to fully replicate what that one week twice a year means for our writing and our friendships.

This was my fifth residency. That's less than five weeks I've spent with these folks, yet they're just as much a part of me as those I've known my whole life. How does something like an MFA program residency bond us so closely? Is it the shared suffering of the tortured artist? The unity created by a common enemy (you know just what I mean)? Or is it something more? I think it has to be the way writers are wired. We're screwed up people. That's all there is to it. It's hard to find anyone messed up enough to share our messedupedness with out there in the real world. Or is it The Rez that becomes our real world, and the surreal life of everyday struggles simply gives us strong enough doses of other people's reality to share in the work we will go on to create because of what we've learned and accomplished at WestConn?

Whatever it is, I can tell it's not ever going to be quite the same. Some day Claudine's slaps in the head will stop. Whitey's bruised foot will no longer be in my mouth. Perrotta's hard floor will be no more, as will Scott's heavy pour. I'll lose Marj as a partner in crime, and I'll no longer spend time wondering if Brian is our Yoda or our Darth Vader. Gilday's almost fiction recollections of residency capers will no longer be read to me. Margaret will cease to be the voice of reason. Rayzer's pink drinks have already disappeared. G-Marr will be just another pretty face on the facebook wall, as will Brophy's sunshiny, Disney, cartoon smile. No more sexual tension between Holub and The Mort, which we all missed this year already. Same to be said for Trudy and 3dlarz. It's all changing.

So while these past few days have been successful--I learned quite a bit about prose poetry, had more fun than I can remember, sang a duet with the worst rapper since Vanilla Ice, got some great feedback from an agent, and pulled off my first official public reading--there's a bitterness in my mouth. Not quite sure how to make it go away. But what I do know is that no matter what becomes of my writing career, I will owe it all to you guys, each and every one of those involved in this program over the past two and a half years. Thanks, and here's to life on The Rez.

MFAers, please comment with your favorite residency memory. Can't wait to read them.