The perks of being a blocked writer

Okay, in my last post, I alluded to being stuck between two places writing-wise, and I didn’t get into that.  So, now I will.  But of course, I’ll go off on another tangent first.

I saw the movie The Perks of Being a Wallflower this weekend, mostly because I heard Cloud Atlas was a disaster.  I wasn’t entirely sure I would like the movie, partly because I thought it was completely out of my demographic, and partly because I’ve read the book at least twice and don’t remember a damn thing about it.  But I went, and I actually liked the movie a lot.  I liked it so much, I came home at ten at night, picked up the book, and plowed through the whole thing before I went to bed.  And then, as I went to bed and after I got up in the morning, I felt… I don’t know.  Maybe a mix of depression, nostalgia, enthusiasm, and dread, the emotional equivalent to when you get a fountain beverage and randomly fill it with a mix of every flavor, a Pepsi-Mountain Dew-rootbeer-orange-Sierra Mist-tea.  And it’s hard to describe it, because there were a few different things going on, and I’d have to explain every one of them to cover this.

First off, Perks had the typical high school coming-of-age tropes in it, opposites-attract, she’s-out-of-my-league, grass-is-greener, self-medication with drugs, rock-will-save-us-all, early-90s-are-the-new-80s, and about 17 more.  It’s all weaved together well, and maybe I feel bad for liking such commercial dreck.  It did contain enough emotional context that linked to my own teen experience, though, that it made me really enjoy and envy it.  The envy part is the big problem.  The reason I avoid reading these kinds of books now is that when they’re good, I want to write them.  And I’ve proven to myself that I can’t, and I shouldn’t.  But should I?

My last three books have all been a sort of mix of lowercase-b bizarro and absurdist humor.  I think they’re pretty damn close to my voice, and I think any of you who have read these books and have known me in person would agree.  Throw Rumored at the front end of that trio, and you’ve plotted a glide slope that pretty much defines who I am or who I will be as a writer.  It’s a solid 750 pages or so of work that very much describes what’s going on in my mind and sets the pace for what my next books should be.  After I finished Sleep Has No Master a few months ago, the plan was to write a Rumored 2 of sorts, maybe a different structure or gimmick, but a full-sized, nonlinear hunk of absurdity that did what Rumored did ten years ago.  I’ve even got a publisher that’s basically waiting for me to write the next book, so they can put it out.

But then, I sort of locked up.  Part of that is the reception of the last book, which has been piss-poor at best.  I think it’s a damn good book, but it’s been sort of lost in the mix.  Maybe the title and cover make no sense, or it’s the fact that it just doesn’t easily plug into a genre.  But it hasn’t sold, and it’s always hard to get working on something new when the last thing didn’t entirely work out.  There’s also the fact that I essentially put together three books in a period of just over a year, and the well is kinda dry.  I really wanted to push and get another book done by the end of the year, but I’m finding myself stumbling on ideas.

The other issue is that I don’t entirely know where I fit in.  I said lowercase-b bizarro because the more I read from the Bizarro movement, the more I think I don’t slot into it very well.  Most Bizarro is this sort of Troma film horror-comedy stuff, and I don’t really do that.  But I also don’t fit into the experimental or absurdist worlds, either, which seem to be the PhD-dominated academic community.  And forget the mainstream scifi community.  I probably spend too much time thinking about community and where I fit in and all of that shit, and I guess I’ve always worried about that, even before I was a writer.  But I can’t shut it off, and I don’t have easy answers, and it can become enough of a distraction to block me.

And… sorry, another tangent… okay, I read this biography of David Foster Wallace, and it talks about how he thought Mark Leyner was the antichrist because his satiric writing wasn’t sincere, or something like that.  And when I read that, it sort of pissed me off, because I love Leyner’s writing, and it made DFW sound like a blowhard.  But with all of this stuff in my head, it started to make sense.  I love writing the stuff that I have written in the last couple of years, but if I had to capture and dump the emotions I felt during this film and book, I think it would be completely out of scope of this absurdist humor thing.  I mean, I could start to throw down a coming-of-age tale, but it would be about a kid who goes to high school to learn how to anally insert DMT into zoo animals from his teacher, Lyndon LaRouche.  (Wait, gotta write that down in the idea book…)

I’ve tried this kind of sincere, modernist, realist writing.  I’ve had some success at it in short stories; if you’ve read my story “Burial Ground,” I think that’s pretty spot-on of what I can do.  And some of you (okay, three of you) may have read Summer Rain.   I have two other books up on blocks in the yard like the trailer park Trans Am with no motor or wheels, one about high school, and another about college.  Summer Rain was the best of the three; the other two, there’s about 150,000 words of nothing.  Every now and again, I think about going back and trying to duct tape enough crap onto either of those manuscripts to get them out there, but Summer Rain itself isn’t selling.  I think I’ve learned a lot more about plot and character since I tried writing these other two books, and when I see them, I do see what’s wrong with them, and think about how I could restructure or rewrite them so they would fit.  But part of me thinks this would be a huge step backwards.  And it’s a tough wall to beat against.  It’s also depressing to think that even if I did manage to turn out a stellar coming-of-age book about growing up in the 80s in Indiana, I would have a tough road ahead of me in the marketing and sale of the thing.

So, caught between two worlds.  And this is why practicing bass instead of writing has been very helpful lately.  I have 40,000 some words written of this Rumored 2 project, and it makes absolutely no sense right now.  I know I will have to eventually knock back into it and come up with a structure and get the thing done, but it’s tough.  Playing major scales against a metronome until my fingertips look like ground hamburger is much easier.



Back to bass

Me and my Carvin fretless bass, freshman dorm, 1990.

I have not been writing.  I’m sort of stuck between two places.  More on that in a bit.

I went into my usual writer’s block mantra of “I wish I did something other than write”, which motivated me to go to our storage locker and pull out my bass guitar and amp.  Before I put pen to paper, I used to play bass.  I sold my first bass when I left Bloomington, and in a strange act of serendipity, I saw a used bass exactly like my first one the week I left Seattle, and had to buy it.  I think I played it a total of five times before it went into storage forever, because I was too busy writing books and had all but forgotten how to play.

And I’ve dragged the thing across the country 19 times or whatever, and have not touched it since probably 1999.  But like I said, I had this urge to go buy a guitar or learn to paint or draw or do anything other than write, and I had this thing sitting in storage, so I brought it home, and thought if people who have strokes can re-teach themselves how to talk at the age of 80, I can re-teach myself how to play bass at 41.  Right?

I have this Cort headless bass. A cheap cousin to the Steinberger bass, it screams 1980s in a way big hair never could.  It’s got bad tone and a little fret buzz and the pickups need to be adjusted and I can’t get them right, because the E string is way louder than everything else.  But it’s still in once piece, and it works, and it was a number of Franklins cheaper than going to Guitar Center and buying a new one.

My original Cort was actually my second bass.  My first one I bought from the JC Penny catalog towards the end of my senior year of high school.  It was all plastic and China and stayed in tune for about seven minutes in a row, if you didn’t touch it.  My high school graduation present to myself was this Cort bass, which I saw used at a store in South Bend on a day I happened to have all of this graduation money in my pocket.  The electronics were stripped out of it, just the pickups and bare wires, no back cover and three holes where knobs were supposed to be.  I never really got the thing wired well, and always had problems with RF interference.  I got it refretted when I was a freshman in college, and traded that JC Penny bass for the fret job from a luthier student named Dorian.  (Never asked if he had brothers named Mixolydian, Locrian, etc.)

I’ve forgotten almost everything about music.  And my fingers are doing even worse.  I started trying to play scales and whatever little riffs I could remember, and my digits are nowhere near close to being in the right places.  Every other note is early or late or buzzing or uneven.  I wasn’t really sure how to proceed, so I started googling, and got information overload.

When I first learned to play the bass, it was 1989.  We did not have youtube.  I can now pull up instantly any number of instructional videos and pause and rewind and watch these guys explain and play and theorize and show off.  We had VHS back then, but that sucked.  I had a dub of a Stu Hamm instructional video, but one of my sisters recorded over it, and you couldn’t pause and rewind like you can now with DVDs.  I think our old VHS was one of those pieces of shit where hitting pause and then rewind took 19 seconds, and it made all of these clunking noises like a big block chevy running with no oil in the pan.  That’s all changed.

When I used to want some tab to learn new songs, I would have to walk to the music store (uphill, both ways) and get some shitty Mel Bay book that would have tab for “When The Saints Go Marching In” or whatever.  Now, there are a million web sites that have tab for days that you can download and print at home.  And there’s a site that plays the tab like a player piano, playing the guitar and drums so you can practice along with it.

The internet has also changed how you shop.  Nothing beats going to a guitar store and trying everything out, but when I was a kid, the music stores in Indiana were shit, and had the bare minimum of stock, all marked up to hell.  When I had to get strings for my headless bass — it takes strings with a ball on each end — I had to drive to Chicago, and pay something like $50 for them.  Now, Amazon, one click, done.  In and out for $25.  And ebay — jesus.  Put “Fender Jazz” into ebay and see where all of my time on the couch in front of the TV is going.

I can also plug my bass into my computer now, which is freaky.  It used to be you would save up a paycheck or two for one of these PortaStudios, which were really finicky about what kind of tapes you used and how often you cleaned them, and would lose quality after each generation of recording, and you still had to deal with a running tape and punching in at the right time and all of the hassles of analog.  Now, I fire up garage band, drop in some loops, and click to my non-linear heart’s content.  It’s very amazing.

Things are slowly coming back to me.  I’m obsessed with practice.  I’ve promised myself that for every hour I practice, I have a dollar to spend on a new bass.  I practiced five hours yesterday, and my left fingers are hamburger.  My technique has a long way to go, but I’m remembering theory, slowly.  It’s been a lot of fun.  It’s a lot more fun than banging my head against the wall because I can’t write.

About that, I guess I mentioned at the beginning of the post that I would talk about that.  But I’m out of time and this is a thousand words already, so maybe next time.




The Recognitions by Steve Urkel

The Recognitions, published in 1955, is American author William Gaddis’s first novel. The novel was poorly received initially, but Gaddis’s reputation grew, twenty years later, with the publication of his second novel J R (which won a National Book Award), and The Recognitions received belated fame as a masterpiece of American literature.

Steve is the epitome of a geek/nerd, with large, thick eyeglasses, “high-water” or “flood” pants held up by suspenders, multi-colored cardigan sweaters, and a high-pitched voice.[6] He professes unrequited love for neighbor Laura Winslow, perpetually annoys her father, Carl, and tried to befriend her brother, Eddie. Amongst the rest of the family, Harriette, Rachel, and “Mother” Estelle Winslow are more accepting and caring of Urkel.

The story loosely follows the life of Wyatt Gwyon, a Calvinist minister’s son from rural New England. He initially plans to follow his father into the ministry, however, he is inspired to become a painter by The Seven Deadly Sins, Bosch’s painting in his father’s possession. He leaves and travels to Europe to study painting. Discouraged by a corrupt critic and frustrated with his career he moves to New York. He meets Recktall Brown, a capitalistic collector and dealer of art, who makes a Faustian deal with him. Wyatt creates paintings in the style of Flemish and Dutch masters (such as Hieronymous Bosch, Hugo van der Goes, and Hans Memling), forges their signature, and Brown will sell them as newly discovered antique originals. Soon Wyatt is discouraged, goes home only to find his father converted to Mithraism and losing his mind. Back in New York, he tries to expose his forgeries, then travels to Spain where he visits the monastery where his mother was buried, restores old paintings, and tries to find himself in his search for authenticity. At the end, he moves on to live his life “deliberately”.

Throughout the series’ run, Steve is central to many of its recurring gags, primarily gratuitous property damage and/or personal injury as a result of his inventions going awry or his outright clumsiness.[7] He becomes known for several catchphrases uttered after some humorous misfortune occurred, including “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” after he accidentally got drunk in one episode and fell off the edge of a building, “Did I do that?” (previously used by Curly in the 1934 Three Stooges short Punch Drunks), “Whoa, Mama!” and “Look what you did” (if, rarely, someone else caused the damage). Additionally, he frequently insinuates “You love me, don’t you?” to Laura Winslow, the usual object of his affection.

Interwoven are the stories of many other characters, among them Otto, a struggling writer, Esme, a muse, and Stanley, a musician. The epilogue follows their stories further. In the final scene Stanley achieves his goal by playing his work at the organ of the church of Fenestrula “pulling all the stops”. The church collapses, killing him, yet “most of his work was recovered …, and is still spoken of, when it is noted, with high regard, though seldom played.”

Steve Urkel first appeared on the twelfth episode of the first season, “Laura’s First Date”, as a nerdy young boy who took the character of Laura Winslow out on a date, where he appeared as being madly in love with her, but in an example of unrequited love, Laura did not return these feelings because of Steve’s nerdy, infuriating personality. Although intended to only appear once, White’s portrayal was very popular for his humorous, geeky antics. After appearing on other episodes, he joined the main cast.[8] All throughout the course of the series, Steve maintains his extreme infatuation with Laura and regularly invites himself over for unwanted visits to her house, much to the annoyance of the Winslows. Among Steve’s other famed character traits include his exceptional scientific skills, crafting devices that would be impossible to construct in reality, his absurdly destructive clumsiness, and his kind heart.

Gaddis spent seven years writing The Recognitions. The novel began as a much shorter work and as an explicit parody of Goethe’s Faust. During the period in which Gaddis was writing the novel, he travelled to Mexico, Central America and Europe. It was in Spain in 1948 that Gaddis read James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. Gaddis found the title for the novel in The Golden Bough as Frazer noted how Goethe’s Faust originally came from the Clementine Recognitions, a third-century theological tract (See Clementine literature). It was from this point on that Gaddis began to expand the novel. The novel was completed in 1949.[3]

Steve is commonly known and respected by other characters for his kindness to others, his never-ending love and loyalty for those he holds dear, and, alongside with Harriette, his position as a voice of reason and source of wisdom for the often bickering members of the Winslow family, all of which are the redeeming qualities for his generally unwelcome or tolerated presence. He always cares for and means well for other people, but is often the misunderstood victim of the Winslows’ anger and rejection, especially of Carl, Eddie and Laura, who all struggle to see through his clumsiness and annoying behavior and to understand and appreciate him for his positive traits.

The character of Esme was inspired by Sheri Martinelli and Otto has been described as a self-deprecating portrait of the author.[6] “Dick,” a minister, is a reference to Richard Nixon.


Stop bath acid memories

In my freshman year of college, my classes were mostly at Ballantine hall, which was rumored to be built from all the money IU made off of the fluoride patent they sold to the Crest toothpaste people.  The morning stumble from Collins to Ballantine for an 8:00 German 100 class took maybe five or ten minutes, but I somehow decided that I’d die of exposure, so over the holiday break, I became obsessed with the idea of heated socks.  I somehow thought a pair of wool footwear impregnated with electrical coils would be the difference between Rolls Royce comfort and dying like those soccer players in the mountain plane crash who had to eat each other’s dead bodies.

I went to K-Mart back in Elkhart, and bought a pair of these magical socks in the hunting department.  They were brown with olive drab green trim on the toes, and a little plastic compartment for a C-cell battery in the top cuff.  I brought them back to school, put in a set of duracells, and within two minutes, it felt like a case of thermonuclear athlete’s foot, like the Vonnegut character that sealed his feet in clear plastic toxic waste.  And then two weeks later, it was suddenly 78 degrees outside, and people were sunbathing at the end of January.  I practiced cello outside the IMU on the bank of the Jordan river and got my picture in the school paper.  It must have been a slow news day.

That was my second cello.  I had to leave my first cello in the dorm over the holiday break. They ran the steam heaters full blast, so I locked the cello in the closet with a bucket of water, two drenched towels, and two humidifiers in the f-holes.  When I came back three weeks later, it was all bone dry, and the cello had a huge crack in it.  It was a rental, so I brought it back and exchanged it for another one.  I never really knew how to play; I just took a semester of lessons in some fit of stupidity, the same kind of spontaneous freedom that causes a person to buy a pair of heated socks at K-Mart for a five-minute walk in 38-degree weather.

I also purchased a 35mm camera that break, although I don’t think it was from K-Mart.  It was one of those fixed-focus point-and-shoot things, all plastic and manual.  I think I got maybe three rolls of film through it before the film spool broke, and I could not fix it.  I took a few good pictures of the campus, though.  And even though it had a plastic lens and no motor drive and no zoom or anything like that, it took pictures better than any camera I’d had before that.

My prior photographic history resembles a list of every failed film technology invented.  My parents had a 135 camera, and then I got a 110, and we also had a Polaroid one-step, and later graduated to a disk camera.  I don’t know if they ever got one of those APS models, but I wouldn’t doubt it.  We’d take about a roll of pictures a year, and then throw all of the rolls in the junk drawer and never develop them.  On the rare occasions when a roll got processed, the pictures went in a sticky-paged album with a faux leather cover, which would then reside in this hexagonal end table in the living room, to be produced each time I was stupid enough to bring a prospective girlfriend home to meet my parents.

It’s depressing that people will soon forget the extreme frustration of living in the film age, of having to bring film to the drug store, needing to buy those flash cubes or flash strips that exploded in bright light with the faint smell of burning electronics, like igniting a dollar bill every time you pressed the shutter.  You’d worry about the film getting exposed to light and destroyed, the possibility of a door opening or a case splitting, exposing everything and fading the captured images to nothingness.  Unless you owned an expensive camera with a motor drive, you’d follow some ritual of ratcheting a thumb wheel to advance the film from one reel to another, hoping you didn’t crank it too far and miss a picture, or you’d forget to turn the wheel, and when it was time to snap the shutter, the mechanism would deny you until it was wound further.  And then you’d wait a week or a month or a year and get the prints and realize everyone had their eyes closed or you were too far away or the shot you thought was perfect didn’t frame up anything like the crappy little viewfinder convinced you it would.

I developed film once.  A girl I dated that freshman year found some old 35mm film at her parents’ house, the aforementioned spools of film in a junk drawer for decades.  Her dorm had a darkroom, and she knew someone who took photography classes or worked for the school paper or something, a guy with the knowledge of all of the various chemicals and trays and tools and red-filtered lights.  We unrolled this ancient spool while hiding out in this little closet of a lightproof room, breathing chemical fumes and watching the pictures slowly appear.  It felt like when you make the Paaz easter eggs as a kid, when you scribble on the eggs with white crayons and then dip them in the bowls of dye and watch the inverse of your writing slowly appear in color.  We watched these pictures of Toledo fade into view, images of a lake shore now covered in condos and strip malls, but then barren.  I don’t remember how the process worked, except it seemed magical to me.

I keep thinking about buying a film camera for kicks, an old East German plastic-lensed thing that hipsters use to take pictures of skateboarders and graffiti and abandoned buildings.  I know I would never use it; I almost never use my real digital camera.  But there’s something enticing about it, like any of my other craft-related obsessions I avoid because they are money drains.  I still obsessively google old camera pages, and think about Super-8 and Polaroid film.  I know I’d have to pay more per picture, and then I’d have to scan those pictures, and I have boxes of thousands of pictures I will never scan, and I’d only end up with more blurry pictures of my cats laying on the same furniture.   But the process of it all makes it hard to shake.  I should probably start by actually scanning the old pictures I do have, before I sink any money into this.



There is a level in Modern Warfare 3 called “Mission” and everybody seems to love it, because every time I’m playing and “Mission” and any other level other than “Terminal” or “Dome” comes up, everyone votes for “Mission.”  (“Dome” is one of those tiny levels where everyone shoots everyone and the maximum score limit is reached in about 122 seconds; “Terminal” is from MW2 and everybody’s memorized the map very well and knows where to stand and snipe and camp and plant claymores.)  I personally hate “Mission” and I don’t know why.

The word “Mission” reminds me of two things.  One is the song “The Mission” from the Queensryche album Operation: Mindcrime, which I pretty much memorized in 1988.  It has this weird chanting part, and one time my mom ran downstairs and told me to shut it off because it “sounded like Satanism.”  The other is The Mission, as in the neighborhood in San Francisco, which I only knew about prior to moving here because of the concept of mission-style burritos.

I don’t know what legally constitutes a mission-style burrito.  In college, there was this place on the second floor of a building on Kirkwood that made alleged mission-style burritos, which they advertised as “burritos as big as your head.”  I don’t think they were technically as big as your head in a volumetric sense.  They were potentially as long or wide as your head, but not as big as your entire skull, at least not mine.  (Of course, I have a giant head, and the biggest fitted cap you can buy at an MLB ball park barely fits me.)  I never ate there much, but a few of the people that spent all of their time at Lindley Hall used to eat there constantly, and I went a few times.

One night, I was leaving for Canada, and my roommate came home from the burritos as big as your head place as I was packing, and took a shit that filled the townhouse like a tear gas grenade thrown in your face at a protest.  We had to open the windows and it still felt like getting hit in the face with pepper spray.  I threw everything in my bag as fast as possible so we could hit the road, leaving town for another country at nine or ten at night, going to one of those stupid programming contest things where we always thought we’d smoke the other teams, but we ended up maybe finishing one of the twenty programs and wasting our time and money and effort, but at least we’d end up getting blotto in some new town.

I sat in the back of this Bronco truck, still depressed over some breakup that happened a week or two before, one of those relationships I thought was perfect and pure and forever until it got up to speed and then exploded like a car with no oil in the crankcase.  Leaving for another country with promises of exchanging funny money for many alcoholic beverages was just the thing for this kind of funk, except I knew that it never really worked.

We raced across Indiana and Michigan, hoping to outrun a snowstorm, and got to the border in Windsor some time after midnight.  The customs agent asked if we had any guns, and I yelled from the back, “WHAT DO YOU NEED?”  They still didn’t search us, and we drove into the great white north.  Hours later, we stayed at one of the worst hotels imaginable, and I slept on the floor of a closet, wooden paneling everywhere, a crying clown painting on the wall, the smell of mildew and dust mites everywhere.

I don’t think we ate any burritos in Canada.  I drank too much, mostly Molson.  We did not answer any of the problems.  I wonder if any of the people who did solve the problems ended up working on any of the Modern Warfare video games.  I don’t know.  All I do know is that I feel like a sober alcoholic at a liquor store every time I boot up that game, wasting away my hours trying to get to the next level instead of writing, or thinking of writing.  If writing were as addictive as video games, I would be Leo fucking Tolstoy at this point.  I am not.


Advice from Raymond Federman

I don’t remember when I got into Raymond Federman, but it was probably during the process of trying to look up every influence Mark Leyner mentioned in interviews.  If you haven’t read him, both Take it or Leave it and Double or Nothing are genius, and demonstrate his mastery of experimental narrative.  Both of those books influenced me greatly, and made me keep pushing to get Rumored to Exist done.

I found Federman’s email back in 1999, and dropped him a line, letting him know how much I appreciated his work.  I didn’t expect a reply, and was surprised when he sent this.  It’s probably the best advice I’ve ever been given, and I should probably print it out in 500-point type and paste it to the wall above my monitor.

Subject: Re: noodles
Date: Mon, 25 Oct 1999 12:20:36 EDT

dear jon

in l966 in paris I was having lunch with the great samuel beckett and I told him that I had started a novel [it was double or nothing] and he said to me:

raymond if you write for money do something else

and after a moment of silence [very comfortable silence with sam] he added

and never compromise your work

I hope I have respected his advice

I now give it to you

write write and write some more and thensuddenly the writing will tell you if it’s finished — di not revise – jsut write between the words above the words under the words between the lines —

most important key on your computer – delete

tell the people a random house that federman has a great new novel jsut finished but he does not ocmpromise his work therefore he is not sending it to them

thanks for your good words about my work — what read the other novels too —

where did you arrive from – which planet – and what do you do to survive —

writing is like jogging – it must become an addiction – do it everyday same
place same time – except when you don;t do it

be aware that publishers are no logner interested in good writing —

more soon



It’s impossible to learn how to write plotless books by operating a plow

I watched an hour-long documentary with Richard Linklater a week or two ago, an interview that was done on some Austin cable TV show, which looked like one of those public access deals that they always had in Seattle in the mid-90s when I first got a TV, with a guest and a host or two sitting in front of a curtain, a grainy VHS-quality video feed with one of those title generators that did the blocky Amiga 500 looking graphics in a stripe across the bottom. Production quality non-withstanding, this was a pretty incredible interview, probably done in around 1994, mostly about his work ethic and the movie Slacker.

It talked a lot about his first film, It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, which was the Stanley Kubrick film school experiment: he bought a camera and a couple of thousand dollars of film stock and started shooting, collecting footage for a year and then spending another year editing it down. And it wasn’t done as a calling card movie, which is what everyone does now: make a film like Clerks, and then shop it to studios and either get it distributed on the Sundance/indie circuit, and/or get a deal to make a real-budget picture. He did neither, except he got the experience to get ready to do Slacker. And that wasn’t a calling card movie either, although the fact that he made money on it made him instant fodder for the suits, and he parlayed it into Dazed and Confused.

Side note: I was obsessed with public access and the idea of making a film back when I was in Seattle in the mid-90s. I would tape almost anything interesting on the public access channel, and make these “cable hell” tapes which I then sent to Larry in Chicago and he would watch them in the background while studying for law school. My apartment also had a thing where you could go to a certain channel on your TV and you would see the security camera feed for the front door, so I would tape that, and then run downstairs with a sign and flash the devil horns and make a face or whatever, then run back up seven floors and stop the tape. That got old fast, but we used to love this strange chick that was on, a chubby nude model who was obsessed with Tori Amos and thought she was a painter, poet, ARTIST, whatever, and would paint her face or body with tempra paint and mime these bizarro dance numbers to obscure Kate Bush b-sides and then go on these babbling monologues about some personal drama. I did buy a video camera, but I never made a film, because I realized that filmmaking involves the herding of people and the scouting of places and the work of direction, which is probably one of my weakest abilities. That’s what I love about writing, especially now with self-publishing, because I can create entire universes on my own, and even as an extreme introvert, I don’t need to interact with other people to get shit done. (Selling books, that’s another story…)

One of the things that resonated with me about Linklater was his discussion about Slacker as a “kitchen sink” movie, how he was able to throw in absolutely anything that was in his head during that summer, any old stories or lost memes or friends of friends he found interesting. He’d read a short story by a friend and then ask to borrow one of the characters, and drop them in some other situation on the college campus town of Austin. He had this form he had to stick with, this idea of an entire day, moving from reality to reality, jumping into these individual movies of different peoples’ lives, but he could get almost anything to work within that. I like that a lot.

I think when I wrote Rumored, it became my “kitchen sink” book, because when I look back at it, there are so many little thoughts and notions that came out of email conversations and episodes in real life and stories that knocked around in my head since childhood. I had this framework, a specific form or scaffolding that I hung all of these things off of, and I struggled a lot with whether or not to stick to this format or try to remix everything into a conventional narrative. And I didn’t, although there’s a very subtle plot to the book if you read all 201 things in order, but I wanted to break that construct, and I did. But when I go back and re-read bits of it, ten years later, I notice where the pieces originated. I see a road trip I took in 1999 or a conference I attended for work or an episode where I got stuck in an airport or a recurring nightmare I had as a kid.

I don’t feel like books have to have plot, and I don’t feel like plotless books have to be unreadable. I know when people talk about plotless movies or books, first of all, that’s seen as an insult, a problem. I think people either relate it to a book that has a weak or bad plot, that plods along with no development. Or they think of the art film where a group of children with Down’s Syndrome throw ape feces at a wall covered with blank 1040 tax returns for six hours, and think, “what the fuck does this mean?” and it has to be some kind of artistic statement that you have to hypothesize that it’s a representation of the latent developmental problems of our capitalist society inflicting oppression on African countries crippled by IMF debt. Or whatever.

I think life itself is plotless, and when we transpose a segment of life (or fictional life) from the meatspace non-linear world to a linear, flat book, we use plot as a set of expectations, a contract with the reader to guarantee that we the author will provide certain events that unravel in a specific way that will make the reader continue the journey. When we write an act 1, we foreshadow what will happen in the act 2 and 3 to tell the reader that they should stick with it. There are only 29 plots or 17 plots or 3 plots or one plot, and by telling the reader that your book is going to follow a plot that they already know, you are giving them expectations on how things will unfold. There will be twists and turns, and that’s what makes things (slightly) different, but plot is what pulls a reader through the story.

I guess my problem with this is that eventually, every book will become the same book, and instead of becoming an experiment to challenge the form, you ultimately fall down this hole where your contract with the reader becomes so rigid, any deviation from it is blasphemy. And if you fall into the realm of genre writing (more on that some other time) you MUST adhere to these standards, and the more you do, the more the reader feels “rewarded”, which is asinine.

The hard part is coming up with the framework or system to write the plotless book, because you need to figure out some way to glue together all of those pieces in your kitchen sink to get to your few hundred pages of book.  And that part’s hard to explain.

Man, I need to go re-watch Slacker.


First lines from my books and stories, presented without commentary

“I pulled the VW Rabbit off the road and killed the engine.”

“You’re probably wondering why I did this.”

“I’ve always had a great interest in reference material.”

“I love Las Vegas, and I still have trouble telling people why.”

“There were riots in the streets, people gunning down cops, escaped prisoners dragging motorists out of cars stopped at intersections and smashing their brains in the pavement, Klansmen burning crosses, kids lighting bags of shit on fire and even people eating the brains of the undead.”

“I rented a room at the Vista Hotel in DC on January 18th to celebrate Marion Barry’s crack cocaine arrest with her, found an old black and white camcorder to hide in the wall, and bought enough narcotics to keep Peru in the black for months.”

“I’d do the same thing every weekend: get high on fiber, design a robot.”

“This all started back in the summer when KFC came out with that sandwich made from an entire bucket of fried chicken, two bricks of lard, and a pound of bacon.”

“Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, which makes it almost as high as I am as I write this story.”

“I snorted another line from the Oracle 11g promotional coke mirror I kept in my desk drawer, a fine row of crushed-up Claritin-D tablets rendered into a chunky dust of near-legal speed. I’d need every milligram of go-powder I could snort, shoot, or shove to get through editing this PowerPoint deck, a status report of status reports we submitted to the status committee on change management procedures currently in status.”

“I’ve never fucked anyone in a Chuck E. Cheese bathroom, I said to the anchorman from the Channel 4 News Team, a portly ghoul of a man wearing blackface and a stylish plaid suit made of velcro and tin. “


The Evil Pink Mistress

Trying to shake a benadryl hangover, the evil pink mistress clogging every mental channel in my head with dizziness, apathy, and the dark grey dread and doubt and apathy that logjams any serious attempts at life. I remember waking at two or three, after the cursed recurring dream of being back in high school again, decades after escaping that hell, and spending hours in the parking lot, trying to find my car, the kind of realistic dreamscape that makes me worry if my car got towed or stolen for twenty minutes after waking, until I can convince myself that the torture of being back in Bighikistan and dealing with the preppies and assholes and evangelical christian taliban groups is nothing but an evil burn pulled on my conscious mind by the demons of my subconscious.

And then I did the infamous dizzying mental math of “it’s three, and my alarm goes off until seven, and this pill fucks me up for eight hours, but maybe I can cut it in half, and then shotgun coke zeroes when the alarm tries to fracture my sleeping brain.” And benadryl knocks me the fuck out, but plays with those REM dream settings, steps on them and fucks them so I sleep too deep, and skip the important step, the one where my subconscious plays, let loose on the playground with no recess monitors, just a blank brainscape occasionally jarred by the footsteps of a nocturnal cat that wants her breakfast four hours early. I can’t do this stuff every day.

I remember a fragment of a dream last night, where I returned to 414 Mitchell, and met some guy that lived there, tried explaining to him my previous tenure at the boarding house. He looked like one of those meathead hippy types, like the old bass player from Van Halen, a stocky guy with a mullety hairdo and a Jack Daniel’s obsession, who listened to jam bands seriously and called strangers “brah”. He acted antagonizing when we first traded words, but became a guarded friend when I mentioned my residence there decades before. He asked me why I left, implying some greater community at the house now, a fraternal bonding among the roommates, a utopian kinship. I started to explain the problems when I was there, the infighting and thefts and hostility, a dozen people living a dozen disparate lives under a single roof, endlessly at war with each other like a score of micronations feuding over a single set of vital resources. His look of doubt and hurt made me realize something changed in the last dozen years, either some transformation in the membership of the house, or more likely, a social failing in my own interpersonal skills. I left without pursuing it further, went off to find whatever the dream brought me to find, a distant landscape a common trope for my unconscious rambling.

But the night I first took Huperzine A — three nights ago — the dreams were markedly different. The shrink recommended the supplement, an ancient Chinese moss said to improve cognition, and I ordered a small vial from Amazon. The tiny pill, a 200 microgram dose, went on top of the usual gabapentin (the anticonvulsant probably causing my memory problems) but with no benadryl. The night’s sleep furtive, I couldn’t tell if I was asleep or awake for hours of the slumber, except my dreamscape was completely abnormal.

My usual boring dreams always take place in familiar scenery, the parental house or the aforementioned high school, or the constant theme of working at Wards. But this time, the altered sets were completely unfamiliar, an unrecognizable stage. I worked at an Alaskan factory, far north of the Arctic circle, making guns or weapons of some sort, and had a long conversation with a secretary about the kinds of doors required in an environment where it snowed eight feet a month. Then I took a car service in a city melded from Bloomington and Denver, a strange grey Vauxhall car with mini side wings like a Star Wars rebel ship. Inside, my co-rider started massaging the driver, a therapeutic massage tracing the various degenerative disk damage a frequent driver would have. The dreams continued like this, a lucid state between life and unconsciousness, and I woke untired, but also unrested, wondering if the drug would always have the effect, wondering how I could capture these dream-slips onto paper.


Nuke from orbit

I did my first clean installation of OSX today, which is weird, given that I’ve been using OSX Macs since 2005.

The reason I’m not in the habit of nuking a machine and reinstalling everything is twofold.  One is that I’ve bought three Macs in that time period (a Mini in 2005; a Macbook in 2007; a MBP in 2010) and each time, they were factory-new machines with the OS preinstalled.  Prior to that, all of my desktop machines were built from pieces, and involved me installing an OS on a bare drive.  Most of the time, it was Linux, and when I first started, I’d have to find every blank or blankable floppy disk in the house, bring them all to work or campus, and download all of the floppy images for SLS or Slackware, using rawrite to create disk A1, A2, A26, B1,B2,N1,N2, and so on.  And then I’d get them all home, and halfway through the 27th floppy disk, I’d hit a bad sector and it would crap out and I’d have to dig around for another AOL floppy disk I could relabel and reuse.

My two pre-Mac laptops were both Windows machines from the factory.  I reimaged the Dell laptop and reinstalled Win98 in a different partition, and had to re-re-install it a half dozen times over the years.  The Toshiba laptop stayed with XP for Tablet and never got a Linux install, which was good because when that XP installation rotted out and required re-installation, Toshiba’s factory install DVD did not work, which is fucking genius.  (It would install a version of XP and drivers that would immediately BSD on boot.  Stock hardware, stock DVD, all stock settings.)

The other reason I never reinstalled OSX is I never needed to.  Windows is like a carton of milk sitting on a kitchen counter: it works for a while, but it will eventually make you puke and shit blood if you don’t completely replace it on a regular basis.  I guess I’ve kept a copy of Windows 7 going for two years now without a reinstall, so maybe those days are over, but who knows.  (Windows 8 actually has a feature that completely reinstalls the OS, which seems like a cop-out to me.)

I screwed up my current machine, though.  I’ve been using the migration assistant to move all of my apps and libraries and prefs and files from old to new machines, and installing new versions of the OS on top of the old one.  I think it’s probably fine to do that here and there, but I think I did it too many times.  I started with 10.4 on a PPC Mac, then migrated that to a 10.4 intel Mac, then upgraded that in place to 10.5, then migrated to another machine running 10.6, then upgraded in place to 10.7 and again to 10.8.  Somewhere in there, I fucked up a library, and my machine started getting flaky.

So, reinstall.  I cloned my machine onto a USB drive, and then made a USB installer for the OS on a memory stick.  Apple doesn’t ship their OS software on physical media anymore; an install lives in a recovery partition, or you can create a USB installer, which is what I did.  The actual reinstall was painless, and a lot of my config and stuff like my bookmarks and contacts magically reappeared on the fresh install, because it just goes and grabs all of that stuff out of iCloud.  I then copied over a subset of my apps, without installing every single thing I’ve ever installed since 2005.  Most Mac apps are a single monolithic archive file, and don’t have a bunch of loose files scattered all over the place.  The one big exception was Microsoft Office (of course), which I had to reinstall from DVD.

The only major bummer about reinstalling was actually copying over my music and photo collections.  Actually installing all of the metadata for both libraries was easy enough; you just copy over the libraries.  But the copies themselves took a few hours;  there’s no faster way to sling a quarter-terabyte of data from one place to another.

The only real snag I ran into during upgrade was that after rebooting, my external monitor didn’t work.  I freaked the fuck out on this, unplugging and plugging back in things, looking at if I needed to reset the PRAM or whatever, before I finally found out that I’d knocked the monitor cable and it was just slightly ajar, half of the pins no longer connected.  When I plugged it back in, it was fine.

The machine seems to be fine now, and is running much better.  Battery life is back to the pre-Lion levels, and I haven’t seen a beachball yet.  So, knock wood.  (Aluminum, whatever.)

BTW I went to the local Best Buy last night to get a new memory stick, which is probably the first time I’ve been there in a couple of years.  The place looks pretty damn destitute.  It looks like maybe 40% of the floor stock had vanished, and they just widened the aisles and put in a big-ass customer service counter to take up the extra space.  The only thing that was still densely stocked was the pre-cashier chute of high-calorie snacks that they make you traverse before you pay.  Maybe Best Buy should stop selling electronics and media and just focus on 5-Hour Energy and candy bars.