A sad sort of nostalgia haunts me as I stand outside my old elementary school. As a kid, I used to get this schizophrenic notion that certain places only existed when I was present there to observe them. How could you ever actually prove otherwise? Summerfield was one such place. The idea that my school still retained its tangibility even in the thin hours of night when no one was around seemed foreign and distant; as foreign and distant as the concept of death.
Of course, I believed a lot of things back then. I believed that if I could manage to stay awake until midnight, I’d be able to hear the bells of Big Ben chiming all the way from London. I believed that one day I might just be able to bend the laws of physics and learn how to fly. A notoriously weird kid, from the time I could first talk I didn’t just tell everyone that I was from Neptune, I believed it. (more…)
Just like hipsters and Scientology, the city of Flint is one of those things that’s easy to make fun of. Often referred to as “America’s murder capital”, it saw 66 murders in 2012, tying with its all-time high from just two years before. Not too shabby when you consider that equates to 65 murders per 100,000 people, a figure that tops that of Detroit or even Chicago. (more…)
I like to write early. And by early, I mean that knife-edge, where-does-the-night-end-and-the-morning-begin? ass-crack-of-dawn kind of early where everyone’s still asleep and the house is quiet and even the dogs look as though they’re trying to sleep off the remnants of a ruff night (har har…get it?). The smell of coffee wafts through the house and it’s the time of day when I’m at my least self-critical. Early in the morning, everything seems in place. Distractions are limited. All I can hope for is that once I finally sit down at my laptop, my expectations don’t go slamming head-on into a wall.
I once had an idea for a novella about a long-haul truck driver who, at day’s end and by the glow of a map light in his sleeper cabin, commits himself to writing a poem a day. Its working title was Road Scholar and I’d kept detailed notes on everything from semi-truck mechanics and nomenclature to radio jargon and trucker lifestyle (with two subsections devoted entirely to trucker gastronomy and lot lizards). I’d given my salty dog protagonist a Kris Kristofferson-look and had even sketched out a limited backstory that included a dishonorable discharge from military service for having killed the pimp of a Laotian prostitute.
It was a sure thing. Something easy and fun. The intellectual equivalent of ordering-in. But in those precious, waning hours of early morning silence and concentration, I found myself barely able to squeeze out even a few sentences. The same thing happened the next day, and the day after that. Weeks passed, and nary a page came and before long I had all but aborted the project.
I suspect that, like most writers, the turbine that generates my creativity comes from some precinct of my unconscious; a place that can never be charted or mapped by even the most sensitive of neuro-imaging instruments. It can be an ornery and complicated thing. A frigid lover. And you have to ready yourself to accept that inspiration might just reject you when you’re most ready for it, only to come pounding down the door of your unconsciousness at 3 am when you should be asleep.
Personally, routine is what seems to be the best companion for writing (I like to write in the morning…rarely do I ever write past noon). But on a bad day, when I’ve squandered my time with self-doubt (which is the inevitable by-product of non-performance), I find myself feeling as if it’s necessary to work past my “normal business hours” until I can find just one sentence I feel good about ending the day with. Perhaps it’s no different than a gambler at a blackjack table who feels he’ll win it all back if he just hangs in there. It doesn’t help, of course, when you compare yourself to other established writers who seem capable of churning out one work after another with little to no effort. In a swelled and euphoric state, you may produce a good six or seven pages of what might seem keepable material one day only to scrap it all the next; perhaps no different than bedding someone one night only to regret it the next morning.
Inspiration can strike at any time. Have your coffee ready.
Consider horror maestro Stephen King who was, at one time, contracted to produce three books a year. Norman Mailer’s series of child support payment books were written quick and haphazardously just to keep the Friend of the Court off his ass. Literary jokester David Foster Wallace once famously said of John Updike that “…he’s never had a single, unpublished thought.” Each writer I’ve just mentioned have themselves struggled with productive droughts. Yet, between the three of them, the words produced would probably rival the number of stars in our galaxy.
So, is it still possible then to plod through and produce volumes of passable material in a relatively short time? I guess the answer is subjective. If you think what you’ve written isn’t entirely shit, then it shouldn’t matter how much time or effort you’ve put into it, which brings me to my own self-evaluation. I can’t help but wonder sometimes if I acquiesce too much to the ebb and flow of inspiration to begin with. Perhaps the advice should be to just ram through any future creative roadblocks and keep…writing.
That’s the thing about advice, though. It’s much easier to give, than follow.
With just the right amount of momentum, you could go tearing down Westcombe, jump the curb into Mott Park, blaze across the rickety footbridge that spanned the Flint River and make it halfway to the golf course clubhouse without pedaling. The tricky part, of course, was in safely clearing Sunset Drive; a 25 mph street, which ran perpendicular to and had no stop signs where it intersected with Westcombe. I’d done it once before and what a rush it had been. Descending Westcombe’s steep incline (the longest steep street in Flint) was like skydiving with a Huffy bike. But unlike my friend, Jason, I was cool with having tried it just once.
Every day after school, we’d ride our bikes from where we lived on Bagley Street, cut through Mott Park, and huff our way up Westcombe to its intersection with Beecher Road where we’d play a few games of Double Dragon at a party store. So absorbed were we with our daily dosage of video animated violence that we once played on obliviously while the store clerk was being robbed at gunpoint.
Let’s face it: Jason wasn’t exactly the kind of kid you’d ever spot at a Mensa Youth Scrabble Meet. He looked and acted like a young version of Axl Rose from the Appetite for Destruction days and would stare down total strangers without provocation from the passenger seat of his mother’s car as he passed them by. The undefeatable cowlick in his red hair frustrated him. He had an allergy to breakfast cereals and misinterpreted the shit out of the most basic song lyrics. He stole cigarettes from his stepfather, inexplicably called his mother “chon-chon”, and, at age 12, got caught shoplifting a box of condoms from a pharmacy by an off-duty cop. We knew where to buy illegal fireworks and knew the best hiding places to snowball cars from. We hopped trains to the Genesee Valley Mall and got banned from the campus of GMI. We discovered the Beastie Boys together and watched Friday the 13th together and although I can’t be certain, let’s just go ahead and say he was the first guy I ever smoked weed with, too. In other words, we were perfect for each other. But as if not trusting his own ability to filtrate trouble or danger, he almost always deferred to me when it came to considerations that required some element of sensibility. So when he quietly nodded when I told him I wouldn’t be taking the “Westcombe express” anymore, I took it to mean that he would give it up as well. So I was a little more than surprised when suddenly, after flashing a quick, reptilian grin, he shoved off, waving a two-fingers-and-a-thumb devil’s salute up into the air as he quickly shrank away and disappeared down Westcombe.
Jason moved onto my street in early summer of 1983. I was ten and he was nine and like most every other kid who encountered him for the first time, I couldn’t stand him. Even at that young age, he was full of attitude. He picked fights with anyone who so much as made eye contact with him and he did this infuriating thing where he would call your name from all the way down the street just so he could flip you the middle finger when you looked his way. We were enemies in June. But by July, we had somehow become the best of friends. I learned that he had moved to Michigan from Louisiana with his mother following his parents’ contentious divorce. He was one of the first kids I knew whose family owned a VCR. Most surprisingly, he possessed some of the greatest natural athletic ability of anyone I’ve ever known. He was as quick and agile as a jackrabbit on the soccer field and was lightning fast and damn near untouchable on ice skates. He used to tease the hell out of me as he watched me lumber around on my own skates, ankles wobbling and arms flailing like a guy trying to sturdy himself on a tightrope. But on a frigid afternoon in December, he called me up and told me to come down to his house.
“Bring your skates,” he’d said.
When I arrived, I found that Jason and his stepdad had converted a section of their backyard into a miniature ice rink so that he could spend some time with me teaching me how to be a better skater.
The pivotal event in our lives happened when we were 14 years old. Jason and I had started hanging around with a new group of kids from across town. We spent our summers at a weed-overgrown park off Bradley Hills doing all sorts of naughty things and shooting hoops. One morning, we all met up on some railroad tracks near Bradley and Court Street. Within minutes, four Flint police cars swooped in and we were forced down to the ground at gunpoint. In a flash I was lying facedown, handcuffed, with a boot planted on the back of my neck. When I meekly asked the officer what was going on he ordered me to shut-up. I did. But Jason didn’t. I watched as the cop hauled him up from the ground then slammed him back down over a track rail. Unbeknown to Jason and I, two of the older kids in the group had robbed a party store about a half-hour earlier using a toy gun. We were all hauled away to the youth home on Pasadena Road where we remained until the matter could be sorted out. When it was ultimately determined that Jason and I didn’t have any involvement in the incident, we were released. I quit going to the park after that but Jason didn’t. And when the school year picked up again, we gradually began to fade from each other’s lives.
During a brief stint of academic eligibility, Jason made an appearance in our high school’s hockey program. During a halftime team congress in the locker room, Jason and I had words with one another. Given our mutually vitriolic demeanors, things quickly devolved into a fistfight between us. Grabbing him by the collar of his shirt, I repeatedly pounded him in the face until my teammates pulled us apart. By the next semester, his poor grades had forced him off the team and within months, he had dropped out of school altogether. At some point, he and his mother moved away.
We never made peace with each other.
Just a day before Christmas in 2012, my mother called to tell me she had happened across Jason’s obituary in the newspaper. It contained a recent photograph of Jason. Fuller in the face and sporting a mustache. He still had his cowlick. I was happy to read of his life’s accomplishments and aspirations. His goals and interests. He had a daughter named Jessica.
On a blustery, snowy afternoon, my wife, daughter and I made the drive to the O’Guinn Funeral Home in Clio so that I could pay my respects to my old friend. His mother, ever sweet and warm, embraced me and, with tears in her eyes, thanked me for making the visitation. She was surprised to learn that I had become a police officer.
“You always did know when to keep your mouth shut,” she said. When I asked her what had happened with Jason, she told me about his lifelong struggles with addiction and how he had, just within the past year, overcome a lengthy alcohol addiction. But one addiction soon gave way to another and before long Jason began abusing prescription pills. “He always needed a high,” she told me, shaking her head.
Standing at his casket, I took his hand into mine and said the words I wish I had said to him so many years before. I apologized for how things had ended between us and for the years of distance and separation that had grown between us. In some ways, I suppose I knew that the separation had been necessary, at least at that particular time in our youth. But I couldn’t help but feel guilty that I hadn’t tried harder to get him to once again follow my lead, just like he had so many times before, only this time down a better path. It occurred to me that if his essence was present there in the room, he was watching me with his characteristic smirk and making fun of me for showing up in a suit. It would have been his way of expressing forgiveness.
I found his daughter and introduced myself, offering her a few anecdotes about the youth her father and I had shared. Then, giving his mother a final hug, I scooped my daughter up into my arms and gave her a kiss.
To see me standing there, in the dim light of our basement, glancing around at the shelves and dark skyline of sheet-covered shapes, you’d have thought I was some rendered figure in a Lester Johnson painting. I was just, I don’t know…looking, the way you sometimes do when you’re standing in the doorway of a room you’ve just entered while having forgotten your reason for doing so.
Pre-kid days, I would sit at the large, salvaged office desk down here beneath the interrogation-style lightbulb on a cord and crank out words and sentences on my old, Russian Space Station Mir-sized desktop computer. With the blind appointing of some migratory bird, I was heading towards “something” that was novel length. When I write, I rarely plot anything out. Fine, maybe there’s a name list that I keep and/or a rudimentary list of plot notes that I create simply to avoid plot conflicts, but I don’t have the organizational skills to plot the course of a story from beginning to end. In other words, I don’t always know where I’m going with a story. Most of the time, I’ll write a few words or even a few pages and if I like how it sounds, I keep going.
There’s a line in the Danny O’Keefe song, “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues”, where he says, “you’re not a kid at thirty-three…”. In the spring of 2007, at the age of 33, I really started thinking about this. It’s true. The elevator only goes one way. As if my ten years in law enforcement hadn’t already revealed to me life’s true delicateness and ephemerality, I seemed to enter a certain “freak out” period where I suddenly recognized that I was already 1/3 of the way to life’s finish line.
I imagined a guy who had or was just about to turn 50 and the sorts of things he might be experiencing emotionally. And with this idea in mind, I began to pound out a few words on the computer. Soon, a few words became a few pages. Then a few chapters. And before I knew it, I had the beginnings of a decent story about mid-life crisis on my hands.
Over the months, I reveled at the sight of this swelling manuscript. Finally, I was writing something that, by the light of the new day, I didn’t entirely consider to be shit. I created characters I had developed a genuine care and concern for and after I had written the book’s final word, I felt a sense of loss. Of course, the story was saved and backed-up, both on my computer’s desktop as well as on a flash drive. But I also kept a hard copy around that I would use as a blueprint and make corrections on before correcting the corresponding part of it on the computer-saved version. Five revisions later, I had a manuscript that I felt reasonably confident in to begin pitching to literary agents. When I attended the San Francisco Writers Conference in 2013, it garnered the interest of no less than five agents.
They’re publishing it next summer and suddenly, I feel as if all the experiences and wins and losses that I’ve ever experienced in this soulful journey hasn’t been in vain, after all. It’s redeeming. But along the way, that original manuscript that I had printed off; the old clunky 300+ stack of papers that I carried with me constantly like an old friend, had gotten misplaced. Although I knew I never would have set it down and left it anywhere, it bothered me that I had no clue where it was or what I had done with it. So, when on a whim, I began sifting through the boxes of photographs and old personal effects in our basement, I was thrilled when I happened upon it. Thumbing through the old, tattered, coffee-ringleted, written-on pages, I reminisced, remembering even where I was when I had written certain parts of it. Remembering how Cody, my old beloved golden retriever who has since passed away, would remain loyally by my side as I continued to self-inflict psychic damage with my computer.
I persisted. I never gave up. And what I had written was something that beheld an elemental truth about life and the ways of the world as I saw it. When I wrote those first few pages, I had no way of knowing where the journey would end. But at the risk of sounding banal as hell, it’s true: every journey DOES begin with a single step. Your life is your journey. With bravery, and a whole lot of persistence, you can embark on one of your own.
…the invincibility of inexperience?
Now that there is time you feel as if you have none.
But ignore this. Keep your pace. And take in the serenity of your surroundings.
You don’t realize how absurd it seems until you try explaining it to your child: the concept of cemeteries.
“You mean there are dead people…like, in the ground?”
You nod matter-of-factly and watch as she glances around at the serene and perfect symbiosis of garden and stone. Gentle slopes of green cascade down from hills dotted with statuary and there, against the gathering velvet of dusk, you can make out the coifed gothic structure of a mausoleum on a hilltop. (more…)
People-watching. It’s a never-ending source of inspiration for fiction writers who might find themselves in need of some good source material. If, like us, you abide by the somewhat cliché notion that everyone’s got a story to tell, then what better place to peruse the wall-to-wall supply of living, breathing, fictional rough drafts than in a shopping center? (more…)