Category Archives: Literary Endeavors

Bring the Pain

I stopped writing toward the end of 2014. I’d spent a decade-plus of writing in every square inch of my free time hoping that this would lead to being able to write in my Paid Time. That never happened and it appeared unlikely to ever happen. Each year my free time shriveled up a little bit more and each year it grew more exhausting to cram as much writing into a smaller and smaller space in the hope of achieving my poorly defined personal goal of Making It As A Writer.

I’d felt this way many times before. In fact I’d churned through emotional boom/bust cycles about writing so often that you could set your calendar to them. The difference this time was that I’d acquired some physical ailments that made writing literally quite painful. Namely: spinal stenosis. You might know it as the same thing that knocked David Wright out for most of last season. Peep this article if you wanna learn what he has to do to make playing baseball tolerable. It’s a laugh riot.

It’s a condition with a wide range of severity and symptoms. Normally it emerges later in life; Mr. Wright and I are two of the lucky ones to acquire it at a relatively early age. For me it emerged after I finally made a serious commitment to get healthy and lost a bunch of weight. My excess flab was apparently the only thing holding my spinal cord in place.

Without going into all the gory details suffice to say that in my case sitting still for sustained periods of time—such as the amount of time necessary to get any meaningful writing done—hurt like hell.  My Paid Time already required me to be sedentary for long stretches and that was barely tolerable. To then come home and sit still some more to write was torture.

At first I knew next to nothing about the condition and figured there was something that could be done about it. I actually went to the doctor (a unicorn-rare event for me) and sought orthopedic treatment that included physical therapy meant to strengthen other muscles and thus take pressure off my ailing spine. I asked the doctor how long it would take for the pain to go away and she informed me that I should not consider this something to treat but something to manage. She said it in the same tone a rental car clerk would use to tell you they were out of compacts even though her answer basically boiled down to You’ll be cured of this when you drop dead.

Here’s the thing about chronic pain: It really hurts all the time. It’s all you can talk about because it’s all you can think about. It colors your view of the universe. I never noticed how many doctors offices were strewn about the streets of Manhattan until I spent several months visiting them and shoving myself into MRI tubes until I glowed in the dark. Then suddenly I saw them everywhere. The city was jammed with tony clinics and shady pain relief basements and everything in between. I’d never realized how many of us were in pain.

Pain pulls you into a bubble where you can see and hear what’s going on in the Non-Pain world you left behind but when you try to communicate the people outside the bubble hear your words as muffled and indistinct. They may want to understand you. They may sympathize with your situation and offer moral support. But sympathy doesn’t translate to understanding and it certainly doesn’t translate into relief.

Pain renders you almost incapable of relating to people who are not in pain. A few months into treatment I went to a pool party with family friends. There were people there in my age bracket and I should have been conversing with them about politics and mortgages and so forth. Instead I  gravitated toward the older folks. People of my parents’ generation.  Because when I told them I had a spinal issue they would nod in recognition and compare notes on various painkillers. These are your people now, I told myself.

That’s another thing I found out once I entered my World Of Pain: Painkillers work really well. I can definitely see why those things are so popular.

My mother suffered from similar problems at the same time as me and we often discussed Pain as a concept. The point she made over and over again was: No one cares about your pain. Everyone thinks they have pain and to an extent everyone does. Life is pain, as the Dread Pirate Roberts said. But the all-consuming mindset that grips you when you have pain that will not go away no matter what you do is almost impossible to convey to someone who does not share that experience. You might as well try to describe a washing machine to a dog.

I found the physical barriers to writing too high and too wide. If I did dare to write I thought I could only write about pain and it would come across as complaining to those not in pain. I felt preemptively resentful toward an entire world that wouldn’t Get It. I’d always been an angry person but I don’t think I’d ever been so bitter and I didn’t want to share that bitterness if I could help it. And no one was waiting with baited breath for my latest words anyway.

So I stopped.

A year passed. Daily PT helped improve my pain a few slivers but sitting for long stretches remained a trial at best. Other medical issues emerged that are too scary/pathetic to recount here. Morrissey wishes he could write a song half as sad as my visit to the orthopedist—not the one mentioned earlier, a different one, because I know lots of orthopedists now—who instructed me in the halting technique of “how you have to climb stairs now.”) In the interregnum my feelings about Writing In General hadn’t improved at all. If anything they had soured even more.

And yet at the very end of 2015 I wanted to write again. For years I’d had an idea in my head for a novella-length story. I’d made several aborted attempts to write this story in the past but never got farther than a few disconnected fragments. The main character was clear enough in my head that I knew these pieces didn’t work but I wasn’t sure why. The story needed something I couldn’t name but also knew I couldn’t provide. Now I could. The thing this character and this story was missing was some true understanding of Pain.

I worked as much as I could stand every day and churned out pages faster than I thought possible and somehow finished a draft in a crazy short amount of time. Then I immediately jumped onto a few other short story ideas that had also bounced around my head for years looking for that missing something to spark them. I wrote more words during this concentrated period than I have at any other time in my life. Not despite the pain but because of it.

These stories are still in search of a good home. I don’t hold out much hope for any of them ever seeing the light of day. (The rejection notices piling up in my inbox indicate this strongly.) But it’s all there and it’s all real and if anyone wants it they know where to find me.

On the non-fiction tip I wrote a few things on Medium in recent months when the mood struck me and I wasn’t quite committed to restarting this site just yet. I didn’t want to reopen Scratchbomb after a year of darkness only to abandon it a few months hence if my mind took another cruel turn. But I think I’m ready to venture forth again on the web in this space if nowhere else. I doubt I’ll be contributing around the interwebs as I did in days of yore because I can’t commit to doing things in my free time the way I once did (See: above). But again: If anyone wants me I’m easy to find.

I cycle through feelings about The World and my place therein. Half the time I think everything is pointless.  The other half I think everything is pointless but I gotta do stuff anyway. I’m doing my best to ride out the former feeling the best I can and produce as much as I can when the latter strikes. Sometimes my best is terrible. It happens.

I think of this idea as Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus via Charlie Brown. Charlie Brown will never kick the football and never win a baseball game and never get a valentine and even Charlie Brown seems to know this. He always greets his inevitable failures not with shock but with resignation.

Yet he tries anyway because what else is Charlie Brown going to do? That’s not hope but that’s not despair either. It’s closer to acceptance.

Jeff Bezos Makes the Trains Run on Time

This week brought a post by Matt Yglesias at Vox in which he says, more or less, it’s a good thing that Amazon is bringing the publishing industry to its knees. I’ve made my position on Amazon clear, but even beyond my baseline antipathy toward the online shopping giant, Yglesias’s post disturbed me. It exemplified the most troubling attitudes of the Silicon Valley Thinkfluencers who are supposedly leading us to a glorious digital utopia.

The thrust of Yglesias’s pro-Amazon argument is that the publishing industry is full of inefficient corporate dinosaurs. By this reasoning, Amazon’s dominance of the bookselling market has done nothing more than expose that industry’s soft underbelly. Now that any person can make an ebook and sell it on Amazon themselves, he says, publishers are “superfluous” and “don’t contribute anything of value.”

Yglesias’s main objections to the publishing industry seem to be over questions of efficiency. He believes publishers should put their money into software/hardware development and marketing, and not into author’s advances. They should stop publishing print books, which cost way too much to produce and ship. They should charge rock-bottom prices for their ebooks because these cost very little to produce.

The culture of digital innovators lies somewhere between Ayn Rand and Logan’s Run. For them, the Invisible Hand Of The Market dictates the path on the evolutionary cladogram of business. Follow it or die. The implication of Yglesias’s post is that publishers’ failure to take any of the steps he prescribes is proof enough of their obsolescence, a sign their extinction is not only inevitable but deserved.

The problem is, publishing can’t follow Amazon’s example, even if it wanted to. The industry was founded around a far different core than the company that aims to bury it.

It is true enough that most publishing houses now are owned by conglomerate behemoths indistinguishable in their size and structure from the GE’s and Viacoms of the world. It is true that publishing houses, like any branch of the culture industry, produce as much malnourished dreck as any fast food chain. But this bloated exterior is wrapped around a nucleus that actually wants to produce quality.

At their core, publishing houses are charged with the long, laborious process of enabling  the creation of art. This process is almost like developing prospects in baseball: It resists being rushed, is rife with the potential for failure, and doesn’t always prove lucrative even when good “product” is produced. An editor could spend years working on just one book with an author, believe with all his/her heart and soul that it is The Great American Novel, and release it into the wild, only to watch it go over like a lead balloon. Publishing is the opposite of efficient.

It is telling that nowhere in Yglesias’s piece do considerations of literature or art come up. The word editor is mentioned once, and then only for Yglesias to suggest a big-time author like George R.R. Martin could hire a freelance one if he wished to self-publish. In other words, editors should join his vision of the 21st century and be set adrift on the rocky seas of The Gig Economy.

Efficiency is Amazon’s religion. Amazon’s enormous success rose from its ability to bring you the things you want when you want them. Amazon has zero stakes in the content of your package, except to see that it gets to you as scheduled. This credo drives all on-demand internet businesses. Netflix, Seamless, Uber, Airbnb, and all their imitators operate on the same idea. None of them “make” the service they provide (except possibly Netflix and its “original shows,” at best a gray area). These businesses simply ensure that the service is provided.

What Amazon and its kin also have in common is that their efficiency comes from relying on all the dirty work and high costs to be carried out by traditional businesses. Amazon has never tried to create books any more than it’s tried to make t-shirts or dumbbells or coffee tables or any of the other billion things they sell. The considerable costs involved in creation—R&D, editing, advertising—are borne by others. Once someone else pays those costs to produce something, Amazon steps in to offer it at wholesale prices.

Amazon is praised for its logistical wizardry, but even this “efficiency” comes at the expense of others. It farms out fulfillment to third-party contractors (and washes its hands when said contractors abuse workers).  The burden of its deliveries, in man-hours and stress, is placed on other organizations both private (UPS) and public (US Postal Service).

Think back to when Netflix was new and still primarily a DVD-rental service. The problem and cost of processing all these oddly-shaped red envelopes fell on the Post Office, while Netflix shrugged and said Good luck with that. The old, inefficient Postal Service gets constant threats of bankruptcy. Netflix gets Emmy nominations. That is the world created by our glorious digital innovators, in a nutshell.

Maybe if it publishing were run in a more efficient manner, as Yglesias prescribes, it would produce more and better art. Perhaps it wouldn’t. In either case, Amazon wouldn’t care. If a book is crappy, it means no more to Amazon than if a chair or a HDMI cable or anything else it sells is crappy. The bad review will reflect on the product, not Amazon. If the industry collapses and all we’re left with is a hellscape of self-published One Direction fanfic and Benghazi conspiracy screeds, Amazon would roll merrily along.

I don’t expect a retailer to be overly concerned with quality, whether that retailer is Amazon or Sears. But I would like someone to be concerned with it. What Yglesias seems to advocate is a universe in which Amazon is not simply a seller of books, but the model for making them. Why? Because their model works. And in the mindset of the innovator worshipers, anything that works is inherently good. Why it works, how it works, and who it works for is irrelevant.

It’s this rallying behind a corporation like Amazon for the sheer fact that it “works” that troubles me the most. In the universe where efficiency trumps all, anyone that stands between you and the thing you want is evil. Anyone that gets that thing to you slightly faster is good. Anything that takes time to produce is to be consigned to the scrapheap of history. Anything instantly deliverable is to be celebrated, no matter how rotten it is, because it’s here now.

The prevailing thought Ygelsias is espousing is the one that drives digital business in the 21st century: Stop being so sentimental. Someone was gonna come along and do this. Why not get behind the guy who did it the best?

Thinking like this was once condemned as fascist. Now it’s celebrated as Thought Leading. But at least our latest thought leaders make the drones run on  time. And with free shipping, too.

Buy My Novel At Your Local Book Shoppe (Sort Of)

Last week, I took Hang A Crooked Number down from Amazon for a variety of reasons delineated here. Since then, I’ve made it available for purchase directly from my blog in epub and PDF form.

Following that announcement, I’ve gotten a number of requests from the device-disinclined population to read the book in non-electronic form. I wish I could fulfill these requests, but while book printing is easier and cheaper than it’s ever been, it remains neither cheap nor easy. The price to make physical copies of my book wouldn’t be insane in the grand scheme of things, but they would probably run into 4 figures, and if my ebook sales are any indication, I’d never make back those costs.

I honestly wish I could make my novel a “real” book because I still have a romantic attachment to seeing a book I wrote on a shelf in a quaint book shoppe where WQXR plays gently in the background and some weird dude monopolizes the store’s only table to plow through a pile of Schopenhauer. So I went ahead and did the next best thing.

I’ve put my book up for sale via Kobo, an ereader device/app that has partnerships with a number of indie bookstores across the country. It’s a small way to read ebooks for titles like mine that are only available in ebook form, yet still support the existence of local bookstores (as opposed Amazon, which wants to crush them). If you go to this page, you can a zip code and find a nearby store that sells ebooks via Kobo.

If you’re in the NYC area, I know Word, Housing Works, and Greenlight all work with Kobo. So if you wanna buy Hang A Crooked Number while still supporting the printed word dispenser near you, consider this path. The bookstore gets a cut, I get a cut, local shops get to stay in business, and you get to buy something quickly and easily without stepping on someone’s throat. What a novel concept.

Consider Doing More Than Nothing

I’ve pulled my book from Amazon.

Doing this will cause me no hardship whatsoever, either now or in the foreseeable future. My novel Hang A Crooked Number has sold as many copies as it will ever sell, having gone over like the proverbial lead balloon. I have no writing career that a break from Amazon could damage. I’m no threat to acquire such a career any time soon; I once thought writing would be my vocation, but I’ve accepted that it will be nothing more than a hobby.

In other words, this move involves almost no sacrifice on my part. The stakes could not be lower for me. I’m pulling my book anyway.

I was ambivalent at best about putting my book on Amazon to begin with. Did I really want to associate myself with a company that had destroyed Main Street as thoroughly and ruthlessly as Wal-Mart, if not more so?* One that’s laid to waste thousands of stores across the country, and apparently has its eye on taking out shipping companies, too?

I weighed Amazon’s force of evil against my desire to see lots of people to read my book and eventually decided to side with the latter. Since my novel was only going to be available in ebook format, I wanted it to be available in the format most people use to read ebooks. I saw a caravan full of demons barreling down the road and stuck my thumb out to hitch a ride, figuring As long as they’re going my way…

I believe the word for this kind of reasoning is “chicken-shit.”

We all do this in some form or another, making explicit or implicit compromises with distasteful organizations because they might make our lives easier for a moment. It’s not that we don’t care. We just don’t want to care all the time. Life is hard. We treasure those brief moments where one minute hassle has been removed from our days.

Many people who use Amazon are fully aware of, and have issues with, the company’s lowballing and bullying tendencies, its rapacious hunger to devour all competition, and its pitiful record of charitable donations compared to other giant corporations. We hit pause on these concerns because we really want to be able to pick up a deck chair and a pair of shoes and a DVD set without driving to three different stores.

Just a few weeks ago, I ordered a few items from Amazon, reasoning that it was hard to find them at local stores because there weren’t many local stores where I could find those items. It wasn’t until my package arrived that it occurred to me Amazon was the reason those local stores had disappeared.

By all accounts, this was Jeff Bezos’s intention from Day One: Become so large and eliminate so much competition that concerns about how you play the game become immaterial, because you are the only game in town. If you could bring to life a Gilded Age robber baron’s wet dream, this would be it.

Amazon’s current tiff with Hachette is just the latest example of what happens when you let some evil slide for a while for the sake of convenience. In a fit of caprice befitting an inbred Renaissance monarch, Amazon has stopped selling certain books because one publisher dared say no to them. The company actually has the balls to tell customers to seek these books out elsewhere, knowing full well that there are few elsewheres to seek out (especially when it comes to books), and that they’ve trained their customer base to look upon any offline shopping experience as an insufferable ordeal.

I don’t know if I’ll ever write another book, or if I’ll write much of anything in the future. I do know that I would like someone to keep writing books, and I would like those books to be available in as many channels as possible. I do know that I don’t want publishing to devolve into the same state as other culture industries, to become a Brazil ruled by a small coterie of the super-elite perched atop a sea of dog-eat-dog favelas stretching out in every direction.

And so I’d rather not be a part of something that is actively working toward that end, however infinitesimally small my part might be. On the off chance anyone still wants to read my novel, it can now be purchased here. I’ll trade the loss of hypothetical reach offered by Amazon for the knowledge that whatever future pennies are spent on my book won’t line Amazon’s pockets.

Pulling my book from Amazon is barely doing anything, but it’s not doing nothing. Consider doing more than nothing.

Hang A Crooked Number: Now Worth Nothing

Today marks the start of another Mets season. To celebrate the occasion, for a limited time you can join another lost cause at minimal cost. Which is to say, no cost. From March 31 through April 4, Hang A Crooked Number is on sale at Amazon for the considerable markdown of 100 percent. If I’ve done my math right, that means it’s free. As in, zero dollars. And zero cents.

If you’ve missed/ignored my many posts about this novel since it came out last year, this is Hang A Crooked Number in a nutshell:

Backstop lives a double life, and both are crumbling. He is a minor league catcher and an operative in training for The Moe Berg Society, a secret intelligence group that uses baseball as a front for its spy work. The mysterious disappearance of Backstop’s fellow trainee, Mark, has plunged him into a career-threatening slump. He gets one last chance at redemption when his handler asks him to investigate a connection between rumors of a mole and The Scouts, a faction of old-school spies hell-bent on seizing leadership of The Society. Backstop’s mission is complicated by his new roommate, The Swing, an aging slugger working on a major league comeback, and by Brooke, a tenacious reporter who suspects Backstop holds the key to her investigation into Mark’s disappearance. With one eye on his plummeting batting average and the other on the mounting casualties of his mission, Backstop attempts to unravel a conspiracy that could change the game forever before he unravels himself.

I know many people believe that spending money for anything on the internet is an affront to their human rights. Such folks contend that their function as consumers is so important that it is above such piddling concerns as paying people who make the things they consume. Under normal circumstances, I’m not inclined to encourage such beliefs. But I would also like people to know that Hang  A Crooked Number exists, and one way to do that is to give it out for free. There are other ways to do this, but they involve the spending of money that my family insists is better spent on shoes and rent. So, free it is.

I recognize that people who don’t want to pay for things on the internet also don’t like it when they’re asked to do anything on the internet. (I’m not sure what these people do like to do, other than scream that video games are art and tell other people to die in fires on Twitter.) However, if you choose to download this book that I worked on for years and you find you enjoy it, I ask that you at least consider giving the book a few stars on its Amazon page. And if you’re feeling really generous, maybe leave a nice review. Stars and reviews mean a lot to Amazon, so the more you leave, the more often my book comes up in searches for other books and hammocks and whatever the hell else Amazon sells. Damned if I can figure it out, but Bezos works in mysterious ways his wonders to perform.

Thanks.