Tag Archives: writing

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.

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.

Bedtime

“Why can’t you go to the movies tomorrow?” she asks.

“Because I have to work,” I say. “Your school has the day off, but my office doesn’t.”

“You have to go and write books?”

“No, that’s not my job.”

She fixes me with a quizzical look. When I lock myself away to write at home, I often tell her I have to work. I now realize this has led her to think writing is what I do for my job-job. For a moment I believe I’ve disappointed her, but really I’ve only disappointed myself.

“I don’t get paid to write,” I explain. “I do it in my free time.”

“You write for fun?”

“It’s not really fun, but…”

“You should make a book of your stories. Like, from your life. They’re funny!”

“What would you put in that book?”

The Salty Dog story, and, um…I don’t know, but they’re funny. You should tell more people your stories and get paid for that and that would be your job instead.”

“That’s not going to happen.”

“Why not?”

A million things spring to mind, a million things that stab and bubble inside my brain all day when I’m away from her, at my “real” job, but I can say none of them. Not to her.

“Well…It’s very hard to make a living as a writer, and people don’t seem too interested in the things I want to…”

“Battery roll!”

“What?”

Battery roll, that’s another good story you have.”

“Yeah, I like that one, too. I don’t think anybody wants a book about this stuff.”

“Then make something else with it.”

“Like what?”

*shrug*

“Alright, under the covers now. I love you.”

“Say ‘don’t let the bed bugs bite’,” she commands.

“Don’t let the bed bugs bite,” I say.

Click.

The New Quadruple-A Landscape of Writing

One thing I love about writing is that it can demonstrate someone being remarkably perceptive and oblivious all at once. To witness this phenomenon, read Stephen Marche’s latest piece for Esquire, in which he attempts to argue that we live in a “golden age” of writing. I found myself agreeing with a few of its assertions, yet also felt this agreement was negated by how much the author got wrong, chose to ignore, or could not perceive about the modern writing landscape.

In his article, Marche argues that ye olden days had plenty of bad or just plain boring writing, and I agree. He also disdains the “woe is me” attitude so pervasive among writerly types, which I believe is important. Every writer, at some point or another, firmly believed his/her beautiful art and soul were being crushed by a cruel, unfeeling world. One’s ability to produce work worth writing is directly proportional one’s ability to move beyond this narcissistic mindset. Otherwise, you spend the time you should be writing looking in the mirror, admiring your own bruises.

However, Marche’s stated aim was to show our era as a golden age for writing, and in this he fails. This is because the support for his thesis stems from how spectacularly rich authors like J.K Rowling and Tom Wolfe have become. By the same logic, you could point to J.P Morgan and John D. Rockefeller and say the Gilded Age was one of vast prosperity. It all depends on one’s notion of a Golden Age. Does that mean mountains of wealth displayed by the Morgans and Rockefellers of the world, or does it mean everyone is able to pay their bills?

Continue reading The New Quadruple-A Landscape of Writing

Embracing the Audience of One

Years ago, I worked on a biography of Jean Shepherd, performing research and doing interviews with people who worked with him. As I’ve written on this site many times, Shepherd is one of my artistic heroes, someone whose craft I admire as something uniquely his own which has no real parallel before or since. But the more I delved into his life, the more it seemed he was a damaged, strange man.

It was difficult to find people who knew Shepherd in his heyday and were also willing and able to talk. Many of his contemporaries and friends had died; others, like Jules Feiffer and Paul Krassner, proved difficult to contact. The same went for people I knew or suspected were influenced by him. I was aware Terry Gilliam had been a Shep fan in his youth, and I even had some contact info for the man, since the company I worked for had done a few books about his films. Alas, he did not return my faxes. (Yes, this was a long time ago.) Garrison Keillor wrote me a brief but polite letter in which he stated he grew up in Minnesota and therefore Shepherd–whose primary radio work was done in New York–didn’t really have any influence on him.

One of the few people who’d worked with him whom I was both able to get in touch with and wanted to talk to me was Fred Barzyk, who had produced most of Shepherd’s television work for PBS. At Barzyk’s invite, I was able to go to the WGBH archives in Boston and view some of these shows, most of which have not been seen on TV in decades. This included an odd show where Shep stood on a dock in Boston Harbor and delivered a version of his radio show there directly to the camera, monologuing for half an hour and then abruptly stopping.

Continue reading Embracing the Audience of One