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2015 By the Numbers

2015 was a year in which I cared less about goals and more about habits, trusting that if I did certain things every day, they’d eventually coalesce into achievements of some kind. That more or less worked, at least more so than just staring pie-eyed at the goals ever did.

Here’s what the year came down to for me:

  • Novels rewritten and submitted to agent: 1, Already Won.
  • Miles run: 532.46, including ten 5K races.
  • Stories sold: 1, “The Leaning Lincoln,” to Asimov’s.
  • Stories appeared: 1, “Acres of Perhaps,” in Asimov’s.
  • Stories accepted for Year’s Best: 1, “Acres of Perhaps.”
  • Days written: 361 consecutive (363 total for the year), a total of 19,445 minutes (thirteen days, twelve hours, and five minutes).
  • Interviews granted: 1 (Elucidate #40 with Goliath Flores)
  • Writing retreats hosted: 1 (Savannah)
  • Conventions where I appeared: 3 (ICFA, Oasis, and Necronomicon).
  • Classes taught: 2 (Introduction to Fiction Writing and Introduction to Creative Writing).
  • Books read: 35.
  • Short stories and essays read: 35.
  • Home projects completed for the sake of bourgeois propriety: 4 (resodding the yard, replacing the asshole built-in microwave, replacing the dishwasher, and refinishing two rooms of hardwood floors).
  • Emotional and intellectual discoveries made:
    • My father spent his whole life pretending to be better than he was and I’ve spent mine pretending to be worse.
    • Writing is learned by epiphany: you work, you experiment, you feel what works in a flash of recognition, and then you own it. Books and classes can put you in the way of epiphany, but you’ve got to have something going for the realization to stick.
    • Most people learning an art need a trusted person who will point to things and say, “Really?” And you can answer two ways, either saying “No, I didn’t mean to do that” or “Yes, I totally meant to do that so I’m going to double down to make it work.”
    • I’m really not that good at teaching writing to people who don’t want to learn.

Interview on Elucidate with Goliath Flores

Before we go any further, let’s all acknowledge that GOLIATH FLORES is an awesome name. Giant flowers!

Goliath, who happens to be my neighbor, hosts a great podcast about the arts here in Jacksonville called Elucidate. I came onto the show the other day to chat about politics, creativity, politics, and mass societal delusion. You know, the usual.

 

My Top Three Books of 2015

With four whole days until Christmas, let me tell you the good books I read this year that you SHOULD have bought for yourself or others.

(As always, my recommended books of the year are the ones I read in that year, not the ones published in that time. I read books to get AWAY from the cultural zeitgeist, not to fall into it!)

There are in no particular order, except perhaps subconsciously.

A Head Full of Ghosts, by Paul Tremblay

head_ghosts_cover

I have mostly a handshake-and-Facebook acquaintance with Paul, which is too bad because I suspect we probably get the same kinds of complaints about our work from a certain subset of cretinous readers: that it doesn’t go “far enough.”

I used to wish that there was a better word than “horror” for stories like ours (and Laird Barron’s and John Langan’s and Livia Llewellyn’s etc.) because it comes with a lot of clumsy expectations. Now, I just hope more books like A Head Full of Ghosts keep stretching that frontier into more subtle psychological territory.

It goes plenty “far enough.”

The blithe description of the book is that it is about a teenaged girl whose apparent demonic possession becomes the subject of a documentary TV show, but like the show itself, that’s a gross misunderstanding of what’s really happening to Marjorie Barrett and her family. This is a book as much about the stories we tell ourselves about our own fears as about the fears themselves, and every character is wrong about the possession in ways that are far more scary than a demon.  

Tremblay does an amazing job with the tiny accumulating details of real fear, and the effect reminds of me all the best parts of Steven Spielberg’s (nominally Tobe Hooper’s) Poltergeist: the horrors come knocking on our middle class doors, chased away by the worse things already within.

The Martian, by Andy Weir

martian_cover

If there was room between all the shit about Jesus in the Inspiration section of the bookstore, I’d shelve The Martian there.

Why? Because no matter how bad your life is, no matter who has dumped you or betrayed you or fired you or cut off your leg or called you a failure or denied you a small business loan, it will never be as bad as being marooned on Mars.

And no matter what you think can fix your life — self-help books, prayer, AA meetings, cults, shooting up a movie theater, traveling to Bali, coloring in books with markers — nothing will work quite as well as screaming briefly and then solving the current goddamn problem right in front of you before going on to the next.

Mark Watney starts this book well and surely fucked as many of us have been. We usually have water and oxygen when we’re fucked, but hey, bad is bad. Watching Watney rationally (and with humor) face his problems one by one with every resource he has (brain included) could certainly be a lesson to almost everyone trying to fix the world from debate stages and Facebook.

You look at what’s actually in front of you — not what you want to be in front of you, not what you hope to be in front of you — and you use 100% of it to make the next ten seconds 1% better than the last ten seconds.

Sometimes all you can do is survive to solve the next problem, but somehow, that’s always enough.

Working Days, by John Steinbeck

working_days_cover

When John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath, he wrote a journal at the same time, a place where he could grumble about what he was working on that day and what was coming next, and the result — Working Days — is one of the most useful books you will ever read about writing.

Why? Because it tells you that doubt and chaos and distraction is normal. And that it’s possible to work through them.

Now that I’m thinking about it, Working Days is The Martian but for writing a book. Steinbeck is stranded on Planet Joad and he has to make the best decisions each day to survive to make more tomorrow.

And the result — SPOILER ALERT — is The Grapes of Fucking Wrath.

One word and one sentence and one chapter at a time, folks.

Eight Reasons I’m Not Going to Teach Creative Writing Anymore…and One I Might

As this semester comes to a close, I think I’ve come to a decision about my teaching career, and I think that decision is that it’s basically over.

1. I’m skeptical that writing is learned effectively in a typical classroom setting.

Writing is learned by epiphany: you try different things and see which ones feel right. Sometimes that’s accelerated by placing yourself in the path of possible epiphany, writing a lot and reading a lot and also perhaps through classes or writing books. But in my too-large classes with students of vastly different abilities and interest levels, it’s almost impossible to do anything but present the broadest (one size fits none) principles.

2. The only classes I can teach as an adjunct are the very basic ones that serve as general English credit, so 80% of my students have no interest in writing, certainly not getting better at it.

And I have no idea what to do with them. Try to reinforce the basics of grammar and punctuation that they never learned? Encourage them to be more creative, though they don’t give a shit? Focus on the 20% who are interested in writing instead? I never know.

3. I’m not giving my students what they need, which is mostly time.

Adjuncting is my part-time job pursued in the evenings after eight hours at my regular one, and what the students need most is hours of individual mentorship in everything from where commas go to how to send stories off for submission. I do the best I can with manuscript comments, but the best success I’ve had has been during casual one-on-one conversations with individual students: “What’s up with you and semicolons?” I simply don’t have the time to do that with a full time job in addition to teaching.

4. I don’t like reading people’s unfinished manuscripts.

Basically my students need to be told one of two things: “Keep doing this” and “Stop doing that.” The problem is that they hand in work that is way too close to composition so I’m telling them things they’d probably fix themselves in a rewrite. I never feel like I’m saying enough of the right things at the right time.

5. I don’t need the money as much as the other adjuncts.

Adjuncts are paid for shit, and many of the ones at my university work multiple teaching gigs all over town. Every time I teach a class for my credit card money, that’s one less that some poor bastard living off this shit will get.

6. There are standards and rigidity and accountability coming.

To their credit, my English department is trying to establish a baseline of actual repeatable results for the students, but all I want to do is say weird funny things about writing until someone accidentally learns something. It’s only a matter of time before calling myself “the Hannibal Lecter” of the English department or saying Halloween is Satan’s birthday results in a complaint and a long awkward talk.

7. It upsets me that students don’t leave my class cheering or weeping with the inspiration to write.

Hideous confession time: I am far more motivated by entertaining people than teaching them (mostly because the results of the former are way clearer than the latter).

8. Yes, it saps time and energy from writing.

Though I did manage to rewrite a novel this year with some better time management, my day job suffered a little and the writing could have gone better.

One reason I might teach again:

If I get an opportunity to teach/mentor a smaller group of motivated students in the way I want — “Hey, let’s hang out and write and read what we’ve got and talk about it” — I’d jump at it.

You learn writing by doing it a lot, trying new things, being honest with yourself about the results, and getting firm feedback from someone experienced that you trust. If I could help that, it might be worth it…to me and to the students.

Won’t Someone Think of the Children-Eaters?

We all know that children are annoying. Countless scientific studies have proven they don’t even have souls until they’re about fourteen or fifteen, and maybe not even then. They’re loud, they’re unpredictable, they’re narcissistic – they’re basically tiny drunks we can’t send to detox.

So when a heroic adult breaks free of our deliberate societal delusion about the saintliness of children, there’s cause to stand up and cheer.

This Minnesota woman – I hesitate to use her name because her next job search is going to be complicated enough without Google dragging her down – responded to months of systematic terrorism from her shrieking child neighbors just as you or I would.

This is the look of a woman thinking, "Screaming children left toys on my porch and I'M the one in a jail jumpsuit?"

This is the look of a woman thinking, “Screaming children left toys on my porch and I’M the one in a jail jumpsuit?”

By sending little anonymous notes about how she wanted to eat the children. Because you might as well put that degree in Psychology to use.

Threats to eat children have a long and noble tradition all the way from folk and fairy tales like Hansel and Gretel up to noted serial killer Albert Fish. They’re how we keep kids in line. I’m the man I am today because my father wasn’t above shaking a bottle of barbecue sauce in my direction when I got unruly.

Here, a brave witch faces down terrorists the only way she can: with a wicked recipe for shepherd's pie.

Here, a brave witch faces down terrorists the only way she can: with a wicked recipe for shepherd’s pie.

Not long ago, we used to believe it took a village to raise a child. And sometimes, when those children are yelling and running around and leaving toys in your yard, you need a village witch to step in with a few minor cackling threats and some subscriptions to magazines under the name “Your Tasty Children.”

What we don’t need is to put honest witches in jail under charges of misdemeanor terroristic threats.

The simplest way to avoid this would have been for those children to have been raised in a far-off Dickensian boarding school. The second simplest way would have been for this woman to have had a better plan than “1. Send threats. 2. Scare family. 3. Family finds it safer to abandon a house with twenty years left on the mortgage than to let children get eaten.”

Rest assured, this will have a chilling effect. Gone are the days when we could dig traps in the park or hose down trick-or-treaters with impunity.

And when the chaos ensues, when a generation grows up without fear of being eaten, we will reap what we have sown.

Appearance: Necronomicon 2015, Grand Hyatt Tampa, October 9 – 11

I consider Necronomicon to be my home convention, one I’ve been attending since I was thirteen years old, and I’m always nostalgically pleased to be a guest!

This year’s event is once again at the Grand Hyatt Tampa from October 9th to the 11th.

I’m serving on these panels:

  • Friday, 4pm: How can SF Writers Keep Ahead of the Future?
  • Friday, 6pm: The Perils of Premature Publishing
  • Friday, 9pm: Making It Scary
  • Saturday, 11am: Crossing Genres
  • Saturday, 12pm: How RPG-ers Morphed Into Writers

I hope I’ll see you there!

A Pitch Session!

Some exciting things have been happening with my writing.

My collection of weird stories In Search Of and Others and my impeccable track record of selling only barely speculative stories to Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine caught the attention of some pretty heavy hitters in Hollywood, and long story short, I had a pitch meeting.

At Marvel Studios.

Here’s what I gave them, more or less verbatim.

The film opens with the camera focused at ground level on a lonely stretch of road in the middle of nowhere, and a vintage convertible sports car zooms over our heads. The license plate says STARK, and now we’re following Tony Stark and Bruce Banner on their way…somewhere. We don’t know where yet because all we see is two guys in civilian clothes eating Funyons and drinking soda on a road trip.

Yeah, they have adventures: they stop at the Longaberger factory and the world’s biggest ball of twine, they help a battered wife escape from her husband at a truck stop, they get a flat tire, they accidentally ingest mescaline, they get into a fist fight at a biker bar somewhere in Texas. And between it all they talk, and we find out slowly that Nick Fury has died poignantly of cancer or something, and they both feel guilty for not being there when he died.

Hey, you’re the continuity guys. If Nick Fury isn’t really dead, that’s your thing. He’s dead for this movie, that’s the point.

As the trials and annoyances of the road press upon them, they argue more and more until Magneto destroys their car and strands them in the desert, unlikely to make it on time. They argue, they weep, they hug, and working together with a new emotional understanding, they do get to the funeral with, I don’t know, Black Widow’s help or something.

It was hard to gauge their response, but they gave me a great goody bag and some old fart greeted me with “Excelsior!”, so maybe those are good signs.

I’ll keep you posted!

A September Stroll

On September 11, 2001, I worked as a technical writer at the U.S. Mint building on Massachusetts Avenue, and our building wasn’t far from the Capitol.

I’d taken the Metro to Union Station that morning, bought a bagel, and walked the few blocks to work under a very blue sky. I was about halfway through the bagel when there was a sudden slowdown of our network. Being me, I went to a reliable news source to see what was going on and this is what I saw:

Bad news, folks! Servers are down! In other news, there may be some injuries at the WTC.

Bad news, folks! Servers are down! In other news, there may be some injuries at the WTC.

It took a few tries to call my (now ex-) wife, and when I said, “I think the United States is under some kind of coordinated attack,” she snapped in a terse and half-awake daze, “What are you talking about?” I got calls from friends (William and Tom, shout out!) and also my brother-in-law Marty, who raised the possibility that I should, perhaps, see about going home instead of hanging out near the Capitol building during what might be an ongoing…thing.

Huh, I thought. I’ll go ask my bosses.

When I went to my boss’s office, though, he was already gone. So, too, were the rest of the staff; they’d forgotten me. I was a contractor in my first month of employment there.

So I got my things together, stuffed them into a backpack, and started for home. I knew the Metro would either be crowded or shut down, so I simply walked. And because I’m terrible with directions, I headed for the only place I knew how to get home FROM: the Lincoln Memorial.

It was probably the safest eight-mile walk of my life. There were almost no other pedestrians, only men in suits on street corners holding M-16s and peering at me with my giant sapper’s backpack full of books. None of them stopped me because, hey, white guy!

I followed the Mall, passed the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, and then crossed Memorial Bridge. That’s when the smell of burning plastic hit me from the smoldering Pentagon, and I continued down the center of the surreal deserted GW Parkway with its plume of smoke to my right. Marine helicopters passed overhead, circled the Pentagon, and then continued westward, and my only guess was that they were taking congressmen to look at the damage.

I made it as far as the marina on the other side of the airport before I reached a point where the parkway was no longer blocked off. By then I was exhausted and dehydrated, and my wife came to the barricades to pick me up.

I guess it’s somewhat telling that my 9/11 experience was mostly alone. I spoke to my mother and my friends on the phone briefly when I could get through, but for most of that walk, it was just me quietly wondering how the world would be different now, hoping that terrorists wouldn’t think to attack the Smithsonian, wondering if there was an accessible hose or water fountain at the marina. That’s what I do in a disaster, shove everyone away from me. Sometimes that’s good and sometimes it isn’t.

I didn’t see any of the images until later, which might be why I’m still a little obsessively compelled by them today: I’m still catching up.

Or maybe I’m just still a little guilty that my 9/11 was a literal walk in the park compared to so many others’.

I Was a Teenage Republican

Twenty one years ago while a senior at the University of Florida, I wore a Jeb(!) Bush for Governor t-shirt to my Psychological Approaches to Literature class. The friend who sat in front of me clasped her hands over her mouth and shrieked into her fingers, never to speak to me again.

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She was right to do so. I was a monster, no better than anything staggering from the swamps or across the moors with its arms clawing in the air for prey.

I’d applied for an internship at The American Spectator. I’d visited the Alacuha County Republican Headquarters with my girlfriend to pick up lawn signs and watch The Clinton Chronicles, an awesome low-budget film about how Bill Clinton had probably killed a dozen people and would likely kill again. I’d underlined about half of Ayn Rand’s Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. I’d called into Rush Limbaugh’s radio show.

If you asked me then why I was a Republican, I would have hopped atop a nearby desk and declared that it was the party of freedom where men of passion and creativity could achieve the fruits of their work without losing them to the leeching government.

The real reasons I was a Republican (which I couldn’t articulate then) were:

  • My girlfriend and her family were fervently conservative, and I loved them all. They seemed to live in their own warm bubble of existence and I wanted to live there, too.
  • My own family had deep Republican roots. My grandfather had tangentially known Nixon and presided as the chaplain at Tricia Nixon’s debutante ball or something. My father had campaigned for Republicans, just like Ted Bundy and for probably the same reasons.
  • I loved the writer P.J. O’Rourke and wanted to be that kind of humorist: applying what I thought was reason to the folly of government.
  • I was surrounded at college by annoying liberals who agreed so easily with each other that it struck me as scary. I definitely believe that whenever one ends up thinking like the majority, it’s time to change one’s mind.

Plus, most of all, I wanted a consistent system of thought that could hold the chaos of my anxiety disorder at bay.

I was a Republican all the way until the 2000 election, when George W. Bush’s staggering yahoo-ism made me realize that all of the things I thought were bugs in the Republican software (anti-choice, anti-gay marriage, evolution denialism, global warming denialism) were what they considered features.

What really happened was that I grew up and looked around.

When I was in college, I had a skewed idea of what led to success in the world: I figured the proportion was 99% hard work and 1% circumstance. Then I met some of the kids in school who’d gotten there through inherited wealth, and that dropped to 90/10. Then I got out of school with no idea what to do with my English degree, and it dropped to 85/15. Then I entered the workforce and saw who became managers and who didn’t, and it dropped to 70/30. Then I started voting and saw who ended up in positions of power, and it dropped to 60/40.

Now, after forty two years of observing the world, I’m pretty sure that proportion of hard work to circumstance is maybe 45% to 55%, which is why the hard work is that much more important: like advertising, you don’t know which part of the 45% is going to help so you have to do it all.

In other words, I’ve seen people work their asses off and still not transcend circumstance in the way the Republicans say they can.

I’m not quite sure what the government should do about it, though I think one of the better reasons to have governments is for a community to hedge against the vicissitudes of fate. Sometimes you’re on top to help other people, and sometimes you’re on the bottom and need the help.

I guess as time has gone on, my ideas of what people do and don’t deserve have changed, and it’s less about working longer hours and more about working at something that matters.

You know, growing up.

Appearing at Oasis 27

You COULD spend this weekend in Orlando shouldering your way through crowds of reeking tourists and their spoiled children, or you could spend it coming to see me speak on these panels at Oasis 27 at the International Palms Resort on International Drive:

Saturday, May 2nd

  • 5pm: The State of Horror
  • 9pm: Tales of the Supernatural

There are, apparently, other things going on like readings, signings, and other non-Will-related discussions, but if you want to avoid the crowds, come see anything involving me!

 

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