A Summer Reading List

I’m not sure it’s accurate to say that summer is my favorite season, but it’s certainly the one when my body and mind expect to spend their days writing, walking in the woods, napping, and reading during afternoon thunderstorms.

Thanks to some poor financial decisions on my part (chief among them not being born into inherited wealth), I won’t get to spend my summer that way for at least another twenty years.

So in the meantime, I have a few go-to books for my summer reading that somehow remind me of a lazier time of year. Some of them take place during the summer, and others I simply read for the first time during one many years ago.

In case you also want to go on a mental summer vacation, here they are.

“The Body,” by Stephen King (from Different Seasons)

This is one of my favorite novellas of all time, and it takes place over a Labor Day weekend. I’m not sure if I first read it over a summer, but it definitely resembled most of the ones I lived: going on reckless adventures with friends as a way to court danger and learn who we were. I did that by breaking into abandoned schools and climbing onto roofs and skulking around in the middle of the night, but if there had been a body to go see, rest assured we’d have gone looking for it.

Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart

If there’s such a thing as a cozy apocalypse novel, this is one. When the human race is decimated by a plague, grad student Isherwood Williams ends up being one of the smartest of a small group of survivors who slowly rebuild a new and better society while the remains of the old one decay around them. Like the best science fiction, it’s a thought experiment in possibility.

You know you’ve got a good post apocalyptic book when you find yourself thinking, “Man, I’d love to loot a library just like that.”

Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke

Clarke will never be confused with a great prose stylist, but he manages to convey awe and strangeness with a pleasant scientific precision. I first read this novel of transcendent first contact — the kind where aliens come and tell us of our greater galactic destiny — in a summer lit course in Science Fiction at the University of Florida.

After years of being a fan of science fiction, I’d set it aside to be a good English major focused on the classics. When I read this book, though, I literally cried to think of how much better it was at exciting my imagination than anything I’d been assigned in my major.

The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien

During the summer of 1987 after my parents’ marriage had ended with far less violence than any of us expected, my mother and I took a vacation with a friend and her kids to Georgia and North Carolina. We did the usual touristy things like panning for (likely planted) gem stones at a “mine,” but what I remember most was the house where we stayed.

It was built on the side of a mountain beside a shallow creek. From the front, you could see miles of rolling green hills. From the large windows and porch on the back, you could gaze into the darkly inviting woods.

My friend Norman had suggested that I read The Hobbit, and that’s exactly what I did. To me, that forest in North Carolina is what Mirkwood looks like.

This Sweet Sickness/The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith

I find it hard to choose between these books for a summer read. The Talented Mr. Ripley has the virtue of taking place mainly during the summer, but the protagonist of This Sweet Sickness lives a strange dream-like existence that sort of feels like one.

I read these for the first time in 2005 when I started having an inkling that something wasn’t quite right with the life I was living. These are both books about men with deeply delusional and neurotic misunderstandings of reality, and they scared me at the time more than most horror.

I’m all better now.

Chris and the Kobayashi Maru

Six weeks ago, a friend who hadn’t spoken to me in twenty-five years killed himself.

I’m not sure Chris would want me to call him a friend these days, but for a decade of our lives from middle school to graduate school, we were brothers of the brain like gunslingers are brothers of the gun, both a little trigger-happy to show off our talents to each other and everybody else.

Back when it was fashionable to do so, we were told that we were “gifted” and placed in a class in middle school for kids like us to…do gifted things. It had a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest vibe, sort of loose but institutional, with all I remember of its organized curriculum being that we watched Twelve Angry Men and The Caine Mutiny to debate their moral questions.

This is what your anesthesiologist wrote in my eighth-grade yearbook.

What I remember more vividly is that this one guy had nothing but scorn and mockery for me from the moment I joined the class, and I only found out later the cause: our teacher had told him that I’d scored higher on the qualifying IQ test than he had.

(No, I have no idea why an adult would tell a thirteen-year-old that someone else was smarter than he was. At the most charitable, I can imagine she might have been trying to “humble” him in some way because he, like me, didn’t always show much patience for people who weren’t interesting.)

From the start, Chris seemed eager to prove that his kind of smart (logical and reasonable and scientific) was more valuable than my kind of smart (creative and intuitive and humanistic). I wasn’t quite as invested in that battle as he was, but when he made fun of my weirdness (writing stories about ghosts, playing D&D), I was just as quick to make fun of his (dressing like Alex P. Keaton, having the politics of a fifty-year-old).   

Unfortunately for him, I’d been trained by my father to befriend smart people who were mean to me, and I just steadfastly refused to be dismissed. Over time, we discovered some interests in common (computers, Star Trek, and science-y mayhem) and realized that we were probably the two people in town most likely to understand (and put up with) each other’s shit.    

Chris played football and thought I’d be a good running back. I was too busy being “wierd,” though.

So we became friends, sometimes even best friends, and an odd thing started to happen: we each drifted a little closer to the other’s brand of smart. Chris read more literature and I read more science. I persuaded him to try role-playing games (Star Trek only, because it was the least fantastical), and he persuaded me to experiment with radio scanners and chemistry.

When I crack an arcane scientific joke even today, I’m channeling a little of Chris.

It worked, I think, because we had different ambitions. I was never going to be a doctor (as he later became), and he was never going to be a writer (as I later became). I sometimes helped him write stories for school, and he was always a great scientific advisor on guns, chemicals, poisons, and a lot of other things that should probably have put him on a watch list.

Together we got into the kind of dumb mischief that only occurs to people who know more about theory than practice. Our motto was, “Well, why wouldn’t that work?” only to discover exactly why, usually with injury and/or destruction of property. We distilled something in Chemistry class that made the teacher say, “You know, I have to work in this room another twenty years.”

This is prom in 1990, though it’s interesting that Chris was present for 100% of the times in my life that I’ve worn a tux

He got me my first job (with his father’s inventory company). We double-dated to the prom. We stole street signs together with our girlfriends’ names on them (both of which Orlando luckily had). He once bought me a gallon can of vanilla pudding because I always complained when restaurants only had banana. He introduced me to the movie Heathers which he said had me written all over it, and I introduced him to The Planiverse. He was the best man at my wedding (which didn’t work out), and I was the best man at his (which did).

His childhood was as harrowing as mine, though in different ways. He had a streak of romantic chivalry toward women that, like mine back then, bordered on co-dependency. He could, like me, be impatient and mean when people weren’t using their brains in a way he respected.

(He did not agree, though, that Norman was a genius because to him, genius implied useful application. He was also not a fan of David Lynch or Monty Python for similar reasons.)  

I’m not sure Chris liked being the intellectual counterpoint to Norman.

I have no idea what to call our relationship between the ages of thirteen and twenty-five, but we definitely put up with more from each other than I have since from others in my life. Maybe we really were brothers of a kind, stuck together by virtue of similar talents and interests and traumas, able (at least back then) to take it for granted that we’d circle back into each other’s lives.

This is a terrible and selfish remembrance, isn’t it, all about his intersection with me?

The truth is that I can’t really tell you what he was like more recently as a friend or a husband or a doctor or a father of five when he died. I’m guessing he was still a Christian and a conservative and a rationalist, and I doubt he did much stealing of street signs these days without my lawless influence.

What I can tell you is that even when we weren’t friends or didn’t agree, when he thought I was crazy or irrational, he was still a powerful force in my life reminding me to do something more interesting with my talents.

I have no idea (and now never will) if I had any positive influence on him.

A quarter century ago, I cracked a bad joke at a bad time with no harmful intent beyond poking fun at an uncomfortable situation. It created a lot of problems between him and his wife, and my impending divorce almost became theirs. I always assumed we’d somehow run into each other again and I’d say, “Holy shit, am I sorry about that. I was basically out of my mind, but I’m better now. Are you? Awesome.”

Our last picture together, probably making fun of someone.

That can’t happen anymore.

I’m not sure why he ended his life at the time he did in the way he did, but I know he had a vivid memory and a tendency to chase theory off a cliff. His mental theater could play the good things that should have happened and the terrible ones that did in high definition over and over.

Which is another thing we had in common. Maybe storytelling, venting those memories, is what saves me. Or maybe it’s just medication and luck.

I wish I could have told him, “As someone who pauses brains during surgery for a living, you of all people know that you are more than your firing neurons and you don’t deserve the movies they show you. Tell them to fuck off. People will miss you when you go.”

That’s as logical as I get, old friend.

Might as Well Write

Not long ago, a friend of mind pointed out that I seem to enjoy giving advice to smart and/or creative people who need an emotional nudge toward feeling better about doing the things they love. I did a little digging, and maybe he’s right:

I also enjoyed helping student writers when I taught, offering my idiosyncratic advice on how to actually write, sure, but also on how to be the kind of person who can at least endure and maybe even thrive in a creative life.

So I decided to create a new blog called Might As Well Write where, like Cheryl Strayed in her Dear Sugar columns, I accept questions from creative people on subjects ranging from day jobs to detail and answer them with the homespun country wisdom I learned at my pappy’s knee.

Or at least the wisdom I learned by wringing tepid success from a lifetime of possibility.

The title comes from the idea that many creative people seem to have about whether it’s “worth” writing, whether all the time is justified by fame or sales or appreciation. I used to wonder that, too, until I eventually confessed a simple truth to myself:

What the hell else am I doing? Is writing for ninety minutes a night taking time away from drilling clean wells in Bangladesh? Of course not. I might as well write, tinkering and fishing my way to a readers perhaps one at a time.

So Might As Well Write isn’t a blog about finding instant fame or going viral. It isn’t about eleven sure-fire story structures that jack directly into our primitive brains. It isn’t about

It’s about treating our creative selves well so that we can persist and grow little by little into people pursuing something like art.

So drop on by subscribe to the Twitter feed, and maybe even ask a question!

The Good Father

You know who I don’t talk about enough? This guy.

That’s Larry Hall, my stepfather. He married my mom after my parents divorced, and when I met him I thought he was a dreamy, irresponsible goofball completely unlike my father.

Luckily, I was right. Not so luckily, it took me awhile to appreciate that fact.

There were seriously some years in the late Eighties and early Nineties when it was legitimately questionable that I’d grow up to be a decent human being. (It might still be. Ha!) The most glaring model of masculinity so far in my life led me to confuse assholery with strength, and I’m sure there were times when Larry checked his watch and calendar for when I’d move the hell out for college…or prison.

Yet through all of that, he introduced me to the Middle Earth Role Playing game and typed my first serious story for submission to Hitchcock’s and watched the premiere episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation with me. More importantly, he made my mother safe and comfortable for the first time in a quarter century, and though I didn’t know it, he did the same for me.

Now, I’m not going to kid you into thinking you’d want to HIRE Larry to work at your company or government agency or to guard your building as he did briefly later in life. He seemed to be often drawn to jobs that had cool accessories, like badges or one of those pointy bishop hats, but his priority was getting home to talk endlessly with my mother while smoking on the back porch, or to read and nap afterward.

He was kind of a hedonist that way, though an inexpensive one. Which worked out well because they were almost always broke in the way society measures wealth.

He and my mother and younger brother Andrew went through some terrible times financially because, alas, the world doesn’t know what to do with people who work to live instead of the other way around. Yet even through their deprivation (and believe me, it was fucked up), they had this weird fatalistic cheerfulness that said, “Life is totally shit just beyond the glow of our flashlights, but at least we have those.”

When he met my mother while they both worked at a social service agency, he told her he was gay. She reported this to me with whispered drama before he came to visit the first time, like we should hide our most fabulous glitter from him. And yes, he had a gentle voice most of the time and liked fragrances and was better at dancing than any of us.

He might have told her he was gay to avoid the risk of romantic entanglement before he was ready, or maybe he was bisexual. It doesn’t really matter.

He later married Mother, which made him at least a Dianne-a-sexual, and that worked out just fine for both of them.

The last thing any of us needed was a capital-M Man, at least as they usually assert themselves in the world. Larry balanced the masculine and feminine with a wide streak of empathy and perceptiveness that men are encouraged to extinguish.

The most masculine thing I ever saw Larry do was rush out with a gun to investigate an intruder, though unfortunately it was a tiny pearl-handled .22 that might have been better kept in a garter belt than a holster. But let me tell you, he carried that thing outside into the darkness like a New York City cop to protect us, so again…the balance.

I don’t know how he’d feel about me telling these stories about him. I hope he wouldn’t be embarrassed because I’m not making fun of him at all. These are the stories of a hero.

Before he died, Larry said he was proud of the man I’d become, perhaps with the unspoken clause of that sentence being “…despite all the signs.” That meant more to me than any praise I could have gotten from the guy on my birth certificate because Larry knew manhood, all of it, and his path wasn’t narrow.

The night before he married my mother, there was a small bachelor party with his best man, my brother-in-law, and teenaged me. Marty had to drive him home because he’d gotten a little tipsy, and he had to ask whether to turn off at an exit or not.

“Go forward,” Larry slurred. “Never straight.”

That’s manhood. That’s fatherhood. And I wish I could tell him I know that because of him.

Advice for a Wunderkind

Someone I know has come home for the summer after their first difficult year of college, struggling with anxiety and depression. They started as a junior because of dual enrollment credits, and they’re attending with a prestigious scholarship about an arcane and technical subject.

Nobody that brilliant would ask me directly for advice, so I’ll write it here to be taken or left.


When I started college thirty years ago this coming August, I had the weird kind of smarts that were hard to distinguish from being a deranged idiot. I think I had a lot of raw mental horsepower that I didn’t know how to control, like putting a rocket engine on a unicycle, and back then it was common for educators to step back and just hope people like me wouldn’t become serial killers.

My cunning vocational scheme was to earn a PhD in English, become a famous writer with an adoring audience of voting age readers, and then run for public office to become the first truly literary President who would save the world with a sense of wit and epic drama.  

Even Manson’s Helter Skelter made more sense than that.

This “genius” showed up with a single milk crate of possessions and his sister had to buy him a toaster because he didn’t think of that.

I felt like a lot of people had high expectations for me, but none higher than my own. I didn’t have the added pressure of your scholarships and a global pandemic thrumming through everything in life like the cosmic microwave background, so I can only imagine how much harder it is for you.

The odd thing about being a wunderkind is that people are either watching you intensely to perform or they’re not looking at you at all, and it’s hard to tell which is worse.

  • If they’re watching, you have the pressure of living up to their hopes and investment in you.
  • If they’re not watching, you have to decide what YOU find important enough to do, and it’s hard to imagine anything worth doing if it isn’t measured or judged.  

When faced with the risk of disappointing other people or disappointing myself, I always went for the latter. I never took a single creative writing course in college because I couldn’t face the possibility that I’d fail at something that mattered so much to me.

(That may not be an issue for you, but I’m guessing that being thought of as smart in your subject isn’t helping.)

It took me years to learn that the key to getting anything done for people like us with anxiety and depression is to lower the stakes. Even though it feels like we’re failing for not taking our work seriously enough, the truth is that we’re taking it too seriously.

Pressure amplifies anxiety and depression, and though some of it isn’t avoidable, one kind is: the pressure you put on yourself, especially at the start of something new.

Here are some things to know:

  • It’s likely that some experimentation is still required for whatever medication you’re taking. It took about three years for them to get mine straight, and I’ve been taking the same meds for fifteen years now. And while I’m perhaps not a paragon of productivity, I’m getting shit done and not hating myself, so there’s that.
  • It’s also likely that no amount of rational thought will lead you out of the way you’re feeling, so don’t make yourself feel worse for your “failure” to do that.
  • One thing you’ll learn as you get older is to take some of your own thoughts less seriously. We’re smart, but not every thought is gold. Some of what we think comes from bad evolutionary software or failures of neurotransmitters, and one easy way to know the difference is to assume that almost all judgments of your own abilities are deeply skewed.  
  • Meditation can help you separate your thoughts from your “self.” I’m told LSD can do that too, but I’ve never tried it. Meditation is probably safer.  
  • The most powerful word I know for people intimidated by their own work is “tinker.” I don’t try things or plan them or even do the most important things…I tinker with them, playing around to see what works or feels better in each iterating experiment.
  • You’ve gotten where you are quickly, but you actually have a lot more time than you think you do. You don’t have to decide everything right now.
  • If you have discovered that you don’t love the thing you thought you did, that’s perfectly okay. If you’ve discovered that you do still love it but not in this time and place and circumstance, that’s okay, too. If you’ve discovered that you love it so much that you’re afraid to risk screwing it up, then just know that nothing stays screwed up forever.
  • If you woke up tomorrow and said, “Fuck this, I’m going to HVAC school,” every member of your family would have your back.
  • Take this summer and do absolutely nothing of consequence. I’d suggest walking, though. Maybe not in the middle of the night in the hood like I used to. Ask yourself some questions in a journal, too; one that always works for me is, “What the fuck am I doing here, really?”

That’s a lot to take in, and it’s possible your summer is over now that you’ve read it. The upshot is this:

There are people who will care about you no matter how you decide to apply your talent.

Try to be one of them.

My Computer History: End Program

I’ve been writing recently about my Gen X computer experiences from the days when they required more patience and commitment than the convenient appliances of today.

I wrote about how the TI-99/4A was my gateway to computing, and how I learned persistence from the TRS-80 Model III, and how the Commodore 64 inspired my ingenuity, and how the Apple II+ made me an amateur scientist, and how the Apple //c kicked off my writing. I wrote about the weird outliers of the Commodore SX-64 and Amiga 500 that may have been too clever for their own good. And I wrote about how the PS/2 and Macintosh labs in college set up my vacillating loyalties that persist even today.

I’m lucky that I’ve seen both worlds, enjoying the hobbyist tinkering of BASIC and also the vast interconnectivity of the devices we have today. I feel a little like someone who witnessed the Wright Brothers taking flight and then the Moon landing six decades later, with each magical in its time and context.

It was a lot easier to be accidentally dumb back then, with only nearby resources to learn from. If you lived somewhere with a lousy library or culture of idiocy, you could have huge gaps in your knowledge that were hard to even know about, much less fix. I learned to shave from a high school friend who described it over the phone, but it took my stepfather to tell me to use warm water instead of cold. Now I could learn that on YouTube.

You felt weirder then, too, with only the sample size of your town or neighborhood to go by. There weren’t many alternative models for how to be, and most of them came down to stark divisions instead of gradations: male or female, white or not, American or not, rich or poor, able or “handicapped,” straight or queer, dreamer or worker, city or country, north or south, bookish or mechanical. When a deaf boy joined my second-grade class, I thought his hearing aid was a Walkman and he was a bad ass rebel who refused to take it off.

It’s harder to be that dumb today, but some people are making their best go of it.

Now with access to all the knowledge on the planet, you have to work hard not to know things – to choose only a few sources of information that reinforce your perspective and filter out others. But humans are humans and our brains take a lot of energy, so it’s natural that we fall into the shortcuts of prejudice if we don’t fight against it.

Those old computers taught me that ideas are malleable, refined through a process of active experimentation until they “work.” That hacking mentality has been the cornerstone of my writing practice as well as my perception of the world as a giant experiment ever in refinement.

What I learned from years of SYNTAX ERRORS is that life can be debugged and improved, though perhaps never perfected. There’s only “works” and “works better” for more people.  

It’s useful to know that even if “answers” are far easier to search for these days, we still have to do the experimenting ourselves.

Who’s ready for some programming?

My Computer History: Oh, Yeah, the Consoles

[I’ve been on a nostalgia trip lately thinking about the computers that influenced me growing up. They were a perfect metaphor for our latch-key generation: “Here’s a device with limited instructions. Good luck!” I know they changed the way I think, and this week, I’ll be blogging about the early computers that influenced me.]

Astute readers may have noticed that I haven’t yet mentioned any of the video game consoles that influenced me in my Gen X childhood, and there’s a very good reason for that.

If you were to engineer a torture device for people with untreated anxiety disorder, you’d invent “games” that hint at the possibility of winning by skill but endlessly rob it from you with no save states, no endings, terrible controls, and buggy programming.

I mean, this is what we were working with:

And this:

Did I have fun with my Atari 2600 as a kid? I did. But starting there, I probably lost years of mileage on my heart and lungs yelling at shitty console games with only a few shining stars to keep my hope alive that the next one would be better.

I can list the few video games that, through a combination of design and story, may actually have contributed something to my life. Note how many of them were on consoles.

  • Eamon (1980, Apple II), which was a fantasy text-adventure you could customize.
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark (1982, Atari 2600), which had a story and an ending.
  • Taipan (1982, Apple II), which was great for trading commodities and becoming a drug dealer before Grand Theft Auto made it cool.
  • Lords of Conquest (1982, Commodore 64), which was a Risk-like game that I enjoyed playing with Norman.
  • The Legend of Zelda (1986, NES), which had a save game and a storyline plus lots of secrets to discover.
  • Wasteland (1988, Apple II/Commodore 64), which had an engrossing storyline and witty writing.
  • Wing Commander (1990, PC), which had a great storyline and fun flight sim physics.
  • X-Wing (1993)/TIE Fighter (1994, PC), both of which were deeply story-driven with great flight-sim features.
  • Tomb Raider (1996, PlayStation), which barely makes it onto this list because the archaeological visuals only SLIGHTLY outweigh the frustrating gameplay.
  • Jedi Knight/Mysteries of the Sith (1997, PC), again with good stories.
  • Outlaws (1997, PC), again with a great story and wit.
  • Metal Gear Solid (1998, PlayStation), frustrating as fuck but a great story.
  • Half-Life (1998, PC)/Half-Life 2 (2004, PC), both featuring amazing game play and storytelling as well as multiplayer fun.
  • Neverwinter Nights (2002, PC), with a great storyline and game mechanics (though the graphics were odd).
  • Knights of the Old Republic (2003, PC), with one of the best storylines in a game ever.
  • Jedi Outcast (2002, PC)/Jedi Academy (2003, PC), also with great storytelling, level design, and lightsaber physics.
  • Lord of the Rings Online (2007, PC), which may be one of my favorites of all time because of the gorgeous accuracy and absorption of the world building, as well as the enjoyment of playing with friends.
  • Portal (2007, PC) /Portal 2 (2011, PC), which are both arch and witty games with mind-bending physics puzzles.
  • Red Dead Redemption (2010, XBOX 360), which had an engaging story and a lot of fun territory to explore.
  • Borderlands 2 (2012, PC), which tells an amazing story with some of the best characters I’ve seen in a game, including THE best villain.
  • Pillars of Eternity (2015, PC), a beautiful distillation of everything that SHOULD have been good about Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale.

Also, a few runners-up:

  • Far Cry 3 and Far Cry 5, which are both gorgeous games with interesting but very problematic stories. I feel pretty icky through much of Far Cry 3, and the ending of Far Cry 5 pisses me off.
  • River Raid and Frogger on the Atari 2600 are sentimental favorites because my mother loved them so much, sitting down after dinner on the floor with a cigarette and playing them for hours.
  • Various generations of shooters (Medal of Honor, Call of Duty, Rainbow Six) were fun to play with friends until the Adderall-twitchy ten-year-olds took over.

I freely confess that my exposure to video games has been spotty and my needs are unusual: I like tinkering and exploring and fighting if it’s relatively easy. I’m not looking for a tooth-and-nail struggle in my leisure hours because that’s what real life is for.

If you’re remembering the consoles of the 80s with an abiding fondness, here’s my challenge: pick up one of the new remakes of those consoles or an emulator, and time how long you enjoy playing it.

On the whole, I’m a little like a high-functioning alcoholic. I know that I’ve lost countless hours to video games that I didn’t really enjoy while I was avoiding other things. But the good ones…they were pretty good.

My Computer History: IBM PS/2 vs. Macintosh IIsi

[I’ve been on a nostalgia trip lately thinking about the computers that influenced me growing up. They were a perfect metaphor for our latch-key generation: “Here’s a device with limited instructions. Good luck!” I know they changed the way I think, and this week, I’ll be blogging about the early computers that influenced me.]

In this entry, I’m off to college with two computers that dueled for my heart.

IBM PS/2 Model 70

Released: April 1987 – April 1993

Specs: 6MB RAM, 386DX 16 MHz CPU

Apple Macintosh IIsi

Released: October 1990 – March 1993

Specs: 17MB RAM, 68030 20 MHz CPU

In Fall of 1991, I started college at the University of Florida.

That summer, I’d sold almost all of my vintage computers (the Commodore 64, the TI-99/4A, the VIC-20, and the Apple II+) for spending money.

(Funny story, that: I called in sick to my boss at the inventory service so I could go to a Don Henley concert, and he growled that I didn’t have to show up. When I called him back a week or so later, he told me he’d fired me. That led to one of the best summers of my life, and those computers were a cheap price to pay.)

So when I arrived at UF, I was computerless (though I brought a giant box of Apple disks in case, I don’t know, I bumped into somebody who still had one).

Me in the dorm, with the giant beige box of disks on the second shelf.

That meant I had to do all of my writing at the CSE (Computer Science Engineering) building at UF, where there was a huge ground floor computer lab with rows and rows of computers.

  • About 40% were VAX minicomputer dumb terminals where you could write programs for class and browse this weird global network through something called Gopher to argue on rec.arts.nerdy about whether the Enterprise could defeat a Star Destroyer.
  • About 55% were IBM PS/2 Model 70s, almost always in full use because students seemed to know how to use them better.
  • About 5% were Macintosh II SIs, which sat off to the side or in weird secret labs around campus which was perfect for me to avoid crowds.

There were a few basic phases of my writing at UF:

  • Letters by hand, sent to woo a young woman.
  • Papers written on the PS/2 machines in WordPerfect 5.1 in Courier New font (because that’s all that would print), until I figured out that the Macintoshes were almost always available.
  • Stories written on the Macintosh II SI, deeply emo and also meant to woo the same young woman.
  • Papers written on the Macintosh II SI, all in Avant Garde font.  
  • Stories (deeply influenced by Lovecraft and Bradbury) written by hand in libraries while waiting for the young woman to finish studying her endless mathematics and statistics.
  • Stories written on the PS/2 or an inherited 486 SX after “discovering” in the Writers Market guide that you could send them to magazines you’d never heard of in case, you know, they wanted them.

I never took a single creative writing class at UF, mostly because I was terrified to be told that I sucked. I managed to write two works of meta-fiction in lieu of research papers for a couple of classes, though that was hardly playing the varsity team; those professors were probably relieved not to read turgid declarative interpretations of 17th century drama.

Though even my turgid declarative interpretative papers tried to be entertaining, at least:

In one of my classes, a student seated in front of me noticed I was line-editing one of my stories and she asked if she could read it. That started a semester of me handing us handing pages back and forth, and the result became a story called “The Trespasser” which appeared eight years later in Cemetery Dance.

(Cool story: I was a Republican back then, largely as an act of deeply repressed rebellion, and I was wearing a Jeb! t-shirt on campus one day when I bumped into my editing friend. Her face seemed to sharpen into a cone of utter revulsion, and she never spoke to me again. Maybe I deserved it.)

In 1994 before I graduated, I got “serious” about writing, which unfortunately meant reading a lot of Writers Digest books, studying psychology for characterization, and outlining a Grand Unified Theory of how I’d write my fiction. Once I had all of that in hand, I’d be ready to start.

If I could go back and give myself some writing advice, I’d tell myself these things:

  • More Irving and Jackson and King than Lovecraft, trust me. Make the situations and people abominable, not the prose.
  • Photocopy “The Body” out of Different Seasons and type it in word-for-word. Notice how scenes and paragraphs begin and end, how characters express their reactions and feelings, and how much description is required to set up a place.
  • There’s no grand theory of writing for you or anyone else. You keep typing the next entertaining thing (either a cool experience or some conflict or both) until it sounds good.
  • The model should be journalism, not literature: getting a lot of words down fast and not focusing so much on all the things critics impose afterward like symbolism.
  • It’s ugly, but WordPerfect 5.1 on an IBM computer keeps up with your typing better than the Macintosh, and the less that stands between you and the words, the better.

The Macintosh might have won, but there was no way I could afford one of my own, and the writing was pretty much on the wall for IBMs being in every office.

The advent of these IBM compatibles was really more or less the end of computing as a hobby for me. After this, it was some programming at work in Visual Basic or .NET, some assembly and repair of computers, and a whole bunch of angry video gaming.

They become appliances after that, which I rather regret.

My Computer History: Commodore SX-64 and Amiga 500

[I’ve been on a nostalgia trip lately thinking about the computers that influenced me growing up. They were a perfect metaphor for our latch-key generation: “Here’s a device with limited instructions. Good luck!” I know they changed the way I think, and this week, I’ll be blogging about the early computers that influenced me.]

In this entry, I’ll cover two computers that had some influence on me, though it was brief.

Commodore SX-64

Released: 1984 –1986

Specs: 64KB RAM, 6510 1.02 MHz CPU

My friend Norman introduced me to a lot of geeky and fannish things, but he was especially an early adopter of computers. It was like he’d been waiting his whole life to enjoy something so logical and structured and safe. He owned a Commodore SX-64.  

The SX-64 was the “luggable” version of the Commodore 64, sporting a 23-pound weight to challenge your back and a five-inch screen to challenge your eyesight. That must have been fun for spreadsheet users; it was bad enough for gamers like Norman and me.

In the afternoons following school, I’d walk over to his house and we’d play either Autoduel or Lords of Conquest on the machine, setting it on its back with the screen facing upward so we could squint at it from above. Norman’s mother would offer us off-brand soda and oranges, and those visits were a great respite in the early days after my parents’ divorce.

Norman and his family were Japanese-American, and his folks had been interned in the camps out west during World War II. His mother Mary wrote a speech about her experiences for Toastmasters that she shared with me when she found out I wanted to be a writer, and it was very well-written.

I sometimes got the sense that they thought I was more likely to share that story than Norman was, though I never have because I feel only like it was loaned to me. Still, I was honored she thought of me in that way.

It was important to me at that time, too, to see other kinds of people leading other kinds of lives because my notion of “normal” was so skewed.

Not long before I went off to college, Norman sold the SX-64 to me because, small screen or not, it had a disk drive and my regular Commodore didn’t. I somehow had it in my head that I could write college papers on the thing, but I learned quickly it was too obsolete even with an external monitor.

I did play one of my favorite video games of all time on it, though: Wasteland. For a (relatively) primitive computer game, it had a great story with interesting characters. One time I was playing it during a difficult high school tumult of some kind, and when I rescued a character from the brink of death, he said, “Let’s go kick some ass!” I was taken aback by that, but it filled me with a strange sense of hope.

I guess it just hit me the right way at the right time.

Commodore Amiga 500

Released: 1987 –1991

Specs: 512KB RAM, 68000 7.16 MHz CPU

The reason Norman could sell me his SX-64 was that he upgraded to an Amiga 500. I used it only a few times, but it was an astounding machine with the first real GUI I’d ever seen, as well as the first 3.5” disk drive and mouse.

I remember looking at the mouse and thinking how counter-intuitive it was compared to a joystick, and I thought it would never catch on. Sixteen-year-old Will thought we’d be working in Photoshop with a joystick in 2021. Also, he thought he’d be the President of the United States, so he wasn’t a keen predictor of the future.

It was on Norman’s Amiga that I first played Lemmings (meh) and Marble Madness, which I loved.

What was significant to me about the Amiga was that it was a computer that I could tell was already doomed. IBM clones were invading schools and companies, and the Amiga seemed like the last real hobbyist machine that was just odd enough to be enjoyed by a limited group of people. It would live a little longer as the source of many animated TV titles you remember from the late 80s and early 90s, helped by a device called the Video Toaster.

I guess the Amiga was my first introduction to the principle that being amazing isn’t always enough.

My Computer History: Apple //c

[I’ve been on a nostalgia trip lately thinking about the computers that influenced me growing up. They were a perfect metaphor for our latch-key generation: “Here’s a device with limited instructions. Good luck!” I know they changed the way I think, and this week, I’ll be blogging about the early computers that influenced me.]

Apple //c

Released: April 1984 – August 1988

Specs: 128KB RAM, 65C02 CPU

In my junior year of high school, I started to write more papers for English and other classes, and neither my handwriting nor a typewriter would cut it anymore. I had a Brother daisy wheel printer for my Apple II+, but it sounded like small arms fire crackling across Beirut whenever it cranked something out on its tractor feed paper.

Plus AppleWorks, one of the early word processing programs, didn’t work on my Apple II+.

Fortunately for me, our high school’s library had an Apple //c lurking in one corner by the exit doors, and the librarian (Ms. Newnan) was kind enough to let me skip my lunches and hang out there instead of the noisy cafeteria where I’d been assigned to be.

I spent that time doing homework and papers at first as part of my renewed interest in doing well enough in school to get the hell out of that town, but then it slowly dawned on me.

I could write stories on this thing.

For most of my childhood, I’d told people that I wanted to be a movie director when I grew up, thinking that was the main way that I could make stories come alive for an audience. From what I’d read about George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, I assumed that they just showed up with a story they wanted to tell and then ordered a crew and actors around to do it.

When I wrote and performed stories for my class as a kid, I usually wrote them as scripts that only I could decipher and perform, sometimes improvising on the fly based on their reactions.

Once I got to high school, I’d read enough to recognize that real stories had paragraphs and descriptions and dialogue. My interests became more literary, and my answer to the slightly-changed question (“What do you plan to do for a career?”) metamorphosed into becoming an easily-employable college professor who wrote fiction in his copious free time.

(Hey, we didn’t have the Internet then to disabuse us of our delusions. What little I saw of my guidance counselor, she could only predict that I’d end up in college or prison.)

Access to the library’s Apple //c meant that I could type my work and correct it, and that led to my first attempts at stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. Most of the early ones were fairy tale-like, but then they grew more and more solid as time went on.

(It’s interesting to me that my own storytelling evolution followed that of humans: ad hoc performances to drama to simple myths to more complex stories.)

Around this time, the show Twin Peaks had already aired its first season and I was fascinated by the idea of an FBI agent like Dale Cooper for whom emotion was an important part of his detective work. As an proto-emo kid myself, fighting evil while looking dramatically cool to girls appealed to me deeply.

So when we were assigned to write our own Canterbury Tale after reading them for English class, mine was “The F.B.I. Agent’s Tale,” not about Dale Cooper but about an agent a little more like me at the time: creative and heartsick, turning his back on the ordinary world to fight evil alone.

I packed a lot into that story, including some indecision about my future, my split interests between the artistic and the practical, and my desire to do good in the world without having to be around people too much. It had a sad ending, of course, as I perceived to be most likely for me given my high school romances so far.

It was not even close to a good story.

But it was a whole story, and I’d written it with passion from my own (bizarrely perceived) experience. I sat down like a professional, typed in the words, rewrote them as necessary to sound better and more convincing, and birthed a blobby and emotional Thing to share with the world.

It took a lot more writing for those lessons to stick, especially the one about steering toward emotion and mutated personal experience instead of jokes and gags.

I’m not sure any of that could have happened as easily if I’d written by hand or on a typewriter. I needed the friendly (to me, after all my programming) feel of a computer keyboard to invite me in, and what I’d learned about development taught me how to shape things over and over until they felt right.

I spent years afterward trying to learn the “right” way to write a story with scene and structure, character and motivation, plot points and arcs…and really, I more or less had the basic technique down in 1991. All that was left was increasing my practice and improving my taste so I knew when not to stop fixing.

The first real story of my career started because one librarian perceived that I needed a quiet place and an Apple //c more than to be in the cafeteria. I’m grateful she did.