Yesterday, I took Edgar to the vet because he hadn’t eaten in over twelve hours and seemed lethargic. An X-ray found fluid around his lungs again (as in June) and we decided to drain it again. Edgar perked up after the procedure but went into cardiac arrest very quickly afterward. He died around noon while I was on a conference call two miles away.
I write more obituaries than anything else these days, it seems: my mother, my father, Norman, Nori, human society. I’m getting pretty good at it despite (or maybe because of) the basic selfishness of the task: “Look at me! I understand this person completely and can taxidermy them forever in words!”
I’m tired of being a literary taxidermist, but words are the only interesting way I express feelings.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t filming the bike ride I took yesterday after Edgar’s passing when, distracted and out of sorts, I squeezed the gear shifters instead of the brakes and smashed into a trash can at 15 miles per hour. It’s hard to beat the eloquence of being thrown into the middle of the street and landing on my back as a metaphor for how I feel about losing Edgar.
Maybe my reluctance to get up is even more eloquent.
I don’t much like living in a universe that finds it necessary to take Edgar away after only nine years. It seems petty. It seems small. You’d think one cat who happened to like rubbing against my face as though I was his favorite could get to live a little longer, but here we are.
Edgar was a wonderful cat with a lot of personality who loved people (but maybe me a little more). He yelled in the mornings and the evenings to be fed, and also sometimes randomly during the day like a mental patient arguing with the couch.
He groomed the other cats and Sylvia if they’d sit still. He glowered at us defiantly when he used the litter box. He shook his dry cat food in his jaws like he was trying to break its neck. He slept on my legs at night, or sometimes on top of the TV receiver or the laundry.
On the Thanksgiving after my mother died, he made sure to console each person around the table one by one.
He was, as we like to say about animals, a good boy. He was also (to me) a companion unlike any I’ve had, a constant source of love and encouragement: as long as I kept the kibble coming, I was still okay in his book.
I’ll miss him terribly. And I’ll miss who I was to him.
First let me say my hat is off to you. That’s an ambitious achievement requiring the cooperation of hundreds of conspirators, and you’re clearly putting your Six Sigma project management certifications to good use. If you weren’t a black belt before, you should be one now.
Or a BLUE one, am I right?
Our demon prince is up by four million votes nationally, but it’s of course absurd that you’d have forged that many votes.
No, you were far more devious.
You convinced an innocent but adventurous foodie at the Wuhan wet market to eat a particularly sick-looking bat. Maybe you used a gun or just a nice orange pepper glaze, I don’t know.
With a worldwide network of agents, you guided the spread of the ilness to your ultimate target, the United States.
There, the virus ran rampant and set up the chess board for your ultimate objective: a population worried enough by sickness to cast a large number of plausible mail-in votes for your manipulation.
But first, you needed the ultimate unstoppable candidate: an elderly milquetoast Washington insider with an unambitious legislative agenda and some slightly creepy behaviors toward women’s hair. Just, you know, to keep it plausible.
A candidate like that required the support of deeply angry and radical people, so you stoked the fires of racial hatred by encouraging the only ten racist police officers in America to act out their fantasies as visibly and violently as possible.
The ensuing protests unfolded in your perfectly orchestrated ballet of support for the only candidate who could truly advance our socialist agenda of white extermination: Joseph Biden.
You could have stopped there, but the cherry on top was finding a Black female prosecutor who will one day take the reins of government and drive our national chariot into total communism.
All you had to do next was generate thousands of ballots in a half dozen key states, each printed specially for a particular voting district.
Then, offering day-old sandwiches from Jimmy John’s, you hired a hundred mentally-ill homeless people (also across six states) to carefully color in the correct circles for Joseph R. Biden.
Luckily, you had a sharp-eyed QA team checking each one and beating homeless men when they kept trying to fill out Jo Jorgensen by “accident.”
When it was all over, you herded most of them into a tunnel of rotating blades and rendered them into a delicious beige slurry for IAMS. (Net profit: $1.4 million.)
To cover your bets, you blackmailed several programmers hired by Siebold to embed pro-Biden glitches in the code of electronic voting machines. Luckily, the project owners were NOT Six Sigma-certified like you are and could not find the inserted code.
Election day almost went exactly as planned, but those plucky Trump voters managed to pry themselves from their sweat-soaked recliners to vote. We always underestimate the courage and conviction of the simple, God-fearing folk and we need to stop doing that.
So you had to bring in our crack teams of vote fraud specialists, already poised in the likeliest states for razor-thin margins: Georgia, Nevada, Arizona, and Pennsylvania.
You quickly printed more mail-in ballots for the inner city voting precincts from a company we later firebombed for total deniability.
Then your teams completed more ballots, sealed them, postmarked them with machines stolen from the post office, and slipped them unseen into the voting count centers while descending from wire harnesses.
To show their total commitment to endless silence for the cause, those teams then severed their own tongues and cut off their own fingers so they could never reveal their role.
Finally, after several days of completely smooth counting hidden away from the gaze of the entire world, our ballots tipped the balance to the dark prince was declared victorious.
It staggers the imagination, comrade. There will one day be statues in your honor, big concrete ones two hundred feet tall with stern jawlines.
But today, you must die and take your glory with you.
One minute you’re tweeting your perfectly reasonable advice about getting over race and gender in this country, and the next, you’re hiding your Porsche in the garage from a fusillade of socks soaked in warm vomit.
Man, this job would be so much better without the fans, am I right?
The good news is that you still have the house, the car, the second house in Sundance, a current passport, and enough money to go completely Charles Foster Kane on their asses. You can hole up in Xanadu and let them gossip in awed tones about the cool mysterious things you’re doing (playing video games in your underwear, writing poetry, and learning to carve scrimshaw from YouTube).
The bad news is that you’re going to have to lie low for a while. That’s not a terrible thing; some people have done their best work in exile. You’re no Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, but celebrity is KIND OF a life’s work, too. This is your chance to take a breather, let the career inertia fade, and then choose any new path you want.
Nobody is asking you for another painful movie about the characters you’ve come to resent. Nobody’s asking you to say your catch phrase or write another song like the last ten.
You’re free. Put your feet up and enjoy your time in the penalty box.
Here’s the thing to remember: America is where generations of (primarily white) fuck-ups came to escape the mistakes they made in other countries. We’re all predisposed to a good comeback story because there’s a deep guilt in each of us for the one thing we wish we could do again better.
But first comes the sacrifice of the Designated Sinner.
Someone has to go in the Wicker Man every now and then to burn for our cultural sins of racism and sexism and homophobia and genocide and all the other shit, and this time — just like the guy in the movie — you kind of deserve it.
Really, it’s an honor. They don’t put Paula from Accounting in the Wicker Man. If you’re worth bringing down, you’re worth something. Hold on to that.
So here’s the plan.
Spend the next six months letting yourself hit rock bottom. (Men, switch to wearing denim shorts and those adventure sandals that strap around your heels. Women, shave your head. Sorry, I don’t make the rules.)
Then have a photogenic meltdown in a public place. Throw a cup of beer at a toddler during a baseball game. Threaten a flight attendant for not letting you smoke. The point is to show everyone you suck as much as they think you do.
Next, take two years to work on whatever thing you love (your comedy, your novel, your solo album) until it is the best you can make it: emotional, soulful, and above all, penitent. If you have to, get help from someone who actually has feelings.
Then begin the apology tour. One of the late night hosts will almost certainly let you on the show, and that’s where you can tell the world what you’ve learned…and the beautiful thing you’ve made to express how sorry you are.
What HAVE you learned? Well, it would be wonderful if you could say (plausibly) that you’ve listened to the people you’ve hurt to make amends. If you can’t do that, you’ve at least learned to shut the fuck up about things you don’t know much about, right? That’s almost as good.
Slowly, you creep your way back into the tribe by letting people feel good about forgiving you.
Luckily for you, we all have exactly six active slots available in our brains for grudges…and your egregious replacement just logged in.
(Trump ascends to the stage holding up a small plastic aquarium.)
Can you see that? I’m not sure you can get that on camera. If you look real close, you’ll see there’s a thing swimming around in there about the width of my thumb and maybe, what, a foot long? Something like that.
Anyway, me and the family went on vacation a couple of years ago to Bali — beautiful place, by the way, the best service on the planet — and while I was practicing some dives off a rock cliff, the larvae of this little guy wormed its way into a scrape on my knee. I’m told they do that, look for holes.
Turns out that this is the Greater Balinese Brain Fluke, a trematode that laps up cerebrospinal fluid like a deer at a mountain stream. Loves it. Loves it so much that sometimes it makes a comfortable little nest in the brain of a human host. Kind of like that thing from that Star Trek movie. Beautiful movie, by the way. “Khaaannnn!” I love that part.
Anyway, this little fella set up shop near the amygdala on the left hemisphere of my brain and just started pumping away, kind of like a little fist. Like this. Just squeezing away, drinking and growing and secreting like all God’s creatures.
Wait, wait. Don’t get up. I’m getting to the point.
The amygdala, as we all know, is the breaker switch for decision making and emotional reaction, and, well, you might have noticed something a little strange about me these last few years: word salad, vindictiveness, impulsive behavior, all the classic signs. Even then, it wasn’t until I started getting the migraines and those weird sniffles that my doctor ordered a CT scan that found my little friend curled up in my skull like a puppy in a little basket.
Long story short, we had a surgery yesterday and this was pulled from my nasal cavity by a very nice Indian doctor. They’re some of the best in the world, I can’t recommend them highly enough. This guy’s great for all kinds of things, not just brain flukes.
And then my staff showed me the tapes of what I’ve been saying and doing, and holy shit, I owe all of you a huge apology. Huuggge. I wasn’t even supposed to get this job, much less turn it into this shitshow. It’s like that brain fluke made me say the absolute worst thing in every situation to make it even more horrible, like a shit-seeking missile.
That’s on me. But I do have to say that I’m a little worried that nobody noticed the symptoms of a Greater Balinese Brain Fluke splashing around in my brain this whole time. What more would a guy have to do or say before any of you said, “Holy shit, this isn’t Alzheimer’s or syphilis but clearly the ravages of a parasitic trematode”? It’s kinda my brand to be an asshole, I get it, but come on.
Jared? Ivanka? Mike? Nothing? You didn’t notice? Jesus wept.
So tonight, I’m here to ask for another four years because those first four didn’t really count. When you think about it, the brain fluke was really the president and I was just kind of like the suit it was wearing for a long, long Halloween.
What I can promise you is that my next term’s grift and bullshittery will return to the normal thresholds you’ve all come to need and expect from Washington. That’s why these new hats have the slogan, “MAKE AMERICA LESS OBVIOUSLY AWFUL AGAIN,” and you can buy them from any of the merch tables lined up in Melania’s Rose Garden.
We’re also selling the pale-veined satin lapel ribbons for Greater Balinese Brain Fluke Awareness because damn, you people need to learn the difference between politics-crazy and brain-fluke-crazy.
When you do something for years with only marginal success but many more days of painful trudging with no apparent benefit, you start to wonder if it’s time to let it go.
Even if you once loved it.
I’m a 47-year-old man, and it’s hard not to think that if I was going to get any better at this, I would have by now. I don’t even know what “better” means anymore, now that I’ve watched so many of my peers discover that success isn’t that…successful. Certainly not for any length of time, anyway. You grind and grind for a quick flash of glory, and then it’s someone else’s turn in a cycle that’s shortening with every passing year.
If I could plot the dopamine flow, there would be a spike before (in anticipation of a good session) and one after (relief for having survived it), but a long deep trough in the middle. That can’t be good.
As the great philosopher Rogersicus the Elder once wrote, “One must know when to hold them and then also when to fold them,” and I think it’s time.
I’m of course talking about running.
Wait, what did you think I was talking about?
Five years ago, I started running to Mordor by tracking my mileage to Mount Doom. It took me two years and 1,700 miles, but I did it. Since then, I’ve logged enough for a total of 4,030 miles – about the length of the Amazon River. I’ve run 5Ks, 15Ks, and half-marathons. I’ve run through Epcot and along the beach and over a treacherous bridge (four times).
But I haven’t had a run in nearly nine months that ended with me feeling great like they used to, and while nothing worthwhile is joyous 100% of the time, it shouldn’t suck 90% of the time, either.
I bought a bike about a month ago for cross-training, and I’ve enjoyed it like being a kid again. It’s rapidly becoming the thing I want to do, and I’ve learned to follow those instincts.
I’ll still run from time to time; it would horrify me to miss the Gate River Run, and I have a couple of 5Ks that I signed up for months ago that they’re running in socially-distanced waves. And it’s possible that I’ll come back to it again after a rest.
It’s hard to know when grinding is good (building your stamina and ability) and when grinding is bad (exacerbating injuries and making it impossible to fully recover), but I think it does us all good to know we can quit even the things we love.
I get asked from time to time what books I’d recommend for writers. This is a little like being a pharmacist who gets asked, “What drugs do you recommend for mammals?” The truth is, I have no idea where you are in your career or what’s wrong with you, so it’s hard to tell you what can help.
In the spirit of the right tool for the right job, here are my recommended writing books in little lists based on when they’re useful:
“I have no idea where the fuck to start”
Stephen King’s On Writing, which every relative will buy you at least once, isn’t a bad book for getting started, especially in a blue collar sense of making it a job instead of a magical mission from God.
Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction is an excellent guide to the basics of short story writing. It gives you a nice set of training wheels for your first couple of stories, helping you gather what you need to know to make a work feel complete.
David Gerrold’s Worlds of Wonder is also a good launching point for understanding the mechanics of fiction, though don’t get too hung up on the word “mechanics.”
Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing is a strong push to dive headlong into the subjects that matter most to your heart, though I think ol’ Ray makes it sound easier than it is.
“I wish I’d come back from the future to give myself the books I ACTUALLY need to get started.”
Stephen Koch’s The Modern Library Writers Workshop would have saved me actual years of blundering around, and it is the closest I’ve ever found to a complete guide to crafting a story of any length from idea to rewriting.
Kit Reed’s Story First: The Writer as Insider is a recent discovery, but it too would have superseded probably 85% of the other books I read that only gave me fragments of how to write. This one resonates very much with my particular style of composition, the “put on a character’s face like Hannibal Lecter and role-play a story” method.
Dreyer’s English, by Benjamin Dreyer, will help remediate everything your English teachers got wrong.
“Jesus Christ, I’ve got to step up my game. I can’t keep selling stories to Vampire Dan’s Story Emporium forever.”
Samuel Delany’s About Writing contains several great essays that are the stern talks you need from an honest professor about what it takes to make your writing worth the effort.
Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook is a fabulous guide to writing fabulous fiction, full of weird and intriguing illustrations and charts and prompts that lead you away from writing the dopey ideas at the top of your (and everybody else’s) head.
Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story not only provides some excellent things to say at parties about the importance of fiction to the human consciousness, but it ALSO delivers practical advice for flipping the right switches in the right order to appeal to a reader.
“Oh, shit. I have to care about practical stuff as a writer?”
Starve Better by Nick Mamatas is the straight talk from a worldly mentor you desperately need for facing the business of writing.
Booklife by Jeff VanderMeer is perhaps one half step behind the marketing curve since it was published in 2009, but it is still the best guide I’ve seen for finding communities who will enjoy your work without seeming like a mercenary douchebag.
“I kind of wish I’d never heard of writing.”
Jason Ridler’s Fxxk Writing is surprisingly inspirational for a book that suggests maybe you’re caring a little TOO MUCH about capital-W “Writing” as your heroic, identity-making avocation.
Given his personification of “resistance” as an active negative universal force working against your heart’s work, Steven Pressfield may seem like something of a crackpot. His book The War of Art, however, is an important kick in the ass we all need from time to time to demystify our difficulties.
[It’s hard to know what to say on Mother’s Day anymore now that mine is gone, but this is the best thing I’ve ever written about her so I might as well share it again.]
A few years ago after we discovered that neither of my mother’s surgeries nor her radiation had stopped the tumor growing in her brain, a chaplain came to visit her bedside in the hospital.
He asked some delicate and insightful questions to figure out her religious beliefs, something that with her was a moving target, and she explained that she’d been raised Lutheran but saw the truth in all faiths. He asked what she expected to see after she died, and my mother said, “The Rainbow Bridge.”
The chaplain, a little surprised, said, “You mean Valhalla?”
My mother narrowed her eyes mysteriously and said, “Some might call it that.”
She then explained that what she expected from the afterlife is to cross the Rainbow Bridge you see mentioned in veterinarian’s offices when pets die, and that on the other side, every animal she ever loved would be there to greet her, all rushing and tumbling and barking and meowing.
On November 3rd of 2017 at 2:15pm, my mother crossed the Rainbow Bridge with all of us around her.
My mother met my horrible father when he locked the doors of the basement of the Lutheran church they attended and wouldn’t let her leave unless he kissed her. They were married when she was seventeen, and when she complained about the smell of his cigarettes, he hit and harangued her to start smoking, too.
The cancer that got her spread from the lungs.
We took my mother to see Fantasia 2000 on the IMAX screen when it was released, and when those giant whales the size of city buses swept onto the screen to Respighi’s “Pines of Rome,” she leaned far back in her chair with her eyes wide and yelled, “Holy shit!” to a theater full of children on a school field trip.
When we moved down to Florida, my father wasn’t sure whether to open a hardware store or a bookstore, but he chose the bookstore because my mother could plausibly help him run it. Like me, she could never tell the difference between metric and Imperial tools and never gave a shit.
What she did give a shit about was making sure that our bookstore sold Dungeons and Dragons even when Southern Baptists were wringing their hands about it, and she made sure that I had a copy because that’s what she’d heard all the other smart and imaginative kids played. I read them in the backroom of that store along with Sherlock Holmes and Choose Your Own Adventure and books about ghosts.
She made sure I had as many Star Wars figures as we could afford, too, and we saw all three of the original movies together. I took her to see The Force Awakens and she bragged to a total stranger that she took me to see A New Hope when it came out.
I was wondering how I’d get her to the theater to see The Last Jedi before she died.
My father left my mother for another woman when I was thirteen, and I was surprised that my mother was depressed about it, spending most of her nights after work reading alone in her room. To me, it was like the fall of the Empire.
When my mother met a fellow social worker named Larry Hall and they fell in love, I wasn’t happy. He seemed too dreamy and irresponsible, and it took me years to realize that’s just what she – and all the rest of us – needed.
She lived two decades married to him, and they were a complete but happy mess, having my brother when I wasn’t so sure they could even take care of themselves, opening a doomed antiques business, inheriting hundreds of thousands of dollars from my grandparents and spending it all in three years, joining spiritualist churches and giving psychic readings and going to festivals about rocks.
They were almost always broke, almost always under-employed, but man, could they talk to anyone and everyone about anything. They were both endlessly curious about the world, and they drew the strangest people to them because they never recoiled from anyone.
Because of Larry, my mother got to live in the open again and not just in her books. They were an inspiration to anyone who lives beyond the so-called “normal” world.
When her strength was failing, I told my mother that I wasn’t sure what I’d do now without her around to impress or scare with my writing. She was always my best audience, the one most fun to entertain or shock.
She shrugged and said that was just a mommy thing, doing that.
I gasped in mock offense and said, “Are you saying you pretended to like my stories?”
She cough-chuckled and shook her head and said, “You know I’ve always been proud of you.”
There’s no question that I’m the son of a father of great darkness, and I told my mother more than once that I’d trade my existence for her never to have met him. She said she wouldn’t, not mine or Karen’s or Karen’s daughters, either.
I’m the son of a man of great darkness, but I’m also the son of a mother of much greater light. She was his first abused child at sixteen and he kept at it for 22 years, but she never gave up on angels or books about dragons or crystals or seances or ancient Egypt or playing River Raid on the Atari and Kirby on the Game Boy. She never gave up on goodness, even when she had to squint pretty hard to see it.
I’ve lived my whole life in dread of what my father gave me, and I’ve never appreciated enough what my mother gave me, too: the power to resist that dread and that darkness, to make it funny, to see it and nod but go on anyway even in sneaky ways with a few fellow saboteurs in enemy country.
She knew what goodness costs, and that it is always worth it.
That chaplain who came to visit asked my mother if she wanted to pray for anything, and we clasped hands so she could. She asked to see all of those animals, and she also wanted her children to remember that when she died, they’d never be alone again.
Each week in my newsletter, I do “Ask Will Anything” where I answer a reader question. Aimee P. of Jacksonville, FL asks:
Other than just doing it, where did you learn the most about writing?
Thank you, Aimee, for your tough but fair question.
I decided I liked writing in the fourth grade, right around the time that E.T. came into theaters and my teacher Mr. Clark read Where the Red Fern Grows to us. I realized that people actually made stories and that I could do it, too, and Mr. Clark let me read/perform my stories to the class each week.
I didn’t take an actual class in writing fiction until my freshman year of high school, and I got a D in it because I was too afraid to submit my work and threaten my great “potential.” I took no creative writing classes as an undergrad either, mostly for the same reason. I considered an MFA program at UF back in 1994, but I was told with a sniff by the chair that “we don’t DO genre fiction.”
So almost everything I learned about writing came from books, especially these:
Samuel R. Delany’s book of lectures and essays About Writing, which contains a lot of wisdom about going beyond simple competence and trying for something special in your work.
Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction simplified the process of writing stories in a way that seemed workmanlike and do-able to me.
Stephen King’s On Writing does a great deal to demystify the process of writing, too.
That’s what I needed most: someone or something to tell me how to lower the stakes of writing so it was easier to take risks and experiment while doing it instead of being such a fundamental part of my identity.
In that way, I’m grateful I didn’t seek formal writing education until much later on. I went to Clarion in 2006 when I was 33 and the Stonecoast MFA in popular fiction in 2010 when I was 37.
It’s hard to say which had more impact, though it’s probably Clarion. That was my dark night of the soul: after submitting some terrible stories and receiving some (perhaps excessively) harsh critiques, I realized that I had to either commit to ruthlessly judging my own writing (not being satisfied with merely doing it but with doing it well) or give up altogether and get out of the way.
My MFA from Stonecoast was also extremely useful. Clarion is a sprinter’s education, belting out a short story a week for six weeks. Stonecoast was a marathon where I wrote my first completed novel, and I’m grateful for people like Jim Kelly and Liz Hand who led me through to the end.
The upshot of my long answer: go where you are encouraged to write and told honestly what you can improve.
My biggest regret is that I didn’t write more sooner, and I almost wish that I’d majored in journalism or communications because I would have far rather learned to get words out on demand than how precious and wondrous they were from my literature major.