Decoded: 1977 Devil’s Tower Incident

Hello! Glad you could make it out tonight after deciphering the simplest invitation we could lower ourselves to imagine.

While our scientists teach you a “basic tonal vocabulary,” we’re sending a real message encoded on this frequency that will probably take you half a century to noodle out.

First, thanks for loaning us these humans for our longitudinal qualitative study of your species. Sorry and no hard feelings for any scare or inconvenience we caused.

Truth be told, many of them were tedious guests, turning away from our tour of a sublime and wondrous universe on the viewscreen to ask if we had any “snacks” or where they could “get laid.” The little girl was okay, and this recent little boy, and it goes without saying that the dog was the best of the lot, a very good boy.

All this leads to our second message, which is that your planet is fucked.

If we thought you could understand our raw findings, we’d share them with you, but suffice to say that we’ve observed staggering assholery of both the accidental (greed, self-interest, delusion, ignorance) and purposeful (murder, rape, war, intolerance, exploitation) kinds during our study. Unfortunately, it’s impossible for you to tell them apart because the purposeful assholery is causing the accidental.

You have weeds in your garden, but they look exactly like the crops.

Not that you’d notice, because you’re terrible stewards of that garden. But you know that and don’t care, which is why we’re coming back in half a century to pick up your bauxite from what we assume will be a smoldering cinder.

So try not to fuck up the bauxite, at least.

We’d hoped to pick up a small group of your most perceptive souls by summoning them with dreams and visions, but the rest of you blocked them from coming.

Which is so much the story of humanity that we should have predicted it.

We’re left with this one guy, though his eagerness to ditch his family gives us pause. He’ll serve as a good enough representative sample to preserve the memory of your species.

Well, it’s getting late and there’s only so long we can dazzle you with flashing lights and music before you get bored and start shooting us.

Best of luck, and remember to save us some bauxite.   

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!

Forever is Composed of Nows

My friend and publisher Steve Berman has started a new online periodical called Bachelors, and the first issue includes my story “Forever is Composed of Nows” among other good stories by people like Nick Mamatas and L.A. Fields.

The magazine, as you may discern from the cover image, is of particular interest to gay readers, and my story has a gay protagonist.

FAQ about my stories with gay protagonists:

Q: Are you…gay?

A: What’s it to you either way?

Q: Well, it makes me wonder if you’re, like, writing from the heart or jumping on the lucrative Big Queer bandwagon that’s driving down our reproductive rate in direct contradiction to the Lord’s insistence to fill a quiver of blessed crusading children.

A: Wow, you’re a weirdo and that’s not a question, but let me address it anyway in four bullets of escalating emotional importance:

  • The protagonists of my stories tend to be unusually perceptive and aware and imaginative outsiders wondering what to do in a world full of assholes…a struggle of particular pertinence to the LGBTQ community by ugly necessity.
  • In some of my stories such as “Acres of Perhaps” and “Forever is Composed of Nows,” I needed a particular kind of outsider with a particular kind of perception who would have a particular kind of emotional experience, and a straight person just didn’t fit because they can take too much acceptance for granted.
  • Though I wasn’t particularly homophobic as a kid – I got teased for being “gay” even though I wasn’t – I probably wasn’t the kind of person any of my closeted friends would have come out to without me being weird(er) and awkward(er). I want to be more welcoming now.
  • Many of the people I deeply care about identify as queer, and some of my stories are gifts to them.

Q: What do you know about the queer experience?

A: Not enough, but then, I don’t know enough about anybody else’s experience, either. I try to be a good ally to my friends, and for some reason, I identify strongly with people who don’t always feel safe being themselves. I don’t need a cookie for that.

Q: That slowly moving cottage in “Remembrance is Something Like a House”…

A: Totally gay.

That One Time I Tried to Be Inspiring

Ten years ago(!), I graduated from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA program, and I was honored to give a speech on behalf of my fellow graduates in Popular Fiction. I tried to be inspiring about writing our kind of fiction, but nobody stormed the Maine statehouse, so I guess it was a failure.

I think a lot of it still applies. Here’s what I said:

You know, there are days when I seriously doubt my writing will ever be as good as it was when I was seven, chasing the dog around my yard with the Millenium Falcon yelling “pyew! pyew! pyew!” I lived so much in stories then — talking to stuffed animals, looking for hobbits in the woods — that I was barely distinguishable from schizophrenic.

Don’t worry – I’m better now. Thanks for asking.

I suspect — I hope — that’s how it was for many of us graduating this evening, and I’m sure there are people out there in the audience who shudder to remember the symptoms of our madness: all those plays, skits, puppet shows, poetry readings, magic performances, comedy routines, concerts, and oh-so-many long-winded stories.

Don’t forget to thank them tonight. Or, you know, apologize.

Whatever forms it took then and takes now, we’re all crazy. We hear voices just like any hobo yelling at a mailbox – the only difference is that we know you don’t start a scene with dialogue. Most of us have lost any hope of pleasant neighborhood barbecues because we talk too much about the seas of Titan or the Manson family or the birthing habits of dragons…or all at the same time. People worry about us, and I think that’s a sure sign we’re doing something right.

I came to Stonecoast, perhaps like you, to learn how to be intelligently and usefully crazy. For two years, our wonderful mentors have shown us how to hold madness in asbestos gloves just long enough to get it on the page. We’ve studied the masters. We’ve critiqued the work of our peers. We’ve filled our mental toolboxes with structure and meter and point of view. We’ve discovered that the best writing is risky and dangerous.

We’ve learned, in other words, how to do it “right.” And, God, how I needed that.

But the worst thing that could happen after Stonecoast, I think, is for us to let all the intelligence and usefulness we’ve learned to overcome the crazy. It would be terrible to lose all we’ve learned by trying to hold it too consciously, failing to trust that the voices of our teachers and our friends will come again when we need them.

Because that madness we share, that reckless abandon, is really our only hope of making something wondrous. It’s the fuel by which we get out of our minds —  risking our comfort, giving ourselves away, revealing the feelings that most people don’t. All that’s left is to decide whether we’ll get enough out of our minds to escape the gravity of ordinary life, and whether we’ll achieve enough lift to take others with us.

It’s easy to call what we do escapism, and I certainly don’t deny it. Stories of ghosts and spaceships helped me escape a harrowing youth to be sure, and I see all too many things worth escaping as an adult, too. I don’t think escapism is a bad thing, especially when we’re escaping the tedious patterns of existence, the prejudices that confine us, the fears that estrange us from ourselves.

Either people can be as noble and adventuresome and intelligent as they are in our fantasy stories, or they can’t. If they can, then our “escapist” fictions are the experimental conscience of our culture. If they can’t, then our “escapist” fictions are the last refuge of the human spirit from the coming darkness.

Either way, people are counting on our ability to escape. They’re counting on the demented and relentless verve we had when we told ourselves the stories as if nobody was looking. Art is never stopping short, and if it is worth doing at all — worth the dedication of our lives — it’s worth overdoing, right?

School’s out, my friends. Go play.

The Laddie Fancies Himself a Poet? Not Really.

I’ve been going through my writing archives and compiling a master document of preferred editions of my work. It feels like we’re all one reckless cough away from death, and I hate to leave a mess to clean up after I’m gone.

Early in my career (like, 1998-early), I sometimes wrote poems with ideas that didn’t quite sustain a whole story. Here’s one that I’m trying to decide if it should go into the omnibus.


Biscuits
Waiting for biscuits, crunchy butcher-sweeping goodness in a box!
If I watch the baby, I’ll get biscuits.
            Don’t let criminals get the baby.
            Don’t lick the baby and wake her up.
Watch the baby until Mama gets home from the supermarket.
She’s bringing home biscuits!

Smoke
Seeping from the laundry chute in a gray, billowy thundercloud.
Keep the baby safe from smoke.
            Smoke comes from fire.
            Fire could hurt the baby.
Get the baby from the crib and run.
Save the baby!

Fire
Sparkling, flickering, melting fur and tail with red-orange fingers.
Keep running down the stairs
            Don’t stop because of your burning tail.
            Don’t stop because of your simmering lungs.
Run outside away from fire.
Save the baby!

Fault
Burning through my fur and
PRIMARY SYSTEMIC FAULT IN LOCATIONS
           0010 0000 0E00 008E
           00E0 08E0 0880 0000

BACKUP SYSTEM ONLINE
Run through the door!

Door
Get through door without hurting baby;
Find Paramedic
If no Paramedic then Fireman Else Policeman
           If WATCH BABY then BISCUITS Else BAD DOG
     ERROR LOCATION 08E0

Stop
Place baby on ground gently, like a puppy.
INITIATE PRIMARY SHUTDOWN
     AUDITORY INPUT SUBSYSTEM
          VALUE = “Good boy! We'll take care of her now.”
BISCUITS? Y
SHUTDOWN.

Confessions of a Fiction Writer

It’s taken me twenty years of writing fiction to admit this, but I hate fiction.

Don’t get me wrong: I love lying, I love making things up, I love sharpening and blunting the corners of reality with my words.  

But I’m deeply uncomfortable with the arbitrary structures that are supposed to make good fiction like Freytag’s Triangle, the Hero’s Journey, and all that Save-the-Cat bullshit. Also, disembodied third-person storyteller voices narrating from Beyond can go fuck themselves; who are you and what’s your angle, pal?

Give me a good hoax any day. Give me a wobbly unpredictable story made of fake newspaper articles or letters or lab notes or journal entries or police accounts or depositions, and I’m with you all the way.  

(Ever wonder why so many of my stories are told in the first person and/or woven together from found objects? It’s not JUST because I suck at exposition.)

For some reason, I have the heart of a forger, so my fiction tries to explain its own existence as something other than fiction. It might have to do with discovering horror non-fiction as a kid before the made-up kind, haunting the section of the elementary school library with the books about ghosts, missing people, and UFOs that were supposedly true.

One of the greatest compliments I received for my work is the undergrad at ICFA who asked me after a reading of “Night Fever” if I planned to write any more stories about this amazing Charles Manson character I created.

(Maybe it shouldn’t be.)

The trouble is that I forget this all of the time, and there’s a phase of my writing where I grind hopelessly at a “normal” narrative wondering why it doesn’t feel alive to me. Eventually I remember to flip the con man switch – thanks, Dad, for the bullshitter genes! – and I start to enjoy the work a lot more, imagining how it will affect a reader.

That’s the key to a hoax: it has to involve empathy, extending your emotional reach to imagine what would convince other people. You can use that for evil, selling shares in things that don’t exist. Or you can use it for weirdness, convincing readers that a balloon has made it across the Atlantic like Poe did.

I use it for weirdness because it isn’t fun unless the audience eventually enjoys the artistry of the hoax.

That’s why I’m so compulsively and bluntly honest in the real world: most lies are boring.

Ice Breaking for Writers

You’d think after twenty years of various kinds of teaching, I’d have inured myself to ice-breaking activities at the starts of classes and meetings, but no, I still don’t like them.

There is a slug-like creature deep inside me who would rather lurk at the edges of a gathering and judge the people there instead of participating. That creature, too, curls and twitches when exposed to all of the ordinary ways that people get to know each other.

For me, an icebreaker would be, “Who here has ever experienced something science can’t explain?” THAT is how you get to know people, going straight to their crack-pottery.

Yet I know that they’re a necessary evil, and the true reason I don’t like them is the same reason that the slug would rather ooze: entropy is easier.

So it is with returning to writing day after day, another endeavor that requires icebreaking. For me, there’s a huge mental or emotional barrier before getting back into creative work, but knowing that doesn’t make it easier to get through.

What’s nice – though not required – from a writing session for me is absorption: getting back inside the thing so that I can look back out through its eyes again, able to intuit what feels right to do next. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it flow, but George Saunders has a metaphor that makes better sense to me: an eye doctor flipping through the lenses to feel which is better for the total vision.

Getting to that state is difficult, but I’ve come up with a few tricks:

  • Open a file, read a little of what I wrote before, and tinker with a few things that don’t look or sound right to me.
  • Ask myself a question in writing about the work in progress (sometimes as simple as “What the fuck is going on?”) and then answering also in writing.
  • Open a new document and paste in the parts of the work in progress that I am certain I want to keep, leaving the iffy ones in the old version.
  • Write a photograph I don’t have, describing a place or a person or a feeling from my past that hasn’t been otherwise recorded.
  • Write a Postcard Story based on some image I find (though I seldom have energy to write the original thing once I finish one).
  • Type out a passage from a work I admire in a similar voice or point of view (first person, third person) to get a feel again for how prose flows. Sometimes I’ll type in a passage from my own work.

All of these are on-ramps to getting back into my work, and there are countless passages in my journals where I leave them half-finished to go back into the story that has suddenly returned to me.

This is where I’m supposed to say that writing isn’t always fun or easy, but I’d guess that even plodding ahead is a kind of icebreaking, albeit slow and painful. And with so few pleasures to be had from the publishing of writing, why shouldn’t you make creating it as enjoyable as possible?

My best work has come from “tinkering,” the word that best describes the low-pressure experimentation that’s required for me to create.

I build stories the same way that Roy Neary built his model of Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, one smudge of mashed potatoes at a time.