Friday, September 26, 2008


Apparently my previous post was a tad alienating. Forgive me. That will probably happen sometimes. I tried to make it relatable in some way so that it would entertain those reading it as much as it entertained me when I experienced it. Perhaps I should open the floor and see what you might like to read...

Suggestions are welcome and, depending on who they come from, sexay!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

HUMILIATION II: Returning the Favor!

Three years after my professional de-pantsing at the hands of my peers, I returned to the writing workshop that nearly ended my aspirations a changed man. The past few years saw a significant shift in my writing style as I finally found my “voice,” that elusive aspect of any decent writer’s stylistic approach.

Without a voice, we fail to distinguish ourselves and wind up throwing empty sentences onto blank paper, baffled over why our soul-less work isn’t being hailed as the NEXT BIG THING.

I took the one essential criticism to heart and drew from my own experiences. I still wrote science fiction and dark fantasy, but the former would soon be abandoned in favor of a literary approach to a more flexible genre. I now inserted more of myself into my work.

The workshop was different this time around. Last time there had been nineteen of us not including special guests. This year there were only eight. Only one of this year’s crop of would-be writers was someone I knew and he was the one who had insulted me most.

When I first arrived that year he and I somehow hit it off and he offered to give me rides when I needed them since I didn’t rent a car. I spent the first few days hanging out with the strangest guy I’d ever met in my life. That’s possibly still true today. I will refer to him here as “Frank.”

Frank was gangly and sickly looking. His head seemed over-large and his mouth appeared to grow sideways, giving him the appearance of a permanent grin. His hair seemed splattered onto his head as if with a fresh coat of paint and the less said about the bizarre shape of his uncannily skinny body the better. To gaze upon Frank was to be deeply disturbed. To find out he was a child psychologist was to be frightened, and to read his short stories was to descend into the type of madness reserved for characters in vintage horror stories involving mad scientists.

And this was the guy who criticized me harshest. He even compared my writing at the time to schlockmeister Harold Robbins, drawing disgusted and astonished looks from the others in the room. I eventually found a much more normal guy to hang with during the duration of that trip.

As I said, Frank was there for the second go-round too. Times had changed. The Internet was in its infancy. I was far more confident in my abilities and myself. I felt like a contemporary of the others in the room and, even better, I wasn’t the youngest attendee this time!

Being such a tiny group, we bonded rather quickly. At least, six of us did. Frank still stayed to himself and maintained his status as weirdest MF in the universe. His stories were just as bizarre and unsettling as they had been three years ago.

Did I mention this was guy who had criticized me most harshly? Ok, just checking.

As the five of us, four males and one female grew closer, as united in common cause. Frank’s stories were so offensively oblique and self-referential that being forced to read them was like serving time in a Gulag during the height of the Cold War.

We bonded over those stories, the five of us. The sheer pain of trying to decipher this crazy universe Frank had created, replete with odd references to parallel universes, adult characters with childish ways of expressing themselves. And in the tradition of insane writers the world over, he wrote these psychotic tales in a manner that implied it should make as much sense to us as it did to him.

For the first time, I sat with a group of people at a roundtable and struggled through someone’s writing. We each took turns pointing out oddities and other things that made the stories not work and incomprehensible, at times in tears with laughter over the absurdity of it all. The irony of having become one of those who’d ridiculed me three years ago. There was a difference, however. I’d never showed anything except support for the others that year and had never diminished a person’s style with an unfavorable comparison.

The five of us sitting at that table were literally and literarily being subjected to a horrific and disturbing experience; the only way to deal with it was through laughter.

Each of us had to submit three stories apiece to be critiqued and then rewrite one of them. My story was generally well regarded but it, like the previous one, was a first draft in need of revision. Frank’s story was too inside, too isolating to be rewritten. During the second and final week of the workshop, we finally let him know how much suffering he’d inflicted.

We each took turns critiquing. I said his stories seemed like a peek into the mind of an insane person and although this was a science fiction workshop, I never for one moment believed the protagonist wasn’t hallucinating. I also said no one seemed to relate to each other in normal human ways yet everyone seemed to have insight into what was going on. In short, his stories were like a Beware of Dog sign, meant for looking but going no further.

From there, my buddy who I shall call Herschel piggybacked off my commentary with examples of dialogue. He said it was obvious Frank was a child psychologist because all his characters spoke like kids. Hearing Herschel read that dialogue in a Leave it to Beaver type voice still makes me crack up when I think about it. But the best was yet to come.

Our female member, who I’ll refer to as Evelyn, took a slightly different approach. She was an attractive, intelligent and very sarcastic woman; just the sort that would intimidate the H_ out of a guy like Frank. And the best part was she retained sweetness when she verbally castrated him.

She looked at him, smiled sweetly, and said, “Frank, I’m sorry but I just don’t get your stories. When I read them, I feel like I’ve walked into one of those bizarre European art films where there’s a clown and confetti and people are laughing for no reason and the camera just keeps spinning and spinning and…would you stop laughing?”

“Sorry,” I said. “That image…it’s…” I buried my face in my hands, as did Herschel.

The professor in charge didn’t defend Frank any more than he had defended me. Although, he did provide a detailed accounting of Frank’s “concept,” as they had been working together to make it workable for years. That much time invested implied to me even then that it was never going to work but I said nothing.

Before the conclusion of the workshop, there was a party. Frank did not attend it. In fact, Frank left sheepishly that day, his defeat a palpable force. I felt bad but at the same time vindicated. As that kid on “The Simpsons” once said, “That’s why God invented hazing.” This isn’t Romper Room where we all make each other feel good, this is a creative field and those who alienate their readership need to re-think their approaches.

Frank wasn’t the only one we “lost” that summer. Another member decided he was no writer and gave it up as well; content, he said, to be a fan. He was right. He was not a writer.

For my part, I received mostly positive feedback on my work that summer and even won the coveted “Best Rewrite” award. I was also praised for having shown the most improvement in three short years the professor had ever seen.

I have yet to see more than one of those nineteen people from the first workshop in print. Maybe I should take a look at their first drafts~

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Rejection is easy, what about OVERCOMING HUMILIATION?

It was an intensive writing workshop specializing in science fiction and I’d paid over a thousand dollars to be there. I was in my early twenties, completely out of my element, and I’d dropped quite a bit of money to endure utter and complete humiliation.

Nineteen aspiring writers, all in different stages of their creative development, took turns slamming my short story until I thought I was going to simply keel over and die to avoid further embarrassment.

My gaze tracked along the Socratic circle of writers, taking special note of the more smug among them, each laughing and adding their witty quips to the running commentary on my story. Strangely, the well-respected and oft-published professor in charge of this workshop didn’t say a word; I felt as if he were the guard after hours at a junkyard allowing the pitbulls free reign to devour an intruder. Looking to him for help, I realized how alone I was in this strange state.

The story was my homage to an Outer Limits/Twilight Zone type concept updated to include cosmic conspiracy theory and its effects on humanity in present day. It was overly ambitious and beyond my abilities at the time. Apparently, that was a good reason to make fun of me, which all of my so-called “colleagues“ took to with great relish. I’d already been feeling out-classed and overwhelmed by the talents of the mostly older people around me, now I reached a conclusion that filled me with a great sadness: I was no writer. I was a fraud, an upstart who thought he had a talent he did not. When this workshop ended, I would be returning to Michigan to hang up my pens and paper. I would never write again.

If only I didn’t still have a week to go.

I retired to my room that night and tried to come up with a way to exchange my airplane ticket for an earlier departure. It was over. I’d tried and failed and been humiliated by people who should have known better and it was over.

But then, a funny thing happened on the way to oblivion. In the parlance of our times, I decided I wasn’t going out like no punk. That story had been written three years previously and in no way reflected the newer work I’d done. We were charged with doing one rewrite out of three submitted stories and as I told all who would listen, mine was chosen for me.

That night or possibly the night after, the editor from a large publishing house who was one of the humiliators threw a party. At that part he announced that he felt everyone in that year’s workshop was a writer.

“Even me?” I said in a tone dripping with resentment.

He looked at me and smiled affectionately. “Even you, Chris. You just need to live and suffer a little more.”

I was blown away by that. He was right, of course. I was still a kid and was drawing from what I'd seen and read instead of from direct experience. I took that epiphany with me to the computer lab and used it to rewrite my short story from an entirely different perspective. The night of the party some of the other writers apologized to me for their comments, especially when they realized what I'd brought was a first draft. My understanding was we were to bring works in progress, not work we felt confident in submitting to publishers.

"Wow. That was pretty good for a first draft," one of them said. "My first drafts are usually incomprehensible."

Asshole, I thought. Some people would say the same of your second, fifth and tenth drafts.

When I brought in my rewritten version, it was completely different. Where once the story had involved an idealistic reporter's search for the real story of mankind's creation, his wife dragged along for the ride and his ultimate betrayer, the streamlines version merely hinted at the conspiracy. Instead of hitting the reader over the head with ancient aliens and secret cave bases in the desert, this one concerned a Deep throat type informing our hero of the real deal and being met with total skepticism. It isn't until the final pages that the reporter sees something by accident that convinces him of his source's veracity.

Most of them hailed it as an incredible rewrite and much better than the first. One guy, the golden boy of the professor's eye, still greeted it with disdain. But for the first time I noticed something in his eyes: jealousy. The bastard was jealous! He was supposed to be the edgey one.

From that point on, my writing took a whole new direction as I slowly found the voice that had been trying to make itself known for so long. I returned to that workshop three years later and was told by the professor that I had shown the most improvement in a short time he'd ever seen in his life.

Good thing he didn't save me~

Saturday, September 13, 2008


There are heroes, and there are the rest of us. There comes a time when you just let go of the ghost of the better person you might have been."
-John Burnham Schwartz, author of Reservation Road

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


A reader recently asked me on my “Thoughts on Vonnegut” post which writers I would place in my list of the top writers of the Twentieth Century. It was a good question and, this may surprise you, not one I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating.

The question and ensuing debate sparked off an interesting discussion and who am I to ignore a reader’s request, especially when it provides me with an idea for a blog post? The reader in question mentioned a top five but I don’t feel confident providing a list of anything less than ten important writers.

So, if you will indulge me, here is my list of the most important writers of the previous century and what made them so damn important:

(In no particular order because I am too lazy to rank them)

KURT VONNEGUT- My reasons are listed in the previous post, but to briefly recap: He is my literary savior, the son of mankind who came at just the right moment to show me the true path to writeouesness.

HARLAN ELLISON- Definitely not known for his pleasing bedside manner, Mr. Ellison is one of the greatest living writers and he knows it. His cockiness works for him, though. In many ways he is the prototype for the angry, self-loving pop star except he deserves it. With an electric prose and an unfettered imagination, Ellison is constantly reinventing science fiction’s tired conventions and taking lesser writers to task. Gene Roddenberry still hasn’t been able to rest in his grave.

RAY BRADBURY- Whenever I’m asked the name of my favorite writer, Bradbury’s name always comes up. Simply put, he is the master of all things speculative. Prior to Vonnegut, Bradbury’s technique and approach showed me how to allow my imagination to have free reign over my inhibitions. Nobody can match his love of life and ability to see into the most mundane of things a universe of infinite possibilities. Cool speaking voice, too.

CLIVE BARKER- Even as early as the mid-Eighties, Stephen King was so successful that it seemed as if no one would ever come along to challenge his throne as horrormeister. Barker not only challenged it, he surpassed it in significant ways, a fact readily acknowledged by King himself. Barker’s stark, raw approach to horror was not simply a reworking of classic themes. Barker created new concepts of horror that were so disturbing and vivid they were incomparable to anything else on the market. Not only is he conceptually brilliant, but his actual writing style is alive and evolving, combining old English sensibility with New World immediacy.

ROBERT ANTON WILSON- As Yoda once said, “There is another.” Just when I thought Vonnegut was the only anarchist worth reading, some kid at a job I had years ago mentioned “The Illuminatus! Trilogy” by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea. He was seventeen and couldn’t stop raving about the book. Later I found out he only read a few pages of it and abandoned it in favor of some other trend that made him feel hip and intelligent. I stuck with the book, however, and was amazed at its scope and depth. I have since read other works by Wilson, both fiction and non, and have continually been impressed with this brilliant scientist turned editor turned underground writer.

WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS- Naked Lunch, anyone? No? But I shaved! Fine, whatever. I guess we’ll just discuss the best gay writer of his generation. Burroughs was not only gay, he was also a junkie. From these two marginalized lifestyles emerged some truly powerful writing. Burroughs was a master at observing everyday life and capturing moments like a snapshot, a gift only one other writer I have read possessed. His prose went from free form to painfully constricted depending on the era, but always there was a disconnection from humanity that compelled me to keep reading.

ERNEST HEMMINGWAY- I’m not a fan of Hemmingway’s. I find much of his writing overly macho and painfully self-indulgent. His themes are often pretentious to the point of nausea, but the man gave us one undeniable gift: Minimalism. Before him, nobody had ever so effectively used less to say more. Without Hemmingway, we might not have had the cryptic stylings of Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane. And we certainly wouldn’t have had the novels of JD Salinger and even, possibly, Kurt Vonnegut.

DON DELILLO- Whenever a writer forays into surrealism as a method for portraying the alienation of modern existence, they are inevitably compared to Delillo. Practically unknown outside the field, Delillo swings back and forth between urban disconnection and primal scream therapy while never losing sight of his rich, complex characters. What Cormac McCarthy is often wrongly praised for, Delillo delivers with the regularity of an assembly line machine with a soul. “Libra” and White Noise” alone are enough for bragging rights but he doesn’t stop. That’s a good thing, by the way.

OCTAVIA BUTLER- Science fiction was once a field dominated by men, until we found out many of those men were women with abbreviated names. Once that secret was out, the next hurdle was writers of color, especially women. Octavia Butler proved black women could not only write science fiction, but write it beautifully. Her poetic narratives underlie some truly tragic and painful subject matter and never once was she preachy. A sad day when she left this mortal coil.

STEPHEN KING- The literary establishment loves to dismiss him. College instructors love to just plain diss him for his enormous output. Conservatives reader love to classify him as a demented weirdo in league with Satan or just plain amoral. Those of us who have actually sat and read King's work with an open mind see right through those false perceptions. King is a genius with incredible storytelling gifts. His dialogue leaps off the page, his ideas are brilliant and his narrative is unmatched in its ability to draw the reader in to the most seemingly uninteresting thing as if it is utterly fascinating. A huge influence on my work.

I would love to make someone's list some day....

Monday, September 8, 2008


I was first introduced to Kurt Vonnegut in a Literature class. I’d just recently taken a creative writing class and was feeling all read out when I stumbled into yet another room designed to make me interpret fiction as I saw fit…within reason, of course. I certainly couldn’t have turned Moby Dick into a homo-erotic metaphor for a man’s self-loathing regarding his own sexual identity.

OK, I probably could have, but we didn’t read Moby Dick that semester. Our instructor, an attractive woman who seemed to take quite a fancy to a certain young, aspiring writer with the chest span of a Greek god, and she was more concerned with teaching us contemporary lit. Come to think of it, maybe that’s what the class was called; Hard to remember between all the years and magic marker fumes that have occurred since.

This was a summer class so we had to read and discuss seven novels in as many weeks. Among them were “The Ballad of the Sad CafĂ©,” “Being There,” Seize the Day,” and Vonnegut’s “Slaughter-house-Five.”

Having spent two semesters in intensive creative writing classes filled with loads of interpretive fiction discussions, I tended to shine above the others in the room when it came to the more esoteric novels. Soon people wanted to join my discussion groups, assuming I would have the “answers,” as if there were any. Of all the novels we read, Vonnegut’s had the greatest impact and is to blame for everything I have done since.

Until then, I’d never actually thought of anarchy as a literary tool of self-expression. My early and mostly sad attempts at writing short stories were often abysmal descents into meandering, clichĂ©’-riddled trick endings and great reveals. It was as if P.T. Barnum and Rod Serling made love and miraculously gave birth to…M. Knight Shaymalan? Hmmm. More on that in a later post, methinks.

For those unfamiliar with “Slaughter-House Five” (And shame on you) the novel is a loosely connected series of stories involving a man who finds himself “unstuck in time.” Employing a fascinating blend of wartime commentary and quantum physics theory, Vonnegut has his protagonist jump back and forth through his own lifetime to pivotal and mundane moments and not once does he save the world like Sam Becket from Quantum Leap. The novel itself is Vonnegut’s way of dealing with the horror of what he witnessed as a POW during the World War II allied bombing of Dresden.

My imagination was a time bomb now triggered to explode in all directions at once. Sadly, I was the only person in a class of nearly thirty who understood the book. In fact, my classmates were in awe as I provided my overview of Vonnegut’s masterpiece, some of them making that face that, as they got older, would become the look of the clueless yet somehow superior idiot with the SUV and secure home-life. I harbor no delusions that this made me a brilliant student in a sea of inferior intellects, unlike my instructor who I really think had a thing for me. I just think the average person is either incapable of or hasn’t been trained to think outside of their comfort zones.

I never had a problem with that, but I don’t think I was very good at it until Vonnegut’s sparse and direct prose showed me what I needed to be doing. It wasn’t an easy or short process by any means. I’d already spent a few years copying my favorite writers who, as I grew to mimic their styles well, stopped being my favorite writers. One must stumble before indulging in ballroom dancing, of course, and so I find it necessary that I imitated mediocre talents on my way to establishing a voice of my own.

Once the class ended and I was free to choose what I read, I ran to my local bookstore and started going through Vonnegut’s rather sizable collection. My instructor and I had discussed my newfound favorite writer so I had a good idea of which books to read first; namely, nothing she recommended. I didn’t want the academic picks, I wanted my own. During the class I’d actually purchased and read “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater” and loved it. Vonnegut’s ability to discuss taboo subjects such as going to the bathroom and masturbating in such cold, dispassionate sentences freed up my on writing inhibitions.

Over the years I would purchase a Vonnegut book as if it was an event, waiting months and sometimes even a year before purchasing another. I spaced it out so it took me over a decade to read his novels and short stories. Along the way I learned about the man as well.

That, I believe, is the mark of a great writer as opposed to an author who just cranks out populist books that make good movies of the week. Not that there’s anything wrong with the latter, but is the former that will be remembered in the final moments before the sun goes forever dark.

Vonnegut broke so many literary rules with his writing he wound up creating new ones to be broken. One of those rules he broke involved not injecting oneself directly into the novel. He did just that time and time again, once even inserting his actual self into “Breakfast of Champions, the main inspiration for my novel. Writing is and should be a form of therapy, and that particular book dealt with Vonnegut’s own sense of his mortality and getting older. It is one of those rare novels I can re-read at any time.

One of the rules Vonnegut indirectly created says that if you, as a writer, decide to inject yourself into the proceedings, make sure you keep yourself at a distance and don’t actually become the story. I have now broken that rule. Any good work of creative fiction is built on some measure of self-indulgence. Any great work of fiction is admittedly so.

Without Vonnegut I might never have learned that important and lasting lesson. I might still be taking myself much too seriously and imitating forgettable writers. I might never have been able to look inside myself and see the ugliness and the beauty and I definitely wouldn’t have been able to tap into them in equal measure. What Vonnegut taught me without having ever met me was to, as objectively as possible, observe the human condition without losing the human connection. Not enough writers have learned this lesson and the world of fiction suffers because of it.

With Vonnegut’s passing, the world of letters was dealt a massive blow. He was the last of a generation of groundbreaking and innovative writers. Recently I found a copy of his final book, “A Man Without a Country” at a Borders Outlet store in hardcover for $3.99. I’d read it when it came out but have been reading pieces of it over the past week as if savoring this final running commentary by my favorite writer. The book contains two ironies:

Vonnegut came out of his semi-retirement because of what he perceived as a horrible direction being embarked upon by the Unites States.
His final book was the best glimpse into the mind of Vonnegut ever printed.

Vonnegut died the way he lived: Cynical, disillusioned, agnostic, and funny as hell. When my time comes, I hope I can say I created a body of work a tenth as brilliant and influential~

Suggested Reading List:

Breakfast of Champions
The Sirens of Titan
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
A Man Without a Country
Cat’s Cradle
Mother, Night

Deadeye Dick

Let me know when you've read those so I can submit a new list. You have one week!

Wednesday, September 3, 2008


(Disclaimer- this version may or may not be exactly the same in the final verison of the novel)

Ned wakes up and is surprised to find that he’s not tied up this time. In fact, he seems to have full range of movement. Somehow that fails to bring him comfort, however, especially when he realizes where he is.

That realization fills him with a disconcerting certainty that this is intended as the end of his road.

“Sick sons of bitches,” he mutters.

He walks deeper into the pervasive darkness, carefully avoiding debris as he locates the old desk. Oddly, obscenely, much of the work he’d left on it that Friday has managed to survive the melee of the following week. To his right, a gigantic hole in the side of the building shows him the beautiful, star-filled sky outside. It almost seems like a tease.

But the sky can wait until he finds Ernie.

I’m no help. For this moment, I am no more than a reader my only consolation is the presence of the man in the gray trench coat.

Ned stumbles over a pile of rubble as his eyes try to adjust to the darkness. He refuses to allow the waiting barrage of questions in his mind into the forefront of his consciousness. His whole life has been spent asking questions with no answers. The fact that he hasn’t gone stark raving mad is a testament to his incredible willpower.

It is this very willpower that carries him through the dark room, around the various holes in the floor, and to the exit.

The hallway is just as dark as what remains of the Complete Maintenance office. He calls out for Ernie, fully aware that he’s probably being heard by the two freaks that brought them here before.

I turn to the man in the gray trench coat to ask him if he can find Ernie and, without a word, he vanishes from my sight. I’m glad he’s here to help me. I need to stay with Ned. If Faceless shows up, I’m the only one who can do anything substantial against him.

Ned heads instinctively toward the elevators. They don’t work anymore, of course, but there’s no other way off the third floor. The other side of the building, where the emergency staircase was, took the brunt of the explosion since that that’s where the boiler was located.
Two escape strategies occur to him:

1. Pry the elevator doors open and shimmy down the cable a la Bruce Willis in the first Die Hard movie, or
2. Take his chances with the ready-to-collapse-any-minute staircase.

As I mentioned earlier, Ned weighs less than me, so for him option number two sounds more appealing and possible. He turns away from the elevator doors and heads toward the staircase. He makes it to within two paces of his destinations when, amazingly, the elevator doors start opening.

Ned doesn’t need an explosion of purple neon in the sky to tell him who it is.

Neither do I, which is why I “stand guard.”

Sure enough, Faceless emerges from the supposedly non-working elevator. He pauses as if frozen. It’s impossible to tell what’s on this thing’s mind-if it even has one-but I get the feeling it senses me in the vicinity.

Ned musters up some bravado. “You again, huh?”

Faceless turns toward the sound of his voice.

“I guess we might as well settle this man-to-mannequin,” Ned says.

He places himself in a defense posture, or at least my idea of what one looks like. Faceless tenses, fists clenches at his sides. I notice the look on Ned’s face and catch onto his plan. Maybe I can help him out.

Tensing my spectral muscles, I prepare for what comes next.

“What are you waiting for?” Ned taunts. “There’s a hole down there with my name on it!”

Ned makes a move toward the staircase. Faceless springs into action with me right on his ass.

Ned side-steps the creature’s advance and, for an instant, it looks as though Faceless might
actually maintain his balance. Then I plow into the back of him and he goes flying onto the staircase.

Ned doesn’t hesitate to kick at one of the loosened bolts, each blow reinforcing the rage and hatred in his eyes. The staircase whines its final resistance to the repeated kicks as the entire thing starts breaking free of the pole and wall to which it is attached. Faceless grabs onto the edge of the floor mere inches from Ned’s feet. One more second and he might pull himself back up.

But Ned doesn’t give him that chance. He kicks his hardest one final time and the staircase breaks loose with a screeching, grinding explosion of sound.

But I hear another sound, too. One I don’t think Ned can hear. It is a high-pitched, non-stop noise that I’m pretty sure is the Faceless Man screaming.

I lean over and watch as the staircase crashes to the floor and tips over so that the top most part falls right into the hole in the lobby. Faceless goes in first, quickly followed by the rest of the staircase as gravity forces it into the hole. When the dust clears, I can see that it has become entirely covered.

Ned lets out a victory howl that scares the shit out of me.

“Didn’t think ol’ Neddy had it in him did you?” he yells.

He doesn’t notice the weakened floor beneath his feet. When it gives out, my hand passes right though him. I watch, helpless, as Ned falls toward the third floor lobby...