Sunday, April 28, 2013

Clodhopping Through The Onion Patch

James Joyce once wrote, “Writing in English is the most ingenious torture ever devised for sins committed in previous lives. The English reading public explains the reason why.”

I like it when professional, accomplished authors complain about the state of the publishing industry.

I’m not talking about rank amateurs who, after several mocachino-fueled nights cranked out a young adult novel about a magical summer camp instructor who casts spells on the grotty brats under her care.

No, I’m referring to seasoned authors with multiple book contracts, agents and a rapidly growing fanbase thanks to e-readers.

Their dissatisfaction goes like this: With a plethora of publishing options including self-publishing for “indie authors” and small presses who “let everybody publish anything”, real authors are being squeezed out, pushed aside and losing potential readers.

I would support the argument that the publishing industry has grown in ways unimagined a decade ago. Surely, the rise of self-publishing and the invention on proliferation of e-readers are enticing options to some. Producing your work and getting it to readers today has changed from traditional publishing. Small presses are also popping up, offering writers another avenue to publication.
I can’t pity or emphasize with established writers who whine about the rising tide of sewage in the literature pool.

According to 19th century biologist and sociologist Herbert Spencer, the fittest shall survive, where the weak shall perish. Truly terrible writing, the kind that after reading it, you have a visceral reaction to punch a kitten in the throat, doesn’t last long. Non-professional writers who don’t take criticism, don’t listen to editors and act like snotty prima donnas always get their comeuppance. Instead of a five-book deal and an adoring legion of fans, they’re destined to return to that soul-crushing job at the Subway, picking nits from hoagie rolls and praying for the icy hand of Thanatos to rip them from existence.

Successful writers need not worry about a fickle reading public or the deluge of awful literature. Readers are always quick to criticize a book on Amazon and out truly bad writing.

This is why I’m particularly apprehensive. I read to understand the subtle nuances of the writing craft, why the author chose a particular voice for the characters and how the story unfolds. Like a gourmet picking apart the ingredients and flavors of a meal, I dissect writing. Vocabulary is especially important. I am a lover of words - a logophile - and savoring a story is like listening to a melodious symphony or devouring a box of Belgian chocolates.

When the right elements click in a story - characters, plot, dialogue - and swirl together to entertain, enlighten or amuse, I’m one happy reader. If an author can do that, capture me from the outset and take me on a journey using words, they’ve succeeded and are true masters of their craft.

I am only a pale shade, a faint apparition, compared to the great writers of today. Writers with modest successes who have published short stories, novels in several genres and who’ve made contacts in the publishing industry are to be admired.

They are truly talented, whereas my writing is akin to giving a gibbon a crayon and watching what transpires.

So many of these writers are successful because they’ve spent time developing their writing. Read anyone published professionally. Notice how elegant, lyrical and organic their words flow. In comparison to these wordsmiths, my writing is like clodhopping through the onion patch; clunky, awkward and ridiculous.

All’s not lost, though. I believe I’m making progress with my writing. Developing my unique voice, finding my niche in terms of genre, and understanding the publishing industry.

With each rejection, I glean additional insight as to what works and what doesn’t. Failure is not an option. I have stories to tell, experiences to share and insight to impart. It’s important for a writer to have something meaningful to communicate. Whether it’s stirring accounts of the human condition, a soul-searching navel-gazer or memoir about your experiences in a Lithuanian drum circle, there has to be cohesiveness in fiction. All elements of storytelling much unite in harmony. Otherwise, one winds up with confused readers punching kittens in the throat.

There has to be a method to our madness. Writing is not so much a craft as it is a coping mechanism for the insane world we live in. It’s our way of chronicling the madness and the beauty of existence. How can a planet with Beethoven, Ingmar Bergman films and mille-feuilles be the same place with Nicki Minaj, fried Twinkies and Honey Boo Boo? It’s as if life taunts us with extremes of good and bad, a tightrope walk between culture and stupidity, and we’re forced to reveal our preferences or plummet to our inevitable demise.

Reluctantly, we do, and as a consequence, are persecuted for writing our opinions.

That’s the problem with writing in this illiterate age, where discourse is reduced a series of primitive guttural grunts and shouting drowns out any dissent. People don’t give a wet fart if you write with articulate, concise conviction. All that matters is how many times your book made the New York Times bestseller lists or whether Hollywood optioned your work for a movie or what celebrity debutante mentions your book on a television talk show.

Can you imagine if Ernest Hemingway went on Ellen to promote “The Sun Also Rises” instead of getting shitfaced in a Paris brothel, then raiding the local boulangerie for croissants at 3 a.m.? Not to minimize the importance of promotion, but people remember a good drunken bakery story more than a chat with a television comedian.

So I continue on my perilous journey through this hazardous thing called writing. I might stumble, fall, or impale myself on a biro, but I’ll always stubbornly pull myself up, dust myself off, and bravely continue on.

In 1962 Jack Kerouac tried answering if writers were born or made. His answer is illuminating and insightful, as basic as a Zen koan without the pretentiousness from blog entry from any would-be scribbler.

Kerouac wrote, “It ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.” 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Boston and 24-Hour Tragedy Porn

I have an affinity and personal fondness for Boston. As a college student, I interned at a weekly newspaper in nearby Watertown, Mass. in 1990 and made frequent trips into the city. In 1993, I was enrolled in an expository writing course at Harvard University’s summer school in Cambridge, and hung out in Boston, haunted its bars, visited museums and attended a Red Sox game at Fenway Park. I rode the “T” into the city with friends and visited historic sites and Italian North End.  

Since then, I’ve visited a few times, loathing its insane motorists and its labyrinthine road configuration. Yet the city’s vibrant history, steeped in colonial America and penchant for being tough, resilient and independent-minded appeals to me.

On Monday, the world’s attention shifted to Boston as an act of violence rocked the city.
Two bombs exploded near the finish line at the Boston Marathon, killing three – including an 8-year old boy – and injuring over 170.

Boston will endure and bounce back, like it has in the past. This is a tough town, the birthplace of the American Revolution, independent political passion and New England pride. They even endured a molasses flood in 1919 that killed 21 people.

No senseless, evil act such as a bombing will dampen that city’s spirits.

President Barack Obama expressed reluctance and didn’t dub the incident a terrorist attack on Monday, called it an “act of terrorism” the following day.

But the networks and news outlets were ready with the narrative beforehand.

The 24-hour cable news networks showed their usual aplomb and deftness as the story unfolded with over-saturation and hyperbole. The ghastly footage of the bombs exploding, panicking people fleeing and sidewalks drenched in blood played in a constant loop, an endless snuff film of violent death and chaos.

How many times can we stomach video of rising flames, rushing of smoke and flying limbs?

What occurred in Boston was horrific. The images reflect that. Thanks to technology, we can capture life in real time, as visceral and as brutal as it is. Whether the images should be shown ad nauseam while excited pundits pontificate on the severity of the act, or speculate who was responsible, is debatable.

Reporters should report the news.

They should not improvise what happened, nor sensationalize with lurid details of shadowy conspiracies, international plots or disgruntled lone wolves. 

News networks decreed “we’re calling this an act of terror”. Since when did news networks have the authority to deem something an act of terror without confirmation from a law enforcement agency? Shouldn’t they wait to obtain the facts and cite credible sources before calling it an act of terror? Anything less just muddies the waters and creates confusion where pandemonium already reigns.

National newspapers reported a “Saudi national” was interrogated by the FBI, but cleared as a suspect. Authorities searched an apartment in Revere, Mass. For a possible connection, and law enforcement sources have a “leading theory” the bombs may have been packed in a pressure cooker and contained nails.

Without knowing the details as the story is unfolding, the media scrambles to determine what happened.

Details do not come in rapidly, as investigators are examining evidence, interviewing eyewitnesses and following leads. Gradually, the truth will emerge as to who is responsible and why.

In the meantime, in a quest to provide any tantalizing tidbits, the media falls on its own sword.
We’ve seen this kind of around-the-clock nattering, this idiot parade of pundits and stuffed shirts peddling mass murder as if it was a grizzly sideshow act.

We’ve seen it in Newtown, Conn., Virginia Tech, and Oklahoma City.

Airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center, shattering glass, and explosions.

Massacres at movie theaters, high schools, offices.

In the aftermath of each one of these aberrations there will always be the inevitable talking heads, agent provocateurs and partisan hacks who will spin the situation to their own ends.

Ramp up the fear! Protect us by taking away our rights! Release the hounds!

Despite the death and carnage that seems to occur on a daily basis, we must not lose heart and become cynical.

You cannot destroy what’s good in this world with spasms of violent retribution. Such calamity merely enjoins and emboldens good people, who refuse to slink into the shadows and instead shine through deeds of kindness, mercy and love. We see it with the police officers, firefighters and first responders tending to the wounded, and to complete strangers helping people they don’t know. We see it in the charitable, unselfish acts of unlikely heroes who don’t consider themselves particularly heroic, but are just doing the right thing.

Because they’re humans and not monsters.

Because life matters to them.

Because in spite of the bombings, shootings or acts of hatred, there will always be people who shun the darkness and favor the light. There will always be healers and helpers who show the world humanity’s eternal goodness.

Stay wicked awesome, Boston.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Slapping the Muse

My muse is a cantankerous old broad who smokes a cigar and cusses like a sailor. Between the shit-fuck-holy-damn streams of Tourette glory, she bestows a gift of words. A beacon of light explodes above her head, a hot electric nimbus I’m drawn to and can’t look away like a mesmerized moth staring into the heart of the sun. The muse cackles, downs a gulp of Jack Daniels and loosens her long locks, which fall around her milky white shoulders in a matted, tangled disarray. She smiles and imparts an impish wink.

Fuck if she’s being an obstinate hag today.

She bellows a mighty “Ha!”, which shakes the ground like a seismic continental shift. Thunder booms and lightning explodes and I realize she’s not cooperating. She’s keeping everything to herself and not letting me in.

Yet I sense the words hovering on the periphery of reality, bouncing up and down gleefully like a kid yearning to be let outside to play. Words, sweet and meaningful, giggling and dancing, almost daring to be released into the universe.

The muse folds her arms and stares at me as if to say, “You’re not getting anything today, my son. Nope. Nothing.”

I’m at the point of begging, of pleading on bended knee with her. Make the words come! Give me that inspiration I crave to fashion these words into something epic, something moving, something original and brilliant.

“Sorry, boy-o. Well’s run dry as the bleached cattle skull in the Mojave. Come back tomorrow when I’m in a better mood.”

She fake-yawns and stares up at the ceiling, humming an ancient drinking song once sung by the Argonauts and British sailors who died at sea.

I grab her by the collar and pull her towards me, like some gangster tough in a gritty noir film. I shake and jostle the muse, hoping words will fall from her petticoat onto the floor, and I’d scoop them up.

“Look who’s come around,” she says and emits another banshee-like cackle. “All you had to do was ask.”

She plants a sloppy kiss on my lips and transforms from Baba Yaga to Snow White, youthful and smooth, but with the same temperament and eyes of the crazed crone. She is old and has lives many lives, interacting with writers from across time and space, bleeding words onto papyrus, parchment and printer paper. From quills to Biros. The muse has been there, assuming many shapes, from sensual Calliope to a grizzled stranger sucking cigarettes on the rain-slicked Parisian streets.

The muse has been there, and will always be.   

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Proteus in Khakis

Cloistered in a third-floor office with hot-as-Hades temperatures, seated like a hunched gargoyle with sciatica in front of a computer screen is no way to earn a living.

Welcome to my world, a frustrating place of words, writing and tortured souls. Where caffeine is the love juice making the pleasure rockets in my brain fire with rapid precision, and where interviewing Neanderthals in suits who spit a well-oiled doublespeak is second nature.

I became a journalist for the same reasons others have: for the pussy and Chivas Regal. 

When the myths of a hard-drinking, wisdom-spewing H.L. Mencken or drug-ingesting Hunter S. Thompson crashed and burned, I was left with a sobering reality. 

If you’re contemplating a career as a journalist, follow this simple step:

Take a kukri and slit your throat from ear to ear. You’d be doing yourself and the rest of the multiverses a favor.

Society doesn’t need another scribbling wordmonkey with delusions of grandeur or a “nose for news”. (Incidentally, I hate that phrase. If anyone uses “nose for news” in front of me I will pierce their genitalia with a halberd.)

America doesn’t need another ink-fingered hack, penjockey or idealistic truth-demon with biased political leanings.

The media needs people who could write, and write well, and communicate what a rat-infested hellhole we’re living in before we’re up to our armpits in rat shit.

We need storytellers who can ferret out stories worth telling.

We need to expose naked abuses of power and corruption in our government and in business.

We need to get back to informing the public and not regurgitating celebrity news.

Investigative reporting is key. Knowing how to obtain, read and interpret public documents is essential.
Dealing with editors, especially ones you want to kill with a shovel, is a valuable skill. 

Learning to live in abject poverty is also extremely important. Realizing this profession won’t win you any friends and will shower you with spit, excrement and bile from people who think the liberal media is destroying their Utopian vision of 1950s America is also a plus.

In short, if you want to subsist on a diet of insults, scorn and baked beans on toast, become a reporter for a dying print publication.

If, however, you want to grab life by the shorthairs and thunder into battle mounting a 100-foot high thermonuclear robotic Tyrannosaurus Rex, write for the Internet. Be a tech-savvy guru and people will clamor for your words. They’ll lie flat, genuflecting in front of you like mesmerized devotees, begging for you to acknowledge them with a bored gaze. When your eyes do meet theirs for a nanosecond, they’ll explode with rapturous applause, and fall on their scimitars at your handsome countenance.

The Internet is not the future; it’s our current reality.

A nearsighted wombat with half a brain knows that. Print publications are deader than Pauly Shore’s career. Face it, if you’re not trucking with ones and zeroes, you’re an octogenarian shitting your Depends and swilling Ensure and barking at neighborhood teenagers to get off your lawn.

Internet publishing delivers your product to the consumer faster. It’s less expensive to produce and nearly everyone has a computer or access to one. While weekly newspapers are about as quaint as old dowagers sipping tea from bone china in a room covered with doilies, it’s just that; a thing of the past.

Writers should not be intimidated by technology. They should readily embrace it and increase their proficiency with publication and web-design software. They should know Quark, PageMaker and PhotoShop in addition to how to write a fucking news story.

But you know this. Content is out there, doing the doggypaddle in an ocean of special interest blogs, aggregated news and Asian midget porn sites. Getting someone to pull you aboard before you drown requires zen-like dedication and discipline. 

Reporters now in early 21st Century America are information machines, spewing forth data and uploading it to the masses in real time. Bring a laptop to a council meeting and write the story there, then upload that thing to the Internet WITHIN SECONDS!

Wrangle as many social media sites as you can. Twitter and Facebook are great for uploading links to your news stories or communicating with readers.

Technology has made us information-dispensing cyborgs. Smartphones bring the world to our palms and allow us to reach into the Wi-Fi gyre and allow us to be heard.

Everything is connected. Take your words into the greater void and don’t look back. It takes imagination, creativity and perseverance to put yourself out there and tap into that unknown. You’re not just writing for a few hundred people anymore. You’re writing for millions. Anyone with Internet access can find you and consume your words.

Give the world something to feast on.