Monday, December 30, 2013

How I Happened: Ancestry and Infancy

Photo once again courtesy of dedicated oaf wrangler Deborah Kuchar.

(So in conversation with my shrink, I realized that she didn't have a clear map of my life, especially in relation to my state of mental health. I think I'm going to try and construct some kind of therapeutic autobiography here...)

When the missus met my paternal grandmother for the first time, she turned to me on the drive home, and said, "So you don't have any sane grandparents."

"Pretty much," I said. Things tend to get diagnosed more often on my dad's side of the family, but both of my grandfathers were alcoholics, as were both of my parents. My paternal grandfather died of heart failure in a psychiatric institution. He had grown obese while institutionalized, probably a result of his medication. Of course, he had been locked up for getting naked and saying he was Jesus, so there's that side of it. My other grandfather had been reported dead by my grandmother, who told me dozens of different stories about the alcohol-related incident that had taken him when they lived in the Philippines. My cousin has since found evidence that he actually moved to Japan and had another family, who does not wish contact with us. A friend of my mother's spotted a photo of her father with his best friend. My mother's friend had been an MP in the Pacific theater during World War II; he pointed at my grandfather's best friend, and said, "That son-of-a-bitch was the biggest diamond smuggler in Southeast Asia."

I have always felt as if I were a cross between my two grandfathers. They are nameless and faceless to me, and they will never go away.

My grandmother would certainly have been diagnosed with OCD and depression if she'd been diagnosed. I have been told that from time to time she would tell third parties, in an ominous tone, that she was the only one who really understood me. This suggests to me that people knew there was something up before I did, and that she may have had more dramatic symptoms than she let people know about. She maintained a reputation as eccentric rather than crazy. Her most visible oddity was her devotion to Christian Science, which, sorry, Monitor, is a cult, and is just as whacky as all get-out. Lots of religious fanaticism on both sides of the family, and I think religion disguises a lot of nuts, don't you?

My mother also suffered from depression, which she treated with alcohol and denial. She began drinking heavily in her early teens, and stopped just before her death when it became impossible for her to hold a beer can. From time to time during my childhood, she would erupt into a self-righteous speech about how she would never drink or smoke during pregnancy.

I have been diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome.

My mother feared her mother. When I was engendered, she kept the news to herself for a while. She was nineteen then, and had no real direction, and wasn't married. So for the first part of the pregnancy -- I know the next statement is true, though I have no evidence for it aside from myself -- she sat in her room, smoking and drinking. At first she didn't know, and then she was in denial.

Finally, she told my dad. They fled the state, they married, they travelled cross-country in the company of a working con artist, and my mom had me in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, because that's where you go when it's fucking February. She claimed to have been too broke to eat during the weeks prior to my birth.

People who are red-headed tend to be sensitive to stress. All my gray hairs were once red. People who are left-handed tend to be sensitive to stress. I've got some weird issues from having been switched from left- to right-handed.

There's a theory that left-handedness results from stress experienced by the mother during pregnancy. It sounds silly to me, but I have an affection for that theory.

My family moved back to the Bay Area. I lived in San Francisco for a couple of years, and then we settled in Richmond. I was a precocious child, talking at an adult conversational level by the time I was nine months old. So if you were in San Francisco during the Summer of Love and you had an encounter with a talking baby?

That wasn't acid. That was me. I toilet-trained myself -- my parents would find me naked under my crib every morning. Finally my dad found me crouching on the toilet bowl in the middle of the night when he got up to pee. He tells that anecdote as a horror story. It's pretty good.

My current therapist has suggested that my early development may have been a reaction to my environment.

My parents were too young to have kids, and too drunk to have kids, but thankfully they had three of us, so I had a reason to keep my shit together. It has only been in recent years that I've come to realize that I was damned close to being a feral child. I was not raised at all. I just happened. My parents provided for my needs, but as for education and guidance? Nada.

Or, rather, jokes and non-sequiturs. My mother could get herself interested in teaching us imaginary words, or learning to pick up oranges with our feet (I'm actually grateful for that one, monkey feet are useful), but as for training in everything from grooming and manners to maintenance of health?

Especially the latter. Because of her Christian Science background, my mom thought the thing to do with a sick kid is make them feel guilty.

I had to go to a writer's workshop to learn that you're supposed to keep something in your stomach if you know you're going to throw up. I tore a hole in my stomach because I didn't know that. I could have stayed out of the hospital if I'd known that. That is the level of ignorance I face in myself. I do not know how to operate my damned body, let alone negotiate the world. I may as well be from Mars.

But since I was so clever and articulate? Nobody noticed. When a small child is fucking with your head because they've become prematurely existential, you don't notice that they think butter is a food or bullies can be reasoned with or that they read while walking.

So at this point, I've got some heredity going on, I've got a terrible prenatal situation, and I'm being raised by negligent, drunken parents. And yeah, I got beat some.

But all that was okay. I was happy, functional, regarded as a tiny wonder by the adults in my life.

It was public education that screwed me up.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

What's Going On

Too tacky to use as art, but how often am I holding a camera when a pelican launches itself?

When I started this blog, it was intended more for self-amusement than anything else. After a while, I noticed that it was a very handy means of tracking my moods and mental states. But as I've gotten more in the public eye, I've been reluctant to simply hop on the blog and put up a post that says, "I'm feeling crappy because I'm an inferior specimen."

And that's why I haven't been posting much in the past months.

In 2010, I reached a crisis point. I was hospitalized after vomiting blood for three days. This was a stress reaction rather than a gastrointestinal issue, and I was inserted into the public health apparatus. It was disastrous; I was given powerful, addictive, inappropriate medications for just long enough to develop dependency, and then denied them without warning or preparation. They crapped me out of the system without ever telling me what they were doing.

At that point, dealing with my psychiatric issues became my number-one priority in life. Not to go into the (infinitely fascinating) clinical details at this point, but while I am a gentle, peaceful man, I am drawn from the pool that produces killers and suicides, and when I turn that will on myself, blood flows. On one hand I am a bit of a hypochondriac, always wondering if any particular symptom has come to stay or is indicative of further unpleasantness to come. However, there is such a thing as pscychogenic disease, and I get psychogenic diseases like crazy. If I am sufficiently unhappy, my body falls apart, and that is less of an exaggeration than anyone likes.

But, as I said, dealing with this became my primary occupation at the end of 2010. The missus very generously arranged for me to consult with a good therapist who has taken me on for free. Because she's a generous and committed person, of course, but also because I'm a fun client. We have a very relaxed, unconventional therapeutic relationship, and it's worked out very well for me. She isn't responsible for my therapy, but she keeps me focused and in touch with reality, and there have been times when her guidance has proven invaluable..

Up until last spring, the course of my work went very well indeed. My shrink says she's never seen improvement like that before, and I reply that I'm turning my artistic skills on the medium of myself. But  there's a concept called 'the healing crisis.' This can take a lot of forms, but what I'm dealing with is perspective. I've made a lot of serious progress, tackled issues I'd thought unconquerable. I'm not scared of gatherings of people anymore, I'm not overwhelmed by crowds. I'm developing some real affection for myself, and have reached a point with my self-care where the missus is no longer worried about leaving me at home alone for extended periods of time.

And that's been the problem right there. I've gotten well enough to get a clearer view of how I look from the outside, and Jesus. It isn't as simple as just being messed up. Every psychiatric issue I have is connected to some unusual mental or spiritual gift. This isn't typical, it's something out of a story rather than a textbook, but there it is.

Last spring I was finally facing the idea that I might have to apply for SSI and Social Security and so on. And it started getting to me. It wasn't the only thing, but it was the extra thing that was getting to me. I have had people telling me to do this for years, I had even been contacted by a homeless outreach program and began the process at that point, but I'd let it go.

Among other things, my shrink spent a long time working for Social Security, evaluating cases. She was one of the people who decide who deserves a check and who doesn't. So when she told me, very seriously, that I needed and deserved disability income, I had to take her seriously.

That was when I started losing weight. By early summer, I was down to about 180, which is light for someone my size. Anything less than that is clinically underweight. That was when I got into a dipsy-doo when an old friend of mine decided to perform class realignment surgery on me, and move me from the bottom one percent to the top.

And I found out that I do not belong there. I had the privilege of doing some interesting, challenging work there, but work turns out to be the least important thing when it comes to fitting into the world.

I had never understood that before. I always assumed that the work -- whatever it was -- was the most important thing, when actually getting along is the most important part of getting along.

I don't get along, and I don't go along, and that is how it is. I cannot act effectively except under the dictates of my will and principles. Not a goddamned thing to be done about it. It is a matter of both nature and nurture, and it has determined the course of my life through infancy, and now I'm nearly fifty years old and it's just dawning on me why I never was able to fit in, and it is a problem that will not be resolved.

Assuming it's a problem. When I explained to my dad the nature of my dilemma, he said, "Well, I'll take the blame for everything else, but I take the credit for that."

And I have been told by a number of people that a big part of my problem is that I live in the US, or even just in the wrong part of the US. In a country with either a more progressive educational system, or a comprehensive health care system that might have picked up on my psychiatric conditions in high school or even elementary school, things might have been different. As it is, I got PTSD instead of an education, and I didn't get that diagnosed until it almost killed me. On the other hand, I might have been born under conditions where I couldn't get glasses, and that might have croaked me in childhood. Woulda coulda shoulda, but shit.

So the stress is currently settled in my neck and shoulders. If the pain is bad, I can't sleep, and I sit up, and my neck gets better. When my neck gets better, I can sleep, which makes it get worse. The pain was located in my right side for a few months there. It got better. I got the pukes, and was up all night. The next night I slept like a baby, and woke up with the pain back again, only this time on the left side.

And that's where I'm at right now. Chronic pain that hasn't been looked at by a doctor, irritability, loss of appetite, loss of interest in activities, etc, etc. I have begun the process of applying for disability, and that's one of the sources of my current malaise. It's forced me to actually recognize that my condition isn't something I'm going to just shrug off one day, and that my life of semi-poverty is growing more and more difficult for me.

So that's the bad news. But there is good news.

First off, even though I'm at a low point in my personal cycle, I'm still a lot better off than I would have been even a year or two ago. I've accumulated enough of a sense of self not to be completely overwhelmed by this.

But that is weak good news, "Well, you still have your thumb," good news. I have real good news.

My years of stewing at a slow simmer seem to be paying off. The fact of the matter is that I haven't heard of anyone with my fucking career arc. Every time I have received any notice regarding my work, my response has been to freak out and go back to practicing even harder. And my work is getting out into the world anyway.

Who gets approached by a gallery owner for their first show? Who else has a publisher come up to them and say, "Hey! You! Start writing!" I mean, I went from "I should try to push this novel on agents," to, "I'm not going to read your outline because you had me with the proposal," with absolutely no effort on my own behalf. My first professional sale? The editor found me at a workshop. (Viable Paradise, and it was WONDERFUL.) The only thing I've done on-purpose was start reading (my own work out-loud to audiences), and that has taken on a life of its own. Basically, my 'career' has been a string of benevolent muggings induced by friendship as much as anything else.

Right now, if I do something, and I like it, it gets produced on a professional level. Sometimes I do it myself, sometimes I work at the Big Fancy Corporate level. Right now, I am operating within sniffing distance of public broadcasting, which is as close to a respectable cultural institution as our sorry nation currently features. I've gotten the kind of approval from the kind of people that I really wanted, and I don't need to prove to myself that I'm a real artist anymore. I ain't the best in the world, but I"m good enough and I'm getting better.

And right now I am working on three projects that have me engaged, excited, and hopeful.

My second novel, Helping Henry, is a development of my stories published in November of 2012 as part of the collection We Are Now, currently available from your ebook retailer. It's a consciously commercial volume, intended to please and enrich an audience rather than perform surgery on myself. I'm just about done with it, and the response from my writer's groups has been more positive than for anything I've ever written. And it was written at the request of a publisher, so it is coming out. I even get to do the cover, which I did before I started writing the book. That, folks, is the kind of creative freedom you don't get every day.

In the visual arts, my new series started as a response to a crashed computer and desperate deadlines. It's heavily processed photographs of East Bay urban landscapes -- the picture up-top was taken on a shooting expedition -- rendered in gray tones, intended to be reproduced at a small size. The goal is to have somewhere over a hundred of them before I start thinking about doing a show. It's funny -- they have the same feel I was trying for with my last series, but using straight photography seems elegant rather than lazy, as if the effort I was putting into constructing the images was just me getting in my own way.

And they're going to be part of a book. The way my last series of prints grew out of my first novel, these have their roots in project number three.

This one is a doozy.

When I had my gallery show in Montana, a jazz band played at the opening. They were incredible, but so avant-garde I was just barely able to appreciate them. They were great, but they were extremely challenging, operating at a genuinely high level. At the end of the evening I performed with two members of the band, and it was an amazing experience. I came back to the Bay Area knowing that I had to do more work like that, and wishing that I could do it with those particular musicians.

Well, I wasn't the only one who thought something special happened that night. They got in touch with me. We're going to do a studio project, and we are going to do a full-length live show based on my three readings on the subject of violence that I did for Lip Service West. And that will be assembled as a chapbook with a selection of photos from my East Bay Gray series. I'll be writing about all this in more detail and with links.

But there you have it. Essentially, I am very good at a few things that may or may not ever make me a living, and I am terrible at conducting my life, so terrible I actually require supervision, and thrive or fail  greatly in response to the care I'm given by my friends and loved ones, or 'oaf wranglers,' as I call them. I don't fit in to conventional society at all, yet silly as it sounds I am slowly becoming a rather interesting cultural figure.

I am simultaneously at what I regard as the bottom and the top of society. My best chance at not being a bum is being a celebrity. I am in debt and applying for benefits, but if I walk out of the house in a good mood perfect strangers treat me as if I'm hot shit. After a lifetime of being the token creepy dude, I am now a magnetic personality. And this is all warping my brain. And that, folks, is why I haven't been posting much. I'll try and be better in the future.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Why I Sinned, And How

My run at this year's Flash Fiction Fest is now up. Eight short-short stories (which was what we called flash fiction back in the pre-Cambrian), all for free. And in addition, there are works from P.T. Dilloway and Neil Vogler, who brought me in to participate in last year's We Are Now. New December House writers Daryn Guarino, Jess Leather, J Freese, Philip Leslie, and Simon Kewin. (Sorry, Simon, the link clicked to Philip.)

Last year, I did a serial that turned out to be the seed of a novel. The reviews were... kind, but unimpressed. I had a hard time arguing. I wanted better than that this time around, so I made each story stand alone, and I tried to do a little fancy footwork here and there, a little showy technique for the sake of skylarking. I had a good time with these. I wouldn't mind the opportunity to give them an extra layer of varnish, but what the hell.


At The Eden came first, before I'd considered the notion of the seven deadly sins. I've always had a fondness for goofy bar stories -- the Drone's club, the White Hart, Jorkens, Gavagan's Bar, and so on. I work a lot with Rob Pierce, and bars crop up in his work regularly. I'm not a bar drinker. I don't like the noise, the difficulty in holding a conversation, the expense.... but I love bar stories.

This one started with the voice, and the setting. I lived through the seventies, and there were certain public spaces that were like being drowned in rainbow sherbet while choking on cigarette smoke. And I didn't much like church back then, either.


The Language Of Women grows out of my interest in gender, and specifically the times when culture diverges so far as to result in gender-specific languages. I'm by no means a scholar on the subject, but from time to time I run across something interesting, and the factoids have been accreting over the years, and here we are.

This story is derived from a specific quirk of history. In Japan, during the time immediately before the Warring States period (sic, probably, I have no idea what the real nomenclature is), there was a period where the Chinese script was the written language of scholars, and there was a separate script for women. If you don't believe my story is true, go to a bookstore, and look for, say, The Tale Of Genji or The Pillow Book Of Sei Shonagon. Then try and find works by male writers who were their contemporaries.

On the first round through, it was all written in the style of the passages dealing with women's language, and all the readers reacted with wary suspicion. So I pulled out my utility-grade poetry and got to work. (You wouldn't want to read a whole fucking book of my poetry, but I can slide a little in here and there without feeling like too much of a jackass.)


I had an ongoing mental argument with an imaginary Jennie McCarthy for a long time. The missus plays video poker, I fight in my head, we all need hobbies. Anyway, it blows me away that someone can torment, mutilate, and kill children with nothing more than trick boobs and hubris, and never, ever be held responsible for the toll of human suffering on her slate.

I'd been turning this one over in my mind when I was presented with the Seven Deadly sins. I thought to myself, "The Eden story will do for Lust, Language works for Pride, and this will be Malice."

But Malice is not a deadly sin. December House took it anyway, but this is one of the reasons I was bushwhacked at the last moment. I"d forgotten all about Pride.

But go read A Leaven Of Malice, by Robertson Davies. It's real good if you're in a mood for Canadian bacon.


Right now, I am in a very odd socioeconomic position. I've been financially dependent for about a year now, and am applying for SSI and Social Security. But my daily life is one of relative comfort and prosperity. I am closely connected to people who have it a lot better than I do, and people who have it a lot worse. So I get to see the intimate differences between the way life is conducted among the rich and among the poor, and to be regarded variously as one or the other when I feel as if I'm floating in the middle. Closer to the bottom, but not that close.

I have come to view human industrial and economic behavior as a parasitic para-lifeform composed of an interlocking web of technology and a nervous system whose synapses are quanta of human desire. If you called it a god, I wouldn't argue. I do not like the organism, I do not trust the organism, I would kill the organism if I could.

But I'm not likely to get a real opportunity, and in the meantime I"m trying to broker some kind of temporary truce.

And that was when the ideas ran out, and I had no more fiction to offer, and I had to settle for the more energetic if less convincing real life for inspiration. Thankfully, I sin regularly and with great regret.

(Gluttony, but this one isn't a one-sin story)

Oh, I was worried about the reaction to this one. But when I read it live at the Ain't No Fun When The Rabbit's Got The Gun reading (I did violence in the form of the fight scene from my novel in progress, then sex with this), people got pulled right into it.

I've gotten in the habit of dealing with my darkest secrets by anatomizing them in front of a crowd composed mostly of strangers, but with enough friends and relatives mixed in to guarantee regular judgment for the remainder of my life.

It works okay.


"How do you write a story about sloth?" I thought. "I never..." and then I remembered. Now, do I want to reveal in public that I am a sheltered house-pet incapable of refilling his own water dish?

Beats blowing the assignment. Yes, this really happened. No, it is not likely to happen again. I am in therapy specifically to address issues like this. The missus is no longer frightened by the idea of leaving me at home alone.

Now, that, I probably shouldn't have said.


The Oaf: So you know that thing I do where I get upset, and I"m compelled to patrol my neighborhood, and the more upset I am, the more territory I cover? Well, I found out who else does that.

The Shrink: Yes, it's typical of disorganized pattern killers.

The Oaf: I keep forgetting you study this stuff.

The Shrink: Nah, I just read too many thrillers.

(The therapeutic relationship in brief. And for the record, I take Wrath and Sloth quite seriously. How are your sins coming along?)


My first shot at Envy was one of those things I do where people go, "Yeah, it's nice, but what is it?" It was an attempt at an elegant fantasy -- I was aiming for Lord Dunsany and Clarke Ashton Smith, but I think I hit Moorcock-flavored Lin Carter by mistake -- and despite being chock-full of envy, it wasn't publishable. Only running up against one of those was a relief. It has been returned to the compost heap, and may return at some point. I now know what happens next, but I don't know if it has an ending.

So this little slice-of-life was called forth to fill in the gap. The fun for me was writing a technical document. It's nothing, but those with a fondness for animals might find it amusing. For the record, I am now up to nine pillows.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Deadly Sins

So! Starting on Friday, my (oh, my goodness) publisher, December House, is releasing this year's Flash Fiction Festival -- Deadly Sins, a collection of stories on the subject of Lovecraftian themes in a Steampunk setting. My character is a vampire bounty-hunter working for Azathoth, but despite the love they share, she's starting to think there's something wrong with his agenda -- lethally wrong for the human race. Unless she wants to live off of ichor for the rest of eternity, she's got to face down not only her lover, but all the other horrors out of space and time. I guess with all the tentacle stuff it's kind of anime too. What do they call it? Hentai? Yeah, like that.

It was Harry Potter when I wrote it the first time, but they made me fix it better except I had to take out the pictures because you could tell who everyone was, because they were very realistic and very canon both.

Okay, just to be clear? I'm joking. This is a collection of short-short stories on the theme of the Seven Deadly Sins. P.T. Dilloway and Neil Vogler. the original team from last year, are in there along with a number of new writers.

So here's the release schedule for my stories, along with a sample. Forgive the typographical issues; I cut & paste from Word.

Sunday, November 3

Her request bothered him. It was as much about getting him to do something as what he was going to do. Aaron and Caroline hadn’t been together long, but he could already sense the lines of contest in the relationship, and he wasn’t quite at ease with them.

Tuesday, November 5

The words of men were strong as iron, bright as brass, when
a brush stroked paper it rang like a
hammer striking sparks from a new sword.

Each spark a word, each word a picture, each picture
held its thousand words.
It was spring between wars, they were
drunk on peace, and kept their beautiful
words within a drunk man’s reach.

Friday, November 8

You, who are beautiful as a green river with golden banks, you who are as mighty as a dragon scaled in coins, you who are kingdom itself, industry at your right hand and the wrath of war at your left, enthroned on the church and cushioned in pleasures;

Forgive me.

Monday, November 11

I might make it. I might not. Either way, my wife was going to come home to my emaciated body stretched out in bed. She would ask, “What happened to him?” and she would be informed, “Sometimes they just stop working.”

Thursday, November 14

“I don’t know,” Eve said, “It’s just that everything is beautiful, you know? It’s all beautiful. It’s like there are atoms and everything is made out of atoms, and what the atoms are made out of is beautiful.” She stroked the orange vinyl bench, and it was as if she’d run a fingernail along the staples closing the incision in Adam’s side, zzzzziiiiiiiiiiiiiiiip.

“Do you know what’s beautiful?” the snake said. Adam cringed and thought, oh, for Christ’s sake. “You’re beautiful,” the snake said. “Those atoms must be made out of you.”

Saturday, November 16
Bonus Sin --

Would this make Carol one of those Munchausen’s people? Probably not: they wanted attention, and Carol just wanted five minutes of quiet.

Tuesday, November 19

Christ, and will you look at that. That dude might be the most stunning world-class worthless piece of egregious shit you have ever seen. Texting while riding a bike no-handed on the sidewalk, flip-flops and no shirt, blonde dreads halfway down his back, sporting a fucking NO FEAR tattoo that needs to be rendered ironic. He is going to sail right through that red light, isn’t he?

Friday, November 22

My wife regrets that she has to make due with a small quivering wire-haired animal with halitosis when there is something larger with softer fur available just on the other side of her spouse. If she goes to bed before I do, sometimes she will sequester both dogs on the starboard side of the bed, and hope that when I come to bed in the dark, I will not notice that Laszlo is missing, or, if I do, I will dismiss it as something of no concern. Her crude ploys are of no use, and provoke pity rather than frustration.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

On Becoming A Commercial Novelist

Photo by Deborah Kuchar

Define Commercial Fiction

Fiction intended to make money. And in today's literary culture, that means conventional storytelling -- providing vicarious experience, a guided exercise in let's-pretend, characters that the reader either identifies with or finds amusing, a sense of rising action and immersion in an imaginary world, and so on. Dramatic fiction, in other words.

The Case Against

This is a juvenile activity on the parts of both the audience and the creator. The highest forms of literary expression deal with literary issues, not those of an imagined life. This kind of work can be pure hell for those of us who can sustain ourselves on the beauty of prose separate from any other concern. The marketplace used to be a snakepit, but has since been thrown into utter chaos.

I don't read fiction for pleasure very often. Since I don't read, how do I put myself in relationship to the audience? (For those who don't know, it's not like I'm unread. I was a compulsive reader up until I learned how to write properly, and went through a minimum of a book a day ranging up to five for most of my life. Yes, sometimes I read at freak speeds. I have one of those brains.)

I hate the idea that I might write down to my audience. I feel a little woozy and hubristic at the idea of writing for an audience.

I have no audience. What the hell am I thinking? I write stuff that makes demands on the reader. Nobody wants that crap.

And these days I look down on a lot of fiction. I mean, I read people like Steinbeck and Fitzgerald (to name a couple of writers who are too dead to be offended) and get irritated and judgmental. If I've developed a distaste for the form, how can I hope to do it well?

And there is nothing about the transmission of fiction that leaves me feeling good. I love bookstores and bookstore owners, but once you've seen a dumpster full of books or a row of carts filled with shelf-damaged books returned without payment from chain bookstores. I'd always dreamed of e-books, but now that they're here, I regard them as ugly ecological and labor disasters, part of the internet company store that is helping strip the planet bare as fast as possible while impoverishing as many as possible.

And what am I going to do, go on and do the same kind of project over and over just because I can do it? What about higher artistic goals?

The Case For

I have wanted to be a writer since I was a kid. Everyone around me has regarded me as a nascent writer my whole life. And now I actually have the goods. I can write a deep, solid novel in less than a year, and I have a backlog of ideas that could fill my life if I never came up with anything else.

And I still love the form. I just am not in the audience anymore. The act of writing is terrific. The skill of projecting myself into another writer's work has been turned on itself, and the results are a hell of a lot of fun. I get more escapist pleasure out of writing than I ever did from reading, and the sense of being in control of the work resonates through my life, and makes me a stronger, happier, more confident person. The pleasure I take in writing imbues itself into the work. This isn't a masturbatory pleasure. It is a means of engaging with the world. I cannot give pleasure unless I experience it. The bargain we work with the world is more complex than I'll ever understand.

Reading fiction is a good hobby. It's one of those things like athletics that has a cascade of beneficial secondary effects. It is actually good for people. And the type of fiction I write -- dense, evocative, intellectually stimulating and demanding, highly emotional, rich in sensory detail -- really gives the brain a workout. I've seen enough responses to my art to know it works for the right audience. It's good for people and it makes them happy.

I do have an audience. The are personally connected with me at this point, and there aren't many of them. But the response to my work has been encouraging. It is going to take years more before I understand what the actual scope of my situation is, and it may never actually settle into a predictable pattern. But what I have seen so far is the growth of a...  the visual in my mind is of a slender yellow coral that sends out branches at ninety degree angles, covered with a green mist of algae. It branches and branches.

It may form a reef.

I have a publisher. I have the skills. I enjoy the work, and I am good at it. Why fight? Why not see how far it can go?

The Decision

I'm going to devote myself to commercial fiction for at least three novels before I make up my mind where to go next. Being a novelist alone isn't enough of a life, but if it can be a rewarding part of my life, then yeah. Why not? I have performance and visual art as arenas for my pretension. I can afford to do some middle-brow work for a while.

So. I've got Helping Henry in the works, then my big space opera, and then the next Henry.

And then we shall see. I have a graphic novel project I want to do, and I've been feeling weird about not doing paleo-art. But for the next year or two, I'm going to be a dedicated commercial novelist.

Then we'll see. Goddamnit.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Reading And Writing Violently

In an on-line group of genre fiction writers I'm affiliated with, there's a discussion going on about violence in writing. It's centered around this essay by Warren Ellis. While Ellis is widely experienced as a scriptwriter, essayist, and novelist, he's best known as a comic book writer. He's one of the best working in the mainstream these days, or at least he was a few years back when I was current with the industry. For the record? This post may seem as if I'm arguing with him. I'm not. I'm explaining myself to my friends.

I got called on losing my temper in the discussion, or at least showing signs of tension. I was a little irked by the essay. I thought it dismissed the actual failings of Ellis's work at its worst, and failed his work at its best. Which is a polite way of saying I thought it was a bunch of self-rationalizing horseshit. HIs position is that many people are confused by the presence of violence, and it's up to works like his to help them understand.

Given my own habit of writing on violence, this would seem to be the kind of statement I'd support. But I think this is a paper tiger. I do not think people who can't understand violence have a problem or represent a problem. And if they do, I don't think violent pop fiction will help them. I'm wrestling with the issues involved in violence in the media very intimately right now, and this statement from whose work I've enjoyed and in some cases admired bothered me.

For those who are not familiar with Ellis's work, as I said, he's one of the standout writers in comics these days. He has written works that he could point to in defense of his position, Fell coming to mind immediately. There hasn't been a better historical comic than Crécy, which is as violent as you could ask for.

But in the majority of his comics work, violence is used as it is most typically used in conventional adventure fiction. It is there to make the lead characters appealingly potent, to establish their value and authenticity. It is there to titillate the reader, and it is frequently executed by lightly- clad men and women intended to appeal to the shallow male gaze. Most troublesome to me, it is portrayed as a legitimate and functional first response to problematic situations, especially useful as a means of establishing and maintaining hierarchy.

I am not arguing that he needs to defend that work.  I have bought much of it, read much of it, and will pick it up and read it with pleasure again.

But it's frequently nasty entertainment. It's not wholesome. That's why I like it. There is a certain British culture of grinning, brutal violence that appeals to me, and Ellis is a fine practitioner of the tradition. But I don't always approve of the things I enjoy. And I won't argue that they have social virtue, because I don't believe it.

When I was in high school, I worked as a teacher's aide and janitor at a day care center. This was during the late seventies, early eighties, and there was a brief Marvel Comics trend as a result of the Hulk TV show. Fights were unusual at the day care center; the kids were upper-middle class, and didn't get hit much at home, so they had to come up with their own sources for the violent impulse. T-shirts were useful in this connection. If a kid wore a Spiderman shirt, they would probably get into a fight by the end of the day. If they wore a Hulk shirt? They would fight. Every time.

I could say that it was because the Hulk TV show taught kids that losing your temper and breaking things fixed problems, but that would be bullshit. It was the image of the strong, violent man that possessed them. If you watched them, you could see them puffing and flexing as the shirt convinced them that they were the Hulk.

The shirt work the kid, and the shirt started the fights. My feeling about violence and the media is that of the old boy who was asked if he believed in baptism. "Believe in it? Hell, I've seen it!"

During that same time, I played a lot of wargames and role-playing games. One of my friends was a former gang member. One night, he found out a friend of his had been stabbed in prison and was on the critical list. We spent that night playing the Melee programmed adventure Death Test. Melee was a game simulating hand-to-hand combat, and we spent the night engaged in slaughter, adding one wet red detail after another to dramatize the roll of the dice and the addition and subtraction of strength points.

My friend was able to sleep that night. I also believe there is such thing as catharsis, and it can serve a healthy function in entertainment.

I come from a history of violence. I relish much violent entertainment. In my own work, I struggle to reject using violence as a means of entertainment, and I do so with difficulty. For someone raised by the US media, violence is an element of entertainment the way hydrogen is an element of water. And that's one of the central problems.

It is impossible to show someone triumphing in an act of violence without making them attractive in that moment, and that will stir a longing for that sense of triumph in some percentage of the audience.

Can't be done. You can't show someone as powerful and decisive without having people fall in love with them on some level. It's one of the awful design flaws in human nature that have me wishing I belonged to a classier species. Effective people are attractive even if they are having terrible effects on the world around them. Gordon Gekko from the movie Wall Street was intended to be an absolute takedown of a particular type, and instead he became the role model for people in the finance industry.

Or to put it another way. In terms of actually affecting people's behavior, models always work and morals never do, and that is the moral of the story.

But to say that one should always show violence in a negative light, that it is necessary to show the violent person as something the audience should not want to be, is a little pat. And not necessarily the most ethical stance. Because people do face situations of violence in their lives, and fiction provides them with models for handling it. And people's lives can be powerfully affected by their choice of models.

When I first began writing seriously, I intended specifically to write action-horror novels. I was fixated on violent imagery, and I wrote with the intent of forcing the experience of violence on the reader, of making them live through real trauma. However, I found myself unable to sustain interest in violence in itself. And little of my work from that time reached completion. I had no clear idea of how to tell a story.

I devoured violent material. I read a lot of true crime, for instance. After a certain point, I realized that I was actually titillating my own blood lust, reading of loathsome acts and then explicitly imagining fitting retributions. I could feel it degrading my character, so I stopped.

But I still liked the stuff that could actually put scenes in my mind, generate a physical response, get my heart racing, make me break a sweat.

That's because I am addicted to stress reactions, and I can use media as a trigger for an endogenous drug experience. In my case, the pathology is visible, but this dynamic underlies many relationships with fiction. It's only pathology if it goes too far.

A few years back, I was hospitalized with a stress reaction and diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. When I began to write and perform autobiography, I soon found myself confronting one of the classic symptoms of PTSD -- a disorganized personal story. I had to go back and look at my experiences and walk through them one step at a time, establishing the connections.

The act of writing and reading these works proved tremendously therapeutic. Not only was I confronting my social anxieties and fear of crowds, I was finding out what my story actually was. And once I knew my story?

I could stop worrying about it. And because of that, violence is no longer a subject of primal interest for me. I no longer wish to deal with it as a central issue in my work. If it comes up, it comes up, but I'm not going to go looking for it at this point. I still have a taste for the old vino, but I'm more likely to reject a vicarious violent experience than accept one. I've come to recognize that they're actually hard on me, that they promote ambient levels of stress, and now prefer fairly low-key entertainment for the most part.

The place of violence in my writing has changed. In my current novel, yes, there are two fight scenes, but in both instances the protagonist is a chicken, and no humans are harmed. The central plot rarely involves raised voices, let alone thrown pillows. Or punches. I'm more interested in portraying things being built than broken. I still have some adventure fiction in me, but the idea that adventure = violence is being subjected to stress tests.

What I'm suggesting here is that rather than being a form of revealed reality, most violence in popular culture is a response to trauma and unprocessed rage and fear, and the more extreme the portrayal of violence, the deeper the likely wounds in both creator and audience. I'm suggesting that most portrayals of violence in popular culture reinforce the existing mental and social patterns, drawing the same graffiti over and over again, and it is only through great and painful effort that we can hope to approach works that are actually transformative, or at least have the merit of truth.

Too many writers are either powered by a slowly fading inchoate adolescent rage, or engaging in vicarious fantasies of potency, and they don't usually give us useful stories. Fun stories, entertaining stories. But are they helpful? Really?

What I'm saying is that if you are actually opposed to violence, don't promote it. Don't make the violence thrill. Blood in your eye just blurs your vision.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Binary Clod

(Photo by Deborah Kuchar)

Confronting my social anxieties and sense of alienation has led me to have a much greater interest in people, and the more I find out about them, the more I understand just how weird I actually am.

On one hand, I am nearly fifty years old, in debt, and conventionally unemployable. On the other hand, I am an oddly accomplished and impressive individual. "I'm worried that you might be experiencing grandiosity, but it's hard to tell," my counselor told me at one particularly ebullient point, only to qualify that statement later in the session with, "No, you're definitely not grandiose, you actually are what you look like. But we might want to keep an eye on things."

I am dead broke. Have been for years. Despite this, between my hobbies and my friends, I live a middle-class teenage dream life in many ways. And I have to fight to appreciate my prosperity, while the poverty is slowly smothering me.

To tell a homeless man that I can't give him money feels terrible. To do it on the way to the store with exactly enough money for a pre-decided purchase makes me feel like a turd with a cherry on top. But this guy has told at least one woman my name, and now I have to say no to her as well. And he has medical coverage and I don't.

The trivialities of the pleasures which sustain us are impossible to rationalize when held against the cost to the world as a whole, and if I do not engage myself thoroughly and productively in the world of trivial pleasures, it causes hardship to those immediately around me.

Again, from counseling: "The thing is, all of these mental illnesses and symptoms are actually advantages under the right circumstances. When I'm really functioning, it's all useful." My counselor said, "That's not the way it usually works, but in your case it's true."

I have always regarded myself as a cipher, an invisible man, a social and sexual nonentity. Oh, brother, who was I trying to kid? The problem is that I am the exact opposite. I am a projector, I am one of the people who sets the tone of the room. The problem is that a lot of the time I am fucking miserable.

But when I'm not, holy shit. Nobody warned me about this. It turns out that thing I do with animals and kids works fine on adults, I just never thought to try it. Now I have to be fucking careful not to let it get out of control. People pushing me ahead in line, cashiers giving me discounts, people starting conversations with me and then asking me if I'm an artist or writer and then asking where they can find my work. I seem to look as if I'm a big deal of some kind.

It is like an on/off switch. Either I scowl at the ground, or I am socially engaged. I was never invisible. I was just refusing to respond to the people around me. Given my early years, of course I refused to respond to the people around me.

It was only on Friday that I finally understood the look. I frequently find people giving me a look that is all eyes and no mouth, a straight stare that always impressed me as hostile, always aroused a feeling of physical defensiveness. And a lot of the time, it comes from people I find attractive. This is one of the main reasons I've always assumed that women have a specific distaste for me. (Most of my closest friends have been women, and I usually wind up bitching to them about this, and yes. Yes, there is irony here.) You know what the look is? It's someone who's been caught staring, and who doesn't know how to respond, and can't quit.

A lot of what I've experienced as hostility in life makes more sense if I assume that I'm someone capable of arousing strong emotions in people, and sometimes those emotions cannot be fully controlled, and sometimes they don't feel good. I always knew this was true of everyone else, but now I know I'm in the game. And I'm not used to it. It's intimidating.

And it's playing out at home. My relationship with the missus is in some ways better than ever, but there's a roller-coaster aspect to things. We're both people who live in a permanent moment, and when I'm up, she's thrilled with me, and when I'm down, she's not. And I'm up and down. A lot. So one day I'm a hero and the next I'm a slug, and a spouse is supposed to dampen your mood swings, not accentuate them.

Under other circumstances, the downs would predominate. My current anhedonia and irritability would typically indicate a paralytic depression, but I've got a lot of work to do, and it's all going to particular people. I'm too connected to the world to go into a complete depression.

But I've had enough good experiences over the past few years to understand something of what it feels like to be fully engaged with life, to abandon the self-destructive impulse in favor of a joyous course of action. I know what it takes.

And some of what it takes, I ain't gonna get. For instance, you know what makes me feel alive? Really alive? Risk-taking, especially if I get to feel like a tough guy. (For the record, wanting to be a tough guy makes me a member of the big baby club. I know that, you know that, everybody knows that.) You know what quality is most strongly associated with longevity? Prudence.

Me. Talking about longevity. So many friends, so much to do. Perhaps it is time to begin the horrid, snivelling process of clinging to life, sucking at the last crumbs as though they were the grit in the bottom of a bag of Doritos. What if I start liking life so much I get scared of death? I've seen people that are scared of death, and it looks horrible. Rather vomit blood, thank you, and even that would be worse if I was scared of death.

You can't do anything if you're scared of death!

Here's a pip.

I grew up in book culture. My grandmother was a librarian. Since childhood, the hunt for used and out-of-print books has been at the core of my recreation. I learned design as well as art and writing because I treasure the book as object, the unified package as a form of art. I like hanging out in bookstores, and I'm known by many local booksellers. One of my hidden drives to succeed as a writer was so that I could see MY books on THEIR shelves, that I could earn the insider feeling I get when chatting with them.

But there is a lot of crookedness and ineptitude in the traditional bookselling world, and once you've seen a dumpster full of coverless paperbacks, it's hard to retain enthusiasm. It's been years since I've read much for pleasure, and my professional fiction sales have been to e-markets. If I mention a sale, I get a look of hurt, puzzled confusion from my 'real' book friends.

And of course, this brings us back to the triviality of the culture in which I seek to embed myself. But who am I to bandy words like 'trivial?'

Nobody's heard of me. I have no Amazon reviews. Nada. (Okay, my story in Future Lovecraft gets a mention or two.) My pro sales are pathetic. But you should hear the things they say about me! It would make you sick. It makes me sick, but I can't get enough of it, and I doubt I ever will.

Of course, the obvious reason I'm unknown is that I have yet to present a major work to the public. If I've ever written anything with (ugh) sales potential, it is the current novel. At least a couple of respectable and respected writers have agreed to look at it, and if I can get a blurb or two, then I actually have a shot in the marketplace.

But the idea of hitting it big with one book is silly. I probably won't have a clear idea of my place in the market until I've got at least three novels out. And even then, it isn't a profession that allows for stability or smooth sailing.

But things are going so well for me creatively I can't concern myself with success. I'll write a post in the next day or two on my current and prospective projects.

I just wanted to explain why I haven't been blogging lately. I have been busy going sane, and it's a longer, more arduous trip than I expected.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

What's Up

Dave Kirk of Aunt Dofe's Hall of Recent Memory and I confer on the hanging.

So here's what's going on. For the last few years, one central metaphor for my life has been poverty and glory racing neck and neck. Well, they collided. The bad news is that I am broke, and I need all the basic accoutrements of life upgraded. New computer, new wardrobe, a phone, a card, a real website, I need to get a license and learn to drive, back taxes and student loans, the whole thing. I need to join civilization, basically.

The good news is that a good friend gave me a boost, primarily in moral. It's now obvious that I am capable of earning a living, if given appropriate opportunities. I've got a couple of things going on right now in writing and editing that are getting me a bit of money, and I'm starting the process of hunting for a 'real' job. If I can get ten to twenty hours a week at twenty-five to fifty, I'll be fine. I suspect that I should be able to pull down at least a hundred an hour once I get established.

Doing what is anyone's guess. The job I just lost/quit (mutual recognition of untenable situation followed by decision to retain friendship, and that's all you need to know) potentially involved everything from analysis of technical documents and writing polemics to tough guy crap, and the work I did was terrific. The demands on my time and skills really brought me to life. I want more of that. So, I'm lookin'...

So this morning, I ran through my to-do list, and found myself cleaning up all the manuscripts from around my work area. I have one novel and four short stories in the works, and it's time to get moving on all. (Why am I so poorly known? Because I publish infrequently in the small press and then hide the evidence.) I've also decided to re-write the ending of Ghost Rock, extending it by a couple of full sub-plots and some forty to sixty pages. I ran the idea by the missus, she-who-was-sick-of-my-rewrites, and she agreed. So there's that as well.

Next up is the problem of finding musical backing. When I performed at Aunt Dofe's with Blue and Dan of Fear Eats The Soul backing me, it was something else again. I run crude voltage; they provided a circuit. I need that to bring my performances up to their proper level, and Blue and Dan ain't here. While I'm currently leaning toward experimental jazz, art rock or even blues might be made to work. It's really going to come down to personal chemistry in the end, so I'm ambivalent about putting too many expectations on particulars. But let's put it out into the atmosphere, I'm looking for an experimental, improvisational band interested in working with a reader/performer from time to time. The first project is going to be my three best pieces from Lip Service West, all viewable here on Vimeo. I'm going to combine them, remove redundancies, trim excess tissue, and divide into sections to allow for musical interludes -- I figure that as a show it would be between forty-five minutes and an hour, depending on how the music goes.

I don't know where it's going to play the second time, but I think I have an angle on where it can make a debut...

And that should keep me fairly well occupied for the next two or three months, he said innocently...

Friday, July 5, 2013

Swill 7 Will Be Relased At Beastcrawl!

All right! Tomorrow night, the launch for Swill 7 takes place at Shashamane in Oakland. In the last few months, there have been three career events
that have been exerting a lot of influence on my life. One was
beginning my second novel for my e-publisher December House. The
second was the art show at Aunt Dofe's Hall of Recent Memory, where I
was able to find myself comfortable in a surprisingly elevated sphere.
(And where the Swillistrations were officially pronounced worthy...)
And tomorrow is the third, the introduction of both the new magazine
and the new series of... I guess at this point they're photos. See
samples above. Thirteen pages of interior images, folks, and all
bearing a fascinatingly oblique relationship to the associated
fiction, one that attempts to add an additional layer of resonance.
And to be able to introduce this at Beastcrawl! What a hoot.

See, that makes Swill part of the establishment. Which has been our
stated position from the beginning, but yeah. We're part of the


So here's the issue.

The Lazarus Effect by Amy Yolanda Castillo features what I regard as
the premier circus animal attack of the issue, and then works to a

Til She Fill My Mouth With Laughing by Lisa Nohealani Morton is the
kind of submission I'd order out of a catalog if I had the option.
Smart, literate, it's got your footnotes and your Fabre quotes and all
the stuff that makes me smile. Plus, there's justifies nepotism, my
favorite kind. Of course, I bear an onus for abetting an oathbreaker,
but I'll take an onus for a good story any day.

Oblivion, by Holly Day, is a neat slice of fantastic naturalism with
real emotional tension. Think Serling, Matheson, even good King as
touchstones. And it's by the author of the For Dummies books on
Composition and Music Theory, which I probably will pick up at some

Kevin Grows Up was a story written entirely out of spite, and as
always, I wound up living it in real life. Okay, I don't want to point
fingers and name names, because I'm a passive-aggressive shithead
sometimes. But let's say there was a magazine that published genre
fiction, okay? A very well-established magazine with a reputation for
literary standards above those typical for genre fiction. Published
Kurt Vonnegut, Shirley Jackson, Gore Vidal, a list of genuine
luminaries as long as your arm, as well as a lot of the best-written
fantastic fiction done inside of genre, with authors such as Ursula
leGuin, Jack Vance, and Avram Davidson being featured regularly during
the heights of their careers.

We're talking a fairly heavy cultural artifact.

When I read the current editor state that his target audience
consisted of twelve-year-old boys, I lost most of my interest in
publishing with them, but I suddenly needed to write a story that
would make a twelve-year-old boy feel horrible. And so I wrote Kevin
Grows Up.

But remember, I published it in Swill. So no twelve-year-old boy will
ever see it.

Shana Graham's Newark has elements of romance, noir, and surrealism,
and is pleasing in its resistance to being pinned-down. Too sharp for
a dream, too dizzy for reality. Reading this feels like being awake
for too long, and that's a compliment.

There were a number of Viet Nam veterens in my life when I was growing
up, and Gene Hines's Women In The River did not set off my bullshit
alarm, for whatever that's worth. Because of this, the story got a
little extra graphic something. Mr Hines, by the way, has published
with us before.

Stephan McQuiggan gives us a jolly old-fashioned bit of sadism in
Susannah Quietly. I could never resist poisoned candy...

Pancake Collection by Rob Pierce is 'typical' Pierce story in that it
combines alcohol, failed romance, physical violence, and a devestated
emotional affect ito damage the reader's equilibrium. He's pretty much
the best in town at this stuff.

And Tom Hoisington's Vigilant Resolve ends the issue with a
surprisingly sincere and positive note. "This son of a bitch means
it," I thought to myself on reading this one, and in it went.

This issue's a little heavy on conventional narrative, tending
strongly noirish. I think it's the best-looking issue so far, but I
would, wouldn't I?

So order it! Or come on down tomorrow night, and join me, Rob Pierce,Shawna Yang Ryan, and Warren Lutz for all the unwholesomeness thehuman mind can bear, plus drinks!

I'll see you there.