Married Couple Abandons Parenting for 3 Months to Write Book

Potential headlines for this story:

Married couple writes book.

 Married couple writes book in only 3 months.

 Married couple abandons parenting for 3 months to write book (ultimate winner).

Married couple surprised by how little they come to hate one another while writing book in only 3 months.

Married couple, as side effect of co-writing book in 3 months, becomes those people at Starbucks with all their computers and cords and stuff and about whom you wonder Don’t they have a home?

Parents of infant and toddler who placed ad in search of parents found at local Starbucks, indexing.

 

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post titled, Things that Have Happened Since the Last Time I Posted on My Blog, in which I singled out five things:

Thing #1: I quit blogging.

Thing #2: I had a second kid.

Thing #3: I (we) took first kid and second kid to Disneyland. Twice.

Thing #4: I wrote a book with my wife.

Things #5: I was informed I have high cholesterol.

 

In that last post, I went into more detail about Thing #1 and Thing #2. This is Part 2 of that post and will be about Thing #4, skipping Thing #3 for the time being, just because.

 

Thing #4: I wrote a book with my wife

A full explanation of the book’s intent and the impetus behind it is explained here.

So we (Liz and I) had this idea for a book. We’re both high school English teachers, and it’s a book about teaching high school English.

The idea started out as a book about teaching Slaughterhouse Five, the idea later expanding to a book about teaching Slaughterhouse Five as well as half-a-dozen other books we like to teach.

We batted it around for six months or so, getting serious enough from time to time to draft some chapters and eventually reaching the point at which we began to think about the possibility of submitting it, at which point we learned about book proposals.

So we spent (spent should be precisely defined here as referring to no more than ten to fifteen minutes every few days scratched [into? out of?] an at-home schedule dominated by parenting and grading and Netflix) the next six piecing together a book proposal, which included a query letter and an overview and an annotated table of contents and market research (I say included market research not actually knowing by any degree what market research is and therefore whether or not what we did is it but anyway we analyzed who/what our market is and other books for which the market is the same and how our book was/was not similar and etc.) and a sample chapter.

We sent the proposal out to a handful of education publishers, from which we received rejections, some of which were non-form and encouraging, before finally hearing from a very nice acquisitions editor at Rowman and Littlefield named Sarah (in fact, R&L had been suggested to us by one of our previous non-form and encouraging rejecters).

Sarah asked for some additional materials and some revisions to the sample chapter and then needed to take the proposal to the editorial board. A few days later, she wrote back with an acceptance. We were delighted.

Here’s the said-sarcastically-fun part. Sarah’s acceptance came on July 23rd of 2015. In the same email, Sarah expressed that it would be an advantage for the book—though it would not yet be published—to have an ISBN number and be promotable at the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) conference that November, and for that reason Sarah wanted to know if we could submit to her the final manuscript by early September (this would later be extended to the first of October).

Now, at that point (July 23rd), we had the sample chapter and a couple of other very rough and incomplete chapters, all amounting to less than fifty pages.

We also, at that point, had a nearly-three-year-old and a nearly-three-month-old, as well as full-time jobs: me teaching and Liz at home with the kids, Liz having taken leave from that upcoming school year. I also had a part-time teaching job some evenings and Liz also was working on her Master’s degree.

But I had this memory from grad school of one of the faculty members, a novelist who also wrote screenplays, giving the advice, said advice delivered within an anecdote about a screenplay, that the answer is always, Yes! Like, for example, if “they” ask you if you happen to have any stories/manuscripts/screenplays/whatever about bla bla bla, you always answer Yes, and then go write a story/manuscript/screenplay/whatever about bla bla bla, and it was with this anecdote with its embedded advice that I convinced Liz that despite the apparent impossibility of pulling it off we should just say Yes!

So we did.

For the several months that would later follow the book’s release, when people would ask something along the lines of How’d you do it, I would repeatedly give the same jokey answer: “We just quit parenting for 3 months and did it.”

But we didn’t really quit parenting or abandon our children–Liz in fact clutched our three-month-old and declared that we could not let this affect our time with the kids–though we did for a time parent them less.

We wrote early in the morning. We wrote at night after bedtime. And for a rather large chunk of each of about twelve consecutive Sundays we got a babysitter and went to our local Starbucks.

 

Things you notice when you spend 10 or more hours per month at your local Starbucks:

  • Much like Walmart, people will wear almost anything to Starbucks.
  • In any span of several hours at the local Starbucks, a lot of people come and a lot of people go, but the four or five people who remain through all of those hours are pretty much the same four or five people who are also there week after week.
  • If you are one of those four or five people, location is everything, and the ideal location depends upon your purpose. For some, it’s those comfy chairs. For us, it was a balance of table space and access to a power outlet.
  • Though you may not start out there, if you stay at the local Starbucks long enough and if you’re willing to repeatedly pack up all of your stuff and move, you will eventually get your ideal spot.
  • If there are two of you, and you each have a laptop and papers and books, you may very likely need to initially split up, but you will eventually (see above) reunite.
  • Starbucks food seems wholesome and even kind of high-end. And you get the impression that they (Starbucks) don’t even really see it as food people would regularly eat, like at McDonald’s, but food people get to go with their coffee or food people need because they’re starving after waiting in line so long for coffee. It seems more like premium food.

But it’s not. In reality, it’s food taken out of a plastic package and put in a microwave, which is what you get when you eat at a gas station (which I happen to know a lot about), except at the gas station you do the microwaving yourself, and when you eat enough re-heated Chicken Artichoke on Ancient Grain Flatbreads, they just start to taste like gas station food.

My first book took three years to write. All the same things happened with this book—frantic drafting with the recurrent thought that nothing that I am typing right now can ever be in a book in fact it’s so awful it can never ever be seen by anyone ever; never-ending laborious revisions such that one reads the same chapters and the same pages and the same paragraphs and sentences over and over and over again; that feeling that when this is over I never want to read or see or even think about this book ever ever again in fact I’m never going to do anything difficult with my free time again just Netflix and ice cream from now on. All the same stuff, just this time crammed into 3 months.

But it all worked out. We finished. On time. And the people we need to thank are: Sarah; our babysitter, Lizzie; our two readers, Susan and Ellen. And of course our kids, for getting along without us for a while.

 

 

I did not vote for Trump. Many of my friends will stop reading there. But I hope they don’t.

I did not vote for Donald Trump. Many of my friends will stop reading there. They will stop reading and possibly unfriend me and/or possibly compose a comment in response to that single sentence, all of which they have every right to do.

 

But I hope they don’t. I hope they continue to read.

 

I am a white male. I grew up in a rural area of Northern California. I was raised Catholic and went to private Catholic schools from kindergarten through twelfth grade.

 

I grew up in and around the horse industry. My maternal grandfather was a rancher and National Reined Cowhorse Association Hall of Famer. My father is a horse trainer and breeder. He bred and raised AQHA’s current all-time leading sire.

 

My stepfather is a team roper, and around the age of fourteen I also became a team roper. I signed up for high school rodeo, and my family began to supply me, as they would continue to do for the decade-and-a-half that followed, with horses and trailers and trucks and tack and all the other accoutrements necessary for a team roper.

 

I competed in high school rodeo for four years, college rodeo for four years, amateur rodeo for fourteen years, and professional rodeo for twelve years (the latter three overlapping).

 

The rodeo world is predominately Republican. I am a Democrat. I have “felt” like a Democrat since I was about twelve years old. I didn’t get it from my parents or from Catholic school or from anyone around me. For whatever reasons, I developed a worldview that more closely aligned with the Democratic Party than the Republican Party. This worldview developed with positive intent: it is based upon things that I believe in, not things that I hate.

 

For most of my life, I didn’t know many fellow Democrats. But that was never much of a problem. I got into spirited debates from time to time with some of my friends. These debates were always about issues. They were often fun.

 

More recently, it feels different.

 

On Tuesday, a close friend posted on Facebook about having voted for Hillary Clinton. She received multiple comments, one from a mutual acquaintance of ours from college who replied with, “Nice knowing you. I love my country.” Perhaps I’ll receive similar comments.

 

I suspect that my declaration that I did not vote for Donald Trump will lead some to the conclusion that I am therefore less American. That I love my country less. That I am less concerned about the threat of terrorism and about the lives of our military. That I am disqualified from descriptors such as patriot and family man and hard worker.

 

To this I take great offense. In fact, I will not tolerate it. I am American. I do love my country, I do care deeply about its safety and the safety and well-being of those who defend it, and I am a patriot and a family man and a hard worker, despite the fact that I exercised my right to vote for a different candidate than those who might claim otherwise.

 

Many of my friends may also view my vote as a sign of deficiency in my character. I admit it: I am deficient in character. As are we all. And I hope, as I assume we all do, that as each year passes those deficiencies decrease in number. But, in the end, we are all flawed characters, and some of us, who were friends before Facebook hijacked the word, know one another’s flaws all too well, and hopefully rejoice for one another as we shuffle them off.

 

Speaking of Facebook, the past two days of scrolling seems to be revealing a troubling trend in which, at the end of an election in which issues were less and less the issue and more and more the issue became the extent to which the other candidate was criminal/evil/treasonous/demonic, what is spilling out, there now being no candidates left to demonize, is the demonization of the supporters of each candidate by the supporters of the other.

 

At this point, I was going to write, “Both sides need to listen to one another.” But a major part of the problem is that we are being placed ever more permanently on sides.

 

We all need to listen to one another.

 

We also need to remember that information in service of a single point of view is propaganda, and it is in the best interests of each of our respective parties (or at least of elements of those parties) that we be divided.

 

Said parties seem to have been remarkably successful at said division, and certain particulars of our contemporary society—the multiple 24/7 news options, the echo chamber of the individualized social media feed, and the handheld devices that keep us constantly fed—have made the delivery of divisive propaganda more convenient and more effective than in previous generations.

 

We all need to listen to one another.

 

Said listening requires what F. Scott Fitzgerald sort-of-famously prescribed: “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

 

We need to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time. It’s actually not that hard, and I don’t even have a first-rate intelligence. I do it every time I order three cheeseburgers on the way home from work while making plans for getting into shape.

 

We need to listen to one another, and we need to do this because our individual experiences are not all the same.

 

On Wednesday, after the election, at work, I sat in a meeting (or, more accurately, sat waiting for a meeting to begin) with two other white teachers. The population at our school is around 80% Hispanic. The two other white teachers mocked the fact that some of their students were demonstrably in a state of grief over the election of Donald Trump, mocking in particular a girl who had cried.

 

We must not dismiss or discredit the American experience of others because it is not our own American experience.

 

We can hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and continue to function. If you are opposed to President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) as a policy, you can hold that thought in mind while also recognizing that the tears of a seventeen year old girl who is months from graduation but who may lose her DACA status are legitimate and understandable and deserving of our sympathy, not our mockery.

 

It is also possible to hold in mind the two opposing thoughts that while her parents have committed a crime, they are not criminals, a paradox that is proven true by the fact that we unevenly extend (or withhold) it when that extension (or withholding) is convenient to our social, political, or religious points of view (see above definition of propaganda).

 

We all must listen to one another. We must listen with sympathy to the American experience of displaced factory workers or coal miners. You can hold that sympathy, and the desire that each and every one of their jobs comes back to them, in mind alongside the logic that because of automation and the simple fact that we now burn less coal, each and every job won’t be able to come back, and that a promise that each and every job will come back, though we may root for it, sounds like propaganda.

 

We must not dismiss or discredit the American experience of others because it is not our own American experience.

 

We must listen to the American experience of factory workers and coal miners and farmers and small business owners with as much sympathy as we listen to the American experience of those who feel threatened and unjustly treated by law enforcement or our justice system.

 

In the past year, several of my friends shared a meme (it might be a meme—I’m not entirely confident that I know what exactly makes a meme a meme, but it had a picture and words) that told the story of an African American man who was carrying a firearm when he was pulled over by the police. As a result of his courtesy and obedience, the man experienced no issues with the officer.

 

It’s an interesting story, though statistically insignificant (just as this man’s experience multiplied by a thousand would be statistically insignificant), and it does not dismiss or discredit those whose experiences are counter to it.

 

We can hold in our head respect and regard for the job that police officers perform alongside sympathy and concern for African Americans, for whom the American experience is filtered through government policies—slavery, Jim Crow, the Federal Housing Administration—that have discriminated against them (and empowered terrorism against them) since the country’s inception.

 

We must not dismiss the American experience of African-Americans or other people of color because it differs from our own.

 

We must not dismiss the American experience of the white working class because it differs from our own.

 

We must not dismiss the American experience of women because it differs from our own.

 

We must not dismiss the American experience of Muslim Americans because it differs from our own.

 

We must not dismiss the American experience of the LGBTQ community because it differs from our own.

 

We all must listen to one another.

 

What we do not need to listen to—in any way, shape, or form—and what we must instead fight against in any way we can, is speech that categorically limits or dismisses the views, concerns, rights, or humanity of our fellow Americans—according to race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or any other category.

 

We can hold in our mind hope for the economic renewal of our nation and the safety of our nation in a Trump presidency alongside an outright rejection of bigotry, racism, sexism, and xenophobia that may be emboldened by his election. In fact, it is our duty as Americans to reject, if not combat, those elements.

 

You can hold in your mind that you voted for Donald Trump out of a belief that he was the best choice for your country and your family. You can hold that thought right alongside the recognition that in his words and in his actions Donald Trump is not the embodiment of your moral, family, and Christian values. He is not the man you want your children to become.

 

During the campaign, the argument at this point would turn to “Well, she’s not any better.” But Hillary Clinton has been rejected, and is no longer a factor in this conversation.

 

Donald Trump no longer benefits from the comparison. He is now accountable to all of us. She is not.

 

 

THINGS THAT HAVE HAPPENED SINCE THE LAST TIME I POSTED ON MY BLOG

The last time I posted anything on my blog was March 22, 2014. Two-and-a-half years ago.

 

Here are things that have happened since then. All these things are about me, which seems self-involved, but then it is my blog, so…

 

An increasingly regular responsibility in my capacity as a high school English teacher is convincing/encouraging/suggesting/urging teenagers not to end every statement with so…. Or so yeah…. Or just or

 

So, here are the things:

 

Thing #1: I quit blogging.

 

Thing #2: I had a second kid.

 

Thing #3: I (we) took first kid and second kid to Disneyland. Twice.

 

Thing #4: I wrote a book with my wife.

 

Thing #5: I was informed I have high cholesterol.

 

Other things (in no particular order):

  • Read a lot of David Foster Wallace
  • Read Finnegans Wake (spellcheck understandably wants me to put an apostrophe on Finnegans but there’s no apostrophe)
  • Got a part time teaching job to go with my full time teaching job
  • Sold my horse, thereby becoming horse-less for the first time since I was 14 years old.
  • Wrote/compiled a story collection
  • Got said collection rejected
  • Started a novel
  • Started another novel within that novel
  • Built a patio

 

There are other things, of course.

 

Here’s more about the first two:

 

Thing #1: I quit blogging

 

I started blogging in 2011 because I had a book coming out. It was one of the things you were supposed to do. For the same reason, I also opened a Twitter account and added like 2,000 strangers as friends on Facebook.

 

There’s no big reason as to why I quit blogging. It wasn’t a conscious decision. It was just much easier to stop than to continue. In that way, it’s like jogging (and blogging and jogging rhyme, so…). And like the opposite of smoking, or eating cookies. It’s like this thing you do that you know you should do more often—in fact, you’ve been told by people for whom it seems supernaturally easy that if you aren’t doing it blank many times per week then you may as well not be doing it at all. So then it becomes this thing that when you do do it you feel pretty good about it (Dorothy Parker: “I hate writing, I love having written.”) but mostly you just feel guilty all the time for not doing it or not doing it enough, hence it being much easier when you finally make the decision to just stop doing it altogether.

 

But it (blogging)’s not like jogging because it’s fun. Nothing about jogging is fun. It’s good to do but not fun. Writing, though, is fun. And it’s no-or-at-least-less-pressure writing, so there’s less of that ohmygodthisisallcrapi’mafraudihatemyself part.

 

But, anyway, I’m gonna give it another whirl, so we’ll see.

 

Thing #2: I had a second kid.

 

The second kid’s name is Sam. Sam is eighteen months old. His older brother, by the way, is Tom. Tom is four.

 

Sam’s birth story is far less dramatic than Tom’s birth story. Because Tom’s birth story ended with a C-section, Sam’s birth story begins as a planned C-section, planned C-sections, as you can imagine, eliminating much of the apprehension and anticipation surrounding imminent birth because you make an appointment.

 

The wrinkle in this planned C-section, though, was that when we arrived for our appointment, come to find out, Liz was in labor. The very early part, but labor (and then Liz read the handwritten draft of the sentence currently being parentheticalled and shouted at me across the kitchen that it wasn’t the early part of labor it was labor labor then insisting that I add parenthetical reference to said shouting).

 

But other than that, it all went as planned and it all went fine, and Sam was born and he was healthy and, to be honest, he was much easier than Tom had been, which may very well have had a lot or mostly to do with the fact that this was our second rodeo, but, anyway, Sam screamed less and “latched” better (those two probably related) and, speaking of Tom, the most challenging part of the entire three days in the hospital came when Tom’s Grammy, with whom Tom had spent the last three days, brought Tom to the hospital to see the parents he had not seen for three days and also to see his new baby brother, Grammy and Tom happening to arrive at the hospital at the same time that Tom’s other grandma and Tom’s aunt and uncle were also visiting, such that the scene Tom walked into was just about half the people he knew on the planet all huddled in this strange room, plus this baby. He immediately lost his s-word. What followed can best be described as an existential meltdown—think Luke Skywalker after finding out Darth Vader is his father, but of longer duration and with more agony—the shrill screams of No No No prompting everyone but Mom and Dad to file out into the hall, the nurse shortly thereafter rushing in to retrieve the bassinet because apparently it’s against the maternity ward rules to carry a newborn into the hall, the screaming toddler evading both parents, dodging behind medical equipment, eventually taken against his will into the arms of Dad and held literally kicking and screaming for the what-seemed-like-much-longer-but-was-probably-like-five-minutes that it took Mom to coax him back from insanity.

 

Existential crisis if not resolved then at least silenced, consensus was reached to just send Tom back home with Grammy. But, in the hall, before leaving: a curious peek, on tippy toes, over the bassinet wall; a glance up at the adults; “Do you want to see your baby brother?”; a nod in the affirmative; a trip, for baby brother, around the ward, pushed ever-so-carefully by big brother; a reading, with considerable concentration, of I’m a Big Brother; a kiss for everyone, including Sam, before leaving.

 

Sam is now eighteen months old, and several of those months ago he ceased being Tom 2 and became his very own Sam.

 

He smiles a lot.

 

He roars a lot. He has various roars. A tiger roar, for example, and a dragon roar.

 

If the roars don’t work, he’s a pretty good screamer.

 

He climbs. Everything. Chairs must not be left adjacent to things taller than chair or Sam will be on top of that thing.

 

He runs. Walking seemed to take a while to get going and I guess we were worried at the time but that’s a distant memory because now he’s a runner.

 

He signs. He uses the signs for All done, More, and Please. More is the most often used sign and has evolved into the sign for More as well as for Do! Like, Hey one of you two tall people that does things, do something. Do something else. Do it now. Determine from my pointing and other wild gesticulations what it is I exactly want and do that thing. More. Please.

 

We were worried about having two brother—you know, because of Sam Shepard plays and the Book of Genesis—but so far they get along great. Sam will begin speaking in sentences soon, though, limiting Tom’s ability to say, “He said I could I have this” without protest. So we’ll see.

Blog Tour, Yo.

My good friend Natalia Trevino, author of the poetry collection Lavanda La Dirty Laundry, was nice enough to invite me to participate in the following blog tour, in which I answer the following four questions, which I’ve answered in pairs.  Thanks, Natalia.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS–THE WRITING PROCESS–BLOG TOUR OF WRITERS, 2014

Question Number One: What are you working on? and Question Number Four: How does your writing process work?

Just yesterday I finished the first draft of a short story.  It’s called The Anti-Story, and it’s kind of a long short story (46 pages; 11,500 words).  I just googled How long is a novella? and apparently a novella is like 20,000 to 50,000 words, so this is just a long short story.  Maybe too long.  It’s about a guy named JW who discovers that another writer has written and had published the anti-story to his own story.  It begins like this:

When JW opened his just-arrived copy of the review, inside which were published the winners and runners-up of the contest to which JW had submitted his own story and thus, as a condition of his entry fee, had received a copy, JW found that the winning story was not his own story, but rather the anti-story of his story.

If you’re wondering what an anti-story is, here’s JW trying to answer that very question in a conversation with a friend:

“The winner wrote the anti-story to my story.  To the story I submitted.”

“The anti-story?”

“Yes.”

“What does that mean?”

 “You know.  It’s like…it’s the anti-story.  To my story.”

  “But what does that mean?”

  “It’s like…it’s like this guy’s story…it’s everything that mine isn’t.”

  “Like so much better?”

  “No.  It’s not that it’s so much better.  Maybe it is.  It’s just…not mine.  In every way.”

  “Oh my God.”

  “Right?”

After submitting the final manuscript of my novel, Parnucklian for Chocolate, to Red Hen in the spring of 2012, I didn’t write much at all for quite a while, maybe a year.  There was just so much to do.  I work full time, teaching high school English, and in September of 2012 our first child was born, a little maniac named Thomas.  Plus book promotion and all that, so no writing.

But several months ago I managed to get back into a routine, and in doing so, I have been able to complete a draft of a play and the story mentioned above.  I get up at 5AM, put on the coffee, shower and dress, then sit down and write.  I do this Monday through Friday, usually only writing for 15 to 20 minutes (sometimes just 5 to 10 minutes) before I need to feed the cats and start on lunches and so forth.  Then the rat race takes off and twenty-four hours later I do it again.

Even though this isn’t much time, I’m usually able to get out at least a page of fiction (5-6 pages of dialogue, when working on the play), which by the end of the week adds up nicely.

I do all of this writing by hand, in those little 70 sheet one-subject notebooks that come in assorted colors and that you can get at Target during Back to School for seventeen cents apiece, and on Saturdays I type it all up.  I’m a terribly slow typist, but this is my first edit.  On Sunday mornings, I try to submit stuff.  Lately I’ve been sending out flash pieces that I’ve written the past couple of years, one of those, titled “A Choice,” having recently been accepted by The Los Angeles Review for their fall issue.

So that’s my routine.  Once I have a typed draft of something, my first reader is my lovely and brilliant wife, Liz, who gives me lots of notes and lots to think about.

The play I mentioned is titled Before We Were What We Are Now.  It’s not all that great, but I’d never written a play before, or tried to write a play, but I read a lot of plays and I love dialogue and it was a lot of fun.

Question Number Two: How does your work differ from others in its genre? and Question Number Three: Why do you write what you do?

I guess my genre is literary fiction.  So one way my work differs from others in that genre is that other works are a lot better than my works.

Beyond that, I’d say that my writing leans toward the postmodern, which doesn’t really make it different but maybe helps to categorize it.  Though I wouldn’t necessarily say this about my novel.  I was told by my editor that my novel is naturalist, which sounds alright.

I’d say what makes my novel unique but not entirely unique is the style, which has been compared, in reviews, to Vonnegut (which I was actually maybe kind of going for and which makes me blush) and to Gertrude Stein.  I write often quite long, perhaps challenging to read, sentences in what Stanley Fish would call the subordinating style, though challenging to read is not what I’m going for.  Fun to read is what I’m going for; the sentences are fun to write.  Here’s an example, from Parnucklian for Chocolate:

The miniature golf game began with Johnson Davis announcing that they would be playing “Boys against Girls!” and then demanding that both Josiah and Bree, as the representatives of their teams and in order to determine which team would go first, engage in a match, best two out of three, of Rock-Paper-Scissors, which Josiah had never actually played before, though he had seen other boys, such as Joey Simms and Eli Koslowski at the group home, play Rock-Paper-Scissors, usually at the start of a game of kickball or basketball, all of which Johnson Davis learned upon asking Josiah before the match with Bree began if he had ever played Rock-Paper-Scissors, leading Johnson Davis to provide Josiah with a short tutorial which included a basic outline of the rules and a brief history of the game’s genesis and a slightly less brief discussion of the irony of the fact that though Rock-Paper-Scissors is itself a game it is often used, as the current situation shows by example, in the facilitation of other games, and a practical demonstration of the proper hand movements and positions required, at the end of which Johnson Davis took Josiah aside, placing a hand upon his shoulder, and whispered into his ear that a strategy that had served him well over the years was choosing the same object—either rock, paper, or scissors, it doesn’t matter, any of the three would do—in all three turns, turning traditional strategy on its head and thereby often confusing the opponent, a strategy that proved unsuccessful in Josiah’s match against Bree, Josiah choosing scissors in each turn, given that Bree, as a member of the family of Johnson Davis, had had extensive practice in the playing of Rock-Paper-Scissors, Rock-Paper-Scissors having been used throughout Bree’s childhood not only to determine order of competition but as a mediator in nearly all decisions, thus Bree had equally extensive exposure to the favored strategy of Johnson Davis and easily defeated Josiah with a volley of rocks.

 

This can be tiring to a reader, so I try to counteract this prose style with my dialogue.  I tend to write short, minimalist maybe, Hemingway-y or Carver-y dialogue.  I guess those are the two chief features of my style: convoluted, subordinating prose and minimalist dialogue.  That plus just not being good enough.

What I meant earlier in saying that my work leans toward the postmodern is that I seem to naturally gravitate toward metafiction.  Parnucklian for Chocolate contains no metafiction, but the story I’ve been working on, The Anti-Story, includes a lot of it, and when I started writing short stories, as an undergrad taking creative writing courses, they were all metafictive.  Borges says that “every writer creates his own precursors”.  I certainly don’t think that I created my own precursors, but I find it interesting that I discovered my influences after already being influenced, which is sort of what Borges is talking about there.  Writing bad metafiction as an undergrad without knowing what metafiction was led to comments from professors like bla bla postmodernism bla bla John Barth Metafiction which led me of course to John Barth, who I went mad for, and Vonnegut, who, you know, is awesome and all.

So there. Thanks for reading this.

Aggressive Sprinkling and Selfie Confusion: Evidence We Are No Longer Young

In December I turned 35.  Which is a hard number to lie to yourself about.  34, at least, can be referred to, perhaps erroneously, as early thirties.  Early to mid.

Liz, in January, turned 30, at which point her good-natured jabs about my debilitating old age in contrast to her everlasting youth came to a halt.

Recent evidence that Liz and I are, indeed, not kids anymore:

1.  This past fall I turned my sprinklers on a group of middle-schoolers I felt were walking too closely to my front lawn.

2.  On Monday (or sometimes Tuesday) nights, Liz and I have a “Downton Date”…

3. …in which we watch the latest episode of Downtown Abbey On Demand.  We can’t watch the latest episode of Downton Abbey on Sunday night, with the rest of America, because it comes on at 9PM, at which point we are both already asleep.

4.  Similarly: on a trip to Portland in October Liz and I decided to go dancing.  Like at a club.  Fighting off our yawns we donned our best and made our way to a nightclub across from our hotel.  We were surprised at how empty the place was.  So we asked.  It was empty because it was 8:30.

5.  A conversation we had yesterday in the car:

ME:  Have you ever taken a selfie?

LIZ:  I’ve taken pictures of me and Tommy.  Are those selfies?

ME:  I don’t think so.  I think those are just pictures.

LIZ:  Then no, I don’t think I have.  No…well…yeah…when we were first dating I took that picture of my hair.  When I got that        haircut.

ME:  Oh, yeah.  (pause) What’s the purpose of a selfie?  Like, what are they for?  Is it, like, for your profile page, or something?

(Long pause)

LIZ:  We sound old.  This conversation would make a good twitter.  (pause)  Tweet.

Workshop on Barth and Borges at Wordstock Festival (Portland, OR Oct. 3-6)

A few weekends from now Liz and I will be flying up to Portland, OR for the Wordstock Festival, where on Saturday (October 5) I will be reading with Don Waters at 2PM, and on Sunday (October 6) at 4:30PM, I will be conducting a workshop titled, “The Problem of Originality.”

The workshop is based on a paper I wrote and a lecture I gave as an MFA student in University of Nebraska-Omaha’s Low Residency program.  The paper was ridiculously titled, “John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse, Which Is to Say All Literature, And on That Note Everything, And How It Relates to Me, Me Being Everyone, And What Borges, Also Everyone, Also Me, Has to Do With All of That, Which Is to Say Everything” and both it and the lecture focused on how Barth, and Jorge Luis Borges before him, deals with a medium that is “exhausted,” or finite.

Neither Barth nor Borges find this exhaustion to be a problem, or at least don’t find it to be a limitation; rather, they use the fact that there are only so many things to say to say something entirely new.

A great example of this is Barth’s story, “Frame Tale,” which is the only story I know of that requires, in order to read it, scissors and glue.  So if you’re in Portland the first weekend of October and you come to my workshop, you’ll get to read said story using said scissors and glue, and then, amongst other things, we’ll discuss what we, as fiction writers, which we all in one way or another are, can learn from it.

The workshop will address the question: how does one create a truly original work of art in a medium—or a world—in which originality is impossible?  As a preview, here’s a segment of the talk when given at the Univ of Neb Residency:

Roping, Winning, Losing, and Sam Peckinpah

A few nights back, Liz and I watched a documentary called Sam Peckinpah’s West: Legacy of a Hollywood Renegade.  At one point in the film, the actor Michael Madsen discussed a favorite line of his from Ride the High Country, in which a character expresses his aspiration to “enter [his] house justified.”

Now, a few nights back was not the first time I had seen this particular documentary, having for many years now been quite a fan of Peckinpah’s, particularly of the films Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and Junior Bonner, and while I have never seen Ride the High Country, this concept of entering one’s house “justified” is one that has always, as it did with Madsen, resonated with me.

However, I think the line, and my own view or definition of such justification, has changed since I first saw the documentary about nine years ago.

Nine years ago, at 25 years old, I only really cared about one thing (and for that matter, had only cared about that one thing for nearly ten years prior and would only care about that one thing for another five years after), that one thing being team roping.  At around fifteen years old, as a freshman, I started team roping, first competing in high school rodeos, then later college, amateur, and professional rodeo.  I was obsessed with it.  I watched hours and hours and hours of video.  I read team roping magazines (yes, they exist) cover to cover and over and over.  I roped the “dummy” (fake steer) tirelessly.  In college, there were many days when I skipped all of my classes and stayed at the rodeo grounds roping the dummy.  All day.

And then there was the actual roping.  The live roping, with horses and cattle and an arena and so forth.  From the ages of fifteen to twenty-five I was at a roping or rodeo very nearly every weekend (I say nearly, though I can’t specifically remember a weekend that I was not), and more often than not two or three or four.  And if I didn’t practice every weekday of every week during those years, I at least practiced two or three times a week.  In fact, no day felt quite complete if I didn’t rope.  Somewhere.  Not roping depressed me.  If there was nowhere to rope, I found a place.  My first year of college, I drove fortyish miles from San Luis Obispo to San Miguel and back every afternoon to practice.  They offered practice at the college, where I kept my horses, but that was only on Mondays and Wednesdays, which didn’t work for me.  Later in my college career, during a period when—for various reasons, all valid—the powers that be saw it fit to suspend my driver’s license for six months, I turned to Amtrak.  One weekend, I rode Amtrak from San Luis Obispo to Klamath Falls, OR (and back) for a roping.  That same year, I won second at the amateur rodeo in Chico, and I’m pretty sure I was the only contestant who’d arrived by train.

But roping itself—the physical act of roping—was not my only obsession.  Its sister obsession—winning (specifically, winning at roping)—was just as strong, and each obsession fueled the other.  Which brings me back to Peckinpah.  When I first heard that expressed desire to “enter [one’s] house justified”, I saw the means to such justification in winning.  For many years, I allowed my own to self-worth to be defined by and my self-esteem driven by whether or not I was a winner or a loser.  In fiction—Peckinpah’s films included—the truly and deliciously compelling characters tend to be—for me, anyway—the losers, but actually losing (in real life) can be devastating, particularly when you need to win (for aforementioned purposes of defining self-worth and so forth).  Losing, in my past, seemed to cast a pall over everything.  Having lost, it was difficult to feel comfortable in my own skin, a feeling that could only be assuaged by more practice, in the pursuit of avoiding such loss, or, of course, winning.

This, thankfully, has all changed.  I am now knee deep in what I used to apathetically observe in other ropers: the transition to family life, which then seemed like merely a distraction.  Or perhaps an obstacle.

But now, with a wife and ten-month-old, whose securities and happinesses are my new obsessions, what gets me through that door feeling justified is doing right by them.  Loving and being loved.  Being present, because the present—the thirty inch and thirty pound and counting little dragon monster squirming around our living room floor—is pretty darn good.

Author Meet and Greets: the story of a tantrum

The low point of last Saturday’s Author Meet and Greet at Pilgrim’s Way Bookstore in Carmel, CA involved me sitting down and declaring in a resolute and defiant whisper, “Fine, I’ll just sit here until three o’clock (the scheduled end time for the two hour event),” that declaration followed by my wife scooping up our nine month old and announcing that they were leaving.  The high point came just a few moments later.

The bookstore events I’ve participated in since Parnucklian for Chocolate’s release in March have fallen into one of three categories: readings, author panels, and author meet and greets, the readings being the more common and—along with the panels—the easier and more comfortable, given that in such situations, similar to the teaching I do every workday, one is addressing an audience that has freely chosen to be a part of that audience (or, in the case of high school students, have been forced by the state to be a part of that audience).  In any case, with a reading or a panel or a lecture, the expectation of the audience, going in, is that you are going to talk to them, and as a relatively shy and perhaps even anti-social person, these seem to be the only conditions under which I feel comfortable or able to speak to strangers.

Author meet and greets don’t necessarily feature these conditions.  Based on my cumulative experience of two author meet and greets, author meet and greets seem to work like this: the author is positioned in a designated area of the bookstore, adjacent to a carefully arranged stack of their books, and instructed by the friendly and gracious bookstore owner to feel free to introduce themselves to and chat with the customers.  Some people may come to the store specifically for the meet and greet, but, especially if you’re a debut author no one has ever heard of, for the most part you’re dealing with the regular traffic in and out of the store, which in Carmel in the summer is mostly tourists.

So the flaw in the design, for a fiction writer, is that said fiction writer may not be the most likely candidate to speak to complete strangers about anything at all, least of all their own writing.  Nonfiction writers seem to be better at it; my anecdotal evidence of this consisting of having been seated at an author panel next to a woman who had written a nonfiction book called Sexy Feminism.  The woman spoke tirelessly and had the uncanny ability to somehow incorporate the phrase “Sexy Feminism” into every sentence.

The first meet and greet I did, at Face in a Book in El Dorado Hills, was scheduled for 6 to 8pm, and I ended up doing pretty much what, as mentioned at the start of this post, I would threaten to do at the next meet and greet.  I just sat there.  I only spoke to one person, who came up to talk about the book only after being buttered up by the clerk.  My just sitting there wasn’t a matter of attitude—I smiled and said hello to everyone who came in—I just couldn’t bring myself to take the next step.  I couldn’t bring myself to walk up and impose myself on people who had innocently come in to browse.  If I were them, I’d want to left alone (I think) and it was this precise notion and my inability to counter it that led to the aforementioned “low point” last Saturday in Carmel.

The most important difference between the first meet and greet, in El Dorado Hills, and the second, in Carmel, turned out to be the accompaniment of Liz (my wife) and Tommy (our baby boy).  If I had gone alone to Carmel as I had to El Dorado Hills, the result probably would’ve been the same: sitting, talking to no one.  But as the event last Saturday began and as the shoppers came in and out, Liz encouraged me to approach and talk to them.  She even gave me a script: “Hi, my name’s Bill and I’m here today promoting my book Parnucklian for Chocolate (gesture toward display).  Please let me know if you have any questions.”  I then explained to her, a bit panicked, that it was impossible.  I couldn’t do it.  She compared it to getting into a cold pool; once you dive in, it’ll feel better.  I explained, beginning to sweat, that I’d choose a root canal over walking up to strangers to tell them about my book.  I’d choose amputation.  She explained that talking about the book was the reason I had been invited there, the entire point of us coming.  I begged her to do it.  I’d stand by the books and sign them if she’d talk to the people.  I suggested she use the baby as a prop.  Or as a conversation starter.  She refused, at which point, as described, I declared my intention to just sit there, after which, as described, Liz loaded Tommy in the stroller and said, “We’re going.”

When the next person came in, I did nothing.  The next, again nothing.  When a third person came in, I began to think about letting down my wife and my publisher and the long drive home if I allowed myself to continue to just sit there, and I made the decision to take the plunge just as a German family of four crossed the threshold.  The matriarch let me get a third of the way through the script before cutting me off and asking me where the children’s books were, but my feet were wet nonetheless, and the next person let me finish and took a postcard.  But the ice—if you’ll allow my metaphor to change states—was completely broken by the next customer, a localish man who was out shopping while his wife competed at a nearby dog show.  This gentleman also cut me off a third of the way through the script, but to tell me he wanted to buy a book.  He had me sign it, had our picture taken, and came back later to introduce his wife (Ann) and dog (Norman).

And Liz was right.  It got easier, and it felt better.  I ran her script on everyone who walked through that door.  Some brushed me off, which, it turns out, is okay, but others didn’t, and by the end of the day I’d met some nice people, had some pleasant conversations, and placed my book in the hands of several people who hopefully will read it and perhaps will enjoy doing so.  And, of course, I once again demonstrated that if I’d just do everything my wife tells me to do, I’d be better off.

Meat and Cheese Only: Just One of Many Ways My Wife Has Saved My Life

When Liz and I began dating, I didn’t own plates.  Or a bowl, or a fork, or any other utensils or kitchen paraphernalia and I had never—not once, ever—purchased any groceries to place in the kitchen of the home that I—at the time—had been living in for just over six months.

The home was a two-story, four bed/two bath in East Stockton, one room of which I was renting for $400/month, the other three rooms occupied by other renters, none of whom I ever actually met or ever had a conversation with but that I would occasionally catch glimpses of as they darted in and out of their rooms.  Each room served as a sort of mini-apartment, with its own lock and key, and my mini-(mini-mini-) apartment had everything I needed at the time: twin bed, closet, bookcase, desk, lamp, a computer and a waste basket and a jug of water and that’s it.  Well, and a bottle of cheap vodka in the closet.

The kitchen of this house was a common area, but—because I owned no groceries and no implements with which to cook or eat those groceries—one which I never used or for that matter ever entered, eating every meal (and I mean every meal) at either Jimboy’s Tacos, Jack in the Box, Long John Silver’s, or Panda Express, the last of these—to my mind, at the time—being the healthy choice, because it’s mostly rice and vegetables and stuff, followed in second place by Long John Silver’s, because even though it’s mostly batter that I’ve drenched in malt vinegar, Hey, it’s fish!

But though LJS’s and PE were common stops, my caloric intake was handily dominated—and had been for about the previous decade-and-a-half—by tacos and cheeseburgers, both of which I always order meat and cheese only.

I’ve never been a healthy eater; I gave up vegetables while still in the single digits and my oddly adept metabolism growing up had allowed me to eat as much as I wanted (and then it abandoned me completely eight years ago).  These behaviors were compounded when as a teenager I began competing in high school rodeo, and later college, amateur and professional rodeo, all of which required frequent travel, which in turn caused one to frequently frequent food wagons and fast food chains.  And gas stations.  I ate a lot of meals purchased at gas stations.  Some gas stations would have “hot food” usually consisting of chicken strips, potato wedges, and chimichangas, but some didn’t, and my favorite “meal” from those that didn’t was something called The Big Italian, which was just what it claimed to be: a foot long Italian (ham, salami, pepperoni), prepackaged and distributed to gas station food marts nationwide, each one identical—the red hue of the aforementioned meats having shifted to more of a grey, a single jalapeno pepper mashed against the top slice of bread, an addition I generally discarded but the flavor of which, having permeated the sandwich, as through osmosis, over the course of The Big Italian’s travels, I much appreciated.  It was this consistency of The Big Italian that made it a favorite; I could always count on finding one, and for better or worse, I could always count on it tasting exactly the same.

In college I was so broke that I often ate three meals a day at the same Carl’s Jr.: either one Spicy Chicken sandwich or two Spicy Chicken sandwiches (99 cents each) and a glass of water (FREE!, unless you count as a cost the shame of having an employee hover about you making sure you don’t fill the little cup with soda).

And so it was when Liz and I got together: we spent one of our first dates—her shock at learning of my eating practices having had time to subside—at the grocery store, where we purchased, along with groceries of course, two bowls, two forks, two spoons, and a pot, returning to my until-then-neglected kitchen where Liz prepared for us a meal of pesto and fruit salad, a meal that I will never forget as it not only kicked off the most memorable—in a good way—summer of my life, filled with many more such meals, and not only merged me onto a path that is probably longer than the one I was on, but perhaps—though I had been employed in the adult world for several years and for the same amount of time had pretended to be one—finally introduced me to and entered me into adulthood.