Writing Up a Storm

Irish Summer

The air resounds with the pitterpatter of fingerdrops
as they smack against the keys like shingles, like asphalt, like hard-packed dirt.
The percussion beat of words as they soak into the screen,
and nourish the, blank, fertile landscape of word processor soil
so stories and poems and blog posts and political figures wearing dresses
on red carpet academy award election night
can grow.

The air is tense with the negative ions of dreams
gathering in the neural thundercloud inside my skull
waiting to make a positive connection through my bones, through my skeletal muscles,
through the fleshy pads at the end of my fingers.
They link, and flash, sear my tiny local sky and blind the eyes
of any muses looking on, whispering inspiration.
Their voices are drowned out by the deafening CRACK.
1.21 Jiggawats, coursing through my weak and tender flesh,
launching me through time to here, or there, or wherever it takes me
for as long as it lasts.
As long as I can stand it.

The rain falls quickly, now, flooding out gutters and filling sinkholes.
The cars caught in the storm crank their wipers up to 11.
Their drivers groan in desperation, feel their wheels slip out
and skid beneath them.
I don’t care.
People run through the deluge, holding out their arms or their handbags
in a feeble attempt to stay dry. It won’t work.
Somewhere, a woman and a man strip off their clothes and dash off into the fields
the mud squishing between their toes, their mad, joyous laughter heard only
in their footfalls.

All of this is my doing. Because an idea has been reaching
saturation in my brain all day,
and the storm will not stop
until the world is clean.

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Where Chipmunk Song Is Beautiful

Rainier'14

Right now there are tears covering my face. The reasons are almost as beautiful as they are dumb and embarrassing. I wept because of beauty and sadness and the wonder that is in the world. And I wept because I am very silly. And because of Alvin and the Chipmunks.

The day started off rough. I couldn’t wake up. I cut myself in a dream and it hurt dramatically for a dream. I woke up nursing the finger, wondering how it could have hurt so much when it didn’t really happen. Then I hit the snooze for an hour and a half.

When I finally got up my back hurt fiercely. The upper back, right between the shoulder blades. I took some pain killer and sat down to write, but nothing calmed down.

For the last few days I’ve been in an okay place mentally, but unstable. Liable to get angry or sad with only a tiny stimulus. Worse than that, I’ve had no motivation at all. I’ve wanted motivation, but my ability to give a fuck about anything is completely off. Nothing seems to matter.

I started to write this morning and it just wasn’t happening. I tried a writing prompt. It told me to act like a two year old. So I wrote for ten minutes as an unnecessarily articulate two year old with an evil older sister named Anna who stole her bunny and a nice even older sister named Girl. I don’t think she was actually named Girl. I think I was going for something nuanced there, but I didn’t write long enough to find out what it was.

I gave up on the prompt and went back to my writing journal to wax about how uninspiring I found that prompt. I clicked over to my countdown timer. It moved very, very slowly. It does that when I’m in these moods. Like it knows.

I came up with a plan to get some work done today, even despite my mood. And I kept writing even though I was in a lot of pain and every keystroke bored and annoyed me. I didn’t care about anything and it annoyed me that I didn’t care and I didn’t care that I was annoyed and that, too, was pretty annoying.

Then it happened.

I had put on a children’s music station to get inspiration for the prompt. It mostly played Phineas and Ferb music, and it wasn’t helping. Then came that voice. That beautiful, silly, ridiculous voice.

It was Alvin. It was Alvin of Chimpmunk fame. I recognized the song but I could place it. But it tugged at me. Right from the first few bars of that squeaky voice it moved something in my chest. It made me Feel Things.

It was a cover of Daniel Powter’s Bad Day. By the time Alvin stopped singing the song was so intense I had to keep it going. I went to Youtube and loaded the original video for the song. A video I had never seen before.

It’s about two people in a city who are having bad days while everyone around them goes about not caring. They are sad and lonely and disconnected. Throughout the video, they come together, through tiny moments and coincidences. It ends with them standing in the rain, huddled under an umbrella.

Now I’m covered in tears.

I’m sensitive, right now. In this place where nothing matters. Because when nothing matters I no defenses. I get angry when something goes slightly wrong. I become deeply sad when I hear about the tiniest suffering.

And beauty annihilates me.

If I see Mount Rainier on a clear day through by car window while I am in this place, sometimes I have to pull over because the feeling in my chest overwhelms me. In this place, every silly love song with a hint of power fills me with life and longing. I become a teenage girl who bawls at romantic comedies because they prove true love can exist in the world. I might go to pieces if exposed to too many Hallmark cards. I don’t know. I’ve never tried it, and I never will, because eventually the state will end and I’d have to live with that.

This is a place with no ironic distance. Where poetry has the power to reshape reality and bring me to my knees. Where clichés like “bring me to my knees” have all of the strength they had when they weren’t clichés. When they were just beautiful.

Some people live here. People like me make fun of them for being simple, or pretentious, depending on the flavor. But this is a beautiful place. Beautiful and painful and inspiring and terrible. I can’t exist here for long. The air is nectar and I nearly drown with every sublime lungful of breath. This is where Artists come from, and the intensity of every raindrop is why they cut off their ears. How could they do otherwise, when the world is like this?

I can’t stay here for long. The more beautiful it becomes the more difficult it is. I have to leave. I always have to leave.

But hopefully, I can always bring something back.

Failures

FAIL stamp

Day 4 of Shredded Comfort

Also alt Jesse takes control of his food destiny. Exciting!

I’ve had a lot of failures in my life. More than most people? I don’t know. I just know I’ve done a lot of giving up and not trying hard enough. Some of them I regret very much, but it’s hard to pull apart the bad threads of your past from the good ones. But even though I talk about myself, there are many subjects I avoid or talk around because I’m ashamed or uncomfortable. The last 10 months I’ve kept a lot of my friends and family in the dark about my situation.

Well, not anymore.

Warning: This is going to be long. Also this might come off as if I’m depressed or pessimistic about my life. I’m not. It’s just that in the words ahead I specifically plan to avoid deflections or defense mechanisms. That leaves me raw, but it’s something I have to do.

So here we go. I’m going to talk about my failures.

My parents told me I was very smart from a young age. I believed them. Like so many smart kids, I became obsessed with it. Like far too many smart kids, I was more focused on coming off as smart than I was at actually achieving anything. So I answered question in class, but didn’t do an awful lot of homework. I got decent grades, but I most definitely didn’t “live up to my potential.” I had organizational problems, and also I was easily distracted by books and Nintendo games, and they kept me limited. Between third and fourth grade I wasn’t moved into advanced classes because I “wasn’t organized enough.” I’m still pretty bitter about that.

High school was even worse. It was a lot more difficult, because I went to a fancy private school. Homework was a lot more important. For the first time in my life I got Cs. Not many, but I’d never gotten a single one up to this point and it stung. I went into this new school with a sort of mullet-thing and I had no idea I was being mocked. I remember one guy in my French class asked to see the grade of my first quiz. I had gotten a 67%. He looked at my hair, at my 4 inch thick glasses, then at my quiz grade. “I see,” he said, “you’re not really a nerd. You just look the part.”

College was worse still. I went to a crazy little school called Hampshire College, which had no tests, no grades, and no majors. Students picked whatever classes they wanted, and then wrote a paper about how they all added up to a curriculum. It was free and self-directed and innovative.

And the stupidest decision I ever made. Self-directed? Free? What the hell was I thinking? I couldn’t organize the shoes in my closet, and I never owned more than 2 pairs at a time. Needless to say, I passed very few classes at Hampshire. It didn’t help that I made ridiculous, amazing friends who all seemed to like me. For the first time in my life I had a real social life.

I never stood a chance.

They kicked me out after two and a half years. Only Hampshire never really kicks people out, as far as I can tell. I left the school with the intention of coming back as soon as I got my shit together. Over the next year I worked at a national survey call center, a factory that made cases, and a Dunkin Donuts.

I also realized I would never go back to Hampshire. So here I was, with no idea what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I thought about it, and talked to my girlfriend, who I knew even then that I was going to spend the rest of my life with. I had also spent the previous year falling in love with cooking, and I thought I could do that for the rest of my life.

It so happened my dad was a teacher at the Art Institute, and so I could attend any Art Institute for free.

“Hey baby,” I didn’t say to my girlfriend because she hates the word baby, “you wanna move to Florida so I can go to culinary school?”

“Sure,” she said. “But don’t call me baby.”

So we did. Our lease on the apartment ran out in August. We decided to move in my with parents in Jersey and then head down to Florida for school in September. The only problem was we didn’t have a car. Or any driver’s licences. So I took lessons and barely scraped in my license by the end of our stay in Massachusetts. The date of the exam was actually a few days after our lease expired. So my girlfriend went down with my parents, and I stayed with a friend of hers so I could take the test. I passed, and then took the train down to meet them.

Culinary school went really well…at first. I was pretty good at the cooking bit, and, if I can indulge myself, much smarter than all of the other students. This apparent advantage turned out in later years to actual be a disability. Most professional cooks and chefs are action oriented, not knowledge or information oriented. They care about what you can do, not what you know, and often find people who talk about their knowledge to be insufferable time wasters.

Eventually I had to get a job as well as attend school. We couldn’t live on my wife’s bookseller wages alone. So I got a job in a restaurant called Mr. G’s. 2 days a week, at minimum wage.

It was terrible. I spent a year putting pasta and veggies on plates for a chef/owner who didn’t really know he was doing and thought I was about as useful for preparing food as the plunger in the bathroom. My direct supervisor was a Haitian cook named Smitty who acted as much like a pirate as his name suggested. I learned almost nothing there, except that I wasn’t very good at this. And it was my fault. I never tried to do anything past what I was asked to do, or put myself out there. Because I was scared I would screw up, and that I didn’t know what I was doing. At one point my boss asked me if I knew anyone from school who needed a job. “Not just anyone, though. You know, someone good.” He didn’t say “unlike you.”

I stayed there for way too long. My next job was in a burrito shop. Moe’s Southwest Grill, the lamest of all of the “Mexican grills” that popped up in the mid 2000s. Moe’s speciality was that every time a customer walked in all the employees were supposed to shout “Welcome to Moe’s!” We sometimes did this. For the first three weeks the only uniform shirt I had was pink tie die. The guys told me “it’s the only one we have in your size.” It turned out what that meant was “making the skinny white guy wear pink tie dye is fucking hilarious.”

I stayed there for something like 5 months. By the time I left my boss – different from the boss who hired me who got fired in the meantime – begged me to stay. She offered me $10/hour, as opposed to $7.50, and 40 hours a week as opposed to 20-30. So I guess you could call that a success. Granted, it was low bar, but it gave me the confidence to get a job in a real kitchen.

The first few weeks of my job at the Sheraton hotel kitchen were psychological torture. The chef was sick for my first few days, leaving me and another cook to stumble our way through a huge party and pris-fixe specialty menu. When the chef did get back, he did his best to break me down and harp on my every move and mistake. Once he threw hotdog buns at my head as I worked the grill. Two months after I started there that chef quit and said he would never cook again.

Things got better after that. I got pretty good at my job, and everyone there seemed to legitimately likely. Meanwhile, school wasn’t going nearly so well.

I was only taking a few classes a week, because it’s all I could handle with a full-time job. And I was no longer getting the As of my earlier classes. There was a lot more homework, now, and no matter how much I liked the class at the beginning, my enthusiasm always waned and I stopped trying. A few times I didn’t turn in projects to teachers who really loved me. I felt terrible about that and solved the problem by avoiding them from then out.

Plus, my now-fiance and I hated Florida. Because it’s terrible. We had made very few real friends, and I was getting pretty bored of my job. This was a trend of me for the rest of my cooking life. If I was actually good at a job I got bored and wanted to leave. If it was stressful and terrible I soldiered on for far too long.

I originally planned on doing the Bachelor of Culinary Management program, but we decided we couldn’t stay in Florida that long. So I finished off the Associate’s credits and we got the hell out of there for Seattle. I figured I could finish my degree at the Seattle Art Institute, or online.

I did not do this. I think I knew I wasn’t going to do it.

Instead, I got a job at a kosher catering company. I stayed there for a few months before I realized I wasn’t getting anything out of it. Instead, I followed my father’s advice and applied to some high-end places where I actually wanted to work. To my surprise, one of them hired me.

My time at the high-end steak house was mostly terrible. High end restaurant cooking has a reputation for being cut throat, hostile, and unpleasant. In my experience this is totally true. Every time I made a mistake someone called me out. They also told everyone else. The head chef of the group of restaurants that included ours thought I was terrible because I was messy and inconsistent, which was totally true. After three years of stress and failing to rise up the ladder, my co-workers stopped being able to stand up for me, and the head chef fired me.

I spent the next 5 months unemployed. Actually, every time I was unemployed it was always for a long time. I hate looking for a job, and I tend to put very little effort into it. My wife, who I married while at the steakhouse, is always very understanding and permissive during these periods.

Finally I got a job at a sandwich shop. It was a huge step down, and I knew that I should be trying to work in another nice restaurant if I wanted to actually have a culinary career. But I was tired, and dejected, and I just wanted to do something I was good at. So even though I was a little embarrassed at working right in front of customers and taking their orders and having to wear a polo-shirt I took the job.

It went pretty well for a few years, even though the pay was bad and there was little room for advancement. But the customers were funny and my messiness and inconsistency weren’t big problems. I took on more and more responsibility and expanded the menu by adding a bunch of my own daily specials. When the guy who hired me left they hired a new manager. He lasted less than 6 months, and the owner gave me the job, along with another co-manager.

It didn’t take me long to realize I hated management. I didn’t like scolding employees, and I certainly didn’t like firing them, which I eventually had to do. When my co-manager put in her notice, the owner asked me if I was ready to take over. I said I was, but I wasn’t. Or rather, I didn’t want to. I knew that I didn’t want to manage a sandwich shop or a restaurant ever again. Which meant that I didn’t really want to be in restaurants.

So this culinary career I was going to trickled to what was probably its inevitable end. I put in my notice a week later. I had no idea what I wanted to do next. Just no fucking clue. But my wife’s employer, an online diamond retailer, was hiring seasonal employees. She was sure I could get the job, and then I could wow them with my customer service abilities into making it a full-time position, just as she had done.

I told my boss at the sandwich job I already had the job at the diamond place, then went confidently to the interview. It went very well, except that I lost my parking pass and the guy that interviewed me had to help me find it.

Maybe that’s what did it.

But whatever it was, they called me a week later and told me they were “going to pass.” I found out later that they thought I wasn’t organized enough. Woo! Not the first time I had heard that.

I was devastated. It seems silly, now. But I was completely confident that I would get the job. Being rejected made me feel utterly worthless. If I couldn’t get hired for a seasonal position in customer service, what the hell was I good for?

That was 9 months ago.

I fiddled around and applied to jobs for a while, with no direction. Finally I came to a conclusion. It took me a lot of nerve to work up to it, but I spent a dad preparing myself. When my wife got home, I told her I wanted to finally try to do something I had been wanting to do for years: become a freelance writer. She thought it was a great idea.

Now we get to the difficult part. Fast forward 7-8 months, and I’m still trying. I’ve made very little progress. Sure, I’ve learned a lot. But I haven’t really done anything about it. I haven’t submitted anything to anywhere, or created a portfolio of published writing samples. Because honestly, I haven’t tried hard enough. I’ve been too scared to actually put myself out there. I have plans on what to do next. Unnecessarily well-researched plans, at that. But I’m just terminally paralyzed by fear from moving forward.

On one level, I think I’m kidding myself. Being a freelancer requires being organized, my kryptonite. It requires networking and cold-calling and all sorts of things. Being able to write effectively isn’t enough, and I’m not even confident that I’m sufficiently good at that. For example, I use sentences like that last one right there. And also that one.

And I don’t know how viable a career it is. The research I’ve done suggests that it’s doable. It seems like most people fail for the reason I’ve failed up to this point: they don’t try hard enough. But I also realize I might be fooling myself.

But I’m going to keep trying. For one thing, I’m doing this. This month of discomfort and anxiety. Will it help me break through those ridiculous, so-obviously-self-imposed barriers that are holding me back? I don’t know.

I hope so.

Insipid Inspiration

DSC_7545-Edit

If my boredom
was a monster from a classical epic
it would be Grendel’s mother
no name
no attributes
just deadly
and then done

If my boredom
was a volcano
it would one of the ones on mars
not the really really big one
or the really big one
but it would be pretty big

If my boredom
was a video game character
from the 90s
it would be Kefka, from FFVI
because the dude destroyed the world
in multicolored pants
and it still wasn’t enough

If my boredom
was a character
from Finnegan’s Wake
it would be
some character
from Finnegan’s Wake
I can’t name
because it’s a very dense book
and finding one would take energy
and you don’t have any energy
when you’re bored

If my boredom
was a literary form
it’d be poetry
short lines
little imagery
a weak attempt at wit
and no structure to speak of

Oh look
There’s Kefka
in a Martian volcano
reading Finnegan’s Wake
to Grendel’s Mother
that looks fun
I should probably join them
it’d be a good time
there’s probably scotch
with tainted ice
and colorful umbrellas

but I won’t
because they’re not real
because that scenario is ridiculous
and they’re only there
because I’m bored

 

Terrors of Mist and Shadow

Mist Forms

 

What are you really afraid of?

When I list my greatest fears, they include horrific monsters and existentially terrifying supernatural situations that threaten far more than my life. Those are the things I find objectively scary. Intellectually scary. And since I am a ridiculous person with a flimsy grasp on reality, I have spent many nights unable to sleep for thinking about these ludicrously unlikely entities.

But they’re not what I’m really afraid of.

90% of the embarrassingly large amount of time I spend being afraid, I’m not thinking about monsters or ghouls or the potential fate of the human soul. I’m thinking about potential. I’m thinking about dreams, and the uncomfortable steps required to run after those dreams.

These are the things that terrify me.

A few months ago, I knew I wanted to practice writing so that I could take a serious chance at doing in professionally in some capacity. I had been writing on and off during the previous decade, but I never showed anything I had written to anyone, with the very occasional exception of my wife. Of course I hadn’t! That would have been terrifying!

It was with enormous trepidation that I started a blog. That meant exposing my writing to others and that made my blood cells freeze into millions of sharp-edged ice blades slicing their way through my veins. Then I did it.

And the result was hilarious. Why the fuck was I so afraid?

I have no shame in public. During college, most of my friends saw me without my pants at one time or another. It’s not that I took them off deliberately. I’m not that particular guy. It’s just that life conspired to remove my pants, and I just didn’t care. It’s surprising how likely this is when you don’t take the normal polite human steps to prevent it.

Now I can I not only effortlessly share what I’ve written on my blog, but I can even tell the pants story. In fact, I would tell enormously more embarrassing stories about myself if I felt they were appropriate for this format. I’m not sure exactly what the content rating for this blog is, and I know it’s up to me, but I do think the bus story is on the other side of that line.

My fear of sharing my writing was just a terror of mist and shadow. I was afraid of something that wasn’t real. It was in my head. It didn’t make it any less terrifying. But unlike a malicious creature with a chainsaw tongue who can rip all of the lymph out of your body with a whisper, the terrors of mist and shadow are fragile. Their threat is wet and insubstantial. They are difficult to face, but effortless to conquer.

Now I want to move forward, and try to write for people and businesses that will pay for it. This involves talking to people who might reject me. It means writing in a whole new style that I would have to learn as I did it. I’ve studied, but that’s no substitute for trench-level experience. I have a plan, and I think it’s a good one. Not an easy one. But I don’t need it to be easy.

And it’s terrifying. When I think about it in the abstract I’m fine. But when I think about actual implementation it’s like my skin hardens into wax, and I can’t move lest I crack, and melt, and pool.

But these fears aren’t real. Their fangs are vapor, and they drip nothing but mist. Their looming shapes are nothing but the shadows I cast when I cast my eyes downward, instead of ahead. I’m stronger then they are. Because they are nothing.

I know this to be true. I know it.

Now if I can just make myself believe it.

Writing to Where the Air is Thin

Misty Peaks

8 weeks, 24 chapters, 95, 663 words.

Today, at 5:14 PM Pacific Time, I wrote the last word of the only first novel I will ever write without access to time travel or body-swap technology. It’s over. For nearly two months, it has been my entire life. I ate and drank and breathed…well, food and liquid and air. But I did an awful lot of writing in between those bits.

I’m waiting for my mind to be blown by the fact that I’ve actually written a novel. I don’t think it’s going to happen. It’s been weeks since I had any doubt that I’d finish it. Even during those desperate periods just past the halfway mark when I was sure I would never come up with a decent ending.

I’m also waiting for the crushing existential crisis about what to do next. That one really might happen. It’s not a total lie to say that in the last few months I haven’t made any life plans that extend pass today. I just wanted to finish my novel. I was on the mountain with a limited supply of air and power-bars, and nothing mattered but that I reach the summit. Because they have a cafe up there and if I had to choke down another damn power bar I was going to scream.

Mostly, it’s just awesome. I wrote a novel! A few months ago I was pretty sure I would die without successfully pulling that one off. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I first crossed the dimensional rift into the plane of pure words when I was three (I was precocious). But there have been moments in my life when I honestly thought it was more likely I would acquire super powers.

The novel isn’t finished, of course. I only wrote the first draft. Or perhaps the 1.5th draft. I’ve been editing and rewriting with the help of some jerk I mentioned before, so it’s not totally raw. But it needs work. I hope to slice between 5,000 and 10,000 of those words off, as intimidating as that sounds. There are some structural problems, since I was definitely making up parts of the plot as I went along.  And I think my prose improved as I went on. My editing skills definitely did. So a rewrite is in order. All of that being said, I think the thing doesn’t suck. And since first drafts are kind of supposed to suck, that’s a reasonably big deal.

I don’t want to look at it for at least four weeks. Stephen King says to give it six weeks at minimum. But it occurs to me that he’s a horror writer, just like me. The way I see it, we’re in direct competition. So what he says is suspect. In fact, I wouldn’t past him to have altered my audio copy of On Writing, to give me poisoned advice and throw me off the scent. It makes too much sense. And he’s rich and connected enough to do it.

I’m on to you, Mr. King. I’m on to you.

But during those weeks away from my twisted literary embryo, I won’t quite know what to do with myself. It’s funny, because you know what I want to do, with the novel finished? Now that I’ve slogged through the grueling and intense process of shoveling words into the hungry fire, spending hundreds of hours with the same story and plot and characters for the first time in my life? You know what my primary desire is, right now?

I want to sit in front of a blank computer screen, put my fingers on the keyboard, and start on another one.