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Chased by my laughter

I once wrote an Ars Poetica-style letter to my mentor. I’m a weird guy, I know. But in there, and I’ll misquote myself, I say something along the lines of writing is like “moving my hand through a river of pages, chasing something shining wet with my childlike laughter.” That’s not even close, but you get the gist of it.

In truth,

who I am as a writer is a little bit like a mash-up song…

 

“It’s a little bit funny, this feeling inside. I’m not one of those who can easily hiiiii…”

“iiiiighway to Hell! I’m on the Highway to Hell! No-oo stop sign, speed limit! No…”

“…where man, living in his nowhere land, making all his nowhere plans for nobody, making all his nowhere…”

“plan keeps coming up again. The plan means nothing stays the same, but the plan won’t accomplish anything, if it’s not implemented, like it’s always been, and it makes me think of…”

“everyone’s afraid of their own lives. If you could be anything you want, I bet you’d be disappointed. Am I right? Am I right, am I right, am I…”

“Right now!..it’s your tomorrow…Right now!…Come on, it’s everything!…Right…”

“round baby, right round, like a record, baby, right round, round round. I got to be your friend now, baby, and I would like to move in just a little bit…”

“closer to God. Through every forest above the trees. Within my stomach, scraped off my knees. I drink the honey inside your hive. You are the reason I…”

“Staayyyy. Just a little bit longer. Now the promoter don’t mind, and the roadies don’t mind. If we take a little time, and we leave it all behind, and sing one more…”

“song to pass the time. Yeah, a melody to keep me from worrying. Or some simple progression to keep my fingers busy, and words that are sure to come back to me. And they’ll be laughing, and they’ll be laughing. My mediocrity. My mediocrity…”

 

Featured in this mash-up: Elton John, AC/DC, the Beatles, Built to Spill, Modest Mouse, Van Halen, Dead or Alive, Nine Inch Nails, Jackson Browne, Bright Eyes

“Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, Missing me one place search another, I stop somewhere waiting for you.”

At any given moment Meg the Writer is

The bridge in “Get on Up”, stardust, syrupy pancakes, a teacup (with only honey), puffs, seaweedy sea foam, the last stick of Bubble Yum, a .22 snub nose in a black lace garter (must be close to shoot), multivitamins, a book with the corners gnawed off, pie, clenched teeth, dusty sunglasses, Duck Soup, fingerpaint, funk and pillow forts, red poppies, sliced lemons in cold drinks, a ring twisting on a finger (nervously), the smell of baking cookies and cars being fixed, banana split smush, alien toes, Raoul Duke, assorted cheeses, never (sometimes) pencils, stilettos, secular hallelujahs, lots of superglue (for the broken parts), occasional whiskey, shaking moneymakers, umbrellas and bubbles, ripe peaches, antibacterial soap, a (sold) red Stratocaster and Peavey amp, ctrl alt delete, moisturizer, not enough water, bad bearings, El Duderino, discarded crusts, breezes when you most need one, (lost) hair ties, several times broken thumbs and chipped elbows, a king sized bed, slightly moist dirt, channeled Claudia Cardinale, greasy diner menus, the number 3, a (full) moon, silver silk, grilled veggies, ballet shoes on flat feet, Blue Mountain Lake, quicks quarks and also quacks, lime green bumpers, homemade whipped cream, Japanese Maples, Spirographs, ancestors, stacked decks, dried paintbrushes, nakedness, spoons, (disregarded) double yellows, one very delicate item (love), and lots of unmentionables as I’ve already mentioned.

Backlog Blog #2

I would like to state that anger doesn’t manifest in my writing…

“Sometimes I feels so nice, good god
I jump back, I wanna kiss myself”

–James Brown, “Super Bad”

…but it’s a little more complicated than that.
“Yes No. Maybe. I don’t know. Could you repeat the question.”
–They Might Be Giants, “Boss of Me”

For me, anger is that emotion that I don’t deal well with. I deflect, avoid, withdraw, suppress. I can it up, label it and save it for the apocalypse. It’s a wrench in my mental works, or a stick in my spokes, or whatever they say. It stops my machinery. I get gummed up and bogged down by anger. Sure, over the years I’ve had my moments: shouting at walls, punching a door, slamming a door, getting in someone’s face. But 99% of it is passive-aggressive. Even in the few spots where I actually “write angry,” I go back and revise my emotions. In writing, recognizing and modifying emotional manifestations is an exercise in tone.

 

“You know, you really make my life difficult when you can’t even bother to do some dishes when you’re home all day.”

vs.

“Hey. I’d really appreciate it if you could just wash a few dishes at some point in the day. I am having trouble keeping up on them by myself.”

 

Mind you, this is when you have the chance to revise a text. Anger, when spoken, is more difficult to recover. I have used this technique of modified tone when writing emails or memos to coworkers. I certainly consider tone when I write poetry, but I don’t consider anger. Maybe it’s the Incredible Hulk in the room that I refuse to acknowledge, or maybe human emotions are more complex. We like to distinguish ANGER as if it were a pure thing we could identify when we see it:

Image result for angry face

For all we know this guy is straining to lift some heavy weights or is in the midst of celebrating the game-winning goal he just scored. He could be really scared.

The point is, it’s not that easy to know what anger is. When we add words, it only gets more complicated. That’s why we have so many ways to qualify and modify it: irritated, pissed off, furious, livid, annoyed, miffed, peeved, apoplectic. Anger is just an inaccurate idea attached to one vaguely defined dimension of the spectrum of human emotions. Also, it’s all sorts of tangled up with everything else we feel and know and do. So sure, anger manifests itself in my writing. It probably manifests itself in my every waking moment in one way or another (maybe it’s just a byproduct of driving in NJ), but it’s not some simple, singular thing. That we try to hem it in with language is kind of futile and kind of beautiful. I’m sure anger has its place. I’ll let you know when I find it.

Backlog Blog #1

What consumes me is a compelling story.

It’s why I read volumes of poorly written fantasy novels, i.e. Robert Jordan, John Marco, Terry Goodkind, Stephen King. (Sorry kids, no George R. R. Martin)

It’s why I can “endure” some “bad” vocals for the sake of good lyrics:

“William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll
With a cane that he twirled ‘round his diamond ring finger”
—Bob Dylan

“Eating snowflakes with plastic forks,
And a paper plate, of course. You think of everything.
Short love with a long divorce,
And a couple of kids. Of course, they don’t mean anything.”
—Isaac Brock

“There’s a middle aged woman, she’s dragging her feet.
She carries baskets of clothes to a laundromat.
While the Mexican children kick rocks into the streets,
and they laugh in a language I don’t understand. But I love them.”
—Conor Oberst.

It’s why I can’t stand a pretty song with bad lyrics (a.k.a. the lyrics to almost every song I have ever tried to write).

  • Ex. Bad lyrics:
    I had a dream
    You were waiting for me
    On the other side of sleep
    But these blankets and sheets
    They are empty
  • Ex. Good lyrics:
    There’s a cigarette in his left hand, there’s a picture of her
    in the darkest little corner of his mind.
    He rolls down the window, and lets those memories float
    out with the ash over the highway

It’s why I write narrative poetry even if people think that stories don’t belong in poems.

  • Ex. Narrative poem (in progress):“I am in the backyard again, dreaming with my hands / plunged into the dirt. I hold the marvelous collapse / of everything in my fingers. My father mows the lawn”

It’s why I fell in love with Haruki Murakami’s novel, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. I like my stories a little dark, a little unbelievable, a little complex. I like my characters to be complicated and difficult to read. I like it better when they’re not cool, when they’re the underdog, when they have guts and doubts and a little touch of madness.

It’s about stories, storytelling, stories within stories, recollection, memory. Tell me a story, tell me your story. Tell me again. Tell me the best parts. Now tell me the worst parts. Now tell me the truth. Now start from the beginning. Pretend there’s no ending. Pretend you’ll continue tomorrow. The lights are off, but I can’t sleep. I read a story from my own past. I had forgotten almost nothing. I was consumed anyway.

“Says she wants to dance to a different groove, Now you know what to do G bust a move”

Currently consuming me are: one self-study, a paper related to the National Writing Project, a paper applying Foucault’s “Birth of the Prison” and “Power/Knowledge” to the literary canon, a paper on Whitman’s counter-counterculture within “Song of Myself” and “Bardic Symbols”, a research symposium presentation and research on the cognitive benefits of humor in the writing center. I think “that’s it.”

Enter the warring Megs, one with OCD and another who just wants to play. Neither one can totally shut off.

“Slim lined sheik faced
Angel of the night
Riding like a cowboy
In the graveyard of the night
New York witch in the dungeon
Of the day
I’m trying to write my novel
But all you do is play” – T. Rex, Baby Boomerang

Consume can mean taking up all your energy and attention oooorrrr it can mean “to completely destroy, as with fire.” I’m kind of an expert at walkin this line, it’s just more intensified right now.

So how do you walk the line?

You don’t, you dance it.

I’m writing now. I’m going to devote some serious time today to at least two of the aforementioned projects. But I’m also going to dance in my kitchen a lot randomly throughout the day and also when I cook later (another Zen way of walking that line).

Kitchen dance playlist (current, though constantly changing, asterisk indicates I get especially consumed and dance in a way that counts as cardio for the day):

“Signed, Sealed, Delivered” and “Superstitious” Stevie Wonder

“Trenchtown Rock” Bob Marley

“Son of a Preacher Man” Dusty Springfield

“You Sexy Thing” Hot Chocolate*

“All Night Diner” Modest Mouse (recently added, thanks Peter)

“Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof off the Sucker)” PFunk

“Bust a Move” Young MC   (Bust IT!)*

“Use Me” Bill Withers

“Jailhouse” and “Ball and Chain” Sublime

“Work it Out” Beyonce

“You Got the Love” Chaka Khan and Rufus

“What’d I Say (Pt. 1)” Ray Charles*

“Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” Sly and the Family Stone

“Dancing Days” STP version

“Got to Give It Up” Marvin Gaye

“Leavin Here” Pearl Jam version

“Think” Aretha

“Annie…” and “Back in the Day” Erykah Badu

“Pump it Up” Elvis Costello

“Gettin Jiggy Wit It” Phish version

“Groove Me” King Floyd*

“Green Onions” Booker T & the MGs

“Baby, It’s You” Smith

“Boom Boom” and “Don’t Bring Me Down” The Animals

“My Favorite Mutiny” and “We are the Ones” The Coup

 

I double dog dare you to put any of these on and not dance. Try it. Be consumed. Hell, come to my kitchen if you want. Have a drink. Laugh at me dancing.

Then go back to being consumed.

Tutus make the experience even better (FYI)

Tutus make the experience even better, FYI. This is an actual portrait.

The Works of George Saunders

About a year ago I watched a PBS documentary about George Saunders, an American short story fiction writer.

writer

From there I was led to a google search of a commencement speech he gave at Syracuse University titled “Err on the Side of Kindness.”  The main point of the speech was a rethinking of the usual commencement  thesis that advises graduates to go out and succeed; conquer the world; go get it!  Saunders told the graduates, that yes they should do all those things, but more important, most important, is, in the process of all the decisions they will be making, career choices, relationship choices, power struggles, all of life’s challenges and tribulations, to be kind to all of the people they come across.  He put the speech into context by recalling a young girl who moved to his Chicago neighborhood and who was not treated kindly by the kids in the neighborhood.  Saunders looked back at that brief relationship with regret, and he asserted that the moments in life that the graduates would regret in the future would be those in which they were mean, not nice, to the people they encounter.  I was moved by the speech and I am not giving the speech its just due.  But here is a link to the full speech. Err on the Side of Kindness – George Saunders.

From there I was intrigued and went to the best local book store in New Jersey, Montclair Book Center

Many of Saunders’ stories share common themes and patterns. They often move away from a linear structure and put the reader in the thought patterns of a character before returning to the story. They often involve the plight of outcasts in American society; the depressed, the poor, the bullied, the downtrodden.   And yet I have never read a funnier writer than George Saunders.  His stories make you feel empathy and sadness for his characters, yet always leave you laughing and wanting to tell a friend about the story you just read.

The story that sticks with me most “Sea Oak” which is written from the perspective of a male stripper who lives in a dangerous, low income housing complex, with his Aunt Bernie and his sister and cousin who both live at home with babies. I don’t want to give away too much of the story, but I will say that it takes magic realism to a new place; a scary place; a hysterical place, full of surprises that make you reflect on your own life, while sympathizing with all of the characters in the apartment.   “Sea Oak”can be found in a book of Saunders’ short stories called “Pastoralia.”  Here is a link:  Sea Oak – George Saunders.

If you enjoy it, please go out an support this great author at a local, privately owned book store like Montclair Book Center.

I have at times been consumed by authors; Vonnegut, Hunter Thompson, Lydia Lunch come to mind.  But George Saunders has reinvigorated by thirst for literature in a way that no writer has before.  Thanks George!

Struggling with the Rights of the Author

The piece of writing that consumes me as of late is the memoir of my late Colleague and friend Rien Niemandson. I am only the editor of this piece, so I am simply writing the introduction, organizing, editing, and adding commentary in the way of notes, when I deem notes appropriate. However, I’m fining it difficult not to commandeer Niemandson’s narrative for my own purposes. There is always the danger of writing yourself in a story , in which you do not belong. However, Niemandson and I worked together at CCC and sadly, he took his own life on the one year anniversary of my father’s death. The intersections of the various parallels between Niemandson’s death and my father’s as well as his own life and my own life are making resisting the temptation to cross the line from editor to writer difficult to overcome. Thankfully, I have the help and support of my family to aid in this task. My Father has already penned the prologue to the text and my Grandfather has offered his services on the epilogue. I think this is the solution to all my problems. Three Norman’s are better than one.

I’M NOT MAD

HOW DO I MANIFEST MY ANGER IN WRITING? LIKE THIS. THIS IS ANGRY WRITING. WE ALL KNOW IT’S A SUREFIRE WAY TO LET SOMEONE KNOW YOU ARE YELLING IN TEXT FORM. YEAH, YOU HEARD ME – AND YOU DON’T EVEN NEED TO TURN UP THE VOLUME.

Although I do shoot out the occasional “ARE YOU [insert expletive] KIDDING ME?!” text (which often resolves nothing), I’ve found that angry writing can serve concrete and very beneficial purposes. Personally, I have a hard time writing anything unless I’m moved by some overwhelmingly intense emotion, with anger being one of them. Some of the best and most personal writing I’ve done has been initiated in fits of rage when I could find solace in nothing else. I’ve taken to the keyboard or grabbed a pen and paper to express thoughts that were better left unsaid aloud, and I think that’s important… to be able to distinguish between what should be spoken and shared and what should be written and tucked away (or set on fire). Angry writing affords you enough time to make the more logical decision. It’s a different kind of “counting to 10,” though the writing time will most likely last more than 10 seconds. Angry writing is a deep breath.

Sometimes my angry writing consists of fragmented thoughts, while other times it takes on the form of a letter to a friend or a poem. One of the goofiest moments I had as an adjunct instructor so far was when I was a bit frustrated with my students and went to write a passive aggressive email, but what came forth from my fingers instead was this:

Thanks to all those who came to class last night.

I hope your midterm grades didn’t give you a fright.

I was happy to meet with you all as you did peer review,

But sad those who didn’t submit drafts will receive minus two.

Just a reminder if you look on your syllabus you’ll see

An important note underlined at the bottom of Page 3:

If you’re absent you’re still required to submit what’s due,

Whether a central claim or paper draft, this rule holds true.

Even on Halloweekend, deadlines are firm,

And meeting them will help you be successful this term.

I look forward to collecting your papers Monday night.

Add commas where commas go, and don’t forget to cite.

I hope your Halloweekend is super sweet,

And that your papers have no tricks; make each one a treat.

So very corny. I know. But what could have been an email that said “WHAT MAKES YOU THINK YOU DON’T HAVE TO SUBMIT A DRAFT IF YOU’RE ABSENT FROM CLASS?” and “YOUR LACK OF CARE FOR YOUR WORK WILL NEVER FLY IN YOUR FUTURE JOBS” took on this shape instead. Could the students tell my blood was boiling? Not really. [They actually complimented me on the email during our next class period.] And I know that after I cooled down I would’ve regretted sending a passive aggressive email, so I was pleased that I took my writing breather to work through my thoughts.

Angry writing is all around us. We see and listen to it every day in the form of song lyrics. We’re able to connect to the combination of the words and music, which help us feel or release our own anger. Listen to an Eminem song. Throw on some heavy metal. This type of music moves us to feel and serves as a great example of the power angry writing can hold for us too.

I think it’s essential to draw the line between public and private writing when it’s so jam-packed with emotion. Not sending a passive aggressive email you’ll later regret or one of these YELLING-I HATE YOU-YOU ARE ALWAYS WRONG-YOU ALWAYS ANNOY ME-AND IF WE WERE TOGETHER IN PERSON MY HAND WOULD BE IN YOUR FACE texts is a step in the right direction. We all just need to take a deep breath, sigh the thoughts out onto the page, and take an extra moment before clicking “send.”

Private Joker’s Field Journal.

DAY ONE

1200: Read Derrida. Begin to question reality and mutter “Differance!” in inappropriate situations. “Nihilists! … I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.” (The Big Lebowski) Morphine injection imminent.

1300: My best friend tells me in a letter from home (text) about her tests in nursing school. I write back and tell her about 15-20 page papers. Even in the midst of her anatomy and physiology class she writes back two words: “oh (rhymes with Lit)!”

1400: Veteran reminds me of Hydra and how cutting off the head just makes another grow in its place. I realize that the Greeks may have been grad students, and the “gods” may have been professors giggling in Olympus.

1430: “The possibility of physical and mental collapse is now very real. No sympathy for the Devil, keep that in mind. Buy the ticket, take the ride.” (Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas)

1500: Some really good music received from a pal in the trenches. Get a hug. Spirits temporarily lifted. “I might disintegrate into the thin air, if you’d like / I’m not the dark center of the universe, like you thought. Well it took a lot of work to be the ass that I am and I’m real damn sure that anyone can equally, easily…” (Modest Mouse).

1700: ANOTHER assignment added to my pile. Not sure whether to head to liquor cabinet, medicine cabinet or meditate and do some yoga to deal with anxiety and anger resulting from this surprise attack. Decide on two of the above (yoga first, though a different order might be more fun).

1730: I inhale food and forget that food is supposed to have a taste. I remember that sometimes food is not wrapped in foil and Kind Bars, pretzels and candy aren’t a normal dinner.

1900: Jacques Lacan. MEDIC!

2100: I waste a few minutes of my precious nonexistent time thinking about a precious nonexistent paper that would involve Labyrinth, Zelda, Hunter S. Thompson and T. Rex (the band, not the dinosaur).

2200: I wish that I was Wordsworth’s “Solitary Reaper”. Just sickling and singing mournfully. Realize I’m doing that already, and it’s very metaphorical but not romantic at all.

2300: I get antsy during theory class. “Order us some golf shoes, otherwise we’ll never get out of this place alive. Impossible to walk in this muck. No footing at all.” (Fear & Loathing)

2315: B+ received. Two metaphors used in “serious” paper. Must stop being creative in papers. Gangrene sets in (to brain) and I lose my temper at myself.

2330: On my way back to base, think of an idea for a poem I can’t write. Sarcastic voice in my head says “Oh you thought you could write a poem?! When?! In your spare time?!”

owl

hi.

 

DAY TWO

000: Arrive back at base. I should be tired. I’m not tired at all.  I have to get up early. Thinking about this makes me less likely to sleep. Repeat cycle. Get 3 hours of sleep full of weird lucid dreams.

1100: Enemy growing by threes for some reason. Trifectas not my specialty. (Odd)

1130: I commute. Still commuting. Still commuting. Still…………zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz….@*%$#* DRIVERS…Still commuting….My windshield gets a crack straight across. I watch this as it happens. Make a mental note that before it’s replaced, I’m going to take a hammer to it for fun/therapy.

1200: Heidegger. Face down in mud (being!) for a few days (time!).

1300: Try really hard to avoid thinking of these upcoming battles. This doesn’t work. Decide to eat candy instead. Tell myself I’ll do extra squats and bridges to make up for this. Won’t happen.

1430: I’m cold but I don’t like wearing coats inside so I’ll just be cold and complain instead. Consider that I might be a reptile. “Season of boogers” will replace “winter” henceforth and I am convinced that men are biologically warmer than women and therefore will never understand our plight.

1530: Last Sour Patch Bunny package stolen and hidden (realized when rustling heard in neighboring cubicle). Punishment for plundering of rations is severe.

1600:Air raid, freshman!” You won’t get that unless you were a nineties child and if you do, “alright alright alright.” (Dazed & Confused)

1630: Parasite in the trenches. They call it “3-400 pages of reading” and we’re losing soldiers by the day.

1800: Partake in some self-doubt. Quickly get over it. No time for such nonsense.

2000: I’m still cold and so I get soup. I like saying the word “soup.” Soup soup soup. Warmth and happiness abound.

2100: Call in coordinates, another assignment has been added and I don’t have the womanpower, need reinforcements 10-4. Do you copy? *yes we copy soldier that’s a negatory hold your position*

2200: “Reminiscin this & that’n havin such a good time oo-de-lally, oo-de-lally golly what a day” (Roger Miller, from Robin Hood) *Feel free to whistle along, or sing along, like the sing-along-song videos with the little bouncing thing over the words.


2300: White flag waves, but it’s not mine. Sheer endurance, combined with having a sense of humor (default response) has won the day(s).

 

“Do not hold on to anger, hurt or pain; they steal your energy and keep you from love.” (Unknown)

A Match

Topher Chapman was the Marco Polo Regional School Chess Club President, which consisted of 14 syllables if you included the definite article. He was also five-time National Chess Association Teen Tournament Regional Champion, but this is significantly less interesting as it contains 21 syllables. This year was Topher’s final year of eligibility, and he was pretty determined to take the State title, which would replace “regional” with “State of New York” (a total of 22 syllables).
Topher’s success was due in part to his unpredictable style. While he largely followed advanced strategies, it was more important that the game end with an even number of total moves between the two players. At the early stages of the tournament it was easy to track the total number of moves, because Topher could dictate play with little resistance. If he needed to extend the game, he simply added nonsense moves that his defeated opponent failed to notice. At the higher levels Topher was certainly capable of defeating his opponents, but managing the total moves became increasingly difficult. Thus, “regional champion.”
Over the past year, he had compiled a collection of exactly 200 permutations of the most likely attack and defense combinations that ended with an odd number of total moves. He studied them religiously in preparation for the upcoming NCA teen tournament. These were the combinations he must avoid at all costs. However, before Topher could compete in the tournament, he had to get through his senior year of high school.
This seemed rather straightforward. He was doing well in his classes, and his school was relatively without bullies. He had come to an agreement with those few offenders. They could be “members” of the Chess Club, giving them a free period, so long as they came in peace and came in pairs. Membership had held steady at 12 for the last two years. Everything seemed in perfect order until Margot Markov transferred to Marco Polo Regional. As a requirement of her transfer, she had to participate in an extracurricular activity. When she chose Chess Club, she was succinctly denied. Topher had no other prospective members, and was therefore unwilling to admit a thirteenth member.
While he had no actual authority to deny/accept membership, Margot Markov was not aware of this. She told her mother she was rejected, her mother threatened a sexism suit, and Margot became the thirteenth member the next day. As part of the “plea bargain,” the Principal insisted that Margot be offered an opportunity to represent the school at Sectionals. Because of his track record, both at the tournament and as Club President, Topher was able to negotiate a qualifying match between Margot and himself. A showdown.
Unfortunately for Topher, he was too distracted to count the total moves and found himself otherwise poised for defeat. Margot, a competent player, couldn’t quite figure out Topher’s seemingly weak tactics. She was hesitant to go for the kill. In the middle of the chaos, Topher played to a stalemate.

Epilogue: The stalemate resulted in Junior Oliver Frickman being sent to sectionals, but more importantly, it left the story short of 500 words by just one. This was fine with Topher. He had his high school diploma and an additional 12 free days in his summer. He spent all of them with Margot, whom, it turns out, doesn’t like tricycles, third wheels, three-tined forks, Neapolitan ice cream, or March. Topher didn’t know a lot about love, but he did like that it came in pairs.