November by Matt Fraction, Elsa Charretier, Matt Hollingsworth, and Kurt Ankeny.

Since it is the last day of November, I thought I would write about…well, you get the idea.

When I started reading this series of graphic novellas—one at a time at release—I was so confused. But I essentially thought this was Matt Fraction’s female-centric take on Criminal and Sin City if you mashed it together with Darwyn Cooke’s Parker series.

The four novellas follow three characters over the same period that sees their city descend into madness. All four books alternate focus on the POV of one of the three characters, and primarily none of them are good people. I like the challenge that it is character-driven and represented in the experimental structure, which indicates Fraction’s voice. It’s like he approaches new books with structural challenges, then grows the story of that structural challenge. So there are 3 characters, and each intersects at particular points. In the first 3 books and then they wrap up in the fourth book.

What is structurally neat is that the page’s alternate panel counts. At a page turn, we get a character page with a massive panel count—usually as little as 8 panels to as many as 12 panels. This is followed by action or a pilot point that grows out of the character pages with fewer panel counts—five or six panels at most. The narration, hand-lettered by Kurt Ankeny, is also character-centric with different handwriting for each of the three characters—like they’re all writing their version of events to process and heal from this extreme situation.

That last part is often jarring. The handwriting can be hard to read, especially the cursive because it’s white lettering on black caption boxes. That always makes my eyes cross.

What?

Since Fraction sticks with each character’s focus, he often retreads whole scenes and set pieces from each character’s POV and then follows each character off to the end of the book or their story. The retread struck me as needless but I understand why it was done that way. The structure demanded it, and this is a character story and is structured as such.

Elsa Charratier is a stellar storyteller. She’s very agile in that she can go from nine pages of 12-panel grids (volume 3) to a plot point of four panels and a cliffhanger before Fraction pulls us away from the plot point to a different point but related part of the character’s story. Her work with Matt Hollingsworth were characters in themselves, channeling Darwyn Cooke’s Parker books giving each character a unique color scheme to show that we’re moving from one POV to the next.

An example of the character grids transitioning to a plot point

It is an exciting series that doesn’t quite land and I would recommend you read it all in one sitting; otherwise, if you read one volume at a time, as I did with the first two volumes, you may wonder what the point is. The point is the structure to focus on character regardless of the story. The result is a one-of-a-kind character study.

4000 Weeks by Oliver Burkeman

Every weekday, I drive my kids to their pre-school/daycare. And almost every day, I see cars and parents rushing their kids to the door of the school, checking their Apple Watches because they have a meeting at 8:30, and trying to rush their kids to wash their hands, stand on the mat and sanitize their shoes, wait for their temperature to be taken, etc. And every time I see someone like that, I always think to myself—like I’m having a conversation with them— “What’s the rush? We’re all going to the same place.”

In the introduction to this book by Oliver Burkeman writes that “productivity is a trap,” In many ways, this is an anti-productivity book. It’s not filled with tips and tricks to squeeze more time out of your day to do the things that matter. First it starts with the simple fact that you should do the things that matter most to you first and then come with the understanding that you’ll never finish all of the items. That getting things done is actually impossible.

“ Productivity is a trap. Becoming more efficient just makes you more rushed, and trying to clear the decks simply makes them fill up again faster. Nobody in the history of humanity has ever achieved ‘work-life balance,’ whatever that might be, and you certainly won’t get there by copying the ‘six things successful people do before 7:00 a.m.’ The day will never arrive when you finally have everything under control—when the flood of emails has been contained; when your to-do list have stopped getting longer; when you’re meeting all your obligations at work and in your home life…let’s start by admitting to defeat: none of this is ever going to happen.”

While you might think that this is the most obvious thing you’ve ever heard, there are many lessons to learn here. I think that’s what we’re seeing with this great resignation, not Sarah Jaffe’s cringingly prominent book Work Won’t Love You Back. Of course, it doesn’t, work couldn’t care less about you, or me. And I think the Great Resignation is that a lot of Americans are realizing this and saying, fuck this. My time is worth more than being “productive.” There, I summarized that book and this whole moment in time to three sentences. Now go do whatever you want.

What captured this perfectly for me was when Burkeman often talks about his four-year-old son. That the kid is pure presence. On page 131, I had a series of Yes notations.

They are linked to watching his son’s fist close around his finger, his head turn in response to a noise, without obsessing over whether this “showed he was meeting his ‘developmental milestones’ or not, or what I ought to be doing to ensure that he did.”

Worse, Burkeman realizes that his obsession with using time well meant using his child as a tool for calming his anxiety by treating him like an employee with some future sense of security and peace of mind. To treat the child as if all childhood is nothing but a training ground for adulthood. He also points out that the baby trainers are wrong that the baby should not fall asleep on your chest, but it’s a beautiful experience in the present moment and that has to be weighed appropriately. The future cannot always take precedence…. Russian Philosopher Alexander Herzen writes that, “because children grow up, we think a child’s purpose is to grow up, but a child’s purpose is to be a child. Nature doesn’t disdain what only lives for a day. It pours the whole of itself into each moment…Life’s bounty is its flow. Later is too late.” Like a pool, river, or lake. Like Dory said, just keep swimming.

Basically, the entire book is an extensive exercise in Stoicism’s memento mori idea, specifically Seneca’s On The Shortness of Life. But probably the most meaningful exercise from this book is actually doing the calculation of how many days you have in life. With four thousand weeks to your 80th birthday I figured out exactly how many days I have left until my 80th birthday, should I be lucky enough to live that long. I have 1,988 weeks until my 80th birthday or 13,917 days. Whatever happens in those days is something I have some control over, but mostly I don’t. Time doesn’t care, the universe doesn’t care, and neither does my work. This culminates in Chapter 13 on Cosmic Insignificance Theory:

“When things all seem too much, what better solace than the reminder that they are, provided you’re willing to zoom out a bit, indistinguishable from nothing at all? The anxieties that clutter the average life—relationship troubles, status rivalries, money worries—shrink instantly down to irrelevance. So do pandemics and presidencies, for that matter: the cosmos carries on regardless, calm and imperturbable. Or to quote the title of a book I once reviewed: /The Universe doesn’t Give a Flying Fuck About You/. To remember how little you matter, on a cosmic timescale, can feel like putting down a heavy burden that most of us didn’t realize we were carrying in the first place.”

So, like last week, when my two-year-old daughter had a sinus infection, I was on my way to drive her to school and drop her off because she could go to school. She says to me in the back seat, “Daddy, I don’t want to go to school.” Then, as if the universe heard her, I had a meeting canceled and I thought: yeah, why not? I canceled the rest of my commitments. Pushed a few items on my to-do list forward a day or a week (this post was one of them) and said, “Okay.” Then we went to a playground. We played in the leaves in the backyard, I gave her medication. We got a steamer at a local coffee shop and a donut. We took a nap and we watched some Bluey together on the couch. This might not have happened if this pandemic had not happened, and I didn’t read this book.

A Year Ago…in New York

When I read Sam Anderson’s article on Laurie Anderson (no relation), this paragraph struck me:

The last time I saw Anderson, my family and I had just come back from Oregon, the place of my birth, a place I tend to see, still, through the idealized glow of early childhood. After two years stranded on the East Coast, I missed it terribly. But out in the real world, Oregon had changed. Downtown Portland, after months of clashes between protesters and the police, was largely boarded up. People were living in tents on the sidewalks and streets. Early on our first morning, we woke up to the sound of a woman screaming outside, over and over. We walked past human feces on the sidewalk. It was the middle of a deadly heat wave, the hottest temperatures ever recorded, and to the east wildfires were raging out of control — in every direction, the horizon was blurred by smoke. The ragged trees of my youth, up on the hills, looked like ghosts. Finally we drove south, away from the big cities, and the smoke only thickened. Some of the most beautiful places I have ever been, my favorite places on Earth, were nearly unrecognizable. You couldn’t see the scenic mountains right on the edge of town. The air was like barbecue smoke. It felt like an apocalypse, like a failed society.

It’s been a little over a year since the last time I stepped foot in the Adirondacks and the house I grew up in. Here’s what I wrote.

The house is no longer ours, and it was never mine.

A panorama of a my parents’ garage when I was helping them move. Oct. 21, 2020

It was my parents’ house, but whenever I see a picture of the ski jumps or the 46 High Peaks in fall I can smell the dirt.

I actually have a jar on my desk filled with dirt and pine needles from the small neck of woods behind the house.

Earlier in October, I got a package from a friend in Saranac Lake, a close friend, and a Paul Smith’s College colleague. It was the first edition of William Gibson’s short story collection Burning Chrome. It was sent around the last time I saw him in person, drinking 3 Floyds Alpha King. I fell into deep appreciation with a dash of sorrow.

I miss these people terribly. My fellow Adirondackers.

You want something so badly that any reference to it immediately assaults your senses. That isn’t easy to justify, But I think it is part of the process of mourning. A lot has changed from this global near-death experience. But I think the best way to move past it is with appreciation, which brings some sorrow.

The best word for it, I think, is sublime. My phone screen still features a photo I took last year of my home’s deck and the giant white pine. The leaves changed in peak fall colors.

I turn to Seneca’s consolation to his mother about going into exile, and I often think that I’m in exile.

The body’s needs are few: it wants to be free from cold, to banish hunger and thirst with nourishment; if we long for anything more we are exerting ourselves to serve our vices, not our needs.”

This is why when I wake up in the morning and see the changing leaves outside of my loft space bedroom, I smile and say, if this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.

Stories We Tell Podcast

This is my friend Tim a year ago this past week in front of his garden.

This was the last time I was in the Adirondack Mountains. Who knows when I’ll make it back there.

He started a podcast this summer and wanted me to be a part of it. It’s called the Stories We Tell, and it’s about the stories writers tell themselves, others, about all the things in the writing life. But really it’s about counteracting the toxic narratives told about writers that romanticize substance abuse, mental illness; that there’s only one way to become a writer, one process, one entry point, one way of getting published, and making a living.

All of the above is bullshit rolling down a hill.

The podcast is about stories of good writers who make it work—through substance abuse, neurodiversity, day jobs, and parenting. It’s about the reality of being a working writer in today’s diverse publishing marketplace and not just someone who showed up on the New York Times Bestseller List and has a cushy teaching job somewhere.

And to write good stories, you have to first acknowledge that being a writer is not to accept the label of an introvert but realize that it takes two to be a writer. A reader and a writer.

Second, that to write good stories, you have to try to be a good person.

You won’t find any Charles Bukowskis, Hunter S. Thompsons, or Ernest Hemingways here.

Here is the most recent episode and for season one, go here.

Here

How I Take Smart Notes

The first time I started hearing about the Zettelkasten method was on Cal Newport’s podcast.

It seemed like it was more trouble than I wanted to engage in.

After reading this post, How to Take Smart Notes: 10 principles to revolutionize your note-taking and writing, I saw this as a system that filled in some of the blanks in stuff I was already doing.

But after hearing more about it through Austin Kleon, talking about reading Sonke Ahrens’s book, How to Take Smart Notes, I started reading it on Kindle.

I realized that I already cobbled this method together. About 70 percent of it. I use it through the Bear notes application and work through the process in my journals and pocket notebooks.

So to give you a summary of what I do, I’m going to explain the basics of my note-taking habit and how I marry that to this method. I won’t talk about what I ditched.

There are four kinds of notes, according to Ahrens:

  1. Fleeting notes: where I take notes on the fly that are informal, short, and quick. I use my pocket notebook for these since I carry it around in my wallet. It’s typically a Field Notes notebooks. It’s just filled with questions, observations, and things I notice. I sometimes post these on Twitter about once a week.
  2. Literature Notes: These are the ones that I use the most. They are notes that I take in physical books in the form of marginalia, and that usually goes to Instagram once a week. When I finish a book, I’ll collect all the pages that I fold over. I write a summary or review in the back of the book about what I learned or what I noticed that attracted my eye. For example: this post on Benjamin Percy’s The Ninth Metal.
  3. Permanent Note: from the literature note, I’ll make a permanent note in Bear and save it as a doc in my Dropbox, then I’ll edit it a few times and post it to my blog.
  4. Reference Notes: These are digital things I read on Kindle that will get a short summary in Bear (like a paragraph), and I’ll usually talk about it in my newsletter.

Really what this process solved for me is what I do with books or articles I read online or on Kindle. Kindle’s highlighting and note feature is about as good as that device is ever going to get and I don’t care for it. So the method I worked around concerning literature notes with Kindle is using notecards to write out the particular things I highlighted or noticed, then that goes into Bear. I tag it with a specific theme, the author, or a concept connected to it.

I know the magic of this method is when a bunch of unrelated permanent notes reaches a critical mass that’s when you have new connections to make. But that’s not really been the case for me yet. I’ve found that paraphrasing what I read, looking it over, is enough. For example, I’ll tag everything that I wrote over a season. Let’s say this summer, so I’ll use the 2021/summer tag and get a bird’s eye view of every note that I put in throughout a season. I wrote 137 notes over the course of the summer, that’s roughly two notes a day all summer, and I came up with one essay idea, and one short story idea.

When I look at the weekly newsletters I write that include my reference notes, notes I take on books, and references to other articles I get a picture of what I write about and how that interests me. This is not something I had before the summer. Sure, I had a general idea, but not the hard evidence of what it is that I notice and read about, and therefore come up with things that no one is writing about.

For example, writing about practicing Stoicism when you’re neurodiverse is something that is barely written about. Massimo Pigliucci has one article on it. There’s an article by Anna Joy Tanksley on practicing Stoicism as an Aspergian. There’s a great article by Sophia on employing the dichotomy of control to neurodiversity and practicing Stoicism helped with ADHD. But mostly, men don’t cover it at all.

Ryan Holiday doesn’t cover it, and William Irvine mentions the limits of Stoicism on his website. Donald Robertson–a cognitive behavioral therapist doesn’t touch it at all other than saying you should get a diagnosis. Instead he focuses primarily on the negative emotions that are all too frequent when you’re neurodiverse, like being quick to anger, anxiety, and depression. So that gave me the idea that’s something I’m going to specialize in, because none of the people currently writing about Stoicism are neurodiverse, so perhaps, they don’t feel like that’s something can write about, because it is not their personal experience.

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

This was tremendous fun, a perfect fantasy book that I can’t help but see the threads that dance between this and The Name of the Wind, Harry Potter, and a lot more that I’ve read before. But what struck the me hardest is not so much the content as the lines. There are a lot of liens that I circled and underlined that I absolutely loved. For example:

“A white tree he made spring up from the stone floor. Its branches touched the high roof beams of the hall, and on every twig of every branch a golden apple shone, each a sun, for it was the Year-Tree. A bird flew among the branches suddenly, all white with a tail like a fall of snow, and the golden apples dimming turned to seeds, each one a drop of crystal. These falling from the tree with a sound like rain, all at once there came a sweet fragrance while the tree, swaying, put forth leaves of rosy fire and white flowers like stars.”

Many of the heroic stories in this book are called songs or “Deed of…” whatever character—and that’s what this book reads like—a song. Throughout this book I’m making sentence diagrams of the things, but most especially, I see an old familiar.

But most especially, the book gives me this sense that I’m swimming in a river of words, or a sea.

The Ninth Metal by Benjamin Percy

This book is Benjamin Percy’s masterpiece. It’s the best work of fiction from him that I’ve read, and I’ve read them all at this point. Things that stood out to me the most were the principal themes of family and duty to that family colliding with the law, lawlessness, and a sense of justice that is personal that comes into direct conflict with the government conception of law, order, and justice and this sets fire to a place that is barely being held together. It’s a naturalist novel.

It’s peppered with beautiful descriptions of the natural world. It represents the ingredients of a naturalist novel in how a main character’s sheltered, hereditary, or everyday existence comes into direct conflict with the outside world. In the Ninth Metal, this is brought on by the conflict between two families: The Frontiers and Gundersons and their prodigal sons: John Frontier and Hawkin Gunderson. Both of them come into direct conflict from the prologue to page 288. They are the personal antagonists of the two main characters.

The naturalist or external antagonist for the Frontiers is Black Dog mining in Northfield, Minnesota. For the Gundersons, it’s the Department of Defense. Both are fighting over control of the mining of omnimetal that was brought here by a comet and grants powers to John and Hawkin.

So this is an X-Men story. Mother Gunderson and her followers are Magneto’s brotherhood and their religious/cult-like overtones worshipping the omnimetal (their chanting of “Metal is” recalls “Darkseid is.”), and the Frontiers are Xavier’s students. Hawkin Gunderson is Magneto, imprisoned by the Department of Defense (or the Nazis, if you’re going to follow my Magneto origin story through line). John Frontier is Wolverine who has a familial Stoic duty, which very nearly brings about his undoing.

It’s very much a local vs. outsiders story because locals almost always lose in a naturalist novel. Not this time, though, but that’s straying dangerously into spoilers.

What made this book so good for my journey as a writer these last two years. But it comes with a dilemma: I don’t know where Percy ends, and I begin. We don’t have the same ideas for stories, but we deal in similar themes: family, social sciences, and the slightest bit of the fantastic set in a world we live in now. It’s like we have similar voices, we’re of the same generation—he’s only a year and a half older than me. To be successful in the ways that I want to be and have come up short because of one thing: I did not submit my work, and Percy did, allowing him to grow where I have been playing at the same four books more or less the last fifteen years.

But I’m not going to play that anymore. Here’s what solidified why I have a book like this one in me, but here’s where it landed for me that Percy and I think along the same wavelengths.

Over the years in his cell, Hawkin had a lot of time to think, and one of the ways he occupied himself was by pretending. Comic books owned his imagination. He had always liked Batman, best of all the superheroes. It was more than his haunting mask and the militaristic Batmobile and the gadgets he kept in his utility belt and the way he crouched like a gargoyle on Gotham’s skyscrapers with his leathery cape fluttering in the wind. It was the villains. The villains who made up his rogues’ gallery were the best of any series. Because they weren’t merely masked and spandex weirdoes to punch and kick and throw Batarangs at. They meant something. They really mattered emotionally. If Batman was order, then the Joker was chaos. Mr. Freeze represented Bruce Wayne’s emotional coldness. Ra’s al Ghul was the father figure wanted desperately but had to reject for his sinister ways. Two-Face captured the constant battle between Wayne and the Dark Knight. What you eventually came to understand, if you read enough comic books, was that Batman was a unification of his worst enemies. ..

Dr. Gunn is the Joker and Scarecrow and Mr. Freeze and Penguin and Ra’s al Ghul and all the rest of them. And this is Hawkin’s Crime Alley, where Thomas and Martha Wayne fell in a rain of bullets and blood and pearls. It was a moment of fusion, convergence. Here is the villain and here is the place and here is the core wound that Hawkin might conquer if he is going to come into his power as a hero. That’s the way the rules work.

–Ninth Metal, pg. 280

The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green.

I started listening to this podcast back in the beginning of the pandemic, and it has been an almost weekly joy to listen to, so when the book came out, I knew I had to have it. What I found was pretty formulaic: introduction, research which shows Green’s OCD in full-effect with his details for getting the facts right. Highlights include talking about Edmund Halley and his many talents, or what went into making Diet Dr Pepper. This was always great in whatever essay I read–I always learned something new, which is awesome. This is followed by literary allusion, and the positive side of whatever Green is reviewing and his rating.

The best entries in this book are in the introduction and the postscript, and the DFW-like footnotes. My favorite essay is on Indianapolis, and the bits are like how they are the absolute best parts of our pandemic moment. The book is like a time capsule. Here are my favorite parts

On “Our Temporal Range, which makes an allusion to Stoicism’s “View From Above” in an impressive display of time condensing:

“The hard part, evolutionarily, was getting from prokaryotic cells to eukaryotic ones, then getting from single-celled organisms to multi cellar ones. Earth is around 4.5 billion years old, a timescale I simply cannot get my head around. Instead let’s imagine’s Earth’s history as a calendar year, with the formation of Earth being January 1 and today being December 31 at 11:59pm. The first life on Earth emerges around February 25. Photosynthetic organisms first appear in late March. Multicellular life doesn’t appear until August or September. The first dinosaurs like eoraptor show up about 230 million years ago, or December 13 in our calendar year. The meteor impact that heralds the end of the dinosaurs happens around December 26. Homo sapiens aren’t part of the story until December 31 at 11:48 pm. ..”

He then says that the Industrial Revolution, the dishwasher, and cars happen in the last couple of seconds of December 31.

On CNN: “What’s news isn’t primarily what is noteworthy or important, but what is new.” Saying that is basically all twenty-four news channels are good for. The newest outrage, misery, and disaster.

But my favorite essay is on Indianapolis, where Green and his family have made their home since 2007. He moved there from New York City, and he lays down a considerable number of disses on the city. All of which I laughed at:

“Indianapolis has tried o a lot of mottoes and catchphrases over the years. Indianapolis is ‘Raising the Game.’ ‘You put the I in Indy.’ ‘Crossroads of America.’ But I’d propose a different motto: “Indianapolis: You gotta live somewhere.’…

“Someone once told me that Indianapolis is among the nation’s leading test markets for new restaurant chains, because the city is so thoroughly average. Indeed, it ranks among the top so-called ‘microcosm cities,’ because Indianapolis is more typically American than almost any other place. We are spectacular in our ordinariness. The city’s nicknames include “Naptown,” because it’s boring, “India-no-place.”

He then goes on to rate the city four stars because it’s home.

I’ve long said that Indiana’s nickname of the Crossroads of America is because why the hell would you ever want to stay here? And even though Green goes onto say that the city is one of the most economically and racially diverse zip codes in the United States. The problem is, of course, that the rest of the state is rural white and super-Republican and is actively working against that diversity, and has adopted many of the voting rights laws that are being passed in Republican states across the nation. Eventually, if this goes unchecked, Indiana will be so vanilla that it’ll be see-through.

Though I think it’s generally acceptable to live in Indy and Bloomington, they are just about the only places you would want to live. Green even cites that the White River, its main waterway, is completely non-navigable. The city dumps raw sewage into it. When I look around Bloomington, I see every college town I’ve ever visited. I’ve even taught here. It’s called the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. I’ve been here before in Princeton, NJ, Providence, Rhode Island, and College Park, Maryland. It’s a college town. I bet you go to any large college town like this one, and you’ve likely been to Bloomington before too. Not that there’s anything wrong with that other than it’s normal. Average.

I give the book, and really the state as a whole, three stars.

How I leave Literature Notes at the end of books.
I just like this author photo.

Current Status for Fall 2021

Writer/Director Billy Wilder’s gravestone, printed out on my writer idol wall.

Technically the first day of fall is not for another two weeks. Still, it seems like many people go with the idea that fall begins when the schools reopen, and for this East-Coaster, that’s after Labor Day.

Here in Indiana, school started a month ago, on August 4.

I’ll never get used to that.

This summer, I queried agents and submitted an original essay that is like an 18-page overview of my memoir and the ground it covers. I submitted to four agents and just as many publications and have not heard anything back from any of them, which means they’re probably not interested.

This is fine, mainly because it’s something out of my control—all I can do is revise and reshape and read and power through. As William Irvine writes in a Guide to the Good Life, practicing Stoics set internal goals that are not outcome oriented. They’re about the process.

I also started a podcast with my best friend TJ Brearton. It’s called Stories We Tell, and mostly we shoot the shit about what it means to be writers in the current moment. It’s not AmWriting or Scriptnotes, which are for and by writers who are established in a traditional atmosphere like screenwriting, nonfiction, and traditional fiction; or The Writer Files and OtherPPl which is interviews with established writers. It’s about two best friends talking about their respective writing lives and how that collides with their personal lives, the environment, and their health.

The first season is now available here. We’re newcomers with this, so forgive us while we work out the kinks with sound, and get it to the other podcasting platforms like iTunes and such.

This season’s updates will not be daily, but instead weekly. I’ll get into how my practice with the Zettelkesten method went, what I read this summer, Memento Mori, and a bunch of other stuff. Then the blog posts will end for good before the holiday season.

What I’m up to Now for Summer 2021

I’m spending the summer trying out the Zettelkasten method How To Take Smart Notes: 10 Principles to Revolutionize Your Note-Taking and Writing indexing my notes. I’m not so interested in randomizing messages through a serial number—that just sounds like too much of a headache. Still, Tag Conventions, search, and Sedaris-y seasonality will probably do it for me. That way, I can compare notes. Really it’s so that I can create an index of my notebooks and my reading notes and marginalia to sort through and warm up.

Other than that, I’ll be submitting my memoir to agents and an excerpt to magazines and journals.

We’ll all be back to school in the fall, which means short posts perhaps daily and something new to the podcasting world, I believe. Still, you’ll have to subscribe to my newsletter to get a sneak preview of that.