What I think I learned from this book is that it is like a Coen Brothers film, like Barton Fink, and you could see why Portis is perfect for them. It was a weird, random, and yet not tired.
I’m out of here. In fact, I’m offline until Winter Solstice (Dec. 22).
- There will not be any updates to the blog, my Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.
- This letter will be it from now until the holidays to focus completely on writing the final draft of the Emerson Novel and submitting fiction.
Talk to you after the holidays.
Writers are habit beasts. We stick to what we know.
When I was teaching creative writing at Paul Smith’s College, I asked this question: what does it mean to be an Adirondack Writer?
You know Daniel Woodrell is identified as an Ozarks writer. Louise Penny—all of her work takes place in Ontario. Benjamin Percy writes about Oregon in all almost all of his prose fiction. Russell Banks and my friend TJ Brearton are Adirondack Writers in the sense that they write about the upper regions of New York.
To be an Adirondack Writer, I think, you have to look and see what the mountains can do to people. There’s no signal. Everything is two hours away. You’re out there. And all you’ve got is each other. Or you’re alone. What does that do to people? All sorts of environmental disasters can happen.
Last week, we went back to Lake Placid for a visit—exactly a year removed from leaving town. I think I’m ready to start writing about it. To join my friends in being an Adirondack Writer.
For me, when I close my eyes, my mind goes back to Lake Placid and some of the weirdness and active life I lived there growing up. My vision has always been skewed towards the weird and the Hughesian so I’ve been playing with a town that exists somewhere between Lake Placid and Plattsburgh. It’s not Wilmington, Ausable Forks, or Jay. It’s a town in place of others. It’s called Snowden. It has nothing to do with the whistleblower. It’s a name I took from a Doves song.
The other milestone I realized while on vacation in New York, I think, is that I’m ready to finish my third novel. A literary novel I’ve been noodling around with for the past three or so years and stripping whole chapters to submit as short stories. It’s about three families growing up in Snowden and what the town does to them over the years.
Warren Ellis writes about Umberto Eco as public intellectual, and compares Italy under Berlusconi to what sounds like the America we’re in right now. Ellis writes: “Pure reportage [is] conscious people telling you where they think we are and what they think it looks like.”
Like Ta-Nehisi Coates, etc. Lots of great writers. Doing a highly structured piece of social fiction for 1,000 pages takes a lot out of a person. There may just be one of those in each writer.
For me, I’ve been playing around with the idea of a mountain town—where lots of weird stuff happens. I call it Snowden, and it’s a location that I keep going back to, especially now that I’m far removed from the Adirondacks. The point of the name is not an allusion to Edward Snowden, but it came to me long before he was a thing–the name is a Doves song. Ever since this song, I’ve been finding using the name for a location to do all kinds of things. It’s kind of like John Hughes’s Shermer, Illinois, combined with a bit of Twin Peaks. What does six to eight months of winter do to people? All sorts of weird things to stay warm.
So when I look for something to read, I want it to be something from someone who’s aware of the world and is telling me something new about what’s in it and how they perceive it.
When I think about political comic books like Ex Machina and Letter 44 that’s what Vaughan and Soule were doing. When I read a Benjamin Percy book I think the same. They’re taking a look at the world and writing about what it looks like to them, by putting characters in extraordinary situations.
When I read AD: After Death by Snyder and Lemire, I think about the merging of prose and comics, which is something I’ve been doing and building on since I was thirteen. By converting comics into prose you can become a better, more confident writer. That’s why I was obsessed with The Worst Writer Ever, after it was declined to be my graduate thesis.
With Walden: The Graphic Novel it’s the adaptation of nonfiction into comic book. With Snowden, I have a lot to say about the Adirondacks and what it can do to people. Snowden is probably the playground that I’ll play in across mediums: from comics to the third novel I just finished the first draft on. That I’ll rewrite this fall. So ask yourself:
Right now, in your mind, where do you think you are as a society and what do you think it looks like?
If you’ve read Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals or Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings you’ve probably seen the charts and data that shows the rituals of writers and when they are at their literary best. Most people tend towards either being a night owl writer, or a morning person. Haruki Murakami is a morning person; Barack Obama is a night owl. Brian K. Vaughan was a night owl. Kelly Sue DeConnick is a morning person.
I’ve never been particularly good at focusing on writing after 8pm. The day just wears me out and I struggle to focus after 8-9pm. (He says, hitting post just before 9pm.) I’ve been trying to figure out why forever. I’ve tried powering through late at night for weeks now and it’s not working.
But now I know. I was down at the Cascades park and realized why I’m at my best writing in the morning. I jump out of bed at ten minutes to five am: I was a competitive swimmer in high school and we had morning practices.
I was in the pool ready to work at 6am. I was never a good competitive swimmer, but I was there. I showed up and did the work and it paid off my senior year: Five days a week morning practice, and in the afternoons. My writing patterns follow my swimming patterns, and since that pattern was created in my formative years as a teenager it’s hard to shake. It’s also why I’ve always struggled to work on anything that requires a lot of focus after 8pm because I knew that in order to get up and go to practice I had to be in bed by 9-10pm and that’s when my brain starts to shut it down.
Even in college, when I stopped swimming, I could never do an all-nighter study session or sleep past 10am which is considered ungodly early in college. It never bothered me because it got me up and moving and getting work done at least two hours before anyone else was up so that when it came time to chill out and…have a college life I was ready to go by 5-6pm. It’s also why I was never on academic probation. I went to class and got my work done before it was time to chill.
So does this serve me? Is this a good thing? I don’t know. But at least now I know why my writing mind works this way and I’m okay with it. Are you a morning person or a night writer?
I’m still reeling about Anthony Bourdain’s death. I’m horribly sad about it. He was my generation’s Hunter S. Thompson and he wrote so fiercely and passionately with such vigor that he got me to give a shit about food and travel writing when I did not care.
As someone struggling with depression what I’m learning here from Bourdain, Sylvia Plath, Thompson, and David Foster Wallace is unclear. Other than that we all have our Shadow Kings that victimize us, make us feel worthless, no matter what we do and say to combat it.
But Bourdain described himself as an enthusiast, and I think that’s the lesson I’ll take from him: be enthusiastic about your life. Be in it. Try new things. And most of all: go outside of your comfort zone. That’s what makes life interesting.
At the same time, looking at what he wrote and what he did on his shows. It’s hard not see the self-destructive behavior. That he was clearly showing that he was searching for community. Something that brought people together despite the very, very dark shit happening around them. For him that unifying principle was food. And yet he never stuck around in any community. He called himself a New Yorker, and yet spent at least fifty percent of his time not even in New York where his community–his family was. I imagine his life was quite lonely and was only ever truly at his best when on set or writing or reading. But reading over his work over the past two weeks, I think he was reaching out and asking for help with every word he typed and every episode that aired and every bite of god-knows-what he swallowed.
I’m not sure what I think. I’m grateful for his desire to learn, to bring people together over food, and to get out of one’s comfort zone. He’s one of the reasons that I tore the band aid off my anxiety over cooking. I loved reading him and his infectious intellectual curiosity, enthusiasm for food, people, and community was intoxicating. But he was starved for that last word. Maybe he’s found it. Maybe he never found it and that’s why he’s gone now. But that enthusiasm lives on and I am going to do my best to be that enthusiastic about my life and work in the way he did. I’m grateful for my life, Bourdain and his work, and tomorrow.
From my last newsletter:
I just finished reading Appreciative Advising by Jennifer Bloom, Bryan Hutson, and Ye He. I’ve had it for a few months now, ever since going to the Bloomington Academic Advisors Council Spring Conference because I’m very interested in taking my education career in this direction. That said, this week has been super-interesting for a great number of reasons. This picture, above, from the book really clicked and set off the gears of critical thought and my approach to just about everything since we moved to A New Bloom.
I’ve been behaving like a victim. Really, I’ve been behaving this way for a long time. So on Monday I was having a moment in the car, listening to “Interstellar” by Desert Mountain Club, and thinking about these graphs. I was getting really sad and my Shadow Kingish feelings were coming into play in a strong way. But I had a breakthrough about my writing and everything that I write, because I know I’m a creator. I know what it is that I do now: I thought that to be a creator is to make your own reality and that’s what my novel The Human Library is all about—being able to make a new reality for yourself, when you’ve been treated like a victim your whole life. When that happens you start to believe that it’s true. But to be a creator is to make a new reality for yourself, with your hands, with pen and paper. That’s what I do here—so make a good and positive reality. Creators make their own reality through action, learning, seeking solutions and that’s what my writing is about—creating a new reality and making it something you want to be in that you haven’t seen before.
It’s easy for creators to slip into victim-mentality because we deal with rejection so much. We start to quantify when you’re told no, so that “Yes” feels so sweet, when in reality being a creator is all about rejection. Just look at what Ben Percy writes in Thrill Me, Stephen King, Ursula Le Guin—being a creator is all about how you deal with victim feelings without complaint and getting your butt back in the chair and doing it better than you did the day previous. It’s about working smarter rather than harder.
You may wonder what the hell that means: Smarter rather than harder. It’s not about how many hours you spend at the keyboard but how you spend the time you do have at the keyboard, how intensely you focus on getting that scene done, that page done, that chapter done, that cover letter. The writer-creator is always trying something, taking action, seeing what that action stimulates their environment, then faced with that stimulating rejection or acceptance seeks solutions and makes a choice to try something again until, finally, the creator achieves goals. But most importantly, the creator decides to stop blaming others for their failures and instead leans in and goes back to the drawing board to learn something new about themselves and what they’re doing.
That’s the beauty of being a writer—you can always write something that changes your life. That next thing could do it. You may be on your heels, but instead of giving up–lean into it, and it will pay off.
When we arrived at Somerville in July, a close friend said, “My life is a movie.” That’s when this storytelling bug clicked. The week long trips to the Lake District, hikes up the Louhrigg Fell at sunset, croquet on the lawn listening to Radiohead’s The Bends on repeat.
[Me at Abby Road, London, July 2002]
I came to understand an elder son’s burden when my roommate and best friend had to go home because of a parent’s health. Reality settles: this will eventually happen with me and my father. And as I play with my son this past weekend, take him to Free Comic Book Day—he will have to come to terms with this fact as well: I will not be here forever for him. In fact, the only one who will be is his younger sibling or siblings. (Who does not exist yet.)
But that’s what is important about stories: eventually your story becomes your kid’s story. No story is ever truly yours, although only you can tell it. You must decide to sit down and give it to someone else. To make that connection. That’s why you must ask—can I tell this story? It involves you. A piece of your soul.
Then we make our marks on the walls, send our words up in balloons, and give it to someone else who creates fond memories of the material that has been read.
If I’m not feeling that gut fire of honesty when telling a story, you’ll never read it publicly.
When I think about stories what I try to do is make sure I pay attention to where I am, and reveal a little of myself to you. Get you a little drunk with ideas and dramatize the world we live in.
We tell stories to reveal something to ourselves.
These stories come in all shapes and sizes. We’ve been telling stories since the dawn of time in the form of cave paintings, through pictures and words that eventually became hieroglyphics, then Latin, then our current alphabet. Those words came back together to form the comic book—visuals told with short, poetic phrases. “Less is more” and “omit needless words” as my first writing teachers taught me, that I’m still learning. The visual descriptions in panels can become paragraphs steeped with word pictures, or “words for pictures, as Brian Michael Bendis writes about in his book on writing comics. The paragraphs form the internal organs of stories. Those stories become the fabric of our lives. Nonfiction becomes fiction, and vice versa.
“What’s the difference between fiction and nonfiction?”
One of my tutors asked me this in the summer of 2002. There is no difference. That’s what I learned when I was at Oxford University’s Somerville College—the same school Margaret Thatcher attended. My tutor, teaching me Middle English Literature, encouraged me to read Patrick O’Brien’s Master and Commander series. He asked me this question and I started paying attention to my surroundings. Carrying around a notebook more and more. The pub crawls, traveling to Belgium alone, the fight in Dublin after visiting the Guinness factory like every good American tourist. Stonehenge. All that bleeds into the fabric of my story, leading to connection.
You must feel deeply and write honestly to connect with someone you may never meet.
Some stuff gets fictionalized to enhance our day-to-day life.
I went to the number seven party school in the nation from 1999-2003. In my junior year at St. Bonaventure. I lived in what was called a “garden apartment” with five other guys. We had a bench press in the living room, played Tiger Woods golf on the original Sony Playstation, and X-Men Children of the Atom (Iceman forever!) We listened to Incubus’s “Seven Shades of Green” on repeat while benching. Throwing parties every weekend to fund food shopping, at each party we walked with about fifty bucks in our pockets. It was at this point that I felt the need to tell stories. Fictional ones. Maybe this story is one of them. What do you think?
In one road trip, I wrote a zombie-hunting road-trip from Rochester to Buffalo to Cleveland where my roommates and I fought off zombified classmates during Columbus Weekend. We fought, we insulted each other, we had a smoke room. More time was spent in the library since all I wanted to do at the apartment was bench, sleep, and party. I sat down and did my work in the library until it was done. Returned to the apartment to get my reward. And then I got into Oxford.
To be continued…
After graduating from St. Bonaventure University, my father took me to Egypt as a graduation present. We saw the museum, the pyramids, and had many meetings at factories where my dad has done twenty-years of business. This was 2003, years before the Arab Spring.
Jet lag hit me like a truck–at one point I fell asleep in a meeting. Towards the end of our week-long trip, we were invited to a birthday party, and the low hum of the sitar plays while my father and I talk to an old friend. The colleague, a friend of my father for nearly as long as I’ve been alive asks me when I plan on taking over my father’s business.
Dad responds, “No, no. He’s a journalist. A writer."
"Oh!” the colleague responds.
The colleague pulls me over. He whispers, “Egypt gets a bad reputation because of the rest of the Middle East. What have you seen over this week?"
I looked around the room. There are children playing hide-and-go-seek in the living room; mothers and grandmothers in hijabs packing up plates, smiling at their children as they rush around laughing.
"I see people who care more about family than blowing themselves up.”
The colleague gives me a hug, shaking my hand with both hands. “You see us as we are."
When were you out of your context? Far away from the culture you were raised. What did you see?