Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Process: Live and On Stage

One of my primary focuses this year in my classroom is the writing process. I want my students to know and understand that writing is a process not a product. And it's driving many of them crazy. Some don't see the point. Some are just lazy. Some truly believe that they are talented enough writers that they don't need planning or editing or revisions or rewrites. It's the Dunning Kruger Effect come to life. It's vexing. But that's not why I'm writing this. I'm writing this because of what I did over the weekend.

On Saturday night, Kim and I went to see stand-up comedian Sebastian Maniscalco. He was hilarious. My face and gut hurt from laughing so much.

Something you need to know about me if you didn't already know, I love stand-up comedy. I have since I was a kid. My epic ski club novel that I've been planning for years had a character that dreams of being a stand-up comedian. I've been in love with stand-up comedy since the first time I saw Bill Cosby: Himself. I spent hours watching late night comedy specials on HBO and looked forward to the Young Comedian's Specials. I listened to albums and tapes: Eddie Murphy's "Cookout" and "Hamburger" bits were formative. Underrated classics such as Bob Nelson's "All-American Football Team"  and John Fox's hysterical "Archibald Berisol" (which I would do on the ski club bus). I love the routines of Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, George Carlin, pre-disgraced Louis CK, Bill Engvall, etc. Their brilliant writing is clearly an inspiration. (Yes, I've dreamed of becoming a stand-up, but, well, that's for another time.) And you can add Maniscalco to that list.

But the coolest part of the show was the last bit of the night. It was hilarious and some of the biggest belly laughs of the night were during the bit, but that wasn't what made it so cool. What made it cool was that I was watching the writing process live and on stage.

You could tell that the bit wasn't complete. A terrific bit about growing up and how dating was different back then. It was sweet, just the right bit of nostalgia not to be ponderous and without a single taste of "get off my lawn" griping that is so easy to fall into when talking about nostalgia. It was still hilarious but there were some lulls in Maniscalco's manic delivery, as if he wasn't quite sure what he should be doing at that moment, and it was choppy in spots. It needed work and I think he knew it. He was trying it out to see what worked and what didn't work. Kind of like you do in the drafting process. We, the audience, were his beta readers and our reactions were his feedback. It was truly amazing to witness first hand. You always hear stories about how comedians will go to a small, hole-in-the-wall club to try out new material. That's what we were doing, but where the hole-in-the-wall denizens were getting an early draft, we got a more polished but incomplete one that still needed work. I was thrilled having watched it.

Walking back to the car with my wife (we skipped a late dinner downtown to avoid the crowds), I couldn't withhold my excitement over the last bit. She listened, because she's good at that and commented that it was still funny. I agreed, but the writer and writing teacher in my was still thrilled having gotten to witness the writing process live. What he was doing was no different than what I might do (or try to get my students to do) when revising or rewriting.

Sometimes it's finding a different word or reorganizing the words in a different sequence. Sometimes it's taking certain words out or leaving others in. Maybe it's moving entire sections from the beginning to the end or starting in a different place. It might be the need to quicken the pace here while slowing it there. It was the writing process, live and on stage.

Sunday, October 27, 2019


If you haven't noticed, I haven't been sharing much of my personal writing lately. Who am I kidding, I haven't been doing much personal writing in the last two months. The beginning of the school year can do that to you. Plus, I really haven't had much to say. I've written some things here and there, but it's nothing worth sharing. (There's a post about that in me, I just haven't written it yet.) I've been writing a lot for the last six weeks despite school, but nothing coherent or unified. It's stuff I never thought I could or would write...and no, I'm not telling you. In that time, some of the threads that will make up "The Epic Fantasy I Wasn't Going To Write" came into view along with some new, very different ideas.

I don't have a solid project here, just ideas floating around that need some structure. My MG story is stuck and stalled. I just can't get it moving. It could be the sense of urgency I feel about the story. That should motivate me and it's not. I want to try NANOWRIMO again, but I don't know what project I want to do. But that's not really what I wanted to write about.

I wanted to write about brooding.

Last week was a shit week. Not worth getting into specifics, but it put me in a weird, miserable place. I stopped listening to the book I was listening to and tried to find an appropriate soundtrack to accompany my brooding. I settled on the new album by Tool. It's fantastic (Pink Floyd and Zeppelin had a baby that was raised by Metallica). And it was perfect music for brooding.

When you think about it, brooding is just a quieter, cooler sounding way of saying whining quietly. It's actually kind of considerate when you think about it. I was having a conversation with someone this week and said, "I'm given for dark moods." It was something cool I used to say when I was younger to sound mysterious. ("Why is everything a shade of gray?" was another popular one from me.) There's some truth to it. I get stuck in my own head, letting things roll around like the sand in the oyster until there's a giant pearl rolling around, distracting me from almost all thoughts. It's been like that for a few days now. It can be dangerous, like the Langston Hughes poem "Harlem" says, "Or does it explode?" (I know he was talking about something very different, but it still means something to me.) And somehow,  despite all this brooding, writing is happening.

Yesterday, I was sitting on the porch watching the kids (we call that a motif in the literature business), writing. I had written seven pages in my notebook in the previous day and a half. That was more than I'd written in a long time. Granted most of it is garbage and the meandering ramblings of a maniac, but you know what they say about "Shitty First Drafts."

I wound up writing a few pages of the MG project. Plus I wrote a few pages of the thing that will never see the light of day. Some of the nebulous "epic fantasy" ideas are becoming clearer while I'm developing some ideas of how to fix an old story that had its chances and failed to garner attention. I'm contemplating doing something I didn't think I'd do with something else. It's kind of exciting. Not like "whoo-hoo" exciting...I'm brooding, remember?

Maybe accessing the darkness is what I needed to jump start what I'm doing. I don't write "dark." Sure, GIRL IN THE PICTURE is kind of dark and some of my other work has dark moments, but I wouldn't call anything I write "dark." I've always run from the dark, avoiding it. I've stepped away from writing when I've felt my life was entering a dark place because I didn't want it reflected in what I was doing. Maybe that's been a mistake. Maybe I needed to embrace those dark moods and brood a bit. Let that pearl grow and grow.

Plenty of authors talk about the darkness and how they use it to write. King, Murakami, Pratchett, Gaiman, Whedon, Twain.

Maybe in that darkness and brooding, when quiet and not distracted by all the noise, you can find the things buried deepest in you and bring them out. They aren't always what you want to see, but sometimes they are what you need to see and that's when you can turn that into what you need.

Friday, August 16, 2019


If you weren't on social media last week, and why would you since it's the waning days of summer, you may have missed the latest pop culture dust up. One that really has come to represent what pop culture fandom has become these days. It all started with this tweet:

Mikey/Samwise/Rudy/Bob and an otter? This might be my closing argument.
Almost immediately Pop Culture Twitter went into crisis mode. Asses were in the air and lots of salt was thrown in the air. People were furious. And initially, I was one of them.

This isn't Sean Astin from Stranger Things you sweet summer child, this is Mikey From Goonies. How dare you? You are ruining my childhood...wait, what?

I despise the weaponization of that phrase by fandom. And it's only a small part of the growing problem of fandom in general. Fandom has become a toxic entity. What used to be a warm, comfortable place where you could hang out and interact with people that love the same things you do has become a place where you have to defend what you love, why you love it and if you deserve to love it at all. There's a dangerous degree of curation in every fandom that is slowly but surely turning back the clock to the days when you couldn't say out loud that you loved Star Wars without derision and scorn. (There seems to be a small, but very loud contingency of people that deplorably want the clock turned back on everything, but this isn't a political blog, so I'll just leave it at that.)

Too many people in fandom seem to want their respective fandoms to be insular and consolidated. There should be tests and requirements to "join" a fandom, like we're all joining the Water Buffalo Lodge with Fred and Barney. You have to be a "real" fan, something I've never understood and is annoying. (Ask cosplayers, especially female cosplayers, about that.) Don't you want a wide, all encompassing group? Don't you want lots of people to interact with and talk about the thing you love? I do. It doesn't seem people want to do that. (There's also a long planned post on ownership coming from me soon that's been rekindled by the dust up from the Wheel of Time TV show cast announcements.) Fans want to curate. Fans want to gatekeep. Fans want to keep people out and it makes no sense to me.

I understand that to a lot of fans, being a fan of something frequently meant that you were an outcast and that fandom gave you a comfy place. Those fans around my age led a relatively isolated life within our fandom. If someone said they liked something that was "geeky," you were on guard. Were they mocking you? Were they going to turn this around and make fun of you? This was my entire teenaged years and even now to some extent. If you told me that I'd be at a bar with friends talking about a dragon queen and a night king, I'd stare at you as if I had no idea what you were talking about out of fear of being made fun of. Few things on social media have floored me than the head cheerleader from my high school liking several of my Star Wars posts on Facebook. Did that mean she liked it all along or is she a recent convert? Frankly, I don't care. Welcome. And that's the way it should be.

Fandom shouldn't be insular. It shouldn't be curated. If you love something, love it. And we, as fans, should be welcoming. There are no "fake" fans, we're all real fans. I've been guilty of this. I've side eyed the kids with New York Met hats and Matt Harvey jerseys in 2015-16. I've rolled eyes at young folk that talk about the Prequels with a degree of reverence. But at some point, I stopped. I want more fans to join my fandom. Come on over. Ask me questions. I'll do my best. I became the Game of Thrones expert at work, posting on Facebook that I'd be holding office hours the Monday after episodes to talk. (The Red Wedding was a big day for me as a counselor.) To the head cheerleader, if you have questions about some of the minutiae of Star Wars fandom, let me know. Or maybe you can tell me something I didn't know.

As for Sean Astin, fans, can't we just recognize him as a possibly under-the-radar pop culture icon for almost forty years? He's played FOUR iconic film characters....FOUR. How many actors can say that? We're talking characters that their fans LOVE, that are all phenomenal performances that impacted countless creatives like myself. True, Sean Astin will always be Mikey from Goonies (LFGM, by the way), an iconic character that most of us wanted to be when we were kids (though I was more a "Chunk" than Mikey). But to a lot of others, he's Rudy, a tough as nails, hardworking kid that followed his dreams. To a large majority, he's most remembered as the resilient, brave and loyal Samwise Gamgee, who really was the hero of the saga of the One Ring. And now, to a new generation he's known as Bob Newby, a kind, decent and generous man that was the original "nerd" in his hometown that became a hero in his own right for the woman that he loved. That's a pretty good resume for an icon. If you aren't tearing up at half of those videos, I contend that you may be one of the lizard people. I didn't mention his long career as a voice actor or his performances in notable films like Toy Soldiers, Encino Man or 50 First Dates. From everything I've read, Sean Astin is a decent family man, hard working actor and enthusiastic labor rights activist. He and I share the same birthday, two years apart.  There are worse things to be than a part of his fandom, no matter what the entry point.

So, look, fans, be more open to "new" fans. Stop curating. Welcome people into the fold, because as Samwise Gamgee said, "...there's still some good in the world and it's worth fighting for."

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

G.I. Joe: A Real Literary Hero

Writing really is like playing with your G.I.Joes.

Or your Barbies.

Or your Star Wars figures.

Or your Disney Princess dolls.

Pick your property, it's all the same.

Reading Keep Going got me thinking about this. One of the key ideas that Austin Kleon states is that "your real work is play." I've said this before and it got me thinking about G.I. Joes.

Growing up I was obsessed with G.I. Joe. I collected the figures, calling KayBee Toys after KayBee Toys to make sure they had the latest figures or vehicles. I would wait excitedly for the third Friday of the month when my dad would bring home the latest issue of the GI JOE: A REAL AMERICAN HERO that my grandfather had bought for me at the corner store. I've recently been rereading the collections of the original Marvel run. One of my earliest influences was the Marvel run. There's a post about the nostalgia of it, but I may save that for one of my 99 Inspirations posts or the nostalgia posts I've been talking about for months now. This is where I learned the importance of plot, characterization and conflict. The little plastic recipe card holder filled with the file cards went everywhere my figures went. I'd plot out the latest missions, sticking close as I could to what the file cards described. I was a stickler too. I was a big believer in sticking to the canon. I still am as a matter of fact.

Roadblock would've been amazing on Chopped.

From those Joes, I moved to live action role playing as we navigated the woods and vacant lots of Shirley, New York. Usually playing war, mimicking what we'd done with the Joes earlier. Looking back, considering our proximity to Brookhaven Labs, it's a wonder that I didn't come up with Stranger Things. I was the scenario creator. (Any friends reading this, feel free to refute this. Memory is a funny thing.) I assigned roles. I created basic plots and let the story where it went, taking input from everyone. (I think I would've done well in a writer's room.) I always remember playing the scientist. Or the heavy machine gunner. Or the ranger. And in the end, that's what we do as writers. That's all creating fiction is: playing with action figures.

I've talked about how in a lot of ways, telling stories might be embedded in our DNA while watching my kids playing. It really doesn't matter the genre, from action/adventure to romance, all we are doing is playing with imaginary people, just like we did when we were kids with articulated 1:18 or 1:6 scaled human shaped pieces of plastic. The only difference is that we are using our own, custom made figures that inhabit our endless mindscapes.

Stories are important. Isn't that one of the things we learned in the final season of Game of Thrones? The Night King wanted to kill Bran because he had become the Three-Eyed Raven, the collector of all the stories of humanity. Without those stories, there is no humanity.

So keep playing with those action figures/dolls, humanity is depending on it.

Go Joe!

Monday, July 29, 2019

It's A Process

Sunday, I wrote this in my notebook:

I shouldn't be writing right now. There's a thousand things I need to be doing. So, I'm going to do them for a bit.

I wrote this Monday morning:

That was a mistake. I had an idea for something I wanted to write, sat down to write it and wrote what I wrote above instead. I don't know if it was a complete mistake to do this, but I did. Were the two or three of the thousand things that needed doing that I got done more important than the fleeting idea that was lost in time, like tears in the rain? It doesn't feel that way.

I've spent much of the morning trying to mentally recreate that moment from yesterday afternoon so I can try to piece together what I wanted to write, but it's not happening. I'm frustrated.

It's not that far from the truth.
It could be the venue. Yesterday, I was at my house, starting in the study before working myself to the front window to watch the kids outside. This morning I'm watching different kids, in summer school. I'm perched on an uncomfortable steel stool behind a long science table in front of the room. One students is demanding that another "Shut the f**k up and stop talking s**t about me" while another, having walked in an hour late, answers an important phone call and can't understand why I've asked him to leave.

It could be the action. I was reading Austin Kleon's Keep Going and had just finished the chapter titled FORGET THE NOUN, DO THE VERB. I've reread the chapter, twice, and nothing's clicking into place yet. It's frustrating because the idea was good enough for me to be thinking about it in the abstract nearly 24 hours later. But instead of writing it down when it was fresh in my mind, I went and cleaned the kitchen instead. A kitchen I'm going to have to clean again when I get home from school this afternoon.

Was what I wanted to write a reaction to the opening paragraph of the chapter? "Lots of people want to be the noun without doing the verb. They want the job title without the work."

No. I don't think that's it. It's a thought I've had. It's a thought I lived. I always think of the character Lyons from Fences. August Wilson describes him as being more caught up in the idea of being a musician that in the actual practice of the music. I think I was stuck in that for a long time. I talked about being a writer, but wrote very little. But I don't think that was what I wanted to write. It was something else.

Did I want to talk about doing things in my notebook that aren't for public consumption?

No, I do a lot of that. It's something I do want to talk about, but that's not it either. That's been in my head long enough that  it's little more than a cool ember. It's not something that's burning or scratching to get out of my brain. They'll be time enough later for that.

Was it something about the quote "Your real work is play?"

 Wait, the threads are weaving together. Something about my dreams of doing tie-in or adaptation work. Star Wars. Dungeons and Dragons (though they don't do novels anymore). Any TV or movie expanded universe. Comics (I not so secretly dream of getting to do the novelization for the recent WAR OF THE REALMS Marvel event.) It'd be just like playing with my Star War or G.I. Joe figures.

Ahhh, there it is. I've got it now. I'll be back with that post. I wrote this sentence down in my notebook, it's likely the first sentence of my next blog post:

Writing is a lot like playing with your G.I. Joes when you were a kid.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Hide And Seek But Not Hide And Seek

Once again I found myself outside with my kids, observing them play. I'd rather have them playing outside than glued to a screen inside. And I've been loving it. Kids should run, scream and laugh. And the kids in my neighborhood are doing just that.

They've been playing a wide assortment of games, including one called "murder mystery." I prefer to be the observer rather than any kind of participant, so I don't interact at all. I sit in my chair on the porch and read. Or pretend to read and listen. So I haven't asked them the details, but as far as I can tell it's a fascinating variation of hide and seek, not unlike the game we played when I was a kid called jailbreak.

We all know what hide and seek is, right? I don't need to go over that one. Do I? I mean it's in the freaking name. It's simple. Basic. But we aren't all simple and basic. We want variety.

Where are the kids? Hiding, of course

Growing up we played a version called "jailbreak." It was team hide and seek. One team of hiders, one team of seekers. If I remember right (if you're reading this and remember, please feel free to chime in), there were more hiders than seekers. One central location was the "jail" where those caught were held. It was a porch, a street light or one of those big green phone company boxes. (Those were the best.) Those caught could be rescued if one of the hiders rushed the "jail" and yelled, "Jailbreak." Then everyone would run. This meant one "seeker" wasn't a seeker at all, they were a guard. That was the worst job. I was the fat kid that couldn't run. Guess who was the guard?

Before the game started, specific boundaries were established. Boundaries often depended on how many players there were. I can never remember a game of less than fifteen kids. We recruited younger brothers and sisters and drew from the entire surrounding neighborhoods. We had epic games of several dozen kids that spread over the entire development. Our games were often centered around the Tugaw house. It made a perfect jail because they had a relatively large, wide open back yard. It was hard to jailbreak that back porch.

I was a better hider than seeker. I could hide for a big kid. No way I could outrun anyone.I can remember hiding in the bushes of someone's house and them coming out on to the porch and not getting caught by the hiders or the homeowner. I can remember people getting caught by surprise because they were too busy making out to notice someone catching them. (I was especially jealous of them!) I can remember almost suicidal, bold bum rushes to free teammates.

Flash forward to the other night. My kids are playing the latest iteration of "hide and seek." They call it "murder mystery" and, as far as I can tell, it's an interesting game. Not quite as expansive as our "jailbreak" their twist is vastly different, no one knows who is "it." In their version, there's a "game master" who picks who is it, though they worked around this by putting slips of paper in a pail and picking them out, not telling what the paper says. One person is the "murderer," one person is a "detective" and the rest are "innocents." (I love that they are called "innocents.") I couldn't quite figure out what the "detective" did in the game besides hunt the "murderer." The "innocents" just had to hide from the "murderer" while trying to convince the "detective" they weren't the "murderer." This is complex stuff for kids aged 6-12. I couldn't follow all the nuances of the game and I don't want to ask out of fear of them being aware that I'm watching them.

Do we need all these additional rules and variations? I don't know. Maybe it's part of our need to tell complex stories and it's just inherent in our genes. Whatever it is, it's better than sitting in front of a screen.

At one point while they were playing, I was doing something that required going into the shed. Yes, that shed.  The kids were arguing about who was the "murderer" and mischief got the better of me. I turned the corner and bellowed, "I'm the murderer!" while brandishing a hatchet. They squealed in terror and delight.

I hope their parents don't think I'm a serial killer like my students.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

June Got Away

It was Sunday morning. I just finished breakfast, switched over the laundry to the dryer and put a new load in the washer. The lawn needed to be mowed and Cooper had a baseball game later in the day. Natalie had a birthday party. It was a pretty typical Sunday in our house. As I sat at the dinner table, sipping my chai with Cooper at my side, I pulled out my notebook and wrote. I intended to blog more, but somehow the month got away from me and there was only one entry. I tried to figure it out.

Seniors began their yearly, "Oh shit, I need to make up 9 months of school work in 17 days!" mode. I went to three Syracuse Mets games. Yellowstone started on TV and I'm complete obsessed with "Netflix" Good Omens. I'm finishing up Stephen King's The Dark Tower, which I have many, many thoughts about. (To be fair, I'm listening to the audiobooks in the car.) I'm plugging away on The Blackest Heart, a terrific epic fantasy that is just as dense as it is huge. I'm also reading a fascinating book about dinosaurs. I worked a lot on a requested rewrite, so that took up a massive amount of time. I started a new project while sending another to a few trusted readers, including one that described the book as "miles ahead" of anything I've written before. (I'm kind of freaking out about it.) I'm clocking in about an hour and a half of writing a day. I want to get that to two. I've also actually written every day. 

This is where I stopped to mow the lawn. I like mowing my lawn. I bust my father-in-law's chops about his obsession with mowing his lawn ("Nick only mows his lawn on days that end with Y."), but I understand it. It's the same with snowblowing. I like putting in my earbuds, listening to music and just doing something mindless. It's good thinking time. Ways to untie narrative knots, think of new story ideas or think through an idea that was merely in early gestation. 

I finished the front lawn. I can remember breezing through this lawn and the neighbor's lawn with no trouble. Now I'm sucking down a Gatorade after doing half the lawn. To be fair to myself, Cooper had a baseball game and needed lunch. Kim had taken Nat to her birthday party. I listened to my late 80s/early 90s ski club book writing mix. I was a sappy, borderline melancholy teen.

I have some ideas about what I want to put in this space. I have an essay about fan entitlement that I'm not ready to write yet. I want to write about The Dark Tower, but I have to finish it first. I have a few ideas I want to write about summer, including a post on "Summer" songs and one that focuses on one of those blue-light bug zappers that still hasn't solidified into something worth putting into words. I've been looking back and reading the The Legend of Drizzt books by R.A. Salvatore so I can write about nostalgia (there's a great passage I copied from one of the books that is a perfectly amazing point about nostalgia) and compare it to the way I felt about my Dragonlance re-read a few years back. That's not ready yet either. I have some reading to do. I copied a few passages from William Golding's writing books and I want to talk about those too. He has some great thoughts on writing. (No, duh.)

A writer in the wild.

Now, it's Wednesday and I'm done with school. Grades are done. Keys are handed in. Reflection is written. (One of my good friends at school thought it was amusing that I take writing the reflection so seriously.) I'm writing this entry having completed all necessary end-of-the-year tasks. Tomorrow and Friday I have professional development to replace two of the snow days we missed. I'm okay with that. It sucks that it'll be two days away from my kids, but I think they'll live since they'll be poolside while I'm learning next gen ELA standards. 

I don't have a conclusion. I'm terrible at endings. It could be why I have so much trouble finishing a project.