Thursday, March 21, 2019

Barad-Dûr Of Paper

This is my bag as it stands right now:

It's what I need to do in the immediate.As you can see it just about doubles the entire history of the first three Ages of Middle Earth. Unlike the last time I lamented about being behind, I'm not working on something-not really at least. And like Barad-dûr it looms over my shoulder with everything I do today.

I'm a piler. A colleague that I worked with in my classroom years ago noticed it and found it incredibly frustrating since she was so organized and a micromanager. We're talking planning a class almost down to the second. However by the end of her time working with me, she was using piles. I'm not saying it efficient and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone, but it mostly works for me. I think that it's purely psychological with me. A pile can be visibly measured. You can always see how much you have left and how much you've gotten done. It's a decent metric. I also know that piles are the domain of your average hoarder and that scares me. However, I am a notorious purger. I can't help but wonder how many smart ideas and notions I've thrown out in the midst of a purge.

To be fair, in that pile are three print outs of LABORS, PICTURE and what's done of the present project, which has stalled. I hate the title and that's honestly part of the problem. A project isn't real for me until it has a name that I like. It needs something else, though I'm not sure what exactly it needs. I need to give it a once through, just for continuity sake. LABORS had a rewrite request that I sort of put on the back burner because said agent was between agencies and that's not the case anymore. There's a blog post about my own self-destructive tendencies but this isn't it. I decided now is as good a time as any to dig in. Plus, getting some distance from the present project might be good for me. PICTURE needs attention to. I think PICTURE has loads of potential and is a good story, but I need to do some research first.

I frequently mention doing research and I'm not always talking about the way we think of research, even though there is some of that in what I am talking about. I generally don't read or write thrillers and I feel like I need to study up on the genre to grasp what I need to do for the story to really work. I also have a new. "younger"idea that's been niggling at the back of my brain that I want to get to. But right now the Barad-dûr stands in the way. It needs to come down before I can do anything else. My students need these papers back for their next project and I'm leaving to go out of town tomorrow night. The heat is on.

Maybe instead of writing this, I could've worked on the pile. Nah, this was a better use of my time. Tonight, like Sam and Frodo, I'll attempt to destroy this Barad-dûr. Instead of destroying a ring, I'm going to take it down brick by brick or paper by paper.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

A Reluctant Tradition

Today is St. Patrick's Day. It's kind of a big deal here in Syracuse. We have a long Irish tradition. I mean we have the only right side up traffic light in the world. (The green of the Irish above the English red.) It used to be a big deal to me, but not so much anymore. Things change as they do.

I have pretty decent memories from St. Patrick Days past. Good memories. Pints of green beer, shots of syrupy liquors and time spent with friends. Working maintenance at Wegmans, clocking out at 6 then sprinting home to meet my best friend to eat my mom's corned beef and cabbage then consuming copious amounts of green beer. Luckily, I've never had matching green vomit to match that consumption. The time we got kicked out of Club 37 in North Syracuse defending the honor of a girl and I was home by 11:30.  Look, it sounds corny but the dude grabbed the girl by her face. Honestly, thank goodness there were no cellphones or social networks back then. All we had were disposable cameras. But the constant was my mother's corned beef and cabbage.

Something you need to know about me. I don't like corned beef. I can't tell you why. It's never appealed to me. And I despise cooked cabbage. It makes me gag even writing about it. That being said, every year, on St. Patrick's Day, I try to make sure I eat corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick's Day. It's not out of some obligation to my Irish heritage but because of my mother.

Mom made a big deal of corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick's Day. It has roots in her relationship with her mother. I'd always try to make sure that I was in her kitchen to sit at the table and have my corned beef. Always the same plate: the meat, some carrots, potatoes and a few pieces of heavily buttered rye bread. No cabbage because there are concessions I'm not even willing to make. For each bite of corned beef, I'd take a bite of the rye bread. Never putting the corned beef on the bread, it's two separate bites. If I wasn't able to be at her table, I'd make sure that I had corned beef and cabbage somehow. Then each year, when I finished, I push my plate away and I would literally say, "Alrighty then, I don't have to do that again for 365 days."

For the last few years, I've prepared St. Patrick's Day dinner. Not always on the actual holiday, but I'd make it. We're talking the whole nine yards. I prefer brisket to round (when I finally get my smoker, there will be a long post about my initial attempt at smoking a brisket), cabbage (despite my disgust), red potatoes, carrots and rye bread. The only thing missing would be an ice cold Killian's Red because my kids aren't fans of me consuming alcohol.

I do all of this for my mother. It's not out of any sense of obligation or pressure. It's not out of some commitment to my Irish heritage. Mom doesn't ask me to make it, I just do. I think it's just a connection I have with my mom and, by proxy, to my grandmother.

Continuing the motif of me gleefully playing host to family functions at my home, we had St. Patrick's Day dinner last weekend. Despite a malfunctioning CrockPot, it went off without a hitch, complete with my proclamation of being done with corned beef for the coming year. But it was not meant to be. I'm having it again tonight. At least I'm not preparing it. I'm sitting here typing this up and watching THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, so maybe that's going to be a new tradition. It could be worse. 

So, Erin go bragh, if you're going out tonight be smart and safe and may you get to Heaven a full half hour before the Devil finds out your dead.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

A Few Thoughts On Captain Marvel (SPOILERS)

I went to see CAPTAIN MARVEL last night and really enjoyed it. Is it formulaic and kind of tropey? Absolutely. Is that a bad thing? Not even a little. Formulas and tropes are tools, if used correctly with the right twist, they are terrific. Twenty-one movies in, Marvel isn't going to fiddle too much with what works and does it very well with CAPTAIN MARVEL. While it's no WINTER SOLDIER or CIVIL WAR, it's a solid, middle of the pack entry. If you've seen my rating scale before (which I'm in the process of updating), that's not a bad thing.

At this point in the MCU, these movies are almost impossible to be considered stand alone, but it's done well enough so that you can watch it with little knowledge of the "world" at large. That being said, it does a lot of what it needed to do in the entire arc of the MCU, especially considering the events of INFINITY WAR. I wasn't a huge fan of INFINITY WAR. It was a terrific spectacle with some great moments that was intensely lazy at times when it shouldn't have been lazy. But that's for another time. CAPTAIN MARVEL was a rollicking good time with load of great action and comedy. As a guy that says all his genre work takes place in some version of the 90s, the 90s nostalgia was an added bonus.

CAPTAIN MARVEL is actually the first Marvel movie I watched in the theaters. I went out of my way to go because of the uproar around the movie, mostly because of the fanboys that had issues with it, from those claiming that a 120 pound woman couldn't do what she did to a 220 pound man (yet totally bought the 220 pound Steve Rogers stopping a helicopter from taking off) to those that railed against star Brie Larson's calls for more diversity in the media. It's so annoying. Shut up, go away, no one cares. We get it you incel freaks. You only want to see big, strong me doing big, strong things. Good for you. I want to see heroes being heroes...and Captain Marvel is fits the bill.

A few random thoughts:

  • The Stan Lee tribute was beautiful and the cameo was even better. It goes beyond meta and actually leaves some questions about the universe as a whole.
  • The first act is clunky but not so much that it makes it unwatchable and it's no less clunky than other Marvel films. 
  • Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson have incredible chemistry. I want to see a buddy cop movie with them in it. 
  • Brie Larson is charisma defined. She oozes it and I loved it. 
  • The de-aging of Samuel L. really worked....Clark Gregg not so much. 
  • The 90s nostalgia is worth bringing up again. It's fun and really adds something to the film.
  • Ben Mendelsohn has become the go to villain these days, but he's terrific in this as Talos. It shows his range in the film, playing the character as this ruthless general at the beginning then transitioning to a man just trying to survive at the end. 
  • Let's talk briefly about the Skrulls. I don't like that they made them "good guys" in this. I get that they were supposed to be the bad guys in GOTG and they replaced them with the Kree because Marvel didn't "own" them for the films. The Skrulls are supposed to be villains and knowing the MCU pretty well at this point, you kind of knew the Kree were up to no good.
  • Jude Law always fascinates me as an actor. I loved his John Watson in the Sherlock Holmes films and he's perfectly duplicitous in this. You knew from the first time we see him that there is something off about him. 
  • The prestige that these films have gained is interesting to me. Think about it. Robert Redford, Glenn Close, Michelle Pfeiffer, Michael Douglas and John C. Reilly all took roles that could've been played by much lesser actors. Same for Annette Benning. Benning was one of the weaker parts of the film. She wasn't bad, but her presence didn't work the same way it did for the others. 
  • Another reviewer, and I'm too lazy to look, pointed out that they regretted wasting Glenn Close in GOTG because this was the role for her! It got me thinking about missed opportunity. You can't help but think that Marvel feels like they wasted Bradley Cooper on Rocket. That thought got me thinking about how we missed out on a John C. Reilly Rocket and that makes me sad. (I'm all in on starting a Denzel Washington as Reed Richards movement.)
  • Soundtrack was the most fun since GOTG. For movies about space people, the Cosmic Marvel movies have the best music. Think about the fun Star Lord and Captain Marvel are going to have exchanging mix-tapes. Plus, a fight scene to I'm Just A Girl. Outstanding.
  • Goose. That's all. (Though I honestly wasn't crazy about his role in Fury becoming Fury.)
  • I had to look back and figure out how they got the Tesseract. There's been that many movies. 
  • The first credit scene actually gave me the chills. Seriously. I said I wasn't high on INFINITY WAR, but I literally got the chills when Captain Marvel said, "Where's Fury?"
So, go see it. It's fun. Unless you don't like seeing a female superhero kick ass. Then go back in your basement and do whatever it is you do. 

Thursday, February 28, 2019

The Compulsion

A few days ago my friend Brian made a great post on his blog about his inability to figure out how to write a book. Go read it, like everything Brian writes, it's wonderful. I find that Brian often inspires me to write in times when I'm struggling to write. He makes some great points and asks some great questions about every aspect of book/novel writing, from inspiration to process. It got me thinking about my own experiences writing novels and I decided to sort of respond to Brian's post.

I'm not going to post a point by point response to his post, but I did want to address a few for Brian that could apply to anyone reading this:
  • We ALL write a bad memoir (whether we call it a memoir or coming of age fiction) at some point in our careers, usually at the beginning. It's the old adage "write what you know." The thing is that it's those "startling good" moments that keep us going and become the building blocks for what comes later. 
  • There's no "wrong" way to do it, but I find that a road map helps. (I know you like analog tools and while GPS is far more effective, road maps are more interesting.)
  • Don't compare yourself to others. You say Stephen King and I raise you Brandon Sanderson, who seems to release a 1200 page epic every eighteen months. 
  • I know people that do the multiple project thing and I've never been able to do it. I also realize that if I have any aspirations to becoming a professional writer I may need to learn how to spin as many plates as possible. But like I said earlier, there's no wrong way to do this thing.
Before I continue, I need to address the elephant in the room. While I've written books, I am still unpublished. I've come close. I've had an agent-twice. I've been told by an editor that my stuff was as good as anything out there, but was too long for their house. Please take everything I'm saying here with a big old slab of salt. 

Writing any kind of book, especially a novel, is a slog. It's insane in concept alone. Think about it. Let's take what the voices in our head are saying and commit them to paper, taking the impulses of our imagination and hoping they transfer from our brain through a pen or keyboard in a coherent manner that people will want to read. Hours of work, sweat, tears, vexing frustration, soul crushing self doubt and the occasional breakdown over the placement of a single, innocuous word like is. And if you are doing it right, it is an uncontrollable, unavoidable compulsion. 

Brian calls it the "return." He's 100% right. It's a call. A compulsion. That's what writing any project is, it's a return to that project. The only problem is that sometimes that call is little more than a suggestive whisper from across the room at Hungry Chuck's on a Wednesday night in the early 90s.

Me ignoring the "call" because it was too loud at Chuck's!

Life will always get in the way. It gets in the way of everything. Kids have lacrosse games and piano lessons. Houses need cleaning and driveways need snow blowing. Dinner doesn't make itself. Plans don't write themselves and I have yet to create an assignment that assesses and grades itself. You get the point. However, a good book pulls at you, whether you are reading it or writing it. That's the "return" that Brian is talking about. It's uncontrollable and unavoidable compulsion. You can't put it off. The writing wants to come out. The story wants to be told. The information wants to be shared. You find yourself scribbling in your notebook while your kids are swimming or on the back of an envelope while everyone is watching the football game on Thanksgiving night.

Every project I've worked on, from the nine novels/novellas I finished to the dozen or so projects that I've started but haven't gotten around to finish yet, has taken a wide assortment to finish. From several years to a few months, it's all varied. Every project is different. I wish that I worked quicker. Or at least more efficiently than I do now. I'm notoriously lazy. The key is that I could never completely turn away from the project. I've got plenty of false starts, but it's the projects that get their hooks into you that make you move forward, writing or revising page after page.

You can't put a timer on what you do. That can be crushing. Art takes time. I try not to set a calendar for my work. I find when I set a goal measured by what I produce, I never meet it. In the end, that works against you. You become filled with regret and self-loathing that you didn't reach that goal. A project takes as long as it needs to take before it's "done." Remember DaVinci said "Art is never finished, only abandoned."

Looking back, I'm all over the place. I'm sure if I kept better track of how much time I spent writing, which is my new metric of writing, I'd have a clearer picture of how much time it actually took me to write something. Most of my projects, from gestation to completion, took years and overlapped one another. I never work linearly. I believe in taking breaks between drafts so I can look at a project with new eyes.

The thing about all these projects was that I couldn't ignore the call to write the thing. Each project has had it's distractions, things that called me away. End of the marking period. Family emergencies. Vacations. Requests for a rewrite. But I always came back. They called to me. I couldn't ignore it. It demanded my attention.

Interestingly enough, this post, a simple post of a few hundred words took three days for me to compose, edit and put on my blog. But I kept coming back to it. As Brian said, I kept returning. That's the key. You have to keep coming back to it. Sometimes it's hours, days, weeks, months or even years, but the book always pulls you back.

I'm sure all of this sounds preachy and kind of sanctimonious. Take it for what it's worth. For now, I'm going to kick my latest novel project and try to get it singing so I can answer the compulsion. 

Monday, February 18, 2019

The Little Barrel Maker Redux

I posted this two years ago. I'm reposting it now with some changes to the preamble, but the poem remains the same. Enjoy

A few years back I participated in the Seven Valley's Writing Project, a high intensive writing program for teachers, and it's left an indelible mark on me as a teacher and as a writer. I wish there were more opportunities to participate in things like it and maybe something I do in 2017 is make more time for things like it. One of the things that we picked up was the concept of a found poem. A found poem is taking a line or two from something you've read and turning it into a poem. That year I did a found poem with my students while doing the play Fences. You all know my love of the play, so this was an important assignment. I'm telling you this for a reason.

Today is February 18th. That serious little man turns six today. At 2:20 on February 18, 2013, Cooper John Zeleznik was plucked into the world much the same as MacBeth. A few years later the line "I don't want him to be like me. I want him to move as far away from my life as he can get" was striking a serious chord with me and I wrote this poem about my son:

The day he was born was cold,
But he was warm like the spring.

Cool gray eyes in a tiny pink body
That shivered in the winter air.

Forty hid around the corner from me,
Yet this little barrel maker was fresh and new.

Well worn and weary,
I looked down at him
Feeling old, tired,
Filled with paths not taken.

Anger and
Smoldering in my chest.

But that is not the path for him.

I wonder if my father thought the same thing,
Forty years earlier,
Looking down at my cherubic face
On a snowy eve in Astoria, Queens.

My path was different than his,
But not as much as I'd like to think.
And that makes me sad.

As I look down at my little barrel maker
I say, "I don't want you to be like me.
I want you to move
As far away from my life as you can get."

Then I wonder if saying it out loud is enough.

With a heavy sigh,
I stroke the soft cheek with an ashy knuckle
And whisper "I love you" to a fuzzy ear.

Happy birthday Cooper, Daddy loves you. (That's not part of the poem.)

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Atta Boy

I've been limping my way through January. It hasn't exactly been the start I wanted for 2019. I don't know what it is, but haven't been as active as I wanted. Maybe it's the weather, which has been horrible. Brutally and relentlessly cold, which isn't much of a surprise considering it's January in Central New York, it's been something of a drag. Maybe it's a degree of frustration I'm having with the WIP. I feel like I'm doing to much in the story and I need to simplify what I'm doing so I can get to the meat of the story. I'm at what should be the jumping off point for the middle act and I just can't seem to get there. I'm resisting the urge to "half draft" it, meaning I go back to the beginning and clean it up. (I'm pretty sure I've talked about half-drafting before but I'm too lazy to look for it.) I want to just write it, so I'm thinking I should just dive into the middle part and be done with the wembling.

For the sake of sanity and, more importantly, precious energy, I've back burnered the BDB. This isn't a bad or disappointing thing, it's just I feel like I need to put it away for a bit. It's not ready and it needs to marinate a bit, though I am keeping it open enough that if I'm moved in some way by an idea related to it, I can attack it.

Yet, I still feel like I'm struggling a bit.

Earlier in the week, I was perusing my social networks and I came across this tweet by the co-creator of the classic CHAPPELLE'S SHOW:

I was moved and, in a weird way, inspired by this.

Burt Reynolds is a legend. SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT is a formative movie. As is CANNONBALL RUN. His dramatic turn in BOOGIE NIGHTS is an all time great performance. He was an icon. His trademark mustache and laugh. His undeniable swagger and charm. He was masculinity defined, especially to a chubby kid on Long Island. Even a little bit of the chubby man from Syracuse. Knowing that the great Burt Reynolds needed someone to pat him on the back and telling him that he was doing a good job is reassuring. Knowing that the man's man, Burt Reynolds, needed affirmation and reassurance just like me is comforting.

We're made to feel guilty for wanting affirmation. I'm guilty of it with my students. I've never been big on affirmation, but there's value in it. We all want to hear someone tell us we're worth something or that we're doing a good job. And too many times, there isn't anyone around or willing. We're called snowflakes or soft because we crave that acknowledgement. When you feel like that, just remember, even the Bandit needed someone to remind him that he was doing a good job.

And if that fails, shoot me a text, a DM, an email or slide up in my inbox, because everyone deserves an "atta boy" and I'm happy to give it to you. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2019


A few days ago, I wrote about being discouraged and how my daughter's attitude moved me to try and be more encouraged. Time has passed. My students' project deadline looms and I see the work they are doing. It's not good. (Let's just say the phrase "when did I teach you that" has been used a lot this week.) I received two impersonal rejections on a project that really, really stung. There's no amount of Natalie chutzpah that's going to fix the overwhelming feeling of discouragement sliding towards complete and total worthlessness I'm now feeling. . But I've had some moments in the last few weeks that are at least helping.

On New Years' Eve, my wife and I bought a new car. It's a long story for another time, but for much of the afternoon of the last day of the sort of crappy year that 2018 was, we spent it in and out of our new car, doing paperwork and learning about the car. As I was standing in the cold afternoon air, a silver sedan came down the aisle and stopped suddenly. Out of the driver's seat jumped a well-dressed, handsome young man with a smile that could light up a room shouting, "Z!" My former student Lossine embraced me and I him. We talked for a few minutes and he said he'd be right back. We talked for a bit before he had to go back to work, but similar to what he said on Twitter, I knew 2019 was going to be good since I ran into him.

Lossine and his twin brother Abu are two of my favorite former students. Bright, friendly, hardworking, joyous young men, they've transcended being former students and I consider them friends. The mere mention of the "Twins" can instantly make me smile. Fast forward to a few nights ago at Natalie's lacrosse game. Before Liverpool took the field, there was a soccer game finishing up. As they left the field, I noticed their coach. It was Abu. I was overjoyed that within a short period of time I got to see the both of them and seeing them thriving makes me feel that maybe I shouldn't be so discouraged by what's happening now.

The Twins are refugees from Liberia. They became American citizens in 2014 and I was honored when they asked me to attend the ceremony. It was moving. When you ask why am I so against the wall and the ban or anything against immigration, the Twins are why. These two amazing young men are now part of the tapestry of our country and part of what makes this country already great.

The final moment is perhaps one of the most humbling experiences in my life. It really is amazing what a few words can do to a person. To my fellow Liverpudlians, we all could name someone at LHS that left an indelible mark on who you are as a person. For me (and for many of you I'd imagine) that teacher was Steven Garraffo. Like me to the Twins, Mr. Garraffo was and always will be known by the single letter moniker of "G." Last Monday, while the kids were at religious ed, my wife and I went to Panera for dinner. Mondays during religion are "date night" for us and usually involve Twin Trees chicken wings, but I was winged out from the weekend, requiring a change of venue.

G was having dinner with his family. While we waited for our order, I went over to say hello, shake his hand and share a "bro" hug. He turned and introduced me to his family.

"This is John Zeleznik, a teacher and writer...and one of my favorite former students."

I was humbled.

I was moved.

For once, I stammered and was momentarily speechless.

To hear that from someone I respected and looked up to thought of me as one of their favorites? I'm not crying, you're crying. I recovered and told his family how important G was to a listless teenager and later to a listless adult considering a career change. Armed with honest advice that sometimes I didn't want to hear and encouragement, G's influence helped make me who I am today. I think it was his turn for me crying not him.

So, gentlemen, thank you for being three encouraging and important figures in my life. You are what I aspire to be and helped form who I am. So, when I'm having a dodgy week, not only can I look to my kids, but I can remember the three of you to encourage me to be and do better.