Writing to Live: The birth of the “rock novel”

December 14, 2016

The second edition of my 2011 novel, The Mission of the Sacred Heart, just came out so I thought I’d write a little about the hell of writing it just in case you had a tortured artist on your gift-giving list.

The twentieth century ended not with a bang but a whimper. I was in the throes of a classic Randy heartbreak. (I hadn’t yet accurately identified the pattern or the appropriate response.) I was going through a divorce with a woman I had met in a poetry reading in Augusta, Georgia. We got married after the Atlanta Olympics and I brought her to Portland, mistakenly thinking that I was ready to be in a partnership and that she was ready to settle down.

I tried to comfort myself with the idea that it was just a “starter marriage” (A Gen X hot topic at the time), but there was a trip to Cannon Beach with the thought of hurling myself off an appropriately dramatic cliff. Long story short, I didn’t, but got into therapy and got on an anti-depressant called Zoloft. There was other suicidal behavior in my family so I began to wonder what that impulse was about and, more importantly, what was it that stopped most of us from actually doing it.

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Since I had been pretty successful as a spoken word artist in Atlanta, I thought it was time to write something longer than a poem. It was musician Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles who had given me a copy of Sophie’s Choice to encourage me to follow my fantasy of becoming a writer. Now I had the start of an idea for what might be an important book – Why is it so hard to kill yourself?

It’s not a rock opera

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Someday I’ll write a whole thing about the joys of locking yourself in the room in the days before the internet and even MTV and listening to record albums. Suffice it to say, I did it a lot in the 1970s. When I was 13, one of my favorite albums was A New World Record by the Electric Light Orchestra. For those out of the loop, ELO’s schtick was that they played rock music with a string section (like how Chicago had a brass section). Very Beatle-inspired pop that infected the airwaves. This album had songs with compelling characters, like opera singers and a guy on a telephone and an alien, and a mother on a corner with a baby.

My teenage brain, alone in my room, strung all the songs together into one long narrative. Maybe I was listening to The Who’s Tommy too much but I believed I was listening to a “rock opera.” It all seemed to fit together to well.

When I got a CD version of the album 20 years later I realized it was just a bunch of songs, not a concept album. But then I thought, “What if someone were to write the story I first heard all those years ago? It could be a rock novel!” Adding a few contemporary themes, like homeless youth and turn-of-the century-depression, and you have a new genre!

Late night on the iMac

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Between preparing lectures, going to shows, occasionally sobbing, and inhabiting Portland dive bars like I was Sinatra with an ungodly thirst for Jack Daniels, I’d write away. I was translating my funk and the world it existed in, trying to find the answer to this question. The ELO album played over and over as I used it as a template for my story about a small group of Portland creatives, a gutter punk with a baby and a dude who may or may not be an alien. I’d bash away at my aqua iMac as I lived with these people; Zak, Lenny, Cozy, Telly, and Lucinda.

By the last chapter, I had the answer. Why we hold on. And a wonderful story about the power of music to move us through the tar pits of our lives. On December 31, 1999, I took a draft of the manuscript into the desert at the Warm Springs reservation and read it as the sun set on the century. I burned the pages to keep warm and hoped my hard drive back in Portland was safe from the Y2K bug.

It was really the writing of it that saved me. During that period I also co-authored a great book on suburban delinquency, bought a house, weened myself off the Zoloft, and took a visiting professorship at Emory University. I suddenly didn’t need the book, until I did again. That’s when I self-published it in 2011. It’s done pretty well, getting some amazing attention, and now it’s been optioned by a screenwriter in Hollywood for a future film project. And it all came out of a moment when I thought there might be something better to do than throw myself into the sea because my heart got beat up.

Why we stick around

The answer that I reached on the last page of The Mission of the Sacred Heart is that we stick around to see how things turn out. In our deepest moments of sorrow, sometimes it’s hard to see the countless moments of joy and lay ahead of us. If I had jumped I would have missed so many blissful moments; drives across the country, being inches away from Patti Smith as she sang “Gloria,” seeing Andrea walk into a room for the first time, hearing Cozy say, “I need to poop,” and more to come. Why walk out before the movie ends? Even Speed 2 had a pretty cool ending.

The sequel to Mission, The Dream Police, is now out and getting a positive response. I thought it was time to clean Mission up a bit, fix the cover, and take out a few less evolved terms in the story. (Sorry history, “retarded weathermen” and “big boobed Asians,” as funny as they sounded, have been revised.) Mission had an important impact on some folks who were going through the same thing I was, so it has served its purpose, but it’s still a timeless story about those moments and how we survive them with the power of a good song.

I’m not intending to write a trilogy. The Dream Police may be the last time we see Lenny, Zak, and Cozy. But who knows? I just want to get these books to people so they can be as good friends to them as they were to me.

The Mission of the Sacred Heart is available here on Amazon and Amazon Kindle.

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Watching the Wheels turns 2 and can use the potty!

November 23, 2016

Well, when they say “time flies,” they really mean it. Two years ago, Cozy was an infant, Andrea was off to work at Planned Parenthood, I was enjoying my parental leave from Portland State University and the country seemed in good hands. Now, Andrea is working at a great law firm, Cozy’s hanging with her posse at daycare, I’m looking to return to academia and the country is about to be handed to a buffoon who wants to use the White House to build his anemic hotel empire. A lot has changed since I started this blog.

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I’ve had a productive year as a writer. My second short story was published in an amazing collection called A Journey of Words, forever linking the words “ants” and “Uranus.” Most significantly, my new novel, The Dream Police, is out and currently being read by actual people. The first few reviews on Amazon are wonderful. It couldn’t have happened without the amazing support I got on Kickstarter. As if in a dream, when people asked, “What do you do?” I’d just say – writer.

The real great leap forward has been Cozy and her brain. Like last year, we celebrated her birthday on Isla Mujeres in Mexico. She turned two and her verbal skills just went though the roof! We went from a limited vocabulary (in both English and Spanish) to full sentences in a flash. Her brain is connecting concepts and linking them at lightning speed. Instead of “hat,” it’s now “Cozy’s hat” or “Mama’s hat.” Possessives! That’s huge! Pretty soon she will be jamming on verb tenses. It’s an exciting thing to watch evolve.

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I think any new parent will tell you, one of the best parts of this phase is that the kid can tell you want they need. When she was a screaming baby, we’d wonder, “Is she okay or does she just need a boob?” Now she can say, “Tummy hurt” and “Where is it?” (Which usually refers to Rocco, her beloved pet rock.) It’s liberating to be able to have actual conversations with this former-baby.

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She’s off to daycare now a few days a week and loves going to “school.” She puts on her little backpack and heads off for a day of art projects, Spanish lessons, and walks around the neighborhood, including past “the big castle” (aka St. Andrew’s church). When she gets home she goes to her books. “I’m reading!” she exclaims. My nerd in training. Have I mentioned her love of The Beatles yet? Just ask her to sing, “Hey Jude.”

This blog has been a great place to explore her development and the development of the world she is inheriting. I’ve tried to keep the focus on issues related to gender and feminism, but my work is also about racism and the abuses of power, so how could I not discuss Trump, Black Lives Matter, and yoga pants? The blog has had over 400,000 visits. The pieces on Trump have been most popular but my blog on breast feeding dads continues to get creepy viewers by the score.

There is definitely a parallel between Watching the Wheels and Cozy Blazak. Both can walk on their own and are learning to talk in world where it’s not given that we’ll just get what what we want. How will liberals advance in the Un-united States of Trumpland? How will a little girl grow up safe in a country where voters elevated the symbol of rape culture to the highest office in the land? There will be plenty to write about in the next year as we guide our daughter through this backward moment in out history.

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The biggest change this past year has been in me and my desire to get back to work. Andrea and I were in New Orleans last week for the annual conference of the American Society of Criminology. I was reunited with my colleagues who do research on hate crimes and terrorism. It was a reminder of how important my scholarly work is, especially now as we see hate crimes on the increase. I was just on a program on Al Jazeera discussing the climate of hate in Trumpland. It was a tap on the shoulder, reminding me that I am a global voice on this issue. I’m incredibly proud of how The Dream Police turned out but it’s time to get back into the trenches.

So come along for a ride on this 2-year-old toddler of a blog. You KNOW there’s some good stuff coming. At least before Trump shuts down the free media.

Happy Thanksgiving!

A Year as a Penniless Writer

April 6, 2016

Last week my former colleagues were posting about the start of spring quarter and I have to admit that I got a sharp pang in my heart. It’s been officially a year since I left Portland State to focus on my writing and my family and not focus on endless battles with empowered psychopaths. There is nothing like the rush of the the first week of classes when everyone is sizing each other up. I would always front load my classes with bombast so students wouldn’t drop them for Badminton 101. They always seemed so restless after Spring Break.

A year ago we were furiously manning our Kickstarter campaign for my new book and I was here writing a blog about normative maleness and my daughter. We set a goal of $10,000 and raised over $11,000. The book is written and is with a copy-editor who will tell me I need to move some prepositions around and lay off the over-use of commas. I’m really proud of it. The Dream Police will make some waves when it is released. I like to tell people that it is about the sex lives of university administrators, but it’s about so much more. It is a twisted tale rooted in a twisted reality. Andrea had the idea of shooting some short promotional films for it, so I’m am currently looking for my cast. The book should be on people’s nightstands at the beginning of summer.

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In this year I’ve written over fifty pieces for this blog, some which have been published elsewhere, including in CounterPunch and The Gay & Lesbian Review. I’ve had a short story about Elvis published in an amazing collection and I’m working on a new piece about ant-like aliens that are using a guy’s butthole as a portal to take over the earth. (Hey, it’s my poetic license and I’m gonna use it. It’s a morality tale, okay?) The Mission of the Sacred Heart is still working its way through the Hollywood process and I’ve taken on the role as co-writer of the screenplay to help move it through “development hell.” I just keep writing and writing, waiting for something to land that will allow me to re-start Cozy’s college fund.

I certainly miss my regular paycheck and the benefits that came with it almost as much as I miss teaching and having a job that had such a direct impact on the community. The life of a writer is solitary and can be very lonely. Much of the time is spent inside my head. “What the hell should I do with this character? Maybe tie him to a weather balloon and set him free.” Sometimes I ask Cozy, but she just asks for a cracker or wants me to hand over my laptop because she knows Elmo lives somewhere inside it.

It’s a shock to the system to not have a captive audience three days a week, one that actually writes down what I say. Interviews on TV are not exactly the same. I can only hope that when an interview with me is on the 11 o’clock news, if people aren’t taking notes they are at least having sex. Make use of the time I have given you. But I’ve got a class at the University of Oregon coming up later this month, so I will encourage them to take notes (and not have sex) for my sake.

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I guess this is just a little diary to mark the moment. I can’t help but think of Ewan McGregor in Moulin Rouge (2001) as the penniless writer. In the great bohemian tradition the tale has a tragic ending, but the writer survives to turn the tragedy into a great story for future generations to gleam some insight from about love, life, and how to live it. That’s sort of what I’m doing. There’s plenty of joy in this house, with a long dreamed of wife who is as talented as she is beautiful and our perfectly perky baby, but there is also the long anguish of the unknown. Will all this writing pay off? Will the advance money last? Will Dad have to give his last Ritz Cracker to his crying child? Will the man be able to stop the alien ants from coming out of his butthole? Stay tuned and let’s find out together.

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