Validation as an Author

Although I’d love to use the excuse of being busy with life as the primary reason I haven’t been writing as much over these past six years, the reality is that six years ago I also finally reached a tipping point regarding my insecurity as an author.

I hold pretty high expectations for myself, and so whenever I would become aware of any failures in my own work, I would dwell on them. And while I know that art generally works because of the flaws in a specific piece, I’ve never been very good at recognizing that within my own work.

Part of my inability in achieving this feeling of zen has been that when you write books, there’s not much to go by to evaluate your worth as an author outside of how many books you sell. It’s not like making a movie or writing music where you can watch people experience your artform and see firsthand their emotional responses to it. No, you’re stuck getting the notes after the fact. When people have had time to think about it a little bit. When they’ve been able to fully dissect what you’ve crafted and come up with all of the holes that may or may not exist.

And books are notoriously difficult to sell. Not necessarily moreso than music or movies or other artforms, but considering this is the primary method by which to evaluate yourself, my incredibly low sales numbers have always caused me to feel this level of imposter’s syndrome. And when feeling like I didn’t deserve to call myself an author, I also caught myself questioning whether or not everything I was doing was an absolute waste of my time. And I hated the idea that I was forcing my friends and family to pretend to care that I was working on another book that they would have to pretend to have read and/or enjoyed.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m proud of my books. And I honestly enjoy them. Whenever I get around to rereading them to work on a sequel or for other reasons, I’m always surprised at the quality of my own writing. But at the same time, I am my own harshest critic and no matter how much I might be impressed with myself, I can’t help thinking it’s all in my head. That just because I appreciate what I’ve done, it’s still not good enough to be considered “good”. Even when people would tell me how much they loved my books, or the few times I’ve been told that someone was rereading them, or the phone call I got from a reader who had to seek out my number in order to ask about a sequel to Agora Files (it was a family member, not some random person in the world), or my daughter who tells all her friends about how much she loves my books, all of these, for some reason, just felt like people were trying to be nice, not really that they actually appreciated the work.

Right before the world shut down last year, my favorite local theater group stated their interest in having me write a play for them. It was a murder mystery dinner theater script they were looking for, where the cast interacts with the audience and the whole thing is really just about cramming as much sexual innuendo into the script as possible without flat out saying all the dirty things so the audience can giggle to themselves about the secret jokes that are in no way secret.

I was nervous about the idea of writing something so broadly comedic. Sure, some of my books have some pretty comedic things going on. The Defenders series has a “superman changing in the phone booth” moment, but with an overweight superhero in a port-a-john. It’s funny, and it’s broadly funny, but the whole book isn’t like that. It’s more tongue in cheek, not playing strictly for laughs, but breaking the narrative from time to time to allow for some silliness. This thing I was being asked to write exists purely to be as silly as possible, with the most minimal of narrative threads to hold the thing together.

And so I started with the simplest of things: names. And I said to myself, well, if this things is to be filled with sexual innuendo, let’s give these guys the names to match. And so we have Dick Burns, and Regina Burns. We have Justin Cider. We have Jennifer Swallows (nie Spitz). We have Anita Mandelay. And we have the fabulous Dixie Normous. This is the type of stuff I was writing, folks. The lowest brow of humor possible. Just writing to see how many laughs I could fit into 40 pages of dialogue and action. Just enough to give the actors something to work off of.

I knew these scripts. I’ve performed in these types of shows countless times. I was even a paid performer for a brief period in a traveling murder mystery troupe for this same theater group. And I did all I could to emulate those poorly written scripts as possible, while trying to insert a bit of my own goofy flair.

This past winter, they performed the show I wrote and I was allowed to watch it from the audio booth. And something happened where I suddenly felt as though I might not be as much of an imposter as I thought I was. These cast members brilliantly turned my 40 page script into something impossibly funny and, well, fun.

But what got me the most was this one moment in the show, where this one character, who, by design, doesn’t have much character development in the script, gets yelled at by this other character who is the jerk who ends up getting killed. It was designed to be a moment purely to give the minimally crafted character a reason to want to kill the future victim. And the audience let out a collective “aw” in empathy for the character getting yelled at.

In my years of performing and watching these shows, I have never once seen a single inkling of empathy from the audience for any of the characters and suddenly, it was right there. It happened. The audience cared.

And this may seem silly to you, but this is exactly the thing I had been looking for. To witness, firsthand, the emotional response to my writing. Sure, the script took a fraction of the time and effort to write than any of my books, and yes, it is not a piece that I’m incredibly proud of from an author’s perspective, but it gave me what I had been looking for in all my years as a writer. I got to see people actually responding to my writing as they were first digesting it. And it honestly changed my life.

And that’s why I was so excited when the theater group asked for a new script for this year.

I’ve actually got a lot of inspiration for plays I’d like to write moving forward. That doesn’t mean I won’t still keep a foot in novels, but I have to admit, it’s pretty awesome having an audience.

I still feel a lot of imposter’s syndrome, especially as I put the finishing touches on my current work in progress, but whenever it gets bad, I try to remember that moment and recognize that maybe there’s some semblance of worth to what I’m doing to people outside of myself. And that helps me move forward.

Have fun out there!

Flash Fiction: Polybius

For those of you unaware of the mystery surrounding the video game Polybius, the story is simple. It is an urban legend about a game (called Polybius), which supposedly existed in the 1980s.

In 1981 in Portland, Oregon, a series of psychology experiments were being run by the government. One of those experiments was that of a video game, which ended up having intense mental effects on the players. It is said that men dressed in black would show up at the few arcades which housed these machines during the brief period they could be found. Only a month later all of the Polybius arcade cabinets would disappear.

There’s no mention of this game existing before the year 2000 when gamers started asking what happened to this game from their youth. And although the stories are many and varied, they match where it counts. Yet, the general consensus is that this is just a fun urban myth that people like to talk about on the internet, a form of internet cryptozoology.

However, there is one additional detail to consider when deciding whether or not this is a government conspiracy to cover up a video game which studied the effects of addiction on players. I just found out about this game a week ago. And when I went to write this story, it turns out I had already written it years ago.

And while that may appear to be just some creepypasta intended to spook you about absolute nonsense, the real thing to be concerned about here is that I’m just about to turn forty and I’m already beginning to suffer from early onset dementia. Talk about something to be scared about.

What I’m Reading/Playing/Watching/Hearing

Whether you realize it or not, we all ingest art every dang day. Whether it’s through the entertainment we enjoy or even the advertising that we try to ignore, creativity played a part and it became art. As such, I want to take a moment to highlight some of the art I’ve been enjoying as of late.

Book – The Wall of America by Thomas M. Disch

This collection of short stories jumps all over the place, from odd little introspections into what the future of a giant wall around the United States could look like with people covering it in art, to deep dives into the concept of humanity and religion through a discussion between a robotic alien and a god-like being. Honestly, this book is good weird fun like a short story anthology should be. There is oddly enough, some crossover from story to story, almost like they are intended to feed into each other, but not in the actual activity happening in the books, but in the topics explored, causing the stories to weirdly meld together as you think through them, but in a somewhat good way. Certainly worth the read.

Game – Far Cry 3

If you’ve played the original Far Cry or Far Cry 2 (or, honestly, any first person shooter released in the past 20 years), you’ve not going to be surprised by much that’s offered in Far Cry 3. It’s great for some quick entertainment between tasks (you know, like how very busy dads have to play), but it’s not going to change the genre for you in any way. I might not be giving it much credit, since it was released in 2012 and may have been game-changing at that point, but regardless, it feels like another standard entry in the genre today. The highlights here are that it does allow you countless ways to complete missions, often allowing you to go through the mission stealthily or guns-ablazing. And it’s pretty. Especially for 2012 standards. It’s fun, and if it’s on sale (like it was when I picked it up), it’s definitely worth a play through.

TV/Movie – Loki

Look, if you’re not watching Loki, you really should. I’m actually struggling right now with the fact that the last episode released three days ago (as of when I wrote this) and since my daughter is at camp, I haven’t been able to watch the finale and therefore have to avoid the Internet entirely so as to keep from getting spoilers. And the truth is…I’ve already had most of the big spoilers (I think) forced on me. But this show is a definite watch, even if you’re not into the MCU. Like WandaVision before it, it does a great job of separating itself from the mold of MCU movies. This isn’t a by-the-book superhero series. It has surprises, it brings you to question what’s going to happen next, and it really causes you to want to see more of this world they’ve been developing. Owen Wilson brings his A-game in his MCU debut, holding his own alongside MCU-favorite Tom Hiddleston. This feels like a superhero series directed by Wes Anderson, and I’m actually surprised that I’m saying that’s a good thing. It’s silly in a way the MCU has previously been afraid to be, and I’m so happy with the result.

Music – Sufjan Stevens

This guy has been a favorite of mine for ages now. I happened upon his music almost accidently over a decade ago and fell in love with his atmospheric qualities and haunting lyrics. Songs like John Wayne Gacy Jr. will sit in the back of your mind for weeks after hearing it, causing you to unfortunately be constantly reminded of the serial killer as you cry in your sleep. But it’s so hauntingly beautiful that you just want to hear it again and again. He’s been some good mood music for me lately while I work on school, writing, or reading.

What about you? What art have you been enjoying lately? I’m always looking for something new to read, watch, play, or listen to, even if I already have a list for each of these things that is so incredibly large that I’ll never get through it all.

What’s in a Name (or a pronoun)?

I like to think of myself as a laid back person. I don’t generally judge people on their choices, and when I do, it’s more of a gentle joking kind of judging. However, I’ve found myself feeling incredibly bothered by something which really shouldn’t have taken up so much real estate in my mind. And it has to do with people declaring that they now have a new name and/or gender they would prefer to be called by.

Now, to be fair to myself (cue the Letterkenney crew), I historically haven’t had an issue with this concept. I’ve got quite a few friends who perform in drag and a couple who like to spend more time as a woman than as a man and have never had an issue with the idea of calling them by their drag names or genders when they are presenting as such. I’ve traditionally taken a similar approach to those in the nonbinary communities. But, for some reason, when it comes to the middle schoolers in my life (which seems to be more and more as my children get older), I have found myself struggling.

I know this is a sensitive topic and I also know that in my revealing of my internal dialogue on this mess, I may not come off as being entirely compassionate toward that fact. But, to put my state of mind at the time simply: the sheer numbers of middle schoolers in my life who have been changing pronouns and names seem to be far greater than the national average for those who identify as nonbinary, suggesting (statistically speaking) that some of these folks are probably just into the trendiness of it. The fact that I know of a few who refuse to settle on a name or gender definitely caused me additional difficulty in resolving this in my mind as well.

This idea that you can just suddenly be someone else reminded me of my younger days when the goth or hippie kids would suddenly declare their name to be Lucifer Morningstar or Sunshine Gluten-Free Oats or something I would find equally ridiculous. I know kids today who have changed their preferred moniker to match that of a favorite cartoon character, which reminded me of the moment in the film Big Daddy where the kid declares his name to be Frankenstein. Something about the method in which these kids were approaching the subject felt so inconsequential that I just found myself having difficulty taking it seriously.

And so, because there is a definitely trendiness to this and oftentimes a lack of an emotional component to the decision, which I feel those who truly struggle with gender identity tend to showcase, I found myself wanting to ignore it. I didn’t see this as a reflection of one’s inner self as much as it was kids trying to figure out what clique they belonged to. And to be honest, a part of me felt like this was more of an attack on authority figures than it was anything else. To hear these kids who appeared to have no real emotional connection to their decisions talk about the evils of misgendering and deadnaming felt like a game where the rules meant that those who didn’t play were intolerant.

It probably didn’t help that my six year old, when seeing these kids changing identities at will, decided he now wanted to be called Jeff instead of Felix. He saw the game and wanted to play along. And a part of me felt like me playing along meant I was allowing these kids to take something that was an emotionally serious moment for many people around the world, and make it into a silly thing. I could handle the idea of people being nonbinary, I could handle feeling like you were assigned the wrong gender at birth, but for someone to claim this with zero emotional baggage connected to it, that I couldn’t handle.

For most of the last year, I’ve struggled with this. I was hung up on this idea that it mattered that these kids didn’t care about the struggles so many people have in coming to terms with the precise thing they were trying on like new pair of pants. Not only did I have this issue with feeling like it was my authoritative place to make sure they weren’t allowed to change their name and/or gender just because they thought it would be fun, but I felt like it was an affront to those who actually struggle with these precise issues.

And there’s a part of me who still feels like these kids might need to gain a better understanding of the background of this identity they’re trying on for size, whether they are truly struggling with with their own gender identities or not.

But another part of me has also come to the realization that I really don’t know why I’ve felt so personally invested in this.

While I definitely struggle with my years of training on how to gender someone in conversation and often have difficulty in remembering to say they or he for a person who appears to be feminine, and it gets even more difficult when I have to remember which gender a person might be this week, depending on how they are feeling, I finally found myself asking the question of why do I care?

For reasons I can’t explain, I felt this need to control the situation, and when I actually sat down to think about it, I couldn’t come up with a good explanation for why. It’s incredibly common for middle schoolers who were named Katheryn, but called Katie, to suddenly declare their name to be Kat. Why does it need to be any different because they is (singular nonbinary pronouns feel wrong when trying to use appropriate grammar, don’t they?) now wanting to be called Pat?

I’ve been requiring these kids to live in reality as I see it. And that reality means that you really shouldn’t be going about changing your names and pronouns if you don’t have some sort of emotional need to be doing so. There are rules to this society! Why should I be forced to remember what pronouns you want to go by? This isn’t some dream world where you can change whether you want to be considered a boy, a girl, or a gonzo depending on how you feel that day!

I, a person who spends his life writing fiction, became far too obsessed with needing people to live in a very specific reality.

But what is this reality I was expecting? Clothing, gender of names, or even pronouns, these are all simply societal constructs, things developed because of rules set down by people who died ages ago. Sure, perhaps in the medical setting there may be some reasons to know what gender a person was assigned at birth, but what need is there to know assigned genders anywhere else?

As a young buck growing up in the Southeast during the 80s and 90s who liked books and singing more than sports, I often found myself battling against the constructs of gender in our society. I never questioned my boy-ness, but I always questioned what it meant to be a boy. I may not have a solid grasp on what makes those who identify as non-binary any different than those who simply don’t follow the boy-blue/girl-pink rules of society, but I guess my point is: Do I really need to understand?

There is so much to be unhappy about in this world, so, if your name and/or pronouns are one of them…why shouldn’t you be allowed to change them at will? Who cares? There are far more important things to worry about than whether someone should be allowed to tell you how to refer to them. When talking to someone on the phone who sounds like a woman and you call them ma’am and they correct you, you generally apologize and refer to them by male pronouns for the rest of the conversation, you don’t ask them to verify what is in their pants. If my kid comes home and tells me his name is now Jeff and he wants me to refer to him with they/them, well, there are far worse things he could come home and say, even if Jeff is a terrible name.

Hell, even the religious among you really shouldn’t have much to get up in arms about.I mean, sure, Hebrew is a very gendered language, but there’s nothing in the Bible I can find which states a need to follow a specific naming pattern for gender or how you must use specific pronouns because of what equipment you were born with. And the Bible has people changing names all the time. Sure, there are the more obvious ones like Abram to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah, Saul to Paul, but there’s also Simon to Peter, Jacob to Israel, and even Jedediah to Solomon. Names mean something and the Bible shows this time and again. Maybe there’s a place where we can recognize that sometimes the name given to a child before they are even born might not apply to them years after they are birthed.

And maybe, it really shouldn’t matter that much to those of us who just have to get used to a new name.

I mean, sheesh, I’ve known several people throughout the course of my life who go by their middle names instead of their first names and every single fiber of my being knows that to be wrong but I still play along.

So, bottom line, I’ve been at fault for my internal responses to those who have declared themselves to have different names and/or genders than what they were assigned at birth, even if they were primarily middle school aged. I shouldn’t care. It doesn’t matter. It impacts me only in what words I use in a sentence and as long as you’re willing to accept the fact that I’m not going to get your new identity correct 100% of the time, I really should accept that you have a right to tell me how you would prefer to be addressed. I’m sorry.

Be you. Heck, authors go by new names, sometimes differently gendered names, all the time. Even the transphobic author of a popular book series about a young wizard used an intentionally misleading penname so people would think she was a man instead of a woman, and that was just to sell books. Why can’t you use a name that makes you feel more like you?

Now the real question is…what name would you pick if you could change your name to anything? And, will there ever be a day when I can feel comfortable using they/them pronouns with singular verbs?

Have fun out there!

What Have I Done?

One of the primary purposes of this space has always been to keep you updated on my life, whether you liked it or not. To keep with that tradition, here’s my Christmas card letter for you, which, like all Christmas card letters, you can skim over to see if you’re mentioned before tossing aside.

Merry Christmas in July!

The best Christmas cards come with pictures. Too bad you can’t hang this one on your fridge.

I should probably start this off with the answer to the question I get asked most by those who have enjoyed my books: Am I still writing?

Although the past few years have felt like the writing has taken a back burner, the reality is that I’ve been quite prolific. In fact, I’m putting the finishing touches on a book right now. Yes, I have been working on this book for the past six years, but The Right to Liberty(title pending) is something special, something I’ve been pouring my heart into, something which, I believe, takes my writing to a whole new level. I honestly believe it is the most well written book I have ever pieced together. It’s fun, it’s folksy, and I believe it will cause you to pause at least briefly and think about the world around you. I could write an entire post on this book and how excited I am about it…and I will. For now, just know that not only have I been putting out books, short stories, and plays over the past six years, I’ve also got one big, game-changing book on the horizon.

The Family: It’s no secret that my family is the most important thing in my life. Six years ago my youngest was a baby, still not even able to crawl. Now he’s an amazing little man who loves to read so much that I literally had to rip a book out of his tightly gripped hands this weekend so he could get ready to go to the pool (which, I’ll add, was his idea in the first place). The other two kids need at least two hands to tell me their ages and are becoming their own incredible human beings. And all three of them have been bitten by the writing bug. They’ve promised to share some of their writing here on the blog, which I am so freaking excited to share with you.

The wife is still the wife. Sure, that’s a boring sentence, but six years with three kids is a long time for a marriage to continue to work (not to mention the 8 additional years today with varying numbers of children and the three years we were together before being married), meaning this is an amazing accomplishment. I can barely handle hanging out with me for a couple hours, and here she is at over 17 years of it. She’s still the amazing supportive partner who keeps me well fed and I wouldn’t trade her for anything.

And me…well, I’m still pretty much me. I’m always working on something. Over the past six years, I’ve taking to learning multiple computer programming languages (and a few human languages, which I’m far worse at), leading me to one of my favorite non-writing (but still writing) projects: a program which analyzes the text of a book and will write a completely new book in the style of that book. It’s pretty rough yet, but also only about a month-old. Here’s a sentence it just wrote, in the style of The Agora Files: “Providing a tizzy. Too are sluggish. Very very interesting for in training to quickly.”

And I think that’s pretty much it for updates at the moment. There are countless other minor details I could expound upon, like how I’m in school again, how we’ve been using peaches to save the world, or how we moved to a farm and then back to the city, but I think all of those deserve their own post. And sure, there are always those less-than-happy moments in life, which, who knows, maybe I’ll throw some of those out here as well.

But for now, that’s the quick overview of what I’ve been up to for the last six years. Where have you ended up since we last chatted?

I’ve Missed This

Every great author should have a crow for a friend, right?

In case yesterday’s little piece of flash fiction didn’t make it obvious, I’m back!

It sure has been a while, hasn’t it?

Six years actually. Well, outside of the random little something or other.

And I know what you’re thinking, this is just another one of those random little something or others.

NO!

Six years ago, this blog was my comfort zone. My place to sit back and get out some of the random thoughts rumbling around in my head, experiment a bit through flash fiction or social commentary, highlight other authors, book and entertainment reviews, life and book updates, as well as a little bit of advice column.

This was my prosaic playground. And it was one of my favorite places to play.

And then, about six years ago, I made a decision which would mean I had to put the blog on the back burner. And then a few other decisions. And before you know it, it has been six years since blogging was a daily activity for yours truly. Most of these decisions involved doing what was right for my family, and I wouldn’t trade them for the world, but for the past six years I’ve been ruminating on how I can get back to this space.

And then, a couple months ago, I realized how much I needed to bring this back into my life and began developing something to not only allow me to return to regular blogging, but also to make sure that the blog would remain as engaging as possible for you, my amazing readers.

As a result of all that planning, I’m happy to say that I’m back with a whole host of things sitting in the hopper ready to be shared, with plans for a ton more. I’m so incredibly excited to get my playground back and even more excited to share it with you.

Yet, I’m aware of how terrible of a return a stupid “I’m Back” post is, as it’s inherently boring and self-aggrandizing. Because of that, I’ve written another little piece of flash fiction for you. It’s basically the first version I came up with for yesterday’s post, but, you know, a little less epic. All the same, just a little goofy treat to throw out here to showcase how I’m ready to be back!

Have fun out there!

Once upon a time, in the not-so sleepy town of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, there lived a storyteller. This storyteller loved to tell stories, but there was one thing he loved even more: his family.
While this storyteller could never give up telling stories entirely, as it was his very nature to do so, he decided to limit his storytelling time in order to focus more on his family and give them the attention they deserved.
Now, it would be lying to say his focus was purely on his family during this period. No, he was working hard to try to do something incredible. His fought to find ways to make more of himself so he could provide his family with the quality of life he wished them to have. And while he would find it difficult, he found success in the ways which mattered. And through those successes, he and his family were able to have the most amazing adventures. And, as luck would have it, he would still manage to find some time, albeit small amounts, to tell stories.
He would publish three books, three short stories, and two plays during this period of decreased storytelling. The plays would be performed before sold out crowds who would laugh and cheer, the short stories would be included in anthologies filled with writing from some of the storyteller’s favorite storytellers, and the books would tell enthrall readers with its epic adventures and colorful characters. While the storyteller dedicate himself as fully to his craft as he wanted, he still managed to achieve his ultimate goals of telling stories and having people enjoy them.
Yet, he yearned for the storytelling days of his past. The days where he would daily provide his audience with new tales and engage with them directly. Perhaps not all of his stories would be met with the grandest of responses, but a conversation had been developed between storyteller and storyreader. And this conversation was what the storyteller missed
One day, the storyteller, finding himself with an unexpected moment of free time, opened up his computer. He sat in his dark little office and began tapping away on his keyboard. Eager, once again, to find his friends and hope to entertain them.

Prologue

The man lit a torch as he entered the dark musty room, unsure of what he would find after such a long time away. His previous adventures in this space had uncovered countless treasures, but he feared his absence had caused all to be forgotten and lost.

He trudged down the steep staircase into the earth’s underbelly, butterflies of eager anticipation fluttered in his stomach as he pressed forward to see what he might find.

The torch cast deep shadows along the walls, highlighting ancient texts scrawled throughout the cavernous interior. The man ran his fingers along the etched lettering, feeling the words come alive with his fingers as he considered the times in which they were written. Tales of life, the future, the past, and hopes long forgotten surrounded him as a reminder of those historic days when this prosaic playground was still shiny and new.

The man paused, noting a statue placed directly in the center of it all. He hastened his pace to reach the statue and pursed his lips to blow away the layers of dust covering the hall’s centerpiece. He smiled, knowing that although the statue bore his face, it was the faces of the thousands who would visit here who should have the memorials built in their images.

And so it was, with a conflicted grin, the man placed the first of the explosive charges at the base of the statue. He placed an additional five throughout the hall, questioning whether he truly wanted to follow through with his plan. He reminded himself that although the history of the place may have meant something to him, and perhaps would be remembered by some of those who had previously visited, the clearing of the old to make way for the new would allow for so much more.

After delicately placing the final package and carefully connecting the red and black wires which coursed their way back to the cave’s entrance, he gave one final look around, wondering whether or not he had the right to destroy everything he had once held dear, even if his intention was to build something far grander.

Once he had further dedicated himself to the task, he followed the cables back to the surface, took one deep breath, and flipped the switch, causing everything to burst into flames as the walls came crumbling to the ground.

As the dust settled, he reentered the cave, now nothing more than an empty space with blanks walls. He took out his tools, walked to the closest wall, and returned to work, smiling broadly as he prepared to bring his next story to the world.