Everything I Know About Book Writin’

The American dramatist Gene Fowler once said, “Writing is easy:  All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” There’s some encouragement for you.

I wrote and published my first book a while back, and I learned a great deal from the experience. I feel obliged to share what I learned with aspiring writers. The word ‘aspiring,’ of course, is derived from the Latin aspirare, to breathe, which implies that aspiring to write is as easy as breathing. In my experience, writing is more difficult than that, although both, for me, involve some wheezing. Continue reading

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i should read more poetry…

I did a very bad thing recently. It was an impulsive moment, but I’ll be dealing with the consequences for a long time. I’m not even sure why I’m writing about it, because it was so incredibly stupid. I just need to clear my conscience, I guess, so here it is: I bought books at a yard sale. Continue reading

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mark my words

Ever since I read my first book (‘Green Eggs and Ham’), I have been in love with words for their own sake. Sure, you can make some cool things out whole bunches of words, but some words are great all by themselves. ‘Effluvium.’ ‘Nexus.’ ‘Philology.’ Hell, ‘philology’ is just plain fun to say. Try it. Say ‘philology’ out loud three or four times (best to do this when you’re alone, as opposed to, say, while taking public transit).

I recently discovered a fascinating website called LanguageLog. Of course by ‘fascinating,’ I mean ‘interesting to people who find arcane observations about the minutiae of language interesting,’ but really, isn’t that all of us?  No? Anyway, from this site I learned that there’s an actual term for a misspoken phrase that still makes sense, like ‘old-timer’s disease’ instead of ‘Alzheimer’s.’ It’s called an ‘eggcorn.’

My favorite new word (new to me, and actually fairly new as a word) is ‘snowclone.’ While it sounds like something created by a villain in a Bond flick (“With my army of snowclones, world domination will be mine!”), the term was coined by a linguist to describe what you might call ‘fill-in-the-blank’ clichés, like ‘X is the new Y,’ or that was ‘the mother of all _____s,’ or ‘the ______ from Hell.’ (I try to make my column entertaining AND educational. You’re welcome.)

I wonder about clichés. What about the first guy who said ‘one hand washes the other’? Was he pissed when everybody started saying it? Or did his friends just look at him funny, like “Well, duh! That’s how hand-washing works!” And some clichés don’t make much sense. Before it became a cliché, did people need to be constantly reminded to look before they leapt?

Sometimes clichés aren’t all they’re cracked up to be (see what I did there? I used a cliché to describe clichés!) Like when you want to point out that two things are dissimilar—they’re like ‘apples and oranges.’ Not very effective, since apples and oranges are both fruit. Shouldn’t it be ‘that’s like apples and…trucks’? And there’s always a flipside to clichés—you could say that ‘what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger,’ but you could also argue that ‘what doesn’t kill us weakens us so that it’s easier to kill us in the future.’ Granted, that’s not as effective as an affirmation.

I’ve been thinking a lot about words lately, which I’ve found is much less labor-intensive than actually writing words. Let alone the whole ‘stringing words together into sentences’ deal. And then the sentences have to somehow connect to each other? Oy.

There are, to be sure, pros and cons about being a freelance writer. On the plus side, I work when I’m inspired to work, not because it’s…Monday. In the minus column, I only get paid when I’ve actually done something, as opposed to getting paid because it’s…Friday.

I read once that to be a successful freelancer, one should treat every day as if one had a regular job. Get up at a certain time, put in your eight hours, etc. Because the myth of freelancing is that you ‘make your own hours,’ when in reality, you have to work with the exact same hours everyone else does. It’s not like you get special ‘freelance hours’ that are eighty minutes long, or freelance days with extra hours in them.

The magic phrase is ‘be your own boss.’ Great idea in theory, but the problem I face is that I’m a shitty boss. Combine that with the fact that I’m kind of a crappy worker, and productivity can really suffer.

For instance, as my boss, I tend to let myself start work around eleven-ish, and I don’t even notice that for most of my first hour on the job, I’m using my work computer to surf the web. Now in my defense, those Scrabble tiles won’t move themselves. But still, you’d think a good boss would at least wander by my desk occasionally to keep me focused. Also, even though I appreciate a laid-back workplace, I’m not sure it’s a great idea to have a boss that lets me smoke pot at work.

I think I’m gonna find a business supply store, buy myself a time clock and attach it to my desk, just to get that tangible feeling of “Now it’s time to start working.” I’ll trick myself into being productive. Maybe I’ll pick up some partitions and turn my desk into a cubicle (I was actually curious where one would buy a cubicle, and I found out there is a company in Dallas called Cubiclemart, which may win the award for most soulless business name in history).

One big difference between a freelance career and a real job is that, in a real job, once you have the gig, you just keep showing up, whereas I have to keep getting rehired every time I finish something. The truth is, I’m not too worried. I’m starting a new assignment tomorrow, so I’ll probably take the rest of today off. Besides, I heard somewhere that not working is the new work.

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it’s all about the chair

My Muse, sometimes, is like my first girlfriend after we broke up—yeah, I could call her, we might even get together, but nothing much is gonna come of it. You try to think of topics, as a writer, that haven’t been done to death. There aren’t any.

We have reached a point in civilization where everything has now officially been covered. Oh, and mocked. And there have also been pieces commenting about the mocking. It’s all been done. Move along, nothin’ to write here.

If you’re not a writer, and instead, say, actually make things people use, you probably don’t have much empathy for the whole ‘writer’s block’ thing. I think that’s the case with most stories about the ‘struggling artist.’ I’m pretty sure the reason the film of ‘A Chorus Line’ wasn’t a huge box-office hit is that,  for the typical American worker, the notion that ‘it’s really hard to dance in a show’ didn’t really resonate.

After trying for days to start a new comedy piece (weird term–“I think I’ll just have a piece of comedy, thanks”), I finally had a breakthrough. I now know the reason why I haven’t been able to write lately. It’s my chair. It doesn’t roll. Damned stupid, non-rolling, stationary chair.

I think a writer’s credibility goes up a notch with the rolling chair. There’s something profoundly powerful about…not having to get up. Since I live in a small studio apartment, I could conceivably spend an entire day sitting on my ass. That, my friends, is living the dream. If I feel a need for some exercise…well, I can read about exercise on the internet.

Having a rolling chair says a lot about a man. It implies, “He’s so busy he can’t take the time to stand.” It says. “He must have a lot of visitors, what with him needing a chair turns around like that.” It says, “That’s kinda sad that he needs to pretend he works in an office.”

So today, to procure said chair, I entered the Swedish labyrinth known as Ikea. I realize that, to use the math of the far right, that means I’m a socialist. After all, I’m shopping at a Swedish store, Sweden has socialized medicine, therefore I want to pull the plug on your grandparents.

Ikea actually frightens me. First of all, Ikea stores are too freaking big–I shouldn’t need a map after I’m already at my destination! Just because you’re a Swedish company, doesn’t mean your store needs to be the size of Sweden. If I’m getting two things, say, a rolling chair and a skillet, and I’ve found one of the two items, I shouldn’t need to consult a GPS device to locate the other.Here’s an idea–split up into multiple stores, each specializing in something. It’s called a mall, and the concept works.

Secondly, It’s all just a little too…efficient, don’t you think? You know who else was efficient, don’t you? The Third Reich. Seriously, is that an Ikea catalog, or Aryan Monthly? Everything in a nice, flat box? Lemme tell you something, Mister…Swedish guy. REAL LIFE doesn’t come in a nice flat box! And ya know what else, Sven? Oh, never mind, imaginary Swedish person.

Now, the idea of low prices because you build the shit yourself is fine, but why stop there? Why not have a store that’s just a pile of wood and particle board, with another big pile of random screws and bolts? And no cashiers—just boxes of money at the entrance out of which you make change. Imagine the savings! I wonder if Swedish grocery stores follow the same model. Shoppers wandering through aircraft-hangar sized warehouses, picking their own bananas, milking cows… “Honey, don’t forget we’re having lamb chops tonight—bring your mallet and your cleaver.”

I guess I’m just willing to spend a little more in order to arrive home with the actual thing I bought, and not a box representing that thing. Also, I am, mechanically speaking, a numbnuts. My stepdad wouldn’t let me go into our own garage after he watched me try to hammer two boards together.

In those high school aptitude tests, I would score 99th percentile on everything except what they called ‘spatial relationships.’ They would show a diagram of a bunch of pulleys and gears, and the question would be something like, “If pulley A turns counterclockwise, which direction would gear C turn?” And I would stare at the page as if trying to decode the Rosetta Stone, thinking, ‘who could possibly figure that out?’ I remember scoring right around the 43rd percentile on ‘spatial relationships,’ which is only slightly better than Bobo the Circus Orangutan would have ranked.

My one attempt at assembling an Ikea item was a desk, which took me three and a half hours, an hour of which was spent looking for more instructions than the half-page of sketches included in the box. When I was done, it looked like a desk, but I had four random pieces left over. I was afraid to use the desk, because I was worried at least one of those pieces was the piece responsible for actually supporting any kind of weight. I mostly put really light things on it, like postage stamps, and my keys.

So, I have a chair now, and it has wheels. Okay, I actually have some cushions, some metal thingies, a couple of plastic dealies, and some wheels. But I vow, someday, somehow, I will take those cushions, most of the metal thingies, at least one of the plastic dealies, and the wheels, and I will make me a chair. And then–yes then,  I will be able to write.

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you can’t teach that

For the first time in a while, I’ll be teaching again this weekend. Before you start congratulating me for re-entering this most noble of professions, it’s not like I’ll be teaching about the towering figures in modern literature, or advances in higher mathematics, or, really anything with practical value. I teach stand-up comedy.

There are some problems with this as a way to make money. First, I’m not sure why anyone would take a stand-up comedy class, since the stand-up ‘boom’ ended in the early 1990s. It seems rather like studying to be an apothecary, or a blacksmith. Yeah, there are still comedy clubs, and a few hundred dive bars that might have a ‘comedy night’ in which they move the karaoke machine out of the way for an hour and a half (“You guys have to be done by 9:30, because the Metallica tribute band needs to set up”).

But it’s not like it was in the eighties, when every town with a sewer system offered a place to perform in front of a faux brick wall to an audience of drunk twenty-somethings. Sadly, the golden days of stand-up ended when it got over-exposed on TV and—sorry, I almost turned into an old vaudevillian bemoaning how radio killed his career.

More to the point, although I’ve taught comedy classes in the past (even taught ‘advanced stand-up’—and what the hell is that? Really complicated jokes? Longer…segues?), I’ve never been convinced you can actually teach stand-up comedy.

I think you can teach someone how to hold a microphone, and you can teach some tricks about putting jokes in a certain order (‘Don’t end your set with a joke about abortion,’ or ‘Don’t open by mentioning the Holocaust’), but you cannot teach someone to be funny. You need to bring funny with you to the first class.

However, I guess there will always be people lured by the prospect of a fifty-dollar Thursday gig in Dickinson, North Dakota, and for these brave souls, I offer four two-hour sessions, culminating in a three-minute performance at one of the local chuckle joints. The real problem is that if you want to be a comic, you should be at a comedy club, not in a classroom. You should be showing up at open mics trying out your shit in front of an audience (I’m really not selling my class very well—must learn how to market myself better.)

See, comedy’s different than other forms of ‘art,’ say, violin playing. You would never hear a violinist at Orchestra Hall say “This is something I’m just kinda trying out—it’s new–not sure if it’s gonna be any good.” But with standup, the ONLY way to know if something is funny is to say it in front of an audience—you can’t practice it in front of a mirror or say it into a tape recorder (are there still tape recorders? must update references…).

So the demographic that would sit at home and think “I want a more theoretical approach to the whole comedy thing, and I want to learn in an environment that’s entirely unlike any place comedy might actually happen” are people who, by and large, aren’t toting a lot of funny around with them. They’re taking my class for the same reason they might take a class in bungee jumping, or macramé—something they always thought about trying, because it could be fun.

In my experience, there are certain types of people who take Introduction to Stand-up Comedy.

The Frat Boy Type: believes he’s funny because he can make his ‘bros’ laugh at a kegger by doing a drunk impression of his boss followed by armpit farts—sadly, this doesn’t always translate in front of a real crowd

The Cubicle Guy: wants to try something different to shake up his nine-to-five life, but prior performing experience limited to emceeing the raffle at the company picnic, during which he attempted part of a Bill Cosby routine

The Hipster: watches too much Comedy Central, thinks he could do comedy because ‘they’re just saying a bunch of random shit anyway’

The Saucy Mom: has read a lot of Erma Bombeck, and now that kids have moved out, finally is trying what she ‘always wanted to do,’ but mostly wants to say inappropriate things and swear a lot

The Comedy Writer: has none of the personality required to be a performer, but has a chapbook filled with wacky ideas, most of which are only funny to him

The Toastmaster: Unclear on the distinction between public speaking and stand-up; would ideally prefer to read from note cards at a podium (tells people what he’s going to tell them, then tells them, then tells them what he’s told them)

Another challenge in teaching the ‘rules’ of comedy is that almost by definition, comedy is about seeming like you’re breaking the rules—saying those very things that you’ve been trained to suppress since fourth grade when you were sent home with a note saying ‘cuts up in class—always disrupting lessons with jokes.’

Of course, there will always be the stand-up student who simply wants to be like whoever the hot comic is at the moment, and I essentially have to beat that out of them so they find their own comic voice, and so the world isn’t overrun with clones of Dane Cook. But every so often, I come across students with a spark, that ineffable flair that makes you want to listen to whatever they feel like talking about.

It’s what my beatnik friend Eugene used to call ‘the thang.’ And though I try my damndest to give every student the tools they need to pull a few laughs out of increasingly jaded audiences, it’s that one in twenty, the one who has that ‘thang,’ who makes me want to teach comedy. Just don’t expect me to teach you to be funny.

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i must make a list

I’ve never been a particularly linear thinker. My mind has never worked that way. And, I probably have ADD. This is a challenge if I’m writing, because when people read something, they usually expect it to be in some sort of order. But frankly, sometimes I just have a whole bunch of randomness. I’ve got ideas coming out of my ass (which, admittedly, is a weird way to write), but stringing them together and having some sort of through line—

So, once a week or so, I end up with a basket full of disconnected thoughts that I want to fling at the screen. While I’d love to become known as the Jackson Pollack of comedy writing, you damned readers seem to want a structure. So I need to do the writer’s work of shaping, and connecting, and focusing. Cool–Hulu is running the first episode of “Fringe.”

Now, I try to avoid lists, for several reasons:

  1. they’re limiting
  2. they’re overdone
  3. they’re too easy
  4. I get bored making lists
  5. I could get confused and accidentally include items from an entirely different list
  6. eggs

Besides, after a certain number of list items readers start to become annoyed and think the writer just doesn’t know how to compose a paragraph so they move on to another piece and even an ironic self-referential run-on sentence won’t get them to stay.

At a time like this, I usually fall back on that old standby, ‘things that irritate me.’ The danger with that is if you only list one or two things that irritate you, readers get to the end and think “Sure seemed like there was gonna be more to that.” And, if you list too many things that irritate you, you turn into the print version of my eighty-year old uncle. Or Andy Rooney. Seriously, how many years has he been bitching at the end of “60 Minutes”? You’d think he’d eventually run out of things that bother him. You know, since I brought it up, there are a couple of things…well, these things don’t bother me as much a they baffle me.

Gadgets Which Combine Things That Were Perfectly Good By Themselves

You’ll find this kind of gadget in your Sharper Image, your Hammacher-Schlemmer, or the Skymall catalog you look at instead of listening to the flight attendant’s safety instructions (if they ever change the protocol for a plane crash, a lot of people are gonna be screwed, because nobody pays attention). For example, it looks like a ballpoint pen, but the ad tells you that if you think of something important, you can click the pen and record a thirty-second voice message to yourself. Or, and I’m thinking way outside the box here, you’re holding a pen—you could write it down! Obviously if you have a pen, you had the intention of writing something, so go the extra step and carry a notepad. These are sometimes advertised as being ‘stealth’ recorders, but really, isn’t jotting a note down on a scrap of paper more stealthy than…talking to your pen

People Who, After I Leave A Voice Message, Call Me Back Without Listening To The Message

“Yeah, Michael—I see that you called? What’s up?” Forget for a moment that I might have wanted to JUST leave you a message and the message didn’t need any conversation (“Don’t forget to bring the fifty bucks for the hookers” is pretty self-explanatory).

There’s also the possibility I left a message saying “Yeah, Matt—listen, some Honduran guerillas are holding me hostage…they’ve got a manifesto…it’s a whole big thing…anyway they’ve got me wired to some explosives which will detonate if my phone rings, so no need to call me back.”

What baffles me is this. Why you would look at your phone, see that I called and that you have a voice mail, and not use the very same phone your holding TO FIND OUT WHAT’S UP? See, voicemail can work like a handy record of why people called you! Otherwise you might as well get rid of your phone, go back to 1985 and get a pager. You can put it in the pocket of your Members Only jacket. Using your phone to just see who called is like getting a laptop just so you can use the calculator on it.

Lest you think these are the ONLY two things I don’t understand in the world, rest assured I also don’t get

  • the success of “Two and a Half Men”
  • football in a domed stadium
  • snuggies
  • pub crawls
  • Snuggie pub crawls
  • drinking games, as opposed to just drinking
  • why Scientology gets tax-exempt status despite the fact that it’s founder actually acknowledged that ‘the best way to make a million dollars is to start a religion”
  • eggplant
  • most of what airs on Cartoon Network after about 1 AM
  • return library books

Well, I feel better now. And I feel productive. I’ll try to write something else tomorrow, or at least I’ll make a list of things I should write.

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