Much like Batmanís credo about criminals, writers are a cowardly and superstitious lot. We adhere to arcane routines and rituals. We place garlic on the wall, rub soil from our town of origin into the doorways, and perform naked dances covered in hot fudge to ward off the spirits that affect writerís block. Well, maybe the last part there was just me, but over time, we develop habits (some good, some that donít make any sense) that we associate with writing.
My process has evolved considerably over the last eighteen years. I used to take an idea straight to an electric typewriter and pound it out in one shot, letting Mrs. Ihlefield (my high school editor) coach me on any revisions and then taking immediate insult with any criticism she might have. Any feedback that wasnít glowing was an affront to everything I believed in, and how dare she question my artistic genius?! Well, she was right in many respects. Looking back, I wrote a lot of infantile, poorly formed rants that were two to three paragraphs long as well as moody, melodramatic poetry I gave to girls I wanted to go out with. It rarely worked. I wrote for three separate underground papers published by the students (The Fourth Stooge, Phoenix Rising and dťjŗ vu) that all went out of circulation after the founding staff got bored with it.
Then I started writing for the school newspaper, The Advocate, during my junior year and went on to serve as the paperís editor during my senior year. When the paper came out monthly Iíd race it to the Clarence High School lunch room in boxes and hand it out like it was on fire. My essays got longer and I started including pandering conclusion paragraphs that spelled out my opinions in black and white. I kept the remaining issues in my archives in the basement of my parentsí house. I compiled everything I wrote up to the age of 17 and released a poorly photocopied collection that I printed out of the front office by the name of íResting On My Laurelsí. Before I graduated, I took five dollar deposits from students for my second collection, íQ-Uí, the title of which nobody understood. I had Jen Furnivall (a girl I wanted to go out with) write the introduction. This was also poorly edited, but this time I ran copies off at the local Kinkoís with a cheap stock binding.
When I went off to Buffalo State College, I bought a computer. That was when I started spell checking and proof-reading. I hung out at the campus poetry mag offices trying to convince the guys to publish my work and the girls to sleep with me. I was unsuccessful on both counts. Roy (the editor) asked me to revise my poems and I told him to piss up a rope, so I never got published there. It was still a cool place to hang out, though. Compared to the noble journalistic clutter of the newspaper offices (littered with back issues, review copies of books and cds, and any number of press clippings and releases), the poetry mag offices were hidden away in the basement of the building, rampant with empty wine bottles, crass graffiti and a couch that had seen itís share of spilled fluids.
I spent plenty of time at the newspaper offices, too, submitting essays and feeding off of the campus populace Iíd managed to piss off each week. Every Tuesday, Iíd grab a stack of the latest edition and hand them out to people in classes, keeping twenty or thirty copies for my archives. As a result of the intro philosophy and sociology courses I was taking, a lot of my essays took on a categorical aspect and I began throwing around words that I barely understood but made me feel superior coining into my essays. Margeret Coghlan (the editor in chief) and I had a great working relationship. She understood that I was a little crazy and marginally talented. I understood that she was in charge of my paychecks. In my first year, she paid me $50 per article. The next year, they stopped paying anybody, so I wrote an article telling them to piss off and informing the campus that they could go fuck themselves if college football funding was more important. I also wrote some poems for a few girls I knew on campus in the hopes of getting into bed with them. It worked two times out of three. Iíd rather not talk about the third one. I compiled a third collection (doubting/thomas) and sold it to friends and family. It was the first collection I put together entirely from computer word processing programs instead of clippings from newspapers. I wrote letters to Rolling Stone, a reviewer for the Buffalo News, and Film Threat magazine telling them that they sucked. I told my college English professor that I was above her entry level essay class on the first day of matriculation. Are you starting to notice a running theme? Taking offense and trying to get laid by any means necessary, in case you havenít inferred.
After getting bored and despondent with college some time during my third year, I started dodging classes. I drove around and killed time before I had to be officially back at my parentís house. If I wasnít getting published on campus, then I wasnít interested. I started putting in more hours at the movie theater where I was working and dropped out. I blocked for a good year before I started reading the free weekly papers in the theater lobby and decided to submit to them. I returned to a lot of my favorite topics (driving, dentists, and smoking) and updated my opinions in writing. Alt (a political rag with a circulation on par with my Kinkoís Greatest Hits Collection) ran three of my articles and then got a demand for a retraction on a dental essay I wrote entitled ĎMalpractice Makes Perfectí. So I mentioned the dentistís name and address in a public forum and called him a quack. How the hell was I supposed to know that you can get sued for something like that?! The associate editor started in with me and I told Alt to go fuck themselves. Let it never be said that I donít work well with others. I printed off a fourth collection (Tomfoolery) that I sold to anyone I hadnít severed personal or professional relations with at this point. It was a small list.
After severing that tie, I read the Weekend Metro which changed names and formats to Buffalo Beat. They ran a humor column by a guy named Lloyd Pacanowski who I didnít find funny in the least. He got a lot of space in the paper, too, sometimes wandering off for four to five pages. His writing was poorly structured, unfunny and often childish (a lot of his columns focused on amusing bumper stickers he saw on the commute to his office job), so I thought the best way to convey my dissatisfaction with his work was to email him while I was drunk at two in the morning. He devoted three weeks to attacking my inebriated grammar and blind rage. I countered by getting twenty or thirty friends to email him with death threats and insults. I was confused when I emailed the editor with a number of submissions from the same email address and she didnít respond. She was some left wing wacko who listed herself as ĎMain Editrixí or some such nonsense on the contributors page who has since disappeared into obscurity. Lloyd petered out and ran out of things to say after two years. Iím still pissed at him.
After a year without an audience, I decided to retire from the world of publishing at the ripe old age of 24 by self publishing an actual hard bound book (Soup To Nuts). It was a poorly compiled, overpriced monster that Iíve discussed many times in other essays. I started calling Art Voice (a weekly alternative paper) and Buffalo Beat (under a new editor) numerous times a day hounding them for press and publication. After three months of obnoxious nagging, it worked. I got back into the Alt under the auspices of being managing editor Mike Calleriís bitch. Now Michael Calleri was a failed writer who got fired from ArtVoice for taking out his aggressions on fellow staffers by signing them up for magazine subscriptions. He gave me assignments and didnít publish my second piece. What do you suppose I did in that situation? I told him to go fuck himself. I started carrying around a valise and a notebook and wearing turtlenecks because I thought it made me look the way a writer is supposed to. I spent entire days in bars proof-reading, taking notes on ideas and talking up my book with total strangers. I went to Clarence High School and talked to Mrs. Ihlefield to see if I could do a reading for her classes. She agreed, but not on my timetable, so I ended up telling her to go fuck herself. This is one of my few regrets. I was a real jackass back then.
My work became long winded, drunken and self-important. Looking back, it could have used more editing but networking was more important at the time. I hooked up with Night Life magazine and started writing strip club and bar reviews, maxing out credit cards left and right. There were a few free drinks along the way, though, so thatís a plus. I attended literary readings and open mics to further my personal legend (laugh at will, here), and wrote poems for some of the female poets in an attempt to get into their pants. For the first time in seven years, it worked. This was a milestone in my literary endeavors. Find me a man who writes poems that isnít trying to get sex out of somebody and Iíll find you a bald faced liar. The poems were pretentious, esoteric and the rhyme schemes were just above a fourth grade reading level. This goes over like gangbusters with crazy poetry chicks.
After orchestrating my financial ruin with a hardcover decadeís worth of my work, I laid low and dropped off the map for eight months. Instead of telling ArtVoice, Night Life and Buffalo Beat to go fuck themselves, I simply disappeared, leaving a number of assignments up in the air in my wake. I started submitting the essays that werenít dated to Acid Logic, a web magazine I found while I was searching for other avenues online. I worked a third shift job, so Iíd drink Red Dog at eight in the morning and listen to Howard Stern while I surfed the web and looked for publication outlets. Wil Forbis (whoís still one of my editors to this day) didnít quite know what to make of me but published my work anyway. I sent poems off online to The Circle Magazine, a print and online combo to my editor Penny Talbert, a librarian out of Pennsylvania. I got two contributor copies sent to my house four times a year. The Circle just folded some time last year, and Iíll miss it. I also emailed my essays to Rick at Dream Forge magazine. It was a pretty shoddy web site, but he was a kind enough editor. Rick passed away a few years ago and the web site went inactive.
My follow up collection (Born Pissed) was done, so I submitted online to a fly by night print on demand company by the name of America House. The book was done by the spring and I made about two dollars off of every copy. It seemed like a great deal at the time. It was the only book that I promoted entirely while I was drunk. On stage, at literary readings and in bookstores. I cracked beers in the car on the way to readings, slurred through a nine page monster in a Borders (where I was the featured reader, mind you) on a Sunday after four pints of beer and two shots and took long pulls from bottles of Labatt on stage at the Lafeyette Tap Room. Kevin Starr agreed to let me coach his Honors English classes at Clarence High School, which I was sober for, and very happy to do. My writing took a looser, more experimental approach and I dropped the pandering conclusion paragraphs and turned the dial up on the rage factor. I was determined to make the next new book the angriest, most offensive work yet. I started getting plenty of free drinks thanks to my Night Life bar reviews. Buffalo Beat got bought out and turned into Blue Dog Press, with Michael Calleri as the managing editor. He was going to allow me to write for them provided that I followed his instructions to the letter. I wrote five columns that were never used and didnít bother to email back after that. ArtVoice bought out Blue Dog from David Lawrence Media and deep sixed it. Calleri went crawling back to the Alt to write film reviews that nobody reads.
Eight months went by and I decided to do a print on demand redux version of Soup To Nuts with a title that people wouldnít cock their heads sideways in confusion at, so I released Zany Hijinx. The editing was much better and the book clocked in at over four hundred pages. This also went out through America house. I made three dollars off of every copy that sold for thirty. I started submitting opinion articles to The Buffalo News and had to learn how to abridge 2,000 word articles into 640 word snippets. They pay, so Iím okay with the amount of work that goes into it. You donít Ďabridgeí 2,000 word essays into 650 words, you have to butcher it, slicing out large chunks right near the heart of the piece while trying to keep the basic message and the funny parts intact. ArtVoice had a new editor (Lauren Maynard) who talked me into writing interviews with local artists. This was a more disciplined style of journalism than I was used to. I was used to writing whatever the hell I wanted. The interviews gave me some much needed discipline that I probably should have picked up during my college years were I not so busy tooting my own horn.
My third collection, First Person, Last Straw came out last year and Iím very proud of the editing, the content and the overall look of the book. I made a decent chunk of change off of it and itís the first book to make it into national bookstores (in limited quantities). It is indeed the angriest collection I will probably ever have, and for that Iím pleased and sort of relieved at the same time. I went with Author House (a different print on demand company) for that one and my royalties were considerably greater. My fourth published book (If They Canít Take a Joke) will go out sometime next spring, and the one after that will include this essay.
In high school, I didnít visualize collections the way I do now. The process and the rituals have changed. Now I proof read and spell check every piece of writing directly after itís done. Sometimes I take out entire chunks or add pages the second time. Once the finished piece is saved, the title and date go onto a table of contents for one book or another. Now I jot down ideas in a notebook and see which ones look like they might have legs. People have bought notebooks for me as gifts, but I can only manage to write in the expensive, leather bound, pocket sized notebooks. I got in the habit of using them during bar reviews because theyíre tiny, inconspicuous and you donít look like a student working on his home work assignment or a rookie reviewer standing out like a sore thumb. The ideas that stick turn into essays, the ones that donít disappear in the notebooks, which get thrown out after Iím done. Iím still trying to buck the habit of telling editors and armchair critics to go fuck themselves. Iím a work in progress, what can I say?
Thereís a daily cycle when I write now, too. I either write essays at one in the morning or first thing in the morning, although I prefer to write them first thing in the morning, when my mind is a blank slate that isnĎt cluttered with the events of the day. I write poems at two or three a.m. when Iím wistful or melancholic. And I do a lot of my interviews and book reviews in the middle of the afternoon, because it seems like a good time to do menial, factual work. I used to write interview answers in a notebook but now I carry a credit card sized digital recorder so that I can get every word and inflection down instead of hurriedly writing down the basic responses. My fifth book is just going to have essays, not everything and the kitchen sink. The poems can have their own book down the road along with the interviews if thereís a proven interest.
My friend Brendan told me a few years ago that I should write an article about my experiences with writing and publishing, and whether he was serious or not, I did, and the format has haunted me since. Iím not a fan of reading articles about writing, but I certainly enjoy writing them. This is the fourth or fifth of itís kind, so thank you for that, Brendan. A lot of people discussed themes with me for the fifth collection, and that makes sense.
Whereas the first three collections were a rag tag bundle of rudderless opinions and manifestos, If They Canít Take a Joke did have a warm center to it that carried through the whole book: relationships. A personal quest to find and sustain lasting, healthy relationships with friends, family, and a girlfriend. Which posed a problem for my poems. Now that Iím getting some consistently from the same partner, I no longer have to write poetry to get into somebodyís pants. I currently have an all access backstage pass to somebodyís pants, and I live with that somebody. So that evolved, too. I never liked reading poetry aside from ee cummings and couldnít stand reading my own, but now Iíve found somebody worth reading. My buddy Finn got me hooked on Charles Bukowski, a free verse icon who writes about drinking, losing money at the track and poisonous women in poisonous relationships. Itís not hard to see why I can relate to the guy.
My poetry is at the ground floor all over again. That too will have to develop or perish. Iím in the stage where Iím aping Bukowski unintentionally, but youíve got to start somewhere, and apparently millions of other poets have been doing the same thing for decades now. Whatís the next theme going to be? Iíve got a good idea but itís best not to force it. Howís the new writing progressing? Itís going off into new directions but retaining some of the dominant traits. When I stand still, I block. When Iím stagnant, or fall into a formulaic way of thinking, I block. As long as the work keeps chugging along with some small measure of innovation and a narrative drive, I flourish. Every writer worth his salt evolves along with his crazy rituals and routines. Itís what keeps the writer and the reader interested. That, or of course, getting laid.