Monday, July 21, 2008

Bereft Of All Business Acumen

Knowing that I will never have any success in the business world is slightly liberating, although it will doom me to bagging groceries when I'm 68 years old. I was told I did not have 'it', and I was not surprised. I do not possess that capitalist gene. I've shied away from positions of power my entire adult life and I felt a nagging queasiness when I was in charge. (I work best alone. Maybe in small groups, if the people don't suck.)

I have pinned down the three major reasons why I will never succeed in the business world. My guess is there are about twenty, but three is manageable and will not send me into a cloud of depression. They don't bring me down very often, but when you are surrounded by the workaday mutants who feast on each other on a regular basis and you know you never peruse or be on the menu, it's natural to wonder why.

Reason One: I aims to please. I am an entertainer first, artist second and everything else third. When two people of business shake hands they are sizing each other up and gauging the best way to extract something out of the other. The exchanges are designed to probe and to test each other for weaknesses. When I meet someone, if they aren't total wastes of time, I immediately try to endear myself to them. I tell personal stories if the situation warrants it, I play a little dumb sometimes to get a joke. I guess I'm probing a little. But I'm investigating strengths, mostly. I want this person to feel comfortable around me. End of story.

Reason Two: I am honest. Honesty and humility are the quickest ways to make a connection. I don't "keep it real" and my honesty is rarely "brutal", but I am a genuine person when I speak to you. It's all I know.

Business people cannot tell the truth. That is what business is. Not just dishonesty, but the clouding of truths to benefit the company or the team or the unit or the office or the supervisor. Getting a clear answer is like putting spilled syrup back into the bottle.

Reason Three: (The actual reason I wrote this…the first two were filler, really) I abhor spending my time with meaningless chores. Every task I have ever accomplished, every project I've completed was 100% meaningless. Folding your underpants is a chore, but at least a drawer full of tidy underwear has some value to you. The crap that I've done has no merit, no legacy, no dignity…nothing.

We were just asked to help construct a 'mission statement' for our project. If there is a more useless endeavor, I'd like to hear about it. There are two ways of looking at business. One is, you are in the business to make money. Period. Or, the old-fashioned construct: You are in business to provide a good or service. What the hell is a mission?

Business is almost like a cult. You have to get everyone to sync up to the same invisible God, unattainable Nirvana, Commandments to guide you there and sometimes there are three types of cake in conference room every third Friday. I seethe when I am forced to talk about nothing at all to a bunch of people who believe the same thing. "Why am I here? What the hell happened?" I've written documents and processes and notes that are never followed and are only created as evidence for future bumblings. The powers above me need something to point to when an employee slips up and pleads ignorance. That's all they are. There is no work done. Hungry people aren't fed, the poor aren't sheltered, the lost aren't found and the aimless are kept right where they are.

Barf. No wonder I write this crap.


Saturday, July 19, 2008

Middle Muddled

Saturday night and I'm asking passersby for directions…

Exactly like sharks must keep moving to stay alive and keep from becoming another's breakfast, I have to keep writing. Do I think I'll die if I stop, like the Winchester heiress with a keyboard with endless plots and characters to be hashed out?

Jesus, I hope not.

The book I'm writing has hit the middle, my least favorite part. This is due to my own reading preferences. The middle is what ruins books for me. I know the opening should get me hooked quickly and a powerful or catchy ending can save a substandard book. The middle is rarely what sticks with you. It's the 3rd and 4th courses of a feast. It is that trippy part of Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" I wished they just cut out all together.

I am in the "door closed" phase of writing write now. (see King's On Writing for more details) I am the Lord thy God over the lives of these imaginary people and they are all in motion, wondering what the hell is going to happen to them. They are meandering and adrift; waiting for orders. There are rumors out there about the ending. They are unconfirmed but several characters are concerned for the proper direction of their arcs.

Tough. I'm not sure yet.

I suggest outlining your story to anyone who may want suggestions. You can't walk these 1,000 miles without a map, or a printout from MapQuest. You need directions to each street corner, each little town and big city. Then you are supposed to get lost and find your way again. Let GoogleMaps try that crap once.

So I have this diversion. And hey, there is always stand-up comedy.

Damn that addictive applause.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Can I Call It A 'Diary'?

Journals are unstructured. I've been writing mostly journal stuff for almost 20 years. (Gulp.) A diary is strictly about what has happened and one's reflections about the events. I have zero interest in blogging, but I need a diary. I'm sure they are basically the same, but in my head the syntax counts.

Again, I start anew.

I want to reprint something I may have shared online a few years ago. If I'm not mistaken, I wrote it in early 2006, just before I started a book project. I finished that book. It was a C+ product, with an A- effort. I enjoyed the process and I needed something to cling to after radically changing my humdrum life from East to West Coast.

Now, I'm hip deep in another novel. I'm now allowed to discuss it because I'm over 20,000 words in. It is a rule I created to keep me from shooting myself in the foot. Announcing projects and dreams and wishes is bad news for me. I always abandon them when they escape my brain and become part of the universe. I realized quickly that I had to have both feet in the water, or both oars, or whatever marine metaphor you can think of; before any discussion of the book can occur.

Of course I can't even describe the plot yet, which is lame, I know. But I can guarantee it is fun and filled with action. Good for now.

My latest editing problem is explaining versus storytelling. Storytelling is the end result of proper fiction writing. Characterization, style, unique plotting…all the good fixin's. Explaining is what I do when I can't slow down. Lots of two-page James Patterson chapters and glossing over major shifts in plotline. Crap fiction.

My mantra is now: Slow Down. As desperate as I am to be published and enter the writing world in some capacity, I have to slow down. Everything begins with a wonderfully crafted piece of art. At least that's how I want it to begin.

Here's that thing I wrote:

(Feb 2006)

Oh well, I think I’ve had enough of the throat clearing and we are all ready for this writing shit to take us somewhere. Even if it doesn’t make a dime, I can use it to make me feel better about being alive. But I hope it makes money. Sorry.

Personally, I don’t have a “no recap” rule, so I want to go back and see what I have.

When I was 12 I wrote a 3 page story about time travel. It was pretty dumb. I tried unsuccessfully to write anything better than that until I was in high school.

Since eleventh grade, and “The Catcher in the Rye”, I have roughly 10 notebooks and maybe 100-150 loose pages worth of journal/diary entry stuff written. About 80% complaining and wishing for things, 10% reporting my personal news and 10% ideas for projects n’ stuff. Maybe 3 novels worth of writing, though. I wrote my life story when I was 18, at least all the stuff I wanted to remember, in 25 pages. It was a process.

In college, I wrote dozens of essays for classes I took for the specific reason of writing, and maybe 8 short stories and 20 or so poems. Of that group, 5 to 7 were in good shape. I attempted more than one ‘non-fiction, fun, Jim looks at the world, comedy essay’ book, which culminated first in “Why Not Me?”, and the much more personal and well-done “Fifteen Years and Ten Square Miles”. I might like that book the best of all.

I tinkered with yet another tale of a young man who wanted to leave Florida in a film script in 2001 called “Monday Through Friday”. A script that is a B+, and could be made into an A. The toughest challenge and the biggest deal was the full-length novel, “Palm Breeze Diary”. It was finished, at least the first draft in the fall of 2004. Amy still thinks that one should be my springboard into a writing career, but the more I read it, the less I think that is true. It was an attempt to write that long about one set of characters and I did it. It can be rewritten, and it has to be before it can be shown.

Within the last 17 years, I’ve had 20 or 30 false story starts, with a blog in there and a website and a bunch of comedy sketches I wrote for 6 months while performing, and essays that never made it in the nonfiction books, stories about fathers and brothers and time travel and a whole bunch of shit I’ve forgotten. I didn’t mention the kid’s journals, one for each, and now a group effort, and the writing journals and the letters and emails to friends, some long winded and inquiring information for entertainment. There’s a little over 100 poems I wrote for Amy while we dated and maybe 100 lyrics for songs that never saw the light of day. (Well, a few came though during the Chet years.)

Absolutely none of this is padded. All of this is as true as I can make it, and to be honest, I’m sure I’m forgetting a lot of material. There are 3 or 4 notebooks tucked away somewhere chock full of comedy material that I collected since I was 16. Lists, silly words, bits and full length rants included.

Okay, here’s the rub. Of this bulk of material, of all this pouring out of my heart and soul and frustration and screaming into the abyss, maybe 15% has been read by anyone at all. And of the books and the script, only 5 or 6 people have ever read them. That is also as true as I can make it.

Today, at this moment, right now, I don’t know how to change that. I don’t have a solid plan or two to get some future work looked at or published. But, what I do know is all the old versions of me, hidden in a corner in the library at UCF, in front of a white screen in my underwear at home, and all alone as a teenager, would be quite sad to see me now. 33 and out of Florida with no book prospects or even some stories of “almost” and “maybe next time”. This is what I have to remember. Just like I remember my kids during work or paying the bills. Just like keeping my health in mind when I pass a fast food place. I have to remember that something about writing makes me happy and I’ve been doing it in some form for half of my life. I can’t give up, no matter how hopeless it may seem at times.

Letter To My Kids About My Now Technologically Obselete CD and Vinyl Collection

Ever have a musical argument? Those dinners or bull sessions that drag on endlessly and have less resolved then a one-hour cable pundit show? I had too many to count when I was a teenager and definitely too many while I was in my twenties, when I supposed to be a responsible father of three.

The spats are based on taste and the opposition knows this. You claim an album or artist is valid and they disagree. You can prove it, and they disagree. They, in turn try to make you believe that blah, blah , blah and you're done. Next thing you know, three hours have passed and your girlfriend is sitting next to you wondering why the hell she should spend another minute with a guy has the nerve to hate The Cure.

It's American, man. It's what we do.

So kids, here's how music happened to me:

I was shy. Horribly, horribly shy and afraid of everything when I was a boy. There was no one around who was equipped to understand or aid me through my social affliction, so I had to figure it out on my own. (Almost there!)

At the beginning, I had to go with the flow. My parents had a total of ten records in our little apartment. Three Christmas albums, Santana's first, the Woodstock Soundtrack, Bee Gees Hits and Barbra Streisand. I realize that's not ten but the point is there. We also didn't have a record player after 1981 or so. So it was just the radio. They listened to oldies, which are now considered golden. I know every pop, bubble gum, one hit-wonder song from 1957 to 1971. But remember, oldies are radio hits. That means no Dylan, Hendrix, deep Beatles cuts, 'Pet Sounds', the Dead or even Led Zeppelin. If my parents knew who Frank Zappa was, they never let on.

I was a blank slate in 1983, so I listened to what my friend Sam had. Sam's parents had a little money at the time, so in his wee sixth-grade collection he had all the major 80's albums including Duran Duran and the Pet Shop Boys. It's what is referred to now as "John Hughes" music, after the director of the quintessential eighties films of which I could never relate. So, that's what I thought was music. Synthesizers and androgynous makeup. There was some Prince in there and Michael Jackson, too. But that didn't sound right either. This music was…clean. I liked it because my friend liked it and the girls at school with the giant hair liked it, too.

My friend on the other side of the classroom was an only child. Eric was into classic rock and had parents who were into the same. Pink Floyd's Animals was still way over my head (no pig pun intended) but the first Van Halen album was pretty cool. There was a sweet mix of radio rock and some newer, (although still very sexually confusing) glam rock, which had more balls than Cutting Crew but still left an unsatisfying hairspray taste in my mouth. Still, I stuck with it for awhile. The only other development worth noting was rap. Rap and breakdancing made its way to Central Florida about 1985, and as far as we were concerned there were only two groups: The Beastie Boys and Run DMC. For kids my age, this music was immensely significant. Rap was universally hated by parents. That's how it took off.

I loved music because it affected your mood. It was quicker than a book or a movie and and had a better success ratio than the thousands of hours I spent watching TV. I wanted to go outside and run when I heard music. When I finally got a Walkman, I could do just that. (A Walkman was a device that played cassettes, which were small, compact versions of albums. 'Albums then', in turn were what we call the entire release by an artist. Got it?)

In 1987, I had a stupid health class taught by a stupid football coach who obviously drew the shortest straw. In one of the many lessons that went nowhere, the mullet-headed assistant coach prattled on about all the conspiracies and fan theories about the Beatles. I knew who the Beatles were and a lot of their songs too, (the hits on my dad's oldies station, of course.) But this jarhead's little fifteen minute pop history lesson about "LSD" and Paul is Dead and Number 9 captured my interest. On that recommendation alone, I got my first album with my money: The Beatles' Revolver.

The Beatles broke up before I was born, but for a year they were all new and they were all mine. By the end of the eighties, the synth-pop Pretty in Pink stuff disappeared and glam bands were ripping each other off, waiting for an unknown and sad, blonde guy from Aberdeen, Washington to get his band noticed and put hairspray rock out of business. Rap had gone west coast and scary. But for me, it was Lennon and McCartney. This music wasn't just historic and good and fun to sing, it was a connection to another time. For a future history nerd, this was everything. The slang and the clothes; the experimentation. Why use the sitar, exactly?

The point was I found the Beatles on my own. Granted they weren't hard to find, but I can't stress this enough: we had ten records and no needle. I was a tiny little part of Beatlemania.

However, that music was intended for my parents. It's not my fault they missed out. Those sounds were just footnotes in hall of fame collections. I missed the grand opening of the British Invasion by more than two decades.

In high school, the aforementioned Sam continued his love for "alternative" music. That was a time when that actually meant something. Simply, it was the music you could buy but never hear on the radio, unless you were within earshot of the seven college radio stations that played it. Sam loved the Housemartins, the Beautiful South, Aztec Camera and the Stone Roses. Orlando, Florida had Murmur Records (named after REM's debut), the only place I knew of that carried that crazy shit. Unknown bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane's Addiction, Bjork, and Soundgarden lined the shelves with the Sex Pistols and the Buzzcocks. (The Buzz what?) Other than the Fab Four, my cassettes included Huey Lewis and Billy Joel! What the hell was this stuff?

So I dabbled here and there. I went to a Def Leppard concert and it was loud. I saw Pink Floyd and the flying pig. It was all pretty cool, but nothing grabbed me like the Beatles and nothing was as satisfying as that first (now frat party fare) Beastie Boys Licensed to Ill.

Until I was forced to listen to Jane's Addiction, I never would have done it on my own. A third fiend, Andy, appreciated all ends of the spectrum and was unashamed. He liked classic and new, silly and damn serious. He was the first person I knew who enjoyed Bob Dylan, someone I'd heard of my entire life but never experienced. Listening to Dylan the first time is like knocking down a wall in your home and finding out there's a room in there you've never seen. It's awkward, but the possibilities are endless. I'm not sure I even liked it, but it was so different.

Anyway, Jane's was a good band to listen to for me. Sort of alternative, sort of Zeppelin…I could appreciate the swearing, too. I felt I was on the right track although high school was over and none of this seemed to matter anymore. Music was a silly thing to think about with life and job and college and relationships out there looming. But even years later, just before I bought my very first CD, I knew this stuff would always be with me.

Grunge was peculiar because it was only time I can remember that some people wanted to kill it only two weeks after it started. (I assume the reaction to rap was similar) I don't know why. It ushered in all the careers of the great 'Murmur' bands from the eighties and it upended popular music for a good five years. It was really the last major fusion of music; punk met arena rock and had a child who lived in the Pacific Northwest.

My new girlfriend and I, (soon to be married and parents), loved this stuff. It was just like me, brooding, moody, whiny and clumsily masculine at the same time…plus we had an affinity for all things Seattle. (My loathing of Florida is another essay. Or two.) Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Alice in Chains made it more likely to hear REM on the radio. This was my music. This was me. I couldn't handle the lip gloss and mousse of those Molly Ringwald bands and the absurd lyrics of glam rock made me wince.

I was finding myself creatively then I was trying to write more honestly. The music helped. Hey, I was a young man with dad issues! Hey, I was pissed off and I didn't know why!

Then, the nineties had to go and continue. Everything I ever loved about the ebb and flow of popular music, the deep to the frilly to the folk to the pedestrian; searching for the next New York, the next Motown, the next Seattle; revivals and fusion and the wonderful question of "What's next" ended around 1995. It ended with two words: Spice Girls.

Pop. The most candy-apple, sugary sweet and empty calorie music imaginable arrived back into the world just when technology was about to blow the industry wide open. Movements were dead. Every type of music had a section in the store now, and soon would have a file on iTunes. Everyone could record. There is no history lesson needed here, because this is a personal essay. Good stuff got a lot harder to find.

Radiohead helped. Thanks. Beck helped. Thank you, man. My beloved Beasties could have put out more, but I appreciated what they gave me. Strangely enough this was the same time I started recording my own shitty music. Maybe I needed it that bad. I need expression somehow, and in the late nineties with the Backstreet Boys on every magazine…those musical conversations were as old fashioned as discussing the tax on tea.

I hit 30. Surely I was over this. Nope. Still looking. Always on the hunt for something new that helped me fill in the gaps of my life's soundtrack. I needed that one sound that was meant for me. I still don't know why. Then Jack White showed up and I could have kissed him.

That's it! That's the sound! Blues based but melodic, guitar riff heavy but a sense of humor. Stripped down, one take…barely matching the metronome. It was like comedy, my other obsession. It was a performance; not clean, not perfect, but reflective of the talent of the artist involved. Yes! The White Stripes eclipsed almost every group I've ever listened to. I was 16 again with my vinyl and my headphones.

At the ripe old age of 35, I still feel the same rush. Other humans are out there recording their shot to make it big, but to people like me who treat this more like gin to a wino its so much more. It is the next thing it is the next chapter. It wakes you up, comforts you when life sucks and is there when it happened again the next day. It is a reflection of who are and how you think. And I'll argue this until armageddon.