By the time you read this, I will have personally killed 2016 in a Latvian Death Match before a packed studio audience within the nomadic and fabulous Forbidden City of Wrestling. You’re welcome. No coins, please.
2016 was an awful year, just see my last post for how to punch the worst of it in the nose via writing, but some of you asked if there would be a roundup of some kind. And I was reminded of something that I’ve done that can be bad mojo for your brain.
When you accomplish something, it shines for a moment, and then it vanishes because the demands of the present are powerful and immediate. I noticed this when interviewing scientists who served in the Second World War. They’d tell you these AMAZING stories and when you asked why they never wrote anything about the time the monkeys escaped from the biological warfare testing site, they’d say “Oh, I was far more interested in what I was doing next than what I had done.” And for them the future was World War Three, so they kept busy.
The overwhelming needs of the NOW is especially true for freelancers, where we are always hunting for another gig or harassing an old one to get our check (often finding out “Heather” no longer works there so you won’t get paid unless you sue them). So, as we move forward, we forget how much we actually did, because we’re usually not tracking where we’ve been as much as where we are going, AKA: we’re too busy not getting paid where we are!
We think we didn’t do that much.
Granted, I’m a rather grumpy fellow and recovering workaholic, so I never think I’m doing enough. Ever. EVAR!
So, it can be instructive to take stock of “what the hell did you do besides work like a son of a bitch to stay away from the poor house?”
What emerges helps remind us we’re doing cool shit. We’re climbing new mountains. We’re making a dent. I recommend, as best you can, to do something like this if you feel the year was a bust. Perhaps it was, but I bet with a little elbow grease you’ll see that you accomplished far more than your short term memory and (in my case) bad psychology would have you believe.
For me, I knew I worked hard as fuck this year. But I didn’t stop to count the letters and realized I had a few BINGO moments.
STUFF GOT PUBLISHED
- FXXK WRITING continued unabated, thanks to the support of super boss Anna Yeatts and your continued eyeballs! September marked year two, and I’m doing my best to make it as good as year one.
- “Army of You”, a grim short story inspired by the rise in suicides among Canada’s Native population in the north, was published by Agnes and True. I also read the story as part of the post-election reading series at the Writing Salon, along with one of my students, the wonderful and dark Christine No, as well as Salima Hamirani and her mentor and fellow TWS teacher Elaine Beale. It was a very powerful night of stories and reflection, and I was humbled to participate.
- For the first time ever, I sold a handful of reprints to Great Jones Street, a wonderful app filled with short stories to devour while commuting, or in line at the grocery, or waiting for an Uber. It will feature some personal faves like “Rikidozan and the San Diego Swerve Job,” a tale about Japan’s greatest pro wrestler and race-hatred in the USA. It only appeared in a special-edition zine after coming in Second Place in the Judith Merrill Short Story contest, so now more than three people (myself included) can read it!
DEALS GOT MADE
- I signed a two-book deal with Nightshade Books to write THE BRIMSTONE FILES, the 1970s urban fantasy series set in LA and featuring a hero who has a hint of magic and a need to fight for the underdog no matter where they may be from . . . including the adult film industry! Thanks to Nick Mamatas for mid-wifing this adventure!
- I’ll be having an article published in Defense and Security Analysis, a fancy pants peer-reviewed journal.
- There are two pop-history projects I’m working on, one small, one big, but that’s all I can say for now. Mwah ha ha!
- There’s also a Cosmic Top Secret Fiction Project. Yes, I’m being annoying and enticing in equal measure, like a peep show that only takes tokens. Stay tuned, true believers!
STUFF GOT WRITTEN
- In June, I finished a 1000 page manuscript (known in the history trade as a “kitten crusher”) as a requirement of a fellowship project I won in 2014. So, that kept me busy.
- I finished the first novel, Hex-Rated, in the BRIMSTONE FILES series, due to blow your minds in August 2017!
- Hard at work on the next BRIMSTONE FILES novel, Black Lotus Kiss, and it is awesome.
- I wrote a fistful of short stories as part of a weekly challenge with my buddy Justin Howe riding sidecar with me, and me with him.
- Got a re-write request for a fantasy story that I hope to do next month.
- I finished the script for the first issue of a comic I’m doing with Yuki Saeki, called Glamorous Conspiracy, my punk rock riff on the Beauty and the Beast theme, set in high school. Wait until you see the art! Check out Yuki another one of our projects here!
NEW VENTURES TOOK FLIGHT
- After taking a workshop with Kevin McDonald from The Kids in the Hall, I started a sketch comedy group, The 19th St. Irregulars. We did two shows in 2016, and both were sellout successes that challenged us and made the crowd happy.
- I performed improv with a variety of venues in San Francisco, including the awesome folks at The Unscripted Theater Company, Leela, and other indie shows that CRUSHED it!
- I became director of my improv theater’s elder troupe, and they’ve been a blast to work with.
- In fact, I ended up directing improv, then musical improv, then sketch, but managed to grab some performance time as the year winked out.
I did not track my fails as much as I should have. Call me old and lazy. But I say this knowing it can screw the data so bad, making it look like all I did was WIN. Which is pure grizzly shit. Here are some of my major fails:
- Rejected from dozens of job applications in history, across the USA and Canada
- Many stories rejected. Including some of my best work.
- Many novels rejected, some very harshly.
- Many rejections on historical projects.
- A few bad reviews of fiction, improv, and historical work.
- A few killer auditions . . . that went nowhere.
- Barely performed improv due to other commitments.
- Ate marzipan by accident. Still an awful, awful food thing that pretends to be other food things. BARF.
A few lessons about work and art emerged:
- First, keep making things. Or, as Neil Gaiman said, “keep making good art.” Turn whatever state of hell or joy you’re in into a finished project and get it out the door. Make it as good as you can be. Making art or stories or novels or whatever is also a way to create opportunity. Making things improves your work and increases the probability of good stuff happening if you get it out the door. I guess I’m proving Chris Hardwick’s confidence theory is correct (to some degree; I think there’s holes in his theory, but haven’t had time to crack that nut).
- Second, looking at this list, a lot got done. A lot got done that was good. More than usual (though I’ve been having much better years since the nightmare of 2013). Professionally, it was a good year for producing work, and next year looks to be just as strong.
- Third, having a non-desperate/servile/silly attitude about publishing coincided with a series of publishing successes. I had opportunities present themselves and took them, but my life would have been awesome without them. Don’t get me wrong, I love what I’ve accomplished, but as a human being accomplishments don’t define my existence the way they used to. As Stephen King said, life is not a support system for art; art is a support system for life.
- Fourth, and related to the third, by sticking around in this business another year, I found opportunities that wouldn’t be around for someone just starting out. I have editors and writers and “industry” connections from kicking the can for sixteen years. I also have a small (and I mean small) reputation for doing good work of particular kinds. I can never be the “hip young thing,” and hated those fuckers when I was a “righteous punk rock nobody.” But I have a professional skill set that doesn’t suck, which, as Ta-Nehisi Coates noted, counts more and more in writing. Why? Because writers, if they aren’t compromised in some fashion, tend to get better with age, experience, depth of reading and capacity to improve. If you like the long game, writing is a good vocation. And I’m in the long game until I’m in a pine box. Why is this important? These successes of 2016 did not happen “this year.” They are the sum total of busting my ass since my very first short story “sale” in 1999. You want to retire at twenty-four, awesome. The ghettos of Silicon Valley are filled with your ilk. My kind believe in Jack London’s wisdom as inspiration and epitaph:
“I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.”
- Fifth, diversification, not singular focus, has been a boon. Being a historian has helped me find jobs, work, deals, and sales denied to my strictly fiction kin. It gives me a different kind of caché with publishers (non-fiction sells better). Being an improv performer and director means I’m far more social and lit-up as an extrovert (with introvert tendencies) than if I’d ONLY been writing fiction or history. That’s led to even greater joy across my life, and made me friends and colleagues I’d never catch dead at a panel on “How to be a Writer” filled with novelists who’s heyday was in the early 1980s and have no clue how current publishing works. Diversity has led to so much more joy than when I was ONLY doing fiction, believing in the myths and magical thinking of the singular value of writing as savior, lover and god. I love the life of the imagination, but I’m done convincing myself that I’m a solitary creature who only lives for “the craft” or “Story” or whatever. That was just a rational for living a fear-based life where I justified being terrified and alone by being a writer. Been there, done that. I love being alone with my brain. But thinking that’s all you are? Recipe for depression and darkness, at least for me.
But the big lesson? No day job was quit. I’m still working no-less-than three jobs while doing two more freelance things to get by. Retirement? Har. I’ve made more money this year (maybe 10K?) from writing fiction and non-fiction projects than previous years. But I make more in curriculum development and teaching.
I say this as a clarion call against dropping everything and becoming an artist. The myth of the “professional” artist, who only lives off their fiction, has no purchase in today’s economy, and was largely an anomalous condition in the past. Most writers have to do other work to survive, let alone have disposable income. They edit. They teach. They have jobs that require you get out of your PJs. Success stories in publishing do not prove the “system works,” any more than the 1% is proof of the universal benefits of capitalism. Success in publishing means some people succeed in unfair systems that create the cultural marketplace. And that’s it. Doesn’t mean their doing great work, or awful work. Doesn’t mean if you do what they do you’ll succeed like they did. Publishing is not fair. Never was. Never will be. I say this having had a good year: but that will never mean the system “works” The system remains a machine that wants when it wants when it wants it. This year, it wanted more of what I had to offer. Next year, it may want less, it may want more, it may want nothing (for how fickle and weird this world can be, see the highs and lows of David Rees). Keep that in mind, dearhearts, when things get better. Success is no more a natural law than wishful thinking is a means to success.
2017 is going to be an ugly year. Be inspired. Do good work. But, if recent elections are any indication, remember: the system doesn’t work, and knowing that can free you from so many rotten assumptions, illusions, and, as was the case for me, lead to good things happening in awful years. Being honest, challenging lies, and thinking how to make things better in an unfair slice of the world work? It paid off more this year, but would have been no less the right thing to do if I’d sold nothing to nobody know how.
Here’s to continuing to punch against oppression, one key at a time, in 2017.
Until then, go buy Jay’s latest novel with a brand new cover, A TRIUMPH FOR SAKURA, which award-winning writer and editor Nancy Kilpatrick called “Hunger Games, Fight Club and True Blood rolled into one bloody good novel.” BUY IT NOW, BE HAPPY FOREVER!