Make Your Own Music

Image courtesy of K-On!

Sometimes even I catch myself trying too hard to fit in. Yes, me. The one who’s always gone on about being a nonconformist and doing my own thing. We all do it, really: we make ourselves a bit malleable so that we can get along with our employers, coworkers, neighbors, whoever it might be. Adjusting our lives in small ways so we can be a part of a functioning and peaceful workplace or society. And that’s a good thing! There’s really no good reason at all to be an active misanthrope other than to attract attention to yourself, and there’s no good reason at all to be actively terrible to people other than selfishness.

But sometimes, when I’m not paying attention to the situation, that malleability will take over and become the default. Always trying to be everything to everyone, as Art Alexakis once sang. In the process I’ll lose sight of my core self. And next thing I know, I’m feeling miserable and wondering how I let myself fall into this predicament. I’ll have lost sight of what I wanted because I hadn’t established my own boundaries.

So I need to remember to make my own music.

I’ve told managers that I might not follow their exact process of workflow, but I’ll prove that I have my own that work just as well (if not better, and still within their established regulations) for me and will achieve the same expected results. I’ve told them that I can’t do any off-schedule ‘on-call’ work because I have my writing career. I’ve told them that sometimes their role-playing training doesn’t work on me because I’m terrible at that on-the-spot “repeat what I just told you” style of learning because of the way my memory works — make me do it in a live setting and I’ll learn by doing instead.

What I’m saying is that I have to remember that the worst I can do is go into a new work situation and establishing an ‘I’ll do whatever you tell me’ malleability. I have to remember to let them know that my style is this: tell me why I need to do something and give me the context, and I’ll figure out my own way to make it work. That’s how my brain works best, and that’s how you’ll get the best out of me.

It might not be the musical score you’ve already established, but it’s a melody that makes sense to me and achieves the same goal.

Working on the work/life balance

Image courtesy of Himouto! Umaru-chan

It’s been quite a week. My first full week of the New Day Job left me physically exhausted enough where one night I could not keep my eyes open and passed out at 8:30pm. There were a few days where I thought, what the hell was I thinking, I’m too damn old for this! But at the end of each shift, just as I was leaving, I noticed it:

No mental stress. None whatsoever. No you’ve got to finish this by a tight deadline, no who knows if tomorrow will bring yet another wave of system failures and an avalanche of client complaints, no oh shit I have to drive thirty miles in ridiculous traffic each way which can take either a half our or two and a half. Just…punch out, walk home. Workday done. Minimal time wasted.

It still blows my mind that there are jobs like that. Or more to the point, that my Former Day Job wasn’t like that by design. I’m still getting used to that.

Regardless, I’m doing what I can to squeeze my writing in. My schedule is still a bit wonky (though not as terrible as last week’s) but not so much that I’m unable to get any work done. I just take it day by day. I wrote this entry Sunday before my midday shift. Today (Monday) I’m doing an opening shift, so I’ll work on my writing after dinner. Later in the week I’m doing a midday-to-evening shift, so I’ll wake up at my usual early morning time and get some writing done then. I have two days off midweek so I’ll use that time to relax and take my time working on a few things.

It’s all about the balance. What is my schedule, and what hours can I utilize? And if I don’t have the time or energy to work on new words, I can certainly spend some time reading what I have so far and taking notes. Whatever works.

More Adjustments

Image courtesy of Polar Bear Cafe

As you may have heard, I am back in the workforce. I’m back in the retail world again, this time at a local supermarket up the street, and I am totally fine with it for multiple and varying reasons: my commute is a ten-minute, eight-block walk (five minutes if I take the bus); this store is definitely not short-staffed; the company is inclusive and I’ve already seen evidence of it; and the most important, ZERO STRESS. Yeah, my first eight-hour shift, five of them at the register, was super exhausting, but the fact that I headed back home at the end of it feeling just as mentally and emotionally relaxed as I did when I got there was the BEST thing ever.

So what does this mean writingwise? Well, given that my schedule is going to be ridiculously wonky for a while (a close, an open, and a few mid-days next week, for starters), this means that I’ll have to adjust my creativity output again. The whiteboard’s going to need updating. I’ll be writing in the morning some days, in the evening others. I knew this would happen one way or another, but I’m willing to shuffle things around to make it happen.

I’ve done this before. It’ll be just like the Belfry days — as long as I dedicate an hour or two a day working on my novels, that’s what truly matters. The aim here is to make it happen on a daily basis somehow, some way. (This might also mean my blog update schedule will be a bit wonky as well, but again — not a pressing issue.)

As long as I’m writing. As long as I’m able to write without the additional stress of Day Job issues. That’s all I ask for.

Other creativity

Close-up of my Gretsch Electromatic

I admit I haven’t been up on my art sketching lately due to being so focused on Theadia, but I’ve at least made it a point to pick up my guitar and noodle around with it for a bit during my writing breaks. Sometimes I’ll just play a few covers I’ve taught myself, and other times I’ll play a few riffs that I’ve come up with over the last several years.

I haven’t written any complete songs in ages, but I have at least fifty or so partial melodies that I’ve recorded on my phone over the last five years, all under the Drunken Owl moniker. I’ve been thinking that one of these days I should go through them, pick out maybe twenty of them that I think are worth expanding on, and turn them into real songs. Maybe build an album out of them.

I always say how writing, editing and publishing a novel is very similar (at least in my mind) to writing, recording, and releasing music, so maybe it’s time I made good and went in the opposite direction? I mean, why haven’t I done so already?

Part of it is the writing style, really. Writing a novel is a long-term commitment, trying to weave together several ongoing thought threads into something cohesive and complete. My style of music writing is obviously from the Beatles School of Writing It In My Head. Paul McCartney has often spoken about the reason why his early songs were so memorable was because no one in the band actually physically wrote the songs down on paper other than the lyrics; he and John Lennon made sure they memorized their new creations before they brought them into the studio. My songwriting is very much the same…I’ll get the lyrics down and remember the chord progressions that go with them by scribbling the chords above the words and making a quick note of “slow, sounds like Joy Division” in the margin.

Nowadays I write the music first, and I’m finding that I need to relearn how to write the lyrics to go with it. The fascinating thing about this turnabout is my guitar style has evolved and gotten infinitely better! Giving myself time to focus on the instrument has made me learn so much more than I ever thought. I still can’t fingerpick worth a damn, but I can kind of fake it on some of my newer melodies. And that comes from finally allowing myself to figure out the secrets of my favorite guitarists. [One of my favorite secrets was learning that some of George Harrison’s best solos and melodies are actually simple chords with minimal embellishment. He just knew how to make it sound a lot more impressive.]

Anyway, like I said, it’s been ages since I’ve written a complete song, and I kind of miss doing it. Perhaps that will be my next creative self-test: taking a half-melody idea and spending a week working out a full production plan for it. What would the song be about? What mood would it evoke? How do I hear it in my head? And go from there…finally take that SoundForge software that’s gathering dust on my PC and make some rough demos. See where we go.

And maybe get a Drunken Owl record out of it…?

What is it good for?

Image courtesy of Violet Evergarden

Yesterday on KEXP, morning DJ John Richards’ playlist was heavily war-themed and it got me thinking of my very first finished project — the Infamous War Novel. Most of the songs he’d chosen were the same songs I listened to in the mid to late 80s when I wrote that bulky thing. There was a lot of bleed-over between his playlist and the ‘soundtrack’ mixtapes I created then.

The IWN was borne of being a young Gen-Xer living on the back end of the Cold War. I mean, sure, I always say it was kind of inspired by those Red Dawn movies of enemy infiltration with an extremely heavy dose of Miami Vice music-as-storytelling-aid to boot. It’s me writing as a teenager, well before I even knew how to write, so grammatically and stylistically it’s thin on the ground and all over the place. I don’t hate it, but in its original form it’s rather embarrassing. Yet it still finds a warm place in my heart as my first completed work and proof that I enjoyed the hell out of writing fiction, and that maybe this gig might be worth working on long-term.

I’ve long referred to it as the IWN because I was obsessed with making it work one way or another. After I finished it in spring of 1987 and started writing other unrelated stories, I would always come back to it at some point. I tried reviving it countless times over several years. It was the project that refused to die. And I would talk about it with others at times, much to their amusement and sometimes irritation. Thus the Infamous part of its nickname. I finally gave up trying to revive it sometime in 1996 when I briefly visited it one last time after True Faith dried up but before I started The Phoenix Effect.

I still have all the paperwork and its various versions here in Spare Oom, decades later. It’s held together in multiple binders in the small bookshelf behind me. The original longhand work started in 1984 and the 1987-8 typed revision, the aborted 1987-88 sequel, the 1990-92 reimagining, the 1995 PC transcription of the original, and the 1995-6 last gasp written on the PC. And all the original mixtapes have been recreated in mp3 form.

So why think about it now? Well, I think it’s because, as that same Gen-Xer, I remember that feeling of there’s a MUCH bigger world out there than what you can even imagine, and not all of it is sunshine and roses that many of us felt back in the 80s, when we weren’t exactly at war with Russia, but we saw them as the bogeyman hiding behind a literal iron curtain, devious and scary and mysterious. They might not have always threatened us, but we never quite knew. The status could change in the blink of an eye.

And that’s why we felt that relief when the Berlin Wall came down, why that Jesus Jones song resonated with us. Why we got nervous when the first Gulf War started, and when any other war in the world kicked off. And that’s why we’re twitchy about the war in Ukraine right now — we remember what happened in our youth, and while we’re hoping that we won’t have the threat of nuclear missiles hanging over our heads this time, we certainly remember that feeling of you just don’t know. All the social media and news sites and podcasts won’t help you when they don’t have the entire story. They rarely do. [Not saying that in a cynical way, just saying it as a hopeful realist. I never depend on one specific site alone for my news and information and I’d like to think I’m well-versed in knowing which ones are honest and which are propagandist. I learned that in college, after all.]

I think, back in those days, that’s what I’d tried to infuse in the IWN. The main character — a self-insert, of course — was put in charge of his own local group of ragtag soldiers and rebels, and his story is the gradual breakdown of his emotional and mental strength as that Constant Unknown kept wearing at him. This wasn’t a story about shirtless beefcake heroes saving the world but about normal people relentlessly and continuously being put through the wringer. Would I write this kind of book now? Well, not an exact kind, but I’d maybe take parts of it that still resonate and use them in new stories. The IWN kind of reverse-glorified the Cold War, in a way; it took the 80s patriotic action film trope and subverted it into something dark and sinister. There’s a price to pay for war, and it’s never glorious.

Balance

OK, maybe not this type of balance…

Back in my Belfry days I got pretty obsessive about getting my writing done every single day, without fail. I’d done that on purpose, really — after years of distraction, lack of focus and I’ll get to it one of these days, I realized the only way I was going to get any actual work done was to do the exact opposite of that until I got used to it. It worked pretty well for years! My parents would worry sometimes and remind me that it was okay to take a day off, but at the time I didn’t think I needed to worry about that. My Day Job schedule was such that I could spend a few hours doing relaxing things (going for a comic book run, watching afternoon Toonami anime, and so on) and still write for an hour or two at the end of the day. Taking a day off felt like I was being lazy.

I took this past weekend off. Just…enjoyed the days, going for walks, doing a few minor errands, visiting with a friend we haven’t seen in ages, and having a super tasty brunch. I admit that I did not do any writing or revision work, and while I still felt a little lazy, that doesn’t bother me nearly as much as it used to. I don’t see this as part of my getting older, really…it’s more that I’ve learned to better balance out my life. I’ve finally learned over the years that when left to my own devices for extended periods of time, any worries or anxieties milling in my head will decide they want obsessive attention. [I mean, it’s healthy to give them attention when needed. I’m talking about the ‘okay, now I’m just worrying over minor quibbles and have WAY too much time on my hands’ kind of stuff.] And when that happens, the best thing to do is detoxify.

That of course means avoiding social media for however long I need to. It means stepping away from the PC and going for a walk to the nearby shops for some minor needs. It means distracting myself by playing my guitar, doing some office stretches, whatever I need. And this past weekend was a lovely way to do it. The weather was nice, our friend loved our city and neighborhood (and especially one of our local eateries we like to frequent), and my brain quieted right down. I had nothing to worry about, hyperfocus on or obsess over other than hoping the traffic downtown was behaving when we went to pick her up and drop her off.

That kind of balance took me far too long to figure out. For years I’ve always felt that I was either racing to keep up with everyone or slowing down to let everyone else catch up, and it’s only been over the last couple of years that I have allowed myself to go at my own speed instead of trying to adjust to everyone else’s. The worries and anxiety goes down, the focus gets clearer. Those anxieties will still pop up every now and again, and I’m still learning to deal with them as they come.

And now that the weekend is over and I’m back on the PC, I’m ready and eager to get revising again, with a clear mind.

Fly-By: Busy, Distracted and Distressed

As you might have no doubt guessed, I’m a bit distressed by the multiple punches of recent news both national and international. I’m busy writing a new insert chapter for Theadia. I’m also a bit distracted as I have a new part-time Day Job lined up and I’m having one of those waves of overthinking worry because they haven’t yet given me a solid start date and schedule and my brain is telling me they did and I just misunderstood or I never received it. So yeah, I don’t have anything planned here today.

On a lighter note, here’s a picture of some recent daffodils we picked up at the grocery store. The light is natural (kitchen window yesterday afternoon) and I’m using a fun and super cheap macro lens that I can clip onto my phone. [You can find it on Amazon here. Thanks to BBC’s Winterwatch for bringing it to my attention!]

Here’s to hoping my brain is on a bit tighter next week.

Social connections

Image courtesy of A Silent Voice

I suppose I’ve been lucky over the last couple of years since the pandemic put the kibosh on a lot of social situations for me. I’m not really someone that needs to be surrounded by people or needs to insert myself in the middle of things…in fact I’m quite the opposite. I’ve always been used to balancing my social life with a lot of alone time, mainly because I spent most of the latter working on my creative endeavors. I’d rather be an observer than the center of attention.

That said, I have realized that I probably do need to reestablish some of that social connection now and again, especially as a writer trying to put my name out there. I do find it it kind of hard sometimes to get started on that, however…as a self-published writer I’m the only person to proactively say hey, read my stuff! but the idea of prodding some stranger’s arm and getting their attention feels so weird to me. I can definitely do it when it’s needed, but it’s the initial contact that shakes my nerves.

I’m pretty sure part of it is due to the fact that I’m just another person in a see of many that are trying to attract your attention and that I have just a few seconds to reel you in or else I’ve already lost you. I’ve always hated the idea behind that, the prove yourself to me in ten seconds or I’m moving on theory of salesmanship. And I hate it because when I rush, my work is shitty and you don’t see the best of me. I sound like an idiot. Give me more like a minute, and then I have a better chance. My style is more about nuance than surface attraction. My brain just doesn’t fathom trying to sell you my book in one sentence. It’s like trying to explain Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique by only mentioning the first four notes.

I’m thinking about all this while going through another wave of sending applications in for a new day job. I’ve realized I don’t have to have a fully remote job, I just want a more local one that doesn’t steal commute hours from me. And I actually wouldn’t mind working with a team again. I get along with pretty much anyone at work in one way or another, and if we don’t get along, I’m not bothered much by that. (There’s also the fact that once I do get to know you well, your name will most likely be Tuckerized somewhere in one of my novels at some point.)

At present I’m still at the interview level of things, but once one of these goes all the way through, then I’m sure everything will work out just fine. I’ll remember how to make personal and professional connections with people. And I’ll return to being a bit more social in my life again.

Making It Work

Image courtesey of Digimon

Okay, I’ll be honest — I’m at a crossroads. Over the last few weeks I’d been contemplating whether or not I should let one or both of the blogs go on an indefinite hiatus, or to go in the opposite direction: to Make It Work. And right now I’m leaning towards the latter, because writing has been a lifelong endeavor. I mean, the last time I went on blogging hiatus was because I needed the mental and emotional vacation, especially after I’d left the Former Day Job. Now? Now it just feels like I’m just avoiding it for no reason.

One of the reasons this came to mind is because of my recent revision/rewrite work on Theadia, and the fact that working on it has felt so similar to working on the Bridgetown Trilogy back in my Belfry days. When the resonance to a project is this strong, I’m not going to dismiss it. Every day I look forward to working on it for a few hours! And I don’t think I’ve felt that in quite some time, probably not since those days, when I would come home from the Day Job and head downstairs every evening, eager to get writing.

It didn’t occur to me how much I’d missed that. That drive and excitement. Don’t get me wrong, I loved writing my last few novels both released and unreleased. But in hindsight I think some of those might have been written more out of necessity than enjoyment. I loved writing them and I’m proud of them, but they didn’t excite me quite like working on the trilogy did. Mind you, I forced myself not to think of it that way at the time because I knew that they were different projects. Theadia feels different. It could be that it’s a much larger epic-sized project (like the trilogy) and those are the ones I love writing the most. It could also just simply be about it being the right time for it. I’m not going to question it, though. I’m just going to enjoy it.

Back to blogging: what I believe I’ve been missing is that same drive. I enjoy posting, and god knows I can talk your ears off about music and writing when given the chance. So why have I been avoiding it off and on over the last couple of years? I’m pretty sure it’s the same as above: I’ve been writing about things I’m not as enthused about as I used to be. [Or alternately, that I’ve talked about things I do obsess over for so long that I’ve been repeating myself and getting frustrated by that. There is a very strong chance that could be the other culprit.]

So how make my blogging work for me again? Well, one of the obvious things is to post about new subjects that I’ve avoided in the past, either for personal reasons or because I’d been too distracted by other subjects. Let’s do an ongoing theme about my obsession with music in the 90s. Let’s post some microfiction I’ve piled up over the years. It’s about that resonance with the subject I want to talk about and share. And it’s also about being fine with writing things that aren’t always of high importance. Have fun with it. Enjoy it. Look forward to writing it, especially when it’s about things that resonate with me.

Theadia: Two Years On

Azusa and Naho from Orange

On this day in 2020, I had my 750Words page up on my work laptop (the one way I could get any writing done now that I’d been dragged kicking and screaming back to the office) and I was listening to Fuzzbox’s Big Bang for the second time that day. I was frustrated because I’d hit a serious slump: I needed to come up with a new project, but I’d dried up creatively for a while by then. Most of my 750Words entries at the time were ending up as repetitive personal journal entries and I was really getting sick of writing them.

Listening to that boppy, bubblegummy guilty pleasure of an album and deciding once and for all to stop limiting myself, I free-associated for a bit. And that was much harder to do than I’d remembered because I hadn’t done it properly in ages. But eventually, I came up with this partial later that morning.

I really should come up with an anime-inspired story. I mean, like along the lines of Carole & Tuesday or Dragon Pilots, maybe even with a bit of Tenchi Muyo thrown in. Light and fun and goofy with a darker subtext and long-game arc going on. I’ve been going on about how much I love that style, so why not?
Various thoughts:
— The high school manga: a group of boys and girls and the various shenanigans and dramas they go through. SFF spin..? Perhaps it’s set on a generation ship (another one of my favorite ideas I haven’t used yet), or perhaps a space waystation. Darker subtext/long-game plot? I’m thinking maybe it’s a twist on the ‘we’re all going our separate ways when we graduate’ theme in which some of them will become pilots, either for transports or for space force, which might make connections that much harder. Darker  subtext?  Hmm. Will have to think about it more.

So, Theadia was originally going to be a coming of age story between five or six young adults as they figure out their future plans. It would start out as a light-hearted story that grew progressively darker as the long-game arc became clearer. I didn’t even have a name for it yet…that came a short time later when I’d come up with the names Althea and Claudia. [Althea, as well as her relationship with Claudia, is after a character in Hannah Blumenriech’s Full Court Crush. Claudia is named after someone I knew in college who was highly intelligent yet very reserved. Theadia — Thea and Dia — came to me when I realized the story was really about these two goofballs.]

The first few grains of Theadia were sown a month or so later when I pared down the original group to the titular duo when I realized there was a story about them somewhere in there that I was subconsciously avoiding. But what was it?

I was going through a tough time and not getting anywhere creatively. It was a perfect storm of frustration towards the Day Job, fury and disgust at the then-current US President* (a term I use very loosely here, and only for clarity), and a feeling of desperation on several levels. This was the worst block I’d had in years. The last time I’d used that inner turmoil in my writing had to have been the trilogy, and I’d been actively avoiding using it since then. Okay, that’s not entirely true…that turmoil spilled into my personal journal entries and 750Words sessions and that was frustrating me as well, because I’d repeated myself so much I’d gotten sick of hearing myself complain. I was avoiding something. A lot of somethings.

After I’d left the Day Job and given myself some time to heal a bit, I knew I was ready to start Theadia again. And this time I wouldn’t avoid what was bothering me. I’d let it spill out onto the page. I based characters and settings and situations on certain aggravating things going on in my life up to that point. It was therapeutic writing that I didn’t realize I’d long needed.

Theadia, on the whole, is about doing the right thing when no one else steps up. More to the point, it’s about taking action when everyone else is saying it can’t be done Because Reasons. And those reasons would be rigid protocol, hateful bigotry, lack of imagination, fear of responsibility, whatever it is that keeps people from doing what needs doing, or else we’re all going to be sitting here for years, stuck in this same damn cycle of inactivity.

All that Althea and Claudia want to do is make things work. Not just for themselves or their jobs, but for anyone else in their lives. The twist here, however, is that they’re not activists. They’re not mavericks, spies, loose cannons or even encyclopedic tech nerds and social justice heroes of the Cory Doctorow variety. They’re just blue-collar workers with a sense of community and a drive to make things possible. This is the kind of outlaw they are: the ones you least expect, because they don’t attract attention to themselves while they’re undoing all the bullshit they’re wading through.

The trick, then, was to figure out who — or what — the enemy was. That took a bit longer to work out, but once I had a rough outline, it became clearer to me: it wasn’t just one conflict, but many. It was the former galactic owners of the waystation and its planet reneging on their promise to leave them alone. It was the waystation’s political and military leaders in constant disagreement with each other and hindering progress. It was upper management refusing to make important choices Because Reasons. It was constant disagreement between those in charge and those they represented.

In other words, a lot like real life over the last couple of years.

And yes, there would be a bit of humor and lightheartedness, to balance it out. The appearance of one comically large and chatty Maine coon cat named Grizelda. The distraction of having large extended families. The deep trust between best friends and the smooth workings of a well-oiled and well-trained team. The silliness of Althea’s shenanigans and the wiliness of Claudia’s not-entirely-legal tech kludges, and their incredibly strong and loving relationship.

Funny, then, that it took me almost a year and a half to realize that this was going to be a Big Story, just like the Bridgetown trilogy! But that realization only helped me refocus on Theadia so I could make it even better. It’s been a super fun story to write and I love working on it. And I hope you enjoy it once I release it out into the world!