There’s a World Outside

Image courtesy of Your Name

I’ve been spending a lot of time at work noticing there’s a world outside Spare Oom’s one window.

I mean, I know there’s a world out there, and I’m not talking about the unseen lands past the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands. I’m talking about people in my neighborhood. The teens attending the nearby schools. The families in the neighboring houses and apartments in the Richmond District. The dog walkers, the late-shifters stopping in the store at 10pm to buy tomorrow’s lunch, the retirees stocking up for the week or buying that one ingredient they’re out of.

I’ve known they’re out there, but I’d kept them at a very long distance over the years. Part of it was the need to figure myself out without all the outside distraction and influence. And with the Former Day Job, my connection with others was mostly Other Businesses where there’s always that bit of enforced professional distance. I got along with my coworkers there but was never a close friend. But somewhere along the line that became the norm: I just didn’t people all that much.

When I started this retail job, I went in thinking one thing: If I’m going to deal with people, I’m not going to think of them as faceless Clients or Customers. That was a Former Day Job thing. I’m going to think of them as my neighbors and people I could get to know. Same with my coworkers; I may be old enough to be some of my coworkers’ parent (and young enough to be a whippersnapper to the older coworkers), but that shouldn’t keep me from getting to know them, learning a bit about who they are.

This, interestingly enough, has made me rethink how I approach creating new characters for my stories. I think that’s partly why I feel like Theadia is a bit more like the Bridgetown Trilogy than the last couple of novels I’ve written, because I’m giving these characters lives that are inspired or influenced by real life people I’m meeting. And in the process, learning a bit more about myself at a deeper level. Catching myself being who I am in a public setting without defaulting to a malleable People Pleaser every time. And it’s not just eye-opening but incredibly freeing.

Maybe the world outside isn’t as frustrating or stressful as I’d remembered it being.

Getting there

The downside to rewriting and revising is that after working easily through multiple passages and making minor corrections and fixes, I’ll hit a scene that’ll take forever to get through. I’m at one of them right now as I work on Theadia.

The scene is an important point in Act I where several of the main characters finally meet in the same room and choices are made that send the main plot off in its intended direction. This is a scene that I’d purposely skipped because the scenes leading up to it were driving me crazy and I really wanted to move on. [At first I felt the buildup was taking too long, but upon rereading it, it was totally fine and I was just being impatient. So it goes.]

There’s a lot of interweaving of characters-and-plot-so-far going on here, and in trying to do it right without causing more problems, I’m taking my own time with it. I’ve been working on it for at least a week now (and of course I’m getting impatient again), but I know I’m getting close to finishing it. I just need to keep it up.

The good thing is that once this particular trial is done, then I can get back to working on a few more light-and-easy passages again!

Work and Play

So today I find myself facing a three-day weekend for the first time since I started the Current Day Job, and I’ve already planned that today will be my run to Amoeba Records for dvds and perhaps some used cds and whatnot! We’re going to see a play on Saturday and if the weather is nice, we’ll take a walk in the part on Sunday.

Even at this point in my life, I still feel guilty when I decide to spend my non-work time not writing. Even if it’s watching TV — including things we enjoy watching — I still feel that nudge that I really should have the laptop on and work on my projects. Back in my Belfry years I’d allow a few PC games before getting started, and these days it’s other things like reading webcomics or futzing around with my music library for a bit.

How do I get rid of that guilt? Well, I don’t think I’ve ever quite gotten rid of it, per se…more like I’ve chosen to just ignore it instead. I’ll say to myself that I’ll let myself play until a specific time and have a hard start time, and I’ll stick to it.

And what about all this time away from the PC at my Current Day Job? Good question, actually! If I’ve realized anything over the last couple of weeks, it’s that I’d somewhat forgotten what it’s like to work somewhere surrounded by other people. I mean, more than just an office setting with the same twenty or so people…this is working in a place where I meet all sorts of locals and visitors. It’s been so much longer than I realized, and to tell the truth, I kind of enjoy it! Weird, yes, but I’m seeing it as a sort of writing research, to be honest. Letting myself have a huge rethink about my own created characters. Something I can do for fun instead of trying to squeeze in something while manning the register.

Still, I’m happy that I’ve got these days off so I can rest, too.

Walking and Writing

My work commute, as I’ve mentioned before, is eight blocks. Which means that if I decide to take the bus, I’ll get there in about five minutes. Some days I do in fact take the bus, as the walk to my job is all uphill. (And some days I take the bus home, especially if I’m doing a late shift or had an exhausting day.)

The walk itself takes about ten or so minutes, so I’m really not wasting any time between work and home. So instead of being stuck in a car with my thoughts and frustrations, I let my head drift a bit. Sometimes I think about the next day’s plans, sometimes it’s about what I’m going to work on that evening. Sometimes it’s nothing at all, just a song stuck in my head. And I’m okay with that. And some days I think about what I’m writing.

Because while my schedule isn’t entirely uniform from week to week, I’ve had to rethink how I approach my writing time. I can still write every day, it’s just at a different time now and again. I’ll have a midday work shift but still wake up early so I can write in the morning. I’ll have an opening shift and get some done in the afternoon and evening. And I’ll even allow myself a bit of relaxation time — new release Fridays, chatting on social media, and so on — because why the hell not.

And I’ll still get the same amount of work done that I normally would. Just do it day to day.

The only downside to walking is that I have a stay-on-my-feet-all-day job so sometimes my thoughts are merely Ow. Ow. Ow. Ow. all the way home.

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.