Experienced

Jimi Hendrix with Are you Experienced from Rock Without Rules on Vimeo.

So one of my latest assignments for the Current Day Job is bookkeeping duties. Basically being trained on prepping the registers, balancing the safe, and other money-related things. I definitely have experience in this from my last years at HMV, being left in charge of opening/closing, balancing, depositing and all that fun stuff, so I’d let them know this when I was interviewed. I figured it would give me an extra in when they hired me.

I’ve been at the new place for a bit over two months, and I’ve already retained all my old retail and warehouse job experience into this new one, making everything easy and fun. I’ve already got multiple compliments on my bagging skills, and it’s not just because I do my own when I’m doing the shopping — my style is very much like how I used to build my pallets back at Yankee Candle, getting as many items into a finite space as I can yet still being safe about it. [It really is a bit like Tetris, and it’s kind of fun to look ahead at the shapes/items and put them together in my head.] And thanks to watching Gardener’s World and all those cooking shows during the pandemic, I’m even having some fun conversations about herbs, plants and ingredients as well.

Reason I bring this up is that in these same last couple of months, it dawned on me that perhaps I don’t nearly use that sort of thing with the characters in my stories as much as I really should. I’d like to think my characters are no longer the one-note self-inserts of yore, but after so many years being in an enclosed office setting with the same couple dozen people, I’d kind of lost touch with what other people were like. [Mind you, I don’t use social media for this sort of thing too often, for many and obvious reasons.]

What kind of experience do I have with people? I mean, in real life? I have a lot, it’s just that I’ve kind of lost touch with it for the last decade and a half. The Current Day Job has definitely changed that. I meet regulars, but I also meet the tourists, the late-nighters, the teens, the business people, the homeless, the well-off, and everyone else. And I’m really enjoying that sort of thing. Like I said recently, it’s reminding me that there’s a world outside. A world that’s not on Facebook or Twitter, a world that’s not crunching numbers, a world that’s not trying to save or ruin things. Just…people out there.

And it feels really great to experience that again.

Life taking unexpected turns

To be honest, I’d always thought that if I ever was going to join a union, that it would be writing-related. Instead, I’ve recently signed papers to join the one at my Current Day Job.

How do I feel about that? Well, I’ll admit I’m a bit of a socialist anyway so having a group dedicated to looking out for my wellbeing at work is pretty neat, considering I’d never had that before. Not that any of my previous blue-collar jobs ever had them, at any rate. And there certainly hadn’t been any that I knew about at the Former Day Job…sure, they’d have a lot of feel-good platitudes and attaboys, but they’d always rung empty to me. My current coworkers talk about union stuff now and again, such as a recent pay raise agreement, and the rep immediately handing me a card upon signing saying ‘call me if you have questions or need help’. I don’t think I’ve ever had a Day Job with a representative like that who really meant it.

What kind of union member would I be, anyway? Good question. Probably not a performative one, at any rate, because that’s not the kind of person I am. Maybe one who’d be willing to make a noise if warranted (not that I see that happening in the immediate future), but other than that I’ll just pay the dues, keep up with the news, vote when asked, and get all the perks being offered. I kind of feel like I’ve finally been hired somewhere that doesn’t try to bleed me dry mentally and physically, and a union is known to be good at making sure it stays that way.

Part of why I’m thinking about this is that I think I’ve finally made peace with being a Writer With a Day Job, just like most other writers out there. This is a low-stress, easy-on-the-brain job that pays reasonably well (only a dollar or two less than what I’d been making at the FDJ), has an awesome commute, and offers me all the time I need for writing work when I get home without guilting me into ridiculous amounts of overtime or overwork (which I would make a noise about, natch). I’ve realized that yeah, I no longer feel like I’m chained to any Day Job I have. I’m glad to work there, the people are fine (and unlike the FDJ, so are the customers, many of whom are quite lovely), and I definitely feel more connected to my coworkers and the outside world than I had elsewhere.

So yeah, it’s probably time for me to dust off my Billy Bragg albums and give them a relisten. Heh.

Almost there…

Image courtesy of Polar Bear Café

It’s been…a long work week. Six straight days of working noonish-to-midevening shifts at the shop, including both weekend days. Today’s the sixth day and hopefully I will not be walking home feeling like a zombie. I have tomorrow off, and I’d really like to use that day to get caught up on things. Thankfully I’m only there until 7:45 this time, so I won’t be too wiped out. It’s not that they’re overly long shifts — they’re roughly all eight hours long — it’s just that they’re during multiple busy times and that is what’s exhausting me.

Anyhoo. I have now worked out how I need to approach this next scene in Theadia. You could see it as the culmination of Act I, in which our heroes have taken stock in what’s going on in their universe and have chosen to take action. The original version reads a lot like a detailed “STUFF GOES HERE” moment and we can’t have that, can we?

Unfortunately these last few days haven’t given me much time or energy to focus too much on it, so hopefully my day off and the following morning shifts (the ones I love that leave my afternoons and evenings wide open) for the rest of the week will give me a lot more ability to catch up.

Here’s to hoping, anyway…!

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.

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.

Filling in the gaps

The rewrite/revision on Theadia continues apace, sometimes quickly and sometimes at a snail’s pace. It really depends on what I left out in the first draft.

Theadia is definitely the first novel project where I actively chose to let myself use “I’ll write that bit later” more than just once. In pretty much every other novel I’ve written, I’d tried not to skip scenes and always wrote in order. I did this because I’m conscious of the multiple moving parts of a novel and didn’t want to make any horrific continuity errors. I’d done it once or twice in recent novels: one point in Diwa & Kaffi where I knew I had to expand on one thing but I also knew its importance was only to that specific moment in the story and not anything later on. And in In My Blue World I’d had to rewrite a scene due to a major edit that took out an extraneous character I no longer needed. Other than that, I wrote continually from start to finish.

With Theadia, I knew I’d have to give extra focus on one side of the story being told because it was kind of a new area of expertise (I use that term loosely, heh) for me; I knew what I wanted, and I knew that its scenes would complement whatever the main characters were doing. So instead of spending all that extra time trying to get it right the first time, I made a few vague references of what was happening, as well as a few notes at the start of certain chapters explaining what was going on. I did a bit of research in the background while I wrote the scenes I knew I could write easily.

So right now what I’m doing for this project is filling in those gaps. This is working out well for the most part, as I’m doing two things in tandem here: I’m writing those important scenes, but I’m also thinking of how they’ll affect the ones I’ve already written. It’s taking the same amount of time I’d have taken if I’d written it from start to finish, but without the frustrating gaps of nonwriting that I’d have spent focusing on learning more about that new area of expertise.

I still have a long way to go of course, but I’m further along and that makes me happy enough.

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.