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Crossroads Pt. II

Dropping Jack Jack off at preschool this morning, I turn out of our cloistered little village, this quaint cul-de-sac of safely tucked away houses, and onto the main thoroughfare off the hill, the bustling Arlington, which is pretty clogged at 8:30 in the morning. Soon as I turn out, squeezing between traffic, I see a man walking, drifting into the road. He’s holding a leash but no animal is attached. At least that’s what it looks like but when I get closer I see it’s not a leash but a pole. The man is blind. And he’s weaving into the traffic. Cars are going slow, steering wide and clear, but still. As I pass I see he’s about my age, but he’s not using his stick; he’s just holding it, weaving in and out of traffic. So I start muttering “Fuck, that guy’s gonna get hit.” And Jack Jack of course is asking what? what? because now he repeats everything I say, so I’m sure to mutter “fuck” a little softer. And I want to pull over, help this guy get to the sidewalk, because I swear, in the rearview mirror, he looks like he’s gonna get hit by a car. But I can’t stop because of traffic. I think about pulling over at the intersection, helping this man navigate this busy, dangerous road. Then it hits me: dude is probably fifty years old, my age, probably been blind his whole life, surviving on his own. Who the hell am I to think he needs my help to manage a journey he’s probably made thousands of times? Like this is the first time dude’s ever had to walk on his own? Just because he’s blind, he’s not helpless. In fact, if I stop and try to tell him how to walk, makes me a bigger dick for assuming he can’t do it himself, right? I’m a jerk. I don’t know. But then I feel bad about that too. When I get to the intersection, I turn down the hill. I look back one last time. Dude seems like he’s handling his shit fine.

Sometimes even God is heavy-handed with the metaphors.

*

I wrote a blog post the other day. And I was a little surprised by the response. Mostly because so people not only read it. But also because so many were kind enough to reach out to make sure I was all right.

I’m all right.

My wife and I have a routine. When you’re married, you develop routines. They become part of life. And sometimes when Justine is telling me a story, I, being the stupid husband I am, will say, “Okay, I got it.” And Justine will say, “Just listen. I’m telling the story as much for my benefit. I’m a verbal processor.” I’m paraphrasing. Except the “verbal processor” part. So that’s become part of our (loving) routine. “I get it,” I’ll say, “You’re a verbal processor.”

This morning, my wife, who just returned from vacation in Greece, commented about the blog, the … dreary … tone of that last post. And I said, jokingly, I’m a writing processor. Except when I said it, I realized, actually, yeah, that is exactly what I am. Writing is how I make sense of my world. That I choose to do it on here, on this blog, this very public forum, well that’s my deal.

I never expect people to really read this stuff. But I also am VERY grateful they do. My life, I decided a while ago, would be an open book. Literally (not literally). After you write something like Junkie Love, ain’t no point in hiding shit.

When my brother was alive, he tried to take a dig at me by pointing out one of the myriad embarrassing things I did in my drug days. That’s okay. I took as many digs at him. It’s what you do when you love each other. At least when you’re a dude, from the East Coast: you show your love by ribbing and riding, viciously at times. Anyway, I was, like, “Man, I put that shit in a book. You really think I care?”

Of course I care. I care about everything. Deeply. It’s how I write. And that is what I do. I write.

While Justine was away, I bribed Holden to keep the house clean by letting him stay up late so we could have movie nights. (Yes, I know my wife will read this. No, I am not worried. Like our last therapist, the Earth Mother told her, “Hey, you married a writer.”) And I must tell you: despite missing my lovely wife, having an immaculately clean house for ten whole days was glorious, especially to an OCD’d mutherfucker like me. I’d do it all again.

One of the movies we watched was (surprise) a Rocky film. Rocky Balboa. Despite being the laughably 6th installment, the film is surprisingly good. I mean, really fucking good. Rocky is now old, widowed, basically estranged from his son, and he can’t move on. He’s still got something … in the basement.

I’m not going to rehash the plot. But watch it. Seriously. Even if you aren’t a boxing fan. Because, outside of the shitty 3rd through 5th installments, these movies have never been about boxing.

There’s a scene with Little Marie (from the original), and now Rocky, in his 50s, wants to fight again. Of course, being as old as he is, people keep trying to talk him out of it. It’s her response that is important here. Little Marie says to Rocky, “If this is something you got to do, then you do it. Fighters fight.”

Writers write. That’s the point. All this … crap … going on inside of me right now, from my brother dying, to my career (feeling like it’s) spiraling, is the direct result of not writing, not having a direction, not feeling a hope for the future. Up until now I’ve always had the hope of the e-mailman. Because submissions were out. Good news could come in any day. But I’m not submitting anymore. I have nothing new to give. And I say this, while still reassuring, I cherish my boys every day. Every minute with them is a fucking gift. And I laugh. And I love. And I will never hang that fucking sign in my house. I’m okay. I’ll be fine. I’ll eventually get an agent, a new book, hit big as I want. Or at least I’ll keep chasing, keep … navigating … that busy road. Maybe I never make it. But so what? I’ve got everything I need here, my family, my heart; I’m holding up fine. This is my baseline, neurotic, anxious, relentless, yearning. In the meantime, to keep my sanity, I’ll write. Even if it’s for a book about being a dad I never submit. Even if it’s only sporadically here. I’ll write because … writers write.

Crossroads

If you are a fan what I do, feel free to stick around. If you’re not, well, I guess you wouldn’t be here in the first place. A blog, at least mine, can border on confessional, a diary entry, and after 16 no one wants to read that shit. At the same time, I don’t have a point to this, other than I need to keep writing, because the mind is a muscle; and the one thing worse than exercising is coming back to exercise after a long layoff. That’s not true. I exercise every day, and I rather enjoy it. At least compared to the rest of my life, which is fraught with annoyances, from minor to gripping.

Of course at some point (which is probably now), one has to look at the problem, and I am pretty sure I am the problem, the one consistent variable.

Like many writers, I’m sure, I’ve been in the grips of malaise. My writer friend Jennifer Hillier calls it a crossroads.

She’s not wrong.

I write a thriller series, the Jay Porter books. Except they aren’t really thrillers. I never set out to write “thrillers” or “mysteries” or “noir”; I wanted to write books. I settled on genre because the form–and we can use the all encompassing “mysteries,” I suppose–supplied a template I could understand. Writing, for me, had always been about exploring, not just character, but the depths and lengths, the edges and loses–what it’s like, not just for me, which would be boring, but for people like me. And there’s a difference. Because the latter implies a community. And writing isn’t done in a vacuum. I write to be read.

I just wrapped up Porter 5 (RAG AND BONE) and feel quite satisfied about the way I concluded the 5-book arc. I hope others do too. Those who enjoy the Porter series, I imagine will. Those who don’t like Jay or his choices, don’t like the grim and bleak tone (but who, for some fucking reason, keep reading) probably won’t. In short, I don’t backtrack. I move the storyline ahead, go forward to its logical, inevitable, and I hope surprising conclusion.

And I mention all this because now I don’t know what to do next. Being a writer who isn’t writing just might really be the worst feeling. At least for me. I need a purpose. Ever Porter book has a theme (which should make my high school English teachers very happy). The “theme” in book 5 is “purpose.” We need it. I need it. I need to be moving my feet, heading toward something. Otherwise I live in my head. My head is a like a rich chocolate cake: a little goes a long way; too much and you get sick.

I am sick man. I host a weekly app-cast called “Notes from the Underground,” a title I picked because of the opening line to Dostoyevski’s book. I’ve been sick for a while. I might be on the uptick now. Last year was savage. But my brother’s death hangs heavy, and the conversations we have now so mirror the ones Jay and Chris Porter have in my books, I’m not sure which came first.

So what do I write next? I have three books slated to come out with Down & Out Books, and while I am hoping they hit big, I can’t seem to climb over the insecurity that I am doing it all … wrong. On the heels of a cult novel like Junkie Love, I was riding high with Lamentation, got that Anthony nom, and it really felt like I was about to break through. I started getting bigger advances, more press. And then …

I’m not sure what happened. Or if anything did happen. That’s the thing with being sick, mentally, you don’t get a good read on reality. You can only go with reactions. From your publisher. From the critics. From agents. I don’t think the reaction is good. But I don’t know.

Crossroads. Crisis of faith. You can call it whatever you’d like. I woke up  to an interview Hector Duarte Jr. gave for Jesse Rawlins, where people are saying all kinds of nice things about me, like I help others and am not a self-absorbed asshole, and it was touching, but also surprising because, again like many writers/artists, I spent so much of my day wondering if I am good at anything.

I’m a good dad. I am usually confident about that. But this weekend had me doubting even that. My wife Justine is in Greece, so it’s just me and the boys. Holden, Jackson, and I went bowling. But there were no lanes. So after they played video games and spent $9 trying to snag a Spongebob with the claw, because they are kids and don’t understand that those games are rigged, but hey it made them happy, and that makes me happy, we went to get ice cream. And it was a nice day, a nice moment, sunny, California cool/warm, and I love nothing more than being with my boys. We’re sitting in the ice cream shop, which is more a cafe, and bicyclists are out in droves, weaving in and out of traffic, and Jack Jack, who is three years old, goes, “Look at those people. Ugh. What a bunch of assholes,” and I know he got it from me, that I must’ve been driving at some point, and some bicyclist blew a stop sign, and I must’ve said that. Where else would he get it from? And Holden starts laughing, egging him on to say it again, and the people are looking at us. And I’m now trying to quiet two boys who are amped up and a 3-year-old calling bicyclists assholes, and I feel like shit, y’know? We get out of there, back in the car, and I’m trying to explain why Jack Jack can’t say that, why I was wrong, even though I don’t recall one specific incident, more like this is how I fucking am, all the time these days, just angry, raging at nothing at all. Except to my boys, who find everything I say hysterical, who think the world of me, who want to be like me. And I don’t want them to be like me. I want them to be like their mother. I don’t want them to be 47, running out of money, no agent, career in a tailspin, and feeling the things I do. Because as awesome as my boys and wife are, as great as my life is (THREE pars yesterday!), most of the time, I am … gripped … by a pervasive sadness, like a rain seeping deep into the mulch of my bones. I want my boys to have something more, better.

I tried to explain this to Holden, who again reiterated his desire to be just like me. I told him, I want him to be better than me. That is all any father wants, for their kids to be better than they are. I told him if he becomes a writer (which is what he says) that I want him to be a better writer. A better writer. A better father. A better person. That is all any father wants for his child. Of course being 7, he was half paying attention, half off in little kid world.

Later on, we were watching a movie, Ferdinand, about a bull. And of course (*Spoiler) the father dies because parents always die in little kid movies for some reason. But before the dad dies, he tells his boy that he hopes his son grows into a better bull than he is, that that is all any father wants for his child, to have a better life. And Holden looks over and says, “Hey, just like you always say, Dad.” So maybe he was listening. And maybe I just need to watch my language more. Maybe it’s not all falling apart. Maybe I did something good this weekend. Maybe I make a contribution to the betterment of the world at large. Maybe I’ll pull past this crossroads, and look back, and to quote the Boss, someday this’ll all seem funny. Because right now I got two little men that look up to me like I am everything; I can’t let them down. But still it’s a lot of pressure. I mean, I asked Holden who the best musician of all time was. I said, the one artist who is better than Frank Turner, Brian Fallon, and Craig Finn, who, as great as these three are, was more influential. I asked who is the best of all time? Of course my son replied, “You.” Rips your heart right out.

Dennis Lehane’s Note

It’s been a while.

Sorry. In my defense, I’ve been writing. Plus, honestly, I’m still getting over the death of my brother. Not unlike Jay Porter when he lost his brother, Chris, I’ve been talking to Josh more now since he died than when he was alive. Which is … weird.

I have three books coming out this year. I’ve been busy. Add to that the whole mortal coil/existential angst, the what’s-it-all-mean? and, well, I hope that explains my absence. But thanks for tuning in.

When I quit smoking back in 2008, I couldn’t write a word for 6 months. Not. One. Goddamn. Word. The brain is kinda essential to that whole “writing” thing. Mental state affects output. Being a writer configures an odd bird in that department. Can’t write if you are too happy. Because who the fuck wants happy stories about two people loving each other very much and nothing ever going wrong? Which leaves conflict. But that is one tenuous baby. No one want to read too much misery (see: biggest criticisms of Jay Porter). The challenge for the professional writer, or any writer who wants to get read I suppose, lies in harnessing conflict, mining unease but keeping said dissonance pleasant enough that you don’t end up writing Affliction or Leaving Las Vegas. Unless of course you can write another Affliction or Leaving Las Vegas. Because then you get that lucrative movie deal and everyone will love you for the rest of your life (*which may not be long).

I am not quitting writing. And if I ever did, there would be no point in making the announcement. No one gives a shit. One of my favorite bits of advice re: writing comes from Dennis Lehane, who carries a little reminder in his wallet: No one cares. Yeah, that can be depressing to some. To me (and Dennis) it’s freedom: No one cares. You can do whatever the fuck you want.

But I’d be lying if I didn’t say this writing shit has left me feeling … tapped.

Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE my life. I mean, as much as a curmudgeonly grumpy fuck like I can. Beats working in a factory, and I can honestly say each book I’ve written has been better than the last.

Only the world doesn’t always share your enthusiasm.

I recently posted about a bad review I got, and, seriously, this isn’t a cry for help, nor is it to disparage the reviewer (although putting spoilers for a book not yet out was kind of a dick move). I use this blog, and really my life, to be open book. I don’t know how else to live. Sure, some of that is born from a … neediness. I won’t pretend to have different stripes. But there is also a very earnest, human emotion behind it all: I want to create work people like.

Before we get into a debate about the purpose of art or any of that. I mean it much, much more simply. I try very hard to write the best books I can, and when they are criticized, however fairly, it hurts. That’s it. Not a “woe is poor me” statement or anything like that. Just a basic, primitive, “Golly, that sure hurt my feelings, Becky.” My youngest, Jack Jack, has taken to this approach. When he doesn’t get his way, he cries and screams, “You bad [insert relation here]! You hurt my feelings.” Of course Jack Jack is 3.

I am 47.

Rejection never gets easier. Anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something.


I’m also wrapping up the fifth (and final) Jay Porter, and as beta reader return their notes, I am super sensitive to the biggest complaint that has plagued the series from the start: Jay. Or more specifically Jay’s being … unlikeable.

Now, to me, Jay is not unlikeable, and it’s always weird to hear he is. Because Jay is … me (you don’t like me?!). His ideas, thoughts, behaviors, beliefs? All Joe. I am a little more mature, evolved than Jay. But, like Holden Caulfield, I don’t disagree with these things he thinks. Impetuous, childish, immature, angsty? Sure. Don’t mean he’s wrong.

It’s my worldview, I suppose. And this is not a worldview that hasn’t been unproblematic. Most of you know about the “salad years.” I am not the most pleasant man to be around in social situations (although to be fair I think most people like me. Well, at least more than they like Jay). But it’s draining. As an artist you have a vision, and I feel I’ve been true that vision. I get a lot of (e)letters from people who say they can relate to Jay and who love the books. It’s the nature of writing, though, some just aren’t going to like what you do. Like Rocky says, “Life will beat you to your knees and keep you there if you let it.” The trick is getting back up.

Because if you don’t? Like Dennis Lehane says: no one cares.