Sorry, Mom!

Okay, since this is — err, technically — a writing blog, I suppose I have to pay at least some lip service to my writing…but, of course, I’ll come at it from a weird direction…

You live in Yellowstone?  You must get all kinds of inspiration for your writing up there!”

Umm…yes and no.  Yes, because the place really does have an innate magic that can’t help but touch you.  And No because, when I’m out in the Park, I’m…well…out in the Park.  Oh, I bring a notebook and a pen along on most hikes, but let’s be honest here: I spend that time hiking and soaking in the surroundings, not thinking.  As much as I love — and need — to write, it’s not the easiest thing in the world to switch gears from outdoorsman to writer.  Not least because, when I write, I put all of my focus and attention into the words.  To do that when I’m sitting on the top of a mountain?  Or deep in the woods?  Yeah, at that point it’s not quite so easy as it is when I’m sitting at the picnic table at the back of my RV site.

Oh, and because … well … bears.  There’s a now-hard-to-find picture of some girl in F7FFE55A-77D3-4284-A6FA-6F1EBCEFABD3Alaska who was so absorbed in setting up and taking her selfie that she missed the grizzly coming up behind her in that picture…   I’m pretty sure my Mom would prefer it if I didn’t end up an ursine Happy Meal with my earbuds in and a pen in my hand.  Although, now that I describe it that way, I suppose there are worse ways to go!

Sorry, Mom!!

The internet in Yellowstone sucks, how do you keep up with family and news and all that stuff?”

Umm…I mostly don’t.  Look, I’m a complete introvert* who needs to “get away from 543617DA-2735-4F8E-A8AD-F07F478C3355it all” for at least a part of every year.  Okay, okay, I really DO get it — doing so for six months at a time might be considered a BIT more than “part of the year”, but I’ve always believed in the old joke that anything worth doing is worth doing to excess!

*Although I CAN pretty effectively fake being an extroverted “nice guy” when necessary.

My family is pretty used to “radio silence” from me, by the way, so they tend not to get too stressed when they don’t hear from me for a while.  Well, except for that time when my Mom called the cops on me because I forgot to call for … umm … ahem … better than two months …

Sorry, Mom!

As for the news?  It just frustrates and irritates me, anyway.  I give myself one morning a week to read the news, over my coffee and bagel.  At the end of that morning, I usually wonder why the hell I bothered wasting my time and energy.  I then head out to see if I can tempt a grizzly into eating me in an effort to atone for my news-reading sin.  Hell, if I didn’t need my iPad for writing, I’d cover it in peanut butter and try to get the bear to eat that

How many words do you write in a week up there compared with back home?”

Great, thanks a ton for making me feel guilty about my lack of productivity.  I average about 1,000 miles of hiking in six months up here, doesn’t that count for something?!

*sigh*

Fine, here’s the reality: a full, dedicated day of writing will see me put down somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 effective words.  I will also, on a day like that, accomplish a few writing-oriented chores that do not directly involve creating sentences and scenes.  That means that, back home, I can (and hopefully will!) produce anything from 10,000 to 15,000 first-draft words in a week.  Up here, I’m happy to end a week with 4,000 words on the page.  Occasionally — like when the Yellowstone Beer Fest was happening! — I produce zero words.  Such is my cross to bear*.  

*Pun fully intended!

Can I have a free copy of your stuff?”

Can I have your f*@#ing house?  There ain’t many people in this universe getting rich from writing, and I am most definitely NOT one of those few.

Okay, I get it, Yellowstone isn’t really an inspiration for you…so what does inspire you?”

Beer.

Well….beer and coffee.

Oh, and tourists.  Any time I need to write a character who is annoying, ignorant, or stupid — or, better yet, all three — I just study the tourists for ten minutes.

Are you grumpy, or what?  I’m glad you aren’t in public relations!”

That WAS public relations for me.  Get any staff member who has spent more than a month up here even the slightest bit drunk, and we will tell you stories that’ll make you want the supervolcano to go off!

So, on that topic, the supervolcano…  It’s just media-hype, right?  A fake-news thing?”

55D93F29-BCB4-4F24-8034-5BC193432AFCMy RV currently sits all of two thousand meters above an active magma chamber the size of freaking Montana.  Mt St Helens put out one-quarter of a cubic kilometer of
stuff…and that devastated shit for miles.  The last Yellowstone eruption put out A THOUSAND cubic kilometers of shit.  2.1 million years ago, Yellowstone put out 2,500 cubic kilometers!  So, yeah…“fake news”…

Where are you going after this season?”

Somewhere I can do more writing.  I love being up here, I really do.  I love the park, I love the hiking, I love the animals…but I don’t produce crap as far as writing is concerned.  From a real-world, financial perspective being up here is stupid as hell.  Let’s be honest — no one comes up here to work for the money.  There ain’t no money up here.  Pretty much every seasonal employee up here just manages to break even for the season.  That’s it.  At best, you might put away a few hundred.  Which is why 75% of the seasonal staff are either college kids or retired folks.  To be one of the few still trying to make a living while working in the park?  Yeah, that has it’s problems.  I’m going to need the six months following this just to make up the ground I lost being up here…and I still wouldn’t change it for anything.

Okay, with all that said — are you FINALLY going to call your mother?”

No, I’m going to write.  Then I’m gonna lead a moonlight hike through a geyser basin…

Sorry, Mom!

Pop-Tarts and Beer, Vol. II

I spend most of my (public) time here in Yellowstone talking to people about hiking.  What trails they should or shouldn’t use, what kind of gear and supplies they should have, what they can expect to see and do, how best to watch* the wildlife, that kind of thing.

*Rule #1 for wildlife watching, by the way, is to do as I say, not as I do…Me: ”What do you mean, I shouldn’t follow the wolf tracks back to the den?”  My Ranger-Friend: “You know, I’m not coming all the way out there to help when you get attacked…”

Invariably, people — being people, of course — will worry and ask about food.  Oh, they’ll couch it in terms of “energy” and “nutrition” and “hydration” but we humans are just as worried about our stomachs as are your average grizzly and bison.  “What do you eat,” I was asked once by a co-worker, “to recover energy after a tough hike?”

Ummm…

I thought about all the crap I should eat afterwards, about carbs and proteins and restoring everything I sweated out over the miles of the hike.  I thought about it, then I decided to answer with the truth, “Pop-tarts and beer.”

Hell, the only reason I don’t take those two miracles with me on the trail is, well, have you ever actually TASTED beer out of a camelback?  Yeah, not even I’m that committed…

DC88F4A3-9794-4102-BE0C-BA6C932333E7So, okay…now, after my little snack, I’ve ticked the last box on my list and I’m completely content and happy.  It was one of those absolutely perfect days to be out hiking.  The kind of day you have to get out and take advantage of: a day of blue, blue skies and gentle breezes…a day of puffy clouds and vibrant wildflowers still in riotous bloom…a day of nothing but rolling hills and rich meadows as far as I could see…

A mile in and the noise from the road was lost to me…two miles in and all the worries and frustrations of the world were lost, as well…three miles, and I was in my element, looking for someplace new and interesting to explore…

Then I started to wonder.

Dammit, why do I do that?  Why can’t I just relax and take it all for what it is?  But nope, I’m a writer, I always have to think and wonder and imagine.

So, this time, I wondered about those who…well…those who wait.  Wait for someone to tell them where to go, and what to do.  Wait for someone else to discover, to teach, to explore.  Wait for permission and for approval.  Wait, when you get right down to it, to live.

I have this friend, someone I work with up here, who is competence and confidence personified.  He spent a career as a firefighter, for Pete’s sake, finishing as Chief of a department.  This man is no shrinking violet, no weakling and certainly no fool.  But he waits.  He waits for someone else to take him around the park…for someone else to lead he hikes…for someone else to do.

I don’t know if its upbringing, or something more innate, but I just can’t imagine being here in Yellowstone like that.  Even when I was first here, even when I had no idea where the freaking laundry room was, let alone anything in the Park itself, I 1C0D02C4-9662-466A-BDDA-E68D0AAAB310would just head out and find places to go and things to see.  I would, of course, also find ways to get myself in deep shit, too…but that’s part of the fun!  “Oh, hi, Mr Grizzly.  How are you today?”

Beyond the Park, however, I most definitely can’t understand living like that.  For good or for ill, I’m pretty much the embodiment of the whole “better to ask forgiveness than permission” theory of life.  I can’t imagine waiting for someone to tell me to write…I can’t imagine waiting for someone to show me the path.  I said it once before on this blog, a couple of years ago: if you always follow the trail — if you wait — then all you can ever do is walk in someone else’s footsteps.

And that seems a whole lot like living a life of fear.  That, in fact, seems a whole lot like hell.

P.S.

A38151E8-B8AD-42AE-9367-6D55846EDF6ABy the way, I wasn’t actually kidding about following the wolf tracks — I found the tracks of a pup and adult who were scouting for the rest of their pack, and followed those back to where the others had rested after the morning hunt.  From there, the tracks & sign of the whole pack were (relatively) easy to follow for a few miles…

Who Do You Write For?

I was out hiking the other day, and I started thinking about audiences.  About the “how” and “who” that every writer is supposed to keep, at the very least, in the back of his or her mind as the words pour onto the page.

Hey, these are the kind of things I think about when hiking in the middle of a blizzard.  Wait…what…you’re surprised by that?  Shit, I write entire scenes in my mind as I hike!  Now, whether I manage to retain them or not is another question entirely…hence Rule #1: you write it, right away — you always write it.

Ahem.

So, audiences…

I suspect I’m not alone in my instinct to “just write”.  Just write the words…just write the characters…just write the emotions and thoughts and needs, and let the rest of the bullshit take care of itself.

Look, I’ve mentioned before the questions that irk the hell out of me — well, one of the biggest of those is, “Who are you writing for?”

I’m writing for me.  There ain’t no other answer in my little corner of the writer-ish universe.  In the words of my current protagonist, I write “for me, and for my ghosts.”

Why the hell should I worry about who?  Why the hell can’t I just write the damned story that lives in my head, and let the chips fall where they may?F35DD251-9923-4993-84FD-B837448F60E9

*sigh* Apparently, even writers have to adult sometimes…

Okay, so when I get over my artistic snit, even I have to admit that your audience matters.  A story written for my high school senior niece would, of necessity, be pretty damned different from one written for my brother…and different yet again as one written for my parents.

Your audience matters.  It matters to the tone, it matters to the plot, and it sure as hell matters to the characters, and how you portray them.

Honestly, I don’t think anyone who has read this blog for more than a couple of posts will be surprised by the fact that I’m nothing more than a big, arrested adolescent.  I’m a twelve-year-old with a car and a job, as a friend once told me.  And, believe me, I like it that way.  I also write that way…err, maybe not as a twelve-year-old*, but most definitely as an arrested adolescent.

*There is far too much abuse of booze and drugs in my stories for that, not to mention far, FAR too many uses of various versions of the word “fuck”…

I didn’t set out to write in the YA space, by the way.  Hell, I didn’t want to write in the YA space.  I just wanted to write stories about the lost and broken, about those ground under the wheels of progress and success.  I just wanted to write stories about the darker realities of life, and about the underside of the future that I see coming.  That those stories all center on the young, on those we would normally call “innocents”, is more an outgrowth of my own life and history than it is a coherent choice.

The problem is that as of now I’m stuck in that space, at least from the point of view of the publishing industry.  That means I have to keep in mind the norms of YA, and the ever-changing unwritten rules of YA.

Shit, I write about drug addicts and prostitutes.  I write about hopelessness and depression.  I write about suicide and murder and nihilism.  I write, when you get right down to it, about the death and (hopeful) rebirth of hope.

Err…

Umm…

“Do your characters have to curse so much?” one editor asked me.

“The story is great, but can you get rid of the drugs and sex?” asked another.

Yes, the fucking well do.

No, I fucking well can’t.

*sigh*

So much for adulting as a writer.

I will prostitute the hell out of my soul for success in the writing game.  I will sell pieces of my anatomy, and of my family’s — little does my brother know, but his left testicle has already been traded to a publisher for a deal on a couple of articles! — but I won’t sell my story’s soul.

Well…shit.

When I set out to write this post, I wanted to talk about how we writers have to keep in mind our audience.  How we have to be like salesman in that we have to always tailor what we say to our audience.  Then my own pride — my own soul — proceeded to undercut the shit out of that argument.

Maybe that’s why I’m an EX-sales-monkey.  It certainly is why all my writing deals seem to be lacking the number of zeros that would truly make me financially secure…

But…well…shit…

My brain hurts thinking about this crap.

Shit, I’m a writer.  I just want to write stories.  I want to write the stories I want, the stories that live in my head.  However many — or few — folks out there who actually want to buy those stories is, well, secondary at best.*

*Sorry, Dad, but I’m just never gonna bring those old business and sales skills to my writing life…

Okay, I can hear the demands in my head — the following group of pictures were all taken in that famous blizzard-driven, winter praradise of JUNE:

 

Cockeyed

My life is cockeyed.

No, really, I’m being serious here!  The RV site Yellowstone gave me is all packed dirt.  Well…what happens when massive amounts of snow melt right across all that dirt?

Yep, you guessed it: it’s mud season for me.  The sad, unexpected (by me, anyway) outcome of this mud season is the fact that the blocks leveling my trailer are…well, they’re doing their best Titanic impression right now.

Okay, so it’s not the worst problem in the world.  It is, in fact, pretty much the very definition of “first world problem,” to be honest.  I mean, crap — no one’s shooting at me, I have all the potable water I need, I have heat* and electricity, I have a “pantry” full of food…if the worst problem I have is that shit rolls off my counter from time to time, I’m pretty sure the world ain’t about to end.

*Screw you Big Sky RV, and your cheap lie about filling my propane tanks!!

But it does get you thinking…

Well, it gets me thinking, anyway.

My life has been cockeyed for a very long time.  One could argue, I suppose, that all writers’ lives are at least somewhat cockeyed and out-of-kilter.  Shit, what insane idiot would choose a life where fulfillment and happiness are driven by words and sentiments that you basically have to prostitute your soul to make a buck with?

I don’t how many others out there share this experience, but for me that lack of balance, that skewed vision, is what makes it all work.

I was balanced and even as a sales monkey.  I was locked firmly in the glide-path for the standard, traditional American life: a nice house, a new(ish) car, a comfortable retirement account…

And I was miserable as hell.

I had six weeks of “vacation” every year from my company, and every year I used every single second of that.  Partly because — as you know from reading this blog — travel and adventure are the most fulfilling things in the Universe to me, but mostly because I hated that which gave me that vacation time.  I hated the drab, tan-and-grey corporate decor … I hated the unending meetings that bred faster than any rabbit could dream of … I hated the pretension and hypocrisy of the company, of many of my coworkers, of many of our clients … I hated, when you get right down to it, every single day that I had to put on a mask and pretend to be someone I was not…

As I wrote once before, a few years ago: the clothes I wore didn’t fit my soul anymore.

In between then and now there is a great deal of water, and quite a few bridges…some of them burning, and some still beckoning to cross back.  There is a failed business — and all the problems and heartache and exhaustion that you can imagine that comes with that — there are failed relationships, there are personal problems, financial problems, problems of every stripe…

And then there are my friends.

More specifically, there is the suicide of yet another friend.

I have stood in front of far too many caskets, said goodbye to far too many friends “too young to die” to not be changed by it.  One is far too many, and I’m way above that number.

The last of those was after the failed business, after the failed romances.

I asked myself, finally, in front of my friend’s coffin, just what the fuck was I doing?

Why was I putting off — denying — that part of my life, of myself, that lay at the core of everything?

Why was I living someone else’s life, someone else’s dreams?  Why was I working so hard to follow the roads so obviously laid out for me?

Why was I keeping the words to myself, the emotions and meanings and realities?

Why was I not being me?

Robert Frost famously wrote about the road less travelled.  For me, it is the last two lines of that poem that really says it all:

I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.”

My life is cockeyed, and I like it that way.

No, that’s not quite right — as hard as it can be for family and friends to understand, I need it that way.