Shakespeare, Gray Hairs, and Peggy Lee

A week or so after moving into the new house, I stood in the guest bedroom, unpacking all of my books, when an enormous wave of sadness overtook me.

On one hand this was nothing new. In the days before, during, and after the move, more than once I stood in a room full of boxes thinking, “It can’t be done.” Also, “Why do I have so much shit?”

But this wave of sadness felt more pointed. If a wave can feel pointed. It was pointing me at something, but in my exhaustion it took me a few minutes to make out the direction.  In the middle of my alphabetical shelving, somewhere between Shakespeare and Sam Shepard,  I sat down on the edge of the bed. I didn’t wipe a tear from my eye.  I was too tired to cry. So I sat there looking at the books till it hit me.

I’d lost my way. I’d failed where those writers had succeeded. Each book was like a reproach. Concrete evidence of their drive and dedication, their private sacrifices. And me? I was 20 pages from the end of my own book. I’d been there for several months, after starting on the damn thing eight years ago.

I suppose I had an excuse or two. A new house. The arson. And I’d been working three jobs, two of which involved a great deal of writing, about a subject for which I’d had to feign great interest: marketing.

Don’t get me wrong. All writers could learn a thing or two from marketers. But each hour I spent thinking and reading about marketing were hours I couldn’t spend writing my book, reading my favorite authors, discovering new books, or figuring out how to be a better writer.

This is the great battle for all writers, since writing rarely pays the rent. A battle I’d been losing. I was tired and angry all of the time, pulled in a hundred different directions. My current freelance client had revealed herself to be a sociopath, happily devouring every hour my sweetness had offered her, and who’d paid me back with resentment.

Three jobs had meant more money, and the money had been good, and we’d just bought a house, and there I sat, in the new house, surrounded by boxes and not-crying, adrift from the thing that had given my life the most meaning.

That night, over dinner in our kitchen, with the oven and the lights shorting out from a faulty breaker, my husband listened to this familiar tale of woe, then told me the same thing he’d been telling me for months. And this time I heard him.

And though it made me anxious and nauseous, because it meant disappointing other people, whose interests I’d put ahead of my own, the next day I gave notice at two of the three jobs. I kept one, the job with the health insurance and the commuter check and the greatest number of hours, the job I could leave every day at the office. The job that involved no writing at all.

I’m writing this with a head full of cold medicine, which is making me self-indulgent. Or more self-indulgent than usual. The cold and other complications kept me out of Joe’s chair, which means I’ve gone a full two weeks since my last haircut. I know, it’s an atrocity. But in my slightly-longer sideburns I see more than a couple of gray hairs, and it’s this, I think, that finally allowed me to hear Joe’s advice about dropping the 2 jobs.

Because at the age of 41 I keep looking around and thinking, “Is that all there is?” Peggy Lee was before my time, but apparently the sentiment is universal. And in no way does this apply to my husband, or our pack of dogs, or the new house.

It’s the panicked, and yes, self-pitying cry of a middle-aged (yikes) man who’s worked a series of low-wage desk jobs and has a 98% finished book that scares him shitless, and who’s afraid he hasn’t made nearly the mark he’d like on the world.

The only way to answer that question is with action. So I dropped the 2 jobs and now, leaner and slightly less exhausted, I face the end of the book with less money and fewer excuses.

Of course I immediately filled some of this free time with another project. I caught the gardening bug. Again. Long story, but the new house has enormous outdoor potential, and I’m obsessed with making it pretty. Or prettier. Happiness comes from low expectations. Besides, on the spectrum of addictions, gardening feels slightly more productive than, say, crystal meth. Or Playstation 3.

Even without gardening, a new house is essentially four walls of endless projects. But the two weeks notice I gave the two jobs have passed, Joe’s Barbershop has opened again, and in fits and starts I’ve made a little progress on the book. Maybe Peggy Lee will quieten down for a little while.

How to Write a Book

Mule Dogpoet Michael McAllisterOr One Guy’s Seven-Year Journey as a Mule

I was recently asked to speak to a writing class about my book, which gave me the chance to reflect on what’s worked for me, and since I sometimes get emails asking for general advice, I thought it might be useful to share a little of my experience. I’m entirely aware that by posting this, having finished only 97% of the book, I am seriously tempting fate and derision. But this will fuel me through the last 3%. Pride’s a useful motivator.

Fill the Well
I spend a lot of time on the Internet, for work and for not-work, clicking from one shiny object to the next, and I invariably walk away from the computer feeling dazed and stupid. I can think of maybe a handful of movies that fuel me creatively. Often, the theater. The last season of Breaking Bad. But nothing fuels me like reading, and by reading I mean books. Sometimes all it takes is a page or two to fill me with the courage to return to my own imperfect, unfinished story. Do more of whatever fills your well and less of everything else. Guard the well from celebrity gossip sites, shiny objects, and Facebook barbarians.

No, Really
Another plug for books but from a crankier angle. Expecting people to read your writing when you can’t be bothered to read other people’s books is just plain rude. Read a lot, of everything. Otherwise you’ll go years operating under the delusion that everything you write is brilliant and original and destined to be turned into a four-film franchise starring Daniel Radcliffe and Meryl Streep.

Your Muse is a Flake
Waiting around for inspiration will never get you to the end of your book. Some of my best writing came only after I forced myself to sit at the computer and endure for an hour the thick, fuzzy-headed despair of having nothing in the world to say.

Don’t Wait for the Shack
I once read an interview with a well-known writer who leaves his house every morning, walks a hundred yards to a little redwood shack on the far corner of his wooded property, and spends the next eight hours undisturbed, writing and sipping tea from his lucky mug while the occasional acorn falls on the roof overhead. Oh, how I want that shack. I have no shack. I’ve been working on this book for seven years. For one year, when I had more money, I rented a private office. But I also wrote at home, in bed, at my desk, and on the couch. I wrote on my husband’s couch, on a chair passed down from his grandfather, and in the basement of his shop. I wrote in a tiny Manhattan apartment with a view of an airshaft. I wrote in three different rooms at the Columbia University library and a public library at the Jersey Shore. I wrote at the Hungarian Pastry Shop, Jumpin’ Java, Cafe Flore, and a dozen other coffee shops. I wrote on airplanes and in two different borrowed houses in Palm Springs. I wrote at every job I’ve ever had. You may have a fantasy shack, too, somewhere in your future, but what are you going to do in the meantime?

Your Portable Pal
Carry a little notebook, or your iPhone, a place to scrawl the words, ideas, and sentences that you’ll otherwise forget. No, you won’t remember.

Swallow Your Pride
I was a coward in college, afraid to commit myself to literature, and I chose instead the wildly practical major of sociology. I spent the next ten years feeling insecure about my education, and still it wasn’t until I got into Columbia’s MFA program that I began to see just how little I knew. Workshops and peer feedback can be valuable, but having someone take me through 100 books, page by page, sometimes sentence by sentence, and show me how each writer put together a story, was the single best thing I’ve done for myself as a writer. You don’t need to commit yourself to a Master’s degree. Take an extension class. Download a lecture from Yale. There’s no shame in being taught, and those who tell you otherwise are idiots.

Join a Cabal
The greatest unexpected benefit to grad school was the little group of writers from my program who landed here in the Bay Area after graduation, a group I still meet with every month, over five years later. We started out as a book club (first selection: Madame Bovary), but then one day my husband referred to the group as “your little cabal,” and it stuck. We exchange work, gossip, job leads, literary agent horror stories, and the occasional awesome news of a book deal. We also talk about Downton Abbey, Battlestar Galactica, and eat a lot of Salt and Pepper Kettle chips with french onion dip. They danced at my wedding, and I’d be lost without them. Again, you don’t need an MFA program for this. Find writers through workshops, local lit organizations, or Craigslist.

Be Accountable
Writing is a pain in the ass. The beautiful story you imagine in your head, by the time you get it on the page, is a pale monstrosity. You will want to do anything in the world but the thing you most need to do. You will wash the dishes. You will vacuum every room in your house. You will cut your toenails and then vacuum some more. Unless you are in school or are an incredibly important author with a publishing house editor waiting for your next chapter with bated breath, you’ll need to create your own deadlines. Form a cabal. Find one friend. Exchange work.

Be an Ass
Despite what the world thinks, talent only takes you so far. Only the mule-headed endure.

Everybody Hurts
I did research in the Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books division of the New York Public Library, where I went through old correspondence files from The New Yorker, and learned that the magazine rejected every single famous writer you could think of many, many times. It doesn’t matter who you are. You will be rejected. Be a mule.

Let It Brew
I have a friend, a well-respected author with three novels under his belt, who hates revision. He works by slowly moving forward, perfecting each sentence as he goes along. I can’t work that way. My first drafts are hideous. I don’t know what I think or how I feel about something until I start writing about it, and even then it takes time, sometimes a few weeks, or months, or years, till I get at the truest insight possible. I have to let each chapter sit, like a tea bag in a cup of hot water, letting it steep, stirring it around seventeen or eighteen times, doctoring it with milk and low-calorie sweetener, or, fine, yes, actual real sugar if it’s the only thing in the house, till it’s right.

It Matters
I routinely forget to follow my own suggestions, but eventually I remember. If you’re plugged into contemporary culture (and what 21st Century writer isn’t?), you will frequently fall into black despair over the future of books. Our fragmenting attention spans. The publishing industry death spiral. The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

But listen. Writing still matters. To a lot of people. There will always be readers who want to get lost in a story, learn about other places, or step inside the skin of a total stranger. Readers willing to have their minds changed and their hearts broken. Readers quietly thrilled by beautiful language. Readers who find, within the pages of a book, a voice that articulates the things they’ve always felt but could never express. Readers who feel, at the end of a book, less alone in their fears and mistakes. I can’t list all the reasons why people read books, or why literature is important, because there’s too many of them, and most of the fun is figuring out, book by book, your own reasons. Why you need to read, and why you need to write.

Money Changes Everything

Photo by Michael McAllister DogpoetA couple of weeks ago I lost my mind. A long unraveling – I trace it back about a year, when my personal finances collapsed in a single day, and I went from a fairly comfortable existence to trolling the Craig’s List job ads on an increasingly desperate mission to pay my rent. The coming days would be familiar to anyone looking for work during a recession: the endless resumes and cover letters sent into a black void, the gradual lowering of expectations, the mounting dread.

Finally a law firm offered me a temp job, each of my three interviewers pointing out helpfully that I was clearly overqualified, to which I replied, “I’m not above anything.” Words I sometimes regretted over the coming months (most often while elbow-deep in dirty dishes) but which I never took back.

The temp job led to a permanent, if low-paying, part-time position three months later. At the same time I found another low-paying part-time position managing content and social media for a small company. In between I wrote low-paying movie recaps for a porn company. Between the three jobs I had a little hope that I’d be ok.

But none of the jobs qualifed me for benefits. I was paying several hundred dollars a month for health insurance (which I was lucky to have), and any day I took off was a day without pay. The Manly Fireplug and I had a couple of weddings to pay for, and we wanted to live together. We’d managed to get through five years in separate places, but the back-and-forth was wearing on me. San Francisco, a beautiful city of cruel real estate, wasn’t making it easy. To live together, I’d need to make more money.

I felt increasingly fractured, working on so many projects that I was doing none of them well. Working as much, or more, than everyone else I knew, but seemingly making far less. An acquaintance on Facebook (I assume he had health insurance) posted a rant about the “socialism” of “Obamacare” (I really, really do not understand gay Republicans). My car broke down, and the mechanic said it would take $1300 to fix. I parked it outside the Fireplug’s house and tried to save up the money. Each week I’d meet with the three separate guys I was mentoring in their sobriety, but I’d show up distracted and grumpy and short of patience. The thirty pages of revision between me and the end of my book felt insurmountable. Then my laptop died.

I felt trapped. I argued with the Fireplug more often than I’d like to admit. I was angry and put-upon, and embarrassed by my struggle to accept my circumstances, which were, I had to admit, mostly of my own making. Because a long time ago I’d decided to be a writer.

What this meant, to me at least, was a matter of focus. I could go the career route, finding a comfortable salaried position with room to grow, but risk ending up one of the countless people I knew who wanted to be a writer, but who never wrote. Or I could write, and for the time being,  sacrifice the money and security of a career. There are people who manage to do both. So far I haven’t been one of them. About a month ago I almost switched sides, interviewing three times for a position with a start-up that would have paid me more than twice the amount I’d ever earned in one year.

A week after the third interview, I emailed my contact at the start-up and asked for an update. “Oops!” she said. “Oh my God, we’ve been so busy. I forgot to tell you. We decided to go in a different direction. Best of luck!”

My point here isn’t that I had it worse than a lot of Americans. Only that I wasn’t handling “it” well. My short fuse shortened some more, and all I wanted, from the Fireplug, from my friends, from my co-workers, was to be left alone. Finally, a couple of weeks ago, the Fireplug asked me to help him with some minor chore.  I responded with childish exasperation. We had words. My volume grew, and then it happened. I just lost it. A year’s worth of bitterness and anger and resentment came out of me, through my lungs. I’ll leave out the details, but trust me, for a good five minutes I was insane. I scared both of us. And the neighbors.

Cue regret and embarrassment. And a lot of silent reflection.

Then, last week, my supervisor calls me into her office and offers me a full-time job, with benefits. My little behind-the-scenes campaign of dropping hints to co-workers about interviewing for jobs with benefits seemed to have worked. The partners wanted me to stay.

I’m not sure if I can articulate the relief I felt. It was – it is – immense. I immediately went back to my desk and ran a few calculations. With paid health insurance, and another day a week in pay, suddenly everything seemed possible. The car repairs. A savings account with more than four dollars. Best of all, a home together with my husband.

My mood lightened. My lungs no longer felt tight. “It’s good to see you smiling again,” the Fireplug told me. Last night I drove my car back from the garage, and when I greeted the Fireplug, just home from work, I could actually see him. His handsome face. All the worries and grudges I’d been carrying around, which I’d let hang in the air between us, had fallen away.

I wish I could say that I’d achieved this transformation through some kind of spiritual shift. But no. What had saved me was simply money.

My mother would have been sixty-four today. Her birthday, as you might expect, sometimes prompts a bit of soul-searching, usually about time and priorities and this short thing we call life. I’ll be holding on to all of my jobs, at least for now. The relief about money seems to have whipped off the blinders I’d been wearing, and a few days of reflection have made it clear that I had a bigger part in my year-long stress. I hadn’t exactly made the most of my fractured time. So a personal inventory, just in time for New Year’s resolutions, on how I spend my hours and days is in order. It’s time to get more done.

The Dude That Cries

Joe's Barbershop Butchie T-shirt Model Photo by DogpoetButchie is a judo target and t-shirt model for the Manly Fireplug’s barbershop, though he’s been guarding its basement now for several months. Just so we’re clear: he’s in the basement. I know he’s in the basement. Yet every time I go down to the basement he scares the crap out of me.

Butchie stoically presided over last night’s frenzied literary reading preparations, as I dusted off the folding chairs, iced the drinks, and searched for that damn corkscrew. An hour later, after the folding-chair-up-the-basement-steps bucket brigade (thank you volunteers and Fireplug!) I ducked outside to try and air out my damp shirt. I sweat a lot before every barbershop reading.

So I expect the sweat. But I didn’t expect the tears. Last night at the podium, in front of the capacity crowd, I got choked up reading a chapter about my father from the end of my book. Last year, at the Queer Arts Festival reading, I got choked up reading a chapter about my mom’s first girlfriend.

Both times took me by surprise, and embarrassed me. I find myself aspiring to a particular writerly image, the dude who reads, say, at the 92nd Street Y in New York, and sells just enough books to stay – with the help of the requisite side jobs – just above poverty.

That dude writes literature, which requires emotional distance from the subject matter. His work isn’t a barely-digested therapy session thrown on the page.

An emotional distance I thought I’d acquired. By now I’ve written nineteen drafts of my book, and have read through each draft at least ten, but more often twenty or thirty times, tweaking the stray word. I must have read the chapter on my mother’s first girlfriend, and the chapter on my father, at least fifty times each.

So the tears felt like the mark of an amateur, or worse, some kind of performance trick I was pulling on the audience. A schtick.

I used to be the kind of kid that others called sensitive. Code word for homo, maybe, but I’ll admit that I was ruled by my feelings.

In recent years I’ve tried to lean a little more often on my thoughts, if only to reach for a bit of balance, and to become a better writer. And in some cases my lack of emotion began to surprise me.

During those dreary few months when the Fireplug and I split up, for example, I seemed to only feel cold disappointment. I never cried.

But then one day I’m driving to work, listening to a Death Cab for Cutie album I’ve just downloaded, and the sad opening piano chords of their song, “Brothers on a Hotel Bed” throws a hook into the depths of me, and reels up tears. Tons of them. I spend the next few weeks driving around the city with that song on repeat, endangering countless San Franciscans with my blurred-vision driving.

Last week, as the Fireplug and I drove down to Palm Springs, listening to my iPod, up pops that song, and up come the tears. Again. Tons of them.

“Oh G-god,” I said. “I’m sorry, I f…forgot it was on this p…playlist!”

After we’d got back together I’d told him all about the song, so he knew what I meant.

“That’s okay,” he said, grabbing my hand.

“I don’t know why it still m-m-makes me cry. It’s st-st-stupid!”

“It’s not stupid,” he said. “We almost lost this.”

He was right, and really, the only stupid thing is to pretend like you’re someone you’re not. To jam yourself inside an image of a writer that doesn’t fit. We can’t all be Butchie.

So yeah, I cry, and maybe the only thing that’s changed since I was a kid is that I let my tears surprise me. I was embarrassed at first, last night, but then I got over it. Time’s wasting. I’ve got two last chapters to get right, and if I’m lucky, a slew of future readings at which I can freely bawl my eyes out.

Dogpoet Michael McAllister Reading at Joe's Barbershop Litquake Photo by Scott James

Gets Kinda Rough in the Back of Our Limousines

Michael McAllister Dogpoet in Palm Springs I spent seven heavenly days crashing at a friend’s house (thanks Fred!) in Palm Springs with the Manly Fireplug. Sort of a combination honeymoon/sabbatical where I worked on my book – writing six hours a day – took a dip in the pool, then an evening with the hubby. World Gym, dinner, then a cigar in the hot tub. In this case sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. At least at first. It was a honeymoon, after all.

And a very hard honeymoon to leave for the real world again. Since then I’ve been back to the three jobs, interviewing for others, and trying to get the last 3% of the book finished so that I can send it off to a few agents.

If you’re in San Francisco and free tomorrow night, I’ll be reading at the Fireplug’s shop as part of Litquake. Decided I’ll share the What-Happened-When-My-Dad-Found-My-Blog chapter (new material in case you’ve heard me read other sections). Hurt feelings, D.C. snipers, a Banana Republic sales boy with a lopsided mullet, and much more…

A Little Off the Top, and Over the Top
Tuesday, October 11th
Doors open at 8:30 pm; show starts at 9:00 pm
free; $5-$10 suggested donation
Joe’s Barbershop
2150 Market St (between Church and Sanchez)

Where You’re Broken

When I was a grad student at Columbia I  attended a reading/Q&A with Philip Gourevitch, a writer who had begun as a journalist, found acclaim with his book on the Rwandan genoicde, and had recently been appointed editor of the Paris Review. Most of his words that day are lost to me now, except for this: at some point in his career he’d lost interest in interviewing politicians because, he said, “They just lie. All of them.”

We all figure that out at some point, but there was something about the way he said it that day that stuck with me.  Interviewing the dishonest, he said, “Was tiring and – frankly – dull.” It’s much more interesting to hear someone at least try to tell the unvarnished truth.

Politicians lie because they must try to be all things to all people (and, let’s face it, all corporations). Who the hell knows what Obama really thinks about gays? I found his wife, who clearly had mixed feelings about the political spotlight, much more fascinating. She was a little too smart. A little too private. After the election, of course, she had to soften her edges.

At some point all politicians become dull. Who can connect with a liar? Contemporary heroes stay heroic for about thirty seconds. When their flaws are revealed, the world turns on them. But we need each other’s flaws.

The DJ and musician Rich Morel recently commented on his blog about the Killers’ song “Mr. Brightside”:

Brandon Flower’s  vocal has an incredibly vulnerable quality to it. That is what makes him and the band so great.  It’s always the fragile aspects that make me connect with people.

Strength is a glass shield;  my interest slides off those who wave their “strength” around for everyone’s supposed benefit. Which is why I loved Amy Winehouse. In every break-up song she had a part, and she copped to it.

Tell me the truth, regardless of how it makes you look. Tell me where you’ve been broken. When someone gives me that, I feel less alone.

Steve Jobs Pissed Me Off

Dogpoet Michael McAllister Three DogsThe other day I stood in the living room, punching buttons on the dvd remote control as my roommate wandered through. Together we watched as the big flat-screen TV filled with quick-edited shots of naked men – accompanied by the requisite throbbing pulse of a tribal soundtrack – engage each other in activities you’d never find on prime time television.

“You should keep a journal,” my roommate said. “To chronicle your life.”

“I hope you don’t mind,” I said. “But I can’t get this #%#$ review copy to work on my Playstation.” Nor would it work on either of my two laptops. I grunted and punched at the stupid buttons, my eyes bleary after a full day at the law firm, now faced with an absurdly short deadline for my second job, writing a series of 300-word scene recaps for a local gay porn company.

I don’t know what they do with the recaps. Throw them up on their website, I would imagine, giving prospective buyers a glimpse at who does what to whom in each particular movie. Which may sound like fun to some of you, but honestly, there are only so many words for certain parts of a man’s anatomy that are hot without sounding silly.

My roommate wandered off to his bedroom as I settled onto the couch with my laptop, trying to forget about the four newsletter articles due soon for my third job, a marketing-and-social-media gig. I began typing:  Shay Michaels and Lance Navarro swap spit in a dim-lit dungeon…

“How’s it feel being married now to the Manly Fireplug?” people kept asking me.

“Who?” I said.

Somewhere between job one and job two, as the Fireplug buzz-cut the evening barbershop crowd, I’d stumble outside with our three dogs, on three leashes, pulling at three speeds, wagging their tails and weaving in and out of each other’s paths in what I swore was a canine conspiracy of entanglement. As they pulled me along I calculated costs of weddings, health insurance, and real estate.

Who am I? What am I doing? How could I be working so many hours and making so little money? Yes, I had three jobs at a time when many had none. Still, I’m human, which is to say that within each hour of each day I’d dizzily swing between the poles of gratitude and self-pity.

At night in bed the Fireplug would wrap his meaty forearm around me and I’d try to slow my pulse, pondering Steve Jobs.

The man who’d just stepped down from Apple had been bouncing all over the news cycle echo chamber, and I’d clicked on a link and read a commencement speech he’d made, six years back, at Stanford University.

At first his words had moved me, words outlining the kind of philosophy you’d expect to hear at such ceremonies:

 Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.

I believed in his words, and I felt lucky that I’d known for a very long time what it is that I love to do, even if I had yet to make a living from it.

But yesterday at the law firm I fielded a call from my car mechanic, who gave me, in an apologetic tone, some fairly bad news. And when I hung up I found myself blinking back tears.

I was not proud of this. I’m not proud of it now. But I felt tired and defeated and pissed at Steve Jobs, who’d exhorted a crowd of impressionable youth to live each day as if it were their last, and Joseph “Follow Your Bliss” Campbell, and every figure of inspiration whose quotes leave out the compromises we must make, one foot in bliss, one foot in life.

Which is not to say that I could give up what I love, with a 98% finished memoir that gets exponentially more wrenching to write with each page, and which has all but convinced me to turn next to fiction, where you can just make shit up, a 98% finished book waiting, like my new husband, for the scraps of between-job attention I can muster.

And I need the Steve Jobs and the Joseph Campbells and the Anna Quindlens of the world to remind me that it’s all possible.

Just as I need to know that I’m not alone in my one-foot-there, one-foot-not: that there are folks like Seymour Krim, who once wrote about “those who have yet to find the professional skin to fit the riot in their souls.”

I need to remember that life falls somewhere between dreams and compromises. That there are worse things than being tethered to competing claims on my time, pulled along in three different directions, at three different speeds.

The Girl With the Falling Beehive

Amy Winehouse via VHI BlogThe posts were pissing me off.

“She was a nut. Too bad she didn’t try harder to live.”

“Coming soon, the Michael Jackson/Amy Winehouse reunion album.”

“Boxed Winehouse.”

I realize that making fun of messy celebrities on Facebook is the new American pastime, and I run the risk of appearing way too earnest here (I pretty much always run that risk here) but there was no part of me that found anything about her death funny.

I’ve been sober nearly eleven years, with the help of other drunks and drug addicts. Stay sober long enough, and well-meaning friends who don’t have the addictive personality, or the disease, or whatever it may be that kept you from applying moderation to your life, will praise you for your strength and willpower. (We call these well-meaning friends “normies.”)

But here’s the thing that every sober drunk and drug addict knows. Strength and willpower had little to do with it. None of us can say with any certainty why we were able to “get it,” and hold on to it, when so many couldn’t. The statistics were against us, rehab or no rehab.

Listen to enough of our stories, and you’ll hear a common thread. There was nothing special about the last time we got drunk or high. It was rarely the worst day or night of our lives. Rarely did it involve the worst consequences we’d faced. Sometimes no matter how much we drank we couldn’t get drunk that night.

Maybe the right friend said the right thing at the right second, or the perfect stranger opened a new door. Maybe that afternoon we just got tired of the emptiness where our souls used to be. Every story involves luck, or coincidence, or, if you prefer, a bit of grace. It took more than five or six tries until it happened to me.

I was late to the Winehouse bandwagon. I often stubbornly resist the zeitgeist, and her “Rehab” song turned me off. But during one visit to Hawaii, the Manly Fireplug added Back to Black to our iPod. We listened to it nonstop that week. There was something about our hotel, a rather seedy, down-at-the-heels tropical outpost called the Queen Kapiolani, that fit Amy’s lyrics.

Back in San Francisco I developed a back-up singer hand gesture routine to my favorite song, “Tears Dry On Their Own,” which I’d perform in the car while the Fireplug was driving. That song contained my favorite of her lyrics:

I cannot play myself again
Should just be my own best friend
Not fuck myself
In the head
With stupid men

Here’s the thing about Amy. She knew who she was. A drunk, an addict, a cheater. She slept around behind her boyfriends’ backs. She had bad taste in men. She didn’t whitewash her sins or blame it all on the other guy, which so many pop songs seem to do.

She made me feel less alone with my own sordid past. With the part of me that is still, to this day, less than virtuous.

I don’t know Amy’s story. I know she did, despite her song, attend rehab, more than once. I don’t know what it was like for her to wake up in the morning, to want to write her next record but find it impossible. I only know the smallest slices of her life, fed to me through headlines and grainy photos.

I don’t know how badly she wanted to get sober. All I know is that her time ran out before grace found her.

Why You Can’t Buy Creativity

From the always-engaging folks at the 99%, a good reminder that creativity responds best to intrinsic, not extrinsic, motivations:

But when you’re focused on a reward, you’re not focused on the work itself. And as any creative will tell you, doing outstanding creative work – whether solving a technical problem or creating a work of art – requires 100% focus on the task in hand, to the point of obsession. You have to love what you do.

Read the rest of the article at the 99%.

The Night I Fed the Troll

The email popped in my inbox with the subject line: “Saw You Online and OMG!”

Thinking it might be spam, I clicked on it anyway and found my own face looking back at me. My face with annotations.

i thought you may benefit from this program:

However……. I cannot refer you to anyone about the american touristors

I didn’t recognize the email address. He’d pulled my pic from who knows where; I’m a modern man – half my life is on the internet.

To be honest I had to look up “turistors.”  Turns out he meant luggage. Luggage=bags. I’m not always the sharpest pencil in the cup, I admit.

So yeah, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t sting. I showed it to the Manly Fireplug and even he was – momentarily at least – stunned into silence.

Everyone knows that the internet is full of trolls. Sad sacks haunting the forums and chat rooms and comment sections, trailing poison with every keystroke.

I’ve also been blogging for ten years, and I know the number one rule: DON’T FEED THE TROLLS. They live off engagement. They thrive on the back-and-forth, left hook – right hook of threaded comments and retaliatory emails. Without it they move on to the next sucker.

But I just couldn’t help myself:

Sorry you’re such an unhappy person, I wrote. Good luck with your miserable life. You’ll need it.

Short, bitter, and to the point.

It didn’t really make me feel any better.

Two minutes later I got a new email: “Saw you online and again what the fuck??” Inside was another of my pics:

I noticed he had named my annotated pic, “SheThinksShesAllThat.jpg”

I know, I know. Like I hadn’t learned my lesson. But by now I was too far gone. I could taste his blood on my tongue. I promptly shot back:

The image of you spending your days and nights photoshopping other people’s pictures is cracking me up.

I notice you didn’t include your own photo. That must be because you’re stunningly beautiful.

But chances are you’re just another internet troll (there’s millions of you) hiding behind your computer. Fortunately you still have your mother to tuck you in at night, since you’re living in her basement.

Please, please, please keep spending your time sending me pictures of myself. It’s actually kind of flattering.

I waited, checking my email every few minutes while fixing dinner for the Fireplug. But that was the last I ever heard from the troll. I didn’t feel as though I’d won.

Now, I knew the dude was a loser. And a jealous one at that. But as I set the table I realized that he had, with devastating accuracy, zeroed in on the two areas of my body I’m most anxious about. Trolls do that. I don’t know how, but they do.

As the days passed the sting faded, and I found myself now mulling a fellow blogger’s tagline, which I will paraphase as this: “If you post anything on the internet, expect criticism.” It’s a motto for which I have no real affinity, which is not to say that I don’t understand it.

I’d thrown up a couple of pics of which I felt proud, as they showed off some of the hard work I’d put in at the gym, transforming my 128-pound frame into a more solid 185. I put it up, I should admit, expecting some praise. Which I got. But of course there’s a flipside to praise, and when you post something, you invite it.

Maybe it’s a bit of a stretch, to see parallels between photoshopped beefcake and other works of creativity. You make something and put it up – a blog post, a poem, a painting, a song – hoping for praise. It’s an act of courage, to spend hours or days or weeks building something, and then to make that jump – to take it from your bedroom or your office or your laptop, and put it out there for public consumption. Many, many people never make that jump.

You run the risk of the devastating Facebook critique. A hundred hours of labor met with a single, “Meh.”

It’s easier to consume than to create. But that’s why its worth doing. Add something to this imperfect universe. A small act of generosity. Something that will make the reader or the viewer or the listener feel a little less alone in the world. Screw the trolls. Do the work.