Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Dreaming Isn't Enough...

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I have been a fan of Sepultura, a Brazilian heavy metal group, for over twenty years now. In 1993, when I was in high school, my band would play Dead Embryonic Cells and Refuse/Resist so loudly during lunch breaks that the songs could be heard on the other end of campus. All those years ago, I vowed to do two things: first, to see Sepultura perform in Brazil, and second, to meet the band and express my gratitude. I accomplished the former in 2005, while visiting my fiancee's family in Sao Paulo, and the latter on April 22, 2011.

But there's more.

Sometime in the past year, I became obsessed with the idea of writing a book about the band. I was tired of the typical rock biography that focuses more on sex and drugs than rock n' roll, and relies on drama and rumors to keep the reader turning pages. Sepultura's story is one of perseverance, integrity, persistence. Most of all, their journey has been inspiring, and I'd love to translate that inspiration into prose.

So, last Friday, when I met the guys at one of their first U.S. shows in six years, I gave my business card to each of them and expressed my desire to write "The" Sepultura biography. It may happen, and it may not, but the point I'm trying to make is this: opportunity is rarely in plain sight, but it's often hidden everywhere. If you aren't constantly on the lookout for opportunity, you are doing your dreams a disservice.

So, thanks to Paulo, Jean, Andreas, and Derrick for listening to a fanboy's dream, and for an amazing show. And double-thanks to Jean for the drumstick.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Is There A Point To All This?

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Buried in a closet somewhere, hiding among piles of old concert t-shirts and empty electronics boxes and framed awards and probably a few crusty pornographic magazines, is a box full of my old notebooks. Some of these are over twenty years old, filled with generic stories of vampires, childish diatribes on the nature of rebellion against tyrannical parents, and band logos designed out of particularly vulgar four-letter words.
In one of these notebooks, begun when I was twelve or thirteen—that magical era of life when everything is possible and most of my best personal stories come from—I had drawn blueprints of my dream house. There were three rooms: a large gym downstairs where I would teach martial arts, a recording studio upstairs, and an office lined with bookshelves cluttered with my own published work. I remember that this dream house had no bathroom, no bedroom, no kitchen, because those things—at that time—just weren’t important.
All I knew at that age was passion.
In Why I Write, a collection of essays by a batch of literary fellows, Richard Ford is reminded of all the times he has been asked, “[W]here does it come from, all this stuff you write?” (pg. 14) For me, this question is the bastard offspring of “Why do you write?” and the answer of one inevitably leads to the answer of the other.
Writers are, by and large, self-indulgent creatures. This is not a bad thing. While a “normal” person might not enjoy writing—or even talking—about what they do, I am hard-pressed to find a writer who does not enjoy writing about writing. Truth, in fiction, can be hard to find, since fiction is essentially a fancy word meaning “lie.” So, as a fiction writer, I want to understand what I do, but I also want others—those strange, incomprehensible creatures not known as writers—to understand what I do. It is unique, this form of self-examination, since you don’t often see paintings that explore the process of painting. You don’t often hear songs about the process of writing a song. But five minutes of research on the good old Internet, and you’ll find thousands of writers writing about why they write.
In Why I Write, Mark Jacobson admits without shame, “I write for the money” (pg. 116). I, too, write for the money, even though I have been submitting my work for close to ten years and I haven’t made a single penny.
From a very young age, teachers and dreamers tell us that if we find a job we love, we’ll never work a day in our lives. If Melissa adores numbers and math and becomes an accountant, she is happy to say she makes a living doing what she loves. If Jeremy has a passion for truth and justice and debate, he would find no shame in making millions of dollars as a lawyer. But things change when we talk about art.
There is a demonization of art as commerce. A true artiste says it’s not about the money, but for the love of the work. Why can’t it be about both? An artist—be she a musician, a sculptor, a writer—provides a service to others. That service is entertainment on the surface, depth and critical examination of life beneath it, and attaching a monetary value to her art does not invalidate the heart and soul she put into it. Prostitution, this ain’t.
So, yes, I admit that I write for money, or at least the promise of money. Eventually. Someday. Maybe.
However, as James Salter wrote, “Money is but one form of approval” (pg. 35). And though it would be so easy to just say I have stories in my head that need to come out, the reality is a large part of me writes for approval. Thinking back to those blueprints of my dream house, the things I love about writing are the same things I love about music and martial arts. Creation. Energy. Individuality, and yes, attention. Since that day in Mrs. McIntyre’s fifth grade social studies class, when I learned that afterschool detention was a fair trade for making my classmates laugh, I’ve been seeking that attention.
But it’s not all sunshine and roses. Far from it, actually. Writing, for me, is like facing a pit-bull with my arm trapped in its jaws, thick cords standing out in the animal’s neck as it violently yanks back and forth. When it pulls, I push. When it pushes, I pull. And, sometimes more than anything, I dread sitting down at my desk to face that literary beast.
David Foster Wallace describes the reason for this dread in a way that resonates perfectly with me:

The fiction always comes out so horrifically defective, so hideous a betrayal of all your hopes for it—a cruel and repellent caricature of the perfection of its conception—yes, understand: grotesque because imperfect (pg. 140-1).

This sort of cosmic letdown reminds me of a quote from Hemingway: “The first draft of anything is shit.” But what if I never even make it to the first draft? What if I’ve already imagined my last great idea? What if I’ve already written my best song? What if, after all my training and practice in the gym, my body fails me during a life-threatening situation?
What if the blank page remains blank forever?
All it takes to eliminate these fears is one moment of action. As soon as the first word is written, then the first sentence, and then the first paragraph, the game is on. It is then about The Process. And the bottom line is this: The Process is fun.
Writing and music. They are both about emotion and personal depth and finding a truth within us that others can relate to. And martial arts, as odd as that may seem, is about much of the same. Chinese kung-fu masters ascribe the power of martial arts as blossoming from a unification of mind, body, and spirit. When you fight, your mind must be sound. Your body must be trained. Your spirit must be calm. Music is, on a rudimentary level, math in sonic form. Plus, it makes us dance. It makes us feel good. And writing is almost a form of meditation; it makes us think, it makes us cry, it makes our pulses race. It cleanses us, but if done right, it also makes us dirty. It is, as Rick Bass wrote, “an engagement of the senses; art sharpens the acuity with which emotions, and the other senses, are felt or imagined” (pg. 76). And that is the answer to Richard Ford’s question. This stuff we write comes from every little thing we interact with on a sensual level, on a personal level, on an emotional level.
It comes from that unification of mind, body, and spirit.
So, I write for money and I write for approval and I write because I dread the blank page and I write because those blueprints I drew as a kid were more than just the model for my dream house; they were the model for my life.