I cannot testify that writing a book is like giving birth. I’m a guy, and I’d sound pretty dumb saying something like that. I will say that it’s like pushing a living thing out of you, despite the fact that you don’t have any exits that a logical person would think right for the task. And I won’t presume to talk about what happens after the miracle of childbirth, other than I hear that it’s hectic. But on the literary side, once you’ve finished writing a book you can then relax, have couple of drinks, and look at your family for a few days. Then the real work starts, because the book you just wrote is an abomination that would make any reader weep acid and bite off his fingers so he’s never again tempted to turn a page.

Enter the miracle of editing. I think of it as teaching my book to walk, to play well with others, to tie its shoes, and to stand up for itself. Maybe a little orthodonture if it’s lucky. Killers might chase the hero of my book a thousand miles, and in editing I realize they have no reason to chase him past the first hundred yards. Perhaps I use the word “macaroni” three times in the same paragraph. I might have written some stuff that’s just plain dumb. A few determined rounds of editing can transform my book from a wretched semi-hominid into a respectable literary creature.

Truman Capote said that “finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it.” Give me an amen, brother. After all that editing, I feel like my book and I have spent a year together in a trench across from the Chinese army. I don’t want to let go. I dread saying, “I’m finished with you, you’re as good as you’re going to get. Let’s send you to agents and publishers who don’t care about you at all, and who may even hate you worse than smallpox.” My first novel is now being shopped to some fine agents, and every time I send out a query a sliver of my soul withers.

To distract me from my grief, I now spend my evenings editing my second novel. I’m on my third round of edits, and I hope it’s the last until some editor at Del Ray tells me my plot sucks and I need to fix it before they publish me. I hope for this even though no one at Del Ray is even aware I exist, so I think I deserve points for optimism. Anyway, this edit has taken a while because my book is long.

My first novel was 80,000 words, which is a respectable length. I figured I’d push myself with my second novel and go for 100,000 words. When I realized I needed another subplot, I cranked my estimate up to 120,000 words. When my hero told me he didn’t want to fall for that blond girl and to go screw myself, I gave up on estimating how long this thing would be. I finished at 180,000 words. As a point of comparison, that’s about the length of the New Testament. My novel has funnier dialogue than the New Testament, and fewer lepers. They each have the same number of world-shattering cataclysms.

I’m 150,000 words through my edit, and my fiercest enemies have fought me through every paragraph. They are the evil “adverb” and the baby-murdering “dialogue attribution.” I use these when I’m lazy, and they advertize my laziness by making my writing lame and squishy. And what are they?

Think about your meanest English teacher, the one who made you read The Scarlet Letter, and remember the things she told you. At one point she said that an adverb modifies a verb, or sometimes an adjective. In the sentence below, the word “confusingly” is an adverb:

“He confusingly explained to his readers what an adverb is.”

Why is that adverb bad? It’s not bad, it just turns the sentence into a blundering literary rhino. Try this:

“He baffled his readers with a lousy adverb explanation and an obscure rhino reference.”

“Baffled” does a better job than “confusingly explained.” At least I think it does. I’m not alone, since that literary heavy hitter Stephen King said, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the highest rooftop.”

All right, let’s move on to this dialogue attribution business. When a character speaks dialogue, you have to let your reader know who said those amazing words that will soon appear on t-shirts and a Facebook meme. You can do that with the reliable “he said.” But you have so many alternatives from which to choose. You could write: he uttered, he grunted, he howled, he moped, he exulted, he agreed, he snorted, and many more. Aren’t these cool?

Well, maybe not. When I use them I’m just avoiding the work of explaining in detail what’s going on. For example, I may write:

“My dialogue attributions are awful,” he groaned.

That’s literary laziness. It’s the equivalent of tossing in a clump of dishwasher soap and flushing instead of scrubbing the toilet. By the way, I like to describe writing it relation to common household tasks. I think it puts all of this writing bullshit in the proper context. Here’s an alternative dialogue attribution:

“His forefinger punched the backspace key a few dozen times. Then he snatched his Red Bull and hurled it across the room, missing the cat by a foot. Dropping his head to the desktop with a smack, he said, ‘My lousy dialogue attributions are kicking my ass.’”

The lesson for me in all this is to not spend my time coming up with fun alternatives to “he said.” I should just use “he said” and instead spend my energy on real writing.

So, how does that play out in the book I’m editing, the title of which is No Good Deals, by the way? Here’s an example of a sentence that tortured me last night:

“’I’m bloody tired of you talking obsessively about monuments!’ Stan yelled angrily. ’I totally hate the idea of you finally getting a monument!’”

You can see that some of the characters in my story might or might not have monuments built to them. That’s got to be good. When No Good Deals is published, as I’m certain it will be someday, monuments are a good reason to hurry out and buy a copy. However, here’s the edited version:

“’Damn you! I don’t even want a monument. If you’re having a monument, that’s the last scum-flicking thing I’d want,’ Stan said. ‘I’ll pay children to throw shit at your monument after I’m dead!’”

I think that’s a decent edit and also a good example of my character’s level of sophistication. I already feel one step closer to getting this baby published.

All the reason I need to eliminate adverbs from my life.

As an actor, I love being onstage. If I could manage it, I’d spend all of my acting-related time onstage. I despise rehearsals. The only thing I hate worse than rehearsing is sucking onstage. So, I rehearse and try to forget that the Jim Butcher novels will be picked over by the time I get to Half-Price Books tonight. It’s not exactly cutting off my ear or cultivating a heroin addiction, but it’s suffering of a sort.

I’ve just survived six weeks of rehearsal, and before diving into the eight-week show I started wondering about things. I did not wonder why I spent time practicing old skills I’d already mastered, and I did not wonder why I practiced new skills until my corpse could execute them, like frog’s legs jumping in a frying pan. That all made sense. But I did wonder why rehearsal, which is so good for me, feels nothing like performing in the show.

Well, everybody knows that you’ve got to train, practice, learn, get educated, and so on. I could find about 100 billion quotes on the subject, and only 110 billion humans have ever been born. But once you’ve trained to do a thing, you then have to do it for real, unless you’re my cousin Dave, who gets by just fine living over his mom’s garage and playing X-Box. The real world is a tricky place when it comes to doing things. Different things work in different ways.

For example, let’s take something I learned and then did in the real world: digging ditches. Effective ditch digging requires a surprising amount of learning, at least if you want to be able to stand up at the end of the day. I admit that learning to dig a ditch when I was 12 years old took a lot less time than learning the alphabet when I was five, but I still had to concentrate on what I was learning. Once I mastered the skills and started digging for real, the experience was different. I had to pay a certain amount of attention to not smash a toe, but my brain had plenty of time to think about football and that car I was saving up to buy in five years. So ditch digging = low learning curve, low analytical requirements, and high potential for daydreaming.

Let’s jump forward a disturbing number of years to another thing I learned and did for real: statistics.

(To digress, it may seem odd to you that I can like acting and statistics at the same time. Yet I like all the math, and perhaps that does reveal psychological issues. You may sometimes hear physicists mocking sociologists about not being real scientists. How can you call sociology a real science when it studies people, who are appallingly random compared to, say, quarks? On the other hand, how can you call physics a real science when it studies quarks, which are appallingly random compared to the number 4? Mathematics is the only true science, and you can imagine what the mathematician in me thinks of the actor in me. I have a superiority complex and an inferiority complex about having it.)

I studied statistics for a moderately long time. During that period I probably could have learned to dig ditches about two thousand times. I found it sometimes challenging, and for a while I thought I’d be happy to die if I never had to hear about Bayes’ Theorem again. Eventually I applied these skills in the real world, and just like in ditch digging the experience then changed. I didn’t need to worry about smashing a toe with a poorly wielded normal distribution. But I had crammed a lot of statistics knowledge into my brain, and now I had to solve real problems by releasing that knowledge, as if I were the world’s most anal-retentive graffiti artist. I had to concentrate on the mechanics of it. It just wasn’t possible for me to calculate an analysis of variance and daydream about my girlfriend at the same time, and I’m not sure that would have been a compliment to her anyway. So statistics = high learning curve, high analytical requirements, and low potential for daydreaming.

So let’s get back to this acting thing. It does not take long to become a bad actor. Any four-year-old trying to hide a broken vase will prove my point. It takes hard, thoughtful training in acting techniques to turn you into an actor that people like to imagine killing, and with more hard work you can make audiences merely hate you. With more exhausting effort you can develop the skill to make audiences first unaware of your existence, then be indifferent to you, and then find you inoffensive. After an amount of training equal to several doctorates in ditch digging, you can at last entertain people, or at least remind them of someone they once liked. That’s how it worked for me, anyway. I’ve seen other people skip straight from vase-hiding to entertaining people in just the time it took me to learn the alphabet.

But when I get to the real world, audiences don’t like it if I bumble around looking for my mark. They get confused if I dither over my character’s motivation, especially when his motivation should be to say the damned words that the author put down on the damned paper. Maybe I’ve mastered the individual techniques, but I can’t be thinking about techniques while I perform, because the audience wants more than a collection of successfully-executed techniques. That’s something they could get by putting the script and an acting book together in a blender. So acting = high learning curve (at least for us remedial types), low analytical requirements (no one cares which hand I use to hold Yorik’s skull), and high potential for daydreaming. And that’s the trick for me—daydream potential is my tool for making something happen that’s fun, unexpected, unexplained, and won’t make the audience imagine killing me.

So as I ride towards opening day, I do so on the back of my new acting mantra:

“At rehearsal, think about work. At work, think about magic.”

And I can always fall back on statistics. Or ditch digging.

If I go back to digging ditches, I'm hiring this dude as an apprentice.

Before a reader can cherish a book with all his heart, the book must get its ass kicked quite a lot. Any decision along the way can crush the book into a gritty paste. The author must decide to write the damn thing, and to not quit before the story’s done. He has to decide to stop compulsively revising the story and show it to other humans, exposing his soul to annihilation should someone say that he chose an adverb poorly.

At some point an author has to decide to toss the story’s fate into the hands of other people. If he doesn’t, it will be appreciated only by his mother, his college roommate, and his basset hound. This is a risky proposition, since those people might be mean, and they might know more about the book business than he does. Agents, editors, publishers, bookstore owners, and people who want to read books will all judge his cherished creation. Sticking the story in a snappy-looking binder and dropping it into a desk drawer for all eternity can seem a lot more desirable.

I’m struggling with that decision today. I intend to expose my manuscript to the uncaring scrutiny and possible condemnation of agents in the next few days. And I’m preparing a proposal that I hope will cause them to decide that my story is just what’s needed to lift the spirit of humanity in desolate times. Or at least that a fair number of people will buy it, read it, and smile.

I will include something called a “pitch” in this proposal. It’s sort of like the description you’d find on the back of a paperback book. It should sell the book. After a person reads the pitch, whenever he thinks about the book he should feel like he’s just shot up heroin. The pitch is really important. The first pitch I wrote for my story was:

When five young mice of Briarcliff Manor venture into the harrowing barnyard, they want only three things: to find enough food to eat, to avoid becoming something else’s food, and to create as many little mice as possible. They don’t want to get involved in the travails of young Cinderella and her cruel sisters, or to dabble in the affairs of fairy godmothers. They certainly don’t plan to become horses and haul a carriage from one pointless place to another pointless place. But the world doesn’t seem to care what mice want. The tiniest mouse, Abernathy, along with his siblings and his friends, must employ recklessness, subterfuge and sarcasm in their struggle to survive. No matter what trouble that wretched cinder girl gets them into.

When I read over the pitch, I realized there was a chance that it might not be perfect. Since I hoped that other people would be mesmerized by its brilliance, I decided to use the brains of other people to help me improve the pitch. I sent it to a passel of my smarter friends and asked for their help. Some of them had even read the manuscript before. My friends delivered all the help I could have desired. In fact, here’s a selection of the guidance they provided to me:

*****

Friend 1 – “I don’t like the sentence in the middle. It doesn’t fit with the rest of it.”
Me – “Wow. That’s my favorite sentence in the whole thing.”
Friend 1 – “Get used to working with editors.”

*****

Friend 2 – “Saying ‘Cinderella’ straight out is giving everything away. And saying ‘tiniest mouse’ makes it sound like a children’s book. And I know it’s not a children’s book. You must have said damn a thousand times in that book, and you mention some really frisky mouse behavior.”
Me – “I wasn’t sure agents would spend more than four seconds looking at this, so I didn’t want to make them try to figure out it’s Cinderella. But I guess I should give them more credit. Good point about the children’s book. Maybe I could say ‘horniest mouse’ or something?”

*****

Friend 3 – “Saying ‘pointless place’ twice is kind of awkward.”
Me – “Yeah. I guess you’re not telling me that saying it three times would be better, are you?”

*****

Friend 4 – “Why should we care about these mice?”
Me – “Great question. I care about them because I’ve lived with them for months. They’re like penniless relatives I can’t get rid of. I don’t know—maybe you’d care about them if you spent eight bucks for the book? Okay, I’ll work on it.”

*****

Friend 5 – “Even though it’s a ‘sales’ paragraph, it sounds too ‘salesy.’”
Me – “Ouch. If it sounds too much like a sales pitch then I’ve screwed up. I need to go more for, ‘Would you care to see my etchings?’ and less for, ‘Hey baby, you lookin’ for a date?’”

*****

Friend 6 – “I stumbled over ‘becoming something else’s food.’”
Me – “Yeah, that whole sequence is crap. I need something more like, ‘Veni, vidi, vici,’ or, ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.’”

*****

Friend 7 – “There needs to be something between the part about the world not caring what mice think and the part about the tiniest mouse and his friends. It seems disconnected.”
Me – “But Friend 1 told me to take out that sentence! Crap. It sucks when you write just 125 words, and the first part’s disconnected from the second part.”

*****

Thanks to my smart, generous, and extremely honest friends, I have created a newer, more irresistible pitch:

The mice of Briarcliff Manor want only three things: to find enough to eat, to escape being eaten, and to have as much sex as possible. They don’t want to get involved with some stupid girl and her two cruel sisters, or to dabble in the affairs of fairy godmothers. They certainly don’t plan to become horses and haul a damned carriage from one pointless place to another. Faced with these threats to their dignity and lives, the audacious mouse Abernathy and his friends must employ subterfuge, bold stupidity, and strategic cowering in order to survive. No matter what trouble that wretched cinder girl gets them into.

Now I shall finish up the proposal and deliver it into the hands of as many harsh, bitterly practical agents as possible. Let the annihilation of my soul begin.

I spent a good part of last night wondering why mice can’t use bazookas. Well, I say that I was wondering about this, but that may be a little misleading. My wife would probably say that was whining rather than wondering. Mouse-bazooka capability doesn’t seem unreasonable to me. If not bazookas, then something else that’s destructive on a similar scale. Napalm would be nice, or maybe they could topple a big church over onto something they don’t like.

For 20 chapters of the story I’m writing, my mice have lived in obliterating terror of their antagonist, and now it’s time to kill the bastard. Sixteen chapters ago I set up the ideal plot device to perform the coup de grâce. My problem is that when the coup comes, my readers will have seen it coming from 16 chapters away. That’s a lousy way to reward them for sticking with the story for 20 chapters. I need a Left Turn.

My understanding of the Left Turn springs from improvisational acting. In improv, when your partner says or does something, then you should say or do something in response. Hopefully you say something that makes sense. If you say something entertaining, that’s a bonus. Sometimes it’s neat to respond with something called a Left Turn, which is a response that no one expected, but that makes sense to everyone the moment you say it. It can’t just be some wild, random, turnips-doing-algebra-and-barking-like-dogs thing. That just confuses everyone and makes the audience hate you and all your seed unto the last generation. It has to make sense—unlike mice firing bazookas.

I’ve found that you can’t force a Left Turn to appear. That’s like forcing an ice cream truck to come down your block. But you can do things to encourage a Left Turn, just like you can hire pretty girls to stand at the curb waving dollars and crying out for Eskimo Pies. To cultivate a Left Turn in improv, when it’s your turn you can follow a chain of ideas until you get to an interesting response. Each idea builds on the one before it, so it gets further from the obvious response but still has a logical connection back to the beginning.

Here’s an improvised Left Turn in a scene:

Me: “That was the bravest thing I’ve ever seen! You killed 20 communist infiltrators all by yourself.”

My Partner: “Yes, but I’m terribly wounded.”

Me: “True, you’re about to die, but before you go I have one thing to say to you.”

My Partner: “What?”

[I start with the idea that this dude is about to die, and then I follow the chain of ideas.]

First idea in my head: “What do you want carved on your head stone?”
Second idea in my head: “Who should take care of your wife and children?”
Third idea in my head: “Do you think your wife likes me?”

Me: “Do you think your wife likes me?”

A Left Turn is born—logical, but not obvious.

So how the heck do my mice Left Turn their enemy into oblivion, alongside Carthage and The Captain and Tennille? I’ll start off with the basic assumption, which is something the mice might say. How about:

“This appalling creature is impaling and disemboweling us all over the place. We should do something.”

And here’s a chain of ideas about what they could do:

—Fall down and play dead.

—Run away to a safer town and forget this blemish of a place.

—Convince the creature it would be more fun to go impale and disembowel someone else, preferably someone far away who was once mean to us.

—Find someone who hates this creature worse than butt fungus and let him eradicate the creature.

—Find someone the creature loves and hold him/her/it hostage until the creature goes away.

—Eat poison and then let the creature eat us. Noble but stupid.

—Lead the creature to the town’s best hunter and taxidermist who conveniently happened to be passing by.

—Lure a giant predator bird down to kill the creature.

—Wait for a god to be lowered on wires and smite the creature with a thunderbolt.

I realize that my chain is pretty long now and that none of these ideas quite sparkle. Maybe I need to work a bit more on how the Left Turn can transition from improvisation to writing. Or maybe I started from the wrong basic assumption. I could instead begin with:

—Kill the creature with a bazooka.

—Kill the creature with a hyper-velocity acorn.

—Tie acorns to our foreheads so the creature chokes to death when it tries to eat a mouse.

I’ll keep working on it.

"A cat in an armored car? Good thing I brought my bazooka."

Photo by Noah7104 at www.roblox.com. (http://www.roblox.com/User.aspx?ID=1032679)

The only Beach Boy who could surf was Dennis Wilson—and he drowned in 1983. This is the kind of valuable, compelling fact that I used to keep in my brain. How foolish I was, possibly because I’d stuffed my brain with a bunch of facts. But the world has transformed itself into a place that provides alternatives, and I needn’t clutter my thinking apparatus with facts anymore. I now let the internet and six terabytes of data storage in my study remember things for me.

You may doubt that I can function after transferring my organically-housed data to off-site storage. I get by fine, thank you. I have fewer headaches, I don’t tell people they’re wrong anymore, and I never waste time on bar bets or whether $2 is a good tip on a $25 check. By the way, my iPad says that is not a good tip, but I have to pay 99 cents at the App Store to get the full version that will calculate the right tip. In the meantime I just left a $20 bill and stole three forks.

To give you an example of my newly superior functioning, I’ll describe how I don’t need to carry any facts in my head in order to get a good deal on a car. I first go to Google and type in “car,” which produces 4,490,000,000 results. This is far better than my unassisted brain could do in 0.23 seconds. I do realize that I need to narrow the search a bit, and I type “how to buy a car.” That gives me 77,800,000 results in 0.25 seconds. Now I’m making progress. But I can do better. I try “how to buy a used car” (4,460,000), “how to buy a good used car” (391,000), and “how to buy a used car without getting screwed” (24,000). Although I’m excited by this success, I still find the prospect of scanning 24,000 sites a little harrowing, so I trust Google and pick the top one on the list.

I won’t tell you the name of this website in case I ever decide to sell cars. I don’t want you to have these secret inside facts to use against me. I will say that the site hosted 18 advertisements, not including two pop-up ads for discount insurance and payday loans. I scanned through the flashing and wiggling ads and found the pertinent facts on buying a car. The first item was, “Decide what kind of car you want.” That made me pause, because I wasn’t sure how to make that decision. I didn’t have any facts about what I needed in a car. Gas mileage? Trunk space? A great stereo, or maybe seat warmers for a toasty bottom in January? I tried “what kind of car do I need?” in Google, but I just got a bunch of questions asking me what I need in a car, and I’d already established that I didn’t know. Finally I just took the choice at the top of the list, which must always be the best, and selected a convertible. I experienced a moment of hesitation, feeling that I might need more detail than just “convertible,” so I narrowed it down to a blue convertible, seeing as I really like blue a lot.

Now the absence of facts in my brain became a powerful tool for good. The internet provided every fact I might need, such as vehicle history reports, list prices, feature packages, and the evils of extended warranties. This left my mighty, unencumbered frontal lobes free to concentrate on the negotiations and the sale. When the salesman whispered that he could give me the secret sport-rally ultra-burn package without his manager knowing, my brain recognized that it must be a valuable deal since I’d never heard of it. I snatched the offer in order to prevent it from going to that greedy couple from Abilene he told me about, who were coming back for it in the afternoon. The best part of all is that the car is colored “Porpoise Snout Blue.”

I’m lucky to live in today’s world, where my brain’s capabilities can be fully unleashed on society, and you’re lucky too. I’ll meet you for lunch at Starbucks, and we can have a disjointed sharing of vaguely connected sentences while we each search the internet to find out what we’re talking about. I may be late. I’m driving my new convertible, and I have to launch a browser on my phone so I can look up what that triangular red and white street sign means.

Porpoise Snout Blue brings out the color in my eyes. (photo courtesy of A Pink Princess)

“Bring Us The Head Of The Velveteen Rabbit” is my collection of humorous and sarcastic essays, and as of today it’s available at Amazon.com! You can purchase the e-book in Kindle format for $3.99, and it contains over 80 essays pulled together from the Infinite Monkeys Publishing site, The Whims of Fairness, and totally new material. Plenty of great photo illustrations with snide captions are included as well. This book can be purchased at this Amazon.com link.

For those of the Nook persuasion, “Bring Us The Head Of The Velveteen Rabbit” will be available electronically at Barnes and Noble within a few days!

 

I have an addiction, as dirty as they come, and I expect it will destroy me eventually. This addiction writhes at my left hand every day like a surly viper. It lurks behind my desktop computer, to the left of my secondary monitor, in the shadow of my laptop, and beneath my iPad. In that spot I keep a notebook. I mean the kind with dead trees in it. And, God forgive me, a pen. There’s nothing digital about the damn things. They are as analog as a rock.

This wouldn’t be so bad if I just kept them out of some misplaced sentimentality, like my mother keeps her wind-up Victrola phonograph. But I actually take them out and use them where people can see me. When I show up at a meeting, the others sit focused on their laptops, their faces drawing nearer and nearer as if they plan to French kiss the screen. I glance around holding my notebook thinking about all the emails I don’t currently have to answer. When the meeting starts, my buddies attend 10% of it and spend 90% answering emails, checking auctions, and flaming people on Facebook. I attend 50% of the meeting and spend 50% doodling. I’m five times as effective as those guys and a hell of a lot more relaxed. But I know it’s wrong.

Doodling is becoming a lost art, by the way. A person’s doodles reveal a lot about him, and it’s pretty therapeutic. I like cross-hatch doodling myself, but flower doodles, airplane doodles, and penguin doodles each have their charms. If you try to doodle on a laptop though, you just get smudges and odd looks.

I don’t hate technology. I love it. Around my workplace I’m the guy to go to when any of those Microsoft products is kicking your ass. I can make them sing like Beverly Sills. But I can’t get over one thing, despite my shame. Technology is really, really good at doing stuff with ideas once you get them into the document, or spreadsheet, or whatever. But technology sucks at helping you come up with ideas in the first place. I’m a little afraid to say that, in case Microsoft hears me and changes all the keyboard shortcuts just to make me throw myself off a bridge in despair.

I’ll try to explain what I mean. Last week I asked my assistant, Flex, to solve a hard, creative problem for me while I sat around thinking up ways to intimidate people who annoy me. Flex works hard and is a smart young guy, so I felt confident he’d knock this out in an hour or so. I strolled down the hall to see Flex after an hour and said, “Is your solution perfect yet?”

“Almost,” Flex said, although he was thinking so hard his face was wrinkled like a Shar Pei. “I just need to work out a couple of things…”

I leaned over his shoulder and saw a screen full of bullet points so disorganized that each might have come from a different country, or maybe a different reality.

Flex pushed his blond surfer hair out of his eyes and said, “I’m trying to get these dumb boxes to line up and be the same color, and the font looks worse than my prom date.” He squinted and flailed at the mouse like it was a live rodent. “Aw, man! That’s even crappier!”

I sat down beside Flex and leaned over to switch off his monitor’s power. He looked at me as if I’d just given him a lobotomy. I said, “Flex, swear not tell anybody I said this, but the software is in your way. Every time you start thinking about the problem, the software distracts you with details that only it gives a shit about. We don’t care whether the text is red or orange, or whether the font looks like it’s passed through a moose intestine. We just want a good, creative solution. We can address any moose intestine issues later.”

Flex narrowed his eyes and curled his lip at me as much as he could and still seem respectful. I knew what he needed. He needed a hit of the non-digital hard stuff. But I wasn’t sure Flex had ever touched a pen. He might recognize one from an old movie, but then again he might think it was a chopstick.

I stifled a sigh and said, “New assignment, Flex. Tomorrow is my anniversary. Yeah, I’ve been married longer than you’ve been alive, so just shut up. I want you to come up with a love letter for me to give my wife. If you do a good job, you can have the rest of the day off.”

“That’s pretty weird,” Flex said.

“Wait until you’re my age. It’ll seem as tame as ‘See Jane Run.’ Don’t make it sound too romantic. It’s got to sound like an old guy wrote it. You’ve got an hour.” I shoved down the feeling that maybe I’d done something wrong, and I walked back to the Cave of Vengeance and Woe, which is what people call my office.

One hour later Flex poked his head through my office door. He smiled the smile he normally uses when telling me about the latest girl he’d like to sleep with. “Here’s your letter!” he said, and he set his laptop on the corner of my desk. He tossed himself into a chair in that way only fit, young people who’ve never been to the chiropractor can do. The screen read:

  • Significant “I love you” challenge
    –   Previously sounded good
            >   Positive impact on self and others
            >   Extremely high ease of use
            >   Overall satisfaction at highest levels
  • Current “I love you” has diminished in quality
    –   Satisfaction dropping on several dimensions
    –   Root cause of quality problems identified
            >   Partial mitigation achieved, but quality still lacking
    –   “I love you” still operational
            >   Reduced functionality may be acceptable

I leaned back and looked at Flex’s eyes, which were full of mischievous glitter. “You know I like to start with positive feedback,” I said, and Flex nodded. “Well, this is appalling. This is probably the worst love letter in history. I’m sure chimpanzees do better all the time. It’s repugnant to anyone with a brain, and if I were to show it around I think every woman on Earth would want to murder you, and quite rightly so.”

Flex mumbled, “That’s the positive feedback?”

I nodded and said, “Yep. The constructive feedback is that this may be salvageable, and if you want to avoid spending the next three weekends revising labor projections, I’ll give you another chance. I’ll bet you used Powerpoint for this, right?”

Flex nodded.

“I can help you with that,” I said, standing and towering over Flex with the majesty of the Statue of Liberty, if the statue was a little more butch. “Shut off your god damn computer and use this!” I didn’t quite hurl the notebook and pen at Flex, but I think he did get a paper cut on his chin.

He looked like he wanted to question me, or maybe slap me. I stared from my vantage point of confidence and authority that was partly false. I knew I was right, but to the rest of the world I was just a near-extinct organism scratching on stone tablets in the primordial ooze. Then Flex’s shoulders dropped and he stood to drag himself back down the hall. “You have two hours!” I called after him.

Later that day Flex shuffled into my office, and he held out the notebook. He showed all the confidence of a schoolboy handing in a three-page assignment with big letters, lots of spaces, and liberal use of the phrase, “And then the next thing that happened was…” I accepted the notebook and read the page:

My “I love you” is not what it was. It once rang like a polished chime, and yours made a harmony. We split the air, and we laughed at how we sounded, and people smiled when they heard us. I poured myself into the way we sounded, and you held all that music with no strain. No one could convince me that we weren’t the biggest celebration, that I wasn’t the luckiest, that no sound could touch us.

Not what it was. I clash sometimes, and you make sour notes, on occasion. Where is that harmony that felt like the best holiday, that was the most fun, and the one that would last forever? We’ve made music that no one ever makes if they can avoid it, although everyone plays it before the end. It was hard, but at least it wasn’t silence. We held hands and said no to silence. My “I love you” is not what it was, but it’s my chime against the stillness. It rings if you listen hard, and you make a harmony sometimes. We laugh at how we sound, and once in a great while people smile when they hear us.

I looked hard at Flex and said, “Holy shit! This is just what I need. Good job, man!” Flex offered a crust of a smile. “Do you see what you can do when you think about the ideas instead of the software and all its formatting and bullet points and crap?”

He breathed, probably for the first time in two hours, and he gave me a bigger smile. “Yeah, that helped,” he said.

“This will work great,” I said. “Take Friday afternoon off, son. And by the way, where’d you find this? Some romance site? Google+? What? I want to tell my wife where it came from.”

Flex looked surprised and said, “You said write you a letter. Do you mean I could have just copied something off the internet?” Flex turned a little red under his tan. “Well, at least if you do this kind of junk at Christmas I know I can just rip off a song or the Bible or something.”

“You wrote this, Flex? Damn, you’re like the Muhammad Ali of romance.” He stared at me, and I realized he had no idea who Muhammad Ali is. “Take all day Friday off. Back to work for now though.”

Flex grinned at that, and he bounced out of his chair. That’s when I did it. I know it was wrong, but I did it anyway. I said, “Hey, keep writing love letters, and I bet every girl in town will want to sleep with you.”

Flex paused, and then he smiled as if I’d given him a chocolate Corvette full of bourbon and Superbowl tickets. He walked out of the Cave, swaggering a little, and I thought, “That’s right, son, it’s like crack. The first hit is free.”

 

I am a connoisseur of failure. I appreciate failure all across its breadth and depth, from the most innocent gaffe to the catastrophe of shrieking magnificence. Success never tells me who I am. But when I’m crushed by an avalanche of failure, then I can see myself with frigid clarity.

Failure hurts like drinking molten lead. I don’t love it. You’d be crazy to love it. Some people may seek out failure, but nobody loves it. Success is a lot more laughs. You don’t get congratulatory cards for failing to graduate high school, for not making it to your wedding anniversary, or for not getting that big promotion. People tend not to appreciate failure just because it hurts, it’s unpopular, and it sucks.

I feel qualified to speak about failure because I’ve had a lot of it. I dropped out of college like a dope. I pursued a string of one-sided romantic relationships with women who couldn’t distinguish me from a mail box. I got married and then divorced in an impressive 18 months. I lost my business, went bankrupt, and lost my house along with nearly everything else. The year I turned 30 I made less money than I did the year I turned 17. I delivered stage performances that made the audience resemble lizards in a hard freeze. I failed in my efforts to help dozens of family and friends, resulting in everything from having to flush a radiator all the way up to death. Believe me, I know failure.

When people are asked how to fail, they often say something like, “You just screw up.” There’s a certain purity to this answer, but otherwise it’s stupid. In fact, I can fail in six ways. I can fail by setting my goals so obscenely low that even if I reach them I’m still considered a big failure. Or, I can set my goals so staggeringly high that God himself would have to come down and alter the laws of the universe for me to reach them. That guarantees failure for me.

Even if I get my goals right, I can still fail by not paying attention to the details. For example, my car may never reach its destination because it ran out of gas, due to me daydreaming about the Cherry Slushee I want to buy and never looking at the gauge. I can also fail by paying too much attention to the details and forgetting what I’m trying to accomplish. Maybe I drive flawlessly, but I end up at the fabric store, not a promising venue for iced cherry beverages.

Failure is scary, so it may seem odd when I promise you that being terrified of failure is a sure way to fail. Failure is kind of like a horse. If it senses you fear it, it will turn on you, buck you off, chase you, bite you on the arm, and shit on your rose bushes. If I fear failure, I won’t be able to think of anything except failing. Then failure becomes inevitable.

And the last way to fail is to embrace failure. That certainly sounds nuts. But embracing failure is when I try something that I think I can do—maybe—but that I’m not sure I can do. Sometimes I achieve things I didn’t expect. Sometimes I fall straight onto my ass from a moderately great height. But if I’m in the market for failure, I think this is the best buy.

Say that I have walked one of the six paths to failure, and now I have stumbled into a smelly, leech-infested thorn bush of non-success. Now I have the chance to see who I am and what I can learn. But a huge barrier squats between me and all this good knowledge. That barrier consists of four words, and when they come out of my mouth they sound like, “It wasn’t my fault.” Do not misunderstand me. I would adore it if none of my failures was my fault. I’d throw a party. I’ve often claimed that my failures were somebody else’s fault. I was dumb to do that, because when I claim that a failure was not my fault I’m also admitting that there’s not a damned thing I can do to prevent it from happening again. If I had no hand in it happening, then I can’t do anything to fix it. I’ve had to admit that my hideous failures were at least partly my fault, or else I could look forward to them happening again and again until I die.

I despise it when I fail, but I’ve learned to savor failure itself and the happy toys it brings to the failure party. Embracing failure can be particularly sweet, because I’m going out and doing it on purpose instead of stumbling into failure like a toddler in a room full of coffee tables. So I shoot for a little failure occasionally, because now and then it’s nice to see what I look like.

Open Heart Publishing is including my story, The Santa Fix” in their anthology An Honest Lie, Volume 3: Justifiable Hypocrisy. The book will be published later this year, but they’re promoting it now, and part of that promotion is author interviews. My interview was posted this afternoon, so please take a look if you’re interested.

Part of the interview was about what my muse looks like. I provided a photo, but they weren’t able to include it in the posted interview. Therefore, in the interest of completeness, my muse:

My Muse