We Don’t Need No Education

It’s strange, sometimes, thinking about the things I’ve learned while making a living as a writer. I have no formal training as a journalist — a fact I think is occasionally shockingly obvious — yet I have, somehow, managed to make it as a professional writer for more than a decade by this point. (And as an unprofessional one for years before that; some might claim that I’ve never fully stopped being unprofessional, of course.)

A lot of that is down to luck, as much as anything. I really do have a career that has owed a lot to being in the right place at the right time, and from making connections accidentally, because I thought I was just making friends and then they asked if I’d want to help them with something in exchange for money. The lack of forethought and planning in my career is genuinely impressive, and similarly embarrassing; if my career had a theme song, it’d be Big Star’s “Thank You, Friends” on a loop, with extra emphasis on that “Thank you again!” refrain at the end.

But there’s also been more than my fair share of learning on the job, both through direct and intentional teachings — at Time, I had an amazing editor who taught me all kinds of things, not least of which how to structure and rework thinkpieces so they weren’t just me going “Oh! And!” over and over again — and from picking up on context clues left out by accident in the middle of a conversation.

One of those was a conversation before taking a regular gig at a site, when I learned the definition of shortform web versus longform — of course, this was in itself six or seven years ago by now, and the goal posts have shifted more than a little in that time. But I remember having to mask my feeling of, oh, now I get it, I didn’t know that, thanks when the prospective editor told me that he wanted multiple shortform pieces from me daily, no longer than 400 words. “You tend to write around 600, and that’s just too long for people reading quickly,” he said, a fact that got filed away and sticks in my head when writing professionally even now.

Most of these posts here, by the way, are between 300 and 400 words. Anything longer, and it feels like I’m taking up more time than a random thought deserves.

Five For Tom Spurgeon

I wrote something for The Beat‘s collective tribute to Tom Spurgeon, but somehow it got utterly screwed up by the time it ran. Here’s the original.

**

In no particular order:

1. The thrill of recognition when I was starting out and realized that Spurgeon was reading me. He was the real deal, even then. (I’m old, I can say that.) To this day, I feel like he was being too polite when we’d talk and he wouldn’t just tell me to stop wasting his time.

2. The kindness he showed me when I had to bail on doing an interview with him because of my father’s death; I remember extremely clearly, more than a decade later, how much his down-to-earth reminders that what was happening was far more important than talking about comics helped at a time when I was, basically, a complete mess who thought that I couldn’t let anyone down about anything, no matter what.

(I did the interview on the plane home after the funeral; it was shitty because of where my head was at, and I’ve always felt bad that I wasn’t more entertaining or interesting; Spurgeon was pleasantly dismissive of such thoughts.)

3. His response when I told him that he and I were both on a Prominent Comic Creator’s private list worst case scenarios for comics journalists, along with a third I’m-not-naming-them-here journalist, as told to me by a mutual friend. The best word is probably “tickled”; he thought it was ridiculous and funny and confusing that the three of us were on the same list, but decided that it was probably a badge of honor for all three of us, somehow.

4. An email I got from him after he’d heard that an entirely separate Prominent Comic Creator tried to start a fight with me at a comic convention. It’s very silly, but having him write, “I got your back,” felt like… validation? Having someone I respected to that degree say something as simple as that about something that I was feeling pretty embarrassed about meant a lot. Also, considering the creator involved, the mental image of the two of them fighting is utterly amazing, trust me.

5. This essay: http://www.comicsreporter.com/index.php/sickness_essay/

It’s such a wonderful piece of writing, when viewed through an analytic eye, sure, but it’s also a wonderful encapsulation of Tom as I knew him; the last section, where he writes about sharing his story because he hopes it will make people get check-ups again, and “embrace the inevitable fragilities of getting older with good humor and perspective,” speaks well of him as not only a writer, but also as a person.

I’ve re-read it a couple of times since learning of his death, and it’s overwhelming right now. I know if he was here to read this and I said that to him, he’d say something funny to try and put my mind at ease, but also take pains not to undercut how sad I am. That he’d do that for me, when we weren’t especially close, says everything there is.

How Many Times Do I Have To Make This Climb?

One of the stranger things about having done this job for so long is that, sometimes, entirely accidentally, you repeat yourself. You have a thought that feels new to you and think, maybe that’s a story, I should write that. And then you google the topic and there you are, having written a version of the exact story you were planning to write some time earlier.

It is, I guess, understandable — you have to forgive yourself for thinking like yourself, if only because, what’s the alternative? — but it’s also a curious feeling when it happens, not least of all because, on the occasions it’s happened to me, I’ve genuinely had no recollection of writing the first piece at all.

Again, perhaps I shouldn’t feel bad about this; I generally write somewhere in the region of three to five stories a day, so it only stands to reason that I don’t have perfect recall of what I’ve written, especially when you think about the fact that I’ve been doing this for more than a decade. On the other hand, it’s just a little embarrassing to genuinely think I’m having a thought for the first time, only to discover I’ve traced this entire process down in detail previously, and then utterly forgotten about it.

(The Monkees start playing in my head: “Do I have to do this all over again…? Didn’t I do it right the first time…?”)

When such a thing happens, there’s no real recourse; you have to say goodbye to your new (old) idea and start over. Which explains why I’m here now, rewriting a post that I thought was brand new, but actually wrote a few months ago without realizing it. Secrets behind a writer’s life, revealed, fact fans…

Secret Origins

When I was going through all my paperwork a few weeks ago, I discovered what was a complete set of thumbnails for a (seemingly complete) short comic strip that was part 1950s DC Comics parody and part loving tribute to 2000 AD. I have no recollection of writing/drawing it, nor do I have any clue when I would have done so — based on the fact that it was on paper from a particular sketchbook, I’d say that it’s more than a decade old, and from when I was still living in San Francisco, but that’s just a guess — but the strangest thing was reading it and going, “Oh, that’s right, I guess that was something I did once, I guess?”

There was a point where I wanted to make comics. To be exact, there have been multiple points where I wanted to do it, and in various ways; when I was a teenager, I wanted nothing more than to be a comic book artist, to the point where I even took samples to a convention and showed them to… someone? (I sadly can’t remember who, or even from what publisher. I do remember how nervous I was, and how I could not hear the encouragement being offered over the “You’re not quite ready yet” rejection.)

Later, when I was newly in the United States, I wanted to be a comic book writer, kind of. I actually had a few brushes with the possibility that didn’t happen for various reasons, but one of the recurring impediments was the fact that, deep down, I didn’t really want to be a comic book writer; I was convinced that I’d be no good and so never went the distance, despite those on the sidelines egging me on at various times.

(Sometimes, I look back at one of the opportunities available to me that I all-but-bailed on and want to eat my fist, but I digress.)

Which is what makes this thumbnailed short so surprising. I don’t know why I did it, or if it was intended for any particular purpose. Had I promised something to someone? (If so, I guess I didn’t deliver) Was it something I did just for fun? Was there some part of me, at whatever time I made it, that still wanted to do comics?

All I know now is, I’m tempted to go find those pages again and see if I could draw them now. Just to see what they’d look like.

We Take Our Time

There’s something very amusing to me about the fact that, every now and then, I get fantasies about taking time off from my job writing to… write some more. But I do; every now and then, I get the urge to just take some time during the day to write something for here, or for the Wait, What site, or something else that’s personal and not “work.”

It’s not that I have any kind of grand design or magnum opus that I’m aching to get to — although I have been meaning to write a series for Wait, What about the post-Kirby New Gods books since January — more, simply, that there are times where putting work to the fore because, you know, it’s what pays the bills and I like bills being paid, can leave me feeling wrung out and hollow. There’s a lot to be said both for the opportunities my job allows me and the people I work with (Many of whom I love dearly), but occasionally, it can leave me feeling like a cog in a machine.

And yet, if I were honest, should I take time off, I’d want to spend that time writing something. I can’t explain why; it’s the way I understand the world, I guess. I write here despite knowing only two people read it; in doing so, I work through ideas and feelings and end up with something resembling a finished thought. (“Resembling” being the important word.) In that sense, I’m an old school blogger, I guess.

Maybe I just need someone to start paying me to write about utterly random subjects and feelings. That’s a thing that’s certainly not impossible, right…?

I’ve Been Caught In A Trap I Set For Myself

I don’t listen to music when I write. I was going to say that I can’t, but that’s not true; I’ve worked in cafes where there’s music and, yes, it’s different and difficult and I’m slower, but it’s certainly possible. But I don’t like to do it; I get distracted and connections don’t get made the same way.

I wish that wasn’t true; I wish that I could listen to something as I type away, that my brain could split its attention and do both things at once. If nothing else, I feel like it would give me the opportunity to listen to more music than I currently do, and arguably discover new things to adore. (Spotify, I know I should hate you and your algorithms, and yet…!) In theory, it sounds like some kind of perpetual motion machine, something new entering your head as you output things from inside it. And yet…

I need, I think, to listen too much for it to work for me. Even if it’s just background noise, something will happen — some unexpected melody, a chord change, a half-understood lyric — and my concentration will be with the music, not anything else. It happens when I’m out and having conversations, too; I’ll hear something in the background and my head will go, I am interested in what you’re saying, but what is this song? What just happened?

I’m an easily distracted writer at the best of times, so you can imagine how much trouble music would be for me. But I continually wish that wasn’t the case. I see people write about what they’re listening to as they write, their soundtracks, and I get jealous. If only that could be me, if only my brain worked like that…!

Instead, I work in silence aside from the grumbles and moans I make without realizing it, and the sound of the keys as I hit them. Which, in its own way, is music of some sort.

You Say I’m Putting You On But It’s No Joke

I write a weekly column for Wired which is, ostensibly, a summary/explanation of five things that people have been talking about online over the last seven days. It has, over the past couple years, transformed into a weird record of political events as the world has become swallowed by the news (or, perhaps, since I have become swallowed by the news). It’s one of the most exhausting things I work on, every single week.

I mean that in multiple senses. Practically, it’s a lot; it’s probably the longest thing I’ll write in most weeks, coming in around 2000 words every Friday morning before edits, and researching it is a bear, taking up a chunk of every week. I spend hours looking on Twitter and elsewhere throughout the week to find what people are talking about, and then trying to backtrack to find what the shape of that conversation was, how it started, how it evolved, not to mention external (online) sources to back up the social media of it all.

I hand it in every Friday somewhere between 7 and 9 am, and have from then until Monday as a break to not continually be searching for potential fodder. Otherwise, I’m on it; looking for what stories are trending, what interests me, who’s saying what and if there’s anything to it. It’s exhausting in that sense, too.

And then there’s just the sad fact of, there is rarely any good news. It sounds almost like a joke, but in the last few years — I want to say, since Trump got elected, but that’s not the whole truth — the news has just been overwhelmingly, oppressively, bad. People get hurt. Institutional and societal mass cruelty spreads across the world like a virus. Bad people get more and more successful, get away with more and more shit. That is exhausting, too. Writing about that, every single week.

I’m writing this instead of looking at social media right now. When I’m done, I’ll go back to see what people are talking about, and try to decipher what’s right for the column, and what is just people venting on Twitter. But I’m tired.

One Day, Maybe Next Week

When Entertainment Weekly went monthly — without changing its name, because of course, why would it? — I tweeted out something about how I had always wanted to write for the magazine. After more than a decade doing this professional pop culture writer thing, I still have these bucket list items, these outlets I want to pursue.

It’s not that I’ve never tried. There’s one in particular that I’ve tried many many times over the years, and been rebuffed each time in a series of increasingly amusing, awkward, form responses, each one stinging just a little more than the last. Some, I’ve circled around warily for the entire time, knowing that it’s still not the right time and waiting for an unknown, unclear final piece to be slotted in before I’m ready. Others, I just… wait for, awkwardly.

I’ve written for a lot of places over the years, some genuinely iconic. I’ve been in TimePlayboy and Wired! I’ve reached the point where I’m both confident and proud about my career, thankfully, and not just expecting to be outed as a fraud at any minute. That’s enough to make my bucket list feel possible, at least. One day or another, I’ll get in there, wherever the “there” of it happens to be.

Where It’s At

I decided to restart this site as a going concern — not that I had ever really decided to stop it being a going concern, as such, but things happen and real life gets in the way — at the start of 2019 as a little bit of selfishness and a small amount of self discipline, mixed together. My 2018 had ended dramatically, and I was in a very different place than I had been a year earlier, both emotionally and physically. The notion of having a place where I could “be myself,” whatever that might mean, and write things for me, as opposed to work or for friends or whatever, was a very exciting one.

I started it, also, not knowing how long I’d keep it up. This wasn’t going to be the first time I’d promise myself I’d do this, after all, and previous attempts had run aground all-too-quickly, for various reasons. This time, things would be different, I half-heartedly told myself, because this time, I was different.

I set myself a schedule — three posts a week, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays — with occasional quote-posts in between if I found anything interesting and remembered to do it. And I set off.

At some point, somewhere in the middle of February or the beginning of March, I realized that I’d actually managed to write ahead enough that I was scheduled out with posts three weeks in the future or so. It was, to some degree, thrilling, but also a relief; that way, it seemed less likely that I’d drop off altogether, because now I had a buffer. Surely, if the worst came to the worst, I’d find the chance to find time to write within that three week window and refill my schedule appropriately?

For months, I did. And then, for some reason, June just killed me. It wasn’t that my workload increased — if anything, I was maybe less productive than I had been in other months? — but my concentration was shot, somehow. Weeks went by without me writing here, or writing very little, and suddenly… I had no buffer left.

I was faced with the prospect of either taking a break from the site  or deciding to stick with it and just, well, write. I chose the latter, and I’m surprisingly glad that I did. It sounds odd, I know, but I feel like I chose something selfish in a good, positive way. Is this place self-care for me? Is that too pretentious to suggest? Or simply too honest?

And I Can Easily Understand How You Can Easily

I think about ambition sometimes. And the future. These thoughts are not unrelated.

A common question I get asked is, Why don’t you write a book? and my common answer has evolved to be, Once I figure out what I’d want to write a book about, I will. It’s not a dodge; I like the idea of writing a book — even more so, of having written one when it’s finished — but I genuinely don’t know what that book would be, and that feels like a bit of a hurdle to jump, all things considered.

(I have friends who have book agents, who have been approached by publishers and agents to write something based on their work online, and I’ve always been jealous of that. It’s never happened to me, and although I know it’s because I don’t do that kind of writing for the most part, I still find myself thinking that it’s because people can sense my lack of ideas.)

This all comes to mind again reading an interview with a TV writer who was once a journalist, and my thinking, Oh, I wonder if I could do that, and then thinking of the friends who’ve gone from journalism to TV, movies, comics. There are more than a few who’ve made the jump.

They did so because this journalism thing is impermanent, isn’t to be trusted. Writing about pop culture isn’t something I can realistically do for much longer, never mind forever; I’m in my 40s, after all. I should have some kind of long term plan. I need one. And yet. And yet.

My ambition lags behind my necessity. I’m happy doing what I’m doing, for now. And I literally don’t have an idea for what my next step would be, just yet. Maybe tomorrow.