Wednesday, April 5, 2017

ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS BLEED









"There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed."

-- Ernest Hemingway.





That's it, in a nutshell. Papa Hemingway was right. No matter what the genre, no matter if it's fiction or non-fiction, writing is hard work. It often takes some soul searching, as well as some deep thought and careful planning. But the results are always the same: you pour your heart and soul into your writing. If you're not, then you're doing something wrong. If you're writing only for the brain, while ignoring the heart, you're doing something wrong, as far as I'm concerned. It's not about the writing and how well something is written — it's about the stories and the characters. I want to feel a story. I want to experience it emotionally as well as mentally. I like to have my feelings manipulated. If an author can make me laugh and cry, make me shudder in fear, then they have succeeded. If they've made me think, made me pause to consider another point of view or something I've never thought of before . . . that's cool. But first, make me feel what the characters are feeling: show me what they are going through, don't tell me.

When you live alone, as I do, you have plenty of time to think. But thinking too much isn't always a good thing. You can get caught up and lost in regrets and memories. Some memories are happy, some sad and painful, some are so poignant you rip your heart to shreds. Then you start feeling, and sometimes feeling isn't always a good thing, because you start feeling things too deeply, and then you fall into pits of sadness and depression, and then often enough, grief takes over and controls your life. For at least seven years, certainly much longer, grief controlled my life. I had to find a way to channel that grief and sadness, to bring good out of it. 
But how? I didn't know. I was lost.

Allow me, please, to take you back in time for a little while, and hopefully you will see what I'm getting at.


                                   Sometimes when I'm lonely, I wish upon a star,
                                  I search over the rainbow and wonder who you are.




Those words are an abandoned lyric for a song I wrote back in the 1970s, when I was heavily involved in music. I am an only child, and although I grew up surrounded by a wealth of cousins and friends, in a lovely middle-class neighborhood, still . . . I always felt there was something missing in my life. Oh, I am blessed, have no doubt about that. Still, when just about all your cousins and friends have siblings, when it's time for you to go home, there is a certain shadow of loneliness that follows you. So I've always been something of a loner, and of a reclusive nature. I guess I was born that way. As a kid I spent a lot of time alone, especially in winter . . . building models, drawing, playing with toy soldiers, watching movies, reading comic books, children's books, paperbacks, and even trying my hand at a bit of writing.

For two decades music and writing stories competed for my attention. Thus, I really didn't have much success with either of them. In 1980 I came close to signing a contract with Bantam Books, but the deal fell through and I lost heart. Still, I continued to dabble with "pen and paper," as it were. Then, in 1984 I sold two short stories to what we used to call a "fanzine" — amateur magazines that are sort of the ancestors of indie publishing and small press publishers. So I hung up my guitar for good and concentrated on my writing. I even wrote my first screenplay, a musical-comedy based on the place where I was working and the people I worked with: Workingclass Heroes, I called it, thanks to John Lennon's wonderful song by the same name. But it went nowhere, and nothing else happened with my writing after that, although I devoted all my spare time to it, sacrificing a lot of social life and even romantic relationships in my pursuit of what I called The Elusive Dream. Still, I continued to write, sweating it out, cursing, and screaming at the gods. All for naught.

In 1996 I formulated a 5-year plan: I would go back to writing screenplays instead of prose. If nothing came of it, I'd go back to writing prose again. Simple as that. So in five years I wrote five more screenplays: two eventually grew into published novels, and two became published novellas. I even joined the Chicago Screenwriter's Network, and became a board member for a few years. But although I had placed high in some screenplay competitions, and had some luck in actually getting rejection letters and phone calls, I never sold one of those screenplays. During this period, I moved back home to help my parents, who were both not in the best of health. My Dad passed away from cancer in 1999, at the age of 80. I was not in the hospital room when he passed: I had stepped out to grab a sandwich, leaving him with my Cousin Carmella, his older brother's daughter and his favorite niece; she was holding his hand when he died. A few days earlier I had finished my fourth screenplay, and was planning to start another. But the death of my Dad, my best friend, took the wind out of my sails and really tore me apart, and I started to lose heart once again. 

Now, my Mom had been very ill for an even longer time, and was getting worse every day. After Dad passed away, I became her caregiver. She was 4 years older than Dad, and although her physical health was bad, she nevertheless retained her sharp wit until the very end. She became totally disabled in 2000 and there was no other option for me but to put her in a nursing home, something I will regret, grieve over, and apologize for until I draw my last breath. On Saint Patrick's Day, 2001, she succumbed to pneumonia. Being half-Irish, I'm sure she planned it that way. Her last words to me were, "I wish your father would come and take this pain away." I guess he did, because she passed not long after that, while I was holding her hand. I now understand why my Dad waited to die until after I had left his room. He knew I would have to watch my Mom die, knew that I would be holding her hand when she quietly slipped away, and he didn't want me to have to go through that twice. I think he prepared me for the next eighteen months following his death. After my Mom died, I finished my final screenplay, basically "phoning it in." My heart was no longer into it. I had lost my parents, lost just about everything I cherished. My world was turned upside down. 

A year later, in 2001, I sold their house and moved into a condo. I didn't write another word for seven years. It was like someone had turned off a switch in my head. I lost interest and had no more desire to write anyway. All I did was read and watch films.

So let's jump forward to 2008.

I was watching The Maltese Falcon, Kiss Me Deadly, Night and the City, and other film noir movies one night when that "switch" was suddenly, unexpectedly turned back on. I had an idea how to revise an old character and, after reading a lot of Raymond Chandler, knew exactly how I would tell these stories: in first person, in my own voice.

That character was Dorgo the Dowser.

This time around, I gave him a dowsing rod as a tool, a divination wand to help him solve magical crimes. I began writing up a storm and was almost finished with Mad Shadows: The Weird Tales of Dorgo the Dowser when the company I worked for since 1978 closed its doors. Once again my world was turned upside down. But I persisted, I became a bull dog, determined to finish the book and get it published. But a weird thing happened during the final proof for the publisher: I discovered a theme running throughout the six novellas that make up the book. That theme was loss — the loss of family and loved ones, the loss of wealth, comrades, and the loss of one's soul. This had all crept into my stories unconsciously. I didn't plan on it: I was just writing pulp fiction.
But there it was: a theme. Loss.


Since then I have published five novels and six short stories, with a seventh on its way, at the time of this blog. And I swear that I never set out to write about loss in any of those stories. The theme just keeps creeping in: my fear of loss, my fear of growing old, of dying all alone and no one finding my body for weeks. There are some minor themes, too, such as my need to search for something that is missing in my life, something I may never find.

So I guess I had to go through some very personal pain, experience some very heavy-duty loss, before I could write anything of any substance, of any value and merit and even meaning. All this, like some cosmic or divine plan, had to happen, could not happen, until I lost my job, and more importantly, lost the two people I loved the most in this world: my parents. My writing could not take any kind of coherent shape until I had my world turned upside down a few times. Since then, besides losing my job, losing love and suffering one heart break after another, I've lost many more family members, friends and loved ones. I guess writing is way of processing all my grief, despair, fears and heartaches. It slips into my work without my even realizing it. It has helped me cope, but I still have a long way to go before I reach a place of happiness again. But this is what happens when you write, when your emotions are channeled through your words. For me, it's a form of therapy, as much as it is a need and a desire to entertain people. I was blessed with parents who always believed in me, supported me in everything I wanted to do and tried to do. They knew I'd get published one day. Sadly, it all had to happen after they were gone.
I'm still searching for that kind of love, that kind of support, that kind of happiness. 

In the immortal words of my Mom, "Hang up the fucking guitar and write, damn it! That's what you were born to do."

I guess I should never have doubted her.

So that's why I write the way I write, the way I want and try to write: from and for the heart. I'll leave writing for the brain to the scholars and academics out there. I want you to feel what I feel, what my characters feel, and if I've touched even a handful of readers out there, then I've succeeded.

Writing may be easy for some . . . for me it's really hard work. But for all of us who write, it's the same:

All we have to do is bleed.