Thursday, August 10, 2017


As a babysitter, I was fairly worthless.  I could hardly get a diaper onto a baby straight because I was so afraid of sticking them with the safety pin. (Things were primitive then -- no disposable diapers with tape.)  If the mother expected me to clean her kitchen and all her crusty week-old pots and pans, I didn’t.  The other extreme was finicky upscale literary types who instructed me in the highly technical strategies of salt-cured cast iron.  Dishwashers had not been invented yet.

The most upscale place I babysat was in Evanston, IL, while earning my BS in Speech Education.  The father was a founding editor of “Rogue” magazine, a soft porn mag that Hugh Hefner snuffed.  There were piles of them and I read them all.  It’s both a problem and a convenient disguise that somehow I convey dependable wholesomeness.  Even when I try, I fail at the actual practice of wickedness.  Mostly, I can keep my evil side secret without trying.

In the earliest babysitting days, my most dependable job was just down the street.  NE 15th between Alberta and Killingsworth had an assorted sequence of houses, built at different times with different resources.  Ours was small, but beautifully built and finished.  Judy’s, across the street, was three-stories and originally occupied by the old maid daughters of the hardware store family that built the house I was in.  A couple of blocks down the hill was a very basic house that could have been a farm house on the prairie.  They had one little girl, a toddler who slept soundly, and they were a handsome young couple who loved to party.

The wife had a huge accumulation of “True Confessions” magazines.  If you don’t know this genre, it’s roughly like today’s Christian romances, where there’s lots of implied sex which the heroine struggles to convert into religious love.   Actually, it’s a pretty good account of today’s hookup culture except that it was found evil and condemned by my mother.  As soon as she found out what I was reading in that house, she forbade me to babysit for them again.  Of course, it didn’t help that they came home at 3AM smelling of booze.  

“True Confessions” was frank about its genre and stuck strictly to the basics: overwhelming sexual passion, a man who needed reforming, tragedies, transformation and redemption.  The details were sort of redneck, blue-collar, repetitious.  No aspirations to literary poetry.  Lady porn.

My interest in “True Confessions” and “Roguegave me self-permission to explore porn a little bit.  That genre has almost dissolved itself.  Where do you go after kink?  If the babysitters are used to butt-fucking as birth control . . .   Girls used to fantasize about becoming nuns. 

Today’s Facebook and Medium outpourings feel the same to me.  But many of those writers DO aspire to unique soul-plunges, the memorable metaphor, transcendent passion for some doomed devil of a human.  There are two sides of writing that they miss.  One is the drudgery of marketing, which is the heart of publishing.  It will demand half of all the time you could have been writing.  The other is learning the practicalities of constructing a genre story.  For this second aspect, no one is better than Steve  He’s generous about passing on what he knows.

If you can understand and actually “do” what Pressfield recommends, which isn’t always easy even for him, you can sell writing.  I read his email newsletter and enjoy it, but I don’t write that way, so I don’t even try to sell.  You might say I was writing “Big Idea” nonfiction, but for a pretty rarefied audience and the content is very hard to keep coherent.

Big idea vocabulary is still developing in a technical scientific way that now draws on pop culture slang as much as Latin.  I got to it through environmental writing — at first just pastoral natural history.  But now — geology drilled down to the fossil molecules.    I keep wishing I’d taken organic chemistry.  My interest in “True Confessions” and “Rogue” gave me self-permission to explore porn a little bit.  That genre has almost dissolved itself.  Where do you go after kink?

One of the most boisterous and problematic genres is bio/autobio writing.  The craving to understand what it is to be human has led to an unseemly curiosity about other people’s thought lives, especially if there seems to be an element of instability, disguise, untruth, crossing into uncharted territory.  We’ve become accustomed to an author as a trapdoor, entry into a world we would never know otherwise.  In some ways it’s the old HalliburtonRoyal Road to Romance” stuff.  Done well, in the hands of Vollman or Langewiesche, it’s beyond immersive.  The author will have gone there.

But writing about minds exposes the writer to great danger.  If I wrote a fiction story using recognizable elements of my town or the rez, I could be shot, beaten — people take this seriously.  Problematically, they see their own patterns in any fiction and cannot be convinced it’s not about them.  I could call it journalism, but that’s part of the reason everyone is so angry about journalism right now.  We don’t want to know everything about ourselves.  Nor do we want our mother to know -- we don't want to know about HER either.  We want to feel solid and eternal.

At some subconscious level I had the notion that being a minister would be a kind of safety — that I would be given cultural permission to confront evil through spirituality and people would believe that I would keep their secrets as though a Catholic priest in a confessional.  (Legally, the protection of confessions varies from one state to another and is not under the control of religious institutions.)  As it turned out, ministry was an excuse for avoidance and knowing things about people was a burden.  Most folks have no idea how boring and banal their wickedness is.  Thumb on the scales stuff, anything in the interest of profit.  They never listen.

These are not issues that Steve Pressfield considers.  They seem merely good sources of motivation for war or politics, which supply context for detail and character.  I’m not putting all this stuff “down” as vulgar or low-class.  This is the truth that people can’t handle.  The worthiness of writing rests with the reader, not the writer.  Print is meant to stay there on the page, stay the same, which is one definition of “truth”.  Writing on the internet or any computer is much too fluid and flickering to be “truth” unless you can handle abstracts at a deep level of analysis.  What is the algorithm of truth?

All that is too damned fancy.  Here are some practical notes from Pressfield’s online feed, which I certainly recommend even if you don’t write, just because he's so lively.

He’s writing genre, people’s books.  They have categories like “Supernatural Thriller”  and are mostly fiction.  I should make a list.  “Police Procedural”, “Redemption”, etc.  He does have a nonfiction category (or set of categories) he calls “Big Idea”

There are formulas to follow to make the books work, largely about plot sequences,  conventions and obligatory scenes
He’s often bouncing off ideas illustrated in movies.  Expect quotes of dialogue from movies he likes.  He accepts outside opinion and advice from people he trusts, even if they rip his work to shreds.

He’s willing to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite.

He uses index cards to keep track of scenes and characters. All is practical.  No risks.  Things you can work with.

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