This summer has been hot and I’ve been feeling messed up lately. I left a job I didn’t like, but which brought me a certain level of respect, for a job I don’t like that only makes me feel completely disconnected from my life—that is to say, this blog, reading what people are writing everywhere and the full and complete concentration on my own writing.
Time is tight for me now and not in the pretentious way that the New York Times recently analyzed. I’m trying to fit as many different kinds of writing into my free time as possible, but it’s been difficult. I caught the flu and was incorrectly diagnosed with meningitis. A tick bit me and gave me Lyme’s disease, which makes me feel strange at random times and its hot and all I want to do is play ball and run and feel exhausted in the heat and then take a cold shower, drink coffee and write while the sun sets over my neighbor's window and the white sheet in her window whips in the breeze.
In the face of my unpleasant new job and my lack of time, I managed to have a piece on the Belmont approved for Grantland, which as anyone who reads anything I write knows, is a site I admire greatly. But, “I’ll Have Another” was pulled from the race and my piece was appropriately pulled from the site before it could run. This kind of thing happens all the time, but, as I sit each day in the sun of Madison Square Park on break from my very Bartleby-the-Scrivenerish job and watch beautiful women sunbathe and walk by, I feel a bit discouraged.
However, no one has ever come to this blog to read me complain or put down anything. Not everything is bad: I have a used A/C that my consistently kind old neighbor gave me that works fine and doesn’t run my electric that high; it’s summer and I can go East and swim and ride on boats with my friends and swirl in a whirlpool known as Flax Pond. I can write stories that I feel somewhat good about, stories that begin to touch on whatever it is to me that never feels right in the world.
And this is what I was telling my father about on Sunday as we sat by our pool. My parents were putting in new landscaping in our backyard and around the pool and there was dirt everywhere. My dad was watering the hot dirt, the mulch and the freshly planted new trees, bushes, flowers and shrubs as I sat in the sun against my doctor’s orders—a prescription to doxycycline increases your sensitivity to the sun. My dad dove in the pool to escape the heat and he asked me about the upcoming election. I told him I thought in terms of history and that I could never see myself in twenty years saying to friends or co-workers or a wife, “Remember when Mitt Romney was president?” My dad and I talked about a lot of things after that. We talked about the 2008 election, FDR, Barack’s current theme in his speeches of encouraging American’s to be satisfied with being in the middle class, political parties cleaning their cabinets by just throwing candidates out there so there is new blood (i.e. Romney, Kerry), Spain’s unemployment and how the hell we, as a nation, can parlay the technology at our fingertips into some kind of makeable, tradable commodity.
“As Frank Sobotka put it,” my dad said. “We used to make shit in this country.”
I then told my father that no matter what kind of dead-ends I was running into with my day job and my writing that there was always a way to break through. I felt confident in the technology, in the means of spreading and sharing my writing that currently existed. I felt that, if I approached these various means with enough force and from enough different directions that, eventually, I would break through. My dad, always supportive, agreed. So as he got out, I jumped in the pool and did messy breaststroke laps while teaching my dog to stay seated calmly at the edge of the pool. That night, I took the late train back to Brooklyn, listening to music and idle conversation and got two new ideas for short stories. I jotted them down, but still had the strange feeling of excitement and dread that I feel each time I ride the LIRR in either direction. I hurried home and went to sleep with my new, used, A/C purring in the dark.
The next morning I woke up and prepared for work. I had breakfast and coffee, checked for any overnight NBA news, then reviewed all the overnight tweets on my Twitter feed. I follow Jay Caspian Kang, who is a writer for Grantland amongst other places as well as a fiction writer—he is one of my favorite, young writers today. I noticed that he had tweeted a link to this article on a Tumblr called Family Business. If you don’t read the article, it basically explains that sports-writing on the Internet has gone downhill because there are too many writers who are content to or looking to write the same thing, which is a distanced, “expert” account of whatever they are writing about. The author of the article says that current Internet sports writing (and to an extent Internet writing in general):
“[reinforces] the notion that everyone can be an expert while staying at home and living behind a series of screens. The guy who scours the internet for a news story—big or quirky—repackages it with a block quote, a picture, some vague “analysis,” and a joke or two thinks he’s an expert.”
This anonymous writer goes on to explain that the cure for this “illness” is that more websites, magazines and young writers should be focusing on reporting, reporting in the way that someone like Brian Phillips—who the writer uses as an example of good sports journalism—handles it, which is to go out to sporting events, ask bystanders questions and then wrap their answers or general attitude into sparkling, concise prose.
The piece on Family Business cut straight to quite a few of my insecurities as a writer. Mainly the fact that I lack any reporting skills or reporting courage. I never wanted to go to Journalism School nor did I ever want to get an MFA. I felt that just living my life and working would provide me with enough experience to be able to write about sad, funny and interesting things—it takes just as much or perhaps more intelligence and creativity to make an average work day memorable or happy, than it does to finish an MFA program. However, the daily life of someone who wants to write can be quite introverted. And that kind of turning inward becomes an insecurity for someone, like me, who wants to write good fiction and who also wouldn’t mind being a sports reporter or a cultural reporter for a day job. I have never reported an event. In many ways, I am very much a guy who simply hides behind a screen and voices romantic and over-prosaic thoughts about TV, basketball and music.
On his Twitter feed, Jay Caspian Kang agreed with most of the writer’s points, save for the fact that mere reporting will save the Internet from getting stagnant. However, Kang went on a Twitter rant about the piece and the state of the Internet that looked like this (read from bottom up):
Clearly, he makes a lot of good points about the state of Internet writing and how far it has fallen since the early days. Basically, between the Family Business article and Kang’s Twitter feed, the optimism I was articulating to my dad by our pool was completed eradicated. However, only in theory.
See, I’m tired of being told that I’m too late to the party. I moved to Williamsburg in 2008 and in one of my first weeks there, some older guy, who was maybe forty—I couldn’t tell from the cigarette smoke and the lines on his face—told me that I had missed Williamsburg. He told me that Williamsburg was over. I don’t know if I would have called this guy an aging hipster or not, probably the term hipster disturbed him. Either way, I just wanted him to get out of my face. Luckily, I am polite all the time except when I am too drunk, which doesn’t happen that much and so I let this guy talk on and eventually he tottered away. I then went on to have one of the best summers of my life living in Brooklyn as the Animal Collective pre-Merriweather Post Pavilion hype reached some kind of fever pitch that, even if it was a shadow of those bygone eras, had to be compared to Seattle and San Francisco if only for reference. I continued to live in Williamsburg for four more years, always oscillating between hating it and loving it, until I finally just accepted it, and decided to move to a new neighborhood.
In Kang’s Twitter thoughts, he touches on the fact that magazine influence, the success of Internet writers, and the monetization of content has ruined Internet writing. He remembers fondly his early Internet writing. And while I love Kang’s writing and the articulate points he makes, this comes off as a lot of nostalgia. There is always someone telling you what the party was like; about how the drugs were better; the women hotter and the sex freer. Even though he astutely points out that he has no right to romanticize the earlier days of Internet writing since he is a fully employed and monetized writer, he still goes on to mention, somewhat derogatorily, that there are writers who want to write about sports just to get on Grantland, which is something I have been trying to do, came close to doing, and didn’t get to, simply due to fate and mainly circumstance. I know I voluntarily follow Kang’s tweets and, for God’s sake, this is all a dissection of A TWITTER FEED, but it touched on something in me that I didn’t want to just let sit. Maybe it was the three cups of coffee I drank before leaving my apartment, maybe it was because I have been listening to this song on repeat, or maybe it was just because I was didn’t want another instance of someone telling me that I had missed something.
Yet, Kang did two very important things. First, he provided what he thought would be a solution to Internet writing’s problem: finding dynamic ideas and content. It may be a bit vague, but he voiced a complaint, with a possible solution. Second, he emphasized how important the love and pure joy of writing comes into his distress over the state of Internet writing. It was the stress he put on that fact (again, in his tweets) that made me realize I didn’t have to worry about my fate as a writer. Sure, I may have little to no reporting skills. Sure, I may spend too much time writing from behind various screens. Sure, I want to pitch ideas to Grantland or write for SLAM or Montreal Review in an effort to spread my name so that I, like Kang, can eventually be paid to write. At the heart of all of that, all of those insecurities and shortcomings, is an engine that keeps me producing content, which is just simply the love of writing. I write about rooting for the Heat to win the title because I can’t just sit on my couch and turn these ideas of “right” and “wrong” over in my head, I have to put them down and share them immediately. Wilco just can’t release a solid new album, I have to explain why it is their best album and how it actually fit prominently into my experience of watching one of my best friends get married. I can’t let my failed relationship with a co-worker simply just be, I have to prod at it, turn it over, go through the detritus and turn it into a short story that I can submit somewhere.
A quick story. The night before the Fourth of July, I went to a party in Windsor Terrace, which is a suburban, rather out of the way part of Brooklyn at the far end of Park Slope. It was a men’s ultimate Frisbee team’s party so, most of the guests still mainly being in their twenties, there was a collegiate atmosphere to it. Some of my friends were at this party, but there were many people I didn’t know. One thin kid came up to me and put his arms around my friends and I.
“Fucking Fourth of July,” he said.
“Jesus, Michael. Didn’t expect to see you here,” my friend said.
The kid nodded.
“How many semesters you have left?” my friend asked.
“Grad school?” I asked.
The kid spun away and started dancing as “Call Me Maybe” started blasting on the stereo. My friend didn’t know the song, but I did. I thought it was the best song around because it was about what everyone wants. I drank more beer (again, against doctor’s wishes) made eyes at girls, sweat and decided to go home in order to get a good start for the beach the next day. As I was waiting in the subway, a cute girl I had been making eyes with walked down the stairs. She started walking towards me with her friends, some guys and some girls. She waved a little wave at me and I waved back. I stood as she walked up to me.
“You were at that party right?” she asked.
“Where do you live?”
“Further north in Brooklyn.”
“Nice. I live in Williamsburg.”
“Off the Bedford L.”
Just then, the train blew into the station. I was taller than I her and I looked in her eyes. They sparkled. She wasn’t beautiful, but she was cute, had athletic legs and was wearing American Flag shorts. The wind whipped by us and I thought about the Bedford L stop and how it looked to me when I first got to Williamsburg and how it now looks to me. I wanted to say something to her but the train was tight up against us as it slowed to a stop. She looked at her friends and I stepped on the train, assuming she’d follow. But it was an F train—she needed the G. The doors closed and I went on my way. As I rode, I felt sad but not really. I didn’t really want to go to Williamsburg with her, nor did I want to tell her that Williamsburg was over. She was a cute girl and I hoped she was happy in her American flag shorts. There’d be someone else for me to make love to or fantasize about.
I respect Jay Caspian Kang and the writer of that Family Business piece because they both are pointing out a problem that they don’t want to ignore; they want Internet writing to improve for everyone’s sake. Maybe they are more jaded than I am, but I’m just a "tool box" guy. I read the few books and websites that I truly love and I read them over and over. I’ll throw something new in the mix just to remind me of what’s out there and what else I’m competing against. But mostly, I just read and write what I want to. And even if I pitch a thing or two that will put me in a place to do that and get paid, then I can live with that. Maybe I have a weak soul, but I think I know myself well enough to know the real answer.
Dad, you can stay optimistic.