‘Man finds decades-old message inside bottle’

Let’s be honest: This is an intriguing human interest story. But once you buy in, all you get is a terribly written, horribly unsatisfying narrative arc. The reader is left with a barrel of questions that should have been answered along the way, plain and simple: Who is David? What did he actually write in the letter? (We can see the news station has a photo! Why leave this out of the story?) What did his wife think about all this? And what about Jeremy? What drives him?

That’s just for starters. What you have here is garbage, and a good editor would have laughed this first draft out of the office. “You don’t have it, kid!” (Never mind that what we have here is a Carriere, Miss., dateline running on a Cleveland news site. Never mind that the body copy on TV news stories is simply the stilted transcript of the video package.) I understand that the whole point of TV news is to get in and get out with a tidy, low-stakes family yarn that you can sandwich between violent crime and the weather, but you just can’t ship bullshit like this—at a time when local journalism could use all the joy and care and craftsmanship it can get!

Note to misguided youth considering a career in journalism: When you come across an antique-collecting retiree who’s found a mysterious, decades-old message in a bottle, share the message with your audience. For god’s sake, have fun with it!

18 days

I haven’t had a drink in the past 18 days, and that’s the longest I’ve gone as an adult without alcohol. There are several reasons I’m doing this “Dry January” thing; the rationale can be summed up simply as, I need to take a break.

For too long, I’ve been a fairly heavy drinker. I mean to say that I’m capable of blotto-level drinking, 12+ beverages in a single run. Whole bottles, if need be. I’ve developed a high-enough tolerance that I don’t often blackout anymore, but a certain lack of awareness grows in those drinks, and I take on a surge of false confidence that leads me to drink more.

By day, I’m pretty high-functioning. I have a stable (and tenderly nurtured) marriage, career, social circle and diverse array of hobbies. I think often about self-improvement. I read Epictetus. I dislike when obstacles hold me back, and I work hard to mitigate them.

In the past few years, I’ve noticed an increasingly obvious and basic fact about my life: that anything negative or frustrating or energy-sapping or depressing can be traced almost immediately back to alcohol. I lead a very happy life, thanks to my wife and young daughter, thanks to my creative outlets, thanks to music and golf, etc., etc., but, like everyone else, I’ve got highs and lows riding the length of my days. Some of those lows are natural; most are due to alcohol. Long story short, I need to take a break.

This has become non-negotiable. If I want to continue improving myself (my dedication as a father, my writing, my golf game, my guitar playing, etc., etc.), then alcohol is an easy thing to remove. I think I’ve known this for several years, but the fact that it’s been so hard to commit to even a few days on the wagon has revealed to me the depth of this bad habit.

And now, on Day 19, I feel terrific! This attempt has been easier than any before it, mostly because of that stark realization. There’s a deeper self-honesty occurring now. I sense that there’s less time to waste. I am 34 years old, and I continue to wrestle with how to live the way I want to live. My point is that I know what I want (thus I know who I am), and I’m learning again and again how to get there.

Ideas

I can’t remember which class it was: Column writing? News writing, or something like that? Tom Suddes was the professor, and he was the greatest influence on my journalistic work at that time (and for many years after college). He gave our class several key pieces of advice, if we were willing to listen, and one of them was about the importance of continually developing new ideas for your editor. At its most basic, that was the job if you were going to work in a newsroom: Always have your next idea ready to roll. And make it a good one.

I’m 34 now, and I try to impart this wisdom to younger writers as often as possible. Yes, of course, you need to act on your ideas. You need to meet people and immerse yourself in stories and find information and write the goddamned thing, but the idea is your currency. There’s nothing worse than not having a good idea when your team needs you to deliver. Without a good idea, you’ve got nothing.

But an idea is different from a topic, and this is where I think a lot of writers get mixed up. I know I’ve made this mistake countless times, delivering some vague notion to an editor in the form of a “story idea.”

A topic is inert. A topic may be a helpful starting point, a framework for narrowing down your interests, but a topic is not an idea.

An idea is active. A good idea pulses with energy. A good idea comes complete with early answers to early questions. There’s a structure in a good idea, and often the idea itself will demonstrate how to get from beginning to end, how to shepherd this energy into a story structure. You’ll know it’s a good idea if you can see a path forward, a clear (open-ended) path for the work to pursue.

Independent journalist Kamala Thiagarajan put it this way in an interview with the Freedom With Writing team: “Often, the best story ideas begin with simple questions. Why does this happen? What is going on? What’s so special about this? The process of finding answers can often lead you to the most intriguing people and stories.”

This is great advice. Those questions can draw out the energy of an idea (if there’s energy to draw). Those questions are critical to ask before delivering an otherwise inert topic to your team.

Three songs I’ve loved in the past week and a half

Each year, I build a playlist that chronicles the songs that capture my attention. Real earworms. As time goes on, this list helps me sort out where I’ve been throughout the year. Prior to 2019, I did this seasonally, which certainly had similar benefits, but I like the big annual list these days.

So far, in 2023, I’ve added three songs.

  • “Rattled by the Rush” by Pavement. I’m reading the 2022 Best American Essays, edited by Alexander Chee, and one of the finest offerings in this collection is “Baby Yeah” by the late Anthony Vaesna So. It’s a sad personal essay, foregrounded by the author’s death not long after he wrote it, but it’s also a terrific example of memoir. Anthony threads his love of Pavement into his own emotional response to a good friend’s suicide. As I was reading the piece, I put Slanted and Enchanted on and then began moving around Pavement’s discography. I’ve always liked them, but I’ve perhaps never given them the time needed to appreciate their spirit. In 2019, I was driving to Pittsburgh with a friend to see Phish, and he told me that of course I’d love Pavement and all of Stephen Malkmus’ solo stuff; Malkmus is a genius wordsmith, he told me. “Rattled by the Rush” is probably not the band’s song, but it caught me off-guard at the right moment. In each of these annual lists, the first song added at the top of the year ends up being a highly visible, oft-listened-to anthem as the year rolls onward.

***

  • “Charleston Girl” by Tyler Childers. I was talking with my cousin at a recent holiday party about Billy Strings (and about getting tickets to Billy Strings), and he pointed me toward Tyler Childers (and to the similar headache of getting tickets to Tyler Childers). He specifically mentioned Live on Red Barn Radio, so I went home and checked it out. Listen: The live album is fantastic. This song, in particular, has gotten stuck in my head. I’m not drinking now, at least for the month of January, so it’s desperate yearning for some far-off sobriety is relatable. But it’s the banjo melody that does it for me.

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  • “Feed the Tree” by Belly. “The single Feed The Tree was released on this date 30 years ago…..” So tweeted @bellytheband on Jan. 11. Some local jam band guy I follow on Twitter RT’d the notice and wrote something along the lines of this being the “perfect” alternative song from that early-90s era. Well, I pay attention when someone says something like that. I don’t know much about Belly, to be honest, but this is a great song. Every piece of the band works well together; Tanya Donelly’s vocals are dreamy, Gail Greenwood’s bass is mysterious and lurking, Thomas Gorman’s guitar lifts the mood and Chris Gorman’s drums stitch the pattern into place.

RIP Jeremiah Green

Jeremiah Green died on New Year’s Eve, and he was my favorite drummer of all time. The man could build a house with just a 3/4 time signature. I first heard “Dramamine” in 2004, and then the song crawled into my head and dressed itself in personal overtones that it wore for many years. It’s one of the very best songs I’ve ever discovered, an uneven mantra for uneven times, a hypnagogic elegy for night owls. Not for nothing, it’s a heartbreaking song, if you let it be, which means it’s as close to a “perfect” song as you’ll find, like so many others we each hold dear.

Isaac Brock’s spaghetti Western harmonics get the accolades (and, yes, of course, they’re unbelievably cool), but it’s Jeremiah’s percussion that knits the song together. If you listen to his voice on the drums in that song, you can actually feel the landscape drift past your eyes just outside the window, low-slung American cities fading into the middle distance; you end up somewhere else by song’s end, and, even today, to borrow a phrase, I believe that a car with the gas needle on empty will get you a few more miles down the road if you let Jeremiah’s hi-hat guide the way.

His style was kaleidoscopic. He could be bombastic and rowdy (“Truckers Atlas,” “Exit Does Not Exist,” “Tundra/Desert”) and then he could be coffee-shop chill, all eight-armed bongo jazz (“It’s All Nice on Ice, Alright,” “Sunspots in the House of the Late Scapegoat,” “Trailer Trash”). Jeremiah’s performance, his imprint, is the key to those songs. Style, so says Susan Sontag, is a means of insisting on something. Style is everything. When you find it in an artist, you treasure that connection. Let the music teach you something about yourself.

Even when “Dramamine” comes to an end, structurally, Jeremiah’s drumming somehow continues. Just incredible stuff. The moment ends, as we all know (it has to), but at the same time the moment never ends.

Bow your heads. One of the good guys has passed.

Five years of books

Beginning in January 2018, with inspiration from Sam Allard’s #bookstack, I started recording every book I read. Before long, I realized that this is critical for anyone with a serious reading habit. Books are such an integral part of life that you must develop some sort of anchor for what you’ve read, some sort of foothold in the past that may inform your present. By finally tracking where I’d been, I think I have a better sense of how I went about building the last few chapters of my life. I can see, very clearly, how American Pastoral shaped the way I understand myself in part. (N.B.: I was in a hotel room at the Palmer House in Chicago when I finished American Pastoral, and I was so caught up in Roth’s work that I ran out into the Loop and found a bookstore and bought The Human Stain. This was a pivotal moment.)

Alongside time spent with my family, time spent playing guitar and listening to music and going to shows, time spent writing, time spent playing golf, all of this time spent reading ranks among the most important and meaningful activities in my life. Not only does all this reading inform my own writing, but it tends to shape my own capacities for empathy, patience and generosity. Imagine the level of dedication you need to project a world within a book! It’s a profound source of joy to inhabit an author’s mind while I’m reading a book, and I think there’s a lot to be said about the learned skill of stepping into someone else’s shoes for a while.

It’s also just a great, simple way to unwind. Life is plenty full of distractions and hazards. Sitting down to read at your own pace is something you can control and relish. This is a major lesson I’m hoping to teach our daughter as she grows up. I think the 21st century is already turning out to be relatively more totalitarian in nature, thanks to rising nationalism and the development of artificial intelligence / mass surveillance / digital biometric data tracking / centralized financial instruments / factory farming / CIA psy ops posing as friendly social media / you name it. They can try to burn books (and they are! look around!), but they cannot steal your mind if you don’t let them in.

Anyway, it’s been fun jotting all this stuff down over the years. If you’re not already charting your own reading habit, I highly recommend it.

Looking back, you can see I went pretty heavy on Roth/DeLillo/Pynchon early on. This set a particular tone for me, and I had a habit for a few years of reading a Pynchon novel every December; that fell off in 2021 when I got caught up with Karl Ove Knausgaard and then in 2022 with Denis Johnson. I feel confident that I’ll get around to Gravity’s Rainbow in 2023.

Read the full list after the jump. Asterisks denote personal favorites.

Continue reading “Five years of books”

Big new year’s energy

I really do. I get a big kick out of the new year vibe. While the holiday-as-media-spectacle can be a big pain in the ass and I tend to avoid those $150-ticket galas downtown, I might have to say that New Year’s Eve is a top-five or even top-three holiday. Aside from going to New York City to see Phish (which is adjacent to the holiday’s most outlandish nonsense), I like a chilled out evening at home with my family. I like feeling the year slip away, with the new one coming on like a faint buzz.

And yeah, sure, I’ve got plans for 2023. Looking back on this year, though, I feel like I accomplished most of my major “five-year plan”-type goals. Our first child is here. The MFA is secured. My first book is out in the world. The work that went into my feature on Kevin Keith has surfaced as a blockbuster podcast series produced by none other than Kim Kardashian. I’m down 22 lbs. on the year. For the first time as an adult, I’m debt-free (setting aside the car note and the house). Credit card debt-free, which feels like I can now float through the air if I want to.

My friend asked: “What is the end of the next five years?”

And I don’t know. Another child? A new house? Another 22 lbs. off my frame? Some sort of teaching gig at a university? A published novel? These are all fine goals–and true enough. But it’s hard to say. Time flies, but it also slows down. Five years is shorter than it seems, and it’s also longer than it sounds.

Five years will put me at 39, and no doubt I’ll be doing all sorts of reflective writing on the idea of turning 40. The past five years seem like foundation-building, and I don’t mean to say that in a way that diminishes anything. But back in 2017, I knew I wanted to get my life in order, as they say. I wanted to improve the posture of my life. I was all out of sorts. In August 2017, I met Bridget, and it’s been onward/upward ever since. I feel tethered, somehow, to the spinning universe. And so, with my wife, I’ve set about the work of building a life with joy and meaning and humor and love. That sort of work, which isn’t really “work,” will continue. That’s the whole point. Each day is a new opportunity to develop the plot. There’s no real need to have a plan, only the self-assurance that each day will follow from the last.

Still, a plan is nice. Five years from now? I’ve got thoughts.

For now, though, the next year is enough. I have one big goal that’s not necessary to put into writing just yet, one big goal that I don’t want to speak. Writing this is enough: I want to be here now.

If I can do that again and again and again and again and again in 2023, it’ll be my best year yet.

For now, though, the next day is enough. The next moment.

2022 in books

I think I read fewer books this year than in the past several years, but it’s still a solid list. This one tilts heavily toward fiction, mostly because I graduated from my creative nonfiction MFA program in May and just wanted to get on with some big honking doorstoppers. I like that tilt. It’s been fun to immerse myself in those longer, weirder novels that might otherwise be passed over on the bookshelf. Tree of Smoke, my final book of the year, for instance, sat on my shelf for maybe 10 years before I finally came around to it in a flurry of Denis Johnson reading. Worth the wait!

Of course, this year also marks the birth of our child, Louisa Shea. She has been the wonder of our lives these past six months, and we’ve placed colorful children’s books at the center of her world. She loves when we read to her. She engages with the illustrations, the rhythm of the words, the movement of the pages. It’s amazing to see, and I’m eager to see how her reading grows over her life.

As far as the best stuff I read this year, I’d have to start with Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe novels. The Sportswriter, Independence Day, The Lay of the Land and Let Me Be Frank With You were unbelievably good. Ford has an excellent eye for the innermost details of a character, for the minute-by-minute thought patterns that construct a life. Frank Bascombe is not the most endearing protagonist of all time, but his earnestness and his self-awareness make for great through-lines in a four-novel set like this. Not for nothing, Independence Day brought home a Pulitzer in 1996.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, The Goldfinch, Crossroads, A Fan’s Notes, The Shipping News and A Visit from the Goon Squad were my other favorite novels. Each one was mesmerizing. Don’t sleep on Annie Proulx’s writing style in The Shipping News! What a knockout!

On the nonfiction side, easy: To the Linksland, Michael Bamberger’s memoir about caddying in Europe in the early 1990s was a perfect book. For anyone who loves golf, this is a must-read. On Writing was great too; that one was a re-read from my college days. If you think of yourself as a writer, I have no doubt it’s on your bookshelf. It’s a good one to revisit every now and then. And I do want to get a Stephen King book on my 2023 list… I’ve read The Shining, but nothing else. It’s time, I think… Maybe IT?

My next post will be a five-year retrospective of reading. I’ve been recording every book I’ve read since January 2018, and I’m excited to see everything that landed on that list over the years. Aside from a few gems that came before (One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Magus, A Prayer for Owen Meany, White Noise, All the King’s Men), this five-year period contains all the life-expanding books that I’d now consider personal favorites and, to be a bit cloying for a moment, personal friends. More on that soon.

Out of Office by Charlie Warzel, Anne Helen Petersen 

Second Nature by Michael Pollan 

To the Linksland by Michael Bamberger 

Mutations by Sam McPheeters

Bewilderment by Richard Powers

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders

The Best American Essays ed by Kathryn Schulz

The Vietri Project by Nicola DeRobertis-Theye

The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan

The Bogey Man by George Plimpton

This Is Your Mind on Plants by Michael Pollan

The World Played Chess by Robert Dugoni

Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen

Serious Face by Jon Mooallem 

The Green Road Home by Michael Bamberger

A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon 

Tinkers by Paul Harding 

Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan 

Let Me Finish by Roger Angell 

The Spectator Bird by Wallace Stegner

Norwood by Charles Portis 

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx 

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich 

The Sportswriter by Richard Ford 

On Writing by Stephen King 

Independence Day by Richard Ford

Golf Is Not a Game of Perfect by Bob Rotella

The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford 

Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford 

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr 

True Grit by Charles Portis 

End Zone by Don DeLillo 

A Little Devil in America by Hanif Abdurraqib 

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami 

Essentialism by Greg McKeown 

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt 

Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson 

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson 

Already Dead by Denis Johnson 

Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson

N.B.

You hear a lot about the need to vary your sentence lengths. Yes, of course. But my No. 1 piece of advice to fellow writers is simply to shorten the fucking things first. Shorten those sentences! We’re drowning in run-ons and clunky junk-drawer punctuation. Stop!

Fleeting marathons

One thing I started doing this year was to focus on a single author’s books for an extended period of time. This began with Richard Ford in June and July; his four Frank Bascombe novels were what I was reading when Louisa was born. It was a top-tier reading experience for me, and Ford’s wry voice on the page will forever be attached to the early, bleary-eyed days of life with Lou. Not for nothing, I think at least two of those books rank among the “Great American Novel” echelon.

Now, it’s onto Denis Johnson to close the year. Jesus’ Son, Train Dreams, Already Dead and, currently, Tree of Smoke. What I like so far about his stuff is that he doesn’t sit in the sentimental or the transcendent for too long. Instead, he merely grazes the veil before pulling back into the dark, malfunctioning American reality we all know so well. You learn pretty quickly as a writer that all the meaningful schlock about life has already been said before, that the deftest move is to reinvent those familiar melodies in a voice that might connect with someone else’s mind. This is, after all, largely what love is: the syncopation of rhythms. Two melodies linking arms in verse. And this is what makes reading such a joy.

So, I’ve loved the madness in Johnson’s work. Reading his voice is good for the winter, I think, like throwing logs on a fire. And I dig his attitude, his posthumous mystique.

“Writing. It’s easy work,” he wrote. “You make your own hours, mess around the house in your pajamas, listening to jazz recordings and sipping coffee while another day makes its escape . . . Bouts of poverty come along, anxiety, shocking debt, but nothing lasts forever. I’ve gone from rags to riches and back again, and more than once. Whatever happens to you, you put it on a page, work it into a shape, cast it in a light. It’s not much different, really, from filming a parade of clouds across the sky and calling it a movie — although it has to be admitted that the clouds can descend, take you up, carry you to all kinds of places, some of them terrible, and you don’t get back where you came from for years and years.”