Goodbye to a fellow writer and mentor

My aunt Clara, a second cousin really, was a writer of children’s books. She loved being around children, so her book tours were a source of great joy for her. She also liked to mentor young adults. When I was newly sober, after a harrowing run in with the mental health system and drug culture, Clara came to see me in San Francisco. She bought me a computer through a catalog, and I was hooked.

A couple of years went by, and I took a train out to Minnesota to visit her. I was in my mid-twenties, still working on my bachelor’s degree. She was different. She was annoyed that i hadn’t found my way in life yet. I told her I wanted to be a writer like her.

“Duncan, you can never be a writer because you’re too self-centered.”

“Maybe I should get into science.”

“It’s too late for that. You’re too old to get started.”

Her words cut so deeply. Not only did I have to struggle to believe in myself and the validity of my gay, mentally ill, recovering drug addict voice, now I had to go against the advice of someone I trusted so much.

I never took Computer Science classes because of her remark. I learned to regret that decision.

She taught me many wonderful things. She taught me square dancing in Nevada City near the Donner Pass. She taught me how to cook. Cooking is a matter of confidence in one’s technique and the fungibility of ingredients. It was Clara who introduced me to email. At the time, email was so rare, the New York Times did an article about our family.

The older I got, the less patience Clara had with me. She didn’t believe my depression was beyond my control; I was a malingerer. She warned away potential boyfriends telling them that I was incapable of real love. She was a fireball of cool and terrible things. It was Clara who told me that my mother didn’t have the sort of cancer that people survive; she was right.

Clara passed away a couple of days ago. She had suffered with Alzheimer’s for many years. I knew something was off at her eightieth birthday. My father and I played her the Skye Boat Song as a birthday gift. She smiled, but I didn’t see delight in her eyes. That was when I figured it out.

A year later I got an urgent email from her husband asking me to call. He explained that she had dementia, but it was one of her “good days”. I spoke with Clara. I understood her rambling sentences and we shared a few laughs.

Then I did something that everyone should do in this situation. I exhaled all of my anger and drew in all the best feelings I had for her.

“Clara, you believed in me at a time when others had written me off. You gave me my first computer; I use a computer at work for everything I do. I also write and publish my blog and my novels on a computer. You changed my life for the better. So thank you.”

Clara responded, “Its good that you believe in yourself. My work is done.”

I hung up, then cried hard for as long as the body can cry. Alzheimer’s is not death, but it has a way of forcing you to grieve even when the person is still alive and relatively happy.

When she died on Thursday, I felt numb. I felt sadness. But I had already mourned losing her, so it wasn’t as intense as the moment after that last phone call.

I left out a lot of bad things Clara said and did because the good things she did were so much more important to me. So if you’re holding a grudge against someone with Alzheimer’s disease, let it go. Remember the reasons you know each other and the good times you had. It helps no one to try and air the pain and sorrow from the past.

In “Ben is Back”, Julia Roberts’s character lashes out at a doctor with Alzheimer’s whom she blames for her son’s addiction to opiates. It was meant to feel satisfying, but it made me cringe. Whatever pain and suffering you wish you could inflict on someone with Alzheimer’s is nothing compared to the torture they are experiencing. So be kind.

Clara had such an interesting life, I could hardly do it justice in a “self-centered” blog entry. She was an important guide on my twisted trail to adulthood. I have missed her terribly, and now I miss her that much more since she stepped off the mortal coil.

[names and locations may have been changed to protect privacy]

I Wrote ‘5150’ To Help Others

Tags

, , ,

The first novel in my series, 5150, is a gritty self-exposure of the inner workings of a teenage mind in the throes of psychosis. It’s a roman a clef revealing some of my deepest secrets. Most people who know me long enough to remember that period in my life are aware I was diagnosed at the time with schizophreniform disorder. The rest of my friends were astonished to learn that I had been hospitalized and still suffer today from a fairly mild case of bipolar depression.

Good friends know that I have an attention-seeking part of my personality that wants fame. They know that I have deep-seated money worries that I try to resolve by creating intellectual property that I dream will sell to a mass audience. Those were motives when I wrote the novel, I admit. But the motive I fail to publicize enough is altruistic. I want to provide comfort to families dealing with a loved one who is mentally ill. I want them to know that sometimes it really does get better. I want them to have hope.

How can a book help? Laughter. The story is uproariously funny in places. Tears. The story goes to some very dark, sad spaces in the mind of the protagonist. Compassion. People who read 5150 can’t help but feel compassion for poor suffering Ethan. They want him to get better. They want him to stop making stupid decisions.

So fame and fortune may seem like a selfish motive, but here’s why they aren’t: the more people who read this book, the less stigma circulates around mental illness. The more money I can earn from my writing, the more books I can write. So please read the book. The ebook is available at a lot of libraries, and it’s free (name your own price) on Smashwords, so you don’t have to contribute to my ‘freedom from time-sucking data analysis’ fund. Imagine if someone finally saw its potential and made it into a movie, or perhaps a Netflix Series. How great would that be?

A book to soothe and comfort the families of the mentally ill

Click here or on the image above to go to the Amazon Page for 5150.

The whole series on Kindle Unlimited

Tags

, , , , ,

5150 and Half have always been on Kindle Unlimited, but now M3X1(0 and A Quarter are too. If you subscribe to Prime, you can read one book per month for free. If you have Kindle Unlimited, you can read all four whenever you want!

Read 5150 on Amazon for Free if you have Prime or Kindle Unlimited

Pathetic Fallacy and Other Literary Devices

It sounds much harsher than it is. Pathetic fallacy is a story-telling technique in which the environment surrounding a character is an extension of what is happening inside their head. My first introduction to pathetic fallacy was in Wuthering Heights when Heathcliff is raging somewhere on the moors while thunder and lightning crash and flash. At least that’s how it’s stuck in my head all these years later. It is also when human emotions are attributed to an inanimate object, like a “sad” cloud or a “grumpy” sidewalk.

I wonder if Allen Ginsberg’s “angry fix” in Howl is pathetic fallacy or another literary device. If you say “I ate six bowls” when you mean “I ate six bowls of soup” then you’ve just used synecdoche.

My favorite literary device is semantic syllepsis. (Sometimes called ‘Zeugma’). In semantic syllepsis, a part of speech is used once to represent both the literal and the figurative sense of the word in the same sentence. Huh? Okay, an example. “I ate the meal and the cost.” I “ate the meal” is literal. I “ate the cost” is figurative. And you only say “ate” once – so that’s syllepsis/zeugma.

Language can be fun. What are some of your favorite literary devices? I would love to learn some in foreign languages, too. Like when you say “seven stone lions” in Mandarin – it’s a real tongue twister.

Grammar

Tags

, , ,

From bane to boon

Readers ask me how I manage to construct complex sentences without grammatical errors. My answer is always the same: ‘Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition’.

In Junior High, I had two great English teachers. They were night and day when it came to their teaching style and curriculum. The only constant was the cursed Warriner’s grammar book.

“Today we’re diagramming sentences.” The class would give a collective groan. What was the point of breaking apart sentences and sticking every part of speech into a uniquely placed branch off the main clause? So what if “clause” is the object of the preposition “off”, and “main” is an adjective modifying “clause”? So what if “the” is the article of the object of the preposition? Why will I ever care?

That’s a question that answered itself over the years.

Is this why I’m so good at creating flowcharts in Visio?

There is another facet to my savant-like knowledge of grammar. I studied two foreign languages in Junior High. Learning Spanish and French forced me to return to grammar in order to understand the difference between adjectives and adverbs. The subjunctive tense left me baffled at first, but grammar helped me identify the exact place in the sentence where doubt or will shaded the sentence. Articles and prepositions were familiar friends.

5150 and the other books in that series were written in the first person present tense. There is no way I would have navigated the challenges of such a creative choice without my understanding of foreign grammar. Nothing makes you more aware of verb tense and person than a pop quiz in Spanish class!

I know now why our great teachers forced us to endure mental torture on beautiful spring days when we should have been outside playing. It was so I could write that previous sentence with confidence.

Ritual vs. Bursts of Genius

Tags

, , , , , ,

Which one are you?

A scantily clad miner
Writing can be drawing if you need it to be

Are you the writer who makes an appointment each day or week to sit down and write for a set period of time? Or are you the writer who can only write when inspiration strikes?

If you know me, you know I’m a bit of a slob. I blame it on left-handedness and the need to keep tasks visible on my desk. Similarly, I find schedules really kill my hard on for writing. Right brain thinkers, in general, don’t do well with discipline. It tends to do exactly the opposite to which it was intended. Hand me a rigorous schedule, I will spend the rest of the day figuring out how and when I can skip everything on it.

Writing and a corporate job are tough for folks like me. If inspiration strikes between 8 and 5 Monday thru Friday, I can only scribble my thoughts on a notepad on my break. Technically. Google Docs is a game changer, but I don’t want to go down that road with you today.

If Inspiration strikes while I am home, great. I can usually finish dinner or pause my Netflix show and write. Weekends are the best. I’ve published four literary novels writing primarily on inspired weekends. If I’m in a visual mood, I might design a cover. If I’m bored with my literary fiction, I switch to my smut persona. I’ve published twelve smut novels and/or short stories under a different character. They’re short, so don’t think my ratio is 3:1 smut to legit fiction…it’s really pretty balanced.

If my right brain needs a rest, I take time to re-read and edit my work. If it’s ready to go, I format it for publishing and write marketing blurbs. Yesterday I re-did a cover of a poorly performing pulp novel about coal mining. I drew a scantily clad miner covered in coal dust. I took a snap of the drawing and ran it through some filters and editing tools until I got him the right size and width. Then I re-skinned my eBooks and changed the cover on the paperback. Just for fun I wrote a hook and tacked it to the front of the blurb. I don’t know if it worked yet. The changes went live this morning. But I didn’t write much…it was a burst of inspiration of another kind.

Do you write at a set time and place? Are you prone to bursts of inspiration? Share your thoughts!

You Gotta Have a Hook

Tags

, ,

I discovered that all four of my book blurbs were lacking “the hook”, that killer first line that makes a casual book shopper want to read the rest of the book description. I added hook lines to all my blurbs a few days ago. It should not be “keyword optimized”, but rather a well-crafted plain English one-line pitch for the book.

  • 5150 – Psychosis is not for the faint of heart.
  • Half – A halfway house is a terrible place to fall in love.
  • M3X1(0 – During the 1988 financial crisis in Mexico, even a broke, homeless American could live like a king.
  • A Quarter – The only thing worse than being mentally ill is being mentally ill and strung out on dope.

These hooks mark my best efforts, but maybe some of my readers have better suggestions. Creative writers, even with an MBA, are not always the best at self-promotion!

Serial Employee

Picture of the Stud in its heyday
I got laid off because I was underage

It wasn’t until I wrote the fourth book (A Quarter) that I at last had one of those “know thyself” moments. I have been laid off or fired from nearly two dozen jobs. I’m smart, very good at solving problems…but I don’t fit in with corporate culture. I don’t even fit in with anti-establishment culture. Here is an incomplete inventory of the jobs where I had to quit or was let go for incompetence, under-agedness, or spite:

  • Vallejo Times Herald – Paper boy
  • William Morris Reproductions – Wallpaper sample pack creator
  • Union Hotel – Busboy
  • Varsity Theater – Ticket vendor
  • Second Coming Records – Store clerk
  • Patricia Field – Shop girl
  • Milk Bar – Janitor and Barback
  • Diggery Inn – Dishwasher
  • Stud Bar Barback
  • Sparky’s – Prep cook
  • Grubstake – Dishwasher
  • International Center -Towel boy
  • Marcello’s Pizza – cashier
  • Broadmoor Hotel – Slave/Waiter
  • Peachy’s Puffs – Cigarette boy
  • New Line Cinema – 3rd Production Accountant
  • Tupperware Lady
  • Sixteen to Life – Assistant to Executive Producer
  • Married to the Kellys – Assistant to Line Producer
  • New Line Cinema – Product placement assistant
  • Ascent Media – Project manager
  • Miller Group – Advertising account manager
  • Deluxe Media – Billing process manager

A few jobs in my life were a decent match. They ended for reasons like a major geographical move, or widespread layoffs:

  • Marriott’s Great America – Self-reflexive juice salesman
  • Tower Records – Store clerk
  • TimeShare Consultants – Phone sex bookkeeper filer and dog walker
  • Italian Welfare Agency – Social worker
  • Italian Cultural Institute – Event promoter, News segment producer and Radio DJ
  • Lavender Lounge – Segment producer
  • New Line Cinema -Post production accountant
  • Verestar – Global account manager
  • The Acres – Musician
  • La Lucha – Producer/Director/Writer/Editor
  • Deluxe Media – Manager – Overseas Back Office
  • Psychotic Break Series – Author

The primary pattern: I need to express myself and feel good about the work I’m doing. I need to be in a group of similarly creative and quirky outcasts. I have waxing and waning periods of creativity and energy, so I need to have a job that lets me make my own hours or is only intermittent work. Travel and languages keep me interested for a while, too. Tower Records was a really great group of people. I loved working there. Second Coming Records was hell in a glass box. I write about them in the prequel. Several people who worked there have been diagnosed with PTSD. So, if I’m going to work for the man, the boss better be cool.

The boss on this one was super cool…me!

The Quartet Is Complete

I started 5150 in 1997. It’s taken 22 years to go from a single manuscript to a complete series. I honed my craft. I learned to self-publish. I opened my inner life up to public scrutiny. It has been a rewarding journey. As I pen the last words to the fifth book (a prequel to the series) I complete the tale of an incredibly difficult period in my life. It makes me grateful for all I have now. My dog just sighed and gave me the eye. What a wonderful life.

Click here to go to Amazon

The prequel is in progress.

Take guns away from Trump!

Today felt like a slap in the face with a lollipop. Donald Trump is going to “seize guns from the mentally ill.” This is being discussed despite the fact that violent crimes are carried out by people with no record of mental illness at a rate fifteen-fold higher than the mentally ill. The idea of getting guns off the street is glorious. The idea of targeting, vilifying and seizing property from a group of people arbitrarily deemed less fit is totalitarian at best. Consider three points:

First: Under HIPAA laws, a person’s mental health record is not publicly available. Are we going to make an exception for mental health only? What about your mother’s anal fissures? Your brother’s genital warts?  Would we make those public as well? Doesn’t that sound embarrassing?  That’s because it is!  Your health is private for a reason.

Second: While figures show that 15% of the population at large will commit violence towards others in their lifetimes, less than 1% of those diagnosed as mentally ill will do so in theirs.

https://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2016-crime-statistics-released

Stephen Paddock, who carried out the deadliest mass shooting in history in Las Vegas, was not diagnosed as mentally ill. He never sought treatment of any kind. Interviews with his friends, neighbors, and relatives painted a curious portrait.  Paddock might have been financially successful, but he had real difficulty interacting with people. He is described as “standoff-ish, disconnected, a man who had difficulty establishing and maintaining meaningful relationships,” according to FBI profilers. This is what psychiatry labels “antisocial” personality disorder.  Is there someone in the White House who fits that description? Antisocial personality, also known as sociopathy, is the leading cause of mass shootings.  Sadly, it is almost impossible to detect, since it rarely causes the person to suffer or seek treatment.  It is labeled a mental illness, but not treated like one, since the behavior is typically rewarded in Western society. Suicide, not mass shooting, is the real danger to the mentally ill.  See this very cool study from the National Institutes of Health: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4211925/

Third: Mentally Ill people in crisis will be less likely to seek treatment if their health record will be or could be made public. This will lead to more suicides, since most of the diagnosable and treatable illnesses put the individual at very high risk for suicide when left untreated. Another cool article about this – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC27859/

 

I want America to stop seeking a scapegoat in a group of people who are largely defenseless and 15 times less likely to commit a crime. Why don’t we go after the people who have difficulty interacting with people, like Donald Trump? Let’s make his anal fissures public. Let’s expose his complete lack of moral compass and antisocial “screw everyone” mentality.  That mindset is what leads to mass shootings, stock market crashes, housing market bubbles, and most of the world’s woes.  The problem, of course, is that sociopaths are at a huge advantage over people with feelings, and they tend to claw their way into positions of incredible power, where their selfish decisions damn the rest of us to suffer and pay for their follies without recourse.