The Story Man

I can’t recall the origin of the nickname. I think I may have pompously referred to myself as such in a rum-fueled haze of confidence, high on one of my rare book sales, and a few people clung to it. It’s a decent moniker, if only in it’s accuracy: I tell stories – it’s my passion, in fact – and I am a man. I tell stories about life and death, killers and thieves, flower girls and friendships. I write poetry for women who have never existed, telling a story about a romance that will never be.

Lately, I’ve been telling a lot of stories about myself. There’s a conceit in that, an assumptive arrogance that anything about my life or me is worth reading about. It’s a promise I feel I often break, when I write a thousand circuitous words or more about my feelings or my soul-searching that usually ends the same way it begins: that I am listless in life, confused about my purpose, and generally dissatisfied with my output in virtually every way.

Yet I can’t stop. If I tried, I think I’d go mad. Well, madder.

I’ve never seen a blank piece of paper I haven’t wanted to write on. Something about the emptiness of it, the void, screams out to me to be filled, and when I do, when I write, it’s not as simple as “the ink of my blood flowing” as this bucking beast that’s been slamming against the cage in my gut finally finds itself a refuge to cavort to its heart’s content.

Of the page itself, it appears not as a canvas, not quite, but a gate. A window to a multiverse, endless possibilities to pull from and when I find the one I want (something with science and fiction, perhaps, or a poem about homesickness, or an echo of my own heart), a flash comes from behind my eyes and a dageurreotype is left in the form of words.

The page is a lover, of sorts, one whose every inch I want to explore and tease and fill to the brim with passion. Sometimes the process is more aggressive. Sometimes we argue. Sometimes I’m left on the edge of tears. The page listens, and I endeavor to explain.

I do that with anecdotes. Stories. Tales.

I remember several years ago, a six-issue comic book mini-series came out called Taleweaver. It was a story about warring factions that had the addition of a protagonist who could change reality by writing what he wanted to happen in the form of a story. It was a concept that never had much sustainability, but I thought it was cool as hell anyway. And “taleweaver”. That sounds awesome. I could be a taleweaver.

The Story Man, though? That sounds so… well, I get two visuals out of it. On one hand, it feels ominous. The Story Man feels like a character ripped straight from King or Koontz. A mysterious figure with unclear intentions. Is he a monster? The last sword of God? A being of grayness, indifferent to the concept of morality? Stephen, if you write it, I will read it.

I also see, however, the old man at the beginning of Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman’s Dragons of Autumn Twilight. Though he becomes a major character further on in the book, we’re introduced to him as a traveling storyteller, scraping the floor with his chair as he takes his place by the fire in a quiet tavern. It’s he that sets the group on their adventure. He puts things in motion.

Do I do that? Lord, I kind of hope not. Here’s where I tell you not to take advice from someone who fucks up as often as I do.

And here’s where you realize if you listen to me, you’ve already taken my advice. Gotcha, sucker.

You know, part of me appreciates that the mistakes I’ve made, and the rash decisions and the ill-advised traveling, all of that has led to a number of stories. While I wouldn’t mind being rich and successful and having those upbeat kinds of memories to write about, the things I’ve done and gone through have allowed me to have a deeper – if still flawed – understanding of myself and the world and some of the people in it. I get the grime, I get the shattered windows and ripped photographs and discarded shoes. I also get the solitary rose growing through the cracks, the letter from a loved one fading from repeated readings, the stuffed animal sewn back together countless times.

I try to write my stories – fiction and nonfiction – so that they’re full of imagery and emotion. I want my readers to see what I see, to feel what I feel, so that they can understand me and maybe see a part of the world that might normally be hidden from them. I don’t know if I’m successful at that, but it also serves to get it out of me, get it onto the page I love, and trap it there.

If it stays in me too long, I get to thinking too much. Case in point, last night I stumbled across a picture of someone’s text post. It was a woman talking about how she was raising her daughter alone and how she would make something up about the father who left her behind. This got me thinking about my biological father, who left, and my adopted father who was unable to take care of me due to his own addictions.

I’ve talked about this at length before, but I’m going to do so again for a second. See, I came across Danny’s Song again. My adopted dad is a huge Kenny Loggins fan, and he loved this song (and I’m Alright, but that’s neither here nor there) in particular. I like the song, and Loggins, but it makes me think about what must have been going through his head in the 80s. In love and married to my mom, ready to raise and love me as his own. The idyllic life. And I think about how that all crashed and burned. How the marriage fell apart because of substance abuse and rampant blame. How he fled the state and I didn’t see him for two years or talk to him for a year and a half. How this perfect, picturesque family lifestyle has turned into being shut away in prison in different states and cutting almost all contact from his family and all contact from me.

Of course that leads me to my biological father, who couldn’t be bothered to even pay for the paternity test, so few fucks did he give about possibly having a son.

I am grateful for the grandfather I got, the one he raised as a third son and fourth child, though I shared no blood ties to him. I will always be grateful.

Even so, for as many years pass and as often as I tell myself and others, I still wind back around at dad and abandonment issues.

It’s sort of a weird topic to bring up in an article about being The Story Man (capital t, naturally), but I’ve been doing some soul-searching lately, and I haven’t been liking some of what I’m seeing.

Am I the man my grandfather wanted me to be? The one he felt was worth raising from the age of five even though he had put in his dues? Or was John right in running away from me before he could get to know me? Am I just a broken man like Rick who is set to have his idea of a happy family wrecked by my decisions and weakness?

I think about it a lot, because that feeling of duality drives me in a lot of different directions. The bulk of my stories seem to be rooted in the complex and very intense emotions that I’m absolutely convinced came from a loving but somewhat traumatic and confusing childhood.

Of those three options, I know which one I try most to be. I try to be a good guy. I try to build up and inspire others (the only way I know how, for the most part, being through stories), but I know specters of the other two haunt my life daily. I won’t even touch Terry, who I wrote about in Santa Wears a Black Hat, and who I learned a lot from – both good and bad – but whom I also spend far less time obsessing about.

So try as I might to be someone worth raising, someone worth being around, someone worth loving, I’m not always strong enough, I feel, to pull it off. Writing those thoughts out, the pain I’m feeling, the love I feel for beautiful things, my love of love, my longing for people that make me feel alive, my desire to strengthen connections with people and my anxiety that I did something wrong or am horribly deficient when that connection seems shaky… writing it out is the only way, the only *healthy* way I can keep my knees from buckling.

Sometimes that manifests itself in imaginary worlds, hard and beautiful and varyingly interesting places I’ll never be able to see; or characters who embody different aspects of myself. Sometimes it will be in fictional love letters, poetry that struggles to capture the romance I see and feel in the currents of the wind and the flight of autumn leaves, or whatever.

Sometimes it’s just me getting shit out. Telling stories, because stories are what I’m left with. The arrows in my quiver, the sword in my sheath, the A-4 KU Skyhawk on my aircraft carrier…. this metaphor got away from me.

I arrive in Montana on Saturday. I suspect I’ll have more stories pretty soon.

“To be alive
To be alive: not just the carcass
But the spark.
That’s crudely put, but…
If we’re not supposed to dance,
Why all this music?”

-Gregory Orr

Story Time With Grampa Jered

I haven’t been sleeping well lately. I’ve been getting to bed late and waking up early. I’ve been having a lot of nightmares, too, because if I’m only going to get three or four hours of sleep, those hours better be filled with distressing thoughts and images.

I’ve dreamed separately of my mother and my father and both have involved arguments. Terrible, horrible arguments that had me waking anxious and nauseous. I don’t know where those dreams came from but they can go back to whatever hell they pulled themself out of.

Anyway, between exhaustion and general dismay I haven’t had anything worth writing about. Until today! Today, a friend’s Facebook status asked: “What are the stories that you are going to tell your grandchildren?”

That is one hell of a question. My knee-jerk reaction is that I want to be the grandfather who waits until his grandchild/grandchildren reach that age where they just know me as the nice, old, unassuming guy who gave the best Christmas gifts and then reveal stories of my youth that would blow their fucking mind.

Stories about the first time I got really drunk and vomited into an entire party’s shoes. Or the time I was tripping balls on mushrooms and saw a poster of an elegant looking woman while lilting music played in the background so it felt like she was singing to me and – naturally – I fell in love. Or about the time I had to beat the shit out of a guy behind a bar because he sucker-punched me, and only the next morning did I find out he did it because I winked and finger-gunned him and if any action deserved a sucker-punch, it’s that.

I just remember learning about my dad’s stories from his youth and some of the stories of my grandfather when he was in the army and I remembered how it blew my mind. That these vanilla people in my life, the authority, The Man had these stories of derring-do and debauchery. I wanted to hear about their adventures. The times they cheated death. The places they got kicked out of. The bones they broke and the liquors they liked. That kind of thing turns a boring old codger into a man of legend and mystery.

I would tell my grandkids these stories and tell them it was our little secret, and they’d run and tell their friends how awesome their Pappy was or whatever.

And you know, those stories are fun and they come with lessons all their own. That being said, I started thinking more about the kinds of stories that make you think. The stories I really wanted to leave behind. The stories I wanted to hear from my grandparents.

So what stories would I tell my grandkids?

I’d tell them about every woman I ever fell in love with. The ones I loved for years, who built me up and broke me down and taught me more about myself than anything else could. I would talk about our inside jokes and the little quirks that made them unique. I would talk about the women I loved quietly, the ones who slipped through my fingers like air, the ones whose backs I smiled at as they found happiness elsewhere in the world. I would talk about the women I loved for a night and the sparks that danced across the cocktails we stared at each other over, or the women whose backs I traced novels on with my finger tips while the golden rays of dawn played with their hair.

I would talk about love and I would talk about heartbreak, and the projects I threw myself into to avoid seeing their ghosts in every corner, and hearing their voice in every song.

I would talk about struggle and pain and loss and desperation. When twenty dollars was two weeks worth of food and 2-for-1 cans of pork and beans was a deal only in a liberal sense but certainly not in any culinary kind of way. How a Canadian roadie named Pat the Pirate would spot me a few bucks for Jack in the Box “tacos” because I couldn’t even afford that. How suicide and car wrecks and old age and adorable animals can take you from
the highest high to a shivering and sobbing wreck effortlessly, because it is a delightful thing to hear about love and kindness but without consciousness of tragedy and that fairness is a myth and that things never quite work out exactly right, you never truly appreciate everything and everyone you have.

I would tell them about the letters I never wrote, the plot ideas I would pass on, the places I missed, the spots I scribbled my name around the world. I would tell them that my favorite kiss is always the first one: if it’s great, it’s everything you hoped for and the greatest feeling; if it’s bad, it was either never meant to be or it could only get better. There’s a thrill in the unknown.

I would tell them my favorite kiss is the last kiss. Last kisses are a painful, hopeful, desperate ocean of art. There are a thousand words in goodbyes and none shouted more loudly than in a last kiss.

I would tell them the closest I ever came to God was in every dawn and dusk I witnessed and impress upon them the importance of reflection, even on this little rock floating in circles in the vastness of space. I would tell them whatever stories made me realize that in the grand scheme of things, we might be insignificant, but to each other, we are the grand scheme of things.

I would tell my grandchildren stories of life and death, of love and loss, of art and absence, of how the slightest success can vanquish the hardest failure.

And then…after all of that…I would tell them about the three (3) times I greeted a pizza guy in the middle of a party wearing nothing but a gauntlet over my genitals because I’m fucking awesome.

Getting the Gang Together

I’m a sucker for an ensemble piece.

Don’t get me wrong: the lone heroes (John McClane from Die Hard, Harry Callahan from Dirty Harry, Jack Reacher from his series of novels that started with Killing Floor, Indiana Jones from…well, Indiana Jones) are awesome. There’s something exciting about one man overcoming impossible odds and taking down the bad guys.

Dynamic duos are cool, too! Hot-headed Gabriel Cash and meticulous Ray Tango in Tango&Cash; unhinged Martin Riggs and family man Roger Murtaugh in Lethal Weapon; neurotic and brooding Batman and inspirational, idealistic Superman; brash and flamboyant Mugen and elegant, precise Jin from Samurai Champloo.

Even The Way of the Gun, in which both gunmen (George Parker and Harold Longbaugh) are small-time but consummate professionals, does duty to make them stand out as having distinct differences in their personalities. Parker is a little more impulsive and a lot more loquacious while Longbaugh has a consistent air of intrigue about him.

These are good things. These are good characters and good match-ups and good stories.

But I am a sucker for an ensemble. I’m not just talking a group, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but a group where everyone has a specialized purpose for being there, like Firefly.

I’m talking about The Magnificent Seven, where Chris Adams and Vin are a couple of old, weather-worn dogs with a shared moral compass, Chico is an impetuous young man trying to prove himself, Britt is an aimless knife-man with nothing better to do, Harry Luck is hoping for riches, Lee is on the run from the law and going through a crisis of self, and Bernardo is just trying to get by. And these men, with their speed and their smarts and their guts and their experience get drawn together to save a village.

I’m talking about Ocean’s Eleven, where Danny Ocean and Rusty Ryan pull together a pickpocket, a pair of mechanics, a surveillance expert, an explosives expert, an experienced grifter, an acrobat, the femme fatale and an inside man to pull off an audacious heist.

I’m talking about 100 Bullets (my favorite story of all time) where one man tries to wake up his seven sleeper assassin’s (The Dog, The Wolf, The Bastard, The Rain, The Monster, The Saint, and the Pointman) to bring down the thirteen families running America but bad blood, conflicting loyalties, personal demons, and bloody grudges make the scheme more complicated and more deadly than expected.

The trick is not making the characters carbon copies of each other. A squad of mercenaries can be bad-ass, but in different ways. They do things differently from each other. They act differently from each other.

In The Losers, the group in question is former black ops military. Jensen is an electronics specialist and can (has killed), but he’s more like than not to duck away from direct conflict and crack wise to mask his fear. Rorque is a killer through and through, ruthless and unlikable even by his comrades, but efficient. Pooch is the vehicles expert, along for the ride and to pull his comrades out of the fire, but also the only one with familial ties back home. Cougar is a sniper, and a good one, but he keeps quiet and to himself, haunted by the things he’s seen during war.

This is what makes a good ensemble. Variety. Complexity. It doesn’t just flesh out each character more and make them feel like real people. It also breeds opportunities for real relationships and conflicts within the group itself. That’s where great storytelling is made. That’s where the stakes are raised. That’s what makes each betrayal sting so much more. That’s what makes each death hurt so deep. It’s what makes each victory, last-minute save, reluctant confession, and occasional hook-up such fist-pumping moments.

There’s a movie coming out soon called Fury, headlined by Brad Pitt and starring some other rising name actors (Shia LaBeouf is probably the next biggest, then Logan Lerman, Michael Peña, and Jon Berenthal) about a five-man tank crew stuck behind enemy lines in war-torn Germany.

Lerman is the new gunner on the crew, untrained and untested and thrown into a harrowing situation. Pitt tells him that he’s served with the other three members on the tank for years and across two continents, and he looks it, with deep crow’s feet etched around his eyes and a wicked scar across his mouth. From the previews, there is conflict, with the veterans pushing Lerman to do his job before he gets them killed. There are also several scenes between Pitt and Lerman where the tank commander endeavors to teach the boy about the nature of war and their place in it.

It looks excellent. From the cinematography to the interactions, from the action to the character, it looks fantastic.

But maybe I’m biased. I am, after all, a sucker for an ensemble.

Ten(ish) Books That Tickle My Fancy

I was asked by a friend to list ten books that have meant something to me. I wasn’t going to do it because I wasn’t sure I could come up with a full list. Then inspiration hit me (and I needed to update my blog, besides).

1. The Hardy Boys series by the Stratemeyer Syndicate/The Indian In the Cupboard by Lynn Reid Banks: I don’t remember which came first, but these were the books that really kickstarted my love for reading. When I was young, my grandparents would take me to their home in small town Red Lodge, Montana for a month or so at a time. I would get homesick after a week or so and found myself in the nice old library downtown. It was two stories tall and filled with rows of scratched and faded bookcases easily fifty years old. The building smelled of old books, vanilla left on a sunny lawn for a generation of happy summers.

Whether it was the first of Banks’ five entry series or a random selection from the Hardy Boys’ many mysteries, they transported me from the loneliness that comes from being too far from home to worlds of magic and intrigue.

2. Dragons of Autumn Twilight by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. This is the book that kicked off the world of Krynn, one that I visited many times over many years and which has been built upon, expanded, devastatingly changed and rebuilt by dozens of authors. While it doesn’t hold up as well now as it did in my youth (it’s based on their tabletop experiences and it reads in places like a recounting of their session instead of more natural storytelling), it is still one of my fondest series.

Not only that, but my love for that setting eventually led me some text-based role-playing chat rooms set in Krynn. It came during a rough patch in my life, led to a ton of very important friendships, and let me experience a ton of adventurous stories. But that’s a blog post for a different time.

3. Dragon Wing by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. Obviously my love for the Dragonlance saga led me to find other things that the duo had written. Dragon Wing is the first novel in the seven book Death Gate Cycle. Each of the first four novels explore a different world, each rewriting the rules of magic and societal structure of the three typical fantasy races (dwarves, elves, humans). It also opened my eyes to complex characters. While the protagonists in Dragonlance had distinct personalities, doubts and backgrounds, they each more or less fit an archetype and stuck with it. At their core, they were also all good people (except Raistlin, who really is just a dick).

In the Death Gate Cycle, Haplo is our protagonist and he has an agenda, but he’s not a great guy. He’s racist (he was brought up that way), he’s cruel, he’s petty and he’s self-absorbed. These things all change through the course of the series as he realises nothing is quite the way he was brought up to believe. You learn with him, feel his frustration and his betrayals and his fierce protectiveness. Plus his powers are so fucking cool.

I also felt special reading these because nobody else I knew had ever heard of them.

4. Attack of the Mutant by R.L. Stone. I devoured all of the Goosebumps novels, the Goosebumps 2000 novels (meant for teenagers), and the show. I played the little video games on their old website and bought t-shirts. They were fantastic horror stories for kids with a wide rang of monsters and settings. Above all, though, Attack of the Mutant was my favorite due to its mixture of horror (which I enjoy) and comic books (which I love).

5. The Invasion by K.A. Applegate. This book is picked specifically by sheer virtue of introducing me to the Animorphs series, though it wasn’t my favorite from that series overall. There’s an excellent little piece about the quality of the series over at Tor Publishing House’s site.

6. Wizard’s First Rule by Terry Goodkind. Like the book above, this one served as an entry point to the author’s series (Sword of Truth). This was also one of the better entries and while there were more mediocre books and repetitive themes throughout the series than good ones, it ended with three very strong novels. I haven’t read any of his newer books set in the same world as sort of a second-act, but the initial series was pretty awe-inspiring to me.

I was 11 when I read Wizard’s First Rule and, well, I shouldn’t have been reading it. Don’t get me wrong, my dad let me watch R-rated movies and my step dad owned strip clubs and nude magazines, so I was far from some end-user innocent, but this book is a far cry from even the most brutal parts of Dragonlance. This was fantasy for adults and it was awesome. It made me realize just how far the genre could go.

7.The Stand by Stephen King. This book was on my friend’s list also, because he has good taste. I have read quite a bit of Stephen King and enjoyed most of it, but this isn’t just my favorite book of his, it’s one of my all-time favorite books period.

It isn’t just the bleak apocalyptic world. It isn’t only the excellent soundtrack or the many varied characters. It isn’t the overall creepy supernatural battle between good and the corruptive force of evil (the amazing Randall Flagg). It’s that King took his time with this book. I read the ridiculously long restored version of this book, but man… he really develops just about every character in this book in ways he usually doesn’t. Every long stretch of existence leads to a major event or turning point. It was a simmer that led to a series of boiling pops until it finally all explodes.

I fucking love this book. Oh, and if you like it, go read Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon.

8. The Monkey’s Raincoat by Robert Crais. I was a huge fan of fantasy and science-fiction growing up. I liked the spectacular, the impossible, the unbelievable. It didn’t occur to me that there was excellent stories told in a grounded, realistic way, too.

This book – and I don’t know who recommended it or how I stumbled across it – was my first foray into crime/thriller fiction. Elvis Cole and his less seen (until later novels) partner Joe Pike are private detectives. Cole’s investigations are interesting, his wit is hilarious and the action is tight. Robert Crais is who got me hooked on writers like John Sandford, Lee Child and especially Michael Connelly.

James Patterson can sit and spin, though.

9. Eragon by Christopher Paolini. Let me be clear: I know this series has a lot of fans and I’m glad you like what you like

I do not like this book. I think it’s dumb, I don’t think it’s particularly inspired, I don’t think Eragon being one letter from “dragon” is more coincidence than sheer laziness, and I own the movie anyway. Everyone was talking about the fucking thing, so I had to read it. Once I read it, I had to see if the movie was any better.

Meh, I say. Meh to both.

I also freely admit that part of my distaste is because of sheer, petty jealousy. Paolini became a best-selling author at 19 years old with a book that I didn’t find particularly compelling. I wanted that success. I wanted people to buy my stuff. I was absolutely frustrated.

Eragon is on this list because it made me absolutely sure that writing was what I wanted to do.

Which leads to…

10. Wired by Skyler Martin and K. Jered Mayer/Waypoint by K. Jered Mayer.

This is absolutely a cop-out, but the request was indeed for books that meant a lot to me.

Wired is a novella that Skaz and I wrote my senior year of high school. I wanted to do something special for my best friend Chelsea, so I thought, hey, why don’t I write a romantic-comedy? Girls like that. I can make people laugh.

Then I thought, hey, I’ve never written a romantic-comedy or anything over ten pages before HAHAHA WHAT THE FUCK AM I DOING? So I asked Skaz for help. I don’t know why. He had never tackled the genre before, either. I just knew he was also a writer.

Well, he and I hit it off quick. He’s the best co-writer I’ve ever worked with and our senses of humor and intuition played off each other really well. We ended up cobbling together a 40k+ story that I was able to send off to Chelsea to hopefully enjoy.

That book needs to be polished up some and released for sale at some point, but I haven’t found the time to do it yet because I got inspired to work on Waypoint, a story of my own creation.

I’ve talked about that book at length in other posts, so I’ll leave it at this: I wrote that book at one of the lowest points of my life. It was the longest piece of work I had ever completed. I was terrified when I finally released it for sale. It’s been received exceptionally positively since then and reaffirmed my love for writing. It’s my baby, and I’m a proud mother.

That’s it for me, for now! Feel free to leave your ten books in the comments!