Only subscribers to my newsletter can read the extended excerpt of my novel THE DEVIL VIRUS, available 2/22/19 HERE.
DiLeo Writes—Interlude: A Response to Extreme OwnershipHello and welcome to DiLeo Writes.
If you've read my previous deliveries, you might've noticed this one is titled differently. This is a surprise entry, an "Interlude" between my previous missive about the journey of writing and creative living and the next one, which will be about my novel The Devil Virus, coming February 22, 2019, from Bloodshot Books. Last weekend, a colleague gave me the book Extreme Ownership to read a specific excerpt. I've been a high school English teacher for thirteen years, so I read the book through the lens of public education. I am not the target audience for this book written by two Navy Seals.
Even so, I read nearly the entire book in two days. This is not because the book is a brilliant work, though it is clear and engaging, but because the authors' beliefs spurred my own opinions about what makes a good leader. I was so galvanized I handwrote a four-page response.
Sound crazy? Read this:
"I don't know what I think until I write it down"
I agree with Didion. We may tell kids to "think before you speak," but when it comes to analytical, inquisitive, intellectual literary excursions, it's better to get the thoughts on paper as they arrive so they can be examined, challenged—so they may battle with one another—and pushed toward deeper revelations.
That makes it sound like I wrote something profound, but it's just words on paper.
Maybe that's profound enough.
Perhaps you don't care what I think of some leadership book—no problem, but before you leave, scroll down and check out my list of TV, books, and music I've been enjoying recently. You might find something to check out.
If, however, you are interested in what I wrote, please enjoy.
And if you are so inclined, handwrite me a response. I'd love that.
Be happy, be well, be kind,
P.S. I'm now on all sorts of media:
[Only newsletter subscribers can see what I wrote.]
Note: The above was written in Palomino pencil on lined, yellow Rhodia paper.
What I'm digging lately:
True Detective: Season 3 (HBO)
Sex Education (Netflix)
The Sopranos (HBO GO)
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (Netflix)
Gunpowder by Joe Hill (limited edition)
The Little Silver Book of Sharp Shiny Slivers by Joe Hill (limited edition)
It's Alive: Bringing Your Nightmares to Life by F. Paul Wilson, Ed. (buy on Amazon)
Columbine by Dave Cullen (audio)
Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt (audio)
Growing Things and Other Stories by Paul Tremblay (pubbing July 2019)—I read an ARC
Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage by R.E.M. (iTunes)
Greatest Hits by Al Green (iTunes)
Stars: The Best of 1992-2002 by The Cranberries (iTunes)
The Very Best of Jackson Browne by Jackson Browne (iTunes)
Live in Berlin by Sting (iTunes)
DiLeo Writes—Chapter 6: It's the Journey
Welcome and thank you for being here. It's been a while since my last newsletter (that was way back in January when it was frigid, remember?), and there is much to share (including an opportunity for a free book), but before that, I want to briefly discuss the journey of creative endeavors.
But . . .
Before We Begin:
I'm getting published. Shortly after that January newsletter went out, my novel The Devil Virus was accepted for publication by Bloodshot Books. It is slated for release in early 2019, and I will share much more about that book when the publication date is closer.
ONE: Creative Living
If you've been a subscriber to the previous chapters of this newsletter, you know I believe in the power of creative living, of spending time writing or drawing or singing or building or simply galavanting through your imagination. Living this way enriches and colors my existence in a way I would never give up.
If you want more of that—and a healthy dose of inspiration to get working on your own creative endeavors—check out Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. I've revisited that book numerous times since it came out two
years ago. Highly recommended.
The other day I tweeted (not for the first time) this quote from author Joe Hill:
"You better love it; you better write because you can't help yourself, because you can't quit. It takes that kind of excitement and will to carve out even the smallest space for yourself. Don't do it because you expect to make a living; do it because it's a charge, because it fulfills you in some way. When a writer of fiction makes a living, it's really only a symptom of their larger illness—just about everyone who succeeds in the make-believe business is a person who would do it even if they couldn't earn a dime at it."
I could add dozens of other inspirational quotes from writers and other artists, but Hill's quote brings up a troubling paradox: would these highly successful writers still feel the same if they'd never found success?
Of course they will say, "Yes, I would still be writing no matter if I ever sold so much as a sentence," but that's easy to say when you have sold a great deal more than a sentence or two. Easy to say when you've written a #1 NY TimesBestseller.
So, where does that leave us?
It comes down to a choice of perspective. If you enjoy the pleasure a creative life brings then that ought to be enough. Writing satisfies me in a way no other activity does. There's no equal to the pleasure of dropping into my imagination and discovering the characters and the story as if they were strewn on the ground waiting for me to pick them up, or buried in soil only I can till.
The pleasure of pen or pencil on paper
The joy of living innumerable other lives.
The satisfaction of creating something that I'm proud to call my own.
These things ought to be enough.
But are they?
Anyone who spends a significant amount of time writing, revising, accepting BETA-reader critiques, and revising more and more is someone who wants to enjoy even a modicum of professional success.
There's a self-deluding, self-aggrandizing voice in my head that insists I need to write a book that gets agents fighting over it and then publishers throwing piles of money into an auction for it and then millions of readers devouring it and praising my work to no end.
Perhaps I'm alone in this fantasy, the sole unpublished writer who dreams big, but I doubt it.
Will I ever know such grand success? Odds are very much against it, but playing make-believe is, at its core, an act of hope. Pessimism and cynicism are poisons to hope, and too much realism is as well.
As creators, we need to find comfort existing in a limbo that traps us between the aspirations of fame and fortune and the daily possibility of our work supplying joy and satisfaction to our souls, even (and especially) if no one else gives a damn about what we create.
We must work our day-jobs (and some of us are lucky enough to have jobs and careers that supply another form of fulfillment in addition to monetary compensation), and we must toil in our private worlds on our creative enterprises.
There are, of course, only so many hours in a day. We desperately want to create artifacts that others will enjoy and praise. Ambition alone is not enough. Writing that first draft is not enough. Writing that first fully revised novel might not be enough. The same could be true for the second, third, fourth, fifth . . .
I wrote my first novel when I was a freshman in college. That was in 1999. Since then, I've completed a dozen novels and twice as many partials. That's thousands of pages . . .
An oft-quoted piece of inspirational advice assures us that the day you give up is the day before you succeed or that if you stay in the game long enough you will win. Or at least get on base.
There's no way to confirm such feel-good motivation, but that is precisely the point: it is not the end that matters.
It's the journey.
Heard that before, have you? Yeah, one or two billion times.
And if I wanted to be really cynical right now, I'd say that the whole it's-the-journey-not-the-destination thing is nonsense. You go on vacation because you want to visit somewhere, not because you enjoy traveling cramped in a car, bus, train, or plane. The destination, and the pleasure it brings, is what matters.
Except . . . creative endeavors are not vacations—they are life-long excursions with uncertain outcomes.
Much like our actual lives.
And so, again, where does that leave us?
Warren Ellis, a highly accomplished writer and artist, wrote this in his recent newsletter:
“As a creator, please yourself first. An audience will show up or they won't. That's their call. It's on you to produce the kind of work you want to see in the world.”
TWO: The Reality of Such a Life
In one aspect, living this way is pure joy. I get up in the morning (around 4am on school days [I'm a high school English teacher, and the day starts at 7:30]), and that time when the house is dark and quiet is my playtime. It's time for me to be a kid again, playing on the floor with dozens of action figures all around me.
In another aspect, it's torture. Well, let me not be dramatic—it's NOT torture in the sense that I'm suffering from extreme mental or physical trauma; it is torture in that every outing is a new opportunity for discovery and joy . . . and disappointment and recognition that the work is not as good as I imagined it and the harsh reality that, most likely, the story I'm writing will end up published exactly nowhere. Or even if it is published, readers might not care.
Cry me a river, right?
I'm not seeking sympathy or even encouragement—I'm just discussing the importance of the journey.
Since January, here's what I've worked on during those wee hours of the morning:
Again, I don't share that to gain sympathy or brag. This is the reality of my life of living creatively. If I hinge my happiness on some fantasy of big contracts and bestseller-status, I really will be torturing myself. Maybe I'm putting in the time that will one day pay off big for me.
And maybe it won't.
Stephen King said in an interview years ago: "You can't sit down to write a critical-darling of a book just as you can't sit down to write a bestseller."
But what you must do--what I must do—is sit down and write.
There's no way around that. The most important trait a writer needs is discipline: get the work done. People might advise that you only work on stories or projects that ignite your soul, tales that burn within you and demand to be written. You should only write if you feel truly passionate about what you're writing.
I understand this, but it's the sort of advice that ignores the day-in, day-out necessity of actual creation. I should be passionate about the stories I write, but sometimes I have to work with "stubborn gladness" (an Elizabeth Gilbert quote). Sometimes I have to set a story aside and work on something else for a while, or even abandon an entire project. Maybe I go back to it, and maybe I don't.
[I will interrupt myself at this point to say, if you want to write a novel and have not yet, the best advice is to get it done. Good or bad, a completed novel will teach you more than you can imagine about story creation and, just as important, it will be proof you can do it. After that first book is completed, you will be empowered to know for future projects if you should keep going or if you should abandon them. (Case in point: I wrote a novel a few years ago that was the longest thing I'd ever done, almost 180,000 words, and there were major plot and character-motivation problems throughout but instead of addressing them, I charged ahead, writing fast as I could. What I created was a complete mess that I don't even want to revise.) So, while it is true that you can't revise what you haven't written, it is also true you need to listen to the work as you create it, and sometimes the work is begging you to stop and write something else. Of course, sometimes it's the Critic Troll, who finds fault in every story I write, every sentence I scribe, every word I pen, who's telling me to stop . . . Learning to identify the differences among all the voices in your head is a skill rarely discussed in terms of creative living, but it is essential.]
Write what you want. Write from passion. Write from stubbornness. Write because you want to. Because you have to.
Success will come, or it won't.
But the pleasure of the journey is there—you merely have to embrace it.
I spend too much time beating myself up, thinking Is this idea good enough to get an agent? a publisher? land on the bestseller list?
These things matter and they don't.
If I let those thoughts run rampant, I will be torturing myself.
When I write, I must please myself first, and I must write because it fulfills me in a way nothing else can, but if I want that agent, that publisher, that "success," I must remember the reader, and I must write to please him or her. I must be willing to revise, revise, revise. I must keep learning from other writers. I must go back to the blank page and start again. I must keep writing.
And even then the work might fall short.
There's another aspect to this, too, and that is experience. I've written a fair amount, and as Tim O'Brien (whose work is brilliant) says, "Writing doesn't get easier with experience. The more you know, the harder it is to write."
And that reality provides fodder for the self-doubt.
Although the movie was uneven and disappointing after the brilliant and viscerally aggressive Whiplash, LaLa Landhas a few moments that stuck with me. It's a story of two creative-minded people who fall in love, yes, but it's also about the struggle of creation, the self-doubt that such a life brings.
After six years of trying to make it as an actress, Emma Stone's character gives up and moves back home. When Ryan Gosling's character challenges her to keep trying, she repeats, "Maybe I'm not good enough."
That sentiment, ladies and gentlemen, has permanent residence in the back of my mind. It hangs out with the Critic Troll. They like to join forces, those two.
The world does not care if I'm not good enough.
And it shouldn't.
When I read a book or see a movie, I don't care how hard the author or director or cast worked to make it. I might think about that later, but only if I enjoyed what I read or saw. No one is under the obligation to like what you create, or even encourage you to do so.
Do it because, as Joe Hill says, "it fulfills you in some way." Not every story you write must fill you with a fiery passion, but the process--the journey—should.
Do it because living a creative-life textures existence in a way nothing else can.
Do it for yourself.
And be happy you are.
FOUR: Ideas and Hope
It comes down to putting in the time . . .
After this newsletter, I must decide what to work on next. What story-artifacts are waiting to be picked up or exhumed?
I have an idea for a supernatural thriller . . . and another for an is-this-girl-lying novel . . . and another about a father determined to make things right after his daughter's death . . . and, oh yeah, a novel about a group of 70-year-olds who battle a supernatural beast.
There's also this short story I've been thinking about . . .
It is easy, perhaps quite easy, to fall into despair, to see my writing as a waste of time, as a frustrating enterprise that will lead to nothing.
It is the journey.
While writing this over the course of a few days, I received two emails from agents: one a this-is-not-for-us rejection and the other a request to read my full manuscript.
Hope springs eternal.
You no doubt know the film The Shawshank Redemption, Stephen King's most famous work that people don't realize he wrote, and I offer you the final lines from the novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, published in Different Seasons:
I find I am excited, so excited I can hardly hold the pencil in my trembling hand. I think it is the excitement that only a free man can feel, a free man starting a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain.
I hope Andy is down there.
I hope I can make it across the border.
I hope to see my friend and shake his hand.
I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams.
FIVE: Books Available from DiLeo
Several years ago, I self-published a handful of books under the name J.T. Warren. I did this because I had just started teaching and didn't want any of my writing to affect my status as an educator. Perhaps I was being overly cautious. Either way, I'm now starting my thirteenth (lucky 13?) year teaching, and I feel comfortable reissuing some of those books under my real name.
Here are three (one co-written with author Scott Nicholson), all available now:
Three teenagers must defeat the evil in Hudson House or be its next victims.
Trapped on a mountain, a young woman must escape a psychopath. Bloodthirsty mutants go on a rampage at a camp for troubled teens after an infection spreads. Adapted from Scott Nicholson’s original horror screenplay.
Read a sample of each book on Amazon.
SIX: Want a Free Book?
Continuing with reissuing revised versions of some of those self-published novels, I will soon re-publish an extremely dark, twisted book: Calamity. The book is the equivalent of watching a car wreck in slow motion and being unable to look away even as you know the worst possible thing is about to happen.
Here's the longer description:
Grief is the deadliest emotion.
In the wake of his child's death, Anthony Williams is desperate to save his family from imminent collapse. His wife is distraught and lost in drugs. His eldest son is tangled in the clutches of youthful lust. His youngest boy is on the verge of doing something unspeakable out of a misguided belief that it will cure his family's troubles.
When a strange religious cult infiltrates the family under the guise of salvation, Anthony must discover the truth behind this cult before his entire family is destroyed.
Yet his quest may make him an unwitting accomplice to things more horrible than he ever feared . . .
Told in alternating points-of-view among the family, CALAMITY is a dread-filled journey into the darkest corners of the human psyche.
An excursion the reader won't soon forget.
I'd love to give away pdf/ebook files of this book to anyone interested in reading it. I ask only that you post a review on Amazon, be it one star or five. If you would like to read the book for free, contact me at email@example.com or DM me on Twitter @authordileo or Facebook.
I hope a few of you will take me up on this opportunity.
In the meantime, it is back to the blank page I go.
Filled with hope.
And happy to be on this journey.
Recommended Books, Movies, and Music:
That's all I have this time. Thank you for reading, and I wish you all the best.
Be well, be happy, and be kind,
P.S. Yet another Stephen King quote: "Life isn't a support system for art. It's the other way around."
DiLeo Writes—Chapter 5: On Finding Purpose and Joy
Hello and welcome,
I started this edition of the newsletter the day after Christmas, thinking I'd have it crafted and delivered by the new year, but it's mid-January already and I'm wondering what I've accomplished in the last several weeks.
I've read several books, written a third of a novella (that I've since set aside . . .), and I've queried ten agents about my novel, Dead End.
That seems respectable enough, but it feels lacking.
This is traditionally a time of recaps and resolutions, but instead of such structured formalities, I offer an open-ended ode to finding purpose and joy.
What gives our lives purpose and joy? We could easily shrug this question off or, worse yet, get cryptic and go all Beckett- and Camusesque, declaring that our lives have no purpose or meaning because there is no purpose or meaning in anything—and joy is as irrelevant as anger or depression.
Even if that is true, we get to choose which side to embrace.
The meaning we find in our lives is a product of our beliefs, our sense of individual and social responsibility, and whatever it is that satisfies our spirit. It is a unique thing for each person.
For my purposes here, I look at it through creative endeavors—specifically, my writing.
It is easy, incredibly easy in fact, to lose the enthusiasm for creative endeavors. It is easy to lose heart, to view work produced (especially incomplete work) as proof of the futility of, in my case, writing. As mentioned above, I handwrote about sixty single-spaced pages of a book about a boy battling a monster, but my interest petered out. I've also scribbled a host of ideas that each held glimmering promise, briefly, and then faded.
Part of the problem: I was trying to write to "the market." Maybe I could craft a YA-bestseller or a Gone Girl-esque bestseller. The issue here is obvious—I was trying to force my creativity to produce something that would be a guaranteed bestseller (not just sell to a publisher but sell BIG), and this demanded I write something I had only a moderate (at most) interest in, and also fettered by imagination with the burden of Trying To Make It Big.
It is unfair and (in my case) unproductive to the imagination to demand such things. I tried to trick myself into doing the work, musing that it might be fun to dabble in these other genres, and though it worked for a while (thousands of words, in fact), my imagination caught on and shut things down.
Now, I could persist in those half-completed and barely started works, and maybe they'd turn out okay, but that misses the point: I must write the stories that energize my heart and mind, the tales that inspire me, and I must not be afraid to follow these passions.
Only by doing that, will I give my work (and to a certain degree, my life) meaning.
I cannot, and must not, judge the quality of work produced based on its reception, whether it gets me an agent or a publisher, or a slot on the bestseller list.
Years ago, author Peter Blauner (The Last Good Day; Man of the Hour) sent me this as writing advice: "Pick something you really enjoy writing about . . . because it can be a very rough ride and honestly the pleasure you take in writing is the only lasting reward. And I actually mean that."
He sent me that advice in 2003, but I must keep reminding myself of its truth.
What matters is the work, and the joy it brings me as I create it, revise it, and recraft it again and again until it is as good as I can possibly make it.
Then, maybe, an agent will take an interest and a publisher, too, and the work can be further honed and crafted into something readers might genuinely enjoy.
That is the goal, but I cannot hinge my happiness or satisfaction on that result. What matters is the effort I put into my work, not some external validation.
In a 2008 interview Joe Hill said of writing: "Don't do it because you expect to make a living; do it because it's a charge, because it fulfills you in some way. . . . just about everyone who succeeds in the make-believe business is a person who would do it even if they couldn't earn a dime at it."
That might be easy to say for someone who does make a living at it, but I believe he's also correct. If external success is something I want, I must ignore that desire and concrete on the work itself. I must write the stories I want to write because they demand to be written. I must write them out of love, and without any expectation of some sort of return save for what the work itself gives me while working on it.
It will restore my soul. Every day.
Then, perhaps, there will be agents and publishers and readers. Or not.
But I will have the work. Always.
My father-in-law believes wholeheartedly that we need only ask the universe for what we want, that we must believe and visualize those wants, and the universe will conspire to bring them to fruition. This idea most notably peaked with the success of The Secret, but it isn't simply about belief. It's about the discipline, the persistence, and the joy it takes to make those beliefs reality.
I believe there is magic in the world, and I believe that dreams can come true, but we can't wait around to be blessed: we must put in the time, we must do the work, and we must never saddle our enterprises with unfair expectations.
The world is fickle. Maybe it will like us and maybe it won't.
Doesn't matter. What matters is the joy the work itself brings.
Here, let Elizabeth Gilbert explain in her TED Talk.
Joy and magical, elf-like " geniuses"—that's right.
I think she's onto something . . .
Since it is a new year, here are my resolutions:
1. Consciously work on my writing craft. (Through both reading and writing.)
2. Write what I want, and write for joy.
3. Read more books, both for pleasure and to study the craft. (My Goodreads 2018 Reading challenge is set at 40 books, but I hope to read more than that.)
4. Improve my teaching. Always, always, always—make whatever we do in class worth everyone's time.
5. Stretch daily (getting old . . .)
6. Eat (fairly) well and exercise (at least twice a week).
7. Embrace joy.
Recommended Movies, Books, and Music:
Stranger Things 2 (Netflix)
If you've read my newsletters before, this recommendation is completely unsurprising. Watch it. Love it.
I absolutely love David Fincher's Zodiac, and this is in the same vein, only longer, but just as engaging, unsettling, and captivating.
Cats, cats, and more cats, and the life they live in Istanbul.
My ideal superhero film: dark, bloody, and emotionally resonant.
X-Files (on Fox)
Okay, so the first two episodes were lame 24 imitations, but I hold out hope they will return to the monster-of-the-week episodes that made the original series so good.
Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
An in-depth analysis of good writing, from the words to the sentences to the paragraphs to the full works.
Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin
How did I never read any of Baldwin's work? It's brilliant. Read it, and see for yourself.
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
One of those books I knew but had never read. I'd denied myself a genuine treat.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Alexie Sherman
Read in one day. A wonderfully engaging style that is delightfully humorous—until the emotional wallops shock and humble you. Excellent.
Strange Weather by Joe Hill
I wrote about this in the last newsletter, but the book is available now and I highly recommend it. Hill always delivers what he calls "shivery delights," and a coolness factor no other author can match—and on top of that, the stories are always engaging.
Safe Haven by Ruth B.
My wife was singing "Lost Boy," and I thought it was such a beautiful song, conveying loss, loneliness, hope, and the power of imagination (and literary allusions). It was an extra treat to discover the rest of the album is just as good.
Meal delivery services have become a big thing, and I can appreciate why: Home Chef has great, low-carb options that make me feel like a "real" chef as I prepare the dishes, and the meals are consistently flavorful and satisfying.
It's been quite cold recently, but fear not: my cats have found a way to stay warm:
All the best.
Be well, be happy, and be kind,
DiLeo Writes—Chapter 4: Notes on Writing and Some Stranger ThingsHello,
Welcome to all, first-timers and returners.
In my first newsletter, I confessed I had no idea how frequently (or rather infrequently) these newsletters would appear. This is only the fourth one since I started back in February; I guess that's not too bad. I've provided advice and encouragement to teachers, given out two free short stories, and—I hope—offered you a little bit of entertainment (and maybe converted you to the glorious world of writing with Blackwings on Rhodia paper, and even pushed a few of you into the analog-Luddite world of carrying around a Field Notes pad in your pocket; your phone won't care, trust me).
Either way, thank you for being here. Let's get started.
I've written at length about a novel I started writing in 2009/2010 entitled DEAD END. It was a long saga (both the story and the writing, along with the quest to try to get it published), and you can read all about it here.
Spoiler: the book did not find a publisher. The book did peek the interest of a literary agent and he tried mightily to place it, but the book couldn't quite make it there. Even so, I was, and remain, immensely grateful to Scott Miller (at Trident Media) for offering to represent that book.
During the following years, I tried my hand at several other novels and completed two I thought were pretty good. For various flaws, neither was sent to potential publishers. Now, I could have self-published all three of those books. I've self-published through Amazon before, and it is in many ways a great, equalizing platform for indie authors. Several prominent authors like J.A. Konrath, Blake Crouch, and Scott Nicholson believe wholeheartedly in the advantages of self-publishing.
I didn't want to do that. The main reason? I was too afraid that I'd put something out there that wasn't as good as it could be. I believe, perhaps naively, that publishing with a traditional press (large or small) would put my work through the editorial ringer, thus improving the book and teaching me valuable things about the craft of writing.
I have learned a thing or two about rejection: writers (and, presumably, creators of any ilk) experience a lot of it. Rejection is not personal. It is subjective, of course, but if you're a writer and you want to find success, you will need a tough skin, and a commitment to your work. It can be scary, sharing your work, but do it anyway—and get writing the next thing.
Do it for the joy of creation. Write because it rejuvenates you. Each trip to the computer screen (or yellow Rhodia pad) should be an adventure, a thrilling excursion into the endless imaginative galaxy between your ears.
Looking for more inspiration: read Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. I've read it twice. It's the perfect work for anyone who is creative in any facet.
Okay, back to Dead End: even as I wrote other books (including several partially-completed works and a 600+ page manuscript that was really awful), my mind kept flitting back to Dead End, urging me to give it another shot.
Last summer, I read A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay, and it became suddenly, perfectly clear how I could attempt to rewrite Dead End.
The novel was originally about a young couple in a possibly cursed house. The new version would twist that a bit into a young couple facing a possible demon possession.
I started last August and completed the first draft early this year. I tried to work on it every day. My routine is my greatest strength in this regard: up at 4am, write for two hours. Every day. I didn't set word-count goals; I just wrote.
The morning quiet is perfect for writing. My cats gather around me, too, and I think they're telepathically crafting the story (there's an incident with a cat in the original version that has subsequently been tweaked in the cat's favor).
I then took the book through five complete revisions.
The actual process of revision is long and somewhat haphazard, but the following books have helped me immensely: On Writing by Stephen King; How to Write Bestselling Fiction by Dean Koontz; Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Brown & King; How to Grow a Novel and On Writing by Sol Stein; The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner; Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain.
Perhaps in a future newsletter I'll go into more depth about what revision actually looks like in the nitty-gritty, word-by-word, page-by-page process.
Once I felt it was in decent shape, I sent it to Scott Miller. He got back to me in a month or so with what's called "coverage": a written response to the book, including a summary of all major events, personal comments, and recommendations for improvement, from someone at the literary agency.
The "coverage" was very good—detailed, enthusiastic, and supportive. It also provided some specific recommendations for improvements; my book, I knew and this confirmed, was more of a gross-out than a creepy horror tale. I'd "really gone for it" in some scenes, and now it seemed I needed to dial it back a bit. This critique I'd received for free would've cost at least $500 on the freelancer market, but I was lucky enough to get it gratis, and it confirmed for me certain suspected weaknesses in my manuscript. The importance of BETA readers can not be overstated.
I spent another month revising the book. I made a major plot change, and that of course rippled throughout the whole book, I tamed down some of the grosser scenes and tried to play up the more eerie moments. I discovered, because of that insightful "coverage," that my book was really more of a dark mystery with horror elements than an all-out horror novel.
In a case of forest from the trees (often I would revise from tree to tree, even branch to branch—meaning word to word and moment to moment instead of appreciating the story as a whole [the forest]), I began to understand what my book wanted to be, and it was my job to help shape it in that direction.
I now describe it as a "mystery horror novel."
The log line: To save his future wife, Mike must unearth the secrets of the past, expose a murderer, and confront monsters both human and supernatural.
Because Scott Miller had taken the original version of the book to twelve major publishers who each passed for various reasons, he suggested I look for a new agent who is enthusiastic about the book. I do not begrudge him this: I am thankful for all he has done for me.
I recently sent out a query to a new agent.
As Tom Petty said, "Into the great wide open"; or perhaps "the waiting is the hardest part" is more apropos.
Hope springs eternal.
I'm getting close to (hopefully) finding a publisher, but (most importantly) I am pleased with what I've crafted—a book I can confidently say was the best I could produce at the time.
And, most importantly, one I enjoyed writing (and re-writing and re-writing and re-writing).
Maybe one day, you might be able to enjoy reading it after purchasing it in a store . . .
Last July 15, the Duffer Brothers gave me a glorious birthday present (one day early, sure, but I have no doubt it was meant for me) when Netflix released Stranger Things. If you haven't watched season one yet, do so immediately.
Here's what I posted about it after binging through the season the first time:
This show is fantastic.
It is the best thing (movie, TV show, book) that I’ve encountered in the past six months.
The show is exactly the sort of engaging, creepy, scary, and emotionally resonant project I relish.
As has been already said: it is the perfect blend of Spielberg, King, and Carpenter.
Here’s the pitch: in a small town in the early 80′s, a young boy disappears and the quest to find him exposes a secret government project, a young girl with extrasensory powers, and a blood-thirsty monster.
It is E.T., Goonies, IT, Stand By Me, and Halloween all mashed together.
The entire cast is authentic and wonderful. Winona Ryder may overact occasionally, but she plays the distraught mother of a missing boy quite well, and unlike many similar characters in other movies and shows, this mother doesn’t simply wait for something to happen—she takes action, and her frantic behavior is completely believable. There is a scene early on involving a mysterious phone call that Ryder plays perfectly.
David Harbour is wonderful as the small-town chief, and the rest of the adult and teenage cast rounds out the show skillfully.
It is the children, however, who steal the show. The characters are perfect and acted spot-on. I cared deeply for these characters, was invested in their journey and their friendship, and I was quite moved by the end. They provided genuine engagement, empathy, and humor. These are the best child actors since Stand By Me. Check out the cast here. Of particular note, Millie Bobby Brown (who was in Intruders in 2014) is so damn good, it is frightening. She is an immense talent.
I could go into greater detail about the main boys (Gatan Matarazzo is hilarious—the “Mad Hen” joke had me laughing for a while), but it is enough to say that each of these boys is a wonderful, talented actor with a great career ahead of him, and the ensemble’s dynamic is a joy to watch.
Now, SPOILERS ahead:
What I loved about this show in addition to the actors/characters:
1. 80′s nostalgia without overdoing it or going all cutesy. (I loved Super 8, but that film went too far for goofy at certain moments, though it managed to hit really well on the "feels," but that's a speciality of J.J. Abrams'.) Great score and soundtrack.
2. The monster is a predator—it must be defeated. (It might look like a creature from the Star Trek reboot, but it is a monster straight from our nightmares and it lives in a believable nightmare world.)
3. There are glorious moments of awe that conjure the same sense of magic and wonder that Close Encounters and E.T. stirred. (And this show does it with Christmas lights and a white van!)
4. There’s a shady government operation (complete with a reticent Matthew Modine villain), and a program to harness the extrasensory powers of supernaturally gifted children, and a parallel dimension that is clever and creepy. (Again, Spielberg and King.)
5. The episodes are titled as chapters, which is perfect because the season feels like a novel in the best sense, with the search for Will Byers driving all the characters and all events are organic developments stemming from character action. The twists and turns are not hokey or forced.
6. The need-to-know-what-is-going-on is balanced perfectly with the gotta-know-what’s-going-to-happen. There is a distinction between these two drives: the first is the story mystery; the second is the characters’ actions. The first alone might work, but without the second there is no real resonance. (This is why Lost and Breaking Bad worked so well.)
7. The show never overplays its hand or goes too far in any one direction (like endlessly cavorting around in that parallel dimension or over-showing [or never showing] the monster).
8. The cinematography is high-quality and used to startling effect. The CGI might be a tad disappointing at moments, but overall the special effects still worked.
9. The characters play homage to certain tropes, but their arcs are unique and satisfying. For example, in the group of boys there is no moron, only-there-for-laughs character. Each boy serves a distinct story and character-related purpose. Additionally, the teenage-love triangle does not go in the typical direction, instead opting for nuance and believability. Lastly, the bond between Mike and Eleven is real, including their kiss, not uncomfortably awkward like the young lust in Moonrise Kingdom.
10. Finally, the show is emotionally satisfying. There is hope and despair and love and friendship and grief and trauma and heroism and cowardice and devotion and self-sacrifice and all the complex mix of emotions that define what it means to be human. In particular, Chief Jim Hopper's arc (played by the wonderful David Harbour) is strikingly moving.
I could go on and on—and will for anyone who wants to listen—but this show rocks. I loved everything about it. I grew up with the works of Spielberg, King, and Carpenter, and this show brings all of my love for those works back without pandering or sentimentality.
Most reviewers have given approval to this show, but a repeated critique has been that the central mystery is not completely explained. I disagree. In fact, the show does not insult the audience by having a character explain in detail what the Bad Men have been up to—it shows us, gives us exactly what we need, and lets us make the conclusions.
I’m going to watch the entire season again, and here’s hoping work has started on Season Two.
Season Two premiers October 27, and my excitement is palpable.
Full confession: I've watched Season One four times, and I'm going to watch it once more before October 27th. Each viewing has been more satisfying than the previous. I feel the Duffer Brothers are friends I grew up with, and I delight in their homages to the defining works of my childhood and adolescence (the work of Spielberg, King, Carpenter, Scott, Dante, Cameron . . .).
The show has become a pop-cultural obsession, so I know it's not just me. There's a lot of us 80's kids out there . . . Still, though, it was a birthday present for me. Right?
I'm glad, however, so many people are reveling in it as well.
Watch the trailer for Season 2 here.
Authors Joe Hill and Waren Ellis have newsletters, which is why I thought it might be fun to have one, too, and they always promote the cool stuff other creators are producing.
Here's what's been getting me jazzed up lately (other than reading everything I can about Stranger Things Season 2 and simultaneously wishing I hadn't read anything):
What to watch:
It (in theaters)
A highly enjoyable adaptation of half of Stephen King's 1,000+ page 1986 epic story of a demonic clown. The child actors are worth the price of admission.
Baby Driver (rent or buy)
An absolute pleasure. The film is perfectly constructed and completely entertaining.
The West Wing (Netflix)
I've watched it before, but in these politically wacky times, I'm successfully convincing myself Jed Bartlet is my president.
The Big Sick (rent or buy)
A wonderfully well done romantic comedy that rises above the trappings of the genre to provide a real story of real people that will leave you feeling really good.
Gerald's Game (Netflix)
Not for the faint of heart, this perfect adaptation of Stephen King's 1992 novel works brilliantly as a psychological suspense story of a woman handcuffed to a bed, and it is (just like the novel) a companion piece to Dolores Claiborne.
Last Week Tonight (HBO)
The only news/politics (other than the fictionalized events on West Wing) I watch. Host John Oliver is the best, most insightful reporter/commentator I've ever heard. He's also charmingly hilarious.
What to Listen to:
Into the Great Wide Open by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
Every track is phenomenal. This has been on repeat since his death.
Baby Driver Soundtrack
Watch the movie and you'll buy the soundtrack, as I did.
Gathering by Josh Ritter
Quite simply, one of my favorite singer/songwriters ever. Unbeatable lyrics and some kickass rock n' roll.
Texas Thunder Soul by Kashmere Stage Band
Thanks to Baby Driver, I discovered this funky jazz soul band that existed for a brief time in the late sixties and early seventies and consisted of high-school performers. Amazing.
Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 by Sam Cooke
One of the best.
What to read:
Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King and Owen King
A plague traps all the women in the world in permanent sleep. It doesn't take long for the men to really start screwing things up.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
A bit long in parts, but still an intriguing story of a boy, his mom, and a stolen painting. Some marvelous writing, too.
The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert
Want to know how bad things really are? Read this.
Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis
My favorite work of Ellis', probably because it's an ode to horror stories served a la Stephen King.
Strange Weather by Joe Hill (pubbing 10/24)
Got my hands on an Advance Reader's Edition and devoured it (metaphorically). The first novella (there are four) is worth the cost of the book. It's set in the eighties and features a villain stalking a small suburban town who uses a Polaroid camera to steal people's memories. So, yeah, you can probably tell why I dig that sort of thing.
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
Are you creative? Want to be more so? Want permission to embrace that side of you? Read this.
Okay, that's (more than) enough from me. Send me comments or connect @authordileo.
Be well, be happy, and be kind.
DiLeo Writes—Chapter 3: For the Love of Paper and Pencils (and a Free Story)
Thank you for signing up to receive these newsletters. I hope you find them worth your time.
I'd like to share a short story I wrote earlier this year. It's titled "Heroes and Villains" and you can skip right down to it and read now, if you wish. I'd love to hear what you think about it—send any comments through Twitter @authordileo or Facebook (Author DiLeo).
In my last newsletter, I promised to write a bit about the novel I finished writing and revising, but I'll save those comments for another time. (I'm currently waiting for my BETA readers to get back to me with their thoughts, and thank God they were willing to read it.) I will say only that each story (essay, novel, screenplay, etc.) teaches you how to write that particular story. There is no magic bullet for guaranteed writing success. Writing is a process, and if you want to write, you must discover your process and trust it, especially when it's messy and frustrating.
It's time well spent.
Before story time, I must opine about my love of all things analog. You've probably noticed a few (many, many dozens) of tweets extolling my love of pencils and paper.
I wrote my first short story—a tale of a raindrop who lives his entire life in the clouds and then plummets to his grisly death—in second grade on extra-wide ruled looseleaf paper. When I was in fourth grade, I filled several black-and-white marble composition books with some really bad screenplays. They were mostly slapstick humor gags strung together, along the lines of Airplane and The Naked Gun, but, you know, written by a ten year old.
My parents encouraged me to type up my work on the electric Brotherhood typewriter in the basement. I took to it greedily, loving the clack-clack sound of the keys and the professional-looking copy it produced.
Through high school, I typed dozens of short stories (mostly horror) on that typewriter. There was an upgraded Brotherhood electric typewriter I used for a while: it had a small digital screen that showed the sentence I just wrote so I could change anything BEFORE it typed it. Then I got my first computer, an agonizingly slow PC, but suddenly I could type and type and then revise and then print. I wrote my first published story on that computer.
I've used computers, as we all have, nonstop since then. I'm typing this on a computer, of course, and I'm using the internet to share this newsletter. If not for social media, I wouldn't have you willing readers.
I'm not trying to bite the hand that feeds me.
Technology has its place. However, we are humans and we need to do things with our hands beyond typing and clicking. We need to fully employ all our senses, and we need to embrace the messiness of creation. Computers are efficient, convenient, and they take the messy art of creation and anesthetize it through antiseptic digitalization.
To quote David Sax from his marvelous book The Revenge of Analog: "The real world isn't black or white. It is not even gray. Reality is multicolored, infinitely textured, and emotionally layered. It smells funky and tastes weird, and revels in human imperfection. The best ideas emerge from that complexity, which remains beyond the capability of digital technology to fully appreciate" (xviii).
I've always written sporadically in journals and notebooks, but several years ago I dove fully into a technology thousands of years old: paper and pencil.
Author Joe Hill (new book coming this October, Strange Weather) wrote a wonderful piece about writing his novels longhand here. I've tweeted about it several times. Read it.
Inspired, I bought a ton of Moleskins and filled them with notes and stories and novels in progress. I LOVED the feel of the paper—and the sense of creation and accomplishment was as tangible as the book in my hand.
When you start down any rabbit hole, you never know where you'll end up: Moleskins and Pilot G-2 pens (05 is the best) ultimately led to Rhodia notepads and Palomino Blackwing pencils—easily the most pleasurable experience of writing, the Blackwing Pearl glides beautifully on the vellum-quality Rhodia paper. It is an immersive, full-sensory joy. For the novel I recently finished, I wrote over forty single-spaced handwritten pages of revision in an orange-colored, yellow-lined paper Rhodia notepad, number 19. It was a delightful, invigorating experience that unshackled my imagination.
A quick anecdote:
This past December, I volunteered to serve as a model for the drawing class in the high school where I teach English. While I tried to stay perfectly still in my Rodin-thinking pose (fully clothed, of course), students used charcoal to draw me. The art teacher walked around the room, encouraging students, offering praise and guidance (the best way to hold the charcoal is to pinch it between fingers, not hold like a pencil), and something this teacher said really struck me.
Students grew discouraged when their drawings did not meet their expectations, when what their hands created did not match what their brains imagined. "Don't worry about it," the teacher said. "Don't worry about stray lines and marks. Those 'errors' give your drawing energy."
Embrace the messiness. Revel in it.
I could go on and on, and will in future newsletters (we'll discuss technology in the classroom sometime soon), but for now let me urge you to take a break from the computer every once in a while and pick up a pen or pencil (or charcoal) and write on good old paper. It is rejuvenating.
You might enjoy it.
Above: Rhodia notepads, Palomino Blackwings, Field Notes Memo Books (love those, always have one in my pocket), and Scout Books.
Okay, story time. One last note: I wrote this story's first draft in a mix of pen and pencil on paper and the draft is full of cross-outs and bizarre idiosyncratic shorthand—and I absolutely love how messy it is.
To quote that art teacher: It gave my writing energy.
Thanks for reading and enjoy!
Heroes and Villains
It should’ve been black. The interior was dark—night-world dark—but the exterior shone in marvelous, gleaming red, a color demanding to be noticed, screaming to be.
The car came up fast on our right. That was not uncommon, considering my father’s rattle-prone Pontiac, but this car didn’t simply pass us and vanish into the distance like all the others.
It hovered beside us, almost floating in tandem. A four-door with a steep, sloped windshield and a slanted body that stretched forward to protruding headlights and backwards to long, jutting fins, like old cars had, only this car wasn’t bulky like those 1950s-models; it was sleek, slender, and low, a race car that looked and sounded like it could really move, rocket down the highway—but also different in a way that troubled me.
Something about the red color—it was slippery, as if freshly applied, like your hand would come away stained if you touched it or maybe sink into it like water. That red color was startlingly bright—all these years later, I see that super-bright, blushing gleam.
My face wobbled along the side, eyes bulging, chin jutting, hair swarming, distorting my face into something hideous, worthy of a freak show. Oil-black tinted windows were impossible to see through. The loud, growling engine thundered so powerfully it vibrated through the Pontiac door.
Flutters of worry unsettled my stomach. That was not uncommon a feeling for me—I felt it when the bigger kids at school turned their predatory eyes to me; when my math teacher made me come to the board to solve an equation; when my brother Steve called me into his bedroom, his hands open and ready for Indian-burn practice: “Lucky I don’t give you a pecker burn,” he said that morning when pimples of blood spotted my arm—but this was worse than any of that.
The people in the red car were not mere bullies—they were bad people, perhaps robbers, crooks, even murderers. They would not be innocuous villains like the ones in Hardy Boys books (in which nothing really bad ever happened); the Bad People in this car might have guns and knives, even uzis and machetes, and also the sadistic personalities to use them.
I heard my mother saying my name, but the red car had all of my attention. Who was in it? Why was it driving right beside us? That was definitelysomething Bad Guys did.
Predators stalking prey.
Steve slapped my arm and pointed at Mom, who had turned in her seat to stare back at me.
“Idiot,” Steve mouthed and set his headphone back on his ear.
“Yes, Mother,” she corrected.
“Yes, Mother,” I repeated.
She taught English at a small private college and suffered no tolerance for language laziness or casual slang, which she condemned as the Talk of Cretins. For her, grammar didn’t stop with language: it was the creased fold of my made bed, the chalked chores on the pantry door, the soft chewing sounds during silent dinner time.
“Do you have your Christmas list?”
It was Thanksgiving, and we were headed to my aunt’s in New Jersey. In my pants pocket, three exact penciled copies of my Christmas list were carefully folded and labeled: one for Mom, one for Aunt Marge, one for Grandma Bella. I took the time to compose each one carefully. Dad was an encyclopedia editor and worked deliberately, always with super-sharp pencil, crafting perfect block letters on yellow-lined paper in orange-covered Rhodia notepads. I liked siting next to Dad when he worked from home and I would try my best to imitate his penmanship, but my writing wobbled and slanted in a juvenile mess.
Mom turned forward. She glanced at Dad, but he was completely focused on driving, both hands on the wheel, back straight, not quite touching his seat. His fingers had been drumming along with the The Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” and I’d been mouthing the lyrics, but now both of us were still.
The next song started: “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man).” I knew those lyrics, too; I was with Dad when he bought the cassette at The Wall, and it’d been playing nonstop in the car for months.
I was ten, my father was fifty, and it was 1991.
Directly across from me, the rear window of the red car slid down and a fish-belly white arm plopped out. Bone-skinny and hairless, the arm drooped down the side of the door. The fingers dangled, and the glossy, wet paint reflected them twice their length.
Bright sunlight filled the day, but inside the car thick darkness concealed whoever lurked within. Sun bathed the sallow, sickly arm yet did not penetrate the open window, as if the darkness in the car were swallowing the light.
My science teacher Mr. Cantor had taught about black holes, which were bottomless pits in outer space, and anything that got near one—asteroid, spaceship, even light—was sucked right in and could never get out.
My brother was lost in the heavy cacophony of his music, my mother was searching for her nail file in her purse, which might be filled with marbles and loose change from the sound, and my dad was fully-focused on the road.
The pale hand made slow, circular motions, scooping handfuls of air.
I leaned toward my window, squinting, beginning to see something in the cave-dark car, a darker outline of a head, perhaps, or a sharp nose and hollow, oil eyes--
A face was pushing from the night-world interior. Only it wasn’t a face, not really—it was a mask. Not a Donald Trump parody or a generic Halloween-screaming face, this mask was completely featureless, smooth, a flesh-colored caul.
Except for two vertical exclamation marks where the eyes should be.
Sweat trickled between my shoulder blades, and a chill rippled through me. The person in the red car was obviously some kid or dumb teenager like my brother, someone who thought it might be funny to freak people out on the highway, but knowing that did nothing to sooth my fear. A guy who wore a mask like this might have all sorts of terrible thoughts buzzing in his brain.
I expected him to reach back in the car and come up with a sawed-off shotgun. He’d point it right at me, and though I wouldn’t be able to tell I’d know he was smiling under his mask—and then he’d fire. Blood and bones and teeth would splatter everywhere. The gore would be bright, bright red.
Steve slapped my arm.
Mom was staring at me. “I have been saying your name.”
I glanced out the window and the smooth mask-face was gone inside the dark car, the tinted window back up.
“Cretin,” Steve said and shoved down the play button on his Walkman.
* * *
The car sped away. Thick, black smoke twirled from the four exhaust pipes, and obscured the license plate. My father’s eyes filled the rearview mirror.
“You okay back there?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said.
Cars swept past us on both sides.
* * *
Grandma lived in an apartment building that hulked at the far end of a tree-lined street, and the best way to pick her up was to drive down a narrow access road alongside the building to the back where two dumpsters sat on large, rusted wheels. From her apartment, Grandma could see when we arrived, and she’d come down the stairs and out the service exit.
Dad circled the tiny lot, front bumper almost nicking one of the dumpsters where a faded sticker read BRING OUT YOUR DEAD, and parked so we were angled toward the exit and in perfect position for Grandma. In a minute or two, she’d emerge out the back door in her grey coat with the fur lining and her matching scarf coiled around her throat.
We waited. The cassette in the tape deck reached the end of one side.
“Caleb,” Mom said, “please provide Grandma assistance.”
“‘Um’ is not a word.”
I opened my door and heard it: the rumbling, humming, growling drone of the red car’s engine. It was nearby, cruising past the apartment building, or even idling in the neighboring parking lot, and I forced myself to get out but then I could only stand there, and the sound got louder and louder.
The car was moving.
The red car must have gained dozens of miles on us. It couldn’t possibly have followed us here. Had to be a different car.
The ugly white hand scooping the air . . .
Mom rolled down her window. “You are acting strangely.”
“We need to—,” I said and the deep engine-rumble echoed off the brick apartment wall.
The red car slipped into view as smoothly as a snake slithering toward cornered prey. It blocked the access road. We were trapped.
The red paint rippled like water disrupted by a breeze, and a small maple nearby seemed to shrink back. Or maybe that was the flicker of its shadow.
I did not move. The car sat there, bright red with black windows, and its engine noise the deep-throated purr of a deadly beast.
I waited for the window to come down again, maybe all the windows, waited for shotgun barrels to poke into the light, waited for the slaughter.
The rear driver’s side window rolled down and darkness leaked free, smoke-like, but different, more substantial, as if it could be seized in a fist.
My insides squeezed.
Mask-man appeared again, and this time he pushed farther out into the afternoon light. He was bald and earless, and right then I saw it wasn’t a mask.
What I took for a latex mask was smooth and unwrinkled skin, as unmarked and soft as an infant’s. Baby fat even bulged the face. There was no facial hair of any kind—not clean-shaven, just sleek and hairless like the arm had been. And he—at least I assumed it was a he—had no eyes, only two exclamation-mark slits; no nose and no mouth, either. Yet not a mask.
A freak, I thought. A mutant freak. Some sort of birth-defected malformed thing that should not be alive.
My father opened his door and got out.
“Dad . . .”
“I see it,” he said, voice soft.
The thing in the backseat had no visible eyes and yet he--it—was looking at me: I felt its stare along my prickling skin.
He raised one hand toward me. His shirt sleeve slipped down his hairy forearm.
Steve opened his door and got out as well. He was taller than Dad by an inch or so and a bit heavier, and he puffed his chest and stood tall, going up on his toes. His headphones hung around his neck. He was my bully, but maybe he could be my protector too.
Those two eye-slits quivered, and parted in sideways curtains to reveal completely white, half-dollar-sized eyes. They were milky thick, spoiled cream.
Though impossible over the engine’s powerful drone, I heard the wet kiss of those lids as they parted.
My breath caught. The world stretched and flattened into a vast desert where there was only us and the thing in that car.
Steve stood frozen, unblinking. His Walkman had fallen at his feet and plastic pieces lay broken around his sneakers.
My mother sat back-stiff, hands gripping her purse, eyes huge behind her large glasses. If only she had a weapon in that purse—a gun, a knife, a pair of brass knuckles.
“Go away,” my father said.
The herringbone cap he wore was tilted back on his head, and his dress shirt hung loosely off his narrow shoulders; he looked scrawny, almost child-like, but his voice was deep, strong, baritone-confident.
“What do you want?” he said.
“Dad, is this a . . .”
Joke, was what I wanted to say. That word, however, never came out.
In the the middle of the thing’s face where a nose should be but wasn’t, a circular hole pursed in a fleshy orifice, and it opened wider and wider, unfurling skin, until it was the size of a softball, and inside that hole dozens and dozens of teeth spiraled, grey, mucus-slathered, and very, very sharp.
Pressure pushed behind my eyes and clogged my throat, and I thought with something close to relief that my brain was going to rupture and leak out my ears.
That mouth stretched wider and wider. The fat, white eyes slid aside and the mouth was the thing’s entire face—a sharp toothed-filled maw twisting down into a black gullet.
Mom was frozen with her hand in her bag. Steve hadn’t moved but tears rolled down his blanching cheeks.
The red car’s front passenger door opened.
A skinny man in a bright yellow polo and tan pants stepped out. He was tall, well over six feet. Unlike the guy in the backseat, this man was almost normal-looking.
He had a mouth, a nose, and two normal-sized and normal-colored eyes, but his face was hairless and smooth, almost plasticky in the light. He wore a New Jersey Devils cap, blond tuffs jutting over his ears.
“Who are you?” my father asked, managing to sound angry, almost infuriated.
The man in the yellow polo and Devils cap did not answer, but he walked around the open door and approached. He wore shiny brown-leather shoes that clacked on the pavement.
My father did not move, and neither did I.
The man stopped a few feet from Dad’s open door. He raised his hands and my father flinched. The man smiled, just enough, and rubbed one forefinger against the other. The fingers were very long and ended in thick yellowing nails.
“Shame, shame,” he said. His voice rang with an unsteady quaver, like the after-effects of a ringing bell. “You’re up to some fun tonight, old man.”
My father swallowed. “You don’t scare me.”
The man, or whatever it was, made an amused “humpf” sound. Those long-fingers curled around the top of the open door. “We’re always around,” he said. “Always.”
“What do you want?” Dad said.
You’re a soul eater, I thought, and the Yellow-Polo Man’s head snapped toward me. His stare cut into me, and my chest flushed heat as if my heart were bleeding out.
He turned to my father. “I’ll make a deal,” he said. “I’ll take you and spare your family.”
Squirmy blue veins wormed along his temples and down into his cheeks, and his lips pulled back from pearly white teeth, but the teeth ended in sharp, filed-points. Vampire fangs—every one of them.
Not a man.
He was the one with the mask. It had features like a normal face, but it was a mask, and it was covering the same awful tooth-filled mouth that the thing in the backseat had. Or maybe there was something even worse under this fake face.
The thing in the backseat laughed, its skin wobbling, those teeth vibrating. The sound was the high-pitched, metallic whine of a machine, but that thing wasn’t a machine—it was a monster.
They were both monsters, real monsters, and they drove around in a red car that probably wasn’t a car at all but some sort of monster itself, driving around for victims.
When my father spoke again, a new tone had come into it, softer, resigned. “What will it be like?”
“It will be sweet, Encyclopedia Man,” the Yellow-Polo Thing said slowly, as if tasting each word. “Oh, so very sweet.”
The thing’s right hand leaped up and landed on my father’s chest, dead-center. Long nails pierced him, and Dad let out a startled gasp. He stumbled back but the Yellow-Polo Creature seized his arm, held him in place.
“So, so sweet.”
Dad started to shake—electrocuted. His eyes rolled back to all white, and greenish, snotty phlegm dribbled over his bottom lip.
“Dad!” I screamed.
Steve and Mom hadn’t moved. Maybe they couldn’t.
His arms flopped at his sides, bouncing off the car and the door; his feet jittered in their loafers, and he would have collapsed if The Thing wasn’t holding him up.
It has been twenty-five years since that day, but I still don’t know where the thought came from—I reached through my mother’s open window and directly into her pocketbook. Her hand was in there, a mannequin’s hand, but her fingers held something fat and heavy.
I grabbed it, and the sharp thing next to it.
An awful, warbling moan slipped from my father’s mouth. The Yellow-Polo Monster was ginning, lips spread almost ear-to-ear, and its teeth were so big and sharp. Any moment now, it was going to drop its face against my father’s neck and those teeth would tear out his throat in a spray of blood.
And ran around the front of the car. I felt big and strong, a weapon gripped in each hand. It did not occur to me that neither thing was technically a weapon, and thank God for that. I’m too old now to pretend otherwise: if not for the surging bravado of my ten-year-old self, I would have stood witness as my father was killed.
I stabbed the metal nail file into the side of the Yellow-Polo Thing. It pierced the skin easily, a knife through melting butter. The Thing screamed, or what passed for a scream. It was loud and quavering and completely inhuman and unnatural. No man or animal could make such a noise.
I stabbed it again. A dark stain spread rapidly through the yellow fabric. It made that scream-sound again and turned to me.
My father fell backwards, free, and crumpled to the ground.
The monster’s mouth dropped wide, wider, large enough to chomp into my skull. Its hand reached for me.
Those long, long fingers.
I swung my other hand, and the change purse I clutched in it. It bulged full of coins, as always, and my hand couldn’t completely grasp it, but the force of my swing was enough.
The change purse smacked the Thing’s head. The Devils hat tumbled off, and a sheen of rubbery flesh went with it. The pseudo-skin splattered onto the driver’s door. Black liquid bubbled from the wound and coursed down its neck and onto the yellow shirt.
The change purse flew. Coins jangled across the concrete. Sunlight reflected off them in dozens of dizzying bright flashes.
I stabbed the monster in the throat.
The nail file sunk in all the way to my fist. Warm black blood gurgled around my fingers. That giant mouth chomped down again and again, but it was a fish out of water, a shocked, desperate reflex.
I forced the file in farther and there was a potent rotten-egg stench, and I let go.
The Yellow-Polo Monster wobbled, hunched over, gushing its diseased blood, and hacking a strained, metallic rasp.
The Polo-Thing turned and scurried back to the the car, moving fast but hobbling, more animal-like than man. Black globules splattered the concrete. Then it was at the open passenger door, hand over the wound, and it hesitated before dropping into the nighttime dark inside the red car.
The backdoor to the apartment building squeaked open. A man in a blue suit perfectly tailored to his thin frame stepped out. He looked refreshed, as if from a pleasant rest. His black hair was gelled into solid, combed grooves. He was young, or maybe not; it seemed impossible to tell his age.
A grey scarf trailed from one hand like a shed snakeskin.
The Man in the Blue Suit walked directly to the red car, black dress shoes grinding loose dirt.
He opened the driver’s door, and turned to look at me. “Be good, kid,” he said in a surprisingly normal voice. “See you around.” He dropped into the dark world within. The umbra swallowed him into a black hole.
The door shut and the car’s engine revved so loudly it was all I heard, the monstrous roar of a dinosaur, and the car reversed rapidly down the narrow street and out onto the main road.
* * *
Three months later my father turned to me in the front seat of the Pontiac where we parked in a strip mall outside a dollar store. “You can’t escape the monsters forever,” he said. “Eventually, they get you.”
We never discussed what happened on Thanksgiving, not once, and neither Mom nor Steve had any memory other than some vague recollections about teenagers playing a prank. Grandma died in her sleep. She was old. Nothing suspicious, and I was the only one who noticed her scarf was missing.
“We can fight them,” I said. “We did it.”
Dad smiled in a sad, strange way I couldn’t understand at ten. He turned down the radio. The Beach Boys again: “Good Vibrations.”
“Dad, they’re easy to spot.” I thought of the Yellow-Polo Thing running back to the red car, black blood coating its hand, and I saw how it paused before dropping inside. It stared right at me, and those eyes were as bright yellow as its shirt. Those eyes woke me some nights, as well as the words of the Man in the Blue Suit.
Be good, kid. See you around.
“They can be hurt, maybe even—”
An engine rumble.
Louder and louder.
Dad set his head against the driver’s window and closed his eyes, as if thinking about this were too exhausting.
“Dad, what’re you—”
The red car turned into the lot and rolled toward us.
Light rain slowed to a gentle snowfall.
“It’s okay, Dad. It’s going to be okay.” But I wasn’t talking to him, my voice a whisper.
The snow parted around around the car. No flake touched it.
The car stopped in front of us. A warped version of the Pontiac wobbled along the driver’s side. In it, my father and I were twisted and stretched.
“Dad, they’re here.”
The driver’s window rolled down.
My breath caught. Not one day went by since Thanksgiving where I didn’t think of the things in that car, of the Yellow Polo Thing and its torn flesh and black blood, of the eyeless being in the backseat whose mouth filled its face, and of the Man in the Blue Suit who carried grandma’s scarf like dead snakeskin.
The Man in the Blue Suit grinned from the driver’s seat. It was a mouthful of gleaming, white teeth. Many, many teeth.
The Yellow-Polo thing sat hunched over in the passenger seat, something cupped in both hands, his mouth bent toward it.
Something tissuey and slick and red.
An organ, I thought. Maybe a cow heart.
The Man in the Blue Suit stretched an arm out the window. Snow curved around it. His fingers stretched, and he curled them into his palm, and did it again and again.
Scooping the air.
Head against the glass, he hadn’t moved.
“Dad, wake up.”
I touched his arm. He didn’t respond. I shook him. His head rolled back and forth against the glass. I shook harder.
“Dad!” I yelled. “Dad! Dad!”
When his fingers curled into his palm this time, the Man in the Blue Suit clenched a fist and brought it to his mouth.
He kissed it.
Beside him, Yellow-Polo Thing chomped a meaty bite and blood spurted. He stared at me, and something almost-human saw me. Something that had once been human.
It was recognition.
The window slid back up, a sheen of black.
That was it? They’d done something to Dad, killed him, and now they were going to drive off and leave me here alone?
I got out.
The car idled.
“No,” I said. “You don’t get to do that. No. No. No.”
“You can’t do this!”
The engine rumbled, growled. Streams of exhaust smoke slithered around the back tires.
“Take me!” I yelled.
The words were out and I couldn’t take them back. Not that I wanted to. Dad was dead. Back home it was Steve and his Indian burns and Mom and her oppressive rules.
“Take me,” I said again. “I’ll go.”
The snow was falling heavier, dusting the brim of the Devil’s cap I wore, and coating the pavement, but not one flake touched the car.
The rear passenger door opened on silent hinges.
My legs took me around the back of the car, through the red glowing smoke to the open door.
I peered inside.
Shadows receded into the nighttime world and a black leather seat waited, empty.
Warmth uncoiled from inside. Cozy in there, I thought. So cozy, I could fall asleep in a few seconds.
Somewhere far off, a car honked. I was in a strip mall off a main road just beyond the heart of town, but I was also alone before an open entrance to a different world and all the dark secrets it promised.
Exhaust gathered over my Converse sneakers.
I stood there, unmoving.
The Man in the Blue Suit. The Yellow-Polo thing. The Mouth Creature.
They were each human once. I was sure.
I took off the Devils cap, worked the brim with my fingers, and tossed it on the seat.
It tumbled and settled. Didn’t vanish. Didn’t spontaneously combust. Didn’t melt.
Curtains of snow curved around the open door.
I heard something from inside: the smooth harmony of surfer boys in a hippy version of doo-wop complete with do-do-do-bum-bum-bum-dum-de-dum-de-do-de-do-wah.
The Beach Boys were singing “Heroes and Villains.” The sound was soft yet dynamic. Not playing off a cassette tape. It sounded as if the band were somewhere in the car, though far away, as if the car’s interior world stretched and stretched and the old rock group was way, way back inside playing a concert.
My father was a slumped shadow in the Pontiac. Did the Man in the Blue Suit have his soul? If I got in the red car, would he show me? What would it look like? I thought it might resemble his perfect, crisp handwriting.
At home, it was my mother’s cold-hearted grammar and rules, and Steve’s Indian burns, and my blood-speckled arms.
In the red car? I didn’t know. It might be awful. My face could melt into two eye slits, and my mouth engorge with fangs. It might hurt, but it might also give me purpose and protection.
The black seat dark as night itself.
I stood there, tried to will myself to get in.
The door swung shut, completely silent save for a faint metallic click. The engine revved.
The car drove.
Four funnels of exhaust twirled into the falling snow, and the car was gone.
As if up in smoke.
Faint, but still audible, the Beach Boys sang.
* * *
I often wake from nightmares—it is always a return to the same place.
It is twenty-six years ago.
The car door is open, the leather seat waiting, the snow parting around it. I am ten, and I can’t be sure if it’s the snow wetting my cheeks or my tears.
The seat waits and waits.
And I wonder.
Thanks for reading. Be well.
What I've read recently:
The Force by Don Winslow (fantastic, super-fast read, great moral complexity)
The Forgotten Girl by Rio Youers (fast-paced, imaginative supernatural thriller with heart)
In the Valley of the Sun by Andy Davidson (delightfully creepy western/vampire tale with literary flare)
The Cartel by Don Winslow (not as good as The Force, but well worth the time)
"Snapshot, 1988" by Joe Hill (brilliant, one of 4 short novels in his upcoming Strange Weather)
The Silent Corner by Dean Koontz (just started, but moving fast...)
Final Note: Josh Ritter is one of my favorite musicians and he has a new album coming this September, Gathering. Check out the first release from the album.
Okay, final FINAL note: A new Stephen King novel is always cause for celebration, but this fall he has a long novel co-written with his son, Owen. It's called Sleeping Beauties, and it sounds awesome. Owen is a kind soul and a marvelous writer. He was kind enough to visit with my creative writing students a few years ago and share some insights into the craft.
And here's the new book:
Thanks and be well.
DiLeo Writes—Chapter 2: On Death and Horror (and a Free Short Story)
Thank you for subscribing to my newsletter. The first one was sent way back in February, and now that it looks like we are finally emerging from winter's cold lifelessness into spring's warm rebirth, I thought it a good time to discuss death.
As a fan of horror fiction and movies, I encounter fictional death quite frequently. Those of a similar ilk don't need to ask why people find death and violence entertaining—we are acutely aware, perhaps more so than the masses who shy from Stephen King and the latest horror flick in the cinema, that the consequence of life is death. There is no escaping it. There is no willing it away. We each owe a death, and we don't know when that moment will come.
People might counter that while they know death is unavoidable, they don't see the point in fixating on it. Why fill your head with such dark, depressing thoughts and images? Doesn't that road lead to a callous immunity to real suffering?
No. It doesn't.
Why do we read or watch movies? Why, for that matter, do I write? To go one step further, why do I teach English?
The answers are the same: to discover what it means to be human.
In a riff off of Camus, I will say that all art (books, movies, paintings, et al) is an effort to reconcile our understanding that we will one day be dead. Camus might say it doesn't matter how or when we will die, and in fact everything we do is, essentially, meaningless, but that doesn't change the basic circumstance: we are going to die.
Horror, more so than any other genre, confronts that troubling problem head-on, which is partly why it is an oft-maligned subset of the thriller and the drama (and sometimes the comedy). (It's also derided because of all those scantily-clad women fleeing crazed chainsaw madmen through dark woods. And, oh yeah, all that blood.) Horror dares us to experience possible deaths vicariously. In some ways, the genre provides rehearsal for the inevitable. Unlike thrill-seekers who BASE jump off cliffs, the horror fan is in no rush to directly challenge death. There may be a love of chaos nestled in the horror-fan's heart, but it is a controlled and contained chaos.
Yeats wrote that "the center cannot hold," but I do not want the world to crumble into anarchy, or a "blood-dimmed tide" to drown the world. Such terribleness makes splendid fodder for stories, but it would be a real bummer if it came to fruition. (Politics aside, every generation believes it is living in THE END TIMES, and I guess eventually somebody will be proven right.)
While the apocalypse may or may not ever come, we each face our own personal destruction: our death. Horror helps us face that fact, confront the fear, and challenge us to ask what might wait in the darkness after that last breath.
The first real adult book I read was Stephen King's Cujo. I chose it because it was (relatively) short, and featured a growling dog's muzzle on the cover, fat globules curving off fanged teeth. This was a book that promised danger and violence and terror.
I was eleven.
I read that book in three days and then read it again. The story quickened my pulse, wet my palms. In it, the characters spoke like adults and did adult things. They didn’t censor themselves and when Cujo, the rabid dog, pounced, the descriptions spared nothing. Flesh tore. Guts spilled. People died.
This was an awakening. The Hardy Boys stayed on the shelf above my desk and Cujo took up residence under my bed. Soon, other books joined the secret stash. This included many more Stephen King books, Clive Barker’s Books of Blood series, and Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs.
These books belonged to my father. He was an academic with a great fondness for the macabre. The downstairs was his domain. Shelves lined the walls and hundreds of books crammed those shelves. There were encyclopedias and textbooks and science fiction novels, but the stuff I wanted—the really good stuff—was concealed in a colonial-style coffin.
No joke. My father hired a carpenter to build a life-size coffin (see above and below) suitable for Dracula himself, and on Halloween my father set that coffin on our front steps, donned a monster disguise, and tried his best to scare trick-or-treaters.
The rest of the year, the coffin stood against the wall downstairs, the lid firmly shut.
My father died when I was eleven.
So, now this is where you armchair psychologists can gently cough and, as soothingly as you can, suggest to the man on the couch (in this case, me) that perhaps my love of horror and all things dark and bloody actually stems from the loss of my father at a very young age. Were I in a particularly honest mood, I might volunteer that, sure, yeah, that could have something to do with it because, you see, not only did he die when I was just a kid, I also saw him die.
You will no doubt nod with sympathy and self-satisfied pride. Good job. Another spot-on diagnosis. Normal people, after all, would not have such fondness for the macabre if not for some trauma that bent the sapling of their disposition into the warped tree of their adult selves.
Reading Cujo, and all the other books I secretly snatched from the coffin, was an effort at communing with my deceased father, but it was also a genuine awakening—a true epiphany: books could peel back the innocent veneer and expose the gruesome underbelly of the adult world, AND books could openly explore what I knew at eleven years old not in theory but in cold reality—we will each die.
As I've gotten older, death has taken on even greater tangibility, and my interest in it has deepened. I recently finished writing a novel (more on that in a future newsletter) that revolves around death in both the concrete way I've experienced it and the heady way I've pondered it. It is a horror novel, of course, and the pleasure (and frustration) I found in writing and revising it is part of my ongoing journey to make sense of this life we each have and that uncertain death waiting for us somewhere in the future.
Again, it's about discovering what it means to be human.
Death doesn't negate what we do, or how we live (even if Camus is right and none of it actually matters), but what death does do is force us to make a conscious choice how we will spend our time, what we will value, and how we will respond when chaos strikes our lives and when Death knocks on our door, his black robe rippling, his scythe polished sharp.
The work of horror invites you into the dark so you can safely entertain these questions, and when you emerge back into the light perhaps you'll have learned something essential about yourself.
I could go on and on (and maybe I will in future newsletters), but I think you've earned a little story time. Below is a story that was published in Slices of Flesh (Dark Moon Books) Edited by Stan Swanson. It's short, and it's me trying to make sense of death (armchair psychologists ready your pens and pads of paper), and it even brings us back to Yeats.
"Things Fall Apart"
by Chris DiLeo
After Dad’s funeral, we went to Napoli’s for lasagna and hard liquor. After the second round of beverages, Collin told me about his teeth. The rear two molars had fallen out, completely intact.
“Found them on my pillow,” my brother told me. “Lucky I didn’t choke on them.”
“That’s how it started with Dad,” I said.
After a moment of contemplation, staring at the glass in his hand, he asked what he should do.
“Drink,” I said and held up my glass. The ice cubes tinkled together.
* * *
Collin called me late that night. “Three more fell out.”
“Drank too much.”
“What am I supposed to do?” His voice bordered on the brink of tears.
I closed my cellphone.
“It’s getting worse,” I told my wife.
“You know why,” she said in a sleepy voice. “He’s just like your father. You both are.”
I touched my front teeth delicately as though they might fold back into my mouth.
* * *
Driving home after work the next night, I ended up on the road leading to the cemetery. Hope Road, it’s called.
The mound of dirt was moist from a light rain. I knelt there, knees in the soil. I touched the mound with both hands like a celebrity placing his palms in fresh concrete on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
We had set Dad’s hands palms-up inside the coffin. There had only been three fingers left on each hand. The others, wrapped in handkerchiefs, were tucked into his suit pocket.
We assembled him like I used to piece together the full-sized body hanging in my high school biology classroom. We had called the body Skelly. Its organs and muscles came out. And the bones, of course. We dismembered him until he was a hollow shell with stumps and then reassembled him, if we could.
“The body is intricately and uniquely connected,” Mr. Cantor had told us. “When something goes wrong, the body does whatever is necessary to preserve the functions needed to live. It’s amazing how much we can take away from Skelly and yet, were he real, his body would still fight to stay alive.” Mr. Cantor juggled a plastic liver in his hand like a ball.
“Dad,” I said to the mound of dirt. “How do we stop it?”
* * *
In his final hours, our father resembled the mummy from that old movie. Bandages covered his whole face, save for his right eye. Three holes had been made for breathing. He couldn’t eat normally anymore.
His jaw had fallen off. We wrapped it in a washcloth.
“How does this happen?” Collin asked. “How does someone just fall apart?”
“That poem again,” I said.
* * *
Grandpa had died. We watched our father release his ashes into the wind. I had never seen my father so serious. I thought he might cry but he didn’t.
Sometime later, we gathered at home around the fire for story time.
“Words are magic,” Dad told us on that night so long ago.
Collin and I huddled close beneath a large knitted blanket. He was a year older and bragged about it all the time, but when it was story time, we were equals, and equally enthralled. Equally scared, too.
“Grandpa read this to me when I was your age and one day you will read it to your own sons.”
We rested our heads on our hands and gazed up at Dad in his big, plush red chair. The fire crackled in cryptic whispers.
He leaned forward, a big musty-smelling book in his hands, his fingers tucked on a page in the middle. “It’s called, ‘The Second Coming.’ It’s about the end of everything.”
My breath caught in my throat.
“Do you believe?” It was Dad’s usual question.
Our smiles were our signatures on a contract we couldn't yet comprehend.
As he read us the poem by a guy named Yeats, I think I completely forgot to breathe. This was not like the usual stories he read us--this was about death, about rivers of blood, about the world crumbling.
“Things fall apart,” Dad repeated. “The center can not hold.”
* * *
In those last hours, Dad could only groan through his thick bandages.
“It was just a poem,” I said. “Wasn’t it?”
Dad did not respond. Perhaps he hadn’t heard. His ears had dropped off the day before. They were in a plastic baggie.
* * *
Collin again: “I can’t stop reading it.” His words slurred together, but not from drunkenness.
“It’s a poem. It’s not a curse,” I said.
“But we believed--all three of us.”
I had the musty book open in my hands. Collin had his own copy, a gift from Dad many years ago. “Just words,” I said. “Nothing more.”
We said nothing for a moment, silently rereading the end of everything. “It’s getting worse,” Collin said. “My tongue is falling--”
* * *
In bed, my wife turned to me. I was off in the book, lost in a blood-dimmed tide.
“You’re going to make it worse,” she said.
“Depends on what you believe, I guess,” she said.
When I closed the book, my finger kept the page. I rested the book on the nightstand and when I turned away my finger remained stuck in the book, a macabre bookmark jutting out from the page of some poem my father had once read to my brother and me.
There wasn’t any blood. Just a tiny stump that looked almost fake, like the stumps on Skelly in Mr. Cantor’s class.
Things fall apart, I thought. The center can not hold.
“Do you believe?” Dad had asked.
That's it. Be good to one another. See you next time.
What I'm reading:
Deliverance by James Dickey
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
The River at Night by Erica Ferencik
(Can you find Cujo?)
Still here? Okay, cool—check this out:
The trailer for the new film version of IT.
I'm a big fan of the book (and the original miniseries), and I have high hopes for this film.
Finally, Stephen King and his youngest son Owen cowrote a book together, pubbing this fall. Owen was kind enough to visit with my creative writing students in the past—he is a brilliant, considerate man (and a damn good writer).
Find me on Twitter. @authordileo
DiLeo Writes—Chapter 1: This is for the Teachers, Future Ones, Especially
Welcome to my first newsletter!
I am a high school English teacher and an aspiring novelist. I've been teaching for ten years, and writing since I was in elementary school. If you want to read one of my stories, Pseudopod recently published (audio version) one here.
I don't know how frequently (or infrequently) these letters will appear, but I dig the idea (and both Warren Ellis and Joe Hill do it and they're like gods) and so here we are. If you follow me on Twitter (@authordileo), you might have noticed I'm obsessed with the tactile—I am embracing the analog* in a world gone nuts for technology. I may be a Luddite, but I'm not a troglodyte (at least I don't think so: a troglodyte probably isn't self-aware enough to even make that declaration, right?), and so while I write my first drafts in pencil on paper I am still aware of the expansive interweb-world and love that technology has allowed me to write this and send it right into your hands.
In these newsletters, I may write about teaching or writing or books or movies or (dread to imagine) politics—and any and everything else. It'll be, I hope, an entertaining and perhaps enlightening journey.
Thank you for joining me on the trip. I am flattered.
What follows is a speech I wrote to be delivered to students enrolled in the teacher program at SUNY New Paltz in New York. I never presented it, but it was published in The English Record, Vol. 67, #1, Fall 2016.
Recently, I was in the faculty room and tossed out this question: “What advice would you give to people entering the teaching profession?”
Three teachers were in there with me--one picked at a day-old salad, his tie dangling dangerously close to the gelatinous, orangey dressing on the wilted lettuce; the next clacked away at the keys of one of the two computers in the room, her seaweed-colored Nalgene water bottle close at hand; and the last stood motionless, perhaps hypnotized or zombified, before the copier as it whined and thumped, collating and stapling packet after packet. After packet.
My question echoed somewhat in the windowless room (I had almost shouted it over the copier’s drone), and through the wall a flushing toilet swooshed violently.
Those three teachers turned to me. I was stationed alone at a round table, my microwaved cheeseburger steaming, my finger marking my place in a book whose bright pink cover contrasted against the white table and pale, cinderblock walls.
Simultaneously, these three teachers said, “Do something else.”
The computer-clacker hacked free a cynical laugh; the salad-eater picked at what passed for his lunch; and the copier-zombie turned slowly back around.
This reaction is not unusual. You soon-to-be-educators will encounter similar warnings over and over. Veteran teachers will regard you with tired, mournful faces, perhaps somewhat pitying and maybe even a little envious, and they will tell you to “turn back now” or “get out while you still can.” They will state unequivocally that they would never become teachers now, not with the way things are.
These experienced teachers will regale you with stories of how this profession used to be rewarding, how students used to care, how parents once held their children responsible instead of casting blame outward.
This rose-colored nostalgia is mostly nonsense. At its most innocuous, these fond remembrances of teaching’s glory days are sad testaments to people who’ve collapsed beneath a culture of negativity of which they are now the sunken foundation. At its most toxic, these bitter snippets of wistful longing are an infection to which you are the most vulnerable.
Be warned: You are at risk.
Your positivity, your eagerness, your enthusiasm--it is all at risk.
Do not be a victim.
Stay positive. I urge you.
No matter what, stay positive--that is your salvation.
You are bold and confident and ready to make a difference, but that is also your Achilles Heel.
When you’re in that faculty room and the complaining starts, when your colleagues bemoan student laziness and administrative incompetence and parental obdurateness, when they cast their lure in your pond, do not take the bait.
Be polite, listen, but do not engage. Do not defend your beliefs, your philosophy, your pedagogy. Do not expose your gleeful optimism because your colleagues will diminish it with a minor laugh. They will shake their heads, call you naïve, and say, “You’ll learn.”
These teachers may think they mean well, and some of them still enjoy bursts of joyful teaching, but please, please, do not learn this lesson of negativity and despair. When they try to wrangle you aboard their ship of sorrow, simply nod your head, gather your things, wish them a good day, and swim off fast.
I am sorry if this sounds negative. I do not mean it that way. It is important, however, that you are shielded against what awaits.
You will want to get along with your colleagues, and this need to feel accepted makes you easy prey. The steps are small from complaining about lazy kids to gossiping about teachers to turning against your own students. And once that happens, ladies and gentlemen, it’s all over.
Older teachers tell me it’s best not to even think about how bad things are. It’s all so depressing.
Does it need to be?
Students can appear lazy. Administrators can seem incompetent. Parents can be confrontational. Legislators in Albany prove just how out-of-it they are with every new unfunded mandate they ratify. The Common Core may be on its way out, but something else will take its place.
The history of American public education is a series of cycles: exams prove students are falling behind their foreign counterparts, new curricula and tougher standards are implemented, some kids improve and some don’t, and testing shows students are still not performing well, and newer, better standards and pedagogical approaches are thrust upon teachers, and then testing shows yet again . . .
This is how it has always been. This is how it always will be.
I repeat: Stay positive.
In my ten years of teaching, I have learned a few important facts about the profession.
Number one: Teaching is a human enterprise.
You must be professional and likable. You must be part of the team, and yet unafraid to stand alone. Your colleagues will judge you, and very skeptically. If your students like you, your colleagues will say you’re too easy. If the kids hate you, these same teachers will engrave your tombstone.
Teaching is a human enterprise, and you must get along with your colleagues, but they are not the reason you are there. What we do, we do for the students.
Teaching is not, however, a selfless endeavor. You are not a monk taking a vow of poverty and humility. You need not bleed for your students. You are a professional, and entitled to every benefit this career offers.
We have an obligation to our students, but they are not our clients. This is not a business. We are not businesspeople. We are Sherpas guiding inexperienced climbers along a path we know so that those in our charge might safely learn how to navigate for themselves.
Here’s number two: Teaching is no good unless you enjoy it.
You must have fun. Enjoy yourself. Even when it’s a slog and a trudge, enjoy it.
That is not to say that everyday, every period, every moment with my students is some wondrous parade of glee. We may be Sherpas, but it is a Sisyphean excursion. It can seem hopeless, a mad sprint on a maxed-out treadmill, your heart thumping into your throat and your whole body screaming for that final bell, that three-day weekend, that elusive snow day.
When those breaks come, luxuriate in them, but when you return to the classroom, enjoy it.
Never discourage your students. While a wake-up-call speech may be necessary for students to hear from time to time, it is too easy for such diatribes to devolve into merciless, critiquing rants that the students will completely ignore.
You tell the students to get serious, to work hard, to develop college-worthy study skills, but to them you’re out of touch. Even as young as some of you are, to your students you’re part of the adult machine and their objective is, and always has been, to dismantle that machine.
Instead of ranting--inspire.
Present a favorable image of adulthood. We cannot criticize teenagers for their immaturity and resistance to growing up if we’re constantly moaning about adult responsibilities and bills and lack of sleep and how sometimes, even most times, we have to do things we don’t want to.
If that’s adulthood, what’s the point?
Grow up, get smart, be serious: Welcome to the misery.
We have a responsibility to shape for our students a positive and realistic future. It’s good to be an adult. We must act accordingly.
This is a human enterprise. Stay playful and exuberant. Remind yourself why you got into this.
If my students enjoy my class, it is not because I taught them subordinating conjunctions or the paragraph template or the thematic meanings of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest--it is because I connected with them on a human level.
Be humorous. Be sincere. Vacillate from jokester to confidante to dictator to frenetic madman. Do whatever you can to engage them.
Sometimes you’ll be strict, sometimes lenient. Your approach will vary depending on what the students need.
Use your strengths.
Forget the data analysis of test scores. Forget the excessive state standards and cookie-cutter Common Core. Forget the negativity.
Remember your students, and your obligation to them.
Go forth and give it your all.
You are the teacher. Whatever you do in the classroom, make it worth everyone’s time.
Next time, I'll discuss some books. Or movies. Or writing. Or . . .
Thanks again for signing up. Be good to one another, and I'll see you next time.
If you're inclined, drop me a line and tell me what you think of what I wrote: firstname.lastname@example.org.
As for books, this is what I'm reading now:
Insomnia by Stephen King
The Amazing story of Quantum Mechanics by James Kakalios
Stein On Writing by Sol Stein
The Secret History of Twin Peaks by Mark Frost
The Rain in Portugal by Billy Collins
Close Encounters of the Third Kind by Steven Spielberg (a novelization of his own screenplay=awesome)
*The Revenge of Analog by David Sax (Read this, and embrace the analog world.)
P.S. The picture is me at a young age, practicing my burgeoning mind powers. There appears to be a spider on my face, which no doubt helped strengthen said powers.