One Hundred Awful Pages

A few years ago, I was invited to be the visiting writer in the University of Redlands Visiting Writer Series.  As part of the activities, I participated a writing class.  It was taught by the novelist Patricia Geary.  It was one of the coolest classes I’ve ever been in.

Students were required to write one hundred pages of a novel over the course of the semester.  I visited late in the semester, when they were all deep into their respective stories.  Everyone in the class knew what everyone was writing.  They were into it.  They talked about one another’s characters as if the characters were part of their lives, people they saw down at the student union or at parties the past weekend.  The students were flush with the excitement of creation.

Smith CoronaIn retrospect, probably only a handful of those students actually finished the novels after the class.  Maybe fewer than a handful.  I doubt the finished novels were published.  More than anything, I’m willing to bet most of the students are now embarrassed by what they wrote then.  But that’s okay.  In doing that, they learned one of the most important lessons of writing: you have to write a lot of shit before you can write something good.

Before I go on, I have to admit that I didn’t know any of those students or their writing.  They may have all been brilliant.  Everything I wrote in that last paragraph is pure projection.  I’m not thinking about them as much as I’m thinking about me and how important it was for me to write a hundred awful pages before writing my first novel.

In 1994, I lived in Atlanta and worked as a waiter in a downtown restaurant.  I lived in a studio apartment.  Every morning before going to work, I wrote.  My whole goal in moving to Atlanta and working that job was to write a novel in the mornings.

In February of that year, I started working on a novel.  I wrote four or five pages a day on it.  I wrote on an old Smith Corona word processor with a screen that only showed four lines of text.  You could save up to twenty-five pages on a disc.  I filled up about a disc a week.  I was so excited.  Words just flowed out of me.  I felt like I was tapping into my masterpiece, like Kerouac when he powered through the original scroll of On the Road in three weeks.  I wrote like crazy and didn’t reread what I wrote.  When I was done writing, though, I knew that I was brilliant and every word was a little nugget of gold.

Sometime in early March, about five or six discs in, I thought about printing everything up and taking stock of my progress.  This was a big decision.  It took a few minutes to print a single page on those old word processors.  Printing the whole file would take me  a couple of days.  I decided to read off the little screen, instead.

A creeping sense of panic seeped into my bones like a cold, rainy morning.  I tried to fix things on  a sentence level on that first disc or two.  By the third disc, I stopped even that.  By the last disc, I calculated the cost of word processor discs and the value of this novel I’d been working on.  I decided that the discs were worth more.  It would be okay to write something else and save those files right on top of the novel I once thought was my On the Road.

I remember what was wrong with that novel.  I remember a lot about it.  A painful amount.  I’m not telling you what was wrong with it because it was so wrong, so embarrassing.  And because I don’t have to.

In the nearly twenty years that have elapsed since then, I’ve never regretted abandoning that work and writing over the original files.  I’m proud of that young man in 1994 who recognized a lousy book when he read one.  Even if he was the one who wrote the book, he was okay with putting it down and picking up something else.  After I abandoned that first novel, I started writing Drinks for the Little Guy.  I actually started it the next morning.

I know Drinks is far from a perfect novel.  I’m not even sure it’s a good one.  I’m the one who took it out of print, in fact.  But I’m still glad I wrote it.  I’m not too embarrassed if you read it.  It has its charms.


TWG_tour_poster_MinneapolisAfter I finished my reading at Arise Bookstore in Minneapolis, the God Damn Doo Wop Band took the stage. And, by “stage,” I mean the empty area in front of the chairs in the backyard of Arise. It was one of those perfect Minneapolis days that apparently don’t happen all that often but seem to happen every time I’m there. It was sunny, temperatures in the low eighties, an even cooler breeze. The sun was starting to set behind the bookstore. The band sat on a low wall.

The God Damn Doo Wop Band: three women who know how to spend their money on boots and tattoos and hair dye, who, more importantly, know how to sing doo wop songs. They launched into three-part-harmonies about boy troubles. On the one hand, they seemed like an authentic throwback to the Staten Island doo wop of the fifties. On the other hand, it was something totally fresh and original.

One of the band members is named Annie. She used to be in the Soviettes. She didn’t wear boots. Her Vans were worn through just above the big toe. As she sang, her big toe popped out of the hole in her shoe. A little red toenail kept the beat.

Train Wreck Girl Interview

In preparation for the publication of Train Wreck Girl, Manic D Press emailed some questions over my way.  It was a mock interview, of sorts, that press outlets could use for various quotes or to supplement the press release.  I found it on my computer while doing a search for another file recently, and I thought, hey, this is blog-worthy.

Without further ado, here are my answers to the publisher’s questions about my book.  They are all accurate as of February, 2008.


While this is fiction, the scenes in Cocoa Beach, FL and Flagstaff, AZ reveal an uncanny familiarity. Did you live in these towns at some point?

I lived in both of them.  I was born in Cocoa Beach.  Most of the novel takes place in my old neighborhood in downtown Cocoa Beach.  I lived there for a few years.  I loved it.  It had its shady elements, but rent was cheap and you could walk to the beach and the bars.  It was also right by the library, which was great.  Cocoa Beach has an amazing public library, especially when you consider it’s a small town in Florida.

I lived in Flagstaff for a couple of years, also.  Though I changed the names of a lot of the places, people who live in either of these towns will probably be able to pinpoint where I’m talking about and pick up on some inside jokes.

The characters in Train Wreck Girl are very three-dimensional. Are they entirely fictitious, or based on people you’ve known?

Well, people who are close to me will probably read about the Bart character and think, oh, he drives the short bus during the day and picks up dead bodies at night, so he must be based on Sean’s friend so-and-so.  Or they’ll read about Sophie yo-yoing in and out of rehab and being the nicest, sweetest woman when she’s sober and think she’s based on an ex-girlfriend.  And if they want to believe that, they can.  The more you want to believe about the book, the better, as far as I’m concerned.

A lot of the characters do have a great deal of back story written about them as well.  They’ve popped up in other stories and books of mine.  If I can use a main character from one story as a minor character in another, I try to do that.  This way, if you read all of my books, you can get a richer experience than if you just read an individual book.  It’s kind of like what Faulkner did with Yoknapatawpha County.  Only Faulkner wrote all these amazing novels worthy of his Nobel Prize, and I write a bunch of stories with characters who get drunk and say dude a lot.

There are so many coming-of-age novels, what makes this one different?

When I was getting into my early thirties, I noticed that a few of my friends were going through a little crisis that basically amounted to: I always thought I had no future and now I’m living in the future.  I lived fast and didn’t die young; what do I do now?  And I had noticed this about my friends because I was going through that same crisis.  So that’s why I wrote Train Wreck Girl.  It’s my way of trying to answer those questions I didn’t really have an answer to.

Most coming of age stories deal with the realization that the world is a lot crueler than we all thought, and that realization generally comes at the end of the adolescent years.  This novel is about the realizations we hit a little later in life, at the end of the dude years.

When did you start writing fiction?

When I was in second grade, I was getting into a lot of trouble because I had a teacher who taught to the dumbest kid in the class, and I wasn’t him.  I was bored all the time, looking to start something.  So my mom gave me a little notebook and told me to write a story in it whenever I was bored.  Ever since then, writing has kept me out of trouble.  More or less.

Has being a publisher at Gorsky Press changed you as a writer?

Yes.  Being a publisher has taught me that the world doesn’t owe me anything just because I wrote a novel.

Does Train Wreck Girl have a message that it’s trying to impart to its readers, or is it strictly entertainment?

First off, I hope it’s entertaining.  That’s the most important thing.  That’s what all the fart jokes are about.  But there are definitely some serious themes that I explore and I hope the reader leaves the book thinking about things they haven’t thought about before.

You’re teaching college these days but you’ve had many varied work experiences. What were some of your favorites and why?

I worked in a school board warehouse for a while and I only had to do about three hours of actual work in an eight hour shift.  The rest of the time, I’d find a remote corner of the warehouse and read the obsolete library books.  It was great.

I also worked in a rock and roll bar for a while, and just about everything we did was illegal.  I don’t think we had a liquor license or even a business license.  Everything was cash, right down to the kickbacks we gave the police department bi-weekly and the five-dollar bills we gave to the crackheads to mop the cement floor after the shows.  All of my favorite local bands played while I was working there, and even a few of my favorite out-of-town bands.

I liked being a carpenter, too.  It was very fulfilling to walk onto an empty slab on a Monday morning and see the frame of a house on that slab by Friday afternoon.

Do you surf?

Yes.  I started surfing about twenty-five years ago, when I weighed ninety pounds and the tiny Florida waves could push me around.  Some of my best memories of Florida are attached to the names of storms.  Like, I remember the day after Hurricane Floyd swept through Cocoa Beach, I kept checking the waves every couple of hours until the water was calm enough to actually paddle out into.  And just about everyone in town had evacuated before the storm hit, so when I did get out to where the waves were breaking, there were just two other surfers and me and all the overhead waves we could surf.

Now I live between a few world class breaks in southern California, so I don’t have to wait for a tropical storm for the waves to be good.  I still surf a couple times a week, if I can.  I surf more in the winter when the waves are better.


I’m growing less cynical as I get older.  That’s probably backwards.

I noticed this while going through the latest issue of Razorcake.  I’d written a column about getting hired on the tenure track at Cal State Channel Islands.  Now, for me, that column was finished on December 1.  Since thaclamor cover10_bigt time, I spent about a six weeks doing other things.  In late January, I picked up the latest issue from Razorcake HQ.  I read everything in it except for my column.  Which isn’t to say I ignore my column.  I don’t.  Every issue, I flip to my column first, check out the illustration Brad Beshaw did, feel lucky that he illustrates my column, then move on.  At some point, my wife usually comes across the magazine.  This tends to happen after I’m already done reading it.  She reads my column, says something to me about it, and I have go back and read it to remember what I said.

It’s not so much that I’ve forgotten as that, by this point, I’ve written another column and I’m in the process of idly thinking about what the next one will be.

Anyway, I re-read my latest column and it reminded me of a piece I’d written for Clamor Magazine a dozen years ago, when my experiences teaching in Arizona and Florida left me so jaded that I got out of the business altogether.  When I wrote this article, I wasn’t teaching at all.

I’m a much better teacher now than the guy I portray in this article.  Much better.  I hope.

Still, I think it’s a nice time capsule that I found lingering around the internet.  You may find it worth reading.  It’s called “Teaching the History of All Wars.”