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JC: Usually when readers have something to say to us, they put it in the comments or send us an email. Marc Schuster, however, has a lot to say. He’s the author of The Singular Exploits on Wonder Mom and Party Girl, and the editor of excellent site Small Press Reviews. Here’s an essay he sent about Print On Demand:

Wherefore Print On Demand?

by Marc Schuster

The turkey Panini came highly recommended, but nobody mentioned that the man who operated the Panini press had a girlfriend who happened to be a writer. This latter fact came out while the Panini was cooking and the man behind the counter asked what I did for a living. When I said that I was an English teacher, a friend of mine, who shall remain nameless, added that I was a writer, too. This, it turned out, was the opportunity the man behind the counter was waiting for—a chance to plug his girlfriend’s book. It was a book of poetry, he explained, as he scribbled his girlfriend’s name and the title of her book on a sheet of wax paper. I should look the book up on Amazon.com, he added, and I promised that I would, largely because my Panini was beginning to burn.

The book was, in fact, available on Amazon.com. It had an ISBN, a bright cover, and a four-star customer review that described the volume as “unique.” It was also published by Outskirts Press, one of a handful of printing services that utilizes print on demand (POD) technology to turn aspiring writers into published authors the quick and easy way. “Say goodbye to the rejection of traditional publishers and the two-year publishing cycle,” reads the Outskirts Press website; “Say hello to the flexibility and control of self-publishing combined with the full-service support and confidence of a book publishing company, all under one roof.” To a lot of writers, this probably sounds like a dream come true. The problem, however, is that when writers say goodbye to rejection, they tend to say goodbye to a lot of other things, too—editing, revision, and a critical eye chief among them.

In a recent CNN.com article titled “More Authors Turn to Web and Print-on-Demand Publishing,” Gail Jordan, the Director of Public relations for POD publisher Lulu.com echoes the sentiments of Outskirts Press: “Anyone can publish, that’s the beauty of it… Nobody’s going to say, ‘We don’t like your cover. Chapter 10 should be Chapter 6.'” On one hand, this sounds great insofar as it gives everyone, even the least literate among us, an opportunity to share a number of bound pages of printed text with the world at large. On the other hand, what if Chapter 10 really should have been Chapter 6? What if making that or other changes would have turned the book in question from a good book to a great book? Without an editorial process in place, there’s no means of improvement, no way of (gently or otherwise) suggesting to a writer that another round of revisions may be in order.

That most print-on-demand publishers also offer editorial services (at a premium) doesn’t do much to mitigate the problem—particularly in light of the fact that all of the marketing for these enterprises centers on ideas like those expressed by Jordan: writers don’t need “the man” to tell them what to do. Case in point: the XLibris “loser” ad campaign from a few years back, which encouraged potential customers to place themselves in the company of authors like James Joyce, who also had to self-publish. They did it, so why shouldn’t you? the ads all but demanded. But after convincing potential customers that “the man” is unnecessary, turning around and trying to sell the services of “the man” to the customer comes off as somewhat disingenuous.

At the end of the day, what’s lacking in print on demand publishing is a mechanism for ensuring that someone other than the author has seen a book before it goes to print. The reason this matters is that writing is not a solitary pursuit despite what popular sentiment and the purveyors of print-on-demand services might have us believe. T.S. Eliot had Ezra Pound. F. Scott Fitzgerald had Maxwell Perkins. In the case of the former, Pound challenged Eliot to pare The Waste Land down to its essential core. In the case of the latter, Perkins wrought Fitzgerald’s mangled prose into Standard Written English.

While it may be true that publishing houses don’t—as the almost constant handwringing over the current state of the publishing industry insists—have editors like Perkins anymore, editing is still a major part of the publishing process. I have a number of writer friends whose books have been published by the “big houses,” and all of their work, without fail, has gone through a fairly intense round of editing before it has seen print. The same holds true for my friends who have agents: before the manuscript goes before an editor, a good agent will usually offer suggestions for strengthening the work in question.

For those not in a position to be dealing with an editor, writers’ workshops serve a similar function: they put your manuscript in front of someone before you unleash it on the public. In the best of situations, this someone—or these someones—will share a writer’s aesthetic sensibilities and challenge the writer to make a writing project as strong as it can be. Again, look at Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. Pound’s heavy pen cuts huge swaths of verse out of Eliot’s manuscript for The Waste Land, and his comments are unrelenting: dogmatic deduction but wobbly as well, verse not interesting enough as verse to warrant so much of it, make up yr. mind, and (bluntly) bad—but cannot attack until I get typescript. Though hopefully more tactful, a good writers’ group can be equally frank about the quality of an early draft while, at the same time, championing its potential.

Needless to say, such frankness can be daunting, but in the end, it’s better for a writer to be told that a passage in a story isn’t especially interesting (or is simply bad) before it’s gone to press than to find out from a reviewer afterward. And that’s what print on demand services don’t sufficiently address in their marketing rhetoric. By insisting that anyone can and should publish anything and everything while passively making editors and agents out to be villains, these services fail to note that some writers need to spend a lot more time on their craft before foisting a book upon the world at large. Or, more bluntly, they don’t admit that some writing is just plain bad.

None of this, however, is to say that POD technology doesn’t have a legitimate place in publishing. The concept actually makes a lot of sense insofar as supply is always equal to demand. Additionally, there’s no telling how many trees the print on demand phenomenon has saved—assuming, of course, that everyone who’s gone that route would have otherwise ended up publishing hundreds of copies of each tome through a more traditional vanity press. Finally, there’s the fact that some print on demand services charge no upfront costs. Considering the vagaries of the book market, print on demand is clearly an idea whose time has come.

Given the benefits of POD technology, it would make a lot of sense for a latter-day Maxwell Perkins to start a press and work with a small number of authors to hone their work and share it with a worldwide audience via a service like Lulu or Lightning Source. One editor who has been doing something along these lines is Lily Richards of Casperian Books. Working with authors like widely-published small press author Curtis Smith to publish his novel Sound + Noise, Richards has developed a catalogue of twenty titles, each of which has gone through an extensive and thorough editing process.

According to Richards, each book that Casperian publishes takes about a year to go from the initial query stages to the final product. This process begins with a dialogue between the potential author and the editors at the press: if the editors like what they read in a query, they ask a number of questions to make sure, among other things, that the author understands how much time and effort goes into turning a manuscript into a book. Assuming Casperian decides to acquire the title, the editors then begin a lengthy dialogue with the author.

“Once we get a contract in place, the editorial process begins,” Richards explains. Most of the times, this process involves two to three rounds of edits in advance of a final copy edit: “The first round is just a general e-mail after contract signature where we list the items that should be addressed manuscript-wide and usually request that the revised manuscript is submitted together with a timeline for the MS… The second round is usually a rough edit from us, together with nitpicking of specific and localized problems within the manuscript, such as, ‘Your timeline’s broken right here.’  This step might be repeated once or twice based on author edits and rewrites. After that, it’s off to copyedit, before the manuscript moves into production.”

For Richards, this editorial process is the key distinction between what Casperian does and what most POD services offer.

“I think it’s important to distinguish between a POD service—which in essence is used for self-publishing purposes–and small presses/publishing houses utilizing a POD service to print books with reduced inventory and risk,” the publisher notes. “The primary reason I say it’s important to distinguish between a POD Service and a small press though, has less to do with the logistics, distribution and finance, and more to do with editorial standards and the peer review process.  POD services that have no editorial process and basically allow anyone who want to self-publish their books regardless of quality are, in essence, what gives POD a bad name. At least vanity publishers usually throw in a basic edit, which gets rid of typos and punctuation errors, even if it does nothing about the quality of the book itself.”

Of course, sentiments like this aren’t what many writers who take the POD route want to hear. The day before the Panini incident, I took part in a panel discussion on the craft of writing, during which I expressed the opinion that workshopping, revising, and editing are all essential to the writing process. Interestingly, I never explicitly said anything about bad writing, but a few people in the audience were sharp enough to intimate that revision implies room for improvement and that room for improvement implies that there’s a difference between good writing and better writing. Extending this logic a tiny bit further, at least one member of the audience drew the inevitable conclusion that I was also suggesting a difference between good writing and bad writing, and that I was unfairly lumping her work into the latter category.

The woman was 93 years old and working on a collection of poetry that she intended to publish. When the panel discussion was over, she touched my wrist and gently informed me that I had no right to tell her that her poetry wasn’t good enough for publication. This was America, she said, and people have the right to express themselves however they see fit. Nobody, she insisted, could tell her what she could or couldn’t write.

“I write for myself and only for myself,” she said.

To which I did not reply, “I guess that explains why you’re publishing a book.”

Instead, I nodded and told her that what she was doing was wonderful. I was glad that she was writing a book, I said. And I really was happy for her. I’ve never in my life said that anyone shouldn’t write. But there’s a difference between writing for oneself and writing for an audience—and that’s a difference that most POD services do their best to obscure.

Here we are on the San Joaquin Valley train, riding from Fresno, California to Bakersfield, California with Nick Belardes: author, poet, news guy, and artist. What do you think about train rides, Nick?

Peaceful. Better than driving.  Way better than a bus. The passenger train out of Bakersfield only heads northward into the Great Central Valley. We pass oil wells, emus in back yards, kids on ATVs slinging mud from spinning tires, and farmland like you’ve never seen. From Fresno it’s kind of the same thing, only today we might witness a gang shooting as we leave the station.


What were you doing in Fresno?

I headlined the Inner Ear Poetry Jam at Full Circle Brewery. In specific I was there to read a poem called “The Devil and His Goblins.”


What’s it about?

The Central Valley.  (Which I’m also writing a book about.  It’s titled City of Dirt: Critical Essays on the Southern Central Valley.)  The poem is about the valley, a place with one of the worst foreclosure rates in America, hatred against Latinos, the threat to end the Modern Language Programs at CSU Bakersfield, and more. There’s also a rich legacy of Yokut Native American mythos and culture here in this 300-mile-long valley found within the poem. On top of that, the poem was intended as a performance piece for Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) in which I was painted like the Devil when I read it. The poem has made many rounds in academic circles worldwide and is now part of a cultural and heritage program that bridges the U.S. and China.


So really you’re not much of a poet?

Sure I am, although I can’t memorize them very well. At a poetry reading in Bakersfield I read a poem off my cell phone. I wanted to be the first in Bakersfield to do that. I try to be a claim to fame for as many meaningless things as possible. Like writing the first original literary novel on Twitter, or being the first on my block when I was a kid to crash a bike into a pole.


You just went on a book tour for your book of oddities, Random Obsessions?

Yes, I toodled around LA, the Central Valley and into the Bay Area. Newspapers and radio have been good to me. I got to go on TV news stations in Fresno and San Francisco. The TV stations in Bakersfield, though there are three of them, all ignored my book. But that says something about the state of the arts in the Southern Central Valley and their disconnectedness with television. I still have hope for KGET. News anchor Kiyoshi Tomono wears cool suits and he’s Asian. I hear Asian people love Random Obsessions. I’m not lying. I was randomly told by my publisher just recently that my book is hot in the Philippines. I thought I saw an old Chinese man wandering with my book in Chinatown in San Francisco. But it might have just been a giant fortune cookie. Either way, I’m holding out for Kiyoshi as that media bridge between television, the literary arts, and all the little old ladies who think he’s sexy on TV.


I keep hearing you say that Random Obsessions is the ultimate gift for Christmas, birthdays, Halloween and more. Why?

Well, just think about it. Every kid in America (and the Philippines I guess) loves trivia. They’ll pull my book out of their Christmas stockings (instead of coal and old gummy worms) and start reading these crazy facts about Mothman, devilish architecture in the nation’s Capital, weird cult movies, crazy tree-man diseases, and Thomas Jefferson’s ax-wielding grandson. They’ll literally blab this stuff while the yule log is blazing on TV in their cheesy living rooms, which are a metaphor for all that’s good and wholesome in America.


I read that there’s a tie-in with Random Obsessions and some of the people on The Nervous Breakdown?

Sure is. Brad Listi wrote the introduction. I interviewed Erika Rae about a bone-filled Ossuary and some weird haunted temple behind a Buddhist tower in Colorado. Apparently, she’s pretty well haunted too. I hear she lives in the Rockies like some kind of old hermit busting out babies and having them all work digging caves and cemetery plots. It’s kind of cool. I also talk about Jessica Anya Blau and Lauren Baratz-Logsted in the book. I’m still waiting for some free promo from all these people or at least the coupons for canned corn they promised me in the mail.


Hold on, the train is stopping. Does this happen very often?

Trains stop because engineers like to take a piss on the wheels now and then.


That’s interesting. So who is your publisher for Random Obsessions?

Viva Editions. They’re new and an imprint of Cleis Press. They write about sex. Viva is mainstream. And you want to know what’s odd? Brenda Knight, who is the Associate Publisher for Viva Editions is from West Virginia. People from her family knew Mothman! I think they played cards together. Smoked out. It’s all in the book. In fact, Mothman is sort of a bookie.


Is that a smashed-up coffee truck over there on that nearby frontage road?

Why, I think it is.



So the engineer just lied when he said we were just stopping for a moment?

Look at all those sirens!

INTERRUPTION. ENGINEER. INTERCOM: “SORRY FOLKS. LOOKS LIKE WE HIT A COFFEE TRUCK. WE’RE JUST GOING TO GET THEIR INSURANCE INFORMATION…”


Insurance info? Good idea. A train wreck! Inspiring! Wait a minute. Some guy is hitting on a woman behind you. That’s odd.

Definitely. And tweetable. I’m on Twitter. Let me just poke fun at all of this and post a photo. There. Oh, let me add: “Dude using train wreck as excuse to hit on chick.” That ought to make my followers laugh.


Oh that’s good. Let me try. Can I?

Sure. Here…


“Chick sounds like an opera singer the way she’s shrilly talking to that dude.” This is fun. So, on Twitter you just post your thoughts and anyone can read them?

Oh yeah. It’s fun. You can say, “Fuck off, Obama” and feel pretty confident he’s not paying attention.


Nice. You promote a lot through Twitter?

Of course. You have to build an audience every way you can.

Like how else?

Well, I have a bit part in a movie called The Lackey which is written and directed by Shaun Piccinino of Spike TV. It’s this crazy gangster film and I play this hitman boss named Dimitri who tells a guy nicknamed “The Russian” go and off some people. I think there’s going to be some nudity in my scene. Not me. But hey. I’m not complaining. T & A sells. I’m also on Facebook and I do a lot of writing for other news sites to get my name out there.


Why is someone screaming your name on the train? Do you have fans everywhere?

Well yes, I do have a lot of Filipino fans, but they’re usually in their island nation. Some of them kill each other over politics. Though I hope my book isn’t inspiring any of that crap.


Excuse me, Nick. There’s a woman standing next to you. She has a phone with your photo on it. She’s saying, “I follow you on Twitter.”

I know.  Shut the heck up for a second.  Let me talk to her.


OK.

To woman: Hi. What’s your name?


Woman: Samantha KnJoi. I follow you. I’m an opera singer.

Uh, you do?  You are?  You’re serious?  Did you read everything I just tweeted?


Not yet. But I’m about to!

How did you find me?



I recognized your glasses. See ya.

Interviewer. Hey, Nick, she’s gone. You’re an idiot. She’s going to know you were bagging on her. I thought you said Twitter was safe?

Yeah, I thought it was. I mean, I didn’t expect a train wreck or that a random opera singer would be following me on Twitter. Maybe I should go try and get a lift with that coffee truck. One of those fire engines might take me the rest of the way to Bakersfield.


Maybe you should make friends. Give the girl a book or something. Try to pull it off that you’re a comedian of sorts.

But I’m not a comedian.


You’re not much of a poet, either.

Bite me, asshole. Fine. I’ll give her my books. But I’m not signing them. What the hell would I write? “Nice train-wrecking with you”?


Well, before you do that can we finish our interview?

OK. Hurry up. I’m getting seasick.


So you have written some top news for CNN.com and other news sites?

Yes. I’m a journalist and a master of news site strategy. I once wrote about a family of beavers that was going to be terminated. I think 300,000 people clicked on that story in one day. I’ve also written about Captain America, plane crashes, orange water, pesticide drift, and the Bakersfield band Korn, all of which graced the home page of CNN. I’ve also written popular creative nonfiction here on TNB with titles like “The Magical Pig of Akron,” “Underwear Dreams,” and “Ancient Story of the Samurai Rat.” On Bakotopia I wrote about Harry Potter that made their second-most popular article ever, and, I once wrote about bugs in peanut butter clusters that made CNN and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno all in the same day.


Do you make much money at it?

Not really. But it’s cool to say that I wrote a news story that got picked up by mainstream television and embarrassed a man who just wanted fairness from his local 99-cent store. I mean, he didn’t ask to almost eat bugs. By the way, his story, though weird, wasn’t even weird enough for my book. I mean heck, in Random Obsessions you can read about bridge disasters, hen-sized dinosaurs and microscopic killer worm bugs.


Boy that coffee truck driver sure is screwed out of his Xmas bonus for trying to beat that train…

Yeah.

Goodness, that’s intense. What else are you working on?

A documentary about myself as a writer, the book of essays I mentioned, possibly a trivia book on the Central Valley, more movie scripts. I just wrote one called Two Suit Killer and working on another titled Journeyman. A book by Jonathan Evison coming out titled West of Here has some of my map illustrations in it. I wrote a kid’s book titled Timothy Egg. Mostly I’m working on a YA series (young adult) with the first book titled A Serendipitous Garden Of Lies. I held an event in Bakersfield at Russo’s Books recently where I read the whole backstory for it, a piece titled, “The December Scribe.” It was standing room only. The people loved it.

OK, that’s it. I have to go to the bathroom.


Your polished back is arched like Saint Louis.
I can see your fingers pushing into the bricks
when I lift your hair
to smell October drain from your neck.

You are cotton caught in the air
I am unfurling laces in your body.

I move on you steady like a fleet of ships pushing ice.
I want to break it all.

Your tank top strap slips down the huh huh huh of your shoulder –
and I will not strain meaning from this.

I have to taste all of your shapes with my teeth.

I am waltzing a wrecking ball.

I am wading in the dark felt Tijuana paintings of your hair.
Molting my bed clothes
uncoiling towards Sahara.

All I want to do is hot lust you
into dead sweat.
To watch your legs, those bent sickles,
to watch them shake
like poisoned wrens.

I am gnashed and dazzled.
Smother me in the exhausted thrust of your yes. . . .
wet
as all exploding laundromats.

Darling, may I be the image you turn to
when you are heaving alone,
burning like Halloween in Detroit?

I am breathing up your legssssspitting at the hiding nightingale.
Drift your breasts into my mouth
and I will be that doped up, spinning victrola.
La la la la la la.

I want to make love to you while you’re wearing figure skates
until the hardwood floors are toothpicks.

I want to kiss your throat in a dressing room with my hands
bound around the slow song in your voice.

I don’t care if you made that dress, hippie,
I will shred it until you look deserted.

You’re as restless as a New Orleans graveyard in a storm
with the coffins boiling up to the surface.

That’s all this writing is. She is across from me and the
soup is cooking.

I sit up all night listening to her dental records.
I will teach her of exorcism and screw the hell out of her.
I will carry her steam in my mouth.

Daydreaming of the evening of loud struggle.
Call my name—I will cascade like a suicide.
I will fall upon you like a box of fluorescent bulbs
dropped from a five-story building.

I will do anything you ask. . . .
unless I have been drinking; then it is opposite day.

I can’t believe you can sleep through all this.

Chunks of brick in your fingernails.
Mortar on your pillow
a bomb shelter
sketched on your skirt.
Safe.
It says “safe.”

Do the Kings of Leon hate you?

They don’t hate Derrick Brown, they hate my alter ego, Dr.Carlos Mandible. A big “how do ya do” broke out when I wanted to play a small electronic party in Nashville on a Monday night for about ten people. (Kings of Leon are from near Nashville.) I didn’t want my pal to know I would be in town so I leaked clues about my band, The Spring Hill Spider Party, to the club.  Dr. Carlos Mandible is the lead singer. Clues like, the secret band playing on Monday night hates Kings of Leon and used to hate Amy Grant, this band has a drummer who dresses like Merlin, etc. Instead of ten people being there when I showed up, there were 350 due to some insane postulating and himming and hawing that the mystery band was to be Kings of Leon. Next month we will hate Rascal Flatts. People in the audience wanted to kill me. I got boo’ed for 30 minutes straight. It was a real test of wills.


Where do you write?

Often times on my boat, the sea section, where I live. I used to drink and write. My body got pissed and I can’t anymore. I can’t write mid day.




What’s the most dangerous thing about Derrick Brown?

That’s a weird question.


Your job is to answer these questions, not judge.

But I don’t even know what you mean.


Do your job.  Speaking of jobs, what is the job of writers?

Hmmm. I think to lure in the audience without spelling out what is to…


Next question:  How do you release inspiration?

Are you going to interrupt me?



No.

I get inspired by taking motorcycle trips. I get inspired by sitting in the back of the room.


What offends you?

Flip flops. Open-toed shoe night.  Shirts with too many graphics happening. The word affliction. Ed Hardy. Lady Gaga. Horrible Pastors. River rats. People who text while they’re talking to you. People who are on their phones, checking it all the time.


Sorry, I have to take this.

SweetLord.



When I decided to adopt a child of African descent, many people felt comfortable sharing their thoughts about hair. Looking at my run-of-the-mill wavy hair and, I guess, figuring I was clueless about “ethnic hair,” white folks with white kids advised me to keep her hair short. White parents of children of color warned that I would be judged harshly by African Americans if I cut my daughter’s hair short or didn’t do a good job styling it. African Americans shared hopes that my child would have “good hair” and dispensed advice on products and salons.

One thing all of these people assumed was that by virtue of being white, I was completely unfamiliar with the potential emotional baggage and conflict associated with hair and how it’s styled.

They were so wrong.

My maternal grandmother spent her early years in abject poverty. By eleven, she was parentless and adopted by a family where her role was part child and part nursemaid to younger children who were biologically related to the family.

Although she never discussed the details of her childhood with me, it seems unlikely that she got much one-on-one time with either her biological or adopted mother in front on the mirror having her hair fixed.

She had a first daughter who died in infancy. Her second daughter, my mother, had the most gorgeous hair. It was shiny, black, thick, and board straight. My grandmother took her duties in grooming her only child very seriously.

According to my mother, too seriously.

My grandmother kept my mother’s hair long with bangs cut straight across. She styled it in two braids that were looped up and tied with gingham ribbons. It’s easy to tell from photos that the braids were incredibly tight. My mother’s eyes had a slight upward slant. She was adorable but never looked comfortable.

In terms of personal style, my mother and grandmother could not have been more different. My grandmother never left the house in anything other than a perfectly respectable matching outfit, shoes, and handbag. She went to the “beauty parlor” to have her “hair fixed” religiously every week. My mother, on the other hand, spent the entire decade of the 1970’s running around in silk lounging pajamas or gauze sundresses with her gorgeous long dark hair blowing in the breeze.

When it came to fixing my hair, my mother was determined to do everything the exact opposite of the way my grandmother had. Only one problem with that, me.

As much as I hate to admit it, I am an almost perfect blend of these two strong women who came before me. But when it came to hair, I was firmly on my grandmother’s side. Unlike my mother’s thick straight hair, my hair was kind of wavy and thin. It didn’t stay in barrettes or braids. Before long, it was hanging in my eyes, driving me crazy. Every morning, I sat at the mirror of my mother’s dressing table. She brushed through my hair, swooshed it around artistically, placed a barrette or two, and called it done. I ripped out the barrettes and whined, “It’s not eeeeeeven! Do it again!”

Some days, she’d make a second, in my estimation feeble, attempt. Other times, she’d flat out refuse, undoubtedly knowing full well that there was no way to please me anyway.

This was 35 years ago. The trauma had faded into mildly humorous family lore, until my little curly-top girl entered the picture.

In addition to the cultural differences and expectations, her hair could not be more different from mine. It’s kinky curly and very dry. I’ve entered a hair world where I neither know the language nor understand the physics.

My only saving grace was that when she first came home she had very little hair. I had time to learn before she had a full head of hair, and I was so grateful.

Then came our first hair trauma: the lice she brought home from the orphanage in Ethiopia. Bionic freakin’ Ethiopian lice. I nuked the hell out of both of us with over-the-counter and prescription extermination treatments, plain old Listerine, and mayonnaise. By the end, her hair was like a Brillo pad. Even my oily hair was so brittle I cut my bob into a pixie.

I knew her hair was a terrible mess, but I could not bring myself to cut the little bit that was there. What would people think if I cut her hair? Would they assume I thought it was too much trouble? That I didn’t love my child enough to learn how to care for her hair?

I would not take the chance. I would buy every organic product for African hair on the market. I would spritz, condition, and pomade those sprigs of hair back into health. I would will it to grow and fill in the bald spots. I would be Wonder White Mommy!

Eventually, it did grow but, because it was so damaged, it was terribly knotty. With great trepidation, I started styling it. I tried puffs. They looked like tiny Brillo pads. On to braids. I was a miserable failure. This was probably because 1) I had no experience, 2) I don’t have an aptitude for braiding, and 3) she still had bald spots so her hair wasn’t contiguous. I finally hit on twists and viola, my kid’s hair was well groomed, and you couldn’t tell how damaged it was.

Problem was, she had to sleep in the twists in order to keep her head from becoming a mass of tangles, and it took forever to restyle in the morning.

Second problem, the tight little ponytails that were curled to make the twists brought back traumatic memories for my mother, who was not afraid to share her thoughts on the torture I was inflicting on my daughter. She argued for a short haircut as often as she could work it into conversation.

I had created a whole fun ritual, including a song and dance, for “twist time.” My daughter didn’t seem to mind. She certainly wasn’t traumatized.

Then I read on a website that a good indication that African hair needs to be trimmed is if things stick to it. I had to face reality. Anytime my child’s hair was loose of the twists, within minutes her hair collected dog hair, lint, and all sorts of household debris.

She was getting a haircut, and it wasn’t because I didn’t care or was clueless. It was because she needed one.

I made an appointment and planned on a trim. Once in the chair, it became clear there was no saving the majority of the length. As my daughter sat happily in my lap, I watched the dark curls fall to the floor around us. I took deep breaths, reminding myself that there was nothing I could have done to keep her hair long. She’s an adorable child. She’d look cute with a shaved head.

And then something amazing happened. With all the frizz gone, an Ethiopian princess emerged. Her beautiful East African forehead took center stage, along with her elegant Somali neck. I knew my kid was beautiful but I had no idea, really.

I no longer cared if people thought I cut her hair for convenience. I knew I didn’t, and she looked gorgeous, perfectly East African.

Our morning routine of the “twist dance” is now replaced two minutes of hair fixing followed by playtime and picture books. It’s awesome!

If she wants long hair in the future, that’s fine. If she shaves half her head and dyes her hair silly colors like I did when I was young, I’m okay with that. She will be free to express her culture, musical taste, or politics with her hair as she sees fit. I vow not to make an issue of it, no matter what.

My grandmother manifested her issues about insufficient attention from a mother figure in the hairstyling of her daughter. My mother is nearly 70, yet her traumatic memories about braids remain vivid. I am 40-something and still bristle at the memories of wanting my hair “eeeeeven.” It is possible that my daughter, whose hair texture type warrants documentary films about “good hair,” could be the first generation of the family to have hair that’s just hair and not a topic of therapy later in life.

One of my very favorite things about The Nervous Breakdown’s Literary Experience-NYC, is the games.

Not that I don’t love the readings or meeting my fellow TNB writers or drinking heartily and making out with each and every one of them, but the very best part for me, is making the ‘Experience’ interactive.

Getting the audience involved.
Brainwashing the masses.
Buying your affection.
With fabulous prizes.


John VourhousDH: John Vorhaus is playing the role of the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come in our new series about when writers fell in love with books. His brilliantly manic suspense novel, California Roll,about grifters who try to out-grift each other, will be covered on Three Guys early next year. I had trashed four galleys in a row after trying to read page 99 of each. When I came to page 99 of California Roll, I knew I had to read the whole thing. I believe that JV wrote this post while sitting in Moscow traffic. He leads the writing team of the Russian version of Married with Children, making the world safe for situation comedy. He said he was glad that he worked especially hard on page 99 of California Roll.

EVEN COWGIRLS TURN ME ON by John Vorhaus

It was the summer of 1977. Like every other college graduate in America, I was in Europe. I hitchhiked and Eurail-passed the length and breadth of the continent, from East Berlin to the west coast of Ireland, from the tip of Sicily to just inside the Arctic Circle. With all that traveling, of course, I often had time on my hands, and always needed something to read, and therefore engaged in avid and active book swaps with anyone who happened to have something in English I hadn’t already burned through. Thus it was that the summer’s most popular book, Tom Robbins’ Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, fell into my hands. Like everyone else I knew (like everyone I’ve ever known who’s read the book), I was instantly and totally ensorcelled by Robbins’ tale of big-thumbed Sissy Hankshaw, plus all the others: Bonanza Jellybean, the Chink, the Countess, and the estimable Dr. Robbins himself. More than that, I was captivated by Robbins’ command of the language; man, could the dude craft sentences. He did it with grace, style, and outrageous humor. It was this last part that was such a revelation to me. I’d enjoyed the jaundiced ironies of Catcher in the Rye and Catch-22, but until I read Tom Robbins, I didn’t know there really was such a thing as a flat-out funny comic novel. I didn’t even know you could do that. But when I read of Sissy’s mother manipulating her father by “turning the vaginal wrench,” I became a fan for life.

As a writer who lacked faith in his own craft, I soon entered the singer/songwriter phase of my career. It was an awkward place for me. I could write songs well enough, but I couldn’t really sing or play guitar, and after five years hard at it, I finally figured that part out, and moved on to other things: situation comedies and screenplays; how-to books on writing and poker; novels at last. But I never forgot Tom Robbins, and never aspired to anything less than his rapier turn of phrase. In fairness, I’ve yet to read any Robbins tome that I enjoyed as much as Cowgirls. I think that has less to do with his abilities than with where I was when I first met him. I was on the road, living the Euro-vagabond dream of my generation. Conflating my own hitchhiking adventures with Sissy Hankshaw’s brought me closer to a character in a novel than I’d ever been before; closer, perhaps, than I’ve ever been with any figment of a writer’s imagination, bar my own. But I still have time for Tom Robbins, and I religiously read every new word he writes. I owe him that debt. He introduced me to the possibilities of the comic novel, and though it took me more than a generation, and an eventful life’s journey to realize them for myself, I’m realizing them at last. I don’t imagine myself any sort of heir to Tom Robbins, but I strive to be worthy to wave the banner of his style.

When I traveled through Europe in 1977, I did so with the full fear that I might never get back there again. Well, I’ve been blessed. My “other” job as a creative consultant for television and film has taken me to Europe dozens of times. Also Australia, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Jamaica, Malaysia, and Russia. I’m in Russia right now (like, even as I write these words), running the writing staff of the Russian version of Married… with Children. You can follow that adventure at www.radarenterprizes.com/blog, and I welcome you to do so. Stop by and say hi! I, meanwhile, have suddenly gotten the bright idea to go to the English language bookstore here in Moscow and see if I can find a copy of Cowgirls. I’ve read it probably ten times since the first time, but no time in the past five years or so. I’ve always gotten something out of those re-reads, and it occurs to me that I’m overdue for a dose. How about you? Have you read (or lately re-read) Even Cowgirls Get the Blues? If not, you ought. It’s an inspiring, enlightening, and laugh-out-loud funny read. If I could half turn a phrase like Tom Robbins, I’d be a satisfied man indeed.

The trip was my roommate Jason’s idea. Six days and five nights hiking around the John Muir wilderness reserve of the Sierra Nevada mountain range with his old high school friend Jared, making camp at a different lake every evening. The summer was winding down like a Victorian clock, and with only two weeks left until school started up again I’d yet to do anything remarkable other than fill my bottom desk drawer with increasingly mediocre short story drafts. I was between girlfriends, out of ideas, and bored. So I said sure.

I hadn’t been camping in years, but all the gear from my days as a Boy Scout was still in serviceable shape, so within two days we were cruising north on the 395, the three of us and our packs wedged into Jason’s tiny Geo Metro. The drive took hours, and as we climbed from the southern chaparral into the alpine slopes we passed through towns with names like Lone Pine and Independence, their welcome signs advertising populations measuring in the hundreds and the last cold Coca-Cola for X amount of miles.

It was early evening by the time we arrived, so we slept at a campsite near the trail head. In the morning Jason and I went over to the closest ranger station to check in his car and give them our itinerary. The ranger handed us a copy of the various camping rules, then asked if we wanted to rent a bear canister. “We recommend it for everyone this time of year,” she said. “The bears are going to be hibernating soon, so they’re getting pretty aggressive about food, and they don’t have a problem going into your tent to get it.” She pointed to a corkboard on the wall festooned with photographs of just such damage: shredded tents, torn-open backpacks and cars that had been ripped into. Jason and I took one look and agreed without argument to paying a week’s rental fee on a canister.

*****

Our first two days were calm and quiet. After an initial bit of effort we found our mountain legs and settled in to a light, easy pace. We chatted a bit from time to time, but were mostly content to hike in silence, stopping every now and then for a snack or a photograph or to pass water behind a tree. There had been some pre-seasonal snow earlier in the week, and small patches of it were visible on the peaks and hills around us as we followed the trail through thickets of lodgepole pine forest and small subalpine meadows. In the evenings we made camp next to lakes like sheets of glass; I would assemble the fire while Jason and Jared erected the tent, and we’d cook our dinners and make small talk.

Once the sun went down it was so cold we could feel it even through the double layers of long johns and flannel under our jackets, so we kept the fire burning as long as we could. I’d brought a copy of Call of the Wild with me to read and a notebook to jot down any observations and story ideas in. Jason had a harmonica, but he didn’t play much; though no one ever openly said it, we wanted to be able to hear if anything came upon us out of the night.

While the California grizzly is sadly extinct, there are still plenty of American Black Bears calling the mountainous areas of the state home. Despite being smaller than the grizzly, the black bear is still strong enough to kill a full-grown elk with a single paw swipe, though people I knew who’d grown up around them described them as shy trash can-raiding nuisances that generally avoided direct contact with people. I’d never seen a bear in the wild, and unlike my cohorts, I desperately wanted to.

City-boy Jared, less experienced with the wilderness than Jason or myself, listened with a certain quiet dread as Jason and I went over the common wisdom for dealing with a bear encounter. Don’t run, because they’ll think you’re prey and chase you. Don’t play dead, because they might think you actually are and try to bite off a sample. Don’t try to climb a tree, because the smaller bears are pretty good climbers in their own right, and the bigger ones might just push the whole tree over—assuming you managed to climb out of paw reach to begin with. In the light of the campfire there was a peculiar gray shade to Jared’s face. “I’m sure as shit not going to just stand there,” he said.

“I heard that you’re supposed to throw rocks,” Jason told him. “Wave your hands in the air, jump up and down, scream and shout. Makes you seem bigger and more dangerous.”

“You made that up.”

“No, he’s right,” I said. “They taught us that in Scouts.”

Jared looked back and forth between the two of us. “Tell you what,” he said, “while you two distract the bear by jumping around like a couple of crazy people, I’m going to run. No hard feelings however it turns out, all right?”

Fortunately for Jared there were no bears to be seen, but there was plenty of bear sign, mostly in the form of claw marks scratched into trees around our campsites. None of them looked fresh, but we weren’t taking any chances in getting raided. After dinner we’d seal all of the food into the bear canister, then suspend it as high as possible in a tree a good thirty feet or so from camp; to get it down, one of us had to be hoisted up on the shoulders of the other two. One morning we found an adventurous raccoon perched on it, trying his damndest to get inside. When Jared stuck his head out of the tent and shouted “Hey!” it shimmied up the rope like a chubby trapeze artist and disappeared into the branches. There were dirty little paw prints on our packs where he’d tried to get into them, too.

There were plenty of other animals about as well, always floating around the edges of the environment like a shadow in the corner of your eye: deer grazing at the far end of a small meadow; golden eagles soaring high overhead, diving occasionally to snatch up some unseen rabbit or pika; brave fat-cheeked squirrels that ran right up to us during our meal breaks, hoping to score a nibble of trail mix. While crossing through a rocky pass between two peaks one afternoon a large male Bighorn Sheep wandered out into the trail in front of us, his horns full and curved and his coat already showing signs of winter shagginess. He eyed us with wary curiosity for a moment before scampering up the granite-encrusted hillside.

****

Day three was the roughest of the trip. A mountain stood between us and the location of our next campsite, and to get there we had to climb it. At 10, 800 feet above sea level it was both the highest point charted out on our expedition, and the halfway point of our course. For two days we’d been heading southwest, and the plan was to make camp after descending the far side and then take another path northeast, forming a circuit back to our original trail head.

Even with a sunrise start it took us about seven hours to make the ascent, following a hardscrabble trail of gravel and dust up an unending series of switchbacks. It was earth that had never felt the touch of machine, only hoof, paw, and boot. Our path was so narrow we had no choice but to hike in a single-file line, and we were forced to off it onto the rocks when a rider with a mule train rounded the corner higher up on the trail.  He could’ve ridden right out of my Jack London book, with his sun-weathered face and the gear strapped to the backs of his pack animals. As he passed he gave us a tip of his hat and a “Much obliged.”

We were exhausted and blistered by the time we reached the pass near the summit, but is was worth it. The view from the top remains simply one of the most astonishing things I have ever seen, all the valleys and forests painted out on the mountains below. The lake we’d spent the previous night at, so large and deep and cool, looked like a pond.

We took our time enjoying it, eating lunch and tending to our sore feet before heading back down the southern slope on legs made of rubber. Fortunately, our descent was nowhere near as steep or as long, and we made camp well before nightfall.

We were all pretty beat at that point, and after some time consulting the map we arrived at a conclusion: instead of pressing on the next morning we would stay in camp for the day so to rest and recover, maybe explore the woods a bit. At a decent pace we could still keep to our original schedule, and if not, we had enough food between the three of us and could stand to be out in the wild for an extra day or so.

It was windy and cold in that little gully between the mountains, and we didn’t have the energy to gather enough wood to keep the fire burning beyond our dinner needs, so it was barely past sundown before we were zipped up in our sleeping bags, watching our breath curlicue about the air inside the tent.

The wind only got worse in the night, and I woke up several times to the rustle of tarp and tent fabric. The trees creaked and groaned, and the occasional wayward pine cone dive-bombed onto the tent’s roof. I woke up at one point in pitch darkness, vaguely certain in my semi-fugue state that something was moving through the camp. Probably just the damn raccoons again, I remember thinking. I rolled back over, trying to get back to sleep.

There was a noise from just outside the tent, mere inches from my head, clear enough even to be heard over the bustling wind: chuff-SNORT

And again: chuff-chuff-SNORT

I was suddenly wide awake. There was a viewing flap sewn into the wall of the tent above me, but I did not want to move enough to look out. I did not want to move at all.

Next to me I felt Jason stir in his bag. “Is that–” he started to say, and I cut him off with a “shhhh!” hissed out between clenched teeth. My mind was jackrabbiting, trying to think if there was a pouch of jerky or an apple or some other bit of food inside the tent we’d forgotten to seal in the canister, something that might be attracting animal attention. We hadn’t bathed or really bothered with much personal hygiene for three days; maybe we smelled like prey.

I wanted to see a wild bear, but not while it was ripping its way into my tent.

For what seemed like hours I listened to whatever was outside shuffling around our camp. As a child I’d once seen a huge stuffed black bear large enough to rival a grizzly in a museum, mounted in a standing position, snout perpetually pulled back in the bloody rictus of a snarl. In my mind it was this animal knocking around our packs and cooking gear, looking for leftovers. I was rigid with tension, ready to bolt the moment claw or fang penetrated nylon.

I considered my few options if it did discover us, and came up with a plan: my knife, compass, and matches were in pouches on my belt, and my belt was coiled in one of the boots placed at the foot of my sleeping bag. Our camp was maybe thirty feet from the water’s edge. If the bear came into the tent, I would grab my boots and dash for the lake. A bear might be able to outrun me on land, but I’ve been in and around large bodies of water since I was an infant, and was willing to bet it couldn’t outswim me. Even in their depreciated state my wilderness survival skills could probably keep me alive until I could make my way to a ranger station along the trail. Also, a potential death by hypothermia seemed favorable to being eaten. While it would have sucked to abandon the guys, as Jared said, no hard feelings, however it turns out.

Next to me, Jason was wide awake, his body held too still to be asleep–though Jared, it turned out, slept blissfully through the entire night.

I don’t remember falling asleep, but I did—though I don’t think “sleep” is really the accurate term; more likely my body could no longer stand the constant adrenaline stimulus and just shut down. It was daylight, well into morning, and both Jason and Jared were snoring. All I could see out of our tent flap was our bear canister, still dangling from the branches. But I didn’t get up and leave the tent until the others were awake.

Because of the wind there were no discernable paw prints around our campsite. Our packs had been knocked around a little bit but were otherwise unmolested. The same with the canteens left hanging on a tree branch and the mess kits fireside. I mentioned my plan to Jason. “Funny,” he said, “I was thinking the exact same thing.”

We started to wonder if maybe it hadn’t been raccoons after all, or perhaps even the result of the wind. It wasn’t until we went to retrieve our food that we saw the three claw marks gouged head-level into the tree where we’d hung it.

They hadn’t been there the previous day.

Without any discussion we decided to break camp after breakfast and push on up the trail.

*****

Quick note: Aside from the image of the bear (courtesy of the Internet) all photographs were taken by myself and my traveling companions. I would also finally see a live bear years later in the swamps of Louisiana.

TNB TV 
TNB’s Arts & Culture Editor Kimberly M. Wetherell reads “The 12 Dates of Christmas” at The Nervous Breakdown’s Literary Experience at Happy Ending Lounge in New York City on 11 December 2009.


TNB Hall of Fame
Author Eric Spitznagel ruminates about the ways in which we deal with The End in a piece called “What We Talk About When We’re Trying Not to Talk About Death”. He writes: “It’s like air being let out of a balloon. It’s Reefer Madness laughter. The kind of hysterical guffawing that people initially join in with but then stop abruptly and stare back at you like they think you intend to hurt them. Have you ever been at a funeral when somebody farts and you can’t stop yourself from laughing? That’s what it was like.” Illustration by Scott McCloud.


One day over the summer, as my daughters and I were passing through my parents’ apartment on our way to the back yard, we noticed, through the windows, that the next-door neighbors were pulling up all the grass from their yard and putting in Astroturf. My father, who lives downstairs from us and whose kitchen we always have to walk through if we want to enter or exit by our back door, was sitting in his usual chair in a V-necked T-shirt stained with spaghetti sauce and a pair of boxer shorts, reading Star magazine. He was, at that time, eighty-seven years old. He ignored us as we passed behind him on the stairs. He was reading aloud to himself about Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton.

Though I should have known better, for some strange reason I said, “Look, Dad. The Victorines are putting fake grass in their yard.”

My father looked up abruptly. He had not realized we were there, and seemed surprised to see us. His eyes followed my pointing finger and he saw the neighbors laying their Astroturf. “What the hell are they doing out there?” he asked.

“Putting in fake grass,” I repeated. I had already been speaking loudly, but now I raised my voice loud enough that the neighbors themselves probably could hear the conversation. Bartender ear, my mother called this back in the days when my father’s not seeming to hear anything we said was elective on his part. He had listened to drunks repetitive ramblings for so many years that he learned simply to tune voices out. He lived to a private Stan Getz riff in his head.

Now he looked at me accusingly. “Fake rats?” he shouted. “What do you mean, fake rats?”

My daughters started laughing. “Fake grass!” they shouted in unison. “Fake grass, Papa! Grass.”

“Grass,” I explained, over them. “You know, green stuff that grows on the ground.”

But my father wasn’t looking at us, which may have meant that, since he couldn’t see our lips moving, he didn’t even know we were speaking to him. Some days, his ears work better than others, but those days are fewer and farther between.

“Fake rats!” he cried indignantly. “What do they want to do something like that for?”

“Dad,” I began. My daughters and I were all, I confess, basically guffawing into our hands by then. “Dad, not rats! Nobody wants fake rats on their lawn. We’re talking about grass. G-R-A-S-S!”

“Jesus Christ,” my father said, turning back to Lohan and Hilton in Star. He was finished with us and was muttering to himself under his breath. “Fake rats,” he hissed, shaking his head while his eyes perused the pictures of twentysomething celebrities. “I never heard of such a thing.”

***

My father was not always like this. He used to wear a Brooks Brothers raincoat. He used to have a penchant for tea and marmalade—while other Italian men in our blue collar neighborhood wanted to be Brando, or just Joey Iupa, my father the Anglophile aspired to Cary Grant. Though he went bald in his early twenties, he never had that greasy look some men get. He always smelled good, of Polo cologne. I suspect that, to ward off any appearance of shine, he used to use Old Spice powder on his head.

***

About ten years ago, my mother began speaking to me in a conspiratorial tone. She began opening conversations with lines like, “Your father has bought this cookie jar in the shape of a suckling pig and is keeping it on his dresser. It has no cookies in it—he just thinks it’s a nice decoration.”

A product of the Great Depression, my father began to hoard cans of ravioli under his bed.

His hearing failed, but he insisted my mother and I merely mumbled. When we insisted this was not the case he said, “Oh Jesus Christ, you two never say anything interesting anyway.”

Apropos of nothing, he would sometimes rail about things like why pregnant women wear skimpy tops.  “See, here’s Gwenyth Paltrow from a magazine and even she looks like shit, women shouldn’t do that!–don’t they know how bad it looks?”  His face would grow red with frustration when in thirty-five years of knowing him I had never before heard him voice an opinion on maternity fashion, or anything to do with pregnancy, or really even raise his voice except when driving.

One day five years ago, he couldn’t move his foot–which was already riddled by peripheral neuropathy so that he experiences his feet as “round,” without the feeling of his toes or heels—off the gas pedal and had to drive his car into a sign post to avoid harming anyone on the road. After that he didn’t drive anymore, and my mother, in her seventies, got her driver’s license for the first time, and something irrevocable shifted between them.

He needed a cane to walk, but was too proud to use one, so instead he began to fall down a lot. Then he used the cane, but soon needed a walker. The week of his 85th birthday he fell on the way to the toilet and fractured his pelvis. He contracted pneumonia in the hospital and hallucinated being in the apartment of one of his many long-dead friends, Tommy Catalano, and kept saying, “What the hell did Tommy do to these walls?” He didn’t recognize my infant son and called him a “big headed little German who’d turn you in on a dime.” The doctors essentially wrote him off for dead—an eighty-five-year-old man with a broken hip and pneumonia is practically a cliché for which they offer you a special funeral rate—but against all odds he was home within the week, albeit unable to move and wearing a diaper. Then he was stricken with some of the nastier side effects of massive doses of antibiotics; we spent Christmas 2006 changing his diaper almost on the hour while he screamed at the ceiling, begging for the Death he had cheated once again.

He never walked again without a walker. Sometimes, even with the walker, he still falls. As winter snow and ice hit Chicago early this year, he announced he would just not be “going out” anymore.

When my parents were first dating, my father would do things like drive my mother to New York so she could taste the cheesecake. They would drive all night, and once they got there and downed a slice, my father would want to go out to the jazz clubs, and then he would drive home all night into the next day to make it home to work at his bar by evening.

Now, my husband, kids and I spend a great deal of time on a 160 acre farm only a few hours away in Wisconsin. It has a dilapidated old red barn my father would love—he used to stop at roadsides and take photos of barns just like that when I was a kid. But he has never been to the farm—he has never seen “our” red barn. Long car rides hurt his back too much now, and he has difficulty controlling his bladder and can have accidents if cooped up too long. We try to convince him that we’ll pull into every rest stop we see—every twenty minutes if he likes—but he is unconvinced. “Oh honey,” he says. “What am I going to do when I get there anyway? I don’t want to go anywhere anymore. I can’t even walk.”

When someone says something like this to you, you want to turn into a cheerleader. You want to protest that just sitting on the wide front porch and watching the children play in the overgrown grass, that surveying the poetic barn, would somehow be enough. But who are you to say what is enough? My father has already hit the point of “enough,” but then it left without him, and he is still here.

When I was young, my father loved to make fun of old people, to my mother’s horror and my amusement. He would shuffle around like Tim Conway and make puttering noises and twitch his hands theatrically when drinking his tea if there were gray-hairs nearby. The ironic truth is, even his most dire imitations of the elderly did not do justice to what it is like right now just trying to watch my father make it from his bedroom to the kitchen table in the morning: a ritual involving a walker, an entire pill case of tablets to lessen the pain from his osteoarthritis, his spinal stenosis, his temporal arteritis, and his peripheral neuropathy. His journey some twenty feet involves a string of repeated expletives (Oh boy oh boy oh Jesus Christ this fucking body boy oh boy oh boy), and an obsessive compulsive need for a milkshake involving ice cream, milk and bananas.  To be clear: the shake has absolutely no relationship to his medical requirements, yet he will not take his pills without this shake, so that if it is midnight and there are no bananas in the house, my husband and I will get a call to go and fetch some or otherwise the routine cannot be followed come morning. If there are no bananas; if my parents are out of milk, hysteria ensues.

***

The first half an hour of my father’s day goes something like this: He sits in his kitchen chair reading a gossip magazine, maybe Star or People or something of that ilk—something he never would have bought or even perused as a younger man, when he read Royko religiously but otherwise was not much of a reader; when he was into Lenny Bruce and foreign films and smoky jazz and All in the Family and Carson. Now, my father could tell you the latest weight gain of some obscure starlet I wouldn’t even recognize if she fell on me in the street. He reads these magazines because they are “easy,” and nothing else in his life is easy anymore. Early mornings, when he first begins to read, he does so silently like a normal person. If he can read “in his head” and actually comprehend what he is reading, then he knows better than to stand up and try to walk yet, because the pain in his body will still be too intense. But as half an hour goes by and my father’s regimen of pain pills begin to kick in, the words he reads become blurry to his eyes and his mind, and he begins to speak them aloud to keep track. “Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton are fighting again,” he might read. (They know each other, right? Or is that Nicole Ritchie? My father would know the answer to this.) Still, he dares not get out of the chair. Finally, reading aloud doesn’t really work either. His brain has become so fuzzy that the sentence sounds more like this: “Lindsay Lindsay Lindsay Lohan and Paris Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton and Paris Hilton Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton are fighting are fighting are fighting again.”

The pills have done their job. Now he can stand up and make it to the shower. Now, his daughter–can you believe she’s forty!–and his almost-teenage granddaughters can traipse downstairs on their good legs and talk to him about fake rats in the neighbor’s yard, and who knows why people do the things they do, and who cares anymore anyway? But where is the baby—why doesn’t his daughter have the baby with her; the little boy they named after him, with his ringlets and his big eyes, who looks so much like his daughter at that age, back when he called her Little Flower—where is the baby, when the only reason he can bear to sit here at this table and get through another day is for a glimpse of him. Why doesn’t his daughter have the baby with her—she leaves the baby too much, she works too much, runs around too much, the baby will grow up so fast, she’ll see, then it’s over, then the kids are all gone, even if they live right above you, still, they are gone.

Another day begins.

So you think you’ve been writing “forever?” Dan Jenkins, sports journalist and novelist, may have you beat– he’s been writing for over SIXTY years. Successful at just about everything, he has tried his hand at columns for Sports Illustrated and Golf Digest, non-fiction golf retrospectives, and hilarious sports novels.  Jenkins’ writing features his signature wit and sly observations.

WordHustler sat down with this sports writing legend to learn about his start in the industry and his adventures over the years. The real question is: how has Jenkins managed to stay on top of his game for so long? The answer: dedication, hard work, and…Twitter.

Read on to learn how you can score a touchdown for your writing career, with Dan Jenkins as your coach.

WordHustler: You have a journalism background, and have spent time writing for Sports Illustrated, Golf Digest and Playboy…what do you consider your first big break, writing-wise?

Dan Jenkins: My first big break was getting hired by Blackie Sherrod at the Fort Worth Press a month before I finished high school. For the school paper, the Paschal Pantherette, I’d written what I thought was a hilarious parody of a columnist on the rival paper in town, the Star-Telegram. Blackie read it and hired me.

The Press was an afternoon paper. They existed in those days. I worked at the press while getting a degree at TCU. Which means I went to college with a by-line. My first good journalism tip came from Blackie, who said about writing for a p.m. paper, “See how many paragraphs you can go before you put the score in.” Next big break, of course, was enticing Sports Illustrated to hire me. I like to say that I chose them. Sold them four or five freelance pieces. One day the editor called and asked if I’d like to join the staff in New York. I said, “Let me think about it for two seconds.” Big Town Gotham had always been my goal.

WH: You retired from journalism in 1985 to devote yourself full-time to novel-writing (while still maintaining a Golf Digest column). Why did you decide to change paths?

DJ: I still write on deadline for Golf Digest. The fact is, I’ve never had the luxury of just writing books. Always juggled two careers. And why not? It’s what I do, and what I love doing. If I’m proud of anything, it’s that I’ve been able to do the only thing I ever wanted to do since I was a kid and loved to read newspapers and magazines.

WH: You’re basically the John Updike of sports writing, with your lovable Billy Clyde Puckett series of books chock full of humor and wit that span multiple decades. What would you say is the biggest difference between the publishing industry today and the industry when you first started publishing novels in the 1970s?

DJ: Updike? I was rooting for Dostoyevsky, maybe. I write what I’ve known and observed and experienced and stolen shamelessly from my friends. Never been to war, so I can’t write that. But I’ve spent a large part of my life in press boxes, locker rooms, taverns, restaurants, and journalism newsrooms.

The biggest change in book publishing, as far as I can tell, is everybody wants a blockbuster written by a guaranteed best-seller or a celebrity, even if the book isn’t worth a sh*t. Taste no longer counts.

WH: You’ve also written non-fiction books, like “Jenkins at the Majors- Sixty Years of the World’s Best Golf Writing.” Was it a nice change of pace to put your non-fiction pieces together? Were you asked to write the book or did you come up with the collection of essays yourself?

DJ: My non-fiction stuff has sometimes been my idea, and sometimes my publisher or agent’s idea. You do them knowing full well that collections don’t sell, but the material deserves the permanence of hardcover.

WH: You have been very smart about evolving with the times- you even Tweeted from the US Open this year– how did that come about?

DJ: You want the truth about my tweets? The closing dates for Digest were too late for my deadline essays in 2009, so the editors asked if I would tweet the U.S. and British Opens as things happened. I said sure. It worked out so well, they asked me to do the PGA, which I did. It’s fun.

As a journalist on deadline my whole life, I’d learned to “write to fit.” In fact, in my 24 years at Sports Illustrated I would always know my word count and try to nail it exactly, never going too long because if you give an editor choices, he will invariably cut the wrong things. It’s no trouble for me to think in 140 characters. I’m not sure it’s writing, but it’s fun.

WH: What are a few of your favorite books out there today?

DJ: I have heroes I read. Mostly, Elmore Leonard, Michael Connelly, Vince Flynn, Lee Child. I read so much for research, I want to be entertained. And of course I read friends, and my daughter [Editor’s note: noted journalist and author Sally Jenkins], who long ago became the best writer in the family.

WH: What is your preferred writing method? Do you have a certain writing spot or technique?

DJ: I went most of my life on manual typewriters, but finally joined the computer world about 20 years ago.
But one thing you have to guard against is writing too long—because it’s so easy to correct. I used to be a 16-hour a day workaholic. Now I get tired. One day I realized that anything I wrote after, say, 3 in the afternoon had to be redone. It read like some stranger had slipped into my office. Now I’m generally at my best in the mornings.

WH: How do you best balance writing with your family life/other interests?

DJ: Writing has always been part of everything I do. My lovely wife and kids understood this from the beginning. Sure, vacations with no work at times, and holidays, but I always seem to be working on SOMETHING. My youngest son, Danny, was once asked by a friend what it was like to grow up in New York City with us for parents. He said, “They went to Elaine’s every night, then came home and went to Europe.”

WH: Do you find similarities between the game of golf and writing? Has being a life-long golfer helped your writing (besides giving you excellent material, of course)?

DJ: No sport is worthwhile if it doesn’t have a literature. Golf has a wonderful literature. Happy to be a part of it. Football, too. As for golf, I think having been a decent competitive golfer in my youth has helped me write about the game more incisively, but the intelligent writer can handle any subject. It requires study and caring and, at times, the sudden desire to caretake a subject.

WH: What are three things you’d advise aspiring writers to do?

DJ: Be well-read and learn from what you read. Study the ones you consider to be the masters. My hero as a sportswriter, although he was really an essayist, was John Lardner. Not Ring, but his son, John. Newsweek column, New Yorker pieces, etc. Best there ever was. Other heroes of mine were Red Smith, of course, and S.J. Perelman, and Raymond Chandler. Mostly the humorists. Finally, if you want to write, WRITE. Don’t just talk about it. Get a job on a newspaper, if there are any left.

WH: What are three things you’d advise aspiring writers to NEVER do?

DJ: I have my own rules, and some I borrow from Elmore Leonard. Never start a piece with a quote. Learn to establish your voice without using “I.” Give credit all your sources. Listen. Listen. Listen. And don’t try to force-feed an anecdote into a piece when it doesn’t belong just because YOU are fascinated with it. Save it for when it DOES work.

But the best Elmore Leonard quote is this: “If it sounds like writing, I re-write it.”

Spoken like a true champ. So take Dan’s advice and get out there and make your voice heard, Hustlers! Why not submit your work to any of WordHustler’s over 300 publications dedicated to sports & collectibles? Simply click the “Sports/Collectibles” tag on the Publications page and a world of opportunity will appear before you. Keep your eye on the prize and your heart in the game! Keep on Hustlin!