Why Writing Nonfiction Feels Wrong, But Isn’t

 

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My uvula is forked, but not my tongue. That little dangly bit at the back of your throat? Yeah, mine has a bifurcation in it (likely the result of my palate closing late-on in my mother’s pregnancy). The kindest way to describe what this looks like is to say that it resembles a sort of upside-down heart. The way I end up having to describe it, inevitably, is that it basically looks like a tiny ballsack in my throat.

I know about the forked-uvula thing because I was told about it by my family doctor literally every time I visited him when I was growing up. We’d have almost the exact same conversation every visit, verbatim.

Doc: “Say ahh.”
Me: “Ahh.”
Doc: “Hey, did you know you have a bifurcated uvula?”
Me: “Yes.”
Doc: “How did you know?”
Me: “You tell me every time I come in here.”
Doc: “Well, it’s a pretty rare thing. Pretty neat, Michael.”
(an awkward pause)
Doc: “Hey, it’s better than having a forked tongue!”

And every time, this cheered me up. Even when I was sick. Maybe my mood lightened because of the humor of my doctor’s confusion (though certainly not his corny joke); maybe I felt better because of the sheer familiarity of the routine. Most likely what lifted my mood was something different, something bigger than all of that.

Most likely what lifted my mood was the doctor’s sincere interest, his wonderment, at a part of me (even such a small thing as a uvula that no one ever sees, that has no effect on anything, really, whatsoever). As if something about me was worthy of note.


I grew up a good Christian boy, regularly attending church as many as three times a week, listening as patiently as I could to sermons and Sunday School lessons. From the age of nine until the age of twenty-five, when I left the faith, I was relatively diligent in my beliefs. What I’m saying is that I heard a lot of sermons and talks and testimonies and messages. Understandably, plenty of these talks get lost in time, and it’s interesting to note the ones that I remember.

One such moment from my religious past that has stuck with me is a talk that was given to my youth group by our youth pastor, Brad. The talk concerned humility. Trying to drive home the fact that remaining humble is a constant process that requires serious dedication, Brad gave us this little quip that I think has some profound implications: “If I were to give out a trophy to the most humble person in the room, I’d have to snatch it back the minute someone came up here to take it.”

Obviously Brad’s point was that humility is one of those slippery qualities that put you in a Catch-22 situation. If you think you have it, you probably don’t. And this was meant as a way for us young folks to start to think about our actions and our attitudes, to strive even more toward behaving in healthier, kinder ways toward other people. It was meant as a sort of admonishment and encouragement to us, a command to esteem others above ourselves. And this, of course, is a good and noble purpose.

However, I have grown up to be a writer. I have discovered that I feel most comfortable and alive when I am crafting some kind of written work. It is, to borrow jargon from my religious past, my calling. And one of the most important lessons to learn about writing is that the most powerful pieces resonate on a personal level. As all of my teachers hammered into me in college: write what you know.

But I don’t like writing too much of what I know. I don’t like writing creative nonfiction about my own past. For one, it feels less revelatory than my fiction (which, paradoxically, often winds up showing me something true about myself that I wasn’t even aware I was writing toward). Yet I think the worse issue with nonfiction, at least for me, is that it feels terribly unhumble. Writing fiction feels like I’m creating something new, making a thing that wasn’t there before. Perhaps I’ve been trained by an upbringing that urged me to join in the work of the Creator, that told me art and creation were things that proved I was made in the image of God, and perhaps for this reason fiction seems much holier, much safer. With fiction, I create whole realities out of thin air.

Writing nonfiction feels like screaming at the world LOOK AT ME, THESE ARE THINGS THAT HAPPENED TO ME, READ THEM AND BOW BEFORE MY WORDS. It feels uncouth, somehow almost dirty, in a way that writing fiction simply doesn’t. It feels like esteeming myself before others.

It feels like sin.


But it is not.

Writing nonfiction can be poignant or aphoristic; it can be a way to categorize your own life, even only for yourself (like a journal); it can be useful in finding others who have had similar experiences, useful in helping them through those experiences when needed, useful in bonding. Even if it weren’t important in all of those ways, writing nonfiction would still be important simply for the reason that it often does feel less safe, less holy than writing fiction. What better way to stretch yourself in your art than by doing that which is difficult for you to do? What better way to learn?

Above all that, writing nonfiction is important and good and righteous for this reason: it affirms that everyone has some feature that is interesting and worthy of note.

See, you may not have some harrowing drug-recovery story that you think will sell a lot of books. You may not have met tons of famous people or traveled to exotic locations. Hell, I went out of the country one time over a decade ago and I still try to milk those stories as much as I can. But even so, you have something within you that can serve as a story, that can and must be told. As the great Flannery O’Connor once said: “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”

You have important things to say. You are interesting and worthy of note.

As for me, my name is Michael Candelario.

My uvula is forked, but not my tongue.

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Nerf-Nerf: Thoughts on the Angry Christian Mom’s Reaction to Vince Staples

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The world, when it comes right down to it, is a large place. There are more than seven billion human beings covering the face of this planet, and as a result there are innumerable cultures and subcultures. We split ourselves along racial divides, economic classes, religious ideologies. If there’s one thing we’re good at as a species, it’s boxing each other into easily digestible packets. You want a quick snapshot of this phenomenon? Check out your nearest high school’s cafeteria at lunch time. I guarantee you, the kids there will be able to point out the nerds, the jocks, the band geeks, etc.

For a longer, perhaps more emotionally complex example, I urge you to check out the latest viral video that has swept the internet. In it, a concerned mother reads out the lyrics to Vince Staples’ rap song “Norf Norf” and becomes increasingly distressed and upset–to the point of tears. At the end of the video the unnamed mother declares, teary-eyed, that “that was on our Top Hits radio station.” Unable to continue, she pauses to cry for a moment. But she has already said enough.

I think I know who the “our” is in her sentence. I think I know which clique she’s referring to. See, most middle-class white children don’t have to deal with the kinds of horrors that Vince Staples describes in the song. So, in that moment, the lyrics became a window for this woman into the hard life of a young black male in modern America. In that moment, “Norf Norf” provided her with a glimpse of the kinds of lives that are led, daily, by Americans who are less privileged than she is. Now, I know that’s a weighty word in today’s discourse. I know it angers a lot of people. But privilege is exactly the term that is needed here. Because her life has been (thankfully) sheltered from the type of gangbanging experiences depicted in the song, Angry Christian Mom (as the internet has named her) immediately reacts negatively to the lyrics. Because she is privileged, she completely misunderstands the message of the song. Because she is privileged, she becomes outraged over the lyric “I ain’t never ran from nothin’ but the police” instead of becoming introspective about the kind of systemic fear that might make someone who boasts of never backing down flee from the police. Instead of lamenting that the very existence of the song means that someone’s children have gone through these things, she becomes enraged that her children might simply hear about them.

This is silencing at its finest, folks.

This woman would rather try to change the fact that the song is on the radio than change the realities it describes. Pay attention to the kinds of things she says in the video. It is clear that she’s upset that her children (or “our” children, as that pesky word returns) were exposed to a song like this. And that is totally fine. I am a parent, and as parents it is our responsibility to curate the kinds of media we allow our children to digest. Personally, when I hear a song that I deem too mature for my children, I turn the radio station and move on. This woman, instead, chose to make a video denouncing the evils of the songwriter.

I want to make this a quick post, but before I wrap up I must discuss one crucial thing. The issue with me here is not that Angry Christian Mom is emotional about her children. Heck, I get emotional about my children. All parents do. The issue is that she quickly vilifies Vince Staples for his art, ignorantly drawing the conclusion that the song glorifies these activities. The song is undeniably a lament. Staples is painting a picture that we should not be happy about. He is shining the light of his art on a dark reality of his life. The song is called Norf Norf because it is supposed to be a description of what someone from “Northside Long Beach” deals with. Just from reading the lyrics, ACM should have understood that Staples himself was upset at the prevalence of the pain he describes. In the first few bars, he declares “Just don’t move too fast; I’m too crazy.” The narrator is a psychological mess from the killing he has done in his gang wars. Listening to the song, Staples’ voice is clearly saddened. Add to this the music video (which I admit the mother in question probably did not watch), and there can be no doubt that Staples is not glorifying cop-killing or abortions or anything else she cried over. And even if he was singing about killing police officers, I have to say it:  so what? It is music. It is art. One of my favorite groups, Run the Jewels, have a plethora of lyrics about killing policemen. Those lyrics are there not to encourage actual murder, but to make political and intellectual points about the system in general. You know, much the same way that Johnny Cash’s lyrics about a burning ring of fire were not actually about a literal ring of fire. Art is supposed to be provocative. Nevertheless, I maintain that “Norf Norf” is not a pro-gang-violence song. Staples is an artist painting a picture of what his life has been like, and the proper response is to be spurred to action to fix the system that breeds such lifestyles. The proper response is anger and sadness, but the Angry Christian Mom directed those feelings at the wrong object.

Vince Staples said it best when he tweeted: “No person needs to be attacked for their opinion on what they see to be appropriate for their children. They have a right to it.”

I just wish Angry Christian Mom’s opinion had been more thoughtful.

Reader Input Desired (bonus: progress report)

Hello there, readership. Audience. Tribe. Whatever you want to call yourselves. How has it been? Good. I’m glad to hear it.

As many of you are probably aware—I expect you’re awaiting the moment with clenched teeth and white knuckles—my deadline for getting my first novel out is fast approaching. Halfway through NaNoWriMo (and, incidentally, about halfway through writing the draft of my next novel), December is coming up fast. So let me fill you in on a few things I’m trying to work through currently. I need some input on this from you guys—the ones who will actually be reading this stuff.

First off, a progress update: the sci-fi novel has been shipped out to some readers for suggestions and input. Come December 1st, I’ll put aside my NaNoWriMo project and address these issues, make necessary corrections, etc. I’m aiming to have the sci-fi novel published and ready to be downloaded by December 15, though I’m giving myself an extra five-day window in case I have to make some serious adjustments. In the meantime, while my team of “alphareaders” is going through the sci-fi book with fine-toothed combs, I’m working on what will eventually be my second book—the first book in a fantasy series about a dwarf. If you follow me on Twitter (link is on the right-hand side of this blog) you will be familiar with my clever hashtag for this project: #dwarfstory. The goal with this project is to have 60,000 words written by the end of November. This will put me at 2/3 through the novel, if my estimates are correct. I currently have about 35,000 words written, and I’m going to have a bunch of time to write over Thanksgiving weekend. Things are looking up.

Alright, now that the progress report is out of the way, I need your help with something. Since my publication deadline is approaching, I’ve been stewing over how exactly I want to publish my novel. From the beginning, the plan has been to release the book through Kindle Direct Publishing. I’ve heard that the program is easy to use and has a lot of marketing tools. Plus you can get up to 70% of the royalties, which is unheard of in traditional publishing. I’ve been happy about this arrangement because it should serve as a good way for me to wet my feet in the publishing world while relying on a professional, global corporation as a bit of a safety net. However, some things have changed recently. I’ve been bitten by the “pay-what-you-want / give-stuff-away” bug. I think it’d be really cool to release the book for free and then just have an option to donate money if you so desire. Or, alternatively, set it up in such a way that you can just pay what you want—including the option of paying nothing. Basically the same idea, either way. This is more in line with my personal philosophy about art and about relating to people in general. However, let me just be vulnerable and say that I’m reluctant to do it.

Here’s why. First off, there is the obvious vulnerability of spending over a year working on a project and then just trusting people to compensate you. What if no one pays me anything? My wife, who works full time so that I can stay at home with the kids and pursue a writing career, has graciously told me that it’s okay if I never make any significant money off of my work, but let’s just be honest. Perhaps it’s a product of the Industrial Revolution and subsequent masculine/feminine dichotomies, or perhaps it’s selfish pride, or perhaps it’s even a good desire, but the fact remains that I do want to be financially successful enough to provide, on my own, for my family. I’d love it if my wife didn’t have to work. Not that she wouldn’t work. She enjoys her job. But just so that she didn’t need to work in order to pay the bills. That’d be cool. Of course, the go-it-alone mentality sort of rubs against the grain of the whole “marriage” thing—where we’re supposed to “become one flesh” and work through life together—but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to make wagonloads of money and be able to call myself a self-made man (a misnomer if ever there was one).

Secondly, I’m scared to release the book for free because I don’t know anything about computers. This is really the major problem, I think. I mean, I haven’t expected to really make any money off this first book. It is, after all, a first book. And I don’t have the vast marketing resources of a major publisher behind me, nor even a marketing team. It’s all just me and you, reader. And word of mouth. And, hopefully, some coffee-shop open mics or something. So my first fear in the preceding paragraph, though very visceral and real, is not that big of a deal. It’s a fear that will still be there even if I do release the book through KDP as originally intended. But this second fear is much more serious. I wouldn’t have the first clue how to set up this website so that you can donate. I know it’s probably very easy to do, but I don’t know how. And I’m not sure that I have time to learn with my deadline coming up in a month. Plus, I don’t have money to pay someone else to do it. So there’s that. Also, I want the eBook to look really good. Or at least to be formatted well. It’s my understanding that KDP is workable as far as formatting goes, and it helps you through the process pretty well. I don’t know that for sure, but Amazon seems to know what it’s doing. I’m worried about how the book will look if I just try to format it myself. I’ve been told that I can upload it as a PDF file, which is apparently readable on a Kindle, but I don’t know that it will look as good as if I used KDP. Again, I’m showing my ignorance of computers and technomajiggers.
Anyway, readers, I would greatly value your input on this. What do you think? Should I do a donation-only or pay-as-you-go model? Or should I stick with my original plan of using KDP to get my feet wet and then, later on down the road when I’ve become more acquainted with the process, start releasing books by myself? Let me know what you think.

And thank you. For your input and for your support. It’s all very much appreciated.

Justin Lacy and The Swimming Machine – An Album Review

First thing: some caveats:

1. I have never written a review for a band before, so I imagine this is going to be clunky. Don’t be surprised if you find some flowery language in here, since most reviews are like that I’m using some professional people as models.
2. I don’t know much about music. I mean, I played percussion in middle school, high school, and college, but that consisted mainly of beating things with other things. So you won’t find lots of music theory and explanation in here. It’s just me hocking a friend’s album.

 

3. That’s right – I have known Justin Lacy since we were Boy Scouts together, so I just want everyone to know that going into this thing. I think I have enough distance to be unbiased, though. Here we go.

 

THE BAND

 

According to their website, Justin Lacy and the Swimming Machine started when Mr. Lacy and a group of friends played together at one of those “anything goes” open mics, performing some songs that Lacy had written. They did strange things: substituting a tap dancer for snare, using muted trumpets in tandem with synths and electric guitar, and even employing upright bass and whistling into their songs. The group enjoyed playing together, and so continued. However, this band is not your conventional band. Its main members (numbering around 8ish), are joined by various “moving parts,” making the total number of instrumentalists and vocalists connected with the band a cool 18. It is very much a machine, and as a person interested in words and their usages I find it remarkable that the band’s name manages to capture both its unusual nature and musical vibe. You feel, listening to them, that you are moving through a form of audial water: lively and cool and sort of casual, but at the same time rife with musical rip currents, little twists and inversions of the expected sounds that keep the songs tirelessly interesting.  But that’s enough about the band itself. I’ve already started to get into the music. For more information on the Swimming Machine’s formation and history, click on this picture I have conveniently placed below.

THE SOUND OF THE MUSIC

Justin Lacy and the Swimming Machine sound as strange and amazing as their backstory would suggest. Lacy’s vocals are rough and husky, and remind me of Johnny Cash in a lot of ways. Hold on, I know that’s high praise, but I think he sort of pulls back on the beat as he sings, creating a Cash-like slowness that blends nicely with the upbeat music behind him. His lyrics help create a connection with the mainstream folk and bluegrass music that is taking people by storm right now (especially in songs like Bottom Feeder that showcase a man dealing with raw emotion). And let me just spend a few seconds here talking about the ladies in this group. Led by core member Sophie Amelkin and including vocalists Christa Faison, Whitney Lanier, and Heather Bobeck, the female members of the group are, in my opinion, a huge part in giving the songs their edginess. The backup vocals provided by these ladies remind me of (and I hope they take this as a compliment, because it is) my favorite soundtrack of all time: the soundtrack to the Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater video game. They give the group a fifties-esque backup singer Motown vibe at certain times, further adding to the musical dynamism and eclecticism of the Swimming Machine. Take a listen to In Chiaroscuro or Bottom Feeder and you’ll  know immediately what I’m talking about. You’ll fall in love with these voices.

Okay, now for the instruments. Like I said in the band bio section, the group has a lot of strange instrumentation going on. But for me, this odd assortment of sounds and melodies rarely detracts from the overall feel of the song. I don’t think I was ever distracted by the choice of instruments. Rather, new sounds would emerge and felt strangely right, like I should have known somehow that they were coming round the bend. The muted trumpet, the mandolin, the synths and whistling. It all melds together into an apt feeling that you’ve stumbled upon, well, a swimming machine moving deliberately and wetly through the ocean. I felt at points a definite steampunkiness. All metal and rubber and perpetual motion. You get me? No? Then perhaps you should check the band out.

 

CHECKING THE BAND OUT

 

Any of this sound interesting to you? Good. Perhaps you’d like to saunter over to the band’s website and purchase their debut album, Overgrown. It’s available in three ways: a name-your-own-price digital copy, a $9 CD, and a $15 Limited Edition 12-inch Vinyl. Oh, and did I mention that these guys are mostly UNC-Wilmington graduates from the school’s music program? And that the album art is by a Wilmington artist named Kate Winchell (which, by the way, the album art is absolutely perfect)? So go out and support a local, NC-based band making great music and art and giving back to the community. Do it.