Rough Trade


Perfectionism is a massive hurdle to creative work. The same impulse that is essential to editing, that moves you to check each line, fix up your prose, cut out every junky, nonsensical, messy bit, is the same drive that erases everything thorny and difficult.

In the impulse to perfect, smooth out and tidy up is a very seductive illusion of control. It’s an illusion, that you can control how anyone might read your work, how they might perceive you, or what your words will even say to them. Perfectionism throttles bravery.

The risk of all this effort at control is, of course, that your work can come off, at least to yourself, as a bit phony. You, the maker, know that you’re not saying what you want to say. I can read old work and see where I’ve turned away, where I didn’t push hard enough or at all. Coasted.

People can tell when you’re phony. They smell phoniness on a person like dogs smell fear. Sometimes you are so cloaked in layers of protection that you can’t discern your own truth. You can’t describe your struggle because you can’t look at it in the face, because so much seems to hinge on keeping yourself protected and protecting others. You walk around the truth in endless circles.

I used to avoid writing on here, and limited the blog to putting up posts that introduced articles and linked elsewhere. I felt everything that goes up with my name attached needed to be polished to the point of being unassailable, researched and fact-checked to death.

I erased old writing because it wasn’t good enough, or didn’t reflect what I thought I was capable of. I had the same bad habit on social media – posting and erasing, writing comments that really expressed how I felt, then erasing them. I was applying the same kind of thinking I’d taken to academic work and school to creative writing,

A fellow writer told me a story yesterday about filling out his thesis defense form:

The form asked for a list of influences, and it said “Texts Only.” So of course, half my list was other media. [My advisor] was perplexed at why I put the Velvet Underground as an influence. He asked what about them had influenced my work, and I said that they taught me you didn’t have to know how to play your instrument properly to make visionary music.

In other words, they are great because there is no polish whatsoever. There is something else.

I really love this. The “something else,” I think, is what everyone creating is trying to get at either obliquely or directly. The stumbling, falling, scraping and failing doesn’t need to be hidden. It’s better if it is in plain sight, printed, up online, up for you to see. I added some work from 2004 – 2009 up under the Archives section of the site yesterday, which is O.K. work, but doesn’t represent “me.” But that was me, then, and though not perfect, represents efforts and attempts.

I’d like to push where I usually would take out the eraser, and keep building on the gravelly, uneven foundation. Researching hypergraphia (the compulsive need to write) yesterday, I learned that some people feel compelled write after severe trauma and difficult childhoods, because it made them “feel like they had a soul.” And the soul is rough and uneven and breaking itself ever over, so true work would reflect that roughness and mess.

Telling the truth about yourself – that you might struggle daily, that you are afraid of the future, that you are lost in the past – is much harder than saying, I am fine. Everything is great, and I’m doing so well. The page is the one place you might feel safe telling the truth.


Nostalgia Mining

Certain songs take on colossal, completely disproportionate significance for me, giving me an inordinate amount of happiness no matter how many times played, no matter the time of day. The Borderlands opening theme song, “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked,” is one of them. I’m playing it right now.

It isn’t a particularly great song, not one I’d glom onto if I heard it at random on the radio. The song is important for me because it is associated with an experience, a time, and a certain group of people. That potent combination must have activated some neon green and blue switches in my brain; each time this song is played, I’m instantly, deeply elated on a cell level.

I’m taken back to a blissful summer four years ago, when I was in the best touch with what were then some very dear friends around the world. I had no responsibility save playing Borderlands, digging through reminiscences of a few horror titles, and reviewing them in a massive 10,000-word essay. I still wore a black Interpol sweatshirt and I was still vegan, so I was filled with an abundance of truly suspect, nervous energy. The friends were in Australia, California, Canada, Germany, Indonesia, and the Netherlands. We talked about everything under the sun, synced up our sleep schedules for competition and completion.

In retrospect, the model wasn’t sustainable if you have real responsibilities and a real job and on and yawn. But the fantasy of having that free space was enough, once-filled. And the prospect of finding payment, and stellar editors, to write about what I love, was the joyous part. I remember feeling that it really is this easy and it could always be this easy. Just write about what you love! Just do what you love. Platitudes on platitudes, made real for the first time in my working life. Just find what makes you feel all the sharp, crystalline, deep and heartbreaking feels. Describe this to other people. This came easily. This didn’t feel tortured.

What the world of Pandora meant would be covered diligently on every tech and industry website, from its style to its mechanics to its characters. But what the feeling of being in Pandora meant for a person and what it felt like to be with others in that world: this was another set of concerns altogether.

There was a brick ton of significance in those sensations, which drive a gazillion-dollar industry. The affective elements of play, the feeling and memory of sharing a third place with others: yes, all these tenuous, impossible-to-pin emotions make for serious experience and serious capital.

Nostalgia for the virtual is created quickly, almost instantly. You know intuitively, from the opening sequence, whether the experience of a title will change you in some fundamental way. Trying to explain this nostalgia has pushed my explication abilities to the limit. Articulating why the maligned medium can move one as much as Anna Karenina or a Tarkovsky film, has been the best kind of challenge, to think very carefully on why we spend our free time in the ways we do.

To that end, last fall, I published some more pieces on feeling and not feeling for Kill Screen, including this review of Grant Theft Auto V, without a doubt one of the pieces I’ve worked hardest on to date. I was excited to find it highly circulated, and the feedback, from reviewers, industry professionals and fans, the most intense and personally fruitful. I was thrilled to hear the essay was included by the talented poet, writer and language lecturer R.A. Villanueva in his syllabus for his classes taught at NYU Polytechnic: Writing the Essay: Poly and The Advanced College Essay: Poly. I wrote a short follow-up piece on the process of taking selfies within games, a piece that was named a Voices feature on All Things Digital.

Finally, this past spring, I took on Matt and Trey’s critique of the whole ridiculous culture of nostalgia, perfectly sent up in the South Park game.

As a nice close here, I’ll offer up Leigh Alexander, one of my absolute favorite thinkers on interactive media. She wrote a devastating and lovely short fiction piece, The Unearthing, on the Atari Dig, obsessive fandom and the predictable commodification of this nostalgia.

No game experience has quite come close to that summer with friends in the rocky byways and underpasses of Borderlands. Chasing that nostalgia down for an even more meaningful and sense-whole experience may just be the point of continuing to play. I know I’m always hoping the next world will light up my brain’s switchboard in the same way.

Arcane Process


Many writers I know wonder most of the time about what other writers, both young and experienced, are doing. The whole process can seem arcane and magical, like you need to find a key locked in a silver box to master it. One day, you will find it. The reality seems closer to a vertical wall that you have to clamber up with a death grip on each hold.

Every writer has a different process. I’ve been hearing advice about how to “really engage” in the process for some time now. Wake at dawn; work after you return from work; clear all distractions; start nothing without getting your junk pages out. No: work at a normal job for six months, then take six months to indulge your creative work, so you don’t go completely mad. Or: it either comes to you or it doesn’t, and you just need to wait. It turns out to be grotesquely  hard to do what you do well.

One writer I know stays up until five or six in the morning, sleeps until three, wakes, drinks an entire pot of coffee, then works in a manic frenzy until he has to sleep. Another writes a diligent two pages a day, every day. You have to put on your clothes; you have to write. One very successful lady I know can’t go to sleep without writing. Another, I’ve heard, lives alone in a house on an island and doesn’t see people for days and days and talks to the postmaster once a week. She Skypes with her parents on Fridays, if at all.

The rule seems to be is that there is no singular formula, because there are no rules. That’s a gem from one of my favorite fiction writers, who told our class, “Art has no rules.” (That mantra still gives me courage to write what I’m not ready yet to write).

She also told us that she was the slowest writer with the worst process, and that we shouldn’t listen to any of her advice.

Depictions of writers don’t help clarify the mystery at all. The solipsism of writers writing about writing aside, who better to get insight about the dark arts from? The unwilling heroes are usually suffering writers’ block and trapped in Los Angeles, a nightmare of a city for writers, who, if we’re trading on stereotypes, tend to avoid sunlight, surface, and people.

In Adaptation, Charlie Kaufman is a sweaty trainwreck of a screenwriter, flopping backwards onto his bed, in thrall to his terrible internal voice telling him he can’t do anything right. Barton Fink’s Fink, a lauded playwright, holes up in a creepy hotel room where the wallpaper is peeling to finish his script, and is in real danger of becoming a permanent Looney Tune:


When they finally break through the eighteenth wall of suffering, they both produce works of genius in long stretches of manic creation. This sequence is pulled off with gusto: they sweat over their typewriters, then emerge triumphant. They slam down two hundred pages, bound by a binder clip, on their agents’ desks. Their eyes start out happily from pink-grey concentric rings.

Today’s depictions of writers are no different. Take Hank Moody, the rock-star novelist in the sordid Californication, who lives the life he thinks artists lead: completely miserable, soaked in  booze, acting out violently. When not wallowing, he looks like this:


In season one’s end, sick of himself, he sits and produces a novel in under a couple of weeks.

The process is torture, but nothing else feels better once you are all in. I feel most like myself when writing. When I feel the worst, it makes me feel the best. And it is both a constant trap and a flight out of here to better, truer places.

Last fall, I got to overcome my nerves about public speaking by reading a story I spent the previous summer on. The story, “Cardinal,” was for the fall issue of Conjunctions, one of my favorite magazines. The theme was “A Menagerie,” and the editors sought out writing about animals of all kinds, along with our relationships to animals.

I got to read “Cardinal” at a salon hosted by the lovely and most talented Christine An – an artist, writer, and comedian based in Cambridge. There was a question and answer session, and people seemed interested in how I got the idea for the story, which is about a little boy with attention deficit disorder, his teacher, and a cardinal. One lady asked how long it had taken to write, and I told her, technically, five years.

But the core image it hinged on – a bright red cardinal in the trees above snow – was actually from my childhood in Virginia. So, the material was from a lifetime. I spent a lot of summers bird-watching from a kitchen window and I befriended a few cardinals by imitating their chirp. It was as weird as it sounds. The boy was loosely based on a student in the Presbyterian school my mom worked at in Washington, D.C., in the early Aughts, and on another troublemaker from middle school.

Ten years later, living in New Haven across from a shuttered arts charter, I saw a cardinal in the snow. I also saw two mounted cardinals, male and female at the natural history museum on Whitney Avenue. They’re in the photo up top. I wrote a rough draft.

The story didn’t take took root, though, until I saw a friend’s eerie Facebook cover picture, of an Emergency sign at a hospital. The metaphor of a cardinal as emergency, and a final sentence for the story, came through. The image of brilliant red against snow, of an animal in unabashed color, without camouflage, stayed with me, and I held that in my head and resolved to build around it somehow.


Each of the images in the story took from some singular experience in the years after: listening to tapes of birds from Cornell’s Ornithology Lab; watching a documentary about attention deficit disorders; talking to someone with anxiety and depression issues and hearing about their roller coaster experience with medication; going to a Tom Sachs exhibit based on the Mars landing; my own experience of teaching.

And then there was the cobbling: I wrote four other stories in between that year and now, toggling back and forth between their different drafts, taking scenes from one and dropping them in another. This all made for twenty or so single-spaced pages that needed to be broken apart, line by line, last summer.

So, without the five years of wandering, picking out images from experiences I had no control over, I would have no story to tell. So I’ve come to this being my process: living and observing, and hoping it all comes together, somehow, on the page. This is not very encouraging as there are no magic key solutions; but, it is also, very good, because it means life is long and full of gifts, the arcane process being the best gift.