Tag Archives: Perspectives

Send in the Trolls

One of the first rules of the Internet is Never Read the Comments, especially when it comes to something you have written. As most of us have witnessed first hand, there’s something about the relative anonymity of the comments section that transforms people into hate-spewing cretins. People routinely misinterpret – often willfully it seems – each others’ words and then clamber up onto their virtual soapboxes to preach their version of the gospel. Or call you a goddamn stupid motherf*cking a$$hole licker. Or, you know, whatever.

But sometimes it’s impossible to resist reading the comments.

trolls

Pretty sure they’re telling me to kiss their respective asses.

A few months ago, I wrote a story for xojane.com* about the time I spotted an old flame making balloon animals at Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco. This guy had 1) broken my delicate eighteen-year-old heart, and 2) once been a moody and pretentious aspiring filmmaker, so there was some satisfaction in seeing him surrounded by sugar high children. My story received hundreds of comments, ranging from amusement to solidarity to irritation. Some accused me of pettiness and insensitivity. One commenter was outraged that I was picking on balloon artists.

Over the last two years, I have written and recorded a number of short pieces for the Perspectives segment of my local public radio station. This experience has taught me that even public radio listeners can be over-reactive, albeit while using more polite language. My tribute to my former-hunter-now-elderly cat inspired a heated exchange between an angry bird lover and a defensive cat supporter. When KQED aired my analogy on the nature of prejudice and race relations, let’s just say I was grateful not to get any death threats. Two weeks ago, I was at the station to record my latest piece about staving off a panic attack at 13,000 ft, and the segment editor joked, “I’m sure the commenters will come up with something. Perhaps self-indulgent?” We laughed and I prepared myself for whatever would come.

In this day and age when it seems that everyone has a righteous opinion on just about everything, what does it say that my piece did not receive a single comment, good or bad? To most creative types, the worst reaction to our work is indifference. While I have received positive feedback from friends and acquaintances, I admit that I am somewhat distressed that my writing failed to inspire even one listener to indignation.

I really ought to stop checking the comments section. Seeing that “0 Comments” is breaking my heart.


*For the record, the bordering-on-cheesy heading and subhead were not mine.

 

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Whose Story Is It?

Writing about real life can be tricky.

I am currently writing a new KQED Perspective that includes less than entirely flattering assessments of several former boyfriends. The piece is not mean-spirited nor does it call anyone out by name, however these men would surely recognize themselves by my descriptions. And although I am clearly telling my side of the story, I can’t help but feel a little prickly about doing so in such a public forum.

I am a product of my experiences. And as a writer, I write about these experiences. I share my stories, my viewpoints. I decide how much to reveal about myself, and have the power to portray myself – and others – as I see fit. Because it’s my version of events.Two Sides

But what about the other half of the equation: the people with whom I’ve shared many of these experiences? How do I walk the line between MY story and THEIR version? If we were both there, whose story is it anyway?

If this new Perspectives piece is accepted, I will record it in my own voice, and then it will be broadcast to thousands of people across the Bay Area, and very possibly to one or more of my former boyfriends. For the sake of the piece (length, tone, etc.), I portrayed each of these complex people and my relationships with them in one sentence; it’s not quite an emotional sucker punch so much as a sharp pinch. But I doubt anyone would be pleased to hear him or herself summed up in this way.

It’s unclear to me how to balance people’s feelings with my version of the truth, and also create compelling work. Do I cross my fingers that none of my former boyfriends ever hear my Perspective (or read this blog)? Or do I kill the piece all together in order to avoid potential strife? After flip flopping on this for a while, I started to wonder how memoirists tackle this conundrum. So I asked my dear friend Mari, who has published two graphic memoirs and has a third in the works. She encouraged me to tell my truth, but also noted:

“If there’s the remotest possibility they could hear it, you should give them a heads up before the rest of the world knows, as a courtesy. Trust me, it’s ultimately far less awkward this way.”

In short, if my Perspective is accepted, I’d better be prepared to send out some slightly uncomfortable emails. And be prepared for some less than favorable reactions.

When it comes to sharing our real life experiences, I think we writers must ask ourselves this question: Is the story worth a potentially awkward conversation? If the answer is no, then the story must not be very good.

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Back on the Wagon

This year, I made the very rational decision to skip National Novel Writing Month, reasoning that I should focus on revising my current novel rather than writing a new one. So here’s how I spent the month of November:

  • Organized and attended photo shoots in both Los Angeles and San Francisco for work
  • Drove to Los Angeles to visit friends for Thanksgiving
  • Attended a cocktail party and celebrated a friend’s birthday
  • Visited the Academy of Sciences to check out the skulls exhibit
  • Recorded a new Perspective segment for my local public radio station
  • Slept in, walked the dog, went out for brunch, went out for dinner, etc.

You’ll notice one glaring omission: No writing. Not even a little bit. So in an effort to kick my butt back up onto the writing wagon, this week I’m posting a scene I’ve been working on from my novel-in-progress. Thanks for reading!

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Excerpt from Small Legends Part Two: Keith

Most Thursdays after work, I told Pam I was heading to the Phoenix for a beer with the guys. And most of the time I was. Except when I drove out to Alameda to Ol’ George’s Bar. My father’s old stomping grounds. I’d been thinking about the place ever since I’d found out Pam was pregnant.

The bar probably hadn’t changed a lick in 40 years, down to the torn-up vinyl covers on the bar stools and the sun-faded photos tacked up all along the back wall. It smelled like old liquor and ancient cigarette smoke. The regulars were mostly old time drunks who showed up every day at 5 o’clock and stumbled out every night around midnight, their faces and kidneys bloated and pocked with dark purple spots. They sat alone at the bar, one stool between them and the next guy, and stared up at whatever game was on the TV, the volume off, making a comment every now and again about a ref’s bad call or the team’s chance of making it to the playoffs. It wasn’t exactly social, but I suppose it was better than drinking alone.

I took the table by the jukebox.

“What can I get you?”

Ginny’d been tending bar at Ol’ George’s since my father’s day. Her teeth were crooked like a stray dog’s, and her skin was like dried meat but she smelled like flowers. She wore low-cut tops but her boobs hung down so far on her chest, it didn’t make much difference. She was old, sure, but more than that she was practically pickled by years of hard drinking and hard living. Just like my father would’ve looked, if he’d lived long enough to drink himself to death.

I’d picked him out in the old photos from the first. As much time as my father’d spent sitting on one of those bar stools, I’d never stepped foot inside of the place until I found out that I was going to be a father.

The kid hadn’t even come out yet and already I was finding ways to not go home. Just like my father, I supposed. The man had been dead for nearly 20 years but there he was up on the wall, whiskey in hand like I remembered him. Except he looked a damn sight happier than I’d ever seen him. Ginny’d caught me staring at a black and white photo of him and a light-haired woman in a nice dress. They were dancing some kind of waltz. I’d have thought they were in a ballroom instead of a bar except for the jukebox in the background and the cigarettes burning away in their hands.

“Good lord how the time does go,” Ginny said. She was smiling, the creases around her eyes and mouth digging in a little deeper, but she didn’t look too happy.

“That you?” I asked, nodding my head at the photo.

“I never turned down a dance with Harry,” she said. And then without missing a beat, “You look an awful lot like him.”

I started to ask how she knew who I was, but there was no point really. Looking at that photo was damn near like looking in a mirror.

So I said, “I didn’t know he danced.”

Turns out there were plenty of things I didn’t know about my father. Including the fact that he’d been sleeping with Ginny. Not that she said so, but it wasn’t too hard to figure out. As old as she was, her face still lit up when she talked about him.

“Your dad had a special way about picking horses,” she said, “nearly always placed out at the track and then he’d spend it all in one night buying drinks for the regulars. He wasn’t much interested in the money, just in the winning. Very generous man, he was. Such a shame to lose him so young. I won’t deny I cried for a good long time after I heard.” She glanced down at my hand. “You a married man, Keith?”

In my line of work, wearing a wedding ring is a downright safety hazard. I hadn’t worn a ring since my wedding day.

“No, Ma’am,” I said.

Right at that moment, I wanted it to be true. I wanted to walk away from all of it. The house, car payments, the responsibility. Pam. A baby coming along. I was 26 years old, a good fifteen years younger than my father’d been when he drove his car off the road. Was this how he’d felt?

“I’ll bet you’re a real heartbreaker,” Ginny said, winking at me. “Just like your dad.”

I finished my whiskey and said goodbye to Ginny. On my way out, I heard one of the old timers ask, “That Harry’s boy?”

Every Thursday, I’d head over to Ol’ George’s to drink with Ginny.

“Evening, Keith,” Ginny’d say, and bring me a whiskey. “What’ll it be tonight, a little Dean? A little Frank? You know your dad was always partial to the crooners.”

Some of the old timers remembered my father better than you’d expect after so many years and so many bottles of whiskey. They’d talk about the time Harry arm-wrestled a guy twice his size and won. The time Harry bet his whole paycheck on a pool game and won. I figured these stories were half true at best.

I told a few stories of my own. The time Harry slept out on the landing on our building because he was too drunk to find his keys. The time Harry took apart the blender to see how it worked, and then tried to put it back together when he was drunk, only to find half a dozen parts left over. The old timers had a good chuckle and bought me another whiskey.

“That sounds like Harry,” they’d say, grinning through their rotten teeth.

For a few hours, I was just a guy at the bar. Harry’s boy. Not exactly happy, but at ease. For a little while.

Every time I went to Ol’ George’s, I had a choice. I could take my father’s spot at the bar, like the liver-spotted old timers had, or finish my whiskey and go home.

I always went home. I went home and kissed my wife and rubbed her belly and pretended to be happy, so happy that there was a baby on the way.

But I always came back.

 

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Just Don’t Write About This

This past weekend, two different people said to me the exact same sentence: “Just don’t write about this.” Both made this statement immediately after sharing deeply personal information about themselves.

Top-SecretOf course, I pledged my confidentiality without hesitation. But I was intrigued that both individuals – whom I’ve known for different lengths of time and in completely separate contexts – felt the need to “state for the record” that I did not have permission to memorialize their personal lives. Does this mean I have achieved some kind of writing milestone, when friends and family start to recognize the potential dangers of confiding in a storyteller? Have I arrived as a writer?

I admit I am flattered.

David Sedaris wrote a great story called “Repeat After Me”, in which he swears total secrecy to his sister even as he reaches for his notepad. I too often reach for my mental notepad when friends divulge their most difficult personal struggles. They talk about their troubled marriages, sick children, chronic health problems, heartbreak, depression, and mental illness. Their stories are deep and often dark, at times humorous, always compelling. They are the stuff that shows like This American Life and The Moth storytelling series are made of. They are Real Life.

But they are not my stories to tell.

For me, it is liberating to transform an embarrassing or painful memory into an experience I can share with others. By making myself vulnerable, I can make myself stronger. I can mine humor from humiliation, relief from anxiety. Because we are all struggling with Something.

I recently wrote an essay about the stigma of crying in public, revealing my own mortifying experience of breaking down into tears in the middle of a busy train station. Last week, my local public radio station KQED aired an excerpt of the longer piece as part of their Perspectives segment. My topic hit a nerve, as evidenced by the feedback I’ve received from friends, colleagues, and strangers chronicling similar incidents in their own lives. I will refrain from repeating their stories here, but suffice it to say, I was not alone in my suffering. And now, neither are they.

When we share our experiences, we share ourselves. We create community. We feel a little less alone. I encourage every one of you to speak up. Or at least write it down.

But rest assured, I promise to keep your secrets, well…secret.

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Two Minutes of Fame

Every writer dreams of having thousands of people read his or work. The very first time I shared something I’d written with that large of an audience, the piece in question was an edited version of a post on the blog that I write about writing (this one!). Talk about meta.

Last month, when I wrote about my heartbreak over the closure of my hometown Denny’s, scene of many teenage hi-jinks (https://lisathomson101.wordpress.com/2014/07/08/an-ode-to-dennys/), I received a lot of feedback from folks who fondly remembered their own youthful hangout spots, whether it was Country Kitchen in rural Iowa or Carmine’s Pizzeria in Brooklyn, New York. It seemed I’d hit a nostalgic nerve.

So I decided to take my story to the radio. old_radio_by_hkgood

For years, I’ve enjoyed a segment on my local public radio station KQED called Perspectives, a two-minute commentary written and recorded by a Bay Area resident, and covering topics that range from local politics to social commentary. Think This American Life meets open mic night. My piece about Denny’s was: 1) regional, 2) reflective, and 3) touched on the bigger issue of the ever-increasing pressure on kids to compete for college admissions. I figured it was ripe for public radio.

And apparently I was right. I read KQED’s submission requirements, edited my piece for length, and emailed it off. The very next day, I received an enthusiastic response from the segment editor Mark, saying how much he liked my submission and asking to schedule a phone call so that I could read it for time (in radio world, a two-minute segment is two minutes, not two minutes and a few seconds).

Over the phone, Mark couldn’t have been nicer or more complementary. He loved my piece, he said. It was well written and compelling, with varying sentence lengths. In short, perfect for radio.

The following week, I went to KQED to record. There I met Mark, who again told me how much he loved my piece, as well as the online producer and recording engineer, who also complimented me and listed off their own teenage hangout spots. Everyone was so friendly and enthusiastic – even for public radio – I started to wonder if the building had a nitrous leak (happy gas). But then it was time to get down to the business of recording.

I’d practiced reading the piece aloud a dozen times, but something about being in a sound proof recording studio and having a stranger listening carefully to my every syllable made my mouth a little dry. I read it through three times, stopping periodically to sip from my water glass. And less than 15 minutes after I’d entered the studio, we were done.

On my way out, Mark told me he would air my piece in two days. Only two days? I’d barely wrapped my head around the fact that I was going to hear myself on the radio. I made haste to alert my friends, family, and select colleagues.

radio_mainOn the big day, I set my alarm so that I could listen to the 6:05am airing while still in bed. I listened to the 7:35am airing while in my kitchen, making coffee. I felt exhilarated and a little embarrassed. And proud. I didn’t sound half bad. Later that night, I fired up the voice memo app on my iPhone and recorded the final airing at 11:30pm. I wanted a record of this cool, surreal, mouth-drying experience for a long time to come.

My friends and family were of course full of praise, but I was pleasantly surprised to receive compliments from several past and present colleagues who, as it turns out, are also avid KQED listeners. And the word seems to be spreading among my co-workers. Since the airing last week, I’ve had multiple requests for the link to the audio file on KQED’s website, which you can listen to here: http://www.kqed.org/a/perspectives/R201407310735

Who would have thought all of those hours spent at Denny’s would have amounted to anything?

Next stop, This American Life? I’ll keep you posted…

 

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