Category: Writing

Writing is difficult work, and I’ve been exploring the craft as a creative and professional since I graduated from my MFA program. Here I’ll share my thoughts about the craft of writing.

What is Good Writing?

What is good writing? It’s easy to sit there from your computer or phone and say, “Joe, it’s simple to spot good writing. No typos. Great command of the English language. Possess a fundamental understanding of grammar.” Other people might say something like: “You have to know how to use a comma and understand the difference between Let’s eat grandma and Let’s eat, Grandma.”

Don’t forget about the people who say: “Vary your sentence structure” or “understand how to use a semicolon” or “commas splices are the devil, Bobby.”

Then there are the people who think that split infinitives are the worst thing in the world, believe that using a serial comma is wrong, or chastise writers for a typo in a blog and see that as an indication of an inferior intellect. Oh, and don’t use literally the wrong way; you’re going to piss a lot of people off.

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I’ve heard so many rules that people have to follow to write well, but I’m here to say that there is no such thing as good writing. It’s a lie. It’s all a lie. Our teachers and our parents and our high school newspaper editor all want us to believe that there is good writing. I’m sorry to say this, but that’s just not fair. It’s not accurate. It’s kind of a shared hallucination.

When most people examine writing to evaluate if it’s good, I actually believe they are more likely asking (unconsciously), does it match my style expectations? Is it following the rules that I have in my head that define good writing? Does it meet my understanding of language? And when you break those rules that I know, that I understand, you should be crushed and seen as a hack!

But this is just a poor way to evaluate quality. For instance, I heard for years — from professors, authors, and copy editors — that a split infinitive is a mistake; yet when I read Steven Pinker’s “The Sense of Style,” he has an almost diatribe on how many credible sources believe that a split infinitive shouldn’t be remotely considered a mistake. To poorly construct a sentence with a split infinitive shows as little about writing abilities as using the passive voice.

Yes, we have been trained that the passive voice is horrible and should never be used, but emphasizing a different part of a sentence can be a great use of style.

What I’m trying to get at is that good writing is not actually good writing; it’s effective communication. It’s being understood by an audience; it’s making them feel something; it’s helping them understand a complex idea. It’s a conversation that can be expertly done. Steven Pinker doesn’t say this exactly in his book– or he might; I can’t remember — but what I took away from it was that effective writing is about using style and language to convey thoughts to be understood. And that’s what we should focus on.

When you evaluate this post, I hope you don’t look at a typo; I hope you say: “Did I truly understand what he was trying to say?” “Did he convince me that good writing isn’t real?” Well, probably not in this small space.

But overall, I’m so tired of the question about “What is good writing?” Yes, when we work with people professionally, we have to agree on a standard, and if I write right as write when I actually mean right not left (šŸ˜‰), then you probably will think I’m an idiot. And it would behoove any writer to avoid obvious mistakes. Just…. does that mean the writing is bad?

No, good writing is a lie that we are sold by elitists who want to keep literature and writing to themselves.

How Not to Write for Money

It’s 10:17 p.m., and I just returned from a walk, where I tried to ignore several meetings in the morning and the conundrum of finding a way to be present in those meetings while balancing projects that need significant brain power to complete. Work takes up a significant amount of space in my mind, and I am grateful that I can use my craft to help in my profession. I tell stories at work, and I have incredibly clear outcomes: Grow our business, please our clients, and pay my bills. There is a sense of satisfaction in that clarity.

On the other hand, my creative work doesn’t have as clear outcomes. I don’t have deadlines; I don’t get paid (at least very much); and I don’t have any true metrics to evaluate performance outside of the arbitrary ones I set for myself. After I returned from the walk, where I wondered how many days after Christmas it would take some of the neighbors to remove their holiday lights, I saw my desk calling to me: Hey, Joe. You can get a couple hours of writing in before bed. You don’t need those 30 extra minutes of sleep. At this time of night, I find myself negotiating with the desk: But I can get the work done in the morning. How about this: 10 minutes on the story and 20 minutes continuing to build the framework for the novel after I make coffee? That should satisfy you, right? The desk is cold: Shut your mouth when you’re talking to me and sit your ass down. 

The desk always wins, however. It looks at me with those black eyes and coffee-stained freckles that look like constellations, a road map to the creative journey I build in my mind, and it guilts me into submission. Whether I engage or I don’t, the desk is on my mind, taking me out of whatever moment I’m trying to exist within…And I catch myself wondering: Why the hell am I doing this? Why am I negotiating with a desk? 

Many years ago, I would have been able to tell you clearly why I write creatively. I would have said: When I was in college, I read George Orwell’s Why I Write, and I felt a duty to speak truth, to say something meaningful, to throw a cog in the endless machine of soothsayers and reality-shapers. In high school, I would have said I write because I read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five during a summer vacation in Myrtle Beach, and when I finished, I couldn’t imagine that life would ever be the same. I would have said that I write because I feel that the only way my life has meaning is if I’m remembered after I’m dead, and leaving a legacy of writing can help. I would have said because nobody thinks a kid from Clinton, Mass, can grow up and write novels. I would have said anything that I thought I needed to hear me say.

But why do I do it now? Why Do I spend the time after a hard day’s work to write stories and novels that I’m not sure anyone will ever read? Why do I take hours out of my day to think about sentences, paragraphs, characters, verisimilitude, the authenticity of act two?

I don’t get paid for this work. I don’t get recognized every day when I come home. I don’t have a boss that can provide a performance evaluation and tell me that I’m doing a great job…here is a raise. I don’t have clients to please.

It’s 10:31 now, and my wife wants to go to bed. I have a copy of Arthur C. Clark’s 2001: Space Odyssey on my nightstand that I can’t wait to read. I hear the sink in the bathroom turning on. I hear the traffic on the highway several streets over. But still, why do I do this? Why do I spend the time to brave rejections and acceptances, to fail and succeed (mostly fail), to wait for other people’s evaluations of my work, to publish blogs that I’m never positive people will read or ignore?

These questions have been running through my head over the last month, and I realized that I was struggling to answer them. That was until it hit me: I write because I want to connect with people. I want to build a conversation. I want to hear people tell me about their stories that, perhaps, my story inspired. I want to speak to the people who don’t feel like anyone is willing to talk. I want to write stories that force people to think twice about how they perceive mental illness. I want to write stories that illuminate the power of the imagination and how sometimes our realities are not as objective as we believe.

I want to communicate. It’s as simple as that. That’s such a basic want, and somewhere along the line, I forgot the power of that, and I began to force my work to fit expectations, marketplaces, genres that might not have been me. But I have to learn in 2018 to accept that I do not have control over creative work. I can’t bend it into the shape I want. I can’t force the genre of my work to reflect the perception I want others to have of me.

I write now because I want to connect with people, and the only way I believe I can  connect with them is to find a way to bleed on these pages, to use them as a mirror to the self, to share something authentic and true. That is my goal. That is why I write. To share and know the authentic self.

Why the Patriots Odds of Winning the Super Bowl Just Plummeted

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the odds that the Patriots will win the Super Bowl has dropped significantly. Bianca washed my Brady jersey. If you know anything about football, then you know the Pats success is due to the fact that I donā€™t wash my jersey during the year, only at the end. Letā€™s try and keep it together.

I know you may not believe me, but I’m happy to provide significant evidence to the case.

It was November, 24, 2013, and the Patriots were hosting Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos along with the traitor Wes Welker. It was a cold night, but the fans were into the game, and I was watching another version of the epic Brady Manning saga from my friend’s apartment in West L.A.

Everything was normal and consistent except for one small detail: I was wearing a Randy Moss jersey. I have always worn my throw back Brady jersey, but tonight, I was feeling like I needed a bit of a stylistic change. So I wore the Randy Moss jersey.

I didn’t realize what I had done. I couldn’t have imagined what disturbance in the force I had caused, and as Peyton and the Broncos kicked off the game with a stampede of touchdowns, I looked up at the scoreboard at half time and realized that we were down 24-0.

How could this be? How could the Broncos slow down a dynamic offense like the Patriots? Something was wrong, but I couldn’t quite figure out what it was.

My friend, let’s call him Steve, was ready to quit and change the channel. The Chargers fan, let’s call him Jay, who was also in the room, started to say Brady was washed up.

But I couldn’t give up. No, I’ve watched this show too many times to quit.

That’s when it hit me: I wasn’t wearing my Brady jersey.

I told Jay and Steve I had to go, and I raced back to my apartment, desperately searched for my Brady jersey hanging in the closet with the rest of my clothes, looking forgotten and jilted. Heroically, I threw the jersey on and came back to the apartment. I pointed at the Chargers fan straight in the eye and said:Ā This is far from over.Ā 

Well, I’m sure you know what happened. The Patriots came roaring back and won the game. But it was all because of my jersey. Not the play of the Patriots or coaching. It was my jersey that won the game.

Now, a dark cloud will roll over the Patriots 2017 season, because my wife, Heron, has washed my jersey. Best of luck Brady!

My Essay is Included in the All-Time Best Narratively Memoirs

This morning, I woke up to some solid news. An essay I wrote in 2015 that appeared in Narratively was selected as one of their all-time best in their five-year history. Narratively has such incredible writers publishing work, and I’m honored to be included.

Looking back on the piece was strange. It was certainly a hard essay to write, and I often wonder, years later, should I have written it? It’s very personable, it’s intimate, and I probably share too much information on a subject that most people consider private.

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But when I wrote it many years ago, my intention was to shed light on an issue that is extremely important: Mental health. I still think that one of the biggest problems in our country is how we treat mental illness. From the stigma still associated with people who are struggling to the quiet conversations we have hidden away in small corners of isolated rooms about illness to the trauma it takes on families, we are nowhere near where we should be as a society when tackling these challenges.

I understand all that. However, when you reveal details about someone you love for a bigger ideal, it’s so easy to tear yourself up for trying to make a point, to share an experience.

But even though I still question whether or not it’s a good idea to share intimate details of family for the sake of art, for stories, for a bigger idea, I do believe there are a couple points from the essay that still really resonate with me, and two years later, it still strikes me in a way that felt honest, good, and true. This one stands out: We will always have breakdowns to remind us we are family.

 

When Dogs Run Away, New Essay in the Los Angeles Review

When I opened the door to our office in Ocean Beach, San Diego, one of our office dogs ran out into the street, and I started sprinting after it, yelling and trying to get it to stop from running into traffic. It’s a bizarre feeling, attempting to convince a dog who is on a dash to consider their safety. It’s an almost impossible task. Words fail. So, this incident got me thinking about how many times I have found myself trying to help when dogs run away. Then it got me thinking about language and how challenging it is to communicate with not only animals but people when they are running toward disaster. The result is my essay at the LA Review. Find out what happened when I opened the door to our office and began chasing after a beloved dog loose in the streets of San Diego. Read the article here: When Dogs Run Away.