What Makes A Man?

In an ongoing effort to improve my health, I’ve started taking more care in my cleaning and grooming habits. Attracted by their whimsical marketing, I started a “soapscription” at Dr. Squatch and now have six bars of soap made from all-natural ingredients. I also ordered some products to take better care of my beard (I had long fallen out of the habit of daily applications of oil and balm). I grew to be a particular fan of Grave Before Shave when trying to maintain my facial hair before, so I turned back to them in my latest efforts to have a soft beard that my wife actually wants to touch. I’ve also got some solid cologne on the way from Duke Cannon. I haven’t worn cologne in years, so this will be a welcome change.

Of course, I’m well aware that all three of my sources are marketed specifically for men, using stereotypical cisgender heterosexual male imagery. I’m not fooled into thinking that using Bay Rum scented soap (it smells fantastic, by the way) and “Naval Supremacy” cologne will turn me into a barrel-chested sea captain. And I’m aware that by buying these brands, I’m sending the message that this type of marketing works, and telling me I’ll be more attractive to women and feel “like a man” will make me buy a product.

But we live in a capitalist society, and this type of marketing is inescapable. So I’ll try to balance out whatever social harm I’m doing by contributing to this ever-hungry animal by actually displaying the non-superficial qualities of masculinity in my everyday life.

Which begs the question: what are those qualities?

According to websites such as The Art of Manliness, those qualities are honor, hard-work, a sense of classical style, physical fitness, and the possession of the same types of skills one tends to learn as a Boy Scout or survivalist enthusiast. According to the more hostile places online, such as The Return of Kings (which I refuse to link to), those qualities are a dominating and aggressive personality, sexual conquest, and–dare I say–the triumph of the will.

Traits like honesty, dedication, and the possession of practical skills are all good traits to have, but what makes them masculine? The only answer is tradition. For much of human history, especially in the memory of the oldest among us, men were caretakers and women were homemakers. Men did things with their hands, earned money, paid bills, and made decisions. Women raised children, cleaned house, cooked, and sewed. There were two easily identifiable genders and thus two easily identifiable gender roles.

But there are no longer two easily identifiable genders. We’ve come to realize that gender exists on a spectrum, and most people are no longer pigeon-holed into being either a man or a woman based on what traits they possess and what role they fulfill in their household. Our understanding of biological sex is even more complex than it once was, so there’s not even a suitable peg of indisputable science to hang these conventions on.

So, what makes a man? The answers are beyond skill sets and social roles. The answers are more broad and subjective. The qualities of a “good man,” however, are still simple. A good man: pays his debts, keeps his promises, works toward social justice and the greater good, is an active and contributing part of his household, is respectful to others regardless of their social standing, expresses himself open and honestly while minimizing the damage his words could cause, cultivates healthy and enriching habits and hobbies, has an appreciation for both practical and aesthetic experiences, is intellectually curious, is willing to admit fault and accept accountability,  and does not hesitate to constantly re-examine his beliefs and values in light of new knowledge.

It’s almost as if that which makes a man makes a person.

Adjust your pronouns accordingly.

Coffee or Tea?

I’m a dedicated coffee drinker. I started drinking coffee as a child and haven’t looked back since. Granted, as a child, I would load my coffee up with sugar and cream (one could say I was ahead of the curve when it comes to gourmet coffee drinks) and now I prefer it black. Unfortunately, one of the health issues I’m facing right now is high blood pressure and I’ve been looking for ways on how to lower it.

After some cursory research (and, admittedly, without consulting an actual medical professional), I’ve found out that tea not only has less caffeine than coffee but can help lower your blood pressure. I made the switch, ordering some fine tea from The Tea Spot, and have been enjoying my tea thus far. I’ve loved chai tea for years, so I helped myself to a chai sampler pack–which I highly recommend. So far, I’ve sampled the Rise and Chai and the Pumpkin Spice chai. The Rise and Chai has a hint of turmeric that gives it a subtle sweetness. I love all things pumpkin spice, so of course I enjoyed that flavor (though the aroma was more pronounced).

But here’s the thing: I miss coffee. I like tea, but I love coffee. It’s my favorite non-alcoholic beverage. Now I’m no coffee purist. I have a Keurig and use it without regret. I also have a pour-over coffee pot, and on the days I have time to do so I love using it. Regardless of how it’s brewed, I just simply love a good cup of bold, flavorful coffee.

So I’m think I’m going to switch back. I’ll still drink tea so I get the health benefits of it, but my daily beverage will be coffee. I just love it too much. I can look for other ways to lower my blood pressure, many of which I’m already doing. I just–in case you haven’t gotten the gist yet–love coffee too much.

When It Hits You

I’ve been struggling to write lately, chiefly because I’m in the middle of several projects and don’t know where to take any of them. Or at least, I didn’t know, but now I do. I can rework one novel I was writing into a slightly different monster–more dark fantasy and horror, less historical–and all of a sudden it feels like I have a new project with limitless possibilities.

That’s a great feeling, isn’t it? When that inspiration hits you and all of a sudden everything makes sense. Maybe it doesn’t make sense, but at least it feels right. It feels like you’ve been trying to put a square peg in a round hole, and all of a sudden that peg changed shape and now it fits just right.

I hope to have more of those moments.

My wife, who is my go-to editor (she has edited professionally), just finished the novel I’m going to try and find a home for. Here’s hoping within a year I’ve got a publishing deal worked up. And look, an email alert telling me she’s made edits to a short story. Back to work, I suppose.

Been Feeling Less Than Better

I haven’t posted in a very long time. I’ve had some health issues and have had difficulty gathering the energy to write, for this blog or otherwise. Making it through my day job is taxing enough, considering I’m fighting fatigue all day. I’m taking medication to help, but I’m still on the road to recovery as opposed to having arrived there.

For those of you that read (or started reading) this blog, don’t worry; I haven’t forgotten it. Just been feeling, as the title of this post says, less than better.

The Joy of Horror

I definitely consider myself a genre writer. I’m not too keen on literary fiction; it most certainly has its place, and there is some fantastic literary fiction out there that well-deserves its accolades. But as both a reader and a writer, I would much rather be taken out of a realistic setting and put into something fantastical and truly imaginary.

So, I write and read genre fiction. My favorite genre is probably horror, both as a creator and a consumer. I enjoy the visceral thrills of horror, to be sure: the external conflict against an unrelenting force bent on destruction and the desperate need for survival can make, in able hands, for compelling reading (and watching; I love horror films just as much as I love horror fiction). I enjoy even more, however, the character development and introspection that’s inherent, and maybe even unique to, the horror genre.

Horror, as a genre label, has numerous definitions. Some akin horror to pornography, in that it offers a sensual and emotional experience that is superficial and fleeting, and serves little intrinsic purpose with little value. It is this definition of horror that has, before the current horror film renaissance we’ve slowly been experiencing ever since the release of 28 Weeks Later…, so often commanded discussion of the genre. Horror movies were excuses to watch attractive yet obnoxious people have sex and then die, and horror fiction was trash consumed by goth kids all in a race to be edgier than their fellow nihilists. Lately the way we talk about horror has grown more nuanced. It’s now accepted that the horror genre uses the base human emotion of fear to explore classical human experiences and literary themes, most often dealing with trauma.

What I admire the most about the horror genre is that it forces the reader or viewer into a state of discomfort before engaging them with subtext. Why is this discomfort necessary? To build empathy with the characters, for one. It’s hard to not think about existential dread and the fragility of life when such ideals are being played out right in front of you. Another reason why this discomfort is necessary is that squeezes the audience out of their comfort zone, which makes them more willing to engage with weighty topics and ideas.

I love many other genres, and will be talking about all of them. But it’s horror that I find the most engaging, exciting, and ultimately meaningful. It’s no exaggeration that after finishing The Shining I felt more alive than I ever had up until that moment.

ACCEPTED: 12-Point Buck

I had another flash fiction story accepted to Trembling With Fear. It’s called “12-Point Buck,” and it’s about a hunter who is expecting to take a home a prize buck to be rewarded, but then something happens that changes his hunt into something more personal.

I’ll post a link  in my published works once it goes live. I’m happy to report this success after a string of rejections, and as usual I hope to ride this wave to even more good news. I’m working on a submission for Welcome to the Splatter Club. This one explores a theme I find uniquely fascinating: how far will a creative professional go to realize their art? I also have my eyes on an epic fantasy and/or a detective anthology from the same publisher.

Good luck to all of my fellow writers trying to make it in this cutthroat world. Well, not really cutthroat, but most certainly breakneck.

How Not to Get Writing Done

I’ve struggled this past week with writing every day. I’ve only gotten down a few words for the short story I’m working on. There’s a few reasons for this.

My depression has been bad lately.  There have been insurance-related issues (chiefly, they want to make sure I’ve taken literally every other medication that’s cheaper) in getting a full prescription for some medication of which I was taking samples. It was working very well, but it won’t work if it’s not in my system.

I’ve been busy. I’ve had meetings at my full-time job, things to do at home, and just general distractions. It’s hard to focus when you’re exhausted.

More of my work has been rejected, which always makes me doubt the worth of all of this.

But the fact remains: if I’m not writing, I won’t get published.

Telling myself that, of course, just discourages me more, but it’s true.

Hopefully, next week will be better.

Not What We’re Looking For

I love it (meaning I hate it) when an editor rejects one my short stories with the line, “It’s not what we’re looking for right now.”

That’s such a loaded statement.

What are they really saying?

Is the editor telling the truth? “Your story is good, but it doesn’t fit with the theme of any issue we have coming up, so we’re going to pass for now.” No, don’t pass! Accept it and publish it when you’re ready. I’ll wait for years to see it in print if I have to. Just give me the vindication of acceptance.

Are they trying to be polite and let you down easy? “Your story is hot garbage.” Well, thanks for protecting my feelings, but if you don’t tell me I’ve just written something akin to pig vomit how do I know to make it better? Now I’m going to send it off to another publication and get my hopes up all over again.

Does this all have to do with name recognition? “Your story is fantastic, but we can’t sell copies based on your name, so thanks but no thanks.” You know that feeling you had when you applied for your first job and all the positions that justified your college degree or post-high school training required experience, and there was seemingly no jobs open for brand-new professionals like you except for the kind of jobs you would have been over-qualified for in the tenth grade? This is exactly like that. Everybody wants a best-selling author writing for them, but nobody wants to help you become a best-seller. Except there are new authors being published all the time, so somebody (lots of editors, actually) are taking a chance on unknown writers. Obviously, then, the problem is that you’re a no-talent hack that couldn’t write an original and engaging short story if a seasoned veteran just handed you a manuscript and said to copy it word for word and take full credit; you’d mess even that up somehow. At least that’s what I tell myself.

And there’s always the follow-up question: so, what are you looking for? I wish editors would tell me. I’d gladly custom-write a short story that’s more likely to get published. Sure, they say as much in their calls for submissions, but those can be confusing.

“Think Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, and Edgar Allan Poe. We want something fresh and original!” Well, which is it: something that evokes those authors, or something that evokes my own voice?

“We want content that’s new and exciting, that pays homage to the grand adventure stories of old.” So a new and exciting story that’s also a homage? Fantastic.

“We want our readers to feel like they’re reading one of the classics, with an inspiring new twist.” Like, what, exactly? How am I supposed to replicate a classical work yet give it a new twist?

It’s got to be a hard job selecting works for a publication. You need to find stories that will keep readers coming back, and that’s not an easy task. I don’t envy editors, but I do have to wonder exactly what their selection criteria is.

It would be almost easier if every call for submissions was just three words: “Read our minds.”

Music to Write To

Right now, I’m listening to Apple’s Smashing Pumpkins Essentials playlist. It starts off with “1979,” one of the most chill and heartfelt songs I’ve ever heard. The soft echo of the instrumentals and Billy Corgan’s whispering vocals bring me back to a trip I took to Chicago in the summer of 2009. I had taken a taxi cab to meet a friend at a hotel bar. She was someone I knew from the library world, and was a mentor and sympathetic ear to me. I was looking forward to having an enlightening conversation with her over a few drinks.

The cool night air poured into the taxi cab window as dusk settled across the city. The noise of big city traffic and the twinkle of metropolitan lights contrasted with the relative quiet to which I was accustomed back home. It was a magical evening, but not in the romantic or adventurous sense; there was something in the air which I could not explain, not an excitement but, oddly enough, a peace. I felt a sense of belonging despite being so far from home, and was listening to “1979” on my iPod (or maybe my phone, I can’t remember exactly). Then again, maybe I wasn’t listening to it. Maybe I was thinking about the music video, which was set in big city traffic, or this song was just on my mind (the band is from Chicago, after all).

Either way, all of these memories come from a simple song. This is why I love listening to music while I write. Songs really do take you back to a place in time, good or bad. I’m currently taking the Masterclass with Neil Gaiman (which I highly recommend) and he speaks of a writer’s “compost heap:” a collection of memories, conversations, experiences, and all kinds of things that, over time, condense down and fertilize your fiction writing. Most of what’s on my compost heap is music.

Any song from Korn’s Follow the Leader takes me back to college. Korn had been very popular when I was in high school, but now that I had disposable income from a part-time job, I could afford the popular music I couldn’t back then. I listened to that album endlessly, rediscovering some songs and discovering many for the first time. I went to a very conservative college, so I didn’t have to jump over many hurdles to be a rebel/outcast/whatever you want to call the weird kid; wearing black and listening to Korn helped cement that image. I kind of liked it, truth to be told. Granted, I was a good student and stayed out of trouble, but being outspoken and strange definitely made me feel like an interesting character.

“Closer” by Nine Inch Nails takes me back to the night I downloaded it on Napster (please tell me you remember Napster). I knew it was a popular song and wanted to give it a listen. I downloaded it, listened to it, and was instantly terrified. It felt forbidden, taboo even. I knew my parents would disapprove. I immediately deleted it. I didn’t want to be caught dead with it. Now, it’s one of my favorites.

Listening to hair metal takes me back to my childhood, when my mother and my aunt would blast Poison, Motley Crue, and Warrant on road trips to the beach. Old school R&B and hip-hop takes me back to my marching band days, when we played some of the great classics as part of our shows and parades. We played an especially rousing rendition of “Thriller” with a killer bass line pumped out by an extremely talented bass saxophonist. “Calling You” by Blue October brings me back to my wedding day, when I walked down the aisle with my brand-new wife to begin our life together.

Sometimes it can be hard to write to music. These memories tend to interfere with the creative process. That’s why I try to match the music with what I’m writing. Horror has a soundtrack of industrial and black metal. If I’m writing a western, then it’s outlaw country and contemporary blue grass. Fantasy and high adventure get a background of arena rock, power metal, and rousing orchestral arrangements. That way, the linked memories and emotions boost my writing instead of interfere with it.

Of course, sometimes what interferes the most is simply deciding on the right playlist or album for that day’s writing. Much like a driver who refuses to back out of the driveway until they have the perfect driving song, I tend to not bother putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, as is often the case) until I’ve got just the right song spinning.

Maybe that explains why I’m not getting much writing done these past few days. I just like music too much.