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Posts published in “Writing”

The Attic

The ceiling collapse was the first thing that put a damper in Dave’s day. Michael and Greg’s master bedroom was a disaster. Crumbled drywall and fiberglass insulation covered the room in a damp-smelling blanket. Maybe a leak in the roof? What he knew was that this was going to be an expensive repair.

The second thing that put a damper in Dave’s day was the human bones spilling from a trunk that had fallen through the ceiling when it collapsed. The impact had forced the box open, revealing its ghastly contents. If it had been stored just a few feet over, it might have landed on the mattress and not opened, maintaining its diabolical secret. But, it had fallen through, hit a dresser, busted open, and spread bones all over the floor.

A Night At The Bar

Sylvia nursed her double-gin and single-tonic at the hotel bar and checked out the handsome, dark-haired man across the room. Just looking at him as she had been doing the last three or four drinks, she could tell she was definitely his type. She wanted to show him and his dark curls and darker eyes a thing or two.

He was her son’s age, but reminded her of her second husband, Ali, the car salesman with more body hair than any man had any right to. She remembered how he would smell after a day working in those cheap suits he preferred. “Buy a nice one!” she’d tell him. “Those dime-a-dozen suits don’t breathe right.” By the end of a hot summer day, his rank body odor would be vile.

The Theme for 2020: Wonder

Cynicism is a shackle.

Cynicism is a shackle and being jaded is uncool and dumping on people who are putting themselves out there is a drag.

For too long I have indulged this sort of needless negativity and I feel pretty done with it. It’s a habit I (and many others) developed as a teenager and so thoroughly internalized that it’s become a dominant personality trait. But that sucks! When you have a bad habit, you try to undo it, right? Drinking too much? Cut it out. Get soft around the tum-tum? Go to the gym. Being a cynical jerk about stuff? Embrace wonder. I limit myself and the potential richness of my life by immediately writing things off that maybe aren’t the best. Or things that I perceive might not be the best. How might my life now, as a 37 year old man, be fuller if I hadn’t spent so many years thinking things were stupid because it made me feel cool? It’s terrible, and if that makes me cynical about cynicism, then so be it.

I want to get to a place where I can just be excited about things without tempering that excitement with a bad attitude. I want to go to an open mic night and genuinely think to myself, You know, that was pretty good. I want to see a dad-rock band at a local festival and not roll my eyes. I want to read the clumsy poetry of the world and not dismiss it out of hand. I want to like things because I like things and not justify my tastes. I want to take pleasure in the weird experiences that I find myself in all the time. I want to find the magic in creating things that are not masterpieces. I want to welcome the broken and wonky into my heart. I want to silence that damned voice that says so many terrible things to me. I want to embrace the joy of small, imperfect things because life is full of small, imperfect things and dismissing them robs you of so many chances for happiness.

The theme for 2020 will be:

The Year of Wonder

Maybe I mean something closer to “the year of positive attitude” or “the year of not being a judgy dickhead” or “the year of just giving it a damn rest already with the negativity”, but none of those are as punchy as The Year of Wonder so that is what we are going with.

It seems to me that embracing wonder comes in two distinct flavors: inward and outward. That is, am I directing my bad attitude at myself or am I directing it at others. I think this differentiation is pretty easy to follow.

My struggles with being creative are legendary and well-documented. I have written about it extensively before here on The Black Laser. I am sure all this results from this persistent negative voice inside me. I am sure that the same sense that makes me think someone else’s work is worthless is the same sense that makes me think my work is worthless. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, right?

Why beat myself up for the imagined failures of work I am not producing? It is better to produce and release 85% perfect work, than it is to beat myself up forever because the work isn’t 100% perfect and then never release anything at all. Get over it, Joe, and just be happy that the 85% work is out there. If I consider every single thing I’ve ever created professionally, there might be a handful of works that were in the 85% to 90% range. The rest were lower than that for whatever external reality causing issues. And I made a living that way! The world isn’t looking for works that are 100% perfect. That is impossible. Just do your best and people will respond.

And this attitude is never limited to just myself, either. Why can’t I just accept that someone has worked hard on something and is doing their best to share something of themselves? Perhaps they don’t sing with Bing Crosby’s syrupy voice, or perhaps they don’t shred like St Vincent, or perhaps they don’t craft the taught, lurid prose of Shirley Jackson, but so what? The creative drive is within all of us. For the most part, I really believe, people are just doing their best to express their own truths. Why poo-poo that? Encourage people to live their lives. That starts with not being yet another negative voice in a sea of negative voices. Negativity is easy, but negativity is lazy.

It’s a bad behavior it and it needs to stop.

This year is the year I work to stop it. I imagine it will be a difficult path, one from which I will stray regularly. You don’t change 37 years of bad behavior in a single blog post. But, it is something I want to work on. Just getting over the mental hump that kept me away from The Black Laser for so long is the first step. Christ, it’s not like I haven’t had anything stewing in my head the last few years. It’s just that the voice was so loud, so persistent, that I felt stuck.

Well, I’m back. Hi. Missed you too. Let’s be positive this year.

In search of good Horror Fiction

I’ve read Stephen King.

I’ve read Shirley Jackson.

I’ve read Clive Barker.

I’ve read Lovecraft and Poe and Shelley and Stoker and Matheson and Staub and Rice.

I’ve read a mountain of horror fiction and seen hundreds of horror films, but I feel like I am still missing out.

Stephen King is great, but his books aren’t scary. Clive Barker is inventive and gory, but I feel like sometimes he is better in films where he can drive his ideas with visuals. Joe Hill is writing some incredibly smart, fast-paced horror fiction, but I’ve read all his books. Shirley Jackson wore the Victorian-Horror-In-The-1950s crown, but she’s not producing new work. Lovecraft set the tone for thousands of writers to follow, even if he has some real problematic race ideas in his writing.

So. Who is out there writing our era’s great horror fiction? Who is creating terrifying new worlds and driving people insane? Who is haunting the manor halls with the unjustly dead? Who is condemning the souls of the greedy to eternal torment? Who am I missing? Someone must be doing all this, right?

Give me some ideas in the comments.

Photo by W A T A R I on Unsplash

Activation Energy

I’ve had a post about Activation Energy mulling in my head for a couple weeks. Then I thought, I wonder if I’ve written about Activation Energy before? And guess what?

I have.

In 2008. Six and a half years ago. It’s something like the 20th post on the site—of more than 1200 at this point. I suppose that means the topic bears revisiting?

Activation Energy is a concept I coopted from Chemistry. Coined by Swiss scientist Svante Arrhenius in 1889, it refers to “the minimum energy that must be input to a chemical system with potential reactants to cause a chemical reaction.” In my usage, it refers to the amount of mental energy required to enter the creative state.

For example, how much must I procrastinate before I am filled with fear that I will not be able to meet my deadline? Or, how long does this idea need to gestate before I can execute it properly? Or, what do I need to clear off my plate before I can adequately focus on the task at hand? Creativity is the reactant. Creative work is the chemical reaction. And these efforts are the energy input.

To extend this metaphor further (and forgive me if botch the chemistry a little—I failed that class), chemical reactions produce either an endothermic reaction or an exothermic reaction. That is, reactions that absorb energy (endothermic) or reactions that release energy (exothermic). In Chemistry this is usually expressed as heat. An endothermic reaction is typically a cold reaction, whereas an exothermic reaction is hot.

Sometimes your activation energy is just right and you explode in a wild torrent of output and things are great and everything is amazing. That’s exothermic. Like an explosion.

Other times, it’s not so great. Anyone who has ever struggled on a creative project knows that you can find yourself in the perfect motivated place to do whatever you need to do, but very little comes out of it. It often feels like a failure. That’s endothermic.

Luckily, more times than not, the energy was not wasted. You just gave yourself a little more time to think about what you need to do. It’s all still there, ready to come out the next time in a different way. Sunlight is absorbed by plants allowing them to grow large, which is an endothermic process. Then, the larger plants catch fire and release all that stored up sunlight in a tremendous wildfire. The same is true of our creativity. The only thing that actually gets in its way is not overcoming the activation energy hump.

In my previous post I wrote about myself as a high activation energy sort of person. I don’t think that is totally true. Sometimes getting myself into that perfect state is like pulling teeth and sometimes my activation energy is so high that I will just never get there. But other days, it comes quick and easy. Im the type of person who keeps trying to be a better one each day and to compromise and explore every new thing, with the korean ginseng I manage to maintain my mind in the perfect state to begin any type of adventure and to overcome this energy activation each time.

One thing I’ve noticed is that the better my mood, the higher my activation energy. If I’m feeling super good and in the black on the anger spectrum (more on this in a later post), you’d have to nuke my brain to give me enough activation energy no matter how much I wanted to work. But if I am fuming pissed and stewing and far into the red, well, then all you have to do is get out of my way and I’m cranking through whatever I need to. Go too far, though, and it’s all lost. It’s a delicate balance.

If I’m well rested, nope. If I am too tired, nope. Somewhere in the balance there is a sweet spot where my brain isn’t bouncing around, fresh and rested, or dull and lethargic with exhaustion. Just tired enough not to be a spazz, but not so tired I can’t think.

If I’ve not been working at all, nope. If I’ve been working too much, nope. Again, balance. If I am not working at all, I fall into an inertia hole and I am dull and uncreative, but if I am working too much, all my creative juju is used up by projects at work with little-to-none left for other things.

The real question is, what is the proper life-work-emotional balance to lower your activation energy to a place where getting the reaction going is relatively easy? That balance is, of course, different for each person and for different types of projects.

With work, I need to procrastinate until that moment when not starting means not finishing in time. Up until that point, I’ll dawdle and distract myself, while feeling progressively more guilty and by extension progressively angrier until the equation tips and I blow through whatever work I have to do.

On personal projects, it helps me to be beholden to a partner. Someone expecting something on a deadline will put me into the creativity cycle I referenced in the previous paragraph. If no one is waiting for anything, then I fall into a procrastination spiral that resembles the cycle above but over a much, much longer period of time.

Take this post for example: I started it on the 21st of May. Today is the 10th of June, nearly 3 weeks later. What have I been doing with all that time? Working, mostly, and a bunch of work social stuff, all of which affect the balance. But today I finally reached the place where my activation energy equation worked to my advantage and I’ve written ~750 additional words so far. Not too bad. I can finally stop thinking about this post lingering my drafts, unfinished, and move on to another post I will start and then finish weeks later.

I’ve always been impressed with people who have seemingly low activation energy, the types who can just sit down, get their focus on, and crank through the work. I am definitely not one of those people, but by knowing what affects me and my creative process I can, and to a lesser extent have, learned to manipulate myself into that low activation energy state. In the end, if to lower the barrier to reaction I must do all this additional work and put myself into the perfect life-work-emotional balance, then maybe I am a high activation energy creative person after all. Maybe I was right back in 2008. Funny.

A belated theme for 2015 – Reset

Every year for something like 10 years (with the exception of 2014), I’ve picked a theme to describe my goals for the coming year. It has been a way to approach what I wanted to improve with broad-ish concepts and goals, rather than a set of limited, narrowly focused resolutions. I’ve written about it extensively. Feel free to go back and read some of the old posts for greater clarification on the idea. It’s all there.

With the revamp of the site, I’ve been thinking about what a good theme would be for 2015. Though I’ve missed my usual December announcement by 4 months at this point, it’s my life and I’ll make whatever choices I like. If I think it’s time to declare a theme for 2015 in April of 2015, I will. And you’ll just be fine with that.

A few days ago, a friend of mine wrote something on his Facebook that really clicked with me.

I firmly believe that some of the best writing and creative ideas I’ve ever had have come to me in the late hours of the night, when I’m the closest that I can actually get to being relaxed. Having said that, it’s equally amazing how much simpler the editorial process is in the light of day. Build up at night, rearrange during the day.

He’s totally right. Those wee hours of the night before bed, but after all the day’s chores are done, have always been my most focused, productive hours. The buzz of the day is gone and I am finally tired enough to focus, but not yet so sleepy I can’t think. The world is quiet, even here in New York City, and I can usually get something out in the little bit of time when my brain can actually produce.

In the last few years I haven’t been using those hours the way I used to, mostly, I think, because I got out of the habit of using them. Life changed. Schedules changed. Those nighttime hours became unavailable or filled with other activity. Then when I did have them, I squandered them. I have no regrets, but in retrospect I wonder why when I had a lot of hours to use, I didn’t use them. Of course, it’s very likely I needed to get to the point where it bothered me to see that I could have been using them more productively, instead of barreling forward, mindless of time’s passing, letting them slip away.

I realize that I miss using that time for my personal projects because those hours were the only way I got anything done that kept me feeling sane. And sane is important. Sane makes all the other stress and bullshit of life more easily digestible. For the moments I am pissed off about work, at least I can feel satisfied that I am making things for myself when I can. For all the time I am laden with personal and familial obligations, getting just that little bit of something done for myself is critical. And, even if nothing ever comes of all of this extra I do (and feel I should be doing), keeping me feeling balanced is a very important, very valuable, very real outcome.

I’ve been struggling a lot recently to find a mental/emotional place where I can feel some sort of magical equilibrium, where all the things are more or less balanced and I don’t feel like I am going to explode. The more off-balance I feel, the more I get angry, the more I get resentful, the more I shut off from those around me, and that takes its toll on the rest of my life and relationships. I don’t like harboring those feelings. They make everything a lot worse. I don’t enjoy anything. I don’t sleep. My fuse becomes dangerously short at all times. They make me god damned unpleasant to be around. Yet, those feelings come out in full force when I am out of whack and the only way I’ve ever found to address them is to try and reassert some semblance of order in my life.

That said, 2015 will be…

The Year of Reset.

What’s best is that I’ve already begun. Fantastic.

I intend to get back into the habit of making my personal creative goals a priority. I want to get back to creating things for myself regularly. It doesn’t matter what I make. What matters is that the work I do is for me. I can cut all the extra short films and friends’ projects in the world, but those aren’t mine. I can do all the creative work at my job, but that really isn’t mine. My ideas, my projects, my execution. Simple. Bringing back The Black Laser as both a forum for my work and a work in itself (double dipping, yeah) is a big first step. It’s also a bit of what Sarah would call a commitment device. I feel guilty when the activity here dies down. Avoiding that guilt is often plentiful motivation for me. I won’t always post the things I do, but when I want to post, I’ve got a place that is all my own.

I am not going to make any concrete creative goals for this year, though. In years past, I’ve stated an intended quota of production. 2015 is not for quotas. 2015 is for habit rebuilding. We can discuss quotas for 2016.

I’ve been collecting ideas and scribbles and half-finished thoughts for ages, and I want to see what I can turn them into. There are seeds for a wealth of projects and larger works buried here over the six and a half years of The Black Laser, I just have to nurture them. That means sticking to it. That means sitting down even when I am tired or don’t want to. That means doing the god damned work and not letting anything get in the way, even if my output is minimal. There will be nights when I can’t and many more nights where I feel like I can’t. The former cannot be changed, but the latter can. No excuses. No bullshit.


Join me and this sleepy little butthead for many more nights of cranking out words and thoughts, and, hopefully, we’ll make something beautiful. Or awesome. Or beautifully awesome.

City of Golden Shadow… or, Why Am I Still Reading This Book?

After reading the second and third Expanse books back to back, I turned my attention to Tad Williams’ Otherland: City of Golden Shadow. The book had been in my mental queue for a long time, but for this reason or that I never actually read it. As much as I just wanted to read the next Expanse book, I felt like it was probably prudent to give the series a rest for a moment. Enter City of Golden Shadow.

Now, I am about three quarters of the way through it and I have no idea why I am still reading.

The book isn’t bad, exactly, but something about it isn’t grabbing me. Weighing in at about 800 pages, the commitment to reading is no little thing. But there’s something off and I can’t put my finger on it.

I feel like I’m just continuing on with it out of some sense of stubbornness. Like, maybe at some point the book will pick up and start being interesting? I’ve gotten this far, so I should probably just keep going? It has everything is should have to grab my attention: international intrigue! Nefarious plots! Parallel worlds! Science fictiony stuff! Egyptian gods! Murders! Explosions! Little girls who have weird friendships with elderly burn victims! Everything!

But, when it comes time to pull it out of my pocket on the train or get in bed and read, I’m overwhelmed with a feeling “meh”ness, you know? It’s weird.

Life is too short to read bad books. I know that much. There have been plenty of books I’ve gotten into and put down forever after a hundred pages. I’ve tried to read Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow like three times, and just put it down each time because it’s so full of itself trying to impress readers with its cleverness that it fills me with rage. Screw that book. Seriously.

City of Golden Shadow just isn’t bad enough to put down, though. I don’t actively hate it. It’s just not exciting enough, either, that I am ripping through it. It’s stuck in this mental/emotional neutral place for me where I can’t build up the required spite to put it down, but I also don’t give enough of a damn to want to see how it ends up. It’s the kind of book that I could get stuck “reading” for years because I just never spent any time with it. Or, at least, it could be that kind of book if I was the kind of person who could do that sort of thing.

I am also totally willing to posit that my feelings about the book might have absolutely nothing to do with the book itself, but possibly have everything to do with my mental state these days which we’ll diplomatically describe as “rough”. City of Golden Shadow, it might not be you; it might be me. It might still be you, though. I don’t know. Probably not.

At this point, I’m just going to finish the damn thing since I am getting pretty close to the end now, but the chances I read the following three books are pretty low. And that quickly, I’m in the market for something to read after this. Any suggestions?

Hello, The Black Laser? Are you there?

How’s it going, old friend? It’s been a while.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this site recently. The Black Laser has been sitting here, untouched, for more than a year and that seems like a real shame to me. Over the years I’ve put a lot of thought and effort into this site. It’s been a repository for my rambling thoughts, a place to promote whatever random projects I’ve been working on, a place where I shared crap from the internet that I was really enjoying.

But life and work conspired to distract me from keeping the pace up here. As I moved forward in my career, the amount of headspace at the end of the day to write and be creative diminished. Then I got married and the extra hours I used to spend staring at the new post page on the WordPress backend shifted to being spent with my super rad wife. These are non-problem problems, obviously. The root of the matter is that the hours I used to spend digging around and writing here are different now. I am different now. That’s what happens. I opened The Black Laser in November 2008 and here we are in March 2015 thinking about an old friend we haven’t spoken to in a while. It doesn’t need to be that way. The Black Laser isn’t dead. It has just been sleeping for a while.

Ultimately, it feels like a true tragedy to let The Black Laser drift off into some sort of pathetic oblivion, yet another untended to blog clogging up the tubes. I don’t want to do that. I like to think you don’t want to do that. So let’s not let that happen.

Here are the things I think need to change to breathe some new life into this place.

It needs a new design.

We’ve been using TBL2.0 since 2011. That is basically forever in internet time. Forever!! The theme is old and no longer standards-compliant. In 2011 when redesigning this place I was not at all worried about whether or not the site read well on a smart phone. Who read things on smart phones? Steve fucking Jobs? Not me. Well, that has changed completely. Everybody reads everything on their smart phones and tablets and thingies and thingers. Time to get with the now.

Also this white type on black background shit has got to go. What was I thinking?

The type and quality of posts need to change.

As fun as it was to post random music videos and whatever back in the day, there are better ways to get and share that sort of content now. Those posts were easy, cheap ways to keep the post count moving upward, and it was always nice to have a backlog of cool crap I could unleash at folks. But I don’t need that. In retrospect, those posts really watered down the effectiveness of this site as a device for sharing brain pieces. They are a nice little break from things you actually have to read, but only once in a while. They were too frequent. A crutch for not thinking of real content.

Additionally I no longer take very many photos. They were a big part of this site once, but there is little reason to stay set-up to share them easily since I no longer need to share things I am not creating. I might start taking photos again one day in the future, but not soon. I’ve got a lot of feelings about the photo thing which I am happy to explore in a later post in more depth. Not here.

A refocus on the purpose for The Black Laser.

As alluded above, The Black Laser serves a few real purposes.

  1. To keep me writing.
  2. As a sort of public journal.
  3. To share the things I am working on.

These have always been the backbone of the site, even when I didn’t have much to share in any of the categories. This is the content I want to focus on. While thinking about the future of this site, I’ve been calling TBL3.0 the TL;DR version of the site: lots of text, way fewer videos and filler posts, fewer posts in general, but (hopefully) higher quality in the stuff I do post. More words! Better posts! Surprises! It is going to be super great.

The Black Laser makes me feel good. Time spent making things here never feels poorly spent. Most of the quiet times of the past 6 and a half years were spent thinking of things to share. That is a lot of time over a lot of years. And I finally feel ready to come back to it and fill your eyeballs with my words. No, that’s not quite right. “Fill” is too passive of a verb.

I am going to force my words into your brain and you are going to love it.