2020: Always Remember The Bad

2020 was a distinctly bad year and is burned into my memory. It wasn’t just the pandemic, although that sure had a motherfucking big role. Not will I soon forget the dark days of New York’s Covid Spring, the eerie silence punctuated by the banging of pots and pans at dusk.

Soldiers returning to Javits Center transformed to a medical center for Covid patients.

2020 was a lot of other bad things too.

I was attacked on a Zoom call in front of the entire faculty by an angry woman who claimed that I discriminated against black students. It didn’t matter that none of it was true nor that she knew none of the students nor even that many, including my black colleagues, called immediately afterwards to express their outrage. It was ugly and awful, and I had just been laid off. I was never given the chance to respond nor ever received an apology.

I received a call from my mother’s caretaker with the news of my mother’s death. It wasn’t sudden – it was more of a relief – but the image of the fire escape stairs and the multitude of drinks along with repeated viewing of the climax of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (my mother’s favorite opera) are indelible memories. As was the Zoom funeral that followed.

Ragnar Kjartansson’s Bliss played the climax of La Nozze Di Figaro on a loop for 12 straight hours.

I had both of my knees replaced and was stuck in a hospital room with no air conditioning, the bedsheet sticking to my back. They didn’t do anything about it until a day later when they noticed that my temperature was high, and I explained the connection.

Brooklyn Hospital Center halls

I lost ten pounds in eight days. Hospital food always lives down to its name. That would have been a good thing to remember except that I gained it all back and then some.

Writing Process: Not Knowing Myself

This blog has been effective at turning over the rocks from my childhood, dreams and half-realized works. The Young Chronicles in particular has been telling as it reveals my lack of identity; I distinctly remember having clarity when I was eight years old and then none on my hitchhiking trip eleven years later.

Pretending to be confident and cool somewhere in Saskatchewan

I was always on edge, unsure of where I was, scared to camp alone, scared on the side of the road, scared of riding in stranger’s cars. I wanted to be somewhere else and, when I got there, somewhere else again.

I found vague clarity a few years later in between tree-planting seasons, camping with my cat Popo in the Gulf Islands, reading dawn to dusk, but still scared of sounds in the night and the dark waters, of being alone, but nevertheless running away from others.

My little log cabin on Ahmic Lake. Scared even there.

That’s as close to a sense of self as I have ever come.

Writing Process: Moment of Clarity

I have an affinity toward Ilulissat, Greenland where I am left alone in the light with iceberg cubes in my drink.

It can feel like there is no time, no morning, no afternoon, no night, just light and more of it.

I was out on my little terrace at 3 am as a continent of ice floated down from the glacier and into Disko Bay.

It felt oddly like the end of the world, and not only because of the scotch. It was that right.

Young Chronicles XVII: Winnipeg, to Saskatoon

The Young Chronicles details my 1983 hitchhiking trip across Canada. Having completed the Toronto-Newfoundland leg, I continue west from Manitoba to Saskatchewan.

July 8-10, 1983 Stayed at hostel and attended Winnipeg Folk Festival. Queen Ida and her Zydeco Band was the highlight of the event.

July 11, 1983 Mileage 356 miles

Ride One: Downtown Winnipeg to outskirts of Winnipeg. Old blue Volvo. Guy who had been to St. John’s. Had a hard time of it and has vowed to help others.

Ride Two: Highway 16 to Brandon, Manitoba. Red pickup truck. Group of Native Americans going to The Gathering. Woman gave me six cookies.

Ride Three: Brandon to Regina, Saskatchewan. Chevette with Illinois plates. Jeff Gibbs headed to Alaska. Had been stationed in Germany as a computer programmer on Pershing missiles. Went to jail for drunk driving with 1.5% blood alcohol.

Jeff Gibbs shows his Reaper drawing in Saskatchewan

July 13 Middle-aged couple. Woman said that I reminded her of the dawn. She had just won the lottery and was frying a salmon in the park. I was invited to join. Man became abusive when he was drunk and accused me of sponging. Returned to hostel, locked out.

July 15, 1983 Mileage 164 miles

Ride One: Regina to Wattrous, Saskatchewan. Old pickup truck. Wild looking man in a dirty green shirt. “No matter what you have, it always has value somewhere.”

Ride Two: Wattrous to outskirts of Saskatoon. Blue station wagon. Middle-aged woman with two kids. Drive past me but her kids insisted that she go back. “You’ve been nice company.”

Farm equipment outside Wattrous, Saskatchewan

Ride Three: Outskirts to Saskatoon hostel. Early ’70s car. Long-haired smoker. “You do your thing, and I’ll do mine.”

Writing Process: Knowing Thyself

I don’t know who I am. I pretend to have it crystal clear at times. I even proclaim that I know things and might even really think that I do. But it is fleeting.

I haven’t confined myself to a career. While I might have taught for many years, I don’t identify as a teacher. I snuck into the profession and messed around. And that is all.

The United Nations International School, a place where I used to work.

I have also had no success as a writer, and so neither am I constrained by the limits of thinking that. Nobody reads what I write, and so I don’t really do that. It isn’t real.

I know people and talk to them, but I don’t actually know anyone. I don’t live in the country of my birth and hide out in a city of faux intellectuals. Drunks, I mean.

33rd Station on New Year’s Day

I am on a great clipper ship with nothing but clouds all around. And I think that I am clever and creative because I am writing that. But I don’t know who I am and never will.

Arguing The Arc: Writing Process

While there are many aspects of the story arc that make sense in terms of pacing and development – like good old hamartia – the arc is a dated idea, limiting our understanding of who are to exacting plot points that only satisfy writing coaches and network executives.

Stream of consciousness is not the answer nor is it supposed to be all higgledy piggledy, but a style that reflects a understanding for ourselves. Reality television is the bald ugly version of this or the latest insanity of Trump’s dying days.

Tierra’s Eyebrow might be reality television’s greatest work

An amalgamation is needed of the two, an arc that that follow a path and yet simmers and U-turns with significance. That is my aim in The Cx Trilogy, to guide readers into a world and leave them there to look around.

The McPhedran Way – A Typical (Bad) Day in My Writing Process

6:30 am Play Fishdom and Words With Friends. No thoughts on writing.

8:30 am Play Fishdom. Read emails, watch YouTube videos and search for “inspiration” by porn surfing. A general malaise dominates thinking.

11:00 am Half think about writing but retreat from that, afraid to start.

12:30 pm Lunch. Watch random bits of film – anything from Battleship to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.

2:00 pm Ride stationary bike and listen to intense music (Rage Against the Machine, Cheap Trick, Nine Inch Nails, etc.) in an attempt to get brain moving. Watch birds flying past, beds being changed in hotel rooms across the street and people working in adjoining business. Writing problems do not come to mind.

Entertaining things can occasionally be seen in Artezan Hotel.

3:00 pm Read more emails, watch more videos and porn. Snack.

4:30 pm Open the Anori document. Close it. Play Words with Friends and Fishdom.

8:00 pm Think about what I might do tomorrow

So it goes on a bad day. Which oddly enough can lead to a good day.

The McPhedran Way – A Typical (Good) Day in My Writing Process

6:30 am Think about the big picture things – characters, theme – when I wake up.

8:30 am Ideas drift around for the next few hours as I sort through emails, purchases, music downloads and desk cleanup. These activities get my brain moving, akin to rocking a car back and forth out of the mud, until I think it might be ready to gun it and get on the road.

11:00 am Review what I wrote the previous day(s), read through a scene or two, and identify problems – weak dialogue, weird scene arcs – and make brief edits.

12:30 pm Lunch, news and emails. Maybe apply for a new job.

2:00 pm Ride stationary bike and listen to electronic music (Fripp & Eno, Ekca Liena, Keith Berry, Endless Melancholy) or The Grateful Dead. The first twenty minutes of my workout is about the workout, focusing on getting my heart rate up, and then begin the process of thinking of what I need to do, generally research and blogs. And then I think of my first writing problem. Why is the chapter not moving in a clear direction? How do I get it to do that? How do I avoid repeating myself and get my characters to stop sitting around and bitch about life. Things need to happen. What if I move the launch to the end and the conversation and Lai’s scene to the start?

And so it goes. I review the ideas and accumulate more and more, until I am up to as many as I can remember – my maximum is around a dozen – and then repeat them in my head until I can get them in a pattern. I finish the workout and write notes on everything I can remember – hopefully all of it.

3:00 pm Enter the ideas into the text while listening to electronic music.

4:30 pm Write. Momentum on my side, this is where I write and write. This might go for another 3-4 hours, pauses and beers in between, until it begins to taper.

8:00 pm Save some things for tomorrow. I agree with Hemingway’s assertion that writing to the last drop is a dreadful error. That only means that tomorrow there will be nothing. The next day too. And so I leave an idea or two on my screen to help me regain my momentum tomorrow.

So it goes on a good day

Writing Process: Finding My Way

Years ago, I read an interview with James Bond author Ian Fleming who detailed his daily writing regime at his Caribbean home. He would rise early every morning and write five pages by noon and then spend the rest of the day at the beach with a cocktail in hand.

The Sanibel Island Writing Contest offers many places to bask and ponder

I liked the idea so much that I blogged about it and mimicked it – albeit without the beach and Caribbean home. I wrote five pages every day for my first novel, The Sacred Whore, but realized that the pages were weak and ill-conceived. I was going through the motions to get to my metaphoric (and literal) cocktails.

Later on, I tried writing at different times – afternoon, evening and night – with a similar page count in mind. No dice. Fleming’s process simply was not for me. I needed something else. I needed my own process.

Notes for All In written on a newspaper

Something that I have learned over the years is that I don’t work well with an exact routine. My system tends toward the erratic. That is not to say that I don’t have a system, but that when I am overly regimented, the work loses its divination.

That said, when the writing is working, I have a pattern that works. I suppose you might call that The McPhedran Way. More on that tomorrow!