Friday, October 22, 2021

Evidence of My Duffusness - by Josh Stallings

 Q: Cringe – Is there any of your published writing that you’re not particularly proud of any more?

“No book is ever finished, it is ultimately abandoned.” Either Ana├»s Nin or Gore Vidal or maybe Jean Cocteau said that, history is murky as to its author. Many years ago I heard it was George Lucas and about films not books, but it doesn’t matter who said it, it stuck in my memory, and I continue to feel its truth. There is always more that could be done with any creative work, but at some point you need to stop fiddling. 

In the early days of self-publishing there were several authors I knew who kept re-publishing the same book, with a rewrite, nip and a tuck, a bit of a rethink. I fully understand the pull of this. Listening to the published audio book for Young Americans I saw an entirely new way to structure the book. Would it have been better? Maybe, maybe not. But Tricky would never have been written if I spent my life rewriting Young Americans. 

Once a book is published I need to move on. Put what I learned into the next one. This also means, when I do rarely look back I try to neither cringe nor swell with pride. Instead I try to look at it from a dispassionate distance. This isn’t a sneaky dodge of the question, or maybe it is…

The bigger question is, are there things I’ve done and said that I am embarrassed by, wish I could do over? Hell yes. I used to wake up at three in the morning with every embarrassing thing I’ve ever done running through my head.

Let’s start when I was eight or nine, I was having nightmares. We were in a new house and my mom said if I took the only down-stairs bed room I could get a dog. Easy bargain. I chose  Torso a black labish mutt. He slept with me and the nightmares receded. That is context. On the embarrassing day in question my mother was taking our family to the beach in Pinky, her pink 1953 Chevy convertible, top down. Torso stood at the fence, eyes full of sad longing as he watched me roll away. Heart breaking, right? I called out, “Bye sweetheart. I’ll see you soon.” Before this sentence was finished we were parallel to the next door neighbor’s yard.  The girl next door smiled real big calling out, “OK, I’ll be here.” 

Cute right? No, it’s embarrassing. I’m not sure why but it still comes up when my psyche wants to shame me. Evidence of my duffusness.

Next on the hit list of radio KFKU is the time I was 15 and robbed my childhood best friend’s house. I used to say I “creeped” houses, instead of “robbed,” made it sound cooler, less heinous. So I robbed my friend’s house. I had a bunch of reasons why it was OK, but it wasn’t.

A combination of fatherhood and sobriety ended my criminal pursuits. 

One requirement of getting sober was to become rigorously honest and to take daily inventory of my actions. Self reflection is a bitch, but it helped me build a solid catalog of ignorant things I’ve said and done. 

Exhibit A) Talking about LAPD to my friend Nino I said, “You run from the police and they catch you, you’re gonna get a beatdown. That’s the way the game is played, everybody knows it.” (I was repeating something a successful screenwriter said over coffee.) 

Nino shook his head sadly, “Their job’s not to beat anyone. Serve and Protect, that’s their job. It’s even written on their car doors case they forget.”  

Nino was right and I felt stupid, I wish I never said that. Over the years I revisit this moment looking for why I said it. My first mistake was not thinking critically about what I’d heard. I was swayed by the cool macho cadence, “We all know the rules, run, you will get beat down.” Very hard boiled. This is why, as a teenager, I thought Dirty Harry was bad ass. Truth is, every cool line Eastwood hissed would have been an abuse of power in the real world. 

Me, my brother Lark, and Mark C. 

Second mistake took longer to face. I had to start to understand White male privilege. Yes I grew up hard, yes I was arrested, yes the cops were tough on me because I presented as a thug. I’ve had police guns pointed at me. But, and this is big, they have never hurt me. They arrested my father and brother, but they never killed a member of my family. I can extrapolate but never truly understand how Nino feels when the police roll up on him, or what it triggers when he hears news of another police beating.

My father getting ready to sail to jail


Exhibit B) “Suicide by cop.” A phrase I know I’ve used in conversations, and I even think it shows up in one of my books. Writer Benjamin Whitmer (Cry Father, Pike) said, “Suicide by cop? That’s not a thing.” At first I was embarrassed, but not sure why. It’s a phrase commonly used in crime novels and movies and tv shows, it must be a thing. It took a while to break it down. “Suicide by cop,” takes the responsibility off of the officer, making them an instrument, as in, “suicide by poison,” or “suicide by hanging.” We don’t blame the arsenic or the rope. But police officers aren’t inanimate objects, they are trained professionals. They are peace officers. I don’t mean to say there aren’t cases where they have no choice but to fire on a citizen, that is too broad a take away. I’m saying they bear responsibility for their actions. 

There are many other exhibits, but you get it. Words have power. I need to be careful of the words and phases I use. I need to ask myself, is that real? Is that true? Just because it sounds cool is no excuse. Save the really wrong ideas for my antagonists. 

To come full circle, have I written things that make me cringe? Yes. But if I’m willing to dig deeper and push harder I have the ability to write something better next time, and the time after that, and….


Ann Mason said...

Keep writing.
Thanks in advance

VP Chandler said...

Great post. We should all be willing to evolve. It’s tough and embarrassing to look at ourselves. But the good ones do.

Josh Stallings said...

Thank you both. I’m lucky to have people in my life who call me on my crap. And I’m lucky o be able to listen.

Susan C Shea said...

TRICKY is not full of crap, although I imagine you can dig and find something you'd like to change. We all can, every book.

Josh Stallings said...

I agree Susan. I gain hope from the fact we get to keep improving. I was up all night and day finishing polish on a new book. It’s been a bear to write but it’s taught me so much. We are lucky to have work that challenges us and feeds our souls.