In 2009, I graduated Western Illinois University with a Bachelor’s in English and a minor in Film and Print & Broadcast Media. I was a media junkie and a media jack-of-all-trades. That summer, I knew it was only a matter of time before I wrote a novel that blew everyone away.
Fast forward to 2011, and I self-published my first book. It was supposed to be an edgy, gritty, and existential coming-of-age story about some backwoods kid who spent most of his time consuming advertising. Some people told me that they genuinely enjoyed it, and others changed the topic when I asked them about it at social gatherings.
I was 23 at the time. After it released, I sat back and waited. For what? Ultimately, nothing. With my university degree in my belt, I spent a few years in a plateau. I was carrying around a piece of paper that said I had learned something, and in hindsight, I used it as an excuse to stop learning.
One of the things no one ever tells you about being the editor of a literary magazine is that before every issue, you’ll spend a great deal of time staring at the faces of strangers. More often than not, the only interaction you’ve had with these people is a few emails regarding the acceptance of their stories. It’s very much a business transaction in that sense. They’ve wowed you with a stellar piece of writing, and in return, you’re eager to host and share this piece with the world.
Yet, the act of sending a photo to someone, even a bio photo, feels more personal, doesn’t it? It’s being asked to share something intimate of ours with a complete stranger, something that we judge and pick at and cover with makeup and cream because we’re constantly worried about how we look.
Many of us balk when we stare at ourselves in the mirror. We notice the little imperfections. The encroaching zit underneath the chin. The single nose hair peeking out of our left nostril. The barely visible unibrow connecting left eyebrow to right. It’s maddening, but it’s our daily burden to carry. We know we’ll never look as amazing as those people in the magazines, but we face the public regardless, weighed down by a sense of humility at our own physical imperfections.
I don’t know about you, but I sometimes cringe at that face in the mirror. Not every day, but it happens. I don’t like the skin underneath my jaw that threatens to dip below my chin. My face isn’t chiseled enough. It makes me feel ugly sometimes, as my body doesn’t feel like an accurate representation of my mental persona.
We’re harsh judges, and I would argue that we’re too harsh on ourselves.
In every single one of those photos of strangers that comes into my inbox every other month, I can honestly say that we’re all looking good. We’re shining human specimens from all over the world, and I don’t see the imperfections some of us may be worried about.
I many not know you. I may not know when, where, or how you took that photo. I don’t even know if you doctored it a little bit (it’s okay if you did), but I do know that you look good. Seriously. You’re fine. Before every issue of Literary Orphans comes out, I upload some 30-odd pictures of strangers, and there’s not a bad looking person in the mix, including you.
Over the past month, I’ve been consumed by this game called Pac-Man 256. Essentially, it’s one never-ending Pac-Man level with enhanced, upgradeable power-ups for battling ghosts and making your way further and further along this level. Patterns repeat, enemies multiply, and the further you go, the more time you lose wading through arcade limbo. There’s no ending. There’s no way out (except for death). All you can really do in Pac-Man 256 is accumulate a higher and higher score.
It helps to have friends for this game, friends you can compete with on the leaderboards. In my case, I’ve spent over 18 hours battling one friend for the top spot.
It’s a hollow victory, especially when you realize you’ve spent 18+ hours playing the same Pac-Man level over and over again, but it reminds me of my day job. I’ve spent four years writing and editing for an entertainment company that confuses “family entertainment” with schlock.
I used to justify my job by telling myself that it was making kids happy. But the company made it abundantly clear I wasn’t.
They decided to move the office to Florida and give me an end date. What contributions I made were filed away in a folder for anybody else to pull from when writing about company property, often copied and pasted by people who didn’t craft sentences for a living but tried anyway. Seeing their hackneyed blurbs sometimes left me ill. It must have been how the mother of Frankenstein’s monster felt when she heard her son was a piece-meal monolith terrorizing the countryside.
The office culture was great, though. I’ve never been in an environment as united as the ragtag group of marketeers I was apart of. Caught in an unending battle between the sales and brand departments, we were an assembly of artists, coordinators, and editors that remained productive in a corporate structure that bred only chaos. Upper-level executives exerted control by making bizarre changes to company protocol, and in a classic chess counter-maneuver, other upper-level executives exerted control by undoing as many of those changes as they could.
And there we were, in the thick of it, filtering all these demands from competing departments into one harmonious composition. We got good at it, too, learning from our victories and our losses.
And then life intervened.
I thought I was hot shit. I thought I was the best editor the company had ever had, playing my part and slowly building a copy empire by assimilating as many editorial tasks as possible. I thought this because somewhere along the line, I convinced myself that this was my destiny.
I was like that guy at the beginning of the first Mad Max. The Night Rider. Barreling down the highway screaming about destiny and my place of dominance in the world. And like the Night Rider, Max was waiting just down the road, revving his engine. Sooner or later he’d catch up and remind me of my place.
When I signed my end-date paperwork, the crash hit. I felt betrayed. Four years of music, four years of rhythm was at an end, and I had no idea what I was going to do next. All I knew was the anger bubbling within, the hatred, the rage. I wanted to make this about them, the upper-level executives, when it was really about me.
Keeping a live entertainment company afloat wasn’t my destiny. The writing I accomplished wasn’t my own ideas or my own words. They were fluff pieces, marketing materials, PR spin. They were junk.
As that rage surfaced in my everyday interactions with people, so did my realization that all of this was out of my control. It always had been, but as I tricked myself into believing I had control, I grew soft, focused solely on work, and let my own personal writing slide. My homegrown ideas festered and rotted. Flash pieces went unfinished. Novels remained half-started.
I was being a fool.
Work was bread and butter. Entertaining people with my own, original work is my destiny. Like the Night Rider, I wanted to lay down a rubber road right to freedom, but in my comfort zone, I fell asleep at the wheel and hadn’t realized I was heading the wrong way. I became angry when life tried to turn me around, struggling against a direction that had always been inevitable.
I breathed easier today than I have in a month or so now. A new Literary Orphans issue is out, celebrating a woman whose work I’ve used as motivation for years. A new job opportunity is on the horizon. Two new flash pieces of mine are awaiting judgment, and I’m hard at work writing a novel about robots.
Life is meant to be pulse-pounding, and it’s exciting to just… go with it.
The Babysitter: the personified amalgamation of various mediums we interact with on a daily basis. The Babysitter tells us what to think, what to watch, what to feel, and what’s an appropriate way to go about our lives. It keeps us in check, defining norms and filters through which we dare not stray from. More simply stated, The Babysitter defines our perception of the world for us, all through our TVs, computers, phones, and devices.
When I was a teen, one of the movies I was fascinated with was the 1996 dark comedy The Cable Guy. The film’s about a guy (Matthew Broderick) who bribes a cable installer (Jim Carrey) to juice him up with free cable. This act is something of a death sentence, as from that point on, “the cable guy” won’t leave Matthew Broderick alone, constantly pestering Broderick to hang out and be friends. Even worse, this cable guy is awkward, irritating, and emotionally unhinged.
What drew me to The Cable Guy, more than anything else, was the film’s ending, in which Jim Carrey has a final showdown with Matthew Broderick atop a satellite dish. In the movie’s last few moments, Carrey confesses why he’s an emotional wreck. He spent his entire childhood in front of the television, learning about the world from sitcom families, broadcast news, commercials, and anything else that glossed across the tube. Real human interaction wasn’t a part of his youth, but carefully cultivated programming was a constant. In essence, The Cable Guy played with the nightmarish fear of what “too much TV” could do to the human mind and brought this fear to dramatic heights.
And I identified with it. I saw so much of Jim Carrey’s anguish in myself — the awkwardness, the obsessiveness with movies and video games. I wasn’t very social as a child, so in turn, I had turned toward cinema as a connection to the outside world. It was warm, charming, and comforting. Nourishing, even.
The problem with relying on media as a source of information, behavior, and culture, however, is that it’s inherently distorted and one-sided. We are at the mercy of the screen, basking in the glow of The Babysitter. And when we start to believe in it, that’s when we find trouble.
Back on April 13, 2016, I saw a comic book on the shelves that bewildered me. It was a special one-shot for Marvel’s Star Wars line called C-3PO: The Phantom Limb, and it explained how everyone’s favorite protocol droid acquired his mismatched red arm in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. The $4.99 cover price killed any passing interest I may have had, and I imagine, judging by how big that stack of copies was week after week, I wasn’t alone. I mean, it’s C-3PO — who honestly wanted to read a threepio-centric comic book? Let alone pay five bucks for it?
It made me think though. Some editorial decision was made to tell this tale. Someone convinced a group of executives that people cared about C-3PO, that this one-shot would muster sales. If The Phantom Limb‘s number four slot for April 2016 sales is any indication, that someone wasn’t entirely wrong, either. Sure, it sat on the shelf at the comic shop I frequent, but that doesn’t mean my shop is indicative of the national comic book market. It just means my local comic patrons and I weren’t interested. Why?
Because C-3PO is a 60-year-old protocol droid that was built by a child on a backwater planet.
Think about it. By the time the events of The Force Awakens roll around, Threepio is pushing 60 years of active service, if not more, and he’s still considered useful. That idea doesn’t make sense. As an effective droid, Threepio was outmoded the day he was built by a child. As we see in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, little Anakin Skywalker doesn’t have much to work with. The kid’s pretty handy when it comes to building machines, but he’s living as a slave on a backwater planet where everyone trades in hand-me-downs and used tech. There are no factories, no R&D laboratories, and no science facilities on Tatooine. The parts of the planet that aren’t unending stretches of desert populated by moisture farmers, jawas, and sandpeople are nothing more than cutthroat spaceports. Tatooine is so hostile and backwards, the Separatists would rather put a droid factory on Mustafar, a planet that’s really just one gargantuan active volcano.
The point is, C-3PO was never an elite model to begin with, and after 60 years of existence in a galaxy where technology is most likely in a constant state of flux and progression, Threepio never really stood a chance. There are thousands, millions, billions of stores across the expanse of the Star Wars universe packed with newer models that have way better specs than what C-3PO’s packing. They’re also developed by companies and professionals who specialize in robotics. Not kids. So why keep him around? Why not toss that old hunk of junk in the trash?
THE BIG FLAW
The big flaw in our thinking when it comes to robots in science fiction epics is that we place too much emphasis on them. Since we don’t have robots as cool as the ones seen in the movies, we think they’re important. But they’re not. Robots are nothing more than glorified smartphones, and in a universe as rich and vibrant as Star Wars, for example, they’re wholly disposable. We see this with the way the Separatists’ droid armies are wantonly slaughtered. The attitude among the Separatist leaders is to keep pushing forward, no matter how many dumb droids it takes. They can always build another one.
When you crack your phone, what happens? You buy another one. When a more powerful laptop comes out, what do you do with the old one? You sell it, toss it, or donate it. These machines hold no sentimental value for us, and as soon as they stop performing at peak efficiency, we get rid of them. Part of this is due to how our society works. When a new piece of technology comes out, it starts off super expensive, but as more companies try to duplicate it and as our ability to cheaply and affordably build it improves, the market price drops. It becomes second-nature to just go out and purchase a new one. We don’t stop to think about all of the good adventures, fun nights, or memorable moments we shared with those devices. The outdated nature of the technology overrides any connection we may feel. Why would robots be any different?
One movie that takes this idea to heart is I, Robot. In the film, there are robots everywhere, many of which are performing the menial labors we can no longer be bothered with (like walking the dog or taking out the trash). When a new model rolls out, the older ones are dumped into a shipping crate somewhere and forgotten about. Out of sight, out of mind. It’s a cruel sentiment, especially since the machines in I, Robot sport human-looking faces, but it’s one we collectively share every single day.
Let me ask you something. What happened to your first iPod?
I saw Suicide Squad this past weekend, and I just want to say, I can’t do it anymore. The movie, like the sum of all of your parts, is lacking. You’re a Frankenstein’s monster stuffed with malformed chunks of ideas (some good, some bad) hastily stapled, sewn and taped together, and though your arms are open and eager to hug moviegoers, the stench of hollow storytelling is too pungent to embrace. It leaves me heartbroken. As a comic book geek, as a fan of DC and as a lover of cinema, I — we — can’t be seen together any longer.
We’re just too different. I’m a living, breathing person, and you’re, well, dead. I hadn’t realized it until now, but I think you were deceased before we had even been properly introduced. Your friend, Zack, must have diluted the smell with body spray while he distracted me with flashy movements. I thought it was erratic and bizarre at first. Even the second time around, I gave Zack the benefit of the doubt when he said your body was sagging and coming undone because you needed an extra 30 minutes to recuperate after a long day at the office. But this?
I drew the line when your buddy Jared came over and used my favorite Batman comic books for toilet paper. His friends, Will, Margot, Viola, Cara and even Jai, were okay, but that Trailer Park outfit you were dressed in when you all walked in was too unbecoming. Too much jewelry and not enough substance. It didn’t hide the lacerations in your flesh. When your innards slid through the stitching and crumpled to the floor within the first ten minutes, that’s when it dawned on me. I glanced at Jared, who had drawn a mouth over his mouth for some reason, and I knew we didn’t belong together. You weren’t simply in need of “more time” to recuperate. You needed something only an undertaker could provide — everlasting peace.
I’m not saying this is good-bye forever. As any self-respecting comic book fan knows, death isn’t a permanent state. I’ll also still be over for family gatherings, and I still plan on visiting your brother, DC Comics, every Wednesday for our usual hangout. But us? This weird relationship we’ve gotten ourselves into?
It’s too painful. I didn’t mind you rummaging into my wallet every couple of months for a few bucks, but each time we’ve hung out, the cuts have been slicing deeper and deeper. It’s only a matter of time before you kill me. Suicide Squad was too close to the heart, and I have to call it quits. I’m sorry. I really wish it could have worked out. For a while, I was even willing to let the whole “Martha” thing go. Not anymore.
“Shall sins go unpunished? Crimes justified into toleration? Victims, forgotten? This mad universe would say… yes. I disrespectfully disagree. Rage brings balance to the cosmos. Without the Red Lanterns, creation would crumble under our feet. The universe needs us.” — Atrocitus, Lord of the Red Lanterns
1,076 humans infected with rage. 2,338 humans infected with rage. 4,143 humans infected with rage. A contagion spreads across Earth in the newest incarnation of Green Lanterns, emanating from a tower designed to disperse a beacon of anger. It’s all part of an elaborate plot to transform Earth into a new homeworld for the Red Lanterns, and there’s seemingly no way to stop it. Rage begets rage, and the only people standing in this contagion’s way are two inexperienced Green Lanterns. Overwhelmed, all they can seem to do is watch in horror as their friends, family and loved ones succumb to the malevolent disease of hatred.
The arc, “Rage Planet,” is an exciting introduction to these new Lanterns, but what’s more interesting is the timing of this story. It’s 2016. An election year. We’re in a period of great unrest, as members of both the Republican and Democratic parties find themselves in a bind. Two less-than-desirable candidates have a presidential nomination, and more so than in years past, many voters are weighing the prospect of third-party candidates. This has led to a rift in the parties, with whole groups of people willing to sacrifice their traditional allegiances to make a stand. Understandably, social media has been fiery, with idealists and traditionalists writing sharp-tongued posts defending their positions or attacking those who won’t follow in step.
Certain candidates, to that end, have tapped into different nerve centers among voters. Donald Trump has amassed an army of faithful who feel disenfranchised by the system and alienated by a world different from the one they grew up with. At the other end of the spectrum, Bernie Sanders has inspired a devoted following fed up with what they perceive as “business as usual” tactics by weak-willed representatives in Washington. The two are an interesting parallel, and in their own ways, have effectively empowered themselves through rage.
As we’ve seen amongst the “Bernie or Bust” crowd at the Democratic National Convention (DNC), the rage isn’t so easily silenced. The same can be said of Donald Trump’s ilk. Though the two have diametrically opposed goals, it’s the emotion they inspire that’s important here. As the election looms, it’s only grown stronger.
My Facebook feed is ever a breeding ground for rage. Those in step with the party line rage against the disenfranchised. The disenfranchised rage against those in step with the party line. News blogs and media outlets fuel the anger with polarizing headlines, soundbites and live feeds. After a while, it all blends together, and all one can do is balk at the scope of it all.
Credit where credit is due, there are those who engage in calm, respectful discussions, and they deserve praise. They’re playing the role of the healer, looking at their peers infected with rage and realizing that these, too, are still human. Whatever side of the fence they lie on politically, they’re still our brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers.
On May 27, 2012, the first issue of Literary Orphans was published. Under the dedicated leadership of Mike Joyce, a digital magazine that valued art just as much as literature made its debut in the indie lit scene. There wasn’t much expectation for recognition or fanfare, but there was hope. Hope that Literary Orphans would grab someone, albeit for a few minutes, to read this fledgling, brand-new magazine slapped together by a few Chicagoland bums with high-minded ideals and a powerhouse team of some great writers.
The original Literary Orphans tribe consisted of fantastic works by Gary Anderson, Jeffrey S. Callico, Mikhial Carter, James Claffey, Joe Clifford, Joanna Delooze, Ryan Everett Felton, Cheryl Anne Gardner, Faith Gardner, Kyle Hemmings, Gill Hoffs, Jayme Joyce, Joel Kopplin, Veronica Marie Lewis-Shaw, John Maloof, Peter Marra, Neila Mezynski, Luca Penne, Claire Podulka and Emily Smith-Miller. With each issue, this tribe would grow, to an unincorporated patch of indie lit space, to a village, a town. These days, it’s akin to a bustling city, welcoming a new group of writers, poets and artists from all over the world every two months.
With each issue, Literary Orphans is doing its hardest to be that cultural melting pot, to be that brightly lit metropolis teeming with fresh faces and fresh ideas all working to build something truly greater than themselves. Though the journal is still a volunteer organization, it’s evolved a lot over these past 24 issues. We went from reviewing submissions via e-mail chains to a more user-friendly program called Submittable. We went from our original design to something sleeker, more modern and with mobile functionality. We went from one bi-monthly journal to a journal, a nonfiction blog and an archive for other digital magazines.
From one seed of an idea, a whole community has sprouted, connecting writers and artists all over the world with a unifying badge of honor. I, too, am an orphan.
Read the REST of the “Letter From The Editor” HERE, and check out the latest Literary Orphans issue HERE.
I have a debut piece over at The Weeklings, which you can read HERE. This one was months in the making, and I’m glad it’s finally out. I’ve received some pretty positive feedback, too, so there’s a bonus!
Here’s a taste…
As much as I hate to admit it, the nightly parade of television pundits who hit us with damning statistics, straw-man arguments, and emotional human-interest stories, all in order to convince us America is in trouble, are right. This is a time of crisis. We do have to make America great again. But it’s gone well beyond Donald J. Trump and some stupid hat. We’re becoming a nation of adult children, of insipid man- and woman-babies struggling to do as little as we can to get by.
The signs are all around us. Ever overhear a coworker at the water cooler lament the choice between paying bills and buying the latest set of officially licensed Star WarsLegos? How about that old high school friend who brags about skipping work to eat canned pasta in his PJ’s while watching reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation? Or that dopey sales associate who shows up to meetings wearing Poké Ball earrings and complains that no one takes her seriously?
My friend actually said this to me the other day: “Ugh. Don’t make me adult today! I just want to stay home and finish coloring this wicked sweet dragon!”
Adulting. It’s a word now, a contentious verb spit in the face of the hurricane of the day-to-day living. And we need to do our best to bring down the beast. Because if we don’t, if we let it slide, if we acknowledge adult coloring books as a form of “meditation,”…well, at least in a small way, we’re letting evil win.
Some thoughts on the impending 2016 election that I originally posted on someone else’s comment thread. Take them as you will, as this will likely be one of the few times I’ll open up about the subject.
Every four (hell, even two) years the world is always at stake, and if you vote outside of either of the two parties, you’ll have friends on either side telling you that the “blood of the election” is on your hands, even though you decided to vote for someone who wasn’t into drone-bombing foreign nations or stripping away more civil liberties. It never fails.
And they’ll badger you. They’ll berate you. They’ll call you names. The only solace you’ll have is that you decided, for maybe only once in your life, to make a conscious decision not based on fear of “the other guy,” not based on the twisted, mind-numbing game of back-and-forth oozing from partisan television stations on an hourly basis. Perhaps only for a minute, you did something out of inspiration, love and empowerment, and it felt amazing to make a choice positively, instead of negatively.
In the coming months, do what makes you feel human.
Whenever there are dirty dishes in the sink, I get that itch. You know the one. It’s that unsettling desire to clean and disperse the dishware. This itch translates to empty cups or bottles in the living room, to my own clothes strewn anywhere outside of the laundry basket. It applies to all manner of house, car and life chores. It feels good, too, satisfying that itch. It’s akin to being productive, to accomplishing something worthwhile.
But it’s not worthwhile. I just washed the damn dishes. Who cares? There will be another batch tomorrow and even more the day after. Completing a chore is not productivity. It’s just participating in another battle in a never-ending war on grease spots. Those good vibes that come with securing the sink perimeter are just an illusion to take me away from my real task: writing.
That’s the real battle. You want to be successful at this? You want this to someday be your bread and butter? You need to write every single day, and I haven’t been. I find chores to overcome. I socialize, watch TV, play video games even. When I sit down at the writing desk, I excuse myself to make sure the next issue of Literary Orphansis coming together smoothly.
Rest assured, we’ve got a great team over LO, so the magazine is fine. It just needs a little bit of maintenance every now and then, like sorting through Submittable, e-mailing authors and making sure the hackers haven’t plowed through LO’s defenses.
Hell, I infrequently update the home site, as you can probably tell. It’s been more like a dumping ground these past few months and less like a beacon of activity. I’d tell myself I’m working on it, but there’s also that realization that said comment is pacifying in nature.
A few weeks back, we had a problem with our freezer at casa de Waldyn. We had someone who knew appliances head over to fix our problem. It took him, Mike, a few hours, but he managed to solve our internal drainage issue. Afterward, Mike and I talked for a little bit — about society, people, politics. He was a pretty smart, thoughtful guy, but before he left, he brought the conversation back around to the reason he was over in the first place. That damn freezer. It was a difficult one, one of the trickier jobs he’s had, and he suspected we were delayed in getting it fixed.
Mike offered some life advice that seemed like a no-brainer statement at first. He said, “If you see a problem, it’s better to take care of it right away. Don’t sit on it. It’s only going to get worse.”
Those words stuck with me. They seemed so simple, but there was a broad application for them. As I thought about them more and more, I began to apply them to other areas of my life. Then it hit me. My writing was the problem. Every chance I got, I found a way to walk away from my writing. Dishes. Literary Orphans. A burnt-out lightbulb. Anything. And then I thought about how I’m not just writing for myself anymore, how I have a wife now and how we’re talking about building a family. It isn’t just me anymore; it isn’t just Batman in his Batcave. It’s us; it’s a greater Bat family.
I’ve done some analyzing of my writing in the past week or so, and I’ve realized one important key: I’m way too easily distracted by the Internet. This is a common problem many writers struggle with, and to curb this penchant for prowling the web, I’ve gone back to writing everything out by hand, first. So far, I’ve already written out a draft of a short story and begun a new novel. In one week, I’ve conceptualized an interesting, fresh concept for a sci-fi book and written two chapters. These aren’t skeletal frameworks. These are honest-to-goodness, real, genuine chapters (they could probably use some major editing though).
The change seems to be working, but it’s on me, on us, on you, the readers, to understand the real problems we’re all succumbing to. The more we find loopholes of productivity to avoid writing, the greater our struggles will become and the less likely we’ll ever be able to Chuck Yeager that writing barrier. This is our exit window, and it’s closing ever-so-slowly as the days go by.
Let’s help each other stay committed. Tweet me, and I’ll tweet you. We can do this. (Admittedly, that may be too damn peppy, but you get the gist.)