Bryan Joiner

Why then I

Category: Writing

em dash blues

I recently watched Aliens for the first time. This came on the heels of me watching Alien for the first time. You know those things that just happen in youth by not happening? This is one of those things. The Alien movies never made their way into our house’s orbit, where sillier and more-action-less-horror movies found themselves watched and rewatched ad delirium. I am perhaps the world’s greatest Quick Change scholar, though I would gladly learn at the feet of another. I certainly remember it better than Bill Murray does.

Aliens just doesn’t feel really feel like a sequel to Alien. It feels like using the pieces of an antique dresser to make a working flamethrower. Aliens is more of an explodey dubstep remake, but a pretty good one. It pairs with popcorn and a giant screen. Alien gets you wherever you are, because it’s too careful not to.

One of the problems of italicizing the first use of a movie title in a blog is that I feel compelled to italicize the rest. And, look, I love italicizing after the fact, but if I am thinking about it when I start, I’m going to do it. No one would probably notice if I didn’t, including me. Maybe they should only be used for non-proper nouns. Real points of emphasis. Or maybe they shouldn’t be used at all, like semicolons. Or sparingly, like em dashes. Em dashes are catnip for narcissists. It’s a shame, because used sparingly and correctly, it can be deadly. Aliens vs. Alien.

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What I read and wrote this summer

Not pictured: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Motherless Brooklyn

Those of you who have followed the WordPress site, and the fewer of you who have followed the Tumblr site, know that I’ve written many, many things over the past few years. The one thing I’ve been bad at is bringing them together in any sort of cohesive way, and I’m going to change that. This is a list of everything I’ve read and written this summer as defined by Memorial Day through Labor Day, because that’s how I’m defining it. I’ll start with the books I’ve read, in the order in which I finished them:

As you can see, I spent a lot of time in the classics, new and old. I picked up Kavalier & Clay because it was one of those books I hadn’t read but every friend of mine had read and liked. Oscar Wao was the same deal, and I actually put a copy of it down at the bookstore to pick up K & C, only to have a friend lend me a copy later in the summer. I had never read Moby-Dick, despite growing up on Martha’s Vineyard: mistake. Somehow I hadn’t read Of Mice and Men, either. Ben got me hooked on David Mitchell, first on his new one—the first half of which probably changed my writing style forever—and later, Cloud Atlas, which I finished yesterday to meet the unofficial deadline for writing this post.

You can probably see the progression from Moby-Dick to Heart of Darkness to Things Fall Apart, or at least the second part of it. Hitchens I picked up because I’ve seen several interviews with him since he fell ill, and realized that I’ve been delinquent. I wasn’t disappointed. Are We Winning? was a review copy based on the interview I did for Leitch’s last book, though I have yet to write any sort of review. I tore through Motherless Brooklyn in less than 24 hours on M.V., during which time I also managed to sleep for eight hours and paint two ceilings. It helps that it mostly takes place within three blocks of my Brooklyn home. Finally, I was iffy on A Visit from the Good Squad until a single paragraph mid-book ratcheted the awesome up to 11 and it didn’t stop until it was over. Highly recommended, especially if you like music.

What I’ve written

I spent the majority of the summer writing imaginary conversations, which I enjoyed immensely. I really liked fitting all the dialogue together, which I had never tried before. It was a little exhausting, though, which is why my production plummeted in August.

  • Sports
  • Baseball busts the barometer; a mistake shows how big the game has become (WordPress)
  • Dwyane Wade and LeBron James (WordPress)
  • LeBron, the Knicks, the Nets, and the red pill (WordPress)
  • If I was LeBron James (WordPress)
  • Chris Bosh, -$28 million man; David Stern, superstar (WordPress)
  • If everyone always did the safest or most popular thing, the world would be a shitty place (WordPress)
  • A few more LeBron thoughts (WordPress)
  • Oosthuizen (Tumblr)
  • “Superteams” (Tumblr)
  • A-Rod at 599 (Tumblr)
  • David Tyree and David Patten (Tumblr)
  • Pet Peeve (Tumblr)
  • Mad Men Recaps
  • Episode 1: Betty’s Alive. Yay? (Tumblr)
  • Episode 2: Enough Foreplay (Tumblr)
  • Episode 3: “You know what’s going on here? Handjobs!” (Tumblr)
  • Episode 4: I’m the asshole (Tumblr)
  • Episode 6: The cure for the common Mad Men season (Tumblr)
  • Humor
  • We’ve changed our name to SeaStreak Martha’s Vineyard (WordPress)

It is my intent to “drop,” so to speak, a post about the 2010 Patriots on Thursday morning. We’ll see how it goes.

The Key to Writing

It was a slow day at work (more to the point, I’m moving slowly, even if I shouldn’t be) and I hadn’t written here for awhile, so I decided it was probably time for a blog post. And why not one on writing? It’s something I do a lot and probably don’t talk about as much as I should, because it’s probably the subject on which I have the most knowledge to impart. I’m not talking about past participles or present pluperfects, because I couldn’t teach you what those are, nor am I an peanut gallery grammarian (I am vicious with with my own prose, but only insofar as I know mistakes when I see them; I never bothered to learn what most of them are called) I’m talking about the act of writing itself, of putting words together to make sentences, not in theory but in practice.

During the period in my adult life where I was the most preachy about writing—which, perhaps not coincidentally, was the period in my life where I was doing the least of it—I had a phrase that I was ready to repeat to anyone but most often ended up telling my satisfied self: “The key to writing is to write.” I was, I confess, on to something. One cannot become a better writer without doing the hard work of writing every day, the exact same way one cannot become a great runner without running every day, or one (presumably) cannot become a great chef without cooking every day.  At the time I was saying it not to describe my  habits, but to describe my past ones at the Queens newspaper, where I wrote hundreds of thousands of words that ultimately landed me unemployed by choice, but unemployed nonetheless. I wanted credit for the life I had lived instead of enjoying the life I was living.

I still wrote, and wrote a lot, but without much discipline. My mind would wander from subject to subject, and my output was frighteningly erratic. I could write nothing for months and then write 20,000 words in two weeks. Most of these words went nowhere, and passed before no one’s eyes but my own. My computer is a graveyard of unfinished project after unfinished project. I have taken pains not to erase most of them in the event that, some day, I have the courage to face them and make them into something readable, but that day has not yet arrived.

It turns out that when I said, “The key to writing is to write,” I was only partially correct. There are a lot of other things that help; things that I’ve done virtually all my life, but never as rigorously as I do now in the service of my own work. The first is reading. For a long time I thought that reading was important to writing merely to give the author a platform from which to have an authoritative voice; something of a pile of books to stand on. That is important, but it’s not the only part that is important, nor is it even the critical part. There would be periods of months at a time over the past few years that I wouldn’t read a book at all, because I was satisfied with the amount which I had read. I was underestimating, greatly, the process by which gradually reading one’s way through a book influences one’s ability and inclination to write. I had become the hare and the tortoises were passing me. I have forever rallied against being labeled as a “writer,” because it’s a meaningless, self-applicable title. I wanted to be published first. That led to an unfortunately long neither-chicken-nor-egg scenario for my career, which ultimately righted itself to a degree when I moved to Brooklyn, shut off the TV, and began acting like a professional writer. That meant moving through a book at all times, and putting some words down every day. The important thing for me on the writing side is to keep the restrict0r plates on, so to speak. I stop myself at 750 words, which I’ve already bumped up from 500, in order to maintain my enthusiasm about writing from day to day. As a journalist, I have always been goal-oriented: get the article done, get it edited, get it published. A writer’s job is different: it’s process-oriented, and no amount of guffawing about my past is going to change that.

Happy Town

I know that a lot of you hit the walls of text that appear on this blog face-first; that’s my fault. I suppose if my stuff was consistently interesting — like if you knew every one of these train rides was going to end up in Happy Town — it wouldn’t be a problem. In Happy Town, the sun always shines and the coffee tastes just right without adding anything. Sometimes we do end up in Happy Town, but just as often as we do we have to ride through Sad Valley to get there, where it’s always raining and the landscape is ash-colored, and constricting. You can feel it around your neck.

The problem is that there’s no map you can study to see if the train does, in fact, end up in Happy Town. The conductor doesn’t have one and it isn’t plastered on the walls. How much better would if there was! You could be like, “Is this blog post going to be good?” and you could just check the map and it would be like: Yep, you’re going to LOVE it. And you could sit back down and enjoy the ride, confident that the seconds you spent winding your eyes over the words weren’t in vain, and wouldn’t be better off staring at the TV, or inside your refrigerator.

The thing is, readers have options, and it’s my job to keep you reaching for the string and keep pulling it away… and you’re tempted to go away now, aren’t you? I’ll admit to you: this blog post has no point. It’s about writing blog posts. I’m not sure that it’s a great subject, but it’s one I’ve been feeling as I’ve tried to up the word count around these parts. I just want my shit to be inviting. I want it to be like that person in the warm bathtub, leaning their hand over and giving the “cmere” finger, and you know that water’s all warm and stuff and it’s really about that moment of YES I AM GOING TO DO THIS. When I write a post, I want you to drop everything you’re doing, literally so, and click on the headline and be f*cking entranced, at or least interested. I want you to know this: We are going to Happy Town.

Of course I don’t really have a subject at the moment. It is not the age of the generalist, but curiously, once people accept specialists — think the Sports Guy, or Roger Ebert — they become accepted as generalists, for good or ill. In Ebert’s case, great! In Sports Guy’s case, meh. My only specialty, I think, is my penchant for having one-liners at the end of my posts, which is something I’m trying to cure. Not that they’re bad, but a sammich ain’t just about the bread. I think I stole it from Rick Reilly because he won awards. It would be better to keep things flowing in the middle — and this is my 500th word — and not use that particular crutch. It makes me cringe.

At the same time, I want there to be a promise of something “more” with every word… I want the words to snap together in your head like magnetized little pieces. I want to build a castle, and I want you to live in that castle and have a gala there, and maybe it’ll actually be the set of an action movie… the gala itself will just be a cover for an arch-villain’s master theft and your team, nattily dressed as partgoers, will be there to stop it. You’ll use really cool, virtually invisible gadgets to communicate and there will be a flowering sexual tension with everyone on your team finally bringing their “goods,” so speak. Only later will you find out that the whole thing was a setup, and there was another team there, watching your every move, thinking you were the bad guys… I want to constantly trigger mechanisms that start Mission: Impossible in your head.

But not the sequels because they stink.

Look up

I looked at the sky just now, and not fleetingly; I was outside, and I just looked up, up, up. It was just before dusk, and it seemed a miracle that it was 6:15 and there were still hints of blue. I noticed a bird’s nest in a tree branch that I initially assumed was a plastic bag, because so many of them come to rest there. It was too small to be the nest of a Morning Dove, which makes me happy, as their signature cooing has haunted me from West Tisbury to Forest Hills to the Tiger Woods 10 video game in which, on certain courses, it is a sound effect designed, likely, to put you at ease. When I lived in Forest Hills, in an old building in a wooded area of Queens, the birds would stand in the windowsill and coo. It took effort to bang the window, but they seemed to know the score even if you scared them away. They always came back.

I realized, as I craned my neck tonight, taking in whatever portion of the cloud formations I could, that it’s a rare thing for me to do. Most of my life at least recently has been spent looking straight ahead, or down. In Astoria, there was a shortcut to the train station that I would use on some mornings. The shortcut ran around and along a 60-ish-foot high wall over which the Amtrak passed — it was tall enough to pass over the elevated subway track. The latticework of  Amtrak’s power lines ran above along the edges of the rails, and birds would stand on them just long enough to have their lives removed from this world… whereupon their bodies would fall to the ground in the walkway that so many people hurried along… only the walkway was also a driveway for a municipal parking lot, which meant a lot of tire traffic, and a lot of pancaked bird carcasses. You could tell how long a bird’s body had been there by the amount of blood. Lots of blood — recent death. No blood — a long time. I saw flattened skeletons fairly often, which looked like displays in a pop-up book where you pull on tabs and the figure jumps into three dimensions.

Eventually I stopped using the pathway except for the most pressing emergencies (being late for anything but work, I suspect). But I had to keep looking down. Dead animals, vomit, dog shit — they were everywhere.

That said, Astoria had its charms. The food within five blocks of my apartment was better than the food within 20 blocks of anyplace else I’ve lived, and cheaper. Greek, Czech, Italian, Afghani, Colombian, Thai — we had everything. What we lacked, and what Queens lacks in spades, is atmosphere. There’s nothing sexy about it, which leads some to believe there’s nothing interesting about it, but they’re wrong. At the same time, there’s a reason that no public figure you may know as from Queens still lives there, or would even dream of it.

I wish Brooklyn was as interesting. It’s not, at least not where I live now. This is a Yuppie’s Paradise, as lampooned here (that was written in my apartment, and I have no idea to what degree I am the intended target, but I’d put it at around 30 percent. I’d be fine with it if the spot-in description of myself and my neighborhood didn’t leave me cold). I am implored by friends to whom I rave about studio apartments in the East Village that if I was to leave here, the grass would suddenly become technicolor green, and my eyes would widen with the thoughts of returning. I’m not so sure. It’s hard to look up when you don’t think you’re at the center of something; oddly, it takes a big of egoism to look to the sky and think that the weather, the world, is there just for you — you have to feel big to feel small again. Or like the subway ads say, sometimes you have to take a step backward to take a step forward. I guess the problem with a studio apartment is that you don’t have space to take many steps at all.

But it’s not that space I’m worried about; it’s outer space. I miss it. When I was growing up, it was paramount, crushing. The stars and moon were bright enough that I could drive without lights, especially in the snow. Often, it was too light for me to go to sleep. I never considered getting a curtain, or one at least one that blocked all the light. I thought if one sleepless night happened, so be it. I’d get back to bed the next night. When I got to Chicago and saw a friend blocking every bit of light in his apartment 24/7, I couldn’t bring myself to follow suit. Years later, I relented, and I was like everyone else. I hate having closed curtains, but now it’s just what I do, so again: not much opportunity to just stare at the sky and think. Of course, the more I write about it, the more I miss it, even if I remember the occasional feelings of terror it inspired in me about my insignificance. But my problem isn’t feeling insignificant. It’s feeling too significant, as if the bulk of my life’s work has been done.

I can’t remember the last time I opened a Word document and thought about writing. Oh, I’ve written a ton, but I’m talking about thinking about the words burning onto the page, and into the reader’s mind. It was easier to focus when I was writing for print every day. Every word was irretrievable, and every word was my name, which was out there. Now, it’s in here. I’ve stopped looking at my daily hit count because I don’t care, but I don’t care only because it would hurt to much to do so. I had victory in my hand and it slipped away. I was being read, which is the single hardest thing to achieve as a writer, and I took it for granted. The only way to reconcile this, to myself, was to blame the world. I was a star who hadn’t gotten his just deserves, I thought — no matter, I was a star anyway. If no one was looking, that wasn’t my fault. It was theirs. I messed around with forms, writing about anything I wanted, thinking I was a master at everything as my star slowly faded to a dull, insignificant twinkle. Any residual glow now is no different than the guy in Bombay who opens up a Blogger account — it’s the glow of the screen, pointing nowhere. It’s not real, but it’s not fake either. It is what it is. It’s also what I look at for hours upon hours of the day, stuffing my brain full of information about people, places and things. That’s great and all, but looking up helps me unlock the information that’s already in my head. By remembering how small I am, I remember that the combinations in my head are mine and mine alone, and that’s a comforting feeling.

Scott Brown’s Primer

A primer for the new guy, by yours truly.

This Headline Is Stimulating

Don’t know what to write about now that the World Series is over.

How about this: sports blogging is hard. I guess that’s why I never took to it for long stretches of time. You have to have the energy of a coked-up rhinocerous to do it, and you basically need to eat, live and breath the Internet. Staring into a screen that long is bad enough; looking into one that’s can be so mean-spirited is worse.

The Internet is “democratized,” it’s said, in that people can now produce their own content and fight back against the traditional media. But it turns out some people just like to complain. Everyone’s a critic, and everyone who writes online has to be ready to be assailed from all angles. A thick skin is important.

What has that done to the actual content being created? It’s personalized it and made it more subjective. How could it not? The Internet has made every expert of every far-flung discipline accessible to the point where if you make a mistake in an article, there’s a good chance someone will notice, and then seventh-grade math takes over: if part of it is false, it’s all false. One day in my first newspaper job I was compiling a list of names for kids sports magazine—the kids had won an award or something. I was transferring them to our layout when my editor said, “Make sure you get all those right. I know if there’s just one spelling mistake, the whole thing’s ruined.” He said it in a way that suggested I should feel the same way. I didn’t then, but I do now. Put simply, I can deal with one upset family. (It’s called “empathy.”) But I can’t deal with hordes of screaming angry people who want to make a name for themselves by tearing down mine. Who am I, anyway?

The people who are making it on the Internet aren’t immune to this type of criticism—they just have the energy to fight back. In a lot of ways, the Internet is like talk radio. Their job is to be stimulating, using knowingly suggestive—rather than honest—headlines to draw in readers, and keeping the readers engaged by stimulating them more and more throughout the article. If you start out agreeing with them, you’ll be sold by the end. If not, you’ll be writing an angry comment. That’s the point of the whole endeavor.

To some degree, writers are now salespeople as much as they are thinkers, if not more on the former side. The ability to show up every day and hammer out a position is more important than developing any sort of grand thoughts. Some argue: hey, this is how it should always have been, writers should earn it. To which I say: bullshit. If the Internet is as important as they say it is, newspapers were at least that important before, and writing from a position of responsibility to the readers was the hardest part of the job description. Now writers write from a position of reponsibility to themselves. I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

P.S. Happy Birthday, mom.

Behold the World Series. Behold the Limericku.

We gather here tonight, on my couch, to observe the Festivus of the baseball season. The World Series begins in two days between the Yankees and the Phillies. With the talk of lawsuits and Met exasperation in the air, it’s time to break down this series, Bryan Joiner-style. That’s right: it’s time for the Limericku.

For those of you who don’t know about the Limericku, it’s a limerick with a haiku tucked into it. It’s the literary equivalent of a Morkie, the half-man, half-Yorkie dog like my brother owns: it doesn’t exist in nature, but we went and one-upped sh*t. William Shakespeare would be rolling over in his grave but only in sheer amazement.

Here are the haikus we’ll be using, written in a haste over some aged grape juice, following the traditional rules of haiku:

1

Yankees teem* in autumn

Against the halogen lights—

Crack toward victory

(* not a typo)

2

Philadelphia

Has owned its championship

For all the seasons

3

A new fall classic

Will end in less than two weeks

A title, bestowed

These are the building blocks. The foundations, if you will. (You will.) I have constructed Limericks around them, remembering that Limericks are meant to be flippant. Behold the Limerickii:

1

The Phillies think that they got’em

The Yankees teem in autumn

Against the halogen lights

Crack toward victory, they fight

And all the good players, they bought’em

2

The Mets fans moaned

‘Cuz Philadelphia has owned

Its championships for all

the seasons, from Fall

To Fall, the NL they’ve T-boned

3

With winter around the bend

A new fall classic will end

In less than two weeks

A title bestowed, a peak

For the team that next year will defend

Of course, if you removed the haikus from the limerickii you also get poems. And these poems also rule.

1

The Phillies think they got’em

They fight

And all the good players, they bought’em (Not entirely true, but not bad!)

2

The Mets fans moaned

From fall to fall

The NL they’ve T-boned (actually not that bad, if you consider the Mets a giant car wreck. Which they are.)

3

With winter around the bend

A peak for the team

That next year will defend (alright!)

I don’t know what else to tell you, except to remember where you were when the limericku was invented. You’ll be telling your kids. And remember that the World Series inspired it. I’m so happy that I invented a whole new way of communicating. If the Yankees win, I won’t be happy any more, but the Limericku will still exist. No matter what, we all win.

Chuck Klosterman, Bill Simmons, David Foster Wallace, Footnotes and Football

I wouldn’t say I was a fan of David Foster Wallace so much as I simply read Infinite Jest, a feat about which I was prone to brag. It was the worst type of bragging, too, in that I was completely passive-aggressive about it (that should probably say “am” passive-aggressive about it.) Whenever something came up that necessitated the “reveal,” so to speak, I would hold my information for a beat and really treasure letting it out of the cage—the whole time pretending that it meant nothing to me. I wanted my reaction to be like “Yeah, so what, I read it!” and in doing so, I’m sure it came across as the exact opposite. I’m sure it was, and is, annoying. I would have been better off just taking my literary d*** out, so so speak and laying it on the table, or bragging about it, Rushmore-style. I read a giant book. What did you ever do?

But yeah: I read Infinite Jest. The defining feature of Infinite Jest is that there are more than 100 pages of endnotes, which most people call footnotes. Reading IJ required two bookmarks and a constant reference-book like tossing of the middle section back and forth to see what DFW had meant by “the” in the thirty-seventh chapter. Once you got used to it, it was all very entertaining.

I mention this because I just read Chuck Klosterman’s wonderful book excerpt on football and Bill Simmons’ book excerpt on basketball, and they both use some sort of notation system (Off the printed page, they’re formatted as endnotes. I don’t know how they’ll be in the book, but is anyone going to care anyway?). Simmons has, in the past, acknowledged his use of “footnotes” as a direct homage to Wallace, whom he admired. They work in Simmons’ prose for the same reason they worked for Wallace—they appeal to the helter-skelter mind of the reader and the writer, allowing quick (or in DFW’s case, not so quick) tangeants on whatthefuckever. DFW was Twitter before Twitter.

Klosterman’s thesis is that football is a progressive game in a conservative shell. For all the talk about football as being the man’s man, grounded-in-tradition sport, everything changes all the time. The forward pass, instant replay, challenges, the spread offense, the Wildcat: anything that’s new is at first rejected upon some sort of anti-traditionalism basis, then copied ad infinitum. Isn’t the same thing Klosterman and Simmons are doing with footnotes?

The correlation might not be perfect, but here’s a snippet from Michiko Kakutani’s review of IJ in the Times (emphasis mine):

The book seems to have been written and edited (or not edited) on the principle that bigger is better, more means more important, and this results in a big psychedelic jumble of characters, anecdotes, jokes, soliloquies, reminiscences and footnotes, uproarious and mind-boggling, but also arbitrary and self-indulgent.

A decade and a half later, Klosterman and Simmons, two pop culture writers, have brought the form to the mainstream. For Klosterman’s part, he realizes that the faux-anti-innovation processes he’s witnessed in football are present elsewhere:

I had played football and written about football and watched it exhaustively for twenty years, so I thought I knew certain inalienable truths about the game. And I was wrong. What I knew were the assumed truths, which are not the same thing. I had brainwashed myself. I was unwilling to admit that my traditional, conservative football values were imaginary and symbolic. They belonged to a game I wasn’t actually watching but was still trying to see.

Over time, I realized this had happened with almost every aspect of my life.

You can add one more to the list. As to the future of footnotes in pop writing, one need no look farther than Klosterman, again. If you like them, enjoy them while they last:

Twenty-five years ago, the read option didn’t exist. Coaches would have given a dozen reasons why it couldn’t be used. Ten years ago, it was a play of mild desperation, most often used by teams who couldn’t compete physically. But now almost everyone uses it. It’s the vortex of an offensive scheme that has become dominant. But ten years from now — or even less, probably — this play will have disappeared completely. In 2018, no one will run it, because every team will be running something else. It will have been replaced with new thinking.

The (Other) Crisis

I have an article on the financial crisis, and how it may have provided a window into the future of journalism, in Last Exit Magazine.