Friday, April 29, 2011

A Serious Photo Friday: The Bullied Pink Lady

My mom shared this article from the Chicago Tribune with me about how the play Grease has Chicago roots. I had no idea that the story was based off of real teenagers in a Chicago neighborhood and it reminded me how OBSESSED I was with Grease in my pre-teen years-- an obsession I played tribute to in what be one of my favorite chapters of I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE. I even liked Grease 2 because the bad-ass, too-cool-for-school lead girl was named Stephanie. Of course I rewatch that movie now and cringe, but I still love the original. Though we have the soundtrack on the jukebox at the bar where I work and drunk girls singing "Summer Lovin'" has put a bit of a damper on my love for the soundtrack. I still know all the words to all of the songs because Grease was the first play I was in during the summer between seventh and eighth grade.

In seventh grade I was active in the theater but as a member of stage crew. I was a shy kid, being behind the scenes suited me. But when I got word that the summer theater camp was doing Grease, I knew I had to try out because I absolutely HAD to be a Pink Lady. I had no desire to be Sandy, even as a kid I know she wasn't the type of girl I was. I related most to the misunderstood rebel Rizzo, who hid her real feelings under a tough outer shell (Gee, she sounds a little bit like Emily from IWBYJR, doesn't she? See, Grease has had a long lasting influence on me.) I also adored Frenchie, the beauty school dropout with her own funky style. And Frenchie was the role I tried out for since at the time since 'Beauty School Dropout' was my favorite song (though ever since high school I've related far more to Rizzo's ballad, 'There Are Worse Things I Could Do,' hence I cribbed it for a chapter title in IWBYJR). I didn't land Frenchie, I was just a Pink Lady in the chorus and I doubled as the chick who steals Danny from Sandy-- Cha Cha in the movie, but my junior high play sanitized her role (and a lot of the song lyrics) quite a bit, so basically my only line was something like "Danny, will you go to the dance with me." Oh and I think it was staged so I said it in the dark. But I didn't care. It was my first play, so it was cool to have any lines at all and I got to sing my favorite Grease songs. Here I am, all done up in my Pink Lady gear on opening night:

I look really happy and it sounds like a lot of fun, right? Well, not totally. This was the summer I experienced some of the worst bullying of my life. It's kind of ironic because I think the thing I loved most about Grease was having a gang of girls who had your back. I loved the Pink Ladies. I wanted a group of friends who accepted and supported me like that-- and I did have some pretty great friends in grade school and junior high, but I'd always been a bit of an outcast who got picked on for being too small, too bookish, not pretty enough, not wealthy enough to have the right clothes, etc. I *wished* I could be Rizzo tough or have Rizzo tough friends to support me. My best friend from high school and my best friend from college actually do remind me of Rizzo a bit, and they both shared my love for Grease. I remember a weekend that my college and best friend and I watched the Grease movies over and over again (we went to school in Ohio, we did that a lot with movies because we were very bored) and we decided life would be so much better if we could be greaser girls with hot greaser boyfriends who broke into song and dance all the time. But I digress.

In junior high, I was not Rizzo tough and I did not have Rizzo tough friends, though I did have some good friends. And the summer that I did Grease, I learned that not all girl gangs were as cool as the Pink Ladies. Some were downright cruel. The summer theater camp was open to kids from both junior highs and the popular crowd from the other junior high spent that summer tormenting me. I'm not going to go into details because that experience is what I wrote about in my essay for DEAR BULLY, the anthology that is coming out in August of this year.
I don't know if I've ever been more proud to be a part of a project as DEAR BULLY. It is so important to bring these deep dark secrets of torment to life. My parents did not know much if anything about what happened to me that summer, though I think if you look closely at that picture of me, that you can see it in my eyes.

DEAR BULLY reminds you that it will get better and you can survive. I didn't let my bullying experience stop me from trying out for more plays in eighth grade, though granted it helped that those awful girls didn't go to my school, I even got a fairly big part in I Never Saw Another Butterfly. I also refused to let it taint my love of Grease-- not any more than drunk girls singing the songs at the bar have at least. I'm really hoping to go to the Chicago production of the *original* play with all the local references and un-sanitized language. Because I still love the Pink Ladies and the idea of a positive girl gang of misunderstood rebels who support each other.

Monday, April 25, 2011

What Revising Looks Like

I hope you will indulge me by enduring another writing process post. Hopefully this stuff will be helpful to my fellow writers who read this, but it's also important to me to document how this troubled manuscript that I've been calling the Bartender Book evolved from idea to very rough draft, to relatively polished draft, to well, hopefully eventually publication.

I got the revision notes on the Bartender Book from my agent two weeks ago. You may recall this post in which I was terrified about receiving them. It turned out (as it usually does) that there was not really anything to be afraid of. I knew the book was too long and she would ask me to do my best to trim the fat. I knew that as usual I was struggling with too much back story (this is happens to me because I like to get to know my characters so well), especially at the front and I have to figure out how to trim or at least move around and better distribute that. Lastly, she wanted me to better illustrate the motivations and emotions of one of my two main characters. That was the hardest part. Zoe is eighteen. She's dealing with a lot of leftover baggage from her teenage years and childhood and learning that hard lesson that I learned at 18 where life post-high school does not work out as you expect it. So her emotions are really complex. She loves her mother and her friends but at the same time she is frustrated by the stagnation she sees in them. She also takes out her feelings about her own failures on them. I could ramble on quite a bit. I did ramble on quite a bit to my agent and my critique partners trying to figure out all of the complex emotions that Zoe is dealing with and figure out how to get them down on the page.

So the beginning of revisions was stewing. Just letting myself think about the characters again and try to understand them on a deeper level. But then I felt like I wasn't really doing anything active and I wanted too. I am a big fan of highlighters. When I got my first revision letter from my editor on I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE, she had a few major points about things that I needed to address throughout the manuscript so I printed the whole thing out and did an elaborate color coded highlighting system.

Back then I worked a job where I could print out my 370 page novel for free. Now I don't. And I do hate killing trees, but sometimes I really need to see the pages in front of me instead of the screen. Jeri Smith-Ready to the rescue! I've been mentioning Jeri a lot lately because she's been a huge mentor to me and has done a lot of brainstorming with me on this book, but last summer when I was in the early phases with it, we hung out at PAYA and she was doing a lot of crazy revising work. She told me some of her highlighting tricks for revising and also mentioned something that my sometimes technologically oblivious self did not know. You can print 4 pages on one page. The print is kind of teeny, but fortunately I have no problem seeing small things up close (far away is another issue), so I decided I would print out the first 150 pages (or first two acts of the book) where most of my back story issues were and highlight the back story so I could see visually where I'd gone on too much of a tear and needed to cut or break things up.

This 4 page to 1 page thing is my most awesome discovery ever. For some reason it really helps me see the book. It's much easier to see how long a scene or chapter or moment goes on and how things are balanced. I liked it so much that I printed out the whole book that way and in the last two acts in addition to highlighting back story, I also started making cuts and line edits on the page. I figure this will be good to do because it means that before my agent sees the book again I will have been through the manuscript thoroughly at least 3 times. Once on the initial read through of the print out, once as I'm typing in my edits and once when I go through the tedious and usually 3 day long affair of reading the entire book aloud to make sure it is perfect.

So this is what my notes on the latter half of the book look like. Not as much back story here so no huge chunks highlighted like earlier in the book, but there is definitely some editing going on.
Of course, so far only Acts 3 and 4 have gotten this thorough read-through treatment because with the first 2 acts I was basically just skimming for back story and making a few notes to myself. That's the section of the book that needs more work, so it also needs more stewing time. A week ago I was back at the beginning and started trying to tackle chapter one. I had some idea of what I was doing, but it was basically a full dissection of the chapter to cut down some of the back story, rearrange the scenes a bit, make sure the back story was broken up by enough forward motion and enough of those complicated Zoe emotions were getting on the page. I spent two days cutting and pasting and juggling on my computer screen. Making enough progress to get excited and then hitting a wall. I know this is going to be the biggest hurdle of the book, but since there was a time I thought I was going to quit this book altogether and I got through, I felt I had to do it.

So Thursday I sat down with my printed pages again. I stared. I made notes. I stared some more. Then I thought I need to see what things look like moved around. So I busted out the scissors. This was what my dining room floor looked like:

I hit another wall, but I just sat there staring at it anyway. Eventually I started to see a few different ways I could work things, so I did more cutting and note making. I explored each possibility until I hit a wall. It was kind of like Choose Your Own Adventure. Then I finally found a path that I managed to string everything that I wanted to get in together loosely. You'll see here. The stuff on the left is my first chapter (the stuff to the left is other notes and other chapters). As you see there are a few places off the side where I tried something, but then I finally hit my stride and there is a trail of notes and cut up manuscript down the middle.

Of course, as usual, I hit on this at the eleventh hour, right before I had to go to work and then the weekend was filled with friends from out of town and more work and my husband's birthday, so I am just getting back to it today, but I left this out on my office floor so that if I get stuck, I can go back and explore one of my other paths.

I'm hoping to get the brunt of the major work on Acts 1 and 2 done this week (though I do have a short week because I'm traveling out of town for a school visit). Then the week after that I will type up the handwritten edits. Perhaps by that point I will have notes from a couple of my critique partners to do a further edit, which I hope to incorporate the week of May 8th along with my whole read aloud thing. This will mean that all together I will spend about a month on revisions. I could go faster but after the mad dash to finish the book, I'm trying to pace myself and still have a life. Plus this is a part of the process that really can't be rushed.

I'm pleased that my agent didn't have a ton of notes and hoping that if I do well enough on this revision it may be ready to shop. Who knows. But if that is what happens, I'll be thrilled and it will go to show that putting in long hours on getting a polished draft done and figuring out the bulk of the plot problems and other issues earlier was time well spent.

Okay, here goes. Hopefully that crazy cut and paste job will bring me results today!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Thank you, Readers!

Just a short but sweet message for you today.

This morning I woke up to an email from a girl who had read I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE two years ago and wanted to tell me how she still felt it was one of the best books she's read and reading it was like listening to a good album, and most important, she'd passed it on to a friend who never reads, not expecting this friend to read it, but as it turned out after this friend went through a horrible time in her life and was really hitting rock bottom in terms of drug use and acting crazy, she read the book and turned her life around because she "didn't want to turn out like Louisa."

This email made my day. Actually it made my month. I don't get a ton of these like I imagine writers like say Ellen Hopkins and Laurie Halse Anderson do (and those are two people I have emailed or in Ellen's case almost broke down in tears when I met her because of how their books hit me), but I cannot express how much it means when I do. I remember all the letters clearly. The one from the adult guy who gave IWBYJR to his girlfriend who was neglecting her child because she was too busy self destructing and it led her to seek help. The teenage girl who'd had a couple of friends OD and BALLADS OF SUBURBIA gave her perspective and helped her gain the courage to check into rehab. The teenage girl who wrote me a handwritten letter (those are my favorite and the reason why I will always keep a PO Box) about how BALLADS helped her to stop cutting herself. The letters from teens who told me that they hadn't faced the same situations as my characters, but my books gave them perspective and empathy. The messages from people just glad to find someone who writes about the kind of music I write about.

It matters so much to me. This is the reason I write. YOU are the reason I write.

My books haven't sold a ton of copies. The writing world is scary and you often feel very alone. You spend all day typing away with little contact (which is probably why so many of us love Twitter as our water cooler) and then you send this book out and there are no guarantees. At this point, I don't know if I'll ever get another book published. I hope and I work my butt off to reach that goal again, but yeah, no guarantees. It doesn't get easier once you sell one or two books. And sometimes it is really scary to have books out in the world, especially stories that are as close to your heart as mine are to me, because people are way more likely to rip a book or piece of art to shreds (which is why I avoid Goodreads like the plague) than to go out of their way to say they like it. Sad, but true. So every single one of you who email me or send me a sweet message on twitter or facebook or comment on this blog, YOU ROCK MY WORLD and I just wanted to say thank you.

I write the stories I write because they were the stories I needed. If I didn't write I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE, I might have been Louisa. I've definitely been in that hateful, dark, messed-up place where she is. And of course I've definitely been where Kara in BALLADS OF SUBURBIA has been. Writing that book was one of the most painful but at the same time healing experiences I've had. I wrote it because I wanted that book as a teenager. Like I said, I know it hasn't gotten into a ton of hands, but it means so much to me that the people who need it are finding it and passing it on to other people who might need it.

I will continue to write these stories that I feel need to be told and with your support, they will continue to get out their into the world. And yes, that is why I write. Not because I have delusions of fame and wealth. As long as I can continue to get by, all that matters is that my stories touched someone. So thank you. THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart, dear readers. You rock my world.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Memory Monday: I Heart Vinyl

I thought it would be fun to center my Monday reminiscing around my love of vinyl today since this past Saturday was Record Store Day and independent record stores across the country celebrated with in-store music, sales, and the release of limited edition albums that drive music buffs like me into a frenzy.

That's right, I still go to record stores. I particularly love the one in my town, The Old School Records, which is run by husband and wife, Peter and Jodi. They are some of the most knowledgeable people I know when it comes to music and they are friendly and welcoming to every one. None of that indie rock snob attitude you may have seen in High Fidelity or dealt with at other stores. I know that I've gone to a lot of stores over the years where I feel afraid to even ask for what I'm looking for because I think I'm going to be judged. Not at all the case at Old School. It feels like hanging out at someone's house that happens to have wall-to-wall CDs, vinyls, and even cassettes. If you go on the right day, Peter and Jodi's babies or dog might be there. And I can never run in quick because I always end up in a conversation with Peter about something, a great show he saw in the late eighties or early nineties, a band he discovered and thinks I might like, tales from when he had a small record label and almost got a Nirvana song to put on a comp. They also have been very supportive of me as a writer and since music figures into my books, have invited me to do readings at the store. Here I am at one a couple of summers ago. (I'm at the far, right, reading behind the counter.)

This is not the kind of personalized experience you get when you download something from iTunes. Also, this is one of those rare moments when I'm gonna get patriotic on your ass, indie record stores, especially family-run ones like The Old School Records are one of the truly amazing things about America. That's the American dream right there. Someone being able to pursue their passion and open a small business. We cannot let that sort of thing die out just because technology is convenient. So if you have a local, indie record, book, clothing, hardware, WHATEVER shop, support them!

Now don't get me wrong. I love my iPod for the convenience factor. It allows to me to take my entire music collection with me anywhere. This is highly convenient for traveling, driving, running, and when I was working a regular job, commuting. But the sound quality of an MP3 just isn't the best. Also, I am a very tactile person. I love to flip through liner notes. Hell, I love the smell of them. For me, when I'm extremely passionate about something, I want to immerse myself in the experience and that's why I heart vinyl.

My love for vinyl started around the age of nine or ten when I went through the rite of passage that so many rock 'n' roll fans seem to go through: a massive Beatles obsession. After enduring my pop phase of Madonna, Janet Jackson, and the really bad late 80s dance music that they played on B96 in Chicago, my parents were very pleased by this. My dad had been a hippie after all and though as far as I know my mom never dabbled in pot and psychedelics like my dad, she enjoyed the music and the politics of the late sixties/early seventies. They also both loved The Beatles and had my favorite albums-- Abbey Road and Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band-- on vinyl. The centerpiece of our living room was this brown cabinet that housed my parents stereo, complete with a record player. My dad even rigged it up so that there were speakers in the kitchen too. They had two big crates of vinyl, some of which were kept upstairs, some in our basement--which was an unfortunate decision because this resulted in many of them ultimately getting ruined by our elderly cat peeing on them-- and when I entered my Beatles phase, I discovered the experience of listening to vinyl.

I don't know how better to describe that experience than I did at the beginning of I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone, which actually came from a journal entry I wrote about my own love of music in March of 2002, a few months before I started writing that novel. I thought you might get a kick out of reading that original entry so here it is. Bust out your copies of the book and compare my experience to Emily's if you like:

Altars. Saviors. Rock 'n' Roll. I brave my fear of spiders, dust plumes as thick as a bad smog day in LA and the smell of piss from the house's last owner's cooped-up dog. I feel the cold, gray painted cement through my jeans like I'm sitting on a ice cube, but regardless of everything, I dig, feeling the perfect square edges of each album prod between my fingers. The slap of plastic dust cover against plastic dust cover as I flip through is so satisfying, but not as good as it will sound when I find one I want, slip it out of it's paper jacket and on to the record player, the needle skipping and skittering for a few seconds until it finds its groove, the first chord scratching its way through the speakers, a catchy chorus reverberating in my ears. Altars. Earthquakes. Rock Gods. They have to have something good in here. There must be a Beatles album somewhere in this folk crap. "That's rock too," my father chides me, displeased that I am not finding nearly as much satisfaction in his old record collection as he did. But I want something that you can feel in your throat when you play it loud, something that churns down through your stomach, shaking you to the tips of your toes. Something that scrapes out your insides and makes you dance without them. He shuddered at how I wanted to make the windows rattle and the floorboards creak with blasting speakers at barely ten years old.

Yeah, so that's my experience. Pretty close to Emily's, so you can see how I drew from my own love of music to create her. This also describes my transition from Beatles-loving kid to punk-loving teenager. I forgot about my parents' record collection for a while then and after my graduation from eighth grade when I received my own very first stereo, with GASP! my first CD player--a five-disc changer no less that allowed me to shuffle songs on five different albums--I forgot about their stereo for a few years. But the deeper I got into punk rock and especially into riot grrrl punk, the more I realized that vinyl was still king. Many of the bands I loved put out 7 inches, not to mention that whole scratchy, needle drop thing just made punk sound better to my ears. Since my parents had also transitioned into CDs, I stole their old stereo tuner and record player and brought it up to my room. I also raided the old record collection again, discovering with great dismay that they'd given those Beatles records that I'd cherished to my younger cousin who was now entering his requisite Beatles phase. As a result the only records of my parents that I still have are some classical albums and my mom's old Billie Holiday record.

But then the coolest thing on earth happened during my junior year of high school. A punk rock, mostly vinyl record store opened a few blocks from my high school in my lame-ass suburban town. It was called Earwax Records and run by a young couple in their mid-to-late twenties (being sixteen at the time, it was hard for me to approximate the ages of adults, especially when said adults had bleached hair and facial piercings like me and my friends). I don't think it even lasted a year, but while it was around my friends and I went there every day after school. Since they couldn't afford to hire us as staff, we volunteered to work there. I discovered a bunch of amazing bands and spent all the money I earned working at a grocery store on vinyl like this (and you can click on the photos to make them bigger if you are a geek like me and want to see details!):

Around that time, the needle on my parents' record player went bad, so I asked for my own. I think I was one of the only teenagers in 1996 who asked for a record player for her 17th birthday, and then, six months later asked for a typewriter for her high school graduation. (I graduated a semester early, promptly moved out of Oak Park hell, but needed a way to continue doing zines without my parents' computer. Knowing they couldn't afford to buy me one, I went the old school typewriter route.) By 17, I was growing jaded with the punk scene and getting into goth and new wave. Records proved a very cheap way to build my music collection because I could find a lot of the stuff I wanted used for a couple bucks--except in the case of that Concert- The Cure Live album, which was in pristine condition and hard to find (and that find, my friends, marked the beginning of my impending record collecting obsession).

At some point in the early 2000s, electronics manufactures began to realize that people were interested in vinyl again, so I got a reasonably priced Aiwa stereo system that had both a CD disc-changer and a record player to replace my bizarre non-integrated set-up with my parents ancient tuner and the record player that they bought me that was either pre-amped or not pre-amped, I can't remember which, and wouldn't integrate into my CD stereo system. I have to say of Aiwas system that I got in either 2000 or 2001, the CD component started acting up a few years later and at this point only the record player and one of the dual cassette players still work. But that doesn't matter to me because the record player is all I want. It and my record collection are the centerpiece of my living room:

It's not a massive collection (though check out the way the shelf is sagging!). I still daydream of John Cusack's shelves upon shelves of vinyl in High Fidelty. But I have some gems. In my mid-twenties when I had a little bit more money to play with, I started seriously collecting on my favorite bands and it became a bit of an obsession. I wanted all of the limited edition Nirvana and Hole vinyls that I could possibly afford (and someday, when I write that big blockbuster novel, I will complete the Nirvana collection by purchasing the original Love Buzz single and Blew EP which go for over a thousand bucks a piece.)

Here are some of my Hole limited editions. The white Live Through This was limited to 3000 as was the Miss World picture disc seven inch, which is hand numbered. The Beautiful Son 12 inch, is a difficult-to-find green vinyl version, but I have the black as well. The Pretty On The Inside isn't even opened because it's the very, very rare blue vinyl, though I have the black as well, which I listen to. The Violet 7 inch isn't all that rare, but I've always loved the artwork:

The following picture shows exactly how carried away I got with collecting all of the different versions of especially the very first Hole singles. I have both the 12 inch and 7 inch versions of Teenage Whore, as many of the different sleeve and vinyl color combos of the Retard Girl 7 inch as I could get my hands on (and I'm pretty sure I got them all) and the different colors of the Dicknail vinyl which was a Sub Pop Singles Club release and my copies have the coupon to join the singles club intact, making them more valuable. Yes, like I said, I am a vinyl nerd. This is my equivalent of the people who collect Star Wars action figures and don't take them out of the plastic, though as long as mine aren't too rare I do listen to them.

Pictured here are my favorites of my Nirvana collection, including the vinyl I paid the most for, the blue-swirl limited edition Incesticide in the middle right, which cost me 75$ on eBay, and my best find of all, that clear pink Bleach in the bottom left, which I found at a used record store in Ann Arbor for 10$, bought because of my Nirvana obsession and went home to check the value of it and found it was going for nearly 300$!

For the most part now I don't buy rare stuff (since I can't afford the super rare vinyl for the bands I love that I don't already have), but I buy just about every new release that I can on vinyl. I can't tell you how happy I am that most of the bands that I listen to now put their releases out on vinyl with a digital download. That way I can have my full music geek-out experience with the convenience of being able to put it on my iPod for travel purposes, and perhaps most important of all, I can support my local indie record store by buying it there because they need my support a lot more than a big corporation like Apple that is charging a ton for all of their computers and various devices. Peter and Jodi from The Old School Records know that when I request a new release, I want the vinyl version because that's what I'll listen to whenever I'm home. They also know the bands I love and let me know who was released rare stuff on Record Store Day. I got something to add to my Nirvana collection and one for my punk rock 7 inch collection:

So I will continue buying vinyl as long as they keep making it. To me, it's the way music should sound and I love the full experience from the feel of the album cover, to the size of the liner notes, to the smell of it all. It;s the same reason I will always love books. Aside from reading my critique partners' manuscripts and taking books with me when I travel, I don't see a place for an eReader in my life yet, but maybe if they start selling paper books with a free digital download....

What about you? Do you buy vinyl? Would you if you could? What are your favorites in your collection?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

RIP OLTL & AMC: My Tribute to the Soaps

I wasn't thrilled about taking health class in summer school during the summer of 1993, but it was the summer between eighth grade and freshman year for me and I knew my parents were right, I would probably feel a lot more comfortable starting high school in the fall if I had a chance to wander the halls and get a sense of what classes were like there. I took the class with my best friend from junior high, who we'll call Sandra, and two other girls we knew pretty well, but got to know better during summer school, who we'll call Lila and Jackie. Even though I had to get up way too early for a couple of months, the summer of '93 was probably one of my best summers ever. For two or three summers before it, I'd dealt with being bullied and not fitting in. By the summer of '94, Kurt Cobain was dead, I'd started smoking pot and falling for boys with drug problems. But the summer of '93 was innocent. It was about spotting cute boys from the other junior high in class and passing notes about them. And it was the summer I was introduced to something that I would enjoy for the rest of my life.

Our class got out at eleven-ish and afterward Lila invited us over to her house which was near school and also way bigger and cooler than mine. We made ourselves lunch and then Lila and her good friend Jackie, introduced me and my best friend Sandra to two of their favorite shows, All My Children and One Life to Live, and brought us up to speed on all of the characters and their back stories.

In 1993, the character of Kendall Hart had just been introduced and she was being played by Sarah Michelle Gellar. That's right, Buffy. Sarah is one of many actresses and actors who got their start on the soaps. At that point she was totally the most evil daughter in daytime. Of course, as a product of rape, given up for adoption, she had a lot to be resentful about, but did she really have to lock her little sister Bianca in a crypt and try to seduce her mom, Erica Kane's latest husband, Dimitri?

Meanwhile, during the summer of 1993 on One Life to Live, Todd Manning and his frat brothers were on trial for raping Marty Saybrooke. Todd was a horrible, horrible guy, but he also rescued the kids that would turn out to be his niece and nephew, Sarah and CJ from falling down a well. And he had the soap opera version of a Kurt Cobain look, so I couldn't help but be fascinated by him.

It became our summer school tradition, going to Lila's house to eat lunch and watch All My Children and One Life to Live. I enjoyed it so much that I was sad when summer school ended, but Sandra and I kept the tradition alive watching our soaps at one of our houses when we couldn't get over to Lila's. My mom was tickled to find out that I'd discovered two of the three shows (as a nurse, she was also a big General Hospital fan) that she'd been watching on-and-off almost since they first came on the air and had watched often when my brother and I were young and she was working nights and staying home with us during the day.

The stay-at-home mom (or mom that works nights in my mom's case) is of course the stereotypical audience for soaps. It's who they were created for, the shows being designed as vehicles for the soap companies to sponsor and sell their products to women--not for me, the thirteen-going-on-fourteen year-old punk girl, who usually spent her summers with her nose buried in a book--and I still did bury my nose in books, after One Life To Live ended.

Because they knew that they needed the next generation to pick up the soap-loving torch, AMC and OLTL have always (or at least as long as I've watched), brought in fun, younger characters. Sure, Kelly Cramer, Dorian's niece who got kicked out of her boarding school in Paris (and I swear had green or blue streaks in her hair the first summer she was introduced, which endeared her to me, but I can't find pictures to prove it.), was a drama queen and her rebellion and the issues she dealt with a very watered down/surface level version of my own. One Life To Live was no My So-Called Life, but the characters interested me enough to keep watching, and it wasn't just the younger cast members, I adored Erica Kane's exploits and Adam Chandler's grumpy domineering balanced by his twin Stuart on All My Children, and on One Life to Live, I got a kick out of Dorian Cramer's affairs with younger men including her frenemy Viki Lord's son, and I especially adored Asa Buchanan, the Texas tycoon, whose true love was Nevada brothel madam, Renee.

My soap addiction has continued for eighteen years at this point. During high school, I watched both AMC and OLTL in summers and on other breaks from school. Sometimes when I was really into a plot-line, I recorded it and watched it after school. Eventually, due to time restraints, I cut down to mainly watching OLTL and there were periods when I didn't watch at all. I didn't have a TV for all of 1997, but when I got one for Christmas, I started watching OLTL in my dorm room when I didn't have class. I lapsed again in 1999 when I was spending the majority of my time getting wasted at goth clubs, but then I found out that I got SoapNet and that the perfect way to spend a hungover Sunday was to watch a marathon of One Life To Live. Pretty soon, I was back on the horse again, watching OLTL on SoapNet every day after work. (That's the nice thing about soap operas is once you know some of the characters and back story, you can usually dive right in again, as I've done over the years with All My Children when a storyline takes my fancy or when they have a fabulous baby swap crossover like when Kelly's brother Paul stole Babe Chandler from AMC's baby and passed him off as a baby Buchanan.) In my early twenties, when I was working dayshifts at the bar, I used to put One Life To Live on one of the TVs. Usually I didn't get customers until after it ended, and though sometimes the random folks I did get gave me funny looks, one of our beer delivery guys, used to stand around and watch it with me for awhile because his grandmother used to watch "the stories" with him.

The story thing is key here, guys. I'm guessing that some of my regular blog readers may have already clicked away from this entry and others may cringing, thinking, Seriously??? This is Stephanie Kuehnert? The punk chick who writes those gritty, edgy YA novels and usually blogs about bands and real-life issues talking about SOAP OPERAS? WTF! But I'm going to say it, soap operas are as much a part of me-- as both a writer and a person-- as Nirvana songs and Francesca Lia Block books. And all kinds of people watch the soaps. Hell, there is even an Urge Overkill song about Erica Kane that should give All My Children a little indie cred:

But seriously, I've discussed soap operas with that beer delivery dude, my editor, many of my writer friends, and even my tough-as-nails best friend from high school, Katie (whose real name I use because she's in the dedication for Ballads so you know it anyway), who I met while shoplifting, who would dive into the pit at White Zombie/Babes in Toyland shows, who was my combat-boot-wearing, chain-smoking, Rancid-loving partner in crime for many years would come over to my house and see what our bad boy Todd Manning was up to or fun, new-agey Luna, or ooooh Patrick Thornhart with the sexy Irish brogue. We ate that shit up.

No, we weren't into the typical soap guy, the clean-cut, chiseled guy. Even the Todd Manning's and John McBain's and Patrick Thornhart's who had the long hair, scruffy, and brooding thing that we went for were still that watered-down soap version of our reality. But what it comes down to is the story. As I mentioned, at the time that I got into OLTL and AMC, I spent most of my time devouring books. I used to read like 50 a summer or something insane (and wonderful! how I long for that much free time). By eleven, I'd been through all the Judy Blume and other age appropriate books and had started reading Stephen King and Ken Kesey's One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and that kind of stuff. I knew an engrossing story when I saw one and that's what I found on ABC daytime.

Yes, soap operas have their cheesy moments, they exist in their own reality that defies medical convention (Viki on OLTL's twin daughters have two different fathers because while Viki was trying to conceive with her husband Clint, she was also raped by the villianous Mitch Laurence) and normal passage of time does not apply (a single day can last for two weeks, but they always seem to be celebrating holidays when we do and then of course there are rapidly sped up pregnancies and characters ages are conveniently changing to the point that the term SORAS- Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome- was coined to explain the "growth spurts" that children on soaps go through) and every is ramped up to be as melodramatic as possible. Most characters have more marriages than Liz Taylor, people come back from the dead all the time and there are all those rare disorders (Viki on OLTL has D.I.D., the fancy name for multiple personalities, which she passed down to her daughter, Jessica, though in reality the validity of such a diagnosis has been largely questioned and I've never heard of it being genetic). But in my opinion, that is what makes this genre so much fun. I laughed my ass off when Kelly sniped at Blair and Dorian on OLTL that unlike them, she didn't have 17 marriages under their belt and Dorian mused, "I think she's counting the annulments..." and when Tea began a sentence, "When I was dead...."

You can call this stuff cheesy and many of you will, but it has entertained me for eighteen years now and I'm not ashamed because I've also learned a lot as a writer from the soaps. The two characters at that I mentioned at the beginning, Kendall and Todd, were downright devious, evil characters that wormed their way into my heart. Soaps taught me how give villains a human side--and there is at least one character in both of my books that I clap my hands in evil glee when readers tell me, "But I really liked and related to him..." Soaps taught me about writing the character you love to hate. Soaps taught me how to withhold things from the reader/viewer and keep them guessing. Soaps taught me how to use a large cast of characters. Soaps taught me how to build a romance *and* how to destroy it-- but only after the viewers that totally ship a couple get to see them happy for a while. Soaps taught me not to let my characters--or me as a writer--take themselves too seriously and poke fun at their situation from time to time. And believe it or not, soaps also pushed boundaries in the place that was last to see boundaries pushed--daytime TV. Sure, for years, I joked that a soap opera character would never get an abortion, they'd always choose to have the baby or conveniently miscarry, but I was particularly proud of the coming-out stories that both AMC and OLTL did, though OLTL really dropped the ball when they let Kyle & Fish go last year.

Yes, there are things that have frustrated me over the years on soaps. The writing on One Life To Live has been poor for a while. Characters I've loved have been reduced to weak, whiny women or put on the backburner while flat, one dimensional characters that we just hate--don't love to hate--are given way too much screen time. We've been missing the really fun, twisted and often comical villains like Alex Olanov, Carlos Hesser, Mitch Laurence, etc for quite sometime. Viki and Dorian got lost in the shuffle. They took my snake-loving, bad-ass Starr, my tough-as-nails Natalie and Blair, my punky Langston and weakened their characters a bit too much for my liking and generally with men who totally weren't worth their attention and didn't seem realistic--even for a soap--for their character to choose. (I'm particularly thinking of Langston and Ford here.) All of that bugged me, but I kept watching, sometimes ranting that they should let me come and write for them and I'd fix it, but I was ever hopeful that there would be a return to the glory days.

At the beginning of this week, I was thrilled to learn that Roger Howarth, the actor that originally played Todd Manning would be back, thinking that he would breathe new life into the show. And then, today, killing my Rock The Drop buzz and the momentum I was gaining on my revisions of the bartender book, the announcement came that ABC is canceling All My Children and One Life To Live in favor of the generic type of reality program about cooking or some shit. Seriously, as my mother, who I called as soon as heard the news, put it, "Aren't there entire cable channels devoted to that stuff?" Yeah, there are. So here comes the rant....

Brian Frons at ABC is a fucking moron. He's just destroyed something that linked generations of women (and some men, too, as proven by the beer delivery guy). My mother and I bond over One Life to Life. She still thinks those Buchanan boys are handsome and loves when I catch her up on their antics. The new shows may cost less to produce, but they will have no audience, especially since presumably the same audience they are trying to appeal to is the audience they just turned your back on. I'm sickened and saddened to see storytelling replaced by faux reality and pseudo self-help programming. They are wasting the talents of many fine actors. Look at who came out of these shows. Nathan Fillion, Tommy Lee Jones, Dixie Carter, Judith Light, Marcia Cross and Ryan Phillippe got their start on One Life To Live. Sarah Michelle Gellar, Amanda Seyfried, Kelly Ripa, and Josh Duhamel were on All My Children and I'm sure there are others too. (Thanks, Jen, I took your lists.) It was also a stupid move on ABC's part because the only reason I discovered some of their primetime shows was because they advertised during OLTL. And I'm honestly so angry at ABC right now that when OLTL goes off the air in January, I will probably stop tuning into their network altogether. Grey's Anatomy has sucked lately anyway.

But I just want to say that my love of the soaps will live on in the bartender book. I took a lot of what I learned from soaps to write that book, though of course I dialed down the melodrama a bit. The ex-husband of one of my main characters, Ivy, and father of the main character, Zoe, is a soap star and I had a blast making up characters and shows for him to star on, putting him in a coma and such. Like me, Ivy watches One Life to Live while she works dayshifts at the bar and grew up addicted to her "stories." I've also paid homage in my character names. Rex, the soap star, is named for Rex Balsom on OLTL. One of my characters, a guy I love to hate, has the last name Manning, after Todd from OLTL. Natalie, one of the bartenders, is a red-head like her name sake Natalie Buchanan from OLTL. I've got two customers that balance each other, the grumpy Adam The Grouch and the sweet Mr. Stuart, in tribute to Adam and Stuart Chandler from AMC, though Mr. Stuart's briefly mentioned wife is Renee after Asa Buchanan's true love on OLTL. I also have Bar customers, Johnny Mac and a John The Cop (who is spoken of, but we never actually meet) both for John McBain. The owner of The Bar in my book has the last name Davidson, for Ben Davidson, my favorite of Viki's husband on OLTL who also owned a bar. And I'm sure there are some other minor references that I'm forgetting. But I may just have to include AMC and OLTL in the dedication or acknowledgments for providing me with over 18 years of joy and teaching me about stroytelling.

And now, I'm going to take part in what has become a key part of my routine, watching OLTL while work out and eat dinner before going to work. I don't know what's going to fill that void. That was the real magic of soap operas: you had a story that you could tune into 5 days a week, every week. With the exception of major holidays, it was always there, always new, sometimes flawed, sure, but for the most part purely entertaining. I really am sad to see it come to an end.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Beginning of Revisions and other updates

Last night I received notes from my agent on the Bartender Book. I didn't open the email because I knew it would send my mind racing. I figured I would try to get a good night's sleep. Then I'd get up, post this, workout, shower and dive in.

*GULP* Let the big scary part begin. I'm not gonna lie, I always fear this stage in the process, especially with a book I struggled so hard with like this one. I know it's not perfect, but in my mind it's pretty damn close, and due to some bad early writing workshop experiences (the reason I will always hate the Iowa-style workshop), I'm always afraid that my manuscript will be ripped to shreds with complete disregard for my feelings and I will dissolve into a puddle on the floor unable to write ever again.

Of course, it is never that bad. The first time I got an editorial letter from my editor at MTV Books, I thought I was going to die when I opened the file and saw that it was 17 pages long. Of course this was just because she listed a bunch of line edits, the bulk of the bigger changes were in the first page and a half and the best part was the end of the letter wherein she reminded me that I was the writer and any of her suggestions were exactly that, just suggestions, and we could discuss them if I felt they didn't fit with my vision for the book. As it turned out, I agreed with everything but one suggestion. I gave her my explanation for why I wanted to keep that particular aspect, she understood, and that was that. The rest of what she said only helped me improve the story. She raised questions that helped me to add new layers of depth to the book--she did this particularly with BALLADS because she called me out on emotionally distancing myself from Kara (which I did because Kara and teenage me have a lot in common and it was hard to go there, hence the resurfacing of my ulcer after those revisions, but it was fucking worth it because I've never been more proud of something I've done in my life.). She also went line by line and word by word to help me nail each one. Jen Heddle, my editor at MTV Books, is up there with my favorite teachers at Columbia College as one of the people who has helped me develop the most as a writer.

So, I know this, in my head, that getting editorial feedback from critique partners, agents and editors is an essential part of the process. With critique partners it is a little easier because my critique partners are fellow writers so they get that emotional attachment and all those insecurities. But agent and editor notes scare the shit out of me every time. Even though I know they aren't going to be like the no-nothing college students in that bad workshop experience I had who cruelly shit on your work just because knocking you down a peg makes them feel superior. (Hence I am an advocate of writing workshops that *generate* a lot of material and provide constructive feedback and criticism as opposed to turn a piece or two in per semester and get it ripped to shreds.) I know agents and editors know how to give constructive criticism, but I can't help it, still terrified. And this book, which has already caused me so much pain and suffering to figure out, which is on the long side, but has all these awesome parts I don't really want cut, it is particularly scary. But it's time and I know it.

I had my one week of vacation. I had one week of puttering around the house doing taxes and cleaning. And then I had a week where I tried to do some brainstorming of new things and it didn't really work out because I knew in the back of my head that I wasn't done. So I screwed around on the internet for most of last week. I decided to catch up on that whole Charlie Sheen drama because it happened while I was in the writing so I didn't understand this whole "Winning" and "Tiger Blood" thing that everyone else was talking about. And can I just say that after watching 15 minutes of an interview with him.... Ignorance, in this case, was definitely bliss. At that point, I decided I was bored of the internet, bored of celebrity gossip and I accomplished some more things that I'd let go for way too long. Like updating my website.

If you visit, you will find things like a link to a very cool tool for teaching or discussing BALLADS with a book group, new reviews of BALLADS, and coolest of all, a link to my Skype an Author profile, which I *finally* updated so that I can offer Skype visits to book clubs, writing groups, libraries, and schools that are not within driving distance of me and are looking for an affordable way to do a Q&A or hear one of my presentations.

Since I don't have a new book out, I'm not doing a ton of events, but I have a couple things coming up in Chicago, which I've also listed on my website here. This Friday, April 15, I am doing the Neutron Bomb Reading/Music event, which is me, a bunch of other punk authors and punk bands at 9 pm at Cal's Liquors at 400 S. Wells in Chicago. Since liquors is in the name, you probably get that it is 21 and over. If you are of age and in the Chicago area, come out to hear me read from the Bartender Book.

I'm also teaching a class on character development at StoryStudio Chicago on May 17th. I love talking about character and have a bunch of techniques for fleshing out characters that I am eager to share, so I love teaching this class. You can find more info and register here.

Anyway, so I updated all of that stuff and now I'm down to the tasks on my to-do list that have been on it for well over a year (ie. since I got married and changed my name.... I still have a lot of bills and shit I need to change my name on. I did the easy ones with online forms, but now I've got these people I have to call or fax or mail shit and yeah.... I just don't want to deal), it's time to get back into serious writing mode. I'm honestly lost at sea without it. If I don't have to follow my schedule, I get extremely A.D.D. and end up watching Charlie Sheen interviews and it's just bad.

Oh, but I should say that I don't plan to go all M.I.A. again like I did for the past few months... at least I hope I won't. I will be at the YA Outside The Lines blog this Wednesday and next Wednesday I am planning to bring Women Who Rock Wednesday back with a fabulous interview about one of the movements in punk that shaped me most, Riot Grrrl. And at the beginning of May, I'm going to change things up a bit in terms of Women Who Rock Wednesday... it's going to be like when Venus Zine put the very first guy, Jack White, on their cover. I will be bringing you a rockin' interview with a guy writer. And I hope to keep bringing you news about my successes and struggles with this book as well as those personal memories and musings I tend to overshare at least once or twice a week. I am aiming for more balance in my life basically. We'll see if I succeed this time.

But now I have to do it. Dive back into the book. So here I go.... Revising time.

Friday, April 8, 2011

On Kurt Cobain, Punk Rock, and Baseball

Yes, looking at the title of this blog, you are probably thinking, "One of these things is not like the others." It's true, but baseball was actually the topic that I was going to write a blog about today. Then I thought I would be remiss not to mention Kurt Cobain today. Then I thought my brain works in such a tangential fashion, I bet I can connect the two somehow, so let's see...

If you are music nerd or Nirvana is your all-time favorite band like me, then you probably know that this week is not a happy week in music/Nirvana history. April 5 (a Tuesday this year, just like it was in 1994) is the day that Kurt Cobain actually died according to medical examiners, though his body was not found until Friday, April 8 of 1994 when an electrician went by his house to install a security system, looked into the window of the greenhouse over the garage and saw Kurt's body. (In a rather eerie coincidence it is also the day that they think Layne Staley of Alice in Chains died of heroin overdose, eight years after Kurt, though his body wasn't discovered until April 20th.) April 8 of 1994 was the day that the world found out that Kurt Cobain was dead and as a result April 8th is always the day that affects me most.

This year on April 5, I lit a candle and listened to the cover of "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" that Nirvana did on MTV Unplugged. Though it was recorded months before Kurt died, there is something about the way he takes a deep breath and opens his eyes before singing the very last line of the song, that feels like goodbye. After Kurt died, I watched the videotape that I'd recorded MTV Unplugged on so many times that I memorized this moment and I can still see it vividly whenever I listen to the song.

Today, I woke up feeling blue and realized, Oh, it's April 8, no wonder... Today, I will listen to nothing but Nirvana. And that's why today I have to write about Kurt Cobain even though I feel like I've said all I could and at the same time still can't find the right words after seventeen years (seventeen years! Fuck, I feel old!) to express why Kurt and Nirvana make me feel this way.

I kind of feel like a dork because this still gets to me-- and not a dork in the dorks/nerds are cool way. When I feel like a dork/nerd, it's still a bad feeling. Those are not words that I can completely reclaim. Dork/nerd still means socially inept and laughed at by my peers. It still means the shame of being hopelessly uncool that I lived with daily in grade school and in high school too, but in a different way and we'll get to that later.

But anyway, part of me feels like I should be ashamed for some reason that Nirvana matters so much to me and that April 8 bums me out. Still. I was talking to a friend the other night who pointed out that now Kurt Cobain has been dead for longer than he was alive during our lifetimes. Seventeen years. I was fourteen when he died. And I guess part of the reason it still affects me so much is because that was such a pivotal point in my life. When I mentioned feeling blue over Kurt today on twitter, Jon Skovron, a YA writer I admire immensely (read Struts and Frets if you haven't, he brings music alive on the page like few can do) said simply that Kurt "made the music we needed" and that pretty much sums it up. I wrote this essay about it ten years after Kurt died when I went to Seattle for the first time to pay tribute to him. It tells about the first time I heard Nirvana at the age of 12 in the bedroom of my one friend who seemed fearless and didn't care what anyone else thought of her eclectic tastes. It tells about the day, seventeen years ago, when my best friend who was very messed up for her own reasons, broke the news of Kurt's death to me in a rather cruel fashion. It tells about my journey to Seattle at the age of twenty-four to finally pay tribute to the man and the band that influenced me so greatly, a journey that was probably as much a pivotal moment in my life as Kurt's death. But that essay still doesn't explain everything and I don't know if I can.

It really does come down to Kurt Cobain made the music that I needed at the time I needed it the most. "Smells like Teen Spirit" became a hit the fall that I entered junior high. The preceding summer I'd decided to stop trying to be cool and just be myself. This meant taking honors classes and not being ashamed of it or letting the cool kids copy my homework just to try to win their favor. This meant dressing how I wanted to dress because I thought the preppy plain Gap t-shirt and little white Keds sneakers style was fucking boring and also I couldn't afford The Gap. I liked the clothes I found at the Salvation Army and the vintage boutique two blocks from my house. I liked my little white boots that looked like ice skates and my Converse sneakers. I liked loud striped tights on some days and all black on others. So this is how I dressed when I started seventh grade and I endured the taunts in the hallways every day because I was going to be me. A large part of the reason I wanted to be me was Kurt Cobain. When I discovered Nirvana, I found something that expressed what I felt inside, both the anger and the desire for freedom of expression. Seeing Nirvana out there doing what they did and succeeding at it made me believe that I could do the same thing. Nirvana also introduced me to punk rock and a bunch of other bands that would give me that same outlet. In the early 90s, I didn't have access to the internet and millions of bands at my fingertips. I had MTV's 120 minutes and I had Rolling Stone, Spin, and Sassy magazines. I read interviews with Kurt Cobain over and over. He was always mentioning other bands like The Sex Pistols and the Screaming Trees and Mudhoney and L7 and Bikini Kill and The Vaselines and PJ Harvey and on and on and on. So I went to the store and bought albums by these bands on his recommendation. That's how I found the music I loved.

By the beginning of freshman year of high school, my thrift store look with Converse sneakers and/or Doc Marten boots was suddenly hip. The popular girls that had mocked me were ripping off my style. It was kind of obnoxious. But at the same time, it didn't matter because I was still in my own world with my music and my poetry, trying to find my own way. My best friend had moved away to live with an aunt because her grandmother was dying of cancer. She was in a lot of pain but didn't know how to express it. She started smoking pot. I disapproved even though I myself was in a lot of pain over losing her and not feeling like I fit in anywhere for so many years and I didn't know how to express it so I was cutting myself. My life had probably been fucked-up for about a year before Kurt Cobain killed himself, but I think that the reason that his death still affects me so much is because when I examine that time period, I see childhood before Kurt died and a very difficult adolescence afterward.

In an early version of BALLADS OF SUBURBIA, Kara starts going to Scoville Park just days before Kurt Cobain dies and she witnesses the affect his death has on the kids there. My editor told me I should cut this because Kurt Cobain's death also happens and affects the characters in I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE and my readers might think I was repeating myself. This was one of those dork moments where I felt my own personal obsession shining through. But I cut the scene and changed it so that Kara goes to Scoville after Kurt dies. That's how it was in my own life anyway. My description of Scoville Park on the day that Kurt died actually came from memories that my current/high school best friend (different from the aforementioned best friend, who was my childhood best friend) shared with me because she went to the park that day. I didn't. I wouldn't start hanging out there until fall of my sophomore year, but part of the reason I started going was because I felt so alone on the day Kurt died and I wanted friends that understood my musical obsessions and to put it bluntly, were freaks like me.

So before Kurt Cobain died, I was mostly a loner, who definitely was struggling with depression, mainly via bad poetry and self injury. After he died, I found my people.... but I also started doing drugs and was in some very unhealthy and destructive relationships with boys. I thought ages eight through foureen were bad, but it was nothing compared to fifteen through twenty-one. When I mourn Kurt Cobain, I am also mourning the time period in my life that followed it. This is what makes his music and his death so personal to me. Nothing spoke to me like his songs, but man, that girl that those songs spoke to was fucked up. And all of this is wrapped up in April 8th, which is why the beginning of April has historically been a bad time for me.

Part of that changed the first time I visited Seattle in 2004. That visit is best explained in my Fresh Yarn essay. I went there in full-on music nerd mode. I wanted to pay tribute to Kurt in the way I'd been too young to do when he died. Yes, I visited the more morbid sites like the house where he shot himself, but I also went to the places that Nirvana played and that had mattered to Kurt when he was living. And I fell in love with Seattle. That was completely unintentional. I had friends who were obsessed with Seattle because we grew up in the grunge era, but I'd always been more fascinated by other places like Minneapolis (which ultimately let me down) and New Orleans (which I still love). And I'd only just accepted Chicago as home. But on the bus ride from the airport to downtown, just looking at all the green and the water and smelling the air, I realized this is the place where my heart wants me to be. I still haven't been able to get it together financially to move there, but dammit, I will. Seattle and my visit to the park next to Kurt's house where Nirvana fans go to pay tribute to him finally started to heal ten-plus years of old wounds. And it seemed poetic, it happening in a park when a park played such a significant role in my post-Kurt Cobain's death teenage years.

Much like it is for Kara in BALLADS, Scoville Park was a place of both great joy and great despair for me. I finally found my people, the friends who understood what made me tick, friends that I've loved since the day I met them and will love ever since despite occasional times of trouble. I also lost a lot. Much of it centers around the boy who I fell in love with because he kinda looked like Kurt Cobain and I thought he had the same ethics as Kurt Cobain, but it turned out that he was abusive and a compulsive liar. However, I also felt like I had just as hard of a time fitting in at Scoville Park as I did with the popular crowd at my grade school sometimes. I was not as hip as the other punk and indie rocker kids. I don't know how to explain it, but I'm just not. I tried. I went through a stage when I was 16 when I wouldn't listen to anyone (besides Nirvana of course) who was on a major label and I tried to be up on all the latest bands and like who I was supposed to like even if I didn't because punk rock was my safe haven. But after the fallout of my abusive relationship with a guy who was also a punk and still for some reason allowed in the safe haven, I became jaded about the whole thing. Some punks I realized were just as big of snobs as those Gap-wearing preppy kids. It took a long time for me to find balance. I barely listened to punk for years because I was so disgusted.

I can't really explain it, but there was something about sitting in Kurt's park in 2004 and remembering the reason I loved his music in the first place that made me take stock of who I really am.

I love punk rock, but if a band I love gets popular, as long as they are still making music I can relate to,I am happy for them, I don't think they are sell-outs. I still love the bands that shaped me like Nirvana and Alice in Chains even though they are not considered punk by most people. Hell, I even love Pink because she speaks to me, I think she is punk at heart because I still love Kurt Cobain's definition of punk rock best: "Punk rock is freedom." To me, that's what it was always about. The freedom to be exactly what I wanted to be, to write words even if they were darker than I should be writing about, to wear whatever I wanted to wear, to listen to the music that moved me, to be politically active and fight for change. It's not about Mohawks and some strict code of ethics.

I'm not vegan because it's punk rock. I'm vegan because it's what I believe in.

I count Nirvana, Hole, Social Distortion, Rancid and Civet among my favorite bands because they write songs that touch me. I don't care what record label they are on or how cool it is to like them.

I still love to wear flannel and ripped jeans and band t-shirts because they are comfortable. I also like to dress up and wear funky tights and sometimes appear to be very stylish and sometimes appear to be very weird.

And to bring me to my last point, I like baseball. I pretended not to like any sports from roughly seventh grade until I was about twenty-three because the kids who liked sports were the kids that mocked and beat up on kids like me. It was not punk rock to like sports because of this. (At least that is my rationale, no rationale ever seemed to be given.) This seems to have changed some and I'm glad of it, but that's not why I let myself love certain sports again. Baseball was a huge part of my childhood. My father and I did not always have the best relationship growing up, but my fondest memories of him are at baseball games, carefully keeping his scorecard. Born in St Louis, I was a raised a Cardinals fan. This is why I became a White Sox fan when I moved to Chicago in 1988. Being a Cubs fan is unacceptable in my family, but I wanted to cheer for a team that I could actually watch on TV semi regularly (the Cubs still dominated the airwaves back then) and go to see, so I chose the White Sox. It wasn't until I started bartending at the Beacon when I was twenty-three that I rediscovered my love for baseball. I bartend at a predominantly White Sox bar and I worked afternoon shifts, meaning that it was just me and the ballgame on a lot of days. My second year of this, in 2005, things got exciting because the White Sox were really, really good! I remember the day they clinched their division. I was alone in the bar, but moments later, a friend/regular who lives across the street and works from home, came running in for a celebratory drink.

"Did you high-five the tappers?" he asked me. If he wasn't an even bigger fan than me, I might have blushed when I admitted, "Yeah, I sure did."

Unfortunately when they went on to the World Series, I went to LA for a semester. I was living with a Cubs fan in a city filled with Angels fans, who the White Sox had conquered to get to the World Series. The day they won, I had no one to celebrate with, so I called the bar and asked my fellow bartender to let me talk to a few people and just put the phone on the bar so I could hear all the screaming and shouting.

Usually I miss the White Sox home opener because I often go to Seattle in April with the friends that I went with in 2004 and had that paradigm-shifting experience because being there reminds me of the good that ultimately came from the first week of April in 2004 instead of the ugliness that seemed to resonate around that time of year for the first ten years after Kurt died. This year we aren't going until August, so I jumped at the opportunity to go to the game with my friends from the Beacon.

It was a cold and foggy day, but we won 5 to 1 and I jumped around and high-fived my friends, excited as I am when I go to a concert. I will never get into football, I'm not much of a basketball fan, but I really love hockey and especially baseball. This is part of me and I embrace it.

I'm sure it didn't happen all at once during those days in Kurt's park on April 5 and 8 of 2004. It happened gradually. Part of it was going back to school for writing at twenty-one instead of continuing down the destructive, drunk and drugged path I was on. Part of it was working at the Beacon at twenty-three, which is why I had to write a book about bartending because it has opened my eyes in a similar way that music and reading has. I met people who seemed very different from me on the surface, but at the core we related, we bonded over things from gardening to reading to baseball. But it definitely really came together for me at twenty-four/almost twenty-five when I finally made that trek to Seattle. That's when I decided to set aside as much of the grief and anger from my past as I could and embrace all of the parts that made up the person I am--the writer, the grunge kid, the teenage punk rocker and riot grrrl, the twenty year-old goth, all the way back to the shy, nerdy little girl who loved books and baseball.

It's strange thinking that I was finally beginning to put these things together at twenty-four, the age Kurt Cobain was when he was thrust into the limelight by the success of his band, something he both dreamed of, but hated himself for dreaming about because of those stupid faux punk rock ethos that are not freeing at all. He was depressed and as someone who has struggled with that, I get it. Also, though my addictions were never as gripping as his, I get that aspect of it too. I can see now, how it all fell apart for him, though I wish, especially for the sake of his daughter, that it hadn't. Maybe In Utero still would have been the best thing that Nirvana ever created. Maybe he would have faded away. Or maybe he would have found himself and did something even more brilliant. It still makes me sad to wonder. And I don't care if it makes me a dork or uncool to admit that.

I want to say thank you, Kurt Cobain, for the music that has inspired me now for almost twenty years, for the strength you gave me while you were around to try to be myself and then finally, ten years after your death, to *actually* be myself and embrace all sides of me because that's when things started happening. A year after that I found an agent and got out of my last destructive relationship with a guy. I went on to sell books and learn to love myself and finally find someone who loved me the right way. There are still moments of darkness because that--the depression, the pessimism, the girl who still wants to wear all black on some days--is still a part of me, but I've learned to embrace that too, use it for what it's good for, which is creating art, but not let it stop me from being (mostly) optimistic. As you sung, Kurt, "The sun is gone, but I have a light." You helped me find that light. I'm sorry you couldn't find it yourself, but thank you for sharing it with so many others.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Women Who Rock Wednesday: JK Rowling (& my nerdy Harry Potter reading plans)

I'm working to bring back interviews and such for Women Who Rock Wednesday, but today I just wanted to give a shout-out to one of my all-time writing heroines, Ms. JK Rowling, who is pictured on the left here with Emma Watson:

JK Rowling is a total rock star when it comes to storytelling. I don't think I could ever create such an intricately built world and write about a group of characters so solidly through seven books. She just amazes me. Plus that whole story of her writing it as a single mom in a coffee shop. Heroine. Plain and simple. But one of the reason I love her stories so much and the reason I chose of picture of her with Emma, who of course plays Hermione in the movies is because she writes smart girl characters. I wish that the Harry Potter books had been around when I was in third/fourth/fifth grade and being put down by the popular crowd because I liked to learn and used my brain. I also had bushy brown hair that I could do nothing with for years, too. Hermione is one of the best role models out there for young girls in my opinion. She's smart and proud of it. She never tries to dumb herself down for a guy. She's strong, not a doormat, and she's not apologetic for it. She is indispensable to Harry and Ron because she is who she is. And then Rowling also gives us characters like Ginny and Mrs. Weasley, and my mom's favorite, Professor McGongagall, who are all strong, smart, caring women.

So thanks, JK Rowling, for writing one of my all-time favorite series and giving us some seriously kick-ass girls in it.

And now for my nerdy confession. As you know the final Harry Potter movie comes out in July (right around my birthday, squee!!! What an awesome present!), so I'm gearing up. When the Harry Potter books first came out I was able to read them in a couple days because I worked this wonderful job (seriously, best job ever) where I just answered phones and made photocopies at the Fiction Writing Department where I went to college, so I spent most of my time sitting around and reading. Now unfortunately it takes me a long time to read a book (plus I'd like to read other books while I'm doing this), so I am planning to re-read the Harry Potter books in order, one every two weeks, up until the movie comes out. I will watch the movie after reading each book.

Is anybody else doing any re-reading or other nerdy Harry Potter activities to celebrate the last movie? I need to know who I can geek out with!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Lessons Learned from Spring Cleaning

Since I've been waiting for notes from my agent on the Bartender Book and I didn't want to dive into anything new just yet, I've been catching up on all the things that I let slide while in book mode for the past few months. I also decided it was time for a major spring cleaning. I keep my house relatively clean, but I let things like wiping down the kitchen cabinets and dusting the bookshelves go... for a very long time. Then there are those tasks like cleaning the fridge that really, in my opinion at least, only need to be done once a year or so.

So that's what I've been up to the past few days and I've learned some lessons.

1. I am not cut out to be a housewife or the Martha Stewart of cleaning. I'm good at organization, hence the reason I spent almost as much time putting my bookshelves in proper order (I tend to let that go when busy) as I did on the actual scrubbing of things. And I was at a loss over how to get certain things clean. For example, all of my lamp shades were crazy dusty. My idea was to brush them off with a paper towel. *shrugs* Fortunately I posted about this conundrum on facebook and my friend Christie came to the rescue suggesting lint rollers! Lint rollers and the vacuum were my saviors. Thank goodness Scott insisted we ask for a good vacuum when we got married and there I was thinking we wouldn't really need it because we have wood floors. See how clueless I am? Of course those wood floors can be vacuum and so can the oven, the refrigerator, the couch, and a bunch of hard to reach places.

2. The main reason we need the vacuum? Cat hair. These three little buggers, while adorable are shedding machines!

In fact, I think they should be the ones *doing* the spring cleaning because for the most part it appears to be their fault that the house is dirty. Seriously, can someone explain to me why there was a shit-ton of cat hair *under* the crisper drawers in the fridge. How the fuck does that happen?

3. I've always loved our kitchen. I've been drawn to black-and-white color schemes since fifth grade when I asked for my blue bedroom to be painted black, white and red. However, can you guess the issue with this?

If your guess was too much freakin' white to keep clean, you are correct. That picture was taken not long after we bought the place so the cabinets are still sparkling white, presumably because the guy who had the house before us either A. Was the Martha Stewart of cleaning or B. Hired professionals to get them that freakin' white. I cannot do the same. During the great cleaning of 2009 (we thought we did spring cleaning last year but when I found bottles of salad dressing and such in the fridge that expired in 2009, I figured out that we couldn't have cleaned last year because while I am a pack rat and will save things even if I doubt I will ever use them, I do not save things past expiration dates), my total-moron-cleaning-skills were in full effect when I bought these sponge/steel wool type things that I thought would be awesome for scrubbing stuff, but um, they had this soap in them--again, I thought that was a brilliant idea--and they basically streaked my white cabinets blue. This time I made sure to buy plain sponges and just used my environmentally friendly cleaning spray from Trader Joe's and it worked out pretty well, but it is impossible to get those white cabinets completely clean. So in the future, white cabinets in the kitchen is a house-buying dealbreaker.

4. Cleaning hurts!!! Because I spent so long on the "fun cleaning" (ie. re-arranging the art on the walls and putting the books in proper order) on Friday and Saturday (and I actually did a lot of procrastinating the cleaning as well), I spent roughly 8 hours yesterday doing the hardcore scrubbing and my fingers, hands, shoulders, back, everything KILLS! It hurt so much that I couldn't really sleep last night. Good thing I only have a little bit left to do and then my plan is to spend the afternoon reading.

5. I have to spend more time reading because I have wayyyyy too many unread books. I have an entire small, three-shelf bookcase filled with TBR books and I know there are a few on my regular shelves that I haven't read yet either. I told myself that I could only buy new books after I empty one shelf from the TBR bookcase, but I'm sure that won't happen. I'm just too addicted.

6. The results, having a super clean house are definitely satisfying. Everything is almost perfect except for my office (which I'm saving because I hope to be moving my office to a different part of the house this spring) and the bathrooms (which are my husband's area to clean. He is perfect for me in many ways and one of them is he doesn't mind cleaning the bathroom which is the one part of the cleaning I absolutely despise). Oh and I need to do some yard cleaning and garden prepping but I'm saving that for slightly warmer weather.

What about you? Any out of control piles of stuff you need to get rid of or get organized this spring? Are you a cleaning moron like me or do you have tips to share? Do you try to do a big annual (or every other year) clean-up like us or do you do things a different way?