“I like your word choices and the metaphors.” My mother said that as a way to try and talk about my crime books. “Honey, why do you think people like your writing?” She doesn’t like it and is truly baffled that others do. I get that. Fucked in the head violent drunks ain’t everybody’s idea of a hero.
But what made me smile was a mother’s need to find something to like. My metaphors? I’m not a fan of metaphors; this may be driven by my suspicion that all life is a metaphor for something deeper. Maybe I just didn’t take metaphor 101 so I don’t get them. And so, contrary son of a bitch that I am…
Huddled in a huge mass of black and white sits a fledgling. When the mothers go off to hunt up some fish, the young must be accepted by the flock or get pushed out and freeze. So far it seems clear, fit in or die. But when the mother penguins return the fledglings all cheep or chirp or whatever sound it is they make. This is where it gets tricky. If their chirp isn’t unique, if their mother cannot differentiate its baby from the masses, the baby starves.
Fit in or die. Primal shit.
Be seen as unique or die. Equally primal shit.
“Penguins?” you are thinking. “Has Josh gone soft and all Nat-Geo? What the fuck do penguins have to do with his memoir?”
I am 50, and I am sitting in the dayroom of a mental hospital is how All The Wild Children begins, but it isn’t how it started. It is the outcome of a writing warm up exercise I kludged from other writer’s tips. A trick I used to get that cruel editor upstairs to shut the fuck up. No good writing can get past that crew. They are too focused on fitting in. “Don’t write that, people will think you’re weird or dumb or…insert mean isolating image here.”
This very thought is at war in my head with the need to be seen as unique.
When I was a young man I used gallons of scotch to shut down the internal edit crew. Problem was it also made good writing a sloppy stumbling proposition.
Then I found “Word Vomit.” Here is how it works – I pick up my Flair pen and Moleskine notebook, set an egg timer for six minutes, pen on paper I write without stop. Rápido. Whenever a complete sentence starts to form I toss in a non-sequitur like macaw or grease-gun or Elvis or…you get the idea. Then, bing! The egg is boiled. It looks like this: cloud barker time freeze brain pie mood rampart warning band aide baby boy crazy tree kill river moon pie silly cream time dog camisole coming water thunder dreams… page after page of this beat poet drivel.
I study this word jumble until I circle sequential words that look like a title, baby boy crazy in this case. I write this title at the top of a fresh page. I set twenty minutes on the timer, grab my Flair and let it fly. Without thinking I write Baby Boy Crazy.
In the waiting room of the mental hospital, I sit alone. Longing for that one perfect moment to return. The one that never comes, and is only dreamt. Forever ago, I was holding a child in my arms. He was hot and wet from his mother’s womb. He was pure possibility.
Be clear, when I sat down I had no intention to write about my son and his schizophrenia. I was just warming up, getting ready to write my new crime book. Word Vomit was just a way to focus, get in that zone I need to be in to write. My wife says I go into a fugue state when I work. Could be she’s correct. What I do know is by typing nonsense I found my voice. First with Moses McGuire and now with All The Wild Children. I can feel when I am writing from the deeply personal unique space and when I’m faking it to fit in with the flock.
Over time the Word Vomit pieces started to take shape. They formed a bigger picture. Yes they needed lots of reshaping, editing, crafting, but they were leading me to a book so painfully personal I never would have chosen to write it.
Over several years the notebooks filled up. At twenty minutes a shot I wrote about my life. Short tight essays. Some needed tons of editing, some appear in the book virtually unchanged. “Mad Brush Fires,” the chapter about LA burning and my son shooting heroin remains pure from its Word Vomit beginning.
I started to see a clear picture of who I am and where I came from.
I was a child of the 60s, raised in the counterculture. My folks were busy saving the world and finding their inner child while we kids hid in plain sight. We sibs say we were raised by wolves. True, my childhood was populated by feral children and wolves. We kids pulled in tight, keeping each other warm and protected. Our wolf parents loved us, but wolves have a hard time seeing feral kids as anything but competition or lunch.
We kids were barely seen at all, and not as unique. This primal need to be seen drove us hard into guns and drugs and any other way a kid can find to say I am different from the masses around me. We grew our hair long, we rocked skin-tight jeans, we fucked and fought and earned raised eyebrows and criminal records.
We formed a tribe of four. We added members to our family of choosing. We fell in love. We had our hearts broken. Some of us shot dope. Some of us stripped off our clothes for drunk Japanese tourists. Some of us stuck fingers down our throats so we could make weight in a fantasy body image quest. Some of us got stoned every morning to stave off the fear that went with surviving as a white boy in a largely black ghetto high school. Some of us packed a nickel plated .38 to prom night. We survived; hell we even thrived.
The thing about primal shit is, well, it is primal. If your need to be seen isn’t met when you are a kid, it will remain a need for-fucking-ever. Doesn’t mean it rules me or breaks me. But it is one of the bass notes rumbling in my sound track.
On the eve of the publication of my memoir, I take a deep breath and look back. Me and my brother and two sisters were raised by wolves. We didn’t get truly seen. It drove us to wild excess, forced us to live life large. We had us one hell of a time, and survived to tell the tale.