Penguins & Vomit by Josh Stallings

It is my extreme pleasure to welcome Josh Stallings, author of the Moses McGuire series, to the blog today to talk about his amazingly frank and powerful memoir, All the Wild Children (Snubnose Press).

Out There Bad by Josh Stallings“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…

Penguins.

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.

Out There Bad by Josh StallingsOver 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.

Josh Stallings is your average ex-criminal, ex-taxi driver, ex-club bouncer, film making, script writing, movie advertising editing, punk. Google him and you will find he has won many awards for his work as a trailer editor. Kinda Cute for a White-Boy, an independent feature he directed and co-wrote with novelist Tad Williams, won best picture at the Savannah International Film Festival. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife Erika, his bullmastiff Nelson, Lucy the lab pit mix and Riddle the cat. He is the author of the Moses McGuire books Out There Bad and Beautiful, Naked & Dead. To learn more about Josh, visit his website. You can also follow Josh on Twitter.
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5 Comments

  • Josh Stallings

    March 14, 2013 - 6:37 pm

    Thank you for letting me sully your otherwise perfect site with penguins and vomit. I’m with you Dan, I don’t consciously write, let alone choose the freakin words. Bless my mother, she was trying to do what all mothers try: say what you did was good, stick it on the fridge, pat you on the head and get on with their day.

  • AJ Hayes

    March 14, 2013 - 6:16 pm

    Keep preachin’ Brother Stallings. Truth always needs tellin’.

  • Thomas Pluck

    March 14, 2013 - 11:18 am

    Keep vomiting my friend… your stories need to be told.

  • sabrina ogden

    March 14, 2013 - 11:00 am

    Powerful stuff, Josh. All The Wild Children is a MOVIE I’d LOVE to see… And the penguin talk is why I love you so much.

  • Dan O'Shea

    March 14, 2013 - 10:19 am

    I like your word choices? I’m trying to think of the last time I conciously “chose” a word when writing. Editing maybe. Usually because I used a word twice in close proximity and I have to swap one of them out, so I go throught that mental thesaurus thing. But the best word choices, the best bits of copy, they just come in the flow of things, they aren’t concious choices. Barry Sanders didn’t take the handoff and think “I’m gonna start right, stop dead, cut back, do that piroutte thing, do that other thing where I actually make my hips go in two seperate directions at the same time…” he just took the ball and ran. And we just write. Man, if I’m sitting at the keyboard choosing words, that’s a bad fucking day.

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