An Object in Motion…

May 31, 2014
Andrew Blissenbach

I can’t stop moving. As you read this, I’m tapping my fingers or double-bass drumming or stretching my back or chewing my nails or doing power cleans or keeping time with my teeth to some imagined 4/4 rock song. I am from a generation of men who shrug at the letters ADD and ADHD, who were raised on Mountain Dew and high-speed internet, 30-second porn clips and Easy Mac, blast beats and Ritalin, 240 b.p.m. and 7,000 r.p.m. We are the first wave of humans who have been fully ensconced in this world of blurs, of Napalm Death’s You Suffer (a song two seconds in length), of the action movie Crank, where Jason Statham has been injected with some adrenaline-sapping poison and is forced to kick ass at a frenetic pace, lest his heart stop. It’s like we’re all sharks in a shrinking tank, with two choices: move or die.

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As you’ve probably guessed, such a craving for motion can be problematic when attempting to write thoughtful prose. If you can’t tame that stallion known as energy, you’re liable to wander away from the ol’ writing desk and smack your punching bag or do tricks with your cavalry scimitar (or one of your many other swords). But, contrary to those voicing displeasure with proactive physicality in our head-based civilization, such a lively disposition isn’t a detriment to an artist. Energy, aggression, conviction, a certain form of fearlessness (or, as my football coaches would always say, “A healthy disregard for your body”): these attributes are gifts. Remember, we’re only a handful of generations away from an existence that averaged 40-some years. Our brains are still wired for such brevity. So of course I’m antsy and agitated! I best kill and skin some ungulate before my daughter starves and I die of cholera. And now, with my biology pretty much the same as it was a thousand years ago, you want me to spend hundreds of hours of time, waste hundreds of hours of precious, fleeting time, on calculus? On art history? On creative fucking writing? On dozens of other abstractions that might come in handy in some far-flung future (a future, my brain constantly reminds me, which could very well be non-existent)? So, yeah, men are notorious non-readers and anti-intellectuals (scan pretty much any of The Atlantic cover articles of the last three years and you’ll see the startling gender gap amongst the current crop of undergrad and grad students), but that doesn’t disqualify their existence from deeper examination. Figure I might as well test my endurance in the arena of letters and prove that writing can have claws and jaws and a brain (insert dick joke HERE). And perhaps even a heart. Masculine energy doesn’t always manifest itself in strip club brawls, rape jokes, and Call of Duty marathons. Pretty sure that Shakespeare guy proved rowdiness and literature aren’t mutually exclusive.

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Anyhoo, the reason I’m writing this in the first place is because of Addie Zierman and the #mywritingprocess blog hop. Addie and I are in a writing group together (with two other great writers, Beth Duncan-Windler and Johanna Buch) and she has to endure my boorish verbosity and potty mouth while I get to edit phenomenal writing that has readers and makes money. Here’s a bunch of stuff about Addie :

Her blog/website is called How to Talk Evangelical and is at www.addiezierman.com

Her latest book, When We Were On Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love and Starting Over, is at most bookstores (at Barnes and Noble it’s placed in the Christian Inspiration section). It’s a great book and has been praised by numerous reviewers, so go buy it. No, it’s alright, large caliber handgun easily within reach, they’ll buy the book.

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So I guess the “blog hop” is like a chain letter, I don’t know. Normally, I shoot or stab people associated with hashtags (below the groin, though, as I’m not a total barbarian), but #mywritingprocess is a great way to get new readers while revealing the sexually alluring craft that is sitting in front of a computer, staring, and occasionally mumbling.

             1.      WHAT AM I WORKING ON?

I’m cranking out some essays! Being an educator, I have the benefit of writing pretty much all day during the months of June, July, and August. During the summer months, my wife’s at work, my dog (a greyhound) is a petable corpse, and my daughter’s at daycare (except for Fridays, which are Daddy/Daughter/Dog Days). Therefore, I have ambitious goals for the upcoming writing season. I’m normally not a writer squawking about his “raw work,” but I figure a modest amount of declaration will keep me accountable, what with all this time on my hands (and a friend recently brought his Wii to my house, a Wii that has pretty much every nostalgia-inducing 8-bit Nintendo game ever created; yeah, I’m coming to fuck you up, Castlevania). So, using a generous helping of the above-mentioned masculine churn, here’s the list, using a bunch of insufficient and purposely vague sentence fragments, as all mentioned below is subject to flux:

  1. Finish my Minneapolis Adventure essay, a piece that documents my walkabout from Northeast Minneapolis to my house in (far) Southeast Minneapolis. It’ll be about 50 pages. Already have the first six chapters published. Epic.
  2. Present a short piece on bench pressing. Love me some heavy weights! Body image. Insecurity. TICKETS TO THE GUN SHOW!  
  3. Uncork a doozy documenting urinals and male bathrooms. Grossness. Intimacy. Poorly rendered graffiti. Pictures? Trust me. Pictures.
  4. In an attempt to make your ears bleed, I’ll blast out an essay on grindcore, a sub-genre of metal music. Rock commercialism. Rock-as-art. Is grindcore a subterranean and necessary savior or a garbled shit-fest of unintelligible noise? GRINDGRINDGRIND!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  5. Because bacon has infested everything and saturated all corners of culinary pop-culture, this vegetarian guy (pointing at self) will wade through…grease…pig slaughter…angioplasties…a bacon race. Cuz meat is manly.
  6. So I went hunting with my father-in-law. First time for this city slicker! Frozen balls. Shot a gun. Blood. Guts. Deer stands. Quiet. And more quiet. A lot of stillness. Is hunting the last and truest “Zen” experience available to men?
  7. I’ll detail how a scientist tinkered with my DNA in order to reveal my racial heritage. Identity. Legacy. Doing my best to not be accused of racism. What is a man made of and where does he come from? TUNE IN TO FIND OUT IF MANDREW IS WELSH!!!!!!                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      2.      HOW DOES MY WORK DIFFER FROM OTHERS OF ITS GENRE?

I feel like I’m at a job interview. “Well, I differ from others in my genre by displaying traits of both a leader and a team player. And I only drink excessively on the weekends. And Thursdays. And usually Wednesdays, I guess. HUMP DAY!!!…No, it’s okay, no need to get security involved; I’ll show myself out.” In a general sense (although there are plenty of white male writers out there), I’ve yet to encounter a blog of creative nonfiction that focuses a curious masculine lens on topics such as authority, fatherhood, self-esteem, nature, and identity while using general readership narratives like haircuts, walks, spitting, working out, and other situations men find themselves in. God, it’s a confusing, irritating, hilarious, and downright interesting time to be a man. I feel there is a bit of a hole out there in the blogosphere, that there’s not a lot of deep subject, big picture stuff that combines the personal with the universal, as far as addressing directly what affects men in the 21st century.

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In a craft sense, I bow at the altar of David Foster Wallace and heavily lean on the creative nonfiction of such verbose stylists as Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen, and David Eggers (and innumerable more influences, really). And I don’t believe it is a coincidence that all of the above writers are better known for their fiction than their nonfiction. I do my best to incorporate the energy I alluded to earlier through the use of “novelistic” conventions: scene, active verbs, hyperbolic metaphor, obscure vocabulary, sensorial detailing, multi-clause sentence structure, and rising tides of conflict. My stuff differs from a lot of the blogs I read in that it is not anecdotal or free-floating thought, bereft of an in-the-moment anchor.

When writing my essays, I follow the wise words of Phillip Lopate, believing that “actions speak louder than words. Give your protagonist, your I-character, something to do. It’s fine to be privy to all of I’s ruminations and cerebral nuances, but consciousness can only take us so far in the illumination of character.” Another writerly tactic that adds flesh to an essay’s bones (and separates me from the pack a bit more) is the combination of literary references with pop-culture flotsam and jetsam. It’s kinda cool that Arnold Schwarzenegger and Clay Matthews can hang out with Tacitus and Mark Twain. Then, finally, there are the pictures. Where else but on MANDREW’s Blissenblog can you find images of a grown man in a suit playing hopscotch? Go big or go home, bro.

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             3.      WHY DO I WRITE WHAT I DO?

The first profession I remember being interested in was Schoolyard Man Who Pushes All the Big Boys in the Snow. Sadly, my mother revealed to me that such a profession didn’t exist and that me and my crew (known as “The Rough Boys”) should ease up on the preschool horseplay (although, to her credit, I think she found my shenanigans charming and thus scolded me with a semi-proud and resigned smile). Then I wanted to be the Karate Kid. Following a lot of crane-stance kicking and bloody noses (and many years involved in martial arts), I began to mellow ever-so-slightly and found a grade-school niche as an artist, specifically of comic books featuring mice barely altered from their original namesakes (Batman became Batmouse, etc.). I quickly became known as the de-facto “drawing dude” in my class, a distinction that merited a decent amount of respect. Then Rashawn came along. A dimpled African-American boy with a smile of significant wattage, Rashawn transferred to our school midway through fifth grade. He and I got along great; he was a pretty good athlete, we traded sandwiches at lunch, and we both admired quarterbacks who could scramble (Randall Cunningham and Steve Young, mostly).

One day we were doing an art project that involved drawing the cover of the book Julie of the Wolves. On the cover was Julie, a young Yupik girl in full arctic dress, and a pack of wolves. I was locked in, tongue protruding slightly from my mouth, fully concentrating on giving the fur lining of Julie’s parka the right amount of shade. But a commotion, a gathering, pulled me from my pencil and paper. A few feet away, hushed tones of reverence grabbed me by the ass and pulled me up. Like a typically curious fifth grader, I needed to see what the big deal was. Cutting through the smaller kids, I made my way to the center of the whispered awe. There, in the middle of it all, amongst back slapping and congratulations, was Rashawn, and the goddamn best rendering I could imagine of Julie and her pack of wolves, wolves that practically bit at me from the page. Even the arctic setting, a flat nothing in my drawing, was somehow windswept, somehow crevassed, somehow ALIVE. I subsequently lost my reputation as the best “drawing dude” in the class and so, knowing I’d been bested and having no chance of ever reclaiming my mantle, I decided to focus on the storytelling aspect of my comics. Although mentally crippling at first, I slowly warmed to my new (and far less respected) identity (although I still have a tough time jiving with the soft-hewn, coffeehouse aesthetic that most people associate with writers). I shifted my focus and became an acolyte of the written word. And I’ve been getting laid and making millions ever since.

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Okay, so now that my harrowing tale of how I became a writer is out of the way, I guess I’ll get to the watery center of the blister and reveal why I do what I do. I wish it was comparable to Michael Chabon’s pithy reply from his essay Trickster in a Suit of Light: Thoughts on the Modern Short Story:

“…I write to entertain. Period.”

And although entertainment is about 90-some percent of why I do this (I’m happy when you’re happy), there are two other big reasons why I write (and probably a bunch of others I don’t realize).

  1. Writing is a form of answering a challenge. When I read fantastic prose (or even poetry), I nod or breathe heavily or grit my teeth or smile. Maybe croak a “Yeah!” or two. After reading a great writer do what they do best, it’s like the sound of a gauntlet being dropped, of clanging metal issuing a direct challenge to my talents. Competition is a thrilling thing. Even though I know I’m outmatched most of the time, even though I know I have a miniscule chance of producing art at the level of a master, I dive in anyway, aware that a small chance is better than nothing. And I, like every ambitious writer before me, love those odds.
  2. Writing is a form of illumination. Allow me to let you down gently: I’m no genius. Some guy from the MacArthur Fellowship, sporting a tweed blazer and bowtie, isn’t showing up at my door to give me a million-dollar grant. But I’m a guy who’s grown tired of the scroll at the bottom of the screen, dashing by at Usain Bolt speed. That glut of information, of fragments posing as information, as knowledge, all of it is drained of context, empathy, curiosity, and basic humanity. The Scroll, and its evil cousins Soundbite and Talkinghead, is a corneal corkscrew of the topical and the reactionary, signaling not an end to analysis but a burial of it, as the conveyor belt keeps moving and the Scroll renews itself. The Scroll is judgment. And any essay, no matter how terrible, is an attempt to stop the Scroll, stop the judgment, just for a second, in order to ask a question. And think about the answer. If there is one. I’ll let John Williams and his novel Augustus bring this home:

“And it seems to me that the moralist is the most useless and contemptible of creatures. He is useless in that he would expend his energies upon making judgments rather than upon gaining knowledge, for the reason that judgment is easy and knowledge is difficult. He is contemptible in that his judgments reflect a vision of himself which in his ignorance and pride he would impose upon the world. I implore you, do not become a moralist; you will destroy your art and your mind.”

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              4.      HOW DOES YOUR WRITING PROCESS WORK?

This feels kinda anti-climactic. I wish I could reveal some intricate alchemical process, some heroic tale of slain gorgons or ancient tombs unearthed. Really, the process of writing usually starts with me jotting down some sentence or idea, wriggling and slippery and nascent as a tadpole, in my pocket notebook (an invaluable tool for any writer; I don’t tend to give much advice, as writing is a very personal undertaking, but every writer should have a pen and notebook handy at all times, lest your thoughts remain a tetherless abstraction). The surprise of what sprouts from that little germ in my notebook is where I get off (no pervert, homie). As I’ve accrued experience, I’ve learned to just let my brain explore pretty much every tangent it touches upon. When that organic branching starts to occur, like water seeking the path of least resistance, it sometimes feels like it was (not to get too quasi-religious or mystical on your ass, but) preordained.  “Let it go,” as Queen Elsa says. Have the guts to see what happens. `Tis better to overwrite and revise than to underwrite and add later (at least from my perspective).

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There are, of course, always allies in the mental rugby scrum that is writing. Garner’s Modern American Usage (Third Edition), the Oxford American Dictionary, and Shrunk and White’s Elements of Style are always six inches to my right, ready to lend some valuable trinket or bauble from their inexhaustible treasure trove. Notice, however, that there is no thesaurus. I’ve always felt that the use of a thesaurus, especially a reliance on one, is like steroids to an athlete. If I can’t conjure a word from the recesses of my head, then it shouldn’t be put on the page, as it isn’t a word I own. Shit keeps me sharp, man.

At the computer, that whole “energy, aggression, conviction, a certain type of fearlessness” hullabaloo I mentioned earlier really comes into play. It has to; each page I write, after editing and revisions, takes about two hours of time. In order to keep the flow going, I’m pretty vocal when I write. “Woo-hoo!” “Yes!” “What’s the fucking word?” There are also a lot of gestures at the screen (pointing, devil horns, middle fingers), usually followed by head shaking and bobbing. I’m a big pacer, too. Sometimes, though, when things are going good, I’ll implore whoever’s nearby (usually my wife or some poor, unsuspecting librarian) to read a sentence or metaphor because it is GOLD!

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What other tidbits on process? Well, I listen to music when I write, but, unlike other writers, I can crank out material while listening mostly to metal, with a little punk and alternative rock thrown in (many writers I know like listening to music while they write as well, but favor mellow tunes w/o vocals). Unless you’re some underground metal aficionado, you’ve never heard of the stuff I listen to, so I won’t waste your time by listing bands. Just know that it’s loud. Oh, and I never drink alcohol when I write. Don’t go into the game sloppy, son! Lots of water, though. Constant pee breaks keep me alert (and even more fidgety than usual). And I like peanut butter crackers as a snack. But it has to be Krema Peanut Butter (ingredients: peanuts) and some type of whole-wheat cracker. Brain food. Yum.

Yeah, like my (more talented) buddy Addie Zierman says, writing is hard. Trying to find time to write (at least from September through May) is difficult, what with a wife, toddler, dog, lizard, special education job, bouts of insomnia, and thousands of other piddly adult commitments. I won’t bore you by going into those commitments. But just know that the act of physically putting the word on the page and sacrificing energy to the cause, no matter how much it either resembles lead or gold, is the truest, and most difficult, part of the writing process.

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In order to continue this “blog hop,” I now present to you three writers of significant talent and differing styles:

First up is Kate Schuknecht. Kate and I tried to start a band (me on drums, Kate on vocals), but it fizzled before we could find any more stable components. We’ll try forming a band again soon, or at the very least get together, drink booze, and say (very loudly to one another) that we’ll form a band. In the meantime, read Kate’s food-centric hilarity at Bread and Mutter. Take it away, Kate!

Kate Shuknecht is a hard-working, hard-thinking poet/grocer who makes big food in her tiny kitchen in Minneapolis. She loves her: family, friends, farmers, publishing press and garlic press.

www.breadandmutter.com

Next up is Evan Kingston. Evan and I have had many spirited debates about movies, comic books, literature, and fart jokes, while playing Dungeons and Dragons in my basement. Stay calm, ladies, we’re both taken. As you’re coming down from being aroused, read Evan’s unique take on humor and all things cultural at The Oldest Jokes in the World. Say stuff, Evan!

Evan Kingston lives in St. Paul, MN with his wife, the poet and scholar Jenny McDougal. He writes fiction, serves as a fiction editor at Red Bird Chapbooks, and runs the frozen aisle in a grocery store. He is currently serially self-publishing a metafictional erotic thriller / comedic murder mystery / romantic slasher titled Slash, which was recently named an Indie Reader Top Book Pick. You can find his short fiction online at Versus Literary Journal and Revolver, and his bloggish thoughts on the relationship between literature and humor at The Oldest Jokes in the World.

www.evankingston.com

Last up is Sarah Turner. Sarah and I love to entertain each other with anecdotes and melodramatic facial expressions. She works with my wife, so I should probably refrain from saying anything too insulting. (Although, perhaps, it is MANDREW who holds the upper hand, as I can influence my wife to make Sarah’s work a living hell. What? I’ve just been informed that Sarah, unfortunately, holds the upper hand. TURNER!!!!!!!!!) Whatever. I’ll be nice. I wouldn’t want Sarah to stop having a crush on me anyway. What? I’ve once again been informed by my wife that I shouldn’t write stuff like that about my friends. (Pretending to delete the last sentence in order to maintain the domestic status-quo.) Anyhoo, grab a large dose of badassery at Sarah in Small Doses. Do what you do, Sarah!

Sarah Turner grew up the middle of three children in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. After receiving a B.A. in English from UW-La Crosse, she spent four years investigating complaints against the NYPD in New York City. She then moved to St. Paul and completed an M.F.A. in creative writing from Hamline University, where she served as an assistant editor for Water~Stone Review. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in rock, paper, scissors; She Bear Literary; Versus; Sleet; and Prairie Gold: An Anthology of the American Heartland. She also freelance edits museum content for exhibits, including “The International Exhibition of Sherlock Holmes.” She writes CNF with a humorous tilt and can be found blogging at sarahinsmalldoses.wordpress.com or performing improv at Brave New Workshop Student Union.

www.sarahinsmalldoses.wordpress.com

Check back soon for my continuing Minneapolis walkabout in Part Seven: Call of the North!!!!!!!!!!!!