Working on leaving the living (2)

Photo credit, Loren Chasse

Photo credit, Loren Chasse

As I’m nearing my 500th post, and re-entering the job market as a writer after a 20+ year detour, I’m sharing a few stories of working for small publications in the early 90s, on the east coast. Blog title HT to Modest Mouse.

Randy said my apartment looked like a gay lived there or a Republican, which wasn’t good by how he said it even though he himself was gay, likely not a Republican but a bartender instead.

The bar was down the hill from my apartment and we went back to my place after closing, the staff, sometimes the band, and I tried to keep it down because my 80 year old landlord Jules lived upstairs with his wife Mabel, but he was dead-drunk and listless by that time of night, they never said anything.

I typed in the dark by the window and the glow of the streetlamps because it had an urban feel to it, like a real city with car alarms and shootings, a drink by the manual typewriter and a messy stack of rewrites, the type sometimes drooping by the angle of the roller like it was falling off the page.

But I was living in Allentown, PA and Allentown was dying, fast.

Enter Christopher Cross my first day, moving in. He just stopped me on the street and asked Are you an artist, which made me pause (come-on line? bum? drug dealer? gay? am I an artist, really?).

But I said I am — in fact I’m a writer and he lit up, said he’s starting a paper and looking for writers. The paper was about all the great cultural things going on in Allentown. It was called Excitement! and yes, it was in italics like that, with the exclamation point too.

He had bad skin, skin that’s an off-color like there’s a problem with the organs, a bit bluish-green, and pock-marked. But his daughter was sick, he was raising her on his own, and his eyes went soft in a way I believed him, like this paper was his one big thing now. And I really wanted to be published, so I got his number.

He said I could pretty much write whatever I wanted and what ideas did I have. So I turned to beer, because I liked it, and did an interview with a guy who was running a small German brewery called Neuweiler.

When it was published, I got a bunch of copies and read and reread it. I didn’t like it so much, but it seemed better somehow in print. Or worse, I couldn’t tell.

I had about four jobs at once, then. One of the other jobs was at a theater in town where I took care of the visiting actors: pick them up at the bus station, tend to their needs, make them feel at home in Allentown.

An older actor came into the bar one night when I was waiting tables and sat, alone. I told him I was a writer and published, gave him the paper. So he read it while he was eating and set it aside and I asked what he thought and he shrugged, It’s fine — it’s not what he said I remember but the way he looked at me, which said more.

Just because you put something in print doesn’t mean it can stand up, doesn’t make it better because it’s been published in bulk.

But writers and artists live in a world of constant self-doubt; it’s two arguments going on in your head at all times, and you only make it by squashing the side that’s telling you to stop, by feeding the mad part, by stuffing more into it to keep it going.

And like the messy stack of rewrites I came home to every night, having my name in print helped me believe, despite.

When we were out on Valentine’s Day, Dawn said it’s a life where you will never be really satisfied, like other vocations. And she said she understands (because she really does), and she let me have her story idea.


Categories: writing

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17 replies

  1. “But writers and artists live in a world of constant self-doubt; it’s two arguments going on in your head at all times, and you only make it by squashing the side that’s telling you to stop, by feeding the mad part…” Oh indeed YES! But many congrats on the job, Bill.


  2. Everything I know about Allentown I learned from Billy Joel. Somehow the idea of a paper called Excitement! doesn’t mesh – even if you do italicize it.


    • Yeah, that’s pretty much what you hear when you tell people you’re from Allentown. It goes to show how far Billy Joel’s reach is. And I’m reminded of that video, which seemed very Hollywood-production, and the guys coming home from a long day working the coal mines. I think there’s darkness inside all of that to explore, that’s where I’d want to go with it…sink holes, and some-such. Domestic violence.


  3. “it’s a life where you will never be really satisfied, like other vocations.” Dawn’s right about that. I think that’s a draw for me, to be always striving, never done. Sometimes I think writing a blog is a little like getting printed in bulk. Does it make us just a less desperate as writers if we can be read, even without pay? I so enjoy finally having readers, but I do wonder if it’s just playing a shell game to avoid more difficult work.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s exactly a shell game for me Michelle. Given the choice, I gravitate to instant gratification vs. the harder, long-term work. It’s talking about writing, really. Even when you’re writing it’s not altogether the same thing. Like calling email-writing writing, or a click away. More than writing checks or grocery lists, though.


  4. Super!

    Sent from my iPad

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I remember the old typewriter and carbon paper and all that paraphernalia too. I used to cut and paste to restructure without retyping, I hated it so much! Thanks for the memories…

    I think you’re right about the boost you get from seeing your work in print, but it’s true: validation really comes from readers who get what you’re doing and appreciate it. Still, print does help you believe, and that’s a big chunk of the battle.


    • Thanks Kevin. Belief is like most of it right? Faith, persistence, when it’s so much easier to just “not.” But there’s nothing in that. Manual typing was as close as I ever got to making music in its percussive ness. I’m sure the neighbors didn’t think so. Sounds like fire crackers accompanied by a little bell every 12 seconds, and the crank of the carriage sliding back, “reload.” You’re making me wistful now.


  6. What did that old actor know about literature anyway?

    When we were in Allentown (which we call Allenbeartown on account of my daughter’s favorite teddy bear, Allen) the streets were dead. Walking back to the car after lunch we passed a large, ethnically diverse group of young men. They were wearing bright, matching t-shirts with some anti-drug message and I wondered who they were preaching to. There was literally no one else around. If I had the keys to a time machine right now, I think I’d go back to old Allentown (way older than that Saturday).

    How awesome of your wife to give you her story idea. That’s fantastic.


    • Well what I was writing then sure wasn’t literature and arguably not now either, but thanks Kristen. Allentown. It’s my home town, so I have mixed feelings about it…they said the mall killed it and I believe that. Towns die from the inside out. It became a bad version of New York quick, in the time after I left. Funny that it’s a ghost town now, even worse in some ways. I’ll have a look when I’m back there in April — along with that dilapidated castle near Huff’s Church. Look it up on the map; I wonder how near it is to where you live.

      Yeah, my wife is cool in many ways but especially in sharing her ideas. She shared one with a filmmaker friend in LA and now that story is being picked up by Forest Whittaker’s studio, about the first US transgender mayor, in Oregon. Stu Rasmussen. She gave me some images (not a story) but enough to get me going, sci-fi. Artificial Intelligence stuff.


  7. My first freelance story for The Montreal Gazette was on homebrewing. I wrote it like I was the first to discover it. I still have the clippings somewhere. It all leads somewhere. Great post.


    • You were the first to discover it, right? Yes, I saved all my clippings too of course. And creepy: they look like they’re from another century (because they are!). Thank you Ross.

      Liked by 1 person

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