Tag Archives: fuck you

A Garbage Bag of Bottles

Bag of Bottles

I wrote a draft of this blog post last weekend, while sitting in an apartment in Lakewood, Ohio — the apartment my mom and my Uncle Tim rented. It was a beautiful two floor house with each floor divided into a separate living unit. The layout was surprisingly similar to the one Michelle and I had when we first moved to St. Louis nearly nine years ago. The place felt comfortable, and it felt natural to throw my coat over a chair and sit at the table to write, just like I did when I was starting as a freelance writer.

It was also the apartment my uncle’s corpse was found in, surrounded by empty vodka bottles, the carpet black with his own bloody vomit.

As Mom’s boyfriend, Bill, drove us back to his house from the plane, she told me what had happened. Uncle Tim had come home drunk again. “It’s like he’s two different people,” she said, “and I can’t stand the one that drinks.” She left to spend a few days with Bill, afraid of what she would say or do if she stayed and watched him drink again. By the time she came back, he was dead, face down on his bed. All of the empty bottles of alcohol around him filled a garbage bag by themselves.

Her voice was sad and a little shaken, but mostly she sounded resigned. This is an old story with our family. Uncle Tim once tried to commit suicide with pills while drunk. My Uncle Mike succeeded — the same Uncle Mike who encouraged me when I was very young to make art and follow my dreams. The same Uncle Mike who walked in on his father, my grandfather, after he had drunk himself to death. As my mom tells it, Grandpa picked up a bottle right after Grandma’s funeral, and proceeded to drink for the next two years until he was dead.

Bill’s a nice guy — I really like him, and I think he’s good for my mom. I haven’t seen my mom in years, and as we talked we fell back into old, comfortable rhythms. I’ve missed her, and she’s missed me. But she suggested quietly that I could stay at the apartment if I wanted, and I agreed. I needed some time alone, time to think things through, time to sweep my metaphorical bottles into a garbage bag.

Since I found out what happened last week, I’ve mostly just felt numb. I haven’t seen Uncle Tim in the flesh for 20 years, since I took a train with my mom to visit him in Colorado in 1992. He’s not a total stranger to me, but I have trouble calling his face to mind. I can’t say I feel a loss for something I barely had in my life. But I do remember all the phone calls from my mom over the past few years, all of the frustration and hurt and confusion of watching him drink himself to death. All of the lies about missed bills, all of the failed jobs, all of the fights with bosses and crushed fenders and empty bottles.

Really, I think I’m angry at him, at the men in my family, at the steady parade of death that comes one drink at a time. Three of the men in my family were plunged into depression, gripped by a dark mood that prompted them to kill themselves sip by sip. The Sweeney legacy: a garbage bag of bottles.

All that said, I’m generally at peace right now. I know I’m not them, not held in the same grip as they were. For all the darkness surrounding this, I think things will improve from here, for me and my mom. I certainly have the occasional moment when I’m not sure what to feel, when my mind is a little cloudy and I wonder what I’m really feeling. But all in all, I’m just relieved that my mom doesn’t have to go through any of this ever again.

“A Study in Scarlet” banned because of… you know… stuff

A while back, I posted a link to this article on my social networks. Quote:

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Sherlock Holmes’ first adventure has been removed from sixth-grade reading lists in a central Virginia county.

Brette Stevenson, a parent of a Henley Middle School student, had complained that "A Study in Scarlet" is derogatory toward Mormons.

The Daily Progess (http://bit.ly/oRCjig) reports that the Albemarle County School Board voted Thursday night to remove the book. A committee commissioned to study the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle novel said in a report that it’s not age-appropriate for sixth-graders.

The book includes a flashback to 1847 Utah that recounts the actions of a Mormon community when a non-Mormon man wants to marry the daughter of one of its members.

Stevenson said she’s pleased with the decision.

I’m still mad as hell about this.

Okay, let’s skip over the usual “banning books is bad” arguments for now. Further, let’s set aside whether a murder mystery is “age-appropriate for sixth-graders,” because it’s pretty clear that this book was banned because of it is perceived as “derogatory toward Mormons.” And I’ll even point out that I agree with the fact that Mormons are portrayed in a negative light. But that’s exactly why it needs to be read and studied, if that’s the case. As I mentioned in my essay on Scarlet:

But think about it – to Doyle, 1880s America was about as foreign to him as Victorian England is to us. He was going on what stories and news he had heard, which was all sensationalism and glorified lies.

If anything, Scarlet is a perfect example of what happens when people work from ignorance. Doyle’s later stories about America were much more respectful after he went on a tour of America (and certainly after American sales helped to increase his profits). Comparing and contrasting A Study in Scarlet with The Valley of Fear might be useful in showing the difference in American stereotyping (as well as showing what it’s like when media grossly stereotype a particular religious group without any real knowledge of their stereotyping, certainly a valid discussion for the modern day….)

But let’s also set aside that people would actually research the books they’re using to teach children, and assume that none of this is known. Let’s take the book on its own merits: a recounting of a fictional character talking about fictional and subjective events. Even if you have no idea of the history of the writing of the book, how can you miss that the entire second half of the book is a subjective and fictional account from one character’s perspective? This isn’t even on the level of Huckleberry Finn using the word “nigger” because it was common at the time – this is one specific community of Mormons in a fictional setting. Did this committee even read the fucking book with any amount of critical skill?

I don’t agree with banning books at all – I would much prefer encouraging contextual reading and understanding the environment in which a particular book is published. And other people don’t agree with me on that – whatever. But for fuck’s sake, pick a real reason at least when you’re banning a book instead of glancing at a few pages, seeing something you don’t like, and going “Yep, that’s offensive” and chucking it in the trash.

Fuck me, fuck this, or fuck you: A writer’s spectrum

Fuck youBefore I dive into this, let me preface: editing and criticism are essential to being a professional writer. I don’t care if you think your words are the best thing since 8-bit graphics, there is nothing that can’t be improved by a critical review.

Let me give you a moment if you think that doesn’t apply to you: there is nothing that can’t be improved by a critical review.

I know it’s hard to have your carefully-crafted words torn apart the first few times, but one of the best skills you can cultivate as a writer is the ability to not only accept criticism, but use it to improve your work above and beyond the individual edits. Taking a collection of individual notations and finding patterns that can improve your writing holistically is an amazing skill to have, but a hard knack to learn. It takes time and experience, but you should never stop trying.

That being said, I don’t think that initial sting ever goes away. Even after nine years of professional work, I still fear opening up an email with redlines. I still get a tiny sting when I see the meat of my work carefully shredded.1 Once that sting is past, I can look to the bone that’s uncovered and rebuild on that skeleton, which is always awesome. However, my career thus far has been all about getting past that sting – ripping off the band-aid so I can get to the good part of making the work better.

I’ve been going through a number of revision cycles in short order recently, and I’ve noted that the revision sting actually comes in a few different flavors. Each flavor itself tells me something about what I’m feeling about the work on an almost subconscious level, and I think that the sting of criticism itself can be telling in how to improve the work. It’s that tiny little editor in the back of my head, poking at the writer portion of my brain and going “Hey, asshole, pay attention to this part.” Because my little editor a foul-mouthed bastard, I’ve broken the stings down into three categories of “fuck”.

Fuck me: This is the sting of “oh god, how in the hell did that get in there?” (Also known as “who wrote this crap? Oh wait, that was me.”) This is the easiest one to resolve – someone pointed out a mistake, and you completely agree with it. Make the change and move on. I actually like these, because that means that someone caught something I missed, and the manuscript is definitely improved as a result. Cherish these moments.

Fuck this: This is the sting of “why am I even changing this?” It’s not that you necessarily agree or disagree, but you’re wondering why this revision matters. This is likely a general dissatisfaction with a larger-scale problem. It’s a bit trickier to diagnose in isolation – if you’re only getting it in a particular section, say, that section might need to be completely rewritten or just cut. If you’re getting it all over the manuscript, though, you might be burned out – consider putting it away for a while and coming back to it later.

Fuck you: This is the sting of “no, you’re wrong, my way of doing this is right.” You’re disagreeing with the criticism, and you find yourself building up defenses of the work. This is where you need to tread carefully.

As you’re starting as a writer, you need to beware this response – take a moment to really think of why the change is being offered, and see if this doesn’t actually improve the work. Despite their reputations as destroyers of quality prose, a good editor needs to be cherished like a rare jewel. They’re not ripping this apart because they hate you, but because they want to see you do better. Think about what’s being said and why, and consider if the change isn’t really better for the manuscript.

If you’re writing for hire and the criticism is from the hiring editor, always reconsider this reaction – depending on the editor, they might be open to contrary opinions, but at the end of the day, you’re writing this for them, and they can do whatever the hell they want to the material. Make sure your points are genuinely making the work better, rather than you stubbornly clinging on to something you think is particularly clever or interesting.

In general, I’ve found that the more experience you have as a writer, the less often you come across this reaction. At that point, I think you should switch from watching out from this response to embracing it – it may be your subconscious experience telling you that there’s something here that’s worth defending.

Regardless of your experience level, though, this reaction is always a good point to pause and think. I’ve taken to skipping these edits and moving on to the other “fuck me” and “fuck this” edits. Once they’re all done, I can look at the “fuck you” edits in isolation, and really think about them.

  1. It’s one of the reasons why I continue to offer my own writing up for review, even though I’m a developer now – I never want to be in a position where I’ve forgotten what it’s like on the other side of the red pen.