Today is the fifth birthday of Circle Jerk at the Square Dance. It's hard for me to believe it's been that long, or that this is my 701st post. Heh-heh, I said "hard."
That's precisely the kind of upscale, sophisticated humor you've come to expect from this blog. But despite the low road I so often travel in terms of gags, this blog has served a higher purpose for me: saving me as a writer.
I started CJSD at a nadir of my creative writing. I had been rejected twice from the Iowa Writer's Workshop. The first rejection, while initially very depressing, was motivating and educational. Once the dust settled, I realized I didn't deserve to get in, because I wasn't ready to enter a workshop. My writing was rough, labored, cliched, and much too serious. I wasn't playing into my strengths at all, and with the help of The Lovely Becky, I learned so much from that rejection that I was glad it happened. I threw myself into the application process again, writing two stories that were not only light years ahead of where I was just a year before, but probably two of the best things I had ever written until that point.
The Workshop didn't seem to think so, and thanks to some knowledgeable sources, I learned that I had been weeded out even earlier than the previous time. Now, I certainly didn't expect to get into such a competitive program, but I did expect to make a better showing than the year before. I started questioning my abilities and even the idea of trying to be a writer.
Despite those doubts, I couldn't turn off my creative energy, and I eventually conceived the idea of writing a book about a group of improv performers putting on a sketch show. In between the fictional struggles of their quest for love and laughter, I could throw in sketches and other little comedy bits, the way Mark Leyner did in his hysterical book Et Tu, Babe? I even came up with a perfect title for the book: Circle Jerk at the Square Dance.
I threw myself back into writing. I had tried a number of times before to write a novel, and in fact had originally taken sketch comedy writing classes at The Second City to help my comedic fiction. However, these attempts had always petered out quickly, as I'd get 30-50 pages into a book and realize it wasn't happening.
Not so with Circle Jerk at the Square Dance. I pumped out the pages, writing the story and adding the sketches and feeling more pleased than ever with what I was writing. I found myself laughing while writing, which I took as a great sign. I crossed into a triple-digit page count for the first time ever and was sure I had found "the one."
I wound up having to take about a month off from the book at one point. When I went back to it, something funny happened to this funny book: the only parts that made me laugh were the sketches. The rest of the meandering plot and dull characters formed a bland, literary paste. There wasn't anything to rescue, save the title.
That was the real kick to the Faulkners. At that point, I thought I was kidding myself about being a writer. What's more, I lost my desire to write. I was so tired of failing, I didn't want to try to succeed.
Once again, though, my brain couldn't follow instructions. Even though I had no desire to try a novel again, my brain kept pumping ideas, especially for short little sketches, fake news stories, the kind of stuff I wished I could be writing for The Onion or The Daily Show or "Shouts and Murmurs" in The New Yorker (humor nirvana for many an unsatisfied copywriter).
Enter blogging. I had already done a little bit of blogging on some group blogs, but like an uglier, hairier version of Virginia Woolf, I desired a blog of one's own. Starting a blog seemed perfect for the ideas I had, too: short, profane, often ridiculous comedy bits that were not really publishable. Why not stick them on the Internet? All that I needed was a title, which The Lovely Becky reminded me I already had. In fact, Circle Jerk at the Square Dance seemed much better for a blog than a novel anyway.
I started writing. Whatever ideas I had or resurrected from my sketch vault came out. I had no rhyme or reason to what I was doing, other than trying to make people laugh and writing a Top Ten list each week. I had no timetable or schedule, so there was no endpoint. However, I definitely didn't expect I'd keep at it for five years.
But the funny thing is, it was funny. I was usually laughing at what I was writing. Eventually, other people started laughing to, and once that happened, I was hooked. I not only had a creative outlet, I had feedback. I had an audience, and one that grew into a little community of virtual friends.
All those little successes, all those comments of encouragement, repaired my broken writing ego. You have to have an ego to write, to think that what you have to say is so goddamned important that people should take time out of their busy schedules to read what you write. After purifying myself in the waters of Lake Bloggetonka, I felt ready to tackle a bigger challenge.
The real irony today is, five years after I started this blog as a way to soothe myself after the implosion of a novel, I finished a first draft of a novel for the first time ever. I reached the end last night, hurriedly writing my last line so I could say "done" before Starbucks closed. Doing that has given me a greater sense of accomplishment than anything else I've ever done outside of being happily married and being a dad. I have a long revision road ahead, but this one is going to get polished and its going to be sent out to agents. Maybe it'll be published, maybe not, but at least I'm done pretending to be a novelist and actually novelling.
I couldn't have done it without this blog and without all of your feedback over the years. Writing every week, not saying no, and soaking in the comments....it's been wonderful. So thank you very much. I've really enjoyed it and I hope you have too.
Now how about some music?
1) "She's a Rebel," Green Day. American Idiot was a regular soundtrack back in the early days of writing the blog. I can't decide if it's awesome the album is now a broadway production or if it throws all of my punk sensibilities into the air and then impales them on the spear of commercialism. Although getting thrown into the air and impaled on a spear is so punk.
2) "Metropolis," The Church. I have go-to songs for a host of occasions--lifting weights, driving fast, writing fast, feeling mad, feeling sad. This is a go-to song for just feeling good, like it's the day after I just accomplished a major life goal and it happens to be super nice outside. A perfect song for one of those random times when I'm driving around with the window down and the sun shining and I think, "Fuck, I feel awesome!" for no particular reason.
3) "The Times They Are a Changin' (Live)," Bob Dylan. It must be a pretty amazing feeling to write not just a song of the year or a decade but of a generation. I wonder if Bob Dylan ever wakes up and goes, "Hell yeah, I'm Bob fuckin' Dylan." Because that's how I'd wake up every single morning, which is why I'm not deep enough to write a song of a generation.
4) "Dim," Dada. This could be my b-side to "Metropolis" on my Sunny Single. I know we snicker at one-hit wonders, but really, if you write just one song that makes someone still sing along 20 years after you recorded it, that's pretty special.
5) "Hot Rock," Sleater-Kinney. I've gone from being a big fan to thinking they were the best band of the mid-90s and early 2000s. As much as I love punk music, it's really hard to be punk and not sound like every other punk band that came before you. Attitude usually trumps originality in that genre. That's what makes Sleater-Kinney seem greater to me with each passing year. They did what The Clash did, take a narrow genre and blow it up without destroying the key ingredients. Only I think Sleater-Kinney had a harder time because they had 20 years of punk stereotypes to subvert.
6) "Echo Sam," Holy Fuck. Normally, this type of stuff would be too odd and noisy for me, but there's just enough song buried amid the electronic squawks and grunts for me to groove to it. Love this album and love that a Holy Fuck song was once used in a car commercial. Bonus: Lightsabres!
7) "More," The Sisters of Mercy. LOL, the Burger King of Goth music, delicious even as you hate yourself for scarfing it down at 3 a.m. I still cannot believe they toured with Public Enemy, hands-down the weirdest tour pairing of my lifetime. Ideal for the commute from the graveyard to your job at Cinnabon.
8) "...And Justice for All," Metallica. I never thought this song was too long until I tried to play it in Rock Band. It takes a lot for me to wish I was doing something other than playing a videogame, but that's what I felt about five minutes in. I'd much rather have James Hetfield order me back to front or sing about the Angel of Death coming to kill my first-born than noodle around with mid-tempo thrash for 10 minutes.
9) "YYZ (Live)," Rush. Suck. It. H8ers.
10) "I'm the Man Who Loves You," Wilco. Esquire recently put Christiana Hendricks on the cover. Christiana Hendricks is currently at the top of my list of "Sexy women I would love to disappoint," bumping off long-time champ Selma Hayek. (Yes, TLB, you read that correctly. The queen is dead, long live the queen.) Anyway, they stuck her on the cover in a tight black dress, tugging a little at the neckline, a photo so hot I used the magazine to cook an omelet. So I flipped inside, eagerly awaiting an entire spread of Joan Holloway distracting me from my work, and what was there? A close-up of Hendricks eating a piece of watermelon. Worst bait and switch since Little Orphan Annie told her secret club members to drink their Ovaltine.
11) "Hindsight," Built to Spill. Hindsight brings me down/keeps me on the ground. One of the things I'm becoming increasingly thankful for as I get older is not giving a shit about the past. I have wasted too much of my life worrying about what I haven't accomplished, instead of thinking about what I could be accomplishing. It took me wasting a lot of that time to see what a waste that mindset is, but I see it now, and I'm definitely not going to repeat it.
Hope you have a "Fuck, I feel awesome!" day this weekend.