Lord. I was asked by someone to join this thing called The Writing Process Blog Tour. My thoughts went immediately to rock and roll tour buses and girls backstage. Then I remembered I’m 57, I have a hot girlfriend, and I never did like hanging out backstage anyway. It’s overrated.
Joanna Montgomery asked me to do this. She’s an actual Special Person, a person who reaches out into the world and helps other people confront, accept, and say “fuck you” to cancer. She’s inspired a gajillion people. If you don’t know her story, it’s one of a pregnancy that led to an early childbirth and a diagnosis of a fallopian cancer. If her baby hadn’t arrived early, she probably wouldn’t be here asking me to do this. I think her baby was God’s way of saying, “No, cancer, just a fucking minute. Hold up.” Joanna has shared her story on network TV and Huffpost and AOL’s Cafe Mom, so she’s famous, as she should be. Stop and think of that a minute: your baby saves your life from cancer. I’m sure this is not the PR Joanna would’ve chosen to kickstart readership, but she sure makes a gift of it to the world, every single day. There is a word for people like her, and it is saint.
Back to The Writing Process Blog Tour. There are rules. I’m having trouble with them already. Here they are: if you get asked to participate, you have to say yes or you’re a lameass. Joanna has cancer and is doing it, you can’t offer a few hundred words? You turd. Also, you have to recommend three other bloggers to get on the bus. That part should be fun, the guilt-tripping of other people to write. I have some in mind.
The final rule is you have to answer four questions about yourself:
What are you working on?
How does your work differ from others of its genre?
Why do you write what you do?
How does your writing process work?
This sounds dangerously like work, except that when I’m working I write marketing stuff and presentations and strategy docs and websites and shit. When I write for my blogs, I just do it to entertain myself and see what happens. I am only a mildly serious writer, little more than an egomaniac with an inferiority complex who believes one day he’ll write a post and a guy from The New Yorker will call and say, “You’re the next David Sedaris.” I’m delusional.
I’m going to try and answer the questions, now.
What are you working on?
Today, I am working on a press release for my company, FLO. Joanna’s husband, Mark, is the founder. I’m a partner. This means he gets to boss me around. That leads to interesting and spirited conversations, descriptions of which would be irrelevant here. I am also writing liner stuff for a special edition insert for a new CD by a famous country artist. That is kinda cool. When I was a kid, I used to read that stuff like it was Ecclesiastes.
I started writing a book a while back about a company we founded for a client. I planned for it to be chocked full of marketing and product creation wisdom, but I stopped because, did you know? Writing a book is way harder than being on The Writing Process Blog Tour. I like it better out here on ”the open road, when the heater don’t work and it’s oh so cold.” (Ian Hunter, “Once Bitten Twice Shy.” Not the fucking Great White version.) I’ll eventually get back to writing the book, though. I’ll have to sneak up on it sideways, like a crab in designer eyewear.
There are my two blogs, one called Reddallover and the other Stylerant, where you are now. You do know where you are, don’t you? Reddallover rarely gets new material. It’s very one-off. It has bits of bad poetry and messy prose. This blog gets more regular action. I started it to vent my catty side and make fun of people’s bad taste in clothing. Now it’s basically about my life. Its latest piece is about an outdoor wedding I attended. Spoiler: disapprove. My next will be an attempt to discuss the fact it’s impossible to be cool and old at the same time. That’s an evergreen subject, or should I say a perpetually greying one? I wonder how I’ll come up with anything new. That’s the fun of it. Here are some sentences I have tried so far: “I grew up studying cool people the way dogs study their masters. I bet you think dogs have empathy. They don’t. They are just hungry or need to pee.”
How does your work differ from others of its genre?
Uh-oh. For me to answer this will make me feel like a poseur. It will imply that I publish content (as it’s now called) with some kind of regularity. I don’t. Since I am a snob who refuses to write “listicles,” and because I spend an inordinate amount of time obsessing about my scrawny body at the gym, I neither write nor post as often as a worthy acknowledgement of my gifts requires. (How’d you like that fancypants sentence? Get me an agent.)
If my writing is different, it’s because I try not to hold much back. What’s that expression, “My filter is broken”? That. My sense of restraint at the keyboard is at least as weak as my triceps. Another way I guess I’m different is my use of profanity. Yes, I know it is juvenile, but I reserve the right to use all the words. (I make exceptions for the C word and “bitch”, neither of which I ever use. Don’t twang my halo; I only refrain because they make me uncomfortable.) Most bloggers are also nicer than me, though I am learning to not be so selfish and petty. A work in progress.
Why do you write what you do?
These questions are getting harder. I don’t have therapy til Friday.
As I said, I started Stylerant to make fun of people, particularly men, who can’t dress for poo. And because I really hate flipflops, madras, cargo shorts, and ill-fitting garments. While this appears to be an inexhaustible subject, I nonetheless ran out of material. How much can you really say about men in khaki or women in gladiator sandals? I switched up. To be more positive, I started posting pithy commentary about cool shit I saw on the internet. THAT was really original, cribbing content from two zillion style blogs, “curating,” as it’s called. It was actually fun for a while, but kind of empty, like those pillowy peppermints by the door of a restaurant. Though I do I love things—clothes, gadgets, doodads and particularly expensive footwear. Accessories are so important. But again, the well ran dry.
Now I write about my life, because if there’s one thing I never tire of, it’s amusing myself, especially if I can get a few potshots in while I’m at it. Sometimes I even pick a subject and have a go at it, like a real writer.
I still haven’t answered the question, have I? OK. I write because I believe if I do, good things will happen. That sounds very Eat Pray Love, but there it is. Writing is a gift—wait, that’s not accurate. To be able to practice at something you seem to be wired for is a gift. To spurn it or take it for granted is like giving a great big middle finger to the Big Beyond or whatever you choose to call It/Her/Him. Not that I’m particularly disciplined. I probably write in my journal more than anywhere else, a mishmash of daily inventories and whatnot scrawled in No. 1 pencil (they’re smoother than No. 2’s) on Levenger notebook paper. I keep the journals organized neatly on a shelf in a closet. I never go back and read them. I’d be horrified.
The other reason I write what I write is to get that puffy feeling of finishing. It’s like mowing the lawn or trimming bushes, only without mosquitos or sweat in my eyes. I can see the something I did and pat myself on the back. For a few seconds, I’m the smartest guy in the universe. I admit it, I write for me. I read the other day that David Sedaris perfects his pieces by reading them aloud for audiences while he’s still working on them. That sounds perfectly awful, getting direct feedback. I’d be deflated as a whoopee cushion at Thanksgiving to find out my jokes are flat. I’d rather just picture you laughing.
How does your writing process work?
The science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein, from whom I steal regularly, said of one of his characters, also a writer, in Stranger in a Strange Land, “He claimed that his method of writing was to hook his gonads in parallel with his thalamus and disconnect his cerebrum; his habits lent some credibility to the theory.” I wish I could say something that clever. For a process, I just grind, and that’s about it. Sometimes, I start, then go sentence by clumsy sentence, revising each over and over, paragraph by paragraph. Other times, I begin and write like hell, then go back and revise the crap out of it after. Either way, I edit, over and over and over to the point of obsession. I trust no editor. I should grow up in that regard. It’s obviously a character defect, this paranoid perfectionism. But I am a cast iron old dude who doesn’t believe in just “putting it out there” with a bunch of bad syntax and typos because “it’s blogging.” I am conceited enough to think my written words will last for all eternity. I want ‘em to be good. Finally, if I’m going to take up your time, I want to at least feel I worked to do it as well as I could. What is it that Kurt Vonnegut (from whom I also borrow liberally) said, in his rules of creative writing? “Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.” That’s as good a principle to write by as any.
Now, on to the people I want you to read:
Knight Stivender’s Life in Full. I cordially dislike the name of this blog, because I think it’s pretty presumptuous to appropriate Wolfe; then again, I just appropriated Vonnegut and Heinlein, and I may see if I can steal some Mark Twain before I finish up. Read Knight. She writes about her life and flowers and her divorce a lot. She has a crisp, journalistic style from all those years at The Tennessean, where she now has a title as long as your arm that I can’t remember. She is from Mt. Juliet but lives in Williamson County, and she will think I am becoming soft If I do not bring that up. I strongly disapprove of Williamson County.
Courtney Seiter on Buffer. Courtney is a fine writer who should write more about her personal life, IMHO. She has a very sharp wit, some of which finds its way into her professional writing at Buffer, which is crackerjack. She tells about social media and how to be a rockstar at it. She is tres smarrrrt. She has also written a fine piece for 12th and Broad’s first print edition, a Tennessean publication. The electronic version of that is here. Courtney is an actual professional journalist, like Knight. In fact, they used to work together. I bet that room was interesting.
Katie Ladefoged’s Representing the Unwashed. This is my girlfriend’s blog. It may have posts when you go there; it might not. Katie’s a public defender with a filter as porous as mine. She writes with a directness of which I am often jealous. The reason her articles may not be up is because she has raised eyebrows for her unvarnished opinions about the office, so she gets cold feet every now and then and takes it offline. They are an unusual lot, PD’s, fiercely independent and zealous about the mission of keeping the Man from trampling all over the poor, even if said poor happens to be the guy who broke in your car to steal your phone and sell it to feed his family or drug problem. Anyway, Katie ruffles some of her colleague’s feathers a bit. I admire the Public Defenders (except the one who swore at me at the outdoor wedding) as much as I admire Joanna, because they serve others instead of talking about it or dropping cash into envelopes or going to “events” that benefit fill-in-the-blank. Also, did I mention my girlfriend is hot? She is very hot. My whole life I wanted to date the smart chick with good musical taste who teaches Pilates. SCORE.
So, I have charged all these people to write and keep this thing going. I don’t know if they will or not. I have applied guilt, and, in Katie’s case, a bag of dark chocolate covered raisins. Meanwhile, that sound is the squeal of air brakes; I am being asked to leave the bus for dropping the F-bomb again. Thanks for stopping by Stylerant. Remember: workout wear is not leisure wear, good shoes are a necessity not a luxury, and only the weak are hobbled by consistency.
(Note: No actual bus was ridden during the writing of this blogpost. -k.)
“You have a trainer? What kind of fucking bullshit is that?”
This is the unpleasant woman sitting to my right at a table for eight at a reception dinner way the hell out and gone in Joelton. She is a colleague of Katie’s, who I have accompanied in order to keep my boyfriend accounts current. (Disclosure: as a rule, Katie doesn’t keep those sort of tabs, but I might. I try to stay on the positive side of the ledger, however imaginary.)
There are 18 or so such tables under a tent, more than 150 folks, all buzzing with more pleasant conversations than this one. The seating is assigned, names and tables by numbers, but no one had accounted for this blustery woman, who now holds court from a hastily placed ninth setting at the head of the table. Messy-haired children in patent leather shoes and white leotards are running about. There are two men in kilts, simultaneously dignified and cartoonish, going table to table with stories of the bride’s youth and her previous suitors, young men I picture bludgeoned to death in clannish affairs before the groom came along. I wonder if they have a shillelagh I might borrow to silence this sour woman, the type of person you meet in bars who, after a few, becomes offended when you don’t make conversation. I’m so dumbfounded by her, I’ve confused Scots with Irishmen. Shillelaghs are an Irish thing, right? My brain is frozen.
Sweet Katie. My girlfriend, the pacifist. She defends my lifestyle and honor by saying I am a health nut before I can stammer an awkward retort, then deftly changes the subject to something about work. We are in the third hour of this thing. The tent is situated in woods beside a chattering creek and a barn with lights strung in the rafters. A band is tuning acoustic instruments there, and later there will be dancing, and camping for those who want to make a night of it. Camping. I consider that if I run screaming right now, no one will see ever me again. I will die in the forest and become carrion for large birds and insects and furry nibbly things. Decades from now, a desiccated femur will be discovered, databases will be run, old case files reopened. “They used to perform weddings on this site, Sam, but no Satanic rites was known to occur in these here parts. Them witches was all up in the next county.” DNA will come up unmatched. The case will re-close for lack of evidence of foul play.
This isn’t a crime scene. It’s just another wedding that someone thought should be outdoors.
It is time for the toast from the best man, but there is a problem with the PA system. Some tentative thumping on the mic, then silent lips. An older gentleman, a veteran of these types of event-planning snafus, is unruffled. He unplugs the mic and trudges out past the barn for a new battery. The creek and guests babble on.
. . .
The actual wedding, back when there was still light in the world and the evening held the promise of observational wit, had happened in a clearing nearby. We enjoyed a great start, because weddings are a wealth of material for amateur satirists such as Katie and me. We rubbed our backs as we sat in the stiff little wooden chairs and mock-whined about the humidity, then sniggered about the wilted vinery on the wire arch that signified the standing-place for the bride and groom. I asked if the latter would emerge from the forest as a nymph. The groom milled about in a stylish, if droopy, blue linen suit. (One should size down with linen; it stretches in the heat.) He seemed calm. A nearby table held a public-address amplifier connected to a car battery with big alligator clips, which somehow seemed emblematic of every outdoor wedding not Kim and Kanye. Wires led to wobbly speakers on tripods and a collection of microphones. A trio of acoustic musicians were seated nearby, two male guitarists and a female violinist, waiting their cue. The bride appeared in the glade with a few family members, hovering about 40 feet away from the aisle. There was some delay, presumably to get the flower-girl-and-boy and the ring-bearing toy boxer dog on the same page. We rubbernecked, and Katie leaned over and asked what the holdup could be. I said, “Maybe the real wedding’s over there.” She blurted a loud laugh. I love her—she still laughs at my jokes.
The trio began. The speakers coughed to life and buzzed with something earnest and Americana. As an audio guy from a previous life, I winced; something in the setup was shorting out. The groom noticed, calmly ambled over and whispered a few words to a gentleman at the table, who fiddled with some scratchy knobs before unclipping the battery altogether. The timbre of the band went from tin can to campfire. The violinist took a solo. A kilted man appeared in the dell and took his daughter’s arm. All rose.
The program promised a short affair with original vows. Is this cheating, writing your own? I think maybe so. Vows should be words written by other people, ideals which guarantee fallibility. Writing them yourself seems too easy. I picture a conference room with whiteboards and conversations toward buy-in: “‘Honor and love’ are mandatories. ‘Obey’ is a nonstarter. The ‘sickness and health thing,’ that’s glum and foreboding, park that. Audience comp is broad demos, psychographics split, half faith-influenced, mostly nondenominational, some agnostics and a few atheists. Scripture’s out. No lyrics, this isn’t a prom, for fuck’s sake. Poetry? Maybe someone can read Wordsworth?”
Katie jostled my elbow and pointed to a perspiration spot on her dress. I agreed it was too damn hot for outdoor affairs and told her she looked great. (Her dress brought out her shoulders beautifully.) I posted an inquiry to Facebook: outdoor weddings, yea or nay? Out in the boonies, with only a 1x cellular connection, I couldn’t see the responses until much later. (Attn. outdoor wedding planners: don’t forget connectivity!) Some thought I was polling for personal reasons. Evidently, the mere mention of matrimony addles the perception of irony. A friend posted, “This is how rumors start.”
Do you ever wonder who weddings are for? The couple, or the attendees? This reminds me of the old joke about the difference between weddings and funerals: at one, you see your flowers. Ka-thump. The guest of honor at a funeral has no choice about his attendance, being the only member present who actually knows what’s really going on. A wedding, on the other hand, is both performance and intimacy at the same time, by two people with no clue what they’re getting into. That sets up a tension with which those of us with marketing backgrounds are very familiar. If you’re gonna have a circus, you gotta have elephants. Audience or participants—who trumps? More importantly, how ‘bout some air conditioning here under the big top? I believe that mysterious, complex forces distort common reason once a couple decides to throw a wedding: There is often pleasant weather in June. I like being outside. Everyone likes outside. I like old Cat Stevens. I have a friend who makes desserts in East Nashville. Let’s get married in a field. The notion of sweaty frocks and flies on the cake become impossible to conceive, yet the idea of spending eternity together is as flip a matter as weather.
. . .
Between the wedding and the dinner, there was standing. Lots of standing. The planners had placed a bar near the barn, accessed by an arched span over the creek. We gathered while the couple had pictures made and walked their hazy first steps of matrimony. This made me think of the final scene in “The Graduate,” when Benjamin and Elaine have their “Oh shit, now what?” moment on the bus at the movie’s end. This is why many weddings are planned to allow couples to have a moment, so they can have a professional camera-person help them wipe off that deer-in-headlights look. It’s good thinking.
We stood amid the chitchat, booze and finger food. A table had a artful bowl of salsa on a pedestal around which a wedding elf had arranged blue chips directly on the tablecloth. The effect was not volcanic. Bartenders served craft cocktails of bourbon and fruit in plastic cups. Katie announced her strong disapproval of this part of the evening, the standing and waiting. One of the endearing ways she does this is by invoking what her British mum would say. “What nonsense! You’d think someone would have thought of a place for people to sit! Could they not afford bowls for the chips?” I laugh every time she does this.
Eventually, we discovered the dining tent in the trees beyond the barn and found our table. A middle-aged caterer called for our undivided attention and announced there would be AN ORDER to the buffet, and we were to rise and go to the barn WHEN DIRECTED. This seemed very important to him. At our turn at the head of the buffet, we were informed of our choices by stern matrons. Entrees included barbecue pork served by hand by an old woman who cackled, “I know it’s good ‘cuz I made it myself.” When I say, “served by hand,” I mean literally. She wore clear gloves and dipped her fingers into a large tin pan to transfer a wet double-handful onto your plate. I remarked to Katie that it reminded me of a prison food line (not that I have any idea what a prison food line is actually like, mind you, but I have seen “Orange is the New Black.”) Up the line, a large woman directed chicken choices, helpfully pointing out which was hot and reg’lar fried. A little girl asked for both. Flatly: “Hot right here, reg’lar there, just one.” Later on in the car, Katie would muse on what would have happened if, as a vegetarian, she had offered to give her portion to the girl. I thought the sentence could be harsh for abetting an attempt to commit poultry. As a criminal attorney, Katie visits jails all the time; she knew dang well that playing it straight was the only way to go.
. . .
Back at the table. Katie and I are engaging our table mates. Three young girls are from Harvard, friends of the bride, one a budding busybody who has made sure we are each properly introduced to one another before turning to discuss politics and socioeconomics with her classmates. On our end of the table the subject turns to health. The woman to my right shares her thoughts about having disposable cash to spend on a gym membership and a “bullshit trainer.” Thus do the wars between the classes endure.
The gentleman returns from the barn with fresh batteries. Thumpthumpthump. “Y’all hear me?” Finally, the first toast! Wait. First means “more than one.” The best man launches into a rambling 7-minute diatribe which includes a scatological reference from a hiking trip, then hands the mic to the lady who’d been the officiant of the vows. Her previous ceremonial duties acquitted, she calls upon her skills in extemporaneous speaking to go on until I swear I can see a cartoon balloon over her head filled with typographical jibberish. Katie’s Mom’s British accent may return any moment. We are beyond the pale.
Surely we are approaching the cake cutting, which will represent a proper intermission for polite exit? I imagine a sugary arrow on a field of green icing, pointing to the way to the long road home.
Yet the kilted Dad rises. He takes the microphone and clears his throat. Katie looks stricken, and I try to keep a straight face. “Fuck,” she says. Her eyes get big. The old Scot begins his toast with a recollection of the bride’s birthday, the actual birth day, not some childhood party with a clown and an animal balloons. The reason that campsites have been offered to guests becomes more and more clear.
Katie moves quickly. “Will they notice us?” I reply, “Nah.” She skirts the edge of the tent toward its north flap with some urgency. She loves sweets, but it’s obvious the cake is a long time coming. I follow eagerly. Later that evening, back in Germantown, we shower and engage in the cleansing joy of sex and chocolate. There is something about weddings. We giggle, and wonder if Scottish Dad has made it to the bride’s high school graduation yet. Somewhere in the night, endless toasts are going on ’round and ’round campfires in the woods of Joelton. The fan on my dresser blows a fine breeze as the HVAC purrs, and we go to sleep.
Last week the term “normcore” blew up, as the kids say, after a piece in New York Magazine referenced a study from the self-described “trend forecasting collective” K-Hole. The word describes the trend of certain style-aware folks to wear drab, ordinary, lower-Broad tourist stuff as something modern and expressive. But it’s more than that, the study explains, sometimes brilliantly, and others in dense, convoluted and ambiguous detail. There are humdingers like, “just because Mass Indie is pro-diversity, doesn’t mean it’s post-scarcity,” and “ripe for the Mass Indie überelites to adopt as their own, confirming their status by showing how disposable the trappings of uniqueness are.” The umlaut outside of an issue of The New Yorker? Sign me up.
The study is a huge success, not just because the K-Holers managed to invent a viral keyword, but a suffix-meme: everything is going to somethingcore for a while, now. I find this is a reassuring thing about digital culture, that the creation or coinage of simple words can help spread understanding so quickly. Words map us more thoroughly than fashion ever does. Oh, it’s easy to feel contrarian about unserious, modern words, about xxxx.ly and xxxxxery startups, the colloquial acronymity (hey, I can make up words, too, you whippersnapper) of DGAF, and fine word mashups like “normcore”; but they often hit their marks. Most folks had a feel for what it meant when it first started rolling across their feeds precisely because the word is so damn good. It captures what the K-Hole study takes 40 pages of ostentatious profundity to get across, to wit: cool, attractive people wearing ironic drab shit is a thing. There’s a lot of fiddle-faddle in there about how it isn’t really contrarian, even an arrow-filled infographic, but at the end of the day, it just ain’t that complicated. Hot people can dress like people of WalMart, but not you. By the time a few people in Kansas City or Nashville start trying to make pleated khakis look clever, trend forecasting collectives will be publishing a new study in the chunky typeface of the moment.
Let’s get to the good parts of the study, though, and there are several. Here’s one:
Once upon a time people were born into communities and had to find their individuality. Today people are born individuals and have to find their communities.
Damn, that’s great. I’m serious. No matter how jaded you may feel about it, there is something to the idea that digital modernity has flipped the perception of individuality on its head. Isolation is deadly—not just disconnection, where you disappear from The Feeds, but actually feeling alone. There was a time when Walden-like isolation was iconoclastic; now it’s recognized for what it is: a shitty, unhealthy way to live. Everybody’s looking to belong and isn’t shy about it. It’s cool to need a herd so you can hear and be heard. Those bleats only sound the same if you’re not a sheep.
If that really is a movement, it can’t be bad, even if it involves crew socks and Tevas.
Where it gets really good is the end. The conclusion of the study is called “THE GRACE OF MAYBE,” which is perhaps a little over the top, but they deliver. Grace is a strong word.
Individuality was once the path to personal freedom — a way to lead life on your own terms. But the terms keep getting more and more specific, making us more and more isolated. Normcore seeks the freedom that comes with non-exclusivity. It finds liberation in being nothing special, and realizes that adaptability leads to belonging. Normcore is a path to a more peaceful life.
Notice it doesn’t say “the” path, but “a” path. Thank heaven. I don’t often find “trend studies” taking a spiritual bent, and I doubt you do, either, so it’s easy to be what my shrink calls “a crusty old motherfucker” and roll my eyes at the presumption of connecting acid wash with aspirational living. Yet it should surprise no one that if our digitally connected lives aren’t quite fulfilling the need for community, this might manifest in the uniforms we wear. And yes, I said uniforms. A fact I have been observing for some time is that we all dress to create an impression, and even those who flaunt sartorial impropriety only succeed by appearing out of context. They say, “I am the person who is OK with thinking unconventionally, and I can help you with your discomfort.” How normcore.
I suppose you want me stop being a philosophical, wordy blowhard and tell you what I really think of it all with my customary vulgarity and wit. The clothes, I mean. They are dreadful as hell. There’s nothing to them. It’s all a waste of youthful vigor and sexuality. If you are fabulous enough to pull off boxy jeans and New Balances and be recognized as part of an acclaimed-by-trend-forecasters movement, then by God, that’s fucking grace, and you should thank your lucky stars and put on something a bit more flattering. You’ll only be able to pull off that normcore shit while you are young and hot, and there are Louboutin stilettos and gold studs to wear, and fur, silk and sharkskin, and fabrics with a nice hand. YOLO is great, but the selfie you post today is the regret you’ll revisit tomorrow. Do you want to look back and have to try to explain to someone it was cool to look like wheat paste? “Mom, were you always a frump?” Boo. No one is going to get the spirituality of that. Go get something hot on your fine, firm ass while you can, and look normal later. One day, you will be.
Lord. I was asked by someone to join this thing called The Writing Process Blog Tour. My thoughts went immediately to rock and roll tour buses and girls…
“You have a trainer? What kind of fucking bullshit is that?” This is the unpleasant woman sitting to my right at a table for eight at a reception…