I’ve always wanted to be a writer since as far back as I can remember. I made up theme songs for my stuffed animals at age 5, so there you go. I’ve wanted to be other things too, at various times in my life. A computer programmer. A rock star. A wandering vagabond (I realized that it was hard to make a living at that one…) But I’ve always come back to writing, and poured everything I had into it. I feel fortunate to have this skill.
However, even with things you love, you do hit rough patches where the inspiration lags, or you are just plain stuck. It’s times like those I reach for a distraction to boost me up and over the wall. Here’s the key, though. The distraction has to fit these 3 criteria.
It has to be a purposeful distraction
You have to consciously stop your writing and set it aside (possibly with a set time to return) before starting your creative distraction. Flitting from thing to thing will likely leave you with unfinished work and will leave you unsatisfied. I speak from years of experience as a flitter.
It has to be something you are terrible at (but really enjoy doing)
Your creative distraction should not under any circumstances compete with your primary art form. I’ll use myself as an example. I enjoy drawing. But as anyone who has seen my drawing can attest to, it is truly horrifying. Like it was done by a child (“Oh, Josh. Good for you! You made a drawing. That’s adorable.”) That’s why it’s the perfect thing to do when I get stuck on a piece of writing. If I ever become a competent artist, I may need to find something else. I’m still terrible at the guitar, so there’s that…
It has to be creative
This is possibly the most important criterion, because it gets to the root of why you’re stuck, creatively, in the first place. If you are bored with a piece of writing, or are unsure of where to take it, you have a problem that needs solving. Don’t ignore the roadblock by doing the dishes or sweeping the floor (although I’m sure your housemate or spouse would appreciate that!). Use other art forms you enjoy practicing as ancillaries to help trigger new ideas and novel solutions to your writing problems.
I hope this helps you in your creative work! –JM
–If you thought this was interesting or have an example to add, post in the comments!–
Between 1991-92 when I was in my first year of college, and 2002 when I settled down in Austin, I wrote a grand total of roughly 10 poems, 5 short stories, and notebook after notebook of abandoned ideas. We won’t count my journalism work, the thing I was actually competent at. I wasn’t going to be a journalist, I told myself. I was a tortured soul pouring his lifeblood onto the page. There were two years, in 2000 and 2001, where someone took a chance on my writing. Got 2 stories and two poems published. And it would be another 10 years before I got published again. My failures started early.
A few years into a theater degree, my folks convinced me to try something practical. I had been involved in theater for years, since I was 14. Trouble was, I had a head full of theater knowledge but no skill in it. This realization was pretty easy to handle. The fact that I was a rotten fiction writer, that was much harder to take.
Immediately after I graduated with my journalism degree, I began my years of rambling. And my years of writing awful short stories. I felt like I needed to turn my travels into thinly-veiled autobiography. Oy! Kerouac, what hadst thou wrought?
Fast forward to 2008. I was living in Queens, just finished grad school for teaching. The money had dried up with journalism, so I switched gears yet again. I never stopped writing, though. Far from it. I had a whole notebook full of pretty decent memoirs from an autobiography class. I also finished the god-awful novel I’d started in 2000. I filed it away and never looked back.
I realized that I was going through my writing apprenticeship. Thank you, Larry Brown, for the phrase and the concept. Essentially he said that a young writer spends years struggling and failing before he or she finds his or her voice (and genre!) And the length of time depends on the person. This may sound obvious, but when you are down in the thick of it trying to hack out a story, this notion of an apprenticeship is very comforting. I was glad to hear that the pain would end eventually. I just didn’t know when.
I don’t know when I turned the corner and came out of my apprenticeship, but I did. Not to say that I don’t have anything left to learn, just that I can feel confident in calling myself a writer. There are several things that brought me to this point, I think. Daily writing practice is definitely one of them. That is, actually composing something from beginning to end. Another piece of the puzzle was understanding and accepting my limitations, and my strengths. Let’s just say that now when I write a short story that isn’t groan-inducing, I take it as a major win.
Maybe a good analogy for all of this would be metabolism. Keep it stoked with new writing and you will burn mean and lean. How you get to that point… that’s your story to tell. —JM
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Like many of you, I keep a journal. And like many of you, I’m sure, I am really bad at it. I never sat down and thought about why until very recently, and I came to a few conclusions.
I GET SELF-CONSCIOUS
I often have trouble journaling because the writing feels way too personal. I know that sounds strange, but it stops me dead in my tracks when I veer into confessional territory. I’m not one to get super emotional and need to talk every little thing out. If I am having a specific emotional issue, I’ll talk with my wife or my friends about it. Something about writing it down in a book feels masturbatory to me.
I HAVE NO AUDIENCE TO WRITE FOR
Going along that same “self-pleasuring” line of thinking… I have a hard time writing a journal because I have no audience. Except for myself. No one will ever see my journal and writing for no one seems pretty pointless. Maybe it’s a failing in me that I cannot treat my journal as a person I’m pouring my heart out to. Who knows?
I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO WRITE
If I’m not pouring out my guts to my imaginary friend, I have a hard time coming up with things to write about. I had ONE good year of journaling, in 2005. That year, I came up with a pretty ingenious plan. I gave myself broad topics to write about, like “School”, “Women”, “Drugs” and so on. Then I proceeded to fill up the journal book in a few weeks. It was pretty awesome. And really fun to re-read. But once that was over, I fell right back into writing about what I had for breakfast, and what clothes I was wearing that day… and other terribly boring topics. Yawn.
I think I came up with a good solution, though. I have decided to keep “notebooks” instead of “journals”. What is the difference, you may wonder? To me, a notebook can house story ideas, and poem ideas, and lists of books I’d like to buy, and stuff like that. It creates much more room to move around in than a diary/journal.
If any of you guys out on the interwebs have any thoughts on journaling, post them in the comments! I’d be very interested in hearing them!
I recently joined a group on Facebook that does Asemic Exchanges. You create a piece of work and exchange it with another artist.
Asemic writing is writing without making recognizable letters. The idea is that even without inherent meaning in your writing, your brain will find a way to make its own. (If I got that wrong, please let me know in the comments!)
I created a piece by shutting my eyes and letting hand go where it wanted to. I got to the edge of the page and opened my eyes. I saw a bunch of squiggles, but I was intrigued. I made these marks all down the paper, until I’d filled up the whole page. I wanted to put a title on it, so I looked deeper into the work. Some of the squiggles looked like an EKG reading to me… so I titled it ISCHEMIC ASEMIC. The term “ischemic event” means that the blood flow to a body part (often the brain) is cut off. I grabbed up a reddish pink marker and filled in several spaces between the squiggles. It was perfect.
But then I started another asemic piece. My mind immediately went to EKGs, blood, medical ideas… and all of the squiggles looked too much like letters, like my brain wouldn’t let me be completely abstract. It was because of the title! The finality of the title forced me to manage the piece and perhaps declare it complete too soon? It certainly hampered my creative flow.
I was extremely saddened to hear about Poly Styrene’s death a few months ago. She was always one of my favorites… didn’t stick to the punk formula. And she certainly was unique in the late 70s London punk scene, being one of the few black women around (‘cept maybe Pauline from The Selecter).
I got to speak with her via email in the summer of ’96, after the new Spex put out their record, Conscious Consumer. We talked about eastern religion, the Pistols reunion, and more. Shame I never got to meet her in person. -JM (2011)
Interview by Josh Medsker
(from Noise Noise Noise #11, Oct. 1996)
(note: after their appearance at the Holidays in the Sun Brit punk reunion-fest this summer, the Conscious Consumer lineup has split.)
What have you been doing, since the breakup of the original band? I heard that you put out some solo records in ’80 and ’86? Have you done anything other than music?
I’ve been writing songs, and a diary and a book on Bhakti Yoga. I did put out a solo album in 1980, called Translucence, which was a therapeutic retreat from electric music, and was mainly for my personal development as an artist and a human being. I also put out an EP, called Gods and Goddesses, that was a fusion of styles.
How would you say going to India changed your personal life, and your musical outlook and ideas?
I’ve been very much influenced by Indian culture and philosophy, which has had a profound spiritual significance in both my personal life and music and has helped me introduce mantra therapy in my work and private life.
How do you think the new album, Conscious Consumer, fits in with the other X Ray Spex material?
It’s a progression but still carries quite contemporary concepts of social issues, which aims to se the listener free from consumer bondage. I’m no exception to this rule. I like to hear the messages transmitted as much as I like to sing them. I think Conscious Consumer was more an exercise in communication.
What happened to the original band? Who’s in the new band?
The original band tried to do X Ray Spex without me, unsuccessfully. So I went solo for a while, and then re-formed Spex with new people. The new band is me and some friends.
What do you think of the Sex Pistols reunion tour?
I haven’t seen them. Paul Cook said he gave all his tickets away for Finsbury Park. Everybody who sees them says they sound great. Shame they haven’t any new songs.
You keep up with music these days? Which bands interest you?
The band Shelter have a good message, but musically, I like instrumental, chill-out music. I hope to put on a one-day event once a month, in London and LA, of all my undiscovered bands.
This piece will always have a special place in my heart. It was the first thing I wrote that I got paid for, launching me on my first (albeit short-lived) career. All thanks goes to Robert Meyerowitz for taking a chance on me. And Mark and Gretchen Fitz for letting me crash in their spare room even after walking out of my day job. Read on! -JM (2017)
By Josh Medsker
(from The Anchorage Press, Feb 1999)
I had tried to get an interview with Henry Rollins for a week, shortly after his spoken-word date at UAA was confirmed. The UAA Concert Board put up a brick wall: no interviews. Then I noticed a paper on the fridge at my friends’ Mark and Gretchen’s house, where I was crashing. Mark was working with the Concert Board, and had Rollins’ itinerary, including the hotel where he was staying. I knew what I had to do.
I was supposed to go to work at the Century 16 Megaplex the day of the show. I was the barista boy. I had to weigh my options. Shitty minimum-wage job or possibly meeting Henry Rollins. Serving coffee (with no tips) or talking with one of my punk rock heroes. Making $30 dollars and sitting with my thumb up my ass for most of the day or sticking my neck out to do what I love to do.
I got up at 6am, the day of, and headed out to the Captain Cook Hotel. I was scared as shit. My first balls-to-the-wall journalism experience. Most of the interviews I’d done before were calm, set-up affairs. No big surprises. But this was guerilla commando shit. I expected the hotel to put me out on my ear, when they figured out what I was doing. But I staked that place out for hours.
I arrived at 7am and sat in the hotel restaurant, figuring it was a safe place to start my spying. As far as the hotel knew, I was just another guest. I went over and over the questions I was going to ask, careful to keep my pad and tape recorder out of sight. After about an hour, I got up and took a look around. I noticed there were two towers, with the front desk right in the middle. I sat near that desk for the next five hours, reading Johnny Cash’s autobiography, ready to nab Rollins when he checked out. I never did see him. I was so pissed.
I found out later that night that Rollins was producing commercials that day and left the hotel early. I also found out that the hotel had made special arrangements to get him out of the hotel unnoticed and untouched. There was no way in hell I would’ve gotten to talk to him. But at that point, I was just looking forward to relaxing and enjoying his show, with a scant possibility of getting backstage after.
Rollins busted out for over 2 hours, on everything from Christianity to Black Sabbath to dating, and did it all with graceful showmanship. He’s much funnier than he’s given credit for. He went back and forth between his obsessive fanboy antics hanging out with Black Sabbath and his acting roles without missing a beat. He railed against mediocrity over and over. One of his targets was modern music. “All those guys sound the same,” he said. “Hootie. Eddie Vedder. The guy from Creed. They aren’t particularly bad or good–they’re just sort of there. And that’s the worst.”
Whenever Rollins is home in LA, he says he gets the urge to roam again. He calls it immaturity, but it seems more like an overwhelming desire to explore. Fear of dying without accomplishing anything seems to drive him.
After the show I wandered into the wings. My plan was to find a friend of mine who’s on the news staff at KRUA. I found her, and she’d been denied access as well. I found out later that a group of high school journalists were grilling Rollins backstage. No interviews, huh?
On my way out the door, I ran into Mark. “What one question would you ask Rollins?” he asked. I knew what he was getting at. “I’d ask him what lessons he’s learned, having been deep in the alternative music scene for nearly 20 years.”
I met up with Mark later at Village Inn where we guzzled coffee and ate shark pate taken from backstage. He was one of the few people allowed to talk with the man. He and Hank had sat and talked punk for a bit, and upon hearing my question, Rollins imparted this bit of wisdom: “If you want something done, get off your ass and do it yourself, because no one is going to do it for you.”
In preparation for the unveiling of GEEZERS OF PUNK SPECTACTULAR (PART DEUX), the massive gathering of interviews with “punkers of a certain age” I’ve done for my zine / small press, Twenty-Four Hours, over the last decade or so, here’s an article I wrote in 1999/2000 for a fanzine I’m quite fond of. Please excuse the hyperbole. I was young and excitable.– JM (2017)
THE DAY OF THE DAMNED by Josh Medsker
(From Neat Damned Noise fanzine, 2000)
The Damned with The Doormats and Wench @ The Fillmore, San Francisco. Oct 1, 1999
If I’d thought of it, I would have tried to get a free ticket too… I was so excited when I found out The Damned were coming to town, I thought I’d puke. On the day of the show, I went up to the Fillmore, the famed 60s hippie hovel, and asked to get backstage to talk to the band. Their tour manager said okay when I explained I was writing this article for NDN (Hi Henrik!). I was ecstatic. I still can’t believe I met the Damned.
I missed the first band, The Doormats, but I caught the next band, Wench. They kicked some ass. Their main instrument was the drums. Huge booming electronic drums. They were a tasty mix of Ministry and early Siouxsie and The Banshees. Then came the Damned. “Sensible’s a Wanker” and other chants were thrown out from the crowd as the band boarded the stage. Monty the Moron came out in a sort-of clown suit, and wowed the crowed with an extended, moody keyboard into to “Wait for the Blackout”, which sounded a lot like the version from their late 80s reunion period, on Final Damnation. After Monty came Patricia Morrison (ex-Sisters of Mercy, The Bags) all resplendent in her black vinyl dress and long black hair. Sensible walked out in some horridly silly t-shirt and camo pants, plus his trademark beret. He looked the same as ever. Then Dave Vanian waltzed out from the wings, microphone in hand, singing.
Much to my amazement and joy, they played a smattering of songs from their gothic 80s albums. And they played a bunch of my other favorites, such as “Disco Man”, “I Just Can’t Be Happy Today”, and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”. The music was even better live than on the albums, and even though I’d listened to every album a million times. The bass guitar combo of Cap’n Sensible and Patricia Morrison played everything a little different, just to switch it up. What I loved the most, though, was that they played “Shadow of Love”, and “Curtain Call”, with a long moody introduction (although not nearly as long as long as the seventeen minute version on The Black Album).
Later on, they played more stuff from their early albums, such as “Neat Neat Neat” (or “Ni Ni Ni” as I like to say…), “Love Song”, and their ultra-super classic “New Rose”. In the midst of all this, Dave Vanian said to the crowd, “I’ll bet you recognize this one”, and then launched into a brand new song, “Democracy”. The song was fast, and had complex guitar parts, sort of like the faster songs from Anything, but with its own special feel. After this debut, they kicked off, “Looking at You” with a nifty breakdown in the middle, before roaring back into it, driving the crowd to madness. They ended the night with another personal favorite, “Ignite”.
Dig this. Go listen to that song “Shattered Dreams”, from the new Offspring album, and TELL me that that doesn’t sound exactly like Machine Gun Etiquette-era Damned (mixed with Offspring’s brand of O.C. punk, of course). I mean, they already covered “Smash It Up”! Think about it.
After the show, I walked backstage, ALL ACCESS page in hand! I talked with the dudes from The Doormats, who showed me where Sensible was hanging out. I walked up to the Cap’n, nervous as hell, and introduced myself. “Hi, I’m a huge fan! I play bass too!” After telling the Cap’n that I was from Alaska, we got onto a weird conversation about the Arctic Land Bridge and Native Americans coming over from Europe… Of course I got pictures. After chatting with the good captain for a while, I ventured into the back room, where I found Vanian. We talked a while, and he updated me on what The Damned has been doing recently. Vanian has been working to get the original Phantom Chords album from 1990 released, and hopes to have it released very soon. “It never got released,” he said. “I had the rights to re-record the song, but I wanted to get the originals. There are some good recordings in there.” He also said that this line-up of The Damned is permanent, and are going to be a fully function touring and recording band. The newest incarnation of the band (which is made up of Vanian on vocals, Sensible on guitars, Morrison on bass, Monty the Moron on keys, and guy they call Pinch -formerly of The English Dogs- on drums) have been debuting new songs at each show on this tour.
Sensible busted in, “Please say good things!” The band also has a song on the new Fat Wreck Chords compilation Short Music for Short People. “We recorded it just for that album,” Vanian said. “We packed a lot into that 30 seconds!” According to Mr. Vanian, the band easily has an album’s worth of new material, and would like to record an album soon. “The new material is sort of like The Black Album and Machine Gun Etiquette, more experimentation,” he said. “We’ve been trying to put a few in [our sets] as we go along”. He continued, “Many of them are in the rough stages, but we’ve got plenty of material.”
SHORT MUSIC FOR SHORT PEOPLE (FAT WRECK)
This mamba-jamba has 101 songs on it! Each of ‘em clocking in at a whopping 30 seconds! One of which is a brand-new song by The Damned! The new song, “It’s a Real-Time Thing” is over way too soon and it absolutely rules! It’s straight outta the 80s with its reverby vocals and doomy bassline. The other bands on the album crank out some great stuff too. GWAR’s “Fishfuck”, Bad Religion’s “Out of Hand”, and Spazz’s “A Prayer for the Complete and Utter Eradication of all Generic Pop-Punk” being the most boss tunes. There are also classics by Black Flag (“Spray Paint”), Circle Jerks (“Deny Everything”), and The Descendents (“I Like Food”), all of which rocked, of course. Except for the moldy golden oldies, all of the songs on this album are either brand new or close enough. Run, do not walk, to yer record store and get this album.
I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and I think I’m ready to say it. I am tired of writing for no money. Somewhere along the line, not paying writers for their work has become commonplace in the literary world. I, for one, am tired of not getting paid. It’s the same mentality that allows companies to abuse poor college interns for no pay, for the prestige of putting the experience in their resume.
But an internship lasts a few months maybe? Our writing careers will hopefully last a little longer. But I put it to you like this: We will only succeed when our value is recognized.
At its core, my argument isn’t about money. Your labor is the only thing you truly own. Don’t give it away. Starting May 15th, for one year I will be sending out my work for publication, but only to publications who pay cash money. Then I’m going to see how successful I was, and write a follow-up to this essay. And no, contributor copies are not good enough. I understand that no one has any money (except the Random Houses of the world), but isn’t it about time you asked yourself… Why?
For the first handful of years as a writer, I dreaded rejection letters. Every letter I got, I would keep, as a reminder to myself to do better, and would file them away in an ever-growing pile. My office wasn’t the cheeriest of places, and I got discouraged. Now, I see them as an opportunity. Why, you ask? It’s probably not what you think. Read on.
Now, we all know that getting rejected toughens you up. That’s undeniable. But have you ever thought about a rejection letter as a subtle nudging open of the door? Hear me out. Whenever you send out your work to be published, your name goes out with it. That’s a very powerful thing. It’s a chance for the editor to get to know your name! So now, when I send work out to be published, I take a little solace in the fact that I’m a little less anonymous than before.
And this may be the most important step… After I get the rejection letter, I send a simple “thank you” back to the editor, for taking the time to read my work. And I mean it. Having published Twenty-Four Hours for so long, in near-anonymity, any acknowledgement is wonderful. These editors are just like you and me, with car payments and school loans, and chores, and a slew of other things taking up their time. If you send them a note saying you appreciate them, it can only be a good thing. For everyone.
Just some things I was thinking about, and wanted to share.