On the passing of my mentor, Stephen Dunn

I was devastated to learn this morning of the recent passing of Stephen Dunn. To many, he was a name in poetry collections. To others, of course, he was a friend. To me, he was a mentor.

I’ve had the good fortune of being encouraged in my writing for just about my entire life. Teachers and colleagues and friends all encouraged me in my work. I was told that I was good, then I was told that I was very good, and at some point I started to believe it. By the time I enrolled at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey (it’s a university now), 22 years ago, I was already a writer.

Not really, but that’s the answer I would have given you if you’d asked.

Stockton had a top-notch literature faculty. I am confident that that fact has not changed. But Stephen Dunn was its crown jewel. He was a celebrated poet, and he taught writing workshops. I was told many times to take one of them, and I did as soon as I could. They were small courses — around eight students — and they met for single four-hour sessions each week. I made several lifelong friends in that workshop. I am pretty sure I also made the best friend I’ve ever had.

And I found my mentor in Dunn himself.

Previously, I’d been supported in my craft by folks who complimented me, encouraged me, inspired me to continue. There is, obviously, value in that.

Dunn supported me by doing what others should have done sooner: He challenged me.

I say others should have done it sooner because I wasn’t prepared for this. I took challenge as an affront. And, as he was a perceptive human being and an accomplished writer himself, I’m confident in saying he knew I would take it that way.

Dunn would weed out students who didn’t belong in his workshops. That may sound harsh but I don’t believe it was. I remember the class consisting of a certain number of students on day one, and a smaller number on day two. He met with us individually, and some of us didn’t come back. I assume this is because students ended up taking the workshop for no reason other than to earn credit hours, and that’s not what the workshop was for.

The workshop wasn’t for those who dabbled. The workshop was for writers who needed to grow.

He never once suggested that I leave the class, but he also never once let my writing get away with its weaknesses. He would discuss — in front of everybody — what I did wrong. Where my language fell apart. Where I reached for a conclusion without finding one. Where I told without showing. Where a joke fell flat. Where a story started or ended at the wrong point. He wasn’t picking on me. This was the format of the class. We would all “workshop” each other’s stories, with the only real rule being that the authors of those stories could not speak until the workshopping was complete.

I remember seething. I remember being ready to pounce on every criticism. I remember wanting to explain why they were wrong as readers and I was right as an author.

Then it would be my turn to speak, and I’d have nothing to say. Because they weren’t wrong. For the first time, and thanks to Dunn, I was able to see not just that I had failed my readers, but exactly how I had failed them, and to what degree, every single time it happened. That was a gift beyond value.

It was a painful gift, but a necessary one. The encouragement I’d received in the past was nice, but it didn’t help me to grow. People focused on what I did right and made me feel good about it. Dunn, I truly believed, sensed my mindset, understood it, and worked to help me see my own flaws. He didn’t need to do that. We could have read my stories and moved on. But we didn’t.

At times I felt as though I were being unfairly singled out. Stories that were clearly lesser than mine were getting less scrutiny. Writers who slapped something together an hour before the class got a superficial reading and no more. My stories were discussed and dissected and ripped apart before my eyes.

It’s easy now to see that this was an enormous compliment. The fact that he gave my stories the spotlight that he did was not an insult. It was not an excuse to trample them. It was an opportunity for them — and for me — to develop. Other stories got less scrutiny because there was less to scrutinize. They received less effort because the writer had invested less effort.

I gave my stories a tremendous amount of effort. He knew that. I also thought I was a really fucking good writer. He knew that, too.

But if I wanted to think of myself as a really fucking good writer, he was going to correct me. And so he gave me a choice: Either I actually become a really fucking good writer, or I shut my mouth about it.

It was up to me. I could do either. If I wanted to take the easy way out, nobody would have judged me or ever thought about me again. If I wanted to actually become what I thought I already was, he would help me.

And so he did. He did so by stripping my work down to its component pieces — in front of an audience — and showing us everything that misfired. He offered suggestions, yes, but he never dictated solutions. There was no one way to write a story correctly, but there were a handful of ways to write them incorrectly. He painstakingly dismantled everything I did and handed me the pieces and told me to put it back together again…only he wanted it to work this time.

It wasn’t an approach that worked for everybody. A few more students left the class. I have a feeling that happened every semester. They probably thought they were really fucking good writers, too. And though the class ended at about 10 pm and many of us had work in the morning, I think various smaller groups of students congregated after every session to blow off steam.

“Can you believe he said that?” would be more or less the sum of our conversation, repeated dozens of times until we were too tired to stay awake. I think all of us understood that there was value in the experience — we kept coming back, didn’t we? — but it felt good to pretend we didn’t, to embrace the perceived affront, to do our impressions of Dunn and laugh. (Joke’s on you, you soft-spoken, deeply intelligent man.)

That was probably the hardest period of my life as a writer, because I was made to wonder if I should even be a writer. I mean, I knew I should. Of course I fucking knew I should. I’d been writing since I was around 10 years old, and seriously so since I was around 16. I knew what I was doing. I was good at this. This was all I had. If I weren’t good at this…if I were wrong and I actually weren’t a writer…

…what was left for me?

I remember one specific story that I wrote, which was absolutely destroyed in the workshop. It was called “Strength in Numbers,” and I certainly hope nobody still has a copy of it.

It was beyond salvage. Well, maybe not. Maybe an actual writer could have salvaged it. But me? No. It was very clear that I was not the person to restore this thing to life. Better to bury it in the yard and feign ignorance when the police started asking questions about where it was.

But that wasn’t an option, short of dropping the class.

We were responsible for taking one of the stories we’d written and shepherding it through to the end of the semester. We’d share a draft with the group, rewrite it, and then reveal the final product, improved for all of their feedback.

“Strength in Numbers” might be improved (hey, how could it not be, right?) but it certainly wasn’t going to be anything worth showing off. So I gathered up what little was left of my dignity and I sat down and decided not to rework my failure after all.

I wrote a different story under the same name, which itself was about a story called “Strength in Numbers” and the author who, despite his frustrations, couldn’t get it together. He spent more time being frustrated about that fact than he did working on the story, of course. That ended up being my main, unspoken joke. I wasn’t deliberately criticizing myself — this was a character, you know — but I was certainly relieving a lot of stress and anxiety by doing it.

I turned in the new draft as my “final” version of a completely different story. My classmates read it. We talked before Dunn showed up. One of them, I remember well, said Dunn was going to kill me. I felt the same way.

When Dunn did arrive, he sat down in his chair, held my story in front of his face and took a moment, as though his eyes were focusing on something he were seeing for the first time. He cleared his throat. All of this was standard practice as he decided how to open the discussion. I remember specifically seeing a little smirk appear on his face, and then he said, “I really liked this.”

Probably not in the way he expected, I gave him what he wanted: a story that came from somewhere. It wasn’t just a few pages of language I thought was clever. It wasn’t some pointless story I wrote because I was assigned to write one. It wasn’t the bare minimum skeleton of a narrative, which he and I both knew I could scrape together in my sleep.

I’d written a story. I’d written a story because I had an emotion that I needed to exorcise. I’d written something that mattered to me. And that was what I had been missing.

Dunn knew that I was capable of sitting down and pounding out something that read well, was funny, was probably even a little bit interesting.

But none of it mattered. I could play all of the notes of a beloved tune but I wasn’t playing them with feeling.

He pushed me until I realized that. And when I demonstrated that I understood that, he celebrated my work in front of the class. In front of me.

I’d met him halfway. I enrolled in his class expecting my writing abilities to be recognized. Instead, he recognized how much further they could go. That wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but he was right. So I brought them further. I worked to bring them further. I hurt myself bringing them further. And he thanked me.

I remember well one thing he said. He said that I arrived in his class as a talent, and I left as a writer of stories.

I remember it well because he wrote it in the foreword for my first collection of writings. He didn’t need to do that, but he said he was honored to do so. I believe that he meant it.

Years later, when he was clearing out his office, I happened to meet with him. He’d recently dug up some concept art for the cover of his Riffs & Reciprocities collection. I admired them and he asked if I wanted to keep them. Now I was honored. He signed them for me. I still have them. I will always have them.

I’ve seen him many times since. Sometimes live, as during an impassioned reading he gave shortly after 9/11, a reading that stuck with me so vividly that I ended up quoting it in my Resident Evil book last year. He is thanked in the book as well, for reasons even here I cannot overstate. I refer to him as “the great poet,” not only because he was one, but because he was and remains the great poet for me.

I took a second workshop with him shortly after he won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001. We kept in periodic touch after that. He helped me and he encouraged me and all of those things are wonderful, but I am only where I am — wherever I am — because he pushed me.

Dunn was not an easy man to love as he pulled apart what you thought was talent and revealed it to be mere competence. (At best.) But somewhere, at some point in his own creative life, somebody must have done the some thing for him. Somebody must have said, “Here are your weaknesses, Stephen, and you need to fix them.” And it must have stung. It must have angered. It must have lit a fire in him that kept burning right up until Thursday, June 24, his 82nd birthday.

The fire that Dunn lit within me — lit from his own flame — still burns. It will continue to burn. I feel it burn every time I write something. Every sentence. Every word, if I let myself feel it. I remember Dunn and how he would have pushed me to do better. Not because he wished to feel superior or to make me feel inferior, but because both he and I knew that I was capable of doing better, and because — of the two of us — only one was brave enough to point it out.

He guided me long beyond those writing workshops and he’s guided me probably long after he’d forgotten me. But I’ll never forget him, his demeanor, his unwillingness to let his fondness for his students get in the way of his honesty. I’ll never forget everything he said to me that I needed to hear. I’ll never forget the way he helped me take a knack for writing and turn it into a passion.

More than any one specific person in my life, I owe Stephen Dunn my career. If it weren’t for him, for him showing me not only how to stoke that flame but teaching me the importance of keeping it lit, I’d have moved on from this hobby like I have so many others.

Instead, writing stopped being a hobby. It became a purpose.

Everything I write has the voice of Dunn behind it. If it’s strong, it’s because I listened to him. If it’s weak, it’s because I didn’t. But it’s always there. It always will be there.

The voice of a man who tore me down because he knew I could build myself up better.

And because he cared that I do so.

Stephen Dunn invested himself in me. I hope I haven’t let him down.

Goodbye, Stephen.

Nothing I can say could possibly be enough, but I hope that some day I can leave with someone even a fraction of what you have left with me.

Riffs & Reciprocities

Fixed Perspectives

As I write this, the Kickstarter campaign containing my Resident Evil book is nearing 350% funded. That’s astonishing; thank you from the bottom of my heart. If you haven’t pledged yet, please consider doing so. You’ll be supporting a great publisher and great writers.

(I’m also pitching in an additional stretch goal for hitting 350%, so if you pledge now, you can make that happen yourself!)

I didn’t expect the campaign to get funded so quickly, so I guess I’d better start actually posting some of the behind-the-pages stuff I’ve been meaning to.

To start with, I wanted to spotlight a few of the experts I brought in who allowed me to provide a much larger view (and achieve a deeper understanding) of the material.

I’m one person. I can perform my own research and provide my own interpretations, but there’s only so much I can show you from my own fixed angle. Getting some additional voices involved would enrich and enhance the book substantially.

And, y’know, it would also give me an excuse to work with some really cool people.

The headliner here was Lloyd Kaufman, head honcho of Troma Entertainment and perhaps the elder statesman of excess.

I wasn’t sure how much interest Kaufman would have in the project, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask. The guy is a B-movie icon, and with Resident Evil perhaps still the closest thing we have to an interactive B-movie, I hoped we could find some overlap.

We ended up with much, much more.

The guy is busy; I will say that much up front. It would not be polite to mention his age (Lloyd is 106), but he does not seem to slow down. When I approached him to see if he’d be interested in participating in some way, he heard me out. He listened attentively. He told me — with clear sincerity — that he was honored that I asked. He offered to write the foreword.

And then he disappeared.

It only seemed that way, of course. What actually happened is that Kaufman is no less busy now than he ever was. I came to him with one project, and he was interested. That was very nice, but it didn’t make a few dozen other projects that needed his attention disappear.

Right now, in early May 2020, long after the book is done, the guy just keeps going. While many others are understandably scaling back public appearances, Lloyd keeps finding ways to get himself and his work out there. Just last week he participated in the Mainframe Comic Con, an online event of exactly the kind that’s being cancelled around the world. For many, it’s a chance to stay home and slow down. For Lloyd, it’s a chance to find new ways forward.

So he was gone. I reached out a few more times and would indeed get responses, even ones that promised, “I haven’t forgotten you! Expect something soon.” And then silence again.

One of the things he was attempting to achieve was securing a venue to premiere Return to Return to Nuke ‘Em High AKA Volume 2 in Denver. I didn’t know that, and I learned about it immediately when I mentioned where I live.

He apologized for the delay once again, and asked if I could help him in return. I was, as he had put it months earlier, honored that he asked.

He said that it’s always easier when fans in certain cities reach out to venues to request bookings. Troma or other companies can approach venues as much as they like, but it’s the fans who make clear the actual demand.

I did indeed manage to secure him a venue for his film. It screened with a live Q&A from Lloyd on July 13, 2019, at Denver’s beloved Oriental Theater. Lesbian couples in attendance got a free DVD.

It only gets stranger from there, but also less relevant so I’ll summarize. While finding contacts for potential venues, I met a lot of truly wonderful, excellent people in various industries. One of them ended up becoming my realtor; she found me the house I purchased soon afterward. It’s because of a direct request from Lloyd Kaufman that I now own a home.

What an extraordinarily bizarre experience, completely befitting the inanity that put Troma on the map in the first place.

Ultimately, of course, I got a foreword from him, and it was everything I could have hoped. Thanks to the delays, I was able to get him a more-or-less complete draft of Resident Evil, which meant, y’know, he’d actually know what the book was. That ended up helping, I think.

I named the first chapter in the book after a film distributed by Troma. It was fitting, and also, I thought, a nice transition from his words into my own.

Lloyd is — seemingly daily — exactly the person I would have assumed him to be. He’s hilarious, a bit nuts, bottomlessly grateful, and full of love. None of those things surprised me, but I feel privileged to have had each of them validated firsthand by the man himself.

Thank you, Lloyd.

At one point during the course of writing, I was reminded that someone else had spent a lot of time translating Resident Evil into text: Danelle Perry, writing as S.D. Perry.

I remember seeing Perry’s novelizations at Borders and Barnes & Noble for years, but I never picked them up. Why? Well, because the games were scary enough; the last thing I wanted was to invite them deeper into my brain through a medium I turned to for comfort.

That was my loss, back then. Perry novelized the first three numbered games in the series, the prequel Resident Evil Zero and the criminally overlooked Resident Evil: Code Veronica. Her books did so well she was invited to write two original novels set in the same universe, using many of the same characters.

They were, and are, a lot of fun. The first book (The Umbrella Conspiracy) hews pretty closely to the source material, but Perry seemed to find greater freedom from there, especially in her two original stories. They’re adventure novels with moments of genuinely impressive atmosphere, and I was curious about her process. Again, it couldn’t hurt to reach out.

I ended up having a lovely conversation with her. Now largely retired and raising her two teenage sons, she spoke to me openly about many interesting things. We covered everything from her process to her inspirations to the complete lack of guidance from Capcom.

It also led to one of the most heartbreaking cuts I had to make as a writer. As the book took shape, there was less and less room for the chapter dedicated to Perry and her novelizations. It started to feel more like digression than progression. My editors had “the talk” with me. I couldn’t disagree. The chapter was gone.

…was.

With a little bit of restructuring, it now stands alone as a complimentary feature. Bonus content, if you will, which you will be able to read in Nightmare Mode, an anthology that all Boss Fight Books season five subscribers will get for free now that we’ve hit that particular stretch goal.

It’s more than a little appropriate that that feature rose from the dead, and I’m glad we were able to find a home for it when it no longer fit the flow of the book.

Did you catch it, a moment ago, when I said I couldn’t read the books because the games were scary enough? That wasn’t an exaggeration.

When Resident Evil came out in 1996, I was not a fan of horror. I hated it. I didn’t like what it did to me. I didn’t like the nightmares I experienced. I didn’t like the way it rewired my brain to fear shadows and sounds and even people that, on their own, wouldn’t have been the least bit scary.

Yet, here we are. I don’t just play Resident Evil; I respect it and adore it and write hundreds of pages about it. I don’t just watch horror films willingly; I seek them out, spotlight related films each October, relish them at both their best and their glorious worst.

One thread my book follows is that evolution for me, that gradual acceptance of a genre I thought could offer me nothing other than discomfort. Here’s the thing, though: There’s only so much about the psychology behind horror that I could understand or articulate on my own.

In researching it, I found a lot of interesting articles, and one name that kept coming up was Margee Kerr, a sociologist who specializes in fear. Her name ended up all over my notes. I read interviews with her and watched her give a TED Talk. I bought her book Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear and found it as entertaining as it was informative.

I figured I could either quietly stuff my book full of Kerr’s observations or reach out and invite her to part of the project. Again, what did I have to lose? She accepted, and we had an hours-long chat that started with Resident Evil and then plunged fascinatingly into what actually happens inside of us when we are exposed to horror media.

It was one of the most fascinating conversations I’d ever had, and I was privileged enough to have it a second time, as well. Through a good friend I met Sharnay Brown, an outpatient psychologist with a doctorate in clinical psychology. (She has fled the country since our talk. I can only assume this was unrelated.)

Between Kerr and Brown I was able to have all of my questions answered. While typing up notes from one, I prepared questions for the other. Together they painted an incredible portrait of horror’s appeal, of its chemical similarity to excitement, of the ways our bodies and brains shut down non-essential functions when experiencing fear.

They provided clinical explanations for why we seek out some scares and avoid others, why we enjoy horror more when with friends, even why horror characters tend to make the worst possible decisions at the worst possible times.

I knew I’d be able to discuss and explain what happens on the game’s side of the screen when you boot up Resident Evil, but I couldn’t have hoped to explain what happened on your side. Clearly games like that have an impact, but that wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to know what that impact was made of, specifically.

Thanks to Kerr and Brown, I was able to find out. Now readers will, too.

That’s just a quick overview of some of the people who set time aside to help me turn this book project from a potentially pretty good one into a great one. I love them all and cannot sing their praises enough. I think you will be pleased with what everybody brings to the discussion, and I’m humbled and honored to have worked with them.

Of course, these are far from the only voices you will hear in the book.

Before I even started writing, I asked myself, “Wouldn’t it be cool if I tracked down all the actors and voice actors from the game and got from them, for the first time, the complete story behind those infamous performances?”

With the book complete, I can definitively answer, “Yes. It is cool.”

We’ll talk about that next time. For now, help bring it to life.

Announcing: Resident Evil, by Philip J Reed

Three years in the making, it’s finally time for the official announcement: My book, Resident Evil, is part of season five of Boss Fight Books.

Boss Fight Books is an excellent publisher, and I cannot express how profoundly honored I am to be included in their lineup. Each of their books focuses on one particular video game and then branches — to varying degrees — into larger topics, histories, personal journeys, and so much more.

This season includes books about The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, Red Dead Redemption, Silent Hill 2, and Final Fantasy VI.

My book is about Resident Evil. Here, I can prove it:

Resident Evil is my central case study for discussing horror and how it works, with an extended tour through the deadly Spencer Mansion allowing us to discuss the writing, directing, and structuring of scares, along with the surprising power of horror to bring us together.

It’s done. It’s as ready to be distributed as it can possibly be without actually being printed.

Which is where you come in.

The Kickstarter campaign for season five is live right now.

If you were only ever interested in a copy of my book, then don’t worry; think of this as a preorder. Pay $5 for a digital copy or pay $15 for both a physical and digital copy. You get my book and you support the campaign by doing so.

Nice and easy!

However, there are other options available that are worth exploring. Pay $25 and you’ll get all five books digitally. Pay $30 and get two physical/digital copies of any of them. (Resident Evil and Silent Hill 2 fit nicely together, I hear.) Pay $75 for the entire set physically and digitally and get a personal thank-you within the books.

The list goes on. Check out all of the different ways you can support the campaign and get some nice goodies for yourself.

The nicest goodie of all might be Nightmare Mode. If the campaign hits $20,000 in funding, backers will receive this anthology featuring additional material from 10 Boss Fight Books authors past and present, myself included.

I have put more work into Resident Evil than I can express without sounding like I’m writing a suicide note. There is no doubt in my mind that if you enjoy my writing in general, you’ll enjoy this. (To be frank, you’d be nuts if you didn’t enjoy it more. Working with professional editors makes a huge difference.)

You can read all about my book and the others on the Kickstarter page.

I hope you will consider supporting the campaign, which you can do no matter what title or titles you decide to buy.

During the campaign I’ll be sharing more information about the book right here on this site. (Seriously, I’m not going to shut up about it.) I hope you’ll join me in reading about the adventures I’ve had off the page and getting a sense of just why this game — like the writing of this book — has been so important to me.

For now, though, please visit the campaign. Watch the video to learn more (and to hear the original Resident Evil narrator Ward Sexton introduce my book!), decide what awesome stuff you’d like to have on your bookshelf, and consider supporting some great authors and an even better publisher.

I hope you enjoy reading Resident Evil even half as much as I enjoyed writing it.

More to come. See you soon.

There’s No Fiction Like Non-Fiction

I’ve already said that I can’t reveal much about the book I’m writing quite yet, but I think there are a few things I’m at liberty to share. One of them is that it’s a work of non-fiction. This is actually a source of amusement to me.

I’m a fictionist. End of story. When I sit down to write, I create characters. I figure out who they are. I let them interact and show me sides of themselves I never anticipated. I watch them bumble around and find their ways either forward or backward. (Usually backward.) It’s fun. I love it. And when I’m not writing, I’m dreaming up ideas, situations, complications, so that when I do write, I have some concept of where I can take things.

As of right now, I have two manuscripts that I would call complete. That is to say that I may well tweak them at some point in some minor way, but they’re finished. They’ve been written, rewritten, rewritten, edited, rewritten, re-edited, rewritten, and finalized. I’m happy with them. If I died tomorrow and somebody found them and they turned out to be my legacy, I’d be okay with that.

One is a work of high literary fiction called Afterbirth: The Comedy of Miscarriage. It’s a darkly humorous and deliberately overcomplicated narrative, told by a child who was never born. He relates — from wherever he happens to be now — the dozens of couplings and tragedies and coincidences throughout the generations that ultimately funneled two idiots together. Two idiots who created and quickly lost him. It’s a laugh riot.

I’m happy with it. By some miracle, the first draft was very strong, and a number of talented people came together to help me make it even stronger. I’ll always see it with fondness, even if it goes nowhere, but, in my humble (and utterly unreliable) estimation, it deserves to go somewhere at some point.

It’s not exactly a debut novel, though. It’s not the sort of thing an agent would have an easy time shopping around, especially coming from a nobody. So I got to work a few years later on something I thought would be easier to market: a pastiche of the detective fiction genre called, hey, Detective Fiction.

I started writing it for the sole purpose of having something with merits I could clearly and quickly communicate to agents. It doesn’t hop around through time or spin complex backstories for minor characters or sideline action in favor of theme like Afterbirth does; it tells a funny — though decidedly functional — detective story starring a character thoroughly ill-equipped to solve it.

It was going to be easy. That was the entire point of Detective Fiction. But, as I wrote it, I fell in love with it. I stepped back from it a little and saw glimmers of actual humanity that I then, as an artist, was obligated to expose. It’s still a far simpler story than Afterbirth, and it’s a more overtly funny one, but there was something real within these characters, in both positive and appalling ways, and I found Detective Fiction becoming something more than what I wanted it to be.

Which, ultimately, means nobody wanted that one, either.

I’ve solicited agents for these books off and on for years. I’ve worked on other projects. I’ve rarely stayed put, creatively, and even if I were to go nowhere, I wouldn’t see that as any kind of failure. The old man sits in his garage carving ducks out of blocks of wood. None of them will end up in a museum, nobody knows his name, at best they will sell for a buck at an estate sale after he dies. But carving them makes him happy. Carving mine makes me happy, too.

I’ve spent a lot of my life working on fiction, trying to sell fiction, seeing my short fiction published. (That’s much easier than shopping novels around, if you’re curious. My problem isn’t that I can’t find success in publishing…it’s that my heart is in longer works, and I don’t particularly feel compelled to craft tight, punchy stories the way I do to craft complex, meandering narratives.)

So, of course, the one thing a publisher snaps up from me is a work of non-fiction.

It’s a laugh riot.

I don’t mean to downplay this in any way. I’m thrilled. The book is coming along great. And getting a work of non-fiction published actually makes more sense than getting a work of longform fiction published. (I’ll explain momentarily.) It’s just that I feel like I’ve been spending my life on the basketball courts, struggling for recognition, only to pick up a baseball bat and hit a grand slam. It’s a major achievement and something to be proud of…but you have to wonder what the hell you were doing over there.

I have a complicated relationship with non-fiction. I love it when it’s engaging, when it’s fascinating, when the authors are also expert storytellers. (Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus, Shannon Moffett’s The Three-Pound Enigma, anything by Carl Sagan or Michael Pollan or Bill Bryson.) But too often, non-fiction just feels like text to me. Information. Great for a reference book, fatal for anything ostensibly readable.

And so I read far (far) less non-fiction than I do fiction. Bad fiction is still instructive. Sometimes, like bad movies, it’s even fun. Bad fiction helps me to understand and appreciate how good fiction works. Bad fiction can even inspire great fiction to come, by digging up incredible ideas that later authors run with more effectively.

By contrast, bad non-fiction just stinks.

It’s boring. It’s dry. It’s there and that’s fine and I’m willing to believe it’s accurate, but holy hell I sure don’t want to read it, no matter how interesting the subject matter should be.

Oh, and, here’s the other thing: I don’t believe non-fiction exists.

Or, rather, I think non-fiction is a deeply misleading term for what it actually is. Surely there’s merit (and urgency) in drawing a dividing line between the many factual books about World War II and the many stories inspired by World War II. An author who supplies, in some form, actual names and places and dates with the main purpose of providing an accurate historical record is distinct from an author who invents characters and plugs them into that backdrop. They both may arrive at a kind of truth. The novelist often even arrives at greater truths. But the process by which each author arrives at his finished product is importantly distinct.

To a point.

The mere process of translating history or science to text is a creative act. We have to decide what goes in and what is left out. We have to decide how much time to spend on each event we’d like to highlight. We have to decide how to present it. (Chronological presentation may seem to be an easy default, but it may not always work, especially if the fallout from the event you’ve just described won’t be felt for decades or centuries down the line; it may be wiser to pair the cause and effect so that the reader is sure to understand the connection.)

And then there’s the simple act of description. Writing is the process of encoding and decoding. If I were to write a (hopefully short) piece of non-fiction about a man I watched eating an apple, I’d have to take a wordless experience and translate it into a medium that consists only of words. I’d also, consciously, have to choose and arrange those words carefully, not necessarily because they’re the ones I’d like to use but because they’re the ones that would give you, the reader, the most accurate possible portrait of what I’m attempting to record. I’m creating a world, just as I would if I invented that man and his apple wholecloth. The fact that I didn’t is the only salient difference, and it’s an arguably incidental one.

Perhaps while that man ate the apple, a pigeon landed next to him, scrounged for some breadcrumbs, hopped around a bit, and then was startled off by a child. I saw it happen. I observed it. But including it in my work of non-fiction would almost certainly distract from the man eating the apple…the very subject I’m trying to write about. Knowingly distracting the audience from the point I’m trying to make would be idiotic, sure, so I leave the pigeon out, leave the breadcrumbs out, leave the playful child out.

But then, didn’t I just drift into fiction? By curating the scene, I’m presenting an alternate version of what actually happened. What I include may be as truthful as possible, but I’m excising so much else. By choosing not to report something — and every record of every kind must choose not to report something, or there wouldn’t be time enough in life to report anything — I’m inventing. I’m inventing a version of that man who ate an apple without the pigeon, without the car honking away in the distance, without the leaves flitting by on the ground, without the clouds in the sky and where they were positioned and how big they were and what they looked like. And how many times did he blink? I don’t know. I don’t have access to that information. I will have to craft my work of non-fiction without knowing everything about what I’m actually recording.

In short, what I mean to say is that there’s always an element of fiction in non-fiction. I don’t know that there’s always an element of non-fiction in fiction, though there frequently is.

Fiction is where my heart is, and where it will always likely be…but how much fiction have you read from me? Maybe a little; I’ve posted a bit of it here. How much non-fiction have you read from me? Well, that would be just about everything you’ve read from me.

I’ve always written stories, but I’ve found success as a critic, as an essayist. It’s why you’re here. It’s why my publisher has any idea who I am. When I spoke with him on the phone, he told me he was impressed that I’d successfully built a following that tunes in just to see what I’ll say next. That’s the sort of thing that happens quite often to fictionists. I don’t think it happens as frequently to essayists, especially those who cover as much disconnected ground as I do.

I don’t know that this means I’m a great writer of non-fiction. More likely, if I really had to appraise myself critically, I’d say it just proves that I’ve learned to take much of what I’ve wanted to accomplish with fiction, and found out how to bring it to life in non-fiction.

I try to tell stories here, and I try to tell them in the same way that I enjoy telling stories I made up. I let myself digress. I hop around in time. I provide little backstories for the minor characters I mention. I’m telling the truth, but I’m aware that it needs to be curated, and I find that curation to be a lot of fun. I’d be doing the same for invented characters, after all. Why not give creative shape to those that actually exist?

The ALF reviews were little stories, which essentially laddered up into a larger one. They’ve already brought more enjoyment and laughter and satisfaction to people than any fiction I’ve written. When I write an essay about a movie I’ve seen or a book I’ve enjoyed or a video game I’ve played, I try to write a story. I try to spin a narrative that’s worth reading, whether or not you have any familiarity with or interest in that movie or book or game.

I try to let my personality shine through. Why wouldn’t I? It’s who I am. I’m a snarky son of a bitch with an extraordinarily soft heart. I’ll laugh at works of terrible art right up until the moment they touch me, at which point I’ll defend them to the death. I’ll pretend I don’t care what people think of me or what I have to say, but I hope it’s always clear to you that I do care, that I want you to enjoy the time you spend with whatever silly thing I’ve been writing, and that I respect your opinion of it more than I could ever respect my own.

And so it’s probably not all that strange that the fictionist has signed his first publishing contract for a work of non-fiction. Maybe it’s actually a good thing. Readers here and elsewhere know me overwhelmingly for my works of non-fiction. Maybe they wouldn’t have much interest in reading a novel of mine. The fact that they pop in to find out what I thought of some largely forgettable Mega Man game doesn’t mean they care at all about a 600-page story I’ve written about Brutus the Time-Traveling Hobo.

That’s okay. I thought I’d end up going down one path, but it’s no less thrilling to go down the path next to it, especially when the destination is the same. It keeps things exciting. It keeps things surprising. Just as a character I invent will inevitably turn out to be something other than what I expected, so do I, the author. That’s all part of the fun.

The great news is that the book I’m writing will be of interest to readers here. There’s no question. You may or may not buy it, of course, but you’re at least the right audience for it. You’re used to the approach. You’ve seen it here before. In fact, it’s even a subject I’ve covered on this site a number of times. (Though, it’s fair to say, never in this way, at this length, or so satisfactorily.)

It’s a book I am excited to share more details about, because I think it will result in a lot of people saying, “Oh!” Unlike my announcement of Brutus Rides Again! which would understandably be met with something closer to “Oh…”

At some point, without realizing it, without knowing it, I started investing all of my writing with the same love and attention that I used to set aside only for fiction. I think novelists have a noble calling, but I think that any book, however real it is, whatever the subject matter, whoever it’s for, should still be able to take the reader on an adventure. It should still be able to transport them to places they haven’t been and show them things they’ve never seen. It should, as Thomas Pynchon would have it, “project a world.”

It should matter. There’s no reason non-fiction can’t touch a life or spark the imagination or reveal new perspectives the way fiction does regularly.

I’m a fictionist writing a work of non-fiction. I look forward to you telling me, in time, how I’ve done.

Book It!

Writing has actually been important to me for longer than reading has. Don’t worry; I’m not suggesting that this is in any way a good thing. Writing without reading is almost entirely worthless for anything beyond its therapeutic value.

But I wrote, long before I understood stories. Long before I understood characters. Long before I understood structure or themes or my audience. I wrote a lot of garbage. It went nowhere, which is exactly as far as it deserved to go.

Eventually, I started reading as well. Nothing of much merit. Some John Grisham, some Michael Crichton, some Stephen King. The pop stars of fiction. I’d like to think I would have enjoyed actual literature, but I sure as hell wasn’t reading any, so we’ll never know for sure.

At some point in the mid-90s, looking for something to read in my high school library, I found a copy of Catch-22. I’ve already talked about what an important moment this was for me. I won’t say much more, except that this is the book that made me a writer. It’s the book that revealed to me what writing can do. It affected me in a way no work of art had ever affected me, and, suddenly, writing wasn’t just some passive hobby. It was what I wanted to do. It was the first thing I’d ever thought to take seriously.

That was around twenty years ago. In the time since, I studied literature at college. I dedicated myself to honing my craft, working with a number of deeply accomplished writers who, for reasons I’ll never understand but will always appreciate, showed me more patience and support than I deserved.

I was a kid. I was stubborn. I thought I knew more than I did.

They helped me anyway.

I joined a number of writing groups online, and met other helpful artists who guided me forward. I connected with people on various forums and shot drafts back and forth. Often the mere act of providing feedback helped me see weaknesses in my own work that I couldn’t have addressed otherwise.

I got better. I started writing for a number of different websites, all of which took a chance on me when they certainly didn’t have to, and all of which helped me to improve a little more.

I started seeing my work edited. Not marked up, not annotated with suggestions, but changed. I provided something, and they published something else. I bristled. I was a writer, so I was supposed to bristle. Who were they to meddle with my work? They were people who knew what they were doing. I was still learning. In time I started to realize that the edits almost uniformly made my work stronger. I started to take note of what they were cutting, what they were changing, what they were resequencing. My work got better.

I started seeing my work commented upon by readers. The internet provides that incredible resource, something that traditional print media never allowed. Feedback from your audience is instant. If I wrote something good, people would tell me. I could reload the page and find 20, 30, 50 people telling me. If I wrote something bad, people would tell me. I could reload the page and find twice as many eager to tell me that.

I bristled. I was a writer, so I was supposed to bristle.

Then I listened. Not to everybody, of course, because there will never come a time that I’ll please everybody. But sharp criticism — even if it’s sharply phrased — was helpful to me, too. Perhaps the reader had missed my point. More often, I have to admit, I failed to deliver it clearly. I learned. My work got better still.

I started hosting my own writing workshops. I started tutoring others who wished to write better, whether for professional or personal reasons. I did my best to help them understand the lessons I had to learn painfully. I saw progress. I watched them evolve from writers at one level to writers at another. To this day I’m still not sure I’ve ever felt more satisfied than in those moments.

I got work as a writer. An an editor. As a proofreader. At some point the hobby that had become a passion had become a career. I’ve worked in television, radio, newspapers, magazines, the private sector, the government. People need writers. Countless individuals along the way had helped me become one. This was how I earned a living. If that’s where I stopped, I would have been happy.

That isn’t where I stopped.

A few weeks ago, on May 2, to be exact, I fulfilled a lifelong dream. I signed a publishing contract. I pitched an idea. Months passed. Emails were exchanged. Conversations were had. A contract was prepared. I signed it. I’m writing a book.

I can’t really offer much more in the way of detail. Well, I could, I suppose, but I’ve been asked not to. I’m happy not to!

The point is that I’ll be working on a complete draft over the course of the next few months. Noiseless Chatter won’t go away. I still intend to post new things. Maybe I’ll share some insights or anecdotes about the writing process. I’m really not sure. But as busy as things have been for me, this made them much busier overnight.

This is a good thing. Because this is what I’ve worked for. And this is where so many people in so many places for reasons I couldn’t possibly tell you helped me get here.

You, all of you, helped me get here. Those of you I went to school with, those of you who followed me here from YouTube or Nintendo Life or Adventure Game Studio, those of you who stumbled across an article I wrote here or elsewhere and stuck around…you’re the reason this is happening.

There’s another writer online I respect very much. I’ve followed his career. I’ve read much of his output. I do my best to support him whenever I can. In fact, I’m jealous of him, of his talents, of his abilities. He’s great at what he does, and he deserves everything he’s achieved.

He’s also broke.

He has a Patreon, and that seems to make the difference between whether or not he can afford groceries for the month.

I…don’t have to worry about that. My writing career isn’t as impressive or storied as his, and if we both died tomorrow he’d leave a legacy and I’d leave very little. But I can afford to eat. I can afford a place to live. I don’t have to worry about who will be sending me a check, or how much I have squirreled away in case that check doesn’t come.

I don’t just get to write; I get to make a living as a writer.

I’m a tremendously lucky person for that reason if for no other, and I don’t let myself forget that. Better writers than me struggle more than I do. Worse writers than me do much better. There’s not much in the way of correlation between talent and success. No matter how much I have of the former, I’m a very lucky person to have any of the latter.

I’ve worked with more talented individuals than I could possibly list here. Sometimes on projects that went nowhere, sometimes on projects that could have been better, sometimes on projects that went better than we could have dreamed. I’ve known more people who have picked me up when I was down and encouraged me to keep going when I was hopeless than I can even remember. I’ve gotten where I am because a lot of people gave up little pieces of themselves to hold me together.

And now I’m getting a lot further.

This opportunity will open a lot of doors for me. That’s thrilling and frightening in equal measure. I keep expecting to wake up at any point now. And, of course, I keep hoping I won’t.

The draft is coming along great. I’m excited to share it with my publisher and excited to share the details with all of you once the time is right. This is a big thing for me, and I think you’ll enjoy it.

I grew up without much support for my writing. I can’t really blame anybody. Nobody should write because they expect to make money at it. I didn’t expect to make money at it, and my family understandably thought I should maybe look into some other career.

But then I started to meet people who also weren’t doing it for the money, who were doing it because that’s who they were. They worked at grocery stores or at restaurants or at movie theaters to pay the bills, and then they’d come home and write funny, moving, thought provoking things most of the world would never even know existed.

And they helped schmucks like me.

If I hadn’t found that support, and hadn’t had that support upheld so many times over the years, I wouldn’t be a writer today. Not professionally, at least. I’d have a hard drive full of Word .docs and a pad full of notes that would go, ultimately, nowhere.

That would be okay.

The fact that I’m any further along than that is a bonus. It’s more than enough for me. It’s always been more than enough.

But pretty soon, I get to take another step.

I’m a really lucky guy.

I hope you’ll stick around to see it through with me.

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