Independence Day

We spent this past 4th of July as every “real” American family should: wearing Old Glory T-shirts (from Old Navy), getting pelted with candy from passing parade floats, and, of course, debating whether or not to take small children to the local fireworks display, knowing that parking would be a nightmare, and that the sound of tired whining could very well overwhelm the explosive pop of celebration. It was good, clean, stressful, dysfunctional family fun! USA! USA!  

Ron knows what I'm talking about.

Ron knows what I'm talking about.

Unfortunately, this holiday wasn't all sparklers and Shriners. When I wasn't carting around folding chairs, or taking one for the team by consuming several hundred hamburgers, I was down in the basement, or in the garage, sorting through my father’s belongings. Dad passed away in October, leaving behind a specific kind of collection—that of someone who’d died unexpectedly, and who hadn't felt the need to take stock of his possessions. In between festivities, my two brothers and I—alone or in different combinations—combed through piles of artifacts: hospital awards; golf trophies; brittle, handmade birthday cards; fishing equipment, much of it unused; and enough books about Ohio’s hiking trails to pave one of them.

This inventory has been ongoing. The first time we went through the leftovers had been before one of the public services immediately following my father’s death. As part of its preparations, our funeral home asked for photos of Dad to use in a memorial video. I was not satisfied with this tribute. Instead, I became weirdly obsessed with the idea of building mini exhibits to capture my father’s different interests and identities. As a writer, it's my job to make everything more complicated; and I am constantly seeking to ascribe a narrative to everything around me.  

For the visitation, my brothers and I built stations around the building to capture Dad’s various personas: physician, sportsman, military medic, father, grandfather. I don’t know if people even noticed what we’d done. Emotions blur most of my memories; but it wasn't the reaction I’d cared about, it was the act of diving deep to find answers that made sense to me, and that fit into the larger context of Dad’s life story. I wanted answers that led to more questions. That way I would keep coming back, and the story would never end.

After the holiday, we returned home to Washington, D.C. and prepared for a week of summer and its new routines. However, almost as soon as we walked in the door, I felt increasingly unsettled, even anxious, about what I’d done with my father’s stuff. I didn't want to be the one responsible for reducing someone down to their essence, of picking and choosing what remained; in a sense, by sorting through those boxes we were curating a person’s life and how the world might remember him. I do this all the time. I spend every day plotting structures—arcs and threads—and dropping the anchors that root them. I create coherence and meaning. And hopefully I find some sense of resolution.

But this was different. This was real, and the ending of the story would never change.

Not my stuff, but you get the idea. And, damn...

Not my stuff, but you get the idea. And, damn...

I decided to do something I’d been putting off for months. I visited the nearby home of my in-laws, where my wife and I have stored many of our belongings during our recent relocation. Most of the furniture and daily items had been delivered to the new house on the day we got the keys; but as it is with every move, we’d left behind an impressive stockpile of crumpled cardboard boxes, most of it containing the crushed husks of old books, outdated paperwork, and childhood memorabilia that had been trailing us like breadcrumbs for the last decade or so. After plenty of procrastination, I was going to sort our possessions as I’d sorted those of my father. I was going to make choices—thumbs-up or thumbs-down, Coliseum-style.

It turns out that I’d saved very little from my childhood. Not that I’d expected a collection of trophies to rival my Dad’s, and I hadn't been an exemplary student so there weren't stacks of framed certificates collecting cobwebs. (I was the kind of youngster who always won the Most Improved award, meaning that I exhibited very little actual skill.) Of the items I did save, however, most of it had to do with writing, starting as far back as 2nd grade and ending with drafts of books I published only a few years ago. (Wow, was I boring.)   

On the surface, these boxes held some surprises, particularly about my growth as a writer. A few key observations are as follows:

  • I had a strange, somewhat questionable obsession with the McDonald’s character Grimace, a purple blob that is constantly seen flapping his arms excitedly in the background of hamburger commercials. I’m not lying when I say that he probably starred in half of my short stories, and I drew hundreds of doodles of him in different outfits and cosplaying as other characters.
  • I was too lazy to create fictional characters, and instead stocked my stories with an assortment of my real-life friends. When they angered me, I dispatched them in a ridiculous, often over-the-top fashion; if they wanted to rejoin the cast, they had to make amends. Such power! I like to think that I paved the way for other successful ensemble troupes, such as those of Wes Anderson, Christopher Guest, or Michael Bay.
  • For whatever reason, my handwriting peaked at about the 6th grade. No, seriously.        
Who hasn't had this dream? Okay, fine, maybe it's just me.

Who hasn't had this dream? Okay, fine, maybe it's just me.

To my surprise, as I climbed the mountains of spiral-bound journals and cracked green composition books, a more interesting truth began to emerge: I’d gone through all of it before. This initial lack of childhood memorabilia, the weak breadth and depth of my past, indicated that I’d gotten rid of so much already, and probably done so multiple times. For whatever reason, I’d started shaping my narrative years ago. Or at the very least I’d gotten tired of renting U-Hauls for $119 a day and decided enough was enough. I was living revisionist history.

As I stood there surrounded by all those mildewed boxes that I hardly ever opened, and that I never had any cause to unearth from their lairs beneath the floorboards, I wondered what my own kids (or grand kids) would discover after my exit. Did I want them interpreting who I was based on the relics of my earliest years, or did I want them to remember me as they knew me, a brooding, slightly nervous, somewhat lanky breakfast cereal fanatic? Would I sentence them to days of rifling through old bills and photos of people no one recognized? Was it important to give them more to analyze, or give them a few choice details and let them fill in the blanks themselves?  

I didn't know. I still don’t.

I threw out a lot of my boxes that afternoon; but I kept a few I didn't expect to.   

Maybe that’s the point. One lesson was in filling the boxes, and the other was in letting them go.

Personal Historical Present

I am in a state. My 20th high school reunion is racing toward me, as in it’s happening this coming weekend, as in right now. And here I am without my Reunion Pants. Predictably, my reaction to this (extremely unsurprising) news goes a bit something like this:

"Twenty! Twenty Years!" (Who needs accuracy when a gif is this good?)

"Twenty! Twenty Years!" (Who needs accuracy when a gif is this good?)

The last reunion I chose to attend was my 10th, a huge disappointment because everyone, for the most part, looked, acted, dressed, and smelled exactly the same as they had during our senior year of high school. Being a writer (and a drama queen), I wanted more. I craved the newly-bald heads and potbellies that come with decades of life on the outside, and instead of rehashing the same old catalog of memory, I wanted fresh, juicy gossip and falling-outs. Damn it! I wanted healthy doses of high school comeuppance; or at the very least a John Cusack movie.

This desire for a narrative arc should come as no surprise. As an adult, I've chosen to conduct my business along the spectrum of adolescence; Young Adult fiction is my stock and trade. This isn't to say that I don’t write a video game from time to time, or dabble in middle-grade novels and screenplays when I feel like straying; but whenever I wander too far, I suddenly feel the need to circle back to my teenage years to find my next story, and to tell it through a mouthpiece of experience, distorted as that may be.

While reading a recent New Yorker article about the writer/director Richard Linklater, I came across a passage that addressed an artist’s strange desire to keep revisiting the past. The excerpt deals with in Linklater’s “narrative angle” on his subject matter, particularly those stories that are clearly inspired by his own coming-of-age experiences. The writer, Nathan Heller, refers to this point of view as “personal historical present,” a concept that I find incredibly compelling:

The personal historical present, a kind of Polaroid of the moment developed by a man farther along in time. We’re meant to be fully immersed in the world it portrays, but that world always exists relative to an off-screen future; we know where it leads, although the characters do not.
— -Nathan Heller, “Moment to Moment”

There’s a strange reassurance in the idea that any of us know where all of this leads, that a narrator will or has already survived the events in question. It’s a soothing subtext of “everything is going to be okay,” or “I made it through, and so can you.” It’s literature’s contribution to an It Gets Better. YA novels, by nature, often present their characters with seemingly insurmountable obstacles. These challenges are often universal—and always have been—but that doesn't matter in the span of the moment; in that cold, bleak empty, the world feels absolutely hopeless. That is why survivors matter. They occupy a future where you've arrived farther along in time and now have the luxury of reflection.

People always ask if my books are autobiographical. It’s a favorite question, one of the oldies. I can’t blame readers for asking this question, because it’s usually the first thing I ask other writers when I’m a fan of their work, or when an element of their stories lodges like a splinter in my brain. “Where did this come from?” It’s instinct. Every book is a patchwork of accounts—fictional and true—that assemble in unexpected ways to form a hybrid recollection, a Frankenstein’s monster that eventually rises from the operating table and lumbers off to enjoy a life of its very own without the creator (mine usually end up in South Beach). Sometimes, the past is a place to start, while other times it’s simply the best (and deepest) well of ideas.

When I return to the scenes of the crime, and examine my own books, I discover that my stories bleed memory. Funny Little Monkey, my first novel, features numerous events and locations that are ripped directly from my high school years in suburban Columbus, Ohio. Freak Magnet, a dysfunctional romance set in and around Washington, D.C. was created as a deliberate attempt to capture the lightning in a bottle that was the courtship of my wife, back in my early twenties; it was such a blatant piece of nostalgia that the book includes an Afterword in which I discuss it in detail. Even the teenage characters in Commencement, one of my new novels, spend their last 24 hours of high school zooming around the city in a knockoff of our family’s old Chevy Good Times van, a character unto itself. I am everywhere in these stories, just never in the foreground. 

Good Times, indeed.

Good Times, indeed.

But is it nostalgia we're chasing? Are these tales nothing more than attempts to comfort our adult selves, and to surrender to our 20/20 hindsight? I really don’t think so. In reference to the concept of personal historical present and how it applies to his work, Linklater replies, “I was trying to make a pretty anti-nostalgic piece. The view of that movie (Dazed and Confused) is that the times they’re living in suck.” In short, the past hasn't gotten better with time; oh no, it’s probably gotten worse.

So why do I write these stories if they suck so much? Easy. I have no choice. Like so many YA authors, and others, I’m caught in a time-loop, and only through the repetitive reexamination of my adolescence will I ever be able to make any damn sense of it. In Heller’s words, “the world always exists relative to an off-screen future.” Relativity is everything. What comes before only gains greater meaning when viewed alongside what came after. Every angle reveals a new perspective, and with it, if we’re lucky, we discover something useful for the ongoing march forward. That's where we're all headed, anyway: the future. It's the one inevitability we share.

Time is a flat circle. Or a loop. Pick your shape. Whatevs.

Time is a flat circle. Or a loop. Pick your shape. Whatevs.

The question isn't whether or not my works (and the works of others) are autobiographical, or why we continue to revisit our youths for the stories and characters that define us. It’s even simpler: what have we learned from all of these repeat visits? In my opinion, it’s our responsibility as artists to keep mining our lives for insight.

And there’s no better time than the present. And the past is now.

Write Through

Before we begin, let me get this out of the way.

My last year, this:

2013, coming at you!

2013, coming at you!

Yes, 2013 turned out to be the culmination of a lot of cosmic nastiness, a streak that began in early 2012. That was when I lost my job as a full-time narrative designer for video games, a position that I absolutely loved, working with people who might as well have been kin. Fortunately, after losing my job I found a new one before real panic sunk in. All was well. Crisis averted. Ha. Ha.

I lost that job eight months later.

Message in a bottle at Job #1.

Message in a bottle at Job #1.

This second time felt different. My fears of unemployment, a lack of medical insurance, and having questionable gaps in my resume were replaced by an aching, desperate numbness. I watched as my friends scattered to the winds to look for new opportunities in the industry—i.e. California—and after some deep soul (and job) searching, our small family packed its few belongings (mostly board games, empty CD cases, and orphan socks) and moved from Baltimore to Washington, D.C., where my wife took a great position at an old, venerable D.C. organization, and I remained at home to wrestle our underlings. All my years of half-ass parenting were about to pay off for the worst.  

Shakily, my wife and I settled into our new lives. We had direction, momentum. The worst lay behind us. Or so we thought. We were, of course, a pair of naïve knuckleheads.

A few months into our relocation, my father passed away unexpectedly. He was a very young man, active; he loved to hike and fish, and he had just begun to enjoy his hard-earned retirement from a lifetime career in medicine. He was also one of my best friends. Now, when I see an ancient, wrinkly man walking the streets, or I meet the elderly parents of my older acquaintances, I secretly hate them. I don’t care if they stormed the Beaches at Normandy, or have a great laugh. They’re not my dad, and they suck for hanging around long after he was taken too soon.

So why am I talking about this? For starters, I didn't know what to do with any of it. I’d spent twelve years working a day job, writing my books in the mornings, evenings, and on weekends—whenever I could find a wedge of time to claim with my little flag of creativity. Suddenly, overnight, I’d lost my growing video game career, my network of beloved colleagues, my comfortable role in our little family, and last and worst of all, I’d lost my father, who'd always made me feel stable and competent, even in the wake of the exact kind of turbulence I’d been experiencing since that day I lost my first job in 2012.

I waited for one more shoe to drop. It didn't. I tried to rally. I couldn't.

Finally, after months of bewilderment and depression, I began to work again, to write. (My wife, who knows me so well, insisted on it.) More than anything, I wanted to explore my feelings and find catharsis. Unfortunately, I don’t like writing about myself, which makes me horribly suited to the new world we live in. For me, writing is the escape, the method by which I could turn around and run screaming in the opposite direction—from my life and the star of it: me. Maybe it’s cowardice. Maybe it’s laziness.  I’m still not sure; but telling other people’s stories is how I cope, and it’s been that way since the beginning. It is my totally rad, tricked-out jet-pack. It is my Nautilus.

When I finally did crack open the laptop and start writing, it was to work on a revision of one of my newest novels, Firewheel, a story that takes place on a fictional barrier island in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, a place I call Kewasowok, which is loosely based on the small island of Ocracoke:

I've been working on Firewheel since about 2010, maybe 2011, I don’t remember the exact date; but one of the reasons I began the book in the first place was as an exercise in creating a strong sense of place, a setting that stood on equal ground with the story’s characters. I wanted to build a world of solitude and isolation, of safety. I’d been visiting Ocracoke for more than a decade with my in-laws, and in that time I’d fallen in love with the island's unique environment, its people, and the slow pace of life, so it came as no surprise when I decided to fashion my own version of the area via the dark magic of fiction:

Shadow Lake rests in the middle of Kewasowok Village surrounded by marsh grass and yaupon trees. Back in busier days, the lake was a bustling harbor leading to the sea, but nowadays it’s often still, an unbroken mirror of cloud and sky. I see my reflection in the water this morning, bright, blurry, and disturbed only by the worn nubs of the old wooden docks that once lined the bank. They rise up from the silvery surface like the last towers of a sandcastle that’s being sucked out with the tide.
— Firewheel

In the same way that life can knock your legs out from under you, it can also rise up to meet your feet as you’re falling. It’s funny that way, silver linings, unexpected blessings, and all of that. The more I worked on the revision of Firewheel the more the novel became a refuge for me, the author, an effect I never expected. The changing draft was my own private island surrounded by the crashing waves and darkening skies of life. I felt transported in the same way that I hoped potential readers might, and whenever I wasn't editing or rewriting, I was eager to return to that small village by the sea with its gently sloping coastlines and two-wheeled bicycle traffic. In a way, I wrote my way through the storm, which, come to think of it, is something I've been doing all of my life.

It’s been one year since our relocation to D.C., and two years since my first job loss, and only now am I starting to feel stable; but I do feel better, and much of that is due to my freedom to open a door and step outside myself onto a strip of sandy beaches, even if they are imaginary.

Most of the time, I feel so very grateful to write as a job, as “work,” but it will always be more than a profession, after all, I’d been doing it long before anyone wrote me a check. Nowadays, I am grateful for other reasons. Sometimes I need to be reminded. We all do. 

Copyright ©2013 Andrew Auseon/Illustrations by Aaron Yamada Hanff