On Building Houses

So I’ve been editing this book and it feels like I’m sawing off my arm with a butter knife. Every single day. I mean, really. It’s been absolutely torturous. And I’ve been plugging away at it hoping to have some sort of breakthrough, or reprieve, but instead I just get more kicks in the face. And somewhere in the midst of this three month process (yes, it has taken me three months to edit the shortest work I’ve written) I’ve slipped into negativity, fallen into an angry slump where I approach the computer as if it were an annoying customer at a retail store and I was the sales associate, and that customer’s sole purpose is to knit-pic and antagonize me about how mediocre my product and I are. How my technique could be more refined. How the quality just isn’t where it needs to be. Blah, blah, blah.

But I felt differently today. Don’t get me wrong, the kicks in the face were still there, and the work was just as complex and annoying as usual, but I ended my pity party, and refocused on what it is I’m doing. Not just with this book…but what I’m REALLY aiming to do. Sometimes I get so caught up in the world of Jason, the strange, self-serving place where I battle my issues by hiding them under my accomplishments, that I forget the beauty and purpose of this whole thing — this life as a writer.

My job, in essence, is to build houses. And ain’t nobody ever built a house, without straining their back, without wood splintering their hands, without having to recut, remeasure, or rework something. Quitting has never EVER been an option for me, but I’ve decided to muzzle the complaining, and edit ME. Because I don’t need negativity to line the walls of my house. I don’t need any cracks in the glass, termites in the wood. I’m building houses of love and passion and discipline, for someone — some stranger out there — to someday feel comfortable calling home for a while.

And that’s a special, special thing.

Chris the Great and Undefeated

There’s this guy, Chris, who’s a barista at the new coffee shop up the street from my house. He’s twenty-two years old, rounded shoulders, pale white skin, first trimester pudge, blonde hair in a top-knot, and a thick Australian accent.

He and I talk daily because, admittedly, I’m a creature of habit who enjoys working in the same place, drinking the same amount of coffee, eating the same yogurt/fruit/granola dish while I’m writing (like right now.) Plus, Chris always has great stories. Well, they’re entertaining, but a lot of times they’re actually pretty tragic so maybe great isn’t the appropriate word for them.

For instance, about a month ago, Chris was jumped on Gates Ave. I mean, they really mopped him bad, took his phone and whatever cash he had on him. Strange thing is, as Chris is telling me the story, he’s laughing hysterically and explains that he wasn’t really upset about it. That he knew what we he was getting himself into when he turned down that block. “A Gentleman of Gentrification.” An easy target, except…a broke one. He then tells me how instead of going home, he limped to a bar — his eye a blueberry — and pretty much got free drinks and loads of attention from concerned (and probably pretty attractive) women, so the night was ultimately a win as far as he was concerned.

Another time he lost his wallet, and when I asked where he thought he’d left it, his response was, “Probably on the roof.” Of course, I asked what he was doing on the roof, not that hanging out on the roof is abnormal in New York, but I figured he might’ve been at a party and maybe someone caught him slipping and snatched it.

He said, “I live up there.”

“What you mean?” I asked.

He smiled a jagged-toothed smile. “I mean, I’m homeless, Jason. Have been since you’ve known me. I live on the roof of the building I used to live in.”

All this, like it was nothing. As a matter of fact, I think he was pouring me a refill as he was talking.

My initial thought was, he must’ve just gotten to NYC from Australia. A newbie. There’s always that weird couch-hopping, pseudo-homeless thing that happens as you try to figure NY housing out. That makes sense. At least it did until Chris told me that he had been here four years.

“Four years!”

“Yep, four years,” he said, grinning. “And I love it.”

Life at The Ashberry Home School

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You’re probably wondering what you’re looking at. This is Hudson, NY which where I’ve been for the last few days participating as a member of the inaugural class of the Ashberry Home School. Some of you are thinking, Ashberry? As in, John Ashberry? Yes. That Ashberry. This is the first year of this poetry workshop, where poets come together and write and work and think about poetry in relation to other art forms, which for me is always a good thing.

NAME DROP ALERT! NAME DROP ALERT!

Ahem.

Tracy K Smith is here, Tom Healy, Adam Fitzgerald, Dottie Lasky. The list goes on and on. Oh, and of course, JOHN ASHBERRY (remind me to tell y’all about his house. Crazy.) I mean it’s some heavy hitters in this joint! And I’m super grateful to be here, to talk and write and learn and see what this community of poets and the community of Hudson has to offer.

Got a few days left before heading back to Brooklyn, but I’ll keep you all posted!

Mother Motivation

When your (my) sixty-nine year old mother has you (me) look over her resume. Her intentions are to get a full-time job.

This motivates me for two reasons:

1.) My sixty-nine year old mother should not have to work a full-time job. (I need to write better books.)

2.) My sixty-nine year old mother is strong enough and willing to do whatever it takes until she doesn’t have to work a full-time job anymore. (If she can do that, clearly I can, and will, write better books.)

Fan Mail/Fam Mail

So here’s the thing about fan mail. If you’ve read my work and felt connected to it, then that pretty much automatically makes you connected to me. So you’re more like family. As a matter of fact, I’m not calling it “fan mail.” Instead, I’ll call it FAM mail. And when it comes, it always makes me feel overwhelmingly grateful. It also reminds me of how intelligent and thoughtful so many of our young people really are.

This particular piece of fam mail came from a young lady I met in Vegas at the ALA convention. Kiana. Kiana’s teacher told me that she enjoyed WHEN I WAS THE GREATEST and would love to meet me. A few moments later Kiana and her mother came up to me and we had a good laugh about who-knows-what, and then I gave Kiana an advanced copy of THE BOY IN THE BLACK SUIT.

This message is her thoughts on it all.

Dear Jason,
My name is Kiana Rosen and I met you recently at the ALA convention in Las Vegas. My wonderful teacher Shari Conradson introduced us. I am not sure if you remember me so I have attached a picture below:) At the conference you very generously gave me a copy of your new book ‘The Boy In The Black Suit’ which I just finished reading. I am very happy to say that I absolutely loved it! I had read your previous novel ‘When I Was The Greatest’ which I enjoyed a lot and I totally loved the cover! I loved the stark contrasts between the knitting and the gun and how two completely opposite forces could be joined together. When I first started to read ‘The Boy In The Black Suit’ I had mixed feelings toward the main character, I was unsure if what he was doing was strange or sweet. By the end of the story of I came to the conclusion that what Matt was doing was very strong and passionate. I completely fell in love with the message behind the story; you are never alone, even in the deepest and darkest of times there is always someone who will be at your side either experiencing the same things as yourself or willing to put everything aside to be with you. I can not express how much I enjoyed reading your new book! I felt very special to be one of the first people to dive into the story:) I am very excited to read more of your books in the future. I hope to hear from you soon!
Sincerely,
Kiana Rosen, a lover of your books:)

Thank you, Kiana.

Family.

Rejection

Yeahhhh so one of my homeboys pretty much chewed my face off for not posting more often, and when I started to perform the illest “excuse kung-fu” he crushed me with one sentence.

“Dude,” he said. “People really just want to know what you’re up to. People care.”

Now, I don’t know if that’s true, but it was definitely a sweet sentiment. So much so that I’ve decided to commit to posting three times a week. I know, I know. I’ve said that before, but…so what. I’m saying it again. So, there.

Anyway, one thing that has been on my mind is the notion of rejection. It’s a strange thing. Always. And as wild as it is when it comes to unrequited love (no, this will not be a trip to tiny violin town,) it’s even more bizarre when it comes to something you’ve created — your art. And let me tell you, I have taken a mighty lashing when it comes to rejection. Specifically when it comes to writing childrens books.

For all my folks who are NOT writers, let me tell you, childrens books are HARD. Maybe even the hardest form of book making. You know why? Because you have thirty-two pages to tell a whole story with around thirty-two sentences. It has to have an entire plot AND a lesson, but it cant FEEL like a lesson. It can’t be heavy handed or agenda driven. It has to be the cheese on the broccoli, the chocolate syrup in the milk. It has to be funny and cool and interesting to the PARENTS and the children. Seriously? Seriously.

Wanna know how many I’ve written? Well, over the last ten years…probably thirty. Yes, you read that right. T-H-I-R-T-Y. Have you ever seen a kids book with my name on it in anybody’s store or library? No. No you haven’t. You know why? Because every single one I write gets rejected. Crapped on. Trashed. And every time, I feel terrible about it. But not bad enough to quit. I know I’m not that great at writing them (even though secretly I always feel like I’m knocking them out the park) but deep down, all the way down where the art flame flickers, I know I can do it. I KNOW IT. And I believe in process so I know I’ll get better. So I keep writing them. Over and over and over and over and over again.

Let this serve as inspiration to somebody (who reads this blog anywyay?) as well as documentation, that I’ve been trying for years, so that when it actually happens, when you see some dope kids book face-forward on a bookshelf, EVERYONE can celebrate with me.