Michael Whiteman-Jones on Writing

MWJwrMichael Whiteman-Jones! Welcome and thanks kindly for meeting me here in my virtual café and for being the first to volunteer. I’m so pleased we finally were able to connect. Since we connected on Facebook of all places, we’ve bantered about our shared passion for writing. I wondered recently if there was a difference between passion and obsession. Maybe? Definitely something to explore one day. Regardless writing about writing and reading about other writer’s processes is fascinating to me.

Only a fiery Latina like you could lure me into a cafe, Brenda. Cafes are places where people congregate to drink hot tea and coffee. I’ve never understood the leather-armchair-and-buttered-bagel crowd. I like my beverages—tea, Coke, and Gin & Tonic—iced. I’m not going to sit and write while I mellow out to the sounds of Keb Mo or Jack Johnson and the clickety-clatter of other aspiring authors cranking out their latest Tweener novels on their MacBooks, either. There’s an old diner near my house where you can get a Coke with crushed ice and a greasy green-chile cheeseburger for about $6, roughly half the cost of a vente grande peppermint mocha espresso crème fraîche at Starbucks. The waitresses there will swat you in the face if you give them any trouble, and that’s more my style.  That said, it smells good in here, and you look lovely. *purrs* Thank you for having me as your first guest, it’s an honor I truly don’t deserve. I’ll do my best to be polite, but I should warn you that only about half of what I’m about to say is true, and I won’t tell you tell you which half. I feel I have a personal and professional obligation to remain obscure and confusing.

I understand you’re not a morning person, ‘Too Many Mornings’, is a clever name for a blog. I’m not a fan of Dylan’s MWJ
voice, but he is a poet when it comes to lyrics. He has a recognizable style. What would your words say about you?

I started my blog because I desperately needed to write after taking a long break from writing. I had enjoyed a lucrative career as a journalist, photojournalist and freelance writer for a couple of decades. Wrote thousands of articles and one or two short books for local and national magazines about everything from banking and nutrition to tantric sex and disability rights.

Did I mention tantric sex? Interesting practice, that.

Anyway, at a pivotal moment in my life, after nearly 20 years as a journalist, I was contacted by an agent who landed me a book-publishing contract at Putnam Press with a year’s advance salary. Every author’s dream, right? But I was burned out, and turned him down—he literally screamed at me for that—and then I stopped writing all together. Barely wrote an email for 13 years. One day about five or six years ago I woke up and felt like I needed to write again, not as a journalist, but for myself. I don’t know why, it simply bubbled up inside me like methane gas at the La Brea Tar Pits. Blogging was trendy then—it’s all but dead now—and I named the blog after Dylan’s song, One Too Many Mornings. I idolize Dylan and liked the title because I hate mornings, and some days feel I’ve had enough of them. I’ve since posted some 300,000 words on the blog, received about 1 million unique hits, and made some dear friends who seem to share some of my same mental-health issues.

Much of what I’ve written on the blog is meant to be funny. Some of it isn’t humorous at all. But I’d wager most of my readers think of me as a comedic writer with a dry, pseudo-intellectual twist. Shaken, not stirred. I think of myself as a sad and lonely little man who needs to go on a diet and get ADHD medication so I can focus on my writing long enough to finish something meaningful. The world is filled with distractions, many of them quite wonderful. Are you familiar with television, for example? It’s amazing.

One question I am always curious about is the writer’s rite. For some writers their process is as structured as the yoga practitioner working through the sun salutation—dot-to-dot. How do you approach the blank page?

Fearfully. The blank page is to writers what the open sea was to Vikings before the invention of the compass. It looks as inviting as hell from the shoreline, but once you’re on it, it’s easy to get lost and it’s often dangerously deep, stormy, churning with terrifying sea monsters, and worst of all, cheesy metaphors and tired clichés like the one I just used. Still, what I am supposed to do, ignore the possibilities? Nothing good ever happened without taking risks, although I admit I once won a retractable garden hose and a bottle of red wine at a virtually risk-free wine-and-cheese tasting, so I might be dead wrong about that.

My writing itself interests me, but in a pathetic way. I usually knock out a blog post in a frenzied hour or two. But for the past two years or so I’ve focused on finishing a small collection of nine short stories, which is my favorite literary form right after haiku and fortune cookie fortunes. I wanted to write serious fiction in the tradition of Flannery O’Conner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Ethan Canin, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Raymond Carver, who are all heroes of mine except for O’Conner, who was more of a heroine because she was a woman. Not a very comely woman, mind you, but a woman nonetheless, and perhaps America’s greatest short story writer.

Those nine stories don’t seem particularly special yet took me forever to write, and I wish I knew why. I think some of it has to do with the fact that they’re serious and I took them seriously, that I have a large family and full-time job, that I returned to college to get a Master’s Certificate in Environmental Law & Policy at the same time I started writing them, and that I thumb typed them entirely on an iPad given to me by a dear friend who supports my work. Thumb typing is a bitch. Also, I’m highly distractible. Television is very entertaining, especially HBO After Hours. Check it out if you haven’t already, although I suspect you have, you spicy hot pepper, you.

I’ll say a few more words about my short-story writing process. I write from the top down, probably because I became accustomed to writing that way as a journalist. Lead, nut graph, body, and conclusion. Often, I have the germ of an idea but no sense of where the story is leading, or why I think it’s interesting. These stories are quiet. No explosions, no car chases, no zombies or angst-ridden teens turning into vampires that glitter in sunlight. Just adults doing adult things, or doing nothing at all except thinking or barely thinking, which is what most of do most of the time unless forced.

I usually write just a few sentences at a time, often when I’m on a break from work or at lunch, or in between dealing with my family, accountant and insurance agent. I read and re-read, edit and re-edit as I go, trying to recapture the mood I was in when I started and achieve perfection, which slows me down a lot. Linda Storsjö, a close friend who is my Muse and a brilliant writer and photographer in her own right, helped me write and edit these stories, and she says I should write them out quickly and then go back and edit. I agree. It works better for me when I do, as it did when I was a reporter covering the news. But it’s a discipline I’ve yet to master.

I take photos to remind me of a moment I want to capture on the page later, but you’re an avid photographer with serious chops. I wondered if viewing the world around you through a limited or is a microscopic perspective, inspired or hampered your writing?

Serious chops as a photographer? You flatter me, but it’s working you sly seductress. I am eternally yours, at least until tomorrow morning and brunch, if we have the strength left to eat.

Photography and writing use different areas of the brain, but have a handful of elements in common. They both require observation, intuition, insight, and timing, for example.

Most photographs are snapshots. They document infinitesimally small  moments in time, which is why a person’s entire life can be summarized with a shoebox of faded prints. They’re also largely empty of meaning except to the person who took them or their intended recipients, like the cotton-candy graduation and wedding photos we see every day. You could set a thousand different pictures like these next to one another and learn nothing except that people seem depressingly alike. This is true even for the cleverly staged shots that are all the rage now.

No matter how fun they appear to be, snapshots say next to nothing about the people in them. How many high school seniors are truly wild enough to wear their $300 prom dresses into a roiling stream? How brides would leap off a boat dock into a lake wearing their $3,000 gowns unless they’re encouraged to do it by photographer who’s desperately bored of the boring boredom she’s expected to dutifully document year-in and year-out, for example?

Very few.

But how many seniors are terrified, excited, or stupefied about facing the passage from childhood into adulthood? How many brides are overwhelmed by the buzzsaw of wedding planning or ecstatic about taking the first major step toward building a family? A lot. Yet we rarely see photographs that capture that inner insecurity or optimism. What I would call true pictures.

The best photographs are true—they encapsulate stories and inspire insight. They steal a person’s soul, or if they’re not of a human, they capture some fundamental essence of being. To make good photographs, you have to understand your equipment (language), know where to put yourself relative to what you’re photographing (observation), pay close attention to your subjects (insight), and then know exactly when to release the shutter (plot). Conversely, you can take a million shots and hope the monkey-with-a-typewriter theory works in your favor. Sometimes you get lucky. Either way, good photography isn’t limiting, it’s expansive. It takes you out of yourself and into your subjects, which is exactly what the best writing does.

Steven King noted in his book, On Writing—the bible for many writers—to follow your heart and to write what gives you pleasure and joy, and not to give way to popular demands, which is challenging for writer’s today since writing has become the new black. Has your desire for fame and fortune influenced what you write?

Oh, Dr. Moguez, how delicately yet firmly you probe my psyche when you know full well you could flay my soul open and lay it bare on the golden altar of your dark temple. Your cautious insistence on understanding my creative motivations makes me feel as shy and as excited as a virgin bride on her wedding night at the breathless moment she’s methodically disrobed by her new lover. Yet here I stand, anticipatory and trembling. Be gentle. Be rough. Just take me, I’m completely yours.

*heart races uncontrollably*

Would it surprise you to learn I’ve never read On Writing and probably never will because I don’t admire King’s writing because…well, I’m not sure why since I’ve never read anything but snippets of what he’s written? He doesn’t interest me, and I mistrust writers like King and James Patterson who mechanistically crank out a novel every few months. Or maybe I’m just jealous of their success. Regardless, I’ve never read any self-help books about writing unless you count Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, which I highly recommend. It’s short and to the point, it isn’t trendy, and it doesn’t try to tell you what to write or why, it just gives you tips on how to write whatever you write well.

Generally, I’d suggest that instead of relying on self-help manuals for guidance or tailoring your writing to fit a trending market, you simply read, figure out what you like and why, use that insight to inform your writing, and then tell stories so good they find an audience on the strength of their content.

But I’m avoiding your question, probably because I’m not sure how to answer it.

I don’t want to believe I write for fame and fortune. I want to believe I write because I feel I have stories worth telling. Ideas and emotions I’m almost compulsively compelled to explore and convey. I believe that’s true because so little of what I’ve written lately is likely to be successful. It’s almost anti-genre. The short stories aren’t tailored to fit any of the popular niches that define contemporary publishing. If anything, they’re tedious. Not filled with mysteries or surprising plot twists, or in some cases, much plot at all. They’re ruminations on single emotions or the absence of emotion. Maybe depressing. Certainly not escapist.

Do I also wish my writing could make me rich, however? Sure, I think most writers would like to be rich, or at least comfortable, especially since writing is a relatively low-paying profession.

Do I want to be famous? My gut reaction to that question is no. As a writer who’s had his byline in a lot of publications and been openly criticized and even threatened by angry, sometimes mentally unstable people as a result, I know even low-level fame can be a frightening burden. At the very least, some people want to connect with writers in ways that can be wearying. At worst, it’s difficult to say things you believe to be true and then endure the ensuing criticism and ridicule, especially if, like me, you’re sensitive.

But I still want to be a teller of stories. I’m not content to spend my life playing the Xbox while others tell them for me. Why? It’s unclear to me. Partly, maybe largely, because it’s my own deeply personal way of exploring ideas and feelings. A form of a self-analysis. But why make myself vulnerable by revealing that analysis to others, especially if there’s a chance they think I’m wrong, or worse, vapid? It’s illogical unless you include a desire for attention as an influencing factor. I recently read that all writers desire to outlive themselves. To be meaningful in ways that transcend transience. Perhaps. It’s seems clear very few writers write without desiring to publish, and if they’re going to publish, they rarely do it anonymously. So it could be true.

Tell me more about what you write.

In addition to the aforementioned blog and short story collection I just completed, I’m currently working on two novels and two short stories. One of the novels is a spy thriller about the Mexican drug trade, the other a mystery. Both are Trojan horses for stories with deeper themes about good vs. evil and the truth of myths. Both have strong religious themes, which interest me. One of the short stories is a science fiction piece about the mind-shattering experience of loneliness and extreme isolation. I promised a friend I’d finish it about two years ago, and since renewing that promise a month ago, she’s refused to speak to me until it’s done or I at least provide her an excerpt. We may never speak again.

Can you share a line, stanza, or short paragraph of something you have written and provide some context to what, why, and how? How … it affects you, how you wrote it, how you want the reader to see the world. Up to you?

I’m not good at short, so I hope you’ll indulge me here more than you already have. This snippet is from a short story I wrote called The Man With a Thousand Pillows, which is about a man confronted with the loss of his career and girlfriend on the same day. Loss and our reactions to it are recurring themes in this collection. This snippet is when he learns about being laid off, and before he finds out he’s been dumped:

Ethan signed the termination papers and returned to his own desk. The security guard handed him a plain white cardboard box about the size of a tall crate of peaches, and then watched passively while Ethan filled the box with an assortment of personal things from his desk: a dictionary, a calculator, a few pens, a letter opener, a nail clipper, four packets of ketchup and two packets of soy sauce, a half-empty bottle of aspirin, a fork and spoon, a pocketknife, an antique roll-top cigarette case filled with paper clips, a roll of black electrical tape, a box of Kleenex, a Starbuck’s coffee mug, a souvenir snow globe of Hawaii, a small iron monkey wearing a red butler’s jacket and cap, and a framed photo of himself on vacation with her in Jamaica. She was smiling, and wearing a blue bikini top and khaki shorts. He was wearing a black t-shirt and standing behind her with his arms wrapped around her waist, also smiling.

Looking at the box’s contents, Ethan was struck by how little of importance a man can accumulate in a lifetime of work.

The other copy editors on duty that night had stopped what they were working on to watch.

“What’s going on, Ethan?” Johnson said at last. He was the senior copy editor, a man in his sixties, his voice hoarse from decades of smoking.

“Laid off. Paper says it’s losing money and has to make some changes.”

“Hell of a deal,” Johnson said, grimacing. He stood up and shook Ethan’s hand. One-by-one, they all stood up and shook Ethan’s hand. Hell of a deal, they all agreed. Somebody said something about everybody getting together for a beer after work in a week or two, and Ethan said he’d like that. But he knew it wouldn’t happen, or that it wouldn’t matter if it did. Work friendships end when the work ends. That’s the way it goes. When it’s over, it’s over for good.

The guard escorted Ethan out of the building, and Ethan sat in the granite courtyard in front of the office building for some time, his head cradled in his hands, staring into the box at his feet.

“Fuck it,” he said after a while. He grabbed the photo of himself with her on vacation, pushed the rest of the box out of his way, and then walked the seventeen blocks from the newspaper back to his apartment. His feet felt like two bricks.

In our preliminary tête-à-tête you refused to name a favorite song. Personally, I don’t understand how you could not. I have too many favorites as well, but ‘Always on My Mind,’ has never left the top spot.  Oh, and I am not ashamed for asking, it’s a legitimate question. Since you’re being difficult and can’t pick one song that is a favorite, how about you recommend a half dozen or less—I am afraid to say more given the size of your library— songs every writer should keep on a playlist for inspiration.

I could pick six songs by Dylan alone, it’s ridiculous. *stomps feet* I have nearly 40,000 songs in my iTunes library and I like them all. They range from sappy 1930s cowboy songs by Gene Autry to the moody rumblings of Tool. No one song can satisfy me as my moods swing wildly from bitter to miserable and back again. Musically, it takes a village, and yes, that would include The Village People, those adorably hunky sweethearts. Who doesn’t love a bare-chested male singer wearing an open vest, I ask you? But I cannot resist you in anything, and so I shall comply:

Girl From the North Country by Bob Dylan

Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen

Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven

No Woman, No Cry by Bob Marley

Looking For the Heart of Saturday Night by Tom Waits

Mondo Bongo by Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros

The Lakes of Pontchartrain by The Be Good Tanyas

These are among a group of songs that put my mind into a state I find conducive to writing. On any given day, I might also include your favorite, Always On My Mind, as well as Willie’s other big hits, Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground, and Brown Eyes Crying in the Rain.

I’m sorry, what’s that? You say it’s Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain, not brown? No, it’s not. Not in your case, my dear Brenda.

And yes, I’m aware my list includes seven songs, not six. But I hate even numbers, especially two, four, six and eight, which bracket the perfect numbers three, five and seven. So punish me if you must. Please…

Until the Blog explosion and all the other social media outlets the world wasn’t privy to the inner sanctum on the writer’s neurosis. I don’t think it would be unreasonable to assume a majority of the artistic community has an affliction or three, which some confess without reservation. What would you say about your virtual persona? Veiled or do you wear your madness proud? And the added question for aspiring writers, what practice advise would you add about self-marketing?

I don’t know whether I have any neuroses, but I’m grumpy, bitter and miserable most of the time. Lost in my own thoughts, given over to mumbling or ranting, constantly whining about my sinuses or that itchy spot on my ankle that won’t go away. What the fuck is that itch about, anyway? I’ve seen doctors about it, and they just say put some lotion on it. So I do and it goes away and then it comes back. Western medicine is useless to me in that regard. Anyway, I don’t like people, and I shout epithets at my family or anybody who dares interrupt my thoughts when I’m writing. Once, I threw a box of kittens at a litter of puppies because their mewing and yapping irritated me. In short, I’m a man’s man—emotionally distant, insensitive, and self-centered.

Okay, I lied.

I’m a sweetheart, as soft as first kiss. Neurotic as hell.

A lot of things make me nervous. Spiders. Standing at the edge of tall cliffs. The ingredients in a McNugget. Wondering if that last slab of barbecued ribs I ate will be the slab that finally clogs the arteries to my heart and sends me to Valhalla to battle Tyr. My failure to write something meaningful and lasting. The thought that there are people out there who can see right through the fake online persona I’ve carefully crafted to fool most of the people most of the time into thinking I’m tough, sane and can be trusted, when inside I’m often a mess of conflicting conflicts that could start forest fires if the hot sparks they generate ever break loose. People with handguns really make me nervous. What are they so afraid of that they need a handgun? Are they going to shoot me if I wear a hoodie at night while I’m walking to the 7-eleven to get a 64-ounce soda and a pack of condoms? You have to wonder, and it’s enough to make me want to get a handgun, too.

I don’t have any advice about marketing except that experts say it takes three to six times for the average person to notice a repeated message and act on it, and that marketing is mostly a targeted numbers game, which means the best thing you can do is to reach as many people as possible within your target audience. The one thing I learned in my long career as a freelance journalist is that if you don’t contact publishers and offer them your work, they’re extremely unlikely to call you. Send your stuff out. Don’t overthink your queries because editors don’t have time to give a shit. Be persistent in the face of rejection.

Now give us the dirt. Where do you harvest your ideas? Is everything in your life up for grabs?

Everything, everybody, everywhere, all the time. Sometimes it’s intentional, but the truth is that I seem to be wired this way and can rarely shut it off. Even strangers share intimate things about themselves with me whether or not I ask.

I eavesdrop on conversations. I collect ideas from friends, books, movies, and magazines. I sit at the head of tables so I can observe everybody’s behavior. I sit in the back of rooms and watch how people interact. I ask questions and make people explain how they’re feeling and why. I am intensely aware of people’s facial expressions and body language. I play around on Facebook and Twitter specifically looking for unique thoughts and stories. I watch oddball programs on late-night television. I read book excerpts, especially the first pages of new novels, and author biographies. I research subjects that interest me because I never know how something might fit into a story I’ll write, even something utterly obscure like the latest news in string theory or a good pasta recipe. The older I get the more I understand that creativity exists in the narrow space between seemingly unconnected ideas.

As far as I can tell every writer has had an ah-ha moment, the 3AM epiphany, where he or she realized their calling to write is stronger than their will. Me, I stumbled into it. What about you? Do you see your destiny in the stars on a starlit night at age nine?

I loved reading from a young age, began writing seriously in high school and for pay by my first year of college, so yes, I think I’ve always identified as a writer. I think about writing all the time, especially late at night when I should be sleeping.

But destiny? I’m not sure I believe in destiny, Oprah, Tim Robbins, Joel Osteen, and Deepak Chopra notwithstanding. Only wealthy, educated, privileged people talk about fulfilling their destinies as if those destinies exist outside of themselves and can be pulled off a shelf like boxes of cereal at the store. Only people who have already achieved a great measure of success act like they created their own reality or navigated the forces of nature to reach a particular destination. Not to be negative or fatalistic in any way because it’s clear we can make beneficial choices in our lives, but I believe that’s mostly crap they start believing after they’ve arrived at their destination, not before. Most of us can speak our truth, visualize our destiny, and make all the positive plans we want, and none of it will make the slightest difference. In the grand scheme of things, we don’t control life; It’s random and often cruel, and we simply cope with it as best we can.

One of my favorite stories along these lines is about Norman Vincent Peale, the famous preacher who wrote The Power of Positive Thinking. After his manuscript was rejected by 35 publishers, he walked outside and threw it in the trash. But his wife secretly retrieved it and hand-carried it to another publisher who liked it. The book went on to sell more than 20 million copies in 42 languages and made Peale one of the grandfathers of the positivity movement. What I get out of this story is that random dumb luck plays a bigger role in our lives than we want to believe.

Now tell the readers where we can find you.

Blog: www.toomanymornings.com

Twitter: MikeWJTmm

 

by

I’m a writer and hoarder of one-size-fits-all panty hose. Until the hose fits over my bum, I write to provide an alternative view on writing and perfection.

16 thoughts on “Michael Whiteman-Jones on Writing

  1. Jen

    Mike W-J is possibly my favorite writer. Most of what he writes is too long and I rarely finish it but it’s pure brilliance. He is a writer for a different age. I can’t wait to read his short stories, and I hope that means they’re shorter than his blog posts.
    Jen recently posted….How I Tamed the Snowblower BeastMy Profile

    • When you say I’m a writer for a different age, I assume you mean 8- to 15-year-old boys who’ve just discovered there’s an outside chance they can impress girls if they set something on fire or blow something up.

      And I have bad news for you: Most of my blog posts are about 1,000-1,500 words, or roughly 900-1,400 too long for the average reader, who has the attention span of…well, of an 8- to 13-year-boy. While I have one short story that is indeed short at 750 words, one of them clocks in at more than 10,000 words. I’ll be lucky if anybody gets past the first paragraph, which is Faulknarian in scope.
      MikeWJ recently posted….Freedom Isn’t FreeMy Profile

      • I’m not implying YOU have the attention span of an 8- to 13-year-old boy, by the way. One, you’re clearly not a boy. Not now, anyway. I don’t know that much about your childhood. Two, you do read a surprising number of the words I spew onto a page, or whatever we call those newfangled blank white thingys that appear on computer screens nowadays. I’m deeply grateful for that.
        MikeWJ recently posted….Freedom Isn’t FreeMy Profile

    • Ziva’s comment is so uncharacteristically dry my lips and tongue cracked, but I want to take this opportunity to point out that she is the best photographer I’ve ever known, and I’ve known and worked with many of them over the years as an editor. I’m definitely going to ask her take my boudoir photos the next time I get to Finland. If she’s lucky, the world will end before I can afford a plane ticket…
      MikeWJ recently posted….Freedom Isn’t FreeMy Profile

  2. Well, this was fascinating. I can’t believe you’ve never read any of King’s work. His stories often revolve around good vs. creepy, horror-and-gore-filled evil. He also tends to demonstrate how the lines between good and evil can at times be horrifyingly clear and alternately terrifyingly blurred.

    BTW, what kind of friend refuses to talk to you until you send her an excerpt? I bet this person is the kind who reads a lot of Stephen King! :-)
    Nicky recently posted….A Hint Of A ChallengeMy Profile

    • I’ve seen more than a few movies based on King’s work, and with the exception of The Shining, I thought they were silly. But I’m not a fan of horror, which doesn’t horrify me nearly as much as real life, and that might explain my reaction.

      Having said that, I might very well classify my latest short story as scifi horror, which proves that I can’t be trusted. I hope my friend likes it, and that she still recognizes me when it’s finished. She’ll be gumming her vegetables by then, I’m afraid.

    • Hey, I’m right here, Kelly! Or are you talking about me like I’m in a coma and you’re standing vigil with my relatives because I implied I don’t like tweener novels and you’ve written not one, not two, but three of them, plus some romance novels? Can I tell you how jealous I am of your output? Any author who can write more than one book in any genre flabbergasts me. I infer diligence and talent from it. So please stand by, I’m turning away from the light and hope to open my eyes and scare everybody any minute now by saying “boo!”
      MikeWJ recently posted….Freedom Isn’t FreeMy Profile

    • Astra, I felt very worried about your Internet history after reading you Googled tantric sex, but then felt relieved when I read your “Porn in the cockpit” post.

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