Archives for category: Writing

A Look Back on Nelvana’s
“The Devil and Daniel Mouse”

There are few art forms I love more than music and animation. Naturally, I love it when the two are paired together. But animated musicals are a dime a dozen. It’s rare to find one that sticks out, one so beautifully animated, with music so heartfelt, that it becomes an instant favorite.

I can give you one lovely yet obscure example:

Nelvana’s 1978 Halloween special “The Devil and Daniel Mouse.”

For those of you who didn’t spend an inordinate amount of time in literature classes, this cartoon is a fun little twist on the classic story “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” which was based on “The Devil and Tom Walker” by Washington Irving, which was…well, suffice it to say, the cartoon is about a mouse who sells her soul to the devil to become a glam rock star.

Just your average late ‘70s cartoon, really.

The premise might sound like a particularly silly version of the old Faust legend, but it manages to be both funny and endearing in a way I certainly didn’t expect. That’s due in large part to the animation, which looked really incredible for its era, especially considering that it was produced for television.

As the TV Tropes entry for the special notes, this was during the “Dark Age of Animation,” when the go-to format for cartoons was “limited animation.” Though series like “The Flintstones” and “Scooby-Doo” are beloved icons for kids from the ‘60s through the ‘80s, nobody would argue that their visual style was particularly impressive. Limited animation was cheap, and cheap was the norm.

2016-09-28 17.07.13 - Copy

An animation cel of “The Devil and Daniel Mouse” by Nelvana, from my personal collection. Jan Mouse was voiced by Annabel Kershaw, singing voice by Valerie Carter.

But the then-fledgling Canadian animation studio Nelvana rose above this trend on “The Devil and Daniel Mouse.” The character designs are cute and the animation looks, well, excellent (a.k.a. expensive). The characters really move; no small feat in the era of so-called “illustrated radio.”

Animation wasn’t the only thing that was exceptional about “The Devil and Daniel Mouse,” though. A story about someone selling their soul to become a rock star can’t work without great music, and who better to provide it than singer-songwriter John Sebastian, of “The Lovin’ Spoonful” fame? Hearing the songs he wrote for “The Devil and Daniel Mouse,” I can certainly believe in magic, that’s for sure.

Before we go any further, now would be a good time to explain the plot in a bit more detail: Dan and Jan Mouse are a folk duo, playing in clubs to make ends meet. If they’d been doing this in Greenwich Village about 15 years earlier, there wouldn’t be a problem (except maybe competition from the mouse version of Bob Dylan). But this is 1978, and as the manager of the club tells them, “people don’t want [their] kinda music anymore, they wanna rock n’roll and disco dance, yeah, man, groovy, fabulous, boogie!” Did I mention this was the late 1970s? It was the late 1970s.

The manager has a point: their only audience consists of a deaf frog and an old mustachioed caterpillar that, presumably, is drowning his sorrows at the bar because he somehow managed to grow old without ever becoming a butterfly.

They hit the road, Dan goes off to try to pawn his guitar for food money, and Jan is visited by a rather sinister reptilian record producer named B.L. Zebubb. That’s not suspicious at all, right? Jan apparently doesn’t think so. He offers her the chance to be a sensational rock star, and all she has to do is sign an extremely long contract in blood, preferably without actually reading it. What could go wrong?

You can probably guess what happens next. In the end, after being whisked away from Dan, having a whirlwind of a career performing in various iterations of ‘70s fashion (complete with KISS outfits and some truly glorious hair) the Devil comes to collect her soul. Lucky for her, Dan doesn’t hold a grudge and defends her at their trial…which the Devil ensures isn’t even close to fair.

But as Dan declares at the movie’s climax, “a song from the heart beats the Devil every time!” And when that song’s written by John Sebastian, there is no doubt he’s right. Dan and Jan sing a duet, “Look Where the Music Can Take You,” that’s so moving, the judge (who happens to be a weasel) rules to free Jan from her contract. The Devil is none too happy and flies off in a huff, plotting some talent competition reality show, I suspect.

Describing this little piece of 1970s cult animation doesn’t really do it justice. The story’s nothing original, of course, but the magic is in the animation and in the music. And the voice acting is charming on all fronts. Actor Chris Wiggins gives, for me, one of the all-time best performances of the Devil; what a wonderful, deep, slithery tone. You have to hear and see it to really appreciate it.

Now, there’s one other very special thing about “The Devil and Daniel Mouse.” I’ve already mentioned that the animation is superb, as is the songwriting by John Sebastian. But what really brings the whole thing together are the vocal performances. And for nearly 40 years, one of those vocal performances was a mystery!

Sebastian himself provides the singing voice for the title character, Dan Mouse. This is easily confirmed by “How We Made the Devil And Daniel Mouse,” a documentary Nelvana produced alongside the special, which features Sebastian recording in the studio. But what of Jan Mouse?

In the credits, alongside John Sebastian and The Reggie Knighton Band, the only other vocalist is listed as “Laurel Runn.” When I first discovered this cartoon, I absolutely had to find out what other songs Laurel Runn had recorded. But there was just one problem.

Laurel Runn had never recorded any other music.

I couldn’t believe this. She had the voice of an angel. (That’s a cliché, but sometimes, it’s deserved, and this is one of those times.) There was no way somebody with a voice that incredible could have gone through life without recording more music than a few tracks in an obscure 1970s Halloween special.

But there was no trail, no evidence of anyone by that name having ever made any other music. I found Youtube comments asking the same question I was asking, and people lamenting the fact that this mysterious and talented singer had not recorded any more songs. I found a blog post by another fan of “The Devil and Daniel Mouse” who mentioned researching the identity of Laurel Runn himself, and had come up empty.

It soon became clear to me that I wasn’t going to find any information on Laurel Runn. No matter how far back into a Google search I went, there was just no record of her. I had a pretty strong hunch, though, that this was intentional. I was convinced it had to be a pseudonym. After all, how would she have been discovered in the first place, and hired to appear in “The Devil and Daniel Mouse,” if she hadn’t worked in the music business before?

I figured the one person who’d know the real identity of Laurel Runn was John Sebastian. I sent him a polite message explaining that I was researching the story behind this cartoon and I wondered if he could clear up the Laurel Runn mystery for me.

It didn’t take long to find a message in reply, and in that message was a name: Valerie Carter.

According to Mr. Sebastian, Valerie was a backup singer for the likes of James Taylor and many other renowned performers. She had opted to use a pseudonym for “The Devil and Daniel Mouse,” for fear of getting too associated with cartoons and children’s material, though he’d advised her not to worry about it.

I am enormously grateful to John Sebastian for finally clearing up this mystery, and revealing this secret that’s apparently been kept since the cartoon was released back in 1978. Since learning the truth, I quickly began researching Valerie Carter’s music career. I wasn’t surprised to find that she had, in fact, recorded many other songs, and there were every bit as wonderful and striking as those she’d recorded for “The Devil and Daniel Mouse.”

I’m still exploring Valerie’s discography; there’s a lot to discover. Starting out as part of the band Howdy Moon in 1974, Valerie Carter has recorded with just about every major singer and songwriter of the last few decades, and toured with many as well. Sometimes as a backup singer, and other times singing duets, her collaborations are so numerous it’s hard to know where to start. Valerie has recorded and/or performed with: James Taylor (as previously mentioned), Jackson Browne, Lyle Lovett, Earth, Wind, & Fire, Linda Ronstadt, Neil Diamond, Randy Newman, Ringo Starr, and Willie Nelson, just to name a few.

Despite her extensive work as backup singer and musical collaborator, Valerie has also released a number of solo albums from the ‘70s through the 2000s. There is some truly incredible music to be heard here, and thankfully, they’ve been digitally re-released just recently, on her official website. I’ll finally get a chance to download them soon and give them a proper listen.

But what I’ve heard already is enough to make me a huge fan. “Love Needs a Heart” (co-written with Lowell George and Jackson Browne, and originally recorded by Browne) and “I Say Amen,” from her 1996 album “The Way It Is” are instant standouts. Those who know me will tell you I’m a diehard Tom Waits fan, and I rarely enjoy a Waits cover more than an original recording by the man himself. But listen to Valerie Carter’s cover of “Whistle Down the Wind.” Nobody could do that song better than her, not even Tom Waits, and you’ll find no higher praise from me.

I could go on. There’s her recording of Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush,” alongside Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, recorded for Ronstadt’s 1995 album “Feels Like Home.” There’s her rendition of “O-o-h Child” from the soundtrack of Matt Dillon’s 1979 film debut, “Over the Edge.” I didn’t think it was possible for me to enjoy a version of that song more than the original by The Five Stairsteps. I’m noticing a pattern here.

But rather than sit there reading me list her discography and gush about how great she is, go to valeriecarter.net and listen to her yourself. Download some albums. A voice like Valerie Carter’s is the reason humans have ears.

So, a decades-long mystery is solved. No one need wonder who Laurel Runn is anymore. We now know just who was responsible for Jan Mouse’s incredible singing. Lucky us, we didn’t have to sell our souls to B.L. Zebubb to hear it. Instead, we have John Sebastian’s songwriting and Valerie Carter’s beautiful skills as a performer to thank. And I do thank them, from the bottom of my heart.

 

Afterward

I’d like to wrap up this little retrospective on a slightly more personal note. I discovered “The Devil and Daniel Mouse” during a difficult time in my life. A mixture of seasonal depression, a failed relationship, and a seriously ill family member made the fall of 2016 an emotionally exhausting time for me.

Sometimes, the things that lift our spirits when we need it most can come from unexpected places. “The Devil and Daniel Mouse” is really meant for kids. But hey, I like to think I’m a kid at heart. And though it’s a simple story, and some might accuse it of being corny, I think it transcends expectations. John Sebastian’s lyrics and Valerie Carter’s vocals lift it far above the realm of a silly Halloween special. Hearing Carter pour all she’s got into a number like “Can You Help Me Find My Song?” is actually pretty heartbreaking, especially if you’re depressed and in the midst of a serious creative slump.

The opening and closing song, a duet between the two, ended up stuck in my head for months. (I got so enthralled I actually bought a couple of animation cels from this special!) But I was glad for it. Hearing Valerie sing “Look where the music can take you, when you’re getting low,” was the right thing for me at the right time. It was the voice I needed, to remind me to appreciate what’s beautiful in life, even in the midst of pain and loss.

As an artist, one doesn’t always know what effect one’s work will have on people. At worst, they’ll hate it. It might be ignored and unnoticed. Or it might just lift someone out of the muck when they need it most. For me, that’s one of the most important reasons for art to exist.

I’d originally written this piece about three weeks ago. Valerie Carter’s friend, Kathy Kurasch, had read and approved the original version of this article, and we had talked about the possibility of me interviewing Valerie. Sadly, just as I was wrapping up some personal issues that had delayed my posting this article, Valerie passed away. I never got the chance to speak with her, and I regret not being able to tell her myself how much her music meant to me in the short time since I discovered it.

This has made me think even more about the value of art. It helps connect us in a way that few other things can. It is such a wonderful gift to leave behind, too. Art, at the best of times, can be a part of ourselves we share with those we’ll never meet, who need the right words, the right images, at the right time. Though I never had the chance to meet Valerie, her music touched me so deeply in the short time since I first heard her sing. Reading the tributes to her, from friends like singer-songwriter James Taylor, I know I’m not the only one who was struck by her music like this. And I know that the power of her voice was just one part of what a wonderful person she was.

As for “The Devil and Daniel Mouse,” well, it makes me grateful for John Sebastian’s words and Valerie Carter’s voice. It helped to remind me of why I’m an artist myself, and why art is so important to me. I’ve had the honor of thanking John Sebastian personally.

As for Valerie, I’d like to dedicate these words to her now, to her memory. I’m sure, as I explore more of her music, she’ll continue to be a source of inspiration to me in the future.

And as Dan Mouse sang, “All you need’s inspiration, and inspiration’s free.”

 

Special Thanks

I would first like to thank John Sebastian, The Reggie Knighton Band, director Clive A. Smith, and all the fine cast and crew at Nelvana for creating “The Devil and Daniel Mouse,” truly a gem.

I would also like to thank John Sebastian once again for helping me solve the mystery of “Laurel Runn” and thus leading me to the rest of Valerie Carter’s work.

Many thanks to Kathy Kurasch and Jan Carter, for giving their approval for this article, and extra thanks to Kathy for running Valerie’s official fan club.

Much love to you all.

And one more time, thank you to Valerie Carter, whose music helped me “find my song” again. Rest in peace.

Notes:

For those interested in Valerie Carter’s music, visit www.valeriecarter.net.

For those interested in owning “The Devil and Daniel Mouse” on DVD, it’s included on the Unearthed Films special two-disc edition of Nelvana’s first full-length theatrical film, “Rock & Rule.” I plan to write a retrospective on “Rock & Rule” in the future, including a look at its small but devoted cult following. “The Devil and Daniel Mouse” was a sort of template for “Rock & Rule,” and features many of the same crew members, including director Clive A. Smith, and a few of the same actors.

Another thing: “The Devil and Daniel Mouse,” like its spiritual successor “Rock & Rule,” never received a proper soundtrack album. With talented people like John Sebastian and Valerie Carter, this seems criminal to me. There was, however, a story LP that saw a limited release, with narration by Sebastian and the audio right from the special itself. If you have a copy lying around, I’ll take it off your hands! It’d go well with the animation cels I bought!

A final note: According to Valerie’s friend Kathy Kurasch, Valerie lived in Laurel Canyon at the time “The Devil and Daniel Mouse” was made. That seems like another little aspect of the “Laurel Runn” mystery solved. Hopefully now that it’s known, Valerie Carter will get more recognition for her work on this cartoon.

With the release of my first short story, “Roadkill, ” there’s one important issue I feel the need to explain. It’s one thing that, when people find out about it, is always met with an intense uncertainty, unease, and even derision. The question on their minds is: why release a book (or any type of artwork for that matter) without copyright?

Currently I’m working on a longer post for this blog called “Why I Am a Free Culture Artist,” but that is a rather complex tale. Even the term “Free Culture” might not be one most people are familiar with. To explain it all, I’ll have to explain some of the background of copyright itself, because it’s such a frequently misunderstood and confusing concept. This will make for a rather lengthy post, and I want to create a version for those who might take one look at the longer post and say TL;DR. That shorter version is what you’re reading now.

So, you might wonder, why is my short story “Roadkill” in the public domain?

Why am I releasing it without copyright? Isn’t copyright a good thing?

I don’t think that it is, despite the conventional understanding of its supposed virtues.

“But aren’t you worried about plagiarism?” you ask.

Yes, but I don’t believe copyright will stop plagiarism. Others’ recognition of me as an author, and my work, will be much better deterrents to plagiarism. Whenever I see an act of plagiarism online of an artist I like, I feel moved to draw attention to it, to see that it doesn’t go unnoticed by other fans. See my comment on a crappy ripoff upload of a beloved public domain Hussalonia album. I hope others will do the same for me if I’m ever the victim of such nonsense.

Don’t I want to get paid?

Yes I do, but I still don’t think copyright is the way to go.

Here, then, are my reasons:

“Roadkill” is in the public domain because I want people to share it without worrying about me suing them or sending threatening cease-and-desist letters.

I want people to share “Roadkill” because the more it is shared, the more it puts my name out there, the more people are exposed to the story.

The more people become aware of it, the higher the chance is that those who enjoy it will willingly pay for a copy. Paying me for the story gives me incentive and support to write more stories, and to have more time to write stories, and if you like “Roadkill,” there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy other things I write. If I make much money from this release, and/or if I receive positive feedback, that’s much more inspiration for me to want to release more stories I’ve written and plan to write. Perhaps, in the future, I could even write full-time. You never know.

Releasing the story under the traditional copyright system locks the story away and discourages sharing. It increases the likelihood that the story will be doomed to obscurity. People aren’t going to stumble onto the title of my story in the database of the U.S. Copyright Office and suddenly feel compelled to seek it out and pay for it.

Even if someone copies “Roadkill” and sells copies themselves, there is incentive for them to share profits with me, as that will encourage me to write more stories that they can also sell. Readers will be encouraged to buy copies or derivative works that I release or that share profits with me, as it increases the likelihood that I will write more for them to enjoy.

The availability of free copies ensures access to the story for those who can’t pay, and who simply wouldn’t pay even if payment was mandatory. I don’t want to deny anyone access to my work just because they can’t afford it. If someone can pay, I hope they will, but I wouldn’t expect anyone to do so if they have problems making ends meet. Making a living is difficult and there are more important things to worry about than paying for books, so if that’s your situation, I don’t want you to worry about paying for mine.

I don’t believe anyone owes me anything up front for “Roadkill.” Nobody paid me to write this book. I wasn’t contracted to write it. It exists, and is available, and is easily copied, whether anyone pays for it or not. I don’t see how I have a right to demand payment of anyone for something they didn’t ask for, even if they enjoy it once it’s there. Copying is not theft, it’s copying, plain and simple. No one steals from me by making a copy of my story. It did take a lot of my own hard work for this story to exist, but so does a carpenter work hard to build a park bench; that doesn’t mean he’s owed money every time someone sits on it while passing by.

Even if I accept that copyright is a sensible and valid concept, in order to enforce it, I would most likely have to violate much more important rights (to things like privacy), bringing to mind such widely protested legal movements as SOPA. Even if I were to believe that I’m owed money for every single copy of my book that someone downloads, I can’t imagine feeling justified trying to police everyone’s computers, and likely relying on some horrible, invasive spying organization to do so.

I also want to focus on writing and creating valuable, worthwhile content; spending all my time tracking down cases of copyright infringement of my work would waste more time than it would be worth. It’s time better spent just writing more and making sure people know my work and where to find it, and how to pay me if they enjoy it.

Lastly, I want “Roadkill” to connect with people. I want to connect with the people who enjoy it. (Please leave a comment if you enjoy it!) I want it to inspire more creativity. I want to see it become an animated film, a radio play, a painting, a comic book, and countless other things. Time will tell if any of those things come to be (if you’re interested in collaborating with me on one, please, send me an email, I’d love to talk to you) but if the story were released with the pretense of copyright enforcement, they almost certainly wouldn’t. At least by releasing my story with the Creative Commons Zero Waiver (a.k.a. CC0), it has a chance to become something more.

If you think I’m naive, idealistic, or crazy, so be it. I don’t have any regrets. I just hope you enjoy the story.

“Roadkill” will be released October 1st, 2013. A print edition will be released on CreateSpace, along with eBook editions on Kindle, Smashwords, and other retailers. The free version will be released a short while later on TUEBL and the Internet Archive. For more information, check the “Roadkill – A Short Story” page on this blog.

Thank you for reading,

Leo

P.S.

For another blog post that even more succinctly sums up my feelings about copyright, check out Leo Babuta’s “Uncopyright” page on his blog Zen Habits. For more information about copyright law and why I don’t believe in its validity, check out the resources on QuestionCopyright.org.

P.P.S.

The cover for “Roadkill” was made by the wonderful Piti Yindee, creator of the Wuffle, the Big Nice Wolf web comic series. Piti’s views are similar to mine, and you can read his own explanation of why he uses CC0 and rejects copyright here. The “Roadkill” cover will also be released via CC0.

Finally, it’s here; I can hold it in my hands. A real, honest-to-goodness print edition of my short story  “Roadkill” finally exists. The proof copy is sitting next to me as I write this.

It’s a such a thin, frail little tome. Not surprising, of course; the story itself only spans the length of forty-three pages, six-by-nine in length. It’s a little wisp of a book, and to look at it you wouldn’t think of just how much effort went into it, how much insanity-inducing, teeth-grinding, hair-pulling effort. I can hardly believe the thing is actually finished. For a while (a long while) I wasn’t sure that it ever would be.

I’m getting ahead of myself a bit. It’s not QUITE finished. It’s just a formality at this point, however. I need to do one last check, one last time before I hit that magic button that says “approved.” Then, suddenly, anyone who might want it could order an actual, physical copy of this thing. They, too, could hold it, read it, write in the margins, the whole bit. Will they? Will anyone ever actually discover and buy this book? I have no idea, and to be honest, while I would love to find out that someone, somewhere eventually does buy a copy, at this point it’s quite enough for me that I finished it. I can let it rest.

What is “Roadkill” about, you ask? My intent here isn’t to tell you the story, you’ll have to read it for yourself. My intent here is to tell the story of how the story came about. Still, it would be helpful to have a little bit of description, wouldn’t it?

“Roadkill” is the story of four friends who go on a late-night fast food run. Perhaps that brings to mind some adolescent memories for you. What you might find less easy to relate to, however, is that the these four friends happen to be the anthropomorphic ghosts of recently deceased animals, the victims of violent, grisly deaths. Along the way they meet some sort of Fox-forest-spirit thing, some kind of Animal Control Officer-Grim Reaper-guy, and discover that their favorite fast food hamburgers might be the key to their very existence.

The story is filled with mystery, wonder, suspense, comedy, tragedy, rambling philosophical conversations (but it’s the amusing kind), death, and life. There are ghostly animals, pursued by a hooded figure who might be the Angel of Death! There is a forest that absorbs the memories of those who pass through it! The clock is ticking for our heroes, who could vanish from the earth by sunrise! There are late night snacks! Don’t miss it!

It covers a surprising amount of ground for only 15 chapters, really. “Roadkill” came about due to a mix of real life experiences (I’ll mention those a bit later) and my desire to tell a story that is at once direct in its confrontation of mystery and death, yet nonetheless upbeat about it. One might say it’s a story about faith, of a sort. There are no deus ex machinas, just characters who stand up in the face of who-knows-what and keep moving forward.  You’ll have a few laughs, and you might feel a little catharsis near the end. You might become a vegetarian. What’s not to like?

But now let’s get back to the story of how I wrote it. Let’s see, now, exactly how long has this book been in production?

The Road to Nowhere

The book has been nearly one year in the making, though the story itself was created over a year earlier than that. But let’s start in media res, shall we?

In November of 2012, I had turned a corner; I’d come to realize that I wasn’t feeling particularly fulfilled socially or creatively. I had spent the last several years pursuing a degree and feeling miserable about it from start to (incomplete) finish. Nothing about my school work felt authentic or meaningful and I didn’t feel I was learning much of value, with a few noteworthy exceptions. I was forced, in order to graduate, to take four classes that stressed me out so much that I thought I might have a nervous breakdown. For the average person, they would likely be nothing to worry about at all, but that’s anxiety for you. By August of last year I failed the mid-term of my second-to-last class (never having failed any class before) and, exasperated, gave up.

I had always told myself that once I finished college, I would devote as much time as possible to writing. I would, I thought, finally take advantage of the free time I hadn’t had in so long and create all the crazy, wonderful stories I’d dreamed up during countless dreary classes. However, I was horrified to realize that I couldn’t get the groove back. I’d got in a habit of viewing life as including only mindless work and mindless pastimes. My poison of choice was gaming; most of the time I wasn’t even having fun, I was just killing time. I couldn’t focus on writing anymore, I procrastinated at it just as I had done with school work. Years earlier, when I first started college, a classmate asked me about my major. When I replied that I wanted to major in Creative Writing, she warned me that by the end of it, I would hate writing. I was terrified that she had been right.

My writing projects last fall all began to feel dry and stale, being locked up alone with no one to read them, and me without any feedback on the stuff I was creating. I’ve long had that unfortunate, rookie-mistake tendency to not share something until I feel totally satisfied with it…and, as it usually happens, I end up not sharing much of anything. Combine that with my school-inspired procrastination habit and I tended to never get close to completion on any project, and even when I did, I never felt satisfied with it enough to want to release it. I’m only slowly recovering from this.

My birthday, though, last November, was a particularly contemplative one. I felt very alone and isolated and disconnected from people. I’d lost my job as a janitor, which I loved, when my place of employment went through a regime change of sorts. Everything felt dry and lifeless. The last time I could remember feeling really inspired on a novel-length writing project was in 2009, and the last time I felt really alive and challenged on a creative project was a short film my friends and I had made in 2008. I’d always wanted to work on movies, but I’ve just never had much patience for the complex organization involved. Writing had always seemed the most accessible way to be creative, and I tend to believe I’m pretty good at it (whenever I actually do it, that is). At the time, though, writing had lost its magic for me, and I wondered if it ever really had any, or if it was just something I told myself I enjoyed in order to have some kind of “productive” identity.

Strange Angels

Something had to change. There had to be a way, I thought, of snapping myself out of the slump. I found myself being inspired by three unlikely sources. The first was Zen Habits, the self-help blog by Leo Babuta. The second was my discovery of the videos of Shaye Saint John, surrealistic and unhinged works of either sublime art or utter trash (the best, most luscious kind; Happy Halloween, by the way). Lastly was none other than my childhood “television neighbor,” Fred “Mister” Rogers.

I can’t think of a more bizarre combination, but somehow it all made sense. I became obsessed with all three of these odd, creative personalities and their work. Things began to come into perspective. Zen Habits taught me to be unafraid to experiment and to enjoy the process of creating something without worrying about failure or end results. Shaye Saint John also taught me to be unafraid to experiment, even when the experiments involve things that no one else understands, like doing the Hand Thing, trying to make salad out of dead leaves, and a feeling of deep unease. Mister Rogers taught me to reconnect with my inner child, to try new things (see a pattern here?), and to take things slowly. All three seemed to be teaching variations of the same lessons, more or less, and they really hit home (even if Shaye’s lessons were a little…different, in form).

I signed up for an online voice acting class. It was something totally new to me, something I’d wanted to try for a long time, and something I’d always been encouraged to do. Of course, most of the encouragement was due to my ability to perform a few funny voices, and as any voice actor will tell you, that’s really not enough…you have to be able to, well, act, and acting is a great deal more difficult than funny voices. Still, I had no real expectations for how it would go and decided to just embrace the discomfort and the strangeness and see what happened.

The class was stressful but fun. Lucky for me it was an unusually small one, only three other students, so we all got plenty of face-time with our instructor, a prolific voice actor who does extensive work in anime dubbing (and who, funnily enough, appears in some of the very video games I wasted too much time with). I still have vivid memories of drinking chamomile tea during the break and watching clips of Shaye Saint John and Mister Rogers to calm myself down (yes, I watch Shaye Saint John to calm myself down). I get anxious all too easily, and it was difficult, but in the end I was glad I’d tried something new and felt some renewed energy.

When it was over, though, I felt like I was back at square one. I didn’t have any really promising opportunities for trying out more voice acting, and I wasn’t sure it was something I wanted to pursue further anyway, at least not too seriously. I enjoyed it, but I wasn’t at all certain I wanted to pursue it as a career. Still, I needed some new way to connect with people, and I needed a creative outlet. Somewhere along the line it hit me that I needed to just release something, to get something out there. Writing had been my focus for most of my life, even if I’d lost some of that focus recently, and it was the best place I could think of to turn to. Yet I was still too burned out to consider writing a whole new story. That was the problem in the first place, after all; my major projects seemed too daunting and I was just too burnt out. The Zen Habits blog stressed the importance of starting small, taking tiny steps. What was the smallest step I could take?

The Road to Self-Publishing

That was when I remembered “Roadkill.” It was a script I’d written in spring 2011 for a screenwriting class. The idea first came to me during fall of 2010, due to three events: the real-life horror of watching a dog get hit by a car, nearly getting run off the road by a semi-truck myself, and seeing a long line of various dead animals by the roadside and thinking “I wonder if they talk to each other.” Despite few of my creative writing courses at university ever inspiring me much, it was that screenwriting class, which I took for my minor in film, that for a while had made me feel like a writer again. “Roadkill” was one of the most satisfying projects I’d worked on in recent memory. Unlike the aforementioned group film project, which had made me feel so alive, and my larger novel-length projects, I didn’t really think of “Roadkill” in usual terms. It was a different medium.

I wasn’t used to writing screenplays, and I doubt I’d have done it at all had it not been for that class. It was one of the few times I can credit my university experience for having a major positive impact on me creatively. “Roadkill” didn’t quite fit into either my video-making experience or my writing experience. I imagined it primarily as an animated film. Truth be told, I imagine most stories I write as movies first; this was only different because it was actually written as one. Exposition was understandably sparse; the story was nearly all dialogue.

Nonetheless, it seemed the best candidate for something to release publicly. It had great feedback during the screenwriting workshop. One fellow writer took me aside at the end of the last day of class and gave me some really positive comments about the story’s uniqueness and said it had been his favorite part of the class. What more can you ask for as a writer? Well, maybe this: another person had said that “It’s what would happen if “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle” was written by David Lynch.” Both comments made me very, very happy. The class also offered a lot of helpful constructive criticism, too, so I didn’t feel so uncertain about it.

Besides the promising feedback, it was already finished; the story was already there, all that was needed was to reformat it into a short story. It was a story I was satisfied with and proud of. The dialogue was funny and flowed smoothly. The story was tight; due to having been written for a screenwriting course, the classic three-act structure was at the fore (even if I was a bit loose with it, and even if the premise is rather bizarre). Of course, it did occur to me that translating it so directly from script to short story would make it a rather dialogue-heavy piece of fiction, but I don’t really mind that if the dialogue is done well so I figured (hoped) that no one else would mind either. In the end, every single chapter of the story is exactly equivalent to each scene of the original script.

I set to work. From November through December, I went back to the original script. I copied most of the dialogue verbatim at first. I tweaked it. I added a few details, and expanded one or two scenes. I tweaked it again. Late in the process, I caught a minor plot hole (or at least a character inconsistency) and tweaked it again to fix that. I added exposition to balance the heavy emphasis on dialogue. I tweaked it some more, and then some more. Finally, I had a worthwhile rough draft.

Then it was time to edit. So I edited. I’ve never been very fond of editing my own work (in fact I usually kind of hate it) but I persevered. I got one edit done. Then another. I began sharing the edits with friends, including my long-time editor Franklin D. Lewis, who did a complete editing job for me, and for which I thank him immensely. Grammatical mistakes were caught and fixed. Spelling errors were repaired. Potential snags in the plot were revised. Sentences were punched up, things became a bit more brisk. It all started to take shape at last. I even ran the story by a friend of mine who studies microbiology, to check and see if the (potential) light science-fiction elements made any kind of general sense (apparently, they did, at least well enough).

By late January, it was all ready: all I had to do was format the thing as an eBook, and maybe a print-on-demand book, and I could say “Hey, I self-published a book!” The hard work was over, and the rest was simple, smooth-sailing, right? Say it with me now: WRONG!

If there is a Hell and it is designed to suit each person by surrounding them with what they hate the most, there’s a fair chance that mine would be filled with lots of book formatting. My naivety on this subject was immense; I had absolutely no idea how much work went into formatting. The idea of formatting an eBook, in particular, seems so simple; it seems like something you could do just by clicking a button in Microsoft Word. Once again, say it with me: WRONG!

Formatting the book turned out to be a labyrinthine maze of horrible crap. If you’ve never done it before, I’ll try and summarize it for you. Essentially, for an eBook, the formatting process involves keeping the text as plain as possible (no fancy fonts or any such thing, which isn’t so bad) and completely devoid of simple things you wouldn’t even give a thought to when writing normally. What “simple things” do I mean? For one thing, manual indentations are NOT ALLOWED. If you’ve hit the “tab” key at any point, you’ve committed one of the deadly eBook formatting sins. And God forbid you should, in your effort to properly format your book, miss something; if you mess something up and can’t identify what it was, you may have to “go nuclear” and start again from square one. Things like centering text require the set up of specific text styles, and even then, it might not work correctly in every format. It’s extremely easy to get lost; you have to save a new file after virtually every change you make, and Microsoft Word seems inclined to a lot of invisible shenanigans that are hard to identify. And don’t forget file conversion! That’s when you think you’ve fixed everything, only to look at the end result and discover a whole new set of mysterious problems.

I should probably qualify this by mentioning two things about myself: I can be a rather slow learner at times (quick to impatience and distraction) and I’m not all that tech-savvy. It’s entirely possible that someone who is quicker to learn, has more patience, or is simply more handy with these magical computer device thingies may not have nearly as difficult a time at book formatting as I did. Nonetheless, it was a special kind of grueling torture for me. There was a constant barrage of nigh-impossible-to-identify problems that were only solved by “going nuclear” and starting over again, and it seemed that even the simplest things were needlessly complex to do. There are those who format books for a fee, but I neither had the money nor desire to outsource; it was something I wanted to learn to do myself, even if I hated it. Boy, did I hate it.

Somehow, despite all the frustration, I eventually got it settled. First I decided to release it via Smashwords, due to their no-DRM policy and their willingness to include a “pay what you want” price option, which I’m fond of. Not only that, but their “Meatgrinder” software will convert your book into just about every major format imaginable and put your book up for sale on virtually every major bookseller’s site. Thankfully, the founder of Smashwords, Mark Coker, created The Smashwords Style Guide, a incredibly helpful formatting eBook. My initial plan was a Smashwords-only release. Amazon’s Kindle store could help me reach a wider audience, but they include DRM in their eBooks and that I don’t care for.

However, I realized that fellow author, Free Culture advocate, and CC0 user Aelius Blythe released her books on Kindle. Her rationale was that even if DRM was part of Kindle, it would make more people aware of her work and its CC0 status. The DRM of Kindle, after all, doesn’t cancel out the non-DRM versions. This made a lot of sense to me, so I decided to do as she did. But Smashwords (as Mark Coker admits in the Style Guide, and kudos to him for his honesty) doesn’t work well with Amazon, apparently, and the Style Guide recommended authors actually bypass Smashwords for Kindle releases and upload directly to Kindle to avoid headaches.

So from there I had to create the MOBI file, the only format accepted by Kindle, using the free conversion software Calibre. While some of The Smashwords Style Guide was general formatting advice, a good deal of it (as you can imagine) is specific to Smashwords. So formatting for Kindle involved a lot of searching through author blogs, tech blogs, Youtube videos, and tons of other things looking for formatting guides that even remotely came close to the helpfulness of the Smashwords guide. There were a ton of new problems and frustrations. Eventually, though, it too was finished.

Then came the last major formatting hurdle, one I had put off. I had really, despite the book’s short length, hoped to create a print edition. While initially considering going eBook-only, I couldn’t shake the feeling that not doing a print edition would be too much of a disappointment. There’s just something particularly satisfying about having a physical copy of something you’ve created. After some research, I settled on Amazon’s CreateSpace service. Another painful round of formatting commenced, with many new problems (the words “widows” and “orphans” have new and even more painful meanings for me now). Yet, once again, eventually it somehow was finished. Formatting all three had taken roughly four months, from January through the end of April.

There was just one big problem left. The book needed a cover.

The Cover Story

My first thought was an artist friend of mine, the very talented Dane Eichinger, but for personal reasons he wasn’t taking commissions at the time. I tried a few artists on Fiverr ($5 per image was really all I could afford, having lost my job the previous fall). While some of them weren’t bad, none of them really captured the look I was hoping for and had tried to describe, and most didn’t look very professional.

There was one artist in particular who came to mind as a great candidate for the job: Piti Yindee, the creator of the Wuffle comic series, who I’d written about on this blog at the beginning of the year. Not only is Piti an incredibly talented artist, he also shares my rather unique views on copyright, a quality I wasn’t likely to find anywhere else. His comic series Wuffle is released with a CC0 Waiver, just as I planned “Roadkill” to be, and I imagined that he might be my only chance to have a CC0 book cover to go along with my CC0 book.

Piti had commented on my blog when I’d written the post about him, and replied to a tweet about it, but I’d never spoken to him before otherwise. I was a bit nervous as I wasn’t used to asking for help from someone I barely knew. I had to be upfront about the fact that I didn’t have much money, and wasn’t sure when or if I could pay for a commission, but assured him that if he was willing to help me out, I would do my best to pay him back; if nothing else, I figured I could help out by doing some kind of writing or editing work. I don’t like the thought of taking up so much of someone’s time and effort without being able to give something back, so I hoped my writing and editing skills could at least be of use…if, that is, he would be willing to help me at all.

To my delight, however, Piti proved to be a most friendly and generous person, and he was willing to help me despite my uncertain situation. I was, ultimately, able to pay him, too. I’m still blown away by his generosity and patience through the whole process (especially for putting up with my long-winded, rambling emails). I don’t think I could ever thank him enough for all of his help and support.

However, I contacted him at one of the busiest possible times: his Wuffle IndieGoGo campaign, which I’d written about months earlier, had finished, and he was extremely swamped dealing with his own book being formatted, printed, and shipped out. It would be a few months until his schedule was free enough that he was able to begin designing my cover. So the project was on hold throughout the summer; it was frustrating to have to wait even longer, but I felt very lucky that Piti had any time at all during the year to help me, so I counted my blessings and moved on, though “Roadkill” was always at the back of my mind. I experimented on new projects in the mean-time, and began another new longer-form series of a much larger scope.

Once August arrived, however, he set to work, sending me rough sketches and revisions along the way. It was a magical experience, seeing the cover take shape from the rough idea in my head to the final, polished form Piti created. It was in mid-September that the cover was, at long last, finished. And it was a beautiful thing. I’m still in awe of it. Once again, I can’t thank him enough.

Bringing “Roadkill” to Life at Last

That brings us back to the present. The beautiful cover Piti created adorns the first, printed proof copy, sitting here next to me. I can still hardly believe that it’s finally almost over, and I can hardly wait to share this strange little story I’ve written with you.

As things currently stand, “Roadkill” should be released first on CreateSpace, as a print-on-demand book, on October 1st, 2013, followed shortly after by the Kindle edition and Smashwords edition (and Smashwords’ various affiliated sites, like Barnes and Noble, and Kobo). Last but not least, it will be released on the Internet Archive, and of course, the beloved TUEBL. I wish I had a more definitive date for the various eBook releases, but as this is my first attempt at releasing a book, I’d rather be honest and vague than misleading. All I can say is that I will get them all released as soon after the print edition as possible, hopefully on the same day. The ideal, of course, is for a book to launch in all formats at the same time, but this is a one-man book launch operation, and that man happens to have no prior book launch experience, so hopefully fate (and potential readers) will be kind to me. I’ve done my best.

Looking Back Down the Road

As I finish up this little recollection of “Roadkill,” and the past year, I can’t help but wonder about what’s next. Once the book is released, what then?  I feel much like the characters of my story: tired, worn-out, uncertain, and yet strangely hopeful for the future, ready as I’ll ever be to face the unknown and secure in the knowledge that I’ve spent this time as best as I knew how. The last couple of years have been full of ups and downs. I’ve made some excellent friends along the way. I’ve felt lost. I’ve considered giving up writing for good. I’ve considered never releasing anything else once “Roadkill” is online, effectively retiring before I even really got started.

During the course of working on my book cover, Piti gave me the opportunity to become a proofreader on his Wuffle comic series, an opportunity I didn’t expect but couldn’t be more grateful for. Inspired by his kindness, and the dedication of other artist-and-author friends of mine, I started work on another series. I’m still not sure when or if I’ll release it publicly, but despite that uncertainty I feel better about writing than I have in a long time…too long a time. If nothing else, that makes me feel like releasing something new is more likely than not.

I suppose what I do next will, in part, be influenced by the reaction I get to “Roadkill.” I don’t have any expectations for it. It is, after all, a short story (or “novelette,” if you’re fancy), not a full-length novel. The strongest possibility seems to me that it won’t make much of an impact; it’s not a series, not something likely to build a fan base. I’m fine with that. What I really hope for is one or two kind words from a stranger who enjoys it. It may be short, but I really do think it’s a beautiful, strange little story.

I doubt I will rush into self-publishing something again, not to the same level of detail, anyway. I spent far more time formatting and polishing “Roadkill” than actually writing it, and I’d prefer to get back to simply writing. The next time I release something, if I do indeed release something else, I think I’ll just post it online first, likely right here on this blog. A friend of mine who writes fanfiction has inspired me to worry less about the polish and consider just sharing what I do, even the rough stuff.

Releasing even rough drafts would be a great way to focus on gaining feedback and finding readers who enjoy my work and want to return to it, and read more of it. It could be a great outlet for releasing a series, too, and the way things are going on my current project, there may be quite enough material to begin posting stuff soon if I decide that I want to. I’m even considering releasing it on a fanfiction site (though it’s mythology fanfiction, not popular-franchise fanfiction). It could also create a kind of collaborative process with readers, one that might make writing a little less lonely for me. What do you think? Feel free to comment.

Eyes on the Road Ahead

In my last “CC0 Heroes” post, I quoted Aelius Blythe’s description of the webfiction community, and it’s worth quoting again here: “…we happen to like the neighborhood. We say “Hell yeah!” to cheap fiction. We say it may not be worth $14.99 or $9.99 or even $5.99, but entertainment doesn’t need to have a price tag. And when it does, we’re likely to pass it by and go hang out on the porch steps of our crappy neighborhood for kicks.”

I love this idea. I think I might want to hang out in this neighborhood. If there’s one thing I learned during my little quarter-life crisis last fall, it’s the value of a good neighborhood. That value doesn’t come just from having good neighbors, but from being one. And good neighbors share. So I’ll share “Roadkill” for now and maybe I’ll have something else fun to share in the future. After all, isn’t that why I support Free Culture, and release my writing with CC0 in the first place? Isn’t that what Aelius, Piti, and every other artist who shares his or her work online (Free Culture or not) hopes to do? Sharing is caring, after all, and I hope more people realize that.

For now, though, I’m just going to enjoy this moment, enjoy the fact that finally, at long last, “Roadkill” is nearly finished. And I want to appreciate how far I’ve come in my writing practice, too.

After all this time, writing is fun again, something I look forward to doing rather than viewing as an obligation. Will it continue to be fun? I don’t know, but as long as it’s fun, and feels meaningful, I’ll keep at it. If it’s no longer fulfilling, I’ll see what else might be out there.

But for now, I’m going to keep writing.

I hope you’ll join me on the road ahead.

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

– S.K.

In a sense, my familiarity with the life and work of Soren Aabye Kierkegaard began with a reflection on the end of his life: his (supposed) last words.

I was sitting on the balcony of a condominium my parents had rented in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. One of my closest friends had joined us for the trip; he was inside watching TV, I was listening to my favorite album, Bob Dylan’s Infidels, and watching the moon shine down pale blue over the sea. “Sweetheart Like You,” my favorite song, was probably playing. It was 2003, ten years ago this summer; I had just finished my freshman year of high school.

The door slid open and the cold conditioned air blew the humidity off of my skin. My friend asked me to come inside, there was something I had to see. The music was a ritual, though, so I told him to wait. A few minutes later I walked back inside to see what the big deal was. On the TV, I saw something mesmerizing. I later found out that the film was called Waking Life. Animated in a unique, trippy rotoscope-style, the film featured a nameless dreamer wandering from dream to dream, having in-depth philosophical conversations with a seemingly endless stream of interesting people. At times, the dreamer himself would simply fade out of the movie from scene to scene, with only the dream characters themselves conversing.

Most conversations in the movie lasted several minutes. As I watched, though, one scene stuck out to me for its brevity. It was composed of a single line spoken to the dreamer by a bearded man who passes him on a sidewalk at night: “Kierkegaard’s last words were sweep me up.”

To this day I can’t explain why, exactly, that line captured my attention so much. Yet somehow as soon as I heard it I was struck by the name “Kierkegaard.” I felt an instant curiosity, a draw to learn more about the man, despite knowing nothing about him at all (aside from his last words, though I later learned that the line in the movie may have been misleading regarding that point).

The movie ended, the vacation went on, I went back to listening to Bob Dylan, and before long I was back home in Ohio again. Then, about two or three weeks later, I was shopping at a Borders bookstore in West Virginia when I happened to glance around the philosophy section. Browsing idly, suddenly a particular title caught my eye: Works of Love. As I checked the name of the author, suddenly I was struck with the sense that this was a meaningful coincidence. I bought my first Kierkegaard book that day.

Yet another few weeks passed, and I was sitting around bored at a Fourth of July barbecue. It was held by a friend of my mother’s, and I didn’t have anything to do or anyone to talk to. I had my copy of Works of Love, though. The inside of the house was mostly quiet, so I slipped away from the backyard festivities and into the sitting room. The house, built on the banks of the Ohio River, was something of a historical landmark; it had been an inn throughout the 1700s and 1800s and likely played host to some noteworthy historical figures. The huge sitting room transported me back a century, and what better place to start reading the work of a man born in 1813?

The book proper begins with a Foreward and a Prayer. The Foreward starts out saying that the book, comprised of “Christian reflections,” will be “understood slowly, but then also easily.” I’ve always found that to be a very accurate prediction in my case. I’ve never been a very fast learner. Science and math fly right over my head most of the time. I’m not particularly adept at many practical skills. Yet beginning with my reading of Works of Love, I found a certain knack for philosophy. I may never have done well with the numerical abstractions of math classes, but in study hall, I learned to love logic, and working my way through the world of abstract ideas found in philosophy. Yet Kierkegaard’s aim was never to be purely abstract, and that’s a big part of why I came to love his writings. The Foreward explains that because the book is a series of “Christian reflections,” it is not about love but the works of love, and this is because love is inexhaustible, everywhere, and yet “essentially indescribable in its smallest act.” Kierkegaard’s writings, Works of Love being a prime example, are often focused on the importance of individual responsibility and experience, the importance of faith and belief expressed through deeds rather than words, and, ironically, the inexpressibility of the very subjects he writes about.

Kierkegaard wrote often (including in the Foreward to Works of Love) that he was writing specifically for That Individual. This idea has had a profound effect on the way I view my own writing practice. I always felt so moved by Kierkegaard’s words, yet his books were dense and dealt with the subtlest of things, matters of faith, thought, and action which all-too-often get dumbed down and over-simplified in everyday speech. It was difficult to share my enthusiasm for Kierkegaard with anyone else, as it isn’t exactly easy to discuss him in the small-talk that comes up day-to-day. You probably couldn’t do justice to a single book by Kierkegaard in a conversation lasting an entire week.

It occurred to me early on that I might never be able to share my joy over reading his books with anyone else. It also occurred to me that maybe this was okay; maybe this was the whole point! Kierkegaard often used a word translated into English as “edifying,” a building-up of a person’s best self, of virtue. I always felt edified reading Kierkegaard, and perhaps, I thought, that was exactly enough: to be an individual, to be myself, someone who happens to be energized by Kierkegaard’s work, and to spread the joy and the insight I found in his work to others in my own way, rather than trying to regurgitate Kierkegaard’s words alone. (Though I did pick up his habit of writing unreasonably long sentences.)

It may very well be the case that no other idea influenced me as much as this: that I must write not for a “general audience” or a “target demographic,” but “That Individual,” that one person in the world who, for whatever reason, would benefit from reading what I was writing. It’s not a plan for success; it isn’t a plan to become famous or popular or wealthy. It might be wishful thinking of blind faith. Yet it’s always motivated me more than any of those things. Even now, all these years later, I can’t write if I focus on more than one reader. In my mind, there is always only one; sometimes I write for someone specific that I know. Other times (such as right now), however, I write only hoping that someone, somewhere out there will read what I write and feel inspired and edified. Perhaps that someone is on the other side of the world, perhaps they won’t be alive until long after I’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, just as I didn’t discover Kierkegaard until he’d been dead for 190 years. The details don’t matter, as long as I have the hope that somehow, my words will be read by the one person who really needs them.

Soren Kierkegaard, like many great artists, is a paradoxical figure. A large part of his work was written under various pseudonyms, personas with conflicting views and arguments; seemingly this was done as a kind of reductio ad absurdum tactic to point out the logical conclusions of various ways of thinking. Still many of his writings, such as his “Edifying Discourses,” were as straightforward as any other Sunday sermon and as direct and personal as a private letter from a friend.

As I finish writing this, Bob Dylan’s “Jokerman” is playing on my turntable; the title character is an enigmatic figure, not unlike Kierkegaard, a man of many faces. This is the music I listened to ten years ago when Kierkegaard’s books came into my life. I may not have learned much in my classes, but those study hall times spent reading Either/Or, Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing, The Sickness Unto Death and others were very educational, and the lessons I learned have stayed with me. On Soren’s 200th birthday, and the upcoming 10th anniversary of my first reading of Works of Love, I’m revisiting all these old books and songs from my early adolescence and musing on the way some things have come full circle.

I don’t remember all the details of the books I read back then; I may have, given their subtlety, misinterpreted or misremembered many of them. Some things, though, remain, not easily forgotten. I plan to read all of Kierkegaard’s books some day; I collected the entire set of the Princeton English translations over the last few years. Maybe then I can write a full commentary on Kierkegaard’s literary output, if I feel the need.

Many interpretations of Kierkegaard’s life and works have been written over the years, though. Commentaries abound. I’m afraid I’m under-qualified to offer any such academic insight now. All I can do is share my memories of the lessons I learned about the value of individual effort, individual passion and individual responsibility. Yet what I ultimately took away from Kierkegaard, looking back, isn’t the kind of “rugged” individualism you hear about more often. In the end, what matters is neither the pure independence of individualism nor the “untruth” of the mob-mentality of crowds, but rather the ability to connect to individuals as an individual, and the bonds we form between one another.

Kierkegaard was one of the first people I can think of who came from a Christian background, who described his writings, such as Works of Love, as “Christian reflections,” and yet he did not call himself a Christian. He was at odds with the state-church of Denmark, with the idea that being a Christian was a default state, a pretty social nicety, rather than a path to be followed with passion, and perhaps full of hardship to be endured. He made a distinction between Christianity, what he believed to be the truth that was the object of his faith, and Christendom, the all-too-worldly religion.

What I learned from this is just how important it is to be utterly honest with one’s self. The pursuit of Truth with a capital T, whatever you ultimately conclude it is, requires honesty of self first. All too easily, things can become homogenized and watered-down amongst the crowd, or buried under the illusions of individual ego. Kierkegaard’s take on labels was “when you label me, you negate me,” and these are words I’ve come to live by. In his life, the title “Christian” was something bestowed by God alone. Spoken in polite society, such a thing loses meaning.

Even if you have no relation to Christianity, I think that Kierkegaard has much of value for anyone who appreciates the pursuit of truth. Indeed, perhaps this is why his work was so popular with atheist existentialist philosophers such as Sartre and Camus, with Jewish author Franz Kafka, with Japanese philosophers, and many Catholic theologians, among others. This may even be why Kierkegaard spared a few kind words for contemporary atheist philosophers, for their unrestrained passion and honesty, even the pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer. The value of the honest pursuit of truth is something that I think those of nearly all religions and philosophies can agree on, and even if one doesn’t share Kierkegaard’s faith, I think there’s much to be admired about his commitment to it, and to exploring and questioning every aspect of it.

I don’t think of Soren Kierkegaard as any kind of saint; I’m certain he’d be the first to agree that he was nothing of the sort. I do think of him, however, as a kindred spirit, as a friend from beyond time. When I read his words I’m transported back to the same spirit of wonder and hope that I felt back in my youth, and I can share a sense of the faith he had.

So thank you, Soren, for sharing your books, your thoughts, your soul with the world.

Happy 200th birthday.

“If anyone thinks he is a Christian and yet is indifferent toward being that, he is not one at all. When Christ says (Matthew 10:17), “Beware of people,” I wonder if by this is not also meant: Beware of being tricked out of the highest by people, by continual comparison, by habit and by externals.”

“Which is more difficult, to awaken one who sleeps or to awaken one who, awake, dreams that he is awake?”

“Spiritual love, on the other hand, takes away from myself all natural determinants and all self-love. Therefore love for my neighbor cannot make me one with the neighbor in a united self. Love to one’s neighbor is love between two individual beings, each eternally qualified as spirit.”

Works of Love, Translated by Howard and Edna Hong

In my post Why I Write, I dealt with many of the problems I’ve faced over the years as I’ve struggled to “be a writer.” Many of the problems aren’t really specific to writing, or writing as a career; they’re problems with life in general. I’ve been reflecting on one of those problems again since that post, and I feel compelled to write about it (crazy idea, huh?) in a bit more depth.

Based on my (admittedly limited) experience, identifying oneself as a writer seems to be a sign to certain people that one is lazy, or at least “unproductive.” Again, it’s that stigma of writing not being a “real job.” I wonder if popular writers like J.K. Rowling and Stephen King have family members who, even now, balk at their writing careers because it isn’t a “real job,” despite all their success. I hope not, but it wouldn’t really surprise me. It seems to be a common reaction to any kind of career in the arts, as evidenced by Amanda Palmer’s beautiful TED Talk The Art of Asking.

Part of that stigma, I suspect, is based on the fact that writers have to be dreamers. All writers find inspiration differently, I’m sure. I would bet that most get inspiration in many of the same ways I do. Sometimes a story will appear in my mind fully formed, spurred into existence by a chance phrase spoken by someone in conversation, or by a scent in the air, or by something I see going on across the street. At other times, these same things inspire me but only a fragment of a story comes to mind, and it takes many such instances of inspiration to develop the pieces into a full story.

In all these inspirational moments, however, I’m very rarely ever doing anything that looks like “real work” (though working as a janitor the past five years proved to be a memorable exception). Writing begins with dreaming. It’s no wonder, then, that in the eyes of many people, in my “busiest” moments I appear to be half-asleep.  One of my most consistent sources of inspiration, and one which has inspired some of my favorite ideas, has been simply riding as a passenger in a car and listening to music as I watch the scenery go by. It appears so passive, and even moochy (why doesn’t he do the driving? they wonder) and yet without it I’d lose one of my most loyal muses.

Are all “lazy times” really inspirational, though? Is saying that you’re a writer really a get-out-of-jail-free card, an excuse to slack off for the rest of your life?

Admittedly, I’ve spent a lot of time in my life doing nothing. I don’t mean productive, daydreaming-for-inspiration nothing. I mean real nothing. I’ve played videogames mindlessly for hours (the shocking numbers are recorded on Steam). I’ve checked Facebook, email, email, email, Twitter, Facebook, Facebook, email, email, Twitter, TV Tropes, TV Tropes, Cracked, TV Tropes, random website, random website, etc. etc. in an seemingly endless cycle.  Was any of that anything but laziness, or, at best, a nasty habit of being unfocused?

I’d venture to say that yes, a large part of it was flat-out laziness. But laziness isn’t as simple as it sounds. Laziness isn’t necessarily just being a parasite, contributing nothing to humanity. Laziness can be a burden, just as overwork can. Laziness isn’t happiness; it’s not always making out like a bandit while everybody else slaves away. For me, anyway, laziness is often what fills the unhappiest of times.

I recently read a book by Ernie J. Zelinski called The Joy of Not Working. While I found the book delightful in general, one of my favorite parts of it dealt with what Ernie called “passive leisure.” Zelinski wrote of how, until recent decades, leisure time was almost always filled with active pastimes: sports, trips to the park, socializing, creative hobbies and more. Over the course of the 20th century, however, and after the Industrial Revolution, the popular choice for leisure shifted from active to passive: going to the movies, watching television, listening to the radio, surfing the internet, etc. Even those activities with some social or active elements in the past (driving or walking to a movie theater and watching a film as part of an audience, or even just traveling to the video store) have, thanks to the advance of technology, become even more passive. Now, movies are readily accessible at home on our televisions via things like On Demand service and Netflix, or on our computers. Too many of us socialize through Facebook and Twitter far more than in person.

These advancements are convenient, to be sure. I certainly appreciate them. Yet it does show an unfortunate trend. With the rise of the Industrial Revolution and the infamous “Protestant Work Ethic,” many people began to feel trapped in a 9 to 5 existence (not to mention overtime), and it has continued that way through the present. Their energy is sapped by work, and they come home, tired, relying on passive leisure to “decompress.”

I have, mercifully, avoided being stuck in the 9 to 5 world thus far, but there’s a reason Ernie Zelinski’s book resonated so strongly with me. My college years were spent quite miserably, in a constant stream of assignments I had no passion for, story ideas popping into my mind during idle moments. Then, when I got home at the end of each day, I’d be too burned out on writing stuff for professors and instructors, stuff I didn’t care about to begin with, to feel like writing anything else. Naturally, this kept me from writing anything I really wanted to most of the time, and my need to “decompress” and “unwind” inevitably led to mindless videogame playing and internet surfing. The lack of productivity would make me depressed, but the cycle continued. My schedule would keep me from eating right, my health became sub-par, I felt constantly tired and drained and, to sum it up, I just felt like crap. It’s a miserable way to live. The hilarious irony, of course, is that I was too burned out pursuing a creative writing degree to get hardly any actual creative writing done.

Since I’ve been “semi-retired from school” (a story for another time) beginning in 2012, I initially found it difficult to readjust and spend my leisure time constructively. I was still stuck in the “desperately use every free moment to do as little as possible” mindset, playing far too many videogames, watching far too much TV, etc. During the first half of the year I was still enrolled in a very difficult online class and still feeling a very strong sense of meaninglessness in what I was doing. In the fall, I crashed and burned, faltering and eventually dropping out of the class.  I felt that my social circle, the people who I would turn to for support, were too few and far between, with most old friends having become too busy to collaborate on projects and such as we had in years past, and no new friends in sight.

I had always told myself that when I found free time again, I’d throw myself into writing. I’d quell the naysayers, especially people within my family, who worried about my life going nowhere, about me not making any money, about me being a bum. I would get my work out there, I’d construct the elaborate stories I’d plotted for years. I might, I thought, even make a few friends, by connecting with people who enjoyed my work. I didn’t believe I’d be a financial success with writing, but I always thought that I could fill my life with enough activity to at least shut up anyone who considered me lazy.

Yet when that free time was there, I just didn’t know what to do with it. Writing wasn’t fun anymore. I wondered if it ever had been. The elaborate stories seemed like daunting tasks, like the college assignments all over again. There was meaning for me in writing those stories, but I just couldn’t feel connected to it anymore. The fun was gone. What happened? Was I really, at heart, just a lazy bum? Was that it? Were the naysayers right?

I didn’t find my way out of it until I hit rock bottom, though I saw a few rays of light along the way. I attended a certain fan convention that inspired me, seeing all of those people sharing a common interest and a love of creativity was a huge boost (not to mention meeting one of my favorite voice actresses/singer-songwriters). An environment filled with creative, passionate people is, surprise surprise, quite conducive to feeling creative and passionate. I discovered the work of a late artist who shared my love of insane, surreal humor. Yet it wasn’t until I realized that my “passive leisure,” my intense droughts of meaningless inactivity, were making me feel sick that I began to see a way out.

I remember those moments when I really became conscious of it. I would “awaken” from a stupor, having played some videogame or other for far too many hours, or having spent virtually all day sitting at my computer doing nothing but obsessively check the same websites again and again. It occurred to me that I’d been lazy, idle. I’d spent all day doing nothing (at least nothing worthwhile). It occurred to me that I felt terrible.

But there was something else that I realized in those moments. I didn’t feel terrible because I let down society, or failed to live up the Protestant Work Ethic. I didn’t feel terrible because I’d failed to meet someone else’s expectations, or because people would think I was a bum. It wasn’t even because I’d failed to live up to my own expectations, my own plans to write this or that, create this or that. Unlike all the brow-beating I’d been giving myself for years, I suddenly realized that guilt wasn’t the real source of my misery.

I felt terrible because doing a whole lot of nothing just feels terrible.

Playing videogames is fun. Playing videogames all day is not fun. Playing videogames for more than an hour or two isn’t fun.

Watching TV is fun. Watching TV all day is not fun. You get the idea.

All my life, all the criticisms I’d ever heard for being lazy, or idle, or unproductive were always founded on guilt. “You’re wrong to be doing nothing and enjoying yourself while those in the ‘real world’ slave away,” they’d say. Anytime anyone gave me any crap for not working enough, or not socializing enough, or whatever, all of it was based on this ethereal, flimsy idea that I somehow owed a debt to…someone, or something. Society, perhaps. Not once can I recall someone saying to me “you ought to be more productive because it’s good for you. You’ll feel better.” I can remember so many occasions in which someone would berate me for not getting out enough, but I can’t recall nearly as many times that someone asked me to get out more because it would make me happy, or that they appreciated having me around. It was always this guilt-trip of “don’t be a hermit, don’t be anti-social.”

I suspect that many people berate others in this way with the best of intentions. Maybe they really are trying to help, they’re just not expressing themselves very well, or considering the psychological ramifications of what they’re saying. Yet it is my experience that such attempts at negative reinforcement are almost always failures. I never wanted to get out more when the people inviting me to hang out with them were acting like I’d be a loser if I didn’t go. Who wants to hang out with such negative people? I would procrastinate and accomplish nothing the more people would guilt-trip me about being unproductive. The same goes for all the times I’d tell myself I was a failure for not working on some writing project or other. I berated myself for not doing something rather than focusing on why it was worthwhile to do it.

The focus was on obligation, not on creating for the sake of creating, for the fun of it.

How can we ignore that, though? How can we ignore our own passions and expect to live a fulfilling life? How do we find the fun of things again, the passions that make productivity worthwhile, its own reward? Why exactly do so many people seem to want others to be miserable drones?

I’m still learning that. In the months since I came to realize that I was pressuring myself to write, treating it like an urgent school or job assignment, I’ve been experimenting, taking things slow. I’ve found this is the best way (with some of my biggest inspirations coming from Leo Babuta at his blog Zen Habits and, of all people, my childhood “television neighbor” Fred “Mister” Rogers). You can’t rush happiness, you can’t achieve happiness with a checklist (well, maybe you can, but I certainly can’t).

In the past few months I’ve tried different things. I’ve started strumming a ukulele without any prior musical knowledge or skill, and enjoying the feel of strumming the strings. Even something as simple as that can be invigorating. I’ve decided not to fight my urge to be lazy sometimes, but to always be mindful of it. As I began writing this very post, I felt a strong urge to go lay on the couch, curl-up with the quilt made by my great-grandmother, turn on Netflix and watch some Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

I went ahead and did just that, and I have no regrets. I watched two episodes, resisting the pull to watch more out of a desire to stretch out the experience past the point where it’s fulfilling.  I took time to appreciate how nice it was to sit in the dark, just for an hour and a half, nice and warm, and enjoy some television. I enjoyed it mindfully, thoroughly, without over-doing it and without guilt.

Then, later, I returned to my writing, and here I am. Everything in moderation. I’m enjoying the sensation of writing this post, right here, right now.

Do things in moderation, and do what is fun. If you want to watch TV, ask yourself if you really want to watch TV or if you’re only doing it to avoid something else. If you are, ask yourself why you’re avoiding whatever it is you want to avoid. Ask yourself if it’s really worth it. If you do, in fact, really want to watch TV, then go ahead. Watch some TV. Enjoy the heck out of it. Enjoy the sensation of relaxing, watching it, getting lost in the story or the learning experience. Be aware of how you feel. When you feel like you’ve had enough, stop watching TV and do something else. It sounds simple, but it’s so easy to over-indulge in everything, especially if we indulge as a form of escape from something else.

Maybe you are under stressful deadlines in your life. I am, thankfully, for now, free of such concerns. I can’t presume to tell you to magically learn to enjoy all of the burdens you might be facing. Perhaps those deadlines are things you really can’t change. But here’s what you can change: you can change the way you view your circumstances. You can experiment with your methods for getting things done, and your way of living, within the confines of your obligations. You can look for the joy in tasks both mundane and overbearing, you can try to focus on each, tiny step, and see if there’s any joy to be found in it.

If nothing else, you can free your own mind from the guilt. You can realize that, while you may have real obligations to loved ones, you don’t, in the strictest sense, owe anything to anyone. You can focus on acting out of love rather than compulsion. If you fail at some obligation, that’s not an occasion to berate yourself or feel guilty. If you don’t feel like working, that doesn’t mean you’re a lazy bum, but even if you are, why should you care what anyone else thinks? Just make sure that your “laziness” (perhaps use Ernie Zelinski’s term, “creative loafing” instead?) isn’t just as much of a drain on your happiness as the guilt others try to foist on you for it.  In the end, the only one you ought to answer to is yourself, and you should consider what things really make you happy.

In conclusion: work when you find the joy in it. Give yourself a chance to find the joy in work, and what work you enjoy; keep experimenting.  Give yourself the chance to find the joy in laziness, in doing nothing, too; know how much laziness is too much to really enjoy yourself, know how much turns you into a joyless zombie. Know how much work is too much work to enjoy yourself, and know how much turns you into a joyless zombie. Everything in moderation. Free yourself from baseless guilt, from the expectations of others, and learn what is best for you, what makes you happiest and most fulfilled.

And whenever you do choose to do nothing, I hope you that you enjoy it completely, and that you see that it can be just as valuable as “productivity.” I’ve found that it can certainly live up to my expectations.

Recently, something happened that, for quite some time now, I’d secretly been hoping for: Nina Paley dedicated her animated film Sita Sings the Blues to the public domain using the Creative Commons Zero Waiver. I only wish the circumstances that inspired her decision weren’t so tragic and offensive.

For those who don’t know, Nina created quite a stir when the film was first released in 2008, as she chose to release it with a Creative Commons license. Specifically, she chose the “Creative Commons By Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported” license, which, for those not familiar with CC licenses, gave anyone the right to copy, share, screen, remix, sell, or otherwise distribute or reuse the film any way they chose as long as Nina Paley was given credit and as long as the license was maintained on copies and applied to any derivative works.

I’ve shared Nina’s internal debate over what Creative Commons license (or waiver, as the case may be) to use for quite some time. By Attribution is appealing as it essentially makes the work almost-public domain while guaranteeing that any copying/reuse is attributed to the original author, preventing plagiarism. By Attribution Share-Alike is appealing for the same reason, and also promotes Free Culture ideals by forcing derivative works to also carry the same open license. Creative Commons Zero, or CC0 for short, is appealing because it really cuts right to the heart of the whole issue of permission culture vs. Free Culture: it allows the work to truly run free within the public domain as much as legally possible.

So what are the downsides? The downside to By Attribution, as I see it, is that it isn’t always applicable in any reasonable way. For example, if I wrote a story that was turned into a film, sure, that’d be a reasonable place for attribution. After all, films have credits at the end. Likewise, books have plenty of space at the end for acknowledgements. But say someone were to take a 5-second clip of a line of dialogue from my story, as it was used in a film adaptation, and use it in a song, along with about a thousand other clips of similar length, all from different stories adapted into different films? Does the track have to include an addendum, in which the artist reads a list of all his sources? Many people don’t read the credits in movies, I imagine fewer still would listen to a 5 minute “Sources Cited” reading at the end of a song. It’d be even worse to have to cite attribution for works that, for example, used a remix of a line from a movie adapted from a novel which itself used lines from other stories, films and music. The attribution list could end up longer than the work itself, probably even longer than War and Peace.

The downside to By Attribution Share-Alike is that while it promotes Free Culture ideals, it does so by force. Like all CC licenses, brilliant as they are, it relies on current copyright law as a means of controlling another person’s access to and use of a copy of something. This, in a sense, goes against the very ideals so many Free Culture activists support, even as the aim remains in line with Free Culture ideals.

Lastly, there is CC0. The only downside to using CC0 that I’ve been able to think of is that without requirement of attribution, someone could plagiarize your work very easily. Yet this happens under the current copyright system anyway, and thanks to the wonders of the internet, there are many opportunities for us to get our work out there and identified with us as authors. I’ve seen quite a few stories of artists’ whose work was plagiarized, and fans called out the plagiarists and saw to it that there was no mistake as to who the original artist was.

In the end, I just came to the conclusion that if nothing else, copyright was not a morally legitimate concept. It infringes on the rights of others in the name of “protecting” a single artist’s work. As an author, I certainly want to get paid, but I don’t want to force people to pay. I’ve bought too many DVDs I didn’t enjoy watching, bought too many novels I didn’t enjoy reading to want others to go through the same thing. On the other hand, thanks to public libraries and being lent books and movies from friends, I’ve come to find many things for free that I became so fond of that I purchased for myself. I would rather someone pay me for my work because they genuinely enjoy it, rather than be forced to buy it up-front only to hate it.

Yet there is one other problem with CC0, and, in fact, likely with all or most Creative Commons licenses: it paradoxically seems to make a work untouchable for distributors. This, in fact, is why Nina Paley chose to change over the By Attribution Share-Alike license to the CC0 waiver: distributors didn’t want to broadcast (not to mention create derivative works of) something under the BY-SA license. By switching to CC0, Nina hopes to leave distributors “no excuse” for not showing the film.

Yet I doubt that will happen. The ironic thing is, every distributor is so locked-in to the world and mindset of copyright, apparently radical notions like Creative Commons licenses and public domain dedications seem scary, like liabilities, like hidden lawsuits waiting to happen. In other words, it’s the kiss of death for a work’s promotion in traditional distribution channels; it makes the work untouchable.

Despite that problem, I am delighted that, though she still believes in the Free Culture ideals reflected in the BY-SA license (as I do), Nina has chosen to release Sita Sings the Blues as a CC0 public domain film. Her commitment to “legal nonviolence,” of not threatening anyone legally for use of her art whether their use agrees with her ideals or not, sets a wonderful example and hopefully will lead others to follow in her footsteps.

That brings me to the real reason I’m writing this post. I’d like to ask for help, if anyone out there happens to read this.

I recently finished the final draft of my short story, Roadkill. I have not yet released it, but when I do, I intend to release it into the public domain via CC0, as I intend to do with all of my works. Yet I’ve discovered a problem: I’m not sure if any distributor will carry it.

I’m entirely new to the world of eBooks and eBook publishing and distribution; at least, I’m new to participating in it. I’ve researched formatting and all of that. Yet my commitment to CC0 is something I can’t find much precedent for.

In the terms of service on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, it is said that one may sell a “public domain work” if one makes an original edition of it that differs significantly from other editions they offer, but only a 30 percent royalty will be given. This is different than the 70 percent royalty given to authors of “original works.” The problem there is, naturally, that CC0, or likely Creative Commons licenses in general, were not on the minds of Amazon’s lawyers when writing their terms of service. My work is both an original work and, when released, a public domain one, by my own choice. It isn’t “Treasure Island” or some other work that lapsed into the public domain by virtue of age or some nuance of the old copyright laws.

I emailed customer service about this some time ago; the initial reply more or less restated the very terms of service I was asking for clarification about. I told them that they had misunderstood my question and asked again. After being told to wait for several days while they presumably consulted their legal team, I was told that they couldn’t tell me (!) and to consult a lawyer (!). It’s rather unsettling that they were unable to explain their own terms of service! It brings to mind Cory Doctorow’s comments when writing about one of the more infamous Kindle DRM cases,They are a sort of Kafkaesque dumbshow of bureaucratic non-answering, culminating in the customer service version of “Die in a fire,” which is more or less in line with the unhelpful responses I got regarding CC0.

Then I checked Smashwords, a popular, DRM-free (unlike Kindle) platform for independent authors, only to discover in their terms of service that public domain works weren’t allowed at all, and that only original works by authors with “exclusive digital publishing rights” were permitted. As much as I admire Smashwords for taking a stand against DRM, I’m disappointed that their TOS doesn’t accommodate authors with a Free Culture stance such as myself. Perhaps it is still too new, too  radical, too much of a fringe stance to take, even for the more open-minded and welcoming of distributors.

I’m not the first author to deal with this; Aelius Blythe, judging by her Twitter photos, has had similar problems trying to make her CC0 works available on Smashwords and Kindle Direct Publishing. She took a rather cavalier approach to it, and I admire that, but I’m hoping to go into this thing knowing exactly what I’ll have to deal with beforehand, without having to engage in any little battles with a distributor. Perhaps that’s asking too much, though.

So where does that leave me, or any other authors who wish to dedicate their work to the public domain?

I don’t know. I’ve considered several options, none too satisfactory.

I’ve looked for other, lesser-known distributors who are more Free Culture-friendly. That, of course, carries its own huge disadvantage: by being lesser-known, it is less likely that anyone will discover my work on such a service. I discovered one that looked promising, Anjuno, which distributed both eBooks AND music using the name-your-own-price model (which is something else I wanted). However, before I could figure out if they were okay with works willingly dedicated to the public domain, they shut down after apparently being mostly abandoned in 2010. It figures that they closed up shop just after I discovered them a few months ago.

Another option is to simply post the eBook online myself, including a download link from my blog and hoping that somehow people stumble onto it. The problem there is that, while I want my work to be released under a “name your own price” model anyway, there wouldn’t be a very easy method for anyone to pay me if they wanted to. I know of sites that use PayPal donate buttons, but I’ve heard one or two horror stories about that, and PayPal’s site specifically says that the donate button is for “fundraising,” so I’m not sure using it to support the author of free eBooks qualifies. There’s also Flattr, which seems like a cool service, so that at least could be a viable option, though I’m totally inexperienced with it so far.

So this is where you come in, gentle reader. Do you have any ideas?

I must say, the irony is not lost on me: I have to ask for help to make it easy for others to voluntarily pay me for written works offered freely, while it would be easy to force people to pay in order to access my work. Such is the world we live in, I suppose; hopefully it does not stay this way forever. If you know of an eBook distributor site that allows original, public domain and Creative Commons-licensed works, or if you know of any other way to make voluntary payments/donations from readers easy (or at least possible), please let me know. Heck, if some small, independent publisher might like to carry a CC0 title as some sort of experiment (in a situation in which profits are shared with me; any publisher could do it anyway after I release the thing), I’d be interested in talking to someone.

If I don’t hear any ideas within a couple of weeks, nor any fresh ideas from a couple of people I plan to contact about various options, I’ll likely just wind up posting the story here and trying to arrange a Flattr account. That seems the easiest thing to do if all else fails, and I’m more concerned than anything, really, with just getting my work out there.

If you have your own tales of trying to spread Free Culture works, feel free to comment or contact me; such things are generally always of interest to me.

Lastly: thank you to all the recent followers and those who supported my previous post. It was a much-needed self-esteem boost. I hope this blog continues to be to your liking.

All the best,

Leo

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