The Trap of Nostalgia

I grew up in two places, primarily, and they are both special to me, but the first thing I think of when I reflect on either one is gunfire.

The place where I lived was the home I grew up in on Buckingham Way. My parents moved us away from there after a FBI sting operation at a mini-mart a stone’s throw away resulted in two Agents dying and the killers hiding out in our neighborhood. One of them in the house behind ours. We were trapped until the criminals were found later that morning; my first experience with quarantine. I remember it being a lot more fun than the current one.

The second place I grew up in was my Dad’s store on the very outskirts of Fresno, where he sold guns, fish bait, sodas, candy, and cigarettes—and not always safely (I’ll spare you the details in this post). Despite the violence of the area and my father’s occupation, I spent a LOT of time in “The Shop” working, playing, shooting plastic army men out back with a BB gun, waiting for dad to finish work so we could go to a movie, and playing “fish out of water” with the minnows in the tanks he kept in the back. Just to torture them. The Shop is firmly imprinted as a magical place on my brain, burned alongside every terrible thing that happened there and because of it. In The Other Side of Fear, my forthcoming book* about all the violence Dad suffered at the Shop and the growing up I did in between it all, I describe my time there this way:

A full-sized Donkey Kong video game cabinet sat near the front door. I spent every possible minute jumping barrels and rescuing damsels in distress, my Atomic Fire Ball cooling in a Dixie Cup full of water next to the joystick (a low-rent chemistry experiment that made it easier for me to skip the “fire” and get right to the sugar). Meanwhile, just a few feet away, someone would ask Dad if he could see a handgun before purchasing a Coke and a pack of Marlboros.

I knew there wasn’t much to it. The entirety of the Shop seemed quite a bit smaller than the three-bedroom house we lived in. Definitely dustier. Winds from the surrounding countryside and farmlands kicked up the dirt surrounding it on the regular, pushing it all inside and casting a thin blanket of wispy grime on the cracked cement floor. A broom behind the counter justified its existence by shooing it all away on at least a quarterly basis. Deep, muddy puddles dressed the Shop on all sides after a rain, with the exception of the side it shared with the bar next door. The front faced out toward the highway, a flat slab of concrete its only accouterment. If you could see it. The manmade parking surface was usually covered in oil and sludge.

The backrooms—secret places at every grocery store and mini-mart my father didn’t own—didn’t hide anything special. Just palettes of beer and soda. The walk-in freezer housing the fishing bait Dad distributed throughout the Valley, as effective as it was as a refuge during the summer, reeked of worm and earth.

I was Bill’s Son, the little prince within the Shop that was his kingdom. The Donkey Kong games were always free of charge. So were the New York Seltzers (always the Vanilla Crème) that gave such sweet relief when the temperatures swelled and the swamp cooler wasn’t cutting it. Drinks, Frozen Burritos of questionable nutritional value, and candy (whose nutritional value—or lack thereof—was never in question) were all there for the taking. Long as I asked King Dad first.

That is a child’s description of a childlike time, devoid of any discussion of the perils or appropriateness of such a place. I didn’t even blink as I ran past the .45’s and the 30 ought 6’s on glorious display in their glass cases. The moral implications of my father making his living by selling instruments of death were too unknown for me to even consider. Neither did I ever imagine that any of the many robberies or arson fires the Shop suffered could occur while I was there. They never had, so why would they? And it never, ever crossed my mind the emotional and financial toll running such a place and depending on it for income took on my mother and father. Not even when Dad desperately sought employment or business opportunities elsewhere did it occur to me that maybe he didn’t love the Shop as much as I did. I thought he just wanted a change of pace; somewhere else fun that I could run around in.

I try not to be nostalgic. There’s so much that’s new, and so many things old in this world I’ve never experienced that I think looking back, even wistfully, can be a trap. We can sometimes mistake times gone by as the very best times, especially compared with today, but it’s often not really the case. Saturday Night Live isn’t “not funny anymore,” you’re only remembering the good sketches. Likewise, recalling the 1950’s as a golden age for morality in the United States is to deny the reality of so many Black Americans and women for whom it was a time of denied rights and diminished personhood.

The Shop wasn’t just my own personal arcade and Dad’s kingdom. It was his death trap.

When I look back on my childhood, the wonderful sits alongside the horrific, comfortably. This is why I can both be glad my daughters haven’t ever experienced the violence and fear my brothers and I did, and I can want to tell them all about it like it was the coolest thing ever, too. Because it was. It was very cool. Fun, even. That’s both the prerogative of youth and the privilege of looking back. Of nostalgia.

TheShop2020

Yesterday, I went and visited the site of the Shop, right at the end of Hwy 180 going West out of Fresno. It’s not there anymore. It was demolished some years ago, and nothing has been built to take its place. The Shop was right there, in the space where there is now only dark brown dirt and odd pieces of litter thrown out of speeding, passing cars.

I got out of my car and walked around a little. At near 100 degrees, it was hot, as it always seemed to be whenever I visited the Shop, even in the winter. There’s an AM/PM going up across the street and the highway didn’t used to end right there, but otherwise the surrounding area looks the same.

But it doesn’t feel the same. I got out of the car because I wanted to feel the space again, or at least see if I could. But I couldn’t. The Shop is gone, and it took all the ghosts with it.

Probably better that way.

*The Other Side of Fear is due out Oct. 13, 2020 from Cedar Fort Publishing and will be available in a variety of formats.

 

All Parents are Terrible

Parents are terrible. You know this incontrovertible fact if you’ve ever read any published memoir about growing up. There’s one universal theme to all of them: the parents should be arrested and the key thrown away for the cruelty they inflicted on their progeny, the writer. If you were a space alien and the only thing you knew about the parenting practices of earthlings was what you read in books like The Glass Castle and Running With Scissors, you’d be justifiably horrified and immediately set about liberating the youth of the world through abduction (wait a minute, you don’t think…?). In fact, for a lot of coming-of-age memoirs, that literally is what the book is about: all-time, world class, terrible parenting. It’s the very best revenge anyone ever devised against all the therapy they had to shell out for later: immortalizing the parental misdeeds in print.

I suppose there’s a universality to that experience, and it certainly makes for good copy, but it’s pretty far from my own experience and, at the very least, the experiences of most people who belong to the same Church I do* (aka the culture I’m most familiar with). I tend to think there are more decent parents out there than bad, and I’ll hold up my own as a good, if imperfect, example.

*I say this having conducted no studies and done no polls, so I’m speaking mostly from experience and observation. The Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Church teachings provide a solid foundation for highly functional families. Any parents who draw from that deep, deep well are bound to get it more right than wrong.

Which brings up a good question: If I’ve written an entire book (tentative title: The Other Side of Fear) about my own growing up and my parents are a big part of it, how is the story I’m telling in any way interesting or exciting?

I guess it’s not. Save for a handful of chapters, my parents and I largely get along.

So, boring book.

I’m being a little facetious. Once you throw in the shootings, the murder, the bullies, the helicopters circling our house at 1am, the flooded city, the thief my dad runs down, the missionary tales, and everything else, you don’t really need to ladle bad parenting on top to have an interesting and exciting story. But bad parenting? No, that’s not really one of the ingredients I’m cooking with. My story is about growing up through through difficult things with good parents.

People clamor for good, clean, positive stories, but they flock to conflict and the controversial. These types of stories are not mutually exclusive, but they can be difficult to bring together, depending on the market and the audience, and, most importantly, the writer. Those who traffic in positivity can be afraid to let the real world in for fear they’re not being positive or uplifting enough. Their stories, consequently, can be, yeah, super boring. Meanwhile, those who focus mostly on conflict and controversy can easily choke out anything positive, or simply dismiss such notions altogether for fear of “watering down” or because their worldview doesn’t allow for it in the first place. I’m talking extremes here. The pendulum doesn’t only swing one way or the other, but I would argue that the mainstream creative world encourages a more cynical form of storytelling than not, and for good reason: it sells. At least, that’s the current thinking.

And I think it’s that kind of thinking that leads mainstream publishing towards bad parenting and cynical, isn’t-life-horrible? narratives, and away from any kind of positive, uplifting, religious narrative, even when done in a way that’s inclusive (another topic for another time).

I am not a fan of extreme positivity or extreme cynicism. Speaking of religion, I think good stories are like a religious life well-lived: accepting of the reality of the actual world we occupy while acknowledging the hope and reality that is above this world. It’s only when you combine the two things together that you get a story that is truly true and resonates and moves and uplifts and entertains and enlightens and encourages. You get your conflict and your controversy, and you slam it up against hope and positivity, and you end up with something that is dynamic. That isn’t so one-note and serves a defensible purpose.

My parents are both very human in the telling. They have flaws and foibles and quirks and maybe do not-so-great things because they are not perfect, godly beings. But, if I’ve done my job correctly, it all makes them more endearing than anything. There to prove them real and relatable, not to take them down. I can’t present them as real people if I only speak of them positively. And being real is the only way to get at the truth.

***

In other news…I’ve done a lot of the homework publisher Cedar Fort assigned me to get the book ready for publication. Writing my bio, submitting my author photo, etc. One of the big tasks that will take months to complete is reaching out to people for “endorsements.” These are the blurbs you read on the backs of books from people with some reputation whose praise you can trust. It’s a huge favor to ask someone of influence to read your book and appraise it, so I was a bit nervous to go out and ask. I hate asking for favors.

But, I’ve already gotten three “Yes” responses back! I can’t wait to share with you who they are (they’re very, very cool), but that feels premature right now and there’s always the chance they could read the manuscript, not like it, decline to offer their endorsement, and ask for monetary compensation for time wasted (wait…that’s not a thing, right?). But still, they’re willing to take a shot. Which is awesome.

Photo by Sebastian Voortman from Pexels

 

CONTRACT SIGNED: The Other Side of Fear Will Be Published This Year

I don’t understand how 15 years of heartache can be over just like that. When I signed the contract this morning, it was so simple. Almost anti-climactic. 15 years and with a few strokes of the keyboard and a click of the mouse, it was done.

To be fair, I spent about 8 of those 15 years completely ignoring this little book I’d written and all the disappointments that came with it. But. But, that’s all behind me now. Because Bullets and M&M’s aka Raised by a Dead Man aka A Suspicious Peace aka THE OTHER SIDE OF FEAR* will be finally be released this year by Cedar Fort Publishing.

“But Brock,” I hear you thinking (I have superpowers). “You’ve already had a book published, and don’t you have a graphic novel coming out in July?

First of all, thank you for paying such close attention. That’s really flattering. Second, yes, this is not my first go-round with publishing, but this book is different. This book is my baby.

This book is the reason I started writing in the first place.

I can remember it distinctly: I was 28 years old, I’d just vomited a series of blogs about my dad, and I got the clear impression: write the book. I had never written a book before. Never written anything close to that length, but I knew I was supposed to do it anyway. Write my father’s story; make sure he is remembered and get it published. I was so clear about my mandate and never doubted the book’s publication despite the fact I was a first-time author and literally teaching myself how to write properly over the next 5 years it took to craft the tale. I was naive, but driven.

So, after that effort crashed and burned, I was left confused and a little aimless, but mostly confused. Why would I be inspired to write a book no one would ever see? “For your kids!” my kind friends would tell me. “They have no money!” I would shout back.

I’m kidding. If anything has changed between 2012 and now, it’s that I don’t really care about the money (shh. don’t tell the publisher), I just want to get the story out there for the same reason I felt compelled to write it in the first place:

I think it can help people. It has helped people already.

Cedar Fort is a fantastic publisher that’s been around for over 30 years. They are a big player in the Latter-Day Saint market, putting out around 150 books a year. Among them, they’ve put out memoir titles like More Than the Tattooed Mormon, Left Standing, and We Are All Paralyzed. They also have made great strides in mainstream publishing, even expanding their reach into multimedia to include movies, music, audiobooks, etc. Could we see The Other Side of Fear turned into an audiobook? It’s possible!

This is a big swing from my original ambition. Originally, I sought mainstream publication and acceptance of the book because I really, genuinely thought a good story well written is a good story well written, no matter where it comes from. But that’s not really how publishing works. They need to market, first and foremost, and there’s no place in the mainstream publishing world for a spiritual coming-of-age memoir with good parenting that doesn’t end with the author turning their back on their religion. There just isn’t. A hard lesson well learned.

If I had to guess, I’d say I had to wait this long to sign with Cedar Fort to shake my personal tree of knowledge properly and appreciate and be worthy of the market that’s been under my nose the entire time. There’s some amazing work being done in the faith world, and Cedar Fort publishes some of the best of it.

It’s a real full circle moment. I’ve got a connection to Cedar Fort I don’t think they’re even aware of. The first book they ever published was a collection of near death experiences called Beyond the Veil by Lee Nelson. My dad collected books like that, and my mom read that one as well. In fact, Mom was so inspired by the book she wrote Lee Nelson a letter all about my father’s 1989 shooting and how he would have died that night but for divine intervention.

Lee Nelson was so taken with my mom’s letter he asked for her permission to print it in the second volume of the series. And, lo and behold, there’s my mom in Beyond the Veil, Vol. 2, telling the story of my dad’s shooting 30 years before Cedar Fort publishes my version.

There’s so much to do next. Getting the right title and the right cover art designed is way up there on the list. Those two things alone can make or break a publication. There’s also more revisions to do on the manuscript now that Cedar Fort’s editors will have a crack at it (thankfully, I actually enjoy rewriting). Marketing plans will be crafted, a website will be updated/designed, and endorsements will be sought.

All of that is ahead. To those of you who took the time to read the chapters and offer your insight and stories of how it impacted you before I took it down off the web, I thank you. You’re a big part of why I had the confidence to risk putting this book out there…one more time. And here we are!

*It’s possible I’ll need to add another “aka” as Cedar Fort reserves the right to change the title yet again to something more palatable to the market. I’m certainly pulling for The Other Side of Fear, but if I’ve learned anything over the past 15 years it’s this: I know nothing. 

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

23 Years Ago Today…

I can’t let this day go by without acknowledging it. 23 years ago today my father was shot twelve times in an armed robbery and my life and the lives of my family were changed forever. And, in my estimation, for the better.

Here’s a couple of videos showing what happened that day.

That’s what it’s all about. That’s why I wrote my book, Raised By a Dead Man. Because of that, and because there’s so much more story to tell. Thanks for remembering with me.

How to Make Things Valuable

A writerly pose. Notice the all-black attire, the awkward framing, the fingers brought to the temple, and the archaic writing tool. Yes, this man has deep, deep thoughts.

When I was younger I had this dream about accomplishing something amazing at a young age. Get hired by Marvel or DC Comics. Write a book. Serve in City Council. Invent a new Oreo. Whatever. I thought that doing something great at a young age would make me and that thing more extraordinary.

Didn’t happen. The things I did as a young adult were pretty typical. I graduated college. Married. Had kids. Got a job and a house. All good things and great accomplishments for me personally, but nothing the world was gonna stand up and take notice of.

Fast forward to now and, on the eve of my 35th birthday (still a week away), I actually have done something pretty great. I’ve written a book that could find a wide audience and change my life and the life of my family forever. That’s terribly exciting, but it’s nothing people younger than me haven’t already done hundreds of times over. Granted, my story is my own and unique and amazing, but I’ve read and heard about kids and young adults still in college getting these amazing book deals. Real prodigies. People who have accomplished so much and are so talented  and so young. That was supposed to me.

I’m so, so glad it wasn’t.

There is value in the wait. With hard, laborious, extended periods of work and pounds of sweat comes a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment. I can appreciate what I have now because of where I’ve been and what it took to get here. My book has been through the wringer–multiple readers and people giving their opinion on what I’ve done and what does and does work for them. The “does not” is the hard part. Pouring your heart and talents into something for years and then being told it’s not quite right is tough and it shapes you. Thank goodness.

Now, I have a literary agent. I’ve written a book. Do you know how exciting that is? I do, now. If this had happened to younger me (and no friggin’ way he had the talent or the skills), he wouldn’t have appreciated it. There would have a been a sense of inevitability about it. A sense of entitlement that would have made the accomplishment less thrilling and less deserved. I’m glad that punk didn’t get this then. What I have now is more valuable because that guy was disappointed and had to wait and reconfigure who he thought he was and work harder than he ever thought he could.

I realize I haven’t really “done it” yet. In fact, I’m at the biggest crossroads of this whole process right now. The book is about to go out to publishers and then we’ll really see what the future holds. But everything that’s happened so far? Pretty big deal. More than most ever get.

I’m so glad I can see that fully.

BIG ANNOUNCEMENT: I Have Accepted an Offer of Representation

This is something I’ve been wanting to write for a long, long time. I’m pleased to announce that I’ve been offered and accepted representation for my book RAISED BY A DEAD MAN (working title) from Bonnie Solow of Solow Literary Enterprises!

Querying agents is a rough business. A query is a short letter telling the agent what the book is about and why it’s awesome. Very hard to sum up a 300 page book in one page and do it in such a way that makes an agent want to read more. Agents receive HUNDREDS of queries every week from the anonymous, unwashed masses. They call it “The Slush Pile.” Most of them suck. Not sucking is your best way to stand out from the crowd, but even then… the odds are against you.

I played the odds because I believed in my book. Not that I had any right to. I never though of myself as a writer until about four or five years ago. I got this fool idea in my head that I could write a book and so I did. My (true!) story is about growing up during the time between my father’s two shootings and dealing with his death. Heavy stuff, but funny too. Really. Death is pretty awesome and only in the space a book gives me could I ever explain why I think so.

And now I have an agent who also believes in me. She’s read the book twice now and given me some invaluable feedback and wants to bring it to the world. She’s amazing. In the fourteen years she’s been working as an agent, I’m only the second author she’s ever rescued from the slush pile. That’s how much my book resonated with her. Now, we’re working together to bring the book to publishers and convince them to invest big in a story that we both feel could sell many, many copies. It’s quite the thing when someone who knows their stuff believes in you.

There’s still a lot of work ahead. Nothing is guaranteed, but my faith in this book is as unwavering now as it was when I first called up a blank sheet and started typing. The difference now is that I have a lot more reasons to think success is on the horizon.

Big thanks to everyone who has believed in me and supported me so far. You know who you are. We’re not quite there yet, but we’re much closer.

More to come.