All of us, whether we acknowledge it or not, come from somewhere.
Some of us hold where we come from in high regards, spouting off to whomever will listen about our grand background and lineage.
Others of us will act as if we sprung from the darkness fully formed, tied to nothing and owing nothing to anyone.
Each of us has a past though, a beginning, and it is that beginning that forms the foundation of who we are to become and what we have to overcome.
I was lucky.
I don’t think I saw it as a kid because when you are in the middle of a part of your life you cannot see past that moment.
I know I didn’t.
I was lucky.
I had a mother that was artistic, loving, and into scary stuff.
I have a father who was a smart business man and a straight shooter.
I have a sister and cousin who encouraged my imagination with scary stories and scares.
I grew up out in the country on a street where I was across from a field and had woods on both ends of the lake we lived on.
We had an island in the middle of the lake and I had friends who I would swim with when we weren’t riding our bikes until late.
No childhood is perfect, and no one survives childhood without scars but it’s the scars that help teach us about the world around us.
It’s the scars that teach us about life.
My parents weren’t perfect.
My sisters wasn’t perfect.
Hell, I wasn’t perfect.
I am still not.
No one is.
But I was loved, and I was taken care of, and I survived.
Sometimes that is what you have to do with childhood – survive it.
Get through it.
For me, it was about survival.
I had to survive myself and the hell of adolescence.
But I did.
Not all of us do, but I did.
Writing, and drawing, and watching movies, and making movies, and spending time with my friends got me through things.
It got me to the point where I could find myself and make myself when I went to college.
It got me to the point where I could start to make and re-make myself, flawed as I am, and could find people who would encourage, enlighten, and make my life mean so much more.
We all take this journey forward, from childhood to adulthood and to what comes afterward, and none of us will take the same path.
People can put all manner of expectations and demands and dreams on our backs but it’s we who decide what made this life worthwhile and happy.
And most of us will face death unfulfilled, realizing the things we didn’t see as they faced us – the time we should of spent, the love we should have shared, and the things we should have done.
But we do the best we are able.
Maybe it’s faith that guides you.
Maybe it’s love.
Maybe it’s just you, chug, chug, chugging along.
All of us are on this journey though, and we are on it together.
So easily we miss the pain of those around us.
We are so wrapped up in our personal stories that we forget that we are all in this together, more similar than different, our journeys all our own but the paths all heading towards some manner of happiness.
We live in an angry, hurtful, hateful world that has become moreso in recent years.
We accept lies told from the highest seats so long as it soothes us and tells us that things will be OK.
We turn our backs on one another for fear of losing the place we hold in society, terrified that change means loss, and loss means failure, and that we will be forced to admit that maybe we aren’t special, we are just as special as we believe ourselves to be.
The lie of this life is to believe that we are special above and beyond all others.
That we are chosen, because of our faith, color, sexuality, creed, wealth, or some other arbitrary reasoning that makes us feel as if we have a set path, a golden path to the salvation of our choosing.
Heaven, we are told, is waiting.
If we follow the right person, pay the right money, and do the right things.
Only, this sort of salvation is paved with brimstones.
Turning the back on the ideal and way of the savior as they listen to the words of someone with an agenda.
With a job.
With a golden lie.
Salvation is in moving the human race and the world forward.
Salvation is in honoring this planet and its creatures and the magic they hold.
Salvation is in finding the things you love, the people you love, and the causes you love and supporting them and working to make yourself a whole person.
A person of love, and happiness, and faith in something beyond yourself.
And happiness will come and go.
Love will come and leave.
But all of it builds who we are.
Who we can be.
What sort of world is built on hatred?
This fragile, collapsing world where the biggest bomb will win a temporary stay of execution so that those people can die last, alone and damned to dine on cinder and ash.
What god would tell you to hate, when it was love that unites us?
And we will not love all people.
We will not love all things.
But we must learn to live together, to find it in ourselves to accept one another, and even if we disagree, to find the common ground of humanity because hate has no future.
I was lucky enough to be born in a world of privilege, of skin, race, sex, family income, and location.
I was lucky enough to survive myself and my teen years.
I was bullied.
I spent more time hating myself than I can count but I survived.
I had people that helped me survive.
I had things that I loved that helped me survive.
I saw people not as my enemies but as people.
I didn’t have to like them, at all, but I didn’t have to actively try to hurt them either.
I had my heart broken, time and again.
But I survived.
No one owed me their love.
No one owed me their body.
I owed myself the strength to move on and move forward.
I guess I was lucky because no one taught me to not hate women, to not hate people of other races and creeds and nationalities, no one taught me not to hurt people that I either felt hurt me or that I felt should just hurt out of hand.
No one did but they should have.
We should teach our children that hate is a fuel that burns bright but dirty and it ruins everything it touches.
Love, even if it’s just the love of the self, is something that can lead you through the darkest of times, and we just don’t teach that.
Not in a way that seems relevant.
Instead we hate.
And we rant.
And we show the example that the only way to get ahead is to push down those around you and stand upon them as you climb higher.
We teach that you have to get yours and you deserve yours and that you are special above all others.
We don’t teach that we are all flawed, all struggling, and all deserve the opportunity to find our own happiness.
To do that would mean to admit that we need to step back sometimes and let someone else take the lead and that doesn’t mean we lose but that we don’t have to always win.
OR that we can win in different ways.
Or just that the path forward takes twists.
But we don’t.
We teach about money, and power, and fame.
We teach hate, and lust, and greed.
We teach that if you want that you deserve it and to hell with the person that doesn’t want to give it to you.
We let people build empires on lies.
We let people forge themselves into victims so they don’t have to feel guilty for their crimes.
We let ourselves turn this world into a timebomb that is tick, tick, ticking into oblivion.
But at least a few got theirs, right?
I was lucky in how I grew up.
I got a childhood.
An imperfect, messed up childhood.
But it was mine.
And I got an adulthood.
And it was mine, flawed as it is.
Damaged as I am.
A lot of people don’t get the opportunities I got.
And if we are not careful, a lot of people won’t get any opportunities at all very, very soon.
But at least we won’t be inconvenienced with giving a damn, right?
When I started writing the last thing I was worried about was selling myself.
Or my stories.
I wanted to write.
I wanted to tell stories.
I’d think that most, not all but MOST, authors are driven by the same engine – the desire to tell a story.
It’s only when you find yourself writing story after story after story of varying lengths that you realize that, oh, gosh, I suppose this is a thing.
I suppose I should think about all of this.
And then you start looking past the stories and towards getting them to people.
Art, meet commerce.
Because if you do something like this, if you do art, there’s a point where either you are very good at it, or love it so deeply, that you want it to be more than a hobby.
You want it to pay for itself so it will allow you to keep DOING that thing you love.
Blah, blah, blah.
People have been speaking to that point as long as there is art and commerce.
Is it better to be a true artist and starve or a fed merchant with no artistic soul.
I leave you to sort all that out, though I’d offer that if someone is so naïve as to think that the person creating art they love should be taken care of, or held aloft above common art merchants then kid, you should take a walk, get some air, and call me later.
The weird thing for me about getting ‘serious’ about writing was the selling.
The fact that it wasn’t enough to just write my stories.
I had to then find ways to get them to readers and better, to get readers to want to PAY for those stories.
And I did the thing, I took my wandering path that lead me to where I am today – in a mag, published online, published in anthologies, self-published, and honorably mentioned a couple times in a well-regarded yearly collection twice.
None of that really got me anywhere, awesome as it has been.
So I had to market myself.
And uh, well, I don’t really have a brand.
I can’t figure that part out.
Branding to me would be like making myself a personality.
A larger than life figure.
I am not that.
I am just a guy writing stories.
Sometimes they are dark, sometimes they are cute, most times they are weird.
So brand never stuck with me.
I still work at the marketing. I do my bloggies, I post on the Tweets, and I still do shows when I am able. How that leads to a brand, I can’t tell you. I have been working at this for twenty years but haven’t figured that out.
A lot of us don’t.
A lot of folks don’t.
I suppose maybe that’s why a lot of us don’t go further than small shows and blogs and occasional sales.
We don’t have a brand.
The problem is when the brand becomes bigger than the stories.
When the brand is the focus.
And that happens too.
That’s the easier way for a publisher to sell and market that author’s work – to focus on past deeds, past works, and to lean on that to sell the new stuff.
And you know what, these folks earned that.
They worked, they found success, and they earned it.
And odds are that they aren’t the ones choosing that their works be sold as the new JOE STEEL product, like KILLER SOCKMAS mixed with DEAL OF THE NEVER-EVER-EVER.
We wants brands.
We want that short cut that tells us – oooooh, I am gonna like this.
There’s nothing wrong with being able to brand your work, so long as the brand doesn’t become bigger than you or the work itself – save, again, some of the legends, who stand as titans in their field outside of the norm.
The rest of us, well, we need to find a way to get people’s attention.
We need to be able to get their attention on the work.
Most of us don’t want to shill, to be salespeople, but if we want to be able to work on our art more then we need to be able to afford to do that and that happens when we make more time…which happens when we make more money.
It is what it is.
And a brand can come easy to some.
They have a persona.
They have a niche.
They have something for people to latch onto.
‘AH, that’s so and so, they do such and biscuits’.
But it’s a real thin line you walk, that brand.
Because the brand can betray you.
Build something from it and it can be the noose you have woven that hangs you when you don’t live up to it.
Or it can make you a clown or actor, always having to be ‘on’, like many comedians are expected to be, and always that character you’ve created to brand yourself.
It becomes a brand in every sense of the term.
And it can become a joke.
I have done enough shows where I saw the schtick.
I saw the brand.
It can go on and on. Sure, some sold, absolutely, but at what cost to themselves.
I remember one artist I’d always see at a big comic show and she had become her brand – same outfit every day, same schtick, same aloof act.
Maybe it worked for other folks.
It just made me grind my teeth.
For some, the brand is everything, the brand is bigger than anything else.
It is their one thing, becoming bigger than the work, becoming all there is because that brand, that hook, is what keeps them fed and the machine they have built working.
They focus on it so much that they lose sight of everything else.
Even all sense.
Branding isn’t new.
It’s not evil.
This is no missive on the woeful state of the poor artist.
We make the choices on what we pursue and what we pour our time and passions into.
It’s just an interesting thing, the notion of a brand.
The notion that part of the deal is being a showperson.
I still have trouble with that and suppose I always will.
I guess that’s why I don’t sell much and don’t do well.
Hmm, maybe that’s my brand though.
Maybe that’s my ‘in’.
“Oh, hi, is this your work? What is it about?”
That’ll knock them dead.
This is a wee tale. First draft. Very rough. Me working out some ideas and seeing what is there. There’s the seed for another story planted here if I ever have time to swing back to it. We shall see.
He wasn’t sure when his choice had become his fate.
He wasn’t sure when the distant hum in his head became a voice and then a chorus.
He wasn’t sure when the bottle stopped being a party and became a sentence.
He wasn’t sure of much anymore, just that some days it felt as if the fog had cleared from his head and he found himself in a place he didn’t recall and he wasn’t sure where he had been, where he had come from, and how he had come to be where he was.
And it shook him.
To his core.
To his faith.
To the bottom of himself
But it never lasted.
The fog came back.
The voices returned.
And both seemed to be at the bottom of the bottle.
And they helped, the smiling faces, the nodding heads, and the open wallets.
Helped as much as they could.
But he wasn’t able to return their gestures.
Unable to repay their kindness with the truth because the truth was a sea he had not sailed in how many days, or weeks, or months, or even years.
He couldn’t even remember his age.
So he’d lie.
He lost his job.
He lost his family.
He lost his love.
He tuned out, he gave up, he walked on.
It was different every time, his earnest responses met with a pat on his shoulder and a knowing nod.
On and on and on he went, never sure where he was going, just that it was forward.
He has always seen himself cast in the part of victim in this play, as the man slighted by god, by society, and by his fellow man.
The truth of that lie though was revealed to him one day when the clouds cleared for him as he lay next to the bodies of two dead teenagers.
They couldn’t have been older than fifteen.
They could have been his children.
His daughter and son.
Their heads had been caved in, presumably with the shattered cinder block he was holding in his hand, their blood thick and sticky on his hands and face.
Their wallets were still on them.
There were no drugs around that he could find, and no booze.
The only clue he had was the change that was scattered around the bodies.
He looked around and saw that he was at the end of an alley full of piles of trash and burned out lights.
He wept beside them as he it slowly dawned on him that this probably wasn’t the first time he’d hurt someone.
He just couldn’t remember.
His left arm was itching and he looked down and saw there were two fresh cuts in the skin that were red and inflamed.
Two fresh cuts to go with four other cuts that were scarred over.
He took the boy’s wallet and the cash from the girl and covered them up with some boxes, the best burial he could offer them.
It wasn’t fair.
This wasn’t fair.
But if there was someone who understood how unfair this world was it was him, so maybe it was fitting that he was the one to usher them into the darkness.
And the clarity would fade, and the voices would get louder and they would drive him forward, telling him where to go and what to do as he slept deep within.
Trapped within the madness.
Trapped within his cage.
But as he shambled out of the alley and down the darkened city sidewalk a chilling thought came to him, a question that asked if these moments of clarity were not his true personality, his true face.
The face of the killer.
The face of the monster.
The voices were the lie, the sweet whispers to lull him back to sleep to keep him safe.
To keep him buried.
To keep him dead.