I’m feeling generous for you, this episode. Cause it’s got two whole stories in it. Two stories! I’m not always the most giving of guys, but this time, I am. I’m not sure why. There’s certain questions you just shouldn’t ask if you aren’t confident you can handle the answer – trust me, I’ve asked far too many of them, mostly to others, but sometimes even to myself – and one such example is, “Why are you being so big-hearted and good?” Don’t ask something like that. Just take it and move on, alright? Thanks, sweetheart.
Now, I’m being coy. I’m so silly. I’m a flirt. (Only for you, though. I promise, and I swear.) The reason I’m giving you two stories is actually slightly underwhelming, and probably a bit boring. I’m giving you two stories this time simply cause neither of them are long enough to be an episode in themselves. That’s all. I like them both, and I want to use them both, and if I could’ve gotten away with doing them separate, I probably would’ve. But I’m not that desperate – yet – and so I’m sticking them together. It’s my gift to you. And now I’m patting myself on the back. (I’ve needed an excuse to.)
Back when I first dreamt up this podcast, I made a list of stories that I might someday use. It was the closest thing I could get to a setlist. I looked that list over, and immediately cut a half a dozen from it. They just weren’t representative of where I’m at now, as a writer, and I wanted them scratched off like a cheating spouse’s name from a will. There were a couple stories, though, that made it through that butchering. They’re stories that I am as proud of now as the day I wrote them, even though I think that if I sat down and tried to write them today, they would not turn out anywhere near the same as they did then.
I’ve tried to keep all these episodes current and fresh, and the oldest ones so far – “Greasers” and “I’ll Be Fine” – are old, but not that old. I can’t say the same about either of these two. Both “The Ballad of Rattlesnake Rex” and “Responsibility” are something that I wrote a long, long time ago. And so I think it’s appropriate that they get put side-by-side. They make a pretty couple. I hope that after they meet on this little date, they really hit it off. I hope sparks fly, and I hope that when they’re old and grey they’ll sit on park benches and hold hands. I’m particularly happy that these two are together, too, because of why I wrote them. I wrote “Rattlesnake Rex” for my high-school Writer’s Craft class, and I wrote “Responsibility” for a writing class I took in my second year at university. Both of those classes rank among my most favourite experiences I ever had in all my years at school, and I owe the two teachers I had in them – Mr. C and Larry – so so so so much. They helped me find a voice, they helped me take myself seriously, and, most of all, they gave me encouragement and support. I would consider both of these teachers the two biggest influences on my development as a writer – even more so than Huckleberry Finn and the soundtrack to “American Graffiti” – and I would consider these stories the two best things I did for either of them.
The first, “The Ballad of Rattlesnake Rex,” was written for Mr. C when I was in grade twelve. That Writer’s Craft class was an honour and a treat. Mr. C had never taught WC before, and you got the sense that he was learning from us as much as we were learning from him. Sensing that made me feel like when he said he liked or disliked something, he wasn’t just blowing smoke. He didn’t bullshit us, and so when he told me something that I’d written was good, I really believed it. I’m not sure he’ll ever realize how much it meant. We wrote a lot for that class, and I’ve never been more productive and prolific as a writer than I was that semester. It was wonderful. I wrote a lot of things that I was proud of for him, and I used a buncha them two years later in my application for Larry’s writing class at Western. There was one story, too, that I showed to my friend Dylan, who is a singer and a songwriter with a pocketful of tunes I am both jealous of and astonished by. Before I really knew Dylan, he was just a guy who played harmonica better than anyone else I’d ever seen, and who’d written the kinda affectionate and accurate love song I’d tried unsuccessfully to write many times before, and he read one of my stories, objectively, and he told me that I was a goddamned talented writer. I’m not sure he’ll ever realize, either, how much that meant. It was a productive time, it was a prolific time, and it was a time where I finally started to think maybe I could be a writer after all. And of everything I wrote then, I think “The Ballad of Rattlesnake Rex” is my favourite. We’d been asked to write some kinda “genre” piece – either an Old West-type story, or a noir whodunnit, or maybe even a harlequin romance, if you really wanted. I went for the first option, even though I hadn’t seen that many cowboy movies. I thought I could make it work, though, and I still think I did an alright job. I read it over, earlier this afternoon, for the first time in a long, long while. It had been years, and that is not an exaggeration. I’d forgotten entire parts of it altogether, and there are some sections that made me cringe and roll my eyes, like looking through an old yearbook and realizing how ridiculous you used to dress. I don’t know why I became so obsessed with making my writing adopt such a strong Southern drawl – I still use it today, though I think I’ve toned it down, and I don’t even mind that I do, because a friend of mine once told me that if my writing was a band it would be CCR, and that’s one of the most flattering compliments I’ve ever gotten – but there are certainly sections of it that sound like a lousy impersonation of Mark Twain. I thought about getting rid of that voice for the episode, but I’ve decided not to. It’s the way I wrote it, and it’s a fucking cowboy tale – of course the guy should have a Southern accent! But there were parts of it that surprised me, in a few different ways. I found a few lines that I thought were moving and beautiful, more so than I think I’d be capable of even today. And I was surprised at how funny some parts were. I’ve often been told that people enjoy the humour in my writing, and that’s always puzzled me. I’m not trying to put in any punchlines. But my friend Kevin told me once that it’s funny in the way that Charlie Brown is funny, and I think I now understand what he means. Because I am so distant from it, I can see something funny in “Rattlesnake Rex,” even though it is not a funny story. I think there’s something cheeky and playful in how unabashedly I use so many tired and predictable cliches, and, one whole English degree later, I am aware of a certain slyness in the words that I would not have been able to recognize back then. I was surprised, too, at how many images and ideas are in it that still show up in my writing today, without me intending them to. I am not the guy I was when I wrote this – he was 17 and I’ve just turned 23, and there was inevitably a ton of growing up inbetween those two chapters of my life – but it was nice to be able to see something familiar and constant amidst all the differences.
The second story, “Responsibility,” was written for Larry’s class, in my second year of university. I was 19, and reading it now is a bit jarring. Back then, I was doing a lotta first-person, bitter, angsty rant-based stuff. I think I must’ve read “The Catcher In The Rye” too much. At the time, I thought my attempts at rewriting Holden Caufield were oh-so-sophisticated and oh-so-clever and oh-so-serious. Now, I’m still proud of those stories, but as I read this, I feel like the narrator is a little too whiny, a little too cranky, and a little too hard on himself. I think “Rattlesnake Rex” has an unnecessary pessimism, too, and I’m a bit turned off by the nihilistic tendencies of these pieces. I think if I was writing them now, there’d be bluer skies by the end, and I think the stories would be better served cause of it. But reading “Responsibility,” I also remembered what I was going through at the time. University was a great experience, and I learned a ton, but there were also points where I struggled. For the first time in my education, I felt challenged and intellectually threatened. I felt dumb. It was all, in retrospect, far too “whoa is me,” and nothing I experienced was in any way unfair, but there were times where school really wore me down. I’d have these brief highs – I’d get a killer mark on an essay, or I’d strut out of an exam knowing I’d just aced it – but they’d then be so quickly followed by exactly the opposite. My confidence waxed and waned like the moon, and sometimes things could get so topsy-turvy I’d feel like I was riding on the Tilt-A-Whirl, like the boys in the band at the Virgil Stampede. You won’t understand that reference quite yet, but you will, one day. Don’t worry baby.
I was also shocked by how frustrated the guy sounds towards writing. I’d forgotten it, but I remember now that there were times in that class I felt so insecure and jaded and worthless as a writer, cause I was being challenged and critiqued in a way I had never faced before, and I wanted to quit it all, abruptly and altogether, cold-turkey. The way this writing class worked was, four times a year, you’d have to submit a piece for the class to read, and then, the next Monday afternoon, we’d all get together around a long green table and discuss it. I wrote “Responsibility” for my second crack at a workshop. My first one hadn’t gone too well, or so I thought at the time. I’d been hurt and bothered that everyone hadn’t been blown away by my utter brilliance, and I know now that the sobering realization that I wasn’t a perfect and invincible artist was completely and totally necessary, but back then, I was too young and stupid to recognize the benefits. It sometimes made me wanna burn all my notebooks and throw away all my pens, but then, other times, it just motivated me to wanna write something good. I desperately wanted to prove my worth. I was one of the youngest in the class – maybe even the youngest – and though we’d all already proven ourselves to be good enough by getting into the class at all, I wanted to prove that I wasn’t just a fluke. That’s where this story came from. I’d wanted to write something good, and that workshop, finally, I felt like I’d earned some respect, from my classmates and my teacher. I’d probably had it all along, and so, maybe I just earned the respect from myself. I can’t remember. I do remember my friend Kevin telling me that he thought the story was something he wished he had written but hadn’t, and that he thought that was the highest compliment he could ever pay to a piece of work. I thought so then, and I still do. It is the most important thing anyone’s ever said about my writing. Once again, I’m not sure he’ll ever realize how much it meant.
Those are the stories behind these stories. It’s been so interesting to go back and reread them, so long after. I can remember sitting in the spare room in my basement, writing “Rattlesnake Rex.” I remember going down there because I was fully and completely stuck on it, and though I knew I wanted to write a story about a bad guy dressed in black, I didn’t know who he was or where he was going or where he was coming from or why or when or how, and so I went downstairs to a room I never really spend time in, in the hopes that its unfamiliarity might kick something up inside of me, and I suddenly stumbled onto what the story was and where it needed to go. And I felt so fucking elated, such relief, finally. And I remember leaving that workshop on Monday afternoon and skipping down UC Hill with a big goofy grin on my face, wanting to scream “YES! YES! YES YES YES YES YES!” I remember feeling like I had proven myself, and feeling like I had written something good, and I remember feeling so fucking elated, and such relief, finally. I am not the guy who wrote these stories anymore, but by reading them, I’ve been able to rediscover him. I remember who he was. I can hear his voice. And it’s been so nice to meet back up with him. I feel like we sat down for a cup of coffee and caught up. And what a lovely conversation it was.
I asked him if I could change some parts around, and you shoulda seen his face. His eyes got so bright! He said definitely, and so we talked, together, about what I could mess around with. I didn’t wanna muddle it up too much, but I knew there were some things I could add, knowing what I know now, and some things I could take away, too. And so I did. And that made him happy. It made me happy, too. I made changes to these stories that I hadn’t expected to make, but had to for the sake of the podcast. For instance, I always thought I could get Mr. C to play Rattlesnake Rex in the photograph for the episode, but my own personal schedule has made it impossible to coordinate something like that, so I had to get a friend instead. And that’s okay. It’s a great picture, even though it’s not what I’d expected it to be. (Or maybe especially because of that.) And “Responsibility” never used to have the bit about selling cherries on the driveway, but I had a great wooden sign I could use as a prop for the picture, and so I changed the beginning around to suit the needs of this project. At first I was hesitant to make these amendments – it seemed somehow disrespectful – but when I sat down with my old self and talked about it, we decided it wasn’t at all. And I like this ongoing collaboration with my self. I like going back to these places in my head and in my heart, though I like getting to bring them to today, too. I like getting to dance with them a bit, knowing the moves that I know now. And I like the fact that I’m now presenting these stories in a way I never, ever, ever would have thought possible when I first wrote them. If the guys who wrote these stories only knew what was being done with them now, they would be so so so so proud.
I’m not sure you’ll ever realize how much it means to them.