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My writing just got back its badass attitude
The world still hasn’t quite decided what to do with the internet. Ricky Martin teaches the world about “Livin’ la Vida Loca” while Smash Mouth releases “All Star,” blissfully unaware that it’ll come to be known as “the Shrek song.” The Matrix debuts its legendary “bullet time” effect and inspires a decade of copycats, while The Blair Witch Project shows lazy filmmakers that as long as your movie has hype, there’s no need for story, budget, equipment, or a script. And all the while, a 23-year-old Johnny B. Truant, with zero books under his belt, starts writing his first.
But books weren’t all I thought about back then. 1999 was also the year I graduated college. It’s the year I started grad school, counted fruit flies for a few months, and then started having panic attacks, if you’ve heard that story. It’s also the year I asked my future wife to marry me.
But perhaps more importantly for the purpose of this email, it was the last year I looked like a punk rock kid.
Which was something like this:
I am, believe it or not, the orange-haired one. The other guy is Dicky Barrett, lead singer of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. My friend Kelly took this snap at the 1999 Warped Tour. It was a blast. It was loud and hot and awesome. It was also the first place I remember feeling old. What business did I have being at a punk festival? I was a college graduate, on my way to a Ph.D. And I was, as far as I knew, also on my way to a real job in the real world — one where I might have to … you know … act responsible.
It didn’t matter that I was barely old enough to drink; I still felt ancient. The kids there were all in their teens, half too young to drive. It didn’t seem to matter that I’d spent years running all over Ohio — often driving six hours round trip with classes the next morning — to see grungy little shows with violent mosh pits featuring hardcore acts these kids had never heard of. I was still the one who was out of place. In 1999, no matter how many shows I’d been to, I was the weirdo.
I wasn’t a total poseur that day, but it felt like just a matter of time before I was. Adults aren’t allowed to be punks. When you hit 18, you’re supposed to pack away your tour shirts and become part of the system, following all the rules, handing out responsibilities, and generally killing the buzz of the youth crowd. Everyone knows that.
So what does any of that have to do with what I’m writing right now, which really should be about books I’ve written? You guys know me as an author, not a punk. Probably, you don’t care.
Except that maybe you should.
Time for a tangent? Yeah. I think so.
So … last week. Last week, a whole lot of stuff happened. Last week I saw two movies, started learning two new (to me) songs on the piano, and heard — despite my resolution to ignore the news — about a few more mass shootings. A lot of other things happened too, but they were both totally irrelevant to the point I’m trying to make and also so relevant to the point I’m trying to make that they deserve their own subhead: stuff like going on Facebook because my high school reunion was rallied there, seeing a bunch of people text while driving, watching some YouTube videos, and ending up on Twitter even though I never ever go there anymore.
Point is, last week I started to feel restless. I’d felt it for a while, but it reached sufficient head that I finally communicated it to my writing partner Sean. Or tried, anyway. I basically took all the stuff from two paragraphs up (the movies, the songs, the shootings, the stupid miscellany), mashed it all together in rambly fashion, and said to Sean something like:
“All of this makes me feel an itch. What that itch is, I don’t know … but it makes me want to do something different with the art we create. It makes me want to not just WRITE BOOKS, but to write them with a certain attitude. I don’t want to just tell stories. I want to … ugh; I don’t know.”
Fortunately, Sean did know — or understand — at least a little. Here’s what he replied:
I think with the creation, that's already there, you just have to let yourself go. When have we not done that with our art? You and I specifically are very present about what we create, and we've always done it with abandon. We're about to hit our stride, too. The next few years. HOLY FUCK.
That made me think. What Sean said was true. The feelings I’d been having weren’t anything new. They were just a refinement of what he and I were already doing. I wanted (now more than ever) to make art OUR WAY, not the way the market demands. Right now, our stories are in book form, and the market tends to sell a lot of copies of books written a certain way. The successful books weren’t necessarily written the way I WANTED to write, because my way broke some rules. We’re also going to get into movies soon, and when we do, I want to make movies OUR WAY too, rather than making mindless popcorn.
And that made sense, the more I thought about it. The main thing that inspired this feeling of “creative restlessness” were the movies I’d seen that week: first Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (which was AMAZING) and then Danny Boyle’s Beatles tribute Yesterday, which at first glance has nothing in common with Tarantino.
Except that they have everything in common.
Tarantino makes movies his way, which is what hit me with new intensity this time around. I saw it more clearly than ever in Once Upon a Time. I won’t spoil the movie for you, but it’s definitely done Tarantino’s way. That dude doesn’t follow the rules. He just does what he wants, almost as if he doesn’t care if his films make money. So I watched that movie and I thought, “I want to give a finger to the ‘normal way things are done,’ too.” Because kind of screw the normal way things are done.
That was a hanging thought without much behind it, until I saw Yesterday a few days later. Yesterday’s premise is that there were no Beatles, and only one songwriter remembers them. He releases all their songs in modern times, with his tilt, and what astonishes the world is that the songs are so simple, yet so brilliant. There aren’t twenty musicians working on each of those songs like happens sometimes today. Fifty studio execs aren’t required to tweak their sound and direction. It’s just one guy, usually with just a guitar or a piano. Simple, but in many ways better. A purer tribute to music than the overproduced stuff that dominates the charts now.
I came home after seeing it and got sheet music for “Imagine” (I know; that’s a Lennon song) and “Let It Be.” I’m a pretty mediocre pianist, but I must have been inspired because I made progress faster on those than anything before.
I’ve always liked The Beatles, but this was something new. I started listening in the car. Sharing it all with my kids. Wishing we still lived in a simpler time and place, where music and art meant more than commodity. Where songs could change the world. Where there were still new things to discover, and magic was still unusual enough to inspire the people it touched.
Maybe you remember: back when it was still possible to take this jaded world’s breath away through positive means, not just bad news?
I started to think: I want to make art my way, and forget what anyone else has to say about it. Whether it sells or not, I want to do what moves me. That was Tarantino, inspiring that thought. And along with it, I thought, I want to pay tribute to the legacy that came before me, rather than just being another drop in a stream of commoditized garbage. I don’t want to be a blip on the radar of life. I want people to be moved by what I do, the way music used to have that power … back when it was a different thing than it is today. That second part was both influences at once. Both movies, changing my mind.
And while my creative mind was yearning for simpler, purer modes of creation set back in time when we weren’t so cynical, more mass shootings happened. And I thought, Fuck the world we’ve created. It was a pretty nihilistic thought, but definitely how I felt.
Then I had to go on Facebook for my high school reunion stuff. I hate Facebook. I went on Twitter. I hate Twitter.
Now, I’m not usually so crotchety. You’re probably reading this and thinking I should camp out on my porch, ready to yell at kids who try to walk across my lawn. I promise I’m not usually so grim. But after all that inspiration, “the way things are” (along with “the way things are supposed to be done” and “the way we’re all supposed to behave”) suddenly felt very sour. I didn’t want to behave. I didn’t want to do things the normal way, just like I didn’t want to play or listen to current music or hear every person’s every uncensored thought on social media.
I just … didn’t want to do it anymore.
And: Look. I’m not too good for 2019. I don’t want to go Amish or leave the country or anything else. But we’re living in a time with a lot of disillusionment and detachment, and I know I’m not the only one feeling it. We’re more connected than ever through technology, but I swear all it does is make us unwilling to connect for real. We have more entertainment and “quality of life” than ever, but so much of the “entertainment” is really just “random crap to occupy us.” We can’t talk anymore — not for real. Everyone self-censors, because nobody wants to offend. Meanwhile, everyone is dying to be offended, dying to leap on the first person to say the wrong thing. And forget about hot-button issues. You can’t even talk about those. Love the president? Hate the president? For abortion? Against abortion? Afraid of climate change? Think climate change is a lie? IT DOESN’T MATTER WHAT YOU BELIEVE. All sides are wrong, seeing as everyone is sticking to their guns and unwilling to even discuss what divides us.
I got to a place last week where I just wanted to opt out.
So, to try and tie up this ranty side-story (good luck, right?), the point is that I ended up in a rather strange place, trying my best to explain all this to Sean. He helps me codify and focus when I’m scattered. All I knew was that I was high on creative inspiration (Tarantino, The Beatles), low on the world we live in, yearning for the world of (wait for it) yesterday while also not actually yearning for it at all, and above all desperate to make some art according to our rules, not everyone else’s.
Because … well … FUCK the status quo and its rules about how art should be made.
That’s where I was, in our confusing Slack discussion, when this happened:
Which is my long and convoluted way of telling you, dear reader, what kind of ride you’re in for with me. You may already know what you’re in for, but this is me articulating it once and for all. And not just for you. This is also ME telling ME what I want to stand for.
Art. My way. In whatever form I choose. Just like all the creators I admire.
That may sound selfish, but Sean reminded me that it’s what we’ve always done. If you’ve read Truant or Platt & Truant books in the past, you know what I’m talking about. We’ve actually never done what we “should,” usually to our own detriment. We’d be richer today if we always wrote what appealed to the mainstream. But we don’t. I or we (solo or with Sean) have instead always told the stories that apply to YOU. Sometimes those have had a lot of popular appeal. Other times, they’ve had almost none.
Better than the mainstream.
Better than mediocre nothingness that would be forgotten in five years.
So. What’s the takeaway of all this? I just wasted a half hour of your time — and if you read this far, you’re my hero. Because I know most people stopped reading a long time ago, and only the people who most resonate with what I/we create would stay this long.
The takeaway — the reason I sat down to write this (which took considerably longer than a half hour, by the way) — is that you’re here, and that’s great. But here’s the thing: I’m not actually going to write for you. I’m going to write for me and my partners. That may sound selfish. It’s not. Art should be adored by the creator on at least some level, or it’s just no good. Art should come from the soul. Stories should move the writer even more than they move the reader.
That’s what you’ll get here. Because punk rock, man.
Punk rock isn’t about age. It’s not even really about music. Punk is an ethic. Punk is DIY, question the rules, pave your own path. Punk is conscientious disobedience. Punk is doing the right thing because you believe it’s the right thing, even if no one agrees.
I guess I never stopped thinking like a punker. Spiky, bleached hair or not.
Now. I’d actually planned to tell you about the books I’ll be releasing for this year and next, but as usually happens I rambled too long on another topic and should bail at this point to save your sanity. So I’ll tell you that stuff later. But suffice to say: It’s not what the mainstream expects. It’s not one genre. It’s not even one co-author. It’s sci-fi and mindbending literature and thrillers and edgy, fringe explorations of humanity. It’s unreliable narrators taking dark paths, but also outright funny stuff just because funny amuses me. It’s black blacks and white whites. It’s all the colors of the rainbow … and a host of good friends I’m very much looking forward to writing with — and introducing to you.
But this is already long enough.
And sho as I leave you, I’ll just say: I hope this all makes sense. I actually don’t know if it does. I’m close to scrapping this entire thing and not posting it, just because I imagine it’ll confuse some folks, bore others, anger a few, and alienate those who remain. But I’ve never gotten anywhere playing it safe, so I’m going to send it anyway. Maybe you resonate. If you do, holler back at me. The world needs more punk rockers … regardless of whether they look like punk rockers or not.
It’s more about mindset. Do we accept what we’re given? Or do we question it, and decide how much we want to let inside?
I’ll leave you with this: Don’t just get upset when you find things that upset you.
Instead, make art.
That’s how you make your dent in the universe.
That’s how you change the world.