Farewell to a Kindred Spirit

Last week a friend of mine left this world, and we’re all poorer for it. If you knew Mary Schweitzer, chances are she impacted your life, and probably for the better. Like most iconoclasts, she left a lasting impression on everybody she met.
I don’t think Mary would want me carrying on and getting mushy and sad about her passing, so instead I’m going to talk about the impact she had on me as an artist and a person. Although she probably didn’t know it (and was probably just being herself), some of the things she said to me directly influenced the kind of weirdo author I am today.

I met Mary in the summer of 1994. I was working my first part-time job as a stock boy in this little gas station a few blocks from my childhood home. Nothing fancy, just one of those little places tucked a block off the main drag with a quartet of gas pumps out front, a couple aisles full of candy and essentials and crap, and enough cigarettes resupply a military battalion. The place all but hid another building – an auto repair place called MCM, from which one hot July afternoon emerged a bespectacled woman with crazy bright red hair, sweating and surly-looking. In she came to the gas station, where she proceeded to fill a giant cup with ice and pop from the fountain, and then leave without paying a cent. In, out, fill, bam, gone.

Naturally I told the boss, and was informed that Mary was the owner of the property the gas station sat upon, so free drinks for her and her husband were part of the gig. At an innocent 16, I was both impressed and a little scared that the boss’s boss’s landlord was regularly in and out of where I worked. It’s a little like having a corporate CEO working down the hall from your cubicle…but only a little.

See, Mary wasn’t the scary power-from-the-heights type. Hell, more often than not she didn’t exert any real stroke with the folks who did the daily grunt work at the store; she and Jimi collected their rent, made sure they could still move cars in and out of their shop, and (from my perspective at the time) that was pretty much it business-wise. Mary and I got to know each other in gradual little bits, here and there on days I worked, and we found we were both a little strange. We looked at the world from abnormal viewpoints, and although it would be years before I realized its significance, finding a kindred spirit was a big deal. I met a lot of weirdos working at that gas station, and I had fun with most of them in the moment, but as time went on, as I grew and moved on with my life, Mary and her son Adam were the only ones I’d continuously count as friends.

Fast forward 4½ years to Christmas season of 1998. I’m back from college – in fact I’m about to switch colleges and move back to my hometown. Mary and Jimi now own and operate both the gas station and auto repair joint behind it. I head over there to say hi to some of the people working there, and the first person I run into is Mary. We pass a couple minutes catching up, since we hadn’t connected in a few months, and the next thing I know she’s offering me a job.

Over the next two and a half years or so, I found myself in a job with the rare quality of fun. Working at MCM fell somewhere between the movie Clerks and a zany variety show like In Living Color or Key and Peele. For me, work also translated to a business opportunity for a creative-minded person like myself. See, at that point I’d been writing stories and novels for about 5 years. One day, I got the idea to perhaps sell one of my new stories to the people who came in for the gas and lottery and milk and smokes. I asked Mary if she minded, and artist that she was, she said yes. I put up a little sign and started talking myself up to anybody who would listen.

The damndest thing happened: I sold out of my first story! I charged a buck a copy, and just like a little spare change after a purchase going in a tip jar or a charity donation basket, more than fifty people bought a copy of a horror story about sex and role play gone over the edge. Without much effort, I had doubled my day’s pay – in cash, no less – while taking a step down the road to professional author-dom.

It felt so good I did it again a couple weeks later, with similar results and profits. By this time people were paying me compliments on my writing, pumping up a young writer’s ego, and with an atypical display of business acumen (for a 21 year-old), I funneled those profits back into the business when I completed work on my next novel the following summer. This allowed me to hire a printer to make actual paperback copies of said novel, which I then sold in Mary’s gas station. I made around $500 dabbling in proto-self-publishing, and that was just in my hometown, within the subset of folks who stopped into MCM for gas.

More importantly, I couldn’t have done it without Mary being who she was – an artist, a dreamer, and I daresay unusual. She was a creative functioning within the confines of the real world of jobs and bills and family and responsibilities; as a married father of two young boys, I often think back to the example Mary presented when my art-time is challenged by the demands of daily life. Not only did she create stuff, she nurtured those tendencies in others. In my case, her support and friendship helped me take a big step down the road of my own artistic dream. That, like Mary’s my-way personality, is something I’ll never forget. In this way I’ll honor her memory rather than mourn her loss. I’ll write, I’ll create, and I’ll make sure her belief in me meant something. One creative to another, that’s the best way I know to say goodbye.

Sticking With the Plan

When I finished editing the second draft of Trollbooth a month ago, I realized I had a few different projects I needed to work on this year.  Some of them have firm deadlines; others are more open-ended, but all are important to me.  I want them finished, and I want to share them.  I can’t do that when I’m bouncing from story to story, letting only my muse guide me along.  Ideas get smothered by newer ideas.  Life distracts.  And let’s face it, writers are always telling themselves stories, even when they don’t write them down.  That’s why I call my “hopper” of ideas The Imaginary Playground.  It really is like grade-school recess in my mind, with bunches of ideas all doing different things as they clamor for my creative attention.

So I decided what I needed was a plan, and not just the kind where, daily, I say, “Okay, tomorrow I’m going to work on insert title here.  I needed something I can look at, because I’m much more accountable if said accounting takes place outside my mind.  To that end, I created a document called The Manifest.

Just like a list of cargo on a ship or truck, The Manifest is a listing of all the projects I’m currently working on, plus all the projects I want to work on for the rest of this year and beyond.  There are 15 items on it; 8 of them have project start and project end dates on them.  The other 7 are organized with labels like “Fall 2015,” or “maybe 2015?” or even simply “2016.”

Seeing my creative work in such a stark and un-artistic list is strange, but I tell you what, it’s helping.  I’m much more aware of how much I can get done in a given amount of writing sessions.  I’m always motivated because to waste that time is to invalidate a big portion of how I live my life.  And on top of that, The Manifest isn’t held, updated, or audited by anybody else, so it can be a little loose.  If I need a few more days for a project, that can be done.  If I find I need a month or more, I can schedule it into The Manifest so I’ll actually get back to it with a vengeance.  That kind of thing is important to me, and now I feel like I have less worry on my mind.

Tomorrow I will return to Trollbooth.  I’ve pencilled in 2 months for the typing up of 2nd draft changes and the 3rd draft (hopefully faster) edit.  It seems like a reasonable amount, but I’ll see as I go along.  My goal is to be done before my vacation in May.  Today I need to find a good stopping place for the story I’ve been working on (a new novel called Werebear!) and then make myself enough notes so I can figure out what the hell I was talking about, when I get back to the story later this year.  I think that’s both fair and do-able, to myself, my priorities, and the demands of my life.

 

Tonight: LIVE in Aurora!

10258193_1417148235221689_4293294660527536350_nI’m very excited to be the feature author at this month’s Lit by the Bridge reading/open mic at Culture Stock in Aurora.  If you want a sneak preview…well, let’s just say I’ll be reading something old, something brand-new, and if time permits, something short and nasty.

I hope to see you there, but if you can’t make it, don’t fret: I’m hoping to get video of my reading, which I’ll post here.