Author Archives: jcgeiger
I’ve always loved liner notes. You know — the lyrics, photos, and messages included in the packaging for CDs, tapes, and records. Back in the day, part of questing for an album was seeing what the cover art looked like under the shrink wrap, how it would unfold in a paper accordion for cassette tapes; CDs had cool little booklets. I remember going through my dad’s record collection and how enormous the notes seemed – giant treasure maps, canvasses for lost art, tour photos, abstractions. I remember Thick As a Brick. The Wall. August and Everything After – a cover with faded cursive lyrics to a song that didn’t even make it onto the album. What a mystery! I loved listening straight through for the first time, flipping pages. You could feel the whole mythos of the work swirling, sinking in.
After being steeped in music for The Great Big One, I thought: What about liner notes for a book? Sure, the book already exists in print — but to me, liner notes were always about the space just outside the circumference of the main artistic product. Everything that couldn’t quite make it into the book or onto the album. Pictures, inspiration, research, anecdotes, drawings, mysteries. Since books are something we can already hold and turn the pages for, maybe liner notes could be digital.
I’m going to give it a try. I’m even going to give it a hashtag, so if this happens to be a social media project I actually manage to follow through with, one day I can type #thegreatbigone #linernotes and have a whole collection of videos, photos, deleted scenes and sections, everything surrounding a book that was – for several years – roughly the size of my life.
You found it. Your chance to collect a limited-edition mixtape with proof-of-purchase of The Great Big One. Fill out the form while supplies last and this sweet tape is YOURS.
Friends, it’s been a while.
I could lash all my apologies together like a raft and try to paddle the gulf, but I think I’ll just jump right in where we left off.
I finished another draft of my book. If you know me in casual life, that’s probably what I say every time you see me. The other night, I went out to celebrate and friends asked me: Is this your third book? Fourth? No, no. Still the second. They said — I thought we already celebrated this book? Yes. Submitting a book is like throwing a very large boomerang at New York City. You hope when it comes wheeling back it’s not so heavy with corrections it takes your head off.
Most people think of publishing as a HIT SEND kind of situation. It’s really more of a RETURN TO SENDER situation.
You send. You celebrate. Later, in the quiet, ears ringing from the popping of corks, you lie alone. You listen for your draft out there, in the wild. You cup hand to ear, wondering — how did that boomerang land out there in the big city?
What you hear is as quiet as wind whispering through cedars.
When the draft arrives, you just keep throwing it back at New York until it finally returns to you as a bound book. This is your final RETURN TO SENDER moment. This does not mean your novel is properly finished. It just means your publisher is done helping you fix this story.
I celebrate every toss of the boomerang. For me, celebration is essential to the practice of writing. Progress with a book can be so intangible, sometimes you must build yourself a trophy out of beer cans. Climb on your desk and call it Kilimanjaro. Shout your private achievements to the ceiling fan.
You will wonder, aloud and alone, if the book will be successful. You will wonder, aloud and alone, what success is. Whether you choose to measure success with money or peer recognition, you’ll eventually learn – as George Saunders once stated – “success is a mountain that grows as you climb it.”
That’s good, isn’t it? Success is a mountain that grows as you climb it.
I’m just wrapping up my second book, which comes with its own specific challenges. While writing a second novel, you may recall every disappointing second album a band ever released. But it would be a mistake to dwell on these albums. Or listen to them.
Anne Lamott wrote: “Avoid looking at your own publication in the mirror.” She also said:
“Sometime later you’ll find yourself at work on, maybe really into, another book, and once again you figure out that the real payoff is the writing itself, that a day when you have gotten your work done is a good day, that total dedication is the point.”
Ah, it’s true. It’s so true I want to greet Anne Lamott at an airport, running with balloons.
It’s a lot of emotional work to write a book. You get wrung out, leaning into that computer screen, changing that hyphen to an ellipsis and then to a period and no, back to the hyphen and all the while beating your heart against the page. A lot of crying. It makes me think what’s called “a good cry” is somewhat defined by the duration of the crying. I’m healthiest writing about 3-4 hours a day. For this book, some days were significantly longer. Eight hours. Ten.
If I work too hard, for too long, I get arrhythmia. Tachycardia of the brain.
When I finished the latest draft, I didn’t know how to stop. My whole body had readjusted to a new schedule of endless working, heightened emotions. Hummingbird heart. Stay up late, wake up early. Is this book good? Is this book done? Keep writing. Keep worrying. Finally, very late one night, I hit send. Submitted the book. Shipped off. Gone. I still couldn’t convince my brain to stop.
The hamster had left the wheel. But the wheel was still spinning.
I needed a reset. My family and I flew back to the Midwest during winter break. This is a DSM-recognized sign of temporary mental illness, flying to Illinois in January.
In Illinois, I did not work. I FORCED myself to not work and it was like a Trainspotting detox situation but instead of creamed corn and a bedpan I had my mom’s deviled eggs and endless appetizers and the baby did not crawl on the ceiling but just on the ground. I played video games. Bizarrely, watched TV. I taught my son to play Magic the Gathering.
All the while, body and mind slowly remembering – there are other ways. Different tempos, paces, patterns of breathing. Other worlds to move through.
My hometown felt like a very different world. A real Midwestern Main Street with awnings and a barber pole. People who owned shovels and might get into a car to drive the distance of one small city block. It’s so cold, maybe you agree to get in the car to drive one small city block. Corn stalks shrunk to stubble in winter fields. Gray horizons and the white-noise rush of highway traffic. Good handshakes. Vegetables, a pale shade of green. TV in the background like flashing wallpaper.
I played cards. Ate. Ran on a treadmill so I could eat more.
It worked. I slept. Reset. Detoxed. My last day in town, I printed my book in a hotel lobby, took it to my favorite 24-hour truck stop, and read it like the work of a stranger. I could see what needed to be fixed. And when I went home to Oregon to fix it, the final draft felt like a gift.
That had never happened before. It felt like dessert.
Then, just days ago, I was seized by epiphanic, spontaneous joy. Just sitting at my desk – book not quite done, but getting there, and the sun lanced through the clouds and my kids were at school just an hour from pickup and suddenly the reality of life settled around me – the trees, that little spot of sun, kids to pick up, a worthy project to labor on. The day stretched out like a runway. It all felt laid out like a beautiful banquet. I smiled and smiled and wrote in Sharpie on white paper:
YOU HAVE ONLY THIS WHOLE, BEAUTIFUL LIFE.
All around my office, if you look, you will find bold black Sharpie declarations smattering the room, but that’s one of my very favorites. I’m staring at it now. I believe it, and hope you believe it and chase it and can feel some of your days like runways, some of your existence like a banquet, and I’ve missed being in touch, but I’m back.
It’s good to be back. Thank you for reading. If you have time, drop me a line and let me know how you’re doing out there!
Just finished a big project. Afterward, I lay with my back on the floor and stared up at the ceiling and considered – WOW. The world remains intact. Still carpet. Still a popcorn ceiling and the lingering smell of chicken for dinner. Right in front of me, another human face. Family! Friends! This, after weeks of Massive Writing Days — when my eyes felt stretched and over-big, doing things like rubbing my face and popping Starlight Mints and exceeding recommended caffeine levels. At all times, the book danced on the backs of my eyelids like REM sleep.
I did not, during this period, send many emails. I did not make social media posts. Accordingly, I was needled by the impish cousin of guilt — The ShouldBe. Whispering: Psssst, you shouldbe better at scheduled updates. You shouldbe sharing clever posts about yourself. Shoulbe tweeting, streaming, marketing — I’ve listened to The ShouldBe for years. But I’m starting to disagree.
I’ve had torrents of words rushing through me lately, so I’m going to lean on the words of someone else. I’d like to borrow from Mary Oliver on the nature of art and creative work. This passage comes from her final book of essays, Upstream:
There is a notion that creative people are absent-minded, reckless, heedless of social customs and obligations. It is, hopefully, true (. . . ) It is six a.m. and I am working. I am absentminded, reckless, heedless of social obligations, etc. It is as it must be. The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard. The poem gets written. I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame. Neither do I have guilt. My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely. It does not include mustard, or teeth. It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot. My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.
Her words. I love and feel them ring true. I am glad she missed the meeting and burned the beans to bring them into the world. A hundred meals without mustard. A thousand emails unsent.
I will post more messages. I have a vague idea I’d like to repost abbreviated versions of my mailing list letters ever Wednesday or maybe every Sunday? I will try, but I am primarily a humble servant of The Vision. So if you do not find an update here — rejoice.
P.S. (Extended version of this message originally sent to email subscribers– embark here.)
Time to come clean.
I’ve spent a year and a half building an email list and have NO IDEA WHAT TO DO with it. Self-promotion? Professional insights? Cute check-ins heavy with emojis??? Cropped graphics, woozles & weazles, embedded streaming from my desk and it all made me narcoleptic face-first into keyboard ZZZZZZZzzzzzz.
Because — no fun. I don’t want to be cute and promotional all day. That sounds exhausting & awful. This has to be FUN. It has to be INTERESTING.
So while diligently building My Email List to Nowhere, MailChimp asked:
WILL SUBSCRIBERS RECEIVE MESSAGES IN PLAIN TEXT OR HTML??
WARNING!!! the MailChimp shrieked banana in hand, If you use Plain Text you CANNOT embed pictures nor monkey graphics! You cannot neither dazzle nor Truly Shine!!! No corkscrewing borders! No automated countdown clocks, tickers, widgets — and I thought Well, HELL YES. That’s GREAT! With a sad, stripped-down format from the late 90s, I can’t really do ANYTHING but type letters and hope they’re worth reading.
The idea was born: PLAIN TEXT AND THE TRUTH.
Real process updates from a working writer, what I’m doing/thinking/reading. Thoughts on day jobs, getting published, having adventures. What matters and what’s worthless. Some emails will be epic poems of TLDR proportion. Others will be over-brief and highly disappointing. There will be gems.
Each message will be as honest as I can make it. In this way, I’ll connect with readers and The Writing Tribe without social media as a go-between. I don’t like social media. And I believe in the magic and power of words on a page — this wild alchemy that continues to bind us, fire us up, make us better understand one another. A careful arrangement of characters can make you fall in love, start a protest, inspire banning & burning, make you move cross-country, quit your job, start over with a smile and there’s really something to it, this whole writing thing.
So this train is leaving the station. If you’d like to join, Welcome Aboard.
I hope this works. If it doesn’t, I’ll let you know. Honestly. In plain text.
I discovered The Moth Radio Hour on a long and lonely drive through the Utah desert about five years ago. It was the only thing that kept me awake and alive. Since then, I’ve dreamed of telling a story on The Moth. SO — a few months ago, some friends from No Shame Eugene and I trucked up to Portland for a StorySLAM at Holocene. There was a line. Big crowd. All four of us put our names in the fishbowl and during the first half of the set (5 stories) no one was picked. In the second set, two of my friends got drawn and it was down to the last story of the night. I’d just ordered a nice tall whisky when I heard “J.C. Geiger, please take the stage!” I went into a fugue state, got up, and miraculously won the slam with a story about how I learned to make a strange snapping sound with my finger. More here.
Winning a StorySLAM qualifies you for the GrandSLAM, and so, at the end of February, I was headed to the Aladdin Theatre in Portland to spin a story for a larger crowd than I have EVER told a story for. Sold out. Somewhere between six and seven hundred people. I was excited, and a little sick. Luckily, The Moth sets you up with an Official Story Coach if you make it to the GrandSLAM. How cool is that? A story coach! In NEW YORK. Living in Eugene, it’s still a very big deal for me when I’m on a call with someone in NEW YORK CITY. I dress up. I call it “New York City” even though everyone in New York just calls it New York and I also call the time zone EST when they call it ET because I want to milk every delicious, New Yorky letter of it.
My story coach was Larry and he was incredible. Attentive, genuinely curious, authentic and refreshingly no-bullshit. Over Skype, he let me spin a nasty, unwieldy 24 minute tale to help me mine the gold from it. He told me to call him back once I’d made some cuts. The next time, the story was 12 minutes long. He told me I could do it. I believed him. Larry the Story Coach is very convincing.
My story was about how I did not vote in the 2000 election (ugh), and how the guilt of my abstention drove me to uproot my life in 2004 and volunteer for a miserable voter registration campaign in Jacksonville, Florida.
I had a week to get it right.
I told the story to my office walls until my walls got tired of the story. I told different walls. I flew to Illinois for the Self Employment in the Arts Conference and told myself the story 15 times on the plane. I told my parents when they picked me up. I typed the story out, cut it. Recommitted the freshly-typed story to memory, and told myself another few dozen times on the plane ride home.
The day of the event, I rode up from Eugene to Portland in a bus. I brought along a cool little timer I usually use for making croutons. So they don’t burn. I am fucking awful about burning croutons.
That day, I used it to time my story on the bus. I told it out aloud another few dozen times, then five more times at the Amtrak Union Station, then went to the event.
Packed venue. Bright lights. Sound check. Dressing rooms. The whole thing.
You don’t know the storytelling order until you get there, standing on stage during sound check with the other storytellers. They all looked varying degrees of friendly and nervous. We pulled our numbers from a plastic orange Halloween pumpkin. I picked number 9. I went outside, walked in the rain, and told myself the story one more time. I got a phone call from a congressional representative who wanted to know if I could count on her vote and asked her to please call back. I did take that as a good sign, given my story’s topic.
I got some espresso. I got beer. Sips, sips.
The sign on the ticket desk now said SOLD OUT. I went inside and it felt like go time. Lights dimmed. Crowd quieted. Soothing, beautiful music by Megan Diana.
The music and darkness worked a minor miracle. I relaxed — ready to enjoy the stories of my fellow Moth(ers). And they were GREAT. Stories of a campout gone wrong. Becoming a Viking for an afternoon. Seeing the humanity of others at the Values Voter Summit. Intermission brought my nerves back. Stories six, seven, eight went whipping past and my stream of consciousness turned to a long, crackling hiss — my heart pounding, hammering, doing every bad metaphor and wondering, almost aloud: Should I just shut down now? Just do a full cardiac arrest? One of the storytellers is an EMT. He’ll help you.
When they called my name, I didn’t know if I’d walk up to the microphone and unleash this story or stand in the spotlight dumbstruck and gobbing like a fish.
But it was magic.
Spotlight magic and the warmth of an attentive audience and HOURS AND HOURS AND HOURS of preparation paying off. And hot damn — I love every minute of telling that story. Attention is one of the greatest gifts a person can give. To have the attention of a full house at The Aladdin for a story I’d lived through and replayed, curated and prepared turned the stage into a runway, I was airborne.
Then I won the Moth GrandSLAM.
Unexpected, shocking. Admittedly, luck involved — the order of the speakers, mood of the judges, the broader context of the story.
But here’s what matters about the win: It’s incredibly validating for the artistic process. I’ve never worked harder on a story, and it paid off. It was strange for my office walls and maybe the people on the plane and bus while I mouthed words and played with a crouton timer in my lap. Right? But the work of an artist is often this way. The being alone, the public wrestling with process, the attention to almost imperceptible detail. Everything so strange-seeming and eccentric until the moment of delivery, when it works.
I called Larry the Story Coach one last time. Smiled and jumped up and down on Skype so he could witness the pure, unmitigated excitement. I’m so appreciative of The Moth providing a venue for people’s stories. I’m grateful to be part of something I’ve loved for so long.
On the drive back to Eugene, I imagined another traveler late at night, searching for a signal. This traveler suddenly wakes up. Sits up straight. Something new on the radio: A story about a guy who failed to vote, who drove down to Jacksonville, who did his best to make a difference.