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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.
Friends. I cannot believe it. Somehow I have made it to a Moth Grandslam Championship in Portland, Oregon. How?? I qualified at a Moth Story Slam in September by telling a story about how I can make a strange snapping sound with my index finger. It’s that thing people do when they say booyakasha! or pack tobacco while sitting on the tailgate of a pickup truck in the town I grew up in. I was not one of those guys on the truck. They would not let me hang out with them because — at the time — I couldn’t do things like drive stick shift or pack tobacco with a “limpy.”
But now I get to speak at The Moth, which is even better than the tobacco and the pickup. The theme is FIRED UP. And I am. You can get tickets for $25 here or just kindly leave me a comment to bolster my courage. Woohooo!!!
A bit of background on this insanity:
To promote WILDMAN’s release, I attempted to drive from Eugene, Oregon to New York City in a ‘93 Buick Century – the same car that broke down, stranded me in rural Washington, and inspired me to write the book in the first place. I drove 5 miles for every copy of Wildman sold, and 1 mile for every $5 donation to the American Library Association.
The entire 10-day, 4300-mile journey was live-streamed using two phones and a Chromebook.
All day. All night.
It’s amazing the trip worked at all. But here’s what surprised me even more:
1) A ‘93 Buick Century makes an amazing concert venue.
Sometimes you get lucky and one of your musical idols (David Wimbish of the Collection) happens to be in a town you’re passing through. You somehow convince him to climb into your ’93 Buick. With his guitar. And that’s when the magic happens.
2) Traveling with a mannequin is a good conversation starter. And probable cause for a police stop.
As a joke, my friends from Eugene put a mannequin in the Buick to keep me company. Viewers quickly dubbed her “Silent Barb,” and she became considerably more popular than me. After I noticed the second police car tailing me in Texas, I took off her wig and shoved Silent Barb farther down in the back seat. Which was somehow even creepier. In this clip, the mannequin has locked me out of the car after keeping watch on the Buick in Boise all night.
3) There’s a whole lot of nothing out there.
Eastern Oregon, West Texas, and a big chunk of New Mexico offered up little more than tumbleweed, armadillos, road kill, and abandoned vehicles. A good incentive that it was important to JUST. KEEP. DRIVING.
4) During a live stream, an empty seat is more compelling than me.
After a few days live-streaming on the road, I noticed a pattern. If I put my camera on the empty seat of my Buick, I’d attract YouTube viewers. The longer I recorded the seat, the more people showed up. As soon as I climbed in the frame, I’d lose up to 50% of my audience. A user later explained: “The empty seat just gave us this great sense of anticipation.” I understand there is a movie deal in the works for “Empty Seat.” I have yet to be contacted.
5) Friends and family will ambush you with kindness and light sabers.
I expected people to like my Facebook posts. Maybe retweet some pictures. I did not expect friends to arrange places for me to stay, make me a road trip mixtape on Spotify, keep me awake on midnight drives through West Texas, print flyers for their schools and neighborhoods, and – at one point – ambush me in North Carolina with light sabers, costumes, and beer. The Wildman Road Trip reminded me I know some AMAZING people. There was a lot of love out there, folks. A lot of love.
6) I would be convinced to appear on a children’s show.
It turns out Danny Joe’s Treehouse is filmed in Baltimore, MD. And Danny Joe, himself, invited me to be a guest on his show. He planned to broadcast to his loyal audience of children and families with some puppeteering and a classic road trip song. Until he got a surprise of his own.
7) The finish line will be mind-blowing.
I wasn’t 100% sure what the team at Disney thought of this trip — or if they expected me to make it. So when they greeted me with a checkered flag, road snacks, and a trophy, I thought maybe I’d died somewhere on the New Jersey Turnpike and ended up in Debut Author Heaven. This video, like all of them, was recorded and broadcast live.
A final surprise? The trip itself netted around $4,000 dollars for libraries from over 100 new donors. And support continued to pour in after the journey ended. To date, around 400 book lovers have contributed to the Wildman Road Trip!
The ’93 Buick is currently parked in a secluded garage in the Midwest, resting up for its return trip in July. It’s 2,000 long miles back to Eugene, Oregon — and I can’t wait to see what happens next.
I am always doing that which I can not do, in order that I may learn how to do it.
Here’s my first recorded outing with the bookmobile.
I knew the Bookmobile was a manual transmission when I bought it. I knew it was 15,000 pounds of books and steel, parked on a giant hill. The thought of climbing behind the wheel scared the hell out of me. The vehicle was older than me, the brakes had just been readjusted, and things could go badly.
I’m accustomed to making mistakes in writing. I’ve written dozens of the sappiest, shitty endings imaginable. Hundreds of wasted pages. Offensively flat characters, racial stereotypes, and sex scenes that would embarrass any literate person.
But when you mess up a scene, your computer doesn’t go DADUNK-DUNK-CACHUNK! It does not alert every other writer in the neighborhood that you’ve just written a terrible sex scene. Aborting a bad plot line doesn’t leave skid marks. No one dies as a result of a poorly-written cliffhanger.
Failing at driving is very obvious to everyone. It’s loud and jerky and produces smoke and sometimes fire and casualties.
But I wanted to learn. And, ultimately, there is only one way to learn. Whether you want to write a novel or drive the damn Bookmobile, you just have to get in, start the engine, and relentlessly fail your way across the finish line.
And I DID IT. I SURVIVED.
It was ugly. Embarrassing and and messy and scary as hell and most of all — a huge THRILL. Strange to think something as mechanical and straightforward as driving would make me break out in a cold sweat and stop breathing and flood my bloodstream with buckets of adrenaline, but it did.
It was a good personal reminder that the best thing I can do as a writer is fail repeatedly, lead the most interesting life possible, and pay attention. Even so, this one was tough. I needed help to get it done, and that’s why I needed this letter:
More to follow on the letter. For now, enjoy the video. I, for one, am glad to be alive.
I suck at taking potentially epic video and photographs.
I need a jack in the back of my brain where I can plug in and just beam my Photoshopped memories out into the world. Except I’d end up trying to price memory plugs from all available providers and protection plans and surgery fees until I said SCREW IT I’m just using my Verizon Wireless phone, which I would continue to fail at.
Take last weekend. I headed out to Crescent City on the northern California coast to observe the supposed MONSTER STORM which turned out to be pretty much like any other winter storm on the coast. Wind lashing the windshield, pooling water, forest misting like it’s on fire and — oh, landslides, mudslides! Fun!
I’d often noticed the giant, thatched-steel blankets draped over California hills and mountainsides and ominous rockslide signs showing a Buick-like car about to get bitched by a boulder. Never seen one up close and personal.
UNTIL, friends. UNTIL.
By way of context: Without kids and wife in tow, I like to hug the hills and curves like a shitty racecar (PALINDROME!) driver and go to fast in a windows-down, music-blaring fugue, sometimes making a nnnrrrrrrrrrrr sound as I do it. So I’m nnnrrrring around a bend to a sudden flare of brakes from the truck in front of me and – egad!
Rocks. Falling from above. Big, lazy arcs. Basketball sized. Baseballs sized. Then pebbles. Tree pieces. Chunks, calving off the side of the hill right in front of me. Smashing the guardrail. KABOOM. I stopped. Holy shit. I looked up at a suddenly suspicious section of clinging mud and rock above me.
To my left, a flash of moving bodies. Two guys clad in what looked like emergency gear hauling ass to the site of the slide. Emergency, right? I jumped out to help. The guy in the white truck also got out. He had a foot-long beard, a gray hoodie, and shovels. We’re near the Lost Coast. Of course this man had shovels.
SO THERE I WAS. Grabbing chunks of rock, logs, hauling them over the guardrail with a heave-ho clatter. Laughing, bantering, having a grand ol’ time until someone yelled:
Fear. Leg-shaking heart-jolting fear that sent me scrambling to the other side of the landslide. We stood. We watched as two football-sized rocks smashed onto concrete. A skitter of pebbles, like crabs with stony feet. Tickticktickticktick.
And we inched in. We picked up more. Shovel, scraping concrete. Less laughter. And then:
The guy with the shovel, sluggish. I’m halfway to Idaho and this crazy motherfucker is just standing there. Big rock whhhzzzz right by his head.
“Dude! You almost died, man!” someone screamed.
Shovel Man continued to shovel.
Then I looked around at the other rock-pickers. These guys weren’t emergency workers. Those were wet suits. These idiots were KAYAKERS. Kayakers who, by the way, came out on the stormiest weekend in recorded history to kayak in the ocean. And Shovel Man.
A word of advice: If you ever find yourself surrounded by storm-chasing sea kayakers and Shovel Man, you are probably going to die soon.
I waited for more skittering rocks to stop. Then sprinted across the mud and talus to the ol’ Buick.
“Got decent tires,” one of the kayakers said. He winked. “I think you could make it across.”
But I could either take their advice, or hang out and get pancaked by a boulder. So I jumped in and nnnnrrrrrrrrr! away I went. Epic.
As per usual, I’ve got no pictures to prove this. It would’ve either been a killer selfie or one hell of a Darwin Award. Maybe next time. Maybe not.