If you grew up in a small town, or ever wondered why people care so much about football, or just want to read some of the best journalistic writing on the planet, I recommend Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger. It’s better than watching high school football. It’s better than the TV show by the same name, or watching James VanDerBeek say “I DON’T WANT. YOUR LIFE!”
It’s race, politics, corruption, seedy Texas, slick Texas, the origins of George Bush, and all sorts of other goodies. Read about what author Larry McMurtry described as the “Worst City in the World” and why football became their religion.
Reading this as part of the ongoing research for an upcoming book (working title Stillwell), which is mostly researching the culture of the town I grew up in. It’s been fascinating. The route I traveled to this book is equally interesting. Recently went to go see Hanif Abdurraqib speak with Kaveh Akbar and Leslie Jamison at a killer panel by Literary Arts and went poring over his bibliography afterward. Turns out he wrote the forward to a book called Friday Night Lives which is a retrospective photo-driven project which intercuts photos of the players from Bissinger’s book with where they are decades later. I was curious why a poet/genius like Hanif Abdurraquib would be passionate enough about these books to write the forward – now I get it.
It’s high school football as a fascinating keyhole through which to peek in on humanity and small town America – and it hit plenty close to home.
Of all the awards — the Oregon Book Award holds so much magic for me. Legendary winners like Kesey, Le Guin, Palahniuk, Laini Taylor, April Henry — I mean, these are the people who made me want to be a writer. It’s also the first serious kind of award nod I’ve ever gotten, so I got to be jaw-dropping excited and jump all around the room and call my mom and all that good stuff. My parents are flying out for the awards ceremony which is that suspenseful kind of “open the envelope and see” affair which I really enjoy. So grateful Literary Arts pulls this whole thing together – can’t wait to see everyone on April 25!
That guy eating waffles with my daughter? He’s a rock star. And he helped inspire The Great Big One. (If you’re wondering about the whole liner notes concept, more here.) Went down like this: Emily and I drifted into Thinking Tree Spirits on a random date. Nice vibe, mellow inside. Felt just like a Tuesday. One of the few guys in the place, cozied up in a corner, pulled out his guitar and the whole room went still. A player with the kind of talent that grabs hold of the room like it’s got a handle on it. The song was Young’s “Harvest Moon” – you could feel the harmonics buzz in your chest. Em and I listened, stared at each other, and cried. Alright — this just happens sometimes when we actually have a date. But that particular Cocktail of Tears was one part romance, two parts gin, three parts Matt Hopper. Never had been a huge fan on Neil Young, or that song. Something about his playing cracked the tune wide open and made me fall in love with it forever. At the end of the set, Em and I introduced ourselves. Within minutes, Matt told me something like – “I locked myself in a cabin in Alaska and did nothing but spin Neil Young tunes and play guitar for a month.” We loved him immediately. He’s like that. I gave him a copy of my 1st novel, then a few weeks later, texted him and asked if we could be friends. (For real. I’m still like a third grader passing notes.) Since then, The Hop has blown into town now again for a No Shame show or a wild steampunk barn party. My daughter fell in love with him over breakfast at Off the Waffle. I’ve rocked out to Hopper on road trips, manic cooking adventures, garage cleaning sprees, and late night writing sessions. His renditions of “Harvest Moon” and “False Alarm” transformed pivotal sections of my novel. I can’t honestly say what the book would be like without him. All this, and the guy is on tour in the Pacific Northwest RIGHT NOW!!! Go if you can. You’ll be inspired. You might even get a book out of it. ❤️
That guy eating waffles with my daughter? He’s a rock star. And he helped inspire The Great Big One.
(If you’re wondering about the whole liner notes concept, more here.)
Went down like this: Emily and I drifted into Thinking Tree Spirits on a random date. Nice vibe, mellow inside. Felt just like a Tuesday. One of the few guys in the place, cozied up in a corner, pulled out his guitar and the whole room went still. A player with the kind of talent that grabs hold of the room like it’s got a handle on it. The song was Young’s “Harvest Moon” – you could feel the harmonics buzz in your chest. Em and I listened, stared at each other, and cried. Alright — this just happens sometimes when we actually have a date. But that particular Cocktail of Tears was one part romance, two parts gin, three parts Matt Hopper.
Never had been a huge fan on Neil Young, or that song. Something about his playing cracked the tune wide open and made me fall in love with it forever. At the end of the set, Em and I introduced ourselves.
Within minutes, Matt told me something like – “I locked myself in a cabin in Alaska and did nothing but spin Neil Young tunes and play guitar for a month.” We loved him immediately. He’s like that. I gave him a copy of my 1st novel, then a few weeks later, texted him and asked if we could be friends. (For real. I’m still like a third grader passing notes.)
Since then, The Hop has blown into town now again for a No Shame show or a wild steampunk barn party. My daughter fell in love with him over breakfast at Off the Waffle. I’ve rocked out to Hopper on road trips, manic cooking adventures, garage cleaning sprees, and late night writing sessions. His renditions of “Harvest Moon” and “False Alarm” transformed pivotal sections of my novel. I can’t honestly say what the book would be like without him.
All this, and the guy is on tour in the Pacific Northwest RIGHT NOW!!! Go if you can. You’ll be inspired. You might even get a book out of it. ❤️
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.