Well, like everything else, this book has taken much longer than expected. But Riots Of Passage is finally complete, and now available in both ebook and paperback form. So though it always feels tremendously awkward, I’m forcing myself to insert a little self-promotion here – although considering it documents a year of living on OSU campus, this book counts as legitimate Columbus history, and so might a little bit about its creation, too.
I finally got around to getting this in shape for publication in December 2017. The first draft was finished clear back in the fall of 1998 and the second in the summer of 2003. More than fourteen years would pass, then, before I even looked at this stuff again. Most of the delay was due to working on other projects, but any time I would think about this book, I was having a tough time mentally sorting out the length and the structure.
For eons I’ve been telling everyone that the campus years would be a trilogy (the first installment, One Hundred Virgins, was published in 2006). But I could never quite figure out a division point that felt right between two and three, so Riots Of Passage ended up being both. The most natural seeming break occurs after coming home from the New Year’s party, and that was always the plan, except I didn’t like where this meant starting off the last book. It would kind of leave the middle book as one long preamble, as just about all of the payoffs seem to happen in the last half of this finished project.
The major cuts all came with this third draft I began in 2017. That second draft from 2003 clocked in at over 900 full size (8 1/2 x 11″, that is) pages, something like 940, whereas the third one came in at exactly 500. So I wound up cutting out or condensing nearly half of the material. But even throughout this process, I was still kind of stalling on the decision whether to split this into two books or not, telling myself I would know the answer and could make that call when the draft was complete.
But the truth is, you’re never entirely certain you made the right call on anything. In this instance, it felt too short for a pair of books yet too long for just one. It helps considerably with the editing process, though, that I would say – somewhat unexpectedly – that I really don’t care about any of the personal dramas now, stuff which seemed so important at the time. This is one advantage of taking so long to put something together, I suppose. In some instances entire people got the axe, along with subplots which dragged on for a month. The only consideration was whether or not it seemed essential to this central story, and if not, it got the heave ho.
Some of the decisions were pure pacing ones. In the beginning and the end especially, I was going for more of a breezy clip, therefore condensing was unavoidable. This meant that often highly interesting occasions were reduced to single sentences, or maybe even deleted altogether. In two instances I can think of, complete paragraphs which were among my top five favorites, I had to conclude didn’t fit, however painfully, and got rid of them. It sucks, but you can always console yourself with the knowledge that they might find use in other projects down the road.
These decisions, though, make you realize that you can’t really term anything the “definitive” history of an era or a subject. This is just one minuscule slice of history from that time and place. For a while, and this was true of the first book as well, this whole notion of cutting out people completely was bothering me. It feels like you’re trying to alter history based on personal preferences. Except one day I had an epiphany of sorts – I happened to be reading a Civil War book at the time, though it could have been anything – that, you know, they couldn’t possibly mention every single soldier who fought in a war, in the course of the narrative. Attempting to shoehorn in every name even if you have nothing interesting to say would make it clunky and unreadable. This doesn’t make it untrue, or mean that you are attempting to alter history.
One great example of this would occur near the end of this third draft, when I realized that an extremely entertaining cook we worked with at Damon’s hadn’t been mentioned at all. His name just hadn’t come up in any of my writings. Some of his specific episodes I had in my head the whole time, and kept thinking they were going to crop up at some point – after this many years, it’s hard to remember what you included and what you left out of a previous draft – but they never did. Instead of backtracking, though, and attempting to figure out where they belonged, I took this as a sign that these detours probably weren’t needed. And nothing personal against the guy, they just weren’t essential to these particular chapters.
Other times the opposite policy applies, where you figure, you know, I’ve got fifteen scenes at Woody’s in here, or whatever, and these are the ones which felt most crucial. There’s no reason to mention every trip you made to the bar for a solid year. In this sense, some of the lengthier scenes were easier to cut out entirely, or categories where I was able to make some kind of broad editorial decision – so for the most part, major concerts, sporting events, and movies attended were easily gotten rid of. Writing sex scenes, too, has always been awkward, and I couldn’t imagine anyone wanted to read about these icky details either.
So it is that, paradoxically, smaller decisions somehow become the most agonizing. These open up philosophical angles that are often unexpected and fascinating. Though this admission might seem monstrous, I can honestly say that while some of the things I did in these pages should bother me, none of it does. Instead what proves cringe inducing is to look back upon what music you were listening to, the dumb stuff you were talking about, and your inane sense of humor at the time.
Somehow we have all grown accustomed to the notion that our clothing and hair choices of the past were usually questionable, and this we are okay with, dismissing them with wry, morbid humor as a fitting commentary on those hilarious times. Other details prove trickier to navigate, however, and among these I would count a) things you no longer find funny, as well as b) things you no longer believe, and c) things you said, but turned out to not be true.
To leave out these sorts of things, you are then wrestling with the notion that you’re trying to make yourself and your friends seem smoother than you actually were at the time. But I think our various personalities are well established and accurate. Omitting some of the goofier, poorly aged wisecracks or whatever isn’t distorting anything. Also, to include them produces the thought, why would I intentionally write a bad book? Sometimes, particularly with point B up above, you can maybe weave around this by explaining, “here’s what I thought at the time, but I now believe this.” Unless this insight actually occurred during the period in question, though, this is also technically assigning yourself a wisdom you didn’t have.
Thornier still are questions of how you’re going to handle behavior and/or remarks which let’s just say haven’t aged so well, yet they are important if you want to be truthful about these times. You can’t just delete them and pretend they never happened…even though including such makes it seem as though you’re endorsing them. I think you just have to try and keep yourself in the mindset of that time frame as much as possible. It always bugs me when you’re watching something that’s supposedly set in an earlier era, but they’re using slang and catchphrases which didn’t exist back then. I tried to avoid that as much as possible, true, but also more importantly to avoid putting a current spin on these old situations. It’s probably not entirely possible, but I really don’t want to ascribe what I (or anyone else) thinks about these episodes now, only what we actually thought about them back then.
Even so, of course, you end up agonizing over specific words. Some of these sentences remain intact as-is from the late 90s, but there are others, I can tell you, I was still tinkering around with yesterday. Some were bugging me as I went to sleep last night. But at some point you have to tell yourself, good enough. Let it go.
But what really has you in knots most of all, is how you say anything negative whatsoever about your friends. You’re trying to write your interpretation of events, which everyone might not agree with. You don’t want to be unnecessarily mean, but at the same time, if you’re going to excise every negative, then it’s whitewashed and toothless and no longer accurate. It’s easy to fall down additional rabbit holes from there and begin thinking, hey, maybe I’ll just leave in unflattering comments if the person in question was a jerk to me, and on the flipside, delete everything less positive if they were cool. Of course, once you start rationalizing like this, you are doomed. Maybe it’s a tie breaker, if someone is in your good graces, determining how hard you try to paint them favorably, but you cannot just start wiping out every unkind comment about your friends.
Basically I think you just have to ask yourself, is this fair? And is this a necessary reference, or can I cut it out? Have I said this as tactfully as I can manage? It does help that, by this point, hopefully everyone understands this stuff falls in the good natured ribbing department, anyway – as mentioned earlier, I don’t actually “care” about this material on a personal level after this many years, none of it. The only question is if it’s important to this book, this little slice of history I’m covering.
In many of these cases, it’s often an accidental blessing to have not captured a ton of concrete information. Sometimes I am being deliberately vague for dramatic purposes within the structure of the book, other times as some kind of strategic decision I’ve stumbled onto in the real world. But far more common are the instances where I just don’t have the details at this point. You can’t exactly Wikipedia who was at some campus keg party, or what was said at the Out-R-Inn on such and such night from 1998. Work schedules are for the most part toast or would never be made available to you, especially if canned from a place, and you can’t trust memory all that well after this many years.
One thing you may notice is that I do have slightly greater detail as the book progresses. This actually did occur to me at the time, and was an unintended benefit of buying a computer about halfway through this epoch. The whole mindset for acquiring one was that it would help me type up my first novel, yet it would soon turn out that detail and speed in future projects like this were of far greater importance. I was doing an okay job handwriting various facts in my journal, what we did and where we went on such and such day. It helped, too, that I had a job – waiting tables – where standing around scribbling things into a tiny notepad was totally normal. I just often wasn’t writing what they might have expected. But the level of detail is missing beyond this, until able to type it up and capture it quickly with a decent word processing program. And the biggie here is actual quotes, real life soundbites from people, which are somewhat lacking early on.
So if I don’t really care about any of these piddly dramas at this point, beyond their structural purpose in my history, what I do find fascinating now is specific details about anything whatsoever from the distant past. Things said, yes, but also prices, menu items, songs on a band’s set list. Which business existed at a certain address. It does make me lament my focus and choices at times, that I hadn’t concentrated more in certain areas and less in others, but there’s really nothing you can do about that.
Ultimately, this is what a book like this ends up being about: the city itself. Although by the nature of this project forced to insert myself into the middle (fun fact: I did try writing this campus period as a novel with invented character names at one point, many years ago. It didn’t work), it helps considerably to recognize that I am not the story. These experiences on the personal level are for the most part anonymous and commonplace. Though some of this weird behavior I guess is sort of amusing in spots, for the most part, I’m just melting into the background – and that’s exactly as it should be. So while it’s easy for all of us to trick ourselves into thinking, which we probably all have at times, “wow, I’m kinda like the Forrest Gump of this scene or something, all this wild stuff seems to happen when I’m around!” that’s not really how it is at all. It’s more accurate to realize, well, I was present for 100% of the stuff I was present for. That’s why it seems amazing. But there were a million equally crazy things happening all over the place, which I missed. And this swirl of activity, this flood of information and colliding personalities, mixed in with the era and the locale itself, this is really what all such stories are about.
In the end, all you can really control is making a historical record as accurate as possible. Try to make it match what that period felt like as best as you are able to, and move on. The first time around, with One Hundred Virgins, this manifested itself in me thinking I wanted to get the timing right on a typical day. As I was working on that project, it’s true that there were almost no hard decisions whatsoever, as the pacing and flow and questions about which scenes to include almost seemed to be snapping themselves into place, in a way that hasn’t happened before or since with anything I’ve written. But the one area I made a determined effort to focus upon then was to not include only the fireworks, to deliberately insert some boring stretches because this was more realistic. I do regret some of the florid language used in that book – to read some passages now, even I have no clue what I was trying to say there – but otherwise think it accurately captured, you know, that we weren’t partying nonstop, that there were nights I’d sit at the kitchen table alone for hours with the radio and a crossword puzzle.
The period covered in this second volume, however, is completely different. There is much less information about what else is going on around the city, because our lives have gotten more action packed, and I’m also not exactly sitting around reading article after article about Angsto The Clown or whatever, as I had been in our earlier days. Here I think the length of the book is actually more beneficial and accurate, and if I’ve decided to focus less this time around on making every sentence as artfully complex as possible, I do believe that some situational confusion serves it well, because this is how it was to live it. Therefore if you think it’s a bit brain scrambling that there are five or six Carries in this book and most of them have dark hair but no last name, are often explained away as a coworker, well, trust me, this neatly matches our experience. If sometimes you can’t quite decipher what happened or what’s really going on, yeah…welcome to the club.
Even so, I’ve never been nearly this nervous about anything else I’ve written. There are conversations I’ve successfully avoided having for over twenty years now and am dreading to some degree, once a couple of these episodes are revealed. The reception itself otherwise seems almost not nearly as important – as any of you other writers out there know, though you feel compelled to crank this stuff out for some reason, there are always conflicting emotions about it anyway. Am I hoping that nobody reads it? Of course not. Am I hoping that people do read it? I think so…yet it’s still kind of a terrifying prospect to actually sit around and ponder. I mostly try to block out that thought, too.
Anyway, if you’re really worked up into a mad fervor and can’t wait to get your claws into a copy, as I mentioned, the Kindle version is on promotion now on Amazon. So here is the link for that:
By the way, if you’re interested in reviewing this book, I can definitely be persuaded to send you a free copy in pretty much any form. Either leave a comment below, or email me (email@example.com), or else you can always send a message/text/call me, et cetera of course if we happen to be friends already.
Let me know if you spot any errors, of course. I already have a file going with a couple of them, though at this point I guess they will have to wait for the inevitable revised edition. As always, thanks for reading this or anything else that pops into my head. It still seems amazing to me that anyone would do so, and I hope to never lose sight of that.