It was around two years ago that Zoe Brock first suggested I write for The Nervous Breakdown. We were in her San Francisco lounge room and I’d made it to about the space between ‘some’ and ‘how’ in the thought Maybe this will get me laid somehow¹ when I said ‘Zoe, I’ll do it.’
Zoe, whose debt I will forever be in, for this and so much more, put me in touch with Brad, Brad added me to the writers list, and, secure in the belief that men who write for the internet enjoy more and better casual sex than any other profession, including rock stars, firefighters, and bridge designers², I called Zadie Smith, to ask for my picnic rug back and to tell her I would no longer be needing our ‘arrangement’.
During these two years I have covered some of the decade’s best and most important political and literary stories for TNB, including, but not limited to, the California protests against the now-repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell³, my series of sexually-charged investigative dispatches – the searing and white-hot I Have Gone Undercover at a Week-Long Bridge Designer’s Conference – and, perhaps the piece I am most proud of, my own impressions of Nicolas Cage’s bravura performance in Kick-Ass.
But no summation would be complete without a considered and clear-eyed look at the community that has, perhaps foolishly, and almost definitely regrettably, allowed me to so relentlessly and tirelessly ride its coat-tails. And so, here are my impressions of TNB, two years in.
1. I’m Pretty Sure Richard Cox Totally Killed a Guy One Time.
I base this shocking claim on the following pieces of evidence:
- Richard Cox has a tattered and blood-stained luchadore mask hidden in the glovebox of his car – a glovebox he keeps locked, and thus only accessible by persons who are a) Richard Cox himself or b) breaking into Richard Cox’s locked glovebox to steal quarters while Richard Cox is paying for gas.
- Richard Cox is hugely knowledgeable about the history, techniques, and rules of the popular Mexican sport of lucha libre. When I asked what, if anything, disqualifies a luchadore from competing, he narrowed his eyes and muttered ‘Some of the judges get uptight about murder,’ before back-flipping across the floor of the restaurant we were dining at.
- Richard Cox subsequently back-flipped back to our table and asked if we thought there was such a thing as ‘justified murder’.
- He really looked liked he wanted us to say ‘Yes’.
- Later that night after shooting a whole bunch of rum, Richard Cox confessed he had a secret past life as a luchadore. Also that he had totally killed a guy one time.
2. My God, There Are a Lot of Us and We’re Doing So Much Stuff.
When I first started writing for TNB there was no Fiction Section, no Non-Fiction Section, no Arts and Culture Section, no Feed, no forums, no View from your iPhone… just a cabal of writers and a green background. The original contingent were hugely welcoming, which I was very grateful for, and which was worth every cent.⁴ Now our contributor list is in the hundreds, we run interviews, we have our own imprint, and, with any luck, we’ll soon have a deeply bitter vendetta with some other online literary magazine that we can use as an excuse to go on prank runs until someone gets killed and Richard Cox gets disqualified again.
What I’m trying to say is, I’m looking in your direction.
3. The Site Naturally Shifts and Settles, Like a Waterbed or Unhealthily Fat Person.
Past narratives were a big facet of the site for a long time, whether of childhood or teen years or past friends and relationships. Organically, a shift came in to more op-ed pieces; impressions and discourse and debate, rather than re-tellings. That in turn took a back seat to list-based pieces and discussions of music and film – bands and singers and movie stars, and what they meant or represented to the writer. These schools of writing have never been all-permeating, rather, they’ve been what seemed popular and common on the site at the time. What’s fascinating is that often, two or three pieces on the same theme will all publish on the same day, independently of each other.
4. TNB’s Core Community can be Amazingly Close-Knit.
Thanks to the fact I’ve met Angela Tung and Zara Potts hasn’t, I have the distinction of having met more TNBers in the flesh than anyone else. While I wouldn’t say that makes me the ‘winner’, ‘hero’, or ‘super-president’ of TNB, I would also say that yes it does and never forget it.⁵
I’ve gone shooting in Colorado with Anon and Megan diLullo; I’ve practiced chi sau in the Rockies with Erika Rae. I’ve got a t-shirt given to me by Becky Palapala; I’ve smoked cigars with Greg Olear. I’ve read with Zara and Milo and Duke, with Gina and Zoe Z and Marisa and Stacy. I’ve shared meals or drinks (or both) with Matt, with Uche, with Joe, with Slade, with Richard, with Don, with Ronlyn, with Alison, with Greg B, with Claire, with Lisa, with Kristen, with Bec, with Quenby, with Will, with Ben… the list goes on, and on. The writers always ask about each other, share their impressions of pieces they especially liked, and talk about discussions they had on the comment boards.
The fact that so many people were willing to open their homes to Zara and I on 2010’s road trip is a unique feature of TNB, and a touching one. Likewise, the way the writers rallied to the defense of Joe Daly during the infamous ‘Almondgate’ saga was telling – an illustration that the site, at its best, balances perfectly between publication and community.
5. It’s a Good Thing We have Meta-Discussions about Things Like Niceness.
TNB’s community is quick to have discussions about matters relating to the mechanics of writing for the site in specific, or writing itself in general. Gina’s excellent piece on the risks of writing, for instance, garnered an instant and considered response. So too did the Benton/Olear juxtaposition of pieces about whether TNB’s commentary could be overly nice and/or the praise perfunctory.
These sort of discussions are important to have, for the sake of the site itself. We grow stronger – and better – through the act of considering what it is we’re doing, where it is we’re going, and how it is we’re creating something in concert with others. Self awareness FTW.
6. TNB Will Make You a Better Reader and a Better Writer.
There are a number of hugely distinctive voices present on TNB, each with their own strengths and recognition. Duke Haney, for example, quickly established his individuality with his strength of prose and honesty of phrase. Brin Butler and Matthew Gavin Frank can always be counted on to flawlessly draw rich canvases of place, so real you can almost touch them through the screen. Lenore Zion‘s humour is ever-present, even as she’s discussing school bus bullying or condiment judgmentalism, just as Zara Potts will undoubtedly have a rich core of emotion running through her work (I’d love to reference and dissect everyone. But I have neither the time nor the space, and more importantly, I do not currently owe you any money).
Finding and reading individual authorial nuances is part of the joy of TNB; coming to grips with these disparate contributions and engaging with one, then another, then another, in the same space of time. And across time more pieces come in, which build and define a particular voice further, or invite the reader to change their opinion and impression of it… It would be difficult, if not impossible, to disseminate this much content, this fast, without the aid of technology and the internet, and it’s an integral part of TNB.
Reading the other writers of TNB makes me aware I have a responsibility as a writer; one I take more and more seriously. Greg Olear recently referenced a quote by James Michener, that unless you think you can out-write Tolstoy, you’re wasting everybody’s time. Michener was being more than a little hyperbolic, but he’s got the wavering outlines of a point. Now when I approach the keyboard I make a note to remind myself that my responsibility is to write something of merit; something I can look back on in another two years and still be content to attach my name to and stand alongside the other pieces of the authors of TNB⁶.
Either that or I should write something about how, one time, my ex-girlfriend had sex with Steve Buscemi.
7. Brad Listi has put an Amazing Thing Together Here.
From MySpace blog to international community, literary magazine and publishing house? That’s a big journey. My thanks, Mr. Listi, for allowing me to be a continuing part of it, in so many ways.
8. Brad Listi has an Unpleasant Surprise Coming
Because Brad’s 2009 discovery that he had a long-lost twin brother, born and raised into a Mexican luchadore dynasty, turned tragic later that day with the news he received, only hours later, that Senor Listi had been killed, horrifically, by a mysterious and vengeful rival known as ‘El Profesor Diablo’, who then disappeared, never to compete as a luchadore again, forever disqualified and saying something about moving to Tulsa.
However, that amazing story, and the subsequent coda of how I distracted Brad from his grief with a call to some friends in the bridge design industry, is one for another time.
¹ How wrong I was.
² Fact: 3 out of every 10 divorces worldwide occur due to acts of infidelity committed with a bridge designer.
³ And frankly, it stings a little that my crucial efforts have been largely ignored in the speeches of a grateful people.
⁴ Especially as I recouped some of these funds later from a glovebox.
⁵ I would also say that this position should probably involve cash somehow.
⁶ This was never, ever, previously a consideration, as much of my back catalogue will testify.