Paper Storm

I’m not a hoarder. I like to keep my surroundings relatively spacious or skeletal, depending on how you see things. I’m even thinking about trading or giving away most of my books. The ones that I feel like I can part with, that is. I don’t need very much.

One thing I do tend to collect is paper. Stacks, towers. Folders and drawers bursting full. Filled with old stories that have been written on by other students, receipts and bank statements from years ago, postcards from my high school peers that I’ve lost contact with completely, notes from in between (or during) classes, letters from pen pals on the opposite side of the world, torn envelopes from my late cousin when he was in a correctional facility, cards from my various graduations and parties.

Mom hoards things for the holidays. One of my favorites is Halloween. When I was little, I won costume contests a lot because my mom would put my outfits together herself. She was clever, but I didn’t make it easy. I would always choose characters from video games that no one recognized, like Kung Lao and Geno. The rim of Lao’s hat was tin foil.

Usually my dad turns our garage into a haunted house and trick-or-treaters come and take a look. But this year, he is trying to throw a party. My mom finds this hilarious. I’m in charge of making a brew of pumpkin juice and cups of dirt (crumbled Oreo + pudding) with gummy worms. We’ll see how this all works out.

My mom is much more traditional than I am. She treats the holidays very seriously and she believes in them like a part of a heritage. Paper is becoming an old medium of expression. Paper is the oldest thing I cling to. It is ancient and even mythical, much like the stories behind these particular times of the year. Computers are convenient, and I do use them a lot, but I still like to have the stacks around. I don’t think I’ll ever be any other kind of hoarder.

One of my poems is going to be published in the first issue of Foxing Quarterly. This is my first poem ever that is going to be in a print publication. Excitement from everywhere, although another thing to collect and keep. I promise I will get rid of some books soon.

Thinking of old friends and all the chaos from the paper clutter, I made a mix called “Passing Notes.” It’s funny and sad and serious and not too serious all at once:

Passing Notes from josephdante on 8tracks Radio.

Frames of Reference

Melissa Dominic, via the Pocket House, got me thinking recently about the places I grew up in, where I come from, and where I’m headed. The whole trajectory. You can read hers here.

Hard as I try, I don’t remember much about the first house I lived in. I was so small, and I don’t even remember what my own room looked like. All I remember is the cold beige tiles and how I would roll a plastic bowling ball down the hallway at a rainbow of plastic pins. I’d later grow to love bowling alleys because of it, the french fries with huge globs of ketchup, and the arcades, even though I could tell my friends found my birthday parties there boring. I also had a vegetable garden in our backyard. My family told me I had a green thumb and I told them I wanted to be a botanist. I grew bell peppers, string beans, and tomatoes, and Nana would use them in her dishes.

I come from an old town in Florida called Hollywood, where there are a lot of musty buildings, benches with graffiti written over the smarmy grins of real estate agents, big backyards, long alleyways, and streets named after presidents. We eventually moved to our second house located on one of these streets. A teacher of mine lived a few houses down from us and I was convinced she was a real-life witch because she would take our lunches away if we so much as breathed too loudly in class. I went to a private Catholic school not because of the religious education that was offered, but because my mom felt the other schools in the area weren’t up to her standards.

I always did well in school, always had really good grades and honor roll status. I had some friends, but not many. I didn’t like a lot of people there because I found a lot of things they said and did offensive. I was called a lot of things because of who I was, but I tried to shut it all out. I dealt with bullies on my own. I was the shortest boy in the class and a few girls had crushes on me because of that innocence I had simply because I didn’t curse and didn’t yell. If anything, Catholic school taught me that people didn’t know how to behave towards each other.

It is always hot and wet in Florida, and there are always thunderstorms and hurricanes causing periods of power outages. Sometimes the power flickers on and off for no reason. We had hurricane parties, where the neighbors would gather in the streets and start a barbecue and play dominoes. We had big combined garage sales with my little lemonade stand and painted signs pointing the way.

You could say I grew up in standard suburbia: shopping plazas, highways, and countless rows and rows of houses. Lots of time spent driving between places, getting to school. Lots of time in between to think and imagine and write down what I saw. If there weren’t these stretches, maybe I wouldn’t have been a writer. Who can know.

My sister was born and things changed instantly. I wasn’t sure how to react. My mom says I took one look at Paula and asked: Is that it? I don’t remember that, but it seems like something I would say at that age. I was happy though because I knew I wanted a sister from the beginning–there were too many boys in the family anyway. My sister was a funny person ever since she was born, and I am happy to say that we are still laughing a lot together.

I left Catholic school when I was going into the seventh grade. My mom was very worried to take me out, but when she told me about this new public school that was opening, I wasn’t fazed. I didn’t care about what I was leaving behind and I wouldn’t miss anyone. When we took a trip to see this school being built, I was curious. Ironically, I’d soon realize that this period would be the best transitional phase in my coming of age. No one knew each other at this school, so I didn’t really care what people thought of me. I made new friends quicker than ever before. I’d be nice and gentle and bright-eyed and people wouldn’t have an issue with that. Teachers started to notice how I could write, which was something I really never paid attention to before. It was just something I did because of the long distances.

High school was in a different place. High school was also very different because everything is slightly askew and slightly sideways when you’re a teenager. We moved into the third house, which was much closer to the high school. It is located in a very new, more densely populated city in Florida. There are more gated housing communities and senior citizens, and it is more multicultural. I continued my education and my sister would eventually follow suit by attending the very same high school. I got my license, got a small white car I named Atticus Finch, spent time with friends at the mall on the weekends. My grades went from really good to flawless. I didn’t have a lot of school spirit, but I did volunteer work with handicapped kids. I started reading and writing a lot, and took advanced placement English and creative writing classes. I didn’t go to school dances, but I did go to the senior prom–a limo and everything. A few girls asked me to go with them and I caved with the first choice. After graduation, I’d eventually go off to college in Miami, where I realized I wanted to study English. It was between English and psychology, but I decided on the former because I knew I’d prefer writing about people’s problems rather than trying to solve them.

Sometimes, there are moments of tingly nostalgia (this is bound to happen if you grew up in the 90s), but I like to think of myself as a long-term forward thinker now. I’ve grown morbidly afraid of watching home videos for this reason, and I’d rather not waste time watching someone I hardly know anymore. Also due to the obvious embarrassment and having to watch my mom cry or say things that make me cringe.

Sometimes, I do pass our old Hollywood house though, usually on a trip to the doctor’s office. Out of all the places, this is the one with the most memories that have stuck. The lawn is overgrown now, like a jungle, and the pool is just that color green too. There is ivy growing on the garage next door. The houses down the block are painted colors like bright chalk, colors that would get us a notice tucked in our mailbox now. It’s like returning to Wonderland and realizing something is amiss. There is a fear of what may happen next, but a confident cheshire glow of what still remains.

Converting Non-Readers, by an Ex-Non-Reader

So, I was a guest writer for ReadLearnWrite. Thanks to Mr. Brandon Monk for having me. My post just went up today. It’s about my childhood as a very dedicated non-reader (which may seem surprising?) and growing up in a household without books and how things have changed since then. It also goes into how I try to foist books on people now on a regular basis (including little anecdotes about these attempts with my family).

I’ve also sent out some writing to journals, as well as a national poetry contest. I’m getting a bit crazy I think. I have to start somewhere though, I suppose – may as well be that! If I don’t win, I’ll just quit writing forever. No big deal.

I think I handle rejection pretty well, if you ask me. If you really want to know my secret: I’ve been prepping myself with this special rejection generator.

Writing for Yourself

After all this time, I’ve never really kept a private journal for myself. I mean, I wrote stories in black-and-white composition books when I was little and I had my own online journal when I was a teenager (still kind of do), but other people always read these things.  My family and teachers enjoyed reading my books and my friends commented on my journal. There was always this audience, even though I claimed to be writing for myself.

Well, I’ve finally decided to change that and start writing in a simple brown notebook that no one knows about. No one knows about it and no one reads it. It’s only for my unfiltered, unedited thoughts. There aren’t any stories, just these wide strokes of feelings vomited on to the page. I don’t plan on articulating myself properly with this – it’s mostly just for therapy. Looking back on everything else, I don’t know why I haven’t done this sooner. I don’t know why I didn’t find a place for this before. No big deal I guess, except for how strange it suddenly makes me feel and how it’s made me realize that maybe I haven’t really been writing what I feel, and how, maybe, I’ve still been a bit too safe in how I go about it.

If someone finds it, I’m not going to act like a teenager. If they read it, they can be horrified or disgusted or amused. Probably a combination of all the above.

It’s also made me realize how awful I am in verbalizing my own feelings. I can’t seem to spit anything out. I usually end up laughing because it makes me so uncomfortable. Maybe it makes me scared. Either way, I seem to treat my emotions like they aren’t really my emotions. Writing about them in a fictional way has never been difficult, but writing about them without the fiction is something entirely different.

Growing into a Reader

This may surprise you, but I wasn’t always the most voracious reader. In fact, as a child, I didn’t really feel compelled to pick up books outside the classroom at all. I didn’t hang out at libraries, and I didn’t fall asleep late at night drooling on the pages. I read books mostly because I had to. So I can’t ultimately blame them for my current—and probably permanent—infatuation with the written word. If anything, I blame my other strange hobbies that provided the first fuel for this fire.

When I was young, I had my own vegetable garden that I tended to in the backyard. It was a small corner where I grew tomatoes, bell peppers, and string beans. My string beans were the favorite—Nana would always use them in her cooking and told everyone that they were the best. In school, when we were asked to discuss what we wanted to be when we grew up, I would tell everyone that I wanted to be a botanist. My teachers were obviously impressed that I even knew of such a word, while my classmates would raise an eyebrow. “A botanist?” they would wonder. “What on earth is that?” And then I would always have to explain to them what it was: a scientist who studied plant life.

So, you see, at that age, I never even wanted to be a writer. I didn’t see it that way at all. But, in retrospect, one thing became clear: even at that age, I was already interested in the growth and intersecting of small life in a small corner, and I always equipped with a magnifying glass to hold up to the leaves.

Although I didn’t take it very seriously back then, I sometimes liked to write stories and create my own characters. I remember how I would make books out of construction paper and give myself long, bizarre pseudonyms. The words in the books would be accompanied by my awful illustrations. The first book was made for my mom—a “get well soon” present—and it was a story about a torn-up paper bag floating to and fro around the town. It would detail this bag’s adventures on the wind and what it would see from its perspective. My mom still has it in her closet.

I grew up a little—eventually, but not that much—and, one day, I received a strange gift from one of my mom’s coworkers: a horse marionette. It had orange hair and rainbow limbs and I named him Freddy. For some reason, I was instantly fascinated by it and decided that I wanted to take up studying the very esoteric art of puppetry. I remember how my mom actually had a puppeteer perform for me at one of my birthday parties and how I absolutely loved it. Despite these weird fascinations, I’ve always had a family who consistently encouraged my creativity. I didn’t have a dad who yelled at me to be a man and play baseball—I had a dad who helped me make a stage for my plays out of a leftover refrigerator box and some window curtains. I had a mom whose other coworkers and friends managed to find me puppets from all around the world: Cuba, Puerto Rico, Spain, Slovakia, the Czech Republic. My relatives started to add new ones to my collection too, and I started to write scripts and cast the puppets as my characters. I would practice the plays and sometimes get my friends to help out too. I would put on puppet shows for my family and charge admission. And, although I was sharing my stories and using my imagination to give these dolls on strings personalities, I still wasn’t interested in books. But the spark was there and I suppose it was inevitable.

Alongside my puppet shows, I had started to play video games as well. One day, my cousins played Mortal Kombat with me and I was hooked. I asked for a Super Nintendo for my birthday and I would play games every day—but only after I finished all my homework, of course. My mom allowed me to play any game that I wanted—yes, even extremely violent games like Mortal Kombat—and I’m grateful that she did. But I grew especially obsessed with adventure games and role-playing games: the games that focused specifically on the creation of alternate worlds with memorable characters and vivid atmospheres. Eventually—and also inevitable—my puppet shows became inspired by the worlds and adventures that I saw. Reading books and writing short stories came next.

In middle school and high school, I had a few English teachers that encouraged me. It’s always nice to have the support of your family and friends, but I think this other kind of support was necessary too—coming from an educational system and a different kind of authority—in order for me to take writing more seriously. It was in high school when I started taking advanced English classes and creative writing, and when I began to read books on my own time as well. I started to love fiction itself. My teachers in high school taught more than just the fundamentals and I’m very grateful for that—they pushed me to my limit, to the point sometimes where I didn’t want to write anymore. I finally began to read much more avidly and critically. I started learning about writing as a craft, and began treating it more like an art form rather than just a hobby that would occasionally save me from boredom. It became more than just an escape. I won a few awards and prize money, and then realized that I couldn’t see myself going on to study anything other than English at a university. I got my degree and continued to write.

Although I’ve dropped all those other hobbies—my garden is gone, my puppets are gathering dust in boxes somewhere—I still love to play video games. And there is a stigma attached to gamers, you know: essentially, that we are all overgrown kids just playing with toys. And you could argue, that all these strange hobbies I grew up with—even the act of writing fiction itself—do ultimately originate from a childlike wonder about the world. But I’ve never given up on these stories since, and I don’t see why I ever have to.