From Nothing: Reflections from the Road

One of the rare joys of being a writer is getting to talk about your work. One of the even rarer joys is getting to talk about the same work more than once because it is being published in a new format.

From Nothing, my third novel published by The Story Plant, allows me that joy with the paperback release on October 7, 2019.

It’s two generous bites of the apple, separated by over a year of contemplation, during which I got to hear from readers on how this story impacted their lives.

It’s a privilege to reflect on how I intended the troubled journey of Victor Selo to stir emotion, and how that was played back to me by my cherished readers. Perhaps an appropriate context for this is leaning on some of the lyrics I borrowed for inspiration and attempting to tie them back to many of the comments shared with me at readings, in reviews, and in letters sent my way.

Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream …

That’s The Beatles, and they are everywhere in this tale. Probably the first thing people discover about Victor is that he is anything but relaxed. Life events just don’t afford him that luxury. Yet readers clearly made the connection between the invisible forks in the road chosen by Victor and the intense downstream consequences or results of their own unpredictable resolutions to unseeable moments of fate.

I found that I am not alone in boiling down my life to five or six key choices that I wasn’t necessarily aware were determinations of my ultimate twists and turns until decades after those quiet tests were unmasked. I have found great moments of connection in hearing readers see the fickle outcomes of their paths in the eyes of a character who is a stranger to their circumstances while a mirror for the task of connecting their own dots.

We are stardust, we are golden …

That’s Joni Mitchell, celebrated forever by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. It has been hard to escape this refrain with all the milestone anniversary hoopla around Woodstock, but readers seemed to understand that nostalgia wasn’t a theme I wanted to explore. My devotion is to the miraculous artistry of the songs that stay with us, the melodies and harmonies that become attached to the events we navigate and reconstitute themselves during the many decades we interpret their significance.

Readers have joyfully acknowledged that context and relevance become inescapable in the songs that become their favorites. Think about your favorite song the first time you heard it and what was happening in your life then. Now think about the same song a decade later, and a decade after that. The song hasn’t changed, but you have. If it remains a favorite, there is a reason. Our favorite songs blossom as our lives expand. We may even have to abandon a song for a while when our history associates it with pain. Yet we can always return to a song, and it can return to us. That is the majesty of composition and the alchemy of our interactions with vibrant creative matter.

Guess it’s better to say goodbye to you …

That’s Scandal, one of the less famous bands covered in the Vegas clubs where Victor crawls his way back to self-confidence. Early in my thinking about the arc of this tour, I knew I wanted to include references to the biggest acts of our time alongside some of the voices that had equal impact on me even with fewer hits. I’ve enjoyed the engagement from readers asking me why I excerpted one song and not another, and whether I planned a sequel to fill out the playlist. I don’ think a sequel is possible, and the chorus sung here by Patty Smyth is a good reason why.

It is humbling to know that readers turned these pages to find out what Victor might learn from the corporate monsters pounding on him, and from the many misfortunes he believed he had overcome but never actually escaped. When I listen to people tell me about the past events that are holding them in place, I wonder if part of the glue that holds us together is the evasive hope that we can let go, that we can move on, that we can start again. Whether it’s business, invention, or love, the past is an obstacle we all understand. It is all too easy to suggest to another that letting go and moving on is usually our best bet, but how often do we courageously take our own advice?

If you haven’t yet had a chance to read From Nothing, I hope some of these thoughts may inspire you. If you do have occasion to pick it up in any of its releases and have your own interpretations to share, I would enjoy learning from you.

This is the soundtrack of our lives.

Why Do We Do Difficult Things?

Apollo 11 - NASAI’ve been out on book tour for the launch of my new novel, From Nothing. At one of the early talks I began with a simple question: Why do we do difficult things?

I’m not talking about ordinary-difficult things like schlepping yourself to work every day or paying all your bills. I’m talking about really big stuff. Pick a career path. Marry someone. Divorce someone. Start a company. Write a book—without an advance check.

Why do we decide to tackle extraordinarily hard challenges? Why do we embark on the kinds of things that change our lives?

I’m going to give you the answer in just a few more carriage returns, but before I do, think about what your answer might be.

Why do you do exceptionally difficult things?

Is it for money?

Is it for status and ego?

Is it because someone else pressures you to do it?

I think those enticements can play a role, but I don’t think it’s why most of us do difficult things.

I think we do difficult things because we can’t not.

Try repeating that in your head. Read the words “Why do we do difficult things?” Then answer aloud: Because we can’t not.

If you’re not alone, say it rather quietly under your breath, but do say it aloud. If you are alone, shout it from your gut.

Why do we difficult things?

Because we can’t not.

Excellent, I think I heard you that time! You’ll note the purposeful application of a solid double negative. Don’t worry, the grammar police aren’t coming for us, at least not this time.

I want this message to encode in your mind: Because we can’t not.

The topic of my book talk was why I choose to write for what amounts to the tiniest part of my income given the full span of hours invested. The question at hand was why I didn’t spend more of my time on lucrative business projects instead of sitting alone in a room for half my waking hours banging out words without much promise of real financial upside no matter how well I write.

There are obstacles to book distribution at an enterprise scale that are beyond my ability to control. If I chose to write fiction solely for wealth creation, I would be repeatedly disappointed. I would like to be pleasantly surprised by financial reward largely because it meant more people would have read my stories, but I would be foolish to count on it.

To me, it doesn’t matter if I get paid a fortune or less than minimum wage. Most of the money I’ve made in my career was when I wasn’t thinking about money at all. The few times I was thinking primarily about money I made the least. Or none.

I follow the path I can’t ignore. I do what I need to do, and the rewards follow or they don’t.

Why do we do difficult things? Because we can’t not.

I have learned that this applies to business, to art, and to human relationships. The principle is always the same.

Certainly money is a part of the equation. For some people, it’s a very big part of the equation. In my experience, when it’s most of the equation, you’ll see in front of you a very unhappy person—whether he has a lot or a little.

When the reason for doing things is unbalanced, most everything begins to go haywire. That actually happens to the main character in my new book, Victor Selo. He sees people going for the money and only the money. The world falls apart.

Why do I sit in front of this grimy keyboard pounding out sentences when I could be helping start or buy or sell another company?

I like money. I just decided I knew how much I needed, and what I wasn’t willing to do in search of more. I needed to return to who I was when my wife met me: a guy who made up goofy stuff and told it to other people (I borrow that line liberally from George Carlin). Minimum wage or a bestseller, it didn’t matter. I couldn’t not write.

I want you to consider doing the same. I want you to do whatever it is that you cannot-not do. Ah, there’s that double negative again! This author will go far.

Please do what you cannot-not do.

Why not stick with the easy stuff? Isn’t it difficult enough to get through each day and week, pay the bills, avoid unnecessary conflict with your boss, co-workers, acquaintances, and family?

Yes, all of our routine tasks can be exhausting. It’s easy to let them take over our lives. Here’s what those debilitating punch lists obscure:

Time is precious. Time is perishable. Our lives are at last defined by how we play out the clock.

Self-definition is a choice. It happens to be a very hard choice. It takes place at those invisible forks in the road we too often only see in hindsight. When we force ourselves to look ahead, our choices become constructively active, not passive, even when ultimately deemed wrong.

The intrinsic rewards of courageously owning a cannot-not do agenda are unique to each of us. If we don’t own that choice, it is made for us. Some people call that one of life’s regrets. I think of it more as ignoring the call to unique opportunity.

Why do we do difficult things? Because we can’t not.

Another way to go astray and release control of the clock is to lose faith in our honest self-awareness or pure acknowledgment of our true abilities. Remember, I am not talking about the things we might want to do. I am talking about the things we cannot-not do. Those two forces might align, but not always. Self-deception can cloud our best choices.

Here’s a confession: I was a theater student in college. I was also a philosophy student so it wasn’t a total waste of time and money. I had a very Russian acting teacher one semester, who took me aside and said in a thick accent, “You know what, Kenneth G, this acting, you know why I do it?”

Okay, she didn’t say Kenneth G, that reference comes years later, but it kind of works in this context. Go with me.

“Because you’re good at it?” I answered her.

“That is beside the point,” she replied in English that could have been Russian. “I do it because there is nothing else I can do and still be me. The difference is, I think there are other things you can do and still be you, so do that, and you will spare yourself a life of misery.”

I thought about it and said: “Is this a nice way of telling me I’m not good at acting?”

She smiled and nodded with that Russian piercing insight. “You see, Kenneth G, you understand so well. Do something else that you cannot-not do. What we should do is what we must only do—because we can’t not.”

That’s when I knew I had to write.

What about you?

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Phone: NASA (Apollo 11)

It’s a Hard Rock Life

From Nothing by Ken Goldstein
From Nothing, my third and most personal novel, has moved from my ownership to yours. I hope it will mean something to you. It certainly has been an odyssey for me. The book is rock and roll, the process of performing it no less so.

As I write these words, I am preparing a number of public book talks, thinking about what I want to say about this story beyond letting it speak for itself. That’s always hard, and particularly difficult this time because I did choose each word in the book carefully. My dear editor and publisher at The Story Plant might say I deliberated on them too carefully, which is why this one took so long, but hey, that’s who I am. Spontaneity for me is a highly composed orchestration that only sounds top of mind when recited.

Since the majority of my readers won’t hear me speak on this book, I wanted to share some of those thoughts with you. I also want to be extremely careful not to give away any spoilers, which is quite a task when I want to tell you everything. I will do my best to restrain myself.

I have an eclectic process I use to write a novel. It begins years before I write a single line of expository or dialogue. I usually have a protagonist identified and a very rough roadmap of a plot that will deliver that character’s arc, but even before I begin the detailed process of outlining, I start a page of ideas I call “collecting.” That can take a decade, or in the case of this book, several decades, because this book began as a long abandoned screenplay treatment I wrote in my 20s.

I share with you here some of the ideas and concepts I wanted to explore that landed over the years on that collecting page. Some of these have been transcribed directly from the many scraps of paper that got stuffed into my project folder.

It all started with the notion of the soundtrack of our livesto be fully confessional, the soundtrack of my life. I believe our music carries us through the bad times and encodes the good times. Each of us has a unique soundtrack depending on our years alive, but most of them overlap. I wanted to build a story sitting atop that premise.

That became the conflicted tale of Victor Selo, a onetime cover band guitarist become corporate refugee become cover band artist anew with remarkably higher stakes. Music both holds him together and tears him apart. His flight from the big bucks technology arena is meant to be an escape, where songs of the classic rock generation guide along the plot like a jukebox musical, but his personal history looms forever large. He trades one stage for another, large to small to ascending, not better, mostly different, equally pernicious.

I began framing his quest with a number of lyrical quotes, from The Beatles and The Who, and one special song from another band which would be a spoiler so I’ll have to let you discover that. The book’s title already hints at a giveaway. I wanted these lyrics to punch through the chapters, which you’ll discover are not chapters at all, but tracks from a concept album. Oops, another spoiler. I better quit while I’m ahead, or very soon thereafter.

I wanted to explore how we find the courage to do the right thing, especially when the choices are not clear, and the most obvious choice could easily have the most deleterious repercussions. We want what we think we want. We want what we think we deserve. We are usually wrong about both. We are not alone in enduring the consequences of what we bring on ourselves.

I wanted to explore the necessity of constantly starting over in life as a creative process. This might seem a bit counter-intuitive when applied to the building blocks of one’s personal growth, but it’s not really. We think a career is about piling one success upon another and hiding away the failures. Once you reach a certain age, you realize how wrong you were to think that’s how things work. Back to The Who in Quadrophenia (1973):

You were under the impression
That when you were walking forward
That you’d end up further onward
But things ain’t quite that simple.

When we begin from an empty palettefrom a hollow toolbox and an arsenal of absencewe have the unblemished opportunity to reassert our individuality and purpose. We sing the song of ourselves. We embrace the courage to risk exposure. We realize the comfort zone of complacency is the strangling curse of the zombie. We slay the zombie in ourselves before it forces us to wander the earth in purgatory sameness.

Good people can be corrupted under stealth compliance when they prioritize the essence of survival over the illusive ideal of needing to thrive. We all do it. We have to do it. There are hidden crossroads in our lives we can only see in hindsight. We have to choose at the fork in the road with the clock ticking, but we seldom see there is a real choice until after we have chosen. That’s when fate throws a party and the booze is bad.

I wanted to explore the full magilla of a Tyson-like knockout. You know Iron Mike’s saying, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” When you’re lying on the mat looking up at the referee counting you out in a fog, how do you come back? How do you fight a different way?

It all circles back to creative destruction. We are dying to be reborn. It’s nearly impossible to figure out how until crisis strikes like a demon tornado on the bountiful plains.

If you peak too early, you can fall pretty far, pretty fast, and never find the net below the trapeze. When your dreams die, what do you do next?

While we’re at it, how do we combat the forces of mediocrity, the entrenched entitled protecting themselves from sharing the spotlight with a new voice? Can we courageously take on the sins of self-propelling governance, the greed and avarice of short-term thinking, the material byproducts of genuine innovation that create conflict where instead there should be celebration?

I wanted to wrap all that in the conceit of a song cycle, a hard rock concept album that holds together on theme. I wanted to pick an argument with eternity, crawling toward faith where it hides in our sorrowful fears.

In the end for a storyteller there is only relevance and irrelevance. Anne Lamott explained it in the simplest of all statements: “No once cares if you write, so you have to care.”

I care a lot. I hope you see that in this unusual trek through multiple backdrops and the obstacles we overcome in the search for ourselves. If you want to read a more detailed synopsis or a few brief excerpts from the text you can link to that here.

I’ll see you at the after-party. I’m told the top shelf will be pouring in the green room. I’ll be tuning Victor’s guitaror maybe carrying his practice amp to a late night no-cover lounge in Vegas.

My Third Book: From Nothing

Writers by affliction are an idiosyncratic lot. Other than a willingness to spend an enormous amount of time alone and a preternatural love of language construction, we don’t have all that much in common. We write about different things, from the historic lives of dead people to the ponderous calculations of romance that could never live up to its description. Some of us have enviable discipline in reserving hours for our craft day in and day out. Others are beasts of procrastination who binge occasionally in overnight typing sessions while devoting daylight hours to cleaning out pencil-stuffed drawers and ceiling fan lint. An author on tour may enjoy speaking publicly, while another cowers at facing readership in the form of human flesh.

We may share a passion for literary achievement, but we are in few ways the same. One bit of sameness has occurred to me exactly three times, each when I’ve finished one of my novels. When the final copy-edit has put the book to bed and readied it for your consumption, I’ve invariably asked myself the same simple question:

“Why did I do that?”

The existential query is unavoidable. Why does a writer remain dedicated to the challenge of completing a book? I am guessing I am not alone in that meditation. It is impossible to think that most of my colleagues and the legions of our predecessors have not asked themselves the same thing. It’s a heck of an endeavor, for most not particularly lucrative. It disarms the writer to a battalion of transparent critics, and the incomplete satisfaction is resolved only in the reborn commitment to attempt it yet again.

So I ask you, as you are likely to ask me: Why bother?

To say that we are without choice in the matter may sound glib, but I am afraid that is the only reasonable answer I can muster. We do it because we can’t not do it. We do it because there is something inside of us that needs to ferment and emerge, to escape the confines of a sole mind and become part of a shared consciousness. If we could avoid or redirect this need many of us would, but we cannot, and so we sit, ruminate, draft, and revise. Somehow the new book becomes complete and we are ready to share it, with the best of intentions. For me, happily that time is now, and I hope the new work resonates with some of you the way its voice called out to me.

I am glad it is done. I am honored to share it with you.

It has been a fragile three years in the making. It was delayed partly by life’s interruptions and partly by my need to pick each word at least a dozen times. I may not have the discipline to write in predetermined sections of each day, but I do have the discipline to embrace each of my sentences before I toss them to you. It’s nerve-wracking. It’s time-consuming. It’s exhausting. I know of no other way to do it with pride.

From Nothing. That’s the title, and sort of where it came from — out of nowhere, yet grounded in a collection of moments I have known or expanded in scope. Should you choose to read it, you’ll discover in more detail why I called it that.

It’s the story of why a life becomes a story, how that story is guided concretely and through alchemy, and why some stories are better than others, even if they didn’t set out to be something more than assembled emotions wrapped around an evocative philosophy.

Weird stuff, huh? The problem remains that it’s difficult for an originator to talk about the plot and characters in a book without giving away any spoilers or making light of one’s own intentions. Allow me instead to dance around a few of the book’s themes.

Technology: Yes, it’s me again, come to take you inside the empirical land where I earn most of my living. This is the universe of creative destruction, where bad things have to happen to otherwise good people for progress to have its way with all of us. At the same time, bad people have a way of making these spoils the treasury of their own private club, and the best most of us can hope to do is stay out of the way of the greedy stampede when it targets our cubicle. Change comes with ugly intervention and nasty byproducts. We then quickly abandon the carnage, cash in whatever chips are left on the table, and reinvent ourselves in our evolving world.

Bar Music: I hope you like piercing lyrics and backbeat as much as I do. Sound is at the heart of this novel. We’re still digesting the baby boom, the soundtrack of our lives, the guitar-hero worship that came and went as fast as any other craze but lingers in the possibility of ephemeral ambition. I spend a lot of time thinking about music, and in this tale I devote a lot of pages to unwrapping composition. The songs connect the dots, even when the dots don’t want to be connected and would rather fade into the Milky Way. I have my favorites and they may not be yours, but our immersion in star-quality memories holds us together. That makes for songs that matter.

Redemption: This book has been a strangely spiritual journey for me, more unmasking than I have attempted previously and certainly more uncomfortable than I intended. The protagonist, Victor Selo, has a troubled life that he finds ways to overcome on the surface, yet he can neither come to terms with success nor adequately interpret loss. He makes a lot of mistakes, stumbles through a litany of lifetime accidents, and where he learns from some misdoings, the ultimate assessment of moral right and material wrong forever confounds and eludes him. Theology and philosophy are a tight couplet in our curious canon. I know I have done no better a job of answering the unanswerable than any before me, but perhaps I can open a different door for you to the unquenchable struggle.

So there you have it, a new book is born and with my deepest hope on its way to your hearts. Reserve a copy, read it when time allows, and let me know where we are and aren’t on the same page. With any luck I’ll be back again in a few years with another adventurous yarn, asking myself why I once again committed to the improbable. Much of that will always be up to you, more than you will likely ever know.

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Publication date is June 12, 2018. If you would like to review an advance reading copy please contact my publisher, The Story Plant, or via email: thestoryplant@thestoryplant.com.

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A Brief Excerpt from Track 2

When Victor awoke it was dark. He looked around and the parking lot was filled. He recognized a third of the cars from the office parking lot. Full Stack Max’s mustard yellow minivan, dents on three sides. Code Machine Clarence’s jacked up Escalade with the shotgun bucket seat usually toting that new kid, QA Juan. Admin Darcy’s prized lime green Prius gleaming under security lights as if she had driven through the car wash on the way there. The familiarity was comforting. At least some of them had come. He was head to toe in perspiration but relieved in the dashboard’s digital transmission that it was after 7:30. People inside would be singing. There would be friendly faces. Inside Providence it would be safe.

Victor had slept in the car almost six hours. That was odd. He really was drained, more than he had thought. As he mustered the courage to open the car door, a tap came on the half-open window. The face beyond the glass was unfamiliar to him.

“You okay?” It was the voice of a man perhaps a decade older than him. Victor looked at the stranger, his plain grey T-shirt, blue-black lumberjack flannel overshirt, vintage khakis, stubble beard, untrimmed mustache and mutton chops. It was a programmer look, but Victor knew all the programmers at Global Harmonics and they were the only programmers who came to Providence. Who was this guy?

“I’m fine,” replied Victor, not yet finding the energy to move.

“Come on inside, you look like you could use a drink,” said Mean Master Muttonchops.

“Yeah, I’m coming. Do I know you?”

“You don’t. My name is Thomas Katem. I’m an investment banker.” He handed Victor his business card through the open window slot. “You’re Victor Selo, right?”

Victor eyed the card for familiarity and put it in his damp chest pocket. “Have we met before?”

“It’s possible, the circles we travel overlap. Unfortunately your meeting at Global Harmonics was over before I got there. Late to the slaughter, the way I heard it.”

“Your loss, we put on a good show. You don’t dress like an investment banker.”

“It’s afterhours. I carry a change in the car. Doesn’t everyone around here?”

“You think I need to clean up before we go in?”

“Nah, come on, I’ll buy you a drink. I’ll bet you have friends inside.”

“We’ll find out.” Victor opened the door and got out of the car. Strangely, the asphalt felt comforting under his feet.

As Victor walked through the doors beside Katem, Providence was in full swing. In all the day’s drama, he had forgotten this was Friday, Live Band Karaoke Night. A warm fall weekend was getting under way. Tonight people wouldn’t sing with a machine, they would front a cover band. It was what made Fridays special, particularly for anyone who had abandoned a long-ago dream.

At the mic was possibly the worst Elvis impersonator of all time, a grey ponytailer doing his best to belt out “Viva Las Vegas” with more stage drama than musicality. He wasn’t an awful singer, he could work his way through a tune with credible intonation. He just didn’t sound anything like the King. He didn’t look like him either, beyond the tattered white sequined jumpsuit. Elvis recognized Victor from across the room and raised the mic stand to him as he entered. Victor waved briefly, then crossed toward the bar with Katem a half step behind. Elvis found the segue to a low pitch baritone interpretation of “Love Me Tender.”

“You know Elvis?” asked Katem.

“His name is Johnny Olano. He lives for this. Friday is his day. Three Elvis tunes, five shots of tequila, and he never goes home alone.”

“He must be seventy, maybe seventy-five,” observed Katem. “How does he pull off that trick?”

“Welcome to Providence.” Victor motioned the bartender with two fingers and was handed a pair of Coronas. Few of his colleagues in the bar were making eye contact with him. A few nodded slightly his way, but his usual warm embrace wasn’t to be found.

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