Mental Contagion

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Tin Can Mental Contagion
Memories of the Past and Future
by Gene Dillon

Opening the Can
- Publishing in 125,000 Easy Steps

Chapter 1: Difficult
Well, what's the hardest part, anyway? The writing? No. Writing isn't difficult. You can write anything you want. It doesn't have to be good. It doesn't even have to be interesting. I happen to be writing right now. See?

To be driven to create—I suppose you need that. But then you have to bother doing it. I decided to dive into this medium about 4 years ago. It just made a lot of sense. I had done some illustration and cartooning and painting, but I was untrained. I was unskilled. Most of all, I lacked the drive. It was the whole "one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration" thing. I liked coming up with the ideas, but the rest of it was so mundane and tedious. Carrying out the ideas took away too much of the time I could have been spending on the generation of more ideas. To me, it was all about the stories and the messages being communicated, anyway.

So I abandoned all efforts at any kind of visual art, and I gave up on all my future plans to learn an instrument and become a rock star. (Glad I didn't sink any time into that.) I can see how the mastering of another skill such as painting, illustration, film or music could one day bring me to a point where I was nailing down what I wanted to accomplish, but it would take so long to get to that point, and I could see how easy it would be to get lost along the way, lost in the craft, in the production, in the refinement or in the collaboration. All excuses, I suppose. Mostly, it just didn't fit. I didn't want a tedious hobby. I wanted something to do with my life. Writing felt a lot closer to the source and the inspiration. I wanted to be closer to the 100%.

There is something different about writing, and I would be delighted to hear a lot of people disagree with me about this: Anyone can do it. This is not to say that just anyone can be "good" at it. But we all have the capability to speak words and to write them down. For some reason, it's something I feel like doing. I have no formal training, and I really don't read that much. But I guess none of that matters. Everybody has to start somewhere, and I have no illusions of future fame, or notoriety, or any kind of developing brilliance—just a bunch of stories and stupid jokes. I enjoy doing this.


I think it's time to do some of that stuff I don't feel like doing. I have to put forth some percentage of perspiration, because it's time, it's something that needs to be done. I want to take a big chunk of what I've been doing these last four years, and put together a collection of my material. Like, in print. You know. A book-thingy. People do that. Serious writers and silly ones, too. Everybody does it.

I don't care about success at this point. But I don't want to waste anybody's time either. Especially mine. So… I have to go back into the archives. Forty-eight installments of the Tin Can, the column I have been forcing out onto the Web every month. I have to look at just what the hell I've been doing.

Good God. I have to read all this crap again.

Can of Worms
Yeah. I started thinking about this thing two years ago. A short novel, featuring a couple dozen of the emails I received from my future self. But I had to go back and sort through over a hundred of them, and pick my favorites, and then go through the notes that I had written along with them, describing my personal experiences during that time, and … it was all kind of daunting, you know? Okay, maybe not. It's just reading and proofreading, right? Well, let me tell you a little something about my "craft."

Mental Contagion has always published on the first of every month. This provided me with a valuable opportunity back in 2002, if Karen's offer from the previous year was still open. It's called a deadline. I knew that when I committed myself to writing a column—this column—that I would have to come up with something every month, no matter how crappy it felt, or how hurriedly I slopped it together. And that's just what I did! Every 28th or 29th of a month, I would begin to work on my column. In late 2003, I started helping with the production of this online magazine. All that work turned out to be valuable and enlightening, as far my recognition of the craft goes. Since that time, I've been co-producing, knocking out the HTML, "editing" all the staff columns, and launching the magazine, usually on time. At the beginning of 2006, I added an interview/conversation feature to my workload, called The Shovel, another great source of inspiration and experience.

So, you see how a workload can build up. There's also the wife and kids and other interests. My life is about as busy as yours. But I love the writing, and I love MC and the people who are a part of it. Unfortunately, the challenges have caught up with me. Each month has been a scramble to do everything else, and my column, my work, was becoming an invisible sort of stepchild, ignored. The work was getting squeezed. I had forgotten why I was doing this. The whole point was for me to be writing, to keep writing, to build up a body of work and perhaps even refine my craft along the way. And it's not like I didn't try to spread it out over the entire month. I've come to learn that anything I compose between the 1st and the 28th is simply lost, scrapped or forgotten. I don't even want to look at what I did two weeks ago. I don't care! I have to launch in a day or two. What I was thinking about a half a month ago is totally irrelevant and can never be unearthed again.

Which brings up this other issue: How am I supposed to go back over the last four years of my life and analyze what I have done, when I can't even stand the thought of reliving what I was up to fourteen days ago? See, that's just stupid. If I can't get motivated enough to churn out any sort of final product during the first 28 days of any month, then why don't I use all of that time to do something else? I started the previous couple of paragraphs with the full intention of describing to you how I haven't had time to work on the book. Because I'm too busy "immersing myself in the creative process." How could I find even a single spare moment of time during which to bother myself with all of this crap that a traditionally published writer is forced into doing against his or her will? This stuff just absolutely ruins their lives, doesn't it? Or does it? What have I been avoiding?

Where was I going with this?

No. Where AM I going with this? That's the question I have to ask. I'm queasy with ambivalence. I feel like Woody Allen bungee-jumping on acid … with a feral kitten in his pants. I can't explain it. It's just neurosis, for crap's sake. We get worked up about things for no reason. Things like doing our taxes or cleaning the toilet fill us with dread, but they only take a few hours or minutes. But then, there are the things that really mean something to us, like becoming less fat, or learning Spanish, or getting up off our asses and doing something of real value, anything… We can get frozen in our tracks.

I don't buy this "fear of failure" or "fear of success" thing. It isn't that. Deep down, I think we all want to be spending ALL of our time doing the meaningful things that fulfill us the most, but there is something—some kind of sickness—that drags us down. We like our couches and our shows and our drinks and our pills and our anger and our fear and our ecstasy and our comfort. We like the quick fixes in our lives that make us take our eyes off the prize. Neurosis? Thank goodness it's all in the mind.

The Can
This is supposed to be about publishing. It can be. I am nobody in particular, and my work may amount to nothing, but if you put me on the witness stand and ask me if I can do this, I have to tell you,"Yes." Self-publishing a book to be printed on demand is something that anyone can do, with a moderate amount of effort. That's the backup plan. I am going to drag you through this process along with me. I have never been published in print before, unless you count a couple of comix I drew in Chicago about 15 years ago. I can contact agents. I can contact publishers. I can talk with friends and acquaintances. You're gonna hear all about it. I bet a lot of what happens is going to suck, and that I am going to think about quitting several times. You'll hear about that too. But look what I have just done. I have committed to this project, right here in public. I have to do it now. I've tried a trick like this before. It works.

Step One is over and done. I wrote and revised almost 50 columns, and I published them on this site once a month. The next step is to smash everything together into one file. I started doing that a couple of weeks ago. I meant to finish by now, but I didn't. I really wanted to show you some progress. But I had jury duty last week. Civic duty has officially been designated as this month's excuse for falling short of my goals. But I'm over halfway done. Columns from November 2002 through January 2005 have been condensed into one long HTML file. 75,000 words so far, with about 20 more months to put in. I'll finish that task soon enough. Of course, then I have to read every single word. I think I'll save the first draft and post it somewhere. I revise and edit compulsively, so as soon as I begin reading, everything will start to change and take on a new shape. I'm going to try really hard to give it a once-over before I touch it. Make a few lists, catch redundancies and inconsistencies and so forth.

The only issue that puzzles me: I have all of these messages from my future self. Is it ethical to correct punctuation, and perhaps leave out the parts that are boring?

It's not like I would be changing someone else's work. I am still me. One can't really offend one's self.

I think...

Mental Contagion
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