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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
Gene is currently working on the publishing of a collection of his stories in print. Documenting the process from start to finish, Opening the Can will replace his monthly column until the book is in his hands.

Three Things at Once

The first story in my collection has to be rewritten in its entirety. It was so bad in retrospect that I don't even allow it to appear in the "Tin Can" archives. I plan on knocking it out in the next 30 minutes. But there are a couple of other major things going on, so I'll have to do a bit of juggling.

Karmic Baptism

Do you ever feel like your life has become a toilet that hasn't been flushed in months?

That's disgusting. Is this any way to introduce the reader to my world? Is it funny? Does it provoke deep thought? Just a second—I have to take care of something else.

Dear ____,

I just wanted to clear the air with you, and let you know that I am disgusted with the way I behaved yesterday. I apologize.

This is terrible. I have to write a letter to my neighbor, because I can't even bring myself to meet him face to face. Not after what happened. I haven't yelled like that since my older brother locked me in the coat closet when I was a kid.

I should really be working on that cover letter, though. I'm on to the beginning of the next phase, and I have to mix it into the process, rather than wait until I've revised and edited all of my work. Tenderfoots nearly killed me. But it was only 12,000 words out of 110,000. So much work ahead. Months and months and months. You're just going to have to get used to hearing about it.

Dear Sir or Madam,

How are you?

Oh, crap. That's not going to work.

"Karmic Baptism" was the first story I had ever sent to Karen. I like it because it's a beginning, an initiation, a transition—but I'll be honest—it ain't pretty.

I've learned a thing or two over the last several years. The most important of which is the fact that I am no entrepeneur. See? I can't even spell it.

But if I don't deliver this letter to my neighbor by the end of today... No, it wasn't entirely my fault. But I lost my head. I have to take care of this immediately. You can't let something like this fester.

You talked to my kids this week about not walking across your front yard and knocking snow onto the sidewalk where you have already shoveled, and we discussed it with them as well. So when you insinuated that my kids had done it again, I didn't find that fair. After a brief investigation, we now know that I was correct, and that it was someone else's kid. My kids are not perfect, but they generally do as they're told when it comes to rules. They didn't realize that they were doing anything wrong before, but now they do. If you have a problem with them in the future, I ask that you please speak to me first, and I'll get to the bottom of it. They are my responsibility, and I trust them. My anger came out of a feeling that a line was being crossed when they were being accused before the facts were known. So I lost it. I'm only human.

Four months of revision and editing on one story is rather excessive. And I know that the processing of letters and requests will take a hell of a lot of time. There will be rejections. So why not get cracking, and let these two major steps overlap? I may not get an agent anyway. By the time I've plowed through half of this material, I'll know for sure, and then I can either move on to the next backup plan, or find myself working at breakneck speed with an agent.


Dear Sir or Madam,

My name is Gene Dillon, and I am a writer of personal essays and short stories. My style is rich in humor, and I tend to meander seamlessly from the domain of everyday life into the realm of what might appear to be pure fiction. Occasionally this happens without my full knowledge or consent, and for this reason, the technique has the effect of catching the reader off-guard. By introducing a world that smears the edges of reality rather than submerging readers into it or removing them completely from it, my work has a strong potential to focus the readers' attention and encourage them to stop and wonder if their minds are playing tricks on them, or if the author has just let them in on some sort of secret.

At present, I am sitting on a sizeable compilation of 12-14 stories, and I strongly believe that I would benefit from the representation of a literary agent at this point in time. If the work is worthy of publication, I don't want to make any rookie mistakes. Do I submit each story separately for publication in literary magazines? Do I attempt to put out a book, straight away? Who is the right editor for my style?

Ouch. My stomach hurts. Make it stop. Now what was my story about?

I began contracting in interactive programming and CD-ROM animation back in 1994. My brother in Austin, Texas had me convinced that I could get my ass out of the restaurant business and make some serious money doing something creative with these machines he called "computers." He led me to believe that I would require no formal training, and I wouldn't even have to go back to college and finish my degree after having dropped out twice. It sounded too good to be true, but if you ever spend eleven years tending bar, waiting tables and sweating profusely behind the line at the sauté station, you might be prone to take on any new endeavor that comes along, as long as it isn't a Ponzi scheme.

Andy paid me five bucks an hour on that first job. It was part training and part charity really—an educational CD for the Texas School for the Deaf. Though I didn't realize it then, I already was an entrepreneur. (I looked up the spelling. It has another r, which I swear I have never heard spoken by anyone.) Quite suddenly, I was self-employed, and I had to pay my own taxes. This kind of stuff just happened to me, like in the same way that zits happen to a teenager that eats pizza. Now I was starting to meet people around town, at agencies and at trendy loft apartments. Nobody was making any money in educational software, but everybody was following the money. Small companies would pay a guy like me to crank out interactive, animated presentations for their marketing efforts. I discovered the "art" of animating text and logos, rather than cartoon characters. They paid more than five bucks an hour. Twenty-five, thirty, thirty-five... It kept going up. It was like returning a kickoff, except the numbers continued to rise after the fifty. I trained myself gradually, making some good cabbage every step of the way. I worked in Director and Photoshop. And within a few more years, I discovered Flash and HTML. The Web!

Wasn't the Web something that a bunch of dorks used in the computer lab of my college dorm to play Dungeons and Dragons with each other across state lines? Yes. Yes, it was. But since that time, since I had dropped out and discovered the eleven years of wiped memory that defined my restaurant career, computers had become more interesting and useful. I daresay they were even becoming fun to use. I had abandoned Computer Science as a major when I dropped out of college for the first time. I could never imagine sitting in front of that goddamn box every day for the rest of my life staring at words and numbers that were made out of glowing green dots.

Oh, this is getting boring and stupid. Not one line has made me laugh out loud yet. And I've lost the point entirely.

This defines good writing to me: I'm sitting in a coffee shop or on the bus, and I'm either crying real tears, or my jaw is hitting the floor, or I'm laughing out loud like an idiot. And I don't care.

There is no place for grudges between friends and neighbors. I was a little bit surprised to hear some of those things coming out of my own mouth. But I was also surprised to hear the list of all the grudges you've been holding against me. One thing that you brought up was "owning up to breaking things." If you're talking about the light fixture, that was something that we already discussed several years ago, and I assumed that the issue was resolved. Apparently, in your mind, the issue was not resolved, so we need to remedy that now. It was clear that Emma (not Cooper) had a part in breaking the fixture—she admitted that on the same night. When you called, blaming Cooper, I told you that Emma was involved, and I offered to pay for it. You acted like you didn't want me to pay for it, and you never submitted any receipts to me. You can go ahead and do that now, and if you don't still have the receipt, please let me know how much that glass cover cost you.

I wonder if I should put a blank check in here. He might think this presumptuous and take offense. Actually, everything I say to this guy offends him. Maybe I should just shut my pie-hole.

I have been writing the column "Tin Can" for Mental Contagion online magazine for over four years, and for two of those years I served as Editor. In 2006, I took a shot at conducting an experimental interview feature called "The Shovel," in which I had conversations with such fringe celebrities as Andrei Codrescu and Rennie Sparks. I continue to remain active with MC, helping to produce and launch the magazine each month.

Oh, God, I can't remember what's supposed to get quotes and what's supposed to get underlined? Italics? Columns and publications... Where is Strunk & White? Somebody please help me. I am wholly incapable of being bothered to learn proper grammar.

But the Web paid the rent. The Web bought my house.

This is nothing like the original story. I don't like this anymore.

I'm not saying we have to be friends. You don't even have to speak to me if you don't want to. But I promise you that I'll continue trying to be a good and conscientious neighbor, and that I will not remain angry with you. What's done is done, and perhaps we can both laugh about it one day. If we don't, that's okay. I'm just hoping to make some peace with you.

Don't ever scream obscenities at your neighbor out on the street in front of your house. It may seem like a good idea at the time, but it just makes you feel horrible inside. It doesn't matter whose fault it is.

I am including two pieces for your review. The first story is called "Tenderfoots," and it is a mostly true story about my experiences at Boy Scout Camp at the age of ten. The second piece is the first installment of my "Selected Emails From the Future," in which I abruptly interrupt myself with a message from my future self. I have a couple dozen of these messages, which arrived in two separate installments. In one story, I actually meet myself in a crop circle somewhere near Stonehenge.

Oh, this is just going to go over great!

I don't think I'm in the right mood to rewrite "Karmic Baptism" right now. I need a rough outline. I don't know if any of this can be salvaged. Write down the main points and expound on it later. This is supposed to be the opening story in the collection, so it needs to be stripped down to its bare essence, and saturated with humor. If I can pull this off, I'll be mailing out this piece instead of "Tenderfoots."

It's the end of the dot-com boom, and I'm frustrated and lonely, and working in my basement.

It is a filthy, dark place. There are pipes over my head. Describe the end of my days as a contractor. I particularly like the description of stacks of tax forms and papers all over the floor with little bits of dirt on them, and tracks dented into the paper from my office chair rolling over them.

Work the metaphor of the Web is an elaborate sewage system, carrying loads of shit from every home and every building in the world to a massive pipeline that just travels everywhere in a big, surging mass.

There is an injector pump in the addition at the far end of my house. Describe how it fills up to a point, kicks off the switch, and pumps 55 gallons of waste water through a one-inch pipe, right over my head, and down into the main drain pipe. This is a lie. That pipe never traveled over my head. But it will build tension.

The pump is broken. There is mud in the crawlspace under the addition.

Tell more lies about sounds coming from the pipes above my head in the days before the plumber arrives. Like, I'm sitting there working one day and I hear things... Maybe bring the descriptions of the filthy basement down to this section.

The plumber arrives. His name is Joe. I descend into the crawlspace with him, to replace a furnace filter. I crawl on my belly beneath the ductwork in the dark. Joe starts working on the injector pump at the other side of the furnace. He has forgotten to unplug it first. It explodes in his face like a shit volcano. This is not a lie. I was there. Use the descriptions in the original story. They were good. Stinking fresh memories.

Joe talks about karma and changes his uniform.

Conclusion: Some bullshit about initiation into the Web, and entering the workforce, and blah, blah, blah, plus more about karma and baptism. Say it. Don't spray it.

I might give it a new title. KB is too obvious.

And that would be the end. Outlines are tough, because now it's gonna feel like work, instead of free-flowing creativity.

Again, if you have any issues with me or with my family in the future, please contact me on my cell phone, and if I do not answer my phone, please leave a message.

And lastly, to my agent-to-be:

So suck on that for a while, and get back to me as soon as possible. I need someone to think for me!
Yet Even More Sincerely,
Gene Dillon
Mental Contagion
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