Posted in Lessons by The Books Production Team on February 17, 2009


typewriter7          I think that one of my mother’s greatest fears with this whole Dr. Wizard Creative Group business – besides the fear that I will somehow legitimize the f-bomb as an everyday article of speech for you, America’s undergraduates – is that I will suddenly wake up one morning and decide that I’m going to drop out of the academic game for good to follow the wild-goose chase life of being a penniless writer.  Now, to be fair, it’s not exactly like this fear isn’t grounded in a solid basis of precedent that can be traced throughout my early 20s.  You see, up until the age of 24, I had a nice, consistent penchant for leaving respectable educational institutions and employers to chase down wild dreams with very little planning and almost no preparation.  But I consider these all learning experiences, and they’ve led me to where I am today.  Still, for a little humor at my own expense, let’s do a quick run-down:

          In the summer of 2000, I lived with three friends in an awesome condo at Fort Myers Beach, Florida, where we had secured good jobs waiting tables at a retirement home for former United States Congressmen and captains of American industry.  These guys took us out to play golf, and one of them, who used to be a member of the Red Sox, let us borrow his boat.  This place we worked at was incredibly posh – and we made great money.  But six weeks into the job, I decided that it was interfering (and this is going to sound crazy!) with my non-existent rap career, and so I quit the job, used all of my savings on a Yamaha Keyboard and beat-making equipment, and settled down to write rap lyrics full time.  The rest of the summer was full of freestyle battles at this somewhat shady club called The Purple Platinum, bar fights whenever my friend Striegel decided that he would dance provocatively with another dude’s girl to a Prince song, and beat-boxing sessions with our neighbor Jimmy, a crack-dealing, Gold Gloves boxing champion.  When I came back to school in the fall, my rap career had made no visible progress due to my decision to quit work – and I was broke.  But this didn’t teach me my lesson.

          In the fall of 2001, fresh off a study abroad semester in London and 12 credit hours short of graduating Summa Cum Laude from Truman State, I decided that I no longer wanted to be a lawyer, and dropped out of school to work as a bartender and write a novel.  Once I quit school, however, and sat around the fraternity house all day staring at my computer, I found that I no longer had any motivation to finish my book.  This also may have had something to do with the fact that the first novel I was writing was just horribly shitty.  In fact, I wouldn’t let somebody read it now if they offered to pay me a thousand dollars.  But again, this initial foray into novel-writing and subsequent failure didn’t exactly teach me my lesson.  So let’s take a look at what some might call my final great creativity-bred life failure:

hp_dormshoot_webversion          In the spring of 2003, now back in school at Eastern Illinois University, again 12 credit hours short of graduating with a new degree in English, I started a band – Hardly Portland.  Shortly thereafter, I dropped out of school to take a job selling cars so that I could focus my attention on promoting my band full time.  In retrospect, this seems like perhaps the dumbest decision in the world.  But I followed that one up with another that may have been even stupider.  You see, when the job of selling cars got in the way of my band work, I proceeded to quit it too, purchased a 15-passenger van, and dedicated myself fully to songwriting.  Again, I quickly ran out of money.  Luckily, this time, however, I went back to school for good.  And now I’ve got a job where I have both the financial flexibility to not have to worry about rent while I’m working on music or writing at night, and the temporal flexibility to spend every Tuesday playing guitar all day if I want to – as long as I also take care of my teaching responsibilities on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  It took me awhile to get there – and I had to stop and restart a couple of times along the way, but ultimately, for at least the last five years, I’ve become a finisher – and have been able to actually enjoy things like seeing my first rock musical produced.  Mostly, this was because as I was working on the project, I wasn’t constantly worrying about how I was going to pay the rent.

          Still, when I call to tell my parents about all of the exciting things that are currently happening with Dr. Wizard’s Advice, I understand their hesitation to embrace the moment, and completely understand the fact that my mom always follows up by asking me whether or not I’ve been working on my dissertation.  My parents are deathly afraid that I still have the latent crazy-gene buried deep inside of me – and I can’t really blame them.  But, hopefully, this will calm your fears, Mom: YES, I’ve been working on my dissertation, it should be finished pretty soon – and we’ll ultimately let the editors decide about the number of f-bombs in the book.

          You see, while it took me awhile, (and I think in a lot of respects that time I spent drifting has made me a more focused person – see Lesson #53), eventually I learned a very valuable lesson about the way to appropriately follow my crazy-ass dreams – and I’d like to share that lesson with you today.  If you want to do something creative or risky with your life, the best way to transition out of your current position and into a more non-traditional one is to continue working hard at both careers until your second one provides reliable income.  If you’ve got the talent and the desire, you can be anything you want to be in this world – a fashion designer, a concert pianist, or a ruthless venture capitalist.  But it takes years to learn the ins and outs of each of those ventures.  It’s going to take lots of practice, and it’s going to take money in the mean time.

          If you’re in college at Loyola in Chicago, and you believe your band, The Jesuits, has an incredibly bright future, don’t drop out of school and move to New York to pursue your dreams – pursue them in Chicago.  Why?  Well, for one thing, New York’s really freaking expensive, and for another, you’ve already got the beginnings of a built-in fan-base in your current population of friends who will let you know whether or not you’re any good.  As you work your way up from the Beat Kitchen to the Cubby Bear to playing shows at the Metro, you can build a local army of followers who will be a valuable asset in gauging your progress.  If your band is good enough to play the Metro, and if you’re sending out demos that include a press-piece about the shows you’re playing where you’re drawing 2000 fans, I think you’ll catch the attention of an A & R guy.  The secret is to not give up your day job – until the time is right – because most bands don’t make it, and it’s good to have a back-up plan.  Life, like New York, is also pretty freaking expensive.

eight_mile_ver2          At this point, it should probably come as no surprise that I love the movie 8 Mile – that’s where the title of this lesson comes from.  But you know the best part of the movie (besides the battle-scenes)?  It’s at the very end, where after defeating Papa Doc at the Shelter, Eminem goes back to work at the stamping plant.  He’s following the two-worlds approach that I strongly advocate in this lesson – waiting to make his big move until the appropriate time arises, and all the while laying the groundwork for that move while keeping his day job.  The bottom line is that life is short, and it’s silly not to follow your dreams.  If you just let them die, you’ll eventually become that old, middle-management dude who’s just bitter and awful (like the Will Ferrell character who proudly screams “I drive a Dodge Stratus!!!”) – but you’ve got to cover your bases.  One of the unfortunate aspects of life is that as humans we must occasionally eat, and there’s nothing that’s really all that romantic about being broke, even if you are a real dope rapper.


Posted in Lessons by The Books Production Team on February 13, 2009


typewriter6          So there’s this book that came out in 2001 called The Corrections, right?  It’s written by this snarky dip-shit genius named Jonathan Franzen, and it, like Ron Burgundy, is kind of a big deal around these parts for a couple of reasons.  First of all, when the book was released, it was hailed as the greatest novel of the twenty-first century – which, at the time, I thought may have been just a tad fucking presumptuous considering the fact that “the century” was only about eight months old.  (There was also, you see, a brief window in January 2001 when Save the Last Dance was the highest grossing movie of the twenty-first century – because it’s not that hard to be the prettiest girl at the ball when you’re the only one there – no offense, Julia Stiles.)  Yet, regarding their aggressive prediction, time has proven many of these over-eager critics correct – The Corrections won the National Book Award in 2002, and it’s still at the top of most people’s “best novels of the century list.”  So, that’s reason number one why the book is kind of a big deal – and it’s the more general one.

          The other reason the book is specifically important around these parts is because Franzen is from St. Louis – and has been unafraid in each of his first three novels to let the world know just how much he despises his unfortunate Midwestern upbringing.  Obviously, it must have been tough on poor Jonathan growing up in the horribly underprivileged upper-middle class suburb of Webster Groves – where outrageous property taxes fund one of the nicest school districts in the country.  Throw in the fact that poor Jonathan kind of looks like a movie star and you can just imagine the Hell that must have been his childhood.  D-Bag.  But I guess you can run around saying pretty much whatever you want when you write a book that’s so good you can turn down an offer to be on the Oprah Winfrey show because you don’t need her endorsement to top the best-seller list – even though your chosen genre, literary fiction, typically sells about as well as a Derek Jeter jersey in Boston.  Anyway, I’m getting off point with this rampage.

the-corrections          Where I really want to go is here: there’s an abominable, but brilliant professor character in The Corrections named Chip – and we are told by Franzen early in the novel that his academic success is due to his diligent work every morning while his graduate school peers were sleeping off their “Galloise” hangovers until noon (I believe this is a rather high-falutin’ way to say that they had drunk too much French wine the night before).  And this essentially echoes a maxim that I have seen repeated many times in other college advice books: there is great untapped potential for work in the hours before noon.  Now, according to this ideology – you should all start setting your alarms for 6:30 in the morning, take a brisk shower when you wake up, eat a hearty breakfast in the cafeteria, and be studying in the library by 7:45.  Still, while this may work for some students, biology tells us that for most collegiate-age humans, this philosophy is more or less bullshit.  There is absolutely nothing that says you need to do your work in the mornings if you want to succeed in college, nor is there any scientific proof that you will do better work if you work in the mornings; there is only a law that says this: you have to do your work if you want to succeed in college – and it doesn’t really matter when.

          My father, whom I love dearly, swears that as I grow older I will become more of a morning person, and I will learn to enjoy the brisk pace of the early morning work-day.  I don’t think he’s slept past 5:30 in the last ten years, and neither has my grandfather.  Nevertheless, I’m getting awfully close to thirty years old – and, even though I write professionally for a living, I can’t seem to craft a coherent sentence before noon.  So my schedule is this: I wake up around 9:00, take the dog for a walk, eat a little breakfast, check my email, watch a few episodes of The West Wing, go for a run, and finally, I’m ready to work by the time the sun is directly overhead.  I then put in ten hours at my computer desk banging these 26 little keys (40 if you count the numbers, the comma, the period, the apostrophe, and the dash – I fucking love the dash), and then I pop in The Office and watch a couple of episodes of that.  I’m like a factory worker who works the second shift – because that’s when my brain functions – and, just as my father constantly proposes that he’d have no problem divorcing downstate Illinois from his arch-nemesis, Chicago, I’d have no problem divorcing the concept of morning.  I’d get twice as much done in life if every day had two afternoons.

menudo201981          So, here’s my concluding point.  The hours before noon are no more or less important than any other hours of the day, just as no one member of Menudo was any more or less important than the others.  If you’re the type of person who naturally functions well in the morning, then do your work in the morning, and if you’re the type of person who doesn’t understand how Regis and Kelly wake up that chipper every dawn, then do your work late at night.  Just remember to do your work – and you can tell those college guidebooks, and Jonathan Franzen, to go to Hell.


          Editor’s Note: Today’s post now officially concludes our week of jubilee – and like Pedro Martinez in that fateful ALCS 5 years ago, we are officially out of gas.  It was, however, a super-productive week!!!  As promised, we brought you five main-page posts, and if you check out the tabs on the right, you’ll notice that we’ve added new material in almost every section (including an awesome “WWFF” post on The Transporter that works the titles of sixteen John Cusack movies into a 500-word essay).  Thanks so much folks, we’ll see you next week.