December 29, 2009 was publication day. Not for me, though. My son, Emmett's, book, Twitterature: The World's Greatest Books in 20 Tweets or Less - which has been available almost everywhere in the world but here and in Canada since November 5 - was finally published in North America. He's 19.
Although Emmett's and his co-author, Alex Aciman's, accomplishment shouldn't seem that unusual to their parents - both fathers are in the authoring business - I confess that I'm still trying to wrap my head around the whole enterprise. When I was their age I was still trying to persuade girls to spend time with me in the back of my VW van - an adolescence that continued until I was almost 30. I mean, the kid just went away to college a year-and-a-half ago. Shouldn't he be busy with homework and whatever they do for weekend entertainment at the University of Chicago?
Hmm. Emmett and Alex were freshman year roommates; maybe this WAS their entertainment. I hear Chicago is very cold. Go outside in January after a shower and your hair will ice-over.
Full disclosure: When Alex and Emmett showed me 20 examples of how they planned to cleverly reinvent 80+ classic works of literature into no more than 20 tweets each, I introduced them to my agent. (Who wouldn't?) Of course, that guaranteed nothing. He could have easily said "get lost" if the boys hadn't brought the goods to the table. In other words, not only were they funny on the page, but it was funny and spot on because between them they'd actually read all but one of the classics they'd reimagined in the Twitter haiku.
Let's just say that with Emmett there is much to be proud of - a pleasure I know I share with local writers Marc Cooper and Marty Kaplan, both of whose young daughters also landed book deals this year -- congrats! -- not to mention Alex's parents.
Kids today! I guess it was an understatement when Emmett recently told me that whatever I'd done while growing up, that his generation was doing it three or four years earlier. So let's see: I published my first book, The Bob Book: A Celebration of the Ultimate Okay Guy, co-authored with my brother-in-words Bill Zehme, when I was 41. (Sold more than 100,000 copies, so good beginning. And let me officially start the rumor that The Bob Book might be updated and re-published for its 20th anniversary in 2011.) Forty-one minus four . . . but he's 19 ... hmmm ....and then there's the weird symmetry of us both having first collaborated on a humor book with a friend . . .
Like I said, tough to get my brain around. And it's not as if writing Twitterature - some of which was composed during U Chicago finals in May and June 2009, and the rest on our den couch in early summer - was casually tossed off. Not only had they read all the originals they affectionately teased, but more importantly they loved them. They've had to reinforce this point often in interviews lest Twitterature be mistaken for some sort of CliffsNotes. It is humor, a multi-layer inside joke, slightly higher up the brow, that resonates even more effectively if you've read the source material. The authors also caution those who might get their doublets in a twist, predicting literature's imminent demise, that Twitterature is unlikely to cause Homer, Shakespeare, Nabokov, Pynchon, Kafka, or -- no doubt as part of an ancient conspiracy -- Dan Brown, to be stripped from from the library stacks.
Ultimately, to prove their mettle, they gamely grit their teeth and read Twilight, and put it in Twitterature. As budding social commentarians they insist that this post post-modern "classic" had to be included, if only "to make the children laugh."
What they do to all all seven novels (at once) about a certain bespectacled teenaged wizard, in only 20 tweets, is hilarious. Gulliver's Travels and In Cold Blood, too. Just saying. (For a list of all 81 included titles go to www.twitterature.us and click on the US cover.)
But enough about Emmett. This is about me, after all. Can't you tell?
As I near s-ss-ssx-sixty (there, I said it), I am in obvious ways at the other end of the writing spectrum. And yet there are similarities. What I hope Emmett might consider as a productive creative outlet, if not a career or at least a sideline, I've spent the past year doing what he soon will be: figuring out what to do next.
Nothing new about that. And better than the alternative.
There is also one big difference: I've got a garage full of neatly stacked file boxes full of clippings and research and manuscripts, some so dated that the paper, when exposed to air and fingers, crumbles like so much mummy wrap, so at this point on the career continuum, I'm not writing to get my foot in the door. Instead, I'm fixated on finding passion. I always have, in varying degrees, but more than ever now I analyze each new idea almost as if it were a first date. Even though I know it's a bad habit, I immediately ask myself if this is "Ms. Right." I know I should do more digging into each idea and see if my interest sustains beyond the initial burst of enthusiasm; that is, go on more "dates" before deciding whether or not to commit, but I guess I just want to be thunderstruck.
In other words: I want to fall in love, and -- like certain young authors I know -- have all the energy and tunnel-vision obssession at the outset necessary to carry me through the process. Books take a lot, and the older I get the more they take of whatever it is they take. And I like big canvases. Can you blame me for wanting to be reasonably sure I'm enough in love to spend every waking hour with a subject, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, for at least two years?
I also know myself well enough and have seen enough of life's cycle to understand that much I used to care about is no longer that interesting to me. So I keep looking for new worlds to discover, new facets of the human experience to illuminate between hardcovers by trying to reveal character in a way that goes as against the conventional wisdom as possible. Still, some nights I'd rather just watch prime-time dramas and then read myself to sleep on some other writer's dreams.
I'm looking forward to 2010 and I've already got a few things cooking. As George Clooney more or less says in "Up In the Air," moving keeps you alive. This aphorism has kept me in good stead. Since I started writing for my college paper in the late sixties, I knew I'd traded the dependability of the 9-to-5 for being on creative call 24/7. At first it made me nervous, and my father really nervous. Now, I wouldn't change a thing, especially today when the 9-to-5 isn't that dependable and too many of my colleagues are on the street. Anyway, my goal then was less about the writing and more about free rock concert tickets, available women, and not ever wanting to have a job. Win! And beyond that, to be rich and anonymous. I'm four letters away, but there's still time, and still more books to write.
So I'm not complaining, I swear. This is NO mid-life crisis -- even as I fervently hope being 60 IS my mid-life. Along with my wife, I'm/we're just looking to stay interested for the next act.
This is what makes watching Emmett's first act so thrilling and terrifying at the same time. I wish I was in his shoes again, but of course it's also good to know now what I didn't know then.
"You must be proud of your son," we hear again and again. Yes. We are. Sensationally so. But that's about all we can say. Mostly we're happily on the sidelines with everyone else going "Wow."
This is an experience all parents have had or in their own ways will have. We all believe that our kids are special, whatever they do. I just get to write about it, that's all.
I hope Twitterature is the first of many books for Emmett, as long as that's what makes him happy. He clearly relishes the ability to find himself in self-expression, whether he literally means what he says, or is going all Jonathan Swift on readers, while delighting in their occasional inability to tell the difference. Satire, bless its soul, is big because, let's face it, there's so damn much in this world to lampoon. And thank goodness he sees it clearly. At his age, all I wrote were befuddled romantic laments, and added a few guitar chords. My notebook diaries could all be boiled down to one interminably repeated question: why, why, why (don't you love me)? (When I quit asking, I finally found my path and my wife. Just lucky, I guess.)
Since I'm on the verge of something new, I've asked Emmett about his future writing plans -- not that I'm pressuring him; he still has 2.5 years of undergraduate college to complete, and he has grad school plans. But he also says he wants to continue being published: a novel, short stories, opinion, more humor. Of course, you never know; kids these days move so quickly from passion to passion. But if he wants to muck around in Dad's footsteps and all, that's fantastic. I'm sure Alex's father would say the same thing.
Soon enough, if not already, those footsteps will be theirs alone.
Check out Emmett's interview with Patt Morrison on KPCC.
(l to r: Alexander Aciman, Emmett Rensin)
>photo by Hana Hawker