Strangers with Candy (Address to Saint Joseph’s Prep Mothers’ Club, January 12, 2010)

The good news is that the holidays are over, and it’s especially good news for my wife because she doesn’t have to deal with me as I dissect Christmas carols anymore. The Most Wonderful Time of the Year? I don’t think so. Andy Williams was obviously never a teacher. If he had been, he’d know that June is the most wonderful time of the year. Or at least if he’d been a parent, he’d know that September was the most wonderful time of the year. But Christmas? Not even close.

Next, there’s “Do You Hear What I Hear?” Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy, “Do you hear what I hear?” To which the shepherd boy should respond, “I don’t know about you, but I hear a talking lamb, and that is messed up. I knew I never should have eaten those mushrooms for lunch.” But he doesn’t. Instead he goes to the King and says, “A child, a child shivers in the cold. Let us bring him silver and gold.”

I have a better idea, kid. Let’s bring the child a blanket. Or a hoodie. Or those pajamas with feet in them. Because silver and gold aren’t going to help a whole hell of a lot once hypothermia sets in.

And who can forget “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” the lesson of which is that it’s okay to be different—as long as the thing that makes you different can save Christmas? If he’d been Rudolph the three-legged reindeer with a tail made of celery, he still wouldn’t be allowed to play any reindeer games. I also suspect that even after Rudolph saved Christmas, the other reindeer continued to make fun of him behind his back anyway.

I’m an optimist that way.

Of course, now that the holidays are over, I have to find other targets, like breakfast cereal commercials. As parents, that’s where you lose the battle before it’s even begun. Think about it. As soon as kids are born, you tell them two things: 1) I love you. 2) Don’t talk to strangers. In fact, forget the first one. Just don’t talk to strangers. Especially strangers with candy.

But then what happens? You sit them down in front of the television on a Saturday morning, and who should come along but the king of all strangers with candy, Cap’n Crunch.

“Hey, kids! Want to get on my boat?” he says.

“I don’t know,” your kids say. “We’re not supposed to talk to strangers.”

“Strangers?” says the captain. “Look at this hat! This mustache! Clearly I’m no stranger. I’m an authority figure. Come on aboard, and I’ll introduce you to the sog monster.”

Toucan Sam is no better: “Hey, kids! Follow your nose… into the woods with me for some Froot Loops.”

Froot with two O’s, by the way.

“Well, mom never said anything about talking birds,” your kids say. “By the way, do you know a talking lamb?”


But now that the holidays are over, I can go back to school and share all of this with my students so my wife doesn’t have to deal with it. Not that they like it any better, but they get to leave after an hour, usually grumbling. Why you gotta be that way? Why you gotta ruin everything? I like Cap’n Crunch. More than once, I’ve had a student tell me that I ruined her life. Thanks a lot. I can’t watch TV anymore without thinking about it.

Which, oddly enough, is the whole point of education. I’m actually there to ruin people’s lives. And at some point, I should really thank all of the people who ruined mine. Like my grandfather. He’s the one who told me that I should read Slaugherhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. Then again, I didn’t actually get around to reading it until a girl told me that I might like it, so I’ll have to thank her, too. Her name was Theresa Jones, and she got most of her books from a dumpster behind a bookstore. Except for their missing covers, the books were all in great condition, but poor sales had condemned them to an early death. The least Theresa could do was rescue the cult favorites and share them with the as-yet uninitiated.

Hence my first reading of Slaughterhouse-Five.

Hence my falling in love with language.

Hence my decision to major in English.

Hence eight years of graduate school.

Theresa’s coverless copy of Welcome to the Monkey House still bears a warning that reads: “If you purchased this book without a cover you should be aware that it is stolen property. Neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this stripped book.” So as she was welcoming me to the monkey house, Theresa was also robbing Kurt Vonnegut of his pocket change. If you doubt the gravity of this crime, consider this: had Theresa not gotten me hooked on Vonnegut, I never would have gone to graduate school, and the world would have one less over-educated yet largely unemployable doctor of the English language to worry about.

Maybe this is the real reason behind the prohibition against “stripped books.”

Maybe “stripped books” lead to harder drugs like “curiosity” and “critical thinking.”

And we all know where “curiosity” and “critical thinking” lead:

Straight to “higher education.”

Theresa might just as well have invited me into an abandoned house to shoot heroin with her—reading Vonnegut was that good. Talk about strangers with candy!


The thing about reading Vonnegut, though, is that he’ll definitely ruin your life. Or, at the very least, he’ll get you to question all of your assumptions. Because he points out all of the weird incongruities of the world we live in and demands that we do the same. Love, war, religion. Vonnegut forces us to look at them all with a critical eye. And once you’ve started to do that, you’ve also begun to displace yourself into a new reality. You’re out of your comfort zone and into uncharted territory. You’re off the map.

This isn’t the road less traveled.

In fact, it isn’t a road at all.

It’s a space where you can do something new.

Something different.

Something spectacular.

People in the arts strive to get into this kind of state. We love coming at the world from a new angle, looking at it differently, looking at it critically. Needless to say, it isn’t easy. We tend to alienate a lot of people, for one thing. And for another thing, this approach to looking at the world can be exhausting after a while. What we wouldn’t give to just veg out in front of the television with a bowl of Cap’n Crunch while watching CSI. This isn’t, of course, to say that the life of the artist needs to be a solitary one. On the contrary, I think the opposite is true.


Every few months, I’ll speak at a writers’ conference, and the questions I invariably get all revolve around how to get published. Writers—especially beginning writers, writers who are just getting their feet wet—come to me with wide eyes and ask what they need to write in order to get a six figure publishing deal (as if I know!). To paraphrase Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, they want to know the secret. As if there’s a formula. As if there’s a magic bullet. The best I can do is tell them, at the very least, that they need to do three things: work hard, take risks, and be generous.

Coincidentally, I also think these three things will lead to a productive, meaningful life in general.


So let’s start with working hard. The more specific version of this is that I tell writers that they need to get comfortable sitting in front of a blank computer screen for hours on end and filling it up with words—preferably words that make some modicum of sense. But the big challenge isn’t so much filling the screen with words. That part’s easy. The hard part is continuing to sit there when the words aren’t coming to you. Because that’s the challenge of being a writer: every time you sit down in front of the blank screen, you’re going off the map. You’re doing something new. You’re saying something that’s never been said before—or at least something that’s never been said quite the way you’re saying it.

This is one of the major conundrums I face as a writing teacher: I can’t tell my students what to say, but that’s all they want me to do. But from my perspective, they need to figure it out for themselves. They need to play with words and experiment with new forms of expression until they find their own voices, until they grow comfortable with expressing themselves.

I’m reminded here of what Frank Raffa used to say when we’d slack off in his French class: “Just sit back. We’ll do all the work.” Meaning, of course, that we should get up off our asses and crack open a book once in a while. At the time, I thought it was just a joke: Ha-ha, Raffa wants us to study. What a card! Doesn’t he know we’re teenagers? But now that I’m a teacher, I feel his pain. Getting my students to push themselves is a daily uphill battle. They want the easy answers, the silver bullets, the formulas, but all I have are maddening questions for them to ponder and the constant exhortation to try something new.

Which brings me to my next point, which is that students need to take risks. On one hand, I can provide pat formulas for my students to copy down so that they can force their ideas into preconceived templates, but that would be boring. The result would be a classroom full of students who approach writing as if they’re playing Mad Libs: Insert thesis here. Insert first supporting argument here. And on and on. Instead, I tell my students to take risks with their writing, to go out on a limb. Don’t just risk failure, I tell them. Risk spectacular failure. Because if there’s one thing I want my students to know, it’s that I’d rather work with a student who did something interesting and got it all wrong than one who did everything by the book and got it all boring.

Back when I was fresh out of college, my first job was as a stock boy at a CVS. I wasn’t very good at it, but the manager pulled me aside one day and gave me a pep talk. If I played my cards right, she said at the end of the pep talk, I could probably work my way up through the ranks and become a manager just like her! Needless to say, the prospect of this fate sounded to my twenty-two year old mind like a death sentence and begged a single question: How wrong do I need to play my cards in order to get fired?

Obviously, the manager was showing me a path—and it probably could have led to a pretty comfortable life. At the same time, though, I knew it wasn’t the life for me. So I took a risk. I quit my job and, eventually, applied to grad school.

And here I am today.

Back in high school.

Finally, I tell beginning writers that they need to be generous. One reason I say this is that writing tends to be a solitary pursuit, and writers tend to be a little cagey. I don’t know how many times I’ve tried to talk to beginning writers about their projects only to be told that they refuse to discuss their work with anyone. Not out of modesty or shyness, but because the writers are afraid that I’ll steal their ideas. The thing about writing, though, as with any worthwhile endeavor, is that you need to be willing to give as much (or more) than you expect to get. This is what it means to be a part of a community.

Things really started clicking for me as a writer when I started volunteering with Philadelphia Stories magazine. They published a short story of mine, then asked me to join their editorial board. As with most nonprofit literary journals, it was a position that required a lot of work and no pay, but I learned so much from it—about writing, the editorial process, and how to network with other writers. Eventually they promoted me to Associate Fiction Editor, and when the publishers decided to start a books division, I was one of the first people in line with a manuscript to submit.

My other publications have followed a similar path. My first book was co-written with a colleague of mine named Tom Powers. Tom and I had gone to graduate school together, and it turned out that we were both fans of the classic sci-fi series Doctor Who. We’d talk about the show and send emails back and forth to each other discussing the significance of different episodes, and eventually our dialogue turned into a book.

I’ve also been very involved in promoting books from small and independent presses through my blog, Small Press Reviews. I started the blog largely because there were loads of small press books that I loved that never got reviewed with any regularity, and I wanted to create a forum for rectifying that problem. Though I started off buying the books I reviewed, it wasn’t long until publishers started sending review copies to me for free. About a year or so after I started doing this, one publisher dropped me a line and asked if I ever wrote anything other than reviews.

“Funny you should ask,” I said.


So ultimately what I’m saying is that we need to be engaged with the world. In some ways, that’s a little ironic, because I’m also saying that we need to go off the map once in a while. For me, though, the two ideas are inseparable. In order to be truly engaged with the world, we need to understand it. We need to be able to look at it for what it is, know what’s going on, and respond to it. That is, we need to listen to the world—really listen to it—in order to talk back.

This takes a lot of work.

It involves taking risks.

And it also demands generosity on everybody’s part.

But this kind of effort puts us on a two-way street, makes us participants in a dialogue with the world at large. In other words, it makes us part of a community. And when we come together as a community, we can do anything.