Acid Heroes

October 8, 2014


Filed under: Backwords from Ace — Ace Backwords @ 6:56 pm
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I’ll sometimes hear writers talking about “writer’s block.”  I have no idea what they’re talking about.  I’ve never had that problem.  My problem is I can’t stop writing.  I couldn’t stop spewing out all this verbiage if I tried.
I started keeping a daily journal in 1993.  Twenty years later I have boxes and boxes of the things.   Hundreds and hundreds of these notebooks, every page, every line, filled with my feverish, scribbled scrawls (I’m told within 20 years “cursive writing” will have become completely archaic, so a lot of good the things’ll do me since nobody will be able to read the damn things).  I just find something really satisfying about taking the garbled chaos of my daily life and stringing into together in a linear form.  I might not know what life is, or what life is about.  But at least I can kind of describe it, and that’s a start.  And when I have no one to talk to, no one who will listen to me and try and understand what I’m going through, I can always talk to myself.

And I guess that’s what writing basically is to me.  Having a conversation with myself (and if the readers feel like coming along for the ride, too, well, that’s cool, but it’s not mandatory).

I once read one of the best definitions of “good writing” that I’ve ever heard.  “Good writing is like a delicious food that you just want to keep eating.”  Take somebody like the horror writer Stephen King.  I’m not into his books because I’m not into that genre.  But this friend of mine, she would avidly wait for each new Stephen King book.  And when a new one came out, she’d be up all night for the next 5 or 6 nights, gobbling up all 800 pages.  And I’d say to myself.   “That’s some good writin’ there!   Ole Stephen is delivering the goods.”

Ideally, a piece of writing should grab the reader from the very first sentence.  It should be like you’ve strapped them into a train and they’re helpless but to ride the thing all the way down the tracks until they reach your final word.  Ideally, the words should flow effortlessly into the reader’s brain.  Because if they don’t, if it’s too much work for the reader to keep plodding along,  then the reader will hop off the train and go read some other writer’s words.  Which, of course, is the ultimate horror to most writers.

Of course I have a couple of pet peeves.  I had this one junior high school English teacher, Mrs. Ryan   — who looked like this big giant toad and was always scowling because she was really mean and all the students were seriously scared of her for real — who always claimed that you should never start a sentence with “And.”  That it was grammatically incorrect. And Mrs Ryan would regularly mark up all my papers with her red pen and give me bad grades.  But in fact, I like starting a lot of  my sentences with “And.”   It’s a cheap, but effective, literary devise for linking two sentences together and keeping that train rolling down the tracks.  But to this day, to this goddamn day, every time I start a sentence with “And” a little voice in the back of my head says;  “Man, this is wrong.  But fuck it, I’m gonna’ do it anyways.”  (Like I said, Mrs. Ryan was a scary, evil person.)

I did a comic strip for many years.  And that was an excellent discipline for any writer.   Because you have these four little panels that are reduced down to practically microscopic size. And you’re trying to express an interesting, and often complex, concept in an entertaining mode.  So you have to make sure every line, every word, counts.  You can’t afford even one unnecessary word.  I used to count the number of words in every comic strip I ever did.  And I always tried (but didn’t always succeed) at keeping it under 100 words.  Because, of course, the more words you had, the less space you had for the drawing, which takes a lot of the fun out of a comic strip.  Plus, the more words you have, the more work the reader has to do plodding through your words, the bigger the pay-off, the bigger the punchline has to be.  Because the reader is investing his time, so you have to deliver comparable worth.

To this day, I’ll still agonize over every word.  Like if I’m describing a character and I mention he was wearing a “red shirt” and was in his “mid-20s.”   I’ll think:  “Are those details really necessary?”  And sometimes they aren’t.  So you can chop them out.  But often, it’s the little details that really make a piece of writing.  They help to create the mental picture that you’re implanting in the reader’s brain.  So it’s a real tricky one.  But as a general rule:  I try to say as much with the least.

The other trick I learned from doing a comic strip:  I like my writing to be just like a comic strip:  Set-up, concept, punchline.  You have to continually be delivering these pay-offs to keep the reader interested.

When I wrote my “Surviving on the Streets” book, I knew I practically had a license to kill.  That I could get away with murder.  Because I knew that all the critics would hold me to a very low standard.  And sure enough, most of the reviews were variations of:  “Gee, for a homeless street bum he’s surprisingly articulate and thoughtful.”   Whereas, if the critics were going to judge me on the level of “literature” (which it secretly was)  the bastards would have crucified me left and right.

I also got away with writing my “Street” book just like I talk.  Which is how I like to write anyways.  Like I’m just having a conversation directly with the reader.  But it was particularly effective with the “Street” book, because talking in the vernacular of the streets added another dimension to the thing.  (My other big pet peeve:  I always prefer to write “Me and Mary” when I know you’re supposed to write “Mary and I” but fuck that.  That’s how I say it, so that’s how I like to write it, and all the English teachers are wrong and I’m right on this one.)

I’ll never forget the first time I got acclaim for my writing.  It’s kind of like popping your literary cherry.  And usually just as painful and embarrassing as the sexual kind of deflowering.  It was my 8th grade English class and my a teacher was Miss LaVigna.  And (fuck Mrs Ryan, I still like using “And”) she was a great teacher.  She was one of those teachers who was like a stage performer working an audience.  And she would burst into the classroom every day and put on a show.

Miss LaVigna was a raw-boned Italian woman in her mid-20s (I forget if she was wearing a red shirt). And she was a real character, a real individual.  Like, she would do stuff like coming to class for weeks at a stretch wearing these big, clod-hopping ankle weights attached to her ankles.  She was really into skiing, so she was trying to build up her ankle-muscles and she didn’t care less how she looked or what people thought about it.  One of those types.

Miss LaVigna gave me one really great piece of advice.  “When you’re writing, you should always flow.  Don’t worry about punctuation or spelling or anything.  Just scribble it down as fast as you can. You can always polish it up later.  The important thing is to keep pace with the flow of your thinking.”  And to this day, I always try and do that.  I’m a very fast writer.  Usually it takes me about as long to write one of these blogs as it takes you to read it.  And, as a general rule, the more I have to work at a piece of writing, the worse it is.

And Miss LaVigna would do these weird and original things during her classes.  Like one time, she spent the whole class discussing the concept of “poignant writing.”  And she kept repeating the definition:  “Poignant:  painfully touching!”  Which she’d say in this really hushed and dramatic tone.  Then she’d read different samples from different writers that were examples of that concept.  Then repeat each time:  “Poignant:  painfully touching!”  A fairly subtle concept.  And it must have made an impression because I still remember it vividly 45 years later.

Anyways, this one day, Miss LaVigna comes bursting into the classroom in her usual dramatic entrance and announces:  “Class!  I was reading the writing assignments you all did yesterday.  And there was one particular piece of writing that I thought was truly impressive and evocative.  It was written by Peter Gabbiola. ”  I was in the back of the class, half-asleep like usual.  But when she mentioned my name in front of the whole class I quickly snapped to attention.

“I’d like to read Peter’s essay to the whole class,” said Miss LaVigna.  “It’s called ‘The Driftwood’ by Peter Gabbiola.”  And she annunciated my last name in this real dramatic way, like:  “Here now are the words of a true master, so listen up all you dirtclods.”  (I was still using my real name back then, and hadn’t yet gotten saddled with the stupid “Ace Backwords” nom de plume)  “I was greatly impressed with the sensitivity of Peter’s prose, and feel his story is an apt metaphor for the existential dilemma that many of us face in our lives.”

So anyways, she starts reading my essay.  Which to me was just another dull homework assignment that I had already forgotten about.  The story is all about me, alone on a beach one night at the ocean.  And I’m watching this piece of driftwood that’s bobbing up and down in the waves.  And the driftwood sort of symbolized how I felt about my life at the time.  How I was being  buffeted back and forth by all these different forces and I had no control over my life, I was just kind of pointlessly blowing in the wind.  What can I say, I was laying it on pretty thick.  I was already a deeply depressed and mentally disturbed kid back then.  And, I don’t know if that’s a prerequisite for a career as an author, but plenty of the greatest writers share that trait that’s for sure.

While Miss LaVigna is reading my writing — and she’s up there putting on the performance of a lifetime, reading every word like it’s some kind of “Romeo and Juliet” classic for the ages or something — I’m sitting in the back, just cringing.  I’m the kind of a person that doesn’t like to call attention to himself.  So I just wanted to crawl under my desk.  And geez, all the other guys were going to think I’m a sissy or something with all this metaphor stuff (I wasn’t even sure what a “metaphor” was at the time).

Then, at the end of the story, after musing about the driftwood for quite some time, I concluded that I just could not bare to go on.  So I rushed into the ocean and committed suicide.  The end.

And that was the first time I ever received any praise or acclaim for my writing.  And it was hell of embarrassing.  But at least I picked up a good literary trick out of the whole deal.  If you’re not sure how to end one of your stories, just kill off the main character.  That’s a time-tested winner.



  1. You are funny as hell. And a great writer. And it is fun to read your stuff and I don’t read other stuff. And I learned a lot. Fuck you.

    Comment by Head for the hills — November 1, 2014 @ 5:01 am | Reply

  2. i think I had the same teacher – Miss LaVigna. Did you go to school in NJ? She was great teacher – my 8th grade English class teacher. She was very athletic and wore tight pencil skirts with heels. Definitely different from any other teacher. She made us write our autobiography which was fun – I still have it – cringe worthy reading!

    Comment by Eileen — August 17, 2015 @ 3:00 pm | Reply

    • Yeah. Upper Saddle River. My real name (so-called) is Peter Labriola (Class of ’74). I regret to this day that my Mom through out my 8th grade autobiography when she moved. I would have loved to re-read that tome. It was like 200 pages. Ha ha.

      Comment by Ace Backwords — August 17, 2015 @ 7:40 pm | Reply

  3. Reblogged this on Acid Heroes: the Legends of LSD.

    Comment by Ace Backwords — July 1, 2017 @ 3:30 am | Reply

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