Jacked: Painting with Words

I know I have not posted in a while. I am on deadline, knee-deep in acrylic gouache, painting two new board books that will publish in Spring '14. This is good. I am loving being back in the studio, listening to music and moving paint around on paper.

My mind wanders when I paint. I start writing poems, songs. I get ideas for stories, all of which I write down in my journal or on the kraft paper covering my table. I also think about the past.

The past five years were the most difficult of my life. I had to deal with family crises involving drug addiction, mental illness, and near death. I couldn't produce my buoyant and bold children's books, in fact I have not had a new book out in all those years. That did not mean that I wasn't writing. I wrote like a demon in my journals. I processed the insanity that swirled around me. I took the poison and the pain and I wrote a novel. It is dark. It is different. It is nothing like my children's books. It is called "Jacked." It is about many things, but it is mostly about robbing yourself of childhood and finding your own voice. It is based on true events and situations, but the truth was not enough so I found a thread that came from an old Mother Goose rhyme which seemed to tie things together. That led me to creating a meta-narrator who was the son of Mother Goose, who I dubbed "The Universal Jack."

It took me four years of reworking and revising to get the novel where it is now. Where it isn't is sold. I wish it was. My literary agent sent it out on a limited basis, first to the Young Adult market (it was deemed "too adult") and then briefly to the Adult market. So far it has gotten some great rejections- some praised my writing but said the book was not "commercial." Another said the book was commercial, but it was not that particular editor's taste. For the time being, I'm trying to be patient. I have many other irons in the fire in kid's books... but still, I have hope that "Jacked" will find a home.

Meanwhile, a friend on Facebook suggested that I share an excerpt. I decided that was not a bad idea, so I've copied the opening of the novel for your perusal. A warning: this is intense and it is definitely R rated, but so is real life.

Old Mother Goose,
When she wanted to wander,
Would ride through the air
On a very fine gander.

Jack’s mother came in,
And caught the goose soon,
And mounting its back,
Flew up to the moon.


Who was Jack? He was nimble and quick. He stuck in his thumb and pulled out a plum and said, “what a good boy am I.” He climbed a beanstalk. He ate no fat. He built a house. He also fell down and broke his crown. He was everychild. He was no child. He jacked his own childhood. He was going to keep tumbling and I had to watch.

I had to watch them all. It was a curse. I was trapped in my own collection of nursery rhymes. Maybe it was because she deserted me. She left me there and took off on that goose. I tried to send a message. I really did. But they can’t hear me. She can’t hear me. I’d like to change those rhymes. Maybe then she’ll come back and get me out of this mess. In the meantime, I watch them. All the Jacks. Jack Be Nimble. Little Jack Horner. Jack Sprat. Jack and his Jill. Jack and the Beanstalk. Jack and the Giant Killer. Jack and the House he built. Jack Frost. Jack in the Box. One-eyed Jack. Jack of Hearts, and Diamonds, and Clubs and Spades. I am them. They are me.

There was one Jack who needed me more than the others. He was like me. He even knew my stories. His mother flew off like mine did, although it wasn’t on a goose. But I couldn’t stop him from falling down, as much as I wished I could. However, I watched it all unfold, and hoped that one day he’d sense my presence and free both of us. I wrote this for him. He doesn’t know it yet, but he will. Believe me, he will.

And so it begins in the house. I didn’t build this house. Neither did he.  But here we go, and it’s…


There he is. Locked in the guest room in what used to be his home. The ceiling is high, inescapable. The walls seem to be placed too close to each other. There is no beanstalk out the window to climb, but it’s a good thing the bathroom is right there, one door away. That would be called a master suite in a fancy home, but not in this case. In this case it is one step away from prison. He, Jack Banks, is the inmate. Under ordinary circumstances he would get up to say, “hey,” in that sort of mumbled, barely audible tone he’s been using lately, but these aren’t ordinary circumstances. Cleo, the cat is outside the door, howling like she’s caught in a trap. His stepmother, Anna is howling, too.
“Jack, let that cat into your room, she’s driving us crazy.”
Cleo paces around in circles, convinced that the world is coming to an end, and in some ways, it is.

From what I can see, there are pieces of a puzzle scattered all over the floor. I’d ask him to help me make sense of them, but he’s barely coherent, and I’m not sure he’s ever been aware of my presence, except maybe when he was little. More about that later. Maybe if I describe the scene, we can put it together, at least in our minds. There is the requisite pile of clothing, color coordinated with a collection of expensive leather sneakers. Don’t mind the blood stains here and there. Extra bedding, as Jack seems to be hot and sweating profusely one minute, and cold the next, so the big, fluffy, flannel-covered down comforter is in a state of constant motion on the bed and off of it. There is a sizable amount of candy- hard and soft, chewy, chocolate-covered, sweet and sour- this is making me hungry for Christmas pie, but no plums for this Jack. This appears to be his sole source of nutrition. There is also an odd assortment of paraphernalia: lighters, tea-light holder-looking tins, orange plastic caps, half-empty pop bottles, a mostly empty pack of Marlboros, a thick black belt- already set for someone who has a waist as skinny as Jack’s arm, and his arms are pretty skinny. There is a knife, and a nail clipper. There is also a brand new composition notebook- the kind with the black and white abstract pattern- like looking at a Holstein cow through a kaleidoscope- and there are a few new pens, untouched. However, there is a well-used older Bic pen. It seems to be missing its ink cartridge. A tangle of cords runs over an assortment of DVD’s leading to a Playstation, hooked up to Jack’s old TV set. In some ways it could all seem fairly cozy- like being on a well-stocked sailboat heading out on a fantastic voyage. Only you’ll see, once you start fitting all of the pieces of the puzzle together, it is really rather frightful, and that sailboat is heading into the storm of the century. Hang on there, Jack, buddy!

There is something missing from the room, and it will soon become apparent that Jack is more than aware of this absence. That would be his wallet and his car keys. He surrendered them willingly not that many hours ago, but now he thinks he made a mistake. What was he thinking? Was he thinking? I don’t think he was thinking much, but from what I observed I sensed that he felt like a runaway train, and for some reason he pulled the emergency brake. To him the details may be fuzzy, especially now when it looks like he is going to crawl out of his skin. He’s wondering why he came home. He has an apartment. However he did ask for help. But now he thinks he can handle it. Maybe. Maybe if he calls Misty. Then he’d get a grip. Or maybe if he’s lucky he can get some Xanax or some Valium.  Poor Jack, he looks like he’s going to implode. Or puke. Or scratch himself until he not only draws blood, but writes a ballad in it- a ballad dedicated to Misty. She’s the bitch who smashed his racing heart.

Speaking of writing ballads in blood, I see Jack is up and about, kind of tossing things in a frenzy. Must be looking for something. Not the car keys, they’re not there. Oh, he’s looking at the composition book. Be still my beating writer’s heart. Anna gave him that composition book. She also used to read him “my stories” when he was little. Well, I didn’t write them, Mother wrote them, but they were “about” me. You know, “Jack Be Nimble,” “Little Jack Horner,” “Jack Sprat,” “Jack and Jill,” “This is the House that Jack Built,” “Jack and the Beanstalk.” That’s when we first got acquainted. I recognized some of me in him even back then as he listened to each word. He didn’t know it but there were hidden messages in those words. They are still there waiting for him to decode. 

When Anna gave him that Holstein cow patterned composition book she told him to document his recovery experiences. “Document?” he scoffed.
“Yes, Jack. Write. Write about what you are going through. I promise it will help. I got you three different colors of pens- maybe you can use them for different moods.”
“What color do you use for THIS SUCKS mood?” he asked, but got no reply. Write? I can see him wondering what kind of insanity that is when he can barely keep one stray thought in his head for maybe a second. Can I see him holding a pen and actually using it for something besides a tool for snorting or smoking? Not write now. (Mother wasn’t very big on puns maybe that’s why I like them.) No, Jack my boy, you are too busy being miserable, being sick. But wait a minute. What is this? Are you really doing what I think you are doing? Maybe I am the one who is delirious. Hold on, hold on- don’t shake so much, I can’t read your handwriting. Let me try to translate:

I’m supposed to write in this crappy-ass journal… I feel like total shit. What the hell am I going to write anyway? All I want, no, NEED, is to score. I’m going to be sick like any minute now. I can’t sit still. All I can think about is that little black lump, melting into the cooker, soaking it up and sucking it into the needle. That would be so nice… and Misty- she was such a piece of crap. She used me, so why do I still think about her? I’d take care of her. I’d be real, not like the guys she sleeps with. She only sleeps with them because they have more gear, more junk. She is just a slut. I thought we had something. I guess she showed me. What do I have? Nothing. Not a thing- and I need something, like right now. I am so cold. I itch like crazy. I’ve got to get out of here. Why did I do this? Why did I ask dad for help? That is like being put in the army jail. He doesn’t care if I smoke weed. Weed is cool with him- but there is no way he is going to get off my back with this- well, what he thinks is this- he thinks it’s oxy, but who cares, what’s the diff anyway? Oxy, smack, same thing. He thinks I’m just taking little ol’painkillers- stuff for little ol’ladies- that shit was too expensive, and the supply not good. But Boy, “H,” smack- is there and it’s cheap. Except that I’m frigging broke now. I want off this shit. I want out of prison. I want to go take my keys and wallet from his office- like he really trusts me, he thinks. I have enough cash, I can always take some out of dad’s change jar, he never notices. Just enough to score tonight- I’m going to die if I don’t I’m so goddam sick… Shit, Cleo- man, what is her problem? She is howling like someone stabbed her. She’s going to wake up dad and The Rules. Rob won’t give a shit- he’s probably out painting, tagging in some alley somewhere. Okay, cat in. Jack out.

Well, I’ll be. It’s not poetry. It’s a bit too blasphemous for my taste, but it’s definitely documenting what is going on. In fact, since Jack is now leaving the house with the keys to his car in one hand and his wallet in the other, I’d say it is true, and there isn’t a whole lot of truth in his life at this moment. But oh, should he be driving? It is no longer a question. It is a fact. It is the middle of the night and he knows the way. He knows the streets. He knows the sidewalks and the alleys and parks of Seattle. He knows them all like the veins on his arms. Soon he will be getting off that knife edge of anxiety- as soon as he can get that needle full of warmth, love and sweet sleepy syrup piercing through his skin cells, and on into the super-highway straight to his quivering brain. Only then will he feel well. Then he will go back home and sleep. Then we can start over. Then we can start documenting the story. If Anna thinks it will help, then maybe it’s worth a shot. Not that kind, but you know what I mean.

Whew. Now I need to get back to painting bright and brilliant gorillas, and bears, and frogs. Such is the  irony and complexity of life. Sometimes I paint with brushes. Sometimes I paint with words. There is meaning in all of it and I am grateful for the chance to share it with you.

With Love,