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Tuesday, June 30, 2020

That's Not My Name

I'm not sure what I should call you. What is your name this week?

Someone said this to me recently and it made me take pause.

When it comes to my name (or names), I'm the reason for the confusion behind it (them).

While David-Matthew Barnes is my given name (and the name most of what I've written over the last 35 years is published and produced under), it's neither my preferred name nor the name I identify with.

When I was born, I was named David Matthew Barnes (I was brought into this world by nuns at a Catholic hospital, but that's a story for another time). The hyphen between David and Matthew was added later.

Around the age of 12, I saw the brilliant New Wave/punk film Smithereens (Susan Seidelman is a cinema-making genius). As I was entering the most rebellious period of my young life, I more than identified with the female main character in the film, I wanted to embody her ruthless, street smart, savvy persona (bravo to actress Susan Berman for her masterful performance). Thus, I adopted the name Wren (not to be confused with the character of Ren from Footloose, released around the same time). The name stuck and it was how I was known through the rest of my teen years and through my early 20's. It's also the name I think of as my own. When referring to self, it is the name I think of/call myself.

I've been obsessed with classic films since seeing Lady from Shanghai at the age of 13 (thank you to Elizabeth Warren for taking me with you to a film class that night - it changed my life ). Likewise, my adoration for Rudolph Valentino blossomed around that same time. Therefore, I grouped the two names together and created a classic film loving, New Wave/punk listening persona for my young self: Wren Valentino. While Valentino is not my true last name, I love the sound of it and the imagery it conjures. I also have a secret theory that my real family is living somewhere in Italy and have yet to find me (this is a joke just in case my twisted wit is not coming through). I have suspected this since the first time I saw Cinema Paradiso and fell in love with the Italian language, Italian cinema, and Italy in general. I'm an Italophile, capisci? I'm determined to live there someday. If I ever go missing, check Disneyland first and then Italy (specifically San Bendetto del Tronto).


As I reached adulthood, I was encouraged by many to drop the nickname of Wren and do the mature thing and use my now-hyphenated given name of David-Matthew Barnes. I reluctantly agreed to this, secretly resisting the conforming that was happening. Why shouldn't I be able to call myself whatever I want? Ah, if life were only that simple. Adulting really does suck, especially when you can't be asked to be called by your name of choice without a lecture or, at the minimum, a slight roll of the eyes.

As luck would have it, I started publishing my work as a writer. For years (until recently), everything I wrote and published was done so under David-Matthew Barnes. This might sound strange, but even though the name was what I was given at birth, I've always felt this weird disconnect with it - like it's the name of a character/role I once played in a play, but it isn't me. Hard to explain, but I've never felt it reflected who I am.

Flash forward and now more than 50 titles of books and plays are published under that name. It's been good to me. It's served me well. I don't resent the name at all. Many people prefer it, often shortening my double first name to DM. They will probably continue to call me DM for years to come. And I will continue to respond to it.

A couple of years ago, I really started to miss Wren Valentino. Call it misplaced nostalgia, but I wanted the vitality and fearlessness I associated with the name to find its way back into my life (let's be honest: I'm sure all of this can be chalked up to a midlife crisis). I longed for the name to be mine again.

Easier said than done.

As I started to use Wren as a new preferred first name, there was a strange resistance to the shift. Most thought it was a silly request (even those closest to me). It was fodder for jokes at my expense ("you have a name for every day of the week!") A few people even flat out rejected it and insisted on still calling me DM (that's okay - change isn't easy for everyone). And many thought I'd finally lost my mind (they probably still think this and, on a good day, they might be right). To make matters more complicated, there are people who have been in my life for many years who only know me as Wren. So David-Matthew is as foreign to them as Wren is to others. I live somewhere in the middle of these two identities.

As my writing career started to reach a new level of success, I started to write outside of my (up until then) known genres. Thus, pen names were created, including the now-retired Dylan Madrid and Declan Mayfair. As these names disappeared from my life (along with the projects I wrote under them), I saw a need to create a new pen name to use specifically for all of the horror scripts I write. This was purely a marketing decision. As a result, Matthew Macola was picked. It seemed like a good compromise. Matthew is my given middle name. Macola speaks to my love for Italian (and that secret family who has yet to find me). Since then, I've used that name for the horror-writing side of my life.

As I stepped into the world of writing contemporary romance and realized that it would be the genre I would write in primarily for the rest of my career, Wren Valentino seemed like the perfect choice of a pen name. I went with it. Yet, the more I used it, the more it felt like the right fit for me, for my life, for everything.

But here's what accidentally happened: I created three different writing careers (and, in effect, personas) for myself. Each were/are very different from the other. No wonder why people are confused.

So here's a quick break down of how these names are used in my literary life.

Under David-Matthew Barnes, I've written novels (mostly young adult), stage plays, poetry, and screenplays. As I write this, tomorrow morning marks the beginning of a long break from writing and/or publishing anything new under this name (except for titles already scheduled for release). Why, you ask? Because I plan to retire this name/brand/persona in the near future. My reason? Because I can. And because I want to. In more practical terms, I've told the stories I've wanted to tell under this name (35 years is a long time). It's time to move on, move forward. A new version of life beckons - one that won't include the level of writing I've done for most of my life. Yes, I'm taking a break for many reasons (see the previous post), and the break might turn into a permanent one. If it doesn't, the return to writing (if there is one) won't include this name.

Under Wren Valentino, I write contemporary romance, usually with an international setting. I also write poetry under this name, mostly poems that explore the themes of lust and love.

Under Matthew Macola, I write horror films, including Dummy, which has earned me many awards without even being produced (yet).

Three names. Three different moods, worlds, genres. The perfect blend for confusion beyond explanation - mostly for others, very little for me.

I know this all seems like a very trivial problem to have. While the world is falling apart, I'm sitting here writing about the plight of having three names - two of which I created. Yeah, life is tough.

So, then, why am I sharing this? The main purpose is to acknowledge the sheer frustration I've caused many by not having a single name. I take full responsibility for this - and for the self-indulgence I am guilty of. For the last ten years, I've been all over the place - emotionally, professionally, and personally. I know a part of the new name syndrome I've experienced was a coping mechanism. Wanting to recreate/reinvent or even rewrite history holds an appeal all its own. Or, at least it did. Do I think I'm that important that I need three names? No, not at all. What started out as an identity crisis blurred into the marketing of my projects/scripts. Wouldn't it be easier just to write everything under one name? In hindsight, this is exactly what I should have done. In the future, this might be a plausible solution (by the way, if this happens, it's Wren Valentino for the win). In the meantime, I plan to do my best to ease the discomfort, confusion, frustration.

So...what should you call me?

Wren is and has been my preferred first name since that fateful day I saw Smithereens in a now torn down art house cinema in Sacramento.

Yet, most days I answer to anything, even if it's not really my name.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Awful

Six months ago, I wrote a short play titled Two of Hearts. In March, the play was published and was made available to purchase on Amazon, an important and valuable resource/outlet that allows my scripts to reach readers in 13 countries.

In response to the play, I received a single review. Just one. The reader who wrote and posted the review gave the script a rating of one star (the lowest rating possible) and only responded with a one-word-review of my work: awful.

While I consider myself to be a writer who possesses the proverbial thick skin (I've been writing and publishing for 35 years and know how much rejection is par for the course, i.e. I am well aware of what I signed up for), this one-word review hit hard for many reasons. Chalk it up to timing. And a whole lot of introspection.

I am not a famous writer. I do not support myself solely from writing. I never have. While I've been at this for 35 years, I am not a celebrity author or a widely produced playwright by any means. I've never had a breakthrough bestseller. I've never had a play of mine performed on a large stage. I've never been a part of the literati it crowd. To most (so I've been told) I am perceived as self-indulgent, self-serving, and, on a good day: an opportunist. And a mediocre writer, at best. Guilty on all counts. Not really by choice, but for the sake of survival. Lately, I feel like an impostor because the public version of me and the private one don't even feel like the same person. It's my fault that people don't know who I really am.

My career has been filled with highs and lows. Mostly lows. The highs are addictive. Success (in any version) is the worst drug I know. Sounds dramatic because it is. But these days people really only respond to a heightened sense of anything - including reality - so dramatic effect is sometimes all a person has to stand out in the (really competitive/cutthroat) crowd. I'm really good at telling people what they want to hear - except to myself.

I have a very small and sometimes devoted reader base. I'm grateful for each and every one of them. When you write something you want it to be read, and in the case of my scripts, you want your words to be produced and performed. Many people have done both of those things over the course of 35 years. I am thankful each time it happens. Long ago I realized I don't write the stuff that strikes a popular chord. I've lived in a creative place where I've always loved writing about ordinary people experiencing extraordinary moments or circumstances in their lives, leaving them forever changed. Not really the stuff that summer blockbusters are made of. I write mostly for young people - a demographic who rarely has the disposable income to buy a copy of every title I've penned. And that's okay with me.

I write because I'm a storyteller. I write because, for many years (until recently), it felt like an innate part of my nature. Despite the fact I have to self-promote to the point of ad nauseam via social media (something I no longer have an interest in doing), my writing objective has always been to tell the best story I can. Nothing more. By the way, the self-promotion became an evil necessity when I realized years back that no one was promoting my work - not even me. Contrary to what most people who know me probably think, I secretly hate social media, but that's a story for another time.

Back to being awful...

When something I've written is published (usually by a small press if not my own press, which I co-founded to give readers a way to find my unpublished titles they were requesting - mostly my stage plays), a tremendous amount of work has gone into accomplishing this. In addition to the hours I've spent writing (mostly early in the morning or late at night due to my forty-hour-a-week work schedule), someone has edited the work. Someone has designed the cover. Someone (me) markets the work via every means possible whether that's posting, mailing, sharing, asking, begging, annoying - all of it has to happen for something I've written to have a chance in hell of getting any attention at all. The total amount of time spent on bringing Two of Hearts to readers between all who worked on it was a collective 300+ hours. All of this effort was valued and judged by a single reader who surmised our collaborative artistry was awful.

Yes, I know. This review is only one person's opinion. But, in this case, that's the very issue. Because there are no other reviews, this one review killed the script. Murdered it in cold blood. It will never be promoted to readers looking at similar titles on Amazon because of their ratings-based algorithms. It will never be found by a high school theatre teacher. It will never be found by a young gay man looking for self-reflection and solace. It will never be found by a young actor who feels there's nothing out there that speaks to who they are (again - this is why I write). No one will ever know this play exists. Because one reader decided to post a review on Amazon declaring this play to be unworthy of any value to anyone.

I had to ask myself: is the play really awful? Is it one of the worst things ever written? I'm too biased and subjective to answer these questions (although I'll be the first to rattle off the titles of mine that I think are really bad - and there's plenty). This play was written from a place of memory and love. It's a semi-autobiographical tale of two young men articulating their feelings for each other, with high school and the 1980's serving as a backdrop for their lives. It's simple. It's romantic. It's very sentimental. But is it awful?

Writing and publishing is a cruel game of chance. I get this. I've always gotten this. The odds stacked against potential literary success never used to diminish my drive. Even up to a few years ago, the wicked side of writing (and believe me there's plenty of it - just wait for my memoir after which is published I will no longer have any friends) only fueled me to work harder and write more. Now, I have to say, yeah...not so much. Now, one review has the power to stop a story in its tracks. Now, the publishing industry has changed so much I don't even recognize it. Now, most plays on big stages were adapted from films. Now, films (not even great ones) are becoming plays on big stages. The original voice is no longer sought after. Instead, we're writing those adaptations to pay the bills, to fit in, to not be permanently excused from the cultural conversations that used to be centered around celebrating an original story. Where has the reverence for imagination gone? It seems the world around me has changed and I didn't change with it. A tough pill to swallow, indeed. I'm pretty sure I'm choking on it. I'm pretty sure I need to find a new way to define myself, because after 35 years of doing this day in and day out, the only writing I'm really paying attention to these days is the scrawl on the wall that seems to be shouting at me in neon letters.

Here's the truth: no one reads my work anymore. My last eleven titles (all published this year) have barely been noticed by anyone. The sales for them were an embarrassment. My plays are being produced less. My previously written novels (I've written twelve) are long since forgotten. The rejection letters are in triple digits. This reality wouldn't be so hard to face if I had not experienced any level of success in the past. I had a rough morning a week ago in which I cried through the two hours I usually spend writing when I found myself asking the question: why bother anymore? Being an indie writer (I wear this badge with pride) is not what it used to be. And that awful self-promoting that has to occur just to get a project on the public's radar is a high price to pay. Maybe too high for some. Maybe too high for me. Definitely too high for me. No one cares if I write and publish something new. The world isn't going to stop if I don't put out another play, poem, short story, essay, or novel. No one is waiting for my next story. And I cannot blame anyone for this. Because no one owes me anything. Seriously - they don't.

My conclusion through all of this: something I used to love doing is now a source of deep pain. That's a tough place to come to and an even tougher place to exist in. Today, I recognize the need for healing. And that's exactly what I'm going to do. I'm spending the next few days wrapping up a few projects - and then I'm taking a break. A long break. A break with no expiration date. I'm going to spend as many days, weeks, months, years needed to experience a life without writing in it. This break will mean nothing to no one except for me. Because I need it. I need it more than anything. I need to know what life as a non-writer feels like. I want to find other things to fall in love with like learning to speak Italian, watching really cheesy science fiction films from the 50's, or creating a butterfly garden. Most people who know me won't even realize the break is happening because I have titles I wrote over a year ago scheduled to be released over the next few months. The misconception will be that I'm still writing because work is still coming out. But I'll know. I'll know the break is happening. Every morning I don't have to get up at five o'clock to get the writing in. Every late night that I get to spend sleeping instead of working. Every weekend that will be mine again to do whatever I want with. Every second I will get back, I will know. I kind of already know because earlier this year I stopped doing two things I once loved: teaching and directing plays. I reached a place with both that felt joyless and empty. I knew it was time to get out. So, I did. With zero regrets. Time is a gift. We're solely responsible for what we do with it.

I sound bitter. These words I'm sharing with you reek of defensiveness, self-pity, and ego. This is the essence of sour grapes. This might be way too honest for some, while most will never know (or care) that I wrote this or that I wrote a play that someone said was awful and I was so hurt by this one act in a 35 year writing career that it became that final straw on an already exhausted and ready-to-get-out-of-the-game back. This entire blog post deserves a response (or maybe even a reprimand) of suck it up and get back to work or get out the game. True. Very, very true.

To be honest, there's only so much awful a person can take.

Life is short. Life is happening all around me. I want to be a part of it. I will be a part of it.

I don't want to be or feel awful anymore.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

I Want to Travel Your Body

Photo by Alin Olariu 

I WANT TO TRAVEL YOUR BODY

road trip on the tip of your convertible tongue
crash for the night in your motel eyes

hitchhike across the soft desert of your blades
skinny dip in the midnight pond of your palm

bang against your boardwalk hips
Ferris wheel across your fairground thighs

jet across your transatlantic skin
set the sea ablaze with your matchbook gaze

climb the walls of your California smile
hide from heat in your seductive shade

drink 'til dawn on the shores of your lips
hang on the edge of your souvenir sighs

David-Matthew Barnes

This poem is featured in the poetry collection Souvenir Boys.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Paper Boy

Photo by Vladislav Klapin
PAPER BOY

At four a.m., it’s just me and my coaster bike, shoulder bag of papers,
AM radio headphones warming my ears. My hands sting from the snap
of rubber bands. My skin is blackened and smudged with newsprint, with
one-too-many mornings already leaving me lonely at thirteen. It’s my first
job. I’m no good at it. I fold on the front porch beneath yellow dull light, battling
blood thirsty bugs. I ride through the dark, ignoring street light shadows, secrets

brewing below the ridges of the cold asphalt threatening to crack this sleeping
city open wide. I pass by houses, pedal faster whenever Donna Summer comes
on the radio, or when I let Bonnie Tyler eclipse my hopeful heart. On dew
drenched lawns, I am Flashdance, Footloose, Fame. I am free because no one is
watching me dance except an imaginary boy. He breathes
love and devotion into my belief they exist. I make wishes and plans,

contemplate life beyond this paper route, certain my future will be newsworthy.

David-Matthew Barnes

This poem is featured in the poetry collection Souvenir Boys.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Christmas Cookies

Photo by Artyom Kulikov 

CHRISTMAS COOKIES

His mother kisses my cheek, leaves behind just a smudge
of crimson. I feel the comfort of her green silk dress and I know
why he is so calm. I cling to

the tray of cookies she baked just for me, balancing them
on the tip of my heart and the edge of my smile - it never falters,
not even when the snow is heavy.

She bundles up in her wool scarf and gloves, her knitted hat.
I watch her fingers tremble over each black button of her tattered
winter coat. But it’s her memories that keep her

warm. Back to Little Italy she goes to meet her Sicilian
friends. Amongst candles, Mass and spirit, she will
explain why her son has no bride. Crumbs will fill my lap.

Maybe next year, I will get a sweater.

David-Matthew Barnes

This poem is featured in the poetry collection Souvenir Boys.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Awe

Photo by Dimitar Donovski

AWE

Tiptoe Tiptoe
You crept into my nature,
Like an escalated stare.
I want to feel your rise.
With my veneration,
I could make candles out of you,
Scorch away two seasons.
On the verge of autumn,
I am as willing as your whisper
To take the fall and make it ours.
My reverence for your words
Pounds like your glowing heart
Beneath me, burnt orange
Leaves, take me there.

David-Matthew Barnes

This poem is featured in the poetry collection Souvenir Boys.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Summerlin


Summerlin

Stop. I need to catch my breath. I caught you
stealing looks at me when you courted me
in the lobby of the Venetian. Vegas buzzed,
clanged, and twirled for us, shooting up
the casino sky with possibilities and lust. You
swayed me to take a midnight drive, to be-
come my 20-year-old lover, much like Juliette’s.
Yes, I wanted you, the way I want vanilla
ice cream to melt down the skin between
finger and thumb. You’re sticky and cool. The heat
of the boulevard covered us in the backseat,
as we licked the dirty desert clean. You took me

to the edge -
to the outskirts of town, night, flesh. There

I saw the hammer-smashed topaz tears, confetti
glass glittering the horizon with the promise of
a night with my Belagio boy. With you, I was seventeen
again – maybe twenty – when life was summer
all year long. The sky exploded above us
with independence. You touched my face, knew
I felt invincible when you breathed my name. Don’t
stop. I want to remember how the night slipped
through each lyric, pulse, window, tear, our fear
we would fall in love by morning. The sweet
promise living in the beautiful lips of the wind,
the moment we kissed Nevada. Good bye

to our jackpot hearts.

David-Matthew Barnes

This poem is featured in the collection Love and Detours.

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