Crunchable at 10: How’d I Get Mixed Up With This, Exactly?

Hagiography is hard when you’re fuzzy on the details.

Writing tributes is a tricky business. That is doubly true when you can’t actually remember how it is you first became involved with the publication you’re supposed to be immortalizing.

In these sorts of circumstances, reams of purple prose are not only expected but required. And high-minded talk about furthering the cause of good writing is nearly always included in the request-for-proposals.

But sweet jumping Jesus, it usually helps if you can remember the circumstances under which you started contributing. It’s just embarrassing if you can’t.

So, faced with that conundrum when I sat down to write my observations on Crunchable’s first decade, I did the only reasonable thing: I e-mailed Editor Guy Mike Duck to see if he knew. Big mistake.

Me: “Hey! How did I start writing for Crunchable?”

Duck: “I honestly don’t remember.”

Great. Just great.

Like me, Duck enjoyed the idea that our first meeting had “already receded into the mists of time for both of us” — as if we were some post-modern Fitzgerald and Hemingway stumbling out of a Parisian café in 1925, our clothes stinking of wine, the tinny echo of an accordion still ringing in our ears.

I wish I could say that the black hole in my memory was caused by the kind of Hunter S. Thompson-esque over-indulgence that almost always ends with me scraping off my clothes and screaming about the life-size sculpture of Ernest Borgnine that’s mysteriously appeared in my living room.

(Where does that statue keep coming from, by the way? And why is it always Ernest Borgnine?)

Sadly, it’s not drugs and drink-fuelled excess. It’s something far more average: It’s the absent-mindedness of approaching middle age, when experience (as Douglas Coupland once famously noted) is like an overflowing cup. All the good memories are already in the cup. And you’re having a hard time fitting in more. So the new memories, lacking the power they had in your youth, just wash over the side.

This much is clear: When we met, Duck and I were — and still are — toiling at the same major Pennsylvania newspaper. And my first piece for Crunchable, “Long Distance,” appeared in March 2009. Beyond that, all is myth and embellishment.

And really, that’s what the history of any publication should be: Myth and embellishment colored by the sentimentality of the writers who have passed through its doors.

Ever listened to newspaper old-timers talk about the golden days? You want to punch them. They’re just insufferable.

No publication, they will tell you with the self-satisfied air of someone badly needing a smack in the head, was ever more fun than the one where they cut their teeth as young writers. Why, everyone was having sex with each other. And when they weren’t, they were boxing or going out drinking or scheming ways to steal the publisher’s horse and put it in his office.

I can’t write about the early days of Crunchable, because I wasn’t there. But I like to imagine a young, tow-headed Duck and his college chums, perhaps pumped full of illicit substances and seized with the enthusiasm of youth (Ed’s note: Not so much of the former, but plenty of the latter), laying out the magazine by hand, cramming it full of animated GIFs and 1999-vintage HTML and then hand-cranking the Internet to get it to start so that they could foist their prose stylings on an unsuspecting world.

In my ideal world, there might even be a Happy Mondays record playing in the background.

And I hope they were insufferable about it, too. Because creating your own publication takes an unprecedented kind of balls, an iron-willed confidence and a nearly delusional self-belief that the rest of the universe deserves — nay, demands to read your tortured prose. And the hell with those old-guard publishers who stand in the way.

By the time I blundered upon it, Crunchable was already an established property, a respectable publication that, if it ever stayed up past its bedtime, paid for it dearly the next morning with the mother of all hangovers. And though I might have missed out on the awkward adolescence, I can say that the magazine has given me two tremendous gifts.

The first of these is a friendship and professional relationship with Duck that’s been among the more satisfying and enjoyable of my working life.

The man has an innate sense of style. Not dress, mind. He’s a disaster there. (Ed’s note: This is true.) But of prose style, of picking the exact right word, or trimming back a sentence so that it has the spare economy of the very thought you’re trying to express.

I can’t actually think of a time when I’ve quibbled with one of his edits. And if I have, the chances are good that Duck talked me down off the artistic ledge, explaining to me, in between the hours he spends demolishing his bathroom for fun, why his changes would make my story better.

It’s rare when you meet an artistic kindred spirit, one who cares about the written word and its look, its feel, its … timbre … on the page, as much you think and hope that you do. Duck’s that kind of guy. And he has the gift that all the best editors have — knowing how to make the whole circus run better without revealing the architecture behind it.

The man’s more than a colleague. He’s a good friend — even if we haven’t spent an hour together outside the office in our entire working lives. Distance and schedules are the twin culprits there. And it’s a wrong that badly needs to be redressed.

The other gift — and Duck doesn’t know this, but he will now — is that I largely credit Crunchable for shocking me out a literary torpor that settled on me sometime in my middle 20s and lasted through most of my 30s.

Writing that first piece, “Long Distance,” convinced me that maybe I could write something more than the newspaper journalism I’d been cranking out for the last decade-and-a-half.

I’d had an ambitious youth, slamming out short stories and prose pieces I hoped would make me the next Jay McInerney. But I’d largely put those things aside and focused instead on journalism and writing music.

I enjoyed “Long Distance” so much that I soon sent Duck a piece ruminating on the lost genius of The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. A piece on my longstanding love-affair with radio followed.

The themed issues and deadlines were a great impetus to write and to stretch my legs. So much so, in fact, that I even pitched letting me guest-edit a music issue this summer. To my eternal surprise and amazement, Duck went along with it, acting as glorious co-conspirator and the guy who kept asking me where the hell the copy was.

My 40th and 41st birthday came and went, and the writing continued. There were two novels, still searching for a publisher. And a new film-news site, The Cineaste’s Lament, that I can honestly say wouldn’t exist without Duck and Crunchable pointing the way. I owe him a lot more than he knows.

And I know I’m not alone in this, not the only guy whose creativity has been fired by both this quirky publication, which I once called a small-scale McSweeney’s elsewhere in these pages, and the passion of its founding personalities.

The world needs more of ’em.

Article © 2011 by John L. Micek