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Unprofessional Confessions with Rich Dyson

Rich Dyson is the author of Bearly Dad and You Are: A Lump’s Tale About Image, and the editor of AbsolutelyUnprofessional.com. He’s also an old friend from my days working at summer camp. We chatted about the value of the printed page and his newest venture writing for/with his kids. (Illustrations by Rich Dyson) rich

Comello: Do you remember the genesis of what has now become AbsolutelyUnprofessional.com?

Dyson: I had never really written before, but I started what I would call my first absolutely unpublishable novel just for fun, and thought how fun it was to freely write just so my wife Brooke could read some stuff and so I could throw some crazy ideas on paper. Over the span of about a year I did that every night. That was when I was in a band, too, so there was all sorts of creative stuff going on. I remember thinking this would be fun to do regularly some day, to share it with more people. I didn’t; after that I just stopped. Five years later, up in Wisconsin working at a summer camp, one winter day I started writing something else. Same thing: did it for about a year and then stopped. Shared it with a couple friends. Last fall, when I literally didn’t have anything else going on, my son Elias and I were joking around doing some stupid father/son stuff, and I just started drawing and writing. I kept writing and drawing just to see him laugh. He would throw ideas down, and we created the first Bearly Dad book together really just having fun up on the drafting table. In that moment, it was… ‘Oh, this is fun, what if we just shared this silliness with more people?’ And that’s when we looked into how you do that. How can we make this happen without making a big deal out of it?

When I was done with Bearly Dad, we looked at it and Brooke and I were like, ‘Well, this is probably the most unprofessional artwork I’ve ever seen.’ The next day, she called to see if AbsolutelyUnprofessional.com was taken, and it wasn’t. And even the guy on the phone at GoDaddy or something was like, ‘Wow, nobody’s taken that? That’s incredible.’ And that was it. It was because my artwork is so unprofessional—I’m so untrained—we thought we should call it what it is. Set the bar low and have fun with it. bearly

So for the first book, it’s just Elias and you throwing things back and forth. After that came together and you wanted to share it with more people, what was the process for taking the next step?

The book was really just an excuse to put ridiculous ideas into a solid, tangible form. Displaying digital stuff is fun—putting it together and passing it around—but it feels so much more personal to be able to hand Elias a compilation of ideas we put together, that we laughed at while putting together. Showing him online is funny; handing him a book made his eyes open wide. He was like, ‘Dad, can we put some of my stories in books like this too?’ ‘Yeah, we can put together some Elias books.’ To him, then, it was real. It was a simple process to research how to do it. It was easy; everything’s accessible these days. But the main thrust of it was sharing it with others but also being able to hand it to my kids.

For Bearly Dad, how much of what became the book was pulled directly from your life versus stuff you imagined?

I think throughout the book there are ten different wrestling moves that happen—“rumblings” they’re called. I’d say about eight of those come from real life, just stuff Elias and I do. One of my favorites in the book is called “dead rabbit.” I’ve used that one on him for years, where I’d get him on the ground and flop over top of him and pretend to be dead, and he’s suffocating and can’t move and trying to wriggle to get out. Most of the moves in the book are like that. They’re stupid. Really just dumb stuff we’ve done, and then a couple ones I would probably not do in my house. But it’s fun to throw in there. All the names are just silly things that we laugh at. And now that the book is done, he actually has names for some of them that we didn’t have a name for. Now he’ll jump on my back and call it out.

Did you have a sense putting it together that it would be greater than the sum of its parts, with a larger purpose you wanted to have with the book, or is it just a collection of silly stuff you wanted to put together?

It’s really difficult for me to put my time and energy into something that doesn’t have some flavor of greater purpose behind it, no matter what that is. It doesn’t have to be overt. In fact, it can be incredibly subversive in its meaning and purpose. But it has to be there. So one of the ways I look at art is as an overflow of creation. We’re created by a creator God, so whether the art is silly or serious or portrays the Gospel in some way I think is irrelevant, because art itself displays the nature of God. So a stupid, silly book like Bearly Dad, even if there was no other purpose to it, is already displaying God’s creative nature, which is enough, you know? And I love that. That’s tucked into everything. One of the other books I’m working on now, it’s even more stupid. It’s even slightly morbid for a kid’s book, and I love it. But even in the stupidity and the morbidness, there’s a hidden purpose of responsibility. What does it look like for a kid to take responsibility? With Bearly Dad, one of the themes behind it was healthy interaction between a father and son: what does it look like to engage your kids in playful fun? We know that physical touch between parents and kids is important, so if it’s mean and rough and aggressive, that lasts. That impacts the kids forever. If it’s playful and gentle and intentional, that also lasts and impacts forever.

So some of that was going into Bearly Dad while I was writing, just wanting to foster the family dynamic. Also, I love holding books. Just tonight we read two books before bed. He actually read the new book I just made: You Are: A Lump’s Tale About Image. The first print came in the mail today, so he read it and then we read another Dr. Seuss book. And there’s something about sitting there holding a silly book together that just fosters family time. So those two ideas were in Bearly Dad when I wrote it, knowing that we’d print it off and sit around as a family and laugh at the silly ideas we put together. youare

How much research did you do with other children’s literature before writing the book?

I think just being a dad I have natural research going every day. And we have a library of kids books. We’re always challenging Elias to read one he has not read yet, or in a while. We have a lot of books from the 1950s and 60s, that old-style illustration and storytelling. Those are some of my favorites. So there’s a natural element of research, and then there’s just tapping into what Elias enjoys reading. What do the characters look like? How does the story flow? But as I started doing the art and writing it out, I realized I really do write a certain way. It’s not smooth and it doesn’t flow poetically. It’s very jerky and almost frustrating. I realized that so much of my personality came out while I was writing. I didn’t want to change that, because it really is me. Even Brooke, after reading the newest one, she’s like, ‘Man, it really is just an overflow of your personality.’ Part of that is frustrating and part of that is exciting, because you want your art to be an overflow of you.

How does your daughter Ada fit into all of this? Do you have her in mind for future stories, or do you want to focus on the father/son aspect?

I focused on the father/son dynamic for Bearly Dad. For A Lump’s Tale, I actually had her in mind. Image is such a huge topic in our culture today, and media plays a role in that. It’s everywhere, and it’s not usually healthy if we’re honest and look at the serious eating disorders that exist and the amount of money we spend on clothes, to reshape ourselves, tattoos to change how we look permanently. I have tattoos and I pierced my ears at one point, so I understand wanting to modify yourself to look a certain way. So I think about Ada: she’s two and she’s innocent to the degree that she doesn’t think about any of that yet. She has this natural giddiness about her. She wants to look cute and pretty, and part of that is because we tell her that all the time, and part of it is that she’s naturally wired to think that way as a girl. Now she’s leaning into the positive side, but very soon she’s going to hear conversations about weight. She’s going to see girls dressing five or six years older than they ought to. So as I was writing this book, I wanted to preempt that conversation with her at a very young age, where image plays a role in her life. It’s an issue for boys as well, to be the right kind of masculine and all these things. But she was in my mind for this one, so Brooke and I could use a kids book to foster a conversation very early on with who she really is.

How has Brooke been involved in the process of putting all these books together?

She’s awesome. A big part of it is just encouraging me to go ahead and do it. On an emotional, mental, and spiritual level she does that. On a tangible level, I would say she is the overall editor of just about everything that happens. She reads through everything, she goes through a couple drafts. I’m a pretty hard guy to work with, so she has to make notes on the computer and email them back to me. If she tells me in person I’m emotional and I get offended or defensive unnecessarily, so we have this system worked out. The first time she sends it to me, it’s ‘Hey, change this, maybe the character is a little too this’ or whatever. If I’m sitting clear-minded I can take it. She’s always right. Always. So I’ll draw it all up and write it out and hand her a copy to flip through. She’ll mark that up and we’ll talk about it, and I won’t be a petulant child at that point.

And she’s great with Adobe programs. I’m learning some of it to save her the time and energy, but she scans and crops everything and formats the pages and shows me the fonts. I’m pretty picky, so she’ll usually put a draft together and then I’ll come back and usually end up rearranging each page and changing fonts and sizes and all that. Then we let it sit for a week or two, then come back and make more changes. She publishes it, does all the copyright work. Pretty much if it’s technical she does it. She’s brilliant at all that. It’s a lot of fun. She and I have had a lot of time working together. We’ve been in ministry together. Even as a married couple we’ve spent a lot of time together, so it’s fun to do a silly project with her. It wouldn’t happen if she wasn’t doing it. I wouldn’t take the time to learn Adobe and all that stuff.

What are you working on now?

I finished the illustrations of a script I put together about two months ago. I have a mental idea of trying to put something out every two to three months. I probably have three or four developing story lines in the works now. I started one about four months ago and did about three-quarters of it before putting it down, just to put some distance between it. I have projects laying around all over the place. I have one kids book that will come out probably in another two months. It’s funny, I was describing it to Brooke and thought that this is one that if I ever had a chance of being picked up by a major publisher, this is the idea they would look at and say, ‘Dear God—what were you thinking?’ So I’m excited to put that one out.

There’s another one that’s been brewing for some time, and it clicked the other day. It’s an overflow of the word oikos, which is Greek for ‘extended family.’ It’s this concept of doing life together with a larger community than just the immediate family. I wondered if I could put something together that would help foster movement in living that out. I won’t say much more than that, other than it’s not a kids book. It’s not a novel. It’s a book of ideas that you can use either as a family or missional community to spur on movement. I got to spend a chunk of the afternoon today at a cafe writing out fifty percent of the first draft, just because it was so fresh. I wanted to get it all down while it was still there. It’s so important because it’s important to my family, and it’s important for living on purpose. I’m realizing that while it’s a new idea, so much of it is already in me and in what we’ve already done as a family. I’ve talked about it for years so putting it on paper is crazy easy. I’m excited about it.

A Rather Bookish Manifesto

Like most people who know anything about the man, I want to be like Theodore Roosevelt. But since I’m never going to be president, blaze the unchartered Amazon, or lead a cavalry charge up San Juan Hill, I’ll have to make do with something less exciting but no less important that Roosevelt had: a corollary.

Defined as a proposition appended to one that already exists, this corollary was an extension of the famous 1823 Monroe Doctrine (by President James Monroe), which urged those pesky European imperialists to stay out of the Western hemisphere. Roosevelt’s corollary in 1904 took that even further, warning the same European powers that the United States would intervene in the Caribbean and Latin America if they got the urge to recolonize the Old World. Stay out, it said, this is ours now.

Why the history lesson? Because I encountered a modern (though much less political) doctrine that I’ve felt compelled to add my own corollary to: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and The Botany of Desire, made this plain yet meaty declaration concerning best food practices in a 2007 article called “Unhappy Meals” for The New York Times Magazine. It has resonated with me since I read it recently. Deceptively simple, each sentence contains multitudes of implications about food and eating habits that Pollan explains further into his article. This Pollan Doctrine (as I’ve dubbed it) has inspired my own literary interpretation that can serve as the basis for what I see as best reading practices.

Thus, the Comello Corollary: “Read books. Often. Mostly print.” Chew on it, dislike it, but don’t forget it.

Read books.

We need to eat to live. But Pollan doesn’t just say Eat. He says Eat food. The difference to him is between “whole fresh foods” and “processed food products,” the latter being “edible food-like substances” from the supermarket that will fill your stomach but won’t make you healthy. Likewise, to be head-healthy we need to read, but not only that: we need to read books. We can read listicles and news items and celebrity profiles (and boy do we), but that alone is not healthy. I love to consume high-quality television and cinema and podcasts, but they are not enough either. They are, to extend the metaphor, the fruit and juice and pastries that make the meal tasty, but they are not going to keep you full. They are the parts of a complete breakfast, a meal that hinges on the oatmeal or the eggs on whole wheat bread.

This didn’t used to be a problem. Before the Internet, television, film, radio, or recorded music, people had few of the intellectually stimulating activities we take for granted today. The theater was an option, depending on your wealth or circumstance, but other than that and perhaps a roving minstrel band, books were it. We have so many options now, so books are increasingly being relegated to the back of the queue. It must not be so.

I’ve come to view books as arboretums. They are worlds within in the larger world, ecosystems shielded from the chaotic flea-market world of the Internet yet also in debate with it. Every page is a tree, its paragraphs and sentences the branches and vines that stack and intertwine to compose its part of the story. Our senses engage with the created world before us: the smell of the paper like the smell of the buds; the songs of the birds and the dialogue we narrate in our head; the characters we imagine in our head like the colorful trees that align and clash and have backstories of their own. With arboretums as with books, each of us see the same thing yet something altogether different.

We all need to get outside and deeply breathe in the fresh air. Literally, we can do this by escaping to arboretums, but literarily we do it with books.

Often.

I remember the beginning distinctly. I had graduated from college but was still working in my school’s admission office over the summer before I departed for Colombia, where I lived that fall. The week after commencement, with no more classes or papers or textbooks consuming my time, I picked up a book I wanted to read and read it for fun. It was The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. I liked it, didn’t love it, but that wasn’t the point. The point was dominion over what I read no longer rested with my professors. I was free, in the windows-down Tom Petty sort of way, and it felt great.

Four years later, I’ve had what amounts to another college education’s worth of free reading in topics that fit my fancy. Except during the two-year detour to grad school when my reading once again became more regimented, I have read what I have wanted to read and I have read a lot. On the train, on the bus, during my lunch break, in bed before sleep: I almost always have a book with me that I can whip out when the moment is right.

This is incredibly invigorating for me. There are so many books out there I want to read, to input into my byzantine repository of a brain. Sometimes the sheer infinities of books I could and want to read overwhelm me. (Bunny trail: while working at the library one night I’d just finished a book and tried to decide what to read next. Novel or biography? Classic or contemporary? Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain or Wilson’s Angel in the Architecture or Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic? Ahhh! … I debated for way too long about it and then fifteen minutes before closing, my eye found Mark Harris’ new Five Came Back and I knew immediately I wanted that one. The heart wants what it wants.)

I learned a lot from the books I read in high school and college, but I have gained just as much from what I have read on my own—especially so from the books I grabbed almost impulsively, because I just wanted to read it. No other reason. I know I will never be able to read all the books I want to read, but that doesn’t stop me from trying.

Mostly print.

Bibliophiles will often speak of the allure of the book itself: the smell of the freshly opened pages, the comforting and colorful order of the library stacks, the textile pleasures of a book in hand. I find joy in those things too. But they alone are not why I read printed books, mostly from the library, almost exclusively. I do so because reading should be hard.

As our smartphones get smarter and more intuitive, as our online reading gets lighter and more listicled, we need something that will challenge us. By reading printed books and reading them deeply, we challenge our brains to resist the Twitter-fueled “fear of missing out,” our nagging impulse to check our phones, our tendency to skim online articles before quickly clicking a link to the next one, and our penchant for immediate gratification.

By reading print books, we can enjoy a better reading experience while also confronting the oppressive ubiquity of screens. This secondary effect should not be overlooked. I could quite easily, and quite accidentally, go nary a minute during an average day without fixing my eyes upon the radiant glow of a computer or phone or TV screen. Indeed I have lived that day many more times than I would have liked—such is the reach of the invisible android hand upon the market of our attention. But at the end of such a digitized day, my eyes wearied by the spastic technicolor of the internet, I have often taken solace in the decidedly unilluminated grayscale of the printed page, where the words stay in one place, darn it, and don’t link anywhere else except in my imagination.

This is not to proclaim the objective superiority of paper as a reading format (even though I prefer it), nor to condemn e-books (whose accessibility and convenience are in fact a great catalysts for increased reading). I simply mean to say that with a deficit of attention and a surplus of distractions, we benefit greatly from the challenge and joy of locking ourselves inside the safe and friendly confines of a printed book. Ultimately, reading is better than not reading. Read whatever and however you’d like and you’ll be better for it. But my recipe has nourished me well, and as is true with any good meal I want to share it with others.