My father, Tony Balloo knows project management, scheduling, planning and how to build things piece by piece. He’s artistic, but not an artist by any means. He’s also the source of one of my favorite idioms about dedication: how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Great things are accomplished by small acts that add up.
From the start, many of the artists I interviewed for the series asked if I wouldn’t turn the tables on myself and sit in the interviewee seat. I agreed that it seemed only fair to do so, and to answer the questions they’ve each posed to one another in succession through the series. I decided the best way of doing that was to have my own father interview me, and he did so this week:
TB: I like this one first from Seth Hansen: “was there a specific moment that you had a make it or break it point as far as ‘should I continue this, or should I do something else?’ How did you overcome that period, or have you overcome it? How have you been able to live with that?”
YB: I can tell you that I did overcome that period although I think we hit speed bumps, but the big one for me is when I was around 23 or 24 years old. I was living in Hermosa Beach and had just started working for SQA and had resigned myself to, ‘Well, I guess I’m going to be this unremarkable, white collar worker. So what’s the point of writing anymore?’ There was a solid six or seven months where I did not do a single page of writing of any kind. Alex Graves came to visit me while I was in Hermosa Beach and he’s a master of waiting until the perfect moment to ask something like this.
We’d been out drinking all night- I was drunk out of my mind and we’re on a lifeguard station on the beach and he called me out, ‘why aren’t you writing? I know what writing means to you as a friend. Maybe it’s diminished, maybe it’s faded, but I don’t think that. I’m listening to the way you’re talking about your job, and day to day life,’ I was trying way too hard to make it feel like my life was complete without the fulfillment from producing art.
That was my big moment of slipping out of childish expectation for my art and grew into a more mature motivation for it- that having a job and not making a living off my art does not diminish the importance of it to me regardless of how many or how few people I’m reaching with it. It still has importance as something I want to do.
That kept me going and that’s why I’ve maintained the discipline of all this after hours to my full time job, and ten years later I still thank Graves for that kick in the ass. My art has never been a source of my income, so it’s a little bit of a different make it or break it thing for me.
TB: Knowing you personally, I know you were writing through school and out of college, but did you ever imagine writing might become your source of income?
YB: It was up to a point. When I graduated college I had an internship with the Los Angeles Magazine which I loved. This ties into an important issue which is that internships as a starting point for people in their careers being unpaid is inherently classist. Internships in the media industry to get your foot in the door are largely unpaid and I didn’t have a situation where I could afford to be an unpaid writer for a year or two years. It was a very pragmatic ‘I need to be able to pay my rent and bills,’ that got me off that professional track.
Up until that point where the realities of adulthood set in that led to the lifeguard station conversation? I absolutely believed my career was going to be in writing. The realities are what the realities are and that’s part of what I had to confront with that conversation that night.
TB: You would say Graves triggered that need to get back into writing?
YB: Absolutely. I thank him for that regularly. Graves isn’t the only one, you’ve contributed, and there have been a bunch of other friends- some in this interview series.
TB: That’s good, I’ve been on this little journey with you also. Let’s move along to Loryn Stone, “What is one of your hobbies or interests that defines you that other people would never expect? What are your secrets?”
YB: That’s a weird one for me because the same thing happened with Nicole when I asked her that: I’m fairly wide open. Everyone knows that I write, that I play video games, act- I talk openly about all my stuff, even recently joining a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. I hope no one would be too surprised to find out I’m kind of nerdy?
One thing that surprises people might be that I love cooking. There’s a lot of parallels to the art that I pursue- it requires patience and planning, but it also requires an innate skill at flavors and pallet. There are interesting parallels and contrasts, but it’s something I can only share intimately with whichever friend who comes over for a meal.
TB: Let me follow up with some straight talk: you’re a creative person by nature, do you have a genre that you haven’t exposed to the public or your friends? Is there a genre you’d like to explore that you haven’t yet?
YB: Not really. I’ve tried everything I want to try- I’ve even dabbled occasionally in short erotica and shared that with close friends, but it’s not something I’ve seriously pursued or am very interested in. You know I’ve dabbled in just about everything, but the one thing I haven’t tried yet that I’m interested in trying is Horror. I weave comedy into my writing so much, it’d be a unique challenge to try my hand at a horror story.
TB: Do you claim to be a natural comedic writer?
YB: No, I wouldn’t claim to be naturally funny. I’m capable of being funny, but I don’t think it’s my natural tendency. It helps me to intentionally attempt to take a lighter tone with things.
TB: Chance Calloway asked “If [you] could boil the essence of what [you’re] trying to put out into the universe into one word, what would that word be?”
YB: This is the one question I did think about beforehand: the answer is right on my Twitter page: “Kindness.” This goes back to my first novel and even up to now to what I’m attempting with the interview series. I hope that in all my writing and at the heart of every moral message I have in even my op-eds that people see a call to kindness and empathy.
TB: Would you say ‘whatever it takes?‘
YB: If what you’re doing is truly kind, then yeah, whatever it takes. If your message and story is kind, then yes.
TB: So let me link back to your blog: does the word Irony ring in your life with your creative side?
YB: I think it rings in everyone’s life if you take the right framing. It’s all about how you look at something. Not just irony, but that depending on how you frame your life you can be a side character watching all the action, or you can be the hero. I mentioned in a post about fashion that you should dress like you’re the lead character in the movie of your life. You should act that way too.
I think a lot of people, without articulating the thought, resign themselves to being side characters in their own stories and wait for somebody else to be the hero or dynamic lead. The reality is you choose how your story is framed and what you step up to aspire to- that’s the Optional Irony. I’m not saying we’re all masters of the universe, but we do have the ability to be exemplar of ideals and kindness and morals in small ways depending on how we frame our story.
TB: Gerry asked, “what do you want for your art and for your career?”
YB: We talk about this sort of thing- planning and the more business-y aspects of my art, so I think the thing I’m really enjoying is being a conduit for different people and their voices. I’ve loved getting to interview artists for Optional Irony and to have conversations with people through the podcast. I’m enjoying this space of providing a medium and platform, to be a place where people can come and have a conversation about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, whether with me or through the site.
I do have a skill at seeing people as they want to be seen and engaging with people on their terms. I’m happy I found a way to leverage it for people to talk about things they’re passionate about and give them a platform.
TB: Do you find after these conversations that we’re facing a lot of the same things?
YB: Yeah, the series is only 12 interviews but already we’re seeing common threads and commonalities of artists of different mediums. Artists all face doubts at different levels, and the challenges of pushing our art, being self-conscious, and day to day stuff, but then also the big questions like you’re asking: is my art embodying something worthwhile? Will it communicate what I want it to communicate? It’s been wonderful to see that we’re all in this together.
TB: With your ability to interview people, do you see it as a gift, opportunity, or advantage?
YB: I tend not to think about things I’m good at as “gifts,’ I like to think anyone can do this if I’m doing it. I’m just the one taking the time to do it.
TB: So it’s an opportunity they gave to you?
YB: Bingo. We’re all so busy with our own work that I decided here’s something kind I can do: let me lend other people my megaphone and promote them if they’ll give me that chance.
TB: So the second half of Gerry’s questions, what do you want at the end of your career?
YB: Whoo, I don’t even know what the end is.
TB: Nobody knows.
YB: Truth. I hope with any of my art I want it to exemplify kindness, respect, and empathy. I hope what I leave behind leaves people with a sense of ‘this is what he believed in.’ Granted, some of my stories are very silly, Five Talents is a very silly story but I think there’s still a very baked in morality and you get a very good sense of what I believe is good and bad. I hope that people not only get that sense of me, but see that there is kindness to be found and learned through art.
TB: From Kali Fontecchio: “How much money for you to sell out your art form? What is your price to sell yourself as a brand and your soul?” First part, is there a number?
YB: That’s the thing, and the unique position I’m in since I moved on 10 years ago from expecting my art to be a source of income- it’d be great if it were, but that frees me from having any sense of a price tag to my art. Shout out to the people that are making a living from their art, but for me it’s pretty black and white because I have this freedom to do and say what I want, to embody what I want to embody.
TB: You can own it however you want, whenever you want.
YB: Yeah, I don’t have a concept of what selling my soul would be. What does that mean as far as Optional Irony? That I’d take commissions to write on particular topics? Sure, I’d do that right now, but it’d be worthless to the buyer and to me if I weren’t being honest and it weren’t my actual voice and opinion because that’s what this is founded on. If it meant sharing opinions that were dictated to me then I don’t have a price for that. If someone has enough money to buy my voice? They have enough money for a much bigger platform. I don’t think I’ll ever have that issue because the brand is honesty.
TB: I say my word is my life, is your art your life?
YB: Yeah, these are all my words and I stand by each and every one of them. I had a conversation with Evan James Clark in the series where he told me about a book he wrote several years ago that he’s kind of disowned. Speaking to kindness at the core of everything I’m trying to produce: I look back on Beneath the Wood that I wrote 4 years ago and if I were to write it today, yeah I’d change the structure and all that, but am I in any way ashamed of the message in the story? Not at all. The core of the story is an intention and ambition towards kindness and empathy in what I was telling and relating.
TB: You own your work at any level?
YB: So long as its coming from that right place of empathy and kindness, it ages well. That’s something I was very intentional about with Beneath the Wood.
TB: So that’s a good time for the question from Evan James Clark, he asks, “what are you true to?’ It goes beyond things like just art, writing, music-whatever. There’s that splinter. There’s that scar that is the one thing you are true to. Why? What is your why that is going to hold out through all the other things in your life?”
YB: This occurs to me right in the nic of time: it’s that we’re all in this together. You’ve heard the word kindness ad nauseam already. Speaking to weird beliefs I’ve held onto for perhaps too long: I do believe that as much as Heaven is a place we might see in an afterlife, I believe it’s also a place and state of being that is achievable in this lifetime as well. It would be if we were all perfect beings. Maybe there are moments where we create bubbles of it that are fleeting through kindness, and I think that’s the splinter I’m true to. In my earlier years I was very depressed and angry because of my cynicism and disappointment with humanity not embodying kindness and seeing that potential.
TB: Does this describe you: that you choose to stand up against social injustice?
YB: I hope it does. That’s part of why I said: in whatever small way, be the hero if your story. It doesn’t require you to save the world single handedly, but you do have every opportunity to speak up, to help amplify and defend minority and marginalized voices.
TB: He goes on to ask ‘What is your why that is going to hold out through all the other things in your life??’
YB: The ‘why’ that’s going to hold out for me is that if I’m not embodying this then I might as well not be here. What the fuck is the point of staying alive if I’m not going to try to make the world around me better in even a small way? Maybe it’s just what a Type A person I am, but it just feels pointless to live in apathy. It doesn’t need to be big gestures.
TB: Do you feel responsible as an artist to make a difference one act at a time?
YB: Yeah, like it said in the Bible: you have an opportunity to be a light on the hill, and you have that opportunity through art and other actions. The life well lived and the why keeping me going is being a light of some sort. If I ever felt like I didn’t have any more fuel in that tank to keep that flame lit?
TB: A hundred lights light a village. One little act adds up.
YB: We’re all in this together.
TB: We keep moving forward.
YB: That’s the one.
TB: From Matt & Ben, “would you rather be an unknown talent with strong personal wealth, or a famous artist with barely a dime to their name?”
YB: It’s a lot more pragmatic than I tend to think about things. I’m neither of those things: I have neither wealth nor fame, but if I had to pick I’d pick fame. Money only matters to me to keeping the bills paid, so I’d take platform and fame because what you taught me is that if you have work ethic money follows, and while there’s good you can do with money, you can do plenty of good with a platform also.
TB: You want to use your creative gifts to help other people and give them a base to expand on also. When I tell people about my son, I say that you’re living the life that I want to see you live. Fame can do a lot, and it’s not necessarily just about money.
YB: Thank you.
TB: Okay, from Nicole, “do you think you embody your astrological sign?”
YB: I don’t really live by the zodiac but I know a fair amount through hearsay and osmosis- living in L.A. you hear a lot of people talking about it. I’m told that I’m pretty thoroughly a Sagittarius, I love traveling, I talk a lot, I like staying busy.
TB: From Emma, “If you were to die tomorrow, what would you create today and what message would you want to leave to the world with what you create? How would you do that?”
YB: That’s a tough one for me because my wish in terms of the last thing I’d leave would be a novel, but I can’t possibly produce a novel in 24 hours.
TB: You go to your writing first and foremost.
YB: Yeah, writing is my first and truest love in terms of my art. If I had 24 hours I think I would take it to craft a letter summing everything up.
TB: Not a video message?
YB: I think I would still want to put it in my writing. I’ve gotten more comfortable with performance stuff thanks to the podcast and acting classes, but I still want the written form. Maybe both, but I’d want the opportunity to really word smith it.
TB: Is your creativity more in your hands or head? Writing or speaking?
YB: I think it’s more in my head. I’m a decent speaker, but I’ve developed and accrued skills at editing that increases the value of my written word. It’s enhanced by better editing, reworking, and attention to detail. I can spit out 500 words in under ten minutes without a problem.
TB: I’ve seen you spit out a thousand in under five.
YB: Yeah, if I’m really in the zone. It’s just me talking through my fingers. The real craft is in taking that verbal vomit and shaping it into something better.
TB: At this stage in your life, do you think you have undiscovered creativity to expand on?
YB: I think there are tangential things I want to try, like after this novel I want to try writing a script for a short comedy series. I am interested in testing tangential genres off my writing skills, but I don’t know how much I have for other mediums like music. I’ve always wanted to learn how to play an instrument, but I don’t know if I have the capacity for that at this point. Do I have the time for them and energy to make pursuing them worthwhile? I couldn’t say.
TB: I think you’ve scratched the surface on what you’re exploring.
YB: What makes you say that?
TB: I think you’ve got a bank of stuff that because you’re doing this as a hobby rather than full time you’re limited as to how deep you’re digging. It’s a good thing because you’ve got a career, but when you do get to the point of this being your career? I think you’ll find there was more being stifled than you realize.
YB: This is an important question though: can I produce art under external pressure to a deadline, or do I need this freedom where I’m beholden only to myself? I don’t know. I’ve never had to produce art on that true sort of deadline. I put myself on deadlines and keep them. You know how Type A I am, I’ve been on schedule with every project I’ve undertaken in the past four years, but I don’t know how I’d respond to that pressure of necessity for income.
I would be surprised if there was more, because I already have ideas in queue I keep track of that I have to wait to get to after I finish a current project, but when I get to the end of one, I’ll completely ignore the list because something unexpected hits me and that jumps the line.
TB: There’s always stuff circling in the back of your mind.
YB: That google doc with all my potential ideas is depressing because I love those ideas, but every time I finish a project, all those ideas get leap frogged by something that hits me all of a sudden at just the right time. Every novel I’ve written was not the novel I expected to write next until I started writing it. I don’t know if that would survive in a professional capacity where I’d be expected by a publisher who I promised last year I’d write The Book of Resurrection who’d find out this year I wrote The Spectacular Seraphim instead. I can get away with that because I don’t have to explain to anyone ‘I know I promised a dour magic-punk fantasy saga, but this superhero satire is going to be fun too.’
It’d be interesting if I were dedicating myself full time to creative output, because as much as I’m producing, I’m still like that I Love Lucy scene with the conveyor belt where I’m just letting stuff go by while I try to stuff as much in my mouth as I can already. We talk about balance, project management and scheduling.
TB: I hope I’ve made a little bit of a dent in that regard.
YB: Considering I’m able to produce everything as consistently as I do while still having time for friends, a full time job, acting classes, and Dungeons & Dragons? Yeah, you taught me well. Thanks pops.
TB: Efficiency is first and foremost.
YB: It’s the guiding discipline since I started over with Beneath the Wood when I was only focused on writing a novel was: efficiency and discipline. Get the writing done, page by page, edit, and rewrite. It’s like juggling, once you get juggling three down then you can add a fourth, a fifth, and so on. Even though everything is so different I’m still juggling them all with the same discipline as back when there was just the writing.
TB: Talking about adding juggling balls reminds me of your Uncle Buggy’s downstairs washroom: you’d sit on the toilet between those two facing mirrors and you see your face in the mirror 50 times over. It’s like you’re exploring those deeper reflections. So how about Lola’s question: “what are you doing and what will you do to uplift others during your journey?”
YB: The thing I’m trying to do to uplift others is to give a voice or platform to other people. Whether through these interviews, my writing, even my fictional writing to represent others. The reason I’ve grown to love improv is because you’re better at it if you listen and work to amplify your partner and their ideas. That’s what ‘yes, and’ means: see what your partner brings out, listen, and support them. That’s what I’m trying to do: to give people a platform or boost, and help them feel heard and amplified.
TB: This one from Nigel Walsh, “I’d like to know what the hardest thing anyone’s ever had to come back from is.”
YB: Thankfully there aren’t too many hard challenges as individual moments. Being Bi-Polar, depression, and suicidal thoughts are more of an ongoing challenge.
TB: Is your being Bi-Polar something that keeps you on your toes day in, day out?
YB: It does make me a lot more attentive to mental, emotional, and spiritual maintenance. That heightened awareness is component to why I do everything that I do. That’s easily the hardest thing I have to endure because it’s the challenge of do I get out of bed this morning or do I just lay here and stare at the ceiling feeling worthless? That’s the brain chemistry of what being bi-polar can be, and also not knowing which chemistry I’m going to get today: will I have depression or mania? Balancing and recognizing those and having healthy mental habits and routines. It’s been a learning process for 20 years for me and developing those healthier habits and accountability.
The other side of it is self-forgiveness. You not only have to develop self accountability to keep going, but the harder part is developing grace toward yourself: being able to forgive yourself and not beat yourself up to slip deeper and deeper into depression for needing to isolate or needing to have some self care or take a day off. It’s very easy to go down those spirals and I’ve tried my best not to go down them.
TB: Are you faced with days of feeling meaninglessness in the sense that no matter what you do you’re not gaining traction?
YB: Oh yeah, that’s a lot of days. That’s a question you have to ask yourself. The thing that’s helped me is developing the motivation and belief in the value of doing this even if it doesn’t result in traction. It’s valuable in and of itself if only for me. Even if my art is a purely selfish act it’s still positive. It’s just as much a selfish act as exercising, it’s good for me. It’s something that does not hurt anybody, so even at the very most base motivation even at my most depressed I remind myself that it doesn’t matter if a single person reads this, what matters is what I get out of it and that’s okay.
TB: What would you say to people who are challenged with the same stuff you’re challenged with?
YB: You have to be honest with yourself. You have to be honest about the way your brain and emotions work, and you have to be a little aggressive about creating routines and ecosystems for yourself that nurture positive mental health. That means asking for help with therapy and counseling, having a reliable routine you can be comfortable and feel productive in, and it can even mean distancing yourself from people that don’t help your mental health.
The tough side is that it’s an illness, so you need to control your exposure to certain elements. You have to sometimes be aggressive and deal with people that aren’t good for your mental health. It’s a tough thing to tell people, and it’s a tough thing to be told by people, but it’s necessary and it starts with honesty.
TB: What is the one thing you want to tell people to do daily that you think would help?
YB: For me the most helpful thing is to every day do something that isn’t just courteous, do something genuinely kind everyday. It helps me to be able to say ‘that person had a better day because of me.’ It doesn’t need to be big. Sometimes it’s as simple as sending an email to a friend you haven’t heard from in a long time just to let them know someone is thinking of them and wishing them well.
TB: Let me close off with this great question from Beverly: “What do you want your legacy to be?”
YB: Legacy is a broader thing, how will they describe me? I hope I’d leave behind a legacy of putting good out into the world in whatever form your talents give it through art or whatever else and being kind. It’s as simple as that.