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Introduction v.2022

July 20th, 2022

How does a person get another person to like them the first time they meet?

That’s what required of us when we write these stupid distillations of ourselves.

If you hate me two sentences in, then I lose you. Definitely for the moment, most likely for today, and possibly forever.

No pressure.

I’ll start with my name. It’s Dennis. You can call me Denny (my dad’s favorite), Den, or even just the letter D and I’ll probably turn my head.

I’m glad you’re here today.

I talk about kindness a lot, and this is a photo of me giving you the finger, which doesn’t seem very kind. In actuality, my mom took this photo, and we flipped each other off all the time, and I love her more than life itself.

I’m a writer. I do other things, too, but let’s start this simple and call a spade a spade.

I was born in the 80’s and am a lifelong comics & pop culture obsessive. Pop culture has saved my life and helps me explain our existence. I’ve expressed myself artistically in a lot of different ways over the years — I started a company called Sleeping Kitty Productions when I was in high school, I released a trio of full-length music albums as The Next Step when I was a puppy, I began publishing my own books in 2013 with the help of Kickstarter, I fell into a character business called Awesome For Hire — but words are the thing that I have held onto through it all.

In 2013, I released a punk-rock sci-fi novella called Them, and in 2014, its sequel, Us; in-between those two books, I put out a novella about dreams called Flip.

I derailed my personal and creative train after releasing those first three books within a year; after getting sober in 2017, I put myself back on track.

In August of 2018, I released my first comic book: The Flying Squirrel, which is part of a flawed superhero series called The Weirdos. Over the next two years, I released a total of five issues of the series, eventually collecting & coloring them for a graphic novel volume that was published in May of 2020. The heroes in The Weirdos find each other through their struggles; they deal with things like alcoholism, depression, cancer & mental health issues. Later in 2020, I released a novella called Theia, about a silver Boston Terrier in an animal shelter who just wants to run away.

In 2021, I put out Time is a Solid State, my first non-fiction collection of essays; I also released Push, the sequel to Flip, later that summer.

In 2022, I released my two biggest projects to date: Cold World, my first full-length novel, a sci-fi story about spirituality on a future Earth where there is only winter; and Brushfire: Wave 1, my first all-ages graphic novel, about an underground society of wildlife.

I write, draw & produce all my own work. I did go to art school for a minute, said, “Nah, I’m good,” and am mostly self-taught. My books are readable steps of my journey.

The back of my business card has my motto: “Always Love.” It means to try to make your decisions based on love, as opposed to fear, or hate. To have compassion over strength, understanding over exclusion, radical empathy over power. I really believe in that, and am always trying to progress, never close to perfect.

I love my dog, I love words, I love art — and I ❤ you. And that’s it.

Visit my website dennisvogen.com and tell me I sent you.

Four Simple Rules For Staying Together Forever

February 2nd, 2023

Yesterday, I waited on a couple who were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary.

I asked them if they had any advice to share.

“Luck!” the man said, and laughed. “And having a good bride helps.”

She thought for a moment, and then said:

“Be kind to each other.”

She smiled.

“That’s so important. And treat each other like you’re best friends. So many married people don’t do that, you know. But they should be. Your best friend.”

So there you go. A simple recipe for creating a relationship that can last over half a century.

SKP 2023: Online Writing & Unproduced Work

February 1st, 2023

Welcome to February. It’s just as damn cold as yesterday.

It is also a brand new monthly topic on my Sleeping Kitty Productions 2023 calendar: Internet Writing & Unproduced Work.

And I’m going to start with a big question:

Why the hell do I do this?

By that, I mean: what is the point of talking so much on the internet? Why would I be vulnerable in a space where people are constantly looking for a target? Why would I try to explore things with nuance and subtlety in a place where a sledgehammer is often a substitute for context?

Because I think it matters.

Whenever someone tells me something they came across on my page meant something to them, my response is invariably the same:

“I think everyone should talk like this on the internet.”

And I do.

The other day, we were talking about how social media can actually make real life interactions more difficult; since we post about our vacations and our kids and what we eat every day, it doesn’t leave a lot of small talk questions to ask one another.

My personal experience is very different from that; I am often confronted by people who want to talk about something more.

Whether it’s creativity or spirituality or grief or my alcoholism, among the long list of not-easy things I find myself talking about, the words I write tend to inspire more conversation in real life, not less.

That tells me there’s something there.

And sometimes it’s just a reaction to how normal people use social media; everyone shouts “it’s not real!” and then they continue to present their own lives in the exact same manner, filters and toxic positivity and a distinct lack of that complexity and sadness that makes us real.

So that’s why I do it: I’m an idiot.

This month will focus on my online writing; the first book collection of that writing, Time is a Solid State; and all the projects I started over the years that I didn’t finish, for one reason or another.

I think the projects you abandon can be as important as the ones you bring into the world, and I’m looking forward to sharing some of those.

I’m glad you survived January. I’m glad I’m here, too. Here’s to writing a whole lot more vulnerable shit to remind ourselves how human we actually are.

All the Wrong and Dark Things

January 31st, 2023

Today is the last day of Origins month, and I sincerely want to thank anybody who’s been reading. A better explanation of why I’m doing this (and why I do anything on the internet at all) is coming tomorrow, the first day of a new month, and a new topic.

Going through these boxes and photo albums my mom left behind has been an unforgettable experience. Joyful, depressed, enlightened, overwhelmed — I’ve been all that and more, flipping these pictures and pages.

Something that has really struck me is how I perceive myself at any age.

I never see myself as a three-year-old, or an eight-year-old, or a thirteen-year-old, or a seventeen-year-old; I see all those versions of me as an adult, as I am today, with the exact same brain and thoughts I have in my head now.

I don’t have this same attitude towards any other child I meet, but I do for me.

I have always felt like an adult. I have always felt the responsibility of being grown up; the fear and the anxiety that accompanies the act of survival.

I can’t even begin to analyze all the reasons why. I know some of it comes from family dynamics; with deaf parents, I was often a mediator and interpreter, going so far as to translate my own parent-teacher conferences on occasion, or ordering food for the entire table at a restaurant.

Maybe we all feel this way, and we rarely talk about it.

But I know the way I see myself is the reason I could never forgive myself, and not being able to forgive myself meant I had to be ashamed; because I have always been an adult, I always knew better. Mistakes are for babies and I was never a babe.

It wasn’t until I started tolerating the previous versions of myself, starting with the active addict, that my grace for myself started to infect the rest of my timeline.

And that was the real lesson of Origins month for me. I was cringe. My god, I have been so cringe. I have said and done so many stupid things.

But all of those things — those actions and reactions, the missteps and mistakes — all the things I wish I hadn’t done, have influenced me just as much as my positive inspirations and personal successes.

I not only accept them; I embrace me, all of it. I embrace being able to take all the wrong and dark things and make them mean something now.

A funny thing happens when you get to the end of an old photo album. You close it, like you just went through your entire life, and it’s over; then you remember that you’re still alive now, very, and have an entire life’s worth of memories left to make.

Now we bid adieu to January, the month of beginnings, and set the stage for what happens tomorrow.

Cave Paintings

January 30th, 2023

One of the fun aspects of documenting memories and recording our own personal histories is the potential that you can inspire yourself.

Scrolling through your past from your present, sometimes you come across the right time at the right time.

In high school, I decided to create a mural. I didn’t know anyone who trusted me with doodling on their property, so I chose my own bedroom wall as the canvas for this project.

I had an idea for a character, and I got to work. Eventually, three full-sized characters lived on those walls.

I had never done anything at this scale before. As far as my imposter syndrome goes, my visual art has always made me the most insecure. In a way, that was the motivation to do this; I had to ignore my perfectionism and the little (big) voice in my head that told me it wasn’t good enough, because it had to be good enough, because I had to live with it.

The characters themselves developed their own mythology, and that was my favorite part. People had to actually come over to my house to see them. Who were they? What did they represent? Where did they come from, and where were they going?

Despite their permanence in my mind — I thought they would live on those walls forever — they were painted over shortly after I moved out. Now we don’t even own the house in which they once lived.

But the confidence they gave me at the time was invaluable. And as I’m getting ready to reveal bigger plans for what I want Sleeping Kitty Productions to be, that young confidence, to do something I previously thought impossible, is something I have to remember and equip again.

Becoming something because you were once something. Doing something because you did something. The right time at the right time.

History creating the future by restoring the gaps in our revisionist memories.

Lost Boy

January 26th, 2023

I was drama club president.

This probably comes as no surprise to you.

I have but a few more essays for Origins month, and there’s no way I can talk about where I came from without mentioning the theater.

For most of my school career, I was a little lost in the woods. I had participated in various groups and sports (shut up, there’s photos, it happened), but I didn’t really fit into any of those organizational shapes; in fact, I was generally the wrong shape for most doorframes I encountered. I didn’t have a flight plan; I was less Peter Pan, more lost boy.

Halfway through my sophomore year, my teacher/director Paul Johnson told me that I, based on my various traits, most of them disruptive, should try out for the children’s play, a show put on for all the elementary kids in the area.

I auditioned, and I got my first big role: Bob, the Tickle Monster. The subsequent rehearsals and production started a years-long affair with the stage, which was the single most important part of my high school experience.

I gained confidence, I found friends, I made enemies, I created rivals, I learned how to do things I had always wanted to do. I acted and directed and put things (poorly) together; I sang and I danced and I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. I was introduced to art and culture: pop, high- and low-brow. I entertained people, an addiction I have never fully kicked.

More than anything else, though, I didn’t feel so lost.

This particular image is from the year we brought the Variety Show back, with myself and Brandon Pofahl as hosts.

This is the outfit I wore to school which caused so much controversy; the one that got me called to the principal’s office, and it was pointed out to me that “my tallywacker was sticking out.”

Because of this diaper and wings, I was radicalized; I saw the value in shock and making people talk. It was a revelation. This bled into who I was for the rest of high school, into my twenties, and there is still some of it left in me today. It’s in my work and my words and, while I have tried to liberally apply the balm of kindness to what I do, it’s an undeniable, uncomfortable truth of me:

I need attention, all of it, and I will go to dramatic lengths to get it.

I participated in every show I could until I moved out. I taught and directed theatre for children, writing my own plays, over several summers. And, yes, I became drama club president during my senior year.

Towards the end of high school, my interests shifted to music, where there was less Shakespeare, but more of that individual validation I so desperately craved. (I’ll be covering The Next Step in the month of May.)

But I owe theater a lot. It was a place I felt safe, where I could explore and discover parts of myself. I met the best people in that black box, and they made me feel far less alone. It was a formative community.

And with that community, I became more than a lost boy.

Panic at the Distrust

January 23rd, 2023

I’ve had some real revelations this week on my issues with trust.

Growing up, I was generally untrusting. I struggled to articulate why. I had clear reasons: bad things happened to me. Bad things happened to people I loved. People talked about bad things other people did to them or, still, other people.

Yet none of that felt like a complete explanation.

I knew my trust issues were bad when I realized I distrusted people I deeply cared about who had never given me a reason to. Even my art reflected a person who was reacting to imagined slights and threats; not being in the position of actually being hurt, but knowing what that hurt would feel like when it finally, and inevitably, came.

When a person does work on themselves, the real, gross kind of work, they have to dig through the top layer of grass to get to the dirt, the worms, the decaying but still moving bodies below.

I was the untrustworthy person.

I have done the most untrustworthy things.

And despite the actual hurt that had been done to me, the poor role models and bad quality of character I sometimes found myself associated with and influenced by, nothing could justify or rationalize any untrustworthy thing I have done myself.

And yet, like most humans, I wanted to believe I was still a good person. And that led to a cognitive dissonance, because I believed only one of two things could be true:

I was a bad person, or good people are capable of doing untrustworthy things.

I definitely still vacillate between thinking I’m a bad or good person; I have accepted that I am somewhere in between.

But I decided, from a very early age, that good people could do bad things, because I thought I was a good person, and I had done bad things, so therefore, nobody could be trusted.

Spoiler alert, you guys: it worked out terribly.

This approach to life exacerbated my alcoholism and tried to decimate my relationships, to people who are the most trustworthy I could find in this life or any.

I was watching Neal Brennan and he said it’s so hard to find and stay in a relationship because no matter what, that other person is going to fuck you over. And it’s true. Even if they never break your heart or steal your life savings, they will die and leave you here without them. You have to trust them despite and because of this.

Weirdly enough, when I started making steps towards being more trustworthy myself — genuinely caring more about others and hugging ideas like honesty and vulnerability — I naturally started to trust others more, too. I realized that trust isn’t a weakness; it is one of the greatest traits a human can contain. People can break your trust and it says nothing about your trust, and everything about what they did with it

I still have to deal with what I did with it.

And looking around at the world, the general distrust it holds for itself, I don’t have to wonder why it feels like it’s gone crazy some days.

When neighbors can’t trust their neighbors to be who they say they are, their neighbors become something else entirely.

Foreign enemies. Imagined slights and threats, pretending to be in positions of hurt before anyone fires a shot.

And nobody around to lean on when we find ourselves down.

Met Men

January 18th, 2023

As far as I know, this ad was the first time I made the big bucks with my art.

According to the date my mom so diligently wrote in the corner of this piece (and on the corner or backs of most of my pieces), I was the ripe old age of 11, and why I didn’t just take that money and run I’ll never know.

(If I remember correctly, my prize was $50, which was a small fortune for a child in the 1990’s.)

Faribault’s Met-Con was my big break, and clearly it didn’t go to my head; I am just as insecure about my art now as I was then, which is to actually say I am more insecure about my art now than I ever was as a kid.

Ignorance is bliss and taste is what you know; when you get older, you know that you know both too much and so little.

This ad is a very fond memory for me, though, and it lives among finding fan art in professional comic books as one of the earliest inspirations I had to continue being creative and sharing those parts of me.

I hadn’t seen the ad in literal decades. It wasn’t until I got the last of my junk on Christmas Day did I discover it in a box with my name on it.

You can definitely see the Sunday funnies style here; as I’ve said before, I was heavily influenced by comic strips like Peanuts, Calvin & Hobbes, and Garfield.

What’s really fun about having boxes of my old art is seeing how many styles and trends I tried before finding my own voice; The Weirdos and Brushfire, rough and emotional and, yes, weird in their own way, are very much what I would consider my personal style.

It’s a choir and a fight club of comic strips, comic books, American and Japanese animation, commercials, and video games.

I wish I could say that I invested that cash prize and I am very close to retirement now, but that isn’t the case. I’m still hard at work, chasing that dream and that Met-Con newspaper ad high.

This is a paragon of design; somebody definitely called them when they saw this, right?

Popina Academia

January 15th, 2023

After a very eventful and exhausting week, I wanted to get back to the January theme of Origins.

This essay asks: how has working in a restaurant for most of my life affected me as a writer?

Let’s start with my restaurant history. Growing up in Faribault, I worked as a corn detasseler, at a grocery store, a gas station, and a bagel place, but I would say my first restaurant job was at A & W (pictured here).

When I moved out at 18, I got a job at Chili’s in Burnsville, worked there for almost four years, and was (rightfully) fired; got my longest-running job at Old Chicago in Apple Valley (almost thirteen years), and lost that one at the beginning of the pandemic; worked for three months in-between my OC job as a manager at a place called Vivo, where I thoroughly humiliated myself and was, again, fired; and I’ve been at my current restaurant job for two-and-a-half years.

Why has this been my life? And how does it connect to my writing?

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that when I found myself in a restaurant for the first time, I was also exploring who I was onstage in a theater. Whenever people ask me, “Can you imagine being a performer for a living? Having to ‘be on’ for hours at a time every day?” I can honestly say, “Yeah.”

Restaurant workers don’t get to have off days; off days lead to bad reviews and less income. A person who works in a restaurant has to be a heightened version of themselves at all times because our society has unrealistic expectations for service that doesn’t extend to every line of work.

No one tells a grave digger they would prettier if they smiled.

I’ve worked in restaurants for so long because I’m good at it, and it’s a legitimate skill I’ve sharpened, refined and honed. I care about what I do and who I do it with. I have worked with hundreds and hundreds of people, who come from every other field imaginable to “make some extra money,” and you either would or would not be surprised at how many of them are just incapable of service.

There are a lot of benefits to this kind of work for a person who fancies themselves a writer.

I always mention the flexibility of schedule; it’s a small part, but a helpful one. I am the onlooker of an endless parade of people, and I listen to them talk and watch them act; it informs the dialogue I write and the quality of characters I can imagine. I get to make connections with all kinds of folk, and those connections are invaluable and strengthen our community.

I get to hear people’s stories every day. I tell the same stories, over and over again, learning what parts work and don’t work, and then I tell them again, until the story I share seems to affect people in the same places in the same way. I learn how stories work.

When I first started serving, I noticed how people would adopt a fake personality to appease guests.

I made the decision then that I would learn how to be the best liar, the best actor, and thus the best server to ever live.

Over the years, I learned the opposite was true.

The people I worked with who I admired most all shared a similar quality, which I would finally distill into one word: vulnerability.

They didn’t lie. They elevated their own personality to match the kind of employee they wanted to be, instead of pretending to be something they were not. When they were having an off day, they were honest about it, and they were still able to do their job.

Whenever I am feeling overwhelmed, at any time, I remind myself to be vulnerable.

Whenever I am writing, at all times, I remind myself to be vulnerable.

And vulnerability isn’t one thing. It can be tragic, or hilarious, or universal, or skin-crawlingly intimate.

It’s the thing that truly connects people. Like having a great dinner in a restaurant. Like reading a life-changing book.

And it has been my absolute privilege in life to try to live one in which I could do both.

thx

January 12th, 2023

Hi. Marvel and I just wanted to thank everyone who reached out to us this week.

It’s been a challenging one. I can’t even imagine going through something like this alone, because I was anything but: from all the family and friends who offered kind words and support, to co-workers who let me carpool and gave me the time to do what I needed to do, and even social media pals who checked in to make sure I was okay.

My nerves are absolutely fried. I’m energy bankrupt. I’m still being positive, but I am completely sapped of that ooey gooey stuff that makes me all magical or whatever.

And when you find yourself scraping the bottom of your tin heart, you start making some realizations; you think about the daily choices you’re making, and how they affect your emotional and mental health and overall well-being.

I definitely need to reprioritize myself and make a few changes that hopefully give me a tiny slice of that serenity that people tell me tastes so good. (Do you put whipped cream on it?)

I don’t need a complete overhaul (and hopefully my newly recovered vehicle doesn’t, either), but I do need to figure out what I can accept and what I, with a little courage, need to change. And I could use some wisdom — always some wisdom.

Thanks again, mostly from this dog who has to put up with my neediness that you helped abate. Hope your road this week is less than perilous, and leading you forward regardless.

Good Grief

January 10th, 2023

Well… my car got stolen today.

Every time I see someone post about a hard time, I imagine what I would do in their shoes.

I do it even more when I think about my sobriety; I have to ask myself, “Would I stay sober through that?” I often questioned who I would become when a parent died. I’m okay being the person I am today.

But when something happens to a person’s property, interesting things happen. A liberal is suddenly revealed to be conservative all along; someone once considered “woke” was actually just wearing glasses with eyes painted on the lenses.

So who am I going to become?

Because I feel like just being myself.

I don’t think the majority of people are bad. I don’t think crime is any worse than it was a few years ago, ten years ago, a hundred years ago. I don’t blame anybody; I don’t even blame the people who stole my car.

It makes me sad. I think that whoever did it probably needs help, and it breaks my heart that they felt they had do this for whatever reason they have.

The officer I talked to said it was probably a youth, doing a social media challenge with Kias and Hyundais. I personally miss the days of the ice bucket challenge, but maybe I’m old-fashioned that way.

I’m not having a good day, but things could be worse. I have this dog and can you believe my luck? I hope you’re all hanging in there.

Today was not what I expected, and I’m sure there are headaches in my near future, but I don’t want to trust people less, because I think people need trust more than ever.