I started writing to entertain my family and then my classmates by reading aloud. Then I wrote to continue stories with the action figures I loved. Then I wrote because I wanted to be funny like Erma Bombeck and Jean Sheppard and Patrick McManus.
I wrote because other people told me I was a writer and so I could say they were right. I wrote because I wanted to be famous. I wrote because I wanted to build an audience that would one day encourage me to run for office as a literary philosopher president.
I wrote as a way of turning my inherited talent for eloquent bullshittery to something less destructive than how my father applied it. I wrote to get revenge on him, to show I’d grown up okay despite all his efforts. I wrote to fight evil with words like Voltaire. I wrote to debug our Cambellian cultural software, evoking the epic in all of us.
I wrote to woo women. A lot. (A lot of writing, not a lot of women.)
I wrote to earn a comfortable sinecure in academia. I wrote to escape from terrible stultifying office jobs. I wrote hoping to be a free observer on the sidelines of life, above economy and mobs.
I wrote to make the world more mysterious and strange, to make readers laugh and cringe and laugh again. I wrote so I could live forever, perhaps through an oft-visited statue of me somewhere in Englewood or Gainesville or Jacksonville not far from a vault of my well-protected papers.
But I outgrew all of that, leaving it behind as egotism and deciding that such motivations were impure. I had (and still have) the very Generation X idea that if you want something too much, you won’t get it.
Why do I write now?
Because it seems to be the talent that I have, remembering things with more drama and detail than most people. Because I like noticing connections and contradictions between things. Because I still want to make the world more weird and interesting.
I used to write to entertain and inspire people, but I’m less sure lately than many of them deserve it. Now I write as a signal to anyone who does, a clandestine gesture to other saboteurs in enemy country.
I write now because I like making things clearer and more interesting with words. I still like making people see and feel things. I like making ME see and feel things, surrounding something amorphous with words so I can get at least a hint of its size and shape.
I feel alive when I’m noticing and synthesizing, when the shiver of recognition comes that something sounds right.
I’m sick these days of characters, plots, scenes, arcs, point of view, and narrative distance. I’m sick of clanking scaffolds, of our perfected science of franchise content storytelling. I’m exhausted by the act of doing the right things to say I’m a writer, to have a career.
I really just want to “shoot the shit” as my mother and father used to say, and I’m starting to think that maybe I can.
I have recently relaunched my site Might As Well Write as a newsletter for cynical writers looking for practical hope!
Its tagline is “Darkly encouraging advice for creators who aren’t quite ready to give up,” and a logical question you might have is what I mean by “darkly encouraging.”
See, you can go to any number of places for delusional milquetoast advice about “following your dreams” and “sticking with it” and “applying butt to chair” and all of the usual cliches.
But if you’ve been creating for any amount of time in the 21st century, where “content” is literally piped down the street to every house and more people want to make it than to read it, you know that the usual platitudes just don’t cut it anymore.
Yeah, yeah, Grandma Moses got started painting at 78 years old. Let’s see her start a TikTok.
What if you had a friend who knew just enough about being a success AND a failure in our current creative “marketplace,” who’s sold some fiction and gotten a few nice notices but isn’t fooling himself? What if that friend was willing to answer your questions with total self-destructive honesty…but also ready to share the tiny but powerful flashes of hope that keep him going?
I can be that disconcerting but helpful friend!
Sure, a “successful” writer can tell you how they did it, and the answer is almost always to work hard and be lucky. I’m here to tell you how to work hard even when you’re unlucky, how to hold on and find the reasons your art exists for you.
(Until you do get lucky and can start the wealthy and decadent stage of your creative journey where you throw whiskey bottles at the people who used to love you.)
That’s what I mean by “darkly encouraging”: I’ll never lie to you that a creative life is easier than it is…and I won’t lie to you when sometimes it’s worth it.
Most of your online creative advisors will give you this:
My collection Acres of Perhaps is part of the BEYOND WEIRD Story Bundle along with a bunch of amazing authors like Kelly Link, Liz Hand, Philip Fracassi, Charles Payseur, Ramsey Campbell, Craig L. Gidney, Jeffrey Thomas, Mia Tijam, and Robert Jeschonek!
What is a Storybundle? In a Storybundle, you can pay an amount YOU choose for the four main e-books (including mine) or at least $20 to get all ten.
But what if you wish like Homer to pay…zero? You can’t do that, but you can definitely pay MORE than the minimum to ensure that authors like me (and the others in the bundle) make a little extra scratch.
This weekend was Willcon 20, the gaming and genre convention I run from my home that is absolutely not just a party like it looks. We have a schedule! We have a con suite! We have mismatched uncomfortable chairs scattered around tables!
Among the things we do at Willcon: role-playing games, board games, computer and console games, eating, cooking, drinking, crafts, paintball, watching movies, visiting national monuments and Shenandoah National Park (when we lived in DC), visiting Kennedy Space Center, visiting bookstores, and once we had fire dancers come.
I’ve run this event 27 times over twenty discrete years since 1997, so the reckoning of exactly what we should CALL this Willcon is hopelessly fucked up. We used to do it a couple of times a year, and there have been years when we couldn’t do it because of pandemics and parenthood (not mine, don’t worry), so…whatever.
I started Willcon because it has always been tricky to find people who enjoy weird things like role-playing games, computers, writing, science fiction, horror, and fantasy without being batshit crazy about it. To be fair, there are fans of scuba diving and football and political parties who are also batshit crazy about those, too.
(I think the world is being torn apart by fandomization in many ways, everyone desperate to prove their commitment to some specialized passion without any sense of proportion. That’s why Gen X isn’t fucking up the world: we don’t care enough to bother.)
Over all those years, somewhere near eighty different people have come to my home for games, food, interpersonal drama, and a captive reading of my writing. Of those, a good dozen or more no longer speak to me because I divorced their family member (which I completely understand). Another two dozen have gone on to other interests, which also makes perfect sense and I wish them well. Four are dead, which shows a disappointing lack of community spirit.
The remainder continue to drift in and out of Willcon’s orbit, and when we reunite around the table and some dice, it’s like we never left. This year, we had a guest return after seventeen years away, and it was great to see him.
I sometimes have actual dreams where everybody I’ve ever cared about comes all at once to a Willcon, and I’m sure there’s some clumsy metaphor there about creating a family. Okay, sure, I’ll accept that.
It’s easy to assume from the name “Willcon” that the abiding interest I’m hoping to cultivate is one in me, and yes, I do read from my fiction sometimes around our campfire.
But the real reason it’s still called Willcon (in addition to tradition and lack of a better name) is that it’s my honor to be the locus where this family (including my entire actual family who also come to Willcon) can come together and share things we love.
(In proper dignified proportion, of course.)
I don’t often say that, and I wanted to mention it publicly.
As always, I’ll be joining the usual suspects on panels including my comedy partner Richard Lee Byers as we amiably talk shit about whatever we’re asked. This year on Saturday 9/24, I’ll be feigning competence about:
10am: Norse Influences on Entertainment Media, where my grandfather would be proud to see me even though I broke his heart by not learning to speak Norwegian.
12pm: How to Create Convincing Monsters
2pm: How to Keep It Funny
7pm: How to Stay Creative
9pm: How to Add Mystery to Your Fiction
Wow, looking at it all in a list, I’ll apparently be busy. If you’re interested in any of these topics or the other great ones we’ll be talking about all weekend, drop by the Embassy Suites at USF!
Earlier this week, I crossed a threshold: after keeping a daily log of my activities consistently since June of 2001 and filling in others from calendars and journals, I logged my 9,075th day. Of those, 9,011 are in my lifetime out of 17,924 days alive.
That’s 50.3%…a majority of my life.
I’m not sure what kind of achievement that really is, though I’m astonished I’ve managed to write 1.5 million words. Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is only 1.27 million words. Clarissa by Samuel Richardson weighs in at a mere 943,000 words. And the King James Bible is comparatively a haiku at 783,137 words.
(This guy has a journal that is 35 million words, but he works on it four hours a day and documents his bowel movements. Mine is a little more reader-friendly.)
I suspect you have questions.
Why would someone write a daily journal like this in addition to 50+ narrative notebooks and a log of 1,975 dreams?
To avoid writing anything important or saleable is my best guess.
No, really. Why did the idea come to you?
When I started the log, I was having a hard time adjusting after college to working a normal job, and I felt that I was losing my days to endless emails and meetings and project plans instead of living the life of adventure I assumed was my destiny.
I began the log hoping that, like Thoreau, I would “live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
I decided that I wanted to pay closer attention to how I spent my days in the hopes that I would spend them better.
And have you spent them better?
Almost certainly not. I suspect I may have accidentally documented a Gen-Xer’s desperate search for significance with as little effort as possible in the fading years of our American civilization.
Some college’s American History department will be very pleased to take this journal off Aimee’s hands when I die, and the Psychology department next door will be even happier to correlate it with the dream journal to find out what was wrong with me.
Some poor grad student will read it and think, “Man, this is like Willy Loman documenting his own decline to nothingness.”
What are the technical specifications of the log?
It’s in XML, essentially a text file marked with tags for data about each day (the month, the day, the year, and what happened).
When I enter each day into the log, I open log.xml in a code editor (Visual Studio Code these days because other text editors can’t open a file that large), copy a previous entry so I don’t have to retype the tags, and then I update it for the day’s events.
When I want to display the file, I use an XSL stylesheet that can either display a chronological listing or all of the entries with the same month and day (so I can know what happened on this day in my personal history).
How accurate is the log?
For events before I began consistently entering data, I have compiled events and their dates from a variety of sources: journals, genealogical information, newspapers, emails, blog posts, correspondence, postcards, photographs, and legal records.
Also, my mother filled out her calendar with the events of the day, which was handy for research.
(And also the reminder, I guess, that I have a good deal in common with her.)
Have there been any benefits to keeping a daily log?
It’s been handy to do a search by today’s date to see patterns in my life (creative surges in summer and fall, depression in the late winter, that kind of thing).
It used to impress the hell out of my government jobs when they needed data for clearance checks.
It actually does give me a moment to consider how I’ve spent my day and imagine ways to spend the next one better.
It’s great for reminding people of weird things we’ve done together, such as when my friend Tom commented out of nowhere from the backseat of my car on July 21, 2000, that the most humiliating thing you could do to a defeated opponent is shit on their back.
It’s also handy for documenting things that cause bad outcomes (such as foods or medications that make me sick).
What patterns have you seen?
Word count analysis shows some interesting things.
The single most mentioned person is Aimee, with 9,261 mentions.
There are 10,938 mentions of read and 2,027 of “read and nap.”
There are 2,261 appearances of “LOTRO,” which is the game Lord of the Rings Online.
Luckily, there are 3,087 of “write” and 2,699 of “writing.”
I lead a surprisingly (and sometimes disappointingly) simple life of writing, napping, reading, playing games, tinkering with electronics or Legos, and running.
Is there a downside to keeping that log?
Probably the most disappointing aspect of the log is how boring it is to read. Yes, I do make some snide editorial comments here and there, but for the most part, it’s a reference of what happened. For narrative and insight, I write in a normal journal (though not daily).
It’s hard not to wonder if the very act of documenting each day has made them less likely to be interesting. If I was living a truly adventuresome life, I wouldn’t have time to document my own shit. That’d be up to historians.
What will be the fate of the log, do you think?
Well, I’ll keep writing it, I suppose, though I’m considering doing so in slightly less daily detail. There are 4,374 mentions of “retire to bed and read,” my nightly ritual, which I think can now be taken for granted.
I’ve always thought that if I’m not remembered for the quality of my work, I can at least be remembered for the weird novelty of it. It’s best to hear, “Holy shit, HOW did he do that?”, but I’m okay with, “Holy shit, WHY did he do that?”
I suppose the big question for me is whether there’s still time to make the rest of that journal more interesting than the first half. I hope so.
I’m not sure it’s accurate to say that summer is my favorite season, but it’s certainly the one when my body and mind expect to spend their days writing, walking in the woods, napping, and reading during afternoon thunderstorms.
Thanks to some poor financial decisions on my part (chief among them not being born into inherited wealth), I won’t get to spend my summer that way for at least another twenty years.
So in the meantime, I have a few go-to books for my summer reading that somehow remind me of a lazier time of year. Some of them take place during the summer, and others I simply read for the first time during one many years ago.
In case you also want to go on a mental summer vacation, here they are.
“The Body,” by Stephen King (from Different Seasons)
This is one of my favorite novellas of all time, and it takes place over a Labor Day weekend. I’m not sure if I first read it over a summer, but it definitely resembled most of the ones I lived: going on reckless adventures with friends as a way to court danger and learn who we were. I did that by breaking into abandoned schools and climbing onto roofs and skulking around in the middle of the night, but if there had been a body to go see, rest assured we’d have gone looking for it.
Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart
If there’s such a thing as a cozy apocalypse novel, this is one. When the human race is decimated by a plague, grad student Isherwood Williams ends up being one of the smartest of a small group of survivors who slowly rebuild a new and better society while the remains of the old one decay around them. Like the best science fiction, it’s a thought experiment in possibility.
You know you’ve got a good post apocalyptic book when you find yourself thinking, “Man, I’d love to loot a library just like that.”
Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke
Clarke will never be confused with a great prose stylist, but he manages to convey awe and strangeness with a pleasant scientific precision. I first read this novel of transcendent first contact — the kind where aliens come and tell us of our greater galactic destiny — in a summer lit course in Science Fiction at the University of Florida.
After years of being a fan of science fiction, I’d set it aside to be a good English major focused on the classics. When I read this book, though, I literally cried to think of how much better it was at exciting my imagination than anything I’d been assigned in my major.
The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
During the summer of 1987 after my parents’ marriage had ended with far less violence than any of us expected, my mother and I took a vacation with a friend and her kids to Georgia and North Carolina. We did the usual touristy things like panning for (likely planted) gem stones at a “mine,” but what I remember most was the house where we stayed.
It was built on the side of a mountain beside a shallow creek. From the front, you could see miles of rolling green hills. From the large windows and porch on the back, you could gaze into the darkly inviting woods.
My friend Norman had suggested that I read The Hobbit, and that’s exactly what I did. To me, that forest in North Carolina is what Mirkwood looks like.
This Sweet Sickness/The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith
I find it hard to choose between these books for a summer read. The Talented Mr. Ripley has the virtue of taking place mainly during the summer, but the protagonist of This Sweet Sickness lives a strange dream-like existence that sort of feels like one.
I read these for the first time in 2005 when I started having an inkling that something wasn’t quite right with the life I was living. These are both books about men with deeply delusional and neurotic misunderstandings of reality, and they scared me at the time more than most horror.
Six weeks ago, a friend who hadn’t spoken to me in twenty-five years killed himself.
I’m not sure Chris would want me to call him a friend these days, but for a decade of our lives from middle school to graduate school, we were brothers of the brain like gunslingers are brothers of the gun, both a little trigger-happy to show off our talents to each other and everybody else.
Back when it was fashionable to do so, we were told that we were “gifted” and placed in a class in middle school for kids like us to…do gifted things. It had a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest vibe, sort of loose but institutional, with all I remember of its organized curriculum being that we watched Twelve Angry Men and The Caine Mutiny to debate their moral questions.
What I remember more vividly is that this one guy had nothing but scorn and mockery for me from the moment I joined the class, and I only found out later the cause: our teacher had told him that I’d scored higher on the qualifying IQ test than he had.
(No, I have no idea why an adult would tell a thirteen-year-old that someone else was smarter than he was. At the most charitable, I can imagine she might have been trying to “humble” him in some way because he, like me, didn’t always show much patience for people who weren’t interesting.)
From the start, Chris seemed eager to prove that his kind of smart (logical and reasonable and scientific) was more valuable than my kind of smart (creative and intuitive and humanistic). I wasn’t quite as invested in that battle as he was, but when he made fun of my weirdness (writing stories about ghosts, playing D&D), I was just as quick to make fun of his (dressing like Alex P. Keaton, having the politics of a fifty-year-old).
Unfortunately for him, I’d been trained by my father to befriend smart people who were mean to me, and I just steadfastly refused to be dismissed. Over time, we discovered some interests in common (computers, Star Trek, and science-y mayhem) and realized that we were probably the two people in town most likely to understand (and put up with) each other’s shit.
So we became friends, sometimes even best friends, and an odd thing started to happen: we each drifted a little closer to the other’s brand of smart. Chris read more literature and I read more science. I persuaded him to try role-playing games (Star Trek only, because it was the least fantastical), and he persuaded me to experiment with radio scanners and chemistry.
When I crack an arcane scientific joke even today, I’m channeling a little of Chris.
It worked, I think, because we had different ambitions. I was never going to be a doctor (as he later became), and he was never going to be a writer (as I later became). I sometimes helped him write stories for school, and he was always a great scientific advisor on guns, chemicals, poisons, and a lot of other things that should probably have put him on a watch list.
Together we got into the kind of dumb mischief that only occurs to people who know more about theory than practice. Our motto was, “Well, why wouldn’t that work?” only to discover exactly why, usually with injury and/or destruction of property. We distilled something in Chemistry class that made the teacher say, “You know, I have to work in this room another twenty years.”
He got me my first job (with his father’s inventory company). We double-dated to the prom. We stole street signs together with our girlfriends’ names on them (both of which Orlando luckily had). He once bought me a gallon can of vanilla pudding because I always complained when restaurants only had banana. He introduced me to the movie Heathers which he said had me written all over it, and I introduced him to The Planiverse. He was the best man at my wedding (which didn’t work out), and I was the best man at his (which did).
His childhood was as harrowing as mine, though in different ways. He had a streak of romantic chivalry toward women that, like mine back then, bordered on co-dependency. He could, like me, be impatient and mean when people weren’t using their brains in a way he respected.
(He did not agree, though, that Norman was a genius because to him, genius implied useful application. He was also not a fan of David Lynch or Monty Python for similar reasons.)
I have no idea what to call our relationship between the ages of thirteen and twenty-five, but we definitely put up with more from each other than I have since from others in my life. Maybe we really were brothers of a kind, stuck together by virtue of similar talents and interests and traumas, able (at least back then) to take it for granted that we’d circle back into each other’s lives.
This is a terrible and selfish remembrance, isn’t it, all about his intersection with me?
The truth is that I can’t really tell you what he was like more recently as a friend or a husband or a doctor or a father of five when he died. I’m guessing he was still a Christian and a conservative and a rationalist, and I doubt he did much stealing of street signs these days without my lawless influence.
What I can tell you is that even when we weren’t friends or didn’t agree, when he thought I was crazy or irrational, he was still a powerful force in my life reminding me to do something more interesting with my talents.
I have no idea (and now never will) if I had any positive influence on him.
A quarter century ago, I cracked a bad joke at a bad time with no harmful intent beyond poking fun at an uncomfortable situation. It created a lot of problems between him and his wife, and my impending divorce almost became theirs. I always assumed we’d somehow run into each other again and I’d say, “Holy shit, am I sorry about that. I was basically out of my mind, but I’m better now. Are you? Awesome.”
That can’t happen anymore.
I’m not sure why he ended his life at the time he did in the way he did, but I know he had a vivid memory and a tendency to chase theory off a cliff. His mental theater could play the good things that should have happened and the terrible ones that did in high definition over and over.
Which is another thing we had in common. Maybe storytelling, venting those memories, is what saves me. Or maybe it’s just medication and luck.
I wish I could have told him, “As someone who pauses brains during surgery for a living, you of all people know that you are more than your firing neurons and you don’t deserve the movies they show you. Tell them to fuck off. People will miss you when you go.”
“She’s wrong about absolutely everything, but she’s wrong within normal parameters.”
– P.J. O’Rourke on reluctantly backing Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump
During my first semester of college, I took a course called History of Journalism with a wonderful professor named William McKeen. It was an inspiring and entertaining tour through Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, I.F. Stone, Seymour Hersh, Studs Terkel, Woodward and Bernstein, Hunter S. Thompson, and many more.
The class was so good that I almost became a journalist until Professor McKeen pointed out that the future would be all USA Today infotainment, a prescient notion in 1991.
Like most recently post-adolescent young men, Hunter S. Thompson’s Gonzo aghast-witness-to-society’s-collapse schtick appealed to me strongly. I could imagine writing riotous features about myself witnessing the inanity of our culture: “It’s Will…at a gun show!” “It’s Will…at the Cabbage Patch Doll headquarters!” “It’s Will…at the ruins of the Manson family’s ranch!”
The trouble was that I wasn’t cool enough to be Hunter S. Thompson. I didn’t drink or do drugs, I was nervous approaching people, and I couldn’t often summon the energy to be manic like he was.
What I needed was a nerdier, more introspective yet still hilarious journalistic idol, so Professor McKeen suggested I might dig P.J. O’Rourke.
I started with his book Holidays in Hell (excellent) and went on to Republican Party Reptile (meh) and then Parliament of Whores (probably his best), and I’ve followed him on and off ever since. In recent years, he was sometimes as stylistically conservative as he was philosophically, and some of his humor could feel a bit tepid, like an affable but exasperated dad.
But at his best, he wielded his satiric scalpel with precision and eloquence. He’s one of the main reasons I was a conservative in college: he made it feel dignified and reasonable to believe that applying government to our fleeting problems was like swatting a fly with a sheet of plywood.
(These days, I’m inclined to think that as clumsy as that sheet of plywood can be, some of our societal flies are big enough to need it.)
P.J. could cover a Communist revolution in some banana republic mostly from the bar, downing some scotch and smoking cigars and asking real people what they thought about the absurd situation. Maybe that’s as posed as Hunter S. Thompson’s Gonzo journalism, but it’s certainly more my temperament.
I’ve disagreed with much of what he’s written, especially later on, but he was always wrong within normal parameters…and usually entertaining and never hostile about it. To him, the culture war was less an all-out battle and more a slightly embarrassing brawl in a bar between the loudest blowhards.
I eventually drifted more toward fiction (partly because it seemed to have a clearer path of entry and partly because I can’t resist exaggerating and distilling the truth), but O’Rourke’s wry observational style still influences my work.
I’m grateful for that influence and I’ll miss him in the world.