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:
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.
“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.
Hello! Glad you could make it out tonight after deciphering the simplest invitation we could lower ourselves to imagine.
While our scientists teach you a “basic tonal vocabulary,” we’re sending a real message encoded on this frequency that will probably take you half a century to noodle out.
First, thanks for loaning us these humans for our longitudinal qualitative study of your species. Sorry and no hard feelings for any scare or inconvenience we caused.
Truth be told, many of them were tedious guests, turning away from our tour of a sublime and wondrous universe on the viewscreen to ask if we had any “snacks” or where they could “get laid.” The little girl was okay, and this recent little boy, and it goes without saying that the dog was the best of the lot, a very good boy.
All this leads to our second message, which is that your planet is fucked.
If we thought you could understand our raw findings, we’d share them with you, but suffice to say that we’ve observed staggering assholery of both the accidental (greed, self-interest, delusion, ignorance) and purposeful (murder, rape, war, intolerance, exploitation) kinds during our study. Unfortunately, it’s impossible for you to tell them apart because the purposeful assholery is causing the accidental.
You have weeds in your garden, but they look exactly like the crops.
Not that you’d notice, because you’re terrible stewards of that garden. But you know that and don’t care, which is why we’re coming back in half a century to pick up your bauxite from what we assume will be a smoldering cinder.
So try not to fuck up the bauxite, at least.
We’d hoped to pick up a small group of your most perceptive souls by summoning them with dreams and visions, but the rest of you blocked them from coming.
Which is so much the story of humanity that we should have predicted it.
We’re left with this one guy, though his eagerness to ditch his family gives us pause. He’ll serve as a good enough representative sample to preserve the memory of your species.
Well, it’s getting late and there’s only so long we can dazzle you with flashing lights and music before you get bored and start shooting us.
Best of luck, and remember to save us some bauxite.
Not long ago, a friend of mind pointed out that I seem to enjoy giving advice to smart and/or creative people who need an emotional nudge toward feeling better about doing the things they love. I did a little digging, and maybe he’s right:
I also enjoyed helping student writers when I taught, offering my idiosyncratic advice on how to actually write, sure, but also on how to be the kind of person who can at least endure and maybe even thrive in a creative life.
Or at least the wisdom I learned by wringing tepid success from a lifetime of possibility.
The title comes from the idea that many creative people seem to have about whether it’s “worth” writing, whether all the time is justified by fame or sales or appreciation. I used to wonder that, too, until I eventually confessed a simple truth to myself:
So Might As Well Write isn’t a blog about finding instant fame or going viral. It isn’t about eleven sure-fire story structures that jack directly into our primitive brains. It isn’t about
It’s about treating our creative selves well so that we can persist and grow little by little into people pursuing something like art.
My friend and publisher Steve Berman has started a new online periodical called Bachelors, and the first issue includes my story “Forever is Composed of Nows” among other good stories by people like Nick Mamatas and L.A. Fields.
The magazine, as you may discern from the cover image, is of particular interest to gay readers, and my story has a gay protagonist.
FAQ about my stories with gay protagonists:
Q: Are you…gay?
A: What’s it to you either way?
Q: Well, it makes me wonder if you’re, like, writing from the heart or jumping on the lucrative Big Queer bandwagon that’s driving down our reproductive rate in direct contradiction to the Lord’s insistence to fill a quiver of blessed crusading children.
A: Wow, you’re a weirdo and that’s not a question, but let me address it anyway in four bullets of escalating emotional importance:
The protagonists of my stories tend to be unusually perceptive and aware and imaginative outsiders wondering what to do in a world full of assholes…a struggle of particular pertinence to the LGBTQ community by ugly necessity.
In some of my stories such as “Acres of Perhaps” and “Forever is Composed of Nows,” I needed a particular kind of outsider with a particular kind of perception who would have a particular kind of emotional experience, and a straight person just didn’t fit because they can take too much acceptance for granted.
Though I wasn’t particularly homophobic as a kid – I got teased for being “gay” even though I wasn’t – I probably wasn’t the kind of person any of my closeted friends would have come out to without me being weird(er) and awkward(er). I want to be more welcoming now.
Many of the people I deeply care about identify as queer, and some of my stories are gifts to them.
Q: What do you know about the queer experience?
A: Not enough, but then, I don’t know enough about anybody else’s experience, either. I try to be a good ally to my friends, and for some reason, I identify strongly with people who don’t always feel safe being themselves. I don’t need a cookie for that.
Q: That slowly moving cottage in “Remembrance is Something Like a House”…
Ten years ago(!), I graduated from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA program, and I was honored to give a speech on behalf of my fellow graduates in Popular Fiction. I tried to be inspiring about writing our kind of fiction, but nobody stormed the Maine statehouse, so I guess it was a failure.
I think a lot of it still applies. Here’s what I said:
You know, there are days when I seriously doubt my writing will ever be as good as it was when I was seven, chasing the dog around my yard with the Millennium Falcon yelling “pyew! pyew! pyew!” I lived so much in stories then — talking to stuffed animals, looking for hobbits in the woods — that I was barely distinguishable from schizophrenic.
Don’t worry – I’m better now. Thanks for asking.
I suspect — I hope — that’s how it was for many of us graduating this evening, and I’m sure there are people out there in the audience who shudder to remember the symptoms of our madness: all those plays, skits, puppet shows, poetry readings, magic performances, comedy routines, concerts, and oh-so-many long-winded stories.
Don’t forget to thank them tonight. Or, you know, apologize.
Whatever forms it took then and takes now, we’re all crazy. We hear voices just like any hobo yelling at a mailbox – the only difference is that we know you don’t start a scene with dialogue. Most of us have lost any hope of pleasant neighborhood barbecues because we talk too much about the seas of Titan or the Manson family or the birthing habits of dragons…or all at the same time. People worry about us, and I think that’s a sure sign we’re doing something right.
I came to Stonecoast, perhaps like you, to learn how to be intelligently and usefully crazy. For two years, our wonderful mentors have shown us how to hold madness in asbestos gloves just long enough to get it on the page. We’ve studied the masters. We’ve critiqued the work of our peers. We’ve filled our mental toolboxes with structure and meter and point of view. We’ve discovered that the best writing is risky and dangerous.
We’ve learned, in other words, how to do it “right.” And, God, how I needed that.
But the worst thing that could happen after Stonecoast, I think, is for us to let all the intelligence and usefulness we’ve learned to overcome the crazy. It would be terrible to lose all we’ve learned by trying to hold it too consciously, failing to trust that the voices of our teachers and our friends will come again when we need them.
Because that madness we share, that reckless abandon, is really our only hope of making something wondrous. It’s the fuel by which we get out of our minds — risking our comfort, giving ourselves away, revealing the feelings that most people don’t. All that’s left is to decide whether we’ll get enough out of our minds to escape the gravity of ordinary life, and whether we’ll achieve enough lift to take others with us.
It’s easy to call what we do escapism, and I certainly don’t deny it. Stories of ghosts and spaceships helped me escape a harrowing youth to be sure, and I see all too many things worth escaping as an adult, too. I don’t think escapism is a bad thing, especially when we’re escaping the tedious patterns of existence, the prejudices that confine us, the fears that estrange us from ourselves.
Either people can be as noble and adventuresome and intelligent as they are in our fantasy stories, or they can’t. If they can, then our “escapist” fictions are the experimental conscience of our culture. If they can’t, then our “escapist” fictions are the last refuge of the human spirit from the coming darkness.
Either way, people are counting on our ability to escape. They’re counting on the demented and relentless verve we had when we told ourselves the stories as if nobody was looking. Art is never stopping short, and if it is worth doing at all — worth the dedication of our lives — it’s worth overdoing, right?
I’ve been going through my writing archives and compiling a master document of preferred editions of my work. It feels like we’re all one reckless cough away from death, and I hate to leave a mess to clean up after I’m gone.
Early in my career (like, 1998-early), I sometimes wrote poems with ideas that didn’t quite sustain a whole story. Here’s one that I’m trying to decide if it should go into the omnibus.
Biscuits Waiting for biscuits, crunchy butcher-sweeping goodness in a box! If I watch the baby, I’ll get biscuits. Don’t let criminals get the baby. Don’t lick the baby and wake her up. Watch the baby until Mama gets home from the supermarket. She’s bringing home biscuits!
Smoke Seeping from the laundry chute in a gray, billowy thundercloud. Keep the baby safe from smoke. Smoke comes from fire. Fire could hurt the baby. Get the baby from the crib and run. Save the baby!
Fire Sparkling, flickering, melting fur and tail with red-orange fingers. Keep running down the stairs Don’t stop because of your burning tail. Don’t stop because of your simmering lungs. Run outside away from fire. Save the baby!
Fault Burning through my fur and PRIMARY SYSTEMIC FAULT IN LOCATIONS 0010 0000 0E00 008E 00E0 08E0 0880 0000 BACKUP SYSTEM ONLINE Run through the door!
Door Get through door without hurting baby; Find Paramedic If no Paramedic then Fireman Else Policeman If WATCH BABY then BISCUITS Else BAD DOG ERROR LOCATION 08E0
Stop Place baby on ground gently, like a puppy. INITIATE PRIMARY SHUTDOWN AUDITORY INPUT SUBSYSTEM VALUE = “Good boy! We'll take care of her now.” BISCUITS? Y SHUTDOWN.