A Room of One’s Own is Not a Requirement

Occasionally, I read an op-ed that more or less argues it’s impossible to be an artist (or do anything visionary or creative) unless one has a trust fund. Virginia Woolf’s 1929 essay, “A Room of One’s Own,” is often taken out of context to support this garbage idea. Woolf was a genius and one of the world’s greatest writers, but she was making a very different point (principally that the women of her time needed a modicum of freedom from oppressive cultural expectations in order to create). Unfortunately (or fortunately), there are perhaps no famous artists or writers who’ve said, “Give up unless you’re financially comfortable.” Woolf never said that. It’s hard to imagine who would.

Since relatively few artists have trust funds, enormous grants, wealthy patrons, or other sources of financial independence, recurring op-eds like this seem akin to emotional trolling. Most people wish they could do something creative. So everyone, professional, amateur, or dilettante can potentially feel demoralized and suffer from bad spleen chi as a result of such defeatism. I sometimes suspect the op-ed writer herself wishes she could stop writing hackneyed disingenuous opinion columns and get back to her novel.

Here is something true: you can do anything you want to do with your life as long as you’re willing to pay the price. And sometimes that price is high. But sometimes what you have to pay matters far less than what you receive. I’ve said this to writing students stressed out by friends and family who think developing a creative life is a one-way ticket to misery, failure, and self-destruction. It’s not, as long as you take a very hard-nosed transactional approach to what you want to do.  Sometimes, they believe me.

Sometimes, taking a hard-nosed transactional approach means living a streamlined lifestyle so people, places, and things will leave you alone. Get a custodian or night guard position. Those jobs still exist, since people are often cheaper and more expendable than technology. Temp for the post office. Be a legal assistant. Work for the county doing road maintenance. Get on a construction crew. Walk dogs. Wait tables. Work in warehouse fulfilment. If you’re not physically vigorous, flip burgers, do data entry, work in a call center. Get roommates. Live in a trailer. Food stamps? Of course. You can live just fine on food stamps. Plant a tiny garden. Get a used bike. Buy a tent or sleep in your car. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you have food and time.

Food and time are everything. If you can provide those for yourself and lead a nice middle class life in the suburbs (hard but not impossible), that’s fabulous. Definitely do that. But the point is you don’t need to be comfortable and respectable in order to write a novel or paint or sculpt or do stand-up or build computers or become a Tai Chi master or act or write history books or whatever creative pursuit matters most to you.

Living in poverty might be the bargain you make with the world in order to do this, but it doesn’t have to be. If you truly care about being able to do something creative, you’ll set aside financial despair, status anxiety, and the feeling that things should be easier and the world kinder. Instead, you’ll focus on survival and stability so you can get on with your work. It’s important to be able to see what matters vs. what’s empty and pointless. Most things that torment creative people are ultimately meaningless.

Fame is empty. There’s no way to maintain it without making foolish and unnecessary compromises. It’s fickle, a trap for the immature. Being famous doesn’t mean you’re good. It won’t make you happy. You’ll still see your own sad face in the mirror every morning, famous or not. Everyone knowing your name can easily become an obstacle to real development. Anonymity is a beautiful sort of freedom.

Commercial success is empty unless it coincides with something you really want to do. You’ll be earning money for a company by doing the semi-creative work they want you to do using their IP. If giving your energy to them and creating to their spec doesn’t appeal to you, don’t waste your time. Otherwise, you’ll soon come to loathe yourself.

Validation from skeptical family, childhood friends, ex-partners, and everyone who tried to discourage you along the way is empty. You’ll never get it in any satisfying way. You’ll never accomplish so much that they’ll finally admit you were right about following your creative path. Win the National Book Award and they’ll point out you haven’t won the Pulitzer. Put out a gold album and they’ll wonder aloud why it didn’t go platinum. Winning awards and accomplishing big things will never result in their approval. You’ll never get closure at your high school reunion. You’ll never be the hero.

Earning vast sums of money for your work is empty. High society can easily destabilize your creative process and an artist was never made better by owning a yacht. Many famous writers and artists quit creating after they become rich off their work—not because they don’t want to keep making art, but because they get deeply distracted, depressed, and blocked. Vast sums can buy you space, time, and food, but you can get those without compulsory four-hour dinners with gallery owners, critics, publishers, and media executives. Certainly, say yes to all the money and to whatever accolades and gifts effortlessly come your way, but taking time from your work to deliberately pursue those things is a waste of precious hours.

There is one thing that isn’t empty—the thing that makes the difference, that makes the all trouble and compromise worth it. When you sincerely and humbly choose to do this thing and stick with it, developing yourself and putting in the hard hours, you eventually become a conduit for the transcendent creative power that is your birthright. There is nothing better than experiencing that, than working through its complexities and convolutions.  And it has nothing to do with how many steaks you have in the freezer. As Bukowski writes in “Roll the Dice”: “you will be alone with the gods/ and the nights will flame with fire.” That’s as good a description as any I’ve read. And it doesn’t even come close.

Thank you!

I’ve had an noticeable influx of new subscribers here recently, something for which I am profoundly thankful.

Thank you for spending time on my words.

Thank you for your emails—encouragement always matters to every writer.

And thank you for subscribing, whether paid or free. Whenever someone follows my newsletter or my blog, I’m reminded that I have an audience, that people are paying attention, which is priceless.

I have a lot of work planned for 2021. The journey continues.

Michael

The Lost Art of Avoiding Office Romances

A Bit of Sage Love Advice From Master Po

A former co-worker of mine called me on Skype a few months ago.  After a certain amount of hemming and hawing, he got down to it: I’m really into so-and-so and, now that we’re all working remotely, I want to let her know.  But I have no idea what I’m doing.  Tell me how.  I’m summarizing about 2000 words of wind-up, preface, and self-obfuscation, but the heart of the matter, like all truths, came out relatively simple.  He has an office crush in a time of no office.  Ah so.

I lied and told him I was busy.  He Skype-called me a few days later and wanted to talk.  I told him I had no idea and suggested he ask his therapist.  He told me he didn’t have a therapist and called me an asshole.  Then he started crying.  He’s in his 20s.  I’m in my 40s.  Gen Xers don’t cry.  But I felt bad.  I know.  I really am an asshole.  And to be completely honest, a small part of me was flattered.  Nobody asks me for advice about anything and probably for good reason.  I’m a horrible misanthrope.  And I know nothing.

Why he came to me I will never really understand.  Maybe I was the only person he could trust, since I’m also acquainted with so-and-so but I don’t work there anymore.  Maybe he sensed some sympathy on my part—a shared belief that, in a perfect world, they’d be wonderful together.  I suppose they would.  But we don’t live in a perfect world.  Some of us don’t even live.  I’m not sure what you’d call the day-drinking lockdown existence many people are leading these days, but I suspect “living” ain’t it.

After some awkwardness, I agreed to entertain his tale of woe in exchange for him not being upset if I wrote about it.  A devil’s bargain was struck.  Consummatum est.  I feel like people of my generation, having grown up before thirst-trap selfies and Onlyfans side-gigs, would never have agreed to such terms.  But Generation Z seems less inhibited.  That’s probably a good thing.  I’ll shoot my mouth off in writing, but if you know me in real life, you’ll find me to be pretty quiet and withdrawn.  Call it the Gen X split personality.  I remember a time when there were consequences for revealing too much of yourself.  Now everyone has closeups of their nipple rings on Instagram.  I guess that makes me an old fogey.

Fogeyism aside, I really didn’t know what to say.  Apparently, the stress was killing him.  He couldn’t stop thinking about her.  And he wanted to know if I thought he should unburden himself, if that would at least provide some kind of catharsis.  And then they could avoid each other in perpetuity on Zoom.  I thought about it for 30 seconds and this is what Master Po said.

First, don’t come on to co-workers.  Just don’t.  My thinking on this has evolved over the years.  I used to be romantic about it, asking, who am I to stand in the way of love?  But now I believe I have an answer to that question: an adult.  Adult self-control, being the basis of all civilization, requires that you keep it in your pants in a professional environment.  It’s right up there with germ theory, running water, and not frightening the horses.  It’s how the pyramids got built and why grandpa never had to go to prison.

So that’s the first premise: nay, lad, control thyself and petition Venus in her proper temple.  Here’s the logic.  If it turns out so-and-so isn’t interested in you like that, it’s a problem.  If she is interested, it’s an even bigger problem.  Keep work at work and don’t go looking for love in all the wrong places.

Second, there’s always a reason when it’s hard to talk to someone.  Yes, you’re shy and that’s something to consider, but there’s more to it than that.  When people are interested in you, no matter how shy one or both of you are, you will eventually feel that affinity.  This why the pre-Covid-19 handshake was so useful.  It was like taking a reading of the other person.

Between men and women, the nonverbal interaction can be subtle, but it’s always there, for better or worse.  And if it’s positive, it will eventually bring the two of you into proximity.  If it doesn’t draw you together, that means, on some level, there is resistance.  And that, Grasshopper, should not be overlooked.  If she’s nice but keeps her distance, respect that resistance.  It’s telling you how she feels, at least right now.  If she’s an adult, the resistance may also be there because she wants to keep work at work.  Respect that, too, and take a lesson.

Third, stop thinking strategically.  You can’t think your way from how you feel into her life.  There are no formulas.  Dating formulas and methods are, without exception, worthless and designed to part clueless men from their money.  They nearly always treat women like objects, complex puzzles that can be solved with a series of deft manipulations.  So-and-so is far more like you than she is like a combination lock.  And like you, she will resent it when she realizes you’re trying to game her.  So don’t do that.  Don’t confuse her with a boss fight in a video game.  Analytical thinking has no place in this.

Fourth, stop taking lust for love.  Master Po recommends large helpings of both, but he cautions you not to mix them up.  When you work with someone to whom you might feel attracted and you’re looking at that person every day, it’s easy to tell yourself that you’re developing feelings.  Maybe you’re just sexually frustrated.  It happens.

Here’s the test: picture Monica Lewinski being interviewed on Oprah.  After visualizing that conversation, revisit your feelings about so-and-so.  Do you like her just because you work with her and she’s the president (at least, the president of your heart) and has strong masterful shoulders?  Or do you actually have something that might qualify as two adults at the beginning of a romantic relationship?  Be honest.  Don’t change your name to Monica.

Last, I offer the relationship advice given to me by an older woman when I was in my 20s and lacking a clue: don’t start anything you can’t finish.  In other words, don’t trap yourself in a situation that you can’t walk away from if it makes you miserable.  This is a more general version of “keep work at work,” and it applies to just about everything in life.

We’re always telling ourselves stories about who we are and what we do.  Society is always telling us who we should be and what we should do, even though society could care less if we’re happy or fulfilled.  Everybody wants to be in charge, enforce their values, boss people about through the power of storytelling.  It’s almost a fact of human nature.

But nearly everything that makes us consistently happy involves a degree of antinomian rebellion against other people’s narratives, against should.  We’ve got should stories running all over the place designed to trap us into particular behaviors or commitments.  Consummatum est, as Mephistopheles said to Dr. Faustus.  But obligation-inducing narratives and reality are two different things.

Never start something if you can’t finish it, which is to say, if you don’t control the narrative and have to accept “shoulds.”  That includes research projects, reading books, baking pizzas, and starting up ill-conceived office romances that take place in a situation where you don’t have power and alternatives.  I know talking about power is unromantic.  But a huge power differential usually dooms a relationship from the beginning, especially if it’s situational.  Even if the situation has gone remote and online.  

After I told him all this, there was a moment of silence.  He said, “Thanks” and that he had to go.  I haven’t heard from him since.  I don’t think he took my sage advice.  It’s probably for the best.

Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

— Andrew Marvell

On Knowing If You’re Any Good

Vintage circus photo sad clown antique photograph poster wall

 

If you’re a writer, you’ll live your life not knowing if you’re any good.  And you’ll die not knowing.  I think John Berryman said that. 

After Phil Levine published his first book of poems, people said, yeah, but can you do it again?  Then he did it again.  Then they said, yeah, but have you been featured in the New York Times Review of Books?  Then he got a review.  So they said, yeah, but have you won any major awards?  He won several.  Then they said, yeah, but we remember you back when you were broke in Detroit.  You’ll always be a bum

There is no escape.  Nobody from the old neighborhood wants to see you get ahead.  It’s a law of nature, the Bumfuck Reflexive Property.  You can ruin your life if you burn your emotional energy wondering whether they’re right.  Every moment you spend doing that is a waste.  But all writers do it.

Hang around with writers and artists and you realize they’ve got a particular tangible proficiency at their kind of art.  Maybe they were born with it or, more likely, they worked hard at developing what little gift they had into something presentable.  The gift, whatever it is, is real and observable.  But whether they’re mediocre or brilliant, derivative or original, a flash in the pan or someone whose art is set to be preserved in the basement of Cheops, you will never know.  More significantly, they will never know. 

If you like their work, great.  If you don’t, you can always recall the time they were broke and living in the projects across from Wayne State.  HA.  HA.  HA.  Let’s all laugh at the sad clown.  Some people and their lousy choices.  Am I right?  If they were any good people would want to pay them for their work.  I mean, that’s just common sense.

I suppose it’s sad when an artist hasn’t learned how to fail (or how to stubbornly and angrily reject failure), when she takes the Bumfuck to bed and makes love to it, when she’s covered in despair, when she finds herself thinking about her choices.  The rest of us chose to avoid that humiliation early.  We were smart and didn’t even try.  Or if we did, we never let anyone see it and gave up shortly thereafter.  And look at us today.  We just got back from our annual trip to Florida.  It’s a good life.

But she has to spend some nights staring at the wall, probing for answers that will never come.  Because her friends and family don’t know what to tell her, even though they have many strongly held opinions on her work and direction in life.  Her teachers didn’t know (even the ones who praised her back at clown school).  And ultimately, she doesn’t know, can’t know, even if she wins a Golden Bozo next year and gets to put “Genius” on her resume.  She might just be a lucky clown, a clown of the moment, a one clown wonder.  How do you ever really, truly know if you’re any good?

Genius.  Hell, she can barely afford lunch.  And so the questions: am I actually a no-talent, deluded ass-clown?  Was taking out a loan to go to clown school the worst decision of my life?  Should I have listened to my old high-school friend who went straight into an apprenticeship as a waste management professional and who is now debt-free, pumping out the city’s shit everyday for a middle-five-figure salary?  The dude owns his own house.  He loves reminding me how debt-free he is.  He loves it.

Can I say the same?  Do I love being a clown?  I thought I did.  But now that I’m out of clown school, I feel so alone.  At least back there I had a useful amount of social friction, mutually shared productive spite, the catty competitiveness of nervous art students to hold me up and distract me. 

Now I only have these four walls and the dirty mirror over the sink and the constant message that if it doesn’t make money, it’s a hobby, not a calling.  A life spent vacuuming out the municipal sewer, by that definition, would be the Grail Quest.  But that tract house and the vacation package in Florida speaks for itself.

How good do I have to be to take clowning seriously, to argue that it is my reason for living and not just a lukewarm pastime that regularly torments me.  Sometimes, I wonder what good is—if it is something metaphysical, some hidden imprimatur, some mysterious proof, like divine grace received only through predestination.  Do we know it when we see it?  Or do we see it because we only know what we’ve been told? 

How much telling is good?  How much showing?  If I get the emotional effect I want by the last line of my story, does that justify anything I do along the way, any narrative impropriety—like Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” one of the most structurally verfucked stories I have ever seen that nevertheless works?  It works because it moves me.  Me.  Not necessarily you. 

What’s more, when I get to the end, I know in the way that comes from having spent too much time with fellow ass-clowns, that “Hills Like White Elephants” would have never gotten a pass in clownshop.  Poor sad clownbear.  Put on your hardhat and gas mask.  There’s shit pumping needs to be done.

I read the New Yorker and The Paris Review.  For clowns, those are basically trade publications.  Those clowns really know how to do it.  They know what’s good, what’s right and wrong about art and culture, what should be published, what should be condemned.  The people they feature—man, that is some serious clown shit.  They really push the clownvelope.  In fact, they are so serious at times that their work transcends everyday clowning and enters the Mime Plane.  It’s a micro universe.  All the mimes who ever existed and who ever will exist live there in an eternal limbo that can fit on the head of a pin.  And yet it’s enormous.  Space and time.  You know.  Like warm bubble-gum.

But I stay away from the mimes, like Alice Mimero and Jonathan Mimezen and Jeffrey Eumimedies and Mimeberto Eco.  Their work is—I don’t even know how to describe it—it’s mysterious.  Like pushing the wind or the transparent box or juggling the invisible chainsaws.  Somehow, it’s supposed to seem dangerous or terrifying.  Risky.  But when an invisible chainsaw slips, there’s only invisible blood.  Hard to see.  You have to pretend it’s there.  Mime stuff, you know.  Everyone acts like they get it.

And yet they’re held up to us as the cultural elite.  How does that work?  Why are we still encouraged by the Big Six to think of these clowns as mysterious and compelling?  I guess only those who put out effort to remain mysterious will continue to be seen that way.  And perpetually wrapping yourself in a glamour of mystery is a lie.  Because no one is actually that.  But we lionize our artists.  The publishing industry runs a lion circus.  We want to believe they know something we don’t when they jump and roar.

Them lions is pathological.  All they know is that gazelles are tasty.  And us?  We don’t even know that much.

I might know that shit stinks and pumping it for a living is a bummer.  I know I’d give a hundred tract houses and a timeshare in Pensacola not to have that be the substance of my Grail Quest.  I’d rather squander my life writing, even if I am a no-talent ass-clown.

But you?  I’m not so sure about you.  Maybe you’re not one of the Cheops Basement All-Stars yet.  Maybe you’ll always be a bum somewhere in municipal Detroit, freezing in your bloodied clown suit.  But I can tell you one thing.  You’ll never really know if you’re any good.  And you won’t be able to look at others for the answer.  They’re all a bunch of ass-clowns, too.

All you can do is keep at it, day after day, hoping somebody somewhere sees what you see.  All you can do is show up.

Writing the Hard Thing

Writers on the pain of hindsight in publishing: 'It's like a bad breakup – you have to move on ...

If I could tell you the number of stories and novels I’ve begun writing and not finished, we’d be here too long.  But “not finished” doesn’t mean “discarded.”  It means what it says. 

The difficulty comes when I’ve convinced myself that I’m one sort of writer (the consistent, cheerfully productive kind) as opposed the other, less glamorous (or, at least, less visible) sort—a slave to the vicissitudes of the moon or some shit, the guy with 25 ongoing projects and an inability to stop working on any of them. 

I know this about myself.  I tell myself that it’s all part of the bigger creative process.  I imagine all these incomplete pieces fermenting, cross-pollinating, mutating.  Nothing lost.  Everything in motion.  And I take refuge in those ideas and metaphors so I can keep working.  Being a writer, I tell myself a story.  But it might be bullshit self-deceit.

The Romantics smoked opium to get closer to the moon and further from the Victorian head trauma of  “productivity.”  And when my genre writer pals do highly Victorian social media posts that go, “Sigh.  Only 10 pages today,” I wonder whether they’re writing from inspiration or simply turning a lathe in some Dickensian word factory.  Productivity equals commercial success, while moonbeams are their own reward.  Still, I have word count envy no matter what I do. 

The problems of productivity and self-deceit are at the center of trying to write the hard thing.  They are the essential obstacles in making the fiction I came here to make instead of clocking in and lathing out a bunch of words to satisfy something or someone else.  I don’t want to produce that which has been assigned to me by industry, necessity, or convention.  I hate obeying.  But am I achieving anything in my disobedience?  For that matter, is achievement even the point?

When yet another publishing industry blog post comes out sounding like the vehement Alec Baldwin scene from Glengarry Glen Ross, I feel repulsed.  I don’t want to spend time creating a fucking audience platform.  Being an artist is not about “closing.”  Just doing the actual writing takes up all my energy.  I don’t want to frame pieces of my fiction as marketable units.  I want to sit in a moonbeam and make something that arises from my own unique imperatives and disposition.  I want the serendipity of inspiration.  I live for it.  And I resist the overtures of commercialism dedicated to consumption and to bullying artists into seeing themselves as part of a service industry.

Unfortunately, I also can’t avoid wanting the world to read my work and maybe give me some money so I can feed and clothe myself.  It’s terrifying sometimes.  Years ago, at an AWP conference, talking with a publisher after I put out Gravity, my first collection of stories, I felt like Nunez in “The Country of the Blind”—faced with the choice of getting what I loved if I voluntarily blinded myself or seeing clearly and climbing out of the hidden valley forever.  In the end, I chose to keep my eyes.

“If you want to get a second book out using the momentum of your first,” he said, “you need to complete the manuscript in less than a year.  More than that and people forget who you are.  You won’t be able to position it.  You’ll be starting over.”  Six years later, my second book was done.  And he was correct: from the marketing, word factory standpoint, I was starting over.  From a creative-process standpoint, those six years were predicated on the six that came before.  I wasn’t starting over.  I was writing something hard that had emerged from my ongoing creative process, something I couldn’t have written in under a year.

Finishing writing in one’s own time instead of in service to the word factory is difficult.  Discovering one’s limitations as an artist and then transcending them is very difficult.  Putting in the years is difficult.  Doing this up to and beyond age 30 is not only difficult but scary.  Nevertheless, all can be accomplished if one is willing to believe in something greater than the word count.  One says, it’s all part of my creative process and tries to calm down.  One decides not to read (or write) certain self-aggrandising Facebook posts.

Of course, there might not be a bigger process.  Maybe there is only Random House, Amazon, AWP conference ugliness, building a platform, positioning and branding, and Best American Monotony.  Maybe.  Maybe we exist in a world full of cynical anti-creative money-making ventures, cautious art, and nothing else.  It’s always possible.  The thought of it sometimes keeps me up at night, especially in those blocked periods of worrying and not writing.

It’s like reading about nuclear war or the earth dying from climate change: you have no agency, no option to mitigate the damage, soulless politicians are making horrible decisions, and there is only one way this can end.  Apocalypse.  Tragedy.  No one at the wheel.  Inhuman corporations controlling everything.  And death, ignominious and unnoticed, unless you get with the program and start churning out formulaic units. 

Capitalism wins.  It usually does.  But if there is a bigger process at work in your struggle to be an artist, it can’t have anything to do with metaphors of productivity on a factory timeline.  That is a reality you must not accept.

How does a writer know what’s real?  Is it moonbeam or production line?  Is it both?  Can it be both?  Andy Warhol, Ernest Hemingway, and David Bowie say yes.  For the rest of us, maybe not.  For every Warhol, Hemingway, and Bowie, there are multitudes who weren’t lucky enough to have their unique artistry coincide with commercial demand. 

Hugh Howey likes to write about Wool the way Elon Musk talks about launching a roadster into space: let me tell you about my unique genius and the origin of my success.  But self-publishing fame and running a car company have one thing in common that never gets discussed: they exist because they are timely.  So it is with any highly lucrative creative effort.  And that intersection has to do with luck.  Meanwhile, someone out there is no doubt making Peking opera, but they are unlikely to be buying villas on the Riviera anytime soon.  Nobody cares.  Their units don’t ship.  And yet they also have the favor of the moon.

Writers are especially predisposed to misunderstand what is real—what is objective versus just a moonbeam.  They spend a lot of time deliberately thinking in metaphors, some more useful than others.  And if they’re not paying attention to their minds, they can mistake such metaphors for objective reality (which, incidentally, has nothing to do with capitalist realism).  Over-absorption in a world of imaginative metaphors can become a source of anxiety when the non-make-believe world reaches out and reminds us that we can’t live totally in our imaginations.  Make your Peking opera, sure, but also accept that the six years you put into it mean nothing in terms of branding and positioning.

A writer will see something and begin to imagine things about it—everyone does this, but writers seem to do it with particular intensity—and before long the writer starts to feel like he or she knows it or, even worse, is it.  Then something from the world of physics and money communicates: no, you are not that.  You can’t imagine yourself to fame and fortune if you’re doing original work.  You might get lucky, yes, and I hope you (I hope I) do.  But commerce and true creativity exist in different spaces.

So I look at my 25 open projects with a bit of trepidation as the days go by.  I’m turning 46 this month.  I’ve published a lot of stories in magazines and two books.  These have been hard things.  Are they enough?  Will they ever be enough?

Don’t worry, I tell myself.  There’s bigger process at work.  There must be.

Maybe being a success-bot isn’t the way after all?

Workaholism and Learning How to Relax

Being a self-employed workaholic and knowing how to effectively relax is one of the biggest professional conundrums I’ve faced as an adult.  And by “effective relaxation,” I mean not chemically induced relaxation or pseudo-relaxation that is just another form of work in disguise.  Accepting the necessity of down time is really hard when you’re the one in charge of your schedule.

Add cyclical insomnia, a lot of repressed anger, and an emotionally abusive work ethic instilled from childhood and you get a large part of why I was a difficult person to be around in my 20s and early 30s.  But I think I’ve learned a few things by now.  Here are some ideas if you happen to be someone who shares these or similar issues (and I can think of a number of my friends who probably do).

(1) The most important thing is to be honest about being Type-A, especially if you use work to avoid other unpleasant thoughts, situations, or confrontations.  The first and deepest honesty is with yourself.  Then comes the need to practice outward-facing honesty by releasing the burden of holding these unflattering realizations about your obsessiveness in all the time.  Speaking to others about it releases its hold on you.  If you are afraid of judgment, consider that those who criticize you might feel threatened because they don’t want you to change or don’t want to face their own “stuff.”  Honesty and transparency can renew you completely. And you probably need that kind of renewal.

(2) Understand your rhythms.  Everything flows in evolving patterns, including everything in you—in your body and mind.  If you can roughly predict when you will feel the urge to obliterate yourself by working to exhaustion, you can avoid that.  Go home early.  Make a nice dinner.  Take a shower and get in bed.  Avoid replacing one addiction with another: chemically induced relaxation will compound your problems.  Avoid the bar.  Instead, shut everything down for the moment.  Even allow yourself to fail sometimes.  Missing a deadline or taking an evening off in the interest of self-care will not result in the end of the world.  Stop trying to control everything, especially when you feel that you’re going to fall apart unless you double down and pull an all-nighter.  Because that’s what this is about: feeling like you need absolute control at all times.  Workaholism is like any other addiction.  It’s an ersatz mode of control.  Getting over it means learning to relinquish control.  It’s not easy, but it’s absolutely necessary if you want to progress.

(3) Be kind to yourself.  This sort of self-torture has deep roots in those who suffer from it.  You will slip up when you’re trying to lead a healthier life.  You will have to deal with the unpleasantness of giving up your lousy self-destructive coping strategy.  That cruel inner voice that says you need to prove your worthiness by striving for some unattainable and, frankly, mentally ill standard of perfection and productivity is not your friend.  It’s a part of you that got misaligned early in your development and that is probably sustained by the culture around you.  Learning to be kind to yourself is a good first step toward re-alignment.  A humble and wide perspective also helps, realizing that you will never be at your best if you’re in a constant state of turmoil and burnout.  Also accept that even when you are completely centered, well-rested, and healthy, you’re still fallible.  You’re not always going to be on top of your game.  Maybe never.  So what?  The overall quality of your life is more important.  When you’re dead, hell won’t give you credit for “time already served” up at your desk. 

And (4) avoid the game of childish posturing. In every workplace (and on the internet), you’ll meet a certain percentage of people who get off on how much they can overwork, as if that defines them as superior beings.  They are looking to others for cheap validation because they feel empty.  I know because I have been that person.  Don’t make my stupid mistakes, kid.  Working hard is good.  But setting limits adds value to everything.  Facing the reasons why you overwork might be painful, but it’s again about self-honesty.  You have a limited amount of time.  You should be using at least some of it to frolic in the dandelions and give biscuits to puppies.  I say this as the badass motherfucker you know and love: puppies. Frolic. Get to it.

It goes without saying that, by writing this, I am actually practicing these things in my own way.

Writing out a few sentences by Nakamura to see how they feel.

There was something evil in the glow of the room’s blue lights.  I felt the weight of the man on top of me.  He could no longer move.  His eyes were closed.  I stared long into his face.  I realized that I wanted him.  I wanted the passion he had until a moment ago.  I wanted his shoulders, which were quite muscular for his age, and his naturally tan face.  I got out from under his body, sat in a chair, and lit a cigarette.  I had to wait like this until he fell into a deep sleep.

It was raining outside.

The Kingdom, Fuminori Nakamura (trans. Kalau Almony)

The Writing Life Ain’t Easy, Kid

Today I’m thinking about how most people locate the center of meaning in their lives in their social identity, which is synonymous either with their career role or some caretaking role or both.  But the artist finds the center of meaning in the act of making art.  This is an important distinction to keep in mind, especially for me when I’m not writing.

When I don’t feel capable of producing writing, I nearly always get depressed to some degree.  My insecurities get stronger.  I start wondering whether I’ve wasted my life following insubstantial dreams.  Nevermind that I’ve already accomplished things my younger self could have never imagined possible.  It’s as if none of that ever existed.  It’s failure, failure, failure, failure, failure on repeat in my head.  And it never relents.

Of course, this doesn’t happen in productive times because, when I’m actually involved with my work, I’m not even considering other things.  At most those old insecurities are tiny thoughts, easily dismissed by the reality of the page filling up with words.  Writing is all-consuming when it’s happening.  When it isn’t, when I’m unable to move my mind into focus, I feel incredibly empty and worthless, which reminds me of something my first creative writing instructor once said: “Writers drink and use drugs probably because when they can’t write, they think they don’t exist.  And they will do anything to escape that pain.”  It took me years to fully understand what he meant.  But I don’t try to escape the pain that way.  I just suffer. 

No matter how much I publish, no matter how many stories and chapters and essays and posts I write, it’s never enough to make me feel satisfied like I’ve arrived in a secure, content, stable place in my life and work.  As soon as I write the last word of something, I’m already thinking about the next thing.  Only during those moments of actual work, when I can forget myself fully do I feel any respite.  

When I’m like a clear pane of glass and the light of my work is shining through me, I experience a kind of bliss, a satori.  Nothing is ever that good.  Drugs or alcohol can’t come remotely close because they shut down or at least reconfigure thought processes.  Writing, when I’m immersed in it, enhances all processes, all existing configurations of thought—even the critical and analytical routines that consider form and technique—and precipitates insights, perspectives, realizations.  This is far better than taking drugs.  These are the drugs of the mind.  And the only thing I live for is to be in that place, putting words on the page.  The rest of my life, actually 90% of what I do that isn’t writing, is preparing to write or recovering from having written so I can do it again.

This way of life emphasizes introspection and subjectivity.  It is not contingent on the opinions of others, permission from authorities or institutions, or any other sort of social frameworks external to my inward experience.  That is a wonderful thing, sometimes.  But sometimes the alienation I feel can be terrible: from friends, family, society, culture, what passes for normal life.  The constant pain of living in my own subjective universe and knowing that, while others may do the same, they can never truly share this experience with me, is very subtle but very tangible, especially when I’m depressed about not writing.  When there is no bliss, there is only emptiness and doubt, an inner stage devoid of actors, props, and background, all too easily filled with regret, self-criticism, worry, and the memory of past failures.  But that’s the life.  That’s its hard interior, even when it looks soft on the outside.  

It means I have to make a living somehow as well, whether though freelance work, teaching, or something else.  When I’m producing, that’s fine.  It’s easy to accept when you’re high on life.  But these needs, these ups and downs, having to be a responsible adult while also being this other thing, a writer, an artist, can make life quite difficult when the words aren’t there.  The thing that society labels “artist” the way people label “happiness” or “love” or “god”—using the term in an offhand way, while not truly knowing what it is or truly caring that they don’t—is the life of Persephone, half on the earth, half in that other place.

All jobs are hard.  All lives are challenging for the people living them.  This one, too.  Even those days when I manage to get it right.  Why do I do it?  Maybe I’m obsessed.  And I guess it’s something at which I’m reasonably competent.  And I like it better than mowing lawns.

The Ancient Art of Writing for Money

20 thoughts on what it takes and how to do it.

1. Nobody owes you time, money, or sympathy. Editors have hard jobs and need to balance a lot of concerns that writers don’t. If an editor or some other client is spending time on you, take it as a compliment. This is true for all readers of your professional work, whether they’re publishers, managers, or website owners. Any time spent on you and your writing is a vote of hope and confidence in your abilities, even if the reader is critical or has a hard-edged personality. It’s a tough business. Keep that in mind.

2. Never write for “exposure” or because someone says the job will “look good on your resume.” That is usually a mistake.

3. Don’t waste time. There are a lot of ways to do this that seem good at first. Sometimes, you have to take a risk on something that will ultimately turn out to be a wasted effort. But most of the time, money is a good test. Are you getting paid? For real? In legal tender as opposed to “exposure”?

4. Write outside your comfort zone and don’t be afraid to do research. It’s the only way to grow. Get used to pushing yourself. You should be surprising yourself at what you can do on a regular basis. How do you expect your work to impress others if it’s the same old thing putting you to sleep?

5. The truth is compelling. Try to tell it as much as possible in and about your work. Contrary to popular belief, telling what you believe to be the truth is likely to result in a higher degree of personal effectiveness.

6. Don’t complain that it’s hard. Of course it’s hard. You can always go clean carpets for a living if you can’t handle being a writer.

7. Don’t complain that you’re broke. Of course you’re broke. A writer trades social respectability and small middle-class luxuries for the big luxury of being a professional writer.

8. Play the field. No one knows you exist unless you make them know. Moreover, rejection will be a constant. The writing world communicates primarily in metaphors of loss and rejection. Remember that it will hardly ever be personal, even when people try to make it seem that way.

9. An agent is not your personal savior. An agent is a businessperson who understands how to make money in your particular field of writing. Sometimes, agents help. Other times, they’re a waste of precious time and effort (see point 3 above).

10. Always plan six months to a year ahead of time. You will hit dry spells and in freelancing there is no security net on which you can depend.

11. Avoid wasting time convincing judgmental friends and relatives that you are honest and have an actual job (see point 3 above). People will be curious about how you exist. They will often assume that you are gaming the system somehow while they have to break their backs at jobs they hate. To non-writers, it will seem like you are getting paid for doing something everybody does on a daily basis. This attitude is grounded in ignorance, but don’t tire yourself out trying to correct it. For example, if you also write screenplays and novels, it’s better not to mention it. When people hear, “I write fiction,” the first thing they’ll think is, “How come I’ve never heard of him? If he were any good, I would have.” The way to avoid people automatically concluding that you’re a loser and a failure is to stay as boring as possible: “I mostly write technical stuff.” The upside is that if you’re a freelancer for any length of time, this will be at least partly true.

12. Get sleep. This should be obvious, but early college programming dies hard. You can’t write well with a bleary mind.

13. Don’t be afraid to disappear to get work done. Time gets distorted when you’re writing intensively. What seems like a week to you might only be a few days of sustained work. Often, your friends and family won’t even notice that you’ve spent the weekend at a small table in the attic.

14. Get out and meet people. Freelancers usually prefer to write from home in their pajamas. Outdo them by dressing like a professional and offering to meet with clients. Some people won’t be interested, but some will jump at the chance to avoid having to express themselves in text (their problem in the first place). This is especially true if you soak up the travel expense. While meeting with them, take pictures, notes, recordings. Practice active listening. Stay as engaged as possible with the culture of their organization. You may also mention that you offer writing tutorials and intensives. Be a walking advertisement of all you can do for them. You will develop some very meaningful business relationships that way.

15. Accept that much of what you write will be secret. It’s called “ghostwriting” and it exists at all levels in all fields. People don’t want it known that they had to hire you because they didn’t have the opportunity or capacity to do the writing themselves. Your CV should be honest, but accept that you’ll always have done more work than you can show. This is part of your professionalism. Some of the highest paying clients will require the most discretion.

16. You don’t need to impress anybody. That’s for escorts and politicians. Your writing has to impress people. It does this by being clear, precise, imaginative, and otherwise correct as defined in your guidelines. As long as you can produce work like that, you will get a lot of repeat business.

17. Have fallback income to reduce stress. This goes beyond just saving half a year in advance. There will be times when no one wants to hire you and you’re burning through your savings while you wait for new leads. This doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It’s just the way things go sometimes. Having a secondary way to pay the rent and get your teeth cleaned will keep you sane and actually make you a better writer by giving you new experiences. It also toughens you up in a lot of different ways. Just like Aunt Fanny used to say: every artist needs a trade.

18. Give yourself assignments. Writing well takes constant practice—just like playing the viola, only the viola is the writing part of your mind. So you need to write regularly even if no one is paying you to do it. You can use those pieces later as samples if you don’t have professional clips yet. Post your uncomissioned pieces to a blog and let the world in on what you’ve been thinking about. This practice is indispensable.

19. Help other writers out when you can. “Good will” comes back to you when you least expect it. This is another hidden dimension of what it is to function as a professional. It’s also just a decent way to live. That said, sometimes helping someone out means giving an honest appraisal of their work when they ask. It doesn’t mean hurting their feelings if you can avoid doing so. Never expect others to be as tough as you pretend to be.

20. Never apologize for what you do. Your cousin, Jimmy, might imagine that all you do is sit around all day while he busts his ass at the car lot. Send him a card at Christmas and let him feel superior. He will never understand your strange world of ideas, structures, and sounds. He doesn’t need to. Not everyone can sustain the writing life (see point 11 above).