When I was just out of college and wondering how I would ever become a writer, I used to sit in Kaldi’s Coffee Shop and Bookstore in Downtown Cincinnati drinking whiskey and copying F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby by hand into a notebook.
I’d never really taken any formal writing courses, save for a class here and there in college. Never enough to really learn structure or understand technique. And so as I found myself drifting in the world of journalism, I thought the best way to learn how to write would be to re-write the books that had captured my soul.
Today, I had to fight against buying these books. I already own all of Fitzgerald’s works, but I can’t ever seem to get enough of him.
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
“If you never let anyone surprise you, they won’t,” I told my therapist today as we started taking apart the pieces of the puzzle. “And I’ve spent a good deal of my life making sure that I never surprised anyone.”
I tell myself that I am okay: 32 days. I am okay. The dark clouds are parting, The sun is poking back through.
I am. They are. And it is.
Slowly. Not entirely. And not yet.
I know because a friend sent me this. As I read it, the swells washed up from my gut. I was shattered while sitting on the couch. Earlier in the morning, scabs were torn off wounds I didn’t know still existed. There were new cuts in places I hadn’t expected.
And then this cartoon about writing, and life, and art, and recovery. All of it crashed into me, unexpectedly.
If that sounds bad the best I can offer is that it is not. Those swells remind me that whatever part of me is broken, there is another part that isn’t. I’m thankful, and grateful, to have those small releases.
Because that is the process. And recovery, like art, is the support system for life.
I’m sitting at the table in my garden apartment in the airbnb in Chicago. Snow has fallen on the ground. Freezing air has settled into the city. My two-day writing journey is underway.
It’s early in the morning. I’m sipping coffee, making notes, and preparing to fix Part One of The Summer of Run. I’ve been fixing it for some time. That’s just my process. I have to dump a great deal of shit on the page to figure out where to plant the seeds.
When it’s time for me to write, I need silence. No music. No talking. No…anything. I need my mind clear, and my thoughts focused.
But that’s not where I am today. Today, I’m creating. I’m painting in my head. I’m building the stories around the spine of the narrative, the thing that makes the story…a story. To do that, I need sound. I need music.
I need Pearl Jam.
My first writing job in 1994 was with the alt-weekly Cincinnati CityBeat. I wrote straight news. I reported on City Hall. I wrote a column called “The Burning Question” where the news team would come up with one question for a local politician or public figure, and then ask them. I loved the column. I loved when I got cussed out. Or when somebody would get so enranged they’d hang up.
But that was journalism as sport. What I loved was features. I had the chance to write short and long features. I wrote about a biker who ran a small church for prostitutes and homeless people. A group of graffiti artists who tagged the city’s sewers (and had a police task for set up to stop them). A bike club that raised money for children and hospitals.
I’d spend weeks running around the city, interviewing people, spending time with them, getting to know them. But I’d never write a thing. Instead, I’d just collect bits and scraps and pieces of notes.
Then when it was time: I would start my ritual.
I’d sit at the bar assembling my notes on bar napkins, numbering them as got drunk, and then dropping them in a manila envelope. I’d construct the bones of the narrative while I got drunk and in between games of pool.
The next night, I’d go home, open a bottle of Jameson, turn off the lights in my room, pull out the napkins, crank up Merkinball, and write until the story was done.
On more than one occasion, I would get up in the morning without recollection of whether I’d submitted the story. I’d slide on my torn jeans, tie my flannel overshirt around my waist, slip on my black dockers, my black leather jacket, and wander into the office to ask the editor if he’d received my email.
I continued that routine — more of less — for the next two decades of my life. The booze came and went. The drugs came and went. My relationships came and went.
But always there’s been Pearl Jam, the soundtrack for my writing. The mood behind my creativity.
The hardest part of writing isn’t writing. I love writing. I love turning off everything in the house, delving into the world in my head, and bringing life to the page. I find a great solace in that, and if I go too long between sessions I start to get itchy.
For me, the writing is easy.
Instead, the hardest part of writing is making time to write. Whenever I set aside time for me, invariably something encroaches upon it. Instead of standing firm, I find myself pushing my time to the side because I can always just reschedule me.
But here’s the problem. There’s always a reason not to write. There’s always a reason to push aside my writing time or to devalue its importance in my life for other, more pressing issues.
The fortunate part of this problem is that it is self-imposed. The forces that keep me from writing are within my own grasp. It’s a me problem, which means it’s a fixable one.
The Solution: #500words
For the rest of March and all of April, I’m going to make time to write 500 words each day.
I have no expectations about what those words will be, or if those words will be good. That’s not the point.
Certainly I have two projects (So Far Appalachia, The Summer of Run) that need attention, but I’m not worried about cramming the words into that pigeonhole. Instead, I want to get back to valuing my time as a writer, and making my work a priority…at least for a few minutes a day.
I’d love to have other writers join me along the way. Don’t worry about what you produce. What’s important is giving yourself the space to write each day. When you’re done:
You can use the #500words hashtag on Twitter or Instagram;
Share your success here on the site in our comments; or
Just enjoy the writing.
So enough of the introduction, and on with #500words.
The Geeky Press Newsletter
Sign up for The Geeky Press Newsletter, a semi-regular newsletter of weird and literary things. It’s a curated collection of events, book reviews, interesting reads, and things that we can’t classify but that we find particularly awesome. Plus, we’ll never sell your data because that’s too much work.
Tonight, an object lesson for students in the age of social media. (Actually, I’m surprised this story has remained ‘off blog’ for so long since my friends are ever-so-happy to hear it told.)
In 1999, I worked as a teaching assistant for Michael Lewis while a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. Lewis, who was just writing The New, New Thing and beginning work on a book called Moneyball, helped secure me a freelance writing gig with Rolling Stone and introduced me to Tom Wolfe (We spoke of San Francisco haberdasheries).
Unfortunately, we butted heads in the classroom. Worse, I didn’t find his writing on technology that inspiring in comparison with the writers I’d worked with at Wired and the teachings of Katie Hafner and Kara Swisher.
One evening after a great deal of Jameson’s Irish Whiskey I wrote him a 5,000 word email detailing those failings. I was righteous and sure in my prose.
Until the next morning. I peeled myself out of bed, a shroud of doom upon me.
“Did I send that email,” I asked my then girlfriend.
“Hell yeah you did,” she said in the kind of tone that let me know she didn’t envy my coming few hours.
I didn’t remember the particulars but I knew what I sent was bad. I recalled the words “fraud” and “hack” being used. I pulled up my Sent file. And read. And read. And ready.
When I arrived in Lewis’ office, both he and wife were there. In lieu of an apology, I simply said, “Sometimes I howl at the moon” (while his wife, MTV’s Tabitha Soren made no eye contact with me).
While he allowed me to finish the semester as his T.A., a search of the Rolling Stone archives will find no record of any of my published stories, you will find no letters of recommendations in my file, and I can impart no sage advice on writing given to me outside the classroom.
Of course, I owned my email, accepted the bridge burned, and traveled forth. Years later it made a wonderful story. My friends still take great delight in texting me images of his books from bookstore windows, or screenshots from his appearances on televisions.
I take them with the love they are offered, and the knowledge that sometimes you just have to let the demons loose and see what burns.
But damn: I didn’t know he was going to inspire all those Academy Awards.
This is a cross-post from The Geeky Press, my writing collective. The post was originally written on April 19, 2014.
The headline screamed “Is Reading Too Much Bad for Kids?“and the subhead framed a teaser that could be run as promotion for anylocal newscast across the country: “Clinging to print can isolate kids and alienate them from the digital world of multitasking.”
As you might imagine, the sensationalized headline sent ripples through the Web.
Fortunately, the article’s author wasn’t making that claim.Scary headline and subhead aside, and the article is a lament about the loss of print books and the concern that connected reading devices are prying attention away from books (be they books in print or on devices like the Kindle Paperwhite), which is a topic I explored in “Why Serious Reading Might Not Take a Hit from Computer Screens.”
That’s actually an interesting topic, but thosewho understand the science of how we both process information and develop critical thinking skills know that interactive experiences and visual movies can’t replacethe learning experiences of reading and writing.
The proliferation of cell phones, e-mail and faxes is making the hunt for terrorists increasingly more difficult. Security agencies have literally billions of messages to sift through every day — many with encryptions that make it impossible for anyone other than the intended recipient to read. — From the opening of “Hiding Like Snakes in the E-Grass” on Wired.com on Sept. 14, 2001.
Throughout the years, I’ve been haunted by two stories that I worked on while at Wired.com. The first story was never published. ((In the days after one of the early 9/11 commission reports in 2002, the Wired.com journalists poured through the document. While most people gravitated to the larger stories. I was intrigued by a few throwaway lines about vulnerability of the power grid because of old and failing sensors. After 3 weeks of reporting, I was ready to file my stories when I decided to leave the company during a round of layoffs. I left my notes with an editor, but I turned my attention to my own book. In August 2003, the New York City power grid went down for precisely the reasons outlined in the report and my reporting.)) This is the story of the second one, which which came out in the daysafter September 11.
As the nation tried to collect itself in the hours, minutes, and days after the terrorist attacks, our president rightfully spent a great deal of time and energy reassuring the public. While I didn’t vote for President George W. Bush, I’ve always believed that as an American it’s our duty to support and back our leader (even if we respectfully disagree.) I have little tolerance for those who find it appropriate to cast insults. As such, I appreciated the president’s steadfast and earnest compassion that he showed on those workers who were on the ground. ((He always seemed much better when he was ‘hanging out’ than when we was reading speeches.))
What I didn’t believe, though, was the insistence that we could adequately monitor digital communications in order to find out if there were looming threats.
As a technology journalist, I was dubious. Such a system was simply not possible unless you believed the rumored capacity of Echelon really existed or you believed backdoor technologies like the Clipper chip had been secretly deployed. Short of that, you simply couldn’t monitor every IM, chat, and private conversation in a meaningful, real-time way back then.
I began reporting my story on September 12. I called security experts, analysts, academics, and scientists while trying to wrap my head around just what we could and couldn’t realistically accomplish in terms of monitoring communications.
After months and years of research, I’ve finally started outlining So Far Appalachia, my next book project. The early part of the writing process involves organizing my anecdotes, inserting them within chapters, and arranging the chapters in a way that will elicit the reader to consider certain themes.
It’s wildly difficult to write a first-person account of a phenomenon. The reason: Authors-as-characters only work when they become surrogates for the reader. Too often writers inject themselves into the story, which breaks the narrative flow by separating the reader from the action of the book.
When Of Dice and Men is at its best, David M. Ewalt paints an interesting tale that follows the birth, demise, and rebirth of both Dungeons & Dragons and tabletop role-playing. While the territory of the game’s history isn’t new, Ewalt nevertheless wrote a fan’s history, which painted a tough by understandable picture of the original founders. I flew through those parts of the book, oftentimes finding myself up well after my wife had fallen asleep. I wanted more of that.
Unfortunately, the book has two major narrative flaws that frustrated me. The first was the author’s injection of himself into the story, which didn’t give me a better understanding of the game, its psychology, or its community friendships. Instead, Ewalt assumed the reader understood those ideas (in contrast to his excellent descriptions of how these games are played).
The second was that the author didn’t trust the reader. Ewalt diverges repeatedly throughout the narrative to explain how much of a nerd he is (while simultaneously trying to tell us that it’s not just nerds who play), as if that’s imperative to appreciate and understand the phenomenon. He also peppers the narrative with overblown descriptors to artificially create drama.
My headlong leap into the deep end of D&D gave the trip an almost religious significance: I started to think of it as my version of the hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. An expression of devotion; a chance to seek wisdom; a time to show unity with my brethren.
It’s this dichotomy that concerned me. The book is clearly written for people who don’t understand D&D and role-playing games (RPGs) based upon the lengthy descriptions of the various games, and yet Ewalt never settles on exactly who the “people who play” are.
Despite the narrative imbalance, people who enjoy D&D and RPGs will find this a satisfying, quick read and those who have never held a 20-sided dice won’t be intimidated by lots of geek-speak.
We know that the best way for humans to change their behavior patterns is through tracking mechanisms. If you want to lose weight, you have to count (somewhere) what you are eating. If you want to get stronger in the gym, you have to count what you are doing.
Without that tracking mechanism, we lose accountability.
So each month, I’ll update the blog with an summary analysis of what I have tried to do in the Year of Focus, in which I have laid out 4 broad goals.
As each year comes to a close, I spend December sitting with the work of my previous year. I sift through what I’ve created, I look at what I didn’t create, and conceptualize what I want my next year to become.
I’ve always been methodical and particular in my thinking, but I’ve become much more directed in that thinking in my sobriety and as I get older.
Just in the past few years, I’ve dedicated my time to:
Each of those represented a singular goal on which I could affix my gaze. No matter what happened during each of those time frames, I could always pull myself back to the center.
This year as I’ve been evaluating my life’s work this year, I’ve started asking myself a very serious question: “What’s next?” My answer, while still in flux, is coalescing around the idea that I have lost focus in my life. I’ve become too complacent, allowing myself to be pulled along by the tidal forces around me.
While I am happy at Ball State University, I have to give some love to my (graduate) alma mater, the University of California at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.
All graduate programs are not created equal. Berkeley is an elite institution training (future) award-winning journalists who can tell stories across every medium. This is not an accident. When you go to Berkeley, you aren’t just taking classes. You are giving your life over to an intense, in-depth, all-encompassing, life-changing experience.
It’s hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t gone through it. Rest assured, the small percentage of students who are accepted are run through a gauntlet that few are prepared to handle.
When I proposed restructuring the M.A. in Journalism at Ball State two years ago, I spent a good deal of time picking the collective brains of my mentors and former teachers at Berkeley so that we could begin to carve out our own identity. I’ll have more about our program in the near future, but for now you can check out what my friends and teachers are doing the Berkeley J-School: