I think I was 10 when I started writing poems. My father gave me his old manual typewriter and I banged them out, two, three a day, hanging them on my walls, surrounding myself with them, until my walls were covered floor to ceiling.
My home life was always tense. My mother was dying on the living room couch. She was so sick she couldn’t move. The worst times were the quiet ones, the calm before the storm of my father’s rage. I was my father’s opposite; my explosions were internal. I wrote about my angry father and dying mother, hiding my feelings in clumsy metaphors. My room was a veiled indictment of my father and one day he ripped the poems down, but I kept writing. I just put them in a drawer.
When I was 12 I hung out at my friend Dave’s house almost every day. The guys sat in the bedroom listening to obscure heavy metal albums, while I stayed in the living room smoking pot with his mom and reading her my sad poetry. She was a product of a different era with dyed red hair and dark, tight jeans. I soaked up her attention like lotion. I must have left my poems with her, because at some point she copied them. Twenty years later she sent them to me.
When I was 13, just after my mother died, I ran away from home. After a year of sleeping on the streets I was made a ward of the court. I spent three months in a mental hospital and three and a half years in state-run homes. I wrote all the time, filling notebooks with ramblings. I was never shy about it. I gave my poems to anyone who would read them. A gang leader rapped my poetry in the youth shelter talent show.
I was writing to communicate. I had all this emotion I couldn’t sort through, I was sexually confused, I was from an abusive home and stuck in an environment that put a high premium on violence, or at least the threat of violence. I had to pretend to be able to defend myself. I was also suffering periodic bouts of depression. In eighth grade I tried to kill myself six times.
When I was 16 I started hanging out in cafés and attending open mikes. I loved standing at the microphone, talking to the audience, even if most of them were just waiting their turn.
I went to the University of Illinois on financial aid and a scholarship awarded by the last group home I lived in. I studied history but continued to write poems and read at the poetry night held at a vegetarian café near the quad. I imitated Charles Bukowski, Allen Ginsberg, and John Fante, my literary idols. And I met Hart Fisher, founder of Boneyard Press. Boneyard published comic books like Jeffrey Dahmer vs. Jesus Christ. When Hart heard me read, he said, “I’m going to publish your fucking book.”
In my junior year I dropped out of college to go to Amsterdam, where I found work as a barker for a live sex show. I wrote my first short story about that experience and, back at school, entered it in the undergraduate fiction contest. The story won first place out of 80 entries. One of the professors told me it was a good story, “but I can tell you’ve never been to Amsterdam.” I laughed at him. But now I can see what he means. The Amsterdam in the story wasn’t real—it lacked the specificity of detail that brings a location to life. But it was different from the other stories in the contest.
To finish college, I took a six-year hiatus from drugs. But when I graduated I started working as a stripper and shooting heroin. There were other things happening, but that’s a pretty good summary. The people I did heroin with were older than me and ridiculously attractive. We looked like Calvin Klein models, all passed out around the couch with our shirts off. In between I wrote about copping drugs and getting high, journals I would read out loud next time we were shooting up. My friends liked being written about. But then I overdosed and spent eight days in a hospital barely able to move, lost 30 pounds, and that was the end of that.
A major shift occurred in my writing. My girlfriend went traveling and I sent her letters poste restante as she wandered Europe. They weren’t so much letters as diaries, some 40 pages long, written by hand. It was an audience of one but she was the only person I wanted to impress. The letters were free in a way my other writings weren’t. They came easily. If I was paying attention I would have seen an important lesson about changing style and voice and letting my imagination run wild.
The next summer I published my first story in the Sun magazine. It was about visiting my father when he was on one of his screaming jags. I stood awkwardly in the kitchen with my stepmother, lusting after her and wondering why she didn’t leave. Like everything else I wrote it was basically true. My fiction was just reality-PLUS, a slightly more intense version of the world I lived in. In fiction I could feel things, but in life I was too inconsistent; my feelings changed too fast for me to pin them down. And I could hide behind the fiction, make observations about people that I claimed not to believe. It was the first story I’d sent for publication and the first magazine I sent it to. I thought, this is easy. But I wasn’t published again for three years. I sent story after story, rejection letters clogging my mailbox. Some of them encouraging, some pointlessly cruel.
The urge to publish is a hunger. The drive to write and the drive to publish are virtually the same thing, at least for me. They both come from somewhere deep. Like the drive for sex, they can be explained but the explanation is always incomplete.
Hart Fisher made good on his word. I contributed a thousand dollars and Boneyard Press printed 2,000 copies of Jones Inn, based on the journals I kept from my heroin year. Jones Inn was 93 pages. We called it a novel, but it wasn’t really, and Boneyard Press wasn’t really a book publisher. There was no marketing department, no distribution deals, and they spelled my name wrong. The book was available in some comic stores. A capsule review ran in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, a profile ran in the Chicago Reader, and then silence.
My next book, A Life Without Consequences, was set in the group homes of my adolescence. The year after that I wrote What It Means to Love You, a novel based on my time as a dancer in gay clubs in Chicago. I didn’t know what to do with the two books. I didn’t want to publish them with Hart; I still had hundreds of copies of Jones Inn. The only other writers I knew were the poets I met at open mikes. We learned from each other, but we weren’t connected. We didn’t have agents or contacts in New York. We didn’t know the difference between a small press and a large press or what kind of advance we might ask for.
I sent both books to MacAdam/Cage, a new publisher that was accepting unsolicited, unagented manuscripts. At the same time I applied for the Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University. The program received close to 900 submissions for five spots. MacAdam/Cage bought both novels for $18,000 each. After selling my books I went traveling and forgot about the fellowship. When I checked in with my subletter she told me that Tobias Wolff, the fellowship’s director, was trying to get in touch with me. He had called over a week ago.
Suddenly I was a writer. I had never thought of myself that way before. Writing was just a hobby, this thing I did in my spare time. But now it was how I made my living. Stanford gave us $30,000 a year and we didn’t have to do anything except come in once a week and read each other’s stories. We had all the time and resources to write, and no excuses if it didn’t work out. I was amazed by the other writers. Their writing was rich, textured, and served with an economy mine lacked.
At Stanford I realized there was an entirely different kind of writer. Many of the fellows had thought of writing as a career for years. The Stegner program doesn’t require recommendations and isn’t concerned with whether you have ever studied creative writing. Applicants are accepted on the strength of a 9,000-word writing sample. Some previous fellows hadn’t even finished college. Nonetheless, my two years at Stanford were dominated by people with graduate degrees in creative writing. They studied English as undergraduates, spent two to three years in an MFA program, then won fellowships and awards and went to writers’ colonies. Most came to writing as lovers of literature. They wanted to tell stories. They were readers, shaped by the books they’d read. They saw writing as a craft, which it is. But it was a completely different starting point from mine and that of the poets I knew. We came to writing at an earlier age, from an urge to release a scream that had stuck in our throats. Then we worked on our screams until we thought they were something someone might want to hear.
The fellowship is the best thing that ever happened to me. Because I hadn’t studied writing before, I had more to gain. Tobias Wolff talked about the importance of staying in one place, of allowing characters to get uncomfortable. He told me to read Raymond Carver’s “The Student’s Wife” to see how tension could be subtle. Tom Kealey and John L’Heureux showed me how to write dialogue. “Dialogue is something characters do to one another,” L’Heureux said.
Other fellows and professors taught me how to read, how to learn from a manuscript, to recognize how an author compressed time or moved between characters and scenes. I gained a lot in those workshops, even from the things I didn’t agree with. In the workshops there was too much emphasis on explaining. When people didn’t know what to say but felt they should comment on a story, they would ask why a character did something, a sometimes important but often meaningless question. Motivations are mysterious, and backstory brings narratives to a halt. Overexplaining a story is like adding too much rosemary to a soup.
Focusing only on my writing for the first time, I wrote my best novel, Happy Baby.
My writer’s block started in the middle of 2004, came to full bloom in 2005, and lasted until April 2007.
Happy Baby was out and I was writing about the presidential election. As in all of my novels, the protagonist in Happy Baby is a stand-in for me. He was raised in group homes and heavily into S&M. That May I got a note from a journalist who had interviewed me. He’d been contacted by my father, who told him I was a liar, a spoiled kid from a middle-class home looking for attention. I quickly realized that he wasn’t the first journalist my father had written to. My father had left a trail of denials across the Internet like digital breadcrumbs.
There was truth to what my father was saying; I had mythologized myself at his expense. But there were also things that were simply false. He told the journalist that I could have come home at any time. In fact, when I was arrested at age 14 sleeping in an entryway, I didn’t know where my father lived. He had moved with his new wife. He wrote that I had gone to two high schools, not four. That I left home at 15, not 13. He didn’t shave my head, he gave me a haircut. He only handcuffed me to a pipe one time, and look how many stories I wrote about it.
It’s hard to accurately convey the psychological effect of having your story denied by a parent. My father was retired, crippled, and discovering the Internet; he didn’t have anything better to do. Anytime I came across something written about me, he would already have been there and left a comment. When talking or writing about myself I started qualifying everything. I had to say there were people that remember things differently, or this is just how I remember things. I didn’t respond to my father but he made me question the stories I told. Were my memories real or made-up? He continued to chip away, thinking perhaps that we would compromise on a version of events in the middle. He left one-star reviews of all my books on Amazon, stating in the reviews that I had never been in a group home. I pretended it didn’t affect me, but in fact he was hammering at the foundation of my identity. I started to disappear.
About this time I fell in love for the second time in my life. I was consumed by Lissette, driven to her in part by my unspooling relationship with my father. Lissette was as beautiful as any woman I had ever seen and she looked at me the way a mother looks at a child and I went to her the way a junkie goes to a needle. One time we stayed in bed together for four days. Our relationship was full of passion and defined by intensity. It ended exactly as these things do, slowly and painfully, over time.
The most important aspect of my writer’s block was expectation. When I wrote my first three novels I didn’t know any writers who thought of writing as a career, only some poets intent on honing their screams to maximum effect. My small publications had impressed everyone. But now I was friends with lots of writers. They subscribed to Publishers Weekly and knew the difference between certain editors at Norton and HarperCollins. I knew people getting six-figure advances for short-story collections, authors of bestselling novels.
I don’t think I was jealous, because I generally believed they deserved their success. Still, I began thinking more about what kind of writing might sell, and I internalized some of the prejudices of the literary community. One of those prejudices, although certainly not held by everyone, is that writing from experience has less value and is less creative than a story fully fictionalized by its creator. It was OK to write one novel based on your life, but then you were supposed to move on. There was something dirty, indulgent, and immature about continually mining your own experiences. I was frequently asked if I was going to write something that wasn’t about me “this time.” I always said yes.
And so, for over a year, I tried to write a book or a story that had nothing to do with my life. I wasn’t trying to be Michael Chabon; I would have been happy to write an average pulp crime novel. But I didn’t have the knack. The stories were lifeless, the writing lacked energy. I thought, who would read this? It didn’t stop me from coming out with another book, My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up, but it was just a collection of previously published erotic vignettes. A minor work by any standards, but the best I could do at the time. Writing had gone from keeping me sane to driving me mad. I was bottled up. I had lost my scream. By early 2007 I was very suicidal.
One of the great things about being low is that you stop caring. I started writing with abandon, without worrying where I was going. It was just like those letters I had sent to Europe 12 years earlier. I typed whatever came into my head. The next day I did the same, and the next day. It felt good. Especially rewriting, going back through, combing the sentences into something smooth, trashing what was uninteresting. This time it wasn’t fiction. It was something new, and it was better than anything I had ever written. I reread the manuscript all the time and felt like I was reading my own diary, reclaiming my memories. I saw patterns I didn’t know I had. Threads wove together, and slowly a narrative emerged. It was my memoir, but it was also about other things, including three murder confessions—all of them false—by people I was vaguely connected to. It was about what can and can’t be known, and the tendency of truth and lies to mix together permanently, like paint, and become what we think of as history. I had been writing the book for eight months before I even knew what it was about.
I have a quote from Philip Roth’s American Pastoral that I carry with me everywhere. “What was astonishing to him was how people seemed to run out of their own being, run out of whatever the stuff was that made them who they were, and, drained of themselves, turn into the sort of people they would once have felt sorry for.”
It’s natural to want more, to grow, to change, to grow up. But it’s easy to forget why we do what we do. Why did we become writers to begin with? The most disheartening thing I saw at Stanford were brilliantly talented writers forgetting what they loved about writing. Many became more focused on teaching. They became professors and adjunct faculty. They still wrote, but seemed to think more about their teaching jobs than their next book. Their students’ writing became more important than their own.
I have to qualify this. There were some people in the program who were born to teach. They loved reading and commenting on student work. They realized how much they loved teaching while in graduate school. It gave them energy and made them feel alive. But at least as many didn’t like teaching. They thought it was what they were supposed to do as writers. They spent all their creativity leading workshops, which at times is little more than an underpaid editing position. It’s been said that you could fit all the readers of literary fiction in a football stadium. The huge number of creative writers compared to those readers creates a marketplace where it is almost impossible to make a living. So our universities are filled with great American writers, but many of them aren’t writing anymore. Or not much.
Over the years people have asked me how I feel about MFA programs. They wanted a critical opinion, knowing that I didn’t choose to get the degree myself. But I always said it seemed like a good idea, as long as you were funded and didn’t have to spend any of your own money. I didn’t see it as much different from how I spent my 20s, wandering around, working odd jobs, and writing every day. But I’ve started to change my mind. I don’t think MFAs are bad for students—the programs keep them focused on writing at a time when they might have give it up for other things. Many of the best writers got an MFA, like Flannery O’Connor, ZZ Packer, and Michael Chabon, to pick a few. But MFAs might be bad for teachers. With only a few exceptions, the programs serve as cash cows for the colleges. For the school to make the most money, faculty are underpaid and overworked. Some writers get so caught up in the idea that they’re supposed to teach that they end up in adjunct positions or teaching online courses that barely pay minimum wage. I’ve heard many lamenting their abandoned manuscripts, blaming their students and the universities for exploiting their labor.
Only a fool would go into writing for money. I don’t know anybody who started writing for that reason, but I’ve seen a lot of people end up there. There are a few authors that make big money, and they are so rare, so exceptional, they might as well not exist. They are economic freaks of nature. Among literary authors they are a subclass of an endangered species. Even when an author gets a big advance for a novel, say $100,000, it’s probably for a book that took three years to write. It will probably take him that long to write another one, presuming he doesn’t spend a year writing something he doesn’t like and throwing it away. The second novel has to be better than the first and, stripped of the “first-time author” label, he’s unlikely to get as much money the next time around.
Writing doesn’t make sense unless it’s about something else. When I’m at my best I don’t know where I’m going. Writing is an exploration and I’m a detective, a treasure hunter searching for clues. I still write to communicate, which as I get older is less about screaming and more about connecting (though it’s about screaming, too). More than anything, writing is what I want to do with my time.
There are other great reasons to write. To tell a story, to be heard, to create art, to participate, to add to the generational discussion, to make a political point, to make the world a richer place. As in most pursuits, remembering why you came to it is as important as being ready to change.
But how do writers get by? That’s more complicated than it sounds. What do we mean by “getting by”? Do we need as much as we think we do? How important is it to make more each year than the year before? While working on a first book, almost everyone has a job that has nothing to do with writing. When people tell me they would write if they had more time I’m always skeptical. The hardest-working fellows at Stanford rarely wrote more than four hours a day.
For some people, teaching creative writing workshops is a reasonable answer. But you have to ask yourself if you are that person. The writers who are truly energized by the teaching experience are a minority—and that group becomes smaller when you take away the people who teach occasionally, like me, and are left with the ones for whom teaching is a career. There’s nothing wrong with teaching creative writing, if it’s something you really want to do and enjoy. But is it? Most creative writing teachers could make just as much bartending, and bartending would be less deleterious to their creative lives. And there are other jobs, humanitarian jobs like working in a homeless shelter, construction jobs, all sorts of things. Even career jobs. Lots of great books are written by doctors and lawyers. Writing is a fantastic hobby.
I realized that to continue as a writer I had to adjust certain expectations. My books have never sold in huge numbers and probably never will. But I can make enough while only writing what I want to write. Several times a year I teach a two-hour seminar about writing from experience. I love teaching the seminar because I get to engage with an interested group about topics that are really interesting to me, without having to read their work. I think we both get more out of it that way. But if I did it too often it would be just like any other job. Sometimes I can get $500 or $1,000 for giving a reading at a university and sometimes a royalty check will come from nowhere, like found money. I’m 37 years old and I can live off $30,000 a year, which is about what I make. It’s not a lot for San Francisco, but it’s enough. I try to do the best work I’m capable of, which is not the same as making the most money.
I’m at an age where my nonwriter friends are buying property, having babies, and moving ahead in their careers, while I live in a rent-controlled apartment with my young hipster roommate. I still go through heavy bouts of depression; it’s my nature. But I wouldn’t choose a different life. Time spent focusing on art is a privilege and a gift. The writing doesn’t make me happy, but it makes me happier, and it makes everything else easier to take.
I’m not turning away money; I don’t pitch articles to magazines and I don’t sell books I haven’t written yet. Pitching is the other side of the teacher trap, where a great writer sells an idea for big money and is then stuck struggling through books or ideas she’s lost interest in. When you pitch, editors expect you to map out the article. They don’t want explorers, they want people who know the terrain.
There are writers who do great work in this system. Most of them are journalists, which is usually different from being a novelist or even a creative nonfiction writer. The system in place for professional writers doesn’t work for me and it doesn’t work for most people who consider themselves creative writers; but there are plenty of exceptions, the Joan Didions of the world who raise journalism to the highest art.
It sounds spoiled, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with considering yourself an artist. There are sacrifices as well as payoffs. When I was discussing my new book with two married writers, they kept asking how I could work without an advance. I didn’t see how they could work with one. They said they needed a certain amount of money and that they had children. They made their children sound like a tremendous burden, and I felt they were using the word need when they should have said want. There’s nothing wrong with prioritizing something higher than writing. The husband has sold a lot more books than I do and has plenty more money than I have, but being a writer seems to make him unhappy. One day, when he was telling me how easy I have it and about the kind of advance he needed, I snapped. I said his book wasn’t worth more than my book just because he has kids. We’re lucky to be writers. Nobody owes us anything.
It’s amazing and heartening how many people want to be writers. Like all writers, I’m frequently asked about process. Process is different for everybody. When I’m really in a book I work seven days a week, three to six hours a day, starting when I first get up. I write every day because I’m not capable of writing eight hours straight. If I were I would skip the weekends. A girlfriend once told me she had good news. She didn’t have to work on Wednesday; we could spend the whole day together. She didn’t think of me as someone with a job. It made me happy. I kissed her a bunch of times and told her I couldn’t see her on Wednesday.
The vast majority of my time is spent revising, the manuscript decreasing then expanding ever so slightly as I cut and insert, like breathing. Maybe once a week I’ll have a burst of inspiration and write 4,000 words in an hour or two. Those hours of inspiration are the highlight of every week. I spend the rest of my time rereading and rewriting. Chuck Close said, “Amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work.” I am very much still an amateur.
I’m also often asked about publishing. I tell people that it’s easy to get published; it’s just hard to get paid. There’s lots of good writing, but there’s very little that actually stands out as different and necessary or so good that it demands to be read. If you write something like that, someone will publish it. I don’t think I could keep going if I didn’t believe that.
I don’t believe in connections. I believe in the slush pile. I remember sending an unsolicited personal essay to Salon.com. When it was published I got a letter from an editor at GQ asking if I had anything else. A similar situation resulted in my writing a long article for Esquire. Unsolicited manuscripts worked for me: Five of my seven books were sold without an agent, though “sold” might not be the right term. Of the four anthologies I edited only one of them was agented. It’s better to have an agent, if you can find a good one. You should always try to get the most for whatever you do. It was a mistake for me to wait so long. But my point is that to be published you don’t need to know anybody. For short stories and personal essays and poems in particular, just write and send them. Sometimes writers spend all their energy pitching articles and don’t write anything, as if they’re waiting for permission. By the time the editor responds the writer might not even want to write the article anymore. There are many publications that are only great because they take the slush pile seriously. And agents read those journals, often finding their clients.
But all of that is secondary. An editor once told me why writers don’t get published: The number one reason they won’t publish a book is because they haven’t written it yet.
When I got to know other writers I was surprised, but also comforted, to find that they were often as messed up as I was—especially fiction writers. They were just as insecure and obsessive. They went through periods of gigantic confidence when they felt like they could do anything, then slipped into cavernous depressions when they wondered if they had anything of value to say. It didn’t matter how successful they were. They wasted time, berated themselves mercilessly. Most of us have something wrong at our core. If we didn’t, we would write for television, where the standards are lower and the money is better and they throw bigger parties. But we want to create something good, and we want our names on it. Our creativity is our Nile flowing through us, all of our nourishment blossoming along its banks.
The hell with it, let’s take this metaphor one step further. It’s easy to forget the river, take it for granted. Like parents who love you no matter what, you don’t miss them till they’re gone. You might want to think before wandering away from the source of your inspiration. You might think you need things you don’t; you might think there’s something greater over the next berm, only to cross into a long desert.
But here’s the good news: The river is always there. You can always return, but getting back might require covering the same distance and take as long as the time you’ve spent away.
This piece was originally published in Canteen.