LESSON 1: NO ONE IS WATCHING BUT YOU
September 2019 marks the twentieth anniversary of Jay’s decision to become a writer. His gift to you all this celebratory year is DO IT – Twelve hard lessons on learning by failing, succeeding by accident, never giving up, and saying FXXK WRITING all at the same time. You’re welcome!
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Fall, 1999. In a basement apartment, living on bad spaghetti and powdered mashed potatoes, I’d just finished a graduate paper on Civil/Military Relations in the Franco-Prussian War. Exhausted, brain fried, and desperately alone in a new city with no friends, I sat in my computer’s glow, lit by fear. The same fear I’d have in two years when I thought I might have a drinking problem. In both cases, fears consumed me with paralysis and agitation. Both cases required monumental willpower to take action for good or ill. And I do not make this comparison lightly. I was terrified to write my first short story.
I’d already had a dream die.
I was a historian in training who had given up his punk rock career (?) for academic stability (how I laugh about that stupidity now, twenty years on, never having a full-time job in the academy). For five years being in bands was my life. I studied it, breathed it, lived it, drank it and then, in a fit of Spinal Tap-esque rage, I quit. Guitars and amps were hocked for rent. In the ashes of a dead dream, I bashed into history with my awful high school education and got my ass handed to me for four years, until my stubborn refusal to be mediocre crashed me into better grades and finally grad school, where I was one of a handful of civilians at a military college.
It was in undergrad that my love of music was replaced by a love of literature: books, short stories, novellas–here was work that didn’t require gigs, gear, or putting up with the bullshit of band politics. Maybe, well, I could be a writer. Seemed like you needed time, loneliness, and an attitude. I had vats of all three. Plus, some writers seemed kinda cool, like Charles Bukowski or Harlan Ellison or Harry Crews. They made being sad or angry a virtue through their art. Maybe that was my ticket. But the shadow of my dead dream was heavy. I was that guy people in high school thought might “make it.” And I’d burned out and failed. When art fuses with your identity and the art dies, so does a part of you. Losing punk rock shattered me. Despite academic success, I felt like a failure and became my own worst enemy as I toyed with being a writer.
That past summer while working as a cemetery groundskeeper, I’d spend my two-hour commute reading works of literature I thought would help (Joseph Conrad, Philip K. Dick, and Brian Aldiss). After eight hours of manual labor each day, I’d come home beat, uninterested in anything other than dinner and bed. But I swore that once I got to grad school, that would change. I’d start writing fiction.
And there I sat, twenty years ago, no excuse left.
In the space between thought and action lie the ghosts of our failures and self-hatreds we drag along into the present. Mine were vocal, loud, and unrelenting.
No one wants to read your stories
You have no talent and you’re too old.
People are born to be writers; you thought you were born to be a musician, so you will be a two-time loser.
You will fail and it will hurt even worse.
Be safe. Don’t try. Hide. That way you can never be found out to be the fraud you are.
Because if you write something, you will be laughed at until you die or kill yourself
But in that space also rested the bullheaded grit that had pulled me through academia (literally–my family’s crest is of a bull). And it was coated in the glaze of years of punk rock DIY ethos. And it responded thusly:
Shut the fuck up, you lying sack of pus! You’re full of shit and none of this is actually true. And yeah, I’ll suck, but everyone sucks when they start out, and everything I’ve read says that being relentless is what’s needed to become a writer, so yeah, it’s going to take years, and yeah, I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing, but I didn’t know shit about guitar but I said fuck it and learned. I didn’t know anything about working with musicians, but I said fuck it and learned. I didn’t know how to book bands, make flyers, or organize rosters, let alone write a fucking song, but I said fuck it and learned. Just fucking do it. No one is watching. No one cares. And it won’t kill me. I just have to do it.
5000 words later, “Slaughterhouse Sam” was born. A horror story about an abattoir employee getting psychic messages from an alien dying in a hospital. Only two sets of eyes have read it that aren’t attached to my skull. It was never published. It was never even submitted. It was a sacrifice to see if the voices in my head were correct and becoming a writer would kill me.
Instead, a gentle relief washed over me akin to a cool spring wind in May. Alone, in the basement, I’d made a shitty piece of art. And I’d lived.
And it was shitty. Awful. It had ONE thing going for it–it was visceral. Visceral and shitty, but visceral. And fun to make.
And that was enough to keep going.
So I did another one, about a guy who has a star growing in his belly. Hella shitty, but it had better characterization, even if the plot was ten kinds of stupid in a five-pound bag. But the writing of it? So fun. Next was a crazy wrestler story told all in dialog from the commentators’ point of view. AWFUL! But I loved it.
And like the Ramones, the MC5, Iggy and the Stooges, Black Flagg, and The Replacements, I said, Fuck it, every weekend and cranked out an endless stream of bad art.
And I didn’t die.
In fact, dead part of me started to live.
LESSON: Fuck it. Take a stab. Make your art. No one cares. It will be shit. But amazing things happen when you say “Yeah, I know,” and do it anyway. Because shit is where you start, and even in the shit there may be a nugget of gold, a sliver of neat, a whisper of THE REAL SHIT.