The Next Big Thing

Katherine Hill (friend, Barrelhouse Assistant Editor, two time Book Fight guest) invited me to join in this blog chain that is somewhat presumptuously calling itself The Next Big Thing. The deal is this: Katherine answered a bunch of questions about her book, then she tagged a few writers who are now obligated to answer those same questions, then tag a few more writers, who will do the same until at some point every writer on the Internet will have has answered the same questions, and then we can compare and contrast to determine who wins.


Go read Katherine’s answers. Follow her on Twitter.  Buy her book.


The directions say the questions apply to “something you’re currently writing or a book or story just published or to be published soon,” which is a wide enough net to include any words I’ve ever written. I’m frankly sick of talking about my memoir (go here and here if you’re interested), so these answers all relate to a novel I finished in March and have been submitting to agents since (note, for those who know me in real life: this is not the pro wrestling novel, which is a whole different situation and about which I’m working on another meandering post ).


1. What is your working title of your book (or story)?

The Widower’s Handbook

2. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?


A young man’s wife dies suddenly, and he decides to help her fulfill her dreams of traveling by taking her ashes with him on a road trip across the country.


3. Where did the idea come from for the book?


My wife and I were on vacation in Seattle, and it was maybe our anniversary, or close enough to it that we felt okay splitting two bottles of wine at some French restaurant, which probably isn’t terribly relevant to this story, but it seems worth noting.


I told her about a dream I’d had the previous night in which she was dying. I don’t know, it seemed like good anniversary talk.


We started talking about what would happen if she died; what would I do? Where would I live? Would I still talk to her family? Would I fall into a bottomless depression, start drinking heavily, lose my job? Would I start dating again, and how would I even begin to figure out how dating works (we’ve been together since the week of my 19th birthday; I don’t know how adults meet people in real life. I assume it’s Craigslist-based).


During this admittedly morbid discussion, my wife said a few times that if I wrote a book about that she would read it. Of course, she would probably read whatever dumb book I write, but she would read this one and enjoy it (she reads more than I do, but we have drastically different taste in books and film, particularly w/r/t relative levels of bleakness).


By the end of the night, I’d come up with the first line of the book, which has been more or less unchanged since then:


You don’t fall in love at first sight, or first kiss even, but many months later, at that indelible moment when you awake in her bed before sunrise, her breath hot on your back, arm draped across your ribs, the contours of her hips flowing into you like a river, and you feel like you’re two interlocking puzzle pieces, built specifically to fit together with each other and no one else.


And I knew the first chapter would end with something like this:


…you’re laying the groundwork for a lifetime of happiness, but none of that matters anymore because she’s dead and she’s dead and she’s dead and she’s dead and she’s dead and she’s never coming back.


(the book is not completely in second person POV, I swear).


4. What genre does your book fall under?


Literary fiction


5. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie

I object to this question on the grounds that it’s the sort of thing I would have asked when I was fourteen.


6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Well, that’s the big question, isn’t it? So far, this book has been just good enough to get a lot of really nice rejection emails from a lot of really generous agents. It’s currently unrepresented. If that situation doesn’t resolve itself at some point in the near future, I’m going to start submitting it myself to indie presses that accept unrepresented submissions.


And if that doesn’t work out, then I’ll probably just print it, climb to the top of City Hall in Philly, and start showering the pages down on the street like leaflets.


7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?


After that dinner with my wife, I didn’t do much with this book for a while. I was still in the midst of a different still-unpublished novel on which I spent about three years and am now editing again. During the time I was working on that book, I sometimes jotted down notes and ideas for The Widower’s Handbook, but there was no real work.


Widower is short, only 62,000 words, so once I started actively writing it, the first draft was done in about 4 months. I write first drafts very quickly, then spend the rest of the time digging myself out of the holes in which I’ve trapped myself.


8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?


This is a question for marketers and critics, I think. I don’t know. I read a lot of short novels while I was writing this, to get a sense of the rhythms of short books. But that doesn’t mean this has anything to do with Gatsby or So Long, See You Tomorrow or The Dead Father or Coming Through Slaughter or whatever.


9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?


Is existential dread an appropriate answer?


10. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?


I feel like this is turning into a job interview.


Next up:

Steve Kistulentz (@kistulentz)

Dave Housley (@dhousley)

Jill Talbot (@jilltalbot)

Johannes Lichtman (@jltheplagiarist)

Matt Kirkpatrick (@mattkirkpatrick)

The Nervous Breakdown, a rant

Last week I was at the gym and I was a captive audience to the TV and I got really angry, and did not achieve the expected catharsis when I came home and vented my anger to my wife, so I wrote a 1300 word essay about the ways we delude ourselves and embrace idiotic narratives, and thank goodness there’s a quality website out there with a Rants section where I could post it.

It’s called Bloody Diarrhea, Crispy Bacon, and the Stories We Tell Ourselves, and it begins like this:

So I’m at the gym and one of the TVs is tuned to Fox News, which I choose to watch because the other options are all reality TV shows about the hardships of blandly pretty rich white women, and at least the blandly pretty rich white people on Fox have the theoretical potential to talk about something important, and anyway I don’t need to justify this part of the decision. It was on. I was watching it.

It’s not about Fox News, not really. They just happened to be the ones I saw first.

Go read it here.

This is me asking for your money

UPDATE: While I was writing this post, Mike went ahead and wrote a better version of it on the Book Fight site.

There’s a good chance that anyone reading this post is already well aware of Book Fight’s fundraising push, I know, but just in case:

When Mike and I started the podcast on a semi-informed whim in March, we weren’t sure whether it would be a sustainable venture . But we’ve now got 22 full episodes and 8 shorter Writers Ask episodes recorded, and every week we’re setting new personal records for downloads and site visits, so it’s become pretty clear that this is a Thing We Do now. The goal then is to make it a Thing We Do Right, which requires a substantial sound upgrade.

We’ve been using a mic that is functional but  limited, which means our episodes are recorded at roughly AM radio quality;  the mic essentially records the room rather than our individual voices, so you lose the nuances of our voices and get lots of background noise in every recording (I’m sure there’s a professional word for that incidental noise that junks up the sound, but I don’t know what it is, and the point is that regardless of the terminology, nobody needs to hear the pages flipping every time I open a book, or beer bottles clinking against the table, or my dog barking upstairs or whatever).

It’s not bad, we don’t think. But it can, and should, be better.

Also, here, look at our “studio”

bookfight studio3

To record, we stand the mic on a TV table. Mike sits in a folding chair and puts the laptop on an ottoman while I sit in a dusty soccer mom chair with a broken leg. We used to have two folding chairs, but I lost one at the conference back in September, and so now when we have a guest, they get a choice of either taking the folding chair from Mike or sitting in a papasan chair, which maybe doesn’t invite the best recording posture.

This setup is bearable, if sometimes inconvenient, when it’s just me and Mike, but when guests are here, it’s just embarrassing, and increasingly limiting. We have real guests, actual famous authors doing this for free, taking time out of their day and traveling to my house to record, and it would be nice if we could look a little bit more professional. So the fundraising goal includes estimates for buying some cheap Ikea-type furniture so we can sit in real chairs at a real table, which could maybe even hold our books and beers and the microphones all at the same time.

Then, of course, there are the web hosting fees and other incidental costs like that; the more we can defray those, the more easily we can produce these shows.

Look, I know there are a thousand people asking for your money. I know the Internet sometimes seems like a big open hand looking for a donation. I know it’s Christmas season and also your philanthropic monies may be headed to the Red Cross or to the Food Bank or Philabundance. I get it. But if, after you’ve given to those more worthy causes, you have a couple bucks to spare and think we’re doing something good and entertaining and interesting and useful here, then I hope you’ll consider making a small donation to the show.

Your donation, I should note, probably should have noted earlier, will not go unrewarded; if you follow the donation links on this page, you’ll find a list of  suggested donation levels and the thank you gifts we’ll give you. (this is obviously selfishly motivated, but I actually think the $50 level is a great investment for writers and small publishers, who can support the show and also advertise directly to an audience of devoted readers, and also $35 for direct, detailed feedback on your writing from two editors? You actually can’t beat that).

This post is too long, I know. If you still haven’t listened to the show, give it a chance, and if you agree that we’re doing something worthwhile, click here to get to our donation page.

Full transcript of a conversation with an otherwise well-meaning student

Student: “Hey, I heard you wrote a book.”
Me: “Yeah.”
Student: “That’s cool, man. Is that, like, what you want to do?”
Me: “It kind of is what I do.”
Student: “Can I get it anywhere?”
Me: “Well, it’s a long story but [grumble, grumble, grumble] it’s out of print and you can only buy it used.”
Student: “Is there any way I can download it free?”
Me: “I guess, but it’s illegal, and anyway you can get it for 1 cent on Amazon.”
Student: “I’ll probably just get it free.”

DFW on Voting

Every election season, I find it useful–if somewhat discouraging– to reread David Foster Wallace’s essay Up, Simba (which you can also find in Consider the Lobster, which is insightful and amazing and intimidating and you probably already know all of this already).  It’s ostensibly about the race between Bush and McCain during the Republican Presidential primary in 2000, but really it’s about the electoral process and the way we shape narratives around candidates and issues.

One excerpt that stands out every time is this one:

“If you are bored and disgusted by politics and don’t bother to vote, you are in effect voting for the entrenched Establishments of the two major parties, who please rest assured are not dumb, and who are keenly aware that is is in their interests to keep you disgusted and bored and cynical and to give you every possible psychological reason to stay at home doing one-hitters and watching MTV on primary day. By all means stay home if you want, but don’t bullshit yourself that you’re not voting. In reality, there is no such thing as not voting; you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard’s vote.”

I know a lot of people who “don’t care about politics,” which I get, kind of, at least from the perspective that they’re difficult to follow, they’re frustrating, and they’re ensconced in layers of condescending bullshit. But I think some people forget–or maybe they’re in denial– that politics are going to happen whether you engage in them or not, and they are going to directly affect you whether you know about them or not. So you may as well know what’s happening. You may as well use the little bit of influence you have, because if you don’t use it, someone else will, and they may well use it against you.

Coming soon: Barrelhouse Books

Barrelhouse has always tried to bridge the gap between pop culture and literature; we want authors to embrace their strange pop cultural obsessions, and we want our journal to serve as a reminder that it’s okay even for “serious readers” to care about things that aren’t generally considered serious .  Further, it’s part of our mission to show that you can tell great, meaningful, and weighty stories about anything, even if it’s about roller coasters or heavy metal screams or huffing gasoline.  We like stories, is the point, and we are fascinated by pop culture, and so our journal has always defined itself as a home for that type of writing.

So when we collectively decided to launch Barrelhouse Books, we knew the perfect way to start was with an anthology of our greatest hits: all the best essays we’ve published, plus a handful of new pieces to pave the way for the future.  We’re working now to select the final pieces to be included in this collection, which will be published in early 2013 and, with any luck, will be available for sale at AWP Boston.

If you’re a writer who’s been harboring a pop culture obsession but haven’t found the motivation to write about it, or if you’ve been pitching a pop-culture related essay that you can’t quite seem to place, or if you just like a challenge, please submit today.  We’ll be collecting submissions until 12/24 and deciding quickly on them.  Read the full guidelines below, and go here to submit:

  • Don’t lock yourself into a specific word count, but 1,000 seems like a good minimum, and 10,000 words seems like a good max
  • Simultaneous submissions are fine, because it’s the 21st Century so of course they’re fine
  • Only one submission per author. If you submit more than one to this category, we won’t read either of them.
  • Pop-culture related does not mean trivial. The best essays we’ve published engage with pop culture in such a way that even people who don’t share the author’s particular obsession will care. They have substance and they tell a compelling story.
  • Submission fees? We don’t need no stinkin’ submission fees! Man, that would work better if it rhymed with badges.
  • We were going to type more guidelines here, but that’s antithetical to how we do things. So listen, here’s the deal: you have your pop culture obsessions and we have ours: we want you to write a great essay about yours and make it so good we can’t help but publish it.

DEADLINE: December 24, 2012

Love and rejection and being pretty good but not good enough

This is an email I’ve been receiving a lot lately:

Your writing is really polished and there are some very good lines in here, but ultimately I just couldn’t fall in love with it. But I want you to know I’m rooting for you!

It is not a comforting email, despite the best intentions of the sender.

*  *  *

Currently, I have three stories, an essay, and a novel under review by a variety of editors and agents. There is another novel that made the rounds and, as the euphemism goes, couldn’t find a home (although the plan is that after some revisions it will be submitted to some small presses and book contests), and there are a couple more short pieces on the way out this week or next. All of which means a few things:

  1. I check my email more obsessively than usual, am prone to mild panic when several hours have passed without a new notification on either my phone or my laptop, because I keep waiting for something to give. It’s been a dry spell since mid-summer, during which time my memoir has gone out of print, and I have accrued many rejections, and so there is the waiting, always. While the present is continually disappointing, the future always holds promise.
  2. My penchant for myopic pessimism is only exacerbated by all the waiting, which makes me occasionally mopier and more  self-absorbed than usual.
  3. Regardless of how things turn out—whether I publish one or all of those pieces— I will receive dozens of rejections over the next couple months.

*  *  *

I want to be as clear as possible: this post is not about soliciting sympathy or settling scores or calling people out. That all has nothing to do with it. The agents and editors who have been rejecting my submissions are just doing their jobs; they owe me nothing beyond simple courtesy, and they need to get on with their lives once they’ve finished reading my work.

I don’t want to overdramatize things. Rejection is part of life in general, but especially the writing life, and we all know this and have heard it a thousand times. You get used to it, mostly. But that doesn’t make it feel any better when it happens.

Still, my goal here isn’t to whine about how I’m having a hard time publishing things; so is everyone else I know, and most of them are far more talented than I am. What I want to talk about, what I’m trying to better understand, is the language of rejection.

* * *

Here’s another email I keep receiving:

Thanks so much for taking the time to send me a detailed response. This is the best rejection I’ve ever received.

I don’t send personalized rejections to everyone who submits, but about 30% of the essays I reject do get a little email from me with some specific notes on the essay the sent, and these people frequently respond with gracious emails like the one above. Invariably, what these people are grateful for is the fact that I took time to respond directly to their work and to show them, in one way or another, that I appreciated their work, even if it’s in the context of me telling them why I ultimately think the essay wasn’t good enough. It’s the acknowledgment they appreciate.

* * *

A while back, I posted my updated version of the standard Barrelhouse rejection letter, which I send to about 70% of the people who submit essays. It goes like this:

Dear [AuthorFirstName],

Thanks for letting me read [SubmissionTitle]. Lately, I’ve been submitting a lot of work myself and have found that personalized and flattering rejection notes tend to be paradoxically more discouraging and invite the sort of neurotic over-analysis that is generally not in any way healthy or productive, and so I hope you’ll accept this 100% neutral and non-encouraging (but also non-discouraging!) note as an indication that we will not be running your submission in Barrelhouse, but this choice of mine doesn’t reflect negatively on you as a person or as a writer, and is instead the result of a totally fucked up and subjective system which we all, for some reason, agree to perpetuate.

Thanks for thinking of us.

I wrote that not as a joke, not because I needed something kind of funny to post on Facebook that day, but because ever since I took this job with Barrelhouse, I’ve been grappling with the way we express our choice to reject someone’s work, and this seemed the most honest way to say it. We’re not publishing you, and it would be a terrible mistake to attach your conceptions of self worth to my opinion.

* * *

If we’re being honest, me and you, we can agree on this: a lot of the shit that gets submitted isn’t any good. That’s just a reality of the submission process. It’s the reason for the submission process. But still– there are people on the other end, waiting and hoping, and telling their spouses I have a good feeling about this one. There are people at home, checking their emails, hoping someone will respond and say, “I fell in love with this.”

* * *

So, what’s the right way to tell someone their work isn’t good enough? Is it the euphemism-soaked, everyone-gets-a-trophy keep on truckin style of bland encouragement? Is it a generic, totally impersonal response that betrays nothing beyond the bare facts (you will not be published today, and also here’s how to subscribe to our journal)? Is it something performative that is a little bit potentially mean-spirited but also engages with the text in the way we all say we want people to engage with our writing? Is it a picture of a sad puppy and a bowl of ice cream?

* * *

While I was in the midst of reading Barrelhouse submisssions last week, I received this email from an agent.

After careful consideration, and much admiration, I’m afraid I am going to step aside. I’m just not in love with the writing quite enough to think I’d be the right agent for your work. But it is engaging, and moving, and I know you’ll find the passionate representation you deserve.

I stopped reading submissions then because I’d lost track of my place in the world.

The agent’s email was obviously a form letter, and while I appreciate that the agent read the manuscript at all and sent the email that’s probably saved on her desktop as “nice rejection,” the end result is still the same as if she had emailed to say, “Listen, this book is fucking terrible, and I hope you never send anyone anything ever again.” So which one are you supposed to believe– the email you actually got, or the email you’ve imagined?

* * *

Think about the way most of us phrase it: I got rejected by three journals this week. Not my story was rejected. Because that’s rarely what it feels like when you care so much about the writing that it becomes a part of who you are.

* * *

Probably if I weren’t actively submitting, I wouldn’t think of it much at all. I would blithely reject and reject and reject and I would, let’s admit it, laugh at the worst submissions and share them with people so they could laugh too. But every time I have that impulse, I think of my own work, sitting there on the desk of some laughing agent; my work, being passed around a New York City office, a joke.

* * *

A lot of rejectors rely on the language of dating: I didn’t fall in love with it. Probably it’s a pretty accurate representation of their feelings: there are some books you love and some books you endure and a lot of books you casually know. How many books have you read whose pleasures were entirely fleeting, books that were objectively pretty good but never stuck with you? Why should it be a surprise to find out your own work falls into this good-but-not-good-enough category?

* * *

What does it mean to fall in love with literature? This question probably opens a bigger can of worms, which is, what does it mean to fall in love at all? This is a question I can’t answer beyond: falling in love means finding something or someone  you care about more than yourself. It takes an incredible ego to sit around by yourself for a year or two, working on a novel, and then send it blindly out into the world and ask people to love it. But that’s pretty much the only option we have, and anyway, part of writing seriously is possessing an ego that makes you believe the things you’re writing are important enough for other people to care about them.

* * *

These are a lot of quarter-formed thoughts, I admit. I don’t really have a conclusion to offer, and I’m not sure I’m the person to offer it anyway. Here’s what I keep coming back to: rejection is awful all the time, and the rejector is in a difficult position, because it is impossible to guess what the writer needs to hear at the exact moment of rejection. Maybe they’re abjectly, objectively terrible and need someone to tell them so. Maybe they’re terrible but the writing is therapeutic and they’re not hurting anybody by continually submitting weak work. Maybe they’re okay with engaging in a workmanlike career and know that one of the hazards is they will receive more rejections than acceptances. Maybe they’re talented but on the verge of quitting and need someone to acknowledge that they’re doing something wortwhile.

* * *

The first big-time publication I ever had was with Black Warrior Review in 2007. That acceptance email was a lifeline– had that essay (which turned out to be chapter two of my memoir) not been accepted, I was prepared to quit, to go work for an insurance company or something, and to spend the rest of my life telling people I used to be a writer. It was the only complete thing I’d written since leaving grad school, and it was the only thing I’d felt good enough about to share with any friends. I wouldn’t have continued writing. I wouldn’t have continued teaching because I would have been ashamed to associate with colleagues who were actively publishing. If we want to extrapolate this fully, the rejection would have resulted in the dissolution of my marriage, because I would have been so incredibly unhappy with myself that I would have sabotaged the life I’d been building with my wife.

The editors at BWR probably had a debate about my essay. They probably came very close to rejecting it, just like nine other journals had. They didn’t know, or care, that it was a make-or-break situation for me, that their email would literally change my life and make me care again. But that’s the power they had, and that’s the razor thin line between abject failure and whatever we’re going to call my current condition (upwardly mobile mediocrity?)

* * *

What makes me reject an essay? The biggest thing is a lack of urgency, the sense that an essay only exists to fulfill some vaguely defined criteria or to be checked off somebody’s list. But there are other issues too: abject humorlessness, terrible jokes, lacking self awareness, sagging language, essays contriving “happy” endings in order to duck the requisite complexity. It’s a failure to make me care on a visceral level.


Every time I think about this issue, it comes back to one question: why publish? Is it for the money, the glory, the ideal of sharing your thoughts with the world? Shouldn’t the work itself be enough to sustain you?

There are so many journals out there. There are terrible journals with low standards, journals who will accept eighty percent of the work submitted to them. I could send my stories and essays to those places, could even benefit from being published in those awful journals that nobody reads, because they would become another line on my CV and make me slightly more employable from a University’s perspective. But that would be pitiful and that would be sad, and that would deny my primary reason for submitting, which is the ego. Regardless of what any author says, that motivation is always there, that desire to see one’s byline printed under the header of a prestigious publication. There is a need to have people read your thoughts, and for a real publisher to validate your work. You’re putting yourself out in the world and inviting the world to love you; this is a dangerous game to play.

* * *

Sometimes i think it would be better if the form letters were more blunt : “this isn’t really good at all, and you’re never going to publish it” or, “I really like this book, but it’s not going to sell more than 400 copies no matter what we do, so, sorry.” It seems like a good idea until I think about receiving one myself.

I realize people have a lot of reasons for offering the diplomatic and soulless responses they do: they need to keep the lunatics at bay, they want to be polite, they don’t want to be dreamcrushers, they actually mean the nice things they’re saying, etc. etc.

What’s the best way to say I don’t want you? That’s the question people have been dealing with for millenia.

* * *

Probably, what most of us have to face is that we’re never going to be quite as good as we’d like to be, not nearly as good as the people we idolize and who inspire us. We’re going to be regular people who are known by only a few and we die without having produced anything on the level of Guernica or The Brothers Karamazov or whatever. We’re going to be temporary and not long after we’re dead nobody will know we ever existed.

Does that mean we shouldn’t even bother? Or does it amplify the urgency to write and publish?

* * *

Are we deluding ourselves when we try to overcome the fundamental reality of our own meaninglessness via writing? I don’t know. Probably. But I think maybe that’s the wrong question. The question, more likely, is something like this: is this thing worth doing anyway? And, inevitably the answer, time after time, is, Yes, yes, absolutely it is. Because what else is there to do?

MFA Fever

The MFA discussion is one of the common writer arguments (another: genre fiction vs. literary fiction) that invites hysterical and irrational responses online. There is so much misinformation, so many weird conspiracy theories about how admissions work, so many jaded writer-types who lashing out at what they view as the establishment. I understand, to an extent, why it’s so hard for people to be rational about the topic; it adds another layer of maddening subjectivity to the writing life, and, increasingly, it seems to create another barrier between a writer and a potential audience. As MFA programs–and now PhD creative writing programs– proliferate, there is a growing class of “credentialed” writers who, the fear goes, are given the keys to the writing world regardless of merit.

There are real questions to be asked of MFA programs– are some of them just moneymakers exploiting the dreams of people with middling talents? Do they “standardize” writing and churn out a bunch of cookie-cutter “safe” stories that lack some fundamental soul? Are they acting as shelters for writers who can’t or won’t get by in the real world? Do they cost too much? Do they encourage nepotism by prioritizing professional connections over craft? Can you even teach creative writing anyway? (my answer: yes, of course you can. But I acknowledge it’s a debate for some)

The list goes on. You can find all the critiques pretty easily if you haven’t heard them before. For some internet people, even the term “MFA fiction” is a serious epithet reserved for the most tedious of books. And just about every debate I’ve seen online is circuitous and annoying and pointless, even if it follows a well-reasoned article.

It’s one thing to find that stuff on blogs or message boards, though. It’s another entirely when a publication like The Chronicle of Higher Education– self-described as “the No. 1 source of news, information, and jobs for college and university faculty members and administrators”– runs an article like this, which is about as worthless an attack on MFAs as you’ll find anywhere.

I thought about just posting my response, but I think this one deserves the standard Fire Joe Morgan treatment, a line-by-line breakdown of this article by Henry Adams (a pseudonym)

Click through for the full response: Read the rest »

The best sentence I’ve ever written

…I think I just wrote it.

I’m a little too superstitious to print it here, though, not until some hypothetical future date when that sentence maybe, hopefully, ends up published somewhere. Actually, I’m worried about even talking about it like this, and yet, it was a sentence that felt so right to me that I couldn’t help but jump out of my chair to celebrate, that I re-read it to myself twice just to make sure I wasn’t seeing things incorrectly. It made me feel more or less like this:

It reminded me, briefly, what I love about writing.

Specifically, what I love is this: the promise that in two weeks, I’ll read that sentence and probably hate it. That I’ll see some way that I can perfect it and shape it and make it a little more precise. That I might even cut the whole thing entirely because it’s not remotely as good as I’d thought, or because it adds nothing to the story.

What I love is the challenge of writing a better sentence than that, of chasing that feeling again, of wanting to twist a handful of words into something so right that it literally physically moves me out of my seat. I want to keep chasing that small, fleeting success, so that someday I can maybe write one sentence so right that it moves someone else out of their seat and sends them running out to share it with someone.

I wrote a sentence so good today that it made me want to write more. And you can’t see it, and you maybe never will see it. But it was there, for a minute, that perfect feeling of knowing what you want to do with your life and actually doing it right.

Stealing my time

Saturday was the conference in Philly–if you associate with me in any way via social media or actual real life interactions, you’ve heard more than enough about it, so I’ll let Susan’s recap handle that part– and it was a hectic, informative, energizing day. I didn’t have a chance to sit in on any of the panels, besides, obviously, the one I ran with Paul Lisicky and Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson, so I received most of the insights and lessons secondhand.

But I did have the privilege of hearing Stewart O’Nan’s keynote address. And that’s the thing that has stuck with me since then.

I’m a bad audience member at readings, have a hard time focusing, and I expected to be even worse during Stewart’s speech, since I was worried about a half-dozen conference issues. But he was an incredibly engaging speaker who kept hammering at one central theme: a writer needs to be writing.

Okay, maybe that’s too obvious for you. But maybe not, maybe you’ve done a lot of talking about writing, or occasionally produced a short story, then rested on it for a few months. Maybe you’re like me, and you sometimes write dozens of pages in a week, then forget to write anything for two weeks. Maybe you make constant excuses to avoid doing the work even when you have the gift of a summer vacation in which someone like Joyce Carol Oates would probably write three novels.

I knew that it’s essential to do the work, but I needed to hear it again. I needed to hear him say, If you want to write, you need to do it right now. How much time do you think you have? I needed to hear his answers to relentless audience questions that all sounded like this:

But how are you supposed to write if you have kids?
or Didn’t you do most of your writing before you got married?
or How am I supposed to write if I have friends or a job?
or What do you do to find the time?

At first, I rolled my eyes at the questions, I scoffed and I thought These people ought to stop making excuses. They ought to stop whining. If you’re going to do it, you just go ahead and do it. The questioners, I thought, were looking for an out. They wanted permission to back off of their work, wanted him to say, Oh, okay I didn’t realize you had kids, why don’t you just take the next twenty years off and get back to it then.

But the problem is, I heard myself in their questions. I heard myself complaining that conference planning made it impossible to write, and that grading papers infringed on my time, and that I’d love to be halfway through another book right now but I’ve just been so busy with having to stain the deck and clean the house and watch movies and check email and whatever else I do all day long.

Stewart could have hemmed and hawed and forgiven them for their hectic lives and absolved them of the sin of not doing the work, been a genial guy and collected his check. But he answered them directly. He said you have to steal the time. Whatever it is, whenever it is, you need to steal it. You need to neglect other things, other people. He said maybe it’s possible to be a perfect worker and a perfect family member and also a good writer, but it didn’t seem likely. And no matter how many different ways people tried to ask that question, he insisted on his answer.

You have to steal the time.

It’s been in my head since then. On Twitter the next day, I wrote that being a writer requires a mixture of talent, empathy, and abject selfishness. I hadn’t thought about it in those terms until I typed it, but it sounded so right when I saw it. Of course you need to be selfish to write seriously. Of course it’s going to infringe on the rest of your life. To ask how to balance writing and the demands of daily life is to ask the wrong question entirely.

I know, it seems simplistic, but it was a real epiphany for me, to realize (again) that I was the obstacle to getting my work done. I’m back to working not just in mornings, but throughout the day, whenever there is a free moment. I’m producing content and pushing myself instead of finding new excuses and shelters.

My brother recently shared something with me that he’d heard elsewhere– one has to be willing to ruthlessly prioritize. Will it mean I’m a lesser worker? I hope not, I don’t think so, it hasn’t so far. Will it mean I’m a shabbier person? Yeah, maybe, probably. But will it also mean I produce more work, better work, will feel better about how I’m spending my life? No question about it.

How much time do you think you have?

The answers are the same for everybody – not enough. Less than you probably think. Which is why I’m trying to steal my time back, after having spent so much time giving it away.