Well it’s Monday so once again time for another dispatch from your local author/journalist pal. So far I’ve written about the process of writing every day, why it’s important to “get away from it all,” my favorite books, and a long rambling post about satire that nobody (probably) read. While I still hope to use this space as a platform for advice on finding a publisher and to expand more on the actual process of writing and how to market yourself to the world (among other topics), I feel I must write a bit about my current employment status.
So as you know, I was laid off (or in a less kind manner, “terminated”) from my day job in July. Although legally I’m not supposed to discuss the terms of the dismissal, I will say that this came out of the blue and I was quite shocked by the decision. While not exactly a stellar employee around that place, I felt like I shared enough of the load in my department to warrant my sticking around for at least another few years. The folks running the show thought otherwise, and I was shown the door on a Friday afternoon. This entire situation threw a pretty big wrench in my plans for the rest of the year, but I’ve since learned to use such things as an opportunity. A month-plus out from being laid off, I also feel completely detached from my former workplace, and couldn’t be happier. While at first I had intense self-doubt about myself and my performance there, enough people told me otherwise (both inside and outside the organization) that I couldn’t feel all that bad. Still, I have never lost a job before, which I must admit is a bit of a shattering experience. I felt as if I’d let people down, not least of all my wonderful wife Mary, who has a great career working for the big red bullseye company up here and has been a rock for me to rely on for many years. She assured me that I wasn’t disappointing her, but it took a while to get to a place where I believed that myself. Then there were all the fun “grown-up” things that come along with getting canned, like losing your family health insurance, navigating the unemployment system and trying to figure out where to stash my 401K money. Plus all the fun of looking for a job, which I had been doing on-and-off throughout the years but never put enough effort into it. Well, I sure had a chance to give effort into it now!
I covered some of this ground in my previous post about becoming a full-time writer, so I just want to focus on what it meant for me to have “a job” after I was released from my current one. For one thing, I got to finally think of myself as an author/journalist first and foremost with everything else falling to the wayside to a certain extent. It also meant I had a lot more time during the day to write, which I attempted to do in different ways when I wasn’t searching for some place that would hire me. The weird thing was, once I started thinking that way I saw my whole life in a different light. I sent out quite a lot of resumes to various places, including retail outlets, grocery stores, offices, and even looked for some voice-over work (which proved futile for now - drat!). This contained echoes of my first attempts to make it in the Twin Cities area circa 2007. Except back then I had almost no idea what I wanted to do with my life. At this juncture I’ve started a life together with the woman I love and have already published my first novel. Things are slowly coming together, and that meant it was high time I started living like it. I took a few interviews at some menial positions, just like I did eight years ago, but this time I had the strange luxury of being able to turn them down if they didn’t fit my life. I also worked on getting my substitute teaching license, which while incredibly interesting and a possible side-career at some point in my future, ultimately isn’t looking like it will work out just yet. But what mattered was that I was trying something different, something that might actually fit my life. Which is what we should all strive to find in this era of the false-ringing “do what you love” appeals in the media and otherwise. But back to the job search.
I also applied at a bookstore one town over that my wife and I frequent quite a bit; it seemed like a perfect fit and I was very elated when the manager called. After a fascinating, half-hour long interview I was given the job and have been working there for almost a week. The pace is insane, the amount of books is terrifying, and I’ve already screwed up a ton of stuff. And I absolutely love it. Getting to work with books is truly a great place to be for an author, and it also gives me an opportunity to see the book business from a different perspective, to see the life of certain titles and what people purchase. Yes, it’s retail hours and has been taking up a lot of the time I’d had when unemployed that I used to write, but I think after I get the rhythm of the place down pat I’ll find a way to schedule everything accordingly and still be able to produce writing when I need it. The important thing is this place fits my life, way better than the other place did. And that’s the key. You have to find the place that fits your life, because then it slowly starts becoming less a job and just another part of your life. To my reading audience out there: “doing what you love” is great if you can get to that point, but given the state of our economy these days it sure looks like most of us are going to need some kind of a job just to make ends meet so we can then also pursue our life’s work. Make sure whatever you find fits your life. It will make all the difference in the world.
I’ll wrap up by mentioning a few things:
1) This will probably the the final post on the blog for a little while. I simply won’t always have the time to do these every Monday, but I certainly will make sure to post on here when I can. I have a wealth of topics to cover, but just can’t get to all of them right away due to the demands of this new job but also because…
2) My second novel is finally being published next week! Last Man on Campus officially releases Thursday, September 3rd at Magers & Quinn Booksellers in Minneapolis. For those of you in the Twin Cities area, the event starts at 7:00 with a reading at 7:30 and a discussion to follow. This kicks off a whole series of events/signings for the novel all through September, which will take up the rest of the time I’m not working at the book store. Click on the “Events” tab above to see what’s next!
And as always, thanks for reading. Hope you enjoy the new book.
Signing off for a while, at least for now.
It’s Monday so once again it’s time for your local author/journalist to regale you with some more tales from beyond the writing desk! You might notice I didn’t describe myself as “unemployed” - that’s because a month after being laid off I finally secured another job. I can’t say much about it since I’m in the beginning stages, but I can say that I will be working with books, which is probably a good vocation for this purveyor of the written word. I’ll have more to say on that score and about my unemployment saga in the weeks to come. But today I want to talk about taking time off.
My wife and I recently went on a short vacation in Wisconsin with her family and some other relatives. We stayed on the Chippewa Flowage, a massive body of water encompassing over 15,000 acres and giant expanses of pure, unobstructed shoreline filled with trees and wildlife of all variation. This was a new experience for me as I had never gone camping in my youth. Despite that, I had a total blast. We swam in the lake with our four-year-old niece, I learned how to catch a fish, and enjoyed a night sleeping under the stars. When we came back I felt unbelievably relaxed and in a much better mindset about my situation.
I was used to the “normal” routine of a family vacation in which we traveled to a highly-trafficked destination, say Los Angeles or some other huge city, and spent every waking hour trying to cram in as much activity and family life as possible. At the end, while I got a lot out of seeing family and a locale different from my own, sometimes I would feel more stressed out afterward than before. Not with this trip. I had hours to think to myself, and almost zero interaction with other humans (besides family, who often went their own direction) the whole time. At night it got downright dark in the forests, and it was something to behold to live among nature for several days, knowing that it ultimately holds the key to your survival.
I think what I really needed was to disconnect. One of the first things I did when I arrived at the cabin was to turn off my smart phone and leave it that way. Not having to mindlessly check email, think about the direction my novel is taking, or what other jobs I should be applying for, I was forced to reckon with my own thoughts and feelings about the beautiful nature that surrounded us. This was the best of all possible worlds, given the gorgeous weather we were blessed with on the trip. This is something everyone should do at least one week a year - unplug from today’s pointlessly sped up modern society and get back to understanding the actual world we live in. It will do you a huge amount of good, and might even put you in the proper mindset for the rest of the year, or even the rest of your life.
When I got back to society, I had a job interview and I nailed it. Being in a better frame of mind and reconciling what’s important in life probably didn’t hurt, but neither did my experience and my background. The point is it all came together, as life often does while we are struggling to make it comport to our demands. A big lesson I learned from simply sitting in a boat and watching the earth move around me was this: we can’t control this, but we can sure damage it (like with carbon emissions) and it’s up to us to make sure that doesn’t happen. If we live among it and appreciate the nature all around us, it’s a heck of a lot harder to want to pollute it out of existence. And when it comes right down to it, nature doesn’t really care if we exist or not. The planet will be around long after temperatures rise high enough to melt the permafrost and cause the sea levels to rise, just as it did millions of years ago. As long as we respect what we have, and take the time to enjoy it, we’ll be alright.
So get on out there and enjoy it. Just because I said we shouldn’t damage it doesn’t mean we have slowed down CO2 emissions in any appreciable way. But besides that importance, nature forces us to see ourselves for who we are, and to understand what we want out of life. Grappling with that internal discussion is one of the core elements of our humanity, and I would strongly advocate all of us take the time outside to do just that. Vacations matter.
Once again it’s Monday and therefore time for your local unemployed author/journalist to regale you with more tales from beyond the working world. Except this time my wife and I are heading out of town in a couple of days and so I’m going to set aside the whole “how to be a writer and get published” business for a political topic that’s near and dear to my heart. So, for those of you who hear the world “politics” in this day and age and immediately feel a little bit of bile rise up in your throat (which might make up a fair amount of the audience for this blog), feel free to skip this one. For those of you concerned with our lovely national dialogue and what’s become of it in the sixteen years since Mr. Stewart took helm of The Daily Show, glad to have you aboard.
Jon Stewart gave us his final show last week. Over sixteen years, this man has blessed America with one of the sharpest, most critical and deeply humorous voices in our collective political life, and I for one will miss him quite a bit. His final show was more of a celebration of that legacy than anything else, with tons of former “correspondents,” including a fair amount (*ahem* Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell) who have gone on to become arguably more famous than the man himself making appearances. I was also glad to see some of my all-time favorite people from the show make a quick return, including Mo Rocca, Ed Helms, Larry Wilmore (whose own show on Comedy Central is a darkly hilarious look at race relations and other political hot topics and provides a desperately needed conversation each night), John Hodgman, Nate Cordry, and a surprise appearance from the Dark Lord of the Sith himself, Darth Vader (who was angry Stewart compared him unfavorably to Dick Cheney).
The entire, hour-long show contained a genteelly cheery atmosphere, featured an incredibly well-edited package taking a look at the people behind the scenes of the show, and also managed to include one final tirade from the man himself about “bullshit” and its many variations, which in my opinion summed up this guy’s general take on life quite well. But I’d have to say it’s better to take in the entire final week of the show to get to the bottom of its impact on the political situation in this country.
One segment in particular, “The Daily Show: Destroyer of Worlds” broke down the media’s obsession with Stewart’s “evisceration” strategy of the targets the show has taken on over the years, appraising whether or not it even made a difference at all. While the package was highly entertaining and showcased the best of Stewart’s self-deprecating take on his position as political jester calling out buffoonery and mendacity wherever it be found, it made me re-consider the show in some ways in light of this Flavorwire article by Tom Hawking I read about the end of Stewart’s run (which was itself a riff on a purely awful article by Karol Markowicz for Time Magazine - do people still read that?). The long n’ short of these pieces was that rather than raise the discourse by offering equal mockery of all sides, Stewart actually contributed to the coarsening of said discourse by becoming as bad as the targets he mocked. While there is some ammunition in his sixteen-year run to provide fodder for this point of view, it’s my view that Stewart’s legacy offers a more pernicious ideal than most critical analysis bears out.
This became increasingly clear to me after watching the final, extended interview Stewart offered to our current occupant in the White House, Barack Obama. Now, my opprobrium for this man has been noted over the years, and it’s no secret that I have not been a fan of the president since around the middle of his first term. I couldn’t bring myself to vote for the guy again in 2012 based on his track record, which includes a litany of illegal offenses perpetrating the never-ending “War on Terror” including (but not limited to): illegal expansion of war to Libya, illegal assassination campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen, the extension of surveillance powers across the spectrum of communication platforms, and the war on whistleblowers, which was perpetuated by the previous administration but picked up in earnest by this one. Plenty of things to pick apart there, and Stewart had ample time to lay into any one of these issues with the benefit of a lengthy, online-only interview which he has used to great effect previously.
Instead, he offered a very long discussion about the Iranian nuclear deal which, while very important and a major legacy for this administration, is something that was a long time coming and should have happened decades ago given the constant interference American has played in that country’s internal affairs for the past half-century. Again, not discounting that this was a good topic to bring up, I just think that for his final interview Stewart could have picked a more controversial topic (although given the adamant GOP opposition to this deal, perhaps it’s more controversial than I concede). And true, if you watch the extended interview you’ll watch Stewart fiercely question Obama about his administration's’ incompetence in the face of the many troubles plaguing the Veterans Administration, and rightly called out the president for not fixing these issues, such as ensuring men and women in uniform receive adequate health care after coming home from these interminable conflicts. I would argue that here was Stewart at his best, baldly calling power to account in front of a huge, smart, television audience. This has been an important issue for the host over many years, and he’s covered it with gusto, so I can hardly fault him for bringing it up with the Commander-in-Chief.
But again, with so much to criticize the president on, I found it odd that he chose these topics. It’s not like Stewart has gone after the Obama administration on all of them through various segments, especially after the Snowden revelations two years ago. I just thought it was bizarre he didn’t bring up any of it, choosing to offer the guy a pretty easy interview. This brings to mind the more pernicious aspect of Stewart’s legacy that makes me worry about the future of satire in this nation: the notion that liberal critiques of a liberal president like Obama are only allowed to go so far, and no further. I saw the same example of this in the risible interview Douglas Brinkley conducted with Obama for Rolling Stone around the time of the 2012 election and the seeming inability for a “progressive” news magazine to criticize the very real problems with this man’s institutionalization of the worst excesses of the “War on Terror.” Now this isn’t Stewart’s problem; remember he’s the same one who allowed Obama walk into the “Yes, we can, but…” quagmire of an answer during an interview he gave to the comedian during the same election cycle. I just yearned for that same, hard-hitting interview style now that both men are on the way out.
What does this have to do with the death of satire? Well, I’d say for the most part it might limit the next host, Trever Noah, by attempting to define the limits of proper discourse for the next president. Noah, whose rocket-propelled career has only grown since the announcement that he’d be taking over for Stewart, made his name on the program by using his South African perspective to rail against the moronic excesses of today’s America, and it’s still my hope this incredibly brilliant guy will use the platform wisely to hold up a mirror to our population each night to show us how off-track we have fallen compared to the rest of the world on issues such as the justice system and climate change. But by not taking on Obama on the myriad of troublesome issues he has seemingly made worse, I fear that Stewart, simply by dint of his pedestal and what he has meant to American life since the Bush years, may have cut him short through actions alone. (Similar vibes held forth in his joint “Rally to Restore Freedom and/or Fear” with the Colbert Report some years ago, which, while a hilarious mockery of the current polarized landscape, basically stated the blase message that “both sides do it.”)
Again, this might be a lot of hand-wringing on my part for nothing. Trevor Noah is his own man and surely the producers of this multiple-Emmy and Peabody winning show will give him plenty of space to maneuver. But Stewart’s odd deference to power, seen generally only in his obsequious interview style with those people sitting in such positions within our government, always rubbed me the wrong way. The importance of his show was to declare the stupidity of our current media landscape and how idiotically it framed our national debate, such as it is in the age of social media and thousands of various places to get news. But I fear that by demonstrating the opposite, and declaring it OK because it’s a “comedy” show, often sent the wrong message to those in power, and one utterly opposed to the one Colbert sent at the 2005 Correspondent's Dinner, which to my mind is the greatest example of satire biting the powerful hand that was stupid enough to invite it to partake at the “grown ups” table.
As great and moving as it was to see Colbert’s tremendous, unscripted tribute in the final episode to the man who got him started, I fear that another searing voice of satire has been lost to the demands of network television by his ascension to the Late Show. But that’s another story.
Bottom line: satire ain’t what it used to be, and while greatly advanced by Jon Stewart (for an example in the other direction, check out his voraciously devious tome America: The Book) in some important ways, I fear the general transition of acquiescence to power seen since the time of 9/11 has not reversed course, but has only grown during his tenure in the age of Obama.
Well it’s Monday so once again time for your local unemployed author/journalist friend to dispense some kind of wisdom about how I got here, or how you out there might be able to take your own journey into the writing world. Today’s post will be a combination of these themes, condensing down the general notion of “how to write” while still retaining as much content from experience as I can. So, how do you write? I wish it was as easy as the blog post tag line, to be honest.
First you need to have something to write about. That also sounds simple, but it’s one of the hardest things we practitioners of the page deal with every day. Sitting down at the computer/typewriter/pad of paper as it stares blankly back at you can be very difficult to overcome if you don’t have a firm idea of what your aim is with the written word. I won’t be all that helpful when it comes to explaining specifically what to write, but I can offer a few pointers.
The axiom “write what you know” probably reached cliche territory a few decades ago, but it remarkably holds up regardless. While I’ve read diatribes maintaining that this adage is pointless and detrimental to authors, for the most part I’d say it stands up pretty well. I certainly would not have anything close to the output I have without life experience, and I think many authors would say the same. For Our Senior Year, this was the general feeling of high school life, living in a small town, dealing with religious fundamentalism, and more granular details like car accidents and other tragic events, all of which I repurposed for use in the novel to describe these years my life in the most relatable way. With Last Man on Campus it was a little trickier, given that I never saw any ghosts or conspiracies during my time at college, but I was still able to appropriate some great scenes from dormitory life for the novel. I guess the easiest advice to give here is to think about some of the meaningful events of your life. Was there any kind of narrative coursing through these events? If so, is it a narrative that could be repurposed with a dash of artistic license? And if that’s so, you are well on your way toward beginning a story. It could be as simple as a trip to the local farmer’s market - say you met a peculiar individual on the way or at the market; that person could show up as a character in a short story. Or it could come from larger parts of your life - people you’ve known over the years who could appear as characters in your novels. This was a tactic I probably over-used in my first two novels, but can be a reliable way to jump-start your mind into imagining other stuff for these characters to do.
I wish I had more specific advice to give on this one, but I will say that you’ll need some kind of overarching design for your story before you can implant aspects of your life into it. For instance, I had a general outline dancing around in my head for years concerning the overall story of Our Senior Year (guy goes to church, meets girl, falls in love, and has his life collapse all in one year) but had to fill in many of the gaps with events from my high school life. I knew Jack Wayne *spoiler alert* was going to off himself in the final act, but I had to decide what was going to earn that decision other than losing a girl, which I felt in itself wasn’t enough. So I dropped in his friend getting in a terrible accident, his grades slipping, and his inability to escape his father’s chosen line of work and life once that happened. These things all came to me at different times, but they were all parts of living in a rural, small-town environment that I observed over my years there. The important thing is using those parts of your observed life well enough so that your own character can become part of the book. Now, this works great for books like Our Senior Year, which are based closely on real life, and work OK for more made-up stuff, what happens when you would rather start from scratch and not “write what you know?” Well, I’ll let you know when I encounter that problem, as it lies on my horizon to be dealt with someday. Ha ha. But seriously, if you stick with writing what you know at first, the rest will come naturally.
So you might have a general idea of what you want to write about. Now, how the heck do you go about doing it? That blank word processor/torn out page of paper/cave wall is calling out to you, screaming for your attention to its bland possibilities. How do you get yourself motivated enough to start? Well, I hate to say it so bluntly, but just freakin’ start!
Don’t worry about your expectations, don’t worry about what other people might think, and really don’t worry that it’s going to suck (because it will, at first). Throw all those problems out of your headspace for one hour and just start. It could be as simple as writing down the first words of the novel or blog post, and taking a break to see where to go from there. It doesn’t have to come one right after another, but it should be some kind of coherent whole when you’re finished with your section for that day. I hold myself to a hard-n-fast rule of 1000 words for every writing session, in which I cannot leave my desk until I reach at least that many words of a novel. You could implement a similar arrangement for yourself - start out nice and easy with 100 words, or 200, or 500. You don’t have to go way out there with your goal; just have one! And if you meet the goal each day for a week, then look at expanding it. This has been a tried and true way for me to expand my words per day, so now I’m cranking out close to 5,000 each session without breaking a sweat. But you certainly don’t have to try for that level anytime soon. Or if you’re bold you could say 5,000 is piddly, you want at least 10,000 each time! That might be all right if you’re working on the next War & Peace or whatnot, but I would advise starting small and working your way toward a bigger number each time. When you find the number that you’re most comfortable with, stick with it until you can attain it without agony and without looking at the clock every five minutes (I would advise having no way to measure time available when you write, but that’s up to you).
Once you have the idea in your head, and have a reasonable schedule in terms of amount written each day, see how long you can make it last. Considering an “average” size novel is going to be around 75,000 - 100,000 words, factor that into your schedule as you go. At 1,000 words per day, it will take roughly three months to iron out a good first draft. Do you have the patience and wherewithal to hack it for that long? If not, you better find it. But again, don’t be afraid to start small. A nicely written short story could be 1,000 words, and you could crank that out in one day. Twenty days later you’ll have a nice start to a short story collection. Looking more on the journalistic side? A quick article could be around 700-800 words, or a nice meaty blog post. Do that twice a week and you’ll have a nice portfolio even in a month’s time. The important thing is to stick with it.
Which brings me to the third point of advice here - how the hell do you stick with it? How does one not only get the idea straight, set up a workable writing schedule, and get a nice first draft completed within a decent time frame? Here again I can only offer what works for me - you’ll need to tweak these rules accordingly to find out what works for you.
Regarding motivation - to a certain extent this will be entirely up to you. If you want to make it as a successful writer, you’ll find the motivation somewhere. Those of us who hope to make it in this industry know how to overcome that blank screen, the desire to quit before you’ve met your daily goal, and how to tie it all into a coherent whole. (I should also add here a good support system is second to none: I would not have anywhere close to the amount of work done without the constant drumbeat of support to be found through my wife). This can be very simple. One of the joys I have in my day now that I’m unemployed is a nice routine. I get up, do some stuff around the apartment, make coffee, and then settle in to write. Having a steaming cup of coffee next to me is sometimes all the motivation I need. Or promise yourself a fun activity if you can just crank out your daily goal. Say, allow yourself an episode or two of your favorite TV show, some kind of food-related item that you really like, or find another way to reward yourself that won’t do more damage than it’s worth. I wish I could say it’s more complicated than this, but it really isn’t. If you want to make it as an author in today’s day and age, you need to do the work, but make sure it’s worth it to yourself. Right now all I really need is the promise of coffee and maybe a bowl of cereal, but this could be anything that gets you planted at the desk writing, or motivates you to finish writing so you can have it. This could be something you fit into your schedule as a routine, so you could have two hours of writing in the morning followed by one hour of video games, or a nice walk on the bike trail with a hilarious podcast (my preferred way to wile the afternoons these days). Whatever it is, make sure it motivates you enough to complete the original task AND keeps you wanting to do it every day. Because you really need to do this every day, especially if you hope to produce a lot of work.
So, consider this a brief introductory course on “how to write.” Trust me, you could spend an entire day searching online about advice for authors. There was a time when I scoured sites for this type of information, overloading myself on steps to take by various people who had “made it” and wanted to dispense some advice out there for those getting started. And by all means, if you want that kind of advice go seek it out - some of it can be very valuable. But after a while I stopped reading those types of articles completely. Because when it comes right down to it, as a writer you need to find your own voice. No one - not a famous author, not me, not a writing instructor or professor - will be able to find that if you cannot. This ties a bit in with the first part, which is finding the idea. While there are a few good ways to go about doing this, ultimately you’re going to have to needle your own brain for inspiration. This can come from your own life or whatever you come into contact with, but what matters is how you interpret them and make them into a workable story. So by all means, if you feel like the advice I’m laying out here isn’t working for you, go out there and look for something else. The great thing about writing is that it’s a pretty freakin’ old form of communication that has existed through various ages and mediums, and still remains (in my opinion) the most powerful form of interacting with others that we’ve got. Of course this is now splintered into a thousand different forms with the advent of the ‘net and social mediaz, but that’s a post for another time.
In conclusion, here’s my initial advice on “how to write:”
Will these notions work for you? There’s only one way to find out. And if there are some budding authors out there reading this, I’d like to know how they work for you. If you found this to be helpful (or not), please feel free to let me know in the comments. I will have more in-depth stuff to write about regarding this topic later, but for now I wanted to condense it to the most basic form I could. I hope this is of assistance to some of you out there who want to pursue this writing gig as I have.
And as always, thanks for reading.
John Abraham-Watne is an author and freelance journalist located in the Twin Cities, where he lives with his wife Mary and their two cats. This blog is his attempt to catalog all the events that culminate a local writer's life.