God help me, I'm writing in public, now. It's not just a gimmick (it's that too). But it's a way to stay accountable. I have trouble focusing. Now, though, I have the entire internet to hold me accountable. For people interested in how my writing works, I'm live-streaming my writing on Twitch twice a week at 8 p.m. Pacific, 10 p.m. Central. You can watch Draftback animations of the writing process, recordings of the live-streams, and read the stories, essays, and articles I'm writing when they're published. This is writing in the twenty-first century. I kind of hate it, but I kind of like it, and I hope you'll kind of like it more than you hate it too.
You’re making progress. You’re putting words in order. Last night, you wrote another three hundred-plus words. But this morning, you hate them, you hate all of it. That’s normal. You’ll snap out of it. You always do. The words are good. You need to continue to focus on the details and on the characters. The people you’re bringing (back) to life. The people you’re reinventing. You need to focus on the details of who they are. Keep doing that, and using the system you’ve settled on, the one that feels so right. You’ll make something interesting.
You had nothing but time when you were young. You didn’t know it then. You felt overwhelmed. Look at you now. Something comes up, almost without fail. Every time, you think. You haven’t written much in a week. There will be time. But time, if anything, is a river we’re in, and it only flows one direction. Science fiction novelists and quantum physicists like Albert Einstein think of time and space as the same thing. That doesn’t change the way we perceive it, the illusion of it, and it doesn’t change that we don’t have unlimited time. We are finite. We should act like it.
Someone you knew died; she was 31, two years younger than you are, and you knew her when you were kids. You loved her, if you can call it that. Puppy love. She didn’t feel the same, but she did go to a dance or two with you, and she was, for whatever reason, very kind. Not all your crushes were. She was a kind person. Her parents are, too. You’re sure they taught her that.
Last night, you told a friend about her life, and you mentioned that a short life isn’t diminished by its brevity. If anything, short lives are more intense. At the same time, there’s a kind of moralizing aftertaste that’s undeserved but often ascribed to these kinds of lives—lives like those of movie or rock stars that end early from drink, drugs, car accidents, or suicide. Maybe there’s an aftertaste of misfortune, too. You’re not sure either one is the correct response. You don’t know.
You know this: writing matters. Somewhat, let’s say, because even William Shakespeare will be forgotten, someday. Everyone will. The sun will expand and consume the Earth and the elements in people’s bloodstreams and in the soil will be re-absorbed and reformed into pure and different elements. That’s science. Ideas can live longer than people but nothing lives forever. You don’t say that because you’ve been writing lyrics to emo songs or something. It’s not dramatic and it doesn’t matter. The universe is impersonal and the things in it are impersonal things. We give it meaning. Maybe you could take that to an extreme and say we do the same for people’s lives. That’s not an argument you’d ever make—it’s too cruel, and you don’t think it’s right, really. Nothing matters and everything matters. Quantum worth, you think. Schrödinger’s Value.
You need to write. You have this idea, you have this sense of purpose, you have a point. Don’t wait. Write something today.
After four years, and untold drafts, you feel you’ve solved it, the problems with this novel, and maybe with your fiction in general. You have a style, now. You have a point. You have a niche. Can that be true? You’re not sure. You think, against all odds, it is. You don’t feel like you’ve felt after other breakthroughs. Something’s different.
You are, let’s say, cautiously optimistic. You’re not going to spoil the plot twist for readers by saying what you’ve discovered about your writing or your theories about writing in the twenty-first century or about writing in the deep past. In time, you think, you will, probably when someone asks you about your choices, but why spoil the fun. They’ll speak for themselves anyway. And they aren’t all new. But they fit you, fit who you want to be. So that’s that. You’re not interested in sharing the specifics. You’re interested in sharing the feeling.
You hope other people feel that, too. You want that for them. Not the hollow quick snap of an epiphany (that too) but the feeling like you’ve been wandering through a forest at night and at sunrise you’ve found your way by luck and skill to a wide-open shoreline where you can see for miles. Perhaps you know where you are then, and you know what you should do next. You’re going to build a fortress on the edge of the sea and once you’ve built that and claimed for yourself a place in this world you’re going to send out scouting ships to explore the unknown ocean.
You wanted to be other people when you were young. Not to understand them. You wanted to be them, in the literal sense. You would look in the mirror and puzzle over how you’d never see things from any perspective but your own. Books contributed to your fixation. Videogames, too. In a book, a first-person novel, you become someone else for a while. In a videogame, you see things from a third person god’s-eye view.
Thinking back, you wonder if that wasn’t it: wanting to be free of yourself. You knew you’d never see something with someone else’s eyes. It was your eyes you didn’t like, though, in your fat face; you felt weak, unpopular, scared of everything. You were afraid of the dark, as a kid. You were afraid of sex, as a high schooler. You were afraid of the other kids, like the guy who would stab you with sewing needles during your sophomore English class, telling you they had HIV+ blood on them. Today, things are different. You’re not scared anymore. You’re physically safe and confident. Your desire to escape yourself has faded, if not entirely. You feel secure. But some things don’t change. You still want to explore. You still want to go outside your own mind. You still want to understand other people.
Yesterday, you tried to write a short story about a homeless man. It was inspired by an image—you saw a man like the one you were going to write about, rolling his wheelchair along the sidewalk next to a busy street. He seemed fine. That’s to say you didn’t want to write about the hardships of being disabled. You didn’t want to reduce the man you noticed; you wanted to try and capture him as a human being, in his totality. He’s not only a man in a wheelchair and he’s not only poor or homeless. He’s not only anything. He’s a person. You wanted to capture that.
The story was a complete failure. You’re not sure what happened. The man’s inner voice didn’t feel authentic. You’re not going to write something where the character sounds like bad TV writing. Fuck that, you thought. That’s not how you honor a person; that’s how you make them a cliché or boil them down or spread them out thin. The sentences weren’t coming easily. They were choppy, disjointed. Probably because you were forcing the voice. You wanted to ride the razor’s edge of free indirect style and it wasn’t working. You’re unnerved by the failure. You write bad or unworkable prose all the time—all writers do. But what bothers you about this story is something else. It’s class. You grew up in a poor small town in Southeast Kansas. Your parents had jobs and your friends’ parents had jobs, some of them, but a lot of people were poor. No one was rich. Especially compared to where you live now; the median household income in the city where you work is a shade under $200,000 a year. You don’t know what it feels like to be poor. You have no proximity to it. You’re privileged. You always have been, even as a kid, because your parents had enough money. They made sure you never wanted for an education. Books, too.
Privilege is like radiation poisoning. It takes a while to accumulate in your bones. You don’t know what someone without privilege would sound like. You need to change that. That’s the problem with your story. Not that writing is a reason to understand people. But that is why it failed. Those who are less fortunate than you are too far away. You can’t get inside their skin, hear their inner voice. You have trouble imagining it. It’s wrong. You need to fix that. Not just for the story. For yourself.
You want to know what it’s like. You do.
The only thing to do is to keep trying. As a person, as a writer. You try to help people. You try to understand people. You have to learn what they’re really like as human beings.
You’ll wake up tomorrow and try again.
You’re staring a new job on Monday. After two years freelancing, and of writing almost every day on your own projects, you’re going to apply your talents to someone else’s projects, and you’re not sure how that feels. You’re excited about the job; that’s clear, you couldn’t imagine feeling differently. You’ve made less than $15,000 each year these lost years as a writer and an adjunct professor. They pay a decent salary at this new place (much more than adjunct work) and your title is Senior Writer. Your team’s fun, friendly, hardworking. Your boss has knowledge and he’s good natured and he likes to laugh. You couldn’t ask for a better corporate environment. If there’s such a thing, you think, this might be it.
You need time for your own writing, too, you know, and you’ll have to take that from other sources. It’ll be harder, but not too hard, you think. Are you being naïve? You’re not sure. Maybe not. You write fast when you put your mind to it. Or rather you can draft quickly, but your writing comes slowly. You like to go over the words hundreds of times. It’s not productive (in the literal sense). You rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. That’ll have to stop if you want to publish more. You know that. You can rewrite something five times instead of five hundred. You’ll have to be more focused on producing. You have a wife and a daughter and an endless list of projects. You need to focus on, say, three. Those are the three you’re going to write on. One nonfiction book, one book of short stories, and one novel. You have theories and you have that thing your favorite graduate school professor always said writers needed: a point.
Today, you spent the morning helping your father with his book, and you spent the afternoon writing and cleaning out your car. Worthwhile things. You don’t mind. Especially helping Dad. He has worked very hard on his novel. You want to see him succeed. Still, you think. You need to think more carefully about how you spend your time. You need to keep yourself accountable. That’s part of what this project is, you think. The one you’re writing as we speak. You started this subsite with the idea you’d write book reviews. And you will, maybe. But you’re also going to catalogue your writing life. You’ll write about what you did each day. What you wrote. What you read. How you felt. Maybe people will read your diary of sorts or maybe they won’t but you’re writing it for you. You hate the solipsism of “I” and you can’t write a diary in third person. That’s bizarre. Second person is strange, too, but it’s also not, in a way, because it’s the way we talk to ourselves. You know you’re right about that. So talk to yourself. Hear what you have to say.
Here you are with your conscience. You’ll keep yourself motivated to write by keeping this website (and Medium) updated. People will follow along or they won’t. That doesn’t matter. You hope people might recognize a need inside themselves for a voice, though. Perhaps they will find their own inner voices in yours. Or maybe your inner voice will send then searching for theirs and theirs will be different. You know you need a voice. That’s what you seek. A voice inside to tell you to write. No one can teach you that. You’ve always had that voice. You’ve never not written. Your voice has been silent, though. You need it to speak. You think: Time to wake it up, to listen to its advice, to let it speak without shame, to guide it, to love it, to help it sing.