The title is meant to make you want to read this, but I don’t get into the three ways to succeed as a writer until further down the page, so scroll away if you want to skip the other parts. I don’t blame you. Frankly, I’m just happy you’re here.

If I told you how many newsletters have begun as conversations with my therapist, you might be surprised, but probably not. The topic of this week was hunches, and how we shouldn’t trust them. Well, that’s not the whole story.

It’s more accurate to say: don’t JUST trust your hunches. It’s fine to have them. As conscious human beings, our minds are stratified in a way that favors survival, and one way to survive is to notice patterns. Your brain are constantly scanning its environment for patterns, and humans are extremely good at finding patterns. We’re so good that the instinct can overtake us and we get things like ghost sightings and obsessive compulsive disorder. I bet you didn’t expect that pivot! I broke my pattern. You probably thought I was going to write more about how ghosts aren’t real or how aliens aren’t visiting earth, but I didn’t! I pivoted to mental health, which is a different pattern for me altogether.

Here he goes again, writing about mental illness. And human evolution. I’m hitting all the greatest hits.


Our brains are so tuned to pattern-seeking that it will see them where there aren’t any. That’s where constellations came from. My favorite is Orion, which is a bit like saying your favorite Led Zeppelin song is Stairway to Heaven, but I don’t care. I embrace my basic-ness. Basicosity. Whatever. I’m very basic, and that’s okay, because the things we’re basic about free us to be not-basic (complex?) about other things.

I love Orion because it comes out in autumn, my favorite season, it’s easy to find, and the best star name in the galaxy, Betelgeuse, is part of it. There was a whole movie about how to pronounce that word, but that’s also a movie about ghosts and haunting and features the best song ever recorded:

The wikipedia entry for constellations is a good read, if you like such things, because you can see a pattern develop among human beings the world over. There’s something about our brains, that pattern-seeking tendency, that means the constellation I know as Orion is known by so many other names in different cultures. The Greeks saw a guy holding a club, but the nature of patterns is such that while two people might see the same pattern they can make different conclusions about what they mean.

A different kind of pattern: there is a weird tendency for disparate cultures all over the world to associate Orion with hunting. It does look like a man holding a weapon, which would have been the traditional and baseline interpretation of a man holding a weapon. The Seri people of Mexico call the three stars Hapj, meaning hunter. In ancient India, those stars in Orion are known as the hunting dogs. Why is this?

All of those are Northern Hemisphere cultures, which means they experience seasons the same. Orion appears in November, and continues to be visible until the end of winter, and autumn and winter are times of culling and using the stores we’ve accumulated in more fruitful months.

Cause there’s nothin’ strange about an axe with bloodstains in the barn
There’s always some killin’ you got to do around the farm — Tom Waits, Murder in the Red Barn

I’m just speculating. It might just be the fact that Orion kind of looks like a guy holding a weapon, like I said before.

Trust But Confirm

If the golden rule had a corollary, it would be the above. I believe that we should trust first, and then revise that trust as a person moves in and out of our lives. Every relationship comes with these wobbly orbits — a person can be your best friend for years and then move to a different neighborhood and you don’t hear from them for another few years, and then you move closer to them and suddenly they’re back in your life again, like nothing happened. They bring up something that happened during their time in the wilderness, when they weren’t thinking about you much (nor you them), and you question your own memory. Then you remember, oh, that’s when we weren’t really talking much, and then it becomes part of the sheaf of background info we carry in our mind for that person.

Hunches are good, and we should always heed them. When someone comes running up to us and says “run!” it’s probably a good idea to run, but look over your shoulder once in a while to make sure there’s something worth running from. Trust but confirm.

I can innumerate specific moments in my life when I made a hunch, didn’t question it, and made a mistake. Sometimes that hunch can be tiny, a trusted macro of mini-behaviors that I often link together that has one misstep and the wrong text goes to the wrong person, the absolutely wrong person, and I have to re-learn two more lessons: don’t trust your hunches and don’t talk about other people behind their backs. Neither one is productive, and you might screw up and send that bitchy text to the very person you were bitching about and suddenly one moment of weakness that likely had nothing whatsoever to do with the object of your brief scorn ends a relationship.

This specific scenario has not happened to me, despite my clear familiarity with its bits and bites, but I have done enough similar things that I can define the shape if it to illustrate my point: don’t talk about people behind their backs. If you really don’t like someone, just avoid them, and stop the obsessive thoughts about how much you don’t like them. You know which person I mean. Everybody has one. Other people might agree with you about that person, but there’s enough negativity in the air these days, and you gain nothing by tearing someone down. Besides, the person you don’t like might compliment you out of the blue tomorrow and you might say “oh well they’re not all bad” and their ledger in your brain is revised again.

I’m Going to Write About Writing Again

I spend all day writing, for money. They aren’t always subjects I would choose to write about, but that’s what a job is, and I’m happy to do my very best to write the very best words I can about whatever subject I’m being paid to write about. I don’t just do this to maintain my employment, I do it because I take pride in my work, and the people who pay me to write do so because they expect that what I’m going to write is going to be good. It is not enough to simply be good, I have to be exceptional. I also do better than my best work because I care about the people who pay me, and I want their overall business to be successful.

One of the things that people like me worry about is whether or not writing so much during the week will make me want to write less when it comes to the things I enjoy writing, like this newsletter. As I creep up in word count, the answer is self-evident, but I like stating self-evident things with plain language: I still love writing! I love putting words after another in new, pleasing ways. I mentioned this in the previous newsletter, but it’s something that occupies my mind continuously.

Creativity is not a battery

Our modern age makes us examine ourselves in context that are familiar in other areas of our lives, and there is a tendency toward metaphors when we try to understand the more obfuscated portions. This is especially true in the motions of our minds — the microscope cannot examine itself, only other things.

We don’t know exactly how many of our brain’s functions work, but we can look at our behaviors and make some conclusions. How closely linked are thoughts and behaviors? The debate continues and I won’t try to enter it here, because my sister is a behaviorist and I don’t want her to read this and feel embarrassment that one of her siblings so fundamentally misunderstands the very subject she’s spent her adult life studying.

Anyway, my point: the metaphor for creativity is not the gas tank, battery, or other source of a finite resource. Creativity is not a cistern, it is a river.

We might get tired of creating, and our overall energy level might decrease, and after a long day of bending your mind into pretzel shapes, you would rather absorb a tv show than try to bend it even more for the novel you’re working on, but you have to do it anyway. I broke another pattern: I bet you thought I was going to say it’s okay to not do what you love, but it’s not. You gotta do the work. I don’t always do it, and I won’t beat myself up over it, but I will use it to shape the next day, after work, when I don’t want to write. Okay, today, I didn’t work on my novel, but tomorrow I need to.

There are three vital behaviors, and accompanying thoughts, to my philosophy. I am 43 years old, and I have been doing this long enough to know what works for me, and I suspect that it will work for others. I didn’t invent a lot of this, but gathered it from the advice of other creative people, and added my own twists.

How to write a novel

The glib version is this: write it. You have to write. If you aren’t writing, you’re not writing. It’s that simple. Everybody has a billion ideas, but the difference between telling a story and thinking of a story is, well, telling it.

Here are those three steps to being a successful novel writer that I promised, above. Note that I don’t define success as anything but having written a novel, which is a laudable goal.

  1. Write every day, even if it’s just a little

  2. Write at the same time every day, even if it’s just a little

  3. Leave off in the middle of a sentence, so you don’t struggle for where to start the next time

I have written a novel to completion, and I have chosen writing novels as my primary method of expressing my creativity, but I have published zero novels and the number of people who have read it is very small. I have tried to get it published, but querying a novel (the verb, if unfamiliar to you, is “to query,” which means “to bleed into an email that will be scanned, not read, by somebody who sees a thousand bloody emails a day and is not impressed by how much you bled into yours”), is a daunting experience that is not nearly as fun as writing. I confess to spending more time doing the fun bits, and writing instead of querying, but it’s not a race, and I’m not chasing a dream of being rich from my writing. My dream is only to write, and that dream comes true every day. If my novels are mandalas made of sand that are swept away the moment I finish them, never to be seen again, then it doesn’t really matter. My writing is about me, and for me, and I want you to read it. But I won’t consider myself a failure for not being J.K. Rowling, or Nicholson Baker. If writing a novel weren’t fun, nobody would do it.

It’s a cracking good time to write a novel. I highly recommend giving it a try. It’s very difficult, too, but rewarding. And when you’re done you have a novel, and you can say you wrote a novel. There’s nothing to stop you from saying you wrote a novel when you haven’t written a novel, but at least if you have written the novel, when someone says “prove it” you don’t have to make excuses for not having a finished novel to show them.

That’s the tricky bit, the last thing I mentioned. Also, you might have noticed I snuck it into the paragraph above: “I want you to read it.” Aye, there’s the rub.

I daydream and come up with plots and ideas all the time, and sometimes I write them down and they become something more, as I build on it by writing more words. I write a lot that nobody will ever read, by design, because writing something down has value in itself, but the choice to write my ideas and form them into coherent stories is brimming with the hope that somebody might want to read it. They don’t even have to read it, but I want them to want to read it. After all, how many brilliant novels sit on shelves and gather dust because the owner “will get to it eventually?” You don’t have to read my novel, but saying you want to read it is part of the deal I’ve made with myself in writing it.

And it’s also the hardest part. And the part I don’t want to think about. And the part that, when my confidence flags, I question the most. Nobody reads this, so what’s the point?

Thousands of people have likely read my work, though I don’t know for sure. I’ve never seen the numbers on the things I’ve published online and in print that have found purchase in the zeitgeist or however I choose to frame it, but it’s not small. Through McSweeney’s and Machine of Death, I have succeeded. My writing has been read, and continues to be read, by many people. They don’t necessarily remember my name, but they probably remember the ideas I tried to communicate. Maybe they resonate with them and bounce around in their heads, just like they bounced around in mine. A good story is like herpes. I’m sure there are other metaphors but that’s the gross one I choose.

I used to say “nobody’s reading this, so what’s the point?” You can find me saying it in previous newsletters. I will likely have the same struggle again, many times. It is easy to see someone’s creative endeavors that nobody ever reads and say “why bother?” There are millions of unread words, millions of unseen photos, unheard songs. All artists are burdened by the weight of obscurity. That is, until they’re burdened by the weight of notoriety, which brings its own problems. There is a nice middle ground, one that I aspire to, which feels attainable: I want a small but loyal group of people who enjoy my work and want to see more of it. Again, this is something I’ve earned, and already have, to a point. There are a few dozen people who seem invested in what I create, and I think of them when I write. I am doing this for me, but I’m also doing it for them.

I’m doing this for you.

But I’m mostly doing it for me.

Having said that, I would love it if you told people how much you like what I have to say, because that is all I can do to make my work more known: encourage people who enjoy it to spread that enjoyment to others. It’s a cruel fact for someone like me that no amount of hard work can make you more widely-read. In my example, above, I said I didn’t expect to be J.K. Rowling or Nicholson Baker.

I didn’t choose those two names at random. J.K. Rowling is an outlier. She is so popular and well known for writing something popular that when she tried to write something that was not in the same genre, she did so under a different name. Everybody found out it was her, anyway, and it is an open question whether or not it would have been published if she weren’t the author of Harry Potter.

But if good writing was rewarded with money and fame, you would know who Nicholson Baker is. He wrote one of my favorite novels, the second of my recommendations, below. He is known well enough to have feuded with Stephen King (King derisively called one of Baker’s books a nail clipping, and Baker’s response was an essay about nail clippers in The New Yorker) , and have books written about understanding his work, but he is not nearly at the level of Rowling. There are thousands of writers who are in this category.

I don’t need everyone to read what I write, I just want somebody to, maybe a few somebodies.

But it doesn’t matter if my circle of loyal readers never expands. I don’t write for them. I write for me. Creation is its own end. The act of having made something is vital to my survival. I can’t not do it.


  1. Other newsletters I read end with recommendations, and occasionally mine does, too. This recommendation is for four newsletters I enjoy reading.

    1. I will cite my pal Dane’s newsletter not only for its content but for her recommendations — she mentioned something in her recommendations and I clicked the link and bought one. Her newsletter is called My City Anthem, and you can read it at this link: Her point of view is interesting, and the things she chooses to write about are not things I would ever think about, which is an endorsement.

    2. Another newsletter is one I’ve mentioned before, my friend Andrea’s, who writes You Know What I Mean, and whose work consistently delights me.

    3. Speaking of being delighted, Ginny has been delighting the entire city of Pittsburgh with her words and hardly needs the bump from me, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention her newsletter, Breathing Space

    4. My brother Rob demolished my preconceptions about newsletters with his, called The Pig City News Weekly Register Hoedown, at — Rob is my favorite writer, not just because our work probably contains some similar DNA, but because his work is constantly refreshing, and surprising, and the way he uses language is enviable (I envy it!). You can also buy his book, which you should do to a) support small press b) support my brother and c) read something you will definitely enjoy:

  2. My brother Rob once compared my writing to Nicholson Baker’s while simultaneously gifting me a book he wrote, and I have never been more honored by any other comparison. The book is The Fermata, which I won’t try to describe to you except to say that it’s highly sexual and the protagonist stretches the bounds of likability, but now that I’m writing this I think I’ve recommended it before.

  3. My pal Matt and I vibrate on the same creative wavelength and while we rarely agree about movies, his kickstarter is for a book and I would very much like to read it, and if you like my work you’ll probably like his:

  4. My own newsletter, this one you’re reading! Yes! I’m recommending something you’re already reading! That’s marketing, baby. You can share it with other people by sending them this link:

Good evening, my lovelies.


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