The title is stolen from Stephen King, and I am shameless in my theft. I have a pet theory that he stole The Green Mile from an episode of Amazing Stories (a man on death row heals people is not exactly a common trope), so I have zero shame. It is also title of the only book Stephen King wrote that I enjoyed. This is not a controversial opinion among people who write, though I know a few who adore his work. I don’t hold that against them. Opinions change over time.

But some of them don’t. They attach themselves to us and never leave, while some interests flit in and then out of our minds. This seems to happen with more frequency in the young, when everything is more flexible, wits are fast, these things come and go. A year ago a child was obsessed with garbage trucks, but now he can’t be bothered. Is there a time when these interests calcify and define our lives thereafter?

I would say that writing is a phase that I never grew out of, an interest I never gave up, a distraction that captured me completely and became a vocation. I did not wish to become a writer. That life, or whatever vision I had of it, never appealed to me. It still does not, as I write this on an iPad in the same coffee shop I’ve been visiting semi-regularly for the last six years, unemployed and drinking coffee in the afternoon, looking exactly like the person I never wanted to be. Having said that, I like the person I am. I’m happy with the choices I made that led me here. I don’t regret anything. Given the same life to lead again, I would have done everything the same. I made choices that were inevitable for me to having made them. I know me. I was always going to do those things.

Writing is one of those things that everybody thinks they can do, because literacy is a requirement for participation in modern society (though a few seem to somehow get by without it). To me, this is as senseless a summation of one’s abilities as would thinking that learning algebra made one able to solve the Riemann hypothesis.

But life is not that simple, and human endeavor is not that simple, and “making it” is not that simple. One likes to think that good work will be recognized, eventually. But this is not the case. Well-connected work will be recognized while unconnected work can easily be lost in slush piles. The role of privilege and the circumstances of one’s birth play a part here.

Great work goes unrecognized constantly. The greatest living writer could be in this very coffee shop, writing words nobody will ever read. I don’t know how people find out about these podcasts they listen to that I have never heard of, but random chance seems unlikely. The world is not a meritocracy.

We are so often told to reach for our dreams. People accepting awards love to tell anybody watching to pursue their dreams, because they, too, were once watching an award show and some celebrity made some similar declaration. It might be true that nobody who never makes it ever did so by not trying. Effort is an assumed factor. Perhaps less assumed is privilege.

I was at Target the other day, and I saw a children’s book by BJ Novak. I know he had other publications, but this was the one in front of me. I know who BJ Novak is, because I used to watch him on The Office. BJ Novak was a literature major at Harvard, so he has at least a passing familiarity with written words. I don’t know if his writing is good. I will never read a single word BJ Novak has written. He got his start as a stand-up comedian in Los Angeles, and was cast based on the act that producer Greg Daniels saw him perform. Greg Daniels also went to Harvard.

It’s entirely possible that BJ Novak could have produced great literature and would have been widely published had he not appeared on the Office. We will never know.

I got mildly angry at the sight of seeing BJ Novak’s name on a book at Target. It was not the kind of anger that makes its mark, but if you had been there you would have heard me say “blech.” I moved on and went to look at humidifiers. Our apartment is very dry.

Publishing a book is a dream of mine. BJ Novak is a rich, award-winning television writer. Publishing a book might have been his dream, too, and I can imagine a scenario in which he worries whether he is actually worthy of having books published, had he not been on the Office. I have no ill feelings toward BJ Novak. His success takes nothing away from me.

I used the p-word, so I should address it more clearly. I enjoy a certain amount of privilege. My mother has three signers of the Declaration of Independence in her heritage, and an august name respected and admired by many people in Wheeling, West Virginia, where she and I grew up. Some of that admiration comes from who she is related to, but she also made a mark herself. The previous generation of Wheelingites would ask me if I was related to James Hazlett, who was a physician and treated many of them (he was my grandfather). This current generation asks if I’m related to Anne Foreman, my mother. They know her for her art, for her charity, for her kindness, generosity. I do not materially benefit from those famous signers, but my mother’s journey through life has eased the way for us, her children. There is a certain privilege in having a great mom, and that defies class or wealth.

I am blessed with many advantages. But I did not go to Harvard. My father was the first member of his family to go to college, and then to law school. A lean Christmas for our family was fewer presents under the tree, but there were always a few. If I don’t get a job soon, I will not starve or lose a place to live. My worst case scenario was never destitution but temporary reliance on the charity of my family to get me through — a wound to my pride, but just a glancing one.

Jealousy is a disgusting thing. It’s slimy and cancerous and it makes us miserable. There is never a reason for jealousy. I envy BJ Novak having published books, because I want to publish books, but that feeling, that emotional weight, is without purpose or benefit. I banish that feeling when I feel it, sometimes with a “yech” or an “ugh,” or a brief rant, but I get it out of me as soon as I feel it. We have a finite amount of energy. My true love, Shyloh, has worked for a singular goal since before I met her, and recently achieved it. No amount of privilege led her to that achievement — she worked, very hard, and very smartly, for that goal. She is an inspiration to me, and for creative people anywhere. Her art form is hair, but she’s a writer, too. She understands the struggle. She also understands that it takes struggle to make a dream come true.

Because our stores of energy are finite, the sensible thing to do is use them to pursue the dreams we have our own way. I wrote a novel, and I’m proud of it. I still think it’s good. Here’s what I say about it when I send a sample to prospective agents (which is how one publishes books the way I want to publish mine). This was written for me by my brother, Rob, who has a newsletter, too, and a thriving career as a writer. That’s another layer of privilege to acknowledge: a helpful brother who writes better than I do.

Edolphus Pierpont is a luckless smuggler who has been living in one of the Only Worlds, an interlocking complex of simulations of the major eras of human culture and society. To escape a threat on his life, he goes to Vegas, an Only World full of vice and folly where a man called Peachy has taken his stolen family heirloom, as well as his stolen girlfriend. His journey there propels him on a voyage to more Only Worlds than he knew existed. Events escalate until he is faced with a truth long since hidden from him: that he himself may be the creator of these artificial worlds, gone so deeply undercover that he has been made to forget his identity. As Pierpont peels back layers of the truth, he recognizes a cataclysm faced by the Only Worlds, and does everything he can to try to save them. At 90,000 words, THE WALLS OF THE WORLD is a fast, witty science-fiction adventure in a carefully imagined, high-concept universe.

So far, no agents have wanted to represent me and this book, so I have taken to writing other things. Another book is in me, and I work on that. I have also given myself until the middle of January to finish a story I have only recently begun. The story is called The First (And Least) Erotic Story Ever Written, and it is about how heaven handles good people who enjoy a little suffering. There are some scandalized, pearl-clutching celestial beings and some leering ones, too, and I enjoy the premise so much that I can’t wait to make a story out of it.

This is the moral of the story I’ve spun for you today: I write because I love it. I get an enormous burst of joy from having written, even if the process of writing is not always very fun. It is work, and it often feels like it. I don’t write to become famous or to become rich but because I am compelled to tell stories, even if nobody ever reads them.

But it’s even better when they do.

118 thoughts on “On Writing

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