I came across one of those links on Reddit that was something like “100 Books Every Man Should Read” lists. I’m a sucker for those even if, amongst those 100, the books are pretty much a list of classics that have been listed for decades (they’ll throw a few contemporary Pulitzer winners to make it more current).
I spent eight years as an English teacher attempting to expose teenagers to great literature. I have many thoughts on what English curricula across the country are doing wrong, but I won’t talk about that here. A great book is a book that changes your outlook on the world and that’s at the very least. A great book can inspire and influence.
We spend so much time in classroom making books as little fun as possible: Instead just reading the story, we make our students stop and ask, “So what does the clock mean?” Instead of asking them to simply get to the end of the chapter for homework, we want them to underline six words they don’t understand and share them in block one. English classes are bullshit. I didn’t like reading until college, during which or afterward I read the most important books in my life.
They all inform some part of my thinking or actions or practice as a writer in some way, though they’re not the only influences for those things.
1.) Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer: I was first introduced to this book in college, but fell in love with it on an airplane from Boston to San Diego. Since, I’ve read it probably a couple dozen times. I would incorporate it into every class I taught. First, Krakauer’s reporting is remarkable. Second, I think Chris McCandless’s journey is a journey that, as a society, we’re unable to recreate. There are no more blank spots on a map. As a parent, I think we should try to encourage our children to be passionate and brave and search for meaning. McCandless did that. He died. But he died because of enormous bad luck (and his adventure wasn’t a failure). Sometimes the difference between being a great parent and an awful one (or being a great story or a tragic one) is luck.
2.) Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion: Taught me to love reading, simple as that. Second sentence of the first essay grabbed me and hasn’t let me go since. “Soft westerlies off the coast … An alien place, haunted by the Mojave … works on the nerves.” I ate up everything Didion has done since.
3.) Consider the Lobster by D.F. Wallace: The way Wallace could do his ethical and linguistic gymnastics still astounds me, and, in this work, it’s better than any of his fiction in my opinion. Someone hit it right on the head when they described his writing as something like being the smartest uncle at the holiday table who’ll end his incredibly intellectual argument with a dick joke.
4.) Sex, Drugs, Cocoa Puffs by Chuck Klosterman: In a lot of ways, it’s probably my least favorite of his work, but being the introduction to it makes this book hold a special spot. He wrote about Saved by the Bell and Radiohead and asked bizarre hypothetical questions. I felt a kindredness with Klosterman when I read him because we had (it seemed) similar interests and ways of trying to understand a subject differently from the normal narratives.
5.) Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon: I tend to suffer from bouts of many things: anxiety, frustration, moodiness, and introspection among them. I also read this one on a cross-country flight, from Phoenix back to NH, after hurriedly grabbing the first thing that seemed interesting off the bookshelf at the airport. At the time, I was grappling with some things as a son and a writer and as a person. It was just what I needed. Too often, men are pigeon-holed in a certain way in literature. Reading Chabon’s frustrations and anxieties and failures and triumphs was refreshing to me. After Into the Wild, it’s likely I’ve picked this book up more than any other book since.
You should read all of these. Yes, you.
Of all of the things I’ve learned as a writer, perhaps the most valuable is this: Write unafraid.
This sounds trite, like “Walk with your head up.” No shit.
When developing a voice, I’ve realized that a writer must employ a few concrete tactics.
1.) Write authoritatively: Too often, I would get into the mindset of, “If I write this, will it create backlash or will someone challenge me on this?” If the answer was, “Yes,” I found myself deliberately changing the language to make it a little more passive, a little more open to interpretation. Don’t do this. If you believe something, write it. Be prepared to defend it, if necessary, but don’t be afraid to write with confidence.
2.) The worst they can say is no. Go ahead and pitch: Look, I struggle with this as much as anyone. You get an idea for a story. You tweak the pitch a bit. Do some research. Reach out to a source, half-heartedy. Re-tweak the pitch. But it never gets sent. Story never gets done, but you at least. The worst an editor will say is this story is not for them.
3.) Believe that you can cover any topic: Another problem is the scope of ideas can get daunting. You have a story but it involves someone well-known. You might actually have an in with a source. Or, you have an idea for a story, but it’s a delicate social issue. It’s an issue that needs to be written about not only carefully, but well. Done right, in your mind, this story can change how we see the world. But you don’t pitch because, well, you should leave that for much better writers than yourself. Don’t leave it for them.
4.) Don’t write compromised: Don’t write a glowing review of a bad beer/hamburger/product just because you got it for free; Don’t be overly complimentary or hide the flaws in a subject just because you were given access to their lives for a story.
We all learn these things along the way. We do what we do to put food on our tables, but at the same time, we can’t compromise who were are, what we think, how we feel. This for me has been the star by which I tried to guide my life for a while, but ever since having children, for sure. If we do what we do honestly, there’s more than just writing that we’ve produced to show our small effect on the world, but there’s a message and a meaning behind them that can hopefully make a larger effect on the people around us.
I’m not perfect. I’m not the best writer or advice giver. Some of it may seem hypocritical. try to be the best dad and husband I can be, but, shit, I fail there a lot too. I’ve said things and done things in the past that I’m not particularly proud of, but our lives aren’t static. We move on, we move forward. We’re not defined by just the failures or just the successes. We’re defined by so much more. If this blog proves as a window in my continually getting better as a writer, friend, brother, dad, husband, and person, great. I’m glad you’re here.
Writing is a romanticized life. From the outsiders perspective, writers are living the dream: staying home, relaxing with a cup of coffee, coming up with the correct order of words that might or might not change lives, maybe revising with a glass of bourbon as the sun fades and the orange glow of the autumn dusk appears.
But, as most writer’s know, it’s not all that romantic. I’m faced with enormous pressure every day. I’m faced with some of the most daunting decisions a person must make. It’s a difficult life. So without further delay, here are the top seven decisions I am forced, daily, to make, as someone trying to make a living as a professional writer:
- Coffee, tea, or juice: Let’s start simply here. I amble downstairs at my house, dog at my feet, hurrying ahead of me down the stairs. Through half-asleep eyes (Christ, it’s only 8 a.m.!), I look around the kitchen. Juice would be the easiest option. I wouldn’t even need a glass. Tea is another easy option. Boil water, steep. Coffee, though, is so arduous. Ugh, measuring out water, lining the filter and filling it with coffee … But, alas, today is not a day to be deterred by laziness. Make the coffee, I usually plea with myself. Already, I start the day with an air of cool arrogance.
- While the coffee percolates and pops, I know that I have about seven minutes before I can have a cup. In those seven minutes, I have several choices to make: I could go upstairs and get the computer ready for a day of writing, maybe load up a couple of my favorite websites like The Atlantic or Huffington Post, see what’s going on in the world. I could look at my notes from the end of the day yesterday, to see if I’m going to be focusing on trying to write/edit/or sell an article today, or if I’d rather work on a fiction piece. I look down at the dog, “Well, you’re going to be bored today. I’m going to be working.” She looks at me with a hint of despair. I decide to begin a vigorous game of Tug-of-War with my dog. I’m a responsible dog owner, after all.
- The coffee poured, I work my way up the stairs to my office. Generally, this is the time where I look down at my general state of being. In the beginning part of the week, I eagerly get into the shower and dressed, nicely. If I’m going to be a professional, I’m going to dress the part, jeans and a sweater, maybe a collared-shirt underneath. I’m unemployed, not homeless. But, what’s today? Thursday? Couldn’t I at least check my e-mail, maybe send a couple e-mails out in sweatpants, enjoy that first cup of coffee comfortably? Sure I can!
- Okay, today I need to focus. I have the Writer’s Market 2014 on the side table, dog-eared for a couple of publications I’d like query. First, let’s open the article from yesterday. Let’s run through it to see if … Oh, an e-mail from my friend. Open it? Don’t open it? Well, I do have a pretty busy day in front of me. Let’s see what he has to say. It might break up the day a little bit. Read, laugh, proceed to write back, eagerly await response.
- Alright, it’s mid-morning. Get going. I’m not even dressed, though. No wonder I’ve been so unproductive today. Okay, quick shower, get changed, commence writing.
- Clean. Dressed. Ready to write. What’s that? Dog wants to go out. She goes out. Fill the coffee cup. What should I do until she wants to come back in? I guess I could prepare dinner. Nothing serious, just marinate the chicken breasts, prepare the asparagus. Hmmm, maybe I should make them with crushed garlic. I should crush some garlic. Might as well make a sandwich for lunch while I’m at it.
- I’ve eaten. Satisfied. Played with the dog, had my coffee, sent some e-mails. Now I’m prepared to write. I sit down at my desk. Start working on a story, article, essay … then I think: we don’t have any wine to go with dinner. Should I go buy a bottle or two?
Fellow writers: What are some of the tough choices you’re forced to make on a daily basis?