You asked me this three months ago, and I ought to have answered it right away, since it plays so heavily to my ego. But I’ve written so rarely in the last three months, I guess I didn’t have an answer.
I never *didn’t* write. My first short story, which is barely written in a human language, is scrawled in crayon in the Dr Seuss book ‘My Book About Me’. In it, I and my siblings (I have no siblings, which is to say, this was a fiction piece) all fly away from my parents’ house on the broad muscular back of Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was, you know, a first draft.
My first software was ‘Storybook Weaver’, a piece of edutainment that combined clip art with blank pages. I used it to make “Choose Your Own Adventure” stories. I graduated to Microsoft Works, where once every day I’d hammer out a chapter of my terrific novel, ‘Tears of Aphrodite’ (your guess is as good as mine).
A few years later, I’d decided I would write adventure games — playable novels — for a living. I remember my mother telling another woman this, and the woman turned to me and said, “Well, you won’t be able to have children, then!” I remember actually agreeing with her, as if co-signing to an emotional or intellectual fertility meant relinquishing a biological fertility.
In middle school I briefly published a sort of broadsheet. I likely believed that, despite my low social ranking, I could use my great grammar and nerdy vocabulary to produce something other students would feel special about *reading*. Even at that remote time I think I understood that what one consumes — and by extension, what one writes — could be a status symbol. So at that time I was writing for the same reasons a guy might become a musician (“to land chicks”), except in my case I seriously thought I could “land friends.”
In college I learned that the opposite is true: Especially if you’re writing “from life,” writing is a spectacular way to *lose* friends. I think I always knew, too, that writing was a piss-poor way to make money; after college, I discovered it is no way to win any prestige, either.
Two nights ago my grandmother worried aloud, on the phone, that I’d never been taught to handle money; she knew, thanks to my mom, that I’d never managed to quite make my own monthly rent. I explained (in an unconvincing way) that even when I’d had a salary — just once, the only time I’ve ever had a salary, in San Francisco — it was $30k, which put me beneath SF’s poverty line. I explained to my disappointed grandmother that the most I’ve ever been paid for a piece is $250 (by the New York Times), and that most outlets competitively pay $50 per 2000-word article. I admitted to her, on the phone, that there is no good reason to continue writing.
I recently explained all this to Some Guy on Twitter, Some Guy who thought it was “ironic” that a writer at The Atlantic was writing on the subject of poverty. I tapped out a quick response — about how writing does not pay so much, and I used experiential data in my reply — and he told me, if there is no living wage in what I do, I am clearly not good enough, and it is time for me to seek another avenue. I pretended to be offended, but I do think he’s right.
The terrible reality is, at this stage I can’t say why I write at all. I do like to say that “writing can be taught,” and I do believe that, but I especially believe it when I read things from authors who’ve only written for a couple years, and they already intuit things about “writing” I can only hope to understand after several more lifetimes. So that is painful knowledge, when you have always written but, indeed, have very little hope at ever being “the best” or even “good” at it.
I am answering this question at a strange juncture in my life, you know. I am almost 32, I hope to start a family, I live in a city of 15000 people, and it has become impossible for me to imagine a life where games writing, or any writing, is a real possibility anymore. So now I’ve arrived at a stage in my life where, instead of waking up each morning and picturing what I’ll write, I try to picture *not* writing. Instead, I try to think of, literally, anything else I could be capable of doing.
It is not a self-pitying mental exercise; rather, I just try to concentrate on anything else. I’m not sure yet. I think very hard on the real possibiliity that I’ve misspent my life. I’ve always encouraged young writers but, at this point, I worry one of them will find me and shoot me.
I have a lot of respect for and have gotten a lot out of how vulnerable you can be in your writing. It’s been a strong influence on me even in my own non-writing fields. Can you talk a bit about where that comes from and how you think about how much of yourself you put out there in a piece?
This is such a lovely question, I feel like crying.
No, “creative nonfiction” doesn’t need to be a perpetually oozing sore. I often worry that’s what I’m doing. I also worry that, without my parents’ interminable march toward death, I now have nothing left to write about. And I don’t mean I’ve run out of “material”; I mean, I worry that everything I loved is gone. I worry about that a lot.
Ugh, that’s some emo crap. Let me actually step back several years.
When I first began a new job in 2006 — a very visible, “full-frontal” job as a CM — I quickly learned the score. People online wanted to figure out everything I’d ever done prior to the age of 23, and violate that. (Now we call that process “doxxing.”) And I reacted! I reacted by burying my Internet presence, which had begun in 1995: I concealed all my writing, all my essays, plus my decade-old journal; I erased the Chicago plays I’d been in; I hid my old songs and my old band. And when that CM career ended, people — not the same group of people, a broader swath this time — felt really bizarrely entitled to discovering what had “happened to me.”
At this stage, and convinced I’d never work again, I went into further seclusion with my parents. My father had descended deeply into Alzheimer’s by now; a year later my mother would experience septic shock and organ failure for only the first time. It wasn’t until her sepsis that I realized *I wanted to talk about that*. And in 2010, writing for the first time about his Alzheimer’s and her sepsis for Kill Screen Magazine, I gnashed my teeth a little: “I’m finally writing about what everyone is DYING TO KNOW, but this isn’t anybody’s fucking business.”
But I liked writing about it. I felt really bolstered by the idea of writing a 10,000-word piece in a print magazine — how could anybody ever even read it? If no one ever reads it, I figured, I can write down whatever I want.
So that was the first time I ever wrote exactly what was on my mind, and I really credit my editor, Chris Dahlen, with that. Afterward I kept thinking about how invigorating that two-month writing exercise was. My next big piece, for Unwinnable, was maybe a third of the length, and a third of the intricacy, of that Kill Screen thing I’d written. I realized I could make “easier” versions of that piece of writing for a web audience, make the same type of writing faster, more relatable, more consumable.
And there was a huge benefit to that: Instead of deliberately concealing my life, my history, and my family’s life, I could *write my own origin story*. I could finally take ownership of all those old horrors that popped up when you google my byline. I could change them into something, not positive exactly, but human.
I’ve never really become “at ease” about writing about myself, but I understand some people do want to “know” and, rather than hiding myself, I put it down onto paper or screen. It’s actually a way of taking control of my own identity, of “protecting myself.”
Mind you, I don’t want to make myself look “good.” I realize the worst thing about creative nonfiction essay writing is the author’s dying need to absolve herself over this or that or the other. Rather, I paint myself in as ugly colors as possible. If the author doesn’t have a religious experience — if she doesn’t completely eviscerate herself in search of her point — what does it matter? What does it all mean?
If I include other people in my nonfiction writing, I usually (but, admittedly, not always) run the piece past them for fact-checking. If it passes my friends’ and acquaintances’ “veracity” tests, I publish. If not, I revise until my version of reality matches my friends’.
If I were to start over right now — if I were to become 23 again, and become my old precocious self — I hope I would not hide. I hope, when people prodded at my accomplishments and my history, instead of hiding those, I would write a nice big full essay about being happy and fulfilled. If people were to wonder about my lack of productivity at work, I hope, instead of hiding beneath my desk, I’d describe my father, that great old man with his great big hands and his gravelly voice, and explain what that loss feels like.
What I’m saying is, there’s nothing to be lost via openness and receptivity, and everything to gain. I’ve never actually hurt people by being open; I’ve only hurt others by closing myself off.
And I DO think there’s lots to be gained from those realizations: Writers, creators, makers of all ilks, would do well to practice authenticity. Because the reality is, people CAN tell when you’re lying! No, being a festering wound of truthfulness isn’t “cool” by any stretch, but at least you’re trustworthy and reliable. And those count for a lot more than being “cool.”
So thank you, anonymous querent. No, you don’t have to divulge every life detail when meeting a new person, but I do think imbuing your interactions with authentic anecdotes — coloring moments where you have to do PR, introduce new people, introduce yourself — makes you much more reliable. Just make sure you aren’t fibbing. If you have to, make sure you’re uglier than usual. Just make sure it’s the truth, or at least that it sounds like it. People can tell.
(It’s International Women’s Day, so I wrote a quick thing about my adoptive mother, who was also my great-aunt, who was also a woman.)
My mother was, at the end of her life, a soft, squat woman with almost no wrinkles except around her eyes, which were small and bright, and clear, gold irises rimmed in a deep blue-green. She died just before her 80th birthday, would have been 81 this January. She was too old and too plump for anyone to think of her as keen, too gentle and selfless to seem shrewd. But even in stalwart old age she looked younger than 60, and felt it; she shamelessly flirted with men many decades her junior, who let her.
The generations of women in my family were given to fits of “the blues,” as my mother used to say — not until my 20s did I understand she meant depression.
It would have astonished anyone who knew my mother, to know how deep and unshakable her grief moved, or the ways it moved her. They would have been shocked by the way color could drain from her round, red cheeks, at how angry she could become.
"This stupid fucking horse," Daphny said, punching the buttons on the Xbox controller.
I opened a blank document on my laptop.
"Oh, did that hurt?" Daphny said. I looked up at her. "Talking to my horse," she explained.
"Your horse is a Shit Horse," Ted said thoughtfully.
"I hate Horse," Daphny replied.
My writer’s block is terrible.
"Did you get to the part where the moose is a forest god?" Ted asked me. "That was a pretty important part, I thought."
I typed that part, too. “This is the worst open document in the history of laptops,” I announced.
Ted and Daphny continued to narrate Skyrim out loud. Meanwhile, Ted’s cat landed on the coffee table in a single fluid leap. She pressed her feline nose daintily against an empty bottle of cider, then against the lip of my beer bottle.
"Jen, look at this butt," Daphny commanded me.
Ted told me to move the laundry from the washer to the dryer.
"Oh! It worked!" Daphny exclaimed, cutting off Ted mid-instruction. "I shot an arrow into the butt!"
"Good lord," Ted said from over my shoulder. "I can’t believe I said that," he added, acknowledging Shit Horse. "That seems so out of character." It did seem out of character, but Ted had really said it.
"I can’t believe how blocked I am," I sighed.
"How can you have writer’s block?" Ted said. "You’re writing right now. You’re a writer. How can you be a writer and have writer’s block?"
"Well," I said. "I think you’ve answered your own question."
"Just don’t start typing things before we actually say them," Ted warned me.
On the television screen, Daphny’s hands were illuminated. Somehow she was driving tiny motes of light out of her fingertips and palms.
"Did you go to the Mage College yet," Ted asked her.
Now Ted and Daphny were arguing over whether Ted had said “Mage School” or “Mage College,” and also whether it were even called “Mage College.”
"It’s the Mage College at Winterhold," Ted huffed.
"Winterhold?" I asked.
"Winterhold," Ted agreed.
"Is that one word?"
"Yes," Ted told me. He frowned and circled my laptop. "Well," he said, "that looks ready to publish."
"Yes," I agreed, "I think I’ll call it ‘Writer’s Block’."