When I was in high school, instead of a more classical English Literature course, I opted to take a Fantasy and Science Fiction class. It was a shot in the dark, all I knew was that I did not want anything to do with the class that made you read literature, and this class was, more or less, an easy-A. Fantasy and Sci-Fi? I’ll take “Things That Andrew Is More Comfortable With Than Himself or the Other Sex” for $500, Alex.
It’s worth noting that, at this point in my delinquency, I was perhaps more confused than I am now. Senior year is often a year that, for many, there are at the very least, pretend-plans for the future. My plans after graduating amounted to, “uh, college? I guess?” Either way, I had next to nothing figured out. There were a lot more boners happening then. Confusing boners, almost constantly. Boners that said, “what are you doing with your life, man?” Answer: getting rid of this boner. I was pushing 400 lbs. at 17, and really all I could bear the thought of was food and Magic: The Gathering. There were no other escapes in my life, for my life.
If not for Mr. Gori, I’d probably have ended up with a degree in Business Management, a comfortable, salaried job, and a dog.
God damnit, Gori. I hate you.
It was in his class that I first wrote for someone else. I wrote for Mr. Gori, the guy who showed the movie Serenity in class, who actually made Shakespeare cool to a bunch of turds, and who talked to me about World of Warcraft.
Mr. Gori had to go an assign the class a paper on robotics of all things, and I had to go and actually enjoy the assignment, and he had to grade it and actually offer me feedback. Feedback that wasn’t HERE IS YOUR GRADE.
It was praise.
He told me that, the next time I write a paper like the one I had written, to warn him before I send it, because he read it in the morning over his cup of coffee, and promptly spit his coffee everywhere from laughing.
If anyone ever asks me the moment I knew I wanted to write for the rest of my life, this was it.
I made my teacher, who I looked up to, who I am now realizing was a more patient, proverbial Patton Oswalt, laugh. With words. My stupid, stupid, error-laden words on paper. I researched shit for that paper. I winged it. I wung it.
For almost 3 years, I never felt that again.
I had, of course, not really followed the water. I was majoring in Communications at an art school in Philadelphia, which actually might sounds worse out-loud than “I have a degree in Fiction Writing.”
Succinctly: still fat, sad, confused.
I took a class that offered no credits towards my graduation, a creative writing workshop.
It was held in a room that would’ve neatly doubled as an interrogation room, and we all crowded around a couple of pushed-together tables. Everyone got the entire semester to write three pieces, and then we’d go in rounds, say 4 people a week, giving feedback and revising. So, by the end, everyone read their three stories and had a chance to hear about them.
There was this kid in that class who was who I wanted to be. I don’t remember his name, it was probably something unflappably cool like Balls McDongle or Winston Churchill. He had a mustache. A black, thick mustache. Not a beard, just the mustache. He had thick, black glasses. He was at least 6’2, thin as a rail. He wore black hoodies. He wrote about his roommates not doing the dishes and a note he left for them. I still remember that note. “Do dishes, or else ghosts.”
That’s a fucking note.
For my first two rounds in that class, I’d written a story about a kid who smoked, has a late-night trip to a burger joint, gets in a dance-off with a homeless man, and then comes back to find his roommate dead from a suicide that comes out of nowhere (editor’s note: I was projecting myself onto the dead roommate, I was okay to the world, but not to myself, get it? Do ya get it?)
It was probably a big stink. I don’t remember the reception. I was too nervous hoping nobody figured out I was really sad on the inside.
My second story was about the end of the world, biblically, and a pill that eliminated pain. High-concept stuff, right? So good!
For my third I really wanted to impress Balls McDongle. I mean that completely non-ironically, too. Honestly, this kid had this aura. I have to imagine that he’d walk into a bike shop, or into a sweaty basement, and all of the awkward hipster pussy in the room would just moisten with PBR. I wanted so badly for him to acknowledge me.
To get a little meta, I wrote a story for him, but as if I was writing to my old best friend, Dave. I couldn’t just write a story to Winston Churchill, so I pretended my best friend Dave was the only one who would be reading this story, and I went with it.
It was 20 or so pages about a wizard named Chu’ran, a bear named Steve, and Shaquille O’Neal. “A Bear, A Wizard, and Shaq On an Adventure Through Portals,” I called it. I wrote that story with the flair of a meth-addict who discovered you can trip and then surf Wikipedia. I wrote it like I was writing it to make my best friend laugh— if I knew anything, it was what was funny to us.
The day came for me to pass out copies, read it to the class, and then wait for first-round feedback.
There was at least 4 or 5 times where I had to stop reading because the class was laughing too loudly. I kept my eyes on Balls McDongle the whole time. He was rolling. The majority of the class was wiping their eyes. I know embellishment is added in most of these “recalling the roots” types moments, but I describe this scene with at least 85% honesty.
And I really don’t know why they were laughing, I thought they’d never “get it.” It was probably the enthusiasm in which I read the piece, and also the fact that the actual image of me, reading it with some air of confidence was absolutely the strangest thing in the world.
Sure enough, next week, it’s the last class. I get my feedback, along with two others, we get our copies passed back to us for notes, and then that’s it.
Winston Churchill comes up to me.
“Hey man, I was wondering, is it cool if I keep your story? It was hilarious and I want to hold onto it.”
There it was again.
“Yes, of course.”
I left and never saw Winston Churchill again.
I had always assumed you should write for yourself.
It makes the most sense, doesn’t it? If you aren’t writing for you, what’s the point?
During the next 3 or 4 years, I left that art school in Philadelphia, moved home, moved back to Philadelphia, went back to that school, left again, moved home again, and then came to Chicago.
An important clause in this all: I never liked myself. What the fuck does that mean? It means I was never really happy with myself as a person. Well, what the fuck does that mean? It means I went to coffee shops for human interaction with people who were literally paid to be friendly to me. It means I anonymously told girls I liked them on craigslist, Facebook, and a weird, short-lived website called LikeALittle. It means my value, to myself, as a human, was nil. The only time I felt valuable as a person was when I was writing for someone else, simply because most of the time, I wasn’t so bad at it.
When I write for myself, I write convoluted, depressed. I write hoping someone will stumble upon it and publish it because it’s filled with such an amount of unrivaled genius that it must be shared, even though I never move it from my desktop. When I write for myself, I don’t get it. I don’t understand why I decided to do this in the first place. When I write for myself, even after all these years, it’s an attempt to be a “writer.” It’s a grab for my own vindication, that my time was well-spent, my skills true.
I realized it’s all bullshit.
If it wasn’t for the cute girls I had crushes on in most of my classes, I probably wouldn’t have passed. Or maybe I would’ve, but I would’ve dropped out after a semester. Lost my spark. Write well for a good grade? No thanks. Write for my own betterment as a writer? Eh, pass. Write well because Lindsay is going to hear this in 15 minutes? Abso-fucking-lutely, yes.
A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a coworker where he asked me about the idea of audience over a stuffed red-pepper that his beautiful wife made in their lovely one-bedroom apartment. He brought up a short piece of flash fiction that I’d shown to him, lucky enough to be published for at my college a year ago. He was explaining it to his wife in the kitchen, “It’s about the end of the world, and this girl.”
I interrupted, a little embarrassed. I always turn red at the summary of my work. “Yeah, I wrote that because I was thinking: if the world actually was ending, what would I do? I would go see her, and it probably wouldn’t work out, even when it was ending.” I took a sip of warm coffee, “Let me tell you, never write for anyone else. Just write for you. I wrote that for her, and…”
He looked at me, confused, “..and it seemed to work out pretty well?”
It was one summer between when I was floundering, having left Philadelphia to work and live at home again, I met that girl. Details that are pertinent: acceptance, love, Gameboy in bed, sex!, sing-a-longs in the car, walks to nowhere, a weekend in the City, jibberish, cute dog, communication, nothing like it.
I would wager that 90% of every story I’ve written in the last 3 years has a dedication to her, invisible, at the top, right below the title.
Is everything I write about her? No. Absolutely not.
Is a lot of it for her? Most certainly.
And, here, now, still, I really don’t know why, but it works.
I push myself as a writer in hopes that, maybe, one day, she’ll see that the reason I left her for Chicago wasn’t all bullshit. That she’ll wake up from a nap with her boyfriend or husband, turn on the computer, and there on the screen might be an article with my name on it. Or she might be perusing the Young Adult section at Barnes and Nobles and walk by a “New Fiction” table and see my name on a soft-cover.
I write because maybe one day I might have the chance to buy her a nice dinner with a paycheck from the royalties of a book of mine. We could get meat-high. See, this is an inside joke you don’t know. We got meat-high at a steakhouse, that’s the joke.
I write so maybe, one day, I’ll get a new phone and opt to keep the photos of her I have had saved for years off of it.
I write so maybe, one day, I can have an e-mail in my inbox like the ones I send to my favorite bands telling them that their songs saved my life.
Believe you me, I don’t think any of this is romantic. I don’t think it’s cool or what you should do. I think it’s really tragic, in a way, and I feel like I have the authority to say that, now, 3 years after the fact. There are people that propel us no matter what the reason. It could be a family member that is dead, or alive. A friend you had growing up. Your wife. But I sincerely doubt it’s you.
For the last four weeks I’ve gone to sleep with the lights in my apartment on. I get in bed and am truly haunted: by the concept of death, infinity. The dreamless sleep. My health. My parents, their hearts. A dog in the ground behind a house we no longer own. Why I’m almost 26 but still love Pokemon. The failed relationships. By the idea that what I’m doing with my life is wrong, that I’m falling behind. The status updates from my friends who get jobs at desks with salaries and paid vacation days, long weekends.
For the last four weeks I’ve gotten out of bed at 3 in the morning and started writing.
Why do you get out of bed at 3 am?
“I used to hang grocery bags up and down my arms to impress my mom, now I use them to carry boxes out of my dead dad’s house, so I started writing songs about this girl, but now that girl, she’s somebody’s wife; just like the rug in my bedroom growing up that would stop the door when I tried to slam it shut.”
Filed under: Essay