“One day I was in solitary confinement and then just a few years later I was having dinner with the President.”
I listened. Tommy told me his story. Being set up. Going to jail. Not “ratting out” another person in exchange for an easy prison stay.
Then being head of security for the Vice President of the United States.
“They put me in the room with the murderers I had put in prison. I was going to die.”
I listened. I paid attention.
“It’s a curse,” he said, after 20 years of being in law enforcement. “I walk in a room and I can see everything about everyone in the room. ”
“And he never stops,” his wife said, “He is obsessed with always being aware.”
Tommy looked past us, at the other people picking up their jackets at the end of an evening. “Sometimes it’s a curse.”
“I knew that if I didn’t play pro-basketball I would end up packing bags at Wegmans,” said the 6’9″ guy in front of me.
“I’m totally ignorant,” I said, “but are you an athlete.”
I think the woman next to me choked on her food then. I was afraid she thought I was a racist.
“I played pro basketball for many years.”
“There’s a lot of 6’9″ players who bag groceries at Wegmans,” I said. “What makes you different.”
“I played every day 10 hours a day when I was a kid. I played the same guy. I lost 1500 games in a row. But I kept knocking on his door to play again. Other guys are weak.”
“What makes you different from Michael Jordan? Are you weak?” Everyone at the table stopped eating.
This guy’s hand was the size of a watermelon. He could’ve crushed me.
He laughed and gave an answer. I had more questions. I asked them.
I was talking to one of my favorite comedians in the world. He’s depressed. “It’s treatment resistant,” he told me.
“In the morning it’s the worst. I’m treatment resistant. There’s nothing I can do about it.”
I ran into him at 10 a.m. that day. He looked like he was about to cry.
“It gets better at night,” he said, “And then I can perform. But then I sleep and the clock starts over.”
He was barely speaking above a whisper. Millions watched his recent special in the past week. He was so funny I thought I was going to choke from laughing.
We dissected one of his bits. “You write the basic joke. And then you look at every word. Can you dissect it more. Can you go off on a tangent here and come up with a whole other joke before coming back to the original one. Analyze that with every word in the joke.”
When he talked about comedy he seemed happy. He laughed, thinking about his joke.
I’m happy when I write well. I live for writing well. I’m an addict. If I can’t write well for two days then something is wrong with my life. If I can’t write well for three days then I cancel everything until I write.
It makes me happy. Many things make me happy. But every moment of the day is about writing for me. Nothing else. Not money. Not my career. Not my relationships. Not even my kids. Every thing else comes in second.
Which sounds like a mental illness. Maybe it is. I love my kids. I will do anything for them. But first… be quiet until I write.
I don’t like the phrase, “what is your why.” I have a lot of whys. And I feel I have many passions.
I play games. I love learning. I like having coffee with a friend. I like thinking every day how to increase my freedom.
But under every thought is: how will this improve my writing? This is the only real consistent thing I enjoy doing in my life. If I stopped doing it, I’d die.
One time I wrote something privately about something intensely personal.
A friend of mine, Tucker Max, heard about it and said, “If you don’t publish this you will die.”
He got it.
Writing is my guiding philosophy of life. It’s not a passion or a purpose. It’s the way I live.
I think everyone, if they sit down and think about it, has a philosophy of life. Something they do that is sacred to them.
It may be in varying degrees. I don’t know. But it’s there.
Why I write:
A) It Makes My Day.
From the moment I wake up, the moment I sleep, to how many hours of sleep I get, to how I eat, to the people I spend time with, to how I focus my creativity, to what I am grateful for – all exists so I can write better.
I’d like to think it’s to make me have higher levels of well-being. But if I’m honest, I’m happy when I write something well.
When I *drop mic* on something I write.
B) I Listen.
Everyone has a story. I stopped a woman in an elevator. She had a red mohawk and piercings. I asked if I could take her picture.
I thought she would be mean to me and say, “no.” I was the rude one anyway. But she was very sweet and said “yes” and posed.
I asked her where she was going. She said, “A wedding.”
I asked “for who.” And she told me. And then her door opened and she left.
Everywhere I look I see a potential story. I’ve been doing that for 25 years. Now I see stories everywhere.
The world is a jigsaw puzzle with every story a piece in that puzzle.
And everyone wants to share a story. So I listen.
C) I’m Curious.
I want to know why Coolio got lost in his addiction to coke. I want to know why the old man sitting at the table next to me is crying.
I want to know why you got separated from your husband. People always say, “It was amicable.” No it wasn’t. Don’t lie. Tell me. Please.
I get an itch in my brain. I want to scratch it. You don’t have to answer. But I hope you do. Else it will be unasked forever. It will be knowledge that disappears.
D) I Want Attention
Who doesn’t? Let’s be honest.
E) I Like to Play
Words are fun. Words are poetry. Words are rhythm, Words create entertainment. Nothing is more beautiful to me than two words that fit together better than they lay apart. Like a good marriage.
F) I Like to Think I Can Help.
I write about what happens to me. I write about my curiosity. But if one person follows an idea and it helps them, then I am happy.
G) Words Are Freedom
Because I write, I think of ideas. Ideas lead to things I can sell. Writing helps me sell these things.
Writing, at first, is the branch-covered pathway that leads you out of the forest. It’s the way from lost to found.
Building the skill of writing is the way to clear out those branches. Without writing I would have no career and no self-esteem and nothing.
People say, “You should visualize self-esteem and then you will have it.”
Maybe that works for them, but it doesn’t work for me.
H) Writing builds character.
I have a problem. In fact, every day I have a problem. I feel it in my body. I explore what the problem is by writing about it.
It’s surgery. I open my heart up. Poke around. Find a cancer. Scrape it out with words. What’s really there. What am I feeling?
You have to be honest with yourself. Cancer doesn’t pretend. It’s there. You can only dig illness out with authenticity
Don’t describe your feelings. Tell your story. This happened. This happened. This happened. Don’t even give me a description. No flowers or clouds. Just tell me BOOM BOOM BOOM.
I) I Love to Read.
From the moment I wake up, everything is so I can write better. Part of that is reading. What I read. What will influence me today. What will I learn.
I read different types of things depending on what time it is. Fiction in the morning. Nonfiction at night. Random in the middle. Poetry scattered throughout the day.
Today I read from:
- Raymond Carver’s collection of all his stories
- Bukowski’s Factotum
- Angela Duckworth’s Grit
- Maria Konnikova’s “Confidence Game.”
Without reading, there is no writing. Because what respect do you have for your elders and your peers if you can’t read what they wrote?
J) It Makes Friends
I love my friends who write. I love them. I’ll be honest: I’ve had a good business year. But a bad relationship year. Horrible.
My friends who are writers, plus a few others I know through my writing, have saved my life.
“You have to get up every day and do it,” the pro basketball player told me. “It has to go through every aspect of your life.”
He shook his head, “I had one brother who died of AIDS. I had another in jail. I had to only look in one direction. And that was getting better at basketball.”
Basketball became what was sacred in his life.
He looked at me. “I lost 1500 times in a row against my teacher. But I had heart. I came back every day for more. And then I won one game. I never lost again.”
He smiled, thinking about that moment 25 years earlier and how it defined everything ever since. That’s writing.
By the way, I’ve included a list of Neil Gaiman’s rules of writing that I think you will enjoy: