I Was An Asshole

In 1999 I attempted career suicide: I published myself.

Only the crappiest writers publish their own work. They do it because no one else will have them, because they write crap. At least, that is the widely reverberated wisdom: publishing your own book is like tattooing I SUCK DONKEY BALLS across your own forehead. If you are fool enough to do this to yourself, discriminating readers will discriminate against you, critics will chortle, and publishing professionals will refuse their delicious congress. You will die broke and obscure, and if you’re lucky enough to have a tombstone it will read: HE SUCKED ACTUAL DONKEY BALLS.

I knew that might happen — it may still — but I did it anyway, out of desperation and spite, as a salve for a lingering burning sensation in my soul left behind by a totally mismanaged brush with Serious Literature. Now, ten years later, as my oeuvre has continued its stubborn growth and the pain in my heart has receded to sub-bursitus levels, I am re-issuing this book — for technical reasons that I’ll explain — and taking the occasion to re-examine the circumstances that drove me to do it in the first place. Here’s what happened:

It was spring of 1999, my future wife was pregnant with our future child, and we were inspecting our future home for any defects that might later lead to marital collapse. That’s why I was in the basement with my head shoved through a tiny, filthy metal hatch in the root of the central chimney, peering upward at a distant postage stamp of blue sky framed by sketchy brickwork, trying to imagine what a fatally flawed chimney might look like, while my realtor and the homeowner chatted amicably about how to avoid the required permits for things, when Dave Eggers called me on my cell phone.

I had only just gotten a cell phone. They were newish to non-stockbrokers in 1999, and I had not yet developed a good sense of when to ignore the thing. Every conversation was full of novelty and amusement, still: “Hey, guess where I am? I’m driving! I’m at a movie! I’m in a chimney!” Maybe I should have let it go to voicemail, but instead I answered it, cramming my right hand through the hatch to wedge my brand new phone between a sooty brick wall and my head.

“This is Dave Eggers,” said Dave Eggers. He sounded very far away; his voice was weirdly flat and emotionless, as if his cat had just died. (Chimney acoustics may have contributed to this.) He was calling about a story I’d sent to McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern. He was thinking about running it in the second issue, because his people had liked it, and he wanted to know how I felt about that. He also wanted me to know that I spell my name funny, and did I really want to spell it that way, and would I mind if he made fun of that spelling in print?

How did I feel about that? A bunch of ways: thrilled, validated, tingly in my extremities, yet wary — why is he calling me up just to say “maybe”? — and apprehensive, because I had only just forsaken an oath to never send my stories to magazines, because it had been such a drawn-out and disappointing torture when I was younger. The very first short story I ever sent out was published right away, but then for years I tried to publish my awful poetry and got nothing but boilerplate rejections from editors, or, worse, encouraging personal rejections from editors who wanted me to try again so they could reject me some more. And in all that time — a five-year initial effort out of high school to “become” a writer and “succeed” — I found many of the editors of these small poetry presses to be unpleasant little Napoleons who only valued other peoples’ poetry as a decorative garnish around their own.

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