Being The Anti-Writer

There’s been some discussion regarding what it means to be a writer and how one actually goes about doing it. Here are my two cents.

I still have trouble identifying as a writer. Even though I do it for a living; even though I’m at work right now writing this piece, I still have difficulty calling myself that. This is the part where commenters say, “That’s because you’re not a true writer. You suck!” So you can go do that now. Sigh.

When people ask  me what I write about, I freeze up. “Um, boys, being gay, pop culture. I don’t really know.” I sound like a fucking idiot, but I don’t really know what else to say. Even though I write a few pieces a day, l’m not sure if there’s a cohesive theme to all of it. Should there be? Would that make me more of a writer?

A lot of my insecurities and confusion stem from the fact that I’ve never related to the classic idea of a writer—a miserable alcoholic who’s grossly underpaid and cynical about everything. Ernest Hemmingway drinking absinthe in a dive bar in Spain, Sylvia Plath putting her head in the oven: This is what it means to be a writer. Then you die at a young age and your value is only realized posthumously. Gee, suffering has never seemed so chic or pretentious. In college I majored in creative writing and was surrounded by people who subscribed to this bleak definition of being a writer. In my classes there’d be someone named Cole, a lesbian who identifies as gender queer {?} and kind of wants to be a boy and smokes cigarettes and sometimes cries while reading her poems about owls and Kathleen Hanna in workshop. Then there’d be someone named Holden—named after the guy in Catcher in the Rye, duh—who doesn’t go anywhere without his Vonnegut and Bukowski and sometimes reads at poetry slams and fucks girls named Azura in public restrooms. Every experience they had was used and abused for their writing. Emotions were just fodder for their novella which was always in a state of near completion. “It’s just not quite there yet. Maybe I need to go to Budapest or something,” they would tell me.

I just didn’t get it. They all seemed so disingenuous and, quite frankly,  too serious. You could tell that most of them actually had pretty good upbringings and parents who loved them, but that wasn’t beneficial to their writing. They needed more tragedy so they self-inflicted a lot of problems. Meanwhile, I just kind of hung out and wrote shitty Joan Didionesque stories about California and liking boys. They were really soapy and dramatic because I hadn’t quite figured out yet how to cushion tragedy with humor. I was afraid to be funny because I thought it would prevent me from being taken seriously. I’m so glad I grew out of that.

I was different because I didn’t drink copious amounts of whiskey and eat ramen and listen to sad music on my record player. Not to get too personal but I’ve had some weird terrible things happen in my life and I realized early on that being happy is a conscious decision. I could either lay in bed and cry about everything bad that’s ever happened to me, or I could get out of bed, meet my friends for lunch and distract myself by talking about dicks for an hour.

I don’t mean to tell anyone that there is a wrong or right way to be a writer. I’m simply explaining why I’ve had trouble seeing myself as an actual writer.  Want to know another strike I have against me? I’ve never read Anna Karenina. There. I admitted it. Lock me up and throw away my MacBook Pro! TC mark

Ryan O'Connell

I'm a brat.


More From Thought Catalog

  • H8r

    you're article sucks

    • Ryan O'Connell

      your*, you diva!

      • H8r

        no really, you're article sucks

      • NoahTourjee

        Article Sucks writes really great article though.

    • Guesst.

      you put an apostrophe where there needs not be one.

  • Jamie Howell

    *your grammar sucks

  • Stephanie Georgopulos

    Agreed 100%. Except for the drinking thing. Think I've got the drinking part of being a “writer” down.

  • Tao Lin

    i love thought catalog and your writing, ryan.

    • ZaneEatsWorld

      'seems bleak'

      • Taylor

        'seems' 'unseemly'

  • shoehorn

    knock those straw men down ryan

    • shoehorn

      what i mean to say is that you're a good writer and your site is good, writing stuff that caricaturizes people who prefer seriousness > frivolity as “depressed sacks of shit”, and backing it up with the implication that “your pain and coping methods > most writers' pain and coping metohds” is beneath you.
      my guess is that you don't like it when people accuse you of vacuity or frivolity, why do the inverse?
      that said i've never taken creative writing in school, maybe everybody there really is a cardboard cutout of hemingway crying drunk

  • mary

    i've been quietly reading thoughtcatalog for a little while now, waiting for the right time to comment. this is it; i probably couldn't agree/associate more (even though i do have an affinity for ramen and smoking cigarettes). but at least it's possible to make it through those writing classes full of Holden's.

    also, i got 100 pages into anna karenina and decided to put it back on the shelf for a long while.

  • Zaid Elliott

    You make some of the best reads on Thought Catalog. You're part of the reason I frequent this site.
    Keep doing what you do please.

  • christopher lynsey

    I don't even know who wrote Anna Karenina.

  • Andee Nero

    'Ryan OConnell writes instruction manuals for twenty-something living.' -me

  • eric

    it's okay, i don't think of you as a writer, ryan o'connel

  • PINA

    you're not better than those holdens and azuras. but if it make you easier to struggle through life, sustain this belief.

    oh, it seems like i wrote a comment. i'm a writer.

    • Mathew

      What a dick

  • Spencer

    As a 'writer' myself, I know how you feel – there's nothing more misleading and unhelpful than the romantic notions of writers that permeate our culture. But you have to remember that for every head-baking alcoholic, there were dozens who just wrote; no fuss, no muss, they just wrote. You don't really hear about it, because who wants hear 'oh, I just get up in the morning, sit at my desk, and write for a few hours'? That's not romantic. It's not exciting.
    But even Hemingway had a pretty fixed writing regimen – he wrote every morning from about 6 am 'til noon, when he could be undisturbed. But all that drinking? That's what he was doing when he *wasn't* writing.

    Your Holdens? They're taking *themselves* seriously, not their writing.

  • Dave P


  • rilez

    I like this. I feel like “suffering for your art” is like…. a rule or something now. Writers should just let it flow. Along with any other kind of art or job or whatever. It seems like having a shitty life has become trendy. I feel like a lot of my peers, who grew up in the same upper-middle class town that I did, with two loving parents, are all manic-depressive and lie about having anxiety disorders when they really don't… and then write shitty, melodramatic acoustic songs and play at the nearest inner-city open mic night. Clearly you're a writer, or your TC posts wouldn't garner as much attention as they do in the comment section.

  • EmiliaBedelia

    This is something I've been thinking about too lately. I went to a party a few weeks ago–it consisted of people who write for blogs, journals, and the like–and I was asked, very bluntly, “so, what do you write for?” I was immediately taken aback. “I don't write for anything,” I told him. He then asked me if I write “fiction, or poetry” which I thought was insulting (he seemed to be creating a hierarchy of writing before my eyes). I told him no. I told him that I do write, but it's boring. I enjoy writing theory, essays, unread and esoteric academic stuff. I felt like I had to somehow justify my coolness for him. Because I don't write for things, I became uncool and not very hip. He pretty much just exited the conversation at that point (if you are reading this, guy, you suck). Anyway, my point is that it's frustrating that writers (which is to say, people that write for a living) often talk about their writing as if they are crafting some golden-horseshoe-of-awesome when they are really just viewing some crappy indie bad that played at a dive bar the night before. Fucking, fuck. Don't talk about your writing, just fucking do it, and love it, and own it. Don't treat it like it's a passport to coolland, a passport that I apparently don't have.

  • eddyindigo

    Self-torture to expose those raw nerves, or give you an edgy experience to draw on or whatever serious writers think they're looking for doesn't do much for writing. It's just acting out, and it makes a mess, and I've done plenty of it. While people can sympathize with pain, they probably won't want to read about it unless there's something in there that also helps them cope with it. Ryan's writing has that; I guess it's humor, though that isn't all of it.

  • Calvin

    Best advice — happiness is a conscious decision. I tend to write a lot more interesting, insightful, and frankly worthwhile pieces (articles, blog posts, research essays, or simple work summaries and memos) when I'm happy. Not when I'm trying to be a “writer.” Thanks for stating the important Ryan.

  • maybe a writer?

    Thanks for this; it really hit home. I “write” too, but mostly, if not entirely, for free. I mainly review new albums for a friend's music webzine. I'm pretty lazy and don't puruse it actively enough to get paid, so I've resigned to doing it more so as a hobby, as my 9-5 pays my rent and shoe fetish pretty well. So, being that I don't get compensated for my writing, does this discredit my being a writer? Please discuss.

  • Raeesa

    I fucking love your writing, Ryan. all of it.

  • Tricksyrix

    Reading this made me cringe with sympathetic humiliation on your behalf.

    • Heyyyyyfonze


  • kelly

    hey ryan,

    i like your stuff. i enjoy reading it. i think it's funny and smart and entertaining and also sometimes sad.

    i am of the 'tortured writer' variety. not because of cigarettes or who i fuck in public restrooms or even because of my tortured existence, but because writing is so fucking hard, you know?

    for example, i'm super stressed out right now because i have to finish a draft of my 50 page thesis/ 'experimental' criticism of djuna barnes's “nightwood” in less than 12 hours. man, i never sleep at night and i'm always taking too many uppers and freaking out about my writing. it sort of sucks, but hey, i really shouldn't procratinate.

    sort of wish i could just relax and have fun and talk about dicks like you, etc.

    anyways, thanks for this piece. i think you're really cool.

  • Alan

    I usually don't like your articles. This was really good (IMHO). Puts some perspective on why you barrage this place with a lot of shitty articles that have really catchy titles. Those articles don't even seem as shitty anymore.

  • Kristin

    Your articles are the only reason I visit to this site
    Keep writing Ryan!

  • Guest666

    you know…it's fucking possible to genuinely enjoy alcohol, being depressed, AND writing.

  • Kathleen Gambarelli

    Whether the content of what you write is 'thematic' or not, your style of writing most certainly is. I can read a paragraph into on of your pieces and regardless of the topic, tell that it's you writing it. THAT, Ryan O'Connell, makes you a writer. And a damn good one at that.

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