New Rochelle was a ghost town. The campus kids had left for the season, and few remained: the ones who were a couple credits shy of graduating on time, the ones who’d scored a job filing confidential papers at the Financial Aid office, the ones who had nowhere else to go, really. It was the summer of 2007 and the only thing more taxing than the heat was our boredom.
We tried to make our own fun – there were barbecues and boxes of wine at noon. YouTube marathons. Epic Scrabulous matches – four of us sitting in the same room with hot laptops sticking to our laps, silently engaging in a digital Cold War. We talked to each other for hours on end, and when that grew tired, we read.
Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story was the first book I’d read by Chuck Klosterman. I don’t remember what I’d been reading up until then – probably something embarrassing, books with engagement rings on their covers or about working at Vogue. But after reading Klosterman’s account of the cross-country road trip that brought him to rock music’s most infamous death sites, coupled with ruminations on his own personal life and served up in digestible chunks of essay, I’d found my narrative of choice. I finished the book in a day and started reading Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto immediately.
I don’t know that every reader finds an author that they identify with on a deep, psychotic level, but ‘discovering’ Chuck Klosterman showed me that, indeed, there is a place in this world for people who want to discuss the implications of the last season of Saved by the Bell. A place where one can potentially make a living doing so. That excited me.
Part of me believes it’s the writer in me that relates to Klosterman, not the reader. Although at that time, I was more imagining myself writing than actually doing it. I’d only completed one piece, seven years prior. It was about a kid who took mushrooms before going to school. I wrote it when I was 15 and have edited one sentence a year ever since. It’s a terrible piece of writing.
I was eventually told as much by my friend Sam, another writer (whose accolades extended beyond a 600-word ode to hallucinogenics and several abandoned ‘novels’). I met Sam on the 4th of July the following summer. We bonded while waiting in an exhaustive beer line at some music festival that doubled as a dumping ground for broke people who had nothing better to do. Chuck Klosterman snuck his way into the first ten minutes of our conversation. “I saw him read from Downtown Owl at Highline Ballroom a few months ago; I can’t wait to read it,” I bragged. Sam wasn’t having it. “I was there, too. God, I love him. He actually emailed me once, with writing advice. I know his fiancée; she set it up.”
The non-flash photo I took with Chuck at the reading plummeted to ‘subpar’ on the scale of fan interaction.
“Oh my god. I need that email. Will you forward it to me? Please?” I begged. We’d just met and I was already begging for something. “I’ll send it to you, sure. But you have to promise you won’t email him.” “I won’t,” I vowed. We got our beers and passed the time with aimless chatter, anxious for the fireworks to replace the sun.
Weeks passed, and I was sure I’d never hear from Sam again. A handful of days felt like an unbearably long time to wait for an email. I’d written my email address on a scrap of paper, so it was entirely possible that my fears were grounded in reality – it could’ve blown away, or of course, maybe Sam just hated me. It was that brand of disappointing summer – I had no job, no apartment, and my expectations grew more tenuous by the hour. But two weeks later, when I logged in for another stimulating day of copying and pasting cover letters, there it was.
- The only three things about writing that are really important are (a.) being interesting, (b.) being entertaining, and (c.) being clear. If you fulfill those three criteria, you are writing well. That’s the whole equation. Everything else is just a detail.
- Look for opportunities where you can interview people. Every year, there are fewer and fewer people who are able to do this. It’s a dying craft. Force yourself to get experience at this.
- Anybody can be wrong about anything.
- If you find yourself wanting to become friends with someone you are writing about, you are doing a bad job. If you find yourself wanting to destroy or embarrass the person you are writing about, you are doing a bad job.
- If somebody asks your opinion about something you don’t give a shit about, agree with whatever they already think. That way, your eventual disagreement will mean more (about things that actually matter).
- When other people are not working, that is when you should be working the hardest. I’ve done my best writing at 11:30 on a Friday night.
- Here is the paradoxical key to succeeding at media and enjoying life: When you are writing, you have to consciously believe that what you are doing is the most important thing you’ll ever do. However, you have to subconsciously understand that it really doesn’t matter at all. And you have to know both of these things at the same time.
A few months later, Downtown Owl was officially released. My preordered, hard cover copy arrived in the mail, and it accompanied me on my commute every morning for a week until I’d finished it. It’s Klosterman’s only fiction novel to date, so I didn’t know what to expect other than that I’d probably like it. And I did – but the familiarity of his voice added what felt like an autobiographical tinge to what I expected to be new and foreign. When I finished the book, I was both satisfied and confused. So I did what any fanatic with access to their favorite author’s email address would do. I defied Sam, and I emailed Chuck.
After a lot of bush beating (“I can’t tell you where I got your email address!” “I don’t understand the difference between writing fiction and writing nonfiction!” “Your voice is exactly the same and it’s confusing to me!”), I expressed that I had trouble using a consistent voice, that I didn’t have a voice. There was a time when my writing was candid, passionate even; but four years of writing term papers steeped in academia took its toll on me. I was a hack, a robot.
He responded two days later. “When you write, just write things you would like to read. Imagine the book you’ve always wanted to find in a store, and then try to create that book. That’s the whole trick.”
The advice dispensed in both emails changed the way I think about writing – and it wasn’t the messages themselves that did it (though I think it’s among the best advice I’ve had the pleasure of receiving). It was the simplicity with which they were delivered. The consistent thing about these emails is that they’re not overwrought and pedantic. They’re just pointing out the obvious – which is a seriously undervalued virtue we lose if we’re not careful. It’s like every elementary school teacher ever has said: Keep it simple, stupid.
I’d been taking myself too seriously. Trying to follow the rules. Trying to copy what I’d seen. Trying to be something that no writer is – perfect. But there isn’t a mathematical equation for success. Success is subjective, not something you achieve when you’ve completed a checklist. This is especially true of writing. The answers aren’t unlocked and handed out to a few elites when they’ve reached a New High Score; they’re readily available to anyone who follows their instincts.
Writing has become much easier, since then.