Sunday, February 6, 2011

The writing life

I have spent the last month and a half writing a book about the last five years of my life. I’ve written some 30,000 words and drafts for nine chapters. I’d say I’m about 2/5ths done with the book, but—as any amateur writer knows—the real work begins during the revision process. In other words, I still have a long, long way to go.

The idea to write a book came after I wrote my vandwelling article for Salon a little over a year ago. As it was being edited by Salon, I got a long email from a literary agent in New York City who’d learned of my essay through one of Salon’s editors. He said he thought the article might make for a good book, and that I should consider writing one:

Your “sixth sense” for cheapness as self-preservation. A perfect, if extreme, emblem of the necessary frugality many Americans have had forced upon them by external circumstances. A story about the emotional droughts and awakening purifications of solitude and material deprivation…

I do think a book elaborating your Thoreauvian themes would have broad appeal, to publishers and readers alike, and I would love to discuss the possibility of a book with you. If you email me your number I’d be happy to give you a call and bear the burden of the charge!


When I read this, I almost vomited. A book?! After the article published, within days, another agent offered her services, and a publishing company even inquired if I wanted to work with them.

At the time, I’d only written a couple articles for my hometown’s alt-weekly, and this blog was known to just a couple dozen friends, family members and strangers.

I’d never considered myself a “writer,” and now, all of a sudden, there’s talk of literary agents, proposals, and a book deal!?

My first reaction—other than the overly-excited, caffeinated, “I’m going to pee out of my asshole” sensation in my stomach—was to tell myself to slow down. Relax, Ken. Take a deep breath. Allow yourself to put things into perspective. I came here to Duke to learn, not to earn.

I thence re-focused on my studies, and shelved the book idea toward the back of my mind. Since then, the publishing world’s interest in me writing a book has dwindled. But mine hasn’t. More and more, I think I might have something useful to say.

I want the book to be 1/3rd Walden, 1/3rd Into the Wild, and 1/3rd Nickel and Dimed. I want it to be both timely and timeless. I want it to discuss socially relevant themes like student debt and the high price of college, but I also want it to be about something more universal—about choosing romance over restraint, dreams over doubts; how the journey can transform someone; and how things like nature and frugality and travel can help one “find himself.” But most of all, I just want it to be entertaining.

It’s a bold, grand, ambitious project, and it could easily become a bold, grand and ambitious failure. Given that very few books are actually published, my book could be quite a costly failure. That’s because I’ve chosen not to work so I can write the book. I’ve even decided that I won’t be working this summer so I can give myself time for the editing process.

Yet, my bank account continues to dwindle with each car insurance payment, cell phone bill, and van repair. (I had to pay $265 on my latest repair last week, leaving me with a meager $1,010 in my account.)

Where I’ll live this summer, how I’ll eat, where my money will come from—this is all up in the air. And quite honestly, it’s stressing me out. Because the monthly bills have been slowly bleeding me dry, I’ve forced myself—as much as it hurts—to consider selling the van after I graduate in May.

But I only have one way of doing things: and that’s to give it your “all,” or to give nothing at all. To accomplish great things, I think you have to expose yourself to the possibility of great failure.

I remember my football coach in 7th grade would encourage us to play with “reckless abandon.” “Reckless abandon,” he’d yell. “Make your tackles with reckless abandon!” It’s an awkward phrase, but it stuck. What he meant was that when you go to tackle someone, you should never worry about hurting yourself or the other guy—you must throw your whole force and being into him without caution, without worry. And that’s the only way to play.

This is the only way I can go about things. I can’t help but live my life grandiosely. I must always be embarking on some long journey or endeavoring to accomplish some difficult feat. The coach was right: to allow yourself to “let up” at the last second for fear of tomorrow is to miss your tackle of today. So while I could be, in a couple months, homeless, completely broke, with nothing but a flimsy, useless liberal studies degree worth no more than the paper it’s printed on, I know I must at least give the book my best shot.

So I’ve been writing. Writing a lot. Writing too much.

Sometimes I’m on the computer for 8, 12, 16 hours a day. I’ve developed eccentric sleeping habits, staying up till 4 a.m., and not waking up until noon. All day long, I wear my quilt as a shroud to keep the glaring sunlight from browning my dungeon-dyed pasty pallor.

The writing has caused my body to undergo a metamorphosis. My beard has become long and feral. My hair is always oily and tousled like I’d just been having sex for the past three hours (which I most certainly hadn’t been). I’ve worn the same pair of flannel sweat pants for nearly a month, and I’ve all but stopped washing myself. I must constantly shift in my chair because I’ve lost almost all feeling in my ass, and I have—from sitting so much—developed a grotesquely large pimple on my back—so big that you can see its contours under my shirt, like a condom in a wallet.

But my metamorphosis is as much psychological as it is physical. Since I’ve secluded myself out here in the country at David’s, I’ve begun having long, drawn out conversations with the chickens. Because I have no physical contact with animate beings—David being a man and Lily being a saucy little bitch—on my jogs up and down country roads, I embrace the dogs that chase me with an unchecked ardor, tickling their tummies with my nose, giving their owners cause to wear concerned expressions as they watch me from behind their windows.

I feel like I haven’t seen a girl in years. When David and I took a rare trip to town to dine in a restaurant, I found myself eying the obese, baggy-eyed waitresses as if I were a starving wolf who just awoke amidst a herd of robustly-flanked caribou. This past week, when I was visited in the night by a succubus, I began thinking that I really ought to get out more.

I couldn't help but glorify the writing life. I imagined myself wearing a tight white shirt in front of a typewriter, pounding the keys in a constant state of invigoration fueled by caffeine and nicotine. Perhaps—when the mood struck me—I’d put on a collared shirt, slacks and a fedora and head into town where I'd talk Balzac at a local café with intelligent idlers. When people would ask me my "line of work," I’d proudly, beamingly, say, “I’m a writer,” before being lavished with “ewwws” and “ahhhs.”

But of course that’s not what the writing life is at all like. Pale-faced and bloodshot-eyed, sometimes I finding myself staring at the computer screen for hours without having hardly written a line. I’ll jump from one website to the next, checking my email every five minutes, frenetically scouring the web for some excuse to divert my attention. In moments like these, I can’t help but feel like the most useless being on the planet: doing nothing, producing nothing, good for nothing. In moments like these, I wonder if I’m ever going to be able to write again, and I think back—nostalgically—at those rare times when I felt like I could write for hours, days, and weeks without end.

In those fleeting moments of inspiration, I go into a writing frenzy; the words come so fast I must type feverishly as I’m hardly able to capture every flying thought from soaring into oblivion. But these are rare occasions.

The muse and I do not have a good, stable relationship. She is more like my sugar momma, and I, her booty call. She visits me only when the mood strikes her, and suddenly, instantly, she vanishes without a trace, leaving not a bra on the doorknob nor a strand of hair on my pillow from which I could have drawn more creative energy. Sometimes I can get her to come back with a hot cup of coffee, but she leaves as soon as the caffeine high does.

Part of the problem is balance. I most want to write after some unusual experience. When I travel, I feel this terrible, lingering, and constant urge to record my every thought, transcribe every conversation, and describe every scene in my journal. Without a page on which to pen my thoughts, I don’t think I’d even want to travel. Writing is not writing to me; writing is thinking. Writing brings order to my thoughts, makes me understand my most wild and unruly feelings, and helps me bring sense to a senseless world. Travel would be pointless dissipation to me if I could not extract some meaning out of it through writing. And without travel—or varied and vivid experience—I would have nothing to write. When traveling, there is a happy union between experience and reflection. You feel something new and you record something new and you share something new. And it’s all so delightful.

Now, however, as I write my book, I’m in a constant state of reflection, but experience very little that's new. And now that I’ve imprisoned myself behind this new task, my spirit has come back to life, screaming for everything I’ve forbid it. Oh how I can’t help but dream. I imagine myself trekking across distant continents, back atop of Blue Cloud, voyaging through rippling walls of black waves. Oh, the stars; the damn stars. When I see them, I doubt that even Mars could bring calm to my throbbing heart. How I can’t wait to leave it all; to again embark on some mighty journey—underneath a heavy pack and atop a pair of tired, doddering, trembling legs—on which I can rack up a fresh, smelly, smoking heap of experiences that I will, thereafter, be itching to transfer to page.


Ben said...


You write and it makes your struggle so relatable. It's timely and timeless; and absolutely and most importantly entertaining. Please keep writing.


kenavo said...

Do you like writers who write about writing?
I don't.
For me you are not a writer, I always stop reading if you are using to many words...
But I follow your blog with great respect because of the message.

Chris said...

'“I’m going to pee out of my asshole”'

I laughed.

I always enjoy your posts, even when they are long-winded and cringe-inducing. Best of luck with the writing.

Ken said...

Ben--thanks, brother.

Kenavo--Brutally honest! ;) I think most any new experience is worth writing about, including writing, even for an amateur like myself. Annie Dillard's book about writing called "The Writing Life" is fabulous.

Chris--ha, sorry about the cringes.

Anonymous said...

damn, thinking of selling your van while simultaneiously giving our a scholarship-crazy!

Maybe you need to do some traveling to overcome the spats of writer's block??

Natalie said...

Some people may not enjoy reading about someone struggling with writing, but I do. I am also trying to write, not so much a book, but more a collection of short stories and some poetry. I definitely understand the struggle, and the frustration of writer's block; trying to find the perfect way to phrase a thought or feeling to evoke the right kind of emotion in the reader. It's strenuous, but keep at it!! Your blog shows the immense talent you have for writing. :) Clearly you have a gift if you're getting book offers, and I am very envious!

Britt said...

Even though many people don't enjoy reading someone "writing about writing" - I'd say a good handful do. If you think about the majority of unpublished authors out there, scouting all the latest commentary by published authors - they WANT to know about other people's writing processes, it's a question that every person thinking about writing asks: What's your writing process? How do you write? Where do you get your motivation? That's why so many authors who have their own webpages also have links to their own writing process. Hell Stephan King wrote an entire book about it!!!

leah.houg said...

After just finding your blog a week ago, stumbling across that scholarship, and now reading this you defeat me.
Found your blog-teared with excitement as it is a rarity to find someone so true to what they do.
Stumbled across the scholarship-I AM going to Australia, and thought about applying but as the due date was a day away I deemed it "too good to be true" and didn't apply. Hmft. Now I'm going to do my dream [flood relief] in spite of you. (really with you as motivation in my anger about not applying)
You defeat me-After reading this, your struggling and still going after that book. Do it, and to the hell out of it.
You finish (and edit) that book and I'll clean up some floods.
Ready... GO!

Chris said...

So I'm gonna throw this out there even though I'm pretty sure you'll turn me down. If you need a place to stay this summer there is an open room at the Jesz house. You can pay me back with a night of baby sitting every week and also by helping me with some work around the house that I have planned for the summer. There is a lot of inspiration in this town waiting to be found, plenty of coffee shops that you can dress up and go to in order to brag about being a writer, and also a warm comfortable bed to come back to. Hot, delicious food on the table every night and free cable/internet/phone at your finger tips. Plus I'm considering getting a PS3 or x-box to complement my new renovation of the upstairs this spring.

Before you consider this charity and against everything you have been doing for the past 3 years think about this. First off I'm going to be doing some very labor intensive work this summer and I need another strong back to aid me since in my ripe old age of 29(this summer) my back is already starting to hurt. Second Toni and I would kill, and I mean that quite literally for someone we trust to watch the kids once a week so we can get out of the house for coffee or a movie. This alone would be payment enough. Third I have known you as a friend for the better part of my life. You have been there as all our other friends have been when I needed you the most and at some point I may need you again, I have to keep you healthy/alive/within shouting distance if I can.

You'd have a dog to run with you, hot coffee from our coffee pot, and I'm investing in an ERG(rowing machine) for exercise. Hot showers(everyday please, weekends are optional) and you and I can go to the mountains for a hike once in a while. The options for inspiration and comfort are endless. We can take in some of the attractions in the Queen City, see some sports, and catch up on the history that Toni and I know so little about.

I'm pretty sure I have your attention because you know I never write this much so put some serious thought into this offer.

Natalie @ Scarlett Notions said...

Ken, I'm so happy for you and jealous OF you! :) My goal is to someday have the "writer's life" and crank out a book or two...

Ken said...

Anon—ha, I recognize the irony. However, I don’t consider that money my own—since it was given to me during a time when I promised myself I wouldn’t accept money. I suppose I’m just being obstinate about principles. I’d like to travel more but I’m so paranoid of my van breaking down at the last moment, now that I’m so close to my debt-free degree. Alos, there’s no public transportation around here, plus gas is really expensive. I’m sort of holed in for the winter.

Natalie & Britt—I really like books about writing. Along with Dillard’s, I’d recommend Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird” and Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing down the bones.” Also Bob McKee’s book, “Story,” (which was made fun of in the movie “Adaptation”) is surprisingly insightful. It’s less about writing, and more about storytelling, but it’s great nonetheless.

Leah—thanks for the encouragement. Have fun down under.

Chris—you’re a saint. I’ll email you a reply.

Natalie—I’m tickled that people are envying me even though half of what I describe is frustration, pain, and bodily deformities. In all honesty, though, I’m grateful for the opportunity, and there’s no place I’d rather be than right here, right now, writing my book. I shouldn’t complain.

DragonheartD51 said...

I'm not sure if writing is your thing but since you happen to write entertaining blogs, even though that at times you overdo it in which I can't read anymore. I would like to read a book about you someday.

Book or no book, keep the good work trooper. -DD51

PS: I want to become a science fiction writer.

Constant Writer said...

This is my first visit to your blog, and I am totally blown away. Not only did you nail every detail about being a writer, but you did it in a funny way that was so totally relatable. I felt like I could've said the same things about myself, though unfortunately not as humorously.
Keep writing. Whether it amounts to anything or not, once that compulsion to write comes up, it's hard to stop. Still, writing is rewarding even if you don't produce the next great American novel.
Thanks again for sharing.

Josh said...

Wow Ken, being a writer sounds tough, but if someone can do it, it's you. I look forward to reading your completed work. The way you describe what you are writing sounds *exactly* like what I want to read. I haven't purchased a book from a bookstore in years, but I'll make an exception for yours. :-) You say you're struggling for money-- can you get an advance off your publisher perhaps? Just make sure you get yourself some fresh air and exercise during the writing process to keep yourself inspired.

All the best man.
From Josh

Christian said...


Keep at it! Your story and writing style has always left an impression on me. I look forward to being able to read a full book of your exploits and ideas.


Unknown said...

Dragon—ha, sorry for the longwinded entries. Good luck with the science-fiction. While I enjoy a good sci-fi flick, I can’t say I’ve ever read a book of that genre. David says “The Traveler” by John Twelve Hawks is one of the best in recent years.

Constant—thanks for the encouraging words. Just for the hell of it, here are some quotes from Emerson on writing:

“An artist spends himself, like the crayon in his hand, till he is gone.”
“Success depends on the aim, not the means. Look at the mark, not on your arrow.”
“The way to write is to throw your body at the mark when your arrows are spent.”

Josh—ha, I’d love an advance. Problem is, I need to get a “book deal” first—which I doubt I’ll ever get. It’s worth trying, though. We’ll see.

Christian—thanks, brother!

Ken said...

Kicking the Tyre--Ha, I'm amused that we can do business the "old fashioned chinese way" over the internet.

I'm gracious for the offer, and the kind words. (I really like Paul Theroux, btw.) But unless my laptop crashes, I should be good for money, even with the little bit I have. Still, though, thanks for the offer. (And yes, I think you're the only person in Singapore, let alone Asia, who reads my blog.)