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  • Ken Ilgunas

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.


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