I Have To Have It Bad For My Writing To Be Good

Write fiction for a living and at some point, you’ll convince yourself that you need to set yourself on fire in order to be able to accurately describe your third degree burns.

Write fiction and not for a living, maybe only with the hopes of one day making a living from it, and you’ll convince yourself that any prolonged happiness is a roadblock and that you need to suffer more in order to create.

Do this for too long and you will find yourself in the unfortunate position of resenting your happiness.

And once you’ve reached that point, you’ll live inside of the thoughts, an emotional rotary that begins to convince you to make the mistake of looking for things to write about, rather than waiting for them to come to you. And, inevitably, when you come up empty, this will force you to begin to question everything you do, everything you say, everything you love.

This will be the excuse you use to justify your lack of writing, as well as the excuse you use to continue living in a way that is more than detrimental. And I know because this is the excuse that I used.

The evidence is everywhere in my earlier work, stuff that I labored over that never really went anywhere—bland, average tales of drunkenness; totally unrealistic drug use; and an unsustainable level of pathos. When you’re—again, inside of it—you think of it all as somehow transgressive or edgy because it’s a snake eating its own tail: it has to be edgy because you wouldn’t be putting yourself through it if it wasn’t, right?


If you’re lucky (read as: you work hard enough and get a couple of breaks here and there) to gain some distance from that spot, from that place, you realize that a cookie cutter is still a cookie cutter no matter how intricate the pattern (and that the little details that some cookie cutters claim to be able to cut just become amorphous blobs once baked); that drinking a bottle of X is lazy literary shorthand, the same as adverbs or nodding; that having your character swallow a bottle of pills and not die is just as unrealistic as having them don a cape and fly; that even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and so those times when it all did pay off were the exception and not the rule.

I tell my writing students that when they work on stuff, they should keep this motto in mind: my dog died. I want them to use my dog died like Roman generals used memento mori:

In ancient Rome, victorious generals marched in triumph to the Capitol. Lest the occasion go to the army commander’s head, a slave would march behind the victor, murmuring in his ear, memento mori, “remember you’re mortal”.

I want them to remember that everything they write, no matter how precious or grandiose, can be boiled down to that approach. Essentially—something happened and I want to tell you all about it.

But then I tell them that what they do with that topic—where they start; where they end; how and why the dog dies; every detail they can possibly think of—gets them further and further away from that initial banal truth and that all of the layers they add is what eventually makes the piece a unique experience.

I’m not writing to say that characters should never drink or use drugs or quip sarcastic. Quite the opposite, and anyway, they’re your characters; do what you want with them. I’m writing to try and give a name to something that I’m finally proud to feel: that you’re not a character in your writing. That you don’t have to live under the weight of thinking I have to have it bad for my writing  to be good.

To write, you have to have an idea. You have to have the motivation to write every day. You have to have the motivation to start writing again once you don’t write every day. And along the way, you have to do things other than write because malnutrition doesn’t help you to think of ideas, and neither does ignoring bill collectors.

You also have to be able to get writing done while you’re not writing, and then think of a way to get those thoughts down safely (the good ones, anyway) while you’re driving or walking or riding.

(A good test of your ideas: are you willing to risk crashing your car on the highway to get it jotted down?)

And maybe you don’t have to be happy to write, but I will definitely vouch for the fact that it sure as shit helps. Because if you hate yourself and you hate your life, there’s a good chance that you’re going to hate what you create and the life that helped (or didn’t help) you to create it.

There are a lot of voices out there. There are a lot of programs and teachers and certifications and degrees. And they’re all going to claim to be able to tell you The Secret. But the secret about The Secret was best summed-up by Thomas Edison:

Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.

There’s no secret sauce to be found in burn wards or welfare motels. The hangover that you wind up with as a result of searching for inspiration will only hinder the next day’s struggle to get down the words.

So put your characters through hell. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking that you have to be there with them.