I was recently interviewed by a literary magazine that published me, eh, 7-8 years ago, sort of a WHERE ARE THEY NOW thing. The interview was just a few questions long, and I get the feeling my answers will be folded into a larger montage. I’ll link to it when it’s posted.
One of the questions, however, has stuck with me:
How has your writing changed since your publication?
Since I was first published in this particular journal, I’d graduated with an MFA in creative writing, published a bunch of other stuff (including a chapbook and some things in a couple of anthologies), did a stint as a fitness blogger, won a grant from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, wrote a few novels that remain unpublished, and, most recently, started this blog. That’s a lot of writer “stuff” to compress into a sound bite, and it’s also pretty uninteresting, so I didn’t use it in my answer. Instead, I talked about how writing-workshop-culture skewed what it was I thought was good in my writing, and how I’ve been recovering from that while exploring new things to write about and new ways to write.
I may have also mentioned Avatar Fan-Fiction.
I think one of the reasons the question has remained with me is that, to me at least, it’s lacking in a foundational “you.” Like, it’s not you that we’re concerned about, it’s your writing, which baffles me because who I am and what I write is inextricably linked. Asking about how my writing has changed means asking how I have changed.
For example, in the same amount of time, I moved to Brooklyn and worked in a bookstore warehouse, later got a job publishing cancer research, traveled the globe, had my heart broken 1.5 times, and was very, very poor. I was let go from my publishing job, worked in a bar, I moved out of Brooklyn and into the Bronx, and my mother passed away. I got married, I pulled myself out of debt, I started a career in healthcare administration, and now I’m getting ready to start a family.
I also, after a ten-year hiatus, am a nerd again.
The genesis of my nerdom is, like so many others’, the product of introversion and contemplation and dreaming. In a family made up of loud-ass Texans, I was the quiet one, drawn to reading as a way to internalize socialization because, as the youngest in the family unit, my voice didn’t have a place in our loud-ass familial dialogue. This lent itself to fantasy books—many of which concerned young boys and girls leaving their respective homes to have adventures in new and wonderful places. In reading fantasy books, I obtained a hope that somewhere out there was a place where I could have a voice, a place I could call home.
Even if, technically, that place was in my imagination and didn’t actually exist.
Harold’s Purple Crayon and Where the Wild Things Are turned into James and the Giant Peach and Wide Awake in Dreamland, which became The Giver, and The Hobbit, and the DragonLance series and, via the suggestions of a suspiciously Gaiman-like doppleganger bookseller, Good Omens and Neverwhere and Robert Aspirin’s delightful Another Fine Myth series. I have lost weeks of my life to reading The Wheel of Time. My friends started taking me to the comic book store, which rekindled a love of comics in my Dad, and pretty soon he and I were regulars at Bedrock City Comics in Houston, where I was buying every DC Vertigo title that came out. I also started buying Magic: the Gathering cards, which I began playing regularly with my friends when I wasn’t pretending to be a pyromaniac cleric or a Halfling barbarian in a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. I subscribed to Inquest and Wizard. I joined MUDs and MUSHs, and had a romantically sad stint as a Sluagh photographer in a Changeling campaign. At home, I would spend hours piloting Samus through insane, science-fiction platforms, or Link through the universe to save his Zelda, or Locke and Terra and Celes through the hours of beautiful mythology and lore that was my first epic: Final Fantasy 6. By 14 I was full-on nerd, by 16 I was that guy at the homecoming dance that showed up wearing home-made, black Angel wings, the same guy that had rented every single Anime at his local Hollywood Video—twice—and once played D&D for 3 straight days until he passed out on his neighbor’s lawn.
But by my freshman year of college, I was, I decided, a poet. All my nerdy friends moved out of Houston, and I abandoned all that nerdy genre shit to hang out with poets and writers. I mean, I would still casually dabble in some Harry Potter, but that was technically a pop culture phenomenon, not genre fiction or, good god, fantasy. If I flipped through some comic trades at a Barnes and Nobles, it wasn’t because I was going to buy anything, but because I had some time to kill. My D&D group became exclusively online, but even that dwindled until it was just my friend Aleks and I, taking turns running characters through imaginary scenarios, which I justified by arguing it was a method to explore different motifs and interactions in my own writing, as well as a way to practice my dialogue. Not that I had anyone to justify this to—no one who met me knew about the 3,000 comics I had in longboxes back home, the 5,000 magic cards in sleeved binders, the hundreds of hours I’d spent rolling dice and clutching Caeser’s Pizza-stained character sheets.
No, I was who I hung out with, and no one I hung out with gamed. And the farther away I got from the games and dreams of my childhood, the more childish they looked, the more inconsequential.
I was going after Beauty!
I didn’t have time to slay dragons.
I must have, in the past ten years, cranked out nearly a thousand poems in various drafts. Most of them, it goes without saying, aren’t very good—but I never stopped trying. So that’s good. But they didn’t sing to me, didn’t feel like me, they, even though they possessed a hellishly confessional and possibly therapeutic bent, weren’t me. I spent years in this sort-of poetry fog, working on more and more poems trying to assemble a manuscript while becoming more and more fed up that what I was writing wasn’t very interesting to me. The craft, I guess, was there—I was published, my poetry friends were encouraging me—but I was just so fucking BORED with it.
I quit knowing if what I was writing was any good.
It didn’t help that the poetry friends I had began moving out of New York—heading to Ph.D. programs or cities where the combination of school debt and cost-of-living wasn’t so aggressively oppressive.
In a couple years, all the people I hung out with, all the writers and poets and critics and feminists and artists and actors and imbeciles, were gone. I tried hanging out with Lit majors, but there’s only so many times you can listen to cocktail theses about Joyce or Rand or whatever before ripping your hair out.
But then, something odd happened. Instead of talking about steep line breaks, or alliteration, or how the musicality in poetry has vanished (save for the neo-Classicists—good god what an ass I was), I was left alone. And suddenly the fantasy and science fiction books on the bookstore shelves didn’t look like genre garbage. They looked, well, interesting. Suddenly I was reading Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel, which gave way to American Gods and Anansi Boys, and then The Windup Girl. YA and Teen books were suddenly bursting with Science Fiction and Fantasy titles, filling a post-Potter void that solidified genre fiction as, if still casually considered “below” literary fiction, at least tolerably popular.
Suddenly, all the stuff that was lame during high school was “in.”
Suddenly, it wasn’t my childhood interests that seemed childish, but my distaste for them.
It was, I realized, time to grow up and be a kid again.
I wrote. I finished a fantasy YA novel and within minutes of submitting it to an A-list agent received a request to consider the full thing. (It ended up being rejected and I never submitted it again because it so obviously needs so much work, but hey that was an exciting moment for me!)
I wrote. I finished a fantasy MG novel about a boy with a balloon for a head that, actually, I think is pretty good and my wife loves, but after a round of submissions and no bites I shelved indefinitely.
I played video games. My roommate could afford an XBOX 360, and I plowed through his catalogues of old games and saved up to buy new ones. I was overwhelmed with the difference from when I had last played Final Fantasy 9 to suddenly playing Mass Effect 1, where, it seemed, everything mattered, and I built actual relationships with characters, complex one often deeper than characters I’d read and revisited in books time and time again. (I definitely teared up at the end of the Mass Effect trilogy, particularly in Shepherd’s farewell scene to Garrus; and the final goodbye Shepherd shares with Liara shocked me like a hot wire. Liara telling Shepherd she loved him is probably the third- or fourth-most impactful “I love you” I’ve ever heard.) When my roommate moved away, the first thing I did was save up to buy my own XBOX360, and I still game 5-20 hours a week.
I wrote. I quit writing confessional poetry and started writing prose poetry again, like I had prior to my MFA. It’s weird and undeveloped and, for me, raw, but enjoyably so. I’m in no rush to finish a manuscript either; I’ll probably have one done in a decade or so.
I gamed. I bought a pack of Magic: the Gathering cards on an impulse one day, and now I’m playing weekly, in almost every format, including traveling around the east coast to compete in major tournaments. I’m actually good at it too, which is a complex realization because it is, after all, a game. But it isn’t—it’s also a community and a group of friends and a thing we can do together and a way to relieve stress and a way to compete and so many other things too.
I wrote. I finally finished a novel I’m happy with, and I’m (albeit slowly) submitting it to agents. Numerous agents. And the request for the full manuscript is hovering around 50%, which is promising. Hopefully something happens and some agent swoops in and picks it up soon, but if it doesn’t happen, it’s not like the rejection of my poetry days—because I have a job, there is no rush, my life and career isn’t on the line.
I write. Currently I’m writing science fiction; my first attempt ever at the genre. We’ll see how it goes! It certainly has its different stresses, but I think that, had I forced myself to keep writing poetry, I would’ve burned out by now.
And that’s the point I’m getting at here. I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I realized, upon turning 7, I didn’t want to be a cowboy anymore, but somehow I got it in my head that the stuff I wanted to write about wasn’t OK. It was shameful to play Magic or D&D, only neckbeards play video games, only hack talent writes genre fiction.
BUT IT’S NOT TRUE.
What’s changed since my MFA program? Since my losses and victories and life-changing moments and joys and heartbreaks and such?
I quit writing what I wasn’t, and I started writing what I am.
I am a nerd.
That’s why I write (nerdy).