On Writing

The few months I lived in Victoria were strange in retrospect. I had no friends other than my girlfriend. I’d just gotten back from an overland odyssey from Seattle to Buenos Aires and was trying to write a book about it. I had no idea what I was doing. I’d go to the local cafe and get tea and quite literally scribble in my notebook for an hour, thinking the most important thing was putting words on paper. It didn’t matter so much what the words were as long as they got written. My style was a worse Chuck Klosterman with a little Bill Bryson thrown in. I was convinced the book was going to be published and that it was my start as a famous travel writer, but it failed. I never even finished the rough draft. As a budding writer you know you’re going to fail, but you don’t realize how much.

Then, in 2014 I flew to Belgrade, mostly because the name sounds cool. It sounds exotic. You tell people you’re going to Belgrade and they think, I don’t know where that is but this guy seems cool. It was the beginning of February and it snowed what felt like seven feet the first night I was there and I did what I usually do in the first days of a new trip: I got sick. But before I got sick I wandered the streets by myself, soaking my leather boots in the slush and going to a cafe where everyone was smoking and where I ate a fruit and yoghurt parfait that at four dollars seemed exorbitant. The next day I transferred to an Air Bnb where the mother served me coffee and cake upon arrival and it was still snowing outside and everyone was smoking inside. I spoke a little polish and a little Czech and so could sort of communicate with the mother, and I figured out how to say, “My stomach hurts.” When she found that my stomach hurt she promptly made me some chicken soup, and that was how I spent the afternoon on my second day in Belgrade, watching her son smoke cigarettes while watching soccer and watching the snowflakes go by like little white pterodactyls. After the chicken soup I felt better and took a walk through the downtown. I went to a Mexican place and got a surprisingly decent burrito, and then to a cafe where again everyone was smoking and I almost went up to a girl and said, “Excuse me, but the second hand smoke isn’t cutting it. Could you just inhale directly into my mouth?” That night I lay in my room reading and thinking about where to go next. Would it be warmer in Romania?

Two and a half months later I was walking across Tempelhof Feld in Berlin and it was May and warm outside. I had finished the rough draft of the book, approximately 45,000. It had taken me into Romania, Ukraine for three weeks, across to Poland and up to the Baltic Sea, and finally into Germany. The only thing I had done with this book was put words on paper. I made myself write a thousand words a day five days a week, which meant I wrote five thousand words a week. Which is good, in theory. But five thousand words isn’t good if they’re not five thousand good words. If you just pound the keyboard until you get the desired word count you’re not actually writing. And that’s basically what I did a few times. I’d starve myself all morning and then go to a cafe and get a cappuccino where I’d writte a thousand words in a caffeinated trance and call it day.

Nothing ever happened with that book. I sold a PDF version to my friends and family and made about 100 dollars. I wrote a few query letters before realizing that when trying to get something published the most important thing is that you believe in it. I did not believe in this book, which was called Snowflakes in Lviv because one day as I lay in my bed in Lviv listening to Requiem by Mozart the snow was drifting by the window outside. I thought it was rambling, unpolished, and lacked substance. I still think these things. I thought these things even when I was writing it. With that book I had the attitude: Well, your first book never really makes it, so might as well just get this over with. I’ve since come to realize this is true, but also that you still have to try. Whenever you write a book you have to give it your damnedest, because even though it’s almost certain to fail, by giving it your damnedest, A) It might not, and B) you’ll learn a lot more. This is one of the hardest things about writing, and I’m still not sure what the solution is. I think it might have something to do with cigarettes.

The next big book attempt came in the form of fiction. Last year I started writing a novel called The Last Expedition of Chauncey Merriwether. It was about a guy who goes to the jungles of Belize looking for treasure, fails time and time again, and then eventually finds treasure in either Peru or Italy. His partner in crime is a one-eyed guy named Rodrigo from Campeche.

Again with this book I got a decent way in and then became convinced it was terrible and stopped. This time I didn’t have a daily word minimum but rather a time minimum. An hour a day. At first this worked great. I’d spend almost the entire hour scribbling furiously, but that’s always how it is with a new book. When you start a new book you’re actually excited about it, you actually think it might succeed, and so it’s easy to write. But that enthusiasm wanes a little each day until it disappears entirely, and this is when routine becomes important. But dedicating an hour a day to the book wasn’t effective, because eventually I’d just stare at the empty pages of my notebook for an hour. As long as I “sat with the book” for an hour, that was enough. It didn’t matter if I wrote anything, it was the intent that mattered.

I have no doubt that if I ever make it as a writer I’ll look back on all this and say, “Well, yeah, the hardest part is figuring out your process. And the thing is, no one can tell you which process to use. For some it’s word count. For other people it’s a time amount. For some people it’s neither. Some people write in the morning. Some people write into the wee hours of the night. Some people write drunk. Smart people write sober. And of course you have to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, unless you’re like Karl Ove Knausgaard who, when he was writing My Struggle, the international phenomenon and best novel to come out in the last 10 years and if you think differently you need to re-evaluate your life, essentially didn’t edit at all. I still don’t have my process dialed. I’ve discovered a few things: I write better in the morning, better on an empty stomach, and it’s OK to give myself word minimums but what really matters is writing with intent. And by intent I mean I can’t just get 1,000 words, I have to try to get 1,000 good words.

For example, as I write this exact essay or article or whatever you want to call it I’m sitting in my apartment in North Seattle in only my boxers and socks, drinking mate and wishing I’d already written 1,000 words so I could eat. That’s my new process. I don’t allow myself to eat until I’ve gotten a certain amount of words, and they have to be good words, or at least not terrible. Basically, I have to try. I’ve found mate to be a critical ingredient in stimulating my brain and getting me started. And I know I’m making it sound like pulling teeth, like I don’t even like writing, when in fact the opposite is true. Or sort of true. It’s not so much that I love writing, it’s just that I need to do it, that I always will do it, and that I get deep satisfaction from it. We all need to express ourselves in some way. For some people it’s painting or running or wooden boat building. For others it’s cooking or making specialty coffee or stridently supporting the second amendment despite the fact that you’re five times more likely to be killed by a firearm in the US than in any country in Western Europe. For me it’s writing.

The weird thing is that while it’s satisfying it’s also maddening. Writing isn’t fun for me the same way playing soccer is. I don’t harbor any illusions of becoming a pro soccer player (unless there are O34 [over 34] pro teams). But I do harbor illusions of becoming a pro writer. I most definitely do. I think about it constantly. When I fall asleep at night I think about two things: Christian Pulisic, and becoming a writer. When I wake up in the morning I think of three things: When the next Borussia Dortmund game is and whether or not Christian Pulisic will score in it, bacon, and becoming a writer. And throughout the day I generally think of (about) eight things: How I’m going to pay the next month’s rent, whether or not I should have pizza for dinner, why I’m always so tired, why girls are wearing those high jeans now, if I’m ever going to speak fluent German and if I even want to, how my sister’s dog is doing, how to best practice stoicism, and becoming a writer. The reason writing isn’t satisfying the way soccer is is because I always feel like I’m coming up short with writing, like what I’m writing isn’t good enough. If I take a soccer shot and it goes in off the post, that’s it, I couldn’t have done much better. But I never write a sentence and think, That’s it, that’s as good as it gets, I’m done now. I think, Is that sentence even good? Do I know what good writing is? Why is it so easy to read what someone else wrote and know if it’s good or not but almost impossible when it’s something I’ve written?

Last year I made another attempt at writing a non-fiction travel book, and in this attempt I drove my car from Seattle to Panama and wrote about it. It started off OK. I thought I had a good start when I talked to an old couple in a cafe in Seaside, Oregon, and they told me their life story. I surfed many times alone. I met a girl in Panama and traveled with her a bit and it had all the makings of drama. But at some point, as I’ve done with every other project, I gave up.

Which is why the last time I made an attempt at writing a book, in the spring of 2017, I resolved to not give up at any cost. Even if it killed me, even if everyday I wrote I had a terrible time and the writing was shit, to not give up. Things went well for about 20,000 words. For a couple months I thought I’d actually finish the book. I actually believed I’d follow through. But then something happened. I don’t even remember what happened. I think I got drunk at a wedding. I think I went to New York and decided to take a break from the book and that was it, you can’t take breaks, because as soon as you take a break you realize what crap you were writing, even if it wasn’t crap.

Since that first attempt in 2008 in Victoria, BC, I’ve tried to write many books. I (sort of) finished one. I’ve abandoned all the others. I listened to an interview with the woman who wrote The Last Samurai and she said she wrote hundreds of unfinished novels before finishing The Last Samurai. Which is depressing. If I have to fail hundreds of times before it finally happens I might as well just give up now. In fact, the other day I was walking and I had a thought: Mark: You know, it might just never happen for you. You might never become a writer.

And you know what? If I never become a writer, that’s fine. Because there are other things that are more important, like the act of writing myself. Like playing soccer on a cool fall day. Like having coffee with a friend. Like writing 1,000 words on your laptop, grabbing your laptop, throwing it in the water, and screaming, “Knausgaard!!!!!!!!!!!”