I was asked to share a bit on my experience as a writer for Author magazine. The result dealt with the dichotomy between the artist’s mind (and mental health) and the larger world that consumes it. Please enjoy!
He’s a certifiable asshole, and you kind of hate him, but you want him to succeed despite all of his endless fuckery. That’s how I talk about Ollie when people ask what my book is about. It was just how I described him to my old roommate, Bean, who’d lived with me while Ollie was still about eighty-seven words and a pipe dream. I thought it was obvious where Ollie had come from, for Bean and I had spent countless hours dredging out our troubled backgrounds. She had an alcoholic for a mother and a twin sister that was apparently homicidal. I told her how my dad kicked the can, about the breakdown I’d had on some sidewalk near Union Square after being dumped by the biggest narcissist you ever saw. It sent me tearing madly onto the subway platform near my apartment; I was going to fling myself in front of the train and then everyone would know how much it hurt to live in this meat puppet of mine. Divine intervention got me to the hospital instead. Medication has sedated the wailing. My body grows less numb with the hormones I take.
Bean thought medication was for the birds. She didn’t understand what I was like when left to my own devices. To her, it was exaggeration that Ollie would think cocaine was a good idea; to her, Ollie’s oblivious sadism was character fluff. To me, he was nearly autobiographical. What would Ollie do? Whatever the fuck I would have done. Wrap it up and hit send on all those query letters.
I kept Bean informed about every query I sent from the Barnes and Noble at the mall, where I was surrounded by hundreds of published books much crappier than mine. Everyone we knew was working on some project or another, needed advice about what works, what doesn’t, so I figured I was being helpful. Her plans for some generic epic fantasy comic came up a lot, though I rarely saw much more than glimpses of a flossy plot from her. Meanwhile, I hammered away on Ollie almost every day. For my graduate thesis project, I decided to illustrate the novel and research how stupid it was that adults didn’t get the benefit of beautiful art like children’s literature does.
It was all going to plan until Trump won the White House and doe-eyed sophomore Bean freaked out. Salty grad student me was already pulling out sixties protest stories and ransacking the apartment for anything that could become a picket sign. It sucks, yes, but we can do things about it. We don’t complain on Twitter, we get our asses out and mobilize. I’d get her a book about it, help her understand that we’ve gone through crazy, troubling shit before. For someone who liked to brag how damn woke she was, she was pretty ignorant.
I decided on another approach. I bought her a hefty hardcover book about sixties protest and a paperback copy of Profiles in Courage for myself. The minute I gave it to her, I should have known it was a waste of money. She put it on her bedside table, where it remained until the argument that broke us. I was angry that she treated me like a chauffeur, and she was lit that I dared to be pissed about it for more than fifteen minutes. Ollie came out in full force over it. I sent her rude texts; I left for hours and hours without telling her where I was going or why; I spat on her poor attempts to “talk it out”. When I came back to our place and saw she’d moved a bunch of things I’d lent her into our parlor, the stopper was violently uncorked.
I banged on her door, which she had locked, screaming at her to come out, screaming that she better return that book to me, screaming, screaming, screaming. She said she refused to do so with me camped out in the parlor, and eventually cracked her door just enough to throw the fucking thing at my head. I’d be lucky if the spine wasn’t ruined; I had plans to return it. My frustration grew, which was capped by my meds, but not so much that it disappeared. Hurting other people is wrong – I could remember that easily enough – but no one could get angry if I took that aggression out on myself. There’s probably still a dent in the plaster of that house, where I beat my head repeatedly. Flinging myself on the bed, I’d shouted and flailed, pulled my hair and punched myself in the face enough to get a nice shiner.
A knock at the door.
When I got myself together enough to answer it, I anticipated Bean on the other side with empathy for my clear struggle. I was instead greeted by two officers and an EMT. My face fell: I’d been in this situation before, and it always ended with me in an ambulance, a friendship breakup, and an unwanted stint in the loony bin. I didn’t have time for two weeks I couldn’t afford in the psych ward. I had a thesis project to finish. It was finals time. A hurricane had just fucked up our whole town. And for God’s sake, I was still waiting to hear back from the single agent reading my manuscript.
One ambulance ride later, I was languishing in a sub-par facility for whack-jobs, while my landlady was busy kicking me out of my place while I was gone. Without any connection to the outside world, I knew none of this until my mother showed up, explaining why she had to help me last-minute move when I got out. It made me feel like returning to school was pointless. Here was proof, landing me right back where I was after the incident near Union Square. Nothing had changed. I was still a madman that people left out with the rubbish.
But Ollie had so much spark, had so much power in his voice. How hypocritical it was to commend the writing and spit on the writer. Go on and praise the nuance, the skill, the resonance. It’s all dandy until you’re locked in with me and I’m screaming, screaming, screaming foul and fouler. Then shut down, folded up, catatonic. Just try getting anything good out of me then. Just try. Maybe I’ll manage to survive it again. Maybe it’ll mean more writing.
Two manuscripts later, I’ve found representation. I’ve vowed to never speed-read a book again after all the work it took to even get my stories on someone’s desk. When I first spoke to my agent, she was surprised to discover I wasn’t a fifty-year-old British man, but a weenie American who liked World War I history and sixties rock ‘n’ roll. Ollie wasn’t an invention carved out of careful research and planning: he was a struggle – a real person wading through muck and turmoil. He’s real because I’m real.
And I’ve something to say.