A Few Words on Writing from a Great Writer

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The first time I read John Saward’s column for VICE, I remember laughing so hard I had to stop to catch my breath. Here’s the opening paragraph from his piece “Why I Love Watching Ron Jeremy Fuck”:

To witness Ron Jeremy have intercourse is to witness a grizzly bear eat a flamingo, or an orphan try to break into a vending machine. He is a manifestation of the grotesque male id, jamming fingers and genitals into every orifice at every opportunity, doing all of these things simultaneously, not making sense, not following some plan, just a man bludgeoning the human body with his sexual impulses. It is like watching a chimpanzee try to open the package of an Xbox controller.

That’s just the beginning. The rest is just as densely packed with those sorts of outrageous, illustrative and (to hell with it) perfect analogies. Upon finishing my teary-eyed second reading, I dropped whatever it was I was supposed to be working on that day and read everything else he’d published.

If you read VICE, you’ve likely come across something he’s written. He’s mostly known for his meditations on masculinity from his column “We Are Not Men” and, more recently, for his takedowns of various media/celebrity blowhards.

Probably his most popular post entitled “This American Bro: A Portrait of the Worst Guy Ever” appeared continuously in every one of my social media feeds the day it came out. One person who shared it said it was “required reading” and seemed all but convinced it would alter psyche of every douchebag who had the attention span to make it to the end.

But beyond sheer incisiveness and wit, the writing also has incredible heart. Last father’s day he wrote about his dad and this Valentine’s Day he wrote an essay on being in love: a series of descriptive scenes that were lucid in the same way your own philosophical arguments seem lucid when you’re talking about really impenetrable shit at the bar.

Easily my two favourite pieces, though, are about boxers. His piece on Mike Tyson is one of the best things VICE has ever published and his piece on Joe Frazier might be even better. After I read the Frazier piece I felt, for the first time, like I needed to tell the author how great I thought his story was. I emailed saying I wanted to be able to write like him and asked if we might be able to talk about his work, what he reads, etc.

His response remains one of the most cherished emails I’ve ever received. You can read it in full below:

In my early-twenties self-loathing had become a sort of recreational activity. I had just graduated from college and could not determine whether it was a period of growth or decay or stagnation. I suspect now that this is an affliction shared by many creative people (those who are immune to this are robots who need to be destroyed), but at that time I struggled to detach myself from it. I still wrote, but for purposes I could not identify. It was on the backs of receipts and in messages typed into my phone while riding the subway and on sprawling, unstructured Word documents. Writing was a messy, violent ejection of fractured ideas that I couldn’t assemble or refine.

Sometimes I sought activities that had as little to do with writing as possible. I mowed grass. I shoveled snow. I intentionally waited until the dishes in the sink grew into a small tower on the verge of collapse. For a few hours I would be consumed by things I did not like but knew I could at least get rid of. I floated in a nothingness, a lack of context, a separation from the narrative. I see the snow there under the tires and under the stacks of wooden planks rotting outside the garage. It exists in finite quantities; my body repeats the same mechanics automatically until it is gone. It is grueling but in a way that writing is not: it is of no significance beyond the act itself. It isn’t a reflection of who I am or what I might become. You are not “good” or “bad” at shoveling, and if you are it doesn’t matter. It is just snow. You get what you can and the rest melts. It was a sort of invincibility; a rapturous alternate reality.

The compulsion to write, or the pervading, pulsing need to be good at writing, is a monster. It’s there and it’s always there and you hope it doesn’t eat you alive.

I still feel that way. I feel that way frequently. There were certain elements of the Joe Frazier piece that I had been working on for three years. There was a moment, at six in the morning, still awake from the night before, the piece due later that afternoon, when I was convinced to a scientific degree that I would never complete it, not to any level of contentment, not for all eternity. I read the sentences relentlessly, until they became just words, just letters, just shapes, just static. I decided I would have to disappear and live under a bridge and burn down the entire internet and become a carpenter. I wondered about lumber grades.

I am telling you this only to assure you that if you have been paralyzed by that feeling before, you can let it exist, you can let it wrap its tentacles around you, but you can’t let it scare you. Eventually, you always get to send the monster back to its fucking cave.

I realize that very little of this has been “advice,” and for that I apologize. I will say that you should embrace moments of solitude and contemplation, and when you are there, examine what it is that shakes you. Pursue those things to every shadowy part of your subconscious. I am fascinated by the sad and the weird, because there is a desperation exhibited by them that is ferociously honest and something that I recognize in myself. Understand that writing can be, despite its epiphanous moments, something brutal. It is okay if it feels difficult. It is okay to grind. We don’t conquer it. We live with it. If you read something that someone else has written that seems perfect, never feel intimidated. Most of the time perfect does not just materialize from the ether.

I apologize for taking so long. Thank you for your patience. Your e-mail moved me.

People whose existence has been essential to whatever I have accomplished: Bruce Davidson (this), Gay Talese (this), Frederick Exley (this), Wim Wenders (this), Alex Pappademas (this), Don DeLillo (this), Brian Phillips (this, this, this), John Jeremiah Sullivan (this, this), Raymond Carver, Louis CK, Chris Ott (this), O.V. Wright (this).

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A Few Words on Writing from a Great Writer

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