|08: September 21, 2008
Why I Write Books
“Why do you write books?”
This is a question that I get, like, none of the time. To the best of my
recollection, not a single person has ever posed this question to me.
Still, it’s a question that has bubbled up in my own mind more than once
over the summer, during which I made precious little progress on my third
book. And since everything I do in my Josh Muggins incarnation is, to be
honest, utterly self-indulgent, I figured what the heck. I sat down and
challenged myself to come up with ten answers to this unasked question,
figuring that, if nothing else, I might oil up the muse in the process
so that I can get cracking on that book, and that I might learn something
about myself in the process.
Without further ado...
1. Writing a book saved my life.
That would be my first book—still my only one in print, owing to production
delays on the second—namely the 2005 memoir How To Pick Up Japanese Chicks And Doom Your Immortal Soul. One of the latter chapters explains the book’s genesis, the short version of which is:
While talking with a therapist about the rich, gooey, chocolately mess I’ve made of my life—featuring those old confessional-memoir standbys the nervous breakdown, the bout of acute depression, the suicide attempt—I mention that I had achieved some success a decade earlier as a writer of magazine features. The therapist encourages me to write about the events and choices that have led to my breakdown. Perhaps this will bring me toward some sort of, as it were, “closure.”
All of which is true. (Duh—it’s a memoir.) Unmentioned is the fact that
I’d already come to the conclusion by that time that if I were ever going
to clamber out of the hole I’d dug for myself, I was going to have to write
my way out of it. Therapy and meds obviously weren’t going to do it, and
as usual there were no Scientologists around when a guy could really use
one. I suppose I stressed the therapist’s role as a hedge: if the book
were universally panned and reviled, I could shrug and point fingers. See that earnest, ponytailed lesbian over there? It’s all her fault.
Though by no means universally panned, HTPUCADYIS has garnered decidedly mixed reviews. But what others think of it is neither
here nor there. Me, I’m as certain as I have ever been of anything in my
life that had I not written and published that book, I’d be long dead now,
or else in an institution playing checkers with a post-lobotomy Randall
Patrick McMurphy and composing transient, Pollockesque masterpieces on
the linoleum with my drool.
It’s quite understandable if the casual reader of the book (and/or this blog) reacts with palms-up ambivalence to the fact of my ongoing existence, but frankly it means quite a lot to me personally. The incipient cleaning up of my act that the final pages of HTPUCADYIS hint at has continued apace, and at 52 I’m a fully functioning member
of society who pays taxes and endeavors to contribute to the wellbeing
of my fellow humans (Just this once, I’ll spare you the self-aggrandizing
details). On most days I still bask in the healing presence of Japanese
chicks and in many cases enjoy their friendship, but no longer do I succumb
to their formidable addictive properties. Life is not merely ongoing but
good, or at least as good as it gets. None of this would be so without
the publication of HTPUCADYIS.
2. Writing books makes life worth living.
You know that 3 a.m. voice? No, not the one breathlessly informing President
Hillary Clinton of a diabolical terrorist plot that only she can foil.
I mean the one that annoys you, me, Hillary, and everybody else from time
to time, the one that pokes you awake, the one that brays, “What the hell are you doing with your life?” You know--that voice? Mine shuts up while I’m working on a book project,
because that’s when I know I’m doing the thing that I’m supposed to be
doing, the thing that I was put here to do.
Which is not the same as claiming that I do it all that well, because…
3. Talent is optional.
If, for some unfathomable reason, a company were to advertise for a memoirist, the classified might read like this:
|MEMOIRIST! Must have phenomenal memory for detail. Junior high literacy
and typing skills required. Long but flexible hours. Talent a plus.
Actually, you could even scratch the junior high literacy requirement if you regard Jesse Ventura and Paris Hilton as the true authors of their works. But the point here is that one doesn’t
need talent to produce a memoir. (My critics and supporters can come together
in anointing me the go-to guy for testimony on that point.) There is, however,
one more thing that surely is required: discipline.
4. Writing books fosters self-discipline.
The authorship of even a mediocre book—or even of a flat-out rotten one
for that matter—takes a degree of sustained concentration and keen attention
to detail that I’ve never managed to bring to bear on any other endeavor
in my life, with the possible exception of my pornography library. The
experience is the closest I have come—or ever want to come—to going through
Now, when I say “a flat-out rotten book,” there are limits. I don’t include
the random typing of one of those hypothetical monkeys sitting at keyboards
somewhere who supposedly bang out Hamlet once every five billion years and type gibberish the rest of the time.
(I had suspected the hand of one such monkey behind A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when a well-intentioned but inept English teacher finagled me into reading it as a high school senior. The other option had been Siddhartha, which had an exceptionally gay cover. In college I would become privy
to the consensus recognizing James Joyce as a revolutionary literary genius, but to this day cannot bring myself
to fully abandon the monkey theory.) I should hope that even my harshest
critics would grant that HTPUJCADYIS exceeds the above criterion for flat-out rottenness, consisting as it
does of legible, grammatical sentences and possessing a pretty conventional
linear structure. Thus, even if it is in fact a rotten book, it falls into
the mainstream of rotten books and, like global warming, is almost certainly
My point is that just the act of generating a whole book—let alone doing
it well—is really, really, really hard, and that going through the ordeal
is sure to make you a better organized person. Small wonder that of all
those who ever say or think “By cracky, I’m going to write myself a book!”
99.85% of them never pull it off. [Source: my hat]
5. Writing books doesn’t hurt anybody.
[Aside to regular readers: Here comes this post’s utterly gratuitous potshot at our hapless brother memoirist Augusten Burroughs.]
No elaboration needed here. Writing is, or at least ought to be innocent
fun. True, an author can drift onto dangerous turf when writing about real
persons and events, but still, there’s simply no reason why anyone can
cry foul or claim injury simply because of finding some other-named personage
in a memoir who resembles oneself. Unless, of course, the memoirist in
question is Augusten Burroughs.
6. The legacy thing: You leave a piece of yourself behind.
Here’s a frightening thought: There are now enough copies of HTPUJCADYIS spread around out there in the environment that it is not unreasonable
to suppose that, in the early 22nd century, somebody somewhere is going
to pull a yellowed copy of it out of a trunk in a deceased grandparent’s
basement and start reading it.
To which some nag will say: “So what? Most people leave things behind that will survive themselves: they’re called children.” Point taken, but…
7. Writing books is not collaborative.
Trapped as we are in this dark, pre-self-cloning era, the production of
a child inevitably entails the genetic contribution—equal in impact to
one’s own--of a second person. And even after said child is born, innumerable
teachers, aunts, and other such seedy characters will leave their respective
imprints on it, and before you know what's what you’ve got a raving, bug-eyed
meth addict on your hands when all you wanted was a quiet, genial alcoholic
to get soused with. To put it another way, raising a child is rather like
writing a screenplay: you can’t control who’s going to get their filthy
hands on it before it’s fully developed, and then you’re apt to end up
with your name attached to something like this.
No such problem with a book, the purest possible distillation of its creator’s DNA.
8. The chicks.
Even a fairly dry tome will inevitably draw a good-sized crowd to a B&N book signing, and before you know it you’re ass-deep in strange, nubile flesh. At least that’s what Al Greenspan told me.
9. It’s just good, clean fun.
“I shrieked, and clasped my hands in ecstasy!” wrote Percy Shelley of a
particularly jarring encounter with his muse. Personally, I don’t recall
ever shrieking while engaged in writing a book or column or article, but
I will confess to rubbing my hands together with glee. I’ve also tittered,
giggled, guffawed, chortled, hooted, sniveled, cackled, and pounded the
table. I’ve spent entire vacations in front of a computer screen that were
more thrilling, funnier, and better cures for stress than any that I’ve
spent in Hawaii or Thailand, and quite a bit cheaper to boot. There’s nothing
quite like makin' a good funny while writing a book.
10. The wealth, the awards, and the adulation.
All right, so I just needed something to round off the list.