31 December 2021

Writer, Feed Thyself

 Photo by Florian Klauer on Unsplash
I was all of 23 years old, and working at what would be the first of many Crappy Editorial Jobs. I had recently reconnected with a college buddy of mine, who would call from time to time during office hours so we could chat and stave off our mutual boredom. I was working at a teenybopper magazine in Teaneck, New Jersey; my friend was designing corporate stationery for an accounting firm in Washington, DC. Back in college, the two of us had majored in journalism. But who were we kidding? In our hearts, we knew we were fiction writers. At least, we hoped so.

Nearly every time he called, my buddy would ask: “What are you working on?”

I’d start to describe for him whatever the current project was that I was doing for my employer. He’d cut me off immediately. “I don’t care about that,” he said. “What’s going on with your writing? What’s up with the fiction?”

And I’d lapse into a long diatribe about how exhausted I was writing magazine articles. By the time I got home each night, I had no desire to touch my own work. Someday, I assured Stuart, I would make time for the work that mattered to me. Just not now.

A few calls later, my friend lowered the boom. “I hate to break this to you, but someday you’re going to die. Life is short. If you want to write, you have to make time for it now.”

Of course I was pissed at him for bringing this up. Offended, even. Who the hell was he to remind me of my mortality? He was literally two months older than me.

At age 23, you don’t just think you’re immortal. You are immortal.

But even at that age, Stu was somewhat wiser than I was. (He still is.) The truth of what he was saying sunk in, and I finally committed to my own work. I started a novel that year that would became the first I wrote as an adult.

This was a good decade before email was available in the workplace. So when Stu or I came across a cool article, we shared it the old-fashioned way: snail-mailed a photocopy to the other person’s home.

Some years later, I opened an envelope from Stu to find a piece he’d come across on a trip to the west coast. The article, “The Talent of the Room,” which first appeared in LA Weekly, was written by a writer named Michael Ventura. The piece was so powerful that I’ve re-read it nearly every year since, and have shared it with many writers. Ventura makes it available for free at his website; I hope you will take the time to read it. It’s the best gift I can give any writer as we hurtle toward the end of another year.

The gist of Ventura’s lesson is this:

If you’re going to be writer, you have to have to be comfortable hanging out by yourself, alone in a room, for hours, days, or years at a time. The irony is that what the outside world feeds you, you bring back into that room. When you’ve used up that nutrition, you’re obliged to seek out more of it in the outside world. Whether you accept it or not, this is the struggle all writers face. To put words on a page, you must enrich yourself or you dry up.

We’re going on two miserable years, folks, when it has been hard to sate ourselves on the company of friends, family, and loved ones. I know that I have felt the loss of that restorative influence; I’m sure some of you have too. When I do get out in public these days, I’m astonished how giddy I am, and how seemingly innocuous conversations linger in my memory for hours or even days later.

“I was really very hungry,” M.F.K Fisher says in one of her classic essays, and though she is renowned as a food writer, you get the sense that it wasn’t just food she craved.

If you are a writer, you are always hungry. Your psyche must be fed. It’s drinking in snatches of dialogue, sopping up real-life anecdotes that can be repurposed as plot points, and absorbing emotions that emanate from other peoples’ voices. We do this instinctively, often without noticing what we are doing. It is our superpower. The horticulturist perceives leaves and sunlight. The fashion designer notices fabric, weave, and drape. The mechanic hears the rasp of an ailing engine. The writer sees, hears, and breathes story. But if we don’t get what we need to fashion story from the real world, we wither.

I’m not one for resolutions. Staring down the last dregs of a calendar should not be the thing that forces me to make a promise to myself. If something is worth resolving, chances are I’ve sensed it long before midnight tonight. I’m not in my twenties any more, and I’m long past fooling myself.

I am hungry, but I’ve always been. Time is short, but it always has been. Those two things should be enough to carry me into 2022.

I wish you all a beautiful, lustrous year, filled with sustenance and stories.

* * *

See you in three weeks!



  1. Pointed, in a wonderful way. Thanks for the perspective and the push.

    1. I'm glad you liked it. Bob. Thanks for stopping by, and my best to you for 2022.

  2. Wonderful, and exactly what I needed to hear. Sustenance and stories to us all! (Or does that make us sound like vampires?) Happy New Year!

    1. Glad the piece resonated with you, Eve. Happy New Year!

  3. Joe, this is an article others should unpack and quote. It's jarring and should nudge artists out of their comfort zone.

    Happy New Year, Joe.

    1. Thanks for the note, Leigh. I admit that I was taken aback when Stu put it so callously so long ago. But his comment still pops up in my memory from time to time.


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