I went to the website I Write Like, and pasted in some text from The Happiest Days Of Our Lives. It did its analyzing thing, and told me…
I sat back in my chair, and smiled.
My life is very different now than it was when I started writing in public. When I started my blog in 2000, it was, uh … like this:
But check this out: There is this big thing called “The Television Critic’s Association”. I think there are TV critics in it, or something. Anyway, they get together every year to run up huge tabs on their corporate credit accounts, and see what’s coming up on TV in the next quarter. That’s where I come in. TNN asked me to go to the “TCA” (when you’re a hip, edgy, media-savvy person, you use lots of acronyms, FYI) and be part of this TNG launch-thing. So I went, and it was sooo cool! I got to see some of the old TNG kids, who I don’t ever see anymore since they’re millionaires and I’m living in a refrigerator box, and, the coolest thing of all…I got to take a pee right next to BILLY FREAKIN IDOL!!!
Yes, you read that right. Here’s how it happened: I went into the bathroom, and I’m doing my business, and I notice the guy next to mee is rather dressed up, like in serious rocker clothes. So I try to just glance at him, without getting all gay and weird, and he looks right at me, sneer and all. That’s when I realize that it’s HIM! HOLY CRAP! So I say, “My wife and I just saw you on “Storytellers”. You really rocked, man!” (tap, tap). And he looks at me, and from behind his cool-guy sunglasses says, “Cheers, mate.” And he’s gone.
YES! How cool was that?
So after that, I’m off to New York to do a cool show called “Lifegame” which will be on TNN in a month or so. It’s an improv show where they asked me to tell stories about my life, and then they have improvisers act out scenes based on my so called life, in different styles. Like the time my parents cornered me in the bathroom and gave me “The Talk”—when I was 20, done as a reggae musical. Very funny. And I got to play the Devil in a scene. YES!
While I was there, I got a tour of MTV networks, met Carson Daly (!), and was given a CHIA MISTER T! That’s right. Let me tell you, everything after that was just Jibba Jabba.
We all have to start somewhere, right? So if you’re starting out as a writer, and you’re worried that your voice isn’t quite as developed as you want it to be, don’t worry. As Ira Glass says:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
One of the people who helped me fight my way through, way back in the early months of this century, was Cory Doctorow. I met Cory at an EFF event where I boxed against Barney the Stupid Dinosaur (and I wore the Infamous Clown Sweater). We hit it off immediately, and he gave me a copy of his then-unpublished book, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. I devoured that manuscript as fast as I could turn the pages, and when I was thinking about publishing some of my own writing, I emailed Cory for advice.
I’d been working on what became Just A Geek for a couple of months. I’d written probably twelve or fifteen thousand words, and I felt like something wasn’t quite right with the work I’d been doing. I was so close to it, though, I couldn’t see for myself what it was. I reached out to Cory because he was a writer who I knew and respected, and I hoped he could help me close the gap between what I wanted to write, and was I was able to write.
He offered to take a look at the manuscript I was working on, and — wow. I am sitting in my office in my house in 2013, in a different physical and emotional place than I was on the day I sent him my manuscript in 2001 or 2002, and I just got the visceral memory of that moment like a flashback in a movie. I’m sitting at my desk, typing away on my Linux machine (which was a gift from the members of the Soapbox), waiting for OpenOffice.org to load because it was so slow back then. I’m tabbing between Cory’s e-mail in KMail, and Fark in Konqueror. My dog, Ferris, is running around the backyard, and I’m listening to Oingo Boingo’s Dark At The End Of The Tunnel on whatever MP3 player was in the version of Debian I was using at the time. (It’s funny, isn’t it, how some details are crystal clear and others of equal importance or non-importance are completely obscured). OpenOffice finally loads, I confirm that I’m sending the latest version of the manuscript (untitled at the time), and I attach a zipfile to a hastily-written reply.
It was a few days before Cory replied, and during the wait, I convinced myself that he would tell me I was brilliant and amazing, and to stop doubting myself. Just finish the book, he would tell me, because the world can not live a moment longer without knowing the story you want to tell them.
It didn’t work out that way. Cory replied to me, and was brutally honest about the quality of my writing. He was never unkind, but he made it clear to me that my writing was amateurish. I didn’t told when I should have shown, rambled about things that didn’t matter to the narrative, glossed over things that did, and generally had a lot of work to do if I was going to take this story to the public. And it was a good story, he told me, but it needed a lot of work.
I was devastated. I sat in my chair at that desk, alone in my house on a hot afternoon, and felt like I’d been kicked in the stomach, then punched in the face, and then kicked in the stomach again. I’d spent months working on something that was pretty much crap and my burgeoning career as a writer was done before it had started. At that moment, I felt like I would never be more than that nearly thirty year-old failure who used to be an actor when he was a kid.
I walked my dog, as I so often did in those days, to clear my head. While we were out, I let the emotional punch fade, and considered the underlying message in Cory’s email: I had a good story to tell, but I needed to develop my skills as a storyteller. He had included examples from his own life and writing, and encouraged me to keep working at it.
So that’s what I did. I rewrote everything I had, cut out thousands of words — entire chapters in some cases — and kept at it. Months later, I finally had something that I genuinely thought was better because of the advice Cory had given me, so I emailed him again and asked if I could send it. He told me he would look at it again, and when he did, he told me that it was much better. He enjoyed it, and he commented on my growth as a writer.
I finished the manuscript, pulled an entire book out of it that became Dancing Barefoot, and eventually had Just A Geek published. Since then, I’ve written for dozens of magazines and websites, self-published a bunch of other books, written comics and manga, and tens of thousands of words on my blog.
I owe a significant debt of gratitude to Cory Doctorow for taking the time all those years ago to read my work, critique my work, and give me guidance and advice. Cory could have said no when I asked him, but he didn’t. He could have said “this is crap and don’t waste your time” but he didn’t. Cory didn’t need to help me, but he did, and he did it more than once. I remember more than one time when I had a crisis of confidence, or felt like I just couldn’t get words to come out of my head, and every time I bugged him about it, he listened and gave me advice that kept me writing.
So today, when I saw that this writing analysis tool thinks I write like Cory Doctorow, I couldn’t help but feel honored and grateful, and I wanted to say this in public: Thank you, Cory, for giving me a hand up when I needed it most. I love my life, and I don’t know if I’d be where I am right now if you hadn’t given me the gift of your time and wisdom so long ago.