I. The Fiction Writer
There are painters who transform the sun into a yellow spot, but ther are others who, thanks to their art and intelligence, tranform a yellow spot into the sun.
— Pablo Picasso
November has rolled into December and with it, a milestone on the road of my life is just ahead. December 12, 1992 was the day that I finished the first story I wrote with the idea of submitting it to a magazine. I was still on the junior side of being a Junior in college. I don’t remember exactly what inspired me to do this. It may have been the glossy new science fiction magazine Science Fiction Age that recently debuted on the newsstands. It may have been my wandering through the science fiction stacks in the Tomás Rivera Library when friends and roommates returned home for the weekend and I was left in the apartment all alone. Whatever it was, around December first, I decided that despite all of the school work I had, and the hours I put in at the dorm cafeteria, I was going to write stories and submit them.
That first story was terrible and I promptly sent it off to a magazine I’d never heard of until I saw it listed in a book on writer’s markets. On that December 1, I send out a dozen letters requesting copies of those magazine’s writer’s guidelines, and I sent the story to one of the few that I’d received. It was rejected, of course. In later years, I would sometimes pull the story out in later years and cringe at how badly it was written. But it was a critically important story for three reasons:
- It demonstrated that I could tell a story (no matter how awful) with a beginning, middle, and ending.
- It proved that I could actually sit down and write the thing, banging it out in Word for DOS 5.51.
- Preserved as it is, its sheer awfulness is evidence that I was capable of improving with practice.
I’ve probably written a hundred stories2 in the three decades since that first one. Of those, I sold 11 to magazines and anthologies that pay “professional” rates as defined by the Science Fiction Writers Association. I mention all this because, with that record, it seems to me that thirty years is a good time to officially retire as a fiction writer.
This isn’t the first time I’ve announced my retirement from fiction. Wishful thinking sometimes spurs me to try writing again. The problem is, when I look at the quality of the stories being published today and compare them with mine, mine are mediocre at best. Thirty years of effort simply can’t compete with the amazing quality of fiction I see in the world today. It is one thing to say, “Hey, keep at it, you’ll get better with practice.” It is another to have been practicing for thirty years, and finally admitting that there is a plateau that I have reached in my fiction-writing ability that no amount of practice will overcome. Here is how I visualize my trajectory over time:
Put in mathematical terms, the quality of my fiction writing over time is a limiting function. A lot more practice only improves quality by a tiny amount. I’ve reached the point of greatly diminishing returns. It took me 14 years of practice just to reach the level of quality that allowed me to make professional sales. But based on the fiction I read today, and the quality of the fiction I write, I’m convinced that no amount of practice will get me to the quality of the fiction that is being published today. I can celebrate my minor successes, they were wonderful. And, really, it is the experience that matters.
There is another important lesson I’ve taken from 30 years of writing stories: I’m just not built to be a fiction writer. Paraphrasing what Picasso said of painters, my fiction writing could turn the sun into a yellow spot, but it could not turn a yellow spot into the sun.
Meanwhile, for the last seventeen years, I’ve been flirting with, and finally, practicing writing of another form here on the blog. We call these things “posts” informally, but what I have been trying to produce are essays.
II. The Courtship
My courtship with the essay probably began with Al Martinez and the column he wrote in the Los Angeles Times, a column that I read in the late 80s and early 90s in that transitionary period between high school and college. Martinez’s column was the first that I regularly returned to, and his name is the first newspaper writer that I deliberately remembered and sought out.
I first came to appreciate the essay at its own art form as I read through the hundreds3 of essays that Isaac Asimov wrote in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction over the course of 33 years. These essays were not just entertaining; they had a colloquial, cheerful voice that I think I eventually incorporated into my own writing style. Moreover, I learned something from each one of those essays. I was learning more than I knew.
Later, there was Andy Rooney’s syndicated column, which taught me that essays could be about anything, even mundane things like the pleasure of a wood shop, or the stuff you find in your pocket at the end of the day–and be both funny and entertaining.
These courtships produced a Cambrian explosion as I sought out more and more essays. A.J. Liebling on boxing or French cuisine. John McPhee on long-haul truckers or the people of the Pine Barrens. Martin Gardner on math and logic. John Steineck a la America and Americans. Annie Dillard and Jon Krakauer. Will Durant’s shorter pieces on history. Barry Lopez’s nature essays. Paul Theroux’s travel essays. Little pieces by Don Marquis, as tiny as a cockroach, and big pieces by Gore Vidal, the size of his ego. The essays of Michael Cohen on reading, writing, and flying, where we seemed to share the same mind. Edmund Morris on the value of handwriting and David Foster Wallace on the adult entertainment industry5. Today, I seek out essays the way I sought out science fiction thirty years ago.
Meanwhile, I’d started to write essays without knowing it. In 1994, after graduating from college, when e-mail outside of AOL was still new to me, I would sent long essay-like email messages to my recently graduated friends. I wrote letters that were informal essays. And then, for reasons I can no longer recall, in 2005, this blog took its early form on LiveJournal6. My early posts, like my early stories, were pretty bad7. Unlike my fiction, however, writing essays feels natural to me. Fiction requires great amounts of energy and thought. Essays form themselves in my head, almost as if by magic, and writing them is often an exercise in mental dictation. Where I’ve plateaued with fiction, I feel like I am still on an upward trajectory with my essays. I don’t think I can ever be a great fiction writer, but it is not out of the realm of possibility, with more practice, for me to be a great essayist.
I’ve had plenty of practice here on the blog, with more than 7,200 “essays” made up more than 3 million words. The challenge for me is: how can I became better? How can I become great?
III. The Essayist
For starters, I am dedicating myself to writing essays and to writing them here on the blog. I’m still figuring out what this means. In the past, I’ve written here every day, often for years at a time. I produced frequent, shorter (~500 word) pieces of mixed quality. Going forward, you may not see me posting every day the way I used to. Quality takes time and it is the quality I am seeking to improve8.
A careful eye may have noticed this pivot9 already. I’ve changed the tagline of the blog from “Writer” to “Essayist.” I did this on my Twitter profile as well. With a kind of laser focus, I am identifying not just as a writer, but as a writer of essays.
Having embraced the essay as my medium, I need lots of practice to improve to the level that I think I’m capable of attaining. But I’ve got time. I’ll retire from my day job in a little under 9 years. Between now and then, I plan on working on my essay writing here on the blog, with the idea that it is all practice for when I can write full time in retirement.
Unlike my fiction, which was only rarely solicited, my essay writing here on the blog has, in the past, led to requests for writing in other places. Recently, I’ve had a flood of requests to put ads here on the blog, and I’ve rebuffed all of them. I briefly considered doing some writing over on Substack, and then decided against it. I think one of the best measures of quality is when readers reach out to comment on something I’ve written, or they go and tell a friend about it. Another measure is how often people reach asking me to write essays for other outlets. All of this is to say that nothing will change here on the blog. I am committed to keeping the blog subscription-free and ad-free. My hope is that as I improve more and more people will notice and that will lead to opportunities outside the blog, as it has in the past.
I’m still figuring all of this out, which is why I am not committing to any post schedule yet. In my head, I’d like get at least one essay posted each week in 2023, but I want these to be higher quality than what I’ve done in the past and quality takes time. I’m not writing on deadline. I’m writing to see if I can master a form. I’ve started to curate a list of topics to work on. This is not to say that there won’t be the occasional posts like I’ve done in the past. Indeed, I’ve got a few posts lined up on subjects like Obsidian and note-taking10. But my goal is to improve the quality of what I am producing for you, and for me.
Written on 12 November – 4 December, 2022.
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- Still my favorite word processor, despite it having gone the way of the do-do. ↩
- For some reason, I never kept particularly good records about the stories I wrote, so that I know far more about what I’ve read than what I’ve written. ↩
- 399, to be precise. ↩
- I have now read this book six times and it never palls on me. ↩
- Or his essay for Harper’s on visiting the Illinois state fair, which I mentally compared and contrasted with E.B. White’s “The World of Tomorrow” also written for Harper’s about the World’s Fair in New York in 1939. ↩
- It moved to WordPress in 2010. ↩
- They were less essay and more Jamie thinking out loud. ↩
- Often, I would write a 500 word post 20 minutes before I posted it. I started writing this essay you are reading now back on November 12, and this version is the fourth version I’ve produced. ↩
- I’m not particularly fond of this word. It is overused in the startup world, but it does seem accurate here, despite my distaste for it. ↩
- As popular as these are, they are not my favorite type of pieces to write. ↩