Doing the Work

How to Write When You Suck

A giant typewriter sculpture at Burning Man, with several people admiring and climbing on it.

I’m out on tour again, my first in-person book tour since 2019. I had four books come out during lockdown and “toured” them over Zoom, which was as good as many talented and dedicated publishing PR people, booksellers, and co-presenters could make it.

Now, after three years, I’m out on tour again. It’s an odd kind of tour, because it’s a different kind of book. Chokepoint Capitalism isn’t a novel from a Big Five publisher, it’s a nonfiction critique of monopolies and cartels. That includes the Big Five, which is why we went with an indie, the storied Beacon Press, praised by the likes of Albert Einstein and Howard Zinn for a publishing program that promotes progressive values.

Beacon are great, but independent, misson-driven publishers don’t have the budget for big tours, so about eight months ago, I started accepting every speaking engagement I was offered for September and October, then Beacon worked to find bookstores who’d host events in each city.

A tour graphic promoting upcoming dates on the Chokepoint Capitalism tour.

It’s going great. I’m typing this from Toronto Pearson Airport, where I’m awaiting my flight to JFK for tomorrow’s event at McNally Jackson. I’ll be co-presenting with my collaborator, Rebecca Giblin, whom I haven’t seen in person in many years, despite us having written an entire book together (Rebecca lives in Melbourne, I live in Los Angeles, so we did this all remotely). I did an event on Friday at Type Books in Toronto’s Junction neighborhood, and we had a full house, a good discussion, and a fine time was had by all.

Now, I say it’s going great, and that’s true, but it’s also, you know, a death-march. The point of a tour isn’t really to sell books to attendees at the events (though that’s important!), it’s to generate publicity in the early days of a book’s retail life, to give it a push that might put it on the bestseller lists, which triggers a virtuous cycle that sees every independent store in the country ordering 5–10 copies and sticking them at the front of the store on a best seller case or table, which generates still more sales, and so on.

So when you’re out on tour, you do a ton of press and hustling and other energetic stuff to build up momentum for the book, which takes a lot of time, and has to be squeezed in between flights and events and whatnot.

And then, there’s your day-job — or day jobs. I’ve got several, and they don’t stop while I’m on the road. I’m keeping up on several EFF projects, writing my blog and newsletter, doing a ton of press with Spanish newspapers for the Spanish release of my 2019 book Radicalized (which is doing fantastically well there and generating new press requests nearly every day), and I’m also working on two books, both of which have hard deadlines.

Yeah, I’m working on two more books. I’m mostly done writing both of them, but after that, I have to finish two more books (again, already mostly done). All told, I’ve got eight books coming out in 2022–2025: a graphic novel, a short story collection, two nonfiction books (including Chokepoint Capitalism) and four novels.

It’s a lot, because I write when I’m anxious. That’s how I came to have four books coming out in 2020: 2018–2019 were pretty anxious times. The years after were worse, hence eight more books.

This is the dirty secret of prolific writers — we’re often writing because we’ve figured out how to be motivated by our pain and stress, rather than being discouraged by it. When I learned that Terry Pratchett was incapable of taking a holiday, I recognized a kindred spirit:

“He once phoned me up in exasperation that he was being totally taken for granted by his publishers. He was fuming. He had had enough. He was going to take a sabbatical. No more writing for at least six months. I felt very pleased for him. He needed that break. I think he planned to do a lot of travelling. I did not hear from him for about six months and when we made contact again, I asked him what he had done in his sabbatical. He replied, irritably, ‘I wrote two books.’”

Coping with stress and anxiety and pain by distracting yourself with work may not be the healthiest strategy, but it beats the hell out of being paralyzed by your troubles — after all, “not being able to write” is also a trouble, which means that if life stressors trigger writers’ block, then you’ve got a new stressor on the pile. Ugh.

I should know. I spent years agonizing about my writing, experiencing what I thought of at the time as “writers’ block,” though that’s a phrase I try not to use these days.

In those years, I would sit down at the keyboard, load up my text-editor, and try to think of words to write. Lots of words occurred to me, but they felt stupid and unworthy. I would chase my imagination around my skull, looking for better words, and, after hours, I would give it up, too exhausted to keep chasing and demoralized by not having caught anything.

That feeling of unworthiness and stupidity has never gone away. There are so many days when I sit down to write and everything that occurs to me to commit to the page is just sucks.

Here’s what’s changed: I write anyway. Sometime in my late twenties, I realized that there were days when I felt like everything I wrote sucked, and there were days when I felt really good about what I had written.

Moreover, when I pulled those pages up months later, having attained some emotional distance from them, there were passages that objectively did suck, and others that were objectively great.

But here’s the kicker: the quality of the work was entirely unrelated to the feeling I had while I was producing it. I could have a good day and produce bad work and I could have a bad day and produce good work.

What I realized, gradually, was that the way I felt about my work was about everything except the work. If I felt like I was writing crap, it had more to do with my blood-sugar, my sleep-deficit, and conflicts in my personal life than it did with the work. The work was how I got away from those things, but they crept into the work nonetheless.

The realization was immensely freeing. It changed everything. It meant that I could sit down at my keyboard, scour my imagination for good words to type out, and when they didn’t come, write the bad, unworthy ones, knowing that they may be just fine, or even great, and if they weren’t, I could fix them later.

Which is how I came to have eight books in production after three very hard years of days and weeks where I came to my keyboard every day wracked with dread and anxiety and convinced that all the words I had in me were trash.

And because I am good at distracting myself from difficult thoughts — really, it’s my superpower — I pursued this strategy for at least a decade before I realized it corollary: that the joy I felt at work that seemed fantastic in the moment might also be a mirage, a phantasm of balanced blood sugar and sleep and good interpersonal relations with the people in my life. That was a bit of a downer, but I try not to dwell on it.

Tours are great, and they’re death marches. My degenerating, chronic pain is alive and kicking; I’m really feeling the two hip replacements I had in 2021 and 2022, and boy have I missed a lot of sleep and eaten a lot of subpar meals that have messed with my blood-sugar. Suffice to say that as I sit down every day to work on the two books I must finish very soon, the words that come out often feel lacking.

But I write down the words anyway. They might be terrible, and they might be great, and in either event, I can always change them later.

My New York flight is about to take off and they want us to switch off our laptops now. If you’re in town, I’d love to see you, either at our McNally Jackson Seaport event on Monday or at our NYU event on Friday.