Writing = Faith

It’s an understatement to say that we live in interesting times. So interesting that after work, I just want to go home, grab my wife, my dogs and cat, pull the covers up over my face, and go the fuck to sleep. But somehow, this world just keeps creeping under my blanket.

So what do we do? After the floor is swept, the litter box is cleaned and dishes are done, what do you do to organize your mind, or keep some semblance of normalcy in this DUMPSTER FIRE OF A WORLD c. 2020? As a writer, you write. But that is a feat sometimes. I think the key is to please yourself.

I don’t know what’s going to happen with rising sea levels, or the rise of right-wing populists around the world, or any number of issues that are troubling me… but I do know that I can string words together in a way that pleases me. Getting up in the morning, committing to an idea, putting it down –that is an incredibly brave act of faith. Who will read it? Who will care?

To paraphrase Andy Warhol, “Make art. Let someone else figure out if it’s good or not. While they are doing that, make more.


On Creative Distraction

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I’ve always wanted to be a writer since as far back as I can remember. I made up theme songs for my stuffed animals at age 5, so there you go. I’ve wanted to be other things too, at various times in my life. A computer programmer. A rock star. A wandering vagabond (I realized that it was hard to make a living at that one…) But I’ve always come back to writing, and poured everything I had into it. I feel fortunate to have this skill.

However, even with things you love, you do hit rough patches where the inspiration lags, or you are just plain stuck. It’s times like those I reach for a distraction to boost me up and over the wall. Here’s the key, though. The distraction has to fit these 3 criteria.

It has to be a purposeful distraction

You have to consciously stop your writing and set it aside (possibly with a set time to return) before starting your creative distraction. Flitting from thing to thing will likely leave you with unfinished work and will leave you unsatisfied. I speak from years of experience as a flitter.

It has to be something you are terrible at (but really enjoy doing)

Your creative distraction should not under any circumstances compete with your primary art form. I’ll use myself as an example. I enjoy drawing. But as anyone who has seen my drawing can attest to, it is truly horrifying. Like it was done by a child (“Oh, Josh. Good for you! You made a drawing. That’s adorable.”) That’s why it’s the perfect thing to do when I get stuck on a piece of writing. If I ever become a competent artist, I may need to find something else. I’m still terrible at the guitar, so there’s that…

It has to be creative

This is possibly the most important criterion, because it gets to the root of why you’re stuck, creatively, in the first place. If you are bored with a piece of writing, or are unsure of where to take it, you have a problem that needs solving. Don’t ignore the roadblock by doing the dishes or sweeping the floor (although I’m sure your housemate or spouse would appreciate that!). Use other art forms you enjoy practicing as ancillaries to help trigger new ideas and novel solutions to your writing problems.

I hope this helps you in your creative work! –JM

–If you thought this was interesting or have an example to add, post in the comments!–



On Failure

Between 1991-92 when I was in my first year of college, and 2002 when I settled down in Austin, I wrote a grand total of roughly 10 poems, 5 short stories, and notebook after notebook of abandoned ideas. We won’t count my journalism work, the thing I was actually competent at. I wasn’t going to be a journalist, I told myself. I was a tortured soul pouring his lifeblood onto the page. There were two years, in 2000 and 2001, where someone took a chance on my writing. Got 2 stories and two poems published. And it would be another 10 years before I got published again. My failures started early.

A few years into a theater degree, my folks convinced me to try something practical. I had been involved in theater for years, since I was 14. Trouble was, I had a head full of theater knowledge but no skill in it. This realization was pretty easy to handle. The fact that I was a rotten fiction writer, that was much harder to take.

Immediately after I graduated with my journalism degree, I began my years of rambling. And my years of writing awful short stories. I felt like I needed to turn my travels into thinly-veiled autobiography. Oy! Kerouac, what hadst thou wrought?

Fast forward to 2008. I was living in Queens, just finished grad school for teaching. The money had dried up with journalism, so I switched gears yet again. I never stopped writing, though. Far from it. I had a whole notebook full of pretty decent memoirs from an autobiography class. I also finished the god-awful novel I’d started in 2000. I filed it away and never looked back.

I realized that I was going through my writing apprenticeship. Thank you, Larry Brown, for the phrase and the concept. Essentially he said that a young writer spends years struggling and failing before he or she finds his or her voice (and genre!) And the length of time depends on the person. This may sound obvious, but when you are down in the thick of it trying to hack out a story, this notion of an apprenticeship is very comforting. I was glad to hear that the pain would end eventually. I just didn’t know when.

I don’t know when I turned the corner and came out of my apprenticeship, but I did. Not to say that I don’t have anything left to learn, just that I can feel confident in calling myself a writer. There are several things that brought me to this point, I think. Daily writing practice is definitely one of them. That is, actually composing something from beginning to end. Another piece of the puzzle was understanding and accepting my limitations, and my strengths. Let’s just say that now when I write a short story that isn’t groan-inducing, I take it as a major win.

Maybe a good analogy for all of this would be metabolism. Keep it stoked with new writing and you will burn mean and lean. How you get to that point… that’s your story to tell. —JM

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On Journaling

notebookLike many of you, I keep a journal. And like many of you, I’m sure, I am really bad at it. I never sat down and thought about why until very recently, and I came to a few conclusions.


I often have trouble journaling because the writing feels way too personal. I know that sounds strange, but it stops me dead in my tracks when I veer into confessional territory. I’m not one to get super emotional and need to talk every little thing out. If I am having a specific emotional issue, I’ll talk with my wife or my friends about it. Something about writing it down in a book feels masturbatory to me.


Going along that same “self-pleasuring” line of thinking… I have a hard time writing a journal because I have no audience. Except for myself. No one will ever see my journal and writing for no one seems pretty pointless. Maybe it’s a failing in me that I cannot treat my journal as a person I’m pouring my heart out to. Who knows?


If I’m not pouring out my guts to my imaginary friend, I have a hard time coming up with things to write about. I had ONE good year of journaling, in 2005. That year, I came up with a pretty ingenious plan. I gave myself broad topics to write about, like “School”, “Women”, “Drugs” and so on. Then I proceeded to fill up the journal book in a few weeks. It was pretty awesome. And really fun to re-read. But once that was over, I fell right back into writing about what I had for breakfast, and what clothes I was wearing that day… and other terribly boring topics. Yawn.


I think I came up with a good solution, though. I have decided to keep “notebooks” instead of “journals”. What is the difference, you may wonder? To me, a notebook can house story ideas, and poem ideas, and lists of books I’d like to buy, and stuff like that. It creates much more room to move around in than a diary/journal.

If any of you guys out on the interwebs have any thoughts on journaling, post them in the comments! I’d be very interested in hearing them!

Until next time, amigos and amigas…


On Writer’s Block, Titles, and Asemic Writing

imagesI recently joined a group on Facebook that does Asemic Exchanges. You create a piece of work and exchange it with another artist.

Asemic writing is writing without making recognizable letters. The idea is that even without inherent meaning in your writing, your brain will find a way to make its own. (If I got that wrong, please let me know in the comments!)

I created a piece by shutting my eyes and letting hand go where it wanted to. I got to the edge of the page and opened my eyes. I saw a bunch of squiggles, but I was intrigued. I made these marks all down the paper, until I’d filled up the whole page. I wanted to put a title on it, so I looked deeper into the work. Some of the squiggles looked like an EKG reading to me… so I titled it ISCHEMIC ASEMIC. The term “ischemic event” means that the blood flow to a body part (often the brain) is cut off. I grabbed up a reddish pink marker and filled in several spaces between the squiggles. It was perfect.

But then I started another asemic piece. My mind immediately went to EKGs, blood, medical ideas… and all of the squiggles looked too much like letters, like my brain wouldn’t let me be completely abstract. It was because of the title! The finality of the title forced me to manage the piece and perhaps declare it complete too soon? It certainly hampered my creative flow.