One of my best-loved books is Some Can Whistle, by Larry McMurtry. The book’s protagonist is plagued by migraines. McMurtry likens the migraines to as Apache Indian, lurking on the vast Texas prairie, waiting for a weak moment to strike and bury his tomahawk in the soft brain-meat of the headache sufferer.
I don’t have migraines. I work for an under-funded non-profit in Trenton by-God New Jersey, providing legal services to poor people with disabilities who don’t have other options. I have six-year-old twin daughters. I have a punch list of things to do on my house that is taller than I am. I don’t need migraine headaches. What I have are Apaches.
These are—for want of a better term—story Apaches. They lurk around every corner, and they show up unexpectedly and brandish their long spears and weapons and demand attention. The only way to make them go away forever is to imprison them in my battered Dell laptop as pixels in Microsoft Word.
Sometimes this is an easy process. One Saturday afternoon when my kids were little and my wife had taken them to her mom’s house in South Jersey, and I had nothing to do, and a story Apache jumped me while I was making a sandwich. I had a half-assed idea of doing a parody of the New York Times travel section for McSweeney’s, and the story Apache jumped in my head and said one word—“Tralfamadore”—and it was on like Donkey Kong.
Sometimes this is a difficult process. I have a long-term idea about an alcoholic reclusive detective living in a seedy row house in Trenton who has the paranormal power to find lost things. (I came up with the idea after reading about St. Anthony of Padua, to whom Catholics pray to find things that are lost.) I decided that the story wouldn’t work because of the obvious reason that there aren’t many stories you can tell when the main character is functionally omniscient. But the story Apache is still there, and shows up occasionally, because I haven’t bothered to kill him.
That is the simplest reason why I write. I have odd ideas stuck in my head, and they show up at odd times and torment me, and the only way I can dispatch them is to write them down. It’s not an act of creation; it’s an act of exorcism.
I don’t think that why I write is anywhere near as interesting a topic as why I publish. Anyone can write, and does. Why do we want to get the things we write into the market?
Probably the one thing that I’ve written in my life that the most people have read was my McSweeney’s piece where I wrote about fictional drugs that enhance literary performance. (Like Orwellbutrin, which was a known dystopian agent, ha ha ha.) It was basically a list of jokes making fun of authors, and it got shared to the NPR Facebook site, and you can’t ask for more exposure than that.
In the first draft of the piece, I made a joke about Oprah Winfrey, and so I decided to follow that up with a joke about Jonathan Franzen, because why not. And when I submitted it, the Franzen joke got cut. This was, my McSweeney’s editor explained, because Dave Eggers is friends with Franzen and didn’t want to explain to him why some dumb guy writing for McSweeney’s was cracking jokes about him. This may be the highlight of my literary career, and if that’s true I don’t like to think about it much.
I have had very, very little success in my career as a writer. I’ve written two novels and one short story collection, and they have done very well for a self-published author, which is like being the prettiest cow in the slaughterhouse. I’m not sure, from day to day, whether I am going to keep trying or not. But I know why I want to try, which is pure unadulterated egomania. I want good reviews. I want the respect of my literary colleagues. I want just enough public acclaim to make me feel good about myself but not enough where I’m not able to wander around the local Shop-Rite in Crocs and jean-shorts and a Dallas Cowboys T-shirt without getting accosted. I want my kids to be proud that their Daddy is a writer. I would like enough money to continue living my comfortable suburban existence without the annoyance of my daily commute into a crumbling post-industrial wasteland but not enough money to where I have to hire security guards to keep the Beagle Boys from robbing my McDuckian money pit.
I think that’s what a lot of people want. The thing about writing is that, if you’re good enough, and enough people read your stuff and give you money, you can achieve that. I can’t get that kind of money and fame from athletics or acting or dancing or singing or politics or business or soft-core pornography, because I don’t have interests or talent in any of these areas. I do have at least a modest writing talent (he said, after just confessing to being an egomaniac) and a definite compulsion to write down stories, and there now exists the independent-publishing structure to get my books into the market (or at least the Amazon part of the market) so that I at least have the chance of getting the kind of success I would like to have.
And if the first two books haven’t gotten me the success I would like (and they haven’t) that’s okay. The story Apaches are still out there. They can deliver me another great idea for a new book, and maybe this one will be better and I’ll have a little better luck with it. (I am comforted by the idea that the next one can’t do worse, it’s not possible.) At any rate, that’s what I’m hoping for, and that’s why I write.
— Curtis Edmonds is the author of RAIN ON YOUR WEDDING DAY, WREATHED, and LIES I HAVE TOLD, all available exclusively on Amazon. This article is written in response to a story prompt on the Chuck Wendig blog.