How To Not Suck At Writing
1:38 PM EDT on September 28, 2021
Time for your weekly edition of the Defector Funbag. Got something on your mind? Email the Funbag. And preorder Drew’s next book, The Night The Lights Went Out, while you’re at it. Today, we're talking about toenails, takin’ a shit, signatures, priceless Albuquerque Isotopes merchandise, and more.
What tips do you have to offer for writers? I’ve written a variety of things halfway: essays, short stories, and failed novels that never end up anywhere, leaving my oeuvre to amount to a bunch of crappy corporate pablum that I have to do professionally. Do you write same time every day? By the hour? By the page? By sheer inspiration?
I wrote about writing for Forge last year, although that post was more about how much I love to write (still true) and less about the specifics of my own work habits. So lemme give you some of those specifics now. I apologize in advance if they’re tedious or self-serving. I write from roughly 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every day, with a mid-day break to work out, nap, and eat lunch. I write the bulk of this column every Monday, as a kind of warmup for everything else I have to write that week. This column always clocks in at around 4,000 words, same as the NFL column I post every Thursday.
For my other posts, like all of mine at SFGate, I have no set word count, but years of doing this job have left me with natural instincts for how long something should be. If it’s a serious personal essay, I’m probably going 1,500–2,000 words. If it’s more of a take, that number goes down to 1,000 or less. If it’s a big-ass magazine profile, go ahead and jack that shit up to 5,000 words before an editor cuts it back down to give the reader some oxygen. If it’s a book (I tend to work on those late in the week if there’s breathing room), I know that 100,000 words will unofficially count as a book length. But I don’t adhere religiously to word counts. Some of my books go past 100K. Others don’t. All that matters is that they read fast. Some books indeed feel very long. Others breeze by. I aim for the latter category, which I do by trying, as best I can, to see my work through the eyes of someone who has to read it.
Because you can like your own writing all you like, but that won’t make a fucking difference if it bores everyone else to death. Get feedback from people you whose opinions you respect—you don’t even have to like them personally—and you’ll start to hear their voice in your head as you go deeper into the process. You learn to coach yourself. You can’t get better without hearing from those outside voices first. Left to write alone, you’ll be blind to your own shortcomings and you won’t be looking at your work through the reader’s eyes.
In fact, it’s vital to get outside voices before you even START writing shit. Read more books and watch good movies, etc. All of those influences will give you your own ideas, plus a good idea of how other artists do their work and complete it. You’ll spot bigger waves in your mind to catch. For the Point B TV pitch, I was instructed by my supervisor to watch good TV (The Outsider, specifically), to get the rhythms down episode by episode and see how good shows master their character arcs. Not only was this a fun assignment (I liked the show a lot), it really was useful. You acquire a critical eye for the work of others, and then you apply it to your own.
But you have to finish that work of your own first. My advice to Brian here is to complete something. I only learned to complete what I write because I had to. I majored in English (creative writing minor) in college and I wasn’t allowed to turn in half-finished work if I wanted a passing grade. And I didn’t cheat, because I was too afraid I’d get caught. I had to finish every paper, and it had to be my own. I worked using a technique I’ll call strategic procrastination. If I had to write a paper, I’d write the bulk of it two days before it was due. That way, I’d only have to cap it off or edit it a little the next day. Then I could party. It was a good system. Somewhere along the way, my process morphed into me feverishly completing every writing assignment right when it was given to me, so that I had as much room as possible to be lazy on the back end. It’s the process I now currently use on a regular basis.
Meanwhile, even when my term papers in college sucked, I still had to finish them. The mere act of finishing is its own useful enterprise. You finish one thing, and now you have license to either fix it or start a new idea. If you start a new idea, your experience finishing the old idea—regardless of its quality or content—will give you a hand in finishing it. But if you never finish anything, you’ll never reach that second part of the learning process. Push through that wall and then it won’t feel so imposing to you the next time around.
Also, counterintuitively, you have to accept that not everything you churn out will be Hamlet. My wife does oil paintings and watercolors for people on commission. Some days she finishes a work and isn’t pleased with it, so she’ll either paint right over it or do a new one. She doesn’t freak out over this. She just understands that part of the process means doing sub-par work to get to the good work. That’s how you evolve into a professional and develop a better sense of what to put in and what to leave out. In my line of work, I can write something bad and then “paint” over it by rewriting it (took me 20 years to enjoy the rewriting process but now I’ve gotten the hang of it), or I can hit PUBLISH and move onto the next thing with both the drive and the experience to make it better than the last thing.
I can’t speak for every other writer out there, but my only criteria for something being “good” is that it connects with other people. Sometimes that connection lies in the most anodyne shit that litters my everyday existence: small observations and irritations that can take up way more of my headspace than I’d prefer. But it’s nice to get those hang-ups in writing and then discover that other people have similar, minute fears and habits as they navigate this world. Other times, that connection lies in the big shit: love and death. Write as honestly as you can about those things and you might be surprised to find out that you’re hardly alone in feeling the way you feel about yourself, and about life in general. That’s the gift of writing. It’s why it’ll never die.
It just occurred to me that the only time I trim my toenails is when I happen to glance down at my feet while sockless and notice that things have gotten completely out of hand. Is this how most people remember to trim their toenails? Or am I just some human-goblin hybrid?
See, this is what I meant by the most anodyne shit. Anyway, I think Carl here falls more under the category of “man named Carl” than “man-goblin” when it comes to his grooming habits. If you want goblins, talk to me: the dude who used to tear out his toenails if he noticed them growing jagged. I’m the monster here, although I have since quit and graduated to being more Carl-esque. I only trim my piggies when I notice the distal edges are in danger of approaching zombie length. Otherwise, I’d prefer not to bend down extensively and risk hurting my back all for the sake of podiatric hygiene.
My fingernails are a different story. I now tend to them like each one is a little bonsai tree that needs special attention and love every day. Because I had no concept of formal nail care until roughly three months ago, I asked my wife, “So when my toenails get too long, should I also file and buff them like I do the fingers?” She gave me a wry look and was like, “Just trim them and be done with it.” So that’s what I do. I trim them when they start to look scary and then I go on about my day. This is my normalcy.
By the way, sometimes when I see dudes with toenails that are too long and jagged, I have to suppress the urge to grab them and rip them out. I don’t like those jags just sitting there, unattended. Strikes me as irresponsible. I am not a healthy person.
Would an NFL team be better off having me, a fat, old (44), out of shape guy take the field at say a line position for a snap, or would they be better off just playing a man down? One part of me thinks that if I were on the field, at least I'd be somewhat in the way and could (sort of) throw a block before being presumably killed. On the other hand, I'd also be in the way of the back and/or dead which could mean a worse end result.
If I were the head coach, I would put you in there. Your mere presence on the field would impede Myles Garrett for an extra .0001 seconds. Then I would call a running play (not a pass play; I’m no fool) away from you and order the ballcarrier not to cut back under any circumstances. There you go. You’re dead, but we made some use of you before you went off to the sweet hereafter. It’s always better to have guys out there than play a man down, especially in football. That’s why kickers occasionally make tackles, and wideouts stalk block on the far side of running plays. Every little bit helps.
If you could choose one professional wrestling character to be your father, who do you go with and why? I'd go with Arn Anderson. Heck of a tag-team partner, did some managing, understands the value of teamwork with the Horsemen.
Vince McMahon. But I’d still let Shane take all the bumps. I just want the money and the boos.
You’ve mentioned in previous Funbag’s that you have tried Beyond Meat before. My wife and I use it quite often, usually making burritos/tacos, meatloaf and burgers with them and have even made chili with it once. My question to you, being a Chopped Champion, what sort of interesting recipes could you make using Beyond Meat?
I really like Beyond Meat burgers. Love them, even. But I’ve tried making tacos and chili and all that shit with the same product and the end result has always been underwhelming. It’s edible. It’s not disgusting. But compared to how good the burger is, it’s a strange letdown. I have no good explanation for this, likely because I don’t know what’s in Beyond Meat. I think it’s mostly expeller-pressed beet starch. Anyway, it’s a good product but not a versatile one. Maybe the commenters will have some good suggestions for you down below, but I got nothing. I just like my standard impossible burger. It tastes like a regular burger, only somehow cleaner on the palate.
What do think it would take for Jon Gruden to grow facial hair?
His wife asking him to. For all I know, Gruden would look terrific with a beard. It could deprive him of the whole “overly excited gym teacher” vibe he’s always given off. But the man’s been married for 30 years now. I’ve been married for nearly 20 and I happily defer to my wife on all matters pertaining to facial hair, and I’d wager Gruden does too. My wife doesn’t like how my facial hair looks (I don’t either), and she doesn’t appreciate prickly stubble rubbing against her when I go in for a kiss. I’m happy to keep my shit nice and smooth for her sake. If you’re married long enough, you get comfortable surrendering on such things.
Besides, if Gruden maintained a proper beard that would take time away from grindin’ tape, and my man can’t have that. He’s got a 3-0 start he needs to piss away over the back half of the season.
After watching the Lions-Packers game I came away just realizing how exhausting this season watching the Packers is going to be. I am not talking about wondering why Kevin King is even on the field and the defense, in general, being a bit poopoo. No, the problem is that every pre-game, every game, every post-game will be a constant stream of the Rodgers saga, amateur psychoanalyzing the team, speculation, etc. I don't necessarily blame the networks, it is what it is. But it is just neverending. Is this just me, as a Packers fan, or are you feeling the same thing?
I hate your team on principle, so it’s foolhardy to ask me if I ever suffer from Packers fatigue. You guys lead the division, so FUCK OFF.
Objectively speaking though, your team’s drama isn’t much different from any other team’s. Rodgers had his usual offseason hissy fit before getting a Da Vinci Code hairdo and going back to doing Aaron Rodgers things for Green Bay. Every team has players and/or coaches and/or owners who are eternally high on their own bullshit. In the case of the Packers, it’s more visible because A) Rodgers is one of the best players in the sport, and B) The Packers are always good. But it’s not special. What do you want, for no one to ever write about your team? For fans to never micro-analyze every single down? For talking heads to not notice them? You’re gonna have to become an American cricket fan if that’s how you wanna roll. For major sports here, tiresome bullshit comes standard. I’ve based my entire career around it. If you’re reading this post, you’re not exactly a master of self-care when it comes to regulating your bullshit intake.
I think there is significant competitive advantage to be found in using horribly depressing walk up music for baseball hitters/boxers/etc? Imagine if you were able to turn into a pumped up fucking maniac by listening to Sarah McLaughlin or whatever. You’d be strutting out to hit while everyone else tried not to cry. Gotta be worth at least ten points of batting average.
I don’t agree, especially not for baseball. And do you know why? Because no one gives a shit about your walk-up music. No one. If I were a batter, I’d spend days, if not weeks, trying to think of the perfect song to pick: one that reflected my unique tastes but also got the crowd rock-hard for my appearance. Then I’d pick it and not a single person in the stadium would care. They’d all be occupied getting beers, or staring at their phones, or asking the Yankees fans sitting behind them to stop fighting. The song would be barely audible on the telecast. The other team would be utterly indifferent.
I’m from a generation weaned on the Cleveland home crowd singing “Wild Thng” back to Ricky Vaughn in Major League, and Mariano Rivera walking out to “Enter Sandman.” But those are exceptions, and one of them is fictional. It’s all daydream shit. It makes no difference. It’s slightly more noticeable and alluring in boxing. But once the bell rings, Canelo Alvarez isn’t cowering just because Tom Atocan walked out to “Hangar 18.”
I am no longer satisfied with my signature. I would like to change it and I’ve worked out a really good one (I think). As an adult, is this allowed?
It is. I see nothing in the Constitution prohibiting it. I changed my signature when I was like 23, because my old one committed the cardinal sins of being both sloppy and legible. I have never had good handwriting, and here I had failed to take advantage of the one instance where good penmanship isn’t welcome at all. So I stopped spelling out every letter of my name and now do the glorified initialing you see on any doctor’s prescription. I’m happy with my current signature. Sometimes I get un-sloppy and spell it out too cleanly, and I’m very disappointed at myself. Then I make up for it on the next go-round by drawing a single wavy line.
You’re allowed a similar evolution. So long as your forms have a signature on it, you’ll be good. The PTA isn’t gonna hire a forensic handwriting analyst to make sure you’re the same guy who signed a body shop estimate four months prior using a slightly different hand. No one cares. They just need ink there as a CYA. The only time I’ve ever had my signature rejected was by, like, DocuSign. I did a lazy-ass squiggle and DocuSign was like No no no, you have to REALLY sign this, you asshole. Then it gave me a do-over. Lesson learned.
What’s the most annoying item to try and find in a store? My vote is for Chap Stick. Was just at Target and trying to find regular-ass Chap Stick is a chore. Is it in the pharmacy section, with the lotions, by the sunscreen? No. It’s at the cash register.
But ChapStick is always at the cash register, along with Bic lighters and a box of miniature, individually wrapped York Peppermint Patties sold for 25 cents each. That’s been the setup my entire life.
You want something hard to find? MARSHMALLOWS. Are they candy? Are they a baking item? Or does the store have a special standalone section at the end of a random aisle dedicated solely to s’mores ingredients … in January? WHO THE FUCK KNOWS. All I know is that if you wanna stump a grocery worker, ask them where the goddamn marshmallows are. It’s like watching them play Final Jeopardy.
I am giving the Jets ten more years, until I’m 65, to make me believe in them and continue to root for them. The Jets don’t have to win a Super Bowl in that time period, just make think that they have a good chance. A Super Bowl win in that time period, of course, would lock me in. Two questions for you; 1) Do you think that I will actually be able to shake the stink of the Jets if they fail me? And 2) Should I find another team or just excise the NFL from my life completely?
We’ve been through this here before, but every fan who goes THAT’S IT I’M DONE is never done. You’ll always go crawling back for another season in the barrel. That’s true even with the Jets, and I can’t believe I’m saying that while the Jets are experiencing one of the most dire seasons I’ve ever seen. They hired a coach I liked and they drafted a quarterback I thought was talented and somehow they’re WORSE off than they were when Adam Gase was their head coach a year ago. Unbelievable. Even Andy Dick doesn’t fuck up this consistently.
But you've already invested more than half your life in the Jets, so they’re yours forever. You’re not gonna be able to just up and start rooting for some other team with whom you have no personal history. It won’t be the same and you know it. It’s like deciding the mailman is your new best friend forever now. You put decades into the Jets and they’re now an inherent part of your identity. You may not always like that part of your identity, but it’s yours and it can’t be magically replicated by switching over to the fucking Bucs or some other goon squad. It’ll feel wrong. It’ll BE wrong. In fact, if you ditch the Jets for some other team I’ll come smack you with a hammer.
Your best option is to leave football altogether if you can pull it off. Sometimes I think I can probably live without the NFL. I get an entire offseason every year to practice, after all. I even just got a year without live crowds. So sometimes I think to myself, “You know, maybe when I’m old and retired and I’ve fucked off to Lake Como, I won’t care about the NFL or my idiot team anymore.”
Then fall comes back around and the rituals boot up again—and holy shit, is it nice to see fans back this time around—and I’m reminded why I stick. I just watched my team win their first game of the season and it made me happy in ways that other things simply don’t. I have no good explanation for this and, frankly, I don’t wanna have one. Sometimes love is enough. I love my team even when they let me down, and I love them even more the rare times they don’t. I could walk away, but I know exactly what I’d be missing.
A few years ago I went to an Albuquerque Isotopes baseball game. To drum up sales, like every minor league team does, the Isotopes had a novelty jersey night. This night was Better Call Saul night. The team was wearing these hideous jerseys that they auctioned off during the game. If you won, Bob Odenkirk would sign it. I bid, I won, I got a signed jersey, and for the last few years I haven't figured out what to do with it. I don't really like the Midwestern insurance rep mancave motif, so framing/hanging it is out. It's too garish to wear anywhere, and too weird to donate to a thrift store. So right now it sits in my closet between a couple of shirts I'm too fat for. What are you supposed to do with sports/entertainment memorabilia like this anyway?
You give it to someone else, preferably our own Dan McQuade. I know you paid for that shirt, and I know you have a nice backstory for it. But if you’re never gonna wear it—not even at the gym—and if you’re not gonna frame it like a trophy, just give it to someone who will. Sell it on eBay, even. It’s no crime.
I’ve lost a lot of prized t-shirts in my time. I had a flag football title shirt from my time at U-Mich that I used to wear with grand self-reverence (there were like 54 separate intramural flag football divisions at the school). Ditto my CBB championship shirt from my days on the Colby football team. Both those shirts ended up in the trash after getting all pitted out and hole-y. And when I ditched t-shirts for day-to-day wear earlier this year, I ended up relegating some of my favorite concert t-shirts to the gym pile. I was sad about it, but then I moved on. You can too. In the end, it’s just a shirt.
Email of the week!
So, around 2012, I was living in Germany on a temporary visa. My flight back to the states was a week after my visa expired. Luckily, I was able to get around this by leaving the Schengen Zone and then coming back, giving me an extra 90 days (I believe.) So I reached out to a friend in London, and his parents let me crash on his floor for a weekend. His parents were lovely. I never had any money while I was in Germany, so I lived off of peanut butter and jelly. While London grocery stores had both the requisite ingredients, my friend’s parents were baffled by the concept, and, wanting to be good hosts, insisted on accompanying me to the grocery store so I could buy some. Right after a dinner of some sort of tuna pasta. My friend’s dad, who I’ll call Jerome, and I head out to the grocery store, which was about a 20 minute walk away. About 5 minutes from the store I feel THE RUMBLING. I ask if there is a public bathroom anywhere near here. Jerome replies that “no, everything is closing about now.” Sure enough, I see the lights on a distant McConald’s switch off. I’ve been through worse, I tell myself. I can make it back home.
We get to the grocery store, no bathroom. I find some strawberry jam, since there was no grape in the store, and jelly wasn’t really a thing. I’m sweating and waddling up to the counter. I don’t remember anything between then and about halfway back home, when, as we were passing Wandsworth Common, Jerome, noticing that I’m walking suspiciously stiffly, asks “Why don’t you go behind a tree? You just gotta pee, right?”“Heh, yeah” I say. “I can hold it,” I lie.
Drew, not 30 seconds later, it feels as though the tuna has reconstituted in my bowels, and its reanimated tail is slapping against the inside of my asshole.
“GGNNH, ACTUALLY ON SECOND THOUGHT I’M GONNA FIND A TREE.”
We walk home in silence. I hope I don’t have shit on my pants. I casually ask if I can use their shower. Jerome replies that they don’t have a shower, but I’m welcome to their bathtub. I sit in my filth and try to forget.
And yet none of us will ever be able to.