A NotGraphs Fireside Chat


Quite some time ago, Robert J. Baumann, Carson X. Cistulli and myself engaged in a podcast entitled NotGraphs Staff Meeting. During said meeting the three of us touched on various subjects, but the topic that I found most interesting was a discussion on the literary craft.

As much as anyone can be terrible at anything, I am terrible at podcasting, my voice sharing at least a few properties with rusted screen doors. So, shamelessly ripping off a tool employed by Eric Nusbaum and Ted Walker at Pitchers & Poets, I asked Robert if he mightn’t like to engage in a kind of low-fi podcast, using actual written words to convey our thoughts and feelings. Herein lies said conversation.

Patrick: So let’s begin. Do you consider yourself a writer?

Robert: I probably don’t consider myself a writer. Part of that is because I’m not over hating myself yet — I don’t have confidence in anything I do. I don’t think of myself as “good enough” to call myself “a writer.” But that’s the more boring part of it.

The other part is maybe a bit more objective, and it stems from the fact that I have known a lot of writers, in different contexts. And the people that I take seriously as writers — whether they’ve had publishing success or not — they’re not people that I have a lot in common with in terms of writerly habits.

Those people really work hard. They are always reading, writing, networking — maybe networking is a bad word. Somehow — and I think it’s mostly by association with these many writers over time — some people have come to think of me as a serious, well-read writer, but I don’t think there’s much basis for that. Like, how many books have you read in the last year? How many major articles in periodicals? How often do you read newspapers? Book reviews, criticism?

The truth is, I read a lot online about baseball — the vast majority of what goes up on FanGraphs and a number of other baseball blogs, for instance. But I don’t consistently read outside of that. I’ll go on kicks and read nothing but political blogs and articles for a couple days, or I’ll read short stories for a week. But I think that reading widely is such an important part of being a writer — being the kind of writer that I’m interested in reading or being — that when I assess myself, I know I fall short. I’m lazy.

Also, being a writer means that you write a lot, too. And I don’t do that enough either.

Patrick: You’re much too hard on yourself, I think. First of all, I’m pretty sure self-loathing is a requirement for becoming a writer, or at least according to most of the writers I’ve read who talk about the process. In order to write, you need to have a kind of critical eye, and it’s hard (though not impossible) to level that criticism at the world without turning it on yourself once in a while.

I know I’m in the minority in this respect, but I’m very “Large Hall” when it comes to being a writer. If you write, that’s it. You’re a writer. I don’t see any magical cutoff where you’re learned enough or prolific enough or famous enough to qualify, and if there were one, I’d be damned skeptical of who gets to decide.

But if not for self-loathing, why do you write? Are you compelled to do so, tortured by your demons? Is it just a release? And why about baseball, of all things?

Robert: I think I do write out of self-loathing — to trick myself, maybe. Because of my education, and whatever I was exposed to growing up, writing feels productive to me. And so writing anything allows me to feel like I’m doing something with my life on a daily basis.

But even more specifically, I write because of the sort of people that I am attracted to are writers. I’ve always been attracted to writers. When I read a novel or a set of stories, I find myself thinking about the authors and what they seem to value — by way of writing the story or novel or poem — in terms of craft, the decisions they made in doing so, what in their lives could have possibly led them to the point at which they sat down and wrote this story, etc. And I’m not referring to “life experience,” but also writing experience: what have they learned about writing that I haven’t. I wonder the same things, even, about people at NotGraphs, or other websites.

So, I write because I want to be like certain people that I admire, or I want to gain their acceptance, because “accepting myself” isn’t enough on a daily basis, I guess. Which circles back to the self-loathing thing.

Regarding why I write about baseball: I think, when writing, that I’ve always struggled with subject matter. Not that there is a dearth of topics in my brain, just that when I think about those topics in isolation, they seem petty, or I believe myself to be ill-informed on them, too much so to begin writing. I feel much more comfortable with the lapidary elements of writing: the sentence, the phrase, the line in poetry. I can’t sustain a thought, but I can sustain a tone, or a sound. Baseball is something I know a decent amount about, and it’s a concrete starting point while offering infinite opportunities for digression. For whatever reason, it’s a topic I fret less about than any other topic.

Patrick: You place a surprising emphasis on routine when you discuss writing. Occasionally, I’ve read some talk of this (Stephen King emphasized in his On Writing, I believe) but had always connected it to more of a novelist approach than shortform writing. What makes routine so important to being a writer?

Robert: I think that routine — “writing every day” — is something that helps separate people I consider writers from what I consider myself to be. People who have “real” careers might strongly identify themselves by that career. Like, if you asked a person who works as a fireman, “What are you?” the person would probably respond, “I’m a fireman.” Likewise with a teacher, a doctor, a politician — sundry others. But what if you asked a person who works as a greeter at Walmart? Would they say, “I’m a Walmart greeter”? They might, I suppose, but they might also end up very confused because that’s not a job/role that defines worth. Would a kid working in a deli say, “I’m an hourly laborer,” or would he say, “I’m a guitarist in a rock band.” Shit, where am I going with this?

Okay, so, I think what I’m saying is that some people think of themselves as “writers” because that’s what they do to contribute to society, that’s how they reaffirm their worth in the eyes of others. Most people don’t think to value the Walmart greeter or the deli worker because we think anyone could do that, and so it doesn’t contribute something unique to society. Not everyone can be a fireman, maybe. Not everyone can play guitar. Not everyone can be a writer. I’m saying, in the minds of most people, not just anyone can be a writer. My entire family wouldn’t ever think about “writing creatively” because they think of themselves as “not creative.” They wouldn’t ever think of studying medicine because they think of themselves as “not smart.”

Patrick: Your opinion of writers fascinates me because my situation is so different: I have very few friends who are writers, and we rarely discuss our work together. Your description of writers almost seems more like sages to me: people crafting identities, rather than novels.

I believe it’s been said – I can’t remember by whom, but Bertrand Russell would be my first guess – that Americans, more than any other nationality, tend to define people by how they make money. I know that’s not what you’re saying, but I do worry that too often we get so caught up with these labels, that people can do one thing and can’t do another. I feel as though most people can do most things given time and inclination, and it’s only at the very apex of a vocation, well above anything I’ve achieved, that talent alone allows. But I don’t have a scientific formula for this supposition, just an optimistic feeling.

So let’s leave that and return to why you write. You mention a feeling of “productivity” and progress in your daily life. How does writing supply this, and where does the cutoff lie? If you were to write ten pages every day and throw them into a fire, would that be progress? An empty blog that returns 0 comments every day? Is your progress in search of a perfect game, a single shining example of your creative output, or is it an accumulation of a life’s work, flawed or not?

Robert: Well, one thing that I’ve been able to do over time is to stop expecting that what I write will actually become anything: a blog post, a poem, a film treatment. I enter into the act of writing with the assumption that whatever output there is will be nothing, and that’s okay. It doesn’t always feel the best, thinking that from the onset, and it certainly doesn’t feel the best when the output actually does end up as “nothing,” but if I start writing with that assumption, it sort of frees me up in the process to just write. Otherwise I’d be crippled by anxiety. Which I mostly still am.

So, I think if I wrote ten pages a day and burned them, yeah, I think that would be progress, because I would be forcing myself to think in that writerly way, as you sort of put it. I think there’d be residual thought, ligatures, so to speak from day to day, that get built upon. It’d probably help improve my memory, too, if I burned everything. In fact, I think I’m going to burn everything from now on. Thanks, Patrick; good idea. (This might actually work for me, given that I hand-write many things to begin with.)

I think I’ve also given up on that ultimate goal, too, of trying to write a novel, or a book-length manuscript of poems, or a even non-fiction baseball book — something that might count as “an accumulation of a life’s work.” I haven’t given up on it in the sense that I think it could never happen. I just have no interest in trying right now.

I see writing as something that improves my life. Because it makes me think about and see the world differently, because it exercises what few talents I might have, because it makes me feel good so that I can be in a better mood for the people in my life. I guess I see it like exercise. Writing every day would make me more likely to have an intelligent conversation with friends, and that’s valuable to me, so even if I burned everything I wrote, it’d still make my life better.

Patrick: That makes you more enlightened than myself, Mr. Baumann. I couldn’t possibly burn my writings, if only because I’d forget all my favorite jokes. The very idea just depresses me.

So for someone who plays at self-loathing, you’ve set up a fairly optimistic philosophy of gradual self-improvement with your writing. There’s still the one trap — how much improvement is necessary, or good enough? — but I think we can agree that anything that helps keep us in the black is a positive.

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Patrick Dubuque is a wastrel and a general layabout. Many of the sites he has written for are now dead. Follow him on Twitter @euqubud.

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This is just about my favorite thing. Well done, guys. A pleasure to read.