I know we don’t like Louis C.K. anymore, but one of the most important moments of my life was when I watched his tribute to George Carlin. It was filmed at the New York Public Library in 2010. In his speech Louis C.K. talked about how Carlin was the first comedian to make him laugh when he was a kid, how he decided right there that that was what he wanted to do with his life. He tried to become a comedian right out of high school. The first time he went on stage it was for a minute and a half and he completely bombed. But he wanted it so badly he kept trying and eventually he learned how to write jokes. 15 years passed this way, he felt like he was going in a circle. He used to hear his own act, an hour of material he’d built up over 15 years and think “This is shit, I hate it.” One day he was sitting in his car after doing standup at a Chinese restaurant and started listening to a DVD of Carlin talking about comedy. Every year there was a new George Carlin special and Louis C.K. thought, how is he so incredibly prolific? I could never do that. The interviewer asks Carlin how he managed to come up with all this material, and Carlin said I’d decided every year I’d do a new special, so each year after I did my special I’d throw away everything and start anew. This was unthinkable to Louis C.K. at the time—to throw away 15 years of work. But he admired Carlin, and he was desperate, so he did the same thing and basically just tossed out all his old material. What he found was that this forced him to move past jokes about airplanes and dogs, and dig deeper for new material. And then deeper, and deeper. And the deeper he dug, the funnier his jokes became. By continually excavating his own psyche, he was striking a vein of gold and unlocking something new.
I’ve been thinking about how to write more, and I’ve noticed that what makes it possible is a kind of continuous excavation. You think you don’t have anything to write about because you aren’t digging deep enough. Say the deepest thing, and you’ll find that something appears beneath it, like a set of Russian matryoshka dolls, an infinite uncovering.
Last year I tried to write a novel in 90 days, which meant I had to write 1000 words a day. I had attempted exercises like this before, like NaNiWriMo, and I’d always gotten sick of it, peeled away from it—I always ended up writing journals of my day, about the weather, and it was such a chore to churn out 500 or so words of that. But this time when I tried I hit on a topic that meant something to me. My life had changed a lot in 2019, relationships and work stuff falling apart, and I needed write about it because I couldn’t make sense of it any other way. I thought that if I fictionalized my life I might feel better, so I tried to do that. It was a magic trick, a magician pulling a string from his stomach: more string kept appearing. I had more to say. I never knew that I had so much to say, that I had kept so many thoughts folded up inside me, compressed and constrained. I was unravelling and I liked it. The first 50,000 words I wrote were complete garbage. I rewrote all of them. I’m still rewriting.
Everyone knows that the way to get good is to be prolific. But it’s incredibly hard to be prolific. For most of us, it means reaching way beyond the output level that feels natural. I keep trying to dig deeper in my writing, which means that I’m always saying the thing I’m most scared of saying at any given moment. I hate this because I have the opposite of a confessional bent: I like distance and abstraction. Archie Moore once said that you should ride your fear like a fast horse. My fear tells me to hold everything back. My fear says: you’ll run out of things write about, you’ll embarrass yourself. So I take that as a sign that to not hold anything back.
From A Shapeless Unease, Samantha Harvey’s wonderful memoir about insomnia:
Writing has saved my life. In the last year, writing has been the next best thing to sleep. Sometimes a better thing than sleep. I am sane when I write, my nerves settle. I am sane, sane. I become happy. Nothing else matters when I write, even if what I write turns out to be bad. I proceed from some open and elusive subconscious formlessness roughly called ‘me’, definable only by being nothing and nowhere, just the silence in which shapes move. Then words. Words harnessing things. There is the comfort of organisation, of shepherding chaos, not trying to abolish it but shepherding it towards borders, taking away the problem of infinity and entropy. Proffering the illusion of completeness. And somehow, I start to see myself out there in the words I’ve made, out in their many worlds, scattered and free.
A phrase came to me one night from nowhere: proliferations of love. It keeps echoing through me and I don’t know why, but it feels like a definition of writing. The mind throws out thoughts and beliefs in so many permutations and configurations and we are enslaved by it, by the output of our own minds. The mind is a prison. And when we write the noise is distilled and alchemised, and the self can find a way out, which I think is what love is—the escape of the self from the self.
I’ve always thought of love and writing as ways to go through the self to the self, and ultimately beyond it. Beyond the mind with its endless neuroses, the snake chewing itself into a circle of oblivion. Most of my life I’ve been chasing a feeling. If you told me that I would’ve disagreed with you, because I thought the feeling was inextricably bound up with things—prestige, or beauty, or certain perfect objects. But now I understand that what I wanted was the collapse of boundaries between me and the world. I wanted a certain annihilation, to feel nothing and everything, to be inside and outside myself at the same time.
Writing allows me to inhabit this liminal state. Writing gives shape to all time I spent reading: cell phone flashlight under the covers when I was a kid sharing a bedroom with my 97-year-old great-grandmother, sneaking peeks of my aunt’s smutty romance novels, reading in class and annoying my teacher, getting yelled at by my parents because they thought I was ruining my eyesight, plodding my way through Modern Library’s 100 Books to Read Before You Die, getting hot chocolate stains on the Lord of the Rings books my parents gave me for Christmas (best gift ever), underlining paragraphs in Anais Nin’s diaries.
I know that there are a lot of ways to get writing wrong, a lot of potential sensibilities to offend. (Lauren Oyler reviewing Roxane Gay’s book, Bad Feminist: “The essays in Bad Feminist exhibit—and, given Gay’s prolific, ubiquitous, and early presence on alternative book websites like HTML Giant and The Rumpus, probably has had some role in developing—the kind of style that makes you wonder whether literature is dead and we have killed it.” Ouch, right? Oyler’s novel Fake Accounts is great, by the way.) To write is to risk being called trite, unspecific, lacking sophistication and style, accused of murdering the English language. But I also think there’s a lot of ways to get writing right: that if you can console one person it’s worth it. When I was in college my entire writing workshop hated Jonathan Franzen (the direct quote was, “He caters to the lowest common denominator of white men who read”). But I’ve never forgotten an essay collection by Franzen called How to Be Alone. The last essay in the collection, called The Reader in Exile, is about how TV is killing the novel (I so don’t want to know what he thinks of Twitter). These are the ending lines of the essay:
I mourn the eclipse of the cultural authority that literature once possessed, and I rue the onset of an age so anxious that the pleasure of a text becomes difficult to sustain. I don’t suppose that many other people will give away their TVs. I’m not sure I’ll last long myself without buying a new one. But the first lesson reading teaches is how to be alone.
It was what I needed to read when I needed to read it. We are living in the age Franzen feared now, our attention atomized and scattered like dust motes across various platforms. But reading taught me how to be alone, and writing is teaching me the benefits of that aloneness: the feeling of reaching for something beyond consensus. I’ve been hoping all this time that if I keep excavating maybe one day I’ll be able to say one true thing.
I’m soothed by the fact that there’s so much writing that I enjoy in the world. I like Anne Carson’s Greek mythology reference-laden poetry and I like Sharon Old’s book of poems about her divorce. I like Ender’s Game, I like Dune, all the scifi books of my childhood that teleported me away from suburbia. I like warm-hearted advice columns from Heather Havrilesky and Cheryl Strayed, I like Molly Yeh’s cooking blog, I liked Man Repeller and I like Leandra’s Substack, I like Helen Hoang’s unconventional chick lit, I like Candace Bushnell’s original Sex and the City columns, I like Tao Lin’s writing about psychedelics, I like Patricia Lockwood writing about Twitter as a portal and the the way we’ve all gone meme-mad. Like everyone else in the world I’m obsessed with Elena Ferrante. I like Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, I like Janet Malcolm’s In the Freud Archives. I like YA lit: Naomi Novik, Rainbow Rowell. I like pulpy historical fiction, the Bolelyn girls getting fucked by Henry VII, and highbrow historical fiction, Hilary Mantel describing Oliver Cromwell scheming and rising and losing his head. Liking so many different types of writing means that I believe there are a lot of ways to get it right as long as you’re being honest. That’s why fiction can be more interesting than nonfiction—I find that fiction is often a more honest excavation of the psyche.
Honesty is different from openness. In our world today every secret can be instantly shared—in the guise of letting you knowing me better I could post pictures of my breakfast, do kpop dance covers in TikTok-viral leggings I bought off Amazon, share my runs on Strava, take off my clothes on Onlyfans or play video games from my bedroom. The paradox of modernity is that you can share your entire life and still not have said anything that matters to you. Exposure can be, but often isn’t, the same thing as intimacy.
You’ve heard, I’m sure, that The Little Prince line about how what is essential is invisible to the eye. To me that means that I could tell you one thing that contains everything, and I could tell you everything and it could still mean nothing. You can spend so much time not getting it right, but you only need to get it right once.
The only thing I know about how to be more prolific? Write about the thing that means the most to you, then write about the thing that means more.