My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Monday, January 27, 2020

"The 'Writing About Writing' Guy"

Having been introduced more times than I'd care to admit as "The Writing About Writing guy," I vacillate between being thrilled that my work precedes me and mortified that no one seems to know who I really am. 

I'm Chris Brecheen. This is my blog.

While I no longer feel quite the same need to justify my presence in the blogging world as I did when I first started or to defend what business I have telling other people how to write, occasionally someone still whips out the ol' "Why should I listen to you?" (Hint: It was never going to be the shrimp puff recipes.) Usually they don't realize I'm a working writer, and on at least one occasion they insisted that if I really wanted to write, I should check out Chris Brecheen's blog. Yep, I got hipster stret-creded about my OWN work.

I really need to remember to get screenshots if that happens again.

But perhaps a FEW accolades won't go amiss. Just so you don't think I showed up last week, dropped into the world on a whirlwind of rainbow sprinkles, started writing for a living, and BAM, was paying the bills later the next day.  I've been writing for thirty-five years. My average writing "day" has gone up from perhaps twenty minutes as a kid, to an hour as a hobbyist, to between three and five hours as an aspiring [working] writer, to around eight to ten hours, these days, as a working writer. So I’ve logged in my “ten thousand hours” writing, and at this point I’ve clocked in a second ten thousand just to be on the safe side. I think I'm working on about my fourth or fifth set, honestly. That doesn't mean I'm perfect. I’m not above error. My first drafts are shitty. I use myriad as a noun. I will use the wrong your if I'm not paying attention. Occasionally I write a Facebook post and half my friends find some eldritch multi-clause sentence I tried to write as confusing as all hell.

And apparently, I'm a big fan of writing sentences where I leave out.

Still....it’s pretty safe to assume I know what I’m doing when I start stringing words together.

I have a degree in Creative Writing. (Technically that's English with emphasis in CW, so I did my share of literary analysis.) I graduated Summa Cum Laude from SFSU in Spring 2012. Though it's  their MFA program well regarded, I sat in many of the same classes, came to all the same panels, and a lot of my friends were graduate students who wished that they could be in the more structured undergrad workshops.

I know some people take Creative Writing for an easy degree, but I looked for the professors who demanded excellence and had a reputation for eating undergrads. When I found them, I took everything they taught. I didn’t get a 3.94 because I was coasting. I also didn’t eke out my degree as fast as possible and then wave good-bye with a hearty "Smell ya later." In fact, I was 21 creative writing units over what I needed to graduate and my dean was basically shooing me out the door with narrowed eyes since I was on a Pell Grant. ("Sure, Detective Fiction can fill in for your Poetry or Drama requirement. Go fucking graduate already!") The point is, I was there to learn, and learn I did.

Plus, I actually got the “Ethan Frome damage” joke from Grosse Point Blanke.

This is like UBERwhite fiction.
It's the Wonder Bread of fiction.

I’ve been a managing editor of a literary magazine. It wasn't the happiest time of my life, I had the director bait and switch me to cover a position I didn't want with the promise of something she NEVER intended to consider me for, and I'm pretty sure my EIC was actively trying to make me cry, but I learned a lot, especially about the business of publishing.

I've also taught ESL and Developmental English for years (and only recently gave it up when writing started paying the bills). It might seem like that wouldn't overlap much with writing, but being worried sick about grammar is SUCH a powerful force in the lives of would-be writers. So many unpublished writers think of grammar as their white whale when really it's just something they mostly already know, and will get better at with practice and not some class or book.

I actually am published. Technically. It’s not anything you could pick up at a Barnes and Noble, and most of it (that isn’t blogging) happened before the ubiquity of having an e-version of nearly everything, but it’s out there. It exists in a few different dark and hidden corners. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that the Rubicon of almighty “publication” can be technically passed with a whimper in a way that feels like it doesn’t “count.”

This will be my eighth year blogging. I make money. It covers the bills, though I need a side gig to keep and maintain a car. I've tried to break down the mystique, but a lot of people still don't want to hear that they need to work hard every day for several years.

When I was ten and in fourth grade, we got a writing prompt that was a paragraph start to a story. It was up to us to end it. I wrote twenty-one pages. It was the best feeling I’d ever had. I knew then what I wanted to do with my life. That day, I decided that I wanted to be a writer.

And I never looked back. I've been writing ever since.


So very, very badly.

I "wrote books" between the ages of nine and twelve, but they were usually about twenty pages long, and often bore a striking resemblance to the last movie I'd seen that I really enjoyed.

I tried to be Stephen King when I was 12, writing stories of self-willed big rigs chasing little kids all over pastoral New England towns only to viscerally describe them being run over with as much Kingian attention to the crunching sound and color of brains as my limited skills could muster. It was crap of course, but if you've met the average Creative Writing program student at SFSU, you would know that it is actually probably a really good thing I worked my "I'm going to be the next Stephen King" phase out of my system before I hit a college-level "Short Story" workshop.

I started writing works of 100+ pages in seventh grade. These were not, by any stretch of the imagination, good stories, but looking back on them, I'm actually a little impressed at how well I had picked up on narrative arcs. I finished my first real manuscript in eighth grade. It was a little 120-page high-fantasy "novel" with a bunch of characters, based (with painful obviousness), on my friends.

In high school, my friends started wanting to read my writing. I was pestered over whether or not I had written any more. My work was passed around and giggled at. By my junior year, I hit another bellwether: a 100-page TYPED manuscript. A friend of mine read the chapters serial-style as I was writing it, but when I was done he asked for the whole thing so he could read it...again. "I want to make sure I didn’t miss anything," he said.

I wouldn't know it for years, but that feeling was better than sex.

Despite a number of signs that I could be a pretty good writer when I worked at it (like winning the UCLA Comm board awards against a bunch of junior and senior UC journalism students.....without actually having gone to UCLA....or at that point, even college yet), I still bought into too many cultural myths of how to find happiness. I took the (bad) advice that writing wouldn’t pay the bills and struggled through one unhappy “fallback, safety-net” job after another. I married for all the wrong reasons (and divorced some years later for at least a couple of the right ones).

I played the game by society’s happiness playbook, and it made me miserable.

So in my thirties, I burned that playbook. I let the Joneses pull WAY out ahead and dedicated myself to the things that bring me a whole frikton more meaning in life than big screen TVs and slick-ass cars. I change diapers and write whenever I can.

Now I'm writing the writing advice!

So I may not know every last detail of the publishing industry or where you should personally go with your Gothichopepunk Vampire Love Triangle story, and I certainly don't seem to be able to write the OKCupid profile that brings all the milkshakes to the yard, but here's what I do know:

I know how to be an unsuccessful writer.

I know how to not make it.

I know how to write day after day and not make a damned dime. Or to make a pittance.

I know how to keep going for nearly thirty years, and never even consider throwing in the towel.

I know how to write because not writing feels wrong, and that the parts of writing that are cathartic and meaningful and wonderful come in the act of writing itself, not in the acquisition of an agent or the painful negotiation of a book deal.

I know how to be artistic and creative for its own sake and to never let the world tell me that I “need” a white picket fence and a sensible car even as the sweet siren song insists upon it over and over again.

I know how to set up my life to feed my art addiction, without dejection over the unfulfilled fantasies of writing the Great American Novel and fat royalty checks and travelling the talk show circuit.

I know what it means to write when there is no incentive to do so except the sheer love of transforming twenty-six letters and fourteen pieces of punctuation into meaning.

I know how to crawl slowly from making no money to paying the bills with writing. I know how frustrating and breathtaking that can feel.

I’m going to keep right on writing. I'm going to do it with forty thousand followers or four or four million and with ten page views or ten zillion. I'll do it if I make no money or enough to quit all my side gigs and be a sustaining member of NPR. I can do MORE of it with your help, but I'll never stop.

So come along if you want. Join us. The one thing I can say is that it's never been boring.

Even more about me

The Buy-Me-Lunch Answer About My Gender
The Buy-Me-Lunch Answer About My Sexuality

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