How I Became a Famous Writer

By  |  November 18, 2014
 "writer's colony," 9"x10", water-based media on index, 2014, Katherine Sandoz "writer's colony," 9"x10", water-based media on index, 2014, Katherine Sandoz

Pipe dreams are good, in a way.

David Brent, The Office (UK)

 

When you're a famous writer like me, you get asked to do all kinds of important things, such as visit your daughter's first grade class and talk about what it's like to be a famous writer. This happened at a recent career day. Most of the students seemed confused by my presence in the room.

"Who you be?" one child asked.

"I be Harrison," I explained.

"What you got?" he asked, as though today were Contagious Disease Day and he wanted to know what sort of virus I would be distributing to the class.

"I got rhythm," I said. "Also, I have pencils."

I distributed my pencils, a gift of my university, where I write, and where I teach others to write. They liked the pencils. Some of them ate the pencils.

I'd also brought many magazines, in which I had stories, which impressed them for about three seconds, until they realized that they weren't allowed to eat the magazines.

Then teacher offered what I have come to expect as the standard question when I am visiting an elementary school class or a college or a community health center. 


"So," they always ask. "How did you become a writer?"

 

 I get asked this a lot. When you reach the bare edges of literary respectability, such as I have (meaning, in my case, winning a very small prize or two, getting in a very small magazine or two, then having an agent and a book deal and a real Manhattan editor in a real Manhattan building with real Manhattan elevators), you find yourself answering this question a lot.

"How did you become a firefighter?" is a much easier question to answer, even if that profession is more heroic than my own.

Google "How to Be a Firefighter" and you will get 14 million hits, each very specific and helpful. "First, be a volunteer firefighter!" one website says. "Become an EMT," suggests another. It might be difficult, but it's clear: Do this, do that, and you, too, can fight fires.

Now Google "How to Become a Writer," and you will get 360 million hits, and none of them will be useful. I found one site that listed exactly 210 steps to becoming a writer, including helpful information, such as, "While writing, drink water to avoid fatigue."

This is my advice to you. Hydrate.

When people ask this question, I guess what they're really saying is, "Please tell us how one goes about disappointing one's parents while also achieving poverty."

And the answer is, there are many less strenuous ways to disappoint your parents, such as getting arrested, or majoring in hospitality and tourism.


"Did you read a lot, as a child?" they sometimes ask.

 

Yes. I competed in many read-a-thons, and I very much enjoyed competitive reading, or really any sort of competition that one could do on a bed.

All through elementary school I showed a keen interest in writing, which I did by hand, with a pencil and paper, which I then folded and handed to girls in my class, in hopes that they would bear my children. That taught me a valuable lesson for a young writer, which is that sometimes people who read your work will want to bear your children, so it's always good to carry protection, by which I mean a weapon.

By junior high, I had begun writing letters to a Vietnamese pen pal named Debbie. Back in my day, before children were encouraged to send pictures of their genitalia to one another via small handheld computers, we actually took the time to get real paper and draw pictures of our genitalia by hand, which we then mailed to one another via a system of wagon trains. With these letters, I also included stories about my life, which Debbie enjoyed.

"You are a good writer," she said. "But please stop sending pictures of your privates."

I didn't really send her pictures of my privates. But I did send her stories, in exchange for pictures of her, which I showed to friends to make myself seem more interesting.

By high school, my gift for writing was so advanced that I got paid handsomely to write research papers for classmates. It felt wrong, to be paid for doing something that came so easily, like being paid to eat cookies, the kind of cookies that gave you ulcers and took a month to eat.

"This term paper is so good," my classmates said, handing me the eighty-five dollars we had discussed. "You're going to become famous."

Actually, what they said was, "Where's the bibliography?"

And I said, "Bibliographies cost fifteen dollars."

Did it feel wrong, cheating? I was a follower of Jesus, and knew that Jesus, being the son of a famous author, would probably not like my plagiarizing, but I also knew that God had also hired at least three or four dozen Holy Ghost writers to do His book. Incidentally, I wrote my own paper on the writing of the King James Bible, which James also paid others to write for him.

I made a B on that paper.

So if you ever made anything higher than a B on a term paper, I am sorry, but you are probably not going to be a famous writer like me.

That same year, they named me Most Likely to Succeed, likely because I had helped so many of them graduate by writing their papers. At the time, I thought success was about wealth and prestige, but now I know that it's really about whether you have a swimming pool. Some of my classmates now have swimming pools, and many have successful businesses, and most of them have quality landscaping. I have none of those things, because I am a writer.

Growing up, I gave absolutely no thought to writing as a profession. It never occurred to me. I come from Mississippi, where we have so many good role models for writers, such as Tennessee Williams and Jimmy Buffett. Writing was too much fun to think about doing it for a living. Livings were supposed to be cruel things, made by sweat and fear.

Writing was the opposite of all that. 


"You must have loved your English and writing courses, though."

 

No. For some reason, in college, they placed me in the remedial composition course, likely owing to some paperwork confusion that involved them being confused by the words I had put on paper. This course took place in a dark basement room and was taught by a humorless teacher who resembled Samuel Beckett, which was unfortunate, since she was a woman.

I made a C in that course.

So if you're college English professor considers you average, then congratulations, because you are probably going to be a famous writer just like me.

That teacher was kind, and she had a gift for making all literature boring. Every time she talked about literature, the literature died. And so, in an effort to keep her from murdering more literature, I knew the safest thing to do was major in psychology, which includes almost no reading and thus would help make the world safer for literature.

It was around this time that my roommate, editor of the college newspaper, was kind enough to ask me to write for him, and I agreed to pen a weekly column, largely about music, which allowed me to get into concerts for free. Naturally, readers responded to my writing, mostly by hating it, and I learned that some people's expectations are very high, such as wanting every story to include punctuation.


"So you wanted to be a journalist?"

 

No, no. Journalism was for people who cared about facts. I agreed with David Byrne when he said, "Facts are simple and facts are straight. Facts are lazy and facts are late." I still don't know what that means, but I like the way it sounds, and that's where the action was: in the sounds of the words and the Expressionistic warping they do in the mind. But I knew writing for the college newspaper would be a useful experience, because of all the free tickets to concerts, which would help me in my true career goal, which was to be a drummer like Led Zeppelin's John Bonham. I bought some drums and started a band and we had great success, if you count making the ears of innocent people bleed as a kind of success.

When the band dissolved, what I really wanted to be was an actor, because when I put on makeup and pretended to be someone else, everybody loved it—I assume because they hated the way I looked without makeup. But acting became too emotionally overwhelming, as I was overwhelmed by how many emotions the other actors had, and so I opted for a career in standup comedy, because comics have only one emotion, and it is rage.


"You must have enjoyed writing jokes."

 

Yes, it allowed me to opine on a range of subjects as vast as the firmament, and it also allowed me to be heckled by angry drunk women, which turned out to be great, since I enjoyed feeling terrible about myself. In fact, it made me feel so terrible that I stopped doing standup and enrolled in a seminary, which is always a good idea when you hate yourself. I didn't really want to be a preacher, but I'd heard so many bad sermons over the years, and I wondered, Could I, too, write a bad sermon? But I withdrew before the first day, because, You either had a gift for it, or you didn't. Bad sermon writing just can't be taught.

So I returned to the theater, but instead of acting, what I did was write plays, and approximately none of those plays were good, including a play I wrote about a North African Christian martyr who was put to death for getting baptized, which I conceived of as a comedy.

I had some great playwriting teachers, who had a gift for lying about how good my plays were, which eventually led to depression and a decision to pursue a career in dentistry, because dentists make a lot of money while wearing what are essentially pajamas. Comfortable clothes have always been a priority for me, as has being wealthy. By this time, I was married, and my new wife was very supportive of my desire to be wealthy, although she worried that I might also be mentally ill.

"You can do anything you set your mind to," my teachers had always said, and what they really meant was, "You can be mediocre at anything you set your mind to," and I was mediocre at so much, the possibilities were endless.

I sought answers in the library, I sought refuge in the Psalms.

I always came back to writing.

In many ways, writing was our family business. Both of my parents could read, for example, and both of my grandfathers were widely known for writing checks at the grocery store. Writing was in my blood. It was something I had to do.


"Was there a moment when you decided to be a writer?"

 

That's like asking a jackass, "Was there a moment when you decided to be a jackass?" You make these small decisions that lead to more and more jackassery—such as, deciding not to pick up that trash, deciding not to say hello to a colleague in the produce aisle—until one day you look up and you're a jackass.

Every day, you make the decision to be a jackass.

And every morning, somewhere between 4:00 A.M. and 5:30 A.M., I make the decision to be a writer, and also a jackass.

Sometimes, I write for two or three hours, and sometimes I write all day, and sometimes I just stare out the window with my hands in my pants because my hands are cold and my pants are warm.

It's a very emotionally upsetting way to spend one's time, because you're doing this every morning for ten years, and hating yourself, and hating your work until such time as you hate it slightly less, until such time as your expectation level also increases, so that even as you hate it less, you actually hate it more.

But you love it.

But you hate it.

But you love it.

They say writing is like giving birth, and it is. It's just like giving birth, during the Middle Ages, when all the babies died. You get up every day and try to push out a baby, and when it finally comes out, it's dead, and if it's not dead, it should be, so you take it to the bathtub and drown it, and then you get upset and consider what fun it would be to sell life insurance, and then you get up the next day and decide to be a writer again and have another dead baby, and you look in the mirror, and you're like, "This is not fun."

But every now and then, one of those babies comes out and it's the most beautiful baby you've ever seen. It has plot like a good, healthy baby. It's got exactly the right number of commas, and its paragraphs are perfectly bilateral. And you forget about all the dead babies for the last ten years and you hold that baby tight and spellcheck it like a good parent should.

In reality, it's a very ugly baby, but you don't care.

Its eyes are too far apart.

One of its ears is shaped weird.

It's got three arms.

But you don't care. So you send this baby to a magazine, and they mail you back a little postcard that tells you your baby is, in fact, sort of ugly.

"But no!" you say. "It's my baby! I made it! It's perfect!"

So you look long and hard at your baby, and you realize: it is an ugly baby. So you do like Abraham, and you take it out back behind the woodshed, but God doesn't stop you, and you kill it, and you weep.

And you wake up and make another baby, and more and more babies, a whole army of ugly, three-armed babies, and you send them out into the world.

And you meet nice editors who see something special in one of your ugly babies and help you make it less ugly by giving it a haircut that keeps its brow from seeming so prominent, or by removing one of the arms in a non-invasive way. And before you know it, your ugly babies are colonizing small territories on the internet, and maybe an agent comes along and helps you sell some of these children to a publisher, which sounds like child slavery, and maybe it is.


"Is that how you got your book deal?"

 

Yes. I have a book. One book. Which is exactly the same number of books written by Hulk Hogan's wife.

There's your origin story. That's how you become a writer:

  1.      Be a sexual deviant.
  2.      Send letters to Vietnamese women.
  3.      Plagiarize.
  4.      Major in psychology.
  5.      Form a band.
  6.      Allow yourself to be verbally assaulted by alcoholics.
  7.      Find the lighter side of martyrdom.
  8.      Enroll in a seminary.
  9.      Get up very early and feel bad about yourself until sunrise.
  10.   Find a good midwife.

We become who we become for reasons we cannot always know—because of what we saw our mothers love, or our fathers hate, and because of what we need deep down inside the parts of us that others don't know about, such as love, or security, or adoration. For me, what I needed was the freedom to drink before noon and work in my underwear. And I needed a human being who would allow me to work in my underwear, and that human is my wife.


"Is there any writing advice you can leave us with?" they always ask.

 

Yes, I say.

The path to greatness is not straight.

The path to mediocrity is also not straight.

The path to almost anywhere is not straight, unless it is a sidewalk and you are on your way to school, to learn about careers.

Enjoy the pencils.

Use them.

Eat them.

Make something beautiful.

Harrison Scott Key is the author of the memoir The World’s Largest Man, which won the 2016 Thurber Prize for American Humor. His humor and nonfiction have appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies, including Best American Travel Writing 2014, and has been adapted for the stage by Chicago’s Neo-Futurists. He teaches writing at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia. On Twitter, he’s @HarrisonKey.