Don't be Afraid to be a Marginal Weirdo
I hate writing on writing, but... here goes.
Writing about writing—there’s almost nothing I find quite as unhelpful as this. Except for a few standouts in the genre, Stephen King’s On Writing being chief among them, writing on writing assumes a sort of authorial grandiosity, a self-recognition of arrival. Egos are foistable things; such is the human condition.
I’ve read plenty of craft on the craft over the years, and each time I walk away with some shadow of the master’s creative monster standing stalk-legged in my brain, gnawing away at my process, my style, my voice. It’s that monster that says, “do it my way… my way… my way.” And I never can. I am, after all, not King nor Robinson nor Dillard nor whomever. I am me, and I have a real, non-writerly job that devours large swaths of real, non-writerly time. Put another way, I do not have Kingian, Robinsonian, or Dillardian stretches of time to torture arcs, characters, or metaphors. I write in the margins.
I’d love to earn the sort of write privilege—which is to say time—enjoyed by authors who write on writing. This, however, does not seem to be my lot. But still, I write. Why? Because I see words in shapes, sometimes smell them, sometimes feel them spreading out in my ribcage. Because language is concrete thought. Because I have conversations with characters in my head like I might have a conversation with you if you were sitting across the coffee table. Because ideas come that plague me until they’re exorcised onto a page. Because, I understand myself, God, and the universe better when I write. Because, in the end, I am a helpless weirdo.
I have been wired as a writing weirdo from my earliest days. In elementary school, I created an entire genre of literature—eschatological comedy—via a pencil-written short story. The story followed a grease-haired Evangelical preacher who discovered he’d misinterpreted the Good Book when he heard a trumpet blow, saw the Chosen One returning on a cloud, and noted that only dead rising to meet the Christ-cloud were a billion bones of dead frogs. It might have been deemed heresy at my parochial school, but still, I sold it on the playground to a Jenna Kohler for a quarter. That was the day I became professional.
I created a second genre of literature in law school—juris tragos—in which, week after week, one of my law school classmates suffered an untimely end. Once, she died on the front bumper of a bus. Once, her end came at the blunt end of a stray football punted through the window of our Criminal Procedure classroom. Once, her brain spontaneously combusted while reading Corbin on Contracts. (How many have died at the hands of Corbin?) And before you label me a psychopath, don’t worry. I only killed her off because she was a friend who might have found the stories laughable if she’d read them. Or knew about them. Also, it bears mentioning that she was a real gunner, a raiseherhandaholic who was always ready with the correct answer, and for that offense, she found herself the weekly victim of literary tragedy.
After the birth of my fourth son, after his near-death experience, after a lavish season of drinking to numb all of life, I walked into sobriety. And afraid I’d never write another creative word again—whiskey greases the writing wheels—I set out to chronicle my sobriety journey as creatively as I could. That chronicle became an a sort of memoir of falling apart and falling back together, and an agent who claimed to be shopping my fiction—spoiler alert, he wasn’t—asked whether he could shop my weirdo journal. I agreed. That’s how Coming Clean came to your bookshelf. (My second book was written in much the same way.)
I did all of that work in the margins. My eschatological comedy came to me during recess. I wrote juris tragos between the end of my Friday class and the long slog to the student parking pit. I wrote Coming Clean at the end of each evening, in the witching hours between putting the kids down and crawling under my own covers. Margin writing—this is how I find the time to ply my own weirdo craft, and it’s been the way for the entirety of my writing career.
Why all these words on using the margin to scratch out weirdo words? There are two reasons, I suppose.
Reason the First: What I’ve Learned About Writing in the Margins
If you’re a longtime reader, you’ve probably sorted this out, but I don’t just write for myself. I co-write, ghostwrite, coach, doctor manuscripts, and edit other authors. Most of those authors, even those who’ve sold an extraordinary number of books, aren’t full-time writers. They have careers and kids and partners in marriage or crime. They write in the wee hours of the morning or late at night, in coffeeshops or trains. They capture thoughts on stray pieces of paper or in their iPhone Notes app. They cobble together words because they believe in creating pathways—to understanding, education, new worlds—by cobbling together words.
Recently, a number of people (some of you) have approached me about writing. They’d like to do more of it, some for potential publication, others for their own self-understanding. But where’s the time? they ask. The time is in the margins. It’s in the early hours of the morning or the late hours of the night. It’s in the thirty minutes of your lunch break. It’s in the train commute, the Uber from the airport. It’s when you’re sitting on the pot, and before you pretend you’re too good for that, keep a pencil and scratch pad by the throne and see what plops out.
If you want to write, you can find the time. It may be marginal time, but marginal time is magic time for the examining writer. I use these marginal moments in my own writing, and I tell anyone who’ll listen to do the same. (In fact, I wrote this piece in marginal moments over the last three days.)
Reason the Second: What I’ve Learned About Being a Weirdo
Life begs me to be buttoned-up. Raised by Baptist, educated by Catholics, degreed in Economics, and trained as a Lawyer, my world has always been narrow-ruled, structured, often pinstriped. My public rebellions were minor—I drank a little too much for the Baptists, questioned purgatory a little too much for the Catholics, believed in regulation a little too much for the Friedmanian economists, and wore socks with a little too much color for my legal partners. These were calculated transgressions, ones which left me decidedly outside of the center but not so far outside that I lost orbit.
In writing, we can do what we want. We can allow for inquisition or psychopathy or self-reflection or whatever. We can examine the darker parts of the human heart or search for the light of transcendence. We can explore comedy and tragedy. We can confess who we are and who we are not. We can beg for forgiveness or love or God. We can say the unsaid things, even if it feels crazy. And even if we don’t do any of those things for ourselves, we can do them for other characters in made-up worlds.
When we write, we can be as weird as we want to be because it’s our space. We don’t have to be grammatically perfect or metaphorically brilliant or even structurally sound. Words, sentences, paragraphs, pages—these are tools, and we have the freedom to use them as we want. I choose to use them as a weirdo. And on occasion, I hope you will too.
So, take up your pen. Find a journal, a note pad, the back of an envelope, a wall. Become a Marginal Weirdo. Write, write, write.
My Next Weirdo Words
If you can read below the following ellipse, you are here for my secret weirdo words…
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