“IT’S NICE TO BE ABLE TO THINK OPENLY”
I GOT TO STEVE’S APARTMENT ON THE UPPER WEST SIDE AT WHAT MUST HAVE BEEN THE COLDEST HOUR OF THE YEAR. WITH A WELCOMING GRIN, HE LED ME TO HIS KITCHEN/OFFICE AT THE END OF A SMALL HALLWAY LINED WAIST-HIGH WITH BOOKS. ALONG WITH MORE BOOKS IN THE OFFICE: HIS VERY OWN ELECTRONIC AIR PURIFIER FOR SUCKING UP CIGARETTE FUMES.
BEFORE I COULD TAKE OFF MY JACKET, AND AS HE LIT UP AN AMERICAN SPIRIT, STEVE WAS EDUCATING ME ON A LEONARD BERNSTEIN THEORY. HOW, BECAUSE IT REQUIRES THE EASIEST, MOST NATURAL MOTION FOR THE JAW, THE SOUND ‘MA’, IN ALMOST EVERY LANGUAGE FROM SWAHILI TO MANDARIN, SIGNIFIES ‘MOTHER’.
STEVE HAS WRITTEN TWO NOVELS. THE FIRST HE HAS SHELVED FOR NOW. THE SECOND, MADMAN IN THE MARKETPLACE, HE’S TRYING TO GET PUBLISHED. A LOVER OF LANGUAGE AND STORIES, HE SPOKE WITH LIVELY EYES AND QUICK ENERGY ABOUT HIS INTERESTS, HIS DAY JOB, AND WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE AN ASPIRING FICTION WRITER IN NEW YORK CITY.
Making your brain better
Failing like Van Gogh
(at the end of this post there are links to more info on people and works referenced)
STEVE THOMAS: Want a beer?
THE JALEPEÑO: Not yet. What have you been working on?
ST: Trying to write a novella. I refer to it as The Life of a Salesman or A Sailor’s Life, but I haven’t figured out its title yet.
THE J: What’s it about?
ST: Two businessmen, Cal and Alan, who made a fortune together in TV syndication in the late 80’s and go on to start one of the first Internet video companies in the 90’s. On the eve of retirement, Cal cheats Alan out of money, and soon afterwards Alan’s body washes up in front of Malibu Pier. The police label it an accident. Cal investigates and uncovers a conspiracy, in the process learning that Alan was not the unctuous salesman Cal thought he was.
Anyway, key word is “trying”. It’s hard.
THE J: What makes it hard?
ST: Two things. One, it’s hard to keep confidence up. I’ve written a book that I’m proud of and that I think does justice to my abilities as a writer (The Madman in the Marketplace), but I can’t get an agent to pick it up. It’s hard to keep working day-in, day-out, when I think about how every word I write might never be read by anyone besides a few friends who feel obligated to read what I give them.
I have a terrifyingly clear picture of myself at 85 with thousands of pages of unpublished manuscripts that I’ve been perfecting my whole life, but everyone around me is too busy to give any of it a read. As far as I can tell, this is not a unique fear. Writers tend to be insecure and to crave affirmation.
THE J: Is that true for you?
ST: Yes. Also the slowness is hard. A story moves like a glacier. Nothing’s better than looking up after six months to see a few hundred clean pages, but when I look over my work from last week and cannot find a single usable sentence, I get a little anxious.
THE J: How has the novella been different from writing novels?
ST: The pacing is different. I think longer, fewer scenes are better for a novella, whereas short chapters with quick scenes can keep things moving in a bigger novel.
THE J: What does it take to feel like you’ve done it right?
ST: I’ll let you know once I figure it out. I’m guessing the answer is: it takes a whole lot of time plus a large portion of my soul.
THE J: Do you have the reader in mind when you’re writing?
ST: Definitely. I want to write the book I want to read.
II. ESPECIALLY NOT A GENIUS
"I’VE NEVER BEEN KNOWN FOR MODERATION.”
THE J: What does the perfect picture look like for you as a writer?
ST: Being able to write every day and not having to wake up at 4 so I can write before I have to be at my cubicle at 9. I’m so tired by the end of the week from putting in four hours every morning that come Friday I can barely walk.
THE J: Do you write at night too?
ST: I practice piano and read at night. If I don’t, I fall out of mental shape and the next morning can’t focus enough to write.
IT’S IMPORTANT FOR ME TO HAVE A SCHEDULE SO THAT I’M WORKING CONSISTENTLY EVERYDAYAND AT CONSISTENT TIMES DURING THE DAY.
My far-off goal is to get good enough so that reading difficult works or writing engaging prose is habit, not some singular instance of being touched by the Muse.
THE J: Getting good enough at something, like reading or writing, so it becomes engrained, like a second nature.
ST: Exactly, but there’s a flipside to it. I’m my own prisoner. If I don’t write in the morning, and if I don’t read and play piano at night, I feel like I haven’t existed properly that day and get depressed and have trouble going to sleep.
THE J: Anything can become a habit.
ST: Exactly, like, if you smoke a cigarette or run every day, then smoking or running not only becomes easy, but you crave it. Whereas, if you never run or smoke, both will feel like murder on your lungs.
The thing is, when writing and reading become routine, it starts to drive you insane. Both require you to put all your energy into focusing on the moment. It’s like battling the ideas instead of thinking them, and the battle becomes habit.
It’s a very vicious way of life. You walk down the street, or you talk to your parents or your spouse, and you can’t stop focusing on every damn detail, and then replaying every action over and over to make sure it has been thoroughly inspected and dissected into manageable bits. The brain is either always on or always off. It seems that way for me at least, but I’ve never been known for moderation.
THE J: Is that enjoyable?
ST: [Laughs] When I put it like that, I guess not, but I’m being melodramatic because I’m not able to financially support myself with my fiction. But nothing is as enjoyable as the reading and the writing.
What’s not enjoyable is when things get in the way, like my real-world job, and I have to half-ass the writing because I’m too beat. What really gets me down is when I want to be thinking about my novel, but I’m too busy making sure I have health insurance.
THE J: Can you take the creativity of your writing to your day job?
ST: It’s something I’ve thought about. I try my best to align the two. I work for an Internet video start-up. So now I’m writing a story about businessmen who start a company similar to the one I work for.
I try to turn work into an aspect of my creative process. I have to pay attention to everything because it might fuel my writing.
The business mentality within Internet companies is super interesting from sociological and anthropological perspectives. It’s another tool I can use as a writer. Just like how John Updike wrote about flowers to discuss something larger, I can use what I learn about the people in my office and how they interact with each other and the rest of the world. I can use it like Sinclair Lewis did in Babbitt to make a social critique.
I CAN AT LEAST TRY TO MERGE MY TWO LIVES SO THEY FEED OFF EACH OTHER.
THE J: Seems like a fun place to be, mentally. You’re growing more observant. The best writers help us see.
ST: Yep, I think so.
THE J: And that’s hard. It’s easy to sound melodramatic. I always think of Eli Cash inThe Royal Tenenbaums.
ST: [Laughs] Yes. I love in the beginning when he calls Margot after his reading to complain about the reviewer who called him ‘especially not a genius’ [laughs].
THE J: Have you written screenplays?
ST: No, but what I’m writing right now, I’m thinking of how it could be a screenplay as I write it. But it’s more of an exercise so that I can write a particular kind of novel.Madman was so introspective. The plot is about how the main character’s interpretation of reality evolves as he grows up.
But now I want to do something with more action and dialogue, more like a play, like Of Mice and Men, where the narrator isn’t describing the protagonist’s thoughts all the time.
III. NOT FOR NOTHING
THE J: What’ the most challenging part of writing for you?
ST: The early stages with months of work under my belt but no polished sentences to show for it. In the beginning, when first creating the story and characters, the process is like building a Lego castle that only exists in my head. This is where I am right now with the novella.
After a couple months of working like a dog, when all I have to show for it is the stuff in my head, it’s scary. It just goes so slowly. But as long as everything eventually clicks, then it’s fine. At the moment, it hasn’t quite clicked, so I’m a nervous wreck about it.
For example, I wrote a new outline today. I threw everything away. I try not to get down on myself. It’s all part of the process.
Some mornings I just sit and think my four hours away without touching the pencil. I have to tell myself that’s OK. No rush.
YOU HAVE TO HAVE FUN WITH IT.
And the thinking part is tremendously fun. It’s the hours between the writing sessions when I worry, and that’s the hardest part of it all, the worrying that takes over when you’re not doing. But also, I’m young (he’s 27). For most writers, 30 is young to have a first book published. I just hope it’s not for nothing, all the work, you know?
THE J: Apparently Van Gogh’s paintings didn’t sell while he was alive. These haven’t been for nothing.
ST: True. But Van Gogh’s case is not one that gives me lots of hope. Still, he was able to transfigure what must have felt like a perpetual sense of failure. Maybe he was able to do what he did because of the failure. Maybe I’m a masochist, but it does seem heroic. I don’t know why, but it does.
THE J: Think the failure was the wellspring?
ST: Who knows? I should tell you that most of what I know about Van Gogh is from a day in the museum in Amsterdam, and from the George Cukor movie. I’m not an expert.
THE J: I don’t know the movie.
ST: It’s called Lust for Life. I highly recommend it. Also, the thing with rejection, it has made me a much better writer. I’ve become much more obsessed with making sure every tiny detail is perfect so there’s no excuse to reject me except that my work just isn’t very good. Though I can’t help asking myself “What’s the point?”
Besides making you tired, the work is devastating on your social life. You get in the habit of noticing people and out of the habit of interacting with them. A natural byproduct of living this life seems to be a profound sense of alienation.
It’s so strange, but by trying to gain a better understanding of people, you remove yourself from them. It’s hard not to wonder why you do it.
THE J: Why do you?
ST: I really like it. It gives me a whole lot of joy. It’s all I really want to do. I guess I have no clue as to why. In this focused state of thinking well, and getting high off thoughts, I’m convinced there’s something here. Almost as though we’re supposed to be doing it.
THE J: That alone is compelling enough to keep going, if you can feel this alive while doing it, right? Does playing piano make you feel that too?
ST: Absolutely, and piano also helps with the writing.
THE J: How?
ST: Figuring out how to get into a rhythm, to experience a rhythm bodily, is learning how to concentrate at will.
That disembodied feeling of pure concentration, where the rhythm of the song is bypassing your brain and dictating directly to your fingers what to play next, it’s very similar to my experience of writing something I’m happy with. Piano for me is like cross training.
I want to be able to turn on that ability to focus, or shut it off, at will. Piano helps with that.
THE J: Learning how to learn. Consistency. Doing small things well. What do you think it takes, intentionality?
ST: Yep, I think it’s just paying better attention. When I was younger I didn’t grasp what it meant to focus intently. I was too caught up worrying about what people thought about me.
So when I think about the two different states of focus and non-focus, I’ve come to believe that the main difference is the ability to stop focusing on how you come off, and instead focus on the world around you.
In what I’m calling the non-focused state, you’re hung up on everyone else in a passive way. “How did I come off in this situation? Oh, I came off badly,” or, “I’m so angry at my friend for doing this thing to me.” It’s always about how you’re being mistreated, wondering about how people are negatively judging you.
It’s ironic, because I’ve found the only way to start understanding what people are thinking is to stop giving a crap what they think of you.
THE J: Is the writing a way to express that excess energy?
ST: That makes it sounds very therapeutic. But I suppose for me it is therapeutic, and I only have my experience to go off of. For the most part, I have no idea why I became obsessed with reading and trying to write, quote-unquote, serious literature. But I did, and these values have become my values.
THE J: Which values?
ST: Hard work, tradition, paying attention, thinking. It’s nice to be able to think openly.
THE J: That seems to be a good way to experience anything – with an open mind.
ST: Yeah. It’s all about controlling reality in some way.
IV. LEVELS OF AWARENESS
THE J: What are you reading now?
ST: I’m going back and forth between Stefan Zweig novellas and Roth’s Zuckerman novels. Currently, I’m on The Post-office Girl.
THE J: What other influences?
ST: DFW (David Foster Wallace) is the guy who converted me. I read him just out of college, and I started thinking differently and consciously changed the direction of my life. And maybe that’s a tad lame. For whatever reason, he appeals to a certain type of idealistic twenty-something who wears flannel. He was the guy who made me realize I needed to slow down and think, and he taught me how to enjoy the harder stuff.
THE J: What about Steinbeck?
ST: Yeah. Steinbeck’s more of my writer hero than DFW. Infinite Jest may have changed my life, but East of Eden saved it.
And his other writing, too. For example, his Journal of a Novel, which he wrote every morning to his editor as a warm up while working onEast of Eden.
The fall before I started writing Madman I read that while rereadingEden, and it was a real turning point for me. He’s fun and smart but not pretentious.
THE J: These brilliant people have spent years creating stories that have stood up. There’s a reason for that. We owe it to ourselves to explore them. You can entertain the ideas of great authors. You can read and absorb that effort and begin to see the fruits of that author’s work. It becomes a whole new corridor you’ve gone down. You’re making your brain better.
ST: Yep. There’ve been some smart people who have lived, and a lot of them have figured out some pretty neat shit. I remember the first time I made my brain better thanks to DFW, and I noticed that I was able to make it better through the work I put in to understand him. I realizedwhat I was thinking before was shallow and precisely how it was shallow.
I had gone up a level of awareness, which implied, and this is the real cool part, that there are different levels. When you enter a new level you see that great thinkers have entered it before. Suddenly you understand all sorts of things they’re saying in their writing that were previously obscure to you.
THE J: What made you want to be a writer?
ST: Probably shallow reasons of what I thought it meant to be an artist, how cool people would think I was.
You make this decision before you have any idea why, because you don’t know anything about it yet, because you haven’t put any time into learning it. But I think it’s worked out so far.
It may make me anxious a lot of the time, but the actual doing is extremely pleasurable.
THE J: And you’re getting better at it.
ST: Which is also fun.
THE J: What do you hope to have accomplished through your writing?
ST: I’d like to make enough money to buy a castle someday. Also, I’d like to enslave an army of readers with my prose. But I have a lot of levels of awareness to climb before I get there.
Find Steve on Twitter @Steven_A_Thomas, and Instagram,
Visit The Madman in the Marketplace to read some of Steve's work