When I was a senior in high school, instead of a more classical English Literature course, I opted to enroll in a Fantasy and Science Fiction course. Truly a no-brainer. I’ll take “Things That Andrew Is More Comfortable With Than Himself or the Other Sex” for $500, Alex. The class was taught by Mr. Gori, a shorter, stocky man with glasses, who I can only assume also got picked on by the cooler kids, even as a teacher. I identified with his cussing in class, the cynicism and honesty. I quietly relished the idea that this was the kind of class I really didn’t need to try in and attempted to up the stakes by proving to Mr. Gori that I also got it. That I was in on the joke: his class was an excuse to not read Salinger or Fitzgerald and instead watch Serenity.
If it was not for Mr. Gori I’d probably have ended up somewhere completely different than where I am now. Somewhere with a degree in Business Management and a comfortable, salaried job, along with dog that adores me.
Goddamnit, Gori. I hate you.
It was in his class that I first wrote for someone else. It might have been the first time I did anything for anyone besides myself, who can be sure? From the first moment he made a Star Wars joke, or explained that Shakespeare was actually pretty funny, or had a discussion about World of Warcraft with me, I knew I had to be better for Mr. Gori.
And then he had to go an assign the class a paper on robotics of all things, and I had to go and actually enjoy the assignment, and he had to grade it and actually offer me feedback. Feedback that wasn’t HERE IS YOUR GRADE.
It was praise.
He told me the next time I write a paper like the one I had written, to warn him before I send it, because he read it in the morning over his cup of coffee and promptly spit everywhere from laughing.
If anyone ever asks me the moment I knew I wanted to write for the rest of my life, this was it.
The moment I made my teacher, who I looked up to— who I am now realizing was a more patient, proverbial Patton Oswalt— laugh. With words. My stupid, stupid, error-laden words on paper. I researched shit for that paper. I winged it. I wung it.
After that class ended, I had no one to write for. I was certainly not going to write for myself, I ignored all aspects of my own being knowing it was futile to seek any form of self-approval from myself, so I looked to others for that feeling. For nearly 3 years, I never found that feeling again. I just forgot it existed.
I had, of course, not followed the water. I ended up majoring in Communications at an art school in Philadelphia, which actually might sound worse out-loud than “I have a degree in Fiction Writing.”
Succinctly: still fat, sad, confused.
I took a class that offered no credits towards my graduation, a creative writing workshop. I took it in hope that I might not want to kill myself in a video editing suite, which was oddly where I spent a lot of my time then, clanking away in Final Cut Pro.
The workshop was held in an overbearingly white, confined classroom that would’ve neatly doubled as an interrogation room at a police station. We all crowded around a couple of pushed-together tables. It went like this: the entire semester revolved around each student completing three pieces at tri-weekly intervals, and then we’d go in rounds, say 4 people a week, giving feedback and revising for those works. So, by the end, everyone read their three stories and had a chance to hear about them. A standard workshop class.
Every week, I went to that class for one person, and it wasn’t me. I don’t think I even had crushes back then. Not on girls, at least. I knew that was never going to happen. I had crushes on guys who I wanted to be so I could get the girls I wanted. Guys with swagger, girl jeans, with “record” collections.
I went for this kid who I wanted to be wholly and completely. I don’t remember his name. It didn’t matter, but it was probably something unflappably cool like Balls McDongle or Winston Churchill. He had a mustache. A black, thick mustache. No beard, just the mustache. He had thick, black glasses. He was at least 6’2, thin as a rail. He wore black hoodies. He wrote about his roommates not doing the dishes and a note he left for them. I still remember that note. “Do dishes, or else ghosts.”
That’s a fucking note.
For my first two rounds in that class, I’d written a story about a kid who smoked, has a late-night trip to a burger joint, gets in a dance-off with a homeless man, and then comes back to find his roommate dead from a suicide that comes out of nowhere, my first amateur plot-twist (editor’s note: I was projecting myself onto the dead roommate, I was okay on the outside, but not on the inside, right?)
It was probably a big stink. I don’t remember the reception. I was too nervous hoping nobody figured out I was really sad on the inside.
My second story revolved around the biblical end of the world and a pill that eliminated pain. High-concept stuff, right? So good!
Insofar, I had gotten no nod from Winston, or anyone from that matter. It all came down to my third piece, I had to impress Balls McDongle and I mean that completely non-ironically. Honestly, this kid had an aura. I have to imagine that he’d walk into a bike shop, show in a sweaty basement, or a diner at 2am and all of the awkward hipster pussy in the room would just moisten with PBR. I wanted so badly for him to acknowledge me.
To get a little meta: I wrote a story for Balls McDongle, but as if I was writing to my old best friend, Dave. I couldn’t just write a story to Winston Churchill, so I pretended my best friend Dave was the only one who would be reading this story, and I went with it.
It was 20 or so pages about a wizard named Chu’ran, a bear named Steve, and Shaquille O’Neal. “A Bear, A Wizard, and Shaq On an Adventure Through Portals,” I called it. I wrote that story with the flair of a meth-addict who discovered you can trip and then surf Wikipedia. I wrote it like I was writing it to make my best friend laugh— if I knew anything, it was what was funny to us.
The day came for me to pass out copies, read it to the class, and then wait for first-round feedback.
As I was reading it aloud, my elbows hard on the table, I had to stop at least 4 or 5 times; the class was laughing too loudly. I kept my eyes on Balls McDongle, he was rolling. I was sweating badly in my black hoodie, which I wore everywhere, in every season, every day. At least once, each student had taken to wiping tears of laughter from their eyes. I know embellishment is added in most of these “retracing the roots” types moments, but I describe this scene with at least 85% honesty.
And I really don’t know why they were laughing, I thought they’d never “get it.” It was probably the enthusiasm in which I read the piece, and also the fact that the actual image of me, reading it with some air of confidence, was absolutely the strangest thing in the world.
Sure enough, next week, it’s the last class. Time to get my feedback, along with two others. We get our copies passed back to us with the notes from others that I’d never read because I was so nervous about criticism. I shoved the copies into my backpack, nodding, ignoring all the feedback. I was just ready to get the fuck out of that room for the last time, always anxious with the idea that people had actually responded to something I wrote.
As I’m standing to leave, Winston Churchill approaches me. He is smirking. I’m thinking he might say something like, “I am so glad I am not you,” or “Are you gay?”
Instead, he holds up my story. “Hey man, I was wondering, is it cool if I keep this? It was hilarious and I want to hold onto it.”
There it was again.
“Yes, of course.”
I left and never saw Winston Churchill again.
I had always assumed you should write for yourself.
It makes the most sense, doesn’t it? If you aren’t writing for you, what’s the point?
During the next 3 or 4 years, I left that art school in Philadelphia, moved home, moved back to Philadelphia, went back to that school, left again, moved home again, and then came to Chicago to ultimately study writing.
An important clause in this all: I never liked myself. What the fuck does that mean? It means I was never really happy with myself as a person. Well, what the fuck does that mean? It means I went to coffee shops for human interaction with people who were literally paid to be friendly to me. It means I anonymously told girls I liked them on craigslist, Facebook, and a weird, short-lived website called LikeALittle. It means my value, to myself, as a human, was nil. The only time I felt valuable as a person was when I was writing for someone else, simply because most of the time, I wasn’t so bad at it.
When I write for myself, I write convoluted, depressed. I write hoping someone will stumble upon it and publish it because it’s filled with such an amount of unrivaled genius that it must be shared, even though I never move it from my desktop. When I write for myself, I don’t get it. I don’t understand why I decided to do this in the first place. When I write for myself, even after all these years, it’s an attempt to be a “writer.” It’s a grab for my own vindication, that my time was well-spent, my skills true.
It’s about time that I call myself out on my own bullshit.
If it wasn’t for the cute girls I had crushes on in most of my classes, I probably wouldn’t have passed. Or maybe I would’ve, but I’d have dropped out after a semester. Lost my spark. Write well for a good grade? No thanks. Write for my own betterment as a writer? PASS. Write well because Lindsay is going to hear this in 15 minutes? Abso-fucking-lutely, let me use my best Nabokov-impression.
A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a coworker where he asked me about the idea of audience over a stuffed red-pepper that his beautiful wife had prepared in the kitchen of their lovely one-bedroom apartment. He brought up a short piece of flash fiction that I’d shown to him, lucky enough to be published for at my college a year ago. He was explaining it to his wife in the kitchen, “It’s about the end of the world, and this girl.”
I interrupted, a little embarrassed. I always turn red at the summary of my work. It’s always more complicated, right? “Yeah, I wrote that because I was thinking: if the world actually was ending, what would I do? I would go see her, and it probably wouldn’t work out, even when it was ending.” I took a sip of lukewarm coffee, “Let me tell you, never write for anyone else. Just write for you. I wrote that for her, and..”
He looked at me, confused, “..and it seemed to work out pretty well?”
He had a point.
It was one summer between when I was floundering, having left Philadelphia to work and live at home again, I met that girl who I still write for. Details that are pertinent: acceptance, love, Gameboy in bed, sex!, sing-a-longs in the car, walks to nowhere, a weekend in the City, jibberish, cute dog, communication, nothing like it.
I would wager that 90% of every story I’ve written in the last 3 years has a dedication to her, invisible, at the top, right below the title.
Is everything I write about her? No. Absolutely not.
Is a good majority of it for her? Most certainly.
And, here, now, still, I really don’t know why, but it works.
I push myself as a writer in hopes that, maybe, one day, she’ll see that the reason I left her for Chicago wasn’t all bullshit. That she’ll wake up from a nap with her boyfriend or husband, turn on the computer, and there on the screen might be an article with my name on it.
I do this in hopes that, in the future, she might be perusing the Kids section at bookstore with a boy that’s not my son, they’ll walk by a “New Fiction” table. She’ll linger, recognizing my name on a soft-cover. I write so she might buy that book and keep it in the glove compartment of her car and pull it out if she ever needs me again.
I write because maybe one day I might have the chance to buy her a nice dinner with a paycheck from the royalties of a book of mine. We could get meat-high again. See, this is an inside joke you don’t know. We got meat-high at a steakhouse, that’s the entire joke. Being meat-high is when you eat so much meat you get a little high. Wow, right?
I write so maybe, one day, I’ll get a new phone and opt to keep the photos of her I have had saved for years off of it.
I write so maybe, one day, I can have an e-mail in my inbox like the ones I send to my favorite bands telling them that their songs saved my life.
Believe me, I don’t think any of this is romantic. I don’t think it’s cool or what you necessarily should do. I think it’s tragic and I feel like I have the authority to say that, 3 years after the fact. There are people that propel us no matter what the reason. It could be a family member that is dead, or one who is still at every reading, exhibition, and show you are in. It could be for a friend you had growing up that is now a cryogenic Facebook profile and a memorial page. Could be your wife, her morning breath. But I sincerely doubt it’s you.
For the last four weeks I’ve gone to sleep with the lights in my apartment on. I get in bed and am truly haunted: by the concept of death, infinity. The dreamless sleep. My health. My parents, their hearts. A dog in the ground behind a house we no longer own. Why I’m almost 26 but still love Pokemon. The failed relationships. By the idea that what I’m doing with my life is wrong, that I’m falling behind. The status updates from my friends who get jobs at desks with salaries and paid vacation days, long weekends.
For the last four weeks I’ve gotten out of bed at 3 in the morning and started writing.
Why do you get out of bed at 3 am?
“I used to hang grocery bags up and down my arms to impress my mom, now I use them to carry boxes out of my dead dad’s house, so I started writing songs about this girl, but now that girl, she’s somebody’s wife; just like the rug in my bedroom growing up that would stop the door when I tried to slam it shut.”
Andrew Buttermore is the author of Too Many Holes, a forthcoming novel from Chicago Literati books.