A whole century ago, back in the nineteen hundreds, I got a job at a magazine called POPsmear. POPsmear was dedicated to “sex, drugs, and rock and roll,” which meant I spent a lot of time writing about things like female rapists and suicide cults, while people snorted coke and watched porn in the editor-in-chief’s office.At the next desk was a younger writer named Melissa Plaut. She was funny and smart and cool (and cute – not that cute matters, I’m just throwing that detail in for veracity’s sake), and we quickly became friends, bonding over things like the similarities in our reckless, semi-institutionalized teenage years, and our shitty romantic relationships. POPsmear closed in 2000, after key members of the staff went on an insane bender, but over the past decade, Melissa and I have remained friends and colleagues in the writing world.
In 2008, Melissa published a memoir called HACK, How I Stopped Worrying About What to Do With My Life and Started Driving A Yellow Cab. I figured she might have something helpful to say to writers, especially those who have lived through fucked-up teenage years, so I went ahead and asked her some questions. Here they are, with her replies:
How old were you when you knew you wanted to be a writer?
I don't recall ever actually wanting to be a writer. When I was a kid, all I wanted was to be a heavy metal rock star. I'm 34 years old and I'm still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. That being said, I've always written stuff down and used that as a tool to better understand the world around me. I've also always had a love/hate relationship with the act of writing. It's hard work that forces me to confront my fears, doubts, and insecurities on a daily basis, but this is precisely why it can also be so fulfilling and rewarding. And once I figured out how to write about things that truly interested me (as opposed to the things I thought would interest others), and cultivated the discipline to do it every day, I ended up producing work that I felt really good about and that other people, by some miracle, actually wanted to read. That happened when I was 29.
What were some of your first writings about?
Oh man. I don't know what the very first things were, but I have this diary from when I was 9 or 10 that was all about how much I hated my step-sister. It's hilarious because every few pages I would feel guilty and take it back, saying "She's not that bad, she just annoys me sometimes." Then, two days later, it'd be all caps and red pen, "I HATE NATALIE." Later on, I dabbled in some truly terrible "teen death poetry." It was all about anarchy and authority and how I didn't need to follow "their" rules. Further on, when I discovered the beat poets and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, which coincided with my discovery of pot and acid, I got much more surreal and mystical, but it was all so painfully contrived that it still makes me cringe when I re-read any of that stuff today.What were your teenage years like?
Oy vey. Turbulent. Troubled. Stressful! And, most of all, suburban. I was a great student but I was also a rebellious, "out of control" teen. I smoked a bunch of pot and hung out with older high school dropouts. We mostly spent our weekends walking on the railroad tracks between an indoor mall and a strip mall. Everything of importance during those early teen years happened on or near the tracks. I saw someone smoke crack for the first time there, and my 19-year-old fake satanist boyfriend (I was 13!) lived in a tent up there with some other deadbeat druggie teenagers. It was one of the most exciting periods of my life, despite (or maybe because of) how after-school-special it all was. This is mainly because those railroad tracks signified discovery, privacy, and freedom.
That all ended when, in 10th grade, I got busted in school with weed on me and reluctantly spent the next two years probated to an outpatient "therapeutic community" rehab program that was based on a mind-control cult. They made ample use of the most commonly known brainwashing techniques, controlling our behavior through fear, punishment, sleep deprivation, physical exertion for hours on end, isolation, humiliation, harsh verbal confrontation -- you know, the good stuff. We spent our days cleaning, screaming at each other, cleaning some more, wearing embarrassing signs around our necks, and sitting for hours (and sometimes days) on metal chairs. They also created their own jargon and redefined certain words to signify something different than their original meanings, and this was probably the most effective tool in changing how our brains operated, especially those of us who were younger. I was 15 when I entered and, even though it was supposed to be an adolescent program, everyone was much older than me. So, in the end, I was spending my formative high school years being forced to hang out with 26-year-olds who were shooting heroin in between their toes. One guy committed suicide while I was there and another girl tried to give herself a miscarriage by smoking a shit ton of crack (it didn't work, btw). So, yeah, in a nutshell, my teenage years were pretty screwed up. Of course, I'm writing about it now, and for the past year I've been working on a project based on those experiences.If your teenage self could see you now, how do you think she’d feel?
My first thought is she'd probably think I was a sellout. And yet, she might also be secretly envious and freaked out. Or maybe she'd just be relieved that it all worked out okay in the end (sort of). It's really hard to say because I never met an adult like me when I was that age. There were no out gay people where I grew up, even though it was so close to NYC, and there certainly weren't any weirdo writer types hanging around. There were really only two options -- either you were suburban, jappy (in the Jewish sense, not Japanese), and super-normal or you were a total abject screw-up. There was no in-between. So it's possible that maybe my teen self would be afraid of me, in a knee-jerk provincial way, but also relieved to discover that there really are different lifestyles available to her. (This is all assuming we met back then, in the pre-internet early 90s.)How did you start writing your book?
It started as a blog about my nightly experiences behind the wheel of a yellow cab in New York. When the opportunity to write a book came along, I had to acknowledge there was so much of my story that I wanted to tell but had no real space to in blog form. I went to my grandmother's condo in Florida, sat down at her dining room table, and punched out the first 15 pages in one day, telling the beginning of the story of "how I became a cab driver." I didn't allow myself to over-think it or get super insecure about it, I just wrote and let the story come out. Later, I read "On Writing" by Stephen King, and one of my favorite pieces of advice was to "write with the door closed," literally and figuratively. For me, this meant to block out the world and what other people might think about your work. Just write, be in your story. There's time to worry about the other stuff later, when you're done. I realized that's what I'd been doing for a while already with the blog, and so I cultivated the shit out of that practice and it got me through the whole book-writing process -- especially the parts where I'd say to myself "this is a total piece of shit." I just carried on and pushed as hard as I could past those moments.
How long did it take, and what was the process like?Start to finish, it took about nine months. Sometimes the process was torture, but sometimes it was pure ecstasy. I never feel better than when I've had a productive writing day, even if the next day I look back and condemn it as worthless crap. I think we all do that. But my particular process was always to write first thing after I woke up. I still do that. This way my brain is uncluttered by the minutiae and tediousness of everyday life. I'm not out in the world yet, I'm still sort of floating around in some dreamy inner place that feels very pure and untainted by my actual daily life. It's a drug being in that place. I get to process the world around me and figure out my own shit through the act of telling a story. I'm addicted to that payoff.
What mistakes did you make in the writing and publishing process?
Is there even enough room on the whole internet to answer this question??? I don't know where to begin! I was raised on crappy television so I can often be very self-indulgent and dramatic (see above). There are parts of the book that make me cringe because they reflect that impulse. Oh and, you know, I guess there's the small detail of having not really developed a strong narrative arc in the book. I also wish that I'd come up with a better name for the book itself. "Hack" sounds too much like I wrote a book about having bronchitis.What were some of the things you did right?
I told the truth and told my story. I tried to maintain my sense of humor throughout the book. I cultivated discipline and blocked out insecurity. I forced myself to write even when it was the last thing on earth I wanted to do. I got advice from other writers and artists, read a ton of memoirs, and listened to my editor. I did not let fear stop me.
How do you get motivated when you don’t feel like writing?
I motivate myself with stuff that is almost embarrassing to talk about. It's like, ultimately, I write because I have something I need to communicate with world and I have a story I want to tell, but sometimes that's just not enough to defeat the doubt and fear and laziness, or whatever is in my way that day. And so, to get my ass in the chair, I'll often fantasize about all the sex, money, recognition, and validation that I could potentially receive if I actually put something great out into the world. And you know what? It fucking works. But the greatest part is that, once I actually start writing, all that stuff completely disappears and becomes utterly unimportant. I enter the little world I've created, and that world feeds me, and feeds my impulse to continue creating it. The rest of the bullshit from the outside world recedes and gets put into perspective as well. These little blasts of relief have helped me to get through terrible heartaches, deaths in my family, and other difficult events over the years. So I guess pain motivates me a lot, too.
But then, when I'm done writing for the day, all those superficial motives from earlier don't even matter anymore, because that's all just materialistic bullshit that may or may not happen in my life. Girlfriends and money and all that other stuff will come and go, and there's really no controlling any of it. But the one thing that's definite in my life is that I'll continue to write, I'll continue to go exploring around in my interior world, and that process, by some great gift of the gods, will always make me feel like a fucking champion. And the best part is that I don't need anything outside of myself to achieve that feeling. It's a beautiful thing. It really is.
What advice do you have for other writers?
I will repeat what Stephen King said: "Write with the door closed." For me, again, this means you should try, above all else, to resist the impulse to feel insecure. Otherwise it'll just fuck you up and will only make what you're insecure about actually come true. Sure, what other people think is important to every single one of us, but don't let that influence you while you're writing. Write first, beat yourself up later!