A difficult decision took place just now. Cheese and crackers, or tequila? Consumables are a must when I finally set myself to writing something. In this case, Cracker Barrel’s special edition extra-sharp white cheddar (some holiday theme) and Ritz. I think I regret the decision. There’s a fantastic bottle of KAH añejo on my desk upstairs (I am currently writing on a fold-out table in my basement with an episode of Big Bang Theory in the background), but that option is now in the past.

I do not like writing essays about writing [1]. The closest I come to an answer for why I write is to say: “I write fiction because I sucked something awful as a poet.” This, of course, is true.

The first thing that comes to mind when I write something of this nature is a conversation I had with Robert Olen Butler, via Facebook. We were working out a possible interview for Cobalt and he told me that he wanted to do the interview over the phone because he “doesn’t write nonfiction.” What did I say? “By the nature of a Facebook message, you are in fact writing nonfiction in your response to me. Or are you saying that you are comfortable writing nonfiction, so long as it is masked as a lie?”

I like to make shit up. Is that enough of a reason to write? Maybe this is why I struggle so much with the idea of writing an essay about writing. Or maybe it is because I don’t know why I write. The drafts of my stories blend together too often. Last week, my closest friend – the talented stage and film actor Jeff DuJardin – called me and asked about the ending to the title story from my collection Participants. I replied: “What was the ending?”

Jeff is a great guy, and a huge supporter of my work in its earliest form. I should point out that he doesn’t read much of what I write after-the-fact; and while he knows a great deal about my struggles in patching this essay together, he probably won’t get to reading it until April or 2019. I would estimate that approximately 40% of my time working on any story is actually spent talking about my ideas with friends (usually Jeff) long before those ideas get to paper. Inside jokes are formed, and the story gets packed together in ways that I assume will be appealing to maybe three or four people. I remember spending an hour-long walk on the phone with Jeff, during which we discussed only the mustard stain in “Mel Leopold the Brave”, or just what type of sandwich it should come from. Such is my writing process.

Given this unnecessarily bubble-like view of my work, whenever somebody sends me a note informing me that they enjoyed one or more of my stories, I have a moment of “Really?” as if they got something that I missed.

These conversations happen more and more now that I have a book in the world. Mind you, it was a book that I never expected – or planned – to really publish. I feel naïve, or even pubescent, in my understanding of being a writer. Actually, I think that I am now best classified as an author.[2]

Author (n): the writer of a literary work (as a book).

My voice is getting deeper, my chest [3] a little hairier. There is a maturity that is expected of me. I now have an audience and there are people who have paid hard-earned dollars to consume my work. This forces me to develop an awareness of my audience, or, perhaps an awareness that there is an audience. Plus, I am now required to not only be appropriately descriptive in my work, but also about my work. No more of this “What was the ending?” bullshit. The conversation between writer and reader can no longer be limited to what is contained in the book. Now, the author is expected to participate in interviews, do public readings and/or talkbacks, as well as write silly essays about why they write (hint hint). For the sake of staying on point, I will not get into social media or pubic relations demands that typically fall upon the author in addition to these commonly-accepted responsibilities.

It is true that I enjoy the idea of writing, and the real thrill of it is in those conversations that I have with friends about what I am currently working on (as opposed to rehashing what is already done and gone to press).

A small joke/aside: Several stories I have written since I turned to fiction in 2008 have followed a guy named Mel Leopold. Mel is loosely based on Jeff’s father. When the book was simply my MFA thesis, I had written the dedication page as “For Poppa/and Richard.” Of course, nobody knew who Richard was, other than Jeff. I think that even Richard would have looked at this dedication page and thought the same thing as half my mother’s church-going friends assumed: that Richard was some secret gay lover[4]. The “and Richard” was dropped for the actual book.

Another strange thing happens in my writing. I cease to be funny. Or, at least, my subject matter does. My earliest story, “The Cost-Effectiveness of a Relationship” was most funny (by someone’s standards, as it won a humor-writing prize). It was angsty and sarcastic and overloaded with unnecessary literary gimmicks (kind of like much of Chuck Palahniuk’s work). Since then, I have never returned to that style of humor, despite my need to make everything I do in life into a punch-line.

My mother taught me, at a young age, how to cut waiting lines through the process of osmosis. This includes engaging yourself in conversation with people who are near – though not too near – the front of the line, so that when you merge with the group, nobody takes notice. This anecdote could be used to demonstrate the origins of many of my pathologies, but, for the sake of this essay, I am going for the value of the aforementioned punch-line.

Look, I never said this essay was going to make sense, or that it would be useful, meaningful, or even linear. I will say that I am not terribly unsettled by what has happened here. Writing about writing, to me, is kind of like telling a twelve year old to “write 500 words about anything.” I would have been the kid to write about the definition and common misconceptions of the term anything. Nonfiction requires ground rules, parameters, a guiding focus that keeps me from erasing hundreds of words at a time.

“Great news! I’ve made progress on my essay for Stymie. I started today with 799 words, and now I’m down to about 150.”
“I think you are confused about what progress means.”

[1] I wrote another one in November, for Necessary Fiction, at the request of Ben Tanzer, which discussed the idea of failure (another sort of end-around on the writing about writing essay).
[2] I am much more interested in writing these sorts of essays, in which I can dig into the life or business of being a writer/publisher/marketer.
[3] This originally read as “balls”.
[4] This was one of the stranger conversations I’ve had with my mother recently. First, because I am not gay; and second, because we were sitting in the rectory of the church she works for.

Andrew Keating is an author of fiction living in Baltimore. He also teaches writing and literature at several colleges in Maryland and has over five years of editorial, advertising and public relations experience. He holds an MFA from University of Baltimore and an MBA from Johnson & Wales University. Andrew is the founding editor of Cobalt Review (cobaltreview.com). His first collection of short fiction, PARTICIPANTS (participantsbook.com), was published in December of 2012 by Thumbnail Press.