1. When did you begin writing? Did you know you wanted to be a “writer”?
First, I wouldn’t put writer in quotes since it’s an actual profession and trade. I make a distinction between people who write and writers, although if you asked me to define that I suspect I’d do a very poor job with it.
As for when I knew, I’ll say I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to write (although it wasn’t until I’d had my book published that I felt like I’d earned the title). I read, I wrote, and I imagined from the time I was a kid. In fact, sitting behind me in my office are binders of every short story, poem, and piece of writing I created between middle school and into my early years of college. They are ordered by year, and organized by grade level and professional experience. I’ve also written introductions to each of the collections, which I did as I wrote them.
2. How did working for Wired affect and influence your writing?
Wired was the best and worst decision I ever made.
Working for Conde Nast opened my eyes to the world of professional publishing. I was hired at Wired in my second year as a student at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, and so I had a front row seat to some of the best writers and editors in the world. Honestly, any predisposition I had about my skill as a writer was wiped clean during those years. At Wired, I had the chance to learn how these amazing people went about creating one of the most important magazines of its time. (I was with Wired and then Wired.com from 1999-2002, during The Boom + Bust of that first Internet bubble.)
The downside was that I found myself pigeonholed as a technology writer, editor, and producer even though I’d been writing (and had) feature writing aspirations. Those skills helped me have a fruitful professional career as the world shifted from print into multi-media production and delivery, but it took me away from my passion, which is part of the reason I left the business world and turned to academia.
I wanted to give myself the time to return to my roots as a feature writer.
3. What prompted you to start The Geeky Press?
In many ways, my life seems to have been inevitably barreling towards launching something like The Geeky Press because it brings together everything that I love about writing: collaboration, outreach, and writing.
I’ve always been in writing groups wherever I lived, but when I moved to Indiana that faded away. I missed having a community of readers and writers around me, but I was wary of joining writing organizations that emphasized socializing over words.
So, I looked at the projects I had going, e.g. my books, my young writer group, and considered what I thought was the logical progression of that, e.g. live events, podcasting, community building, and just launched the site. From there, I pulled in years writing from my book websites (that I shut down), and just moved ahead.
4. The Geeky Press is all about promoting and sharing the work of all kinds of writers. Do you consciously adhere to the idea of literary citizenship? Do you care if that’s labeled?
I have two answers to that question.
For students and young writers, I use that term so they understand the concept of what it means to be involved as a writer in a community of writers. When you teach, you have to put labels on concepts to help some students grok an idea. It’s good to gather up some basic actions, e.g. reviewing books, attending events, so they know where to start when they enter the literary world.
As for me: I find the idea of literary citizenship less compelling. It’s an academic idea that has almost no place within the world I operate. My writer friends don’t discuss being good literary citizens. We don’t approach events and writing as though we should contribute as literary citizens.
I write, I read, and I do the kinds of things that I think a writer should do, which includes reviewing books, writing about authors, and generally trying to make the world a better place for words. But if somebody told me to be a good literary citizen I needed to X, Y, and Z, we’d probably have an uncomfortable conversation.
5. Tell me more about The Invictus Writers.
I don’t believe you can teach writing within the confines of a classroom. Certainly you can learn some basic structures and formats, and you can get some instruction on where to go with your story and tools to get you there. If you want to become a writer, though, you need to do two things: read and write.
With that idea, I decided to identify the best young writers (as determined by me) at Ball State, pluck them out of class, and see if they’d be willing to work together for a 12-18 months on a book project that requires them to write about the moment in their life when everything changed for them. There are some basic rules: We meet once a month as a group, they must blog about their experience, and they need to spend time writing every month. If they fail to do any of those, I kick them out of the group.
The goal of the process: Produce well-crafted memoir essays that flesh out the essence of the story while teaching the students that “personal” doesn’t mean “a story about me.” Once the essays are completed, we choose the best ones (not everyone gets published), copyedit the book, hire a designer, and then publish a book.
It’s a very difficult process, and one that many students can’t complete. I push them extremely hard, and I make them dig into their lives in ways that haven’t done. Those who have finished their stories are changed in the kinds of ways that only a writer (or someone who does deeply personal creative projects) can understand.
This year we publish Invictus, Vol. 4, which is probably the creation for which I’m most proud (while inversely receiving the least attention).
6. Can you talk about your process of writing Dungeons & Dreamers, your book about computer games and culture?
In 2001, my writing partner John Borland and I decided to pitch a book about the culture of online gaming. At the time, he was a reporter at Cnet’s News.com, and I was a reporter at Wired.com. We covered the same beat, went to the same graduate school, and became friends on the job.
Our publisher wanted us to do a book about video games and violence, but we had little interest in that (since every empirical study done for the last 50 years has found no causal link between actual violence and media). Fortunately, we steered them away from that idea.
We’d get together once a week, pour through outline line by line, come with new research, and flesh out the narrative. Those sessions would often go on for hours. Once we’d agreed upon a direction, we’d split the minor interviews between us and we’d organize our major interviews so we could both be there. We did that so that we could speed up some of the side narratives, but stay together on the main narrative (at least conceptually).
Throughout time, we would assign different chapters, e.g. John writer Chapter 1. Once a chapter was written, the other writer would look over it, hack it apart, rewrite it, and add notes. We just continually shaped the narrative and the voice as we went.
The problem with the first edition was this: We weren’t very good at our craft.
Skip ahead to 2012 when we decided to write the second edition. By this time, we’d become more like brothers than co-authors. We had a good sense of our collective voice, we had a good sense of the narrative of the book, and we had a good sense of what we’d done wrong the first time.
We used Google Drive to break our 10-chapter first edition into a 34-chapter second edition. We threw out lots of stories that didn’t fit the overall arch of the story, we wrote an entire new section of the book, and we smoothed away the rough edges.
Honestly, writing together this time was brilliant because we’d worked out a shorthand and trust between us. John and I have a hive mind when it comes to our stories and our collaboration because there is an ironclad trust between us.
7. Who are some of your favorite writers? Favorite books? How do they inform your writing?
This is easy. My writing–before all this technology writing got in the way–was an exploration of where the American Dream went wrong. Thematically, I write about the “underbelly of Americana.”
The writers I have kept with me no matter where I am in my career are:
- Nathaniel Hawthorne
- Scott Fitzgerald
- Tom Robbins
- Hunter S. Thompson
- David Foster Wallace
These writers trace that same lineage of that other side of the American Dream. They explore the cracks, the ideals, and the people who exist in that cracked mythology. Recently, I’ve started to explore Ernest Hemingway for that voice as well, largely because I recognize an author voice that is similar to mine.
As I work on So Far Appalachia, the story about my family, my biggest struggle has been finding my voice. I’ve got years of technology feature writing and academia to kick aside. As my editor tells me: I want to read more about you drunk in jail, and less about what you think about it.
8. What motivated your move from magazine journalism to the academic world?
I think I answered that earlier. Ditching the tech stuff, and returning to my feature writing roots.
9. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received–writing-related or not? Worst advice?
When I was at Berkeley, I worked as Michael Lewis’ graduate assistant. On the first day of class, he told us this: “Every story needs a Darth Vader. Without a bad guy, you don’t have a story. You have things happening. Find your Darth Vader first, and you’ll know what the story is.”
While I was the absolute worst graduate assistant in the history of university and our relationship fell apart almost immediately, I carry that piece of advice with me everywhere I go. Whenever I start on a story, I try to find the bad guy first and then understand that person’s complexities. Once I can understand the bad guy, the rest fall into place.
I don’t know if I can recall a piece of bad writing advice (probably because I ignore it).
10. Anything else you’d like to add?
4 pages of answers. Nobody wants me to add more.