“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” – Ernest Hemingway
I’m about to share some scary shit. Some truths about myself that I’ve been too scared to share for years. Maybe decades, honestly.
And yet if there’s one thing I know after thirty years of writing, it’s that you have to tell the truth. You have to tell the truth in your writing and you have to write things that bite and sting.
I’ve dallied long enough. Let’s get this shit moving.
What was my point with this post? Ah, yes, to share some scary shit. And to tell the truth with as much honesty as I can muster. All you have to do is write one true sentence, right?
Well, here’s the truth: I want to be the greatest writer ever.
Yikes, did I really say that out loud?
Crazy, right? More importantly, just why the hell did I publish that?
I could’ve deleted it as I have hundreds of other things I didn’t have the guts to say. I could’ve avoided the ridicule by critics if I had simply deleted it.
But I haven’t because — well, frankly — it’s the truth.
It’s scary putting yourself out there, but I want to say some things. I’m not even sure where I’m going with this. It’s like a novel: you don’t know where it’ll end. You simply write it. One sentence, one paragraph, one page at a time. You let it flow out of you. Or explode out of you. Or dribble out in small drops as you squeeze the tube with all your might, screaming and cursing in the night.
But no matter the pace, or how long it takes, the story comes together. Characters choose left or right, and you follow, to see where it’s all going.
Let’s continue then, with this honest post as well. I want to be the greatest writer ever. There, I’ve said it a second time. See? Not an accident. Not a fluke.
Write one true sentence, just as I said above.
I want to be the greatest writer ever, and here’s a second truth: writers are crazy.
They really are. Also musicians, artists, and professional athletes. They’re crazy, too.
But let’s stick with writers. They are what I know. Hell, even better, let’s stick with me.
I literally wrote the following a mere dozen or so paragraphs earlier: “I want to be the greatest writer ever.”
How nuts is that? What kind of madness abides inside my head? What kind of person would say such a thing? (I can’t blame youth. I’m a touch over 44. Not some nineteen-year-old mouthing off in a college English lit class to impress some hot, nerdy chick.)
Want to know something scarier? I was pretty much thinking this thought at the age of 8 or 9. That’s the first time I slammed a novel shut and thought, “This book is terrible. I know I could do better.”
And the craziest thing about this story of my childhood is that I actually tried. Little old Stan, still in elementary school, started scribbling a story in pencil in his spiral-bound, school notebook. I remember it perfectly. And somewhere, out in some of my boxes in the garage, I still have it. Twenty pages or so. (Want to know something crazier? I think in my wildest dreams I imagine those pages being held in some museum someday, with literary geniuses studying them and trying to dissect them. It’s why I’ve never tossed them. It’s also further proof that I’m crazy, but I’ve already admitted that.)
I know no museum will ever care about the scribbles of some kid. And I also know I’ll never matter enough to be considered among the greatest. But I want to be, and that’s the damn truth.
That’s probably the greatest truth of my life. It’s my North Star. My beacon I’ve been moving toward my entire life.
Back to my twenty-page story above, I didn’t finish it, but even at the age of eight or nine, a small part of my soul (or something) told me I was meant to do this. That I could be great. That indeed, my one true desire was to be the greatest writer ever (though I must never admit this to anyone).
What nine-year-old says such a thing? How can you feel (or be haunted by) such a thing at such a young age?
Let’s return to the writers are crazy part of this post. Let’s broaden things a bit. Because if I’m going to admit to being crazy, then I damn sure want some company in whatever boat I’ve shoved off from shore on.
Let’s start with Ernest Hemingway. A hell of a writer, but also a man who volunteered for war as an ambulance driver (where he was wounded), a man who married four times, and a man who survived two plane crashes in two days. Yes, I’m saying he had a plane crash on one day. Then decided to fly again the next day. And he crashed the second day as well. He also once shot himself in the calves while wrestling with a shark (Google it) and committed suicide with a shotgun at the age of 61.
I’m going to say that Ernest Hemingway, who’s considered one of America’s greatest writers, makes a pretty compelling case for proving that writers are crazy. But I could easily point out a dozen other authors to add to the ledger.
And we’ve all heard the theme of how much most writers drink, correct? “Psychology Today” even had an article in it titled, “Why Do Writers Drink So Much?” That article listed roughly twenty names, including the likes of such greats as Raymond Chandler, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Truman Capote, Edgar Allan Poe, and John Steinbeck.
So, if you’ll grant me that most writers are crazy (and/or drunks), we’ll get this show back on the road. Where were we? Oh, yeah. Just write one true sentence. And writers are crazy.
Here’s another one: Writing is a madness. It’s a disease. It’s a curse.
That was three, but I’ll stand by them.
I’ve learned that you can’t really run from this calling. It ruins your showers. Your bedtimes. Your conversations, when your best friend sees your mind go elsewhere right in the middle of that discussion. (I just had a crazy book idea, I tell him. He shakes his head, having heard that one before, and also knowing it’s true.)
Writing afflicts your soul. It eats at you in the darkest parts of night.
When I’m not writing, I’m miserable. My conscience won’t stop pestering. Sometimes whispering. Sometimes screaming and shaking me. But he (or she) always says the same thing: You should be writing.
Also, when I’m not writing, my head goes into dark places. At the worst of times, it can plummet to scary depths. I’ll ask myself, “What’s the meaning of life? Is this all there is? There has to be more.”
My writing mania plagues me unabated.
I’ll grab books to read because they are some of my greatest escapes. But I can’t read for long. My head whispers, “You should be writing.”
There’s no getting away from it. Not a day goes by when my head doesn’t say, “You should be writing.”
Writing is a madness. It’s a disease. It’s a curse.
I’ve come to accept the three sentences above.
I believe them to be true, and if you’re afflicted with the calling to be a writer, I’m confident you agree.
But writing has a flip side. It can be the greatest high in the world. I’ve gotten so into the zone of writing a story that I will lose all track of time. I will enter an almost fictional world, where I’m dodging bullets or chasing down enemies. I have no idea what my opponent will do. Or even what my main character will do. But I’m there. I’m watching this movie and excited to see where it will go. And I don’t want to stop it. I don’t want to exit this world.
There are also times I try to write and it’s like I jump into the driver’s seat, remembering the day before when I wrote for hours and was really into the story (right in the middle of that firefight or fistfight). But I’m not sitting in that space machine anymore.
Instead, I’m sitting on the hard metal seat of a 1940s tractor. It’s raining and freezing cold, a whipping wind blowing across the land, stinging my face. And the tractor won’t start. And after screaming in rage, I look down and realize it’s up on a jack, one of its wheels leaning against a fence, flat.
And holy shit. There are wires hanging out the side of the engine. Some asshole thief has stolen the electronic ignition and distributor cap in the middle of the night.
These times when you struggle to write a single sentence can be as maddening as when you’re not writing. You’re sitting there, trying to do what you’re meant to do in life, but the muse won’t cooperate.
So what I’m saying is that you’re miserable on those days when you chase your dream, but the words won’t come.
And you’re also miserable on the days when you don’t write and you run from your dream.
Writing is madness, remember?
It can be infuriating. Like, if you’re meant to be a writer, if you’re destined to be the greatest, then why is it so hard? Why aren’t you a natural?
I think the answer to this question is that nothing in life comes easy. Maybe all those sports icons practice and work harder than we know, right? And maybe guys who marry four times and shoot themselves at the age of 61 have struggled more than we know, right?
I’ve been chasing this dream for a long time. I will spare you the story.
But I eventually completed my first successful book about a Marine sniper who gets betrayed by his government after completing a Top Secret mission (Sold Out — Nick Woods Book 1). That one took me 12 years to write.
About half of the time, I actually think I’m going to make a boatload of money. I’m driven as hell and my friends will tell you I’m as determined and stubborn as anyone you’ll ever meet.
On paper, I at least have a shot.
Writing degree? Check.
Typing speed? I can type faster than a cheetah with a rocket on his ass.
But on other days, I think of just how many writers have tried this gig. This isn’t the first time a tractor has plowed this field. It’s a community lot, and it’s been plowed and worked for at least a couple hundred years. It’s depleted of any good soil. The land is exhausted and consumed. There’s little incentive to plow the dry, parched earth.
And that’s assuming you get the tractor running.
And that’s further assuming you don’t look across the land, and then to your left and right, and notice the literally thousands of fellow writers staring at their own tractors in the pre-dawn darkness. They see the same poor, parched land. They also see the desperate craving of those other writers in the field, fiddling with their tractors, starting their morning anew with sometimes just the faintest of hopes. Old men and women who have been doing this for decades, and who are as impoverished and demoralized now as they were in the beginning. (Maybe more so.)
To be lucky enough to do this as a full-time gig would be one of the greatest gifts in the world. To attempt to get into the zone every day — for a full day — instead of dealing with the day job and all the rest of life’s interruptions? That would be heaven.
And for most, that would certainly be enough. But apparently, my variant of this disease is far worse. Because frankly? That is not enough.
I want to be the greatest. And I’m honest enough — as well as stupid enough, clearly — to be willing to just come out and say it.
What gives me the right? What gives me the gall?
Partly, it’s what I said above. Writers are crazy. And they drink a lot. See earlier graph (and the internet) for more evidence.
Of course, part of the problem for me is I don’t drink at all. I’m scared to death of alcohol. (Long story, but it involves a family member, drinking, and a suicide that still haunts me.)
But besides being scared of alcohol, which I am, there’s also at least an equally large problem. I couldn’t possibly enjoy drinking because deep down, either in my soul or in my head, I would hear the words: You should be writing.
Maybe other writers hear those words, too, when they’re drinking. Maybe that’s why they drink so much? Maybe they’re running from it?
I can’t say because I don’t know.
Some days, I feel proud of what I’ve achieved. I’ve put in a ton of work. I have, after all, written eleven books. Some big-name authors don’t even do that. (Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind. Only one book.) (J.D. Salinger, The Catcher In the Rye. Only one book.)
So, yeah, I’m proud of having written eleven books.
I’ve also made a lot of money one year, back in 2013. More than six figures, or just a tad over $100,000. In my hometown of Knoxville, if you can make a hundred thousand dollars in a year doing what you love (i.e., not a day job), then you’ve done something.
Making that kind of money in a single year from writing is beyond-words-awesome, but it’s only happened once. And I did that more than eight years ago. When I only had a couple of books published. The books went viral, the fire burned hot, but I lacked the inventory to keep it going. So the throngs of readers moved on to pastures with more sustenance.
I’ve continued almost every day since then believing they’ll return. You don’t quit when you’re hungry. Nor when you’re crazy.
Back when the money was good, and I was full-time, I thought I was on top of the world. I thought I was lined up nicely to actually become the greatest. (How crazy is that? One good year, and you think you’re the shit? Yeah, I really did think that, I’m ashamed to admit, and maybe the muse was like, oh really? I’ll show you. I can’t say for sure about this latter part.)
All I know is one day I was on top of the world and the next day I wasn’t. The sales slowed, the fear rose, and eventually, my career died. It became a hobby on paper; a death pursuit in reality.
In that moment, I learned another painful truth to this crazy dream: it can all end tomorrow. A drought can arrive. And that drought may last for years. The throngs may not return.
Sometimes these days, despite how optimistic and regimented I remain with my writing, and despite how many times I climb on that tractor full of determination and fire, I fear the drought could last forever. The people may never return.
That’s my worst fear. (Another true sentence here.)
My writing might remain nothing more than a side income. A mere tantalizing love that I have to bridle down and downplay at parties. And a voice screaming in my head, “You should be writing,” when there’s no true need to do so. (The day job pays the bills, after all. Why not just let the writing go?)
As a writer, it’s easy to measure your success by the size of that month’s royalty. How well are you selling? But measuring this way can drive you mad. It can go up dramatically. A sales bump!! Possibly the start of your new (rich) life. But then the sales spike plummets for no discernable reason.
It’s maddening. Or maybe it’s fuel. Or maybe it’s both.
These sales bumps are something writers try not to talk about too much. Because often, you’ll find yourself blathering to your spouse or best friend about how close you are to making it, and you’ll notice that you just got that look.
Sometimes, they look at you with love. Sometimes, they look at you with concern.
For now at least, my sales are trending upward. No, they really are. And it’s not a bump, I tell myself. It’s a trend, I say, but my voice doesn’t sound real confident when I say it… And I imagine I look like that crazed gold-miner from a hundred years ago, who’s begging his family to borrow money for that seventh mine he wants to start. This one is going to be the one, he screams!
But even if my sales go ballistic and high, I’m going to be a quivering, gun-shy dog, balled up in the corner. Because I know a truth. A painful truth.
It can all go away. Almost overnight.
Do you know how hard it is to keep your confidence up when your sales are dropping?
You’re the star Major League Baseball player, who was thinking about becoming MVP, when suddenly you’re not hitting as well. You think it’s nothing at first, but it grows worse. Your stats nosedive. And then people on your team stop talking to you. And then you’re being warned by management that you better get your numbers up.
You can’t believe this. You reach and flail. You seek advice. You even change your swing.
Nothing stops the crash.
You get the talk. You get cut. You’re sent down to the minors.
You go from making a couple million a year to making less than twenty thousand in the minors.
One day you’re playing for the Chicago Cubs. The next, you’re playing for the Akron RubberDucks.
As you play in front of miniscule crowds, the voices in your head clamor louder. There’s the desperate side of you that just wants to go back to making big money. You were good before. What happened? The voices say you got lucky. You were a fluke. It’ll never happen again.
Your mind and body say submit. That elbow pain is flaring. That knee isn’t what it used to be. Why are you doing this? Why are you killing yourself for 20k a year? What are you, stupid?
I’m betting most writers know that voice, as well.
I’m also betting most writers trudge on. Writers are crazy. I see them climbing on their eighty-year-old tractors every day, trying to get them started.
Every writer needs a schtick. Some writers craft lines that are exquisite and supple. You read them because they seduce and lure you forward, page-by-page. Some writers blast you with a foghorn. Or put a dozen twists in a book. Or use an unreliable narrator.
The only schtick I have is brevity. A couple of my books barely top a hundred pages. But they work. At least according to the reviews. (Hell, my character study/self-help book about Obama is like 50 pages.)
I learned brevity in journalism school. And in ten years of newspaper writing after graduation. You only had a small amount of space in the newspaper. You damn well better make good use of it.
And that brings me to my second skill. I hate boring books. Can I say that again? I HATE boring books. Even those with exquisite and supple writing. That kind of writing can work for a page or two, but something needs to happen. Blood needs to flow. Relationships need to start. Or relationships need to end.
This is the 21st Century. We live in a world of tweets, Vines, and TikToks. You can’t be screwing around and padding your books with fluff.
I firmly believe this is the formula. And it’s one I try to follow. I do my best to write fast-paced, exciting mysteries and thrillers. And I also firmly believe that these things are going to make me boatloads of money.
Of course, I’ve also admitted to being crazy, so there’s that.
But part of me just knows that tremendous success is going to happen.
Call it confidence. Call it madness. It’s probably a bit of both.
Write one true sentence, right? One sentence, one paragraph, one page at a time. Climb on the damn tractor. Listen to the voice in your head: You should be writing.
And if that doesn’t work, there’s always alcohol and the shotgun.
About me: I write fast-paced novels. No, I mean blistering fast. With great suspense & twists. Also prior #USMC with Combat Action Ribbon. Books are located here: http://amzn.to/3p6lAnQ. I also discuss foreign policy at https://stanrmitchell.substack.com.