Well this blog’s name is now the WAR ON LONELINESS

Since it’s now nine years since I started this blog in the summer of 2008, the truth can be told about its name. Blotter Paper, while it does carry literary connotations (in college I wrote the police blotter, for instance) was primarily a reference to my favorite drug at the time: LSD.

Now that I’m seven years sober, I feel less connected to that name, and less connected to blogging about the travails of the new writer life. I changed over the name to THE WAR ON LONELINESS and revamped the site’s look because, well, I just wanted a change.

For awhile I thought I’d blog exclusively about friendship-making topics, but I’ve come to realize over these past few weeks that I don’t really want to do that either. I don’t think my blog is every _really_ going to change. Or, rather, its change is gonna be continual. Once upon a time the blog was mostly about books, but I eventually grew tired of that. Who knows what it’ll be about in a year or two or three? I’ve also given up on the idea that this blog will ever have a huge audience. If it happens, then it happens, but I’m not convinced it ever will.

However I do appreciate the thousands of followers and fans that this blog _does_ have, and I also appreciate the community and the opportunities it’s brought to me. At times it’s seemed like a burden, but for the last few weeks, when I haven’t really been posting, I’ve also missed it. So from now on I’m going to post regularly, but perhaps less systematically in the past (I do have _many_ more WAR ON LONELINESS posts coming up though).

Anyways that is what’s happening here.

In me-related news, I’ve been writing a lot of short stories lately (seven in the last two months). After years of frustration with myself over what I am or am not writing, I’ve started just sitting down at the keyboard and seeing what comes out. And my new stories have already started picking up rejections, so really nothing’s changed from this blog’s first days…

Making friends isn’t an easy or mechanical process

Okay several weeks ago, I told you I was going to compare finding friendship to a salesperson generating leads. But when I sat down to write this, I realized I knew nothing about sales except what I learned from Alec Baldwin’s speech in Glengarry Glen Ross, and I remembered that that movie is literally about how hard it is to find good leads.

But I’m gonna attempt to make this work anyway.

I think it’s helpful here to talk about what a social opportunity is. Basically, when I talk about social opportunities I’m talking about any window or doorway that’ll lead you into a situation where friendships are being actively formed. Basically, there are places in this world where almost nobody is making friends. People aren’t making friends on the bus. They’re not making friends at protests. They’re not making friends in cafes. By and large, they’re not making in bars. They’re not making them in most meetup groups and in most workplaces.

And then there’re places where friendships do get formed: parties, conventions, some volunteer groups and jobs, some bars and cafes, concerts and festivals, classes, and many, many other far-less-formal groupings of people. Some of these places are free for anybody to enter, while others require permission.

The frustrating about my advice, I think, is that I can’t just sit down and tell you, “Go to this club” or “Check out this website” and mechanically follow these three steps, over and over again, and you’ll find friends. Because the truth is that finding friends isn’t like finding a romantic partner.

What I mean is that the internet has revolutionized the way lonely and/or awkward people find romance. You can go onto Tinder or Hinge or OKCupid or Match and just grind through your matches, following a few techniques to optimize your profile and your messaging style, and eventually you’ll probably find the love of your life (this is what I did to find Rachel, btw). I mean it’s not guaranteed to work, but if someone came to me wanting advice on how to find love, that’s what I’d tell them, because the alternative (developing the real-life ability to flirt, make good impressions, and approach the people you’re attracted to) is a very difficult thing to teach.

However I do not believe (and I am welcome to be proven wrong here) that finding real-life friends on the internet is a particularly simple or mechanical process. Can it be done? Yes. Of course. I know many people whose entire social life came from the seed of internet friendships. For myself, the internet has proven to be an invaluable tool in meeting some of my friends and in maintaining most of my relationships. Almost everybody all my friends in the young adult writing world started from a single: “Hey, anyone out there in SF or Oakland want to hang out?” tweet.

So it can definitely work.

Buuuuut…it’s not simple. There are caveats here. If you’re interested mainly in bonding over geeky or fannish activities, then you’d be a fool to not get involved in online fandom. The main source of entré into many occupational, hobby, or sexual fetish circles is also likely to come from involvement in online activities.

General Principle #3 — Making friends is not a mechanical or simple process, it requires you to build up a complex set of real-life skills.

Okay, so to get back to the main topic, which is generating social leads when you don’t have any, I’m gonna say this is one of the two hardest things for a lonely person to do (the other is turning a casual acquaintance into a close friend), and you’re going to run into a lot of failure here.

What I’m going to talk about in my next post is something that I think will crop up a lot in this series, which is the concept of “includers.” When you drill down deep into most peoples’ adult social lives, you will frequently find that, at their core, there is or was an includer.

But more on that tomorrow.

Will continue the WAR ON LONELINESS series tomorrow

This has been an extremely hard month for me. I’ve been depressed. It’s a thing that happens. Don’t worry, it’s getting better. That’s why I’m posting here.

I’ve been watching television, which is something I normally never do, and I’ve been reading Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. Nietzsche is great! At times the man makes a long of sense; at other times, you’re like, welp, that sounds like fascism. But even when he sounds like fascism, you’re totally allowed to be like, “I disagree with you, Nietzsche, and I think you’re totally wrong,” and he’s like, “Err, that’s okay, I’m just stating my own truth, dude.”

Because the great thing about Nietzsche is that his philosophy is an indictment of traditional moral philosophy. He’s like, you know what? All these philosophers who pretend that you can use reason to figure out a system of morality? They are totally full of bullshit. All they do is decide first upon their philosophy, and then they create this whole big wobbly logical argument to support it. So really, why don’t we just skip the logical argument and instead shoot directly from the hip. I’m gonna sit here and tell you, in pithy, beautiful sentences, exactly what I think about the world, and I’m not gonna support it or argue in favor of it AT ALL, because it’s all just a result of my own intuitions.

Which is really, when you think about it, the only sensible way in which to moralize.

Nietzsche is extremely sexist. There’s a whole huge section in one of the books about how women are only concerned with looks and appearances, and that they shouldn’t bother to try to aim at anything higher than that. Reading it, I was like, “Wow, I wonder what it’s like to be a woman and read this? Does it severely detract from their enjoyment of the text?”

But then in the very next passage, he became extremely racist, spouting off all these generalizations about the East and the Orient and about how these semi-barbaric peoples are this and that. Admittedly, semi-barbaric is almost a compliment when it comes out of Nietzsche’s mouth, but still, it definitely came from a place of severe othering (as if to be like, well, no Indian person could EVER actually be reading and understanding this book).

And that kind of shit happens all the time, not just in nineteenth century literature, but in modern literature as well. And you know what? I simply ignore it. Because those guys were racist, and they were full of shit. So what? I’m capable of taking the good and leaving the bad.

Not gone, just depressed

I have more “War on Loneliness” posts written up already and scheduled for next week. I’m not gonna be the writer who posts that April is the cruelest, but there is some truth there. When the weather is great, heavy spirits can really weigh you down.

Hurt myself skiing. Trapped at home. Feeling low. Watching BREAKING BAD.

Sorry there hasn’t been much activity here lately. Two Sundays ago I hurt myself skiing. It was a stupid injury. Was the end of the day, was on a green slope, coasting towards the ski village, and my ski caught some slushy ice and sent me falling. The other ski didn’t detach, instead it twisted my knee and sent a sharp pain through it. Since then I’ve had pain when I walk, particularly down stairs. I’ve been icing it, compressing it, elevating it, staying off of it, using ibuprofen, etc. My plan is to do some hardcore resting in the hopes that it’ll heal, but it’s just really depressing to be trapped in your apartment right at the beginning of spring, when the weather is, for the first time, just unbelievably warm and beautiful. The flowers are literally blooming and birds are literally singing and I can’t go outside!!!!

I’m going stir crazy is what I’m saying. It’s a problem.

I’ve also had some professional difficulties lately (it looks like I’m going to be parting from my publisher), and in general I’m not in a very good place.

So I’ve been watching Breaking Bad!

Generally I have a lot of trouble paying attention to television dramas. I don’t know what it is: they just bore me. I think they don’t demand enough from me. Say what you want about comedies, but there is usually something happening every minute. And books require you to, you know, actively read them. Dramas though…well, okay this is just my opinion, but I don’t think they require the full brain.

However right now my full brain isn’t really available for use, so I’m totally in the mood for dramas. I’d started, four years ago, watching Breaking Bad, but I found the first three episodes were way too intense for me, so I gave it up. Then, a week ago, I started watching Better Call Saul, and I found it so compelling that I was like, maybe I should give Breaking Bad another chance.

Well the joke’s on me, because the first three episodes were an aberration. The rest of the series (at least so far) is way less bloody and way less intense. I’m liking it, though I’d be hard-pressed to say why. Walt is so awful. No anti-hero I’ve ever written has been nearly as selfish or thoughtless as he is. And what’s interesting is that he’s awful but he also has an element of impotence. I mean he’s obviously doing better in the drug game than most people would, but it’s also clear that he’s only alive because of luck. Every episode sees Walt operating right on the edge of his abilities and just barely scraping by.

Which is different from most antiheroes. Many antiheroes are pretty blatant power fantasies: what would it be like if I could do anything? kill anyone? sleep with anybody? charm people with my magic words? or kill them with my crowd of thugs?

Walt wants those things, but he can’t quite get them. And yet he comes close. It’s a really fine line, and I’m surprised that Breaking Bad managed to walk it. What I would expect from this show is that most viewers would be turned off, not by Walt’s selfishness, but by his general patheticness. He alternates so frequently between superman and schmo that sometimes you get whiplash from seeing it. But that very conflict is at the root of the show’s appeal.

 

Drank coffee for the first time in three years!

Today I drank coffee for the first time in three years (1023 days, to be precise). Not sure why. I woke up at 5 AM and drove down to Los Altos to speak in their writer’s week. I got 6 hours of sleep (I normally sleep like 8-9 hours), but I felt really tired, really out of it. I decided to drink just a splash of coffee, which really did pep me up. Then I drank many more splashes, and now here I am sitting at a Philz with my heart hammering.

I stopped drinking coffee, all those years ago, because I realized: a) it was interfering with my sleep; and b) I can always power through and do what I need to do, no matter how tired I am.

But this time I really didn’t feel like I could.

EEhh, I dion’t know. Writer’s week went great! I don’t do that many school visits, but I always enjoy them. I keep it very unstructured. I just give a little spiel and then take questions for the rest of the period (anyone who knows me knows I can speak extemporaneously for as long as I need to).

I do feel like sometimes I disappoint the English teachers when I speak, because they expect me to say, given the subject of my book, that getting into college is no big deal, and that you shouldn’t stress out about it. They expect me to say you should be intrinsically motivated (by sheer love of the material) rather than extrinsically motivated (by the prospect of getting acclaim and going to a good college). But I mean, come on, let’s be real. If you’re motivated only by love of learning, then getting As is not a good value proposition. What you ought to do is study enough that you know the material, and then you should move on and look into things that interest you. But that’s not the world we live in. You go to school, and your grades matter. The college you go to matters. You close off future opportunities if you don’t get good grades. Now, do I think you’re a bad or stupid person if you don’t get good grades? No. Do I think you’re a failure if you don’t get into a good college? No.

I think the three* main determinants, in life, of success are: a) luck; b) connections and class privilege; and c) the ability to shrug off failure and keep trying. The first two are things that aren’t innate to you. And the third thing is something you only acquire by actually failing. By definition, people who get into elite colleges have not been tested by the crucible of failure. So no, I think what college you go to has absolutely no bearing on who you are as a person.

But I also think it helps with most things. Given that you have to go to school anyway, if you have any kind of aspirations in life, it doesn’t hurt to shoot for the top.

*There’s also an invisible X factor of course: the spark of genius. But it’s impossible to know whether you have, or will ever have, that spark of genius, so I just class it under “luck.”

Working working working working

Nothing important happening. Just doing some writing. I’ve gone through like ten ideas for books in the last ten weeks. I’ve realized that this is part of the process. I’m just testing out each idea to see which one’ll stick. I wouldn’t want to be stuck working for a year (or more) on a book that I don’t love, so I guess it’s better if it falls apart after a day rather than falling apart after a few weeks or months. Still, as with relationships, it’s a little difficult because you still need to get excited about each and every one…

At the same time as I’ve been reading all these romance novels, I’ve been listening to AMERICAN PSYCHO

american-psycho

If you want a good audiobook, you can’t go wrong with a first-person tale by a charismatic sociopath. For the last week I’ve been listening to Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, and while the book has been tough going (not just for its violence, but also for the monotonous banality of most of its conversations and interactions), I think it’s actually really good.

What’s startling to me about American Psycho is how much it’s not a parody. When I saw the film, starring Christian Bale (a film that’s remarkably true to the spirit of the book), I was in college, and I hadn’t yet experienced post-collegiate yuppie life. To me, all the talk about suits and restaurants and what’s the best paper for a business card–all of that seemed ludicrously dull. A parody of what adults talk about.

But it’s really not. How many brunches have I been to where we discussed exactly the same stuff as Patrick Bateman and his friends? The best restaurants? Fashion advice? I mean I once had a conversation with a friend about whether you could wear white sneakers for anything besides exercise. I’ve talked about undercuts and asymmetrical haircuts with many people. If you and I have talked in the last few months, I’ve probably mentioned my awesome beard barber or how all these thick-framed glasses don’t work for people with big dark brows like me. Many of Bateman’s conversations could be repeated word for word in my life without it seeming at all odd.

In fact, while googling him I read an interview with Bret Easton Ellis where he said as much: people read the book as this big satire of yuppie culture, but I was living this life; I was in New York, going to these places and talking about these things.

Also there’s murdering. Horrific sexual violence meted out to homeless people, women, his competitors, animals, and a random gay man on the street. It’s hard to know what to make of it. The violence is the most stylized part of the book, and it’s never clear whether it’s really happening. I’d say that it is, but that Bateman just lives in a slightly different universe from us: one with slightly different rules (but not that different, because, after all, serial killers do exist in our world).

What’s more interesting than his murdering are the times when he doesn’t kill. Bateman obviously murders to shore up his masculinity. He murders the girl who broke his heart in college. He murders the guy who has the big account at work. He murders a gay man who coos over how handsome Bateman is. But sometimes the tables get turned, and Bateman is forced to feel his own weakness and smallness. At one point he’s about to murder a coworker so he can date the coworker’s girlfriend, but the man instead makes a pass at him. Faced with the man’s longing for Bateman, he’s just…he can’t handle it. Can’t handle it for what it suggests about him. And to kill the guy would seem less like an act of power and more like an act of revenge: it’d seem like Bateman wants to kill him just to shut him up and stop him uttering the truth.

It’s very odd to read this book, whose portrayal of masculinity seems so modern and so spot on, at the same time as I’m reading all of these romance novels with their male heroes who are, well, not very real. These books are filled with men who are sensitive and giving and intuitive, without ever losing their strength

And yet…the two types are more similar than different. Even though they’re for women, romance novels don’t particularly challenge conventional notions of masculinity. Instead, they inculcate women with notions of masculinity that they’ll then use against men. Romance novels are (with some exceptions) just another piece of the cage.

More and more, masculinity seems to me such a diseased concept. What is there in it that’s good? Traditional masculinity inculcates notions of hard work and self-reliance. It’s about toughness and fortitude. But do modern men have any need for those things? Sometimes there is a pain that should not be born. It should either be shrugged off or somehow soothed. Masculinity just seems to lead men into these traps, where they walk into systems that hurt them, again and again, because the system knows they will not complain. And then the men become angry, and because they cannot show weakness to their peers, they direct that anger towards women, homosexuals, and other minorities. And where’s the sense in it? What benefit is this to anyone? Perhaps ‘real men’ won the west, but weren’t women there too? Didn’t women face the rattlesnakes and the droughts and the winters as well? Don’t women know how to suffer?

A lot of people read Bateman as a sociopath, and maybe he is. I’m not a psychologist. But there’s so much in his psychology that seems familiar rather than foreign, and it’s that familiarity which is the most chilling part of the book.

 

What it’s like to read romance novels while you’re in love

In the last month I’ve read fourteen romance novels, and it’s a bit odd to be reading romance while you’re engaged. Right now I am actively in love. This is the span of my own life that would be covered by a romance novel (except that my love has been so dull and easy that there’s no way it’d fill an entire book).

The experience of finding and falling in love is centered in our society to a startling degree. But, if anything, it’s actually more prevalent in popular culture than it is in life. Most people find love, of a sort, at some point in their life, and then afterward they stop looking. Even during our single years, most of the time we’re not actively yearning for love. Yet our desire to read and hear about it is endless, and to a large degree it seems to be disconnected from our actual experience of being in love. People who’re trying to find someone don’t necessarily consume more romantic narratives than do people who’re not looking or who’ve already found their person.

Not that this is unique to us. In India, ninety-five percent of people have arranged marriages, but all the films and the songs are still about falling in love. There, most people know that the thing they’re seeing is something they will never experience (at least not in precisely that way).*

It’s odd for me too as a writer to read about love. Lately I’ve been wanting to write much more straightforwardly about love. The love story in my first (still unpublished) YA novel was about lust and longing and it turned tragic. The love story in Enter Title Here was a subplot, and to some extent I only put it in because finding a guy and falling in love with him seemed like an easy way to move the plot of the book along. But my latest contemporary YA is a love story. At it’s core that’s what it is. And when I think about books I want to write in the future, they’re often love stories.

I can’t say whether the world needs any more love stories, and I certainly can’t say why I want to write them. My feeling is that it has to do with what I’ve written about: capturing the heart of longing. There’s nothing more nakedly accessible to us than our desire to love and to be loved in return. I think what love stories offer, even more than the vicarious experience of falling in love, is the feeling of loneliness and longing. When we read a love story, we remember what it was like to be alone. But the feeling is made safe. In real life, loneliness is a pit, and falling into it is a lot easier than climbing out. But in a romance novel, we know that all of this suffering comes out worthwhile in the end.

In my own life, I’ve felt a lot of loneliness and hopelessness. Probably not more of it than most people, but still, it was a predominant emotion for vast swathes of my life (sometimes it still is), and when I was single and tried to write about it, the books were too despairing. I was unable to grasp hold of the emotion without letting it bite me. Now it’s different. I have a little more perspective. That though to me is the thing that’s worth writing about. Not love; loneliness. To me, love is most worthwhile, within a story, because it represents hope. No person can be fully lost to despair so long as they continue to hope for love.

*Note, there are Bollywood movies that deal with falling in love after marriage, but those form only a minority of the romantic narratives that Bollywood offers.

It’s amazing how a dirty plate can get in the way of writing

Was thinking the other day about how it’s amazing the way little things can get in the way of writing. Like if you have a dirty plate on your desk, you might say to yourself, “I’m gonna clean this plate, and then I’m gonna write.” But then if you don’t clean that plate, you won’t end up writing, because first you need to clean the plate!

If the plate was a bigger task, it’d be easier to see what you were doing. If you were like, “I’m gonna do my taxes, and then I’m gonna write,” you’d be able to rationally look at it and be like, “Doing my taxes is a big job. I’ll do it later, and I’ll write now.”

But because the plate is such a small job, there’s never a moment at which it makes sense to just give up on it and go ahead and write.

Of course, you could also just go ahead and clean the plate. But…then you’d have to write.