How to make friends as an adult (even when you’re not particularly interesting, attractive, or charismatic).

 

So far as I can tell, most adults have no roots in the area where they live. They didn’t grow up there. And, if they went to college, their college was in some other place. They often relocated to their current metro area either for a job, graduate school, or with the aspiration of leading a cool and awesome life. They often work hard, but not quite hard enough to disguise the emptiness of their lives. During the day, they’re friendly enough with the people they work / go to school with. After work, they might go out to a happy hour with those people. Then, if they’re lucky, they go home to a significant other. Otherwise, in the evenings they exercise, go on dates, watch Netflix, play electronic games, or browse the internet.

It’s only in the residuum of their time—their weekends and the few weekday evenings they spend with friends—that these adults diverge.

About one third of adults have a large, diverse, and vibrant body of friends that includes both nodding acquaintances and very intimate friendships. They have a friend circle large enough that they won’t spiral into loneliness if they lose one or two people. On weekends, they have things to do (or with some effort they can drum up some things to do). They’re not immune from loneliness, but objectively speaking, they have it pretty good. Many times this group of friends is a loosely-organized group whose nexus is the friends they made in college. But often enough the group has a different basis. Sometimes it’s made of people they met through work (either at their current or at previous jobs). Other times it’s something that grew from a hobby (pen and paper roleplaying or folk music, for instance). Sometimes it’s anchored by formal membership in a group (often true with political activism), but more often it’s not. There is just this sense that there is an ‘us.’ They have community, is what I’m saying. One third of adults have some sort of community.

Another third of adults has close friendship, but no community. What I mean is they have between two and ten people they call “friend,” and that they see at least some of these people regularly. However, the group is fragile. Often it’s held together by a few people who do a disproportionate amount of effort. If they had children or moved, it’d fall apart. Now I’m not saying that this tranche of adults suck at life or that they’re less interesting or gregarious than people in the first group. Sometimes when you have a smaller group of friends it’s a matter of time or inclination: these adults might be working demanding jobs that leave them with little free time, or they might just be introverted and find it difficult to be around new people. Oftentimes people with little groups of friends aren’t even unhappy. What these groups are characterized by, frequently, is a large amount of intimacy. Everybody in the group knows each other well, and because of this, they can meet each others’ emotional needs. However, what worries me about these groups is their fragility. They’re closed off, which means they have no ability to replace the people that the group loses through natural attrition. When people with small groups of friends experience disruption, they have nobody waiting in the wings to replace the friends they’ve lost, and they find themselves falling into the final group.

And, finally, maybe somebody out there will dispute this, but as far as I can tell, one third of adults have no friends. Oh, they might not characterize themselves that way. They’re not freaks. Perhaps they made close friends in college or high school, but those friends live in other cities now. And they might have friends on message boards or in an online game. Many of them have significant others with whom they’re very close. These connections are all absolutely real, and if they satisfy, then I’ve nothing further to say.

But oftentimes these adults are lonely. They know they’re missing something real: the tangible, physical experience of another person who enjoys your company. They’re missing laughter and teasing and jokes. And they’re missing intimacy. Somebody who’ll visit when you’re sick. Somebody who’ll notice when you’re looking withdrawn. Perhaps these people have a friend or two from college who lives in the same town, but it’s hard to make schedules mesh, so you only see each other once a month. Perhaps they’re part of a meetup group, but those people are only one step up from strangers.

This is the loneliness that drives people to suicide, and it’s this loneliness that I want to try to combat. Oh, I’m not saying that the other two groups don’t have something to learn from me, but I am so tired of walking through this city of mine (San Francisco) and seeing so many desperately lonely people. And when I see these people in the streets and in the bars, I always find myself thinking of the other people: the ones who never make it onto the street. The ones trapped in their apartments, because they know—right down to the core of their bones—that they have nothing to offer anybody.

Okay, so this was my intro post for what I hope’ll be a new series here that I’m calling “The War On Loneliness.” Tomorrow I’m gonna write a little bit more about my intentions and about how I expect this is gonna go.

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Source

I’m trying to take this blog in a slightly new direction, and I’m interested in what people have to say, so if you’ve any additions to make or disagreements with what I’ve said, please leave a comment here or email me at rahulkanakia@gmail.com. I’d also ideally like to have an advice columnist aspect going on here, so if you’ve any questions or issues, send me an email!

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.

 

Trying not to think about writing except when I’m actually writing

My very talented writer friend and former grad school colleague, Courtney Sender, was recently a guest at the New Orleans Literary Festival (chosen because she won a short story contest) and at the conference she heard Robert Olen Butler give this intensely revelatory lecture on writing that in many ways encapsulated a bunch of the things she and I have discussed in our conversations with each other.

She got so excited that she called me up and gave me some snippets of the talk: “Writing doesn’t come from your head. You can’t intellectualize it. Writing comes from the place that dreams come from”; “Peer criticism (i.e. the workshop) is vastly overrated; it’s the blind leading the potentially-sighted”; “The way you’re taught to read in an English class is anethema to a writer. A writer doesn’t write books that’re meant to be thought about and analyzed. They’re meant to be experienced. You want a book you can thrum to. A book that in some way resonates emotionally with you.”

There was a lot of stuff. I was sad to miss the talk. Luckily he wrote a book that’s nothing more than a collection of many of his lectures. I bought the book last weekend for the Kindle, and I tore through it.

In many ways the book is stuff I’d known before. Writing comes from the unconscious. Writing needs to involve deep yearning (what I call “the heart of longing”). But what interested me most was his emphasis on the specific. He reiterated that the core of writing is the image. In some way, writing involves a collection of images that encapsulate these deep yearnings which are often, in some way, ineffable or deeply internal.

This is something I’ve heard before, obviously (it’s the core of “show, don’t tell.”) But something about the way he presented the idea made it seem not only intuitive but necessary. The best chapter, in my opinion, was one where he had his students attempt to tell anecdotes from their lives, and during their tellings he constantly interrupted them and forced them to get more specific.

This is exactly the problem I’ve always had with my line writing. It’s not specific enough. And the scenes I create often don’t feel one hundred percent real. It’s not something I can actually see. Instead it’s more like shadow puppetry.

I’ve tried to remedy this, at times, by using things that’re drawn directly from my experience, but that’s tended not to work either. The scenes have come out feeling limp, misshapen, and wrong. And Butler has an answer for that too. He talks about how it’s better for writers to experience life…and then forget it. Because when you forget, your experiences get de-composed, and then you’re free to dig into your imagination and recompose them. When you do this, it feels, in many ways, like remembering. But it’s not. You’re making up something, but the thing you’re making up is something that feels incredibly real.

Anyway, the book was only of limited help when it came to matters like: “How do I capture the heart of yearning” (Butler says, until you’ve got hold of a character with real human yearning, you might as well not bother to write) and “How do I get into the dreamspace.” But, oddly, I’m not frustrated. One thing I’ve done in the two days since reading this book is start logging my dreams. Not in terms of broad outlines or narrative, but simply in terms of images. The moment I wake up I write down a bunch of words, usually nouns, that describe whatever I most remember seeing. Then, later, I transcribe it into my online journal, and I attempt to turn the words into a concrete image.

The results have been great! In my dreams I manage to catch hold of the heart of longing almost every time, whereas with my writing it’s more like 1 in 100 times. At least one of my dream images has turned into an actual story I’m writing, but I think the broader purpose of this is simply to train my brain to realize what the heart of longing looks like.

(What does help, though, is that I dream very vividly, and I often dream about people who aren’t me. In fact, many of my dreams take the form of movies I’m watching or books I’m reading, so the narrative comes premade. But whatever, I should hope that thirteen years of writing and nine years of selling professionally ought to have made me at least a slightly better dreamer.)

Anyway, I highly recommend this book. It’s the best book on writing I’ve ever read.

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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

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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.

Mired deep in novel-writing angst

Still working on a book. I’m at the very beginning stages. It’s not easy. Struggling, as always, to find the heart of longing: the thing that the character most needs; the thing that really really really drives them. Oftentimes the heart of longing isn’t something that’s ever articulated in a book. It’s not the overt goal; it’s instead the absence that the character is trying to fill by pursuing their overt goal. Very hard, finding the heart of longing. And yet it needs must be done.

Quit smoking six years ago today!

Yep, I quit smoking six years ago. I am happy about it. Tobacco is apparently one of the most addictive drugs? The percentage of casual users who become addicted is much, much higher than for cocaine.

Periodically I’ll hear a story from somebody where they’re like, “Man, my uncle quit heroin and alcohol and cigarettes thirty years ago, and the only substance he still gets craving for is tobacco.”

To which I have to say, what the heck? Who gets cravings for cigarettes? Basically the moment I’d kicked the physical withdrawal (I smoked a pack a day for five years), I was like…smoking cigarettes is insane.

Now I don’t think tobacco is the worst drug in the world. It’s clearly not. In fact, it’s amongst the least harmful drugs in the world. Nobody ever beat their wife, killed their friend, blew their life savings, or lost their job because of tobacco.

However, it definitely has the worst cost/benefit ratio out of all the drugs. I mean, alcohol makes your worries melt away and helps you forget life’s burdens. Heroin gives you the closest thing you can get to pure happiness in a bottle. Cocaine makes you feel like a god. LSD fundamentally transfigures the world and leaves you feeling like you understand all of reality in a new way. MDMA makes you feel an ecstatic communion with all of mankind. Amphetamines let you transcend your body and your mind and commit, fully, to whatever task is in front of you.

Now all of these drugs have negative cost/benefit ratios in my opinion (at least for me), but they’re at least fun! And sometimes useful!

Tobacco does what? In the beginning it gives you a tiny rush, lasting no more than a few moments. After a year or so of daily smoking, you feel nothing. Maybe a few seconds of ease. Really, at some point the only thing tobacco gives you is the ability to once more feel normal.

And in return it takes, on average, seven years of your life!

What a terrible bargain; which is why only those famed for their lack of foresight–teenagers and addicts–tend to take it up.

Quitting smoking was great. I’m very lucky I was able to do it. I quit cold turkey. It wasn’t very difficult. I had a uniquely easy transition. I did gain twenty-five pounds, which was no fun! But within two years I lost all that and more. I’m sure if I took up the habit again, I’d find it much more difficult to kick.

My body experienced all the typical benefits of quitting smoking: more wind; fewer and less severe colds; my cough went away; my circulation improved (I could feel tingling in my fingers and toes for months after I quit). But one unexpected improvement was that my overall productivity dramatically increased. I noticed, shortly after I quit smoking, that I was hitting my daily word counts in much less time.

I have three theories about this. The first is that when you’re addicted to cigarettes, you exist in a perpetual state of withdrawal. Every hour or so, you get antsy and distracted. Removing this drag on my productivity allowed me to do more. The second is that smoking just takes a lot of time. I was spending an hour a day smoking! That’s an hour of my life I got back. Finally, the most intriguing theory is that smoking broke my flow. All writers know that only a minority of your writing time is truly productive. It’s the 80 / 20 rule. you do 80% of the work in 20% of the time. And that 20% is the time when you sink really deep into the work and get into a flow state. For me, I think that having to get up every hour to smoke was hampering with my flow.

We’ll never know for sure, but in any case I’m thankful