I'm almost 24 and I want to be a writer!

I got dumped, I'm living with my parents, my life sucks but I want to be a writer! Seriously!

By Cary Tennis
Published July 5, 2011 12:01AM (EDT)

Dear Reader, 

So, I'm going to run this very long letter from this fella down in New Orleans because frankly I just can't figure out where to cut it, or what is important and what isn't, because it's just kind of one long cry for help from a guy who doesn't really even need the help but could use a word of encouragement and a pat on the shoulder is about all, I figure. Plus he wants to be a writer and I'm a sucker for anybody who wants to be a writer. To me, if you say you desperately want to be a writer, it makes you sound like you're almost as screwed up as I am, and I appreciate that. I appreciate knowing that there are people in the world as worried and confused and crazy-feeling as I am, or was, or often am, to tell the truth. Often am. And who let me be a "professional writer"? The folks at Salon, actually, namely Joan Walsh, David Talbot, Gary Kamiya and Scott Rosenberg all in a room one afternoon in 2001, they all said OK, give him a shot ... and me at the age of somewhere like 48, I would guess, before which of course I'd been a writer for money many times before that but this felt better, and different. So how does that happen? At age 48? You go through a lot of shit and nonsense is how it happens usually, and in my case. And how do you put all that shit and nonsense into a little column?

So that's why today I'm answering this one. And running the letter at full length because I just don't know where to cut it and it's kind of an interesting document even though he only gets to the wanting-to-be-a-writer part way down near the end.

So sorry if this is very undisciplined. I'm feeling very undisciplined today. Like if by the end of the day I haven't joined a thrash band headed to Seattle then we will have to say I exercised admirable self-restraint.


Cary, you are kind of my hero. [Now this, really, seriously: makes me blush.--CT] I've never read someone who dispenses advice that I agree with the way you do, so I come to you with one of the most banal and widespread (in my generation) problems you'll receive. I'm 23, and nothing terrible has happened to me.

Still, I hope you'll answer, because I feel your advice could be more useful than most anything I've heard yet. This note starts with my specific problem in the moment then segues a bit bigger, and I'm exactly sure what I'm even asking ... :

I just got dumped. After seven months of dating a women I shouldn't have been dating -- she was going through a divorce after a four-year marriage, six-year relationship (she's mid-20s), which divorce she had filed for maybe a month before we began dating, and I knew it would end up being poisonous.

I kept up a fortified barrier for a while, but I wore down because I was lonely and lost and she seemed strong and confident and beautiful. Now, the emotional wrecking ball that runs my mind/heart has taken over. I was never anything but kind and loving, and she was at first, but then became passive-aggressive to a point where I always felt confused and anxious (the anxiety which she cites as a main reason for us breaking up).

I got dumped during a midday coffee break. Then I ran into her less than two weeks later at the same bar I go to darn near every weekend (that she never liked), and she tells me she was never "in love" with me (though she told me she loved me well before I even felt comfortable with it), that she's had several people ask her on dates (in 10 days?!) and that I need to just mellow out. She actually used the term "mellow out." I felt like I was in a '70s stoner movie. She said this while displaying the emotions of a turtle: calm, slow and very factual. And she was with a guy.

Now I'm terrified. I miss her, I love her but I'm appalled by her. I'm horrified at the thought of running into her (which I will; New Orleans is a very small town), and when I do, I'll shake, my stomach will turn and my heart will further sink into the quicksand inside me.

I don't even know if I loved her. I suspect I didn't. The girl I truly loved I knew for a short period of time, and things ended (amicably but without hope of redemption). But I still feel destroyed, empty, used and cheap.

Even typing this now, it seems so trite, so banal, so childish. I want to move cities (even though this is my home). I did that last time I got heartbroken. Picked up and moved to Chicago, a huge mistake because as quaint and peaceful as falling snow might be, blizzards are decidedly not. And I'm a NOLA boy through and through -- it is my home, it is my love, it is the city I'll fight for until I die. I don't want to leave it because of some girl.

My feelings are larger, though, than just the girl: I don't know what to do with my life. I'm about as Millennial as they come, I guess. I want to be a writer, more than anything. I want to write fiction (well, I do write it. I want to publish it, which I have no idea how to do since I know no one in the industry). I would like to do it professionally, if that makes sense. I want to write fiction, have a loving wife and be a good father. I want simple things, but so much of it seems beyond my grasp.

I worked in marketing and advertising (which I hated -- social media causes anxiety and fear in me, for simple reasons [such as finding out who the guy she brought to that bar was]); I worked in journalism, where I thought I'd be, but I love the writing, not the reporting. So daily papers and such aren't really for me. Now I don't know what to do. I want an MFA, but this seems like a path that doesn't really lead anywhere professionally, and I don't know if it would even help my desired career, so now I'm considering getting a psych degree and getting into counseling. But, I don't know. Can I have your job? It seems perfect. [Usually I get mad when people say, Can I have your job? but somehow not in this case.--CT]

I don't know what to do now. I'm nearly broke, living at home with my parents (a house that is not stable or peaceful), full of anxiety and about to turn 24. I am alone, and 24 is coming on fast. My friends all have plans, paths, very significant others, and even my ex-girlfriend (of less than two weeks) seems to have someone.

I know things will get better. I know I'll figure things out. I know I'll get over her at some point. I know everyone has felt this at some point (I have, more than a few times now). I know that I'm young with the world at my feet and free and can do anything, but somehow this makes it even scarier.

I'm going to close with some lyrics from the band the National (so I can fully solidify how immature all my problems seem to be!) because they sum up what I just said in a few words:

I wake up without warning and go flying around the house

In my sauvignon fierce, freaking out

Take a forty-five minute shower and kiss the mirror

And say, look at me

Baby, we'll be fine

All we gotta do is be brave and be kind

I put on an argyle sweater and put on a smile

I don't know how to do this

I'm so sorry for everything

Thanks, Cary. You do a great service.

Dear NOLA Boy Through and Through,

Comb your hair. Put on your shoes. Pay attention to the particulars.

That's how you handle seeing your ex-girlfriend, the one who broke up with you in such an annoying way. You focus. You might have to stop drinking so much Rock Star energy drink. Seriously, you could be just over-caffeinated. But we'll see. Calm down. Comb your hair. Go out into the warm New Orleans night.

So you're worried about what it will be like when you see her. Take a deep breath.

When you see her on the street there are only a few things you need to do. You need to greet her, you need to say a few words, and then you need to exit. That's all. That can be done. You can control the whole thing from beginning to end. You don't have to hang around and make small talk.

Think about what somebody in a movie would do. Somebody in a movie would walk up to her and say Hello, Helen, you're looking very nice today. Good to see you.

And then to the creep who is with her you give a steely stare. Or you just give him a friendly grin. Or you shake his hand. It's up to you, whatever role you are playing. You are taking specific actions, actions you are in control of. That's all. And then you say, Sorry, I'm on my way somewhere much better and more interesting, with more attractive and interesting people, don't be a stranger.

You may be feeling all kinds of things while you do this. That doesn't mean you can't do it. Fear is just a thing going on in your body. It doesn't mean you can't do stuff.

It's called acting. In some cases it might be called "Opposite Acting." (I just discovered dialectical behavioral therapy and have been checking it out.)

So the other thing is about being a writer. So, OK, here is my short solution to that: A writer is someone who writes. A writer who gets paid is a writer who gets paid.

As far as learning how to get paid money for writing, there are books on that. You don't need to know anybody. Editors will read your writing whether they know you or not. They'll decide based on the writing.

But you are in a state. You are all worked up. Things are going to happen in their own time, which is slower. You are in New Orleans. You should know slow.

But it's crazy too. I know that.

It is. It's crazy and it's a motherfucker. It is. And it doesn't make sense. It doesn't. I know that. Most of life makes no sense.

I didn't really answer your question about how to be a writer, did I? Well, I talk a lot about it in my new book, which is mostly Salon columns I've collected and edited somewhat, with a long and very cool intro talking about how we're all "Citizens of the Dream."

It's just an e-book now but it'll be a real book in a few weeks.

As to the National singing, "I'm so sorry for everything," I checked out the band on YouTube singing that song and I don't get the attraction. I feel kinda sorry for them. Is that what I'm supposed to feel? Not sorry because they communicate an emotion through their music but just sorry because, well, look at them!

So then I'm wondering if there is something, as you say, Millennial about this -- if you in your particular time of life, with the unsayable Zeitgeist of your peers in the air, if there is something poignant about feeling sorry for everything. That could be. Like certain emotions attach to certain ages and periods of life. Like the universal desire to smoke pot and take our clothes off that took us by surprise in the 1960s, which we thought made so much sense at the time. It was just something in the air. So maybe there is a sadness in the air that the National perfectly capture. And it eludes me because I am 57. That could well be.

It sucks being 57.

But I'm still wondering what you've got to be sorry for. You didn't do nothing wrong.

Citizens of the Dream

What? You want more advice?


Cary Tennis

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