I know people who’ll go for a run early in the morning before a full day of work then have energy left over when they get home in the evening. I’ve tried to be that person, but I’m just not. In 2018 I was living in Corpus Christi working as a case manager in the social work field, and during a two-week stretch in the fall, I woke up every day at 6 a.m. to go to the gym. After work I’d feel too tired to cook, so I’d pick up takeout on the way home. After dinner I would feel like I got hit with a tranquilizer dart. I’d drink Red Bull or coffee in an attempt to get some writing done, but the caffeine would just put me in this weird state where I was still exhausted and unable to focus, but I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep later.
I became resigned to doing most of my writing on weekends, lunch breaks, and the odd downtime at work. I put a lot of pressure on myself to be extra productive when I had the time and energy to write. I was lucky enough to eventually get into a funded MFA, but most of the initial story drafts of my new collection So Much Heart were written in this way. Coworkers would invite me out for drinks on a Saturday night, but I’d make up some excuse like I was going to San Antonio for the weekend. I couldn’t admit that I just needed time to write. It didn’t seem like a good enough reason.
I’m always taken aback when someone, upon our meeting for the first time, tells me they’re a writer. Writing has always been a goofy thing to me, an almost embarrassing tendency, better kept hidden. Especially in Texas, it’s something I keep from coworkers and new friends until it inevitably slips out. I have a lot of respect for people who can totally own it. Often, though, after getting to know them better, they’ll reveal that they don’t actually write very much or used to write a little but don’t anymore. I wonder why someone would initially overstate their writing. That’s something you do with cool things like rock climbing or skydiving or drugs.
Part of why it’s hard for me to see writing as cool or romantic is because I’m always writing, and I know what it looks like. During weekend-long sessions I might let the dishes pile up and forget to shower. I might skip lunch then gorge on fast food later. Working, writing, and self-care—I can do two of the three, but it’s tough to do all three.
Writing doesn’t feel glamorous because I know it can be dull, nasty work with little external reward. I feel compelled to do it anyway. I guess I must, for some reason, love it. It’s an obsession, and when I’m in the middle of a project nothing else seems important.
Pursuing a passion for its own sake is romantic, but when you’re in the middle of it, the beauty can be hard to see. My motivation can waver when I’m exhausted or when I get a sudden bombardment of rejections. During these moments of self-pity, I like to put on the 2017 documentary Born Strong. The film follows four professional strongman competitors as they prepare for the prestigious Arnold Strongman Classic. The competition’s events include carrying 300-pound stones, deadlifting half a ton, and thrusting a 450-pound log overhead. The winner is declared the strongest man on Earth. As cool as that sounds, I doubt many people outside the powerlifting community could name the current reigning strongest man on Earth. It’s something most people might gawk at briefly while flipping past ESPN2 late at night.
World champion Eddie Hall is aware that few understand the sport. “People perceive strongmen as big, fat bastards who drink beer and lift heavy weights. That’s so far from it. It’s not just going to the gym. It’s getting up at six o’clock in the morning to force-feed. It’s going to the gym at seven o’clock in the morning to train. It’s coming back to force-feed again.” Force-feeding is exactly what it sounds like. Essentially, anytime serious competitors aren’t training, they’re stuffing high-calorie, high-protein food down their throats. This aspect of the lifestyle seems especially miserable—to never go long enough without eating to become hungry, to turn a basic joy of life into a grueling chore.
“If eating shit made me stronger, I’d probably do it,” another competitor says. This is true commitment. As important as writing is to me, I would never eat shit to become a better writer.
I don’t find weightlifting especially interesting, but I marvel at the dedication. It’s much easier to romanticize the grind of others. Compared to professional strongmen, my life is healthy and balanced. They inspire me to do more, to find ways to make the writing happen, but more than anything, their tenacity reaffirms the idea that passions are worth pursuing even when there’s no external reward.
At the end of the film, the legendary Zydrunas Savickas is crowned winner and strongest man on Earth. After dedicating his every waking moment to training, the absolute best competitor in the world walks away with $72,000. By literary fiction writer standards, this is a fortune, an elusive advance from a top New York publishing house for a debut novel. Unlikely but not impossible. The sixth strongest man in the world gets a check for eight grand—royalties from an especially successful indie book.
People are passionate about pursuits with even less earning potential than writing (and powerlifting). I can’t get enough of documentaries that explore these subcultures. The more niche and uncelebrated the pursuit, the more inspiring and interesting I find it. In The King of Kong, a laid-off engineer spends his days in his garage staring at an arcade monitor, striving to set the world-record high score in Donkey Kong. The docuseries Cheer follows a competitive cheerleading squad at a small-town Texas community college as they prepare for the junior college championships. I was gripped by Set! which looks at the biggest rivalries in competitive table setting. The setups are incredibly elaborate and entrants often spend thousands on supplies. The Grand Prize winner receives no cash prize, only a ribbon and the respect and envy of their peers.
While finishing edits on my book, I struggled a bit to stay focused. Finalizing edits and proofreading a book is incredibly tedious. Sixteen years of writing and I was finally going to have a book, but I still wondered if it was worth the hassle. I wondered if anyone would buy it, and of those, who would actually read it.
During this final push, I was inspired by the Netflix series MerPeople. It looks at the world of underwater acrobats who perform as mermaids, a subculture so niche I’d never even heard of it. They wear expensive, custom-made tails, and each has their own mythical backstory. They perform in front of small crowds at fairs and Renaissance festivals.
Becoming a professional mermaid requires an incredible amount of nerve and discipline. They must maintain composure while performing flips at the bottom of a twenty-foot tank, a small oxygen hose being their only lifeline. Of the merpeople featured, I found Brittany, a.k.a. Mermaid Sparkles, the most memorable. She’s one of only two mermaids in all of Arkansas, and the only place to practice in her town is in the corner of the community pool while water aerobics class is going on. She supports herself by performing at kids’ parties and working as a waitress. She dreams of one day making a living as a performance mermaid. As small of a community as it is, there are many more aspiring merpeople than there are jobs. Circus Siren Pod founder Morgana Alba estimates that there are less than fifty people in the world who make a living as a mermaid.
Brittany spends all her leftover money on traveling across the country to auditions. While on break at her restaurant job, she goes into what being a mermaid means to her. “The weight of the world can be so intense, ya know, from day-to-day life. Mermaid Sparkles is an escape from all that…I feel like I have purpose.”
This is a great articulation of the appeal and benefits of obsession. Life is incredibly complex, full of difficult decisions and complicated relationships. I often wonder about life’s purpose, and I worry about every possible bad thing that could happen. If I decide a story is more important than being social and meeting new people, I’m relieved of that uncertainty and social anxiety. Obsession has the effect of simplifying life. If my mind is completely occupied with a short story, I don’t worry about where my career is headed. I don’t replay social interactions in my head over and over. Brittany knows how to spend her weekends, knows what to do with her money. She has certainty.
Admittedly, I laughed at several moments throughout MerPeople. At one point, Mermaid Sparkles’ tail zipper breaks at a birthday gig, and she starts panicking as the kids start to lose patience, demanding a mermaid to appear. I know deep down that swimming around with a fake tail on is no sillier a way to spend your time than writing.
In the final episode, mermaids from all over the world converge on a Caribbean cruise ship for the King & Queen of the Seas competition. Before the contest starts, the hopefuls mingle and check out each other’s outfits and hair and makeup. They admire the patterns of sequin work on the different tails and ask each other if they’re homemade or bought. I couldn’t help but think of the one time I went to AWP and browsed the different booths and thumbed through different publications, seeing what other writers were up to—novels about werewolf scholars, poetry collections inspired by Third Eye Blind—admiring how editors made their covers shine.