Fear and Loathing in the Hellmouth

Cover of Fear and Loathing in the Hellmouth

I’m going to live forever.


That’s a hell of a way to start, isn’t it? But more than that, it’s a much-needed reminder for myself and presumably a slew of other writers who’ve felt particularly beaten down at this moment in humanity’s descent into apparent fuck-it-all doom alignment.  If you’re reading this, chances are you’re going to live forever too. We, writers, make worlds, after all. Everyone else just has the gift of dying in them.


To be fair, this was supposed to be a more traditional essay on personally inspiring present-day examples of DIY publishing and supplemental release strategies like Patreon and Substack—specifically, how they’ve refueled the tank as of late. We’ll get to that later. But for sheer posterity’s sake, here’s a headline I proposed in an early email to Write or Die when I hadn’t yet allowed myself to surrender to a journey I didn’t even realize I was on:


How Patreon Helped Me Find My Footing Again After Capitalism Knocked My Teeth Out


There was an undeniable logic to it all, however painfully on-the-nose it may be (definitely was). An inevitability, even. But I couldn’t quite taste blood. And to loosely paraphrase the words of a certain fictional immortal being (Buffy the Vampire Slayer tritagonist Spike) whose presence throughout this essay I never could have predicted, love writing isn’t brains, children; it’s blood.


My original idea for this essay would have started by taking you back to me at five years old, making my own comic books with stapled-together, spiral notebook pages and selling them to family members for what felt like a fortune at the time. I would have introduced you to me at 14, a lowly writer for my high school newspaper who somehow convinced the teacher in charge to publish a series of short stories loosely based on the blink-182 song “Story of a Lonely Guy.” I would have been remiss to not also mention the string of punk and punk-adjacent bands I poured my words into at various points along the way, the college professor who always championed and challenged me even when I dropped out (twice), and a mother whose artistic courage undoubtedly gave birth to my own.


Our final destination would have been the moment nearly nine years ago when I first started making an actual living with words. To merely call this initially permalance position a glow-up would be to blasphemously undersell its importance in my life at the time. It felt like reaching back in time and hugging 14-year-old me, which is to say it felt exactly how I thought it would. 


In the preceding years, I had been sporadically freelancing with up-and-down (mostly down) levels of success while failing stupendously as a part-time sales associate at a musical instrument retailer I won’t speak about here except to say that its name most assuredly rhymes with Bizarre Venter. With a lifetime of unpaid pop culture obsession at my disposal, I was ecstatic to hit the ground running as a voicy pop culture news writer, at one point willingly clocking 70-hour weeks whilst consuming surely historic levels of vaguely sus brands of gas station energy drinks.


It was what I always thought I wanted until, of course, it was something else. Then it was burnout, it was disillusionment, it was the mourning of gleeful guilelessness that can only thrive when you’re not just hungry but absolutely fucking starving to speak. Above all, it was the realization that this wasn’t exactly the road to immortality I had fantasized it to be—too much SEO, too little risk. Or so it seemed.


Like a lot of people, the pandemic provided a course correction for me, or at least a glimpse at how one might be possible in the not-so-distant future. In December 2020, I took an online writing workshop with Animals Eat Each Other and Deliver Me author Elle Nash, whose Patreon has consistently proven to be a source of inspiration for me as I’ve slowly carved out a left turn through the woods, increasingly moving further and further away from the path many think I’m still on. 


The short I developed largely in Elle’s workshop, titled “Fly” and centered on a cult that worships radio rock of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, allowed me to covertly funnel some of my frustrations into a story that proved equal parts self-deprecating and self-championing. In time, it led to several other loosely connected shorts, including a since-shelved one that gave me a remarkable full-circle moment that reminded me how it felt at 14 to Trojan-horse a semi-autobiographical blink-182 story into the school paper.


For a moment, I allowed myself to feel good about what I had managed to get onto the page in the years since. The moment passed but what stuck was the realization that I had often managed to apply this same approach to news writing, especially in those first few years. Looking back, I could taste blood again. I could feel it screaming inside me to work its will, to once again paraphrase a choice Buffy scene.


A bit deeper into the pandemic, I (for the umpteenth time in my life) found inspiration in Max Collins—known to Twitter frequenters as The Eve 6 Guy, a.k.a. The Heart in a Blender Guy—as he turned his surprise rise to virality into a book deal and since-returned advance that eventually evolved into a Patreon of its own.


More recently, the launch of Chelsea Hodson’s independent press, Rose Books, furthered this inspiration with its wholly unique and truly inventive approach to publishing. In a recent interview with Brad Listi for the Otherppl podcast, Hodson pointed to what she described as “a decline in risk-taking of any sort” in publishing at large as key in her decision to start Rose Books.


“I think that’s pretty much the worst thing for art is to rely on what someone considers a safe bet,” she said of projections chatter in the industry. “Because what does that even mean? And what does that have to do with art and risk, which is what I’m interested in as an artist? I just felt kind of audaciously like maybe I can do something that would contribute to the conversation in a way that I could take a risk.”


These examples, and numerous others, stand as a testament to a core facet of The Art Life, and one that’s not easy to remember when you’re stuck in any given proverbial mire: We always, always find a way. Especially writers. But it’s easy to forget this and even easier to subconsciously bury its litany of truths when you’re inundated with the pressures of modern survival, regardless of how close or far your day job is from the written word. On an individual level, these pops of revitalized inspiration proved prescient, each building on the other to provide me with the tools necessary to eventually receive an unknowingly imminent wake-up call from a total stranger.


Earlier this month, as I continued kicking around different takes on this essay, I was brought to New York on company dime. Though the trip was a whiplash-inducingly quick one, I still managed to stumble into a revelation, thanks in no small part to the original Shake Shack in Madison Square Park. The wait for my veggie burger and cheese fries was comically lengthy, meaning I felt downright famished (I bagged about 25,000 steps that day) by the time I sat down on a nearby park bench with a swiftly sucked-down Diet Coke in hand. In the middle of using a plastic fork to stab into a wad of crinkle cut fries made delightfully gooey thanks to a heavy helping of cheese sauce, an unassuming man carrying a tightly knotted Trader Joe’s bag sat down beside me.


Now, I should mention here that I was wearing my Buffy t-shirt at the time. Made by Dumbgood, it features an oversized graphic on the front of scene-stealing co-star of this essay, Spike, in mid-vamp morph. Getting deeper into my wad of dairy and starch, I felt a tap on my shoulder. 


“May I ask who that is on your shirt?” the man asked with a smile. Dickishly assuming he wouldn’t already be familiar with Buffy lore, I proceeded to explain that the shirt featured a character from a beloved series from the late ‘90s and early ‘00s that I had only recently fallen in love with thanks to a recommendation from my fiancée, keeping my explanation as general as possible. In the middle of my misguided explanation, he politely interrupted to tell me that he was only asking to confirm the shirt did indeed feature Spike, a character from a show he was not only familiar with but upon which he had spent quite some time pondering. We spoke extensively about Buffy, and related theories therein, before the conversation turned to me and what I was doing in New York.


“I’m a writer, here on a work trip,” I said. Again, he smiled. Were it not for a mouthful of burger, I might have returned the gesture. The man’s eyes lit up as he generously indulged my brief but surely self-centered commentary on the personal difficulties and capitalism-spurred burnout I had faced while trying to finish a draft of what will eventually become my first novel.


When our conversation reached its natural conclusion, I shook the man’s hand and wished him well. 


“Enjoy the rest of your trip, and good luck with the book,” he told me. “Maybe I’ll get to read it one day.”


I walked back to my hotel stuffed with Shake Shack and full of something I hadn’t felt in a long time, a very specific kind of hope only made possible by a reminder of why any of us do this to begin with. Hearing a stranger wax poetic about a show that will soon mark the 27th anniversary of its premiere not only made my fears of immortality through art seem unfounded, but it also made clear the only thing that could ever really get in the way of that:


It’s me, hi. I’m the problem, it’s me.


Not unlike Buffy herself, we aren’t writers by choice but by birth. It’s how we enter this world and it’s how we will go out, only we never really go out, do we? In an earlier draft of this essay, I went on to argue that the same can’t be said for CEOs and tech companies and other capitalism bedfellows with hollowed out hearts. Desperate detractors and miserable meddlers though these self-proclaimed gurus may be, I was gently reminded in the editing process that even arguable infamy can be a form of living forever. 


Will they be remembered too? Will they bag some form of eternal life without so much as a glimmer of art or humanity to their touch? In moments of weakness, when deep in the throes of cynical fuck-it-allness, I can admit that they will. But there’s a clear difference.


Is it futile to chase it my way, or to even chase it at all? Possibly. On those most cynical of days, I’d bump that up to probably. But to paraphrase Spike one last time, and to notably twist the meaning of the character’s words to bend toward my own meaning, I’ll take blood over brains any day.


I may be writing’s bitch, but at least I’m man enough to admit it.


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