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You Don’t Have to Be Crazy to Be an Author, But It Helps Jason Pargin

Let me see if I can get my thoughts out coherently. I have a lot of thoughts.

The other day I listened to a podcast that took away hope for my career. Depresh Mode by John Moe interviews celebrities under the lens of mental health and illness — how it’s served them, how it’s hindered them, having a career with those kinds of struggles. He’s had Jamie Lee Curtis, Comedian Dana Gould, Rachel Smythe (creator of Lore Olympus), and Patton Oswalt. But what I want to talk about is Jason Pargin a.k.a. David Wong, author of the “John Dies at the End” series, the “Zoey Ashe” series, former editor-in-chief of Cracked.com (when it was good), and one of my favorite authors.

And like Aeris says in Final Fantasy VII — “this guy are sick”.

Not sick in the sadistic macabre sense (although if you’ve read the books, there’s that too). Sick in the sense of “this guy has a serious neurological disorder and it’s affecting his physical and social health” sense.

Pargin used the metaphor of, well, you know the feeling when you wake up and you know you’re late? You can see the sun is way too high up and it’s a workday and you’re not where you’re supposed to be and it’s going to take you even longer to get to the point of being where you are supposed to be? He has that feeling every day. All day.

He is a deadline-oriented, sales-focused individual. He has spreadsheets detailing exactly how many books he has to sell in order to make the next contract. Because to get even a modicum of the level of acclaim or recognition–not even to feed his own ego, just to advertise his product–he has to work at the level of Kevin Hart and Stephen King and Brandon Sanderson who are always go-go-going. They never stop never stopping.

Michael Jordan was brought up. In particular, learnings from “The Last Dance” documentary. They will be talking about Michael Jordan a hundred years from now. He was the greatest of all time and there will never be another. His name is carved in stone. But he was miserable. The day after his championship, he was back at the gym. And then he got the next one and he was at the golf course betting a hundred grand per hole. Because he couldn’t not chase down that sense of competition, of being the best. He could never enjoy success.

Brandon Sanderson writes novels AND has a publishing company AND teaches AND does a podcast AND is responsible for the most successful Kickstarter campaign in history AND still has time to write Hugo-award winning books. Stephen King has who knows how many irons in the fire–movies, comics, TV shows, charities, talks, tours. He even got hit by a truck and that didn’t stop him.

And here’s Jason Pargin. A successful published novelist. He’s working just as hard and he doesn’t have even one iota of that name recognition. What hope do I have?

People who work this hard can’t take their foot off the pedal, because if they do, they feel empty in their lives. They get “Schindler’s List Syndrome” where they look at any ounce of free time and get worried that they should be working during that time. I could have called more people to be on more podcasts. I could have gotten more people to write about me. This free time, I could have been doing something more. Pargin says it’s gotten to the point where that level of anxiety has ruined his digestion–he can’t eat a full meal without vomiting it back up unless there’s medication to regulate that. He can’t enjoy a movie because he spends all that time thinking about deadlines.

Can you imagine that? To be so obsessed with working that your own body is rebelling against you? Doesn’t that sound miserable? What would fill the hole inside him? I don’t think anything would.

Now the reason this all troubles me is because this is a writer I admire. This is a role model. This is a guy I want to be like, want to write like. He’s had movies made out of his books. And to get where he got in his career took untold amounts of misery and anxiety. He is working his ass off 110% and it’s still not enough. Still not enough to get to the level of fame that you don’t need to worry about making that next contract. Authorship is still extracting its pound of flesh from him, and probably will for life. Can you imagine selling your soul to the devil and this is all you get?

And here’s the scary part–he has chosen this. He has chosen the anxiety and the books over treatment, because… I don’t know. He wants that level of fame that Stephen King has? Except he said this himself: even if his next book becomes the next Harry Potter and sells 30,000,000 copies, that anxiety doesn’t go away. There’s no winning scenario here. There’s no endgame where he’s standing on top of the hill with no more enemies to fight.

The podcast host said he’s “in a dysfunctional romantic relationship with anxiety”. It feels like, to be great, you have to be psychopathic on some level. To be recognized by the human race, you have to sacrifice yourself and your relationships as collateral damage. We wouldn’t have flight if the Wright Brothers weren’t obsessed with inventing the airplane before anyone else did. Or Edison psychotic about stealing/inventing patents. Or George Lucas losing his family over Star Wars. The founding fathers like Jefferson and Hamilton all left scores of unhappy people–friends and family–in their wake. They did great things but at the cost of their own happiness and contentment.

That’s what I’m scared of. That, in order to be a capital-A Author, I have to get off my anti-anxiety meds and become a miserable mental case. If Jason Pargin is any example, he spends more time promoting than writing. And he has no other job. So what hope do I have? I’m a good writer, but I know I’m bad at promoting myself (#humblebrag). That’s why I want to be traditionally published–they help with that.

But the book scene is not how it was in Anne Rice’s or Stephen King’s day. Those books came out in the eighties when all you had for indoor entertainment was television or… that’s it. There were no video games, no social media, no TikTok, no Pinterest, no Reddit, no YouTube, no Netflix, no Max, no Tubi, no Snapchat, no Township, no Pokemon Go. And I, as a promoter, have to convince you that my book is more worthwhile than all that. More entertaining than the infinite hours of media available to us.

Impossible. How J.K. Rowling got famous in that mire, I’ll never know. But Harry Potter seems to be lightning in a bottle–she has never been able to recapture that level of fame.

So after all that I find myself wondering what kind of career do I want? What level of fame am I hoping for? When do I reach success?

Do I want to be able to quit my job and become a full-time writer? I don’t think so. For one thing, I like having health insurance and a 401K and job stability. But the other thing is, I don’t think I need to sacrifice my job. A lot of the people on bookshelves, they write part-time, working real jobs that pay the bills. Some of them are tangentially related, like journalist or professor or politician.

And as far as promotion, yeah, I know every job has parts that you’re not going to like. It’s not like I hate promoting. More like I fear it, and that’s because I don’t know how to do it. If I did, I would be more willing to self-publish.

Jason Pargin was forced to go onto TikTok because that’s where the book readers are. So now he has to make a funny video every week. Had to become a media-face-voice-personality in the zeitgeist. An influencer who’s pushing fifty. I don’t want to do that. I’m not an “on camera” personality. I don’t think TikTok works for me because I am not a face. I don’t have the charisma to attract followers. I don’t think in TikTok ways, like “how can I make this observation into a funny video.”

And I look at people like John Scalzi and John Green and George R.R. Martin and Suzanne Collins. They don’t seem to need to “break the internet” to promote. Scalzi just does book tours and has his blog and tweets. I don’t see him doing much cross-media promotion. I don’t see these authors having to respond to every tweet or make YouTube videos. So maybe I can promote in a way that works for me. But that still involves learning how.

So what’s it going to take to get an agent, to get a published novel? If Jason Pargin’s working this hard and still just treading water, then what hope do I have? I’m not willing to leave a trail of failed relationships in my wake. So then am I just writing for nothing? Do I have all this hope for nothing? Am I shouting into the void? Riding an escalator to nowhere?

I want to make good work that people love. Work that helps people become better. I want to tell stories that bring about positive emotions and catharsis. I want to make people happy. I want to make good art.

Hundreds and hundreds of query letters, time and money spent on feedback/revision, and no bites. Just rejection after rejection. Am I going to lie on my deathbed having never published a book? A failure? Is that my fate?

Eric Juneau is a software engineer and novelist on his lunch breaks. In 2016, his first novel, Merm-8, was published by eTreasures. He lives in, was born in, and refuses to leave, Minnesota. You can find him talking about movies, video games, and Disney princesses at http://www.ericjuneaubooks.com where he details his journey to become a capital A Author.

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