I’m about to share some scary shit. Some truths about myself that I’ve been too scared to share for years. Maybe decades, honestly.
And yet if there’s one thing I know after thirty years of writing, it’s that you have to tell the truth. You have to tell the truth in your writing and you have to write things that make you uncomfortable.
“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” – Ernest Hemingway
Well, here’s the truth: I want to be the greatest writer ever.
Yikes, did I really say that out loud?
Crazy, right? More importantly, just why the hell did I publish that?
It’s scary putting yourself out there, but I want to say some things. I’m not even sure where I’m going with this. It’s like a novel: you don’t know where it’ll end. You simply write it.
One sentence, one paragraph, one page at a time. You let it flow out of you. Or dribble out in tiny drops as you squeeze the tube with all your might, screaming and cursing at the night.
But no matter the pace, or how long it takes, the story comes together.
Let’s continue then, with this honest post as well. I want to be the greatest writer ever. There, I’ve said it a second time. See? Not an accident. Not a fluke.
And since we’re sharing truths… here’s a second truth: writers are crazy.
They really are. (Also musicians, artists, and professional athletes. They’re crazy, too. You have to be, in order to dream big enough to think you can have your aspirations.)
But let’s stick with writers. They’re what I know. Hell, even better, let’s stick with me.
I literally wrote, “I want to be the greatest writer ever.”
How nuts is that? What kind of madness abides inside my head? What kind of person would say such a thing? (I can’t blame youth. I’m a touch over 44.)
Want to know something scarier? I was pretty much thinking this thought at the age of 8 or 9. That’s the first time I slammed a novel shut and thought, “This book is terrible. I know I could do better.”
I did this while in elementary school. With an adult novel written by a best-selling author.
And the craziest thing about this story of my childhood is that I actually tried to do better than that author, while I was still a kid, who didn’t even know what puberty was.
Little old Stan, still in elementary school, scribbled a story in pencil in his spiral-bound, school notebook. I remember it perfectly. And somewhere, out in some of my boxes in the garage, I still have it. Twenty pages or so.
I wish I was making this up. Or even exaggerating a tad. My headspace would be sooooo much better.
But I can’t lie. I want to be considered among the greatest writers of all time, and that’s the damned truth. (Maybe all serious writers feel this way? Fuck if I know.)
All I know is that it’s this way for me. I want to be the greatest and this is probably the greatest truth of my life. It’s my North Star. My beacon I’ve been moving toward my entire existence, even when I veer or slow or try to run from it.
Back to my twenty-page story above, I didn’t finish it, but even at the age of eight or nine, a small part of my soul (or something) told me I was meant to do this. That my one true desire was to be the greatest writer ever (though I must never admit this to anyone).
What nine-year-old says such a thing? How can you feel (or be haunted by) such a thing at such a young age?
Let’s return to the writers are crazy part of this post. Let’s broaden things a bit. Because if I’m going to admit to being crazy, then I damn sure want some company in whatever boat I’m in.
Let’s start with Ernest Hemingway. A hell of a writer, but also a man who volunteered for war as an ambulance driver (where he was wounded), a man who married four times, and a man who survived two plane crashes in two days. Yes, I’m saying he had a plane crash on one day. Then decided to fly again the next day. And he crashed the second day as well.
He also once shot himself in the lower leg while wrestling with a shark and sadly took his own life at the age of 61.
I’m going to say that Ernest Hemingway, who’s considered one of America’s greatest writers, makes a pretty compelling case for proving that writers are crazy. But I could easily point out a dozen other authors to add to the ledger.
And we’ve all heard the theme of how much most writers drink, correct? “Psychology Today” even had an article in it titled, “Why Do Writers Drink So Much?” That article listed roughly twenty big-name authors.
So, if you’ll grant me that most writers are crazy (and/or drink too much), we’ll get this show back on the road. (Although weirdly, I don’t drink — I’m scared to death of alcohol after it destroyed my uncle’s life; that shit took his family, his job, and eventually his sanity before he ended it all with a gun, so go easy on the stuff.)
Back to the point, though. Where were we? Oh, yeah. Just write the truth. And writers are crazy.
Here’s another truth: Writing is a madness. It’s a disease. It’s a curse.
That was three, but I’ll stand by them.
I’ve learned that you can’t really run from this calling. It ruins your showers. Your bedtimes. Your conversations. (Maybe you can’t run from whatever calling you have, either, so bear down on that shit and you’ll feel better. I promise.)
But for me anyway, I’ve found that writing afflicts your soul. It eats at you in the darkest parts of night.
When I’m not writing, I’m miserable. My head (or heart?) won’t stop whispering or screaming: You should be writing.
Frankly, when I’m not writing, my head goes into dark places. At the worst of times, it can plummet to scary depths.
My writing mania plagues me unabated.
I’ll grab books to read because they are some of my greatest escapes. But I can’t read for long. My head whispers, “You should be writing.”
There’s no getting away from it. Not a day goes by when my head doesn’t say, “You should be writing.”
Writing is a madness. It’s a disease. It’s a curse.
I’ve come to accept the three sentences above.
I believe them to be true, and if you’re afflicted with the calling to be a writer, I’m confident you agree.
But writing has a flip side. It can be the greatest high in the world.
I’ve gotten so into the zone of writing a story that I will lose all track of time. I will enter an almost fictional world, where I’m dodging bullets or chasing down enemies. I have no idea what my opponent will do. Or even what my main character will do.
But I’m there. I’m watching this movie and am excited to see where it will go. And I don’t want to stop it. I don’t want to exit this world. My fingers can’t type fast enough.
I don’t think about food or time or really anything but the story.
The concept of time disappears, until you realize, holy shit, you’re supposed to be at work in ten minutes or you told your wife you’d do the dishes, but that was two hours ago, and you hear her down there at the sink, muttering and cursing.
There are also times I try to write and it’s like I jump into my desk chair, remembering the day before when I wrote for hours and was really into the story (right in the middle of that awesome car chase). But I’m not sitting in that space machine anymore.
It’s like I’m turned into a pathetic, helpless worm. I don’t have arms or legs and I’m just flopping around.
I’m helpless. And I’m not in some heaven-like space where the story bursts through my mind and onto the page. Instead, I’m sitting on the hard metal seat of a 1940s tractor. It’s raining and freezing, a whipping wind whirling across the land, stinging my face. And the fucking tractor won’t start. And after screaming in rage, I look down and realize it’s up on a jack. Worse, one of its wheels is leaning against a fence, the tire flat.
No. That’s not correct. Squinting, I notice the tire is rotted upon closer inspection.
I scream again, trying to think of where you can buy a tractor tire and how fast can I find a mechanic, when, holy shit, I see wires hanging out the side of the engine. I lean over and see some asshole thief has stolen the electronic ignition and distributor cap in the middle of the night. This tractor isn’t moving today and you’re not writing a single word, despite how much you want to.
These times when you struggle to write a single sentence can be as maddening as when you’re not creating at all. You’re sitting in the chair, trying to do what you’re meant to do in life, but the muse won’t cooperate.
So what I’m saying is this:
A ) You’re miserable on those days when you try to write, but the words won’t come.
B ) You’re also miserable on the days when you don’t write and you run from your dream.
Writing is madness, remember?
It can be infuriating. Like, if you’re meant to be a writer, if you’re destined to be the greatest, then why is it so hard? Why aren’t you a natural?
I think the answer to this question is that nothing in life comes easy.
Maybe all those sports icons practice and work harder than we know, right? And maybe greats, such as Hemingway, who marry four times and end their lives at 61, have struggled more than we know, right?
I’ve been chasing this dream for a long time. I will spare you the story, though it’s a hell of a one, including me at the age of 21 telling an experienced agent that I wouldn’t re-work a chapter; ah, the arrogance of youth.
Skipping my long story of climbing the figurative Mount Everest, I completed my first successful book after 12 years of total ecstasy and agony; 12 years of telling my friends about it and then lying to my friends about it.
I also dropped and abandoned it too many times to count, starting probably thirty other stores in that time. I know, I know. This is every writer’s story.
It probably would’ve been easier for me to design a plane from scratch.
But twelve years later, I had a hell of a story written. It’s about a Marine sniper who gets betrayed by his government after completing a Top Secret mission, and then is hunted down until eventually he flips the script and starts hunting the hunters (Sold Out — Nick Woods Book 1). The book still sells well (thank you, Jesus), and I’ve written three more books in that series. (The fifth one drops in a few months.) Yay, Stan.
But I couldn’t be happy having just written a military thriller, right? I couldn’t just stay in that genre like most successful authors; write like thirteen or fifteen Nick Woods books, right?
No, of course not. Not when you’re crazy and you want to be the best ever. So, I had to try my hand at as an action-packed Western, a detective series, a private investigator series, a leadership/biography book, and two realistic war novels: one about World War II and one about Afghanistan.
Whatever it is that I have, I have it bad.
Writing has tons of ups and downs (mostly downs truthfully), but about half of the time, I actually think I’m going to make a boatload of money. I’m driven as hell and my friends will tell you I’m as determined and stubborn as anyone you’ll ever meet. (I’m also possibly delusional, but that goes with the diagnosis of crazy.)
On paper, I at least have a shot.
Writing degree? Check.
Typing speed? I can type faster than a cheetah with a rocket on his ass.
But on other days, I think of just how many writers have tried this gig. This isn’t the first time a tractor has plowed this field. It’s a community lot, and it’s been plowed and worked for at least a couple hundred years. It’s depleted of any good soil. The land is exhausted and consumed. There’s little incentive to plow the dry, parched earth.
And that’s assuming you get the tractor running.
And that’s further assuming you don’t look across the land, and then to your left and right, and notice the literally thousands of fellow writers staring at their own tractors in the pre-dawn darkness. Some look desperate and crazy. Some look determined. Some look broken.
These men and women in this field have been doing this for decades, and there is no excitement or hype or high energy here. Not on this community lot.
To be lucky enough to do this as a full-time gig is possibly one of the greatest things in the world. To attempt to get into the zone every day — for a full day — instead of dealing with the day job and all the rest of life’s interruptions? That’s heaven.
I know because I’ve been there. For almost two years.
Back in 2013, I made a lot of money one year. More than six figures, or just a tad over $100,000. In my beautiful hometown of Knoxville, if you can make a hundred thousand dollars in a year doing what you love (i.e., not a day job), then you’ve done something.
Making that kind of money in a single year from writing is beyond-words-awesome. And I somehow did that when I only had a couple of books published. In something I can only describe as magic, the books went viral, the fire burned hot, and I made great money. (It was mostly from that Marine Sniper book, called “Sold Out,” which you should totally go check out.)
But with just two books at the time, I lacked the inventory to keep the momentum going. So the throngs of readers moved on to pastures with more sustenance.
It was then that I learned another painful truth to this crazy dream: it can all end tomorrow, even if you’re insanely lucky enough to achieve it.
A drought can arrive. And that drought may last for years. The throngs may not return.
One day you’re playing for the New York Yankees, dreaming of winning a Golden Glove and becoming Hall of Fame material. The next, you’re playing for the Akron RubberDucks.
I still don't know what happened. All I know is one day I was on top of the world and the next day I wasn’t. The sales slowed, the fear rose, and I had to find a day job again to pay the bills.
On paper, my dreams became “a hobby.”
In reality, they remain to this day a life-or-death pursuit.
I’ve continued almost every day since 2013, believing the sales (and throngs) will return. You don’t quit when you’re hungry. Nor when you’re crazy.
I’ve worked so hard the past decade on my writing skills. This isn’t some side pursuit for me. I still want to be the best.
And I’m so much better now than I was then. Heck, how many authors do you know who’ve written eleven books?
Believe me, when you cross the threshold of ten books, you start talking about pretty big names in the business. And there’s even a big list of HUGE authors who don’t even write five books. (Margaret Mitchell, of Gone With the Wind fame? She wrote one book.) (J.D. Salinger, who wrote The Catcher In the Rye? One book.)
Hell, maybe I should’ve stopped at one, as well? hahaha. Okay, kidding.
Man, maybe I really am crazy?) (And I can’t even put all of this on on the Marine Corps. The details of my military career.)
This started at eight or nine, remember? (And I wish I could nail down that age, but my Mom and I can’t figure it out. It was either fourth or fifth grade, and I started school early, so there you go.)
Every writer needs a schtick.
Some writers craft lines that are exquisite and supple. You read them because they seduce and lure you forward, page-by-page.
Some writers blast you with a foghorn. Or put a dozen twists in a book.
The only schtick I have is brevity. (Notice this one-sentence paragraph?)
A couple of my books barely top a hundred pages. But they work. At least according to the reviews. (Hell, my non-partisan character study/biography about Obama is like 50 pages, when you remove the fluff at beginning and end.)
I learned brevity in journalism school. And in ten years of newspaper writing after graduation. You only had a small amount of space in the newspaper, and you damn well better make good use of it.
And that brings me to my second skill. I hate boring books. Can I say that again? I HATE boring books. Even those with exquisite and supple writing.
That kind of writing can work for a page or two, but something needs to happen. Blood needs to flow. Relationships need to start. Or relationships need to end.
So my second skill is speed, which meshes nicely with brevity, by the way.
This is the 21st Century. We live in a world of tweets and TikToks. You can’t be screwing around and padding your books with fluff.
I firmly believe this is the formula. And it’s one I try to follow. I also firmly believe that my books are going to make me boatloads of money again someday.
Of course, I’ve also admitted to being crazy, so there’s that.
But part of me just knows that tremendous success is going to happen.
Call it confidence. Call it madness. It’s probably a bit of both.
Writers are crazy, and I’m crazier than most.
Stan R. Mitchell
P.S. Don’t forget to check out my books. I’ve written a CIA/Marine sniper series, a detective series, a private investigator series, an action-packed Western, a leadership/biography book, and two realistic war novels: one about World War II and one about Afghanistan.
About me: I am a proud vet and moderate, who wants to see this country pull together again. I’m also a proud independent author, who used to own a small weekly newspaper for nine years that was probably (in hindsight) too generous on pricing to my advertisers and too lenient on my collection terms (I’m honestly just almost too nice; but most of my advertisers were struggling business owners themselves). I also sought to downplay controversy, understate headlines, and never create panic, all of which is a terrible way to sell newspapers (but a responsible way for a media outlet to act). Looking back, it’s clear I have a big heart and that I wasn’t made to be some kind of cut-throat business executive. It’s this same streak in me that prevents me from signing any book deals, even big ones. I just don’t trust ruthless business executives at the big publishers. And even if I did, that very same company that I trusted could be bought and purchased overnight. Sorry, but I’ll pass on that. The truth is that while I’ve relented and signed some distribution deals, such as the one I did with Audible for my Nick Woods series, I’m just not willing to be owned by any of the big publishing houses. If I want to speak out on China? I will. (And I have.) If I want to send free books to military members? I will. (And I have.) My success to this point has been made by doing it the right way: gaining one new reader or one new subscriber at a time. So join me on my journey.
If you’d like to support me, you can subscribe to my newsletter for $5 per month (it comes out twice a week) or check out my books at this link: http://amzn.to/3p6lAnQ. I’m confident you’ll enjoy them.
More about Stan R. Mitchell:
— 10+ plus years in print journalism, 20+ years of creative writing.
“Mitchell’s writing style is sharp, snappy, cinematic, and impacts with the trauma of a hollowpoint to the head.” — Author Mark Allen
Mitchell tackles his writing with skill that will blow you away. He’s sold 70,000-plus copies and had thousands of reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Plus, all of his books average 4+ stars on Amazon.