I was asked to participate in a Q&A by Ian Levy at Hickory High this week. Our conversation is below. We talked a bit about the process behind putting my book together, but also about the dangers and traps of personal writing, ego versus self-confidence as a writer and how your online personality can be easily misunderstood. Hope you enjoy the conversation.
Ian: So, Alex. We have you here to talk about the wonderful book you just published (copies of which are still available). Can you till us a little about the impetus for the project and how you got started?
Alex: Hey, yo. Yeah, back in late 2012, after I was writing online for a little bit and started connecting with this group of really talented illustrators, I decided to pursue the idea of self-publishing a book that would collect my writing in a series of articles, accompanied by original art.
For anyone who’s read the book, I’m sure you can tell by the introduction that part of me doing this was just to, well, to say that I did it. As I’m approaching the end of my 20s, I feel this internal clock ticking faster and faster in terms of things I want to do and accomplish, and at the same time, I had this fatigue of hearing people talking about wanting to do things and then always having an excuse to not do it. I was becoming one of those people and this was kind of a first step to correcting that and making things right with myself.
This sort of angst and desire to get things done has manifested itself in various forms, like the time I got home from work and just decided to go for a two hour run from downtown Toronto to midtown, or the fact that I decided to publish this project even though it was (and still isn’t) anything that was a net positive to me financially, and, speaking of things that are not net positive on a financial standpoint, my move to NYC in April, leaving a career behind and going to a new city and country because that clock is ticking.
So, since I’ve veered completely off-topic, what I meant to say is that the project was in a sense something that I did for myself, but also really glad to share with the online community with people such as yourself who’ve been very supportive. It’s been great.
Ian: That kind of candor and drive are both really inspiring. I know a lot of us bloggists straddle an ever-shifting line between reality and fantasy. We mostly hold day jobs to pay the bills but everyone has fantasies about our writing becoming a bigger part of who we are and not just something we peck out on our lunch breaks. It’s really fantastic to see you charging through a brick wall to move things forward for yourself.
Can you tell us a little bit about the process of assembling the book? Conceptually? Technically? Organizationally?
Alex: Yeah, I totally hear you in terms of straddling that balance. I mean, the entire time I’ve been doing this writing thing, I’ve held a 9-to-5 job and to simply find the time to write, to pitch, to keep a regular schedule with recording a podcast, editing it and then to manage the book thing, it’s all very time consuming. But it never felt as overwhelming as it sounds as I’m writing it out, I think you, and anyone who’s got a passion for writing and for getting our voices out there can relate when I say you can always find time for something you care about.
The very technical process of how the book was assembled: I gathered a list of topics that I wanted to cover, some of the pieces were already published, others were going to be new pieces. From there, I would get to working on writing the pieces, or tweaking the already-written pieces. Then I would contact the artists and let them know that this was the topic I was working on, and if they would be interested in delivering the art. It was a very easy process for the artists as I pretty much gave them very loose guidance because I trusted that they would deliver something that would fit the tone of the book I was striving for. So, instructions would be as simple as: “I’m writing something about Dennis Rodman’s time on the Mavericks”, and that was it.
This process of completing the writing and getting the illustrations probably took about six months. From there, I was blessed to have Mark Malazarte come on board as the art director. By art directing, it meant that he was responsible for taking the art and writing and laying the individual articles to make them all unique. There’s a lot of creative back and forth, and I was very specific (too specific at times) about how I wanted things to look. There was a lot of time spent scouring the Internet for layout inspirations. I’ve always been a fan of design but at a very basic level, so publications like Monocle orthe quarterly books that Grantland puts out were a huge influence.
The layout process probably took three to four months, because each article becomes its own individual project. And then there’s little things like the masthead, the table of contents and things like that. So you think one month is a realistic goal, but then you realize the scope for this type of project, even though it’s only 64 pages, demands more time.
Around this time, I got married in Hawaii so that took about a month or so away from the project. When I came back, we got down to the process of final proof reads and last minute tweaks to the layouts. And then I coordinated with a print company I found in Toronto to get the printing process underway.
At the very inception of the project, I actually asked Cian O’Day, creator of Norman Einstein’s, to steer the project from an editorial standpoint. For anyone who’s read the book, one of the first pieces I wrote was about my immigration from Hong Kong to Canada and how I really found my social standing in this new country through playing high school basketball (I’ve posted the piece in its entirety on my blog here). I sent this piece to Cian and he gave me some great constructive criticism and feedback, and the plan was really for the book to be very personal.
But Cian was busy with a lot of other things in his life, so the timing didn’t work out for him to take huge chunks of his time to help me on this, so I plowed ahead and had a few people assist in terms of editorial and general feedback.
I eventually dialed back the really personal approach that I was going for, because, honestly, there just wasn’t very many interesting stories I had to tell once I got done with the high school basketball piece. Plus, anytime you write about yourself, it feels very self indulging. I think it’s good to be personal in your writing, but it’s a fine line between letting the audience into your own private little world versus becoming just a very “me, me, me, look at me” type of person.
So, really, the project became more of an anthology, a collection of writing and art. So conceptually, the focus is probably much looser than the very original vision of it. I do think there are very personal pieces in there (high school basketball, Jeremy Lin, the Vince Carter piece) but overall I wanted it to really showcase particular athletes and stories that I felt were either lesser known or important to the grander scheme of being a fan of sports.
Ian: Living with the project and those pieces of writing for so long, were there things that changed significantly over time? Were there any pieces that you ended up feeling like you spent too much time with? Anything you really liked that ended up getting cut for some reason?
Alex: The one piece that I both a) spent too much time with and b) changed significantly over time was definitely the Jeremy Lin piece, which really was an attempt to use something sports-related like the Linsanity experience to talk about the personal sensitivities (as an Asian in North America) that came out as a result to the public’s reaction to Lin’s ascendence in New York.
I probably re-wrote that piece 7 or 8 times throughout the year, and it was still being re-written–I’m talking like completely scrapping the piece and re-writing it every time–right up to the deadline to submit the final version for printing.
I think I struggled with it because it never felt like the most original idea to tackle the idea of race and racism as it related to Lin, personally it felt like a tired subject and it took me awhile to really just embrace writing about it from my perspective instead of trying to reach for some sort of grander takeaway for the general public. At some point, I was less concerned with the macro of the piece and more just wanted to really share my own experiences on paper.
I think a lot of personal writing challenges you to be honest with yourself, and on the most basic level, it’s just hard to express yourself sometimes. It’s easy in a casual conversation with friends, or when you’re feeling angry. But to sit down and try and craft something for an audience to read, on a topic as complicated as race and racism, it’s hard. Talking about your own insecurities in a way that doesn’t sound like whining is hard. I don’t know if I entirely found the right balance, but it got to a place where I was satisfied enough to publish it.
Strangely, the other piece that took awhile to write was the introduction. I always left that to write for last because it always felt weird to introduce something before it was done. The earlier drafts of the introduction was very bitter, just a rant about how much I hate my job, and just a lot of general complaints that no one wants to hear. I would say this introduction still skews a bit towards the preachy side, but I really do hope that a project like this, as small as it is in the grand scheme of things, can push people to pursue some of their own interests. You just have to plow through man. You just have to. I hate people who so easily assume they’ve run into a dead-end when they’re doing things.
As an aside, I’ve read these pieces so many times (especially the longer ones) that I can’t even flip through the book at this point. I’m more than ready to move onto volume 2 and other things.
There weren’t a lot of pieces that I left out. I had a Jordan piece about his Hall of Fame speech in there that didn’t end up making the cut because I wasn’t happy with the way it was written, it just felt like it would bug me if I left it in there for the final version and I didn’t want that feeling. Otherwise, there wasn’t anything else.
Ian: I thought the Jeremy Lin piece was fantastic. I can totally relate to the feeling of seeing something that you feel like has been covered 95 percent, but that 5 percent that is being ignored is intensely personal and really matters to you. Then there is the struggle of figuring out how to make the 5 percent matter enough to other people that it is worthwhile as an article and not just a journal entry. Generally, my strategy for anything personal is to jump headfirst into the well of self-deprecation.
One of the sections in the book I really enjoyed was the three little vignettes on Dennis Rodman. For those of you who haven’t read the book they are short companion pieces, just a few paragraphs, on his time with the Spurs, Bulls and Mavericks. I loved how much of his narrative cycle with each team you were able to capture in such a short space. I’m curious about how challenging it was to pare those stories down to such a fine point, especially for a player like Rodman whose story is so rich with ludicrous details.
Alex: Yeah, it’s very interesting to hear the feedback from people. I can totally see people not really seeing the point of the piece, or feel it is too whiny. That might just come from a place where I both really believe in my writing and get really self critical, I’m sure I’m not the only one like that. It’s also weird to think that if I sat down to write that piece with the same mindset and purpose today, tomorrow and in a week, all of the pieces would be different. It’s like sometimes a topic becomes this moving target that’s never the same twice. I’m not sure what that all means. I thought about it a lot when I wrote the book at various times. The conclusion was often that the content or the pieces just weren’t tight enough. But I really don’t know. The whole thing was a brand new experience for me.
I think we all have this well of self-deprecation. It’s funny, I mean this isn’t even about the book anymore but just about online personalities and how we approach things. I think a lot of us writers tend to veer towards having a self-deprecating attitude, but all of us have to be pretty egotistic (or at the very least, very self confident) to think that our voices even matter. Which again is interesting because a lot of personal writing that I get into does end up getting very negative, sometimes I have to remind myself to get out of that rut or that line of thinking.
Re: the Rodman pieces, they were originally written as these really short anecdotes to kind of break up the rhythm of the book because I know that most readers, even those who love longform, sometimes just want a snack-size piece they can consume.
I was less concerned with whether the shortened word count captured Rodman’s whole story, but more that once those pieces were done and in the bag, he started causing all this news in North Korea and it would be a real black eye for this project to have him featured so prominently. Again, how egotistical is that!
A question I have for you: was there something you would have liked me to write more about, whether it was a specific piece you wish was longer, or maybe more personal topics (and if so, what they were), or another athlete that you would have loved to get my thoughts on?
Ian: I find the ego issue really interesting. I know that I have almost no ego about my writing. I’m incredibly self-conscious about everything I write and always carry this sinking feeling that at some point, despite all I’ve accomplished all be “found out” as a terrible writer and banished from the blogosphere. But I think there are also some bloggers (or writers, or whatever you want to call them) for whom ego is entirely a put on. There are some who have a strong sense of branding and who have consciously tied an air of egotism into their public persona. Everyone likes arguing and it’s much more satisfying to argue with a pompous jerk. In some arenas ego is a career move.
As far as topics I wished you had tackled, I can’t think of any specific athletes. It’s weird to say (and makes me sound a little like the pompous jerks I referenced above) but topic is often less important to me than craft and thought. I don’t care a whit about football or tennis. But I love reading Chuck Klosterman on college football or Brian Phillips on tennis and the NFL. Their writing and thinking is so strong and so engaging that they can take a topic I’m completely disinterested in and pull me through an entire long-form article. Ironically, I have the same thing with the BS Reports podcasts where Simmons and Cousin Sal guess the NFL lines. It drives my wife crazy that I listen to those when I don’t watch or follow football at all but I just have so much fun listening to them bullshit with each other that it doesn’t matter.
So I guess in a roundabout ass-kissy way, I’m saying I enjoyed your writing and thinking so much that the topics were of secondary importance. I would never seek out an article on Arthur Ashe or a stranger’s experiences playing high school basketball, but I immensely enjoyed your writings on both.
You’ve referenced a Steven Lebron, vol. 2 a few different times. Is that a project you’ve begun working on yet? What have you learned from this project that might change the next edition?
Alex: Yeah, the ego thing is interesting, it’s like a weird balance, like you should write because you want people to come away from reading your writing either having learned something or be introduced to something new, or just pique their curiosity so they go on their own rabbit hole to find more information about the topic. At least that’s the general approach for me. I do think the whole branding thing is pervasive, sometimes conscious, sometimes not. I think with a vehicle like Twitter, I’m using it to get my thoughts out there and a lot of them are just really pointless thoughts, or things I would never share in real life. I think sometimes things get misconstrued a lot on Twitter, or there’s a mixed messaging because everything’s so tongue-in-cheek, people may see you a certain way because they don’t see the sarcasm in it. I don’t know, I’m just self analyzing. It’s just hard once you become personal with your writing online for people to really fully understand you as a person. They’ll get bits and pieces, but are the conclusions they’re making from those bits and pieces really a fully formed version of who you are? Most times probably not.
I appreciate the kind words. It’s interesting to just tell stories. I think if I ever get to a place where I can choose, and I have the access, I would love to do profiles, and just tell stories. That’s the part that most interests me about writing. We know so many people on the surface, but what about the layers that never get peeled back. This is just me daydreaming but that’s really the beauty of writing, man.
Yah, volume 2’s been in my head for the last couple months now, and I have started the preliminary process of contacting artists, and bouncing ideas off them. It’s strange like right now all the ideas I have are not really sports driven. I have a piece about George Carlin’s “Baseball and Football” sketch, I’m thinking about writing this really elaborate fictional oral history about the basketball game between Prop Joe and Avon’s crew in season one of The Wire. I want to make the writing better, and take it in different directions. I hope I’ve learned from the process of putting together the first volume so the second one is better. But it’s in the early stages, but I definitely don’t want to sit on it. I got to keep going.