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Duration:03:43
Uploaded:2019-01-15
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In which John discusses burning resentment, fires that burn with more light than heat, and how he wrote his first novel Looking for Alaska.

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Good morning, Hank, it's Tuesday.  I really liked your video on Friday about burn-out and motivation and the various fuels we use to keep our engines running, and it made me think about how beginning just after my 24th birthday, I spent most of my nights and weekends working on the novel that would eventually become Looking for Alaska.  I worked all day for Booklist and then after work would usually read the books I'd been assigned to review for a couple hours and then I would write until 11 or midnight every night, and this was possible because I was burning in the smithy of my soul an extremely efficient but dirty fuel called "resentment".

Like, despite the fact that I'd benefited from all manner of privileges and good fortunes, I'd somehow managed to imagine myself as a plucky underdog who'd been the victim of grave injustices.  These injustices included being dumped by a girl I loved, not being as handsome as I wished to be, and not having had any breaks in my nascent publishing career.  

Now, in actuality, I'd had many breaks like I happened to have an editor at Booklist in Ilene Cooper who mentored me through the writing process.  Also, I had a job at Booklist that paid me, albeit modestly, to read books and write about them, but whatever, you can have 70-million YouTube subscribers and still imagine yourself as a plucky underdog.  The human capacity for self-pity is truly endless, and for good reason, because no matter how fortunate we are, our condition is kind of pitiable.  Even the most powerful humans are fragile and mortal creatures in a very large universe that is indifferent to their needs but I digress.

Right, so I was 24 and I was able to work more or less constantly fueled by this overarching resentment and here's the thing: it worked.  Like, I got a lot done and some of it was good, or at the very least, impressive, which is what I really wanted, of course.  I wanted to impress people.  I wanted to show them how clever I could be about narrative structure, about the distance between the story and the truth, about precipitation metaphors, et cetera, and for me, that's the problem with resentment as fuel.  It makes your work entirely about you.  Like, the story I was writing had no guts.  It's griefs grieved on no universal bones, to borrow a Faulkner phrase.  The narrator in that story could look hard at everyone except for himself, and the story felt distant and cold, as if it was being recounted when it needed to feel like it was being revealed. 

To steal a line from Shakespere, "Resentment is a fire that burns with more light than heat."  I haven't read Looking for Alaska in almost 15 years, and to be honest, I don't remember that much about it, but from what I can gather, almost none of what people like about that story was in those drafts that were fueled by the effective but toxic fire of resentment.  I think I needed to write all that stuff to understand what was wrong with Miles' way of looking at other people and also what was wrong with my way, but to finish the book, Miles needed to grow up and so did I.  

I had to find a fuel that burned warmer, if less bright, and that took years, but eventually, Looking for Alaska did become something I worked on as a gift for other people rather than as like, a document of my attempted cleverness.  That said, I still find myself returning to resentment as fuel and having to learn again and again that while it can make me productive, it doesn't produce much I'm proud of.  

Three last things: first, Rosianna and I are hiring someone in Indianapolis to help us make the things that we make.  If you're uncommonly organized and really good at calling strangers, which is to say, nothing like me, then please check out the link in the doobly-doo.  Two: speaking of things Rosianna and I are making, if you're part of the Life's Library book club, our Q&A with author Jacquelyn Woodson will be January 31st at noon, Eastern time, more info below, and lastly, if you are in need of some excellent Valentines, Nerdfighter Sharon has you covered.  You can get these at DFTBA.com.  

Hank, thanks again for your video.  I will see you on Friday.