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Story is the most important thing in the world.
I didn't want to launch a website again. In the end, I felt I had to.
Yesterday, a TV show based on my books premiered on Hulu. On Monday, an email will go out that includes the first mention I’ve made publicly of this website. With the first-day anticipation of what might come from Hulu behind me (so far, nothing) and no reason yet for anyone to stumble upon what I’ve made here, my world feels strangely quiet. It’s so quiet, even the silence has echoes.
I’ve spent the last week building this site, pretty much nonstop. It’s taken a lot of work. A lot of time. A lot of conceptualizing, a lot of false-starts, a lot of tech issues … a whole lot of trial and error. It’s eerie, to have built something both large and unseen: a monolith that, even for fans, is hiding in plain sight.
And so here I am in the in-between: that liminal space that spans from creation to actualization, much like the gap between finishing a book and the first person reading it. Until then, what I’ve made is only potential. It’s a quantum wave function, neither one thing nor another — Schrödinger’s Website, if you will.
That’s okay, though.
Because with the setup done but the concert hall still empty, I’ve got lots of time to wonder why the hell I’ve done this.
Because man, I worked so hard not to be here.
Everything that’s on this site, I’ve done before.
I started blogging when “blogging” still felt relevant. For me, it was a saving grace. In 1999, I was at Case Western Reserve University earning a PhD in molecular genetics. When that work started giving me panic attacks, I quit (just shy of my wedding by the way, so I could impress my future in-laws) and began 1) working minimum-wage jobs and 2) freaking right the fuck out about how my new wife and I were going to pay the bills. A several-year stint writing boring copy followed, and by the end of that stint I was grasping at blogging with both hands, hoping maybe it had the power to save me.
At the time, it sort of did — not because it paid well (it didn’t) but because it gave me hope. I’d burned my all-in science career like a bridge behind me and had no clue what to do with my future. The thing I enjoyed most — the thing I was best at — was writing, and blogging was a hot online writing trend that could be monetized. It felt like something I could build into a better tomorrow.
And so I launched my blog. It took a while to find my groove. At first, I wrote humor. Then, I wrote about entrepreneurship. In the end I landed on a curious mix of philosophy, psychology, and self-help, all of which was delivered with trademark tough love like a punch to the face.
I was always a troublemaker. Always making waves. I had a chip on my shoulder and used it like a weapon. I couldn’t help it. The world and modern society were so incredibly fucked up, and yet everyone seemed to accept it as normal. It was like the emperor’s new clothes. Like the way someone created a backyard game, named it “Cornhole,” and everyone pretended not to know that “cornhole” is a noun meaning anus, or a verb meaning butt sex.
If we could all be gaslit on the rectal meaning of cornhole, what other ridiculous things were we failing to see?
My most popular blog post during the instigator phase was “The Universe Doesn’t Give a Flying Fuck About You” — a classic I dusted off and republished here just the other day. It’s about how nobody cares what you do, so you might as well do what you love.
I also wrote about how rules are arbitrary and serve the majority … so sometimes it makes sense to disobey and make your own rules.
I wrote about how taking risks makes life worth living.
I wrote about how what we do in life can make us immortal.
I was a very specific type of angry back then. I’d almost call it “benevolent anger.” The world infuriated me, but I didn’t hate it. I wanted to help it. I wasn’t really a misanthrope. I was frustrated. The system was bullshit, and I wanted to tell everyone I could reach — everyone who read my essays and found themselves agreeing — that if they’d just pull off society’s blinders, they’d realize there was another way.
I was basically Rowdy Roddy Piper in the movie They Live. Remember him?
If you haven’t seen They Live, I suppose we can still be friends, but you’re really going to need to see it as soon as possible.
I wanted to change the world. Then I got tired.
I had no idea this post was going to go into They Live territory, but it’s pretty rad that it did so let’s stick with it.
My so-called “epic blog posts” were making a difference (I had a lot of fervent readers), but it was a small and methodical one. I was like Rowdy Roddy Piper going around distributing those magic sunglasses that let people see the aliens, but doing it one person at a time. What I needed was to blow up the radio dish that revealed all the aliens all at once, but I couldn’t because I didn’t have John Carpenter directing me or Keith David helping me out. So what could I do? I just kept punching. And punching. And punching. And at the end, I was like this:
I ended up just as beaten-down and exhausted as Roddy and Keith are by the end of their big fight scene. The work-to-results ratio of writing epic blog posts was just too steep. Writing them took forever, and even then I didn’t always land my punches. The Universe post went mega-viral in 2011, but most posts didn’t. What’s more, I still needed to pay my mortgage. I couldn’t earn a living on small-scale attention.
Eventually I ran out of steam. Feeding the blogging beast was just too hard for the resulting impact. I still get emails from people today who tell me they read one of those old posts and it got them through a rough time, or inspired them, or something else wonderful, and that’s always great. But personally, I had to move on.
I met Sean Platt while my enthusiasm for the blog was flagging. Sean was already doing my dream job: writing fiction for a living. I glommed on to him and Dave immediately. I was ready to write fiction, too.
The blog quietly died, and I was okay with it. I’d paid my dues. I’d done enough blogging and definitely didn’t want to do any more. I’d seen bullshit in the way we live our lives and tried to They Live the situation, but the best I could do was a drop in the bucket. It was fine. I’d tried.
As my blogging venture failed, I turned away. I decided I might as well fail at doing what I loved instead. And so I leapt with both feet into writing fiction and left the blogosphere behind.
I was sick of it by then. Good riddance.
And now … sigh … here I am blogging again.
Why would I do this to myself after I got so tired of it the first time?
I realized I needed to answer that question after the work was done and I began staring launch day in the face.
I knew what had driven me to begin this new journey, but not why the end result had taken the form it had. I’d arrived at this place almost subconsciously, driven by the momentum of taking one step, then another step, then another. When I finally realized what I’d built, that’s when I realized I had no idea why. That’s when I started asking the bigger question.
I mean, I could have done anything if my goal was just to put myself out there again and break my self-imposed isolation. I won’t bore you with the details, but I’ve ended up with the world’s best job. I basically just write whatever I want on whatever timeframe I want. I’ve fought through some really rough times to get to that stage, so why, when I wanted something new, had I chosen to turn backward to the good old days?
Well, for one, I don’t actually think it’s backward. Not in the ways that matter. Because do you know the one thing Rowdy Roddy Piper doesn’t stop doing even when They Live is over?
He doesn’t stop being Rowdy Roddy Piper. That’s for damn sure.
Not that I knew that’s what I was doing. The angry, the-world-is-dumb-and-I-wish-I-could-make-it-less-dumb blogger I’d been had gone dormant, but he was still inside me, doing sleeper holds and inverted atomic drops every time I saw something stupid.
Which I’d swear was happening more and more, by the way.
Even though the world was stupid in 2012, the next decade made it even stupider. Not only do we still have all the same problems we had back in the day, but now everyone’s stopped trying to fix them and instead turned their attention to blaming everyone else. Because that’s mature and productive — not like little kids slap-fighting in a sandbox or anything.
I guess it pissed me off. I guess Rowdy Roddy never left me — always warming up his elbow for the next chance he saw to drop it.
Meanwhile, I kept thinking I was just an author. But even as an author, there was one old-school thing I never stopped, and that was sending emails to my mailing list.
So … you wrote emails to your list about new book releases? you ask.
That would have made sense, I reply.
Because yes, I did tell my list when I published new books, but new releases only happened so often. Let’s pretend I released four books over the course of a year. Let’s further pretend, generously, that all of those releases merited two emails: a launch announcement and a reminder. That’s eight emails. I wrote every other week, for a total of 26 emails per year. Do the math and I’m talking to my fans 18 times, on average, when I’ve got nothing book-related to say.
Turns out, I didn’t stop writing manifestos after all. I never actually stopped blogging in the same frustrated, you-don’t-have-to-buy-into-the-world’s-bullshit way I used to. The only difference was, it wasn’t happening on a blog anymore. I was writing directly to the inbox this time.
Weirdly, my best fans seemed to enjoy my question-all-the-rules emails even though they’d come to me for novels. I didn’t understand why that would be — why I got away with what I was doing, given how weird it is to send manifestos as an author — so at one point I asked them.
The answer I received was twofold.
First, people replied to say they stuck with me because I seemed to genuinely care about and want to connect with my fans, which is true. (The biggest evidence of this was that I actually replied when they sent me emails. That’s just sad. Is the bar really that low? Is just replying like a human being all it takes to set an author apart these days?)
The second reason readers said they liked hearing my rants, though, was especially revealing. They said that instead of just spinning yarns, my manifestos suggested I actually stood for something.
And that, too, was true. A lot of writers don’t particularly care about more than being entertaining — and, of course, earning money. I’ve never been that way. All of my books are personal, and I would make the time to write them even if I couldn’t do it for a living. All of my books mean something to me. I’m one of those dickhead arteests who has a problem when his vision is compromised.
Because, yeah, I do stand for something. Because, yeah, I really do have something to say.
Artists secretly rule the world … and the good ones are subversive as fuck about it.
Let’s get something out of the way. When I make a statement like “I have something to say” or “I stand for something,” that doesn’t mean I’m pushing an agenda. I’m not. Not consciously, anyway. I know authors who are pushing agendas and are doing it consciously, and their books are the absolute worst. They put theme before story, and it turns the characters into mouthpieces for the author instead of real people. The whole thing comes off as phony … and, in my opinion, pretentious as hell.
But still, I do have opinions. I do have a way of seeing the world … and if you read my books, you’ll see my perspective plain as day. I’m not trying to brainwash anyone into thinking like I think, but plain old persuading? Plain old changing-of-the-mind? That happens. No question about it.
You see, story is a Trojan horse. So is humor, by the way. Both are entertaining vehicles that lower people’s guards. I’ll never forget the time a group came to speak at my high school, opening their presentation with a bunch of stories and comedy that was genuinely funny. After they got that room full of teenagers laughing, though, they turned their stories to dark topics like suicide. Suddenly, there was a lesson to be learned and a perspective to be shared. Everyone left crying.
Try to make an impact on teens by going right at them with “the suicide talk” — I dare you. It can’t be done. But with story? With humor? The walls were already down by the time our presenters dropped the hammer. Nobody in that gymnasium could resist. We didn’t stand a chance.
I realize now that the direct approach’s failure was the main reason blogging got so frustrating. I was trying to look people in the eye and tell them that if they didn't like the way things were going, they could change — but telling meant hitting them with a frontal assault. I was attacking the high wall instead of loading my thoughts inside the Trojan horse of story. Striking where defenses were lower would have been a lot more effective.
Force doesn’t work, people. Force never solves anything. Every school kid knows the first rule of physics: All actions are met with an equal and opposite reaction. That means the best way to get the biggest resistance from someone is to attack them with all you’ve got.
Fortunately, there’s a better way. Remember the body shields in Dune? The shield deflects the fast, hard blow … but the slow blade slides right through.
That’s what story is: it’s the slow blade.
Change is not made by legislation.
Change is not made by protests and demonstration.
Those things can help, and they can enforce change, but they are also the quick blade: the forceful frontal assault. Nobody likes to be told what to do. Nobody likes to be told that they way they believe or feel or act is wrong. Nobody likes to be made to feel like they’re dumb, or bad, or even misguided, and that’s exactly what the quick blade does.
Story, on the other hand, doesn’t tell people things. Instead, it shows them.
Story can make any character relatable because it shows the reader why they are how they are, and why they think the way they think. Because here’s a newsflash from the real world: Nobody thinks of themselves as the bad guy. All those people you feel are evil in the world? With the exception of a few who are genuinely ill, all of them think they’re the hero. From their perspective, they’re ordinary people doing the best they can with what they have.
Think about that for a second. To them, you’re the bad guy.
If you’d lived your enemy’s life, chances are you’d feel the way they feel. You’d be the way they are. You’d do the things they do — the very same things that, right now, are making you so angry.
That’s why stories can heal discord. That’s why it can reach the roots of our problems instead of showing only the headlines, the way arguing and blaming does.
We’re all the same, you and me and the guy down the street.
Story is the most powerful thing in the world because it shows us exactly that.
Story is a benevolent disruptor.
The defensive among you might be thinking “brainwashing and propaganda,” but that’s not what I’m saying at all. Yes, story can show you the other side of any given coin, but it can’t make you believe it. My job — and that of my fellow storytellers — is simply to open new perspectives, not to persuade people into them.
We want readers to consider what we’re giving them. That’s all. And often — when the goal is healing division — that’s enough.
Good story is, at base, a form of art … and art is subversive because everyone pays attention to it.
If you don’t think you pay attention to art, I’ll just ask: Do you watch TV? Do you go to movies? Do you read books? Do you listen to music? Have you ever seen anyone dance, even if it was in the street? Art is everywhere, my friend, and although there are a lot of mercenaries behind the TV we watch, there are also a lot of artists.
Those artists are constantly showing people perspectives they may not have considered before, and the audience doesn’t even notice because they’re being entertained. But what are they being entertained with? With art, of course. With a story, of course. And if someone gets off the couch at the end of a long, hard day after watching Netflix having gained one tiny insight? Well, if that happens, the story has opened one mind a little farther. If that happens, the art has done its job.
Personally, I don’t think about lessons and themes and opening minds consciously when I write. I just tell the narrative. But because I’m me, the themes I used to write about as a blogger (the things that bother me, that yearn to be expressed as I make my art) can’t help but come out.
Here are a few perspectives I tend to offer over and over again in my books. You’ll see the way I think about them if you pay attention, whether or not you end up agreeing:
Life is absurd. We take everything so seriously, but most of what we do is ridiculous if you stop and think about it. Why does “being fancy” mean putting a strip of colorful cloth around your neck like a noose? Why are certain combinations of letters and sounds “bad words” while others are good? Why is spending a lot of money on the box of metal and plastic you use to get around seen as prestigious somehow?
There’s always, always another option. I love putting characters in impossible situations and seeing how they work themselves out of it. Like in real life, there’s always a possibility you haven’t considered before.
There’s no single objective reality. It’s hard to really explain this one in a bullet point, but the short version is this: Most of what we call “reality” isn’t the objects and actions around us, but instead the meaning we attach to those things. Because we all have different meanings — and because we usually accept those meanings as universal even though they aren’t — we live in different versions of the world. That’s not just semantics. Those differences in “reality” affect behavior, and provoke arguments over “what’s true” when in fact both sides see “truth” differently … and are therefore both correct by their own definitions.
What you believe is real to you. This is related to the former point. It means that if someone you’d call mentally ill believes he has bugs under his skin, then “bugs under the skin” is real from his perspective. Why would expect him to use your definition of “real,” as in “those bugs aren't real”? From his perspective — which is the only perspective through which he can see the world — they absolutely are. There is no “real.” There’s only “real to a given person” or “real from a certain perspective.”
We’re living in a simulation, but not in the Matrixy way Elon Musk talks about it. If the above two points were hard to explain in bullets, this one is impossible. Just watch this video if you’re curious what I mean.
It’s cool to be weird. I’m sick of the mainstream. Circumstance and biology might have made me a middle-aged straight cisgender white man living in America, but I’m far from mainstream in most other ways. I look at the way people expect me to behave, then often decide it’s ridiculous and behave how I want instead. I think that very few interesting things come from the status quo. That means that all the great art, innovation, and thinking comes from the fringe — from the folks everyone else calls weird.
Nobody can be defined by a single label. Nobody is “the hometown hero” or “the hooker with a heart of gold.” Nobody’s “the good guy” or “the bad guy.” Everyone is complex, and even the hatable folks are simply doing the best they can with what they’ve got, just like you and me.
Everything tends to turn out the way it’s supposed to. This is a slippery new-age idea that I don’t expect most of my readers to agree with me about, but that’s okay because every perspective is valid (see a few points above). That means we can believe different things and still be friends.
Everything is arbitrary. This one’s a mindjob if you start to think about it. The things we take as concrete in our society are usually just the way things have always been done. There’s nothing inevitable about “that’s just the way things are.”
Everyone’s the same, deep down. In my books, this extends even cross species … or beyond species. Humans and sentient robots are the same deep down. Humans and aliens are the same deep down. Even humans and zombies end up moving toward same instead of different. That’s something you’ll see at the close of most of my longer series: Evolution is about consensus, not division.
We’re over-informed. It’s giving us a false view of the world, and not doing us any favors. As I close this list down and lead into the hammer punch of the final point below, I’ll mention that I stopped watching the news something like twenty years ago. I am blissfully and proudly ignorant of most of the shit people are so worried about all the time. “Being informed” in the modern world actually means “being told every bad thing that happens but almost none of the good things that happen, then being told just how scared and worried we should be.” Fuck that. We hear about the 2% of events that make our world dangerous and terrible … never the 98% that proves it’s beautiful and safe.
The purpose of life is to be happy and have fun. I put this one last because it’s practically my mission statement. Other ways to say it would be “stop worrying so much” and “stop taking everything so damn seriously.” The arguments in this post might make you think I’m a total malcontent and misanthrope who’s dedicated in every moment to fighting against the system, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. YES, I tend to articulate the world’s dumbness, and YES, my stories shine spotlights on it. But in life, I’m chill. I’m practically Zen. I meditate and I don’t let the wider world bug me to whatever extent I can. We’re here to have fun, not to struggle and worry. Worry is a pointless emotion. Relax and enjoy your time here, dammit.
My readers don’t have to agree with any of those things, though. My stories simply present them like hors d’ oeuvres at a party: delicious little perspectives they may never have seen before.
Turns out I never stopped telling the world what I thought about it. Fiction just became a much better vehicle for my worldview than blog posts ever were.
Storytellers open new doors made of possibility. Nobody’s forced to go through them … but some see what’s there, and walk through by choice.
And that, my friends, is how the world is changed.
What the hell. That’s was a long-ass way to explain why you launched this site, Johnny. And come to think of it, you still haven’t really explained it. What an asshole.
Oh, so now my subheads are mocking me instead of being my voice? Cool. Someone told me everything is arbitrary and there’s no objective reality anyway, so that makes sense.
Look. Here’s the thing. I listened to instinct when I was putting this site together. Instinct was what gathered my old, incendiary blog posts and my best emails and my books and got me making videos to explain my process, and somehow got Rowdy Roddy Piper involved. That’s definitely a hodgepodge.
Still, every element of the hodgepodge points to the same thing: that story is the most important thing in the world.
Story helps us understand where we’ve been and how we got to where we are now. Stories suggest where we might go next. If we consider new paths, it’s because a story made us consider those paths. Stories explain who we are as people, both individually and as a group. Stories can limit us (“I’m too young, so I can’t do X”) or empower us (“I’m young, so I have a real advantage at X.”) Stories forge our beliefs and our prejudices.
The people we hate, we hate because someone told us a story about them, or we saw a series of actions and created our own story about them. The people we love, we love because we tell ourselves a story about why they’re lovable. Hearing, creating, or inventing new stories is the only thing that reliably changes a person’s mind. Arguing doesn’t do that, and browbeating doesn’t do it. Laws definitely don’t do it. Minds are only changed when the person in charge of that mind takes the evidence they’ve been given and tells a new story with a whole new ending.
We are the people we are because our parents and friends told us stories that shaped the way we see the world. We grow because we have new experiences and are told — or tell ourselves — new stories based on those experiences. History books tell us stories. Conventions tell us stories. The approval or disapproval of our peer groups are based on stories about what certain things mean.
Change the story, and you change a mind. Change enough minds, and you change the world.
I am a storyteller.
I’m a lot of things, but I’m a storyteller most of all.
And the people who’ve stuck with me through thick and thin — who read my long and ranty emails when I was supposed to only be a novelist, who seem willing to follow wherever I may go — kept asking for more. They wanted more of my stories … but not just my formal stories in books, but also the kinds of stories that caused me to write those old, epic blog posts.
People tell me my stories have gotten them through difficult times.
People tell me my stories have given them hope.
People tell me my stories in an email or epic post have reframed something vital, allowing them to make a change in their lives they never had the guts to make before.
People tell me, in other words, that my stories have made a positive difference in the world.
It’s incredibly flattering. And humbling. If you’ve never been told you’ve made a difference to someone, I suggest you do something that will enable you to hear it. There’s nothing like it. It’s powerful like nothing else.
I love the idea of making a positive difference in the world. I live for it. Because man, life is rough. Life can be a knock-down, drag-out fight from start to finish. Life can kick you where it hurts. It can wear you down, until you start to believe there’s no joy left, and all your ambitions and loves and hopes are dead.
I, for one, don’t believe those things for a second. Yes, life is rough, but there’s still so much joy. And ambition. And love. And reason for hope.
I’ve been told that my stories make people believe those things again.
And that, my good friends, is why this site exists.
We tell stories to try and understand the world around us, but explaining is only the tip of the iceberg. The right story at the right time can actually uplift us. It can change the way we see, and make our lives better.
I started this site to share the lessons I’ve learned from a lifetime of telling stories.
If what I do can make life better for even one person in even the smallest way, then every bit of it has been worthwhile.
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