Robert Frost

I’m reading this book right now titled A Million Little Pieces and it’s the first time in a long time that I’ve read something that really gets my juices flowing. I was talking about it the other night and made a comparison to Chuck Klosterman, who I always sort of credited for why I love reading and writing so much. I think the highest compliment I could give to a writer is that they make it interesting and engaging even when I don’t totally know or even care what the content is about.

For a time, that’s what I wanted to be, too. When I was 18 and on my road to being the sports journalist I never became, I told a lover that I wanted to write to inspire young people like I’ve been inspired. That I was going to be so fucking good that it made those who read what I had to say ignited, just as helplessly as I was, into joining the current that pushes and pulls all of us together through time.

Somewhere along the way I think I lost that youthful verve. Since I was 18 I’ve never stopped reading and I’ve never stopped writing and I’ve never stopped doing what I do. I never lost the belief that I was at least average at all this shit. But my interests changed; I fell out of academia and became a professional in an occupation that isn’t all that professional, but it doesn’t change the fact that I am a pro at it. I lost some wonder about the world and transitioned from books that opened my mind into nonfiction and historical nonfiction — in pursuit of some kind of truth that I felt was more important.

And that’s why authors like the late Christopher Hitchens and Thomas Frank provided a remedy to fill that void. I got away from people I loved like Kurt Vonnegut, and went on a mission to figure out how the United States got here, how religion (still) shapes so much, and to some extent it made me more aware of my family and myself. Whether I like it or not it had an impact on who I am both as a person and as a writer, but there was an obvious sacrifice that had to me made in terms of imagination.

When I used to write for an ESPN Sweetspot blog about the Texas Rangers, one of the posters on the message board said one of the nicest, coolest things I’ve ever seen in critique of me as a writer. He said I was less like a beat reporter — someone you would read from The Dallas Morning News or the Roanoke Times, or whatever — and more a “gonzo journalist.”

I’m not going to lie, I had no fucking clue what gonzo journalism was. My first instinct was to look it up, because as someone who came from the bloodline of a neanderthal my adrenal glands were (and are) far too large and my brain was (and is) far too small. In other words: since I didn’t know what a gonzo journalist was I immediately took it as an insult. I needed to know what it meant before I fired back to defend myself.

As it turned out, a gonzo journalist is what I was and what I always have been. It’s why I never would have made it as a sports columnist, or a beat reporter for a football or baseball team. See, those types of people rely on bullshit quotes and relay a story at face value written at an 8th grade level so that Joe and Jane Public will be able to understand. That is ultimately why I have no regrets for leaving the college I was at or the field I was studying. It wouldn’t have worked. And for me it didn’t make any sense.

Instead, I make myself part of the story. I don’t mean to, but I am part of the story. Because when I write about the Chiefs every week, or in the past when I wrote about the Texas Rangers for ESPN, I always figured I could better relate to people by being incredibly specific rather than doing what everyone else does by offering platitudes and garbage that is considered universal but really doesn’t mean anything. It’s been a constant and consistent bet that I’ve placed on myself, rather than simply giving you the stats and the shit that everyone else talks about. I am a real person. I talk like a real person. And you are going to feel me.

Chuck Klosterman gave me the greatest gift the first time I read one of his books in my dorm room at Virginia Tech. Because not only did he entertain me through the doldrums of the coldest winter, both physically and emotionally, of my life. But he inspired me creatively. I could read 20 or 30 pages of one his books and end up firing off a thousand words or more for a paper that was due the next day in my Interpersonal Communication class.

The only two things I can control are my effort and my energy. The only two things I have ever asked for are an opportunity and a chance. Circumstances change; surroundings change; there is so much that’s out of my (or anyone else’s) control than is generally given credit for. That’s why it is so imperative to be ready when It’s Time, when the moment arrives.

I didn’t really know what to expect when my friend gave me A Million Little Pieces, but I know it wasn’t this. After a decade-long slumber it’s as if I finally woke up. I woke up and remembered what it was like to really read to again, and as a consequence I’ve been confronted by the reality of what I once was. Most of that person is dead and gone, lost to the tears in the fabric in my history that makes me who I am. I hate who I used to be in almost every conceivable way, so I’m glad I left nothing more than a brief shadow of that person.

But never forget the impossible dreams that I, at one time, dreamt. Never forget the ravenous pursuit of greatness and glory. Never forget that I am a writer, and writing is what I do and who I am and what I have always been and what I will always be. I made a deal with myself a long time ago that I could earn money in the meantime and still have the ability to be myself on a blog somewhere, and I have been okay with the results.

And at the same time, I think the striking of a matchstick is all my life has ever needed. Much like being the 12 year-old who was late to class every day but still got good grades, or the high school and college student who banged out essays and quizzes at the last minute, one of my greatest skills has always been showing up when it counts. Letting everyone else take the little pots while I take the big ones. For whatever reason that has always been who I am.

This is a different stage of my life, though. I spent such a large portion of my 20’s teasing out and unlearning all these bad habits that I write about now, and somehow transmogrified into someone who does things The Right Way, who works hard, and doesn’t merely rely on all the natural abilities that may have never even been there in the first place. I told myself a story in my head for so many years that any time I felt like it I could leave all the untalented hard workers in the dust whenever I felt like it. I believed it so much that it’s who I became.

Nowadays I’m not that person, and it brings me some shame that I ever wanted to be that person. Instead, here’s what I want: I want to marry the audacity of my once-thought-to-be natural abilities with my present-day work ethic. If I have learned anything from A Million Little Pieces, it’s that I remember what used to drive me so hard to go so far — the teenage spark of life that once allowed me to move mountains. It’s still there. It still exists.

I don’t know why it required a fucking book to remind me of that, but I do know that even without it I would be in a better space today than I was some 15 years ago in the mountains of the western crevice of Virginia. Because if nothing else, I learned how to be a hard worker. High school didn’t teach me that. The whole reason I didn’t survive in college was because I never learned how to study. I had to figure a lot of this out by myself, sad and depressed and introspective, knowing I wanted to be anything other than who I was at that time.

And yet, somehow I made it all the way here. All the way. From the drugs and the solitude and the self-loathing that could have and probably should have gotten the best of me at multiple forks in my road. I made it here. And here is the only place I have ever wanted to be. Where I realize how great I can be with just a little bit of effort.

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