25 Things I’d Like To Say To My 18-Year-Old Self

I often describe this website as me yelling at myself from 18 years ago. It’s as true as it is not, I suppose — certainly the blog is also me yelling at me from last week, or from two weeks hence. I like to yell at Past, Present and Future Me and, by proxy, yell at you, too. So, seemed a good time to write a more direct version of that, which is this list. It’s in part about writing but also about a lot of other things. And the secret is, it’s just as much me yelling at myself now to stay vigilant about this stuff as it is about any teenage asshole version of myself. So, crack my skull with an ice hammer, and let’s see what’s inside!

1. This Shit’s Gonna Take A While

Soooooo. You want to be a writer, right? Mm. You’re vibrating over there. So eager. Ready to have all your atoms disassociate and reform you into the complete and total package. You’re like a squirrel with ants all up in his butthole — just itchy to get moving. I have bad news, lad. This thing you want to do? This “writing” thing? Yeah, it takes a long time. This isn’t a microwaved burrito. It’s smoked pork shoulder. A writing career is a long, slow roast. Hunker down for the long haul. Know that you’ll get there. But you gotta settle in. Tame your impatience. At the very least, conquer it with the stubbornness of an old, cantankerous donkey.

2. Kick The Muse

The Muse ain’t your boss, big guy. She doesn’t push you around. In fact, most times, she’s the one who needs a kick. If you sit around and wait for her to show up, you’ll find that the words come only in fits of incontinence: a dribbled splash here, an unexpected pants-stain there. Your Fairy Wordmother dances for you, so shoot at her feet to get her shimmying and shaking. Listen, there might be magic in this writing and storytelling thing. But with that magic, you can either be its slave — or its sorcerer. You can be the one worshipping and appeasing, or you can be the one with the spellbook and the wand. You’re either it’s dog, or its master. The sooner you figure that out, the happier you’re going to be.

3. Focus Up, Motherfucker

You’re a kid, so I’ll afford you some measure of distraction, but eventually you need to stop digesting entertainment and start dishing it out. And not just entertainment, but stuff that digs past the topsoil and into deeper, richer layers of earth (more on that later). For now, slow up on the video games and the MUSHing and the sex… ah, right, you’re 18. You’re trying to have sex all the time, aren’t you? You’d bang a set of dressers if the light was right. All I’m saying is: comes a point when you need to hunker down and focus up. Put away shiny things. Rubber meets road. No, not that kind of rubber. What are you, 12? Jesus.

4. Some People Will Weigh You Down

One of the harder lessons to learn is that some of the people you want in your life are sadly not good for you — these are people you think of as friends or girlfriends or even family. Their best interests are not your own. They don’t mean to, but they’ll drag you down. They’ll point your nose in the wrong direction. You deserve better. And frankly, so do they. Sometimes relationships don’t work out like you think they should. You can’t force it. You just have to cut the rope and float away from one another. Maybe one day you float back into each other’s little patch of seawater. Most likely, you don’t. You’ll both be healthier for it.

5. Anger Only Gets You So Far

Sure, sure, you’re all pissed off at the world. You’re all fire and vinegar, all swinging fists and stompy boots. GRUMPY WASPS AND THIRD-STAGE SYPHILIS. Anger will get you moving — it’s like the first blast from a rocket booster. You want to spite those who said you couldn’t do it? You want to blacken the eye of the world to prove that you deserve to be here? That feeling will carry you for a while. But it’s not sustainable. And it’s not healthy. And — *checks your hands* — sometimes when you don’t have ways of processing how you feel, you punch lockers and fuck up your knuckle. Or you break things. Or you let that anger sit and ferment until it’s just a gutful of acid sadness. Let the anger go. It’s hollow fuel. It’s empty carbs.

5. Shame Is A Half-Ass Motivator

Like anger, shame actually fucking works. It does. Those twin serpents of shame and guilt chasing you down will move your ass forward — it works because you feel bad and you don’t want to feel bad anymore, so you make motions to counter it. But shame is a broken ladder. It’ll get you halfway there but the rest of the rungs are snapped. It’s because “not feeling bad” as a motivation is just enough to get you off the ground and out of the mud but that’s it. You need something bigger, something better, as motivation. You need to want to feel good, not just want to avoid feeling bad. Victory is rarely the product of avoiding internal misery.

6. Mistakes Have Value

You’re going to fuck up a lot. No, no, don’t get pissy — remember, I AM FUTURE YOU. (And yes, we have hoverboards and teleporters in the year 2012. And sex-robots and cyborg dildo attachments.) Here’s the thing: we are the culmination of our successes but our successes are the culmination of our mistakes. Mistakes and failures beget success because we learn from them. Success is a slim margin — a narrow door — and everything outside that door is considered error. And that’s okay. My toddler knows how to walk now — oh, right, you have a kid but we’ll get to him — and the act of getting up and noodling around on those two pudgy cake-pillars he calls legs only happened through lots and lots of experimentation. Translation: he fell a lot. Still does. Into everything. You’d think he was drunk. He looks like Baby Fight Club most days. Point is: you need to fall. Falling is how we learn to walk. It’s painful, but the pain is instructive.

7. Walk Before You Run, Dumdum

Ah! Yes. Speaking of walking — you fall, then you walk, then you run. In that order. (And after that, you earn your cyborg leg-pistons and you can jump over buildings. MAN 2012 IS PRETTY RAD.) This translates to writing: to your gravest disappointment you cannot just spring forth fully formed out of Athena’s head and write a masterpiece novel that will get you a six-figure advance. You will not at age 18, or 20, or 25, or even 36, be the cherub-cheeked darling of the literary world. You’ve got to take this thing in order. You can’t short circuit the skills you need to learn. So-called “overnight sensations” are like icebergs: you only see the tiny peak above water. Below the surface lies an epic glacial mountain representing all the months and years spent pushing the peak above the slushy sea.

8. Figure Out What Actually Fucking Matters

Some shit really matters. A lot really, really doesn’t. Everything can’t matter equally. The loss of a parent does not equal a fight on the Internet. The look in your kid’s eyes does not equal a bad review of one of your books (yes, yes, calm down, you actually get to be a paid professional writer, stop wetting your Iron Man underoos.) You’re going to be a lot happier when you start figuring this out.

9. Wow, You’re An Entitled Little Cockbite, Aren’t You?

Hey, whoa, don’t get lippy with me, kid. I’m willing to forsake a couple of my teeth to knock yours out right now. I got bad news, sport: see this pile of shit with twigs and bugs in it? The world doesn’t even owe you this much. You are not the center of any orbit, elliptical or otherwise. I sound like such an old man but dude, listen, things you accomplish are far better than things that are handed to you. Your first publication (soon!) will be the product of you putting ego aside and listening to some editorial notes and putting in the fucking work. It’s not their job to publish your potential. They don’t owe you a bucket for your word-barf. It’s your job to earn that space. And it’ll feel like the angels are giving you a full-body massage with their thousand genderless eye-nipple mammaries when they do. (Hey, read the Bible, angels are freaky as fuck.)

10. Mister Right, You Ain’t

You’re not right all the time. In fact, every year that passes my estimation of how often you’re right goes down by about… three percent, so at this stage I figure you’re — er, I’m — er, we’re? — in the neighborhood of 40% correct most times (and that number’s shrinking). More importantly, you don’t need to be right all the time. Yours is not the only way. Further, convincing folks of the validity of your argument is not best done with a 2×4 studded with rusty nails. It’s best done with a hand-job using a velvet glove. …okay, hey, shut up, things get kind of weird in your early 20s. Don’t tell your eventual wife about the glove.

11. Only You Can Fix You

You are at or near the point where feeling fucked-up — meaning, depressed or angry or having that hive of bees you call a brain freak out — seems like a badge of honor, like it’s justification to demand things from the world in a Fiona Apple-style THIS WORLD IS BULLSHIT YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND ME STUPID HUMANS meltdown, but it’s not. The way you feel is not unique. And it’s not the world’s fault. Only you can fix you. Stop inflicting yourself on others. Like a weapon, or a disease, or a humpy terrier. I know, “fixing yourself” is easier said than done, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good excuse not to do it. Everything is easier said than done. Suck it up, Strawberry Shortcake. Get right with your head to get right with the world. (Be advised that this remains an ongoing process of maintenance and repair.)

12. You Must Leave The Idea Of Art Behind

For a long time you’re going to hold up the idea of “art” as a defense for… well, all kinds of dippy shit. Don’t like an edit? Art. Don’t want to learn how to write an outline? Art. Want to get naked in the college gazebo while guzzling Irish whiskey and singing AND I WOULD WALK FIVE HUNDRED MILES –? Art. Not an excuse. Set it aside. Focus on craft. Focus on skill. You want to think raw talent and the defense of art are everything and then you want to hold up James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and be all like, “Look! None of the rules apply here!” but here, let me squeeze that blister – You’re not James Joyce, knucklehead. You’re an 18-year-old dumbfuck with a self-importance problem. Splurch.

13. (But Don’t Worry, You’ll Get Back There)

Eventually you’ll figure out that writing isn’t this beast with a single face. You’ll see that writing is craft, and storytelling is something bigger, weirder, stranger. You’ll find the art again, like a sunset through a chemical haze. But it won’t be a thing you can control and it won’t be a defense for anything. It’ll be a thing that has its own measure of skill and talent. It’ll be a thing that other people see better than you. It’ll be a thing that is less ART in all caps and more “an art” all in gentle, unassuming lowercase. You’ll find poetry in language that doesn’t need to be called that to survive. You’ll find that you learn the rules to know when to break them, and you need to break the rules to learn why we have them in the first place.

14. You Will Leave A Wake Of Word Corpses

Behind you will be a miles-long heap of story wreckage. You’ll litter the earth with carcasses of manuscripts finished and unfinished. They will be mostly a steaming trail of eye-watering, nose-blistering manure. This will sadden and frustrate you. Don’t let it. Accept that in each were things you learned that carried you to the next one (“Oh, don’t write a novel in all caps? Interesting“). But also realize that there will come an evacuate your bowels or unplug the fecal vacuum moment (we don’t have toilets in the future, we have vacuums that siphon the waste from your body), a moment when you need to stop flicking your dick and get things done.

15. Creativity Is A Muscle

Creativity is not some external force. It is not the breath of the gods breathed into your mouth. It is neither gift nor entitlement. It’s an intellectual muscle. It needs flexing. It needs exercise. Discipline yields creativity. Whenever you put thought to words and words to page, you’re taking that muscle and making it bigger. (And when you do, you should squint and tell people, “Who bought a ticket to the gun show?” and then tap the center of your forehead and stare at them menacingly.) If you want to think of it as a more magical thing, go for it — think of it as stimulating the elf gland. There. See? Now it’s magical! Because elves!

16. Work Is Not A Four-Lettered Word

*receives whisper from an advisor* Oh, yeah, I guess it is a four-letter word. Fine, whatever. PEDANT. Don’t look at me that way — yes, you’re still kind of an idiot 18 years later. Point is, at this time in your life there is a very strong disconnect between “work” and “creativity.” You associate writing and storytelling with pleasure and desire rather than difficulty and effort. That’ll fuck you up for a while because as soon as a story reveals its inevitable difficulty or feels no longer “fun,” you’ll abandon it like a colicky infant in a cardboard box marked FREE COOKIES. This thing you want to do isn’t easy. Gird your loins. Which is Bible-speak for “protect your genitals from the flurry of karate crotch-kicks life will deliver to your junk drawer.”

17. Happiness Is A Many-Faced Beast, Actually

They say that the Romans had a lot of words for love and Eskimos have a lot of words for snow and Klingons have a lot of words for “why the fuck are you actually learning Klingon,” but writers — and perhaps humans of all intellectual configurations — should compile a great many words for happiness. Writing is happiness for me at this age, but that’s because I modified my definition. At your age, you powder-bottomed squall-baby, you’re upset whenever it doesn’t make you happy at that moment. You’re like a goldfish, unable to remember yesterday or gaze forward to tomorrow. Fuck that. You’re aiming for a deeper, longer happiness. A pervasive satisfaction. That only comes with prolonged effort. It only comes through learning and doing. It comes through finishing what you begin, good or bad.

18. Your Voice Is In There, Somewhere

You will for a long time copy the voices of the writers you admire. Lansdale, McCammon, Brite, Hobb, Denton, Moore. You’ll worry about what they did or do more than what you should do. You’ll try to sound like them. You’ll try to mimic what you love and emulate their success. Eventually you’ll stop. If I could convince you to stop sooner, I would, but maybe you can’t. Maybe it only comes with time and the confidence and instinct born of great effort. But here’s a tip: your voice is your voice. It’s who you are. It’s how you speak. It’s how you think and what you believe. The harder you try, the deeper it hides. It’s a sneaky little fucker. Stop trying. It’ll come out to play all on its own.

19. People Die

Sorry to get morose and bring this disco party to a record-scratching halt, but people die. People you love. People you know. And I don’t mean this in a poetic, Gothy-romancey emo-bullshit way. I mean, people die badly, without much poetry, and one day they’re there and the next they’re not. And that’s fucked up. But it’s also very, very important. Because you will realize that life is not permanent. The impermanence of the flesh is why life actually matters. Yesterday and today won’t ever happen again. Own that. Make progress. Do awesome things. SEIZE THE CARP. No matter how hard that fucking fish wriggles.

20. But Ideas Don’t Have To

People die but who they are and the ideas that form their lives and experiences most certainly do not need to expire. It’s why we write. It’s why we tell stories. Words are idea containers. Stories are our experiences committed to ears and eyes and minds. Books are the best grave markers because they contain so much more than the dates of our births and deaths. That’s why what you write should matter. That’s why you shouldn’t fuck around and waste time merely trying to entertain. Put yourself onto the page. Bleed into the story. Embrace the Viking immortality of having your ideas live forever.

21. Never Confuse Fear With Instinct

Okay, listen. Life is full of these binary pivot points, right? Where you can choose to do something or remain the same. Sometimes, remaining the same is the right choice: there will come a point where you will think about giving up writing because certain dissenting voices in your life suggest it’s the practical thing. But your instinct will tell you that you can really do this, that this shit is real. Sometimes, though, fear masquerades as instinct. It’s good instinct to say, “I’m not going to try to ramp this jet-ski over that feeding frenzy of hammerhead sharks even though it’d be awesome.” It’s bad fear to say, “I’m not going to seize this opportunity because, frankly, it scares me and gives me a rollicking case of the spiritual pee-shivers.”

22. You Have Died Of Dysentery

See? It’s a settlers joke. An Oregon Trail joke. Right? Old school. High-five! … no? No high-five. Whatever. Fuck you. Philistine. THE JOKE IS, don’t settle. Every year presents brand new opportunities to settle for less, to hunker down and get a “real job,” to quit pursuing that which you so desire. Nope. Mm-mm. Don’t do it. Fuck settling. Ride that unicorn to the end of the rainbow, motherfucker. Like I said: life is short. Fear is powerful. Fortify your spine. Cement your genital stamina. Build an exoskeleton of calcified confidence. Do. Not. Settle. That way lies a doorway to regret. It’s a door that locks and has no key.

23. Grow Up

Growing up means taking responsibility for who you are, what you want, and what you’ve done and will do. But growing up is also about knowing when to power down the adult side and let the crazy T-Rex that is your childish side loose on those poor goats in the goat paddock.

24. Haters Gonna Hate, But Diggers Gonna Dig

Haters are everywhere. Even inside in the form of self-hatred, and it’s that self-hatred that magnifies the hate of others. Don’t let that worm into the heart of the apple. Because just there shall be haters, you’ll also have the power of an engaged audience, of people who dig what you’re doing. You will find the audience. They will find you. You’ll arrive together in an orgiastic lovesplosion greased up with the heady lubricant and giddy froth of storytelling. Dismiss hate. Embrace love. Fuck pants.

25. Love Is Your Jetpack

Love, love, love. It’s everything, man. The love of your fans, the love of books, the love of and from your wife, the love seen in and felt for that spark of wonder in your child’s eyes, the love of dogs and friends and characters and ideas and other writers and other stories and love love motherfucking love. Love, as they say, will save the day. It will carry you. It will save you. I know, you’re 18, you’re cynical as fuck, black-coffee-bitter like you’ve seen it all, but you haven’t seen shit, kid. Go ahead and mock. One day, you’ll see. You’ll feel it. You’ll receive it as the unexpected frequency that it is. And it’ll give you reason to keep on keepin’ on.


Want another hot tasty dose of dubious writing advice aimed at your facemeats?

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250 THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT WRITING: $0.99 at Amazon (US), Amazon (UK), B&N, PDF

CONFESSIONS OF A FREELANCE PENMONKEY: $4.99 at Amazon (US), Amazon (UK), B&N, PDF

REVENGE OF THE PENMONKEY: $2.99 at Amazon (US), Amazon (UK), B&N, PDF

30 comments

  • Nice, I’m sure everybody reading this is speaking to their own 18 year old selves as well. Even the 18 year olds. Love the line “we are the culmination of our successes but our successes are the culmination of our mistakes.”

  • Great advice all the way down the line. Grown-up Chuck sounds like he has all his poop in one sock.

    Funny, at this point in my life I can see how lost I was in the flush of hormones at that age. How do we ever survive it? Good Fortune I reckon, or God’s just not done putting us through the wringer.

  • Wake of word corpses: I’m a serial killer, in that regard.

    #21 my 18-year-old self needs to hear. Also, I would tell my 18-year-old self that Mom didn’t do what her Mom wanted her to do and I shouldn’t either. Doing what other people told me I should do nearly killed me, literally. I’d like to tell the 18-year-old self not to give up.

    Also, there’s a few assholes I’d like to warn her about. (ala 4).

    As always, great post, Chuck.

    Back to whip the muse (he likes it).

  • Holy hand grenades in a bucket, Chuck! I’ve apparently been fighting the mind-control of 18-year-old me with only sporadic success, and this post just carpet-bombed her. Ow.

    …May I print off a copy for my motivation file?

  • #22 – it’s hell to break that door open and escape, but it can be done, if you don’t mind leaving most of your skin behind and it’s winter and you don’t have a coat so you’re raw and freezing for a while.

    I love that song too. Don’t even have to drink to get naked and walk around hollering I WOULD WALK 500 MILES at the top of my lungs, to this day. But not even remotely because ART ;-)

    Also, where was this when I was 18?

  • “Books are the best grave markers …… Embrace the Viking (Finnish) immortality of having your ideas live forever.”

    This echoes my goal. Thank you.

  • My flipside of number 11 would be “only other people can fix themselves”. It took me a long time to learn that if others weren’t willing to fix their shit, I couldn’t do it for them. I feel much wiser now.

  • I am only 24, but already this hit home. And you’re right about even how those who love you will not always know what is best for you. My mom never quite understood that I was a writer, but that’s ok. In time, she got over it. Lol

  • AWESOME, Dude! I know how fortunate I was when I turned eighteen while in basic training for the U.S. Army on my way to becoming a combat medic and surgical trauma specialist. I learned that it was MY responsibility to maintain a sterile environment in the operating room and if I suspected that the invisible shield of “my sterile field” had become compromised, in any way, I had the power – no, responsibility – to call an immediate halt to the proceedings and make everybody stop and change their gown and gloves; remove and replace all the sterile instruments; redrape the sleeping (anaesthetized) patient … Whatever! Me, an 18 year old, no-nothing newbee OR Tech – stopping the presses and rebooting an entire surgical procedure aleady-in-progress ~ and, nothing, by God, NOTHING can be more important to that unconscious patient whom I know nothing about, except, their life depends on my vigilence to maintain the integrity of something I cannot see or prove except by knowing that it’s my job to stop whatever is going on if I suspect there might have been a problem. I discovered early on that little things matter in huge ways and I should NEVER let something, regardless how ever-so-slight, go without taking action if it’s within my ability to do so. Sometimes, lives depend on it … I learned early on that Conviction, Conveyed With Sincerity and Dignity – and delivered with a smile (even if covered by a surgical mask) can stop the world and alter everyone’s behavior to right a perceived wrong … Especially when nobody saw it, but me! Magic powers at such a young age? Hardly. Confidence and belief that what we do – or more importantly – don’t do can have life-altering consequences for others if we fail to do our job, that thing which is expected of us ~ especially when no one is watching to see if you do it or not. Is it called character, professionalism or humanity? I haven’t a clue. But, I know this for sure: When you’re an impressionable, eager-to-learn, and properly trained kid – at any age, especially 18 years old though – that kind of message is hardwired into your physiology and, from those days forward, decisions about taking action when nobody else is noticing whether an invisible shield has been compromised will cause all sorts of people to wonder “just who the hell died and left you in charge” … as you spring into motion for no apparent reason. Thanks for the post that helped me understand why I am the way I am. Who knew?

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