Dear You: A Manifesto in Letter Form

Dear You, Whoever You Are.

Who am I? My name is Brian Alexander. Back in 1989, I was born in a little woodsy town outside of Boston, Massachusetts. I’ve lived a bunch of places but currently pay my taxes in Brooklyn, New York. Also, I’m trying to be a writer.

I came to storytelling late or, more accurately, returned to storytelling late. One of my first memories—in life and not just in story—is of my mother reading to me in bed. She would tuck my sister in first, read to her then come to me. We would sit in my bed, she propped up by pillows, me propped up by her, and she would hold the book in front of us, reading slowly and imitating voices and using her fingers to point out words. We read diversely, from Dr. Seuss to Lord of the Rings, and it was our routine and I loved it. There was a connection in those times spent with my mother and with story, a connection between story and love, a connection that has remained with me every since.

I was a strange kid. I was weird, different. I had this overwhelming curiosity, I wanted to learn everything and to question everything and I felt that I was searching for something, I didn’t know what. I had a vibrant interior life—which seemed, if I’m completely honest, more interesting than the small, simple world of my childhood town—and, because of this, it was difficult to step out of myself and socialize. Being a kid is difficult for everyone involved and kids don’t like other kids who are different: they’re confusing and they don’t know what to do with them, and so they bully them or ostracize them or both and so being a kid was difficult for me and stories, during this time, were a companion to me as well.

I would read and feel comforted in the connection I would feel with the characters, with the feeling that others struggled too, but could also overcome what they struggled against. Books like Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet Series, Lois Lowry’s The Giver, S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, all were very important to me. And creating stories too, that was it’s own sort of companion: I would play in the woods, imagining these great adventures that I was on. During car rides, I would make up stories that would fill the landscape we were driving through; huge cinematic battles fought along the side of the road. I would watch my TV shows—cartoons, anime—and would play with my toys and G.I. Joes as if they were characters from the shows and I would make up elaborate narratives that built on and diverged from what had been happening in the shows. Sometimes I wrote some stories down. I still have one of my first stories ever, written in first grade English class: it was a picture book, a sheet of paper folded in half. Inside, I’d drawn a little taco and written, “This is a taco. This taco was good.” I admit, not amazing, but pretty avant-garde, though I do say so myself.

I didn’t grow up wanting to write. I didn’t grow up even thinking that real people wrote the books my mother was reading to me or that we were reading in school. Both my parents were business people; they met while working together at a financial services company in Boston. Business was what real people did and books; they just appeared, whole and formed, from somewhere special and far away. But still story-telling was important to me and I was looking for something.

* * *

If you’ve ever spent much time in New England, you know it can be an amazing place, a place full of rugged, simple, good people. But it can also be a place—like many places—of received truths and of unspoken, dogmatic rules. A place that is content with itself and not interesting in digging too deep past its surface, where there may be some things, down there around the foundations, that it will be less pleased with. But my mother raised my sister and I to be curious and, part of being curious is asking questions and questions can cause these problems, so that was a problem. What questions was I wanting to ask? I wanted to understand the how and the why of peoples’ behavior. I wanted to understand how other people were thinking, not just on their surface or on their socially acceptable façade, but deeper—in their heart-of-hearts—and to see if there were other ways of thinking and being, beyond just what I was seeing around me. But I had to wait and I did wait.

College was a revelation to me. I went to school in Providence and everyone was from everywhere and no one knew how to be and we were encouraged to just be anything and everything and all of it and I loved it. But, of course, there can be a dark side to this exploration as well, where you sort of lose yourself and I can be an intense guy and I went maybe a little too deep into the exploration and had a difficult time. And then, of course, you come to the end of college and you were supposed to have been figuring out what you wanted to be when you grew up but I hadn’t really done that. I’d studied economics because I thought it was the practical thing to do. My father studied economics. My mother studied economics. It was a technical skillset, useful in what I still thought was the real world, the business world. But I had also sampled broadly from our open curriculum—which didn’t have distribution requirements—and I had taken history courses and art courses and social science and, of course, English and writing.

So, what was I going to do? I went to the company information sessions and I remember going with my friend Damola and part of it was the networking afterwards and he would go so smoothly into that networking but I couldn’t bring myself to. Part of it was being shy—I’m very shy—but I also think that, had I really wanted it, wanted to build those doors into the world of business, I would have. But the conclusion I came to was that it wasn’t what I wanted, so I searched on and I got to the end of college without knowing what I wanted to do.
I moved to Los Angeles, where I thought I might get into agenting and I got some meetings and all that. But it didn’t really grasp me and I spent a lot of time just driving around. I realized eventually, that I had come West to escape and to regroup but nothing grabbed me and I drifted back to Boston. My mother had started a charter school in the Roxbury neighborhood of the city and I volunteered there. A friend of mine was starting out as a musician, so I worked with him doing promotions. But still, nothing stuck and I ended up in New York, where I had gotten an internship, through my brother, at a company called Thrillist.

Thrillist was, and is, a webcompany focused on food writing. It followed food and bar openings around the country and food trends, and they had launched this new property about men’s clothing and it was there that I worked, covering fashion and also music for them. That was a crazy time. I was new to New York and I lived on my friends’ couch for six months. I was running around, doing these interviews and chasing down leads, meeting crazy creative people, finding myself in strange situations in a strange, exciting city. And I found I loved to be writing again, taking people on these quick dives into these places and things and people I’d discovered. But the problem with Internet writing is that it’s Internet writing: it’s vapid and cursory and awful and, after a while, I felt that I was dying. Also, it was all someone else’s vision. I was being told what to write and what to do and it became very repetitive. I felt my creativity withering. I wasn’t learning anything new. I was just dancing around in circles. Static.

I needed to find out what I wanted to do, really do and I went on these long walks around the city, looking and hearing and thinking. I thought about what made me truly happy and about what people I respected most in the world. I came to the conclusion that my heroes were really always the ones who were striving to understand the world, to be wise. Frequently, those heroes were writers and I remembered what I had forgotten at some point along the way: how important stories had been to me. I asked myself, if I boiled my life down to just one single word, what would that word be? And I kept coming back to “story.” And I figured that if I could build a life around more of what I loved into the world, then that might be a life worth living.

So, there I had something and I came up with this plan of how I was going to write and I quit and I set out working on a novel. It went horribly. I had no idea what I was doing and it was six months in and I was nowhere. I had planned the book out but, as I actually did the writing and developed the characters and the chain of narrative events, things changed. I kept writing myself into these narrative holes and would have to write myself out of them. But then, after I backtracked and changed something, something else wouldn’t make sense. It was mayhem and I was getting frustrated and was easily distracted and I had no traction.

I stopped. I put the book down and walked away from it and spent sometime thinking. I decided that I didn’t have the storytelling tools that I thought I had and that I needed to learn about the formalities of structure, character, dialogue, pace. I started reading books about writing. I read everything I could find about writing and took copious notes and drew diagrams and timelines and outlines. Then I looked at writers whose work I admired and I read every piece of writing by Cormac McCarthy, trying to understand his progression as a writer. Then, I did the same for Ernest Hemingway. Then, read as broadly as I could. I experimented, writing out whole section, whole characters, trying to see if they would work and, when they wouldn’t; I took them out and tried something else. I developed a process, noting when I wrote well and when I didn’t, experimenting with writing at night, in the early morning, sleeping, not sleeping, all of it. I retrained my brain, nudging it away from the fast-paced, Internet-y writing that it had grown accustomed to and into a mode of deep-focus, slowness, deliberateness. I wrote everyday—well, almost everyday—and I grew disciplined and effective and, finally, it flowed.

* * *

It took me three years. The manuscript came to 329 pages, but I had probably written 1000. It felt good to finish that manuscript, but also, it’s just the beginning. There’s so much more to do—to edit, to sell—and I’ve already started a new project, which is a series of short stories about romance and young people in love. But still, I want to take a moment to take a deep breath and to think deeply about how I’ve gotten here and what I’m doing, why I’m doing it.

Part of that breath taking has been the creation this website, as a home to my future writings, for my work. I hope to post here frequently, fiction and poetry and essays (perhaps about my continued quest to understand the craft of writing, perhaps about other topics as well). I hope always to be entertaining, perhaps enlightening, maybe challenging and, at least sometimes, good. And I hope you will come back to share this all with me.

Yours,

Brian Alexander
Brooklyn, New York 2017

If you’d like to follow my journey, I also post daily on my social media pages: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook.

More: Essays

The photo above, I took in Paris in 2016




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