On Finding a Little Spark When Your Writing’s Lost Its Heat
What Ron Hogan Learned from Conan, Nanette, Mary Oliver, and More
Conan O’Brien’s first late-night talk show debuted on NBC in the fall of 1993. I was a young graduate student, of an age where I thought nothing of staying up until 1:30 in the morning, especially when I’d arranged my life so I usually didn’t have to be anywhere until noon at the earliest. He had a great deal of fun playing with the conventions of late-night TV, and I became an instant fan. Although my enthusiasm eventually tapered off, especially during a period of several years when I didn’t own a television, I tried to keep up with the highlights—when he finally took over The Tonight Show, for example, and when NBC unceremoniously took that show back from him to appease Jay Leno, which prompted O’Brien to start a new show on cable.
That show, Conan, started out in the much the same vein as Late Night with Conan O’Brien and The Tonight Show. There was an opening monologue, after which he’d move to his desk and do another comedy bit with Andy Richter, then interview a celebrity, then do a halftime comedy bit, then another celebrity interview, and maybe a musical guest.
In 2018, though, O’Brien decided to shake things up. He cut the show down to a half-hour, ditched the desk, and even dropped the live band that used to play guests onto the set and cover the segues to commercial.
“I was the new guy for so long, and then that card flips overnight—you go from the inexperienced, nervous punk to the old dean emeritus,” O’Brien told a New York Times journalist about the changes. “I started to think, does it have to be that way? Let’s say I’ve got a couple years left in me. What if I tried to, in the most selfish way possible, alter this so that I have a maximum amount of fun?”
As a writer, I loved that idea. We all run the risk of writing ourselves into a groove—which may actually be reasonably profitable, if it turns out to be a groove that readers like, but even that can come at a psychological cost. “I know when I’ve been feeling like we’re padding out the show because I’ve got to get to the full hour,” O’Brien said. “When I know that the part of the show that has the real protein and that people really want, happened in the first half-hour—literally the first 21, 22 minutes.”
That second half of the show wasn’t sparking joy, so he threw it out. Then, in late 2020, he reinvented his creative process yet again, announcing that he would wind down his late-night cable talk show and develop a weekly variety series for the HBO Max streaming service.
I realize how ridiculous it sounds to tell you, “Every time you sit down to write, it should feel like an adventure.” You and I both know that’s not going to happen. Even when we love what we’re writing, there will be days when it feels like a chore, a grinding slog. In the long run, though, if our writing is the means by which we figure out who we are, and what we have to share with the world, that process of discovery should feel like an adventure. Some days you have to hack through the forest; some days you have to wade hip-deep in the mud, but it’s worth it for those days when you can stand at the mountain peak or look out over the coastline.
Part of that adventure involves pushing ourselves into new territory. I’m not saying you have to emulate Conan O’Brien’s example by throwing away a voice you’ve developed through years of hard work and taking up an entirely new style. Just for kicks, though: what is it about your writing that you’ve never been fully satisfied by, but have come to accept as a necessary burden? Try leaving that out of your next project—either find another way to produce the same effect, or just drop it and see where the new approach takes you.
Do you feel like you’re working the same territory over and over again in your writing? What would you like to write about, but have convinced yourself you can’t, because you’re not ready, or because it’s not what people expect from you? Pick that up for a while and play with it.
Many of us are familiar with Mary Oliver’s one particularly famous injunction, from “The Summer Day”: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” But I’m particularly drawn to a line from another of her poems, “Yes! No!”:
“To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.”
“Yes! No!” clearly situates that dictum in the context of the natural world, but it’s not about going out into the woods or the fields and merely observing what happens around you. If it were, Oliver wouldn’t have also said, “I think serenity is not something you just find in the world, like a plum tree, holding up its white petals,” and she wouldn’t have advised us that “imagination is better than a sharp instrument.”
Pay attention to what happens around you, for sure, but also pay attention to what it stirs within you, because that’s where you will find yourself. And if you’re having trouble finding yourself, give some thought to how and where you’re looking, and don’t be afraid of changing one or the other… or both.
Like a lot of people, I was moved by Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special, Nanette, a show that started out as your standard stand- up comedy hour but gradually shifted, by way of a feminist critique of art history and a deconstruction of the entire premise of stand-up comedy, into a passionate attack on . . . when I say “patriarchy” or “Western civilization,” that makes it sound grandiose; on the other hand, “the way things are” sounds too vague. Let’s just say Gadbsy has been enduring the effects of misogyny and homophobia pretty much all her life, and a key element of Nanette is her excavation and explanation of just how deep they’ve penetrated into her psyche.
It’s a powerful hour of television, and if you have Netflix, and you haven’t pulled it up yet, you should make some time for it.
One of the things I found fascinating as I watched Nanette was its “meta” aspects—like, as I mentioned before, Gadsby’s deconstruction of the stand-up form. Stand-up comedy is about creating tension, then dissolving that tension with a joke, over and over again. The audience feels anxious, but a funny quip gives them an escape hatch, an opportunity to relax, only to be made anxious again, and rewarded with a bigger release . . . but, as Gadsby points out, the comedian is the one who’s making them feel anxious in the first place. “I made you tense,” she tells the crowd. “This is an abusive relationship.”
She had become fed up with that—and fed up with telling jokes about herself that reinforced the negative self-image a homophobic society had drilled into her. (“When I came out of the closet,” she says, “the only thing I was allowed to do was to be invisible and hate myself.”) And so, less than halfway into her performance, she announces that she’s finished with comedy, and then, over the course of the next half-hour or so, she begins to strip away the jokes. Oh, there’s still laughs to be found for a while, but they taper off, until the last quarter of the show is completely serious, denying the audience any cathartic release.
As a writer, one of the things that captivates me in Gadsby’s performance—beyond the things that she’s actually saying—is the way she dramatizes the realization that she had something to tell the world, and the moment she understood the way she’d chosen to do it wasn’t working. Now, a big part of that is Gadsby understanding and accepting that the version of herself she had been sharing with the world through her stand-up routines was no longer who she wanted to be, no longer who she wanted to present herself as being—in fact, it was a self-destructive persona she could no longer afford to be.
But then, as she began to comprehend who she really wanted to be, and zeroed in on the message she really wanted to share with her audiences, she discovered stand-up comedy didn’t provide a framework capable of adequately communicating that new identity. She needed to come up with a new delivery system, a new way of speaking—even at the risk of it being a format that audiences might not find welcoming.
Think about that for a moment. The concert hall-sized audience for Nanette came expecting a stand-up comedy special, and they got that for a little while. And then they found themselves in something more akin to a Spalding Gray monologue, which in turn gave way to something with the topical urgency and earnestness of a TED talk. In the hands of a lesser speaker—a lesser writer—it’s very easy to imagine the audience rejecting this unfamiliar, unwelcome new thing. But Gadsby held it together by, among other things, sheer force of personality. She kept them with her all the way to the end. And, in the process, she transitioned in the public eye from being an accomplished comedian to something even more distinctive and still slightly undefinable.
Some writers find their groove early on, and they’re able to work comfortably in that zone for the rest of their lives. For other writers, though, a moment may come when the story you want to tell next just doesn’t fit into your familiar genre. I know a fantastic romance author, for example, who started writing psychological thrillers a few years ago, and it’s opened up whole new avenues for her to use her protagonists to talk about society from a feminist perspective. (Her name’s Victoria Helen Stone. I’m biased, but her books are really good.)
If you find yourself in a situation where the old, familiar ways you’ve honed of telling a story are no longer working for you, you can try to figure out how to force the story into working the usual way . . . or you can sit with it a while longer, see if you can find another way to tell it. You might even realize the story you thought you wanted to tell isn’t actually the one you want to tell. It’ll mean a lot more work, and you may have to push yourself into some uncomfortable places to get it done.
If you have any doubts about whether it’ll be worth doing, though, just take a look at Nanette. Or—if you’ll pardon a very abrupt change of subject—you could read Secret Body: Erotic and Esoteric Currents in the History of Religions by Jeffrey Kripal, a professor at Rice University.
I first learned about Kripal’s work about seven years ago, when he wrote a book called Mutants and Mystics that deals with the ways comic books and science fiction stories have addressed paranormal experiences—a natural fit for someone like me, whose adolescence was punctuated by Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing comics and the novels of Philip K. Dick. As an intellectual memoir of Kripal’s academic career, Secret Body addresses some of that material, but it also covers all the other things he’s been studying over the decades.
Here’s the quick tour: After attempting to become a teenage ascetic, Kripal enrolled in a Catholic seminary, and eventually realized not just that he was one of the few heterosexual men in his class, but that the priestly spiritual life, the relationship between the priest and God, seemed to require a homoerotic mysticism that he simply couldn’t muster. So he became an academic, found a focus in the history of religions, and became particularly interested in the writings of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, a 19th-century Hindu spiritual leader, one of the first such gurus to whom the West was widely exposed.
It turned out that the English-language editions of Ramakrishna were heavily redacted, so Kripal dug into the original texts, discovering a strong homoerotic strain that had been suppressed for more than a century. He wrote about it in his first book, Kali’s Child, and was promptly attacked by Hindu nationalists in India, who accused him of attempting to smear their religion. This conflict was drawn out for so long that eventually Kripal moved into other fields of research just to be done with it.
We need to backtrack a bit, though, because while Kripal was in India doing that early research, something happened to him. “That Night,” as he calls it, when “although my body was asleep… [my] consciousness was lucid and clear, fully awake,” and “a powerful electric-like energy flooded the body with wave after wave of an unusually deep and uniform arousal,” until “I felt my ‘I’ being sucked up into an ecstasy that felt entirely too much like a death.”
He’s never had an experience like that again, he explains, and yet it served as the spur that would eventually lead him to write Mutants and Mystics, along with several other books that touch upon American culture’s relationship to science, religion, and mystical or paranormal experiences.
Mind you, I’m reading all this as someone who came of age at a time when the paranormal left an especially outsized imprint on pop culture, and as someone who has also had unusual experiences, although nothing quite as intense as That Night. So I’m attracted to the gravity Kripal invests in the subject matter, but I also appreciate how he is able to look back at his work and identify the common threads—how he’s able to recognize that, while his attention was drawn to new areas over the years, it was actually all part of a process of learning more about what it is he’s been to drawn to share. And he turned that self-discovery into a challenge to his fellow religious historians to reimagine their field for the 21st century.
You might not have experienced anything as drastic and dramatic as That Night, either, but consider this: Have you ever found yourself drawn to a new story, one that seems at odds with the type of stories you’ve been working on until that moment? Or gotten such intensely negative criticism for something that you’ve written that you decided you would never tackle that subject matter again? Or had someone point out that several stories you were sure showed how versatile you were as a writer actually had a fairly obvious common theme? Those can be frightening or depressing scenarios . . . but they don’t have to be. You can embrace the challenge of diving into new territory, learning new things about the world but also new things about yourself. And when self-discovery compels us to change our lives, our writing will by necessity change as well. Again, you might not necessarily feel a wave of cosmic energy overtake your consciousness, but your creative spirit will steer you towards the things that will help you become the storyteller you want to be—even if you don’t fully understand what that entails at the beginning. Some of us may figure it out as we’re going about our work, and some of us may only realize where we were headed once we get there.
Excerpted with permission from Our Endless and Proper Work: Starting (and Sticking to) Your Writing Practice, by Ron Hogan (Belt Publishing, 2021).