James Shelley on Writing & Publishing: An Interview

[Republished from an interview in Wired Writers Guild, originally published March 11, 2014.]

What kind of writing do you do and where can people find you?

I currently write full-time for the Caesura Letters, a magazine/app all about looking at the world from different perspectives. Literally, it is a periodical about ideas: contemplating life through new lenses, hypotheses, and assumptions. It is intended for people, who, like myself, are just obsessively fascinated by the reciprocal relationship between human ideas and the worlds we create with them.

When did you first start writing (or when did you first start writing seriously)?

I dabbled in short story as a teenager, started blogging 1998, and wrote manuals and curriculum material for work-related projects later on. That said, I have really been the ‘most serious’ about writing since the Summer of 2012, when the Caesura Letters launched and I started dedicating an ever increasing percentage of my waking life to research, study, and composition.

What do you hope to accomplish with your writing?

My greatest hope as a writer is unapologetically selfish: I never want to stop discovering new things. I see this agenda and passion manifested in the writers I most love: it is pointless to consider yourself a compelling or inspiring writer unless you are, yourself, being compelled and inspired by what you are learning. In this sense, I never want to ‘arrive’ or ‘settle down’, or find myself rehearsing and rehashing my opinion like an automaton, droning on about some topic that I supposedly ‘know’ inside and out. No, I want to stay mesmerized by the curious allure of uncertainty, helplessly arrested by the intrigue of the human condition, and perpetually clinging to the coattails of mysteries I don’t understand. In other words, I don’t think I want to achieve or reach a particular, final ‘accomplishment’. That seems rather disappointing! Perhaps the most exciting part about writing for me is that I have no clue where I am going to end up.

What is your proudest moment as a writer thus far?

For me, the most fulfilling, rewarding, and affirming feedback is hearing someone say, “I have never thought about it that way before.” This statement is the sound of something being pondered; something, previously taken for granted, being perceived in new light.

I write because I have a personal, clinical addiction to the sensations of epiphany and discovery, and anytime that I get to share a dose of this adrenaline rush with someone else, I experience a double shot of the dopamine hit.

Describe your writing process. Do you start in a notebook and move it to the computer? Are there particular apps you can’t write without?

For me, writing starts with reading. I ran out of original, creative ideas a long, long time ago. (In fact, it’s quite questionable that I even had any to begin with.) Ultimately, writing really isn’t about writing itself — writing is about ideas. Ideas are the debris left in wake of mental collisions (those times when my mental go-cart gloriously derails from its safe, usual course). Thus, reading is the primary way that my own habits of thought are disrupted.

I take copious notes on everything that triggers my curiosity, and I read in order to take copious notes. These notes become like little thought incubators, which (sometimes/eventually) become written articles, essays, and other pieces.

Describe your publishing process. What host and platform (Ghost, Squarespace, WordPress, etc) are you using and why?

I decided to build on the WordPress platform several years ago, primarily because I’m an laughable ignoramus when it comes to web development, and WordPress seemed to have the most vibrant community of developers and resources around it. Years on, I’d still recommend it to anyone. (But, truth be told, I haven’t actually tried anything else, so I can only really recommend WordPress on the basis that it has done everything I’ve ever personally needed it to do.)

What are some goals you set when you first started out that you’ve been able to accomplish? How did you go about accomplishing them?

So far I have not starved to death. It’s been a miracle, really. I can’t explain it.

If you were starting today, what are some things you’d do differently?

I’d go back and tell my fifteen year-old self to keep a better bibliography of the books, lectures, and art that provokes and inspires me growing up. I would tell the little rascal that everything beckons discovery, and that he should stop arbitrarily pigeonholing life under the categories of ‘interesting’ and ‘uninteresting’. If I knew then what I know now, I would have started paying attention to all those so-called ‘uninteresting’ things much earlier. Few disciplines are more precious for a writer. Second guessing the obvious sits at the heart of it all.

What is one tip, trick or app you think every writer should know/use?

It’s quite possible that I would have a myocardial infarction if Scrivener suddenly disappeared.

What advice would you give to an aspiring writer who hopes to attract a larger readership and earn their first dollar?

Marry rich.

Ok, seriously…

Your first priority is not having a website or a ‘following’. Your first priority is having something to say.

The prevalent, common advice these days seems to go along these lines: Just write. No matter what, they say, just keep writing. This may be a heretical departure from common knowledge, but I don’t quite buy the proposition that the best way to become a better writer is to write more. The best way to become a better writer is to learn more.

So, aspiring writer, I propose that the quality and meaningfulness of what you and I do correlates with our willingness to consume, ponder, critique, and contemplate the thoughts of others. We are not little blobs floating in some sterile vacuum, and neither are we sitting at a typewriter in a whitewashed isolation cell. We only nurture our capacity to say something constructive about the world if we let the world in. So let’s invite history, the classics, and the canons of literature to demolish our pet illusion that we are embodiments of some self-contained genius.

As for attracting larger audiences and generating revenue, I’d be pretending if I claimed to have any knowledge of such witchcraft! If anyone figures this out, please let me know.

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