Sunday, February 21, 2016

An interview with Nick Wong

*I'm not really good or famous enough to be legitimately interviewed, and I would never actually interview myself, but IF I did, it would probably look something like this: 

So, let's start at the beginning. How did you start writing?

Well, I don't even think it was a conscious decision, more that people kept telling me that I had potential at something and I always thought it a shame to waste potential. I have three real memories about people encouraging me to write. First was my English teacher during my senior year of high school, Ms. Hess, who made me promise her that I'd take a writing course in college. Then when I got into college, my second girlfriend sort of begrudgingly told me I had talent as a writer. She didn't even say it as encouragement, more like she was pissed that I was better than her at something. That's when I knew she meant it (laughs). On that note, the last person was my 10th grade teacher, Ms. Kinnear, who pulled me aside one day and told me that I just wasn't a very good writer. I don't really know why she did that; I never was really a "problem" student, never disrupted class or anything, but I used it as sort of a motivation. Not at first, of course, I was about 14 at the time? But later in life it taught me a lot, mostly that you shouldn't stop doing something you enjoy because one person tells you to stop, even if that person is a supposed authority figure. I always thought about dedicating my first book to either Ms. Hess or Ms. Kinnear I guess it depends on whether I want to be a grateful student or a vindictive asshole (laughs). I'll probably dedicate it to both of them.

Why write about boxing? What was the appeal?

Everything. I think it's a microcosm of our existence. The characters, the business, the loyalties, the betrayals, the cyclical story of fighters is the tragedy and triumph of life, basically. But mainly the oxymoron of it is what drew me in. People have all these opinions on a sport where athletes train themselves to render an opponent unconscious, but they never bothered to step into a boxing gym. It's so much more complex than that. I mean just hearing the stories about where these fighters come from, why they fight, what they have to overcome in order to show up and participate in such an excruciating sport is downright inspiring. I guess I really fell in love with the whole attitude that's in boxing, which is pretty much that you don't sit around making excuses and feel sorry for yourself - you work and train your ass off to get out of a tough spot. But it's not that you do it alone either. The boxing community is one of the most caring communities I've ever been part of. It sort of nurtures you to be independent, but also teaches you to ask for help when you need it. I guess I thought that was worth writing about.

Have you ever boxed yourself?

Oh yeah definitely. I actually started boxing completely separate from writing. Truthfully, I went in because I was stuck in this emotionally abusive co-dependent relationship, and I needed to break the cycle somehow. There was just something about the routine that I loved; the repetition, the discipline, the focus. I trained seriously for about 2 years, then traveled and boxed around Latin America, off and on, for about three years after that.

Did you ever think about fighting professionally?

I thought about it for maybe six months out of the two years I trained seriously, but then I saw how difficult it was. I mean I trained SERIOUSLY for those two years. I was in the gym maybe five, six days a week, woke up at 5AM every morning to run. Rain, snow, it didn't matter. And the diet. That's probably one of the hardest parts of the sport. Cutting weight. Oh god. I don't really want to get into that too much, but it's absolutely fucking insane what fighters do to make weight. I fought maybe 20lbs under my normal weight, but probably cut only maybe 6-7 pounds from my "in-shape" weight. It was still fucking hell. I swear I was possessed by a demon (laughs). 

But after doing all these stories on fighters and somewhat doing the same myself, I drew the conclusion that nobody should ever become a professional fighter. If you're even remotely good at anything else, do that. But you know, the funny thing is that people say the same thing about writing and it wasn't until I started getting deeper into the craft that I understood what they were saying. I mean, the two are actually really similar. We're both in this really unstable and unpredictable industry, you will often be unpaid and unacknowledged for the good chunk of your efforts, and you spend an incredible amount of time alone. Only a really, really small portion of those involved make it, and a lot of times it has nothing to do with the objective skill in the craft. It's a really unfair business, both of them. My writer-friend Doug Merlino once told me as sort of advice, "Don't do it. It's a stupid job." I mean he said it somewhat in jest, obviously, because we still do it, but it certainly isn't a glamorous occupation as some people make it out to be. Fighters and writers, artists in general, are like these wildly stupid and brilliant creatures.

What sort of advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Don't do it. Didn't you hear what I just said?! (Laughs) But in all seriousness, I don't know. I'm still figuring it all out myself. I don't think there's a day that goes by where I don't think about quitting. I think about how much easier life would be if I had a "safe" job that paid well, like being a doctor or a lawyer. Then I realize how much of an asshole I'm being because those professions are insanely difficult, and I'd probably be worse off because I'd be failing at something I don't have a passion for. I think something that I've come to terms with is that any profession is going to have parts of it that suck, and no matter what you do, you're going to have to work hard and sacrifice to be any sort of good. The fruits just have to be worth it. It has to mean something to you, and at least in my opinion, that something has to touch a part of you that is completely outside the conventional measures of success. You can't do it for superficial means, otherwise your work comes off superficial. Don't get me wrong, I'm not one of those "follow your passion" types. I think that sort of thinking gets people into crippling debt and can severely handicap their life. Money is a necessary means to the greater end. I'd say people make the mistake of making money the goal, but other people make the mistake of thinking you don't need to learn about it in order to get there. It's all part of the job. I guess the most important piece of advice I'd give is know why you're doing your work, then make the necessary adjustments to make it happen. You'll find out how much you really believe in what you tell yourself by how much you sacrifice along the way.

So are you saying that writing isn't about passion?

Well, I mean it is, but if you want to take it as a serious pursuit, you have to learn how to balance between passion and practicality. Too much practicality makes you stale and uninteresting, but the whole, "Do what you love and forget everything else" is kind of the baseline ethos behind those self-development programs that make a living on scamming people. You gotta learn how to exist between the two worlds, which is why so few people actually become writers.

You don't think that everyone could be a writer?

Yes and no. Everyone has the right to write, they have to right to express themselves through the written words, absolutely. But is everyone a "writer"? No way. Probably one of the funniest and most annoying things that I hear from people is that they want to write a book about their life. First is that most people think that their story is interesting enough to go through the arduous process of being written, edited, published and distributed. That is a shit ton of work for a lot of different people. You really have to ask yourself why you're writing it in the first place and if you can't find that story anywhere else. Don't get me wrong, I think there are certainly stories that need to be written, but I think people also need to ask themselves these questions more often. Second is that people assume they can write. They don't bother learning about grammar, rhythm, sentence structure, or any of the mundane mechanical elements in writing because that stuff is boring and mind-numbing. It's not like you have to write grammatically perfect or anything, but it shows when someone knows it. Basically, I think people are more in love with the idea of being a writer than actually being a writer.

So then what kind of practical advice do you have for writers? Like about the actual writing process?

Be clear and be concise, every word should have a purpose to moving the story along. Don't use big words for the sake of using big words. At the end of the day, writing is just a service of translation so that the public can understand and form an opinion on a topic that you have been paid to investigate. That is really the purpose of a writer, to communicate and translate stories so we understand more about each other. This is what I've come up with from my experience at least, I mean I don't want to limit the definition of a writer because the job description can be so varied. There are those that write these obscure pieces, chalked full of ridiculously complex language and it's masterful. Genius. I just think there's fewer out there than the people that attempt to write that way.

Who are some...

Oh and deadlines! If you write for publications, do not miss your deadlines. I know that it may "feel" like a piece never ends and can always be edited, but being a professional is first and foremost. I had a friend who was an actor and I remember him telling me that actors with mediocre talent got further in their careers than those with abundant amounts of natural talent, simply because they were professional and easy to work with. I think the same holds true for writers. 

I'm sorry, I cut you off...

I was just going to ask about your favorite writers.

Bukowski. Next question.

Really? That's it?

(Laughs) No, not really. I always just say it that way to be dramatic. But he is someone I admire as a writer. He pretty much managed to capture life in a simple way. No frills, no crazyass elaborate wordage, just straight forward telling it like it is. And he was honest. I mean he lived his life in this semi-destructive way - boozing, whoring, gambling - but that kept him humble, like he was never judgmental from this elitist, holier-than-thou sort of way; he was judgmental from being a whoring drunkard. That's not necessarily being a hypocrite, per se, more that if he said something critical, there was something to it because he had known life from the bottom and the top.

So then who are the other writers?

Well for boxing, Thomas Hauser, both his research ability and reporting style are standards I try to reach. But the best essay I've ever read on boxing was by Katherine Dunn, who is like this 70-year-old white woman from Portland. She's probably one of the last people you'd expect to write about boxing, but she does it masterfully. Then Octavia Butler. Jesus Christ. When I first saw a picture of her I thought, "This is what a writer looks like." And she was incredibly smart, like wickedly intelligent. The amount of knowledge required to tell her stories would take a lifetime to research, and she wrote a shit-ton of novels! She's really impressive. Really, really amazing.

Did you get to meet any of them?

Mostly through email. I have this very fortunate situation that I admire mid-level celebrities, so meeting them is actually a possibility. The problem is that I have this really horrible habit of pestering people, and I think they end up hating me (laughs). For example, another person I admire is Loic Wacquant, this French sociologist who wrote a book about his experience boxing in South Chicago. Being a sociology major at the time, I thought I had wanted to do what he did. I would literally pester him and he refused to meet me. I don't really blame him though. I was a mess. He read a draft I sent him and just completed trashed it. I responded by blaming the educational structure of American sociology, which is pretty much shitting on the field in which he makes his living. I didn't realize that til later (laughs). But I somehow managed to smooth things out and I eventually met him about 5 years later. We have a respectful relationship now, but meeting him also kind of told me that I didn't want to do what he does. And that's really okay. 

Why didn't you want to do what he does?

Honestly, I'm not smart enough for it (laughs). The way he writes, speaks, thinks and looks at the world is way too complicated for me. I mean it's pretty brilliant when you're able to lay it all out and take in all that's he's saying, but there was no way I could do that; that's why my first draft to him sucked. I was trying to imitate him. But something he told me that really helped is that there are a number of valid ways to approach the same topic, and one isn't necessarily better than the other. It wasn't until I started really finding my voice that I really understood that. But once I did, things in general got easier.

How did you find your voice?

Just work. You imitate for a while. I still imitate a lot and I feel like my voice is still being discovered. But you have to at least know writing you like to read before you know how you like to write. It's really just about constant practice over time, and being okay with change. That's about it. 

Are great writers born or made?

Hmmm...(pauses). I think everyone has the ability to be a strong and competent writer. You can do that by just drilling, drilling, drilling for hours on end, and that kind of writer will likely surpass one with in-born talent who is lazy and undisciplined. But somewhere along the time there is this extra something that separates the greats from everyone else. I mean some people were really born with a natural talent for something. But all that doesn't matter if you don't work hard. Talent without discipline is useless.

Do you feel that you were "called" to writing?

You know, I'm not really sure. I mean I constantly question whether or not this notion of a "calling" in life even exists. Dedicating your life around such a concept requires a lot of faith. Plus, you can really become self-absorbed in that line of thinking and that's a trap. But at the same time, part of me thinks so because I'm still writing after all this time, and every so often people take away something useful from something I wrote. But do I think I'm doing something grand that changes the world? No, absolutely not. If it does change anything, the change is done in these unnoticeable increments, and most of the time I write for the purposes of maintaining my own sanity. But I guess that's how anything gets changed, yeah? I think we fall in love with this romantic notion that the course of the world is constantly settled in some epic 2-hr storyline. What most people don't see is the tedious hours of training and working that these fictional hero figures go through in order to be anywhere near what it is they are portraying. So am I "called" to be a writer? I don't know. I guess I'm working to find out. But I really hope so, because I'm not very good at anything else I've tried (laughs). 

Well, I think that's all the questions I have. Anything else you want to add?

No, not really. I think I've blown enough steam up people's asses (laughs). I guess if there was one thing I'd close with, it'd be for people to know that getting good at any profession is a struggle and all of them serve a practical function in life, but if there is an instinctual pull in your gut to do something, you should at least try. If you go in prepared, you'll be fine, and the regret of not trying is way worse than failing at it.

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