No Excuses!

I wrote a letter to William Vollmann and told him I had AIDS. It was 1994. I loved all his books, “The Rainbow Stories”, “Whores for Gloria”, “The Butterfly Stories”. He has a writing style that is simultaneously humble, filled with mega-intelligence, honest, fearless, and, in some cases, completely unreadable. Some of his books are thousands of dense pages long. I like his smaller books. He is very autobiographical in some of his books, detailing directly his experiences with prostitutes, violence, Afghanistan, going to Antarctica, hopping trains cross country, poverty, etc. Eventually he will win a Nobel Prize.

(William Vollmann)

His book “The Butterfly Stories” was about a reporter who goes to Thailand, meets tons of prostitutes, falls in love with one  or more of them, and can’t settle back down to his normal life in the US. I read it and decided to write to him. Maybe this was about 18 years ago. I don’t know why I said this in the note but I said “I have AIDS”. It was a lie.

I wanted to be “a writer”. I had written about five unpublished novels. I had been rejected by over 40 agents and by every publisher. I had written dozens of short stories and each one had been rejected by dozens of magazines and literary journals. I probably amassed over 200 rejections. And there were zero nice rejections. Nothing like, “Hey, keep it up. You’re getting better and maybe one of these days….”.  All  of the rejections were form letters. “Thanks for submitting. At this time we have decided not to publish this. Your submission has been enclosed with this letter.”

I then wrote two spec comic book scripts for DC comics. I sent them in. Never heard from them again.

(I wrote a spec comic based on this DC character, Delirium)

I wanted to break free. I didn’t want to be rejected anymore. I desperately ­­­wanted people to start responding to me.

So I wrote my favorite writer and told him I had AIDS. And that maybe he shouldn’t write about it so much. I wrote that I had nobody to talk to about dying. And I was getting more and more sick every day. I left my phone number.

A few weeks later I was sitting in my house, writing, and the phone rang. I never picked up the phone in 1994 and still don’t. The voicemail picked up and I could hear his voice. William Vollmann. Sort of a thick, slow voice. He was sorry to hear I had AIDs. He wanted me to know there was a large community out there of people I could reach out to.He  also left his phone number if I ever wanted to talk.

Nice guy. I immediately felt bad. And then I felt great! Somebody responded to me! My favorite writer!

And then I felt bad again. It was all on a lie. Being responded to by William Vollmann got me nothing. It didn’t get me published, for instance. It was just a joke. A bad one because now he probably felt bad. For a moment I called it “art”. The art was the combination of my letter and his phone call message. I could display it in a museum side by side: the letter, side by side with the recording of his message and maybe side by side with the book that inspired my letter:

I decided I would create more art. Hopefully better.

So I took a novel I had written, 400 pages , and formatted it so that the entire book fit on one piece of paper. And I handed it out to people. It was unreadable. The text was too small. But it was all 120,000 words, shrunk down so that it could fit (front and back) on one piece of paper.  At least no publisher could reject me. I was handing it out to people. It was art. I get to decide what my art would be.

Then I did another  project.  I took my ten favorite short stories I had written and I shrunk them down and printed them up in a particular way: it was small enough so that they could fit in the palm of your hand (about 2” by 3”) and you would read them in one direction and then turn the book over and upside down and you could read it in the other direction. Like two books in one. The idea is: if you were squeezed in on a bus you wouldn't have enough room to open up a book and spread it out on your lap and read it. You’d have to read something that took up no more space than the palm of your hand. So you couldn’t even read the two pages side by side like a normal book.

I made 100s of copies of the book.  I went from bookstore to bookstore and gave them a dozen copies each of my small 2-books-in-1 they could sell for a quarter each (the price to play a video game). I called one side  of the book “How I Saved the World from Mutual Assured Destruction”, and I called the other side of the book “How to Win at Video Games” (since it was two-books-in-one it needed two titles). On one cover was a picture of Richard Nixon (the MAD cover) and on the other cover (the video games cover) was a photo I took of a man with no legs.

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All of the bookstores sold out of the book (or they threw them  out. Who knows?) But I got one call (I put my phone number in the book) from a guy who told me he loved the book because he  “loved video games.”

Ever since then, for 17 years in a row, I’ve been picking myself. I don't  want to be in a position where someone else has to select me.

I was a “junior programmer analyst” at HBO and somehow they let me interview prostitutes at 3 in the morning and then gave me money to see if it could be a documentary. And while I was doing that I was doing American and starting a business.  I lost $15 million in the stock market and less than two years later I was writing articles for about…the  stock market. As well as trading for hedge funds.

99.999% of the world has a rejection letter they are ready to send you. If you try and fit within the confines of what everyone else judges to be “correct” then chances are you’re going to be incorrect. You have to stand up and say:

1) I’m going to do this

2) Here’s how I’m going to do it

3) here’s how I will get the word out.

4) If nobody likes it then I’ll tweak it and still get the word out

5) Repeat.

Over and over. Everyone needs permissions, accreditation, validation. You can’t publish a book without a publisher, people think. (See, "Why and How I Self-Publish") You can’t give legal advice without a law degree (legally you can’t but who cares), you can’t start a business and be an entrepreneur without quitting your job first and raising money and hiring five salespeople to test out your idea. You can’t be a nurse without a nursing degree. You can’t be a certified yoga instructor without, well, a certificate! You can’t work at Goldman Sachs without an ivy league degree.

These are all excuses. Maybe you can’t work at Goldman Sachs without an ivy league degree. And you can’t publish with Harper Collins without them accepting you. And you can’t work as a nurse in a hospital without that nursing degree. And you can’t argue in front of a judge without a law degree.

But those are all excuses. If you love nursing, then go out there and be a nurse. Figure it out! You love writing, then write a book and publish it yourself. You want to make a lot of money being a banker then go out and find a CEO that wants to sell his company and go sell it (for a nice fee). You want to make a TV show then take a camera, have an idea, and make a TV show.

I wanted to make a comic book, so I made one (on sale at Amazon as of tomorrow):

Nobody is ever going to stop you ever again. You don't need permission from anyone. And every day will be a work of art.

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  • Why are we such a weak people? That we can not even do what we think we want to do?

    • Kevin Faul

      First you have to know what you want. Then you have to know what to do. 

      Simple as this may seem, it’s an enormous hurdle.

      I think this is James’ point.

      • Really, because I got the message that says ,”just do it”  like “wtf” is wrong with you if you want something go get it, now…I didn’t notice a mention that it was difficult….and in the comment section one might be lead to believe that everyone and their brother was successful at this….I don’t know, maybe I am in such a foul  mood I can’t think straight. 

        I appreciate your comment Kevin.  Thanks.

        • Kevin Faul

          I like your blog.

  • I’ve never read Vollmann.  Which book should I start with?

    • If you’re into the more sensational stuff, go with The Rainbow Stories. The Rifles or You Bright and Risen Angels are fabulous, though… kind of revisionist history, based on his time in the Arctic Circle


  • Benjamin Rosenthal

    Hi James,

    I agree 100%.  I have a cousin who at 16, when he was still in high school, decided to open a computer store.  People kept telling him, “You can’t do that, you’re not old enough.”  He would just say, “Why not?” and then ignore whatever they had to say.  He somehow managed to open the store and it was very successful for quite some time.  He has followed the same line of thinking for a number of successful businesses that hundreds of people told him would never work.  He just did it.


    P.S. You are a brilliant nut-job. Please get a haircut.

  • GSL

    Although you would’ve been hard-pressed to beat Mario Lemieux’s non-Hodgkin’s story at that point.

    • LeMieux is a great story. Not that everything is a competition, but Magic Johnson comes to mind, too.

      Well, maybe everything is a competition.

  • Awesome. I love your idea of putting your art out there in that medium.

    I love that you like Vollmann! The Rifles is one of my favorite novels. But most folks just raise an eyebrow when I mention his name… anyway, it’s very cool (but also not too surprising) that Vollmann called you.  One of my profs in college was able to get to know him well enough to do a couple of interviews, which apparently is a rare thing as Vollmann’s a known recluse. The prof said that he just had a heart of gold for anyone in need.

  • Not suprised about the choice of AIDS, AcsMan… Vollmann has a heart of gold and will reach out to anyone in need. Check out some of his books!

    • If it takes telling someone that you have AIDS to elicit a warm or sensitive response, that may not qualify as having a “heart of gold”.

      I haven’t read any of Vollman’s work but do you assess his heart on the basis of the body of his writings or the body of his actions?

  • James, I don’t have the basis to agree with your assessment that Vollman will someday get a Nobel Prize, but for my money, whoever invented “Caller ID” should get multiple Nobles.

    Save me the need to re-read your blog, but did you ever return Vollman’s call? I find it hard to initiate the phone process as I hate the telephone in all of its iterations, so I could understand why you may not have done so.

    But what if?

    • I didn’t return his call. I was too ashamed at what i had done but too embarrassed to admit it.

  • P Jaunne

    Excellent!  Spot on again.  No excuse and take 100% responsibility.  Saw this quote the other day …
    “I am responsible for what I see.
     I choose the feelings I experience, and 
     I decide upon the goal I would achieve.  
     And everything that seems to happen to me 
     I ask for, and receive as I have asked.”

  • Lori

    this is so true. i started a company when i was 22 and people said, “you can’t do that.” i started a private school with no background in education; within three years i was traveling the country as an educational consultant. i was offered a job teaching college; i had to tell them i didn’t have a degree in education.

    i wrote a book. i started another company. my husband and i built a unique house. we homeschooled our kids. practically everything we’ve done, those around have said some version of “you can’t do that.”the general reaction seems to be, “wait – don’t you need X?” money, qualifications, permission, a degree. in general, you don’t. you just do what you want to do and get the experience and knowledge along the way.

  • Spot on. I’m a big advocate of the “just do it” school. This was the advice I gave my nieces graduating from high school. You want to learn about something, some avocation? Just do it. You want to climb a mountain? Just do it. Curious about the rest of the United States? Go travel–just do it. Anything is possible, including failure, but that is what makes just doing something fun and exciting. You learn, you figure it out, you triumph, or, if it’s not for you, you move on with a knowledge base you didn’t have before. Just finding the courage to jump in and make something happen is 75% of the “just do it” route, I think. It’s harder to make that first step than doing anything else. But…just do it!

    • its a great approach and your nieces are luck to have you there. So many people put up blockades to “just doing it” but they will insist the blockades are real. Everyone is afraid to fail. Including me. But sometimes you have to just die in.

  • This was funny in a twisted way, AIDS and man with no legs statements still cracking me up. Too many rights and wrongs in society, I’ve been known to ask too many “why nots”, which has earned me the VIP nick, that is a Very Irritating Person, I take that as a compliment! Great post! 

  • It just so happens that I wanted to go out and buy my first ever comic book.  Tomorrow. 

    What a coincidence. 

  • Dan

    Awesome points. Launching a new product or creation can be an extremely terrifying moment of truth but it can really be fulfilling to put yourself out there in that way.

    I once built a web application to completion, and it took me months to do so. When it came time to tell people about it I was completely terrified of being ignored or laughed at, but I did it anyway, sending out a mass email to hundreds of classmates and friends telling them about it. Well, I’d like to say that it was an overnight smashing success, but very few people even acknowledged the email, let alone signed up for the service. I was so embarrassed I cried. But I continued marketing the service heavily and it was eventually covered by a leading tech publication and pretty soon it was getting more than 25,000 hits a day.People always say perseverance is the key to success, but I think that is a little misguided. What really is required is a love of what you are working on. What others label perseverance is really a side-effect of a love of your work.

    • P Jaunne

      Right on.  Side-effect and labels (such as perseverance, etc., etc.) sounds great but can be distracting and often misused.  The result is disappointment, emptiness, and confusion.  I learned it the hard way.  It is the real stuff (love and passion) that sustain and carry us through the roughest of time.

  • MichaelDeathless

    love this! you have been a big help to me – thanks.

  • tom

    I wonder sometimes why you angst about things like rejection and loss.

    You climbed the mountain, and fell off.

    Most people are afraid to even buy the gear to climb the mountain.

    At least you know that the mountain can be climbed.

    • I think its a very important question. There’s lots of answers. I think we all have  our mountains, our angst. A lot of it boils down to howmuch love we have in our lives, how much we had growing up, how much suffering in other ways we’ve been through. i don’t know.

    • P Jaunne

      A friend of mine has two kids.  One is just a “normal” kid who is quite popular in school, and with reasonably “normal” dose of fear of rejection or loss or making mistake.  The other kid, on the other hand, is completely fearless.  He is not afraid to try anything and can talk to anyone, any stranger to sell anything for school fundraising, without the slightest fear of rejection. I watched him with envy since I am an introverted type by nature who had to push myself really hard to do sales & marketing, public speaking, sales call etc,  when I did my first startup with a friend. I hated sales and selling all my life because of my innate temperament but I had to do it.  I overcame most of the fear eventually but not without much anxiety and difficulty. It would have been a lot easier if I were less shy and fearful. But like you said “the mountain can be climbed” if you choose to go for it.   So, where does the angst come from? I don’t know.  I think some of it is proably genetically encoded?  Some probably came from past experiences/trauma?

  • PJ

    Hi James –

    Great piece.  I sit and shake my head because you are dead on…again!  As a recently unemployed (albeit successful) sale rep/manager…I am sick to my stomach at the malice that these rats engage in.  After 17 years working for “the man” I have been fired 3 times from careers where I performed (top sales rep and manager in all positions) beyond expectations.  At 42 I am sick of all the horse shit that goes around corp America…I am not sure of a product but I am off to start my business and hopefully I won’t go broke in the process…but if I do it would be no different than getting fired after doing my job.  I appreciate your writings and look forward to more.  Also, enjoyed the book.  Keep it coming…and look out corp America…game on!

  • CTS

    Bravo :)

  • Here are 10 post ideas for your blog:

    1. 10 reasons why u shouldn’t be religious
    2. 10 exact things u should do to build a high traffic website
    3. 10 reasons why u shouldn’t date with a girl based solely on her personality.
    4. 10 reasons why u shouldn’t watch TV at all
    5. 10 reasons why u shouldn’t watch movies at all.
    6. 10 reasons why u should think u r the best person on this world.
    7. 10 reasons why nothing matters
    8. why ur grades from college don’t matter in the real world.
    9. 10 things u should learn before u turn 21
    10. 10 things I want my daughters to know.

    If u recieve this, please reply.

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  • as always, good advice.

  • Leonardo Pavese

    It’s interesting that comics are, today, one of those forms of entertainment that used to be popular, in the strict sense of the word, like cinema, jazz (the music of the brothels) and even opera, and now have become a sort of cult. In some countries, (in Europe), they fall under the official classification of “culture”, and they are subsidized by the state. Comic books are now referred to as graphic novels; and it’s okay; but the market has shrunk considerably. I have to say though that also the artistic level has fallen considerably. Where are today’s Milton Caniff’s? Cinema is pretty much unbearable, with a few exceptions that nobody watches; jazz has become like a liturgy that repeats ad infinitum, always the same; and opera makes me laugh. I think that, today, the form of popular entertainment that reaches the artistic level of the comics and the motion pictures of the past is the American TV serial movie. That’s where the best of today’s writers and entertainers work. 
    Good post Altucher.

  • Itgirrrl

    hmmm… the image of the Butterfly book should have a link to the amazon page…, don’t you think??!