You Don’t Belong Here: Esquire’s Chris Jones

I’m a big fan of Esquire magazine. In fact, I’ve contacted a few of their writers over the past couple of years.

The e-mails were relatively safe.

AJ Jacobs told me “mazel tov” on my first book. Tom Chiarella gave me some excellent writing advice. (Because of him, I now have a very comfortable office chair.)

While I appreciated the responses, the interactions always felt incomplete. I wanted to talk with them about work, and money, and women. I wanted to talk about life. But it’s tough to do that without seeming weird.

“Hello. I admire your work. Do you want to be my friend?”

As someone who gets the occasional semi-stalker e-mail, I know how something like that will be received. (Hint: It involves the “delete” key.)

Still, I wanted a deeper connection.

So when I wrote Esquire contributor Chris Jones, I asked if he’d be interested in doing an interview. Pretty harmless, I thought.

Then he agreed, and I immediately regretted asking.

The guy does interviews for a living. I’m gonna look like a chump with my silly little questions, I thought.

In the end, of course, I got over my ego and we did the interview, which I thought went very well.

Then I had the gall to actually mimic the structure of “What I’ve Learned”, a uniquely formatted piece—the questions are removed and only direct quotes remain—that runs in Esquire every month.

So here we are, and the fear of looking like a chump has started right back up again.

But I am finding solace in one thing: I didn’t have to write shit.

A professional writer critiquing my stuff? Now that would have been embarrassing.

What I’ve Learned – Chris Jones

It’s nice to think you're the guy with the beret in the coffee shop just hanging out. But the truth is, you just have to sit your ass down and write.

I've been struggling for three or four years on a book project and have had a hard time getting the discipline to write every day. That’s why I started the blog. To practice. The problem is it worked too well. I was writing 10,000 words a month. That’s a book after nine or ten months, you know?

The ideal at Esquire is that you report so well that you could sit down at a bar and tell the story.

When you live in a big city you don't do the stuff you're supposed to do in a big city. You never go to the museums. Or the ballet. Really you're just inconvenienced by the problems of the city. You wonder, “Why am I stuck in traffic for no good reason?” We realized we were happier living in a small town.

I try to think of my ending first. I know where I want to get to. I may even write it first. Then I structure the story in a way that gets me there. I’ve always felt like the ending was the most important part.  

The idea that you can do whatever you want is a nice sentiment. In some ways it's true. Like there’s a range of possibility out there for you and if you want it bad enough you will achieve more than if you didn't want it. But it doesn't mean you can be whatever you want.

I really wanted to be a baseball catcher. I was never good enough. It's just a fact.

There's a great story about Margaret Atwood – a Canadian novelist – who was talking to a brain surgeon at a party. He said, “When I retire I'm gonna write a novel.” And she was like,  “Oh that's funny. When I retire I'm going to start operating on people's brains.”

I don't doubt that if you took someone and said, “You have to write 10,000 words” they could get it out. But no one's gonna want to read that shit.

I've never written a story where it just went straight into the magazine. You gotta be able to take the sting when they say it's not good enough.

I can take criticism from people who know something. What drives me insane is pot shots from the peanut gallery. I can't abide that shit.

I’m the youngest “writer-at-large” for the magazine. Once a year or so we all get together and go out for dinner in New York. 14 of us in a room with a fireplace and a big table. The last time I was there I said, “There are people who'd pay ten grand to sit in this seat and just listen.”

That night we ate – this will sound incredibly pretentious but it was so fucking good – we ate French fries with truffle oil. Those fries were hardcore.

I still feel like any day someone's going to call me up and say, you know this is all one big joke. You don't belong here.

Does the midlife crisis exist? Oh, God yeah. It totally exists.

It’s like, shit, time's running out and I gotta do the stuff I want to do. All of a sudden you feel like you can't tolerate unhappiness. Like it's a waste.

When I was younger I developed what I called the Baseball Theory of life. At that point the average life expectancy was something like 72 years. If you divide that by nine, it’s eight years an inning. Once you turn 32 you're in the top of the fifth inning.  At 36 you’re in the bottom of the fifth.  It’s an official game at that point. You can't mess around any more.

I'm a big fan of projects. That’s why I like working on the house. You can stand back and say, “ I did that.”

Writing is the same thing. “I wrote that story today.”

I love manual labor. It shuts my brain off. Yesterday I was stripping wallpaper.  You enter this sort of Karate Kid zen-state where you're just doing it. You kind of float away for a while.

Over the past few months I’ve realized how much more I can get done in a day. If you write a little bit each day it adds up. A million words is 500 words a day, 50 weeks a year, for 8 years.

If I thought of the whole house, I’d melt. But today I'm stripping wall paper. And so I do it. Eventually the whole house gets done.

I look like a homeless person a lot of the time. I don't take real good care of my appearance. That’s why I love walking into a place and being able to pay cash. I’m sure that sounds juvenile. A few months ago, I bought a new Toyota truck. I look like the guy who should be sleeping under the truck. 

I’m sure a lot of people in our old neighborhood thought I was a drug dealer. We lived in a nice house and I was always around during the day.

I worked all the way through school. No student loan debts. No credit card debt. I don’t want to owe anyone anything. I want to do it all myself.

Do I care what they think? It depends on if I like them, I guess. Recently, I wrote a story about Roger Ebert. I didn’t keep anything out of it. It was 100 percent honest. But I definitely care what he thinks of it.

One thing that’s always preached in journalism is that you’re supposed to be objective. A neutral party. I think that’s a lie. I don't think anyone could sit there with Roger and feel totally neutral about him.

I’ve got a pretty good track record of knowing who the assholes are and who the good guys are.

I can’t just buy a house and live in it. I have to know what’s inside the walls. I need to know all its secrets.

A house is a home when you know everything about it. And when you fart in it a lot.

You know what you did? You made me forget it was an interview. Which is really the key.  When you do an interview, you both should gradually forget who the other person is. No one has the upper hand. No one is on guard. It’s just two guys talking about life.

If you think you're great now, you'll probably never actually be great, because you're not gonna work hard to get better.

That’s a good question.

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Chris Jones is a two-time National Magazine Award winner and writer-at-large for Esquire magazine.

Check out his blog, Son of Bold Venture.