Introducing the Delusional Writers’ Spectrum

Start with a recap and end by announcing that I’ve possibly lost my mind—this might not be the best strategy for an essay regarding a work of fiction, but it will do for now. I wrote Zombie Lolita in August 2013 in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia and I edited the piece during a road trip with my brother to Hiroshima, Japan. Delusion is the name of the game, and it is the theme for Napoleon Trembles, the story collection that Zombie Lolita belongs to. Speaking of my own personal delusion, now three of the fifteen stories in Napoleon Trembles have been published, which means I am twelve steps closer to making a pretty good case as to why someone should actually publish a copy of the manuscript, but more on my own personal delusion later. Zombie Lolita. In the story, a man named Stuart Sulloway gets an e-mail from a Nigerian scam artist collecting short stories. The e-mail offers Sulloway publication in the New Yorker. Sulloway immediately throws away everything he has, from his family to his job, to move to Brooklyn and become a “real writer”. While in New York, he hopes to find a publisher for his manuscript, Zombie Lolita, which is a rework of Nabokov’s classic piece injected with zombies. Spoiler alert: Sulloway fails in his endeavors, and after sacrificing everything he has to pursue his dream, the story ends with Sulloway living in a one bedroom apartment looking at the fake acceptance letter. Zombie Lolita is a warning to pay heed to how far we will go to accomplish supposed fame; it also is a Robert Scott-worthy exploration of delusion, which I will examine further in this essay. Writing is like Indian food—it burns on the way in and on the way out (trust me, I’ve lived in India). Let me rephrase: the world doesn’t need Stuart Sulloway and the writers he represents, which in a way, is all of us. So the world doesn’t need us, at least for much longer, and this fact burns, a good melancholic burn every time we churn something out that no one cares about. We want that burn to stand out because after all, we need to sell our shit (if not for money, for self-esteem). We take chances—anything to augment our personal story with hopes of eventually selling a fabricated one. We need stories to sell our stories. To paraphrase: who wants to read about a writer who had everything handed to them on a silver platter and published their first novel after going to an Ivy League school and being trained by a Pulitzer Prize winning writer in the art of literary embellishment? Stuart Sulloway doesn’t, and Stuart Sulloway, the same fool who’s written a manuscript entitled Zombie Lolita, hopes to create his own narrative. He wants to radiate his trials and tribulations to the masses, his years of slaving away at a 9-5 job while a novel boiled madly in his skull; he needs a good laugh for his debut on The Daily Show, or his first interview on the New York Times Book Review Podcast; he needs a story to tell in order to tell his next story. To illustrate the level of delusion we are dealing with here, I give you the back cover biography Sulloway plans out after his wife has tried to burn their house down due to the fact he’s divorcing her:

Stuart Sulloway, a Portland-native who lives in New York City with his son Quinn, is the survivor of an arsonist attack by his pyromaniac ex-wife. His forthcoming novel, Zombie Lolita, will be followed by a collection of short stories entitled, The Dreams of Stuart Sulloway: An Exploration of Genius and Chance.

Beyond delusional, as most writers are. Now, before you think I’m calling you or anyone you know out, or placing judgment on the field we hold so dear to our little black hearts, let it be known that delusion isn’t necessarily a bad thing (skip to the end if you’d like to read about my level of delusion, which may shock you). And the skin separating delusion from its conjoined twin illusion isn’t as thick as we imagined. Delusion: a false belief that has been surrendered to and accepted in one’s mind as true. Illusion: a false impression that is entertained. The line between false belief and false impression is miniscule indeed. And while it’s clear that Sulloway has fallen to one side of the line of delusion, he’s looking to the other side as he moves further away from the truth, like walking backwards on a football field-sized treadmill. My delusional epiphany: Writing should be classified as a mild psychological disorder. This brings me into a new term I would like to introduce called the Delusional Writers’ Spectrum. Let’s examine the pirate novelist I worked with so many years ago. The man was convinced he would write the next pirate masterpiece (if there can be such a thing). As we cleaned the café together, he would elaborate on his pirate story, his plans for the future, the money he would make once he sold the movie rights, the little known parts of a pirate ship, the necessity for him to be drunk while writing because a pirate would do this and most importantly, why his protagonist was the most badass protagonist of them all, way cooler than Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. Take another novelist I know who has poured his soul into a young adult book about the journey of four boys and how they eventually converge upon each other in a fictional world. He’s drawn huge elaborate maps of his world and its cities, speaks of his characters as if they are in the room and how his book will be a bestseller. He’s done years of research, planning and strategizing. Still the struggle continues, still the madness is maddening. Then there’s the quiet novelist, the one who doesn’t speak of her work but lets you know that she’s working on something only after you’ve met her a dozen times. She hides the fact that she’s writing and if discovered, she waves it off as if it’s just a hobby. The quiet novelist is just as dangerous as the boisterous one or the one who works too hard to no end—all of them have a place on the Delusional Writers’ Spectrum and are welcome here. There’s also the guy who keeps telling you about the novel he has running around his head and how he’s going to write it and how it’s going to be great. This guy doesn’t know anything about the industry, doesn’t read much (similar to Cormac McCarthy but without the clout), plans to knock his novel out at some point, if he can only find the time. This person is a staple on the Delusion Writers’ Spectrum. Don’t forget the method writer. The method writer goes to extreme lengths to recreate what his characters have gone through. This is the lady cutting her wrist to better describe the pain, or the guy starving himself to see what hunger pangs feel like—another welcome addition to the Delusional Writers’ Spectrum. So where does Stuart Sulloway fit into this? Sulloway is a throwaway writer who believes he is to be published by The New Yorker and plans to follow-up his success with a zombified remake of Lolita. He is the extreme version of all of us, from the guy boasting he’ll write a bestseller to the person inflicting personal pain to accomplish their writing goal.Sulloway is a caricature of all the people on the Delusional Writers’ Spectrum, and the opening line from The Beatle’s I Am the Walrus never felt so apropos. I am Stuart Sulloway. I am also just like the writers I’ve listed above. I’ve kept quiet for years about my writing and thrown away relationships in pursuit of my unremitting dream of novelling. I’ve traveled to India after saving up for a year to hole myself up in a small concrete hotel room (concrete floor, no bed, no bathroom) to write the grim portion of a novel that was never published. I’ve ventured to the westernmost ends of Mongolia on the border of Kazakhstan to write a book about shamanism for a book that was also never published. I tried self-publishing an e-book, and spent ten percent of my net worth to print fliers to hand out during South by South West in 2011, assuming it would be a bestseller. (All to no avail, of course. The book “sold” 200 free downloads…) At the request of another delusion writer, I helped write a Mongolian sitcom, spending six months of my life in translation hell and eventually, being cast as a lead actor and filming a YouTube video of me speaking in Mongolian (serious—YouTube: Lonely Rick, it’s the first one that will come up). It has never aired. Failures add up like exes. Then there’s my latest incursion into the writing industry. Along with two other men, I’ve founded a print and e-book publishing company with a focus on ESL books. Over the last six months, I’ve written or co-written no less than ten reader-sized novels which will be published this summer. I will be moving to Tokyo in June 2014, to hole myself up in an apartment to write a Young Adult sci-fi dystopian novel called 21 Years for the advanced ESL market and the North American market (holing myself up seems to be a theme in my personal narrative). All this to say: I might be one of the lucky ones. Yes, really. Good news: My delusion has reached a point where it’s now becoming a viable thing, a real possibility after nearly a decade of literary struggling. That or I’ve spiraled so far down into the pits of delusion that anything sounds possible now. (I hope this isn’t the case, but what is hope without delusion?) The point I’m trying to make is this: If you, as a writer, don’t register somewhere on the Delusional Writers’ Spectrum, maybe you should rethink what you are doing. After all, we are all crazy, even the ones who haven’t written anything at all. Stuart Sulloway very well may be normal compared to some of us. So, where do you fit on the Delusional Writers’ Spectrum?

Cooper Baltis hs published stories in the Sorin Oak Review, The Metric, Writing Tomorrow and will be published in the Garbanzo Literary Journal this summer. He was honorably mentioned in Glimmer Train’s 2013 Short Story Contest for New Writers, and he is halfway through my eighth full-length manuscript. He currently alternates between Tokyo, Japan and Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, where he has started an electronic publishing company. @cooperbaltis

Cooper Baltis
Cooper Baltis is a Texas-born, former United States Fulbright Fellow living in and teaching English in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. He has stories in the Sorin Oak Review and The Metric, and Writing Tomorrow. He was recently honorably mentioned in Glimmer Train’s 2013 Short Story Contest for New Writers.