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Who are you?
Hey, I’m Alexander Webb and I’m a writer and one of the people behind Come Write With Us. For the moment I’m in Sydney, Australia, although I grew up in Charlottesville, VA. I lived in Hong Kong in my late teens and early 20s.
What do you write?
These days I mostly focus on nonfiction. My recent-ish work includes a special issue on cannabis for National Geographic and articles on copyrights and lowering your (already low) risk of sudden death for the New York Times.
I got started writing when I was a University student living in Hong Kong. I was probably 20 and out drinking once and I got scouted as a male model. I wasn’t a great model or especially attractive, but I was a tall foreigner, which was apparently enough to be signed to the local franchise of Elite Model Management. I was young and dumb and figured it would be easy and awesome so I did that for about a year. But I got bored and cynical and stubborn and started writing instead of attending all of my casting auditions for jobs.
Anyway, I figured I would be a published author in a year or two and writing for major newspapers so I didn’t worry about losing that job. I was totally, painfully, wrong about that, and it took me years to become “successful” as a writer. Some of that is because it just takes time as a writer, but a lot of it was mistakes I made along the way. I learned the hard way through a lot of rejections.
I guess looking back that taught me that you can’t really live someone else’s dream no matter how cool it sounds and that you have to do what you really want to do to be any good at it.
Where do you write?
I wish I had a romantic answer, but really, like everyone else, it’s coffee and my MacBook. If I’m outlining I might use a pencil and paper. I actually only use these black and gold or black and silver pencils I designed for Poetry Culture but that’s mostly because I have thousands of these things and I like the way they look.
I think we should be skeptical of anyone who says you need a specific tool to be an artist or writer. There’s no right or wrong way to create your art.
I also think there is no magic to being a writer. The most important part is starting and sticking with it.
When do you write?
Like many other writers, I think the morning is a good time to write, but I never do first thing. Usually, I’ll do yoga or go for a walk first, make breakfast, and then write. Lunchtime is the least productive period, and then things start getting interesting again in the late afternoon.
I’ve tried some writing experiments like drinking wine and writing or writing with lots of caffeine and heavy metal music. They all work but none of them last. When I wrote this book on the Zika virus I had to do it in less than 10 days and did almost the whole thing listening to “Something” by the Beatles. What’s more, I wrote basically the whole thing from the food court of the Valley Fair Mall in San Jose. I have no idea why, but it felt like that was the space to write that thing in. I rarely went back there after that.
Long story short, I think there are many tricks you can use to get into “the zone” for a particular project but none of them last forever. Right now, I’ve spent the last hour or two listening to “River Flows in You” on repeat. But I’ll be listening to something else next week, or maybe nothing at all.
Why do you write?
I’ve never done heroin but I’ve read that after the first dose, you’re always chasing the sublime feeling of that first trip. But you can never equal that feeling and you spend the rest of your addiction trying to replicate how that felt.
Sometimes I wonder if as writers we are really just chasing feelings and trying to bottle them but always having to come up with the realization that every moment in life happens once and no matter how eloquently we describe things, or how many cool facts we pack into an article, we never will fully express how it felt to experience the real thing. So I feel trapped. I know that I will never really write the perfect article, or write a book that is as good as it can be, but I’m doomed to keep trying.
I just reread what I wrote just now and it seems kind of silly. But I think that’s the closest I’ll get to expressing it.
How do you overcome writer’s block?
The best way to overcome writer’s block is to have a tight deadline with no option to procrastinate.
To the extent possible, knowing yourself is the only other way around this. I’ve realized I’m harsher on my first drafts than I should be, so I’ve learned to worry less about what I’ve just written. Kristin Wong has good advice about drafts, and I got some of my techniques from her.
Bonus: What do you enjoy doing when not writing?
I have an indie acoustic band called Lonely Singles. I’ve been playing guitar more during lockdown, but you can always get better. Every art form has limitations, and music can express some things that writing can’t — yet the presence of lyrics and structure means they are certainly linked in some way. I also have a side business that sells notebooks, pencils, and apparel called Poetry Culture.
I try to remind myself that I am fortunate to be alive and that life can really be beautiful.