It’s a gloriously sunny day, the tulip sprouts are peeking out of the soil, and I’m here today to talk about new beginnings. I’m excited to let you in on a big, big project that I’ve been working on for a long time.
It’s a book. Well, it’s kind of a book. Well, it’s kind of not a book either.
It’s a deeply personal and vulnerable storytelling project called Momentum. Here’s the link.
(As always, you can get off this list by unsubscribing here.)
Okay, here’s a bit of context. Way back in 2010, I spent about a year walking by myself down the West Coast of the US—from Vancouver, Canada to Mexico. It was one of those dramatic, soap opera stories that go with being in your twenties. (At the time, I was 29-going on-17.) I’d had a bad breakup, the walking trip was my ex-girlfriend’s idea, we were going to do it together. When she left, I decided that the only way I could get her back was to commit to the thing we’d been talking about for months—even though I really never wanted to do it.
My John Cusack Say Anything, stereo-over-my-head moment was launching a project on the crowdfunding website, Kickstarter, asking the whole Internet to pitch in a little money to fund my trip. I came up with a highfalutin idea about an art project, photography, travel, cultural communication—an idea that wasn’t just half-baked but had hardly been in the oven.
Long story short, I got the money but I couldn’t convince my ex to walk with me. Heartbroken, humiliated, and terrified to tell all the people who’d given me money that the whole thing was a ploy, that I had absolutely no interest in doing the thing, that I had just consulted a map and discovered that Tijuana was, like, really, really, really far away, I decided that I had no other choice than to start walking.
I left in September, walked into Northern California in the middle of the wet winter, and finally crossed the Golden Gate Bridge on a unseasonably summery February day. I stuck to the coast—Santa Cruz, Monterey, Big Sur, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles—and reached Orange County on the Fourth of July. It turned out to be an incredible, almost unbelievable journey.
EverythingI value in my life—my friendships, my relationships, my career, my sense of self, everything—has its roots in what I learned during this walking trip.
This walking trip became the capital-s Story of my life. (Many of you are on this newsletter because you heard me talk about my walk at a workshop or conference.)
When I finished this walk, in the fall of 2011, I decided that I had been initiated in the strange and ancient guild called “storytellers.” I also decided that I had a responsibility to share my journey. I wanted to inspire people, I wanted to talk about the deep emotions I worked through, and, yes, I wanted to make Oprah-level bank.
My Story was deeply personal and vulnerable, of course. But it was also wild and strange and hilarious. There was sex and drugs and spirituality. There was a lot of girl-chasing and falling flat on my face. It took a, like, really, really, really long time for me to learn some basic moral, ethical, and practical concepts around being an adult.
That was a big part of the Story too. This was way more than a Bill Bryson-style Walk in the Woods, and I wanted to honor that.
In those early post-Story years, I wrote and I wrote. I rented a tiny cabin on a remote island in Northern British Columbia and literally chopped wood and bathed with cold water. At night, I got stoned and imagined that I was about to get a phone call from the CEO at Random House, he was going to say that he’d already printed my $1 million check, my book was already on track to be the next Eat, Pray, Love.
Of course, that phone call never came, and after a few years of writing feverishly and getting nowhere, I decided that I needed to cut out the really, really, really and finally get a job. I moved to a small city called Victoria and told the world that I was a storyteller. The world basically said, meh. I said, no, I’m really serious. And I followed a strange meandering line that led me from there to here—a line that, incidentally, I’m still following.
Through all of this time, I’ve been writing and writing off the side of my desk, still tending to some of the same dreams that carried me when I was walking.
If you’ve never written a memoir, take it from me—it’s really hard. Everyone has a Story, of course, but not everyone has a Story that other people are willing to put their time into caring about. For us, our Stories are our lives. For other people, they’re entertainment.
Transforming experience into entertainment is the eternal journey of the storyteller.
I’m a pretty self-reflective guy—if you haven’t noticed—so I was already quite good at this. I wanted to tell a story about transformation, and that necessitated showing people me at my worst so I could help them understand the inner distance that I covered. I also knew that the story needed to hit on some universal themes and touch something of the cultural zeitgest if it was going to win attention on the attention marketplace.
At the same time, the whole world was evolving around me. You might have noticed that the 2010s were a transformative decade—socially, culturally, technologically. With every breaking news story, the context around my walking trip changed.
I wrote and I wrote and I wrote, and the story evolved and evolved and evolved. It was so frustrating. I kept trying to hit a moving target.
Along the way, I came to learn that the publishing industry is a business like anything else. The Random House CEO’s job is to sell books—lots and lots and lots of them. There’s some aptitude for tending the tortured soul of the artistic creative, but frankly, most publishers these days seem to prefer concrete deliverables and safe bets.
There wasn’t much appetite to take a flyer on an unproven author with next to no social media following.
I wrote and wrote and wrote, the story evolved and evolved and evolved, and I took a lot of good hard looks in the mirror. Why was I really spending so much time doing this? By the start of the pandemic, I had easily spent thousands of hours of writing, I had written out the whole trip, start to finish, at least fifty times. Over and over and over again, I had re-lived some of the most intense and intensely vulnerable experiences of my life. Again and again. In minute detail. Over and over and over.
My wife would ask me why I was spending so much time living “back there.” It wasn’t a criticism—it was actually a question that deserved a real answer. I struggled to articulate mine. The nearest I could get was that there was something I had touched on that trip, and that something kept returning every time I sat down to return to it.
I didn’t have a name for that something—it wasn’t quite creativity or fulfillment or joy or flow, though it was a little of all of those things—but I knew that I needed it with a depth of purpose that goes beyond the meaning of those words.
And so I wrote and I wrote and I wrote, and the story evolved and evolved and evolved. Time passed. I learned a lot from the experience.
I began feeling bolder. I began giving myself permission to experiment. I began to trust my creativity.
About 9 months ago, I decided to put the idea of a book temporarily to the side. What if, instead, I shared the Story online? That way, I wouldn’t be beholden to the limitations of a physical book—I could go on as long as I wanted, I could include rich media like maps and photos and audio, I could keep the rights and tell the Story that I wanted to tell.
The book—kind of a book—kind of not a book—thing became a website. It’s kind of like a travel blog and a memoir smushed together.
As you can no doubt hear, I’m still trying to find the language to talk about it.
launched Momentum back in September, and it has evolved plenty since then.
The structure is pretty simple. There are a series of “episodes” that are arranged into “seasons.” Every “episode” fit into the larger narrative arc.
Individually, every “episode” is a self-contained narrative about something that happened on the trip—mostly about the people I met along the way. Every episode includes photographs, audio, maps, etc., but the Story is primarily driven with narrative writing.
The style is pretty similar to these newsletters—stream of consciousnessish, casualish, playfulish, and also pretty emotionally intense.
If you like this, you’ll probably like that.
Back in September I launched Season One—the first seven episodes of the Story. They focused on the fall in Washington and Southern Oregon. Today, I’m going to launch the first episode of Season Two, which is all about the wet winter in Northern California.
It’s raw, it’s vulnerable, there’s lots of sex and drugs, it’s really, really, really real. I’m really proud of it, and still kind of confused where the momentum will take me.
Of course, I want readers. But I haven’t yet figure out how to attract attention. And I still don’t completely understand exactly what it will do. Will strangers like it? Who will spend all that time reading on their phone/computer? How do I go about promoting it? What’s the new Story I want to tell?
All of this is a work-in-progress—and maybe that’s the point.
In truth, though, I’m still searching for fulfilment and satisfaction, still searching for the validation that all that work alone, in my own head, wasn’t in vain. I dream of being a great artist, and I’m terrified that I’m only going to discover that deep down I’m nothing more than a hack—that I don’t have capital-t Talent and its my destiny to be mediocre and ignored. Other days, I can see my own courage, I can value the quality of my own work.
It’s a really strange thing to try to be a creative human being—I wish it on all of you.
What I really want is also so terrifying that I can hardly summon it to my fingertips. I want to make something awesome, I want to make something powerful, I want to make work that I can stand behind, I want to make work that expresses the depth of my soul. I want to make work that really changes the world, and just writing that scares me by how grandiose that might sound, how much it might feel like being an Instagram guru.
So I keep writing and writing and writing. I keep evolving and evolving and evolving. I keep trying to grow and forgiving myself for my many, many mistakes.
Momentum has been such an important part of my journey, and I’ve kept it hidden for more than a decade.
Check it out. I hope that you like it.