by Christopher James
I always wanted to be a writer. Or, more accurately, I wanted to be an “author.” I feel a little silly saying “author” because it reminds me of the child I was back then. I was odd at five. Smart, yes, but too shy to raise my hand in class when I needed to pee, so I had more than one disaster. Good at sports, probably from running to reach the loo before it was too late! I remember having many friends, but also spending time alone, chasing butterflies and trying to walk with shoes on the wrong feet. Odd, right? And I must’ve read constantly.
I got a Mickey Mouse annual, full of comic-strips, letters to Donald and EuroDisneyland adverts. It had a do-it-yourself frontispiece – a space to draw your favourite character and some questions. What’s your name? How old are you? What do you want to be when you grow up? I don’t recall my favorite character (I feel like saying Goofy, but suspect it was Pluto. We later had a dog called Pluto). But I remember my answer to that last question. “Author,” written in a handwriting that’s barely improved in the thirty years since.
I found the annual some time later, when I was moving into teenagehood and starting to think more seriously about my future, and I saw that answer, “author,” and I thought YES! That’s exactly what I want to be. Nailed it aged five! And it’s been with me from then till now.
Of course, wanting to be a writer and wanting to write are not one and the same. I didn’t write a lot. Zadie Smith once described being told that Ian McEwan wrote only fifteen words a day. That seems impossible to reconcile with his fairly prodigious output, and I don’t think it’s true, but for years I wrote even less than that. Fifteen words a day? Ha! Who had time for that hard labour? Nevertheless, whenever people asked what I wanted to be, I still said the same thing. A writer.
There were exceptions to my fourteen-or-less-words-a-day days. I spent a year in Central America and wrote constantly, a terrible spewing of handwritten nonsense, tiny cramped-up letters that wouldn’t fill my already-heavy backpack with any more notebooks. I finished a novel, since disappeared, about a hopeful plot to destroy manufactured pop, and started another, also disappeared, about god-knows-what. I wrote without reflecting back on what I’d written, and learned nothing. I was writing, but I still wasn’t a writer – I was a notebook-filler.
Back in London, I got a real job and the notebooks disappeared, and I waited for the day I’d wake up, look in the mirror, and magically be perfect at all this. About then, the Times (the newspaper) ran a competition for a love story in 300 words. I’d never written anything so short, but I gave it a go with a story about a man who spray-painted a love message to the woman leaving him, on a bridge where she’d see it every day. The same night, another man jumped from the bridge, and the world thought the message came from him. I called the story “Amore Eterno,” and it won third place. I was ecstatic!
They published it (the fools!) in the paper, meaning people all over the country could read it. Someone then told me about this website called Zoetrope, where writers workshopped stories, and this thing called Flash Fiction, stories in under 1000 words, and, buoyed by my national success, I thought that this was something I could do. Something that could really teach me how to write.
So began an apprenticeship. I ‘met’ writers like Randall Brown and Kuzhali Manickavel! I slowly improved. Slowly got published. Now I was writing every day, or almost every day, and learning what worked and what didn’t.
Sometimes it was hard. I learnt to care less about rejection slips! Sometimes it was rewarding. I had pieces picked up by Smokelong, by McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, by Matter Press. I won a few prizes, with Camera Obscura, with Tin House. I discovered some amazing writers, and a new way of reading.
At the same time I moved to Indonesia. I stopped drinking so much, stopped taking drugs on the weekend, met a nice girl. I made more time to write, finally acknowledging that this writing dream wasn’t Just Going To Happen. I had to make it happen. I dedicated myself to it. And it was working. I was becoming a writer.
Then one day – I think it was Idul Fitri – I started an online magazine. I’d half-heartedly thought about doing this before, but on this particular day I did it. There were personal reasons – it would help take my writing to the next level. But there were other reasons too. It was a time when many magazines I loved were starting to charge for submissions, and when it felt harder for writers to take risks on what they sent out. I wanted a venue that encouraged risks.
I opened a WordPress thingy. I started a Facebook wadjamacallit, and invited thousands of people (sorry!). I announced a call for submissions. In honour of my favourite animal, beautiful and dangerous, I called the magazine Jellyfish Review. It would only publish flash.
Jellyfish Review is now blossoming into a bit of a minor success. We’ve published stories by incredible writers, including Elaine Chiew, Beverly Jackson, Sara Lippmann, Len Kuntz and Gay Degani. We have stories by even more incredible writers lined up. We’re developing our own style, unique and unpredictable.
I spend hours every day working on it. Reading submissions, formatting stories, choosing artwork, promoting the magazine, keeping everything ticking. It’s hard work, but wonderful.
For the first time ever, I think I’ve found something I want to do even more than being a writer. And I love it. I finally know what I want to be when I grow up.
Christopher James lives, works and writes in Jakarta, Indonesia. He has previously been published online in many venues, including Tin House, McSweeney’s, Smokelong, and Wigleaf. He is the editor of Jellyfish Review.