The World’s Fattest Vegan?

People stumble across my blog every day by searching “world’s fattest vegan.” It’s a title I gave myself upon first starting that journey in December 2012. Vegans, it seemed, were the epitome of health. I clocked in at 371 pounds. I decided to make a change. Hence, the title.

It was funny. People on Twitter got a kick out of it.

But now that some people identify me as not just a fat vegan, but the fattest one of all, it brings to mind many philosophical questions:

Am I really the fattest vegan out there?

If I slip up, as I did recently pretty much the entire last year, does that mean I have to relinquish my belt? Do 99 percent vegans count? Or 95 percent? Or six-day-a-week vegans? The vegan police, I have since learned, are … well, they’re not all that nice.

That bread has honey in it, you traitor! Revoke his vegan card and spit on him on the way out!

Yeah, I’m convinced it’s those people that led to the whole idea that people who eat plants are condescending assholes.

However, the most important philosophical question is this: some things are just not meant to be life-long goals, right?

Do you realize that someone out there is the worst driver on the entire plane? Or that someone has set the record for shoveling the most chicken wings into his face in 30 minutes without vomiting? Or that someone can probably recite every Pauly Shore movie from opening shot to closing credits?

Some titles come with appropriate levels of public shame. It’s what keeps the human race on track.

In fact, pulling out some of the negative Google searches that bring people to this blog creates a rather depressing abstract poem:

worlds fattest vegan
fuck fatty
falling off the vegan wagon
tried to juice fast but couldn’t do it
don’t kill yourself

Hey, take it easy, eh? Tell me what you really think.

I realize I’ve been a bit sidetracked from my goals — as I type this there’s a steadily growing pile of pizza boxes on the counter — so I’m thinking maybe I should finish up that first goal. What was that? Oh yeah, eat healthy and get healthy.

Oops. Slipped my mind somehow.

I think that’s realistically something to shoot for: transition from world’s fattest vegan to just a plain ol’ fat vegan. Besides, I’ve still got a few vegan projects I’ve got to finish up on this blog yet.

Yeah, I think I can do that. Though I’m still not sure on the whole juicing part.

You Want to Get Paid to Write? Here’s How I Did It

The other day a colleague called me out of the blue wanting some career guidance.

“You’ve got the kind of job I’d love to have,” he said. “I’m wondering if you could give me some advice on how you got started.”

It made me think. I am pretty damn lucky. As the editor of HackSurfer, I spend my days getting paid to write. I get to coach and teach new writers. I get to try new things. Basically, I get to do whatever the hell I want.

When football season started, we created our own game called Fantasy Cybercrime. Every week our staff faces off against each other and we post the results. I’m currently in second place. The winner gets a bobble head trophy. I want it.

I host webinars using Google Hangouts. I get to interview experts in the field. I mess around on social media. I create graphics and videos and papers and ebooks. Most of all, I get to write and come up with new ideas. Every day. Soon, we may start a podcast.

I have an amazing boss like that. “Tell me when I’m shitting the bed, otherwise, I’ll just run with this,” I told him. I had no idea what I was supposed to do, so I started running.

It’s awesome and I love it. Occasionally, I forget how lucky I am. Everyone does. Like anyone who gets to live their dream, I’m constantly waiting for the rug to get pulled out from under me. So far, it hasn’t.

It’s been a long and strange journey to writing full-time.

My First Paycheck for Writing

It was 2001. I was 16. I wanted to write, but had no clue how to go about it. Truthfully, I had no clue what to even write about.

I bought that ancient tomb, the Writer’s Market, and would pour through the submission listings, circling anything that sounded like it might let a hack like me slip through. I bought writing magazines, there were a handful at the local bookstore, and read them cover to cover. One in particular had a short story writing prompt each month. I used them to pen some truly horrific short fiction, including a version of this short story. A few years later, with a bit of editing, it’s not that bad.

I had no idea what it meant to be a writer. I’d just watched Almost Famous. I imagined myself penning in-depth features for Rolling Stone that sprawled across a half dozen glossy pages.

But even at 16, the math of it all didn’t add up. How could a person survive? There were listings at the big magazines that paid big — maybe $2 a word — but damn, that would mean I’d need to land a feature at a brand name magazine every single month to keep putting food in my mouth.

And I hadn’t published anything, or submitted anything other than some terrible short stories that wouldn’t even pay if they were published. It was a daunting hill to climb.

But I kept looking and reading, and I found a few sections in writing magazines where they accepted stories from writers about writing. I wrote a short piece, “Another Day, Another Rejection Letter,” about walking to the mailbox and the excitement, and fear, of seeing that envelope with your own writing on it — the joke of it all being that evil editors would not only make you wait months to reject you, but also make you pay for your own rejection with those damn self-addressed-stamped envelopes.

The one line I remember: “There is some kind of sick, self-inflicted torture that I find in paying for my own rejection.”

It was funny and interesting, and I knew it.

It got rejected one or two places with encouraging comments before being published in FellowScript, a quarterly Canadian newsletter.

I was paid $15 — in Canadian money, which at the time was actually like $13.75.

Phase 2: Being a Broke Writer in College

Truth be told, I may not be the most inspiring case. I was never the plucky young writer who wouldn’t give up until he reached his dream, bashing down barriers one heartfelt story at a time.

I stopped writing. I changed course. I gave up — many times.

I was going to be an engineer. I kicked ass at Advanced Calculus. I kicked ass at Advanced Physics. But throughout my high school and college years, I loved writing assignments.

Every moment where a teacher wrote, “You’re a great writer!” or “I loved it!” on a paper stayed with me. I remember my Food Journalism professor reading out loud an essay I wrote in college, and I could sense the classes disappointment — it was pretty damn good, even moreso the way she read it. She encouraged me to write for the school paper, and if it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

But writing some bullshit personal essay is cheap. That kind of stuff didn’t count. It’s not going to get you paid, I told myself. I still believe that’s true. I blog here, and it’s fun, but I don’t expect to make any money off of it.

I decided to not work for a year, snagged some private loans to pay my expenses, and tried writing again, eventually for the student newspaper.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, interviewing was the most important thing I learned. For years, I had no idea how to write something that would actually lead to getting paid — other than some abstract idea like writing a book and praying it sells — but with interviews, I could write about anything.

I interviewed professors. I interviewed students. I even got to interview Patrick Rothfuss, who taught at my college, about a book he was releasing. This was before he was the badass international bestseller he’s now become, though the epic beard has never changed.

I learned a ton. For one, I learned what it’s like to be a real writer. I remember one story I wrote about student debt and all of the pieces that I had to assemble. I must have interviewed a half-dozen people for it. I read studies. I quoted statistics.

It started with a student. “I’m scared to go to school,” he said about the mountain of debt he faced. “I’m contemplating if I want to continue.”

It was my first every true feature-style story.

Another story I wrote began:

As semesters draw to an end at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Anthony Ellertson usually can be found standing in front of his class quoting T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” and telling his students that, if Einstein’s right about time, each moment is eternal, and they will always be sitting in that room together.

As semesters begin he often tells his students they’re going to change the world.

It’s not quite the expected subjects for a group of students learning about Web design.

I quote those to illustrate a key point, one that I will make again and again. People want stories. In order to tell those stories, you have to go out into the world, or at least pick up the phone. It seems obvious now, but for years I couldn’t make the connection.

Yes, it was terrifying at first, especially for us introverts. I made a fool of myself on more than one occasion. But once you begin to collect those stories and statistics and ideas and play around with them and shape them, it’s exhilarating. That’s the fun part.

Interviewing is now, hands down, the favorite part of my job.

I should point out that throughout this short period I didn’t get paid. And a lot of what I wrote was crap. But some of it was good, at least a couple of articles, and it gave me a variety of stories that I could showcase when people asked for clips. You need them.

My professor put me in touch with a local paper, and I wrote an occasional story for them. Sometimes I’d rework a story for the college paper for their weekend edition. A few times they asked me to cover something in the community: a new charity in town, or a man who put a camera on huge kites and took beautiful aerial photos of the city.

Each story paid $40. I was moving up in the world.

Then I graduated. I moved. I had to start over. I gave up writing.

Phase 3: Quitting My Job

Writing, I thought, can always be a part-time thing, a hobby. So I looked for a real job. I went through a few different ones. I worked hard. I became a manager. For the first time in my life, I made decent money.

Then I quit.

After years of not writing, I realized I wanted to try again, and rather than dust off that old Writer’s Market, I went online.

I found a few sites where I could make money: content mills like TextBroker and Content Authority. Writing for them certainly wasn’t fun (get paid $5 to write 300 words on how to stain a deck!), but they gave me confidence that I could slave away and live off ramen noodles while waiting for something better to come along.

They’re mostly shitty, soul-sucking places that pay less than minimum wage, but they are an easy way to make something if you can quickly produce error-free articles.

I quickly moved to Elance, a site where you can bid on articles. A lot of the stuff on there is similarly shitty work at slave wages, but I actually found decent success there and some good opportunities.

The challenge was to stand out, and not undersell yourself. When I saw a job I really wanted to land, I put some effort into my bid. I’d make sure I had a few quality, relevant clips to send along as PDFs, and I made sure to provide several ideas or options to give them less of a chance to write me off.

That short bid is all they have to choose who to hire. Finished clips show them what you can produce. Ideas show them you understand what they want and can provide it to them several different ways. A realistic price shows them that you’re a professional and understand what you’re worth.

Yes, I did undersell myself a few times to get those initial jobs and ratings, but I was always looking for a big fish.

That’s where I found HackSurfer.

Phase 4: Becoming a Full-Time Editor

This post is becoming long, but it’s for a reason. When people ask how I got started writing, I tell them I quit my job and four months later I was the editor at a new startup and managing its cybercrime website.

Yes, I got lucky, but luck plays a part in everything. Mostly though, I knew I wanted the job, and I made damn sure I got it.

The point I want to make is that it wasn’t as easy as I quit, I found Elance, I landed a job at a cool company.

I wasn’t the only person on Elance writing stories for HackSurfer, and I knew that they’d be hiring someone full time soon.

I took it for what it was: a test. May the best man win.

Problem was, I knew absolutely nothing about cybercrime. Years ago this would have terrified me. It would have been a show stopper.

But I knew I could write about anything if I found the right people to talk to. So I found a few experts each week to interrogate for new stories. I built up a roster of contacts. I leaned on them heavily, perhaps too heavily at first.

And a few months later, I got the job. I knew I would. Because I stood out.

That’s it. That’s the long answer to how I got started and how I became a full-time writer.

Now I’ll keep working and improving — and hoping the rug doesn’t get pulled out from under me.

Want more tips on freelance writing? I’ll collect them all on my Freelance Writing Guide Page for future reference.

One Shelf of Books — What Makes the Cut?

I wrote this post a few months back as I was preparing to move to the coast. I’ve since decided to stay in Wisconsin, at least for now, thought the oceans still calls me:

Downsizing some things is easy. With others, it’s painful.

This year I’ve made many promises to myself, and one of them is this: I’m going to live on the beach, at least for some portion of my life, and likely soon. I’ll spend my mornings watching the sun rise over the Atlantic, my afternoons writing and editing, and as the sun sets, my evening drink in hand and the sound of the waves on the beach lulling me to sleep.

I dream of hopping on my motorcycle with nothing more than my laptop, a bag full of clothes, and a few things that I cannot part with to begin a new life chapter — maybe just a short side story, maybe more.

But that poses an important question. What can I not part with?

If you want to find out what’s truly important, downsize.

With most things it’s easy, but as I looked today at my book collection — already cut in half several different times from previous moves and whittled down to books I loved — I realized I had to make some tough choices.

And I was vicious.

The fantasy classics from my youth, Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit? Gone, finally facing the same fate as the two-dozen high pile of Star Wars fiction that had gotten the boot years before.

That whole row of Stephen King paperbacks that defined my high school years but I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of even when I donated all my Dean Koontz books to the library? Gone.

Those nonfiction books that had opened my eyes to the world like Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe and Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything and Richard Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? and Richard Grant’s God’s Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre? Gone.

The same fate befell Bob Dylan’s Autobiography and The Hunger Games trilogy and a dozen other books that I took chances on and ended up loving like Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

Mostly I held this rule: if I’m not planning on rereading it soon, it goes.

So what’s left?

It’s an interesting way to look at someone’s life — not the books they do have, but the books they can’t let go.

Like the two books I read that will forever stay with me as an example of what it means to put brilliance on paper: Of Mice and Men, which showed me the power and tragedy and poetry that language can evoke, and The Great Gatsby, which I didn’t much care for in high school but have since fell in love with.

To part with them would be impossible.

In fantasy land I couldn’t part with Game of Thrones. Will I ever reread them? At their length its hard to justify, but to cast away the first five books without their upcoming companions seems wrong. So they stay.

Same with Pat Rothfuss, whose books I’ll never part with. Partly because they’re spectacular, partly because he went to the same school as me and wrote for the same newspaper, partly because he’s the only famous author I’ve ever interviewed. His books are more than books in that sense. They’re a moment in my life.

Neil Gaiman stays too. Mostly because everyone speaks highly of American gods and I don’t much remember it, so it must be reread. Plus, he has written one of my favorite short stories of all time.

Then there’s the dozen or so books I’ve purchased but never gotten around to: Richard Dawkins and Neil deGrasse Tyson and Christopher Hitchens in nonfiction, Fitzgerald and Cormac McCarthy and Elmore Leonard in fiction.

There’s a half dozen more I’ve bought and never read, and of course there’s The Lovely Bones, a book I read twice when it came out and continue to love. I’ve just realized the author, Alice Sebold, was born 30 minutes away from my house. She has other books. They must be read.

There are so many to read. So I must read them, absorb them, and clear space for more.

But some will never go.

Life, Death, Jelly Beans and Leonard Cohen

I’ve thought a lot the past few weeks — about death, and life, and change.

There’s not much else do when you’re pinned to a bed, helpless, unable to move. I’d stare at the ceiling fan, watching it loop, circling endlessly. I kept imagining something I’d once wrote about raining Jelly Beans. It came in fits and spurts as I tried to sleep. All I could imagine was the end. The children had eaten the flood of colorful Jelly Beans, all the bright reds and yellows and greens and oranges. All that remained were the black ones. They lined the streets and covered the grass and if you looked out from your window all you would see was the blackness. All the happiness had been consumed.

Yeah, pain has a way of making the mind wander down some dark roads.

I dreamed for half a week of various ways to kill myself, laughing at the dark humor of it all. The easiest way would be to close my garage, run my car and let the fumes take me as I drifted off to sleep. Then I remembered I had a Prius. Damn batteries.

The other option was to overdose on drugs. Heroin seemed a likely option. I’d always thought I should do hardcore drugs once before I died anyway. But I wouldn’t know who to ask. And I had no money. It wasn’t the sort of the thing you could ask the family for a few bucks to finance.

Either way, nothing would happen. I literally could not stand up to kill myself if I had wanted to.

I vowed to meditate. I vowed to go back to being vegan. To run another half marathon. To finally complete that writing project I’d abandoned. If only I’d get better and I could make it the 10 feet to the bathroom without hobbling along, using a chair to move a few inches at a time, dripping sweat and trembling and out of breath before I even got there.

Two weeks later, when I could finally get out the house and be normal again. The chiropractor stared at my x-ray searching for a word to describe my lower back.

“I guess we’d call it …” his voice trailed off, searching. “A conundrum.”

I got better. And I laughed. And I worked and after not eating or drinking for nearly a week and losing 15 pounds, I ordered pizza and ate junkfood and watched Mad Men on the couch while my other projects sat there, forgotten.

“What does it take to change?” someone asked me today.

I couldn’t sleep the other night, and I found myself lost in the Internet, finally coming across that famous Esquire story written by Chris Jones, the one where Ebert was on the cover, his lower jaw gone.

And I read it all again, a year and a half after his death, and I cried.

When he passed away, I wrote, “There may be no single author I’ve enjoyed reading more than Roger Ebert.” And that is true now even moreso as I look backwards being a full-time writer.

Perhaps it’s because of when he came into my life. I devoured his blog in college, his writing sparkling with life as it became his only outlet to communicate, and I lapping it up as I developed my own view of the world.

To read those 6,000-plus words was like sitting down with an old friend, one whom I never met. Such is the power of his words.

An hour later, still awake, I was listening to Leonard Cohen: “I’m Your Man,” the song Ebert said saved his life:

… he was in his hospital room packing his bags, the doctors and nurses paying one last visit, listening to a few last songs. That’s when his carotid artery, invisibly damaged by the earlier radiation and the most recent jaw surgery, burst. Blood began pouring out of Ebert’s mouth and formed a great pool on the polished floor. The doctors and nurses leapt up to stop the bleeding and barely saved his life. Had he made it out of his hospital room and been on his way home—had his artery waited just a few more songs to burst—Ebert would have bled to death on Lake Shore Drive.

It’s a beautiful song.

Last week, just after he celebrated his 80th birthday, Cohen released a new album.

“There’s a few songs that I would like to finish before I die,” he told Rolling Stone. “One in particular, it’s a lovely melody that I can’t find any words for. I’ve been trying for a good 15 years. I’ve tried many, many versions. And God willing, maybe something will happen.”

In the morning I woke to the sound of chirping birds. The sun lit up the room.

And I thought of that question, of what it takes to change. And I thought of Cohen.

Just keep trying and, God willing, maybe you will.

NaNoWriMo, Scrivener, and Postmodern Jukebox

CampNaNoWri update: Right now I’m sitting at 5,366 words. That gives me nearly 25,000 to go. Easy as pie. Right?

A few observations:

-I’ve never really pushed myself to write fiction. I’m finding it quite hard, but that’s mostly because I jumped in with no plot, no characters, nothing really … just a concept. If I can get past the inner critic and just write to enjoy myself, it’s actually quite fun!

-Scrivener is awesome! If you’re looking for a writing tool beyond just straight Word-type software, give it a try. It’s great for big projects, especially how I can just rearrange scenes like notecards. It’s great for brainstorming, and I suspect it could come in very handy for some longer non-fiction projects as well.

-I’d be doing much better if it wasn’t for PostModern Jukebox. They’re so damn good. I watch one video and it turns into a hour-long binge.

-In the spirit of not giving up, I fully intend on conquering my failed juice fast soon. People seem to enjoy my horrible juicing adventures, and they’re should be more hilarity to come.

I’d keep on blabbering, but I got 25,000 words to get done!

Camp NaNoWriMo Here I Come!

I’ve never done a NaNoWriMo, but out of the blue a coworker brought up April’s challenge.

I was tempted to say, sounds fun but I don’t really have the time. After all, I’m busy enough working my full-time writing and editing job, and the project I want to tackle requires a good bit of research, research that should be done if I want this thing to be even just slightly readable.

Then I realized I was just being a chickenshit, and this year is all about saying, “Fuck it,” and diving into the things I want to do, no reservations. For a decade I’ve thought, that would be fun to do. Research is just a road block, just another reason to put off doing until another day.

Plus, slightly readable is setting my expectations high. The goal is just to get the crap from my brain to the page. Readability comes later. The first draft of anything is shit, right? Or so Hemingway once said.

At the end of this month I’ll have a 30,000 word masterpiece of literature collection of vaguely tied together scenes with no coherent plot or structure. Woot!

This ties in nicely to my year 3 plan, but let’s not get too far ahead of myself.  I’ve got enough to get done this year.

Camp NaNoWriMo is a bit strange in that you’re given “roommates” in your “cabin,” basically just a little group to chat with and motivate each other. This being my first time, I’m not sure if that’s how this normally goes, but I can roll with it. It’s nice to imagine I’m off writing in the woods. Actually, that’s not far from the truth.


Day one I came in slightly under my goal of 1000 words a day. This was a little depressing as I’ve had the opening scene written in my head for months. Day two I managed almost 1500 words, by writing on my lunch as well. It was a challenge, but I feel pretty damn chipper.

It’s a good system, these monthly writing challenges. It forces people like me to just write, no looking back, no self doubt because the expectation is it’s going to be shit (at least that’s my expectation). Just get it done.

My stats so far:

Camp NaNoWriMo Stats Day 2

It’s not too late to get started if you want to dive in and join the fun:


I’d stay and chat, but I’ve got some writing to do!

If You Could Live Anywhere, Where’d You Go?

A proper midlife crisis requires drastic change. That’s what I intend to do this year.

Life has a way of just — happening.  It moves on, carrying you along. After awhile, a rut begins to form. Too long in one place, doing one thing, living one way, and the rut cuts deeper, gets more comfortable, makes it harder to change course.

When I use to play Texas Holdem, we had a saying. I’d eye my opponent, set my cards down and say, “Sometimes you just gotta say fuck it,” before pushing all my chips in the pile.

That’s this year. Fuck it. Permission granted to shake things up.

It’s terrifying. Deep inside we all have these dreams, this vision of how we see ourselves. Not as we are — no, not that — but as the way we want to be, the way we’ve always seen ourselves, the versions that will sneak up as the world melts away and all the troubles and worries of the day fade into darkness. The quiet comes, and if you listen closely the truth emerges, same as it’s always been, and all that’s left as the old day fades is tomorrow and, damnit, it’s gonna be different. This time your going to make that change.

It’s terrifying, because what if you never get there, that spot where you tuck away all your hopes and dreams, that future you dream of? What if that version, that calling you’ve had for so long, remains buried, always a few steps beyond your grasp?


Photo by Bigroger27509, creative commons

Or worse, what if you get there? What if you become your dream and all your left with is yourself, nowhere else to turn?

I always imagined living by the ocean. I feel the wind blowing gently off the warm water, carrying with it the taste of salt, and blowing sand getting caught between my flip flops as I nurse a drink, sitting at a table in the corner and quietly pounding  away at the keys, writing an essay or a story or a novel. Or I imagine living downtown, the city moving beneath me as I work, the window on my cramped studio apartment a window into my mad little world during the day, and at night, as the sun sets,  I’d descend into the world below, visiting the corner bar as the live band plays on the stage and the after work crowd shuffles in and loosens their ties, and for a few hours every night, we all enjoy the same things: good music, good drink, good company. I imagine hopping on my bike, no longer tied down by a 9-5 job, a houseful of possessions, waking up each morning and pouring over a map in the morning, asking myself, “Where should I spend the next week, next month, next year of my life?” and then leaving the map behind and just driving, going where the world takes me, guided only by a desire to see new things and new people and live.

It’s rare one gets the opportunity to live anywhere they want. I had a dream this year of living out of the three bags on my motorcycle, traveling to a new state each week, working from the road and living in 48 different states this year.

I didn’t. But it’s getting time to move. Working from home, suddenly the world is open. I can go anywhere I want.

The only question now — where do I go?