Jonathan Ames: Fear of Everything

Oversexed, oversharing, and overproductive, Jonathan Ames neuroses know no bounds. A sort of Woody Allen for the Lower East Side set, Ames has managed to mine his hilarious life experiences and penchant for exhibitionism for three written novels, one graphic novel, four essay collections, a Showtime special, and a hit HBO show, Bored to Death, which features a journalist named Jonathan Ames (Jason Schwartzman), who’s moonlighting as an amateur private detective.

Meanwhile, the real life Jonathan Ames just published a new book, The Double Life Is Twice as Good (which pictures two Jonathan Ames, as above, on the cover). The collection is an overview of his many writing talents, featuring the short story on which the Bored to Death TV series is based, recent journalism–including interviews with Marilyn Manson and Lenny Kravitz—as well as personal essays and fiction.We grilled the New York writer at a recent event thrown by the Moth, an organization that seeks to revive the lost art of storytelling. A devoted raconteur willing to bare it all (literally), he has been performing with the Moth since 1997. We spoke with the hyperactive Ames about his simple equation for being a productive writer, the challenges of the first sentence, and the fear that fuels his work.

How did you get your start with the Moth? Do you have a preference between telling stories on stage and writing them?

Before the Moth came around, I was doing monologues in the tradition of Spalding Gray. I had been doing my own storytelling shows at the Fez for probably five years.  So when [the Moth] started up they approached me. I like both things, writing stories and then just getting up there and winging it.

With Bored to Death you’re working more collaboratively – how do you like that compared with writing alone?

Well, it’s kind of writing by yourself you have the “little dream,” you know. And then working with all these other people is like you describe a dream and they make it three-dimensional for you.

Despite being the Executive Producer and writer of Bored to Death, you only just got a TV from HBO after you tweeted about not having one. Were you against owning a TV?

No, like most writers, I’ve lived below the poverty line for most of my adulthood. So TV was an extravagance I really couldn’t afford. You know, cable and all that. So I just never had it and didn’t notice the lack of it. But then having my own show, I did want to watch it. But then I also procrastinate a lot, and I’m not very good at necessary life tasks, like shopping. I put things off, and my apartment was a little bit like Grey Gardens. Anyway, HBO rallied to the cause and gave me a TV, which was very kind of them.

How do you overcome the tendency to procrastinate?

I don’t really get over it, but I sort of have my own form of ADD, which is rather obnoxious I guess. But I only pay attention to what I want to pay attention to. But other shit does get out of control, which is not so good. I just sort of hope for the best.

Do you have a particular writing process?

No, it’s the usual writing process. Fear, plus coffee, plus deadlines.

What was your process before you had deadlines?

Fear, plus coffee. And napping. Lying down after a slight bit of exertion.

It’s the usual writing process. Fear, plus coffee, plus deadlines,

What’s the fear that drives you to write?

Well, it doesn’t cause you to write. It’s just the fear of writing, and the fear of everything, and fear of the meaninglessness of your own existence.

Does writing help you get over those fears?

No, the writing is because you want to express something, and you want to amuse, and you want to entertain. But, you know, you’re fearful until you finally start doing it.

Do you think writing is the means to proving the worth of your existence?

No. I do it just to be a clown. You know everyone has their function in the ant colony. Some of us are meant to be clowns in the ant colony. That’s your function and that’s how you fulfill yourself. It makes you feel useful. I feel useful being an idiot.

Is it hard to get your first thoughts on the page?

What? Sorry, I got distracted. (laughs)

When beginning a new story, is it hard to get your first thoughts on the page?

Always. The first sentence is always the most difficult. You know, the first of everything. First baby, first kiss, I don’t know. Firsts are often hard.

How do you push through it?

You stagger blindly and then suddenly it happens. It’s usually, you close your eyes and you hope for the best.

Where do you get your material?

Friends, life, brain. You know.

Any advice for aspiring writers?

Read a lot. Study grammar. Be nice to older writers (laughs). No. Hang in there, and try to give pleasure with every sentence.

Ariston Anderson

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For over 10 years, Ariston has been covering all things culture: art, film, fashion, travel, and music. She is a leading identifier of current trends, a sought-out speaker, and a frequent contributor to numerous blogs focusing on art, entertainment, and luxury. She is an expert in digital strategy and marketing.
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