I want you to picture me, a 49-year-old white male in the summer of 2020 at a large and thickly shellacked table in the spacious dining room of a rural Wisconsin family home. I am at my in-law’s house, and we are playing cards. In our hands, employing varying degrees of orderliness, we each hold a fan of 6 cards. This is the sixth hand of this game, which is called “Smooth” (or “3 to 13”). In this fun and wholesome game, the first hand each player is dealt one card, the second two cards, and on, until the deck is exhausted. The objective, which is beside the point: don’t take tricks; low score wins. You play until kings are wild, and at this point your mitt is clutching at a tangle of 13 cards.

Beside me are my nieces, nephews, my wife, and my wife’s two siblings–one sister, one brother–and each of their respective hetero spouses. Now, in order to allow for so many players, we use multiple decks. For shuffling we use an automatic shuffler. You take one deck, load it on one side, and a second deck and load it on the other side. Depending whether you’re at the cabin or the house, you either turn the crank or press the button, and the gears start spinning, pulling the cards from the bottom of each deck and shuffling them together.

That’s what this book is.

“Wait, AWS is a book now?” I hear you say. “I thought it was your silly brand?” To you I say, All will be explained! You’re reading the introduction to the book!

The left deck has the red design on its back (which is what exactly, by the way, some mythical god with a bow and arrow, or a lady standing in a conch like the Venus de Milo?). Such is one half of this book in your hands. It’s the red half, a nonfiction memoir about two extended stays in the Midwestern United States, which happened during the summer of 2020 and 2021. It’s red, this book/deck because in it I find myself embedded in a red state, a liberal spy inside the compound of this traditional conservative family of traumatized European immigrants.

Shuffled into this, as I’ve tried to capture in the table of continents with its two-part entries, is the right deck: a short story collection authored during the same period. These are fictions that try to pay tribute to the people in my life who are getting me through the pandemic and turning out to be the real enduring inspirations in my life. They are also stories that of course feature my geographical surroundings, populated with characters built of the American stuff around me (how’s that for literary?), and they are set in the especially frightening, locked-down, paranoid time that was June to July 2020 and June to July 2021.

Sounds like a nutty game, right? Everyone ready to play a practice hand?

Here’s the thing. We want a lot of players at this table. “The more the merrier” has always been my official motto as a person, and now is no exception. So in order to accommodate a diverse and robust audience, I mean, card game, we’re mixing in a third deck.

“What color is it?!”

I hear you asking what color it is, and the answer is purple. Why purple? Because of Prince, what do you think. And the purple third deck holds nothing less than an excerpt of the DSM IV itself. Yes, that so-called bible of psychological reference material, that Alexandrian library of official, sacrosanct medical wisdom. Minor caveat, it’s what one would call a “lost text” from the DSM, a kind of Apocrypha. Yes, the good lads and lasses in charge have deemed my submission ill-fited for official inclusion in the forthcoming edition. So I’m publishing it myself, in this, Aspiring Writer Syndrome: Diagnoses and Treatments, (Or: Perilous Times in Literary America) .

As you can see, this third ingredient (mixed metaphors, anyone?) is so important that the entire work gets named after its contents and subject, which is an entry on the condition you’ve already come to know as Aspiring Writer Syndrome.

The whole thing is mimetic, involuted and tirelessly self-energizing. It is a syndrome that contains, the like The Bhagavad Gita As It Is, or Mark Leyner’s The Tetherballs of Bouganville, a text inherent to its own creatiohn. To have the syndrome is to be me, and to be me is to have the syndrome.

Let’s recap. In 2018 I rebranded myself, tearing down the lame domain (benobler.com) where I had long published a blog about my life in literature. It contained all the meats and all the effluvia of my varied, but not storied, career. (The motives and intentions are all explained, of course, at aspiringwritersyndrome.com/about-us ). This personal-to-corporate rebirth was a lot of work, but I was happy to sign the documents that were brought to me by the nice men in their long dark trench coats, who showed their badges from the Department of Dodd-Frank enforcement Squad. President Biden has vowed to register everyone American individual as a corporation by the year 2028, and I’m here to say that personally I think he means it.

Nah, it wasn’t that bad. I did get to pick my corporation’s name, and that’s where Aspiring Writer Syndrome came in. I realized I had a condition. I’d had it all my life. My friend Nick has it (you’ll meet him in the chapter called “Cosmic Banking”); he describes it as a “restlessness between moments.” The subject (or the patient) bounces between a strong inclination to write and a resistance to writing. Sounds simple, but it’s not. There’s guilt, self-judgement, a whole roller coaster of endorphins and dopamine.

Personally, I thought my written diagnosis and notes would have been convincing for the editorial staff at the DSM; Aspiring Writer Syndrome bears strong resemblance to many known addictions, not least of which are addictions to: alcohol, sexual behavior and gambling. But you’ll read all about that inside.

But for now, more of a historical perspective on what you hold in your hand, and further explication (defense) for the inclusion of a nonfiction medical text amidst this other, more narrative material, an inclusion that may challenge some readers while they pay half attention to their toes in sand or the sound of the wind across the opening of their Corona bottle.

To finish with the historical origins of the condition: initially I defined the condition by two chief symptoms: 1) physical aversion to bookstores and 2) apprehensive, and/or sexually charged feelings when seeing a standard QWERTY keyboard. These symptoms, you’ll recall, were pricelessly depicted in the 2019 promotional launch video which I released via Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, MailChimp, and of course my website, aspiringwritersyndrome.com. This was a video in which I offered my professional editorial and writing instruction services–based on my 20 years experience doing it.

At this point, the condition was recognized as a fringe belief in the field. Like a fringe of leather on a jacket, at Woodstock, circa 1968. Or a fringe of threads at the edge of a carpet. In late 2020 then, one organization came on in support of the movement to have AWS recognized scientifically, and that was Medium.com. They were a financial supporter at a time when it was much needed, and I, as the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of AWS, was very grateful for their recognition. Several red-deck and blue-deck chapters that you’ll find within this volume, such as “The Killing Place,” “Cosmic Banking,” and “Small Shot” were published at aspiringwritersyndrome.medium.com.

As time went on, I came to see that these physical symptoms were only the tip of the fountain pen—I mean iceberg. What changed? Simply put: the pandemic. A deadly viral pathogen coursing through the human population on a global scale has a tendency to yield some reflection in said population. I speak for myself in saying that I know I shit pants daily throughout the arrival of COVID and tried to keep it all together as economies crumbled and cities rioted. The first trip to WI was the first-time excursion after the first six months in lockdown. Whether hunkered down in my New York house, or hunkered in the Wisconsin basement of my in-laws, this was a time of really probing what I was trying to accomplish with all this writing business. It went much further than that, of course, as you’ll see in some red-deck material such as “Small Shot.” The terror was like a cleanser in this case, pushing me to change my attitudes and beliefs about publishing and being a writer. Who can give a fuck if you ever publish again, when the world’s on fire?

Hopefully they’re changed once and for all.

I hope you like the hand you’re dealt, this melange, this hodgepodge. On the website, below are sample chapters.

Then the final thing to make sure you know about this is that there is a treatment for the condition, which I know many, many people suffer from. During the pandemic, I worked with hundreds of writers, clients, just as I had throughout my career, but now more than their craft techniques and beginner’s foibles, I saw their longing to control the narrative, to felt healed, heard, whole, forgiven, blessed, and more.

Aspiring Writer Syndrome is complex, however, and severe cases see enduring, deepening symptoms. There are incurables; I count myself one. In time, such patients must be treated by uncoupling from the identity of “writer.” Even if done forcibly, this can ease symptoms. In this sense, the disease and its effects have a hydra-eating-its-tale kind of vibe. And so we must be like Ika Karton, another of Mark Leyner’s characters, and “keep it simple and sexy.”

Isn’t it funny that so many of our starting points as writers were to be in this place where we didn’t even write hardly at all yet, but we were obsessed with “the idea” of being such a person who could open worlds, open minds, change minds. A writer was smart, kept to themselves, eschewed society, was left alone, was reviled as much as adored! Who didn’t want to be that, even before they had the slightest pedigree, technique, or style? And let this be a lesson to you all: if you encounter an AWS victim in the wild, be sure to approach with caution and pity, as it is ultimately a condition that attaches strongly to the ego.

Enough said. Read the account and see whether you can’t cure yourself, in needed, or help muster hope for the legions who needlessly suffer.

Benjamin Obler
Oct 2021