A Review of Michael J. Seidlinger’s Runaways: A Writer’s Dilemma by Mark Ari

Michael J. Seidlinger’s new novella, Runaways: A Writer’s Dilemma, opens with a definition. We’re told a runaway is “an idea, story, or mood that escapes the moment you are right in the middle of experiencing it.” Then we’re introduced to “a writer”—the only name given the protagonist—who wants to write but can’t. They’re stuck.

A writer, a little bit lonely and a whole lot desperate, signed into social media. They didn’t know what they were looking for. That was kind of the problem. They were having trouble getting started.

For the next 86 pages, a writer wrestles with time, distraction, and self-doubt to make progress on a novel. They yearn to get something down, some given number of words—a thousand a day, a hundred, anything. The chase is on. But repeatedly, they can’t sustain it. They crumble and run. Often, it’s into social media where “likes” are injected into the main vein of a faltering ego for quick and easy wallops of self-satisfaction. Instead of writing, they tweet the despair of not writing:

Writing a book is like looking both ways before you cross the street and falling into a pit that descends to hell.

That post, we’re told, gained hundreds of likes, “but a writer saw the validation, that sense of euphoria, the dopamine rush, run away from them when it should have been its strongest.” Though the escape is fleeting, the narrator returns to it again and again. There are moments a writer would rather do anything but face that blank page:

Writer: “I shall write in just a second, don’t you worry. But first I must have my coffee, my music, my notebook, and my writing jacket. I must also meditate about all those that have wronged me, and I’ll settle in at my writing desk with books and …”

Runaways came out of Seidlinger’s own despair tweets. He has been at them for a time. In a comment on a thread, a follower suggested he make a book of them. Seidlinger joked he would if someone would publish it. That’s when editor Kevin Sampsell chimed in. But Sampsell wanted something more—he wanted a story about the little discussed part of the writing process—the internal struggles that take place in making a thing. Seidlinger digs into that. Tweet-like posts are everywhere in the novella, on every page, like instant snapshots tracking a writer’s psycho-emotional state. Still, Seidlinger’s tongue remains solidly in cheek. Though a writer is fidgety, fearful, fickle, and feckless, stuck as they are in a tragi-comic tug-o-war with their own foibles, they make progress despite procrastination. Even if it’s only by fooling themselves:

98% of writing is just tricking yourself psychologically to keep going.

One senses the author using his protagonist to call himself out. And anyone who has ever felt impotent before a keyboard or with pencil in hand will recognize themselves. That’s why a writer is unnamed, ungendered, and without backstory, leaving a vacant but reflective surface. It’s easy to imagine the author mirrored in it. It’s just as easy for any writer, or artist for that matter, to see themselves in our quirky hero’s odd dance with an elusive muse. Their peculiarities are our own. Communion is found in the commonality of shared strangeness, and it’s a remarkable palliative.

This book put me in mind of another short book: Rainer Maire Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. In it, an established writer proffers advice and encouragement to a younger man. Generations of writers have turned to its pages for good counsel. But there is a hierarchy to it. There is no such thing in Runaways. Instead of a mentor, we find a companion. The author runs beside them. Loneliness, imposter syndrome, the near-crippling fear and sense of impotence before the daunting task at hand, the battle for and against time: all of this is now shared experience. Comradery.

Writing is often called the most solitary of arts. Today, it is more isolating than ever. We are closed in our rooms at our desks. We don’t research at the library; we go to our phones. These last two COVID years have further cut us off from one another, kept us from the bars and cafes, from the anonymous, now-precious mingling among racks in bookstore aisles. We are masked. Distanced. Almost out of reach.

Runaways was written in New Hampshire when Seidlinger fled Brooklyn on the eve of lockdown. Of course, it was. It’s a healing book. Its despair is laced with humor. In the end, it’s not just the thing we make but the making of it, with all its vagaries, that give us those moments of connection to live in, share, and get the job done.

Runaways: A Writer’s Dilemma, by Michael J. Seidlinger. Portland, Oregon: Future Tense Books, October 2021. 86 pages. $12.00, paper.

Mark Ari is the author of the critically acclaimed novel, The Shoemaker’s Tale (Zephyr Press). He is creative nonfiction editor at Flock Literary Journal (flocklit.com), poetry editor of EAT Poems (eatwords.net), and a fellow of the MacDowell Colony, Ragdale Foundation, Fundacion Valparaiso, and Hermitage Artist Retreat. New work is forthcoming in Assisi Literary Journal, Adroit Journal, and in the anthology, Gigs Gone Wrong (Paycock Press).

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