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Volume 2, Issue 67: The One About "Fleabag"

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Illustration for article titled Volume 2, Issue 67: The One About Fleabag

Frida Kahlo died on July 13, 1954 at the age of 47.

July 13, 2019

The only pure writing class — as opposed to a reporting class that only got around to the writing part at the end of the semester, if ever — I took was a short-story writing class my final semester at the University of Illinois. I took it because I had room in my schedule for an elective, because I was just full enough of my own shit at the time to consider myself A Potentially Serious Writer and because writing short stories for the final three credit hours I needed to graduate seemed a lot easier than doing actual classwork. It turned out to be a terrible idea, partly because I discovered quickly that having total strangers (college students, no less) talk about your work right after you wrote it, right in front of you, was more than this pretentious college senior could handle, and mostly because the class started at 8 a.m. and there is nothing dumber than taking an 8 a.m. class the second semester of your senior year. I ended up dropping the class, leaving me three credits short of graduation, which is why I had to take a Intro to Shakespeare correspondence course by mail from Los Angeles the next year, which is why my diploma says I graduated in 1998 even though I left campus in 1997. The whole experience soured me on formal instruction and made me permanently skeptical of the idea that writing could be “taught,” surely to my ultimate detriment. I suspect I’m wrong about this, but we are who we are.

But the only writing guide I’ve ever trusted, save for good old Strunk and White, and the one I still flip through today, is Stephen King’s “On Writing.” I’m so-so on King as a novelist — his books are compulsively readable, but there’s a sameness to them that makes them sometimes blend together; that said, when he breaks free of that, like in The Dead Zone or 11/22/63, it can be exhilarating — but as a creator, as a guy who simply goes out and puts pen to paper in a straightforward, work-a-day fashion, I find him deeply inspirational. The guy just Makes Shit. He’s very Roger Ebert in that way. My favorite Ebert quote is “the muse visits during the act of creation, not before,” which is a nice way of saying “Shut up and get to work.” As a writer, your job is to build that shelf. Less talking, more building.

Illustration for article titled Volume 2, Issue 67: The One About Fleabag

Anyway, there’s a section at the very beginning of the “On Writing” section that I’ve always taken to heart and one I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, ever since finishing Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s “Fleabag,” which is the best television show I’ve seen in years and one I haven’t stopped thinking about since it ended.

The section is essentially about geniuses, hacks and, alas, the rest of all of us normal people. King’s theory is that there is a pyramid of writers. The vast majority, the ones at the bottom of the pyramid, are simply bad and will never get better. “If you’re a bad writer, no one can help you become a good one, or even a competent one,” he writes. The middle level above them is “a group which is slightly smaller but large and welcoming; these are the competent writers. They may also be found on the staff of your local newspaper, on the racks at your local bookstore, and at poetry readings on Open Mike Night.” And then there are the people at the top.

Above them—above almost all of us—are the Shakespeares, the Faulkners, the Yeatses, Shaws, and Eudora Weltys. They are geniuses, divine accidents, gifted in a way which is beyond our ability to understand, let alone attain. Shit, most geniuses aren’t able to understand themselves, and many of them lead miserable lives, realizing (at least on some level) that they are nothing but fortunate freaks, the intellectual version of runway models who just happen to be born with the right cheekbones and with breasts which fit the image of an age.


King’s argument is that you can’t make a bad writer good, and you can’t make a good writer great, but you can make a competent writer good. The trick for any budding writer is understanding, and more important accepting, that you are in that middle level — that you will never reach that top level, and that all you can do is do the best you can to be as competent as possible. King then has a book’s worth of practical advice (he’s particularly smart about the overuse of adverbs, using an analogy about a lawn with too many dandelions on it, and I have absolutely, unquestionably, consistently, all-encompassingly ignored that advice to my own detriment ever since) all based around that basic premise: You’ll never be great, but if you want to be good, here’s how.

This was advice I much needed in 2000, when the book came out. I was 24 years old and brimming over with ambition and self-regard and personal entitlement, exactly the type of person who would scoff at reading a self-help book about writing. But I was also slowly realizing that there were people out there who were a lot better at this than I was ... and that no matter how hard I tried, I was never going to get there. I may have thought I had a lot to say, and I may have had high hopes for myself, but one reading of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers, or White Teeth by Zadie Smith, or Brief Interviews With Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace, or Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem made clear and obvious what I already should have known: I could not do that. This made me envious and insecure at first: We’re all a little bit Salieri, after all. But reading King’s advice was clarifying. I’ll just never be able to do that. So then: What can I do? It’s exactly what every too-full-of-themselves twentysomething needs to hear. It was the right time for me to hear it.

Illustration for article titled Volume 2, Issue 67: The One About Fleabag

That advice made me work harder, made me try to wring every little bit out of myself I might possibly have, made me understand why I wanted to be a writer in the first place. I am not the best writer in the world, not even remotely close, but writing is the thing I can do better than I can do anything else. I wanted to keep doing it as long as they would let me. I concentrated on building shelves. I can build you a good shelf now.

But the best thing about the advice is that it made me appreciate those rare true geniuses when I came across them, the people who are so good, so naturally good, that you just sort of stand in awe. They can toss off brilliance, over and over again, in a way that will elude me and everyone else for the rest of our lives. I can do everything in my power to improve to the peak of my abilities. But I’ll never be able to do that. Accepting that I’d never be Eggers or Smith or Lethem not only freed me from my own head; it also made me truly appreciate true genius when I saw it. It even made me worry about them a little bit. As King said, geniuses rarely even understand themselves. You just want them to be all right.

I found myself thinking this a lot watching Fleabag. The show is such a special, singular voice that I’m hesitant to even describe it at all; you should experience it for the first time yourself if you haven’t. It is funny — rightly hilarious, even — but it has a novelist’s eye for detail, a grander scope than it initially appears and, sneakily, a huge, open heart. Every second crackles with wit and wisdom; it’s one of those TV shows I keep jumping backward to watch each scene again, to both appreciate and marvel, like an instant replay of the incredible thing I just saw. It is (particularly the second season) basically perfect. It feels like a magical object dropped to earth.

It is the brainchild of the aforementioned Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who wrote and starts in every episode, based off her stage play. (She also wrote the first season of Killing Eve, which I haven’t seen but will now be watching immediately.) She is a dazzling comedic talent as an actress — watch enough Fleabag episodes in a row and you’ll start doing fourth-wall-breaking asides to imaginary viewers of your life — but an even better writer; the show is somehow both earnest and postmodern, which is nearly impossible to pull off. And she makes it look so, so easy. She makes it look like it’s nothing.

Illustration for article titled Volume 2, Issue 67: The One About Fleabag

I am certain it has required years and years of hard work for Waller-Bridge to cultivate this talent; I don’t mean to imply that geniuses just roll out of bed and make incredible art. But to reach that level — to be this good — it’s that divine accident that King was talking about. I hear it in a Jeff Tweedy song, see it in a Barry Jenkins scene, read it in a George Saunders essay, absorb it in a Don Hertzfeldt animated film. That’s a level I’ll never be able to hit, no matter what I do. It makes me appreciate it. It’s a lightning bolt.

I’m proud of the work I do. I will always stretch my legs and push myself to improve, to never feel satisfied, to always challenge my assumptions and beliefs. But I’ll never be able to make a “Fleabag,” or a “Consider the Lobster,” or “Impossible Germany,” or a “Thanksgiving In Mongolia.” There was a time I would have been sad or envious about that. Now I’m just appreciative. Now I just feel lucky that it gets to exist.

Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality. You may disagree. It is your wont.

1. The USWNT Is a Team for the Trump Era, New York. There were a few criticism of this piece that I thought made sense, and a few I thought didn’t, but on the whole, it captures what I had to say about one of the more purely enjoyable sports experiences of the last few years.

2. My Annual All-Star Team Draft With Joe Sheehan, The Joe Sheehan Newsletter. A yearly delight to get to do this.

3. Second-Half Predictions For Every Team, Couldn’t muster up much optimism for the old Cardinals.

4. Golf Magazine Instructional Column No. 7: Keeping Your Emotions in Check, GOLF Magazine, print only. Just a few of these left, actually. That went by quickly.

5. Players Who Had Bad First Halves Who Could Bounce Back, Fingers crossed for Goldschmidt.

6. Debate Club: Surprise Horror Hits, SYFY Wire. I let Grierson write on The Black Witch Project.


Back in September! Watch the ones you haven’t seen on Amazon or on SI TV.


Grierson & Leitch, “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” “Midsommar,” “Ocean’s 11.”

Seeing Red, Bernie and I grouse at the midway point.

Waitin’ Since Last Saturday, no show this week.


Billionaire Tom Steyer joined the race this week, and Eric Swalwell dropped out. Far be it from me to tell an uber-wealthy human how to spend his (not-as-hard-earned-as-he-thinks) money, but if he’s really as anti-Trump as he claims, I’d humbly submit that the best way to spend that money is to finance voter registration and outreach drives all across the country. It’d have the added benefit of helping out people other than yourself.

Also, this Kirsten Gillibrand moment was excellent.

1. Kamala Harris
2. Elizabeth Warren
3. Cory Booker
4. Amy Klobuchar
5. Kirsten Gillibrand
6. Joe Biden
7. Pete Buttigieg
8. Jay Inslee
9. Julian Castro
10. Beto O’Rourke
11. Seth Moulton
12. Bernie Sanders
13. Michael Bennet
14. Steve Bullock
15. Tulsi Gabbard
16. Bill de Blasio
17. Tim Ryan
18. Tom Steyer
19. John Hickenlooper
20. William Weld
21. Marianne Williamson
22. John Delaney
23. Andrew Yang
24. Wayne Messam
25. Mike Gravel


Writing letters is good for you. Bring ‘em on at:

Will Leitch
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603


“Bat Out of Hell,” Meat Loaf. I apologize for NOTHING. All right, maybe a little.

I am in St. Louis this weekend with young William for our annual Busch Stadium trip. Last week we went to Mercedes-Benz to watch the USWNT final on the big screen. We do things other than watch sports together, I swear.


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