Discover more from Things We Do While Waiting to Die
How I caved in to my crippling introversion (and helped the writing community)
By Jason W. McGlone, founder of Pencilhouse.
Continuing our series of guest posts from people in the literary sphere creating communities, projects, businesses, & other stuff to help writers, we have Jason W. McGlone. Jason founded Pencilhouse, a nonprofit offering free editorial services for writers that is way better than it has any right to be (I’ve used it). In an industry so absurdly predatory with any offered help, it’s such a pleasure to give some time to an organization that wants to help writers succeed without charging an arm and a leg and a soul. (Oh and a side note for anyone still confused. The stuff about the crypto-merge was 100% an April Fool’s joke)
For the last year or so, I’ve been working on Pencilhouse, a nonprofit project meant to help new and developing writers on matters of craft by providing feedback on their work, cheap/free. Pretty simple. I was super-pumped and enormously grateful when Ben asked me to put together a post for Things We Do While Waiting to Die, because Pencilhouse has had a weird, circuitous path, despite only really being in existence for a year.
The assignment was, according to Ben, to have this thing “focus on your journey creating Pencilhouse from whenever you first had the idea. In a fun/funny tone preferably.” I first thought about the last couple years and what that’s looked like for the organization, and we’ll get there, but if I’m honest I can probably trace the whole thing back to a few things I took from my MFA almost 20 years ago, which I suppose makes this an objectively long story.
STRAP IN, BABIES.
JK, this is the short version. If you’re struggling with insomnia, don’t hesitate to reach out and we can arrange something.
There were three things that were impressed upon me in my MFA experience, for better or worse, that contribute to the core idea that drives Pencilhouse.
The first thing I learned, and probably the most important to the story at hand, was that I LOVED writing feedback for my fellow students. Frequently it felt like the thing I was best at during my time studying at Queens. It was a routine I could latch onto, and I found myself genuinely working to improve at writing feedback while also hammering out the writing that would become my thesis. The actual writing part involved in getting an MFA was fun, fruitful, and pleasant for me, but writing feedback scratched an itch I didn’t know could exist.
The second thing I learned was that there’s no escaping the relentless, hungry maw that is the submissions & querying game of the publishing industry; the reality of writing for the purpose of being read is that it’s a competitive game where who you know becomes incredibly important. Therefore, networking is a huge part of how you get anywhere at all if you want to BE a writer.
If we’ve never met (we probably haven’t), one thing you should know about me is that I’m cripplingly anxious in groups of more than four or so people, so every fancy networking event with editors, agents, small press publishers, etc. were things that I totally let pass me by—why would I go somewhere to show people how quickly I can sweat through a t-shirt in a shockingly cold room? A strategic error on my part, sure, but there’s no accounting for comfort, even when it’s bad for business.
The third thing I took away from my MFA experience is that if you’re not actively working to have people publish your work or otherwise trying to elbow your way through the competition, then you’re nothing but a hobbyist. At the time this was definitely presented as a pejorative and I took it to heart: as it comes to writing, hobbyism equals poseurism. Being stupid and in my 20’s, I hadn’t yet realized that WE ARE ALL HOBBYISTS HERE, even those of us dumb enough to take out colossal loans for degrees not intended to prepare us for lives of the daytime work we might be profoundly bad at. (NOTE: I’m just talking about myself here. I’m really bad at my day job and I don’t care who knows it. With that in mind, a quick aside: don’t show this to my boss. But if you do: hey, . We both know it’s true. Sorry, buddy. Thanks for picking up my slack and for not firing me. My kids are grateful.)
Despite my perpetual insecurity, I muscled my way through the degree and made it to the promised land. I set to work writing a couple novels which will never see the light of day, got married, had a couple kids, and juggled a nonprofit job. For a long time I never really landed on what kind of stuff I wanted to write; maybe I still haven’t. I continued to write the relatively straightforward fiction I’d worked on in school, but I also edited a local news & commentary website with some friends, ran some tabletop games for a while, and eventually settled into a life where I wasn’t writing a ton, but still occasionally wrote critiques for school chums, many of whom have gone on to lucrative jobs in academia or publishing.
I managed to sleepwalk into a couple short story ideas in 2015 and was in the process of knocking off what rust had accumulated over the years when one morning, out for a run, I got absolutely obliterated by a car that ran a red light. I’ll spare you the details—they’re in the long version that’d put you to sleep—but you can trust me when I say it was fuckin’ gnarly and I should 100% be dead right now. The most notable outcome was a concussion that erased a few hours of my life, jacked up my short-term memory, and shortened my attention span. Doctors told us it frequently takes a year or so, sometimes more, to know what you’re going to “get” when it comes to your head getting bounced off the pavement. Encouraging stuff.
After this happened, I set writing aside for a while because it seemed more important for me to bask in the splendor of getting as lucky as I had. I started back to work pretty quickly, went back to school and picked up a graduate certificate in Nonprofit Management. It seemed like the right thing to do, and I might’ve been able to advance in the job I had at the time. That’s another story.
I hope you don’t feel like the rug is getting pulled from under you right now, but this was ALWAYS going to be a pandemic story. Apologies.
During lockdown, I tried to pick writing back up and that’s when I discovered that the creative machine simply didn’t operate for me anymore. As it turned out, a long-term effect of the accident was that as my brain put itself back together, I ended up not really having the same kind of access to my creative voice and didn’t notice until I really tried to use it.
The net effect was that I just floated through most of the year. Jobs came and went. Earth stopped. There was nothing to do but bake bread, hustle for toilet paper, and try to write stories. No matter how much effort I put in, my creative voice was just dead silent. I didn’t know what to do about it, so I didn’t do anything at all. (NOTE: this is a great way to cultivate depression, y’all. F-minus-minus, avoid at all costs. Talk to your friends, engage your creative voice however you can. If you’ve lost it, finding it again can be the worst kind of adventure, but trust me, it’s in there. Don’t stop looking, don’t stop trying things.)
Around the end of ‘20 I decided I’d had enough and decided to hop into some online communities—some subreddits and a couple Discord servers—for the purpose of getting back to writing feedback. I guess the hope was that it might help clear whatever psychic effluvia was clogging the works. Once I got started, I realized that I’d all but forgotten how much I enjoyed writing feedback, so I kept scratching the itch.
Eventually something clicked and I increasingly felt more able to write, which I attribute almost entirely to writing critiques. It’s been a weird road and I’ve essentially had to re-learn how to write; the generative process for me now is super-fickle, fragmentary, and S-L-O-W. An upside worth mentioning: being on the wrong side of 45 carries with it the benefit of no longer giving a shit about the perils of hobbyism/poseurism versus striving to be a “career” writer. I started writing more, as well as submitting things here and there, and simultaneously did my best to keep writing feedback for people at a solid pace.
Early in 2021, I started Zero Readers, which situated itself around in-depth feedback and revision as a central piece of its publishing process. I suppose that the real germ of the idea for Pencilhouse was born here, but it’s definitely not this thing that just Athena’d from my head; I had an inkling that I might be able to do something more with providing feedback as a service, but didn’t land on an approach for a while. I assembled five issues over the course of 2021-2022, as well as a couple accompanying print omnibuses and the work behind those five issues cemented a simple desire: I wanted to figure out how to write feedback full-time while keeping the price tag for writers/submitters as close to $0 as possible. The best way forward became apparent pretty quickly once I began thinking about the variables that appealed most to me. I needed to structure this thing as a charity. So that’s what happened.
Setting up an organization focused on providing cheap/free feedback does a few things, I think: first, it affords me the ability to write tons of feedback. I’ll admit that the motivation here is wholly selfish, but I’m told that knowing what you want is a good thing. There are loads of worthy reasons to write critiques for others, but what better reason than I wanna?
The second thing I think is important about setting Pencilhouse up as a low-to-no-cost service is that this works to circumvent the natural gatekeeping that exists in both the publishing and academic elements of the larger writing & literature community—that gaping maw becomes a lot less intimidating if writers and editors are actually connecting with each other over works in progress, y’know?
One more thing I think Pencilhouse can do—one I HOPE it does—is to encourage hobbyism as it comes to writing. There are, as my father-in-law might have said, a shit pot full of writers out there. We all know that not everyone’s going home with a Pulitzer, and that should be okay—this is a craft. Like it or not, it’s a straight-up hobby. We shouldn’t be afraid of that—we should be commiserating over it and helping each other to improve, end of.
Today, Pencilhouse is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization. This isn’t really the place for me to solicit donations or try to drum up business, so I’m not going to do that, but I do want to shout out that we’re super-lucky to have a really excellent, growing group of volunteers who are pitching in to provide a TON of really great feedback each and every month, to the tune of about 250 submissions over the last year, and I couldn’t be prouder of the quality of work our volunteers continue to put in for us.
We’re still at the front end of this journey and my fingers are crossed that there’s a long road ahead, because Pencilhouse growing means we’re helping more and more people to get a little better at writing every month, without pulling loads of cash out of their pockets. I think that’s kinda great. I hope you do, too.
 How’s this for ‘fun/funny,’ Ben? Sorry!