Conversations on the Craft of Writing with Keith Langston
Updated: Nov 3, 2021
A creative nonfiction writer unafraid of being honest, funny, and true to himself
I'm always looking to learn from other writers about their approach to the craft! I want to know what motivates them, what they find challenging, and — most of all — what they love about writing.
I recently got the chance to hear from Keith Langston, author of creative nonfiction for a variety of publications, whose work encompasses everything from celebrity interviews to viral articles about Bigfoot. He doesn’t shy away from subjects that are dark, painful, or even just a little bit unorthodox, but he does it with a sense of humor.
Here's what he had to say...
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer? What studying or training have you undertaken that’s brought you to where you are now?
Hmm… That’s a good question. I’ve been journaling since I was 7 years old, but my dream was to always go into film. In fact, I skipped through every single book I was ever assigned at school, and I didn’t read my first book until I was 15! It was Party Monster by James St. James, and I recommend that everyone read it. It’s horrifying, grotesque, cruel, and disgusting. But James was such a narcissist and so high on ketamine that he writes about it in a detached, hilarious way. I fell in love with this idea of mocking the macabre.
But I really got serious about writing when I was 23. I moved to Australia on a Work and Holiday visa and got a job at Lush. I had tons of mental health issues that I hadn’t been addressing for over a decade, and one day, the floodgates opened, and I became incapacitated by agoraphobia. I started blogging from my bedroom. It was my only connection to the outside world. And, taking inspiration from Party Monster, I decided to write about my journey of trying to navigate the world with agoraphobia, and I wanted to be funny about it…because, in a pitiful sort of way…agoraphobia is kind of comical.
Do you know how many times I’d walk outside my apartment, drenched in sweat from anxiety? I’d be surrounded by people (because I lived in Melbourne’s CBD), and suddenly, I’d start having hot flashes. My legs would buckle. My vision would go. My heart pounded so hard I thought it would explode. And then I’d collapse…while also spasming from the adrenaline rush. Let’s all be honest here, I looked like a meth addict. And I needed to laugh about that. Without making fun of how pitiful and sad I was, there’d be no way I could have ever gotten through that period of my life. That’s when writing really became important to me.
Tell us about any work you’ve had published or anything you’re working on now. How do you decide which projects you want to pursue?
Oh, I’ve had nothing big published. I’m a total noob. My biggest accomplishments are my editorial work. I wrote a fun Bigfoot article for Travel Channel that went viral. It got covered by Newsweek, Miami Herold, Houston Chronicle, MSN, Kansas City Star, and tons of others. There were even TV newscasts about it!
I also write for Passport magazine and have been able to interview some of my favorite celebrities, like John Waters, Amy Sedaris, Margaret Cho, Lee Daniels, Pam Ann, Trixie Mattel, and more. I’m really proud of those interviews, and it’s been so much fun for me to be able to speak with the people who inspired me throughout my life.
As far as literary stuff goes, I’ve been published in places like Hobart, Talking Writing, The Daily Drunk, Epoch Press, and others. But no book yet, although, I’d love to have my essays on mental health compiled into a collection called Greetings from the Edge (a nod to my mental health hero, Carrie Fisher).
Do you have a preferred genre to write in?
Nonfiction. Have you ever seen my fiction? No, you haven’t, because it’s so bad it never gets published!
Do you have a favorite piece you've written?
My big mental health essays are what I’m most proud of. ‘Marco’ in Hobart, ‘EXPOSED’ in Mikrokosmos Mojo, and ‘The Many Beds of Los Angeles’ in Epoch Press.
We need more stories about mental health that’s got some fun and hope in them. I can’t handle how many writers these days are obsessed with their “trauma” and just want to make everything traumatic. Granted, I don’t know these people or what they’ve been through, but I can tell you from my experience — when I was trapped in my bedroom, contemplating if I should jump out my window or not — miserable, trauma-porn is NOT the thing I needed to read in that moment.
I needed someone who said, “Look, this moment is absolutely horrible, but in six years, you’re going to look back and feel so proud that you managed to work your way through it. In fact, you might even find a way to see the humor in it.” After all, the best comedy comes from people who have walked through hell and came out on the other side.
What’s your writing process? Do you have any routines or habits that help you do your best work?
A nice tea (hot in winter, iced in the summer), a nice spot with lots of windows (or outdoors in the warmer months) … and that’s basically it. But again, I just write about my life. I’d imagine that if I was a fiction writer and had to build worlds and stuff, the process would be much harder.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received? And the worst?
It’s all bad. Writers are insufferable and love to hurl petty nonsense around because it makes them feel superior to others. Editors can give good advice — if they say some words need to go or be moved around…they’re probably right.
But writers never give good advice. If you have a story about a one-legged demon who is addicted to cookies and just wants to sacrifice puppies, then write it! Who cares if other writers don’t like it. Or if they say it’s crass. Or if they say it won’t have a market. The worst thing that could happen is that no editor picks up your manuscript. Then, you self-publish on Amazon, and nobody buys it.
In the grand scheme of life, that’s really not bad at all. Plus, if you enjoyed writing the book, who cares if nobody buys it, you had a great time writing it!
Who’s a writer you really admire?
James St. James and John Waters. The world needs more filth. The world needs more humor. Especially in literature. I love people who have lived extreme lives, even if they’re hated for it. If you’ve never read Waters’ book Role Models, you need to. It’s wonderful. But more importantly, you need to see his live shows. He’s a living encyclopedia of all things offensive.
And please, I urge everyone, you MUST read Party Monster. You probably won’t like it. You will surely feel disturbed. But it’s such a great learning tool. It’s an excellent example of how even the absolute worst things in life can be written about in a unique and different way.
We need more diversity in the writing community, and not just in the race, sex, and sexuality of authors…but also in the way they write.
I used to be a reader for both Harvard Review and Talking Writing, and I can tell you, after reading various people’s work nonstop…much of it sounds the same. Especially in the nonfiction realm. It’s all “here’s what happened. Here’s how it broke me. Here’s how I never recovered. Now, let me use really floral and fragrant language to describe my unending pain.”
If that’s genuinely how you feel about your experience, then you gotta do you. But if you write like that because you feel that’s how you’re “supposed” to write about pain…or if you feel that’s what is expected of someone who has been through turmoil, then take a breath. Stop writing. And ask yourself, is this actually how I view it? Is this actually how I view myself? If the answer is no, then delete the whole thing and start over. You know your life better than anyone else. Write it in the way that you want people to read it.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve had to face with any given writing project?
Just the typical crippling defeatism that all writers have. You know, garden variety writing problems.
When you have a bad case of writer’s block and are procrastinating, what would we probably find you doing?
Sorry fiction writers, I don’t want to brag, but I don’t get writer’s block. As a nonfiction writer, everything I write is stuff that’s happened to me. So, the story and characters are already there in my memory.
What’s the best feedback you’ve ever received from a reader?
It was on my blog. I got a response from a woman who was also struggling with agoraphobia. She started telling me about her life. She hadn’t been able to leave her house in years. Her husband left her. Her brother needs to get her groceries because she can’t even make it to the store. She said she feels like a burden to everyone around her.
But then she said that after reading one of my posts, she laughed for the first time in a long time. And, I’ll never forget this, she finished it by saying, “Lately, I’ve felt like ending it all. But after reading your post, I want to live.”
Listen – y’all can hate me all you want, but getting a response like that proves to me that I’m on the right path. It was one of the proudest moments of my entire life.
What does literary success look like to you?
World domination and a sexy pool boy.
Finally, where can readers follow you — website, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook page, etc.?
Twitter: @Keith_From_Ohio (But heads up, the crumbling state of America has prompted me to get very political. If you follow me there, be prepared for an equal amount of politics and writing.)