Tokyo Weekender’s series TW Creatives features various works by Japan-based writers, photographers, videographers, illustrators and other creatives in a bid to provide one additional platform for them to exhibit their talent. The works submitted here belong entirely to the creators — Tokyo Weekender only takes pride in being one of their most passionate supporters.
For our latest entry, we present an essay by TW regular contributor Andreas Neuenkirchen on finding your topic for the next twenty years or allowing it to find you.
Not Ready for Tea: Portrait of the Pop Culture Writer in Crisis
Recently, two things have occurred that are somewhat painful to talk about. First, sales of my last book were sabotaged by unkind online customer reviews (professional reviewers have been kinder, but who still reads those?). Then I couldn’t secure a writing assignment that I felt I was a shoo-in for. Those customer reviews were mainly by young readers expecting more tales of cosplay and clubbing from my book, a humorous account of everyday life in Tokyo.
The writing assignment was for a travel guide aimed at “young, trendy people.” ‘That’s me!’ I thought. ‘I am that young and trendy guy. I have been that young and trendy guy for well over 20 years now.’
Yes, something about that sentence sounds slightly off. I will be 50 this year. Maybe it’s time to retire ‘young and trendy guy.’
I Don’t Care a Lot
I made two resolutions after my two encounters with rejection. The first one was easy: stop reading non-professional reviews and other online chatter. Not just regarding my own work and not just the negative stuff. It worked instantly, I can only recommend it. It gives you peace of mind and frees up an enormous amount of time for you to spend on things that don’t drive you crazy without any pay-off. I went cold turkey and I stayed strong without any effort. I never scroll down to the comments section anymore. I don’t care how many ‘stars’ complete strangers award to Stephen King, Michel Houellebecq or myself. I do care about my average star ratings since they translate to money (or no money) in the bank, but since there isn’t anything I can do about it except begging friends, family and other habitual readers for positive reviews (which I won’t; I have my dignity), I don’t need to know the details.
The second resolution proved more problematic: Find something else to write about. Pop culture has always been at the heart of my writing. Yet, for some time, I have been feeling something that probably these unhappy amateur reviewers have also felt about me: I’m losing touch. On a non-professional level, I don’t even care. I don’t speak TikTok and I have no desire to learn. I agree with Mr. Scorsese’s sentiment that modern cinema is not really cinema (although one might argue that cinema started out as a vulgar fairground spectacle and is now merely returning to its roots). I hardly ever listen to any kind of music anymore (something I would have thought impossible only a few years back). I own a PlayStation, but I’m not sure where it is. Several of those celebrated new comedy shows on streaming services I turned off after less than one complete episode because I couldn’t bear the relentless onslaught of profanities (you are welcome to think that makes me a prude; I will maintain it only makes me a grown-up). And writing about the fashion choices of teenage girls, one of my repeat subjects, might come across as a bit creepy from a straight man my age (although I insist my interest has always been scholastic, never fetishistic).
So, what else is out there? Certainly, my chosen home country of Japan has so much more to offer than just pop culture. Yet, I can’t find it in my heart to feign more than a fleeting interest in tea ceremony and the hidden meanings of kimono patterns. History holds endless fascination for me, but I have no head for dates (other kinds of numbers are even worse, so let’s forget about economics too). Also, I personally know a few certified historians and I know that I will never know what they know. I feel more confident in the field of contemporary politics, even though I’m not in the habit of posting a new Brexit joke or Bernie Sanders meme every five minutes on social media (seriously, people, stop. It’s more annoying than cat content ever was. Get back to work or playing computer games or whatever it is you are supposed to be doing.) Still, being realistic prevents me from trying to break into world affairs after covering Lolita fashion and monster movies for most of my career. Sports? As I get older, I understand why people do it. I still don’t understand why people watch it (I’m aware it’s the other way around for most people.) I have written about beer before, a subject I’m still passionate about. Wrestling with occasional gout attacks, however, I doubt I can turn that into a full-time career without permanently crippling myself. How about food? I like to eat well as much as the next guy and yet I dream of a world that rather has less than more food journalism.
Welcome to the Family
It turns out, I didn’t need to worry. My new topics have already been there for a while, I just had to accept them. At first, I even made a conscious effort to avoid them. When I got married, I swore I would never turn my writing into the literary equivalent of a “Take my wife” comedy routine. While I like to believe that I haven’t done exactly that, I can’t deny that my wife has become a recurring character in my work.
When she was pregnant, I vowed not to become one of those writers only writing about how hilarious it is to have children. Now I have a funny fatherhood column in a magazine, with one in a newspaper likely to follow.
Is this world of toilet training, preschool education and family getaways more exciting than the world of fictional serial killers, hot new bands and the latest eyeliner trends? I certainly think so. I know not everyone agrees. I know I’m losing part of my old audience. I’m also reaching readers I haven’t reached before. It doesn’t have to be a crisis. It’s just change.
Not even that much change. Pop culture has not disappeared from my writing. Initially unaware, I recently noticed that hardly any of my droll tales from family life come without at least a passing reference to an obscure superhero, a forgotten B movie, a Sega Dreamcast game or a dubious hit song from a questionable era. So, I probably didn’t stop caring altogether. I just toggled priorities. And I substituted trend-hopping with nostalgia. Yes, nostalgia has a bad reputation. But come a certain age, you earn the privilege.
“Write what you know” is dull and limiting advice for writers. It can’t be denied, however, that our writing always will be informed by what surrounds us. These days, I find myself surrounded by human life rather than pop life. So, I will write about the joys and challenges of being a husband and a father, about arguing with an occasionally disagreeing body and eventually about old age and staring death in the eye.
But tea ceremony? Never.
Epilogue: Tokyo, Present Day
I wrote this rambling essay about two years ago and to add insult to injury, nobody bought it (in neither sense of the expression). Since then, I have written two and a half new books dealing partially or entirely with pop culture and there are one or two more in early development.
But I have it under control. I can stop anytime. I swear.
Andreas Neuenkirchen was born in Bremen, Germany, where he immediately started writing bad sci-fi, fantasy and horror stories. Transitioning to somewhat readable journalism in his 20s, he moved to Munich (still Germany), where he worked as an editor for print (passionately) and Big Data (reluctantly, yet profitably). Eventually, he bought himself a conscience and moved to Tokyo, Japan, where his wife is from. Today he identifies as a permanent essayist, frequent novelist, and occasional screenwriter. He has written 12 books in German, all but one about Japan. His English work has appeared in The Japan Times and Tokyo Weekender, among others.