‘Runaways: A Writer’s Dilemma’ by Michael J. Seidlinger: The Perils of the Blank Page

Shelby Hinte

“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.” These are the opening lines to Michael J. Seidlinger’s novella Runaways: A Writer’s Dilemma (100 pages; Future Tense Books). In many ways, Seidlinger’s book asks an age-old question: how does a writer face a blank page? The modifier here is: how does one do this in the age of the internet—particularly in a time when dopamine-producing distractions are more abundant than ever? These questions are central to the novella which follows the narrator (referred to only as “a writer”) as they attempt to write 1,000 words a day in hopes of eventually completing a full-fledged novel.

Runaways began as a prompt from writer and editor Kevin Sampsell, who had joked online that he would publish a book of Seidlinger’s despair-ridden tweets, which have become something of a calling card for Seidlinger on social media. The novella, while full of tweet-length “posts” that help “a writer” probe deeper into their writing process, is much more than a superficial collection of tweets; it is a philosophical and metafictional examination of how a writer tends to the long, mostly unseen work of writing a novel despite longing for the instant gratification and validation that comes with posting 280-character-long quips. Runaways depicts the contradicting needs for both the solitude of creation and communion with others—“In the back of a writer’s mind, they desired the attention. This was always the case, the need for validation, a desire to make sure they weren’t invisible.” This desire to be seen is palpable, and the tweets often feel like attempts at building community through conversations about a craft that inherently requires isolation.

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As a writer painstakingly writes their novel, they post their own insecurities and despair:

“Writing—the act of filling pages with despair in hopes that someone else will find the solace in comparing their despair with yours.”

“The most difficult part of writing is, and I cannot emphasize this enough, the writing.”

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

Between posts, the narrator attempts to stay offline, to write even just one word, to find the ability to go on. The narration is sparse, and the result is a slim book of social media posts juxtaposed with reflections on a writer’s relationship with writing and social media:

“A writer could almost feel the draw of social media. When they were online, they could feel the anxiety of not being able to keep up; when offline, they battled the ever-present feeling of missing out. They loved being online. They hated being online.”

The dilemma is incredibly relatable, and Seidlinger has nailed what it feels like to take on the difficult task of creating something from nothing. In doing so, he has also captured the precarious position of craving a thing that torments you. A writer struggles time and time again to resist the temptation of the internet, and social media becomes the source of both pleasure and pain. In this way, Runaways is also a modern-day addiction narrative, but instead of a chemical substance (though there is plenty of whiskey in these pages), the narrator’s cravings are more abstract. It is this element of the novella that feels most universal. As the writer chases dopamine hit after dopamine hit, only to be left with a seemingly inescapable void, they eventually begin to make real change. The writer begins to moderate their time online and in doing so they inch closer to producing a novel. If anything, this is a harm-reduction story and not a sobriety journey.

In Seidlinger’s words, “Runaways is for every writer (or creative) working on their craft and creative careers. It’s a fable about the despair that comes from opening up the closed-off doors in your mind to create work that challenges you as much as you hope it helps anyone that might pick it up, give it a chance, and read it. That’s all to say that Runaways is a balm for anyone that’s feeling bleak now or later.” It’s true: Runaways may face despair head-on, but ultimately it is a novella about finding hope when you think you’ve lost it for good. It is for anyone who has ever attempted to fill a blank page and, more importantly, it is for anyone who has ever fallen in love with a sentence and wanted to create that experience for someone else. 

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