The Art of Depression

In small town Pennsylvania, Tao Lin writes on, with fewer abstractions.

February 28, 2007

TAO LIN USED to deliver Domino's for rent money. Not anymore. With five books down and a few more on the way, the 23-year-old has given up the pizza industry for writing full-time, churning out novels, poems and short stories that have made him a ubiquitous darling of the indie and online publishing worlds.

"I think why I think about writing every day is because to me there is no difference between art and life," Lin says, in the same straightforward, un-ironic tone he uses in his writing. "They are the same thing. There is just one thing. Everything is inside the universe. Art does not exist in a parallel universe."

Born in Virginia and raised in and around Orlando, FL, Lin has a journalism degree from New York University. His books include a poetry collection, You Are a Little Bit Happier Than I Am (Action Books, 2006); a story collection, Bed (Melville House, 2007); a novel, Eeeee éee Eeee (Melville House, 2007); a poetry ebook, This Emotion was a Little E-Book (Bear Parade, 2006); and a story e-book, Today the Sky is Blue and White With Bright Blue Spots and a Small Pale Moon and I Will Destroy Our Relationship Today (Bear Parade, 2006). His short stories have been published in The Cincinnati Review, The Mississippi Review, and Other Voices, and won the 2004 One Story short story contest.

Lin admits that most of his writing is about "how depressed I felt or how sad and meaningless the world was." True, but the despair in his writing is so selfaware that it manages to also be laughout-loud funny-like poems such as "if I get hit a little by a truck tonight i'm okay with that" or "4:30 a.m.," which contains about 60 iterations of the line "i am fucked existentially."

Inspired by reading Kurt Vonnegut, Lin began writing in high school. In college, he was encouraged by a creative writing teacher. After graduating from NYU, Lin was working in a library when his lease was up. So he quit. "I was tired of New York City," he says. "The subway system is very bad."

He now lives in a small town in Pennsylvania, "near or with" his girlfriend, the writer Ellen Kennedy, and spends his time writing, selling things on eBay, blogging at Reader of Depressing Books (, eating vegan, and working as a personal assistant to an Afghan actor named Baktash Zaher, a job which involves such tasks as updating Zaher's profile.

Moving out of New York has enabled Lin to write full-time. "I only work if I'm forced to work," he says. "There is nothing respectable, good, hard-working, or integrity-related about having a day-job." Lin says he doesn't understand why writers complain about not getting paid enough. "If you get a small apartment in a suburban area you can pay like $300 a month ... You don't need a TV, you don't need to eat dinner at restaurants. You don't need wine, beer, or a cell phone."

Kennedy and Lin run Ass Hi Books, which publishes their collaborative children's stories, including The Very Retarded Giant Moth. (Excerpt: "retarded/ the moth was very giant and very retarded/ it lived in Pennsylvania/ it was very retarded/ it was as big and heavy as a bird/ the moth was very big and very retarded and heavy.") They have also collaborated on a novel forthcoming on Six Gallery Press, called Hikkomori, the Japanese term for severe social recluses.

Lin's decision to publish solely with small presses is a conscious one. He first had an agent that tried-and failed-to sell his work to large publishing houses. "Today I would not allow myself to be published by anything except an independent press," he says. "But I think maybe if Knopf wanted to publish my next novel for $2,000,000 I would do it. I would get the $2,000,000 and start my own press and tell people not to buy my Knopf book ... And I would use that money to do things that would reduce pain and suffering in the world. Or I would give that money to [small press] Melville House."

Publishing online is another way that Lin has circumvented the corporate publishing industry. His blog gained him a measure of notoriety when he posted his complete email exchange with the publisher of Future Tense Books regarding their cancellation of one of Lin's books due to editorial differences (the book was later picked up by Bear Parade). "My readership has increased a little," Lin says, "and hated me more." He has blogged about controversial topics such as firing his literary agent, and been accused of being a fictional character. Due to his blog, Lin says his writing has fewer abstractions. "I've blogged extensively about the harms of abstractions."

Lin not only posts many of his stories and poems on his blog, but his writingdotted with the ennui of everyday mundanity-contains references to emailing, IM-ing, Googling and the Web. Like an instant message itself, his poem "some of my happiest moments in life occur on AOL instant messenger" reads: "i will create a new category/ on my instant messenger buddy list/ i will call it/ 'people i like who don't like me back'/ and i will move your screen name into that group/ and i will invite you to my house and show you."

But while the Internet has made it difficult for Lin-like countless other writers-to write for more than a few minutes at a time before he is compelled to check his email or chat with someone online, it hasn't made him any less prolific. "I always drink coffee or eat some kind of energy pill before writing. Then I write for about two or three hours," he explains. "I don't write fast. I just write every day."

Lisa Ko is a contributing editor for Hyphen and a New York City-based writer.

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