On Being a Failed Writer

At the age of 50, I am a failed writer. Except for a few articles on CounterPunch, everything I’ve published has been self-published. I’ve worked tens of thousands of hours, written hundreds of thousands of words, and have never made a dime. Had I spent the same amount of time at a minimum wage retail job, I’d be rich, or at least a shift-supervisor at Starbucks. I haven’t been able to find an audience. You probably won’t even read this.

So why don’t I quit?

I tried. From the age of 25 to the age of 50, I had one goal In life, to cure myself of the urge to write. But I failed. Let me explain.

The urge to write should never be confused with the ability to make a living by writing, or even the ability to express yourself by putting words down on paper. T. S. Eliot is rumored to have answered the suggestion that “most editors are failed writers” with the quip that “yes, but so are most writers.” For many working journalists, writing is both a day job, and an impossible dream. Most people at Buzzfeed don’t want to be writing listicles. I doubt even the most cynical daily newspaper reporter grew up dreaming that someday he would be writing hit pieces on a mentally ill homeless man for the New York Post, or smearing a teenager the local police for the Indianapolis Star to protect the local police. It’s simply a way to pay the bills until the big story that will make you another Woodward or Bernstein comes along, or until a Hollywood studio buys your film script. I am not being a moral scold. If I had the social connections to get hired by Vice, Buzzfeed, or the NY Post, I’d probably jump at the opportunity. What’s more, some of the best writers in American history have written for money, and only for money. Ulysses Grant, for example, started writing his memoirs in 1884 after he was diagnosed with throat cancer. Sick, destitute after losing most of his assets in a Ponzi scheme, the 18th President of the United States wrote mainly to to pay old debts, and to leave enough money left over to provide for his wife and family. Yet the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant remains the greatest autobiography ever written by an American President. It’s so good that, to this day, there are conspiracy theories that it had actually been ghostwritten by his good friend Mark Twain.

In my mid-20s, I decided to become a novelist, mainly because I realized I was unfit to do anything else. For a middle-aged man, 25 seems young, but let’s face it. If you’re not already on a solid career track, or have some kind of specialized, highly sought after skill, you’re going to end up struggling for the rest of your life. I’m 50 years old, but 25 doesn’t even seem that long ago. It feels like yesterday. Not only had I run out of career options, I had never had very many in the first place. I had been slotted. I had found my place, and I didn’t like it. I was already picking up the pieces of my broken life, wondering what happened.

For most of my childhood, I had planned to join the United States Marine Corps, just like my father. I gave up on the idea when I became socialist in college. How could I make a career out of defending the American empire?

Note: I was also soft, and weak. A summer at McGuire Air Force base at a Civil Air Patrol encampment had already convinced me that I wasn’t cut out for the military life. But “I declined to serve the interests of American imperialism” sounds much better than “I was scared that when I got to basic training the other guys would call me a fag and beat me up.” So that’s the version of the story I usually tell.

Later on, I toyed with the idea of becoming a high school English teacher or a college professor, but I had been miserable in high-school. Why would I have wanted to spend the rest of my life in a place I already knew I hated? Tenure at Harvard would have been great. But I couldn’t even understand Foucault or Derrida, let alone teach them. I did not have the academic ability to become a lawyer, or the temperament to become a political activist. So at the age of 23, I dropped out of graduate school, and got an entry-level job as a “Production Editor” for a small, scientific publishing in New York City. I made a little under $15,000/yr preparing scientific manuscripts to be published in books that almost nobody would ever read.

It didn’t take me very long to decide that since I was unlikely to get a better job, I could at least have a better identity. “Writer” sounded good, but there was only one problem: I couldn’t write. Not a novel, not an essay, not a review, not a short story. I could barely even write a note on a birthday card. Indeed, I spent most of my 20s thinking of myself as a writer, but unable to come up with anything much more than a diary, which I’m glad I lost. The only thing I remember about it is that it wasn’t worth keeping. I had a massive case of writer’s block, which correlated to my inability to relate to other people, or get my life together. Nevertheless, not being able to write was a good also excuse to stay put. My entry-level publishing job didn’t pay much, and it didn’t have much room for advancement, but it also didn’t involve much work. The hours were steady, and I never had to worry about getting cheated out of my wages. These days it almost seems like a good job. In any event, I decided that since I didn’t know how to write, I would use the time after work to teach myself how to write. Progress was slow, but I did make it. I read just about everything I could, and did manage to fill in the gaps in my education that I had noticed during my abortive two years of graduate school. Eventually I found my subject, failure. I identified with the narrator in Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, and with the hero of George Orwell’s early novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Unlike Orwell’s Gordon Comstock, however, I couldn’t find a way back into the lower-middle-class, and unlike Dostoevsky’s underground man, I couldn’t make failure sound interesting.

So I concluded that if I was going to write about failure, I had to fail a lot more.

After I got fired from my job as a Production Editor – It was a combination of incompetence and just a very obvious lack of interest in my work. – I failed at just about everything I tried. I couldn’t make friends, establish a relationship with a woman, break away from, or maintain friendly relations with my parents, complete psychoanalysis, or hold a job. Over the next few years, I worked as a telemarketer, fish gutter, a sheet metal worker, a data entry specialist at the last unionized textile company in Seattle, an administrative assistant, a sales associate at an office supply store, a sheet metal worker, a day laborer at a recycling plant, a low-level systems administrator for a small ISP, and a customer-service support technician for three failed e-commerce companies, and a barista at Starbucks.

The last job turned out be a lucky accident, since it provided me with the material for the first thing I ever wrote worth reading, a mildly successful knockoff of Notes from the Underground, a long short story called “How To Under Ring.” I am a bitter Starbucks barista, the “underground man” serving coffee and pulling espresso while I wait for the chance to be put on a cash register. Then I can follow his true calling of small-time embezzler and petty thief. How much is fiction, and how much is autobiography I leave to any readers, and potential employers, to decide. These days it seems dated, and almost cliché, and I can just see the typical social justice warrior’s reaction. “Angry young white male from a middle-class family hates his job and can’t get laid, so he acts like an asshole. Cry me a river.” But, at the time, actually finishing a short story felt like vindication.

I also concluded that since I had actually proven I could finish a piece of writing, but knew deep down inside that I didn’t really have much talent, I’d try in earnest to quit trying to write. But I failed. The biggest thing I failed at in my 30s and 40s was my renewed effort to quit writing. I studied programming and information technology, got certifications from Microsoft, Comptia, and Cisco. It worked for awhile. Jumping from one e-commerce job to another left me little time to think about writing, but then the bottom fell out of the tech industry in March of 2000. By the time the tech economy got going again, I was too old, and too poorly trained to get back in. I tried to replace writing fiction with a more harmless creative pursuit, photography, but I was even worse at photography than I was at writing fiction. Smart phones made professional photojournalists obsolete anyway. When George W. Bush was President, I threw myself into the anti-war movement and the pro-impeachment movements. But the Democrats took back control of Congress. Nancy Pelosi declared impeachment to be “off the table,” and when Barack Obama was elected President, the anti-war movement exited the political scene, stage right.

By the time I hit 45, I realized I would never quit writing, since to quit writing meant that I would have to succeed at something other than writing, and that would never happen. For 20 years, the more I had tried to quit writing, the more I had kept coming back to it. It was the only thing in my life that I ever stuck with, impossible to fail at, since it was identical with failure. When failure is writing and writing failure, how can you fail at writing? What’s more, while I didn’t actually like to write, I needed it, needed to write the way a heroin addict needs his fix. The reasons are the same. The heroin addict and the failed writer both want one thing, to be alone, to forget reality, and live inside his imagination. I would give up literature for heroin, if I could, but heroin is too expensive.

In 2011, my father died and I lost my last full-time job, both within a few weeks of each other. I also lost the writer’s block I had for most of my life. Suddenly, I could speak. I wrote a full length novel. I wrote over 500,000 words of film reviews, autobiographical essays, and opinion pieces about politics and history. At the age of 25, I could barely write my own name. At the age of 50, I can write just about anything I want. If there’s a thought somewhere in my head, I will eventually find a way to put it into words. If there’s a film or a book I want to review, a political event I want to analyze, childhood demons I want to banish from my memory by speaking their names, or a story I want to tell, nothing will stop me from doing it. The only problem is that good, steady low-paying jobs, with predictable schedules, and paychecks that show up on time every two weeks are a thing of the past. I always laugh at Charles Bukowski whenever I read Post Office. These days, working at the post office is the kind of “good job” left-wing Democrats like Bernie Sanders are always promising to bring back. The post office? Henry Chinaski, check your privilege.

In 2015, you can no longer become a failed writer because you’ve failed at everything else. Writing takes time. It takes leisure. It takes the ability to hack together a life where you’ve got a few hours every day to sit down at your desk, or at some table at some coffee shop somewhere, and not be disturbed. My employment options at age 50 are far more limited than they were at age 23, not only because the job market is so much worse now, but because I’ve already demonstrated to the world that I’m not a good employee. My credit is bad. My resume is spotty. The Internet is full of my self-published rantings. They will never go away. My next job, if I’m even lucky enough to get one, will have to be one of those “we’ll hire anybody who can pass the drug test” kind of jobs. I’ll be a temp worker at an Amazon warehouse, or a low-level retail worker “on call” who works for 15 hours a week, and worries his head off waiting to work for another 50. Maybe I’ll go back up to Alaska and gut fish. I’ll be that strange dude in his 50s with no hair and a grizzled beard, the guy all the college kids laugh at one moment, then speculate how many years he did before his parole the next. I don’t know what my next job will be, but I’m fairly sure it will leave me little time to read, and to write. In my 20s, I became a failed writer because I couldn’t do anything else. In my 50s, if I want to stay a failed writer, I’ll have to fight for it.

But it really doesn’t matter because I finally understand. I’m not a writer at all. I’ve never been. I never will be. I am exactly what I wrote my first real short story about, a small-time embezzler and a petty thief, only this time I don’t want to steal a few hundred dollars from a cash-register at Starbucks. I want to steal something far more valuable, time, the time to write, the time to read, the time to watch interesting art house movies with subtitles, and ride my bike through the mountains of Northwest New Jersey, to debate politics on the Internet. I am small time embezzler and a petty thief, stealing ticks of the clock back from capitalism. I will lie, freeload, cheat, steal, mooch off the government. I will do anything to fight back against being pressed into a routine that snuffs out my voice for good. I will continue to speak, even if I’m the only one listening. Henry David Thoreau once said that you cannot kill time without injuring eternity. I will do my best to spend the next 25 years of my life without injuring eternity.

But I will probably fail.

469 comments

  1. […] good man looks like. She is vulnerable to superficial appearances. This puts her at the mercy of the shittiest man of all, the failed writer. Let’s call him […]

  2. respecting your writings…Sir

  3. Reading this not only made me interested in reading Grant’s memoirs, but also compelled me to continue writing (even if no one ever reads it). Your efforts were not in vain. Thank you.

    1. Ulysses Grant is an unjustly maligned historical figure. Not only was he the greatest general in American history, he was the most anti-racist President until the 1960s. He also made sure the public schools stayed secular.

  4. anthrovolution · · Reply

    I’ve been that dude in his 50’s with a grizzled beard, but the college kids didn’t laugh. They thought I must be one of their professors.

    I’ve had a number of books and short stories rumbling inside me that I had to let out, and I’ve published them, for free, on one blog site or another. Nobody reads them, but for some reason they wanted to exist, and now they do. So I’ve done my duty as a writer, even if the words are not spelled correctly and some of it makes no sense, it exists, and whoever it was written for can someday find it.

    Gary
    share-a-like dot com

    1. One of the best films about the agony of the failed writer is Noah Baumbach’s film The Squid and the Whale.

      Jeff Daniels is that 50 year old college professor/novelist who doesn’t get enough readers. One nail Baumbach really hit on the head was how the failed writer becomes more and more of a snob, the more and more he fails.

      He does get one of his students as his live-in groupie/protégé. But she winds up being a destructive influence on his son.

      Noah Baumbach based the character on his own father. In the light of his now (great success) I wonder if he thinks it gratuitously cruel.

  5. Your story is very inspiring and had me chuckling quite a few times.

  6. Ah! I must say that I enjoyed reading it. I can totally relate. And that T.S. Eliot quote is brilliant. He’s one of my favorite poets ❤

    1. Ha. Ha. Written when he was 27:

      I grow old … I grow old …
      I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

      http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/173476

      I can identify. It was the same year I lost my hair.

      1. It’s that mermaid poem na? With Michaelangelo and all? I remember this poem ❤

        1. The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock, his first great poem.

  7. If you’re are a failed writer than most of bloggers will love to fail as you. You write awesome.. Keep doing, all the best.

  8. As an aspiring writer that dreams to become successful, this touched me. Thank you for writing this.

  9. I’m still suffering for what you went through.

  10. While yes you’ve had some large bumps in your journey, I think you are a better writer than you give yourself credit for. I have personally discovered that life will be what we expect it to be, if we surround our selves with failure then all we do will fail, however if we take a slightly more positive approach then we will be more successful.

    Of course this is unsolicited advice so take it or leave it! I enjoyed reading your post and i hope that what ever you decide to do job wise will be fun and that u succeed

  11. interesting story

  12. Write for you, write for soul. Rest is peace and love for soul.

    1. At this point, I write to torment myself. And I play the clarinet to heal my soul.

      1. I do that too, just clarinet for me is my guitar which I m just struggling to learn. But whatever I write heals me, every word , every letter just heals me. I look it that way, to be for me not for the one who read, although everyone like the appreciation.

        1. I am writing for the same reason…to heal the spill…to rest and to cleanse. It has been a long time coming and is most welcome.

          1. And it does help. :)happy writing

  13. Nicely written, ☺

  14. On the bright side, you’ve got more likes and followers than some of us blogging here, so you must be doing something right and should cut yourself a break. After all its about getting it out there. The old feedback loop of getting published/books sold/fame/riches isnt really whats important – sure its nice but it isn’t the important thing. The writing is the thing…

    Meanwhile as Arnie said… I’ll be back (so please, keep it going).

    1. Honestly. I don’t know exactly how much traffic most blogs get. But I did get a huge bump when Daniel Levine started writing here.

      His essay

      https://writerswithoutmoney.com/2015/09/04/the-revolution-that-got-away-occupy-wall-street-four-years-on/

      and his book on Occupy Wall Street are some of the best stuff written about the now dead political movement.

      https://www.etsy.com/listing/232450750/daniel-levine-every-time-i-check-my

  15. lifehardshipsandmore · · Reply

    Brilliant story! Makes me want to continue writing even if no will like the stuff I write, or it wrong! It’s good to let it of your chest!!

  16. Wow this looks can surely earn you a villainous role in Steven Spielberg’s next creation.

  17. So subtle is your observation. So much lucid is your composition……Strong cohesion runs through the text.Every thing speaks a lot about the mettle of which your writerself is made up.Not concinced about your self proclaimed failure but baffled.

  18. You just made me fell in love with your love for writing. It’s so touching! You’re definitely one of the best inspirations out there for young writers like us! Keep fighting, keep writing!

  19. […] Source: On Being a Failed Writer […]

  20. Oh, do not ask, “what is it?”
    Let us go and make our visit ❤

    I also love him poem ‘hollow men’. A perfect satire on humans. And I love how he incorporated Dante’s ideas in his poems. Such an intellectual poet he was.

    1. I use that “no I am not Prince Hamlet” quote from The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock all the time.

      1. Poetry is addictive ❤ Whether it’s Pope or Wordsworth, Eliot or Keats, no matter which genre it is, poetry makes the heart glow ❤

        1. The poet I really identified with in college was A. E. Houseman.

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A._E._Housman

          If you like Morrissey and The Smiths, you’ll love his poetry. Morrissey has talked about him as an influence.

          http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/29/books/review/morrisseys-autobiography.html?_r=0

          1. I would love to read his poetry. Thanks a lot for the suggestion 😊

  21. Loved this! I am in a similar predicament, only female and twelve years older.

    1. I wrote another article on “failed writers” centered around the tensions between struggling male and female writers.

      https://writerswithoutmoney.com/2015/08/29/on-failed-writers-and-bad-coffee-dates/

      1. Thanks! I just read and liked it. I also downloaded U.S. Giant’s memoir onto my Kindle.

        I keep mulling over my favorite sentence in this post: “So I concluded that if I was going to write about failure, I had to fail a lot more.”

        Lol. That reminds me of a Peanuts cartoon. Snoopy, feeling dejected because someone told him his writing lacks depth, as though he’s never really suffered, says to himself:”That’s not true, I have suffered. I remember when I was a puppy, someone once stepped on my tail.”

        1. Grant’s, not Giant’s. Darn auto incorrect.

          1. Grant was a giant. I’m pretty sure, however, he would have given up his literary success if he could have avoided cancer and the Battle of Cold Harbor.

            Lincoln was a better writer than Grant. Yet some of his greatest writing (The Gettysburg Address) came in response to some of the most horrible events in American history.

  22. I respect your passion and the ability to continue writting despite the current. I just started blogging 2 days ago. Lacking an education I never considered myself to be a writer but i enjoy it.
    Let me know if you have any tips for me?

  23. A heady combination of facts, sarcasm and humour! Going though this post am not really convinced that you failed. If you really did, I would like to fail like you because the story pretty much mirrors my life though I started writing recently. Liked the flow of thoughts and emotions.

    1. I think failure/tragedy drives most good art. It’s also what almost anybody can identify with. It’s why so many writers (like Bukowski) “brand” themselves as drunks. Alcoholism becomes a metaphor for the social failure that comes along with dedicating yourself to writing.

  24. skrylcomputers · · Reply

    Good post.

  25. So interesting to read this piece just when I’ve finally made peace with myself never being an actual writer. For all my life I’ve only wanted to be a writer but it really hit me hard when I couldn’t write anything that hundreds of people would like to read. I fought against my need to write, took up and left so many promising jobs and always came back to writing. Only a few months ago did I manage to make peace with it. I realized I no longer care if anyone ever reads or likes anything I write. Thus, my new blog where I write just because I need to write. I write because I need to tell a story, not because anyone else needs to hear that story. Thank you for inspiring me to go on!

  26. Reblogged this on ishal23.

  27. Mwikali Mutune · · Reply

    Perfectly timed. I am almost turning 25 and it scares me that I haven’t accomplished some of the feats I’d envisioned at 20. I will blink and find a silver haired grandmother staring back at me in the mirror. Your piece provided the jolt I needed.

    1. 25 tends to feel like the first big crisis in life. It’s when you unambiguously become an adult.

      1. 50 becomes the next as you start to realize the end is closer than the beginning. It doesn’t help that AARP elects to recruit you at
        50.

        1. Yeah. 30 is a largely artificial crisis that you get over the day after your birthday.

          I barely noticed it anyway, since I started losing my hair at 27, and calling myself “middle-aged” at 28.

          50 on the other hand, when you worry about being “old” at 30, people dismiss you. When you don’t worry about being old at 50, people make sure to tell you that you damned well should.

  28. Reblogged this on eomenta and commented:
    Touching

  29. I’m 24 and I have wanted to be a writer since I was a child. My day job is to edit articles. At night, I wait till my fear of giving writing a real chance paralyzes me while I think of ways of opting out of society. This blog came at a perfect time because I have the same fears as you have written about. I just need to make peace with it.

    1. When I was 24 I was really into reading Henry Miller. He was a failed writer until his late 30s. I was like “ha. I’ve got plenty of time.”

  30. First – Kudos on the courage and candid writing!
    Second – Failure is only a function of goals 🙂
    I will re-blog this post soon with some of my (humble) insights.
    http://gilshalev.com/2012/04/11/but-am-i-a-real-writer/

  31. Just so you know, I read your entire piece. I liked it.

  32. You are a crystal ball for my life. And reinspired me to write, just to not bank on it. My hat is off to you.

  33. Tik tok, tik tok. I am around the same age as you and have also been reviewing my lack of progress in life. Lately I have found a second breath in the believe that every day can bring unexpected change which could include success. I ejoyed reading your post.

    1. This is very true. Keep up the motivation. Everyday brings new opportunities.

  34. Have you read Robert Greene’s “Mastery”? Then take a look at his life too… If you haven’t. You will not regret it.

    1. Not familiar with him. Will check it out.

  35. I do know whether to be dismayed about writing, or to act soon and write. Either way, I will tell my story before I die. I am a dropout – construction laborer – convict -college graduate; who was fighting in the streets when struck by a car and was knocked out for seventeen days; which inspired a hospital stay of three months.

    1. I can relate. I got “doored” by an SUV while riding my bike and wound up spending three days in intensive care.

      https://writerswithoutmoney.com/2015/06/14/in-the-armpit-of-america-at-the-buttcrack-of-dawn/

      1. Relation, in that both wish to author substantive material on the regular. But as for injury I was rendered comatose for a period of seventeen days. I was breathing with the help of a respirator for the first three days. When discharged from the hospital three months later I was unable to walk.

  36. I can relate to and validate it all. The internet is the only thing that makes me feel like a writer, because I don’t have to get it past a publisher. On the other hand, I’m giving it away for free. I’m sort of OK with it, I mean, I’d hate to be paid to write and have to write what someone tells me to, too . . .

    1. The internet is what finally helped me break the writers block I suffered from in my 20s and 30s.

      1. yeah, me too, I guess. Once my kids were old enough that parenting stopped taking all my time, I started visiting opinion sites and blogging sites and my first terrible book just poured out as fast as I can type, which, not very, but still . . .

        now a couple of hundred blog posts and a novel I need to get to. As far as the blog goes, it’s not a POV that would ever pay in a million years, and the version that would pay I could never write . . . honestly, I love the sound of my own voice, I could read me all day, and SOMEBODY has to write for my entertainment.

        1. When one talks to oneself one can always be sure of the company.

  37. Powerful. Thank you for sharing.

  38. Thank you for writing this.

    1. Thanks for commenting.

  39. This made me cry for so many reasons.

    I’ve been writing for half of my life – from the random thoughts of a grade school students to feature essays for National Press Conference contests to ghost writing for other college student. Now I’m at the point of time where I’m beginning to think maybe I failed. I can’t even elaborate that. I just failed. But the version I tell people is “It’s a career move”. They still get surprised sometimes. At 21, they all expected me to be a journalist or a creative writer, not to be a struggling 6th year college student who’s on the verge of dropping out.

    Just like you, I failed at everything else. I’m slowly losing what little friends I had. My family is lost in a lie I feed them everyday. “I’m okay.” “I’ll graduate soon.” I even lost my ghost-writing job because I was so sick of whiny clients who needed help with their homeworks.

    But reading this made me realize that maybe it’s not such a bad thing to fail. Maybe I just need to fail so I’d know how to go on.

    Sorry for rambling. I was just really touched by this. Thank you for sharing this wonderful thought.

    1. *students and student got mixed up, sorry. My phone is just a typo magnet*

  40. Reading this bought me joy and sorrow both in extreme measures. Thank you.

  41. I enjoyed reading it… and moreover it’s inspiring ..!!! Even in failure the one to give you hope was writing whether you liked it or not… !!

  42. […] Source: On Being a Failed Writer […]

  43. I appreciate you taking the time to share so much. I disagree with you on one thing though, the fact that you think you will fail. I think failure only exists when there is no effort. In my opinion, a dream is an effort born of your innermost desires, so if a 90 year old lady can get a college degree, its never to late to have a dream come true. Thanks for the inspiration 🙂

    1. 106ferrets · · Reply

      Very wise- I 100% agree 🙂 fabulously put

  44. Thank you for sharing your story. At the age of 25 myself, I find myself identifying with the experiences you mentioned above. Nothing like a good humble dose of reality to kick me in the butt and get me kick started. Thanks for the great post.

  45. Wow. Powerful stuff. Thanks for sharing this.

  46. I understand where you’re coming from but, I don’t agree with the “failed writer” part. Most people forget that if you want to make a living off of your artistry that it then becomes a business & that you have to become a salesman or find someone who is. How many people have you asked to read your stories? How many publishers have you contacted? Lisa L’Amour received over 200 rejections before she finally got her book Bantam published (which sold over 300 million copies). My point is that you haven’t failed until you quit & you have to keep creating more opportunities day by day. Focus more on creating possibilities & leaving problems where they are because focusing on problems lead to more problems. Just be positive & keep showing up everyday. As long as you’re breathing there’s still a chance

  47. This is one of the most powerful narratives I’ve read in a long time… This echoes, loudly… You not being a writer, is nothing short of blasphemous!

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