Freedom

There are only two sureties in life: that we have been born and that we will die. The rest, at least from a finite human perspective, is variable.

No True Answers, No Answerable Truths

Contemplating the mystery of our birth—why was I born?—is likely to cause a certain degree of anxiety, at least for those of us who judge ourselves to be in mundane circumstances: my family is not wealthy; I am not wealthy; I am not famous; my job is not glamorous; my children are unimpressive; my spouse is boring; I am not exceptionally beautiful or witty or gifted; and, though I secretly tell myself I’m smarter than most people, I just as often fear that I am not. Erase me completely and there will be someone very much like me to take my place. Why, then, do I exist? The world is quick to provide temporary relief and sell us an answer to this unanswerable question. If we’re honest with ourselves, maybe after purchasing a few bottles of snake oil (and who can blame us for that), we will eventually come to the conclusion that if we can’t know about the reason for our own lives, no one can.

Death is a similar mystery with no good answers or reasons. We know what happens biologically after the cessation of life, insofar as we are able to agree on what actually constitutes life. But we do not know whether mind is coterminous with brain. If it isn’t, then where does the mind go after the body rots? If it is, then human consciousness is an epiphenomenon of matter and is therefore unlike any other thing (event? concept? process? ghost? singularity?) in the known universe—another unfathomable mystery. As Marcus Aurelius says: “Providence or atoms” (Meditations, IV.3). Life comes down to one or the other, even if we can’t know what either truly is.

Only We Care About What Our Lives May Mean

Even before we’re naught but dust, we will watch ourselves vanish by inches. Consider that in a few years, society will tell us that our significance has already passed. We won’t be dead yet, but we will still be told that it is time to retire and make way for those who are younger and therefore more socially relevant. Our worth will be judged according to what we have earned for ourselves in 20-30 years of active adult life. And such judgment will be based on the social values of the moment—ideas presently in fashion, not even, necessarily, what we were thinking about when we started the company, wrote the book, or climbed the mountain.

We will still be asking, Why, then, do I exist? And, as we reach retirement age, we may find others asking us that, too. Moreover, we may complain about the stereotypical characteristics of the Millennials, but every generation (like every individual) judges the world according to its own perspective and values. We, in Generation X, also judged the Baby Boomers. And they cruelly judged us as well as the Lost Generation, etc. Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis. Times change, and we change with them. And so goes the world.

But in spite of our all-encompassing solipsism, we will still have regrets. We will either have worked very hard in practical ways to do what was expected of us (and feel that we never fully addressed our inner potential) or we will have pursued some path of inner realization (and feel that we never got to experience conventional kinds of success and recognition). This may be an oversimplification, but the principle is sound. We will eventually realize, on some level, that we cannot have it all because we are going to die and our time is limited. This may make us cry because we can’t stop asking why we had to go through all this anguish and absurdity just to wind up in the ground. Or it may make us free because the inevitability of death puts all the anguish and absurdity into perspective.

Freedom From the Burden of Meaning

There may be some value when we contemplate life in terms of death. Embracing the inevitability of death can free us from what we may feel is a mundane and meaningless existence. Someday soon (especially if we consider the relative shortness of life), we will all be dead. All the people we know will be dead. All the things we cared about will have changed, some far beyond what we could have imagined. And those who follow will not think about us much. How often do you think about your great-grandparents? Your grandparents? Your great uncles and aunts? They are not a relevant or functional part of your day to day existence, even if you do have some way to regularly honor them.

At best, the people living after us will have certain ideas of who we were, since it is impossible to convey the dimensionality of a human life. If we are lucky, we will be summarized in terms of our professional achievements and historically significant actions (if any). Our images may be preserved in photos or videos, but those images won’t be us, either. People will never know who we really were inside, what we truly thought, how we truly felt. In every way that counts, we will be gone, questions silenced, problems solved, story told.  We will be free.

 

I met a traveller from an antique land, 
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone 
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand, 
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown, 
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, 
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read 
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, 
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed; 
And on the pedestal, these words appear: 
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; 
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! 
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay 
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare 
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

“Ozymandias,” Shelley’s Poetry and Prose (1977)


The Voice in the Fire

As I have said many times and in many different ways, graduate study in literature and creative writing is not easy for anyone, even in the most favorable circumstances. There is an inner, emotional, psychological, processual effort that no one talks about and an outer, technical, rhetorical, production effort that everyone takes for granted. Both of these “efforts” are difficult. They must run concurrently and consistently for satisfactory completion of your program. And no one—not advisors or fellow

"Philosopher with an Open Book" by Salomon Coninck (c. 1645)

Philosopher with an Open Book by Salomon Coninck (1645)

students—will have the wherewithal to set aside their own problems in order to help you with yours. You are alone. You are responsible for expressing a universe of ideas in your own voice. You will accept this or fail.

If you pay attention, you will soon come to realize that your path is more or less unique—that you’re following a largely self-determined trajectory through the work. It may be partly modeled on someone else’s (such as that of a mentor with a strong personality telling you what you should be reading, writing, and thinking), but ultimately you’re making your own intellectual path by walking it. This is one of the signature characteristics of higher study in the humanities. It may be a strength.

A large part of this blog is dedicated to exploring these things, to making the implicit explicit for the good of those who feel drawn to the discipline of English studies and / or creative writing. It’s clear that I’m critical here of what I often see as hypocrisy and self-serving prevarication in greater academia. But I also disagree with the Libertarian voices currently developing the Don’t Go to Graduate School in the Humanities genre of business-oriented success advice. I think, in spite of very practical arguments to the contrary, if you feel called to study, write, and teach, by all means do it. Just don’t do it ignorantly and learn how to survive afterward so that you can keep doing it. How this unfolds in your life will be a mystery specific to your becoming.

With this in mind, I expose my own values here, my own work, which continues the inner-outer efforts I mention above. The Writing Expedition represents part of my disciplinary “production effort,” dedicated to expressing insights on what I have experienced in this field. Moreover, I think “expressing” is the right word because it implies a dichotomy. In order to ex-press something (or “squeeze out” if we want to look at the origin of the word), there must be an interior area where it already exists. An inner world. Often, a hidden world that can make the dominant scientistic discourse of reductive materialism very nervous. Like it or not, the Academy is subject to the dominant political, economic, and aesthetic tropes and discourses of the day; though, academics often find this distasteful and prefer to ignore it.

The ivory tower covered in camouflage.

It is safe to say that the Academy is an ancient type of institution that has survived to the present by appearing to be what society needs it to be in any era. Study the history of higher education in the West and it is easy to notice that the great universities have not existed in spite of what they imagine to be the barbarism and ignorance of the profane, but as a mode of cultural expression, 9th gatea conglomeration of beliefs and rituals, a matrix of ideas given a particular form in the material world. In other words, the Academy is an extension of culture. It offers a product that society wants and survives by making that product seem relevant. It has always been that way; though the outer wrapper of the product is redesigned again and again to reinforce existing narratives of power and faith. In the rare times it fails to do this: Kent State, May 4, 1970.

As Martin Petersen writes of CIA tradecraft standards (intelligence agencies being very similar to universities), “We have to establish our credibility and usefulness individual by individual, administration by administration. There is no down time when it comes to quality” (“What I Learned in 40 Years of Doing Intelligence Analysis for US Foreign Policymakers,” Studies in Intelligence, Vol. 55, No. 1). Without being too cynical, we could easily convince ourselves that establishing credibility and usefulness is one of the ongoing directives of the Academy: we want to matter.

Enter: John, who also wanted to matter.

When I was in graduate school, studying creative writing and rhetoric, John, a friend of mine there who happened to be a gifted poet, went through a kind of nervous breakdown. Since no one knows what a “nervous breakdown” actually is, we can call it that or we can say he went through a season of harsh depression, anxiety, purposelessness, and emotional pain. His wife described it as a “slow-motion train wreck” and they both tried to laugh about it. But it was real and the pain he went through changed his life.

Before you even think it, I should note that this person is not me. Things may have changed for John since then, but what hasn’t changed is the high-schoolish competitiveness in our colleagues that has lingered for a long time. Since many of them read this blog, I will only tell the part of his story that everyone already knows. And I will do it for a particular reason. Nevertheless, I hope he forgives me for this and understands what I am trying to say. Knowing him, I think he will.

It started with the birth of his daughter in our second year. John had come to the PhD from a high-paying career in industry, such that he didn’t have to take out student loans and could rent a fairly large house (as opposed to the holes most of us were living in). His wife didn’t work and they were living off their considerable savings. Still, the pressure was on, partly because John now had a child to think about, but also because had an immense work ethic and he was no fool. He knew, as did we all, that there were very few full-time teaching positions available and that trying to get one (even getting an interview at AWP or MLA) was like playing the Irish sweepstakes.

Nevertheless, John applied himself, wrote good poems, said smart things, and generally did well. He was older, married, and didn’t waste his time like the rest of us at the sad graduate school parties or looking for love in all the wrong places. He had a particular energy around him that said, I know the truth and, if I don’t know, I’m sure we can discover it together. In short, he seemed like the type who should win the career sweepstakes and become an assistant professor. There should be more people like John in teaching positions. When I think of what it takes to be a great graduate student, I think of him.

But he reached a breaking point, something in his “inner process” that no longer worked the way he thought it should. The reality of being a father had become far more real and compelling than the realities he was creating as a student of English and a poet. His hair turned stark white over the course of a month and he went through a kind of existential fugue, which according to him involved a lot of crying, regret, and hopelessness. Eventually, he dropped out of the program. He moved with his wife and daughter to Arizona to live with his in-laws. And two or three years later re-entered a PhD program at a different university, this time to study British modernism. As far as I know, he’s now a professor somewhere in the Midwest and I am sure he is great.

I tell his story here because although it had an ostensibly happy ending, his dark night of the soul is one that most of us experienced on some level at some time in our work. The difference may have been that he suffered from pressures we didn’t have, destroying the credibility and usefulness of the Academy for him. I believe this as much as I believe that he also lacked certain essential qualities necessary for running those inner and outer efforts concurrently and consistently, at least the first time around.

The voice in the fire: one hears it or one does not.

A teacher of mine once made an interesting observation about “mystery.” The more one seeks out the lacunae in one’s life—the numinous moments, the noetic leaps of high strangeness that result in extraordinary creations, realizations, and states of consciousness—the more mystery seems to increase, not decrease. Seek the mysteries and you will find there are more mysterious things in this world than you ever imagined. Or maybe you will find yourself imagining more such things as you learn to accept new ways of knowing.

Conversely, if you let existing modes of expression, accepted narratives, the exoteric rituals of consensus culture (especially those of the Academy) crowd your senses, ways of knowing will become narrower; meaning will become increasingly delimited and rigid; and the dominant cultural discourses (for us, scientism and reductive materialism) will come to seem all-encompassing. This is what I believe happened to John in his first PhD program. His outer effort was strong, but his inner work was obstructed by the anxiety of feeling responsible for his family. I do not fault him for this. However, I think his experience offers us an interesting lesson.

Recall that the “inner effort” is an emotional, psychological process. It therefore partakes of mystery because interiority cannot be completely mapped. This is where the muse, the creative genius, lives. This is where we dream, where we hear that voice speaking to us about who we truly are and how we must express ourselves. It is the place artists go when they produce authentic and original work.

Funny thing about the muse. She gives and she takes. Dedicate your life to a particular mode of expression and you must always try to hear her. Your sense of the numinous will increase exponentially, but you will also have to make sacrifices. As your outer effort must concern itself with “credibility and usefulness,” your inner effort must be like a love affair with the mystery inside you, which is what we’re talking about when we refer to the inner life of an artist.

Hakim Bey discusses this in The Temporary Autonomous Zone and calls it “sorcery”:

The dullard finds even wine tasteless but the sorcerer can be intoxicated by the mere sight of water. Quality of perception defines the world of intoxication–but to sustain it & expand it to include others demands activity of a certain kind—sorcery. Sorcery breaks no law of nature because there is no Natural Law, only the spontaneity of natura naturans, the tao. Sorcery violates laws which seek to chain this flow—priests, kings, hierophants, mystics, scientists & shopkeepers all brand the sorcerer enemy for threatening the power of their charade, the tensile strength of their illusory web.

A poem can act as a spell & vice versa—but sorcery refuses to be a metaphor for mere literature–it insists that symbols must cause events as well as private epiphanies. It is not a critique but a re-making. It rejects all eschatology & metaphysics of removal, all bleary nostalgia & strident futurismo, in favor of a paroxysm or seizure of presence.

Incense & crystal, dagger & sword, wand, robes, rum, cigars, candles, herbs like dried dreams–the virgin boy staring into a bowl of ink—wine & ganja, meat, yantras & gestures—rituals of pleasure, the garden of houris & sakis—the sorcerer climbs these snakes & ladders to a moment which is fully saturated with its own color, where mountains are mountains & trees are trees, where the body becomes all time, the beloved all space.

We can just as easily speak of it in terms of embracing a wider spectrum of expression. Viktor Frankl puts it this way: “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible” (Man’s Search for Meaning).

The Green Muse by Albert Maignan (1895)

What, then, is the voice in the fire? It’s not a degree from Yale, tenure, and a tactless sense of entitlement. It’s that unmappable, ineffable interior effort, that numinous guidance system which instructs and inspires us to continue our work. It sustains us through years of advanced study, reveals the mystery inherent in the world (even in something as outwardly mundane as the sight of water), and helps us answer for our lives. If we are responsible practitioners of our art, we will listen to this voice just as carefully as we may express our work-products. If we stop listening and forget the internal process, focusing only on the external product, we will enter the dark night of the soul, which entails a lot of suffering.

This is the meaning of that famous line from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” If this is the life you choose (realizing that you have been chosen to answer for your life this way), I continue to wish the best for you.

Listen. And seek the mysteries.


Blame the Drugs

Today, there was flooding in London. I was supposed to be there. But because I have no cartilage in my knees, I often wake up in agony on barometrically improvident days. Dark days of lying on the bed, focusing on my breathing. Days in which it’s hard to think, much less write. Days of codeine and jasmine tea and misanthropy. Walking from room to room is difficult and leaving the house is out of the question when I’m feeling like this and Port Meadow is up to 22C with 95% humidity.

Strangely, this never happened when I was living in Bangkok, one of the hottest, most humid places on the planet. Only here in the UK will the muscles in my legs tighten overnight, pulling the bones of my knees into each other, slowly, like a form of medieval torture. As with most manifestations of extreme pain, the experience transcends words. Maybe if I brushed up on my German, I could describe it. German seems like a good language for articulating suffering. At my current level of fluency, I can only say things about rain: schließlich, regnet es auf der Wiese. Or something like that. Maybe that’s all I need.

This condition has been going on regularly since 2003 when an orthopedic specialist gave me the option of surgery (resulting in no more pain but having to walk with a cane for the rest of my life) or occasional pain and my normal range of functionality on all the other days. I chose the second option, of course, which I still think was right. But goddamn, son, it hurts.

It’s a shame she won’t live – but then again, who does?

So it’s late afternoon. I’ve been trying to get meaningful writing done all day and a personal blog post is as good as it’s going to get. Lots of painkillers, tea, and sheer meanness seem to have worked such that I can at least get these words down. Lord knows I can’t allow a day to pass without producing some kind of manifesto, story, novel segment, editorial, white paper, or media rant. But, sitting here in my bathrobe, feeling like I’ve been put to the question by the town fathers for leading a black mass in the woods, I’m close to just dosing up, crawling back into bed, and moaning myself to sleep.

Nevertheless, I’ve been thinking. I know. Bad idea in my current state of mind. Still, I keep seeing the image of Deckard and Rachael making out in Deckard’s apartment, which admits of no rational explanation other than I associate rain, flooding, and climate change with the Blade Runner aesthetic. Blame PD James and Alfonso Cuarón for linking those together in my head via Children of Men.

Anyway, Blade Runner‘s about halfway over and Rachael’s been sitting at Deckard’s piano, talking about her dreams. And we feel bad for her because even though she’s sensitive and beautiful, we suspect she’s just some high-end Real Girl noir sexbot insinuated into Deckard’s life to distract him from the real nefarious shit that is likely going down over at the Tyrell Corporation. And every time I watch the movie, I read the moment they kiss in a different way.

Sometimes, I read it as Deckard giving in to the illusion. He knows she’s a replicant and doesn’t really care at that point because they’re both lost souls in a world where the distinction between natural and artificial has ceased to have any meaning—so forget about the fact that you’re lost and come over here.

Sometimes, I read it as Rachael giving in to the illusion that what she’s feeling for him is more than just an algorithm written into her synthetic gray matter by proto-Elon Musk Eldon Tyrell. Giving in because she wants to and maybe wanting is enough or everything.

And yes, if we look at that scene after reading Through a Scanner Darkly, we will have an emotional meltdown because Philip K. Dick was no fool and he understood something when he wrote:

But the actual touch of her lingered, inside his heart. That remained. In all the years of his life ahead, the long years without her, with never seeing her or hearing from her or knowing anything about her, if she was alive or happy or dead or what, that touch stayed locked within him, sealed in himself, and never went away.

So I do this. I think of this. And I listen to “Wish You Were Here” sipping my tea and breathing through the pain while I look at the meadow. And that last stanza, “We’re just two lost souls/ Swimming in a fishbowl/ Year after year/ Running over the same old ground/ And how we found/ The same old fears” means a lot to me; though, I have never felt more alien in this world.

The Voight-Kampff Empathy Test

Sometime back in 1993, William Gibson is supposed to have said, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed,” which is a saying that seems wise, then obvious, then wise again the more you think about it. But 23 years of hindsight later, the obvious part seems far more dominant than whatever might have proven insightful. It’s 2016. Has the sheer science-fiction-horror-dread of this moment in time caught up to us from the back end of the 20th century yet? The future is not evenly distributed, at least the good parts where someone like me can get bionic knees. In 1982, Blade Runner gave the world a vision of rebirth after decay instead of the unadulterated Kali Yuga we’re entering now.

Ridley Scott wanted to show us how replicants just want to be loved and how those replicants are really us. Instead, we’re seeing how we’ve failed to evolve beyond the dystopian Reagan-era cyberpunk automatons we fantasized about in the 1980s. We never got past Terminator. Now, all we can say, with any degree of sincerity, is: blame the drugs. But not the ones people were on in the eighties when they handed us the trickle-down theory. Blame the nasty synthetic street drugs that made the best story of the last two decades have to be about a high school chemistry teacher dying of cancer who starts cooking meth to pay his bills. Yeah. Debt. Meth. Drones. Endless war. Doesn’t it add up?  Time for your meds.

All our dreams of machine salvation, online utopia, and some vague transhumanist singularity depending on an equally flimsy brain-as-hard drive metaphor became loud, stupid, self-important Neo from the Matrix—our savior, here to make us feel better about being consumers and take away our pain. The fridge logic singularity of Matrix Revolutions was merely the last cynical whimper.

But I’m in a bad mood today. Don’t listen to me. Now we have Trump and Hilary. Now the sweaty holographic fetish reel of decadent and naïve Reagan-era consumerism obviously didn’t work, but we’ve taken too much fluoxetine hydrochloride to care. It was never going to work. It wasn’t built to work. And it was always going to be ugly beyond words.

“And, for an instant, she stared directly into those soft blue eyes and knew, with an instinctive mammalian certainty, that the exceedingly rich were no longer even remotely human.” 

Count Zero, William Gibson


Though Bennu Birds Might Rise and Fall

One of the great, maybe incredible, things about having interesting friends is that you have a lot of stories to tell, if you’re the sort of person who likes telling stories, which I am. One of the sad, maybe horrible, things is that your friends are often your primary audience for these stories and people reach a point at which they stop trusting you with the events of their lives. They think you’re going to reveal everything ugly and embarrassing written on their hearts and on their faces, and their inherent defectiveness will then be shamefully exposed to the world. Who wants that?

So it’s not hard to see that misunderstandings will be inevitable and a certain degree of paranoia will definitely set in. In fact, your friends are sure to become convinced everything you write is about them personally. Oh sure, maybe you’ve used different details (like age, gender, geographical location, profession, background, ethnicity, species of house pet, and everything that happened) but really it has to be about them. They might as well have told the story themselves about themselves. And sometimes they do.

But more often they don’t. Because if they had, they’d understand that a good story is like an exotic bird. It’s nice to look at for a while, but how much more wonderful would it be to watch it fly out of your house and into someone else’s, then, squawking, fly into another house and another house until the entire block is pissed off and lights are coming on and maybe somebody throws a shoe and shatters his own windowpane and then the baby starts crying and somebody says I never loved you while standing at the sink and everyone winds up having an affair and life is changed forever. You story did that. So you don’t really have a choice. You have to tell it because what else could have such a remarkable effect? It’s magic. The Resplendent Quetzal has to fly.

Then again, if the story is completely unbelievable—even if it really happened—certain steps must be taken. Say, for example, you have a friend who wins an absurd amount of money in a poker game he should never have been playing. The amount he wins is so large that he fears for his life. But that’s not what makes the story great. The great part is that he had an immense amount of student loan debt, the sort that if he worked long hours for most of his life and never took a vacation or retired, he still wouldn’t be able to get out from under it. And a single poker game put him in a position to eventually pay the whole thing off.

Of course, what really happened is more complicated than that. And, for two years, you mull the story over, trying to come up with a way to tell it—how he paid off his debts and turned his life around and especially how he never played cards again, figuring his luck was divine and the gods don’t do favors like that more than once. For two long years, you feed the bird, imagining what would happen if you let it out on a warm spring night when the chimes are tinkling and everything seems quiet and slow.

Do you have a responsibility here? How much would everyone (especially your friend) hate you for writing the story? The cost-benefit is agony—especially since you know deep down that you’re doing to write it, that your friend is a great person but that you have this compulsion and eventually you will be powerless against it.

So one warm night with the chimes tapping the window and too much caffeine in your veins, you tell yourself you’ll just write it. You won’t send it to a magazine or post it on your blog. You’ll write it like an exorcism and be done with it once and for all. Your friend will never know. And the story will fly out of town, down to some rainforest canopy in the feral part of your hard drive to live with the Splendid Fairywren and the Lilac-Breasted Tern in the cold confetti of paradise.

At least until you drop your laptop in a motel pool on some drunken Sunday far in the future. The point is that you write the story. And, in the course of constructing a realistic narrative about an unreal thing that really happened, you realize that your friend is a fundamentally decent human being. The discontinuities and convolutions of doing creative nonfiction to a bit of his life reveal his essential goodness not unlike a magic mirror. The glass clouds over and it’s not your face looking back. ‘Tis true. He’s a thousand times better than you, oh hypercaffeinated story-writing fool with disheveled hair and guilty conscience.

All you can do is try to render what you consider to be his essential goodness and the wonder of his story—one which has been told many times by many writers better than you but which rarely comes about in real life. The poor, hardworking underdog wins for once and actually does the right thing with the money. Somehow, it’s even better because you can admit that if you had that much, you’d be sunning yourself ricky tick on a super-yacht off the coast of Zadar with Anastazija and Ljubica. He is basically, without a doubt, a better person. And this is why the gods do you no favors. So maybe you do understand a little bit about the world.

In any case, the bird, like the bennu-phoenix of antiquity, rises off your laptop like a flame from its own ashes. Where before it was merely a delicately feathered idea of itself, your writerly fever gives it shape and magical fire. It explodes into words. Then it demands a cookie. Because it is your bennu-phoenix, it prefers Mcvities Milk Chocolate Caramel Biscuits with a cup of strong Assam tea and a little coconut milk. But this is only natural. The real question is: how long do you expect such a marvelous bird to stay put?

Your friend comes to visit and you say nothing. You’re probably so busy shrugging and blaming the houseboats down on the river for the burning smell, that you don’t notice how he’s changed. It smells like an upholstry fire? Well, you know those boat people are always sailing their barges on the other side of the meadow. They’ll strip an empty house clean for fuel. They do it all the time. And you surreptitiously drop a cookie between the seat cushions, hoping the bennu-phoenix will quit trying to nip you in the ass while you’re sitting across from the reason for its existence. The bird wants out.

But your friend has changed, hasn’t he. He’s still got a considerable amount left over after paying his debts and even contributing significantly to his niece’s college fund. A certain air of respectability rides on his shoulders, as if it were now his duty, his burden, to have opinions about things. He’s been reading art history, you see. Politics. He uses the word consequence enough to make you think the word must have tiny lead counterweights roped to it like a piece of flying scenery.

And so you work very hard at having a conversation with this person while trying to square your perception of who he is becoming versus who you have imagined him to be. You feel like your house might burn down from shame at any moment and, though bennu birds might rise and fall, a house only goes one way if it isn’t standing straight. Such shame: that you could have been so wrong, that no matter how many caramel biscuits you feed your creation and no matter how its feathers seem to rake the air with brilliant fire, it is fundamentally false when you thought it was true. Your friend has become a pretentious asshole.

“And so I explained,” he waves his hand and the little counterweighted words bob and weave in the air between you, “that I’m taking this extremely seriously. I said, I’m a shareholder in this company. I’ve got two advanced degrees. And if you’re questioning my judgment on something someone in my position deals with every day, we’re going to have words.”

“So what did he do?”

“He backed down. He had to. I mean, seriously.”

Seriously? He goes. That night, you can’t sleep. You’re covered in a kind of mourning. You thought he had the greatest, most classically great story you’d ever heard—conceived in essential human goodness and dedicated to the proposition that not everyone will be transformed by money into a self-obsessed unaware narcissist.

So you let the bird out, feeling sad and betrayed and blaming yourself, too, for being just as unaware. And it flies onto your blog and burns there for a while. And you hope it has as good a life as any bennu-phoenix could have, it’s origins shrouded in myth, its destiny a riddle.

 

Written for a friend who sleeps the sleep of the just while the cold stars wheel above our heads.

26 May 2016


Preponderance of the Small

Thunder on the mountain:
The image of PREPONDERANCE OF THE SMALL.
Thus in his conduct the superior man gives preponderance to reverence.
In bereavement he gives preponderance to grief.
In his expenditures he gives preponderance to thrift.

—From Hexagram 62, “Hsiao Kuo / Preponderance of the Small,” I-Ching

The ultimate question for most young writers (and by “young” I mean anyone under 50) goes something like this: how do I keep writing and doing what I want to do without suffering so much that my life becomes impossible? It’s a perennial question because the baby boomer reality tunnel has collapsed and is never coming back. Sorry, our parents and their henchmen, middle managers, and assorted castrati have not dispatched anyone to reset the empire, which was based on faulty assumptions to begin with. And they never will. At one point (sometime around the middle 1960s) they could have stopped their golf game and provided for future generations. But that would have been unnaturally decent of them. Now Rome is burning. An Ostrogoth warlord has already kidnapped your sister. And the new world order needs blacksmiths not philosophers, false promises and student loan debt notwithstanding. The slave galleys are down the road to the right.

Trace the state of your current finances back far enough through the history of economic ideas and you won’t encounter some providential singularity or the ripple effects of an invisible hand. Instead, you will encounter the same tired cynical verities over and over: ideology in service to power in service to wealth. That’s the world we live in, the world we have always lived in, even if creative people prefer to represent other areas of human experience in their work (which is a good thing).

So the more I think about the question of how to make a living and keep making art, the more I believe that at least some understanding of economics is necessary. As Gordon White puts it in The Chaos Protocols:

We often think of economics as a dry subject of spreadsheets and interest rates but it is actually a school of philosophy. Economics is the study of value. It is the study of what we consider worthwhile, where we locate meaning on a personal and cultural level. Bad economists think it is the study of currencies and trade imbalances, but these are only the outward manifestations of a much, much bigger economic sphere: what is going on in our heads.

With that in mind, as soon as we decide to stop pissing about and become professional artists, we need to acknowledge that we’re making a decision that is just as economic as it is existential or teleological. “What is going on in our heads” as working artists will always be at least partially determined by the tension between the dictates of personal finances and the broad exigencies of economic optionality.

Why am I talking about money instead of art? Because you can’t make art if you can’t eat.

The evolution of my thinking on this blog has moved from writing travel essays after graduate school, to my personal writing discipline as I take jobs around the world, to exploring the MFA Ponzi scheme, to the professional implications that often flow from a decision to lead the writing life. As I’ve written about these things, I’ve generally succeeded at doing what I want to do instead of what I think I have to do. And I believe this is possible (though, I should note, not without some degree of compromise) for everyone.

So part of my mission here is to look at the various dimensions of “how to lead the writing life” in terms of a wicked problem—i.e. a challenge of sufficient complexity that “it requires a reassessment of some of the traditional ways of working and solving problems” (Tackling Wicked Problems). In other words, doing what has worked in the past is a bad idea. Similarly, hoping for easy answers and miracle cures is an even worse idea. The Cinderella story is poison for a working writer.

Let me put it like this: there is no big miracle low-probability solution or hail-mary answer to “how do I keep writing and doing what I want to do without suffering so much that my life becomes impossible?” There are only small high-probability solutions that keep you alive while you gradually get where you want to go. If you can make those small victories fun—if you can learn to love the journey as much as the destination (with apologies for the cliché)—then you’ve got a livable creative life. And that is priceless.

Allen Ginsberg articulates said big wicked problem in “America”: “When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?”  The short answer is never if, by “good looks” you mean “my creative works.” If you think about it long enough, the reasons for this turn out to be those sad cynical verities I mention above. When Rome burns, blacksmiths are ultimately more useful than philosophers.

But the smaller constituent parts within that wicked problem—how to get my work done today, how to cope with the commercial side of my art form, how to build an identity as an artist, etc.—are not so depressing. They’re part of the work, part of the writing life, and it is highly probable that, given enough time and effort, one could solve them to an appreciable degree.

But what about the chosen few who actually can make a living solely off their creative work? Aren’t they the talented ones?

This is a stupid question. Nevertheless, everyone involved in a creative life asks it over and over. It’s a version of What’s Cinderella got that I don’t got? And there are many ways to adequately respond, only some of which contain a high degree of profanity. I give an answer in terms of the MFA selection process in my post, “A Tale of Two Cities (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Creative Writing).” I talk about it in terms of “writing ability” in “How to Be Good.” And I discuss it at length in terms of academic employment in “Surviving Graduate School in the Humanities.”

Those are long answers to the problem of assuming a meritocracy exists in creative writing when it actually doesn’t. But I’ll provide a short version here in case you don’t feel like spelunking through my blog. A very smart and talented European academic once asked me: “When it comes to fiction writing, isn’t it true that the best writers get published by big trade houses and then move to New York? Isn’t that how it works in the States?”

I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I do remember that I tried to be polite because the question was sincere. It was a version of: isn’t there a gate-keeping system in place that rewards talent by conferring certain hallmarks (i.e. relocating to NYC, getting accepted by one of the Big Six)? I do know that my answer amounted to: no, there is the business of publishing and there is writing and, although the two coexist symbiotically, they are nevertheless distinct. Therefore, outward success conferred by the publishing industry is not a metric for inward satisfaction that comes from making art, which is a personal sort of success. These two kinds of “success” may coincide but there is no direct correlation between them. Seriously.

In terms of making a living and surviving, commercial success helps. But no amount of external publicity and approval indicates talent. Likewise, no amount of inner accomplishment as an artist necessarily leads to such publicity and approval. They’re separate. They always will be. And non-artists who only focus on the 20 bestsellers that regularly account for 50% of all publishing sales in the United States in any given period (blowing even the Pareto Principle to hell) will not understand how insanely broken and non-meritocratic the Manhattan publishing industry actually is. Those chosen by the Big Six may indeed be talented, but again correlation does not imply causation.

Aren’t you just bitter?

No. I’m angry. Not because I haven’t been published. I’ve done a lot of that. I’m angry because of the consistent level of misleading bullshit propagated in the NYC-MFA creative-industrial complex. And I write these things here because I care about writers who are looking for answers, who maybe come home from an AWP conference feeling horrible and don’t know why. I especially write for MFA students who are starting to question the tacit assumptions of faculty too afraid to look gift horses in the mouth and tell the truth. One does not disparage one’s patron. I get that. At the same time, if you are in a teaching position and you have tenure, why not teach a little along the way? Teaching artists means teaching how to be an artist as well as how to make art. Not doing so is deeply unethical.

Bottom Line

I want you to make art. And if you desire this life, I want you to start today because the time given to us is amazingly short. I also want you to fall in love, have a positive experience of family, feed your dependents, pay off your debts, cook astounding dinners for wonderful people, realize who you are as an ever-evolving individual, model this life for others, and leave something behind that will render your vision of the human condition for those who follow you.

I want all these things for you, but I also want you to walk forward with an awareness that leading a satisfying creative life is hard in the best of circumstances. It is nigh impossible if you allow yourself to be led astray by the egotism, innumerable lies, and economic pitfalls that you will encounter on the path. Therefore, take measures:

Do these things and people will think you’re magic. You will get questions like, “How can you possibly exist?” If you’re dishonest, you’ll say (or, as is more commonly done, imply): “Because I’m so great and talented.” If you’re honest, you’ll say: “Because I try to stay committed and try to succeed in these small things day in and day out; I have no idea whether I am talented but I hope I am.”

Do that. Say that. Try to be as honest as you can in your art and what you say about your art. Hopefully, in this way, many of the anxieties and hang-ups you have about your work will eventually disappear and you will realize yourself as an artist on a very deep level.


I Just Had to Let It Go

 

America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing. 
America two dollars and twenty-seven cents January 17, 1956. 
I can’t stand my own mind.

—Allen Ginsberg, America

If there is such a thing as a formula for success in life, it might go something like this: don’t complain, get results, and watch your back. Notice I said success, not happiness. We can determine metrics for success relative to a given line of effort in a given context—even if such achievement must therefore be contingent and temporary. Still, we can develop certain best practices for success within those parameters. But we have no idea how to determine happiness.

Since 1964, smart people have agreed with Paul that you cannot, under any circumstances, buy love. Clever people (who probably like John’s “Watching the Wheels” a lot more than anything on A Hard Day’s Night) say you may not be able to buy love, but you can certainly buy the conditions most favorable for finding it. However philosophers, especially mathematicians and rhetoricians, respond that “favorable conditions” mean very little when dealing with a binary (love / not love). And playing even-money odds is still a losing game. In other words, correlating a certain quantity and quality of conditions will not necessarily cause a particular outcome. So put your raggedy wallet back in your pants, eh?

Thinking you can beat the system by “bettering your chances” is sloppy, unnecessarily mystical, and prone to failure. It also happens to be in our nature and one of the emotional drivers of post-industrial culture. Part of us may be secretly relieved that we can’t buy love in a Tokyo vending machine, but an even deeper, more pathological part assumes there’s some morality always-already implicit in winning.

We despise the weak, the downtrodden, the unfortunate. We’d prefer that our Bentley be polished by a former office manager recently hoovered into the service economy, not by the mentally ill bearded man who’s been sleeping in the bus station. But we shouldn’t blame ourselves for feeling this way. We know what we like, even if all of heaven’s angels think we’ve grown into monsters.

Max Weber identified this justification-by-success 111 years ago when he wrote that:

the peculiarity of this philosophy of avarice appears to be the ideal of the honest man of recognized credit, and above all the idea of a duty of the individual toward the increase of his capital, which is assumed as an end in itself. Truly what is here preached is not simply a means of making one’s way in the world, but a peculiar ethic. The infraction of its rules is treated not as foolishness but as forgetfulness of duty. That is the essence of the matter. It is not mere business astuteness, that sort of thing is common enough, it is an ethos. (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, 16-17)

In our present economy, this pathological faith seems to have mutated into an ethos blind to pervasive redundancy, obsolescence, dehumanization, and systemic violence so toxic and transpersonal as to make one long for a time machine. No one actually believes he or she is secure anymore or will be in the foreseeable future. No one believes (or even likes) the baby boomers, but everyone wants to believe what they say about things naturally improving.

We could argue that western economic systems have been in decline at least since the state of the “special relationship” in the Reagan / Thatcher administration. The modernist concept of empty-at-the-center radiant socioeconomic decay is now a legitimate way of describing our post-modern reality. Gordon White puts it well in his book on chaos and economics: “By refusing to adjust your strategy from the recommended life offered to the baby boomers forty years ago, what you are saying is that you have every confidence in the system; the current challenges are just temporary, and someone will come and sort it all out for us” (The Chaos Protocols). Right. I have yet to find someone willing to identify this messiah without having to listen to incoherent bellowing about making America great again.

So maybe if we’re not as successful as we think we should be, we can at least remind ourselves that we are trying to avoid being completely evil, that the morality of winning is a hollow and damaging ideal, and that we’re doing our part to bear witness to this:

I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round,
I really love to watch them roll,
No longer riding on the merry-go-round,
I just had to let it go.

Personally, I’ve done what I could to disconnect from what a professor of mine once called the “cant of success,” but I still get suckered by the likes of Malcolm Gladwell and four-hour work weeks and the undergrad-in-communications-level presentations on TED and Big Think. I still read too many articles about “lifehacking” designed to make me a more efficient self-propelled office mechanism. But I read a lot of Allen Ginsberg, too. Like, America:

America why are your libraries full of tears? 
America when will you send your eggs to India? 
I’m sick of your insane demands. 
When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks? 
America after all it is you and I who are perfect not the next world. 
Your machinery is too much for me. 
You made me want to be a saint. 

I want to be a saint, but I’m afraid. I want to love everyone, but I’m afraid. I want to tell the truth, but I’m worried that I don’t know what I’m doing. And I worry that we are all actually perfect and have nowhere to go. As a real life saint once said to me: “There’s nothing to be done. There’s nothing to achieve.” This breaks my heart a little bit more every time I think of it.

Who am I to say what is good or bad?  The bad parts are as integral to my life as the good parts. Sartre said that, and I think I agree.  I’m told to want certain things.  I feel like I have desires and pains.  But if I’m going to be honest with myself, I have to accept that desire and pain are both are necessary for a full life.  This, too, breaks my heart in unforeseen circuitous patterns.

Because I know happiness will remain as distant and ephemeral as the next world, until it comes.


On Productivity and Publishing

I’ve written three books of fiction to date, all story collections; though, only one of them has been published. This is not remarkable or typical in any sense, even if I do have the stereotypical writer’s voice in my head telling me that I should be submitting to more book contests, etc. My submission schedule results in about 2-3 stories placed in magazines every year, a process I actually enjoy, and I have no plans to stop doing that. Still, I sometimes wonder whether the world needs another immature literary magazine, another lousy e-book marketing campaign (what Chuck Wendig calls the “shit volcano”), or another mediocre career-building novel entering the flotsam. What does the world need?

Better: what do I need?

Books are not the only way to be published, even if they are the fiction writer’s holy grail—specifically novels, ideally lots of novels—because they sell and therefore build careers. Or, as an industry professional once said to me at an AWP conference, “You need to write at least a novel a year for the next five years if you want to be a contender.” He was an important person in the publishing world, had a red nose, a cigar in his lapel pocket, and I was completely intimidated by him at the time. So I nodded as if I understood. But I didn’t and should have asked, “A contender for what, exactly?”

Publishing only feels like boxing. In reality, it’s business, the alchemy of transforming things into money. When business and art collide, a volatile chain reaction usually takes place resulting in all sorts of monstrous transmogrifications, creeping morbidity, and a certain amount of screaming. Put simply, how many writers have you heard of who built a career out of publishing a book a year? I can think of maybe one or two and none writing outside strictly defined genres.

The only literary writer who may produce full-length books with that kind of regularity is Joyce Carol Oates, someone as great as she is prolific but who is entirely unique. So “a book a year” might not be the best advice if you’re in this to make art. If you’re in it to make money, why aren’t you running a brothel, flipping houses, developing apps, or managing a hedge fund? You can probably make an app a year. Brothels, I don’t know, but I imagine their schedules are a bit more eventful.

Every writer asks a version of this question, sometimes on a regular basis: should I be writing harder, faster, longer, mo betta? Should I be soaking down the meadow like a frustrated stallion on horse viagra? How much is too much and why is it that by asking this question I feel soiled? Of course, as with most questions writers ask themselves, there are no answers. There are only opinions and that vague soiled feeling. To be honest, there is only subjectivity in this context.

So how much? Stop asking. Stop thinking about it. Just write. And if you want to be a “contender,” find a different metric against which to measure your progress.


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