Mapping the Swamp

Today, I think I overcame my hitherto impassable mental block, the one I always get between pages 50 and 70, that indicates I’ve hit the “swampy middle.” The term “great swampy middle” wasn’t invented by me. In fact, I have no desire to discover who first coined the term because I have no desire to utter it ever again; though, I fear that’s just wishful thinking. Of course, I’m going to talk about, think about, and confront the GSW again. I always get bogged down in the middle. It’s stopped me from completing whole books. It hits me in longer stories, too. The hideous abyss waiting for writers at the middle of a piece of fiction is an inevitable occupational hazard.

I’ve been struggling with this novel for several weeks. The first 50 pages emerged quickly. And, in all seriousness, I think they’re very good pages, some of my best. So I can’t allow myself to seriously entertain thoughts of abandoning the project. I have to see it through if only for those good pages.

The only way out is to make an outline. I hate outlines. When I write, I want to be in a creative trance, driving the muse’s burning chariot through the dark firmament of hell. Or something like that. Bukowski promised that you’d know the gods and your nights would flame with fire.  When his promise comes true, it really is the best thing. When the divine chariot is half-submerged in the swamp, when it backfires a cloud of rancid bio-diesel and won’t even start, when the muse doesn’t even show up because she was partying with some publishing industry types last night and has to sleep it off, when the way forward is just a mucky green-brown maze of shit-streaked walls, you need a scaffold. You need to build a ladder out of the swamp. You need to draw a map. So that’s what I did.

I will always hate outlines. But now the editor part of my brain can see the way forward. Now I have a schematic. I know I can follow it—if everything doesn’t change tomorrow, if the muse doesn’t laugh at me and send me a dream that completely turns my scaffold upside-down. That happens, too. We’ll see.

 

Writing Exercise: A Noir Opening Scene in Close Third

Twenty years ago, she might have lit a cigarette.  That would have been better.  Twenty years and people still didn’t know what to do with their hands.  Now they looked at each other and waited.

“I love him.  Is that what you want to hear?”

“I don’t really care about that, Mrs. Sorrel.  Not what I’m asking.”

“You don’t care?  That’s a little cold.”  She balanced her silver purse on her thigh, then turned it slightly.  “And it’s Barbara.”

“What I mean is were you home that night?”

“Instead of with a friend?”

“Yes.  Instead of with a friend.”

“Let me put it to you this way, Mr. Gaffney, after ten years of marriage to Ivan, my friends don’t come around much anymore.”

People waited patiently through what used to be lighting-up-and-smoking pauses.  They looked at each other with blank expressions.  They used the spaces to figure out what they wanted to say next.  In this way, modern conversations were formed.  Women used to listen more than men.  Now nobody listened.  Now people addressed themselves in the presence of others and called it talk.

“I think we should start over, Barbara.  I have to ask because it helps me get an idea of what went on.  Any little thing, you know?” 

He smiled, went over to the pot of stale coffee by the window.  Nobody liked it when you handed them a Styrofoam cup of office coffee, but everybody took it and then felt like they owed you something.  This Stan Gaffney knew like he knew the time or the traffic five floors down on 32nd Street.  Small things to keep in mind.  Small things that made up large things.

She said thank you, took the coffee, and set it on the edge of his desk, far enough away without seeming impolite.  Then she turned her purse on her thigh again, unzipped it, looked inside.  No answers in there.  She zipped it back up.  “Alright.  Sure.  I was home.  I was asleep.”

“At 8:00 in the evening?”

“I drink.  Can I call you Stan?”

“You were drunk?  Passed out?”

“If you want to put it like that.”

“What were you drinking?”

When she came in, she’d set her phone on the other wooden chair facing his desk: Mrs. Barbara Sorrel and companion, Mr. iPhone.  Now she checked it, tapped it with her thumb, trying not to seem like she was stalling.  Maybe the cell phone was the new cigarette.

His question put her off.  Why did the type of booze matter?  It didn’t.  What mattered was the amount of time it took her to think up a brand.  Back in the day, she’d have just taken out another smoke.  Blonde, late 30s or early 40s, good skin, she’d have been nervous, an upscale woman like her with a missing husband, sitting Gaffney’s dusty office on the fifth floor of the old Martindale Agricultural Building.  She wouldn’t come in wearing a pinstriped blazer over a designer T-shirt with yoga love in gold cursive and long-pleated cream pants.  She wouldn’t look like she’d just had her hair done.  She’d have been—or at least would have pretended to be—distraught.  Too bad she wasn’t.

“It was Camitz.”

“How many bottles?”

“What do you take me for, Mr. Gaffney?  Not even a whole one.  I was hardly drinking, actually, just very sleepy.”

“Pills?”

“Not that night.”

“Okay,” he said.  “Thank you.  I guess that’s it.  Anything else you think I should know?”

“There’s a lot I think you should know.  Like, where’s my husband?”

“We’ll get to that.”

“You better for what I’m paying you.”

Now they both smiled together, hard, perfunctory.  They’d been talking for 90 minutes.  She wanted to find out what became of her husband after his birthday party four nights earlier, an event attended by about a hundred people, the part of Kansas City that still had money. 

Stan wanted to know what was so special about the orientation of the purse on her thigh, why she kept turning it, why she talked tough but couldn’t make eye contact, why she’d walked into his office smelling like high-end Baccarat Rouge, why she’d lied about passing out drunk, why she’d come to him at all.  Small things that turned into large things.  Little pieces that fell out of a puzzle.  Put them back in and you saw the picture.

On her way out, Mrs. Sorrel turned, holding her silver purse in front of her like some society matron in a stiff vanity portrait, the sort of thing people hung in the foyers of tasteless mansions.  “You’re probably going to discover that Ivan has a long-term girlfriend named Cheryl O’Neil.  I can get you her address.”

“You’ve been aware of her for a while?”

She nodded at the carpet.  “Even came to our wedding, if you can believe that.  I didn’t know her name at the time.  I found out later.”

“But you were suspicious even then?”

“You want to stay married to a man like my husband, Mr. Gaffney, you don’t get suspicious.  You get realistic.”

Barbara Sorrel had enough money to get as realistic as she wanted.  When she came in, Stan gave her his highest rate and she cut the check then and there like it was nothing.  But maybe all that realism meant she couldn’t trust the usual cadre of flunkies and stool grooms attendant on a man like Ivan.  Maybe she couldn’t put her faith in anyone she knew.  Maybe she felt that finding her missing husband meant she had to drive out to central Missouri to a little town named Hauberk and hire a private investigator nobody ever heard of.

“Well,” he said.  “I’ll be in touch.  And Mrs. Sorrel?  Have a better day.”

She laughed, nodded, and the door closed softly behind her.  

On Forgetting One’s Humanity

Professional writers and artists sometimes forget that they are human beings. In the immense pressure to monetize their work, develop personal commercial brands, and get recognized as professionals (because without such things, capitalist culture regards an artist as a hobbyist at best), they can forget that their art is only one part of who they are. It might be a very large, dominant part, but they exist as multifaceted, complex beings who cannot be wholly defined by what they produce for others to consume.

Forgetting their humanity leads creative people into a lot of pain and self-torment, especially during those inevitable times when they’re not producing a lot of work and they feel like they don’t matter and might not even really exist.

That’s when it’s important to remember that it’s not how often or how much you produce that makes you real. It’s how committed you are inside—knowing that you will return to the work in time and putting your faith in the creative impulse to guide you. Inspiration will return. And so will you.

In the meantime, make the other parts of your life as deep and as excellent as you can, which is a neverending practice you owe to yourself and to those who have nurtured you along the way, crucial to your wellbeing. You are not a content machine. You are a channel for something greater than your anxious everyday personality. Remembering that, honor who you are.

Following the Science in Leaps and Bounds

When people don’t fully understand a particular branch of science or scientific inquiry (which we imagine must be most non-scientists), “following the science” comes down to making an informed leap of faith. There is nothing wrong with that. Leaps of faith are necessary on a daily basis in every part of life. Without them, we would be unable to function as individuals or as a society. However, we want our leaps to be as short, unstressful, and error-free as possible. We might speak about life as a series of cautious assumptions and educated guesses because it is impossible to know very much with absolute certainty.

For example, I will take NASA at its word when it tells me something about Mars. And I will believe my lawyer when he tells me my best chance is to settle out of court. This is because I have more confidence in NASA when it comes to space and in my lawyer when it comes to lawsuits than I do in myself (or in other non-experts) regarding those areas. The leap of faith I have to make seems small and therefore less subject to error because I know NASA is an expert space organization and my lawyer has a professional license to practice law. I could persuasively cite NASA in a paper on space and my lawyer in a paper on litigation.

Conversely, I will not reference NASA on settling a lawsuit or my lawyer on exploring Mars. They might have opinions about those things, but because they have no authority to speak professionally about them, my leap of faith in the credibility of their claims would be too great, stressful, and subject to error. I might enjoy their opinions, but I wouldn’t cite them as documentation or support in a paper.

Opinions outside one’s field of expertise carry far less weight. When I taught college-level rhetoric, I’d talk to students about the true purposes of legitimate sourcing and documentation in their essays—not primarily to provide additional reading or resources, but to establish credibility and authority on the part of the writer and, by extension, within his or her claim structure.

You can claim anything in a paper, but you will only be persuasive if you can support those claims with authoritative references (where the leap of faith you’re asking the reader to make is small and easy). If I want to say something about Mars, I will show you how NASA agrees with me. If I want to make a point about an aspect of law, I will show you how my lawyer wrote an article on it in The American Lawyer. Their expertise, authority, and credibility will give my argument an aura of expertise, authority, and credibility. This is a powerful aspect of persuasive rhetoric. We encounter it all the time, formally and informally.

Unfortunately, when it comes to “following the science” about Covid, the authority of scientists and national health experts has been eroded by a range of political and social counter-arguments, usually employing what we call the fallacy of “Faulty Comparison.” Faulty Comparison is bad logic that draws an equals sign between things that should not be presented as equal.

Using the above example, if I wrote, “NASA says that Mars rocks are highly radioactive, but my lawyer says they aren’t. Now it is unclear who to believe,” it wouldn’t be hard to see the bad logic. I’m making a Faulty Comparison between what NASA thinks about space and what my lawyer thinks about space. Then on the basis of that faulty comparison, I’m claiming it is impossible to tell who is more credible. One opinion is clearly credible (that of NASA) and has persuasive weight. The other (that of my lawyer) does not. They should not be presented as persuasively equal. And there should be no confusion about where the shorter, less stressful, and less error-prone leap of faith can be made.

But if I use a politician or faith leader to attack the expertise of NASA, it’s a bit harder to spot the fallacy: “NASA says Mars rocks are highly radioactive, but the President and Reverend Osteen both disagree. What, then, can we safely believe?” That’s still bad rhetoric, but it widens the necessary leap of faith and generates stress in the audience, especially if the audience strongly supports the President and Reverend Osteen. The politician’s and minister’s expertise are being presented as carrying equal weight about Mars as that of NASA on the subject. It’s an example of Faulty Comparison, but it’s slightly hidden.

Trump and his staff made a lot of Faulty Comparisons during his Administration, claiming “fake news” and “alternate facts” as a way of neutralizing negative press and keeping their political base activated and incensed. They tried to make necessary and appropriate leaps of faith as difficult and stressful as possible by politicizing Covid data and playing on the already existing suspicions that academics and experts are inherent leftists or even crypto-Marxists (which isn’t always false but isn’t as uniformly true as many on the right seem to believe) acting in bad faith.

Asking Trump or Kellyanne Conway or Biden or Pelosi about the nature or behavior of Covid is like asking your lawyer about Mars. Their political and bureaucratic authority does not translate into scientific authority. Putting faith in their pronouncements about the virus is not the same as putting your faith in the Center for Disease Control on the subject. This also includes questions of mask protocol and vaccines.

Rhetorically, the leap of faith is much smaller when you do “follow the science,” even if it’s still an act of faith, an assumption that someone knows more or is better than you when it comes to a subject in which you are ignorant. By sourcing the most credible authorities, you are, in effect, asking NASA about Mars and your lawyer about law. You are making the most reasonable assumption, the most educated guess about a subject you do not understand.

Reading the News with a Gelid Eye

 
Sam: Whenever there is any doubt, there is no doubt. That’s the first thing they teach you.
Vincent: Who taught you?
Sam: I don’t remember. That’s the second thing they teach you.
— Ronin (1998)

If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, guess what? For all intents and purposes, it’s a duck. Constructively, it should be treated like one. We don’t have to ask if something’s really going on or if someone’s really behaving a certain way or if some horrific event is really happening according to plan and it’s all fine so just relax. We don’t have to probe for sincerity and reasonability. We only have to accept one truth: people hide, lie, and attempt to cover their horrific mistakes.

The truth gets obscured behind spin. Sometimes, people get killed. Sometimes, they disappear. Sometimes, Jimmy Hoffa gets buried under the 18th hole of a Florida golf course. It comes out years later, but by then, everybody just shrugs. Some things are so well concealed that we’ll never figure them out. And sometimes it’s better not to know.

We don’t have to waste time and energy speculating and trying to sift truth from falsity. All we have to do is look at intended and actual outcomes. If your partner comes home smelling like a strange cologne, you don’t have to ask whether she’s cheating or whether some bizarre twist of fate led to her getting sprayed with random eau de toilette on her way to the metroYou only need to note the instance and keep your eyes (and nostrils) open. If it happens a second time, it’s a case of “fool me twice, shame on me.” But let’s be honest: you already knew from the beginning.

It’s the same with political events. If it looks like someone’s lying or prevaricating or taking some other sort of evasive action, you don’t need to engage with the reasonability of their countermeasures. You only need to ask two questions: what does it look like on the surface? And who stands to benefit? Note the instance. Keep your eyes (and nostrils) open.

If you do this, fake news has no power over you. Fake news is momentary lying and you don’t care about the lies of the moment. You only care about what you see over and over, which fake news cannot affect as easily or as consistently. Note that the accusation of “Fake news!” is also a form of media gaslighting and damage control. Whenever you notice people screaming that, look at them more critically than before.

But we don’t need to dwell on the concept of fake news. We only need “news” and a bit of critical thinking. Here’s an example from the Vietnam era (since Saigon just fell all over again): “We had to destroy the village in order to save it,” a statement most commonly attributed to journalist, Peter Arnett.

  • What you should take away from this statement: the village is (probably) destroyed.
  • What you should disregard: “We had to” (abdication of responsibility for the decision) and “in order to save it” (moral justification).

Responsibility shifting and self-justification on moral grounds are classic rhetorical countermeasures when large groups of people have been or stand to be murdered for the sake of someone’s re-election strategy or financial profile.

Don’t you believe it. Read the news, but read for that nugget of information embedded in the spin. Just remember: ask what it looks like on the surface and ask who stands to benefit from it. Then disregard everything but what might be the facts. You don’t have to be a detective. You merely have to see the duck flapping away.

The Inner Work of Being a Writer

The transition from dilettante to serious artist is always indistinct.  As with any art form, one becomes what one does.  One becomes a writer by saying, “I’m a writer” and then writing.  I suppose one becomes “serious” after demonstrating or announcing one’s seriousness at some later date.  But isn’t it a little absurd to say, “I’m a serious writer”?  It immediately raises the question, “How serious?” 

To which one may respond: I’m dead serious, more serious than a heart attack.  So serious I got two degrees in it.  So horrifically, agonizingly, putridly serious that I’ve kept doing it through poverty, flood, plague, and famine.  More serious than a white sale in June.  More serious than the fine print.  Hell, I am the fine print.  I’m a serious dude.  It’s my thing.  I might as well put it on my business card: Serious Writer Since 1997.  That’s over two decades of seriousness, okay?

Maybe that is the required declaration, the necessary attestation of commitment at the necessary volume to prove you’re the real deal.  Because you have to prove it, right?  Because no one can assume how serious you are by just looking at you the way they might if you were some other sort of professional.  No one’s a part-time brain surgeon.  No one does constitutional law as a hobby.  No one flies for Lufthansa as a side gig.  No one asks how serious a nuclear engineer is.  When Red October is about to go under the ice, no one says, “Sure, but how serious is the captain?”

In the arts, however, people always wonder.  Some journalist, critic, competitor, or professor is always ready to say, “You Don’t Deserve to Live was an entertaining novel, but it’s not serious.”  And then everyone must nod as if that makes sense.  This is probably because no one will ever truly agree on how to define a serious writer producing serious writing.  No one has a clue.

Does money show it (James Patterson)?  Do numerous film adaptations of your work show it (Stephen King)?  How about literary and cultural iconicity (Alice Munro, Bret Easton Ellis)?  What about your books frequently showing up on university syllabi (Michael Cunningham, Francine Prose)?  What about your writing having been convincingly marketed as a “modern classic” such that it will one day be hermetically sealed in the basement of Cheops for post-apocalyptic archaeologists to dig up (Margaret Atwood, Donna Tartt)?  Where’s the benchmark for quality?  Who can say?  I can say I like some of these writers and dislike others.  But I like a lot of things and people, many of which will no doubt be adjudged “not serious” as soon as we can determine what that is. 

Maybe no one asks Alice Munro whether she’s a serious writer anymore because she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013.  Maybe that’s the only reliable standard.  No one argues with the Nobel Prize for Literature.  The Nobel committee called her a “master of the short story” and said she revolutionized modern literature.  Of course, three years later they said as much about Bob Dylan.  Three years between literary revolutions can make one’s head spin, but these are interesting times.  Next, the Nobel committee may award Munro a prize for her influence on folk music.  Then we can all relax.  They know what they’re doing.

Of course, there’s still the inner, subjective, impressionistic option.  At various stressful moments in my childhood, my mom would quote a line from “Duration,” my birth hexagram in the I-Ching: “[T]he dedicated man embodies an enduring meaning in his way of life, and thereby the world is formed. In that which gives things their duration, we can come to understand the nature of all beings in heaven and on earth.”  She said this often enough that I had it memorized by age 12.  An enduring meaning in his way of life.  Maybe that’s it.  “Enduring meaning” has a nice sound.  It’s certainly a better formulation and standard than any of the others given above.

But Nobel doesn’t award prizes for embodying an enduring meaning in one’s way of life.  It happens quietly, without parades and gold medals and book tours and exhausting four-hour dinners in New York and swarms of desperate grad students.  The only revolution it can incite is an inner revolution, an inner revelation.  The New York Times Book Review won’t be covering it.  Alice will remain in Canada.  Bob will stare at a tree outside the window and hum a little tune.

So how do you know if you’re a serious writer, if you have talent, if you aren’t wasting your time?  You can never know these things relative to what people say or how much money you’re making off your work or whether the gatekeepers and critics deem you worthy.  You can know whether the act of writing sometimes makes you feel good.  And in that feeling, there may be a quiet, personal meaning.  And if you write regularly, you may embody that meaning such that it becomes part of your life, a way of life.  And then you can stop asking questions that originate in commercial and social status anxiety instead of in the metaphysics of the creative process.

 

On Hustling in the Wrong Profession

Why hustle culture is toxic (and how you can escape it) | Hustle, Culture, Toxic

This morning, I read an essay by a fellow freelancer-ghostwriter on how depressing the paid writing hustle is and how editors can screw your work up after you’ve exhausted yourself querying and pitching articles. I sympathize. It’s rough. At the same time, if you’re doing it right, you shouldn’t feel exhausted and demoralized all the time.

Freelancing is a hard way to make a living—at least as hard as any other job people do. But it’s harder for some than for others, which is important to bear in mind. Living this life means accepting constant rejection, dealing with assholes, getting cheated at least some of the time, being prudent with your money months in advance (in case you hit a dry spell), writing for hours every day, and being willing to produce what other people say they want you to write (writing to spec) instead of what you may want. The reason I rarely complain about all this is because, deep down, I like doing it. The aggravations don’t get me down.

I would not be a good concert pianist, race car driver, or nuclear physicist. I can accept that. But people tend to think being a freelance writer is some kind of stage magic that anybody can learn if they just apply themselves to the grind. Not true, if you don’t want to be a miserable wreck. All jobs are hard, no matter what they are. The trick is to know yourself well enough to find the good kind of hard as opposed to the horrible rat-race kind.

Charles Bukowski famously said, “Don’t try.” It’s on his gravestone. He meant that there is too much of everything in the world. You don’t have to do something you’re not good at. Don’t try to be what you’re not. Let who you really are guide you and you won’t have to hate your life. This is so true, especially for freelancers and writers. It doesn’t mean “Don’t work hard.” It means work hard in the area that resonates most powerfully with who you are. Then take it as far as you can.  When you do something for its own sake, without obsessing about getting ahead, you don’t have to hustle and scheme. It’s a joy in itself. And the drawbacks become, if not negligible, then at least less important.

What takes an enormous amount of hustling and self-contortion for you—networking, pitching, worrying, querying, dealing with rejection, dealing with horrible people—takes less for someone else, who may be better connected or generally better suited for that particular profession or venture. Luck also matters. And fate. Every auditioning actor will tell you this. Every magazine writer will, too.

The opportunity cost of having to spend your energy on breaking through obstacle after obstacle can be avoided with a bit of self knowledge. You don’t have to (actually, you shouldn’t) spend your days feeling like the world is handing you a raw deal. Instead, find the thing that seems fluid, open, and easy, then do it as intensely and diligently as you can. Someone else will try to hustle for that, but you will leave him or her behind because, at least for you, it’s as natural as breathing.

Hustle culture comes from people being in the wrong place, not realizing it, and stubbornly grinding forward, demanding that things work without acknowledging the truth: not everyone is meant to be good at everything. But you’re good at something. Do that.