I lead a mostly inward existence. The part that isn’t, my small public-facing side, is bound up with my art, with what I write and submit for publication. In this way, I’m constantly reinforcing and reiterating my identity, performing it. I have to do this. We all do if we expect to survive, immersed in the strange demimonde of the writing life.
Since you never know if you’re any good and there is always someone saying you aren’t—including your own inner sadist—you have to affirmatively decide that you’re a writer and reject all arguments and criticisms to the contrary. When you can do that and put words on the page, you are one. If you can’t do that and you’re still waiting for permission, you’re not. Not yet, at least.
A big part of making that decision and then constructing your identity publicly involves not letting respectability get in the way. In 2013, feeling like I’d discovered this and that it was true, I wrote “The Discipline: In Your Head, Off the Street, and Away From the Club.” At the time, I thought I was articulating a set of beliefs and practices that could make it possible for creative people to continue in spite of the ubiquitous, overwhelming pressure to stop.
Here is the concluding paragraph. My sentences tend to get long and loopy when I’m writing Something Very Serious:
People enmeshed / immobilized in a fugue of “respectability” (in my opinion, a parasitic set of social mores and strictures that slowly consume the time and energy–life–of innocents whose only mistake was doing what they were told from an early age) will say you are crazy, unambitious, stupid, a loser. They will do this because you haven’t had the time and wouldn’t spend the effort to become a stakeholder in their hierarchy of values. I have experienced this first-hand and still do from time to time when the ripples of life-decisions I made in my late 20s come back to me. But I do not have regrets. I have largely overcome my personal demons, the emotional, familial, social fallout associated with owning my life. That’s why this is a discipline. You have to practice it. It’s not something you do once. It’s a way of life. And I want that for you if you want it for yourself.
Seven years later, I feel less certain about this. I think I was shoring up my identity for myself, talking to myself in the mirror, convincing myself. While I’ve had a considerable amount of positive feedback from writers about that essay, it now seems more like a lacuna than a manifesto—a place where the reader can deposit her anxieties and, if only for a little while, dismiss them. But the question remains: was I talking myself into or out of something in that piece? What was the real opportunity cost of deciding to set foot on this odd, widely misunderstood, extremely demanding path?
Over the years, I’ve stayed faithful to the discipline, mythologizing my life in the way of a writer trying to buffer himself against the world. A lot of creative people do this, using their imaginations not only to produce work, but also to perform their identities as artists in order to keep the cynical, draining importunities of late-stage capitalism at bay. Unfortunately, just as an actor can get lost in a role, forget himself, and believe he is the character, it’s easy to mistake self-construct for reality, map for territory.
I’ve often lost myself, performing a writerly persona. And I’ve had to return to the great voice-driven modernists I’ve always loved—Celine, Henry Miller, Hemingway, Bukowski, Hunter Thompson, Melanie Rae Thon, Brett Easton Ellis, John Fante, Denis Johnson, Isaac Babel, Osamu Dazai, Ryu Murakami—as a corrective. In their fiction, the “constructedness” (“artificiality” isn’t quite right) of idiosyncratic first person always reminds me of the distinction between map and territory, between the “author brand,” or as Foucault says, “the author function” in discourse, and the unknowable human beings who’ve disappeared behind their texts.
As the constructed persona, I’m perfectly fine with the discipline “in my head and away from the club,” living on the edge, by my wits, freelancing and being a ghostwriter in a plague year. I’m even writing a novel based on it. I maintain a fierce, self-aggrandizing positivity and narrate myself as the protagonist of the story, on my hero’s journey, making the raw material of my life into text I hope people will find interesting.
But this is a plague year. Millions are out of work. The economy is flatlining. Although it may seem like that would have less of an effect on someone leading the introspective writing life, I’ve realized that without society, there’s nothing for me to eschew, no place get away from. Self-isolation means something different when everyone’s doing it.
The pandemic has changed everything in the course of a few months and we have changed, are changing, along with it. As Guitar Slim liked to say, “The things that I used to do, lord I won’t do no more”—not as a matter of preference, but as a matter of survival. Like most people, I want to live past next month. Yet, in order to do that, I need society to play along. And right now, society just isn’t up to it.
In The Atlantic, Yascha Mounk, a professor at Johns Hopkins, published a very dark, pessimistic appraisal of our future with COVID-19, observing that “After weeks in which it made sense to hope that something would happen to end this nightmare, the prospects for deliverance are more remote than ever.” He might be right. If he is, what then?
I read about drug cartels, poachers, and conmen taking advantage of the lockdown hysteria. I get into online discussions with fellow writers about whether Andrew Cuomo is doing the right thing and whether Bret Stephens knows what he’s talking about. And I ask the question everyone’s asking: if it all goes dark, what will become of us, of me?
It’s necessary to offer something to the world and receive things from it if you intend to function outside a monastery or an ashram. But, practicing my creative discipline, I’ve always felt I could be happy sitting in a small room, surrounded by books, with a narrow-ruled steno pad, a laptop, and a small refrigerator. I have a lot of memories and thoughts to explore. I have the voices of other writers always drifting around in my head and a very small circle of friends in the world who write to me. I’ve never wanted much more than that.
But these days I feel transparent and weightless, untethered. In one sense, it’s fine. I’m not afraid to die. I’ve accomplished most of the things I set out to accomplish in my life. But I would like to finish this novel. I’d like to see my third book of stories find a publisher. And even teach story writing to a few more people before I go. Those things would be nice, but they’re contingent on systems that are undergoing radical changes. I fear the old world is slipping away. I fear I am, too.
“Everything was all right for a while. You were kind.” She looks down and then goes on. “But it was like you weren’t there. Oh shit, this isn’t going to make any sense.” She stops.
I look at her, waiting for her to go on, looking up at the billboard. Disappear Here.
— Brett Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero