Attending an all-boys school felt like prison. Read my latest on Splice Today:
Attending an all-boys school felt like prison. Read my latest on Splice Today:
Today, I was advised to get an editing and proofreading certification from one of the many professional associations available to show potential clients that I am all business and not, as one would otherwise assume, a crank. Three decades of professional writing, editing-for-hire, and proofreading won’t do it. The representative who cold-emailed me on social media made it very clear that no matter how good I think I am, no one will take me seriously unless I’m professionally certified. Luckily, she discovered me in time.
When I asked her if board certification exists for copy editors and proofers, she didn’t respond. I’m still waiting, but I know the answer. With a website, a PayPal account, and a fictious business name, you can establish a certification program for anything obscure and unregulated, say, antelope sign language. You can then offer membership in a professional society based on your courses and the money flows in like sweet milk from heaven when people called to interpret for deaf antelopes feel insecure and go looking for a stamp of approval.
You’ll pitch your service to the rubes with a great convincer: “Since there are no objective, widely accepted standards for professionalism in antelope sign language, you need our very formal, suitable-for-framing certificate to set you apart from all the dilettante competitors and desperate poseurs trying to steal your business. You need this.” I recognized the come-on immediately. It’s how you sell a diet supplement, a tinfoil orgone collection helmet, a Learn Fluent Inuit in 20 Minutes-a-Day DVD set, or a religion. You define the subject matter, identify the anxiety it produces, and offer a solution.
New religions always do this, since their subject matter is and must always be vague. At a science fiction convention in 1948, L. Ron Hubbard is supposed to have said, “Writing for a penny a word is ridiculous. If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion.” Like most of Hubbard’s material, it seems to have been cribbed from other sources—in this case from a letter written by George Orwell in his multivolume Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters. But the principle is sound. Give people something in which they can believe and posit yourself as its source or sole mouthpiece.
Interestingly, the Orwell-Hubbard dates may not match up. Multiple volumes of Orwell’s collected works were released in the 1960s and, though it’s obvious earlier collections existed, it’s unclear which Orwell resources would have been available to Hubbard in the late 1940s while he was busy doing ceremonial magic in the desert with Jack Parsons and seducing Parsons’ girlfriend. But we do know that, by 1948, Hubbard had left Parsons and overt occultism behind, well on his way to following through on his million-dollar scheme.
No matter how many conventions Hubbard attended, boats he owned, and storefront e-meter salons he opened, the comment about starting one’s own religion would follow him for the rest of his life and hang over his grave like a feculent mist. Orwellian cynicism has always seemed perfect for the Church of Scientology. The organization has appeared, at least since the early ’70s, much more interested in abusive litigation with a side of organized crime than in any sort of enlightenment or spirituality.
Still, America loves a new religion, the sillier and more coercive the better. Americans will love it twice as much if the guru requires lavish compensation for his wisdom. It’s one of the perennial obsessions at the heart of the culture: we’re all looking for Jesus the Businessman, whether he comes as a computer inventor, an online bookseller, or an electric-car spaceship fetishist. The more he up-sells us and demands to be loved for it, the more we’ll celebrate him. If he can do this and offer us certificated in-group status, we’ll make him a fixture in our lives.
We want to be saved by someone who shares our values: money, cleverness, exclusivity, salesmanship, and the sado-masochism of the workplace as spiritual praxis. It’s the reason why, at one point, Oprah commanded the reasoning and libido of 51% of the population, why Bezos’ Blue Origin rocket looks like a giant dildo, and why graffiti near 1 Infinite Loop in Cupertino, California, used to read “Steve Died for Your Sins.” He unquestionably did.
But there’s an even deeper reason Hubbard and comparable messiah figures are able to operate until they go out of fashion and either become despised by the crowd that once adored them or go insane: no one has any stable concept of what’s real, including the gurus themselves. They’re making up the landmarks and mapping the terrain as they go along.
In fact, the fluidity of unreality, virtual reality, meta-reality, fandom, curated identity, and the floating demimonde of the so-called “knowledge marketplace” underlying these things is so popular and ubiquitous that it has become more convincing than religion ever was. We’re looking for the next lifehack, supplement, or belief system to stave off our perpetual nervous breakdown because we have no idea what’s going on. Sign me up. Get my Level 1 Proofreader’s Certificate and Associate Membership Card.
Black Mirror, Ready Player One, and The Matrix are horrifying mostly due to what they imply about this desperate capacity to turn anything into religion, even down to the most banal and mechanistic corporate sensibilities. And pandemic lockdown culture has not helped. When Covid spread across Asia, I was living in Bangkok and noticed a line of herbal supplements being marketed in the malls by a popular Indian guru as protection against the disease. The layout was very glossy. There were life-sized cardboard standups of the smiling guru presenting his product at pharmacy endcaps. People were buying it because they didn’t know what was real. The guru was defining the problem and offering a solution. L. Ron Hubbard would have loved Covid-19.
As Mencken put it, “There is nothing in religious ideas, as a class, to lift them above other ideas. On the contrary, they are always dubious and often quite silly. Nor is there any visible intellectual dignity in theologians. Few of them know anything that is worth knowing, and not many of them are even honest.” But what they offer is certitude and certification in an uncertain, uncertificated world.
I rewatched Interview with the Vampire last night and it just doesn’t seem dark enough. Maybe that’s a reflection of how my emotional self has darkened after Covid, rapacious politics, and so much social turmoil. But it seems to me that the story, the myth, of the vampire is dangerous because it is Dionysian and feral. It has to be dark. It has to flirt with real evil and suffering.
Interview is too tame, too inhibited. It tries to show evil but it stops at longing for redemption. There has to be heartbroken bitterness (Lestat pretends to be bitter, but he’s just bored and infatuated). And that bitterness has to become so intense that it doubles over into malice. Then we have something. That would be a vampire story fit for 2021.
Anne Rice (who became a super-Christian) thought of the vampire more the way Mary Shelley thought of Frankenstein’s monster: a messianic anti-hero. That’s great. But Rice didn’t come up with the vampire mythos. And when you make a vampire movie, it goes beyond your particular ideas into the greater mythic paradigm that contains all vampire symbolism and stories, especially those of the vampire as a 19th century expression of human suffering and desire, a twisted reaction to the oppressive side of industrial capitalism.
Romance, blood, eternal life, its price, and its consequences only come with the darkening of the world—a rejection of daylight, machines, industry, and Protestant ideas of clean living. The vampire seems like an embodiment of Victorian longing for nature, for Pan, for the Wordsworthian overflow of feelings denied by the western progress narrative and cynical social Darwinism. And so you only get the vampire if you’re willing to accept a certain amount of darkness and violence. It’s why you traditionally have to invite the vampire over your threshold. It has to be your choice to let the darkness in. Of course, you might turn into a rotting corpse or a raving madman like Dracula’s R. M. Renfield. But nothing comes for free in this mythology.
I guess most of us are over messiahs and redemption narratives these days. I think I definitely am. I don’t care about being brought back into the great huddled mass with its dead gods. Maybe I’m looking for a different sort of vampire tale, not one born in the lingering optimism of Anne Rice’s 1990s pre-Christian return. Suffering. Darkness. The Eleusinian Mysteries come around again in a story drenched in blood and derangement. Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker. That’s where it is for me these days. The vampire archetype still matters, but it goes a lot deeper and gets a lot more disturbing than sexy-but-guilty anti-heroes in velvet, tormented by their otherness, seeking some kind of reintegration into banal conformist culture.
Read my latest on Splice Today: https://www.splicetoday.com/on-campus/the-new-puritanism-isn-t-without-precedent
Read my latest on Splice Today: https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/convicting-kyle-rittenhouse-shouldn-t-be-easy
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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 metro. You 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.
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.