Dominance and Submissions

Let’s say you’ve labored long in the fields of creative writing and the People Who Know (or maybe just the people who’ve noticed) have appreciated your talent.  Some have appreciated it loudly and publicly, some quietly to friends in ways that eventually come back to you, some through amazing feats of jealousy, and others through an unrelenting aggressive competitiveness that beggars belief.  The lower the stakes, the higher the vitriol is an axiom of creative culture.

Let’s also say that for the first decade of writing and submitting short stories to magazines with names like Lost Nose QuarterlyBarbaric Yawp, and Bitch Review, the feedback of the 25-year-old readers working on these magazines mattered.  Susie Lillywhite, the fiction editor at Uncommon Snuff, writes you a personalized rejection, praising your “humorous story of cis-het men behaving badly,” and your ever-present grinding self-doubt abates for ten full minutes; though, on minute 11, you wonder how Susie writes dialogue (“Hello, Mister Cisgendered Heteronormative Male.  How are you today?” / “Hello, Thinly Veiled Proxy For Susie Designed To Signpost Authorial Identity And Abate Criticism.  I am fine.”).

You get the inevitable raft of rejections and a few acceptances.  In time, your acceptance average goes up.  You know this because you obsessively gamify your submission process on a spreadsheet like fantasy baseball.  Maybe your box scores show progress.  Maybe all this effort means something—if not anything tangible in your day-to-day existence, then perhaps in a kind of working-fiction-writer sabermetrics that suggests your chosen life direction hasn’t been a horrible mistake.  Maybe the 500 hypothetical readers of Dogwater International are upping your short story RBI.  It’s possible.  Don’t say it isn’t.

You’ve got a novel in progress.  This goes without saying.  Everyone has a novel in progress.  Your screenwriter friend, Gaurangi, tells you she has two novels in progress, a poetry chapbook in progress, and a book of essays in progress.  Yet, she’s miserable and hates her life.  “Is that because you’re still assistant manager at KFC and can’t break through the glass ceiling?”  “No,” she says, “it’s because you’re a fucking asshole.”  You’ve been friends for 15 years.  Her name means “giver of happiness.”

There is no joy like mine, you think.  I am a cherry blossom adrift in the infinite cosmos.  The form email from GOAT Bomb sits in your inbox.  You can see that it begins, “Dear Valued Author, thank you for submitting to GOAT Bomb . . .” but you’ve been meditating.  And if zazen has taught you anything, it’s that impersonal form rejections are naught but the transcendent meanderings of The Great Vehicle.  The rejections aren’t depressing you.  It must be something else.

So let’s say you’ve also learned how to save money as an effective freelance survival tactic.  Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you’ve managed to eke out an existence as a ghost writer and a copyeditor.  Let’s say, also for the sake of argument, that your cousin, who thought college was stupid, now makes low six figures as a construction manager and thinks you’re hilarious.  You see him at Christmas dinner, a rosy-cheeked beer-drinking construction Santa with a twinkle in his eye.  And he asks you the same thing he asked you last year: “Are you a mental midget?”  He finds the question hilarious.  “No,” you say.  “I mentally fidget.”  He can’t stop laughing.  “With your digits!”  In this family, we come together through spontaneous and combustive rhyming.  You don’t take it personally.

But you don’t follow baseball.  Thus, your spreadsheet submission game perpetually teeters on the edge of something else, deep and dark, eldritch and unspeakable, an existential abyss.  Why do you do it?  How does publishing another story in The East Punjabi Fiction Annual (that took you six months of sustained before-dawn writing sessions and seven painful drafts) matter in the construction management food-on-the-table sense?  You joke, but there are no rhymes for it, at least none that would entertain your cousin.

The fact is, you are a mental midget.  You must be if you still have to worry about putting ten more dollars on the credit card for a sandwich at Safeway—which isn’t Joe Biden’s fault.  So don’t start.  The supply chain is effed-up, yes.  Covid is ineffable, yes.  The pandemic shooed you out of Bangkok one step ahead of the Thai quarantine police, yes, and now you’re living in a Hawaiian jungle, but that has nothing to do with anything.  Here you are.  The feral rooster outside goes, “KEEEEE-YAAAAW-KOOOOO!”  And the great world turns with its comings and goings.

Smoke three cigarettes with Gaurangi in her Kia in the parking lot of KFC.  It’s midnight and she is off work.  You drove into Hilo just for this because it’s a miracle that you both now live in the same place and she texted you: come smoke a cigarette with me so I can cope with the fact that I manage idiots.  She won’t smoke at home because she has a two-year-old daughter and cigarettes are poison.  “I should move back to L.A.” she says.  “The fucking Big Island’s getting me nowhere.”  “You married a Hawaiian.”  She looks at you, drags deeply, and smiles.  “Yes.  That probably has something to do with why I’m here.”

One manages a KFC in Los Angeles if one wants to be a screenwriter, a whole different fantasy ballgame.  One brings one’s Hawaiian husband to a bungalow in Glendale.  Maybe one sells the script for She’s Gotta Have It 2, earning $135,000 for the original screenplay, including treatment, and suddenly it’s all cheddar.  One writes one’s friend in the jungle: I don’t hate L.A. now.  It is what it is.  Now one can calm down and finish that poetry chapbook in peace.

You’re drinking too much coffee and you read a lot of news. Some nut writing for The Conversation says Covid and climate change are going to turn coffee into a rare luxury item like Kobe beef or Cristal.  But the enormous tin of Safeway Select on top of your refrigerator suggests otherwise. You wonder how much the writer got paid to cook up a pandemic scare piece on coffee. What if you pitched something similar about a thing everybody wants being unceremoniously taken away by forces beyond one’s control? What about cheese: “Is Cheese Systemically Racist?  Biden Might be Coming for Your Gruyere.” Or sex: “The Death of Intimacy: Gen Z Prefers Online Porn to Sex and Who Can Blame Them?” Or healthcare: “The GOP Thinks Letting Grandpa Die is Good for the Economy.”  You write these ideas down and fire up the laptop.  There’s rent to be made.

At this point, there are many possibilities.  You’ve moneyballed your way into 30, 40 magazine publications.  You have three published story collections and a multitude of columns, articles, and essays floating through the aetheric digitalia.  But you still live in the jungle.  You’ve got a neighbor up the dirt road who deals with his emotions by smoking crack and shooting cats with his Marlin 60.  You’re still getting rejections from 25-year-olds and machines that go, “While we appreciate your interest in Dark Pissoir . . . “

Occasionally, some acquaintance on social media will pay attention to you for more than 30 seconds and wonder how you exist.  How do you make a living (or How can you possibly make a living?)?  You say as best you can.  There are 25-year-olds publishing novels with Random House.  There are 25-year-olds managing construction sites and getting welding certificates and buying their kids $900 gaming consoles.  And there’s a fine line of termite dust along the base of your hovel’s north wall.  Are you discouraged?  What does that mean, exactly?

When I was Tough, Part 18

I watched the first five seasons of Vampire Diaries over the course of a week.  Something like 120 hours of bad special effects, betrayal, and outstanding hair.  During this time, I neither shaved nor bathed.  My apartment acquired a certain foetor unique to hoarders, cat ladies, and the heavily medicated.  Stale soup.  Ritz crackers and cheese whiz.  If you want a bowl, you better wash one.  And that pair of pants draped over the back of a chair?  It’s still wearable.  Smell it. 

When absolutely necessary, I went to the store in my sweats to stock up on frozen pizzas.  Eye contact was difficult and I used the automated check-out with my head down.  I had to move quickly, since whenever I wasn’t focusing with godlike intensity on Bonnie coming into her witch powers or whether Elena was actually in love with Damon and not Stefan, I thought about death.  Specifically, my own.  But also everyone else’s—my mother’s from cancer, my best friend from high school behind the wheel, all the pets I’d ever owned, my neighbor Herb who hung himself. 

I was depressed.  I knew this.  I also knew I had no control over when I might start crying.  Even though I had a certain degree of objectivity about it, I could feel the tears coming on like headlights down a tunnel.  I bought chips, microwavable “Mama Celeste Pizza for One” five at a time, and liter bottles of Diet Coke.  Then I went directly home like any other respectable basket case.

Boys don’t cry.  So I’d practice deep breathing while the pizza rotated and then get to the couch as quickly as possible.  The saga of Damon and Stefan Salvatore was sweet soul medicine: brothers, vampires, suitors for the hand of Elena Gilbert, the hot-yet-down-to-earth high school sweetheart with the body of a 17-year-old cheerleader and the emotional intelligence of a 54-year-old divorced therapist.  I could live with that.  It’s called suspension of disbelief.  I got involved.  I did what a good viewer is supposed to do.  I made myself receptive.  And while watching, I forgot about Herb.  I forgot to about death.  I forgot to cry.  I talked back to the characters and ate Pringles.

At that time, I was sleeping about 2-3 hours per night.  But I was alright with that.  If I didn’t sleep, I couldn’t dream.  And not dreaming helped in any number of ways.  If you had told my younger self that I’d someday be a weepy train wreck of a man, clinging to sofa cushions and a paranormal teen soap opera for sanity, I would have laughed manfully.  I was tough like that.

Darkness Visible

This morning, there was an enormous bumblebee on the inside of my bedroom window. I didn’t know how it could have gotten through the slatted vent near the ceiling, but that was the only explanation. I sat on the edge of the bed and watched its shadow crawl up my arm. A bumblebee! Enormous but tiny, just like me.

I am lethally allergic to bee stings. And so I found myself imagining once again how I might die from the anaphylaxis that could be brought on by such an enormous tiny creature. It could have stung me in my sleep. Of course, the engine of a 787 could have fallen through the roof and killed me in a giant conflagration of bloody bone fragments, busted two-by-fours, and smoking metal. Or my heart could have simply exploded at the stroke of midnight, all those muffulettas catching up with me at last. You never know.

Anything can happen and sometimes it does. I sat there and imagined my death for at least 45 minutes before I realized I was doing it. Then I got mad at myself. I just wasted 45 minutes of my life imagining my death. I can never get those 45 minutes back. It’s like I’ve been dead for the last three-quarters of an hour. But I also had a back ache. After a few more minutes thinking about the pain in my back and imagining myself in a wheelchair—how hard it would be to take a shit in my tiny bathroom if I were paralyzed, how I’d never have sex again—I thought, well, at least the bumblebee got my mind off of my back pain for a while. Now my back’s going to hurt all day. What a miserable day. Fuck my back. Fuck that bee. Fuck all creation. Life was, once again, a festival of misery and hate. A friend of mine in high school once described it as “a shit show for the devil,” but we’re not friends anymore and, if that were truly the case, I tend to think god would be the one laughing the loudest.

I got back in bed and pulled the covers up over my face. On days like this, I will sometimes lie in bed thinking horrible things, crying sometimes, unable to concentrate, unable to motivate myself to even stand, but feeling certain that death owes me a favor and it’s time to pay up. Today I had all the symptoms: intense pressure in my skull like my brain was trying to push its way out, racing thoughts, overwhelming world-veiling all-consuming guilt with no rational explanation, and that persistent little voice always telling me I deserve everything I get (What makes you so special, anyway? Who says you’re more worthy of taking shits and having sex than the next guy who’s probably paralyzed, constipated, and horny and yet still a better person than you? What have you really accomplished? All you’ve ever been is a horrible humiliating failure. Let’s relive some selected memories . . . ). So it goes and it never stops. Until it does. And then, suddenly, I’ll be fine again. The sun will come up. I’ll get out of bed. No one will have noticed. And I won’t mention it.

The longest I’ve ever been down in one of my “spells” has been three consecutive days, three days of black torment that almost caused me to take my own life. But that was an extreme. I’m more often down for 24 hours or less. And since I set my own work schedule, it’s still possible for me to function as a professional. I can usually feel it coming. Almost like a drug addict who, from bitter experience, knows to lock the house down and draw the curtains before shooting up in the basement, I log out of social networks, turn off my phone, put journals, mirrors, and alcohol away.

In Darkness Visible, William Styron puts it like so: “Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self—to the mediating intellect—as to verge close to being beyond description. It thus remains nearly incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it in its extreme mode.” Sadly, it is not incomprehensible to me. Of all the friends I’ve had, it’s the one I know will never abandon me.

So I lay there—thinking about all the worst possibilities in my life, all the horrible outcomes I’d probably brought on by being defective and weak and cursed, while running a search through my past to find the elusive Turning Point where I must have transitioned from an innocent kid with potential into the embarrassing failure I was now—and felt the bumblebee land on my face.

Granted, I had the bedspread completely covering me. But it landed directly over my eyes. I could see it through the fabric walking around, fluttering its wings a little, its feelers rotating.

I’m not a flower, I thought. I sent it telepathic messages. I’m not a flower. I’m a human. And if you sting me, I will fucking end you before I die. I felt extremely angry, infinitely angry, so angry that it was hard to keep still. The worst part was I didn’t know why. The bee was innocent. It was as much a victim of circumstances as I was. But all I could think of was how stupid it would be to suffocate from anaphylactic shock in bed with the covers over my face like a suburban burial shroud. The Shroud of Michael. More than I’d earned but no less than I deserved.

I had perhaps one of the oddest sensations I’ve ever had, feeling like my emotions were clawing at me, trying to pull me apart, and yet having to focus on remaining completely still—all while my mind was defocusing into the irrational haze of a depressive fugue. I thought about Styron, how I didn’t know enough about his life; about some of the people I care about, how I knew even less about theirs; about Hem and Fitzgerald and how much my high school students had hated A Movable Feast and how I’d loved it; about my early failure to become a classical pianist; about my subsequent failure to become a lawyer; about my failure to get on the tenure track; and about the failures of various students over the years which I’d carried like a sack of rocks on my back, each one somehow traceable back to me, to my fault, my mistakes, my defects. And though there may have been some faint light blinking at the end of the dock, something I could focus on, something to tell me that yes, there was an end to this just as there was to all things, I couldn’t see it.

Then the bee flew back to the glass. Slowly, ever so slowly, I crept up, opened the window, and watched it fly away, over the rock wall, into the trees.

I sat back on the edge of the bed. The clock read 8:03 AM.