If you’re a writer, you’ll live your life not knowing if you’re any good. And you’ll die not knowing. I think John Berryman said that.
After Phil Levine published his first book of poems, people said, yeah, but can you do it again? Then he did it again. Then they said, yeah, but have you been featured in the New York Times Review of Books? Then he got a review. So they said, yeah, but have you won any major awards? He won several. Then they said, yeah, but we remember you back when you were broke in Detroit. You’ll always be a bum.
There is no escape. Nobody from the old neighborhood wants to see you get ahead. It’s a law of nature, the Bumfuck Reflexive Property. You can ruin your life if you burn your emotional energy wondering whether they’re right. Every moment you spend doing that is a waste. But all writers do it.
Hang around with writers and artists and you realize they’ve got a particular tangible proficiency at their kind of art. Maybe they were born with it or, more likely, they worked hard at developing what little gift they had into something presentable. The gift, whatever it is, is real and observable. But whether they’re mediocre or brilliant, derivative or original, a flash in the pan or someone whose art is set to be preserved in the basement of Cheops, you will never know. More significantly, they will never know.
If you like their work, great. If you don’t, you can always recall the time they were broke and living in the projects across from Wayne State. HA. HA. HA. Let’s all laugh at the sad clown. Some people and their lousy choices. Am I right? If they were any good people would want to pay them for their work. I mean, that’s just common sense.
I suppose it’s sad when an artist hasn’t learned how to fail (or how to stubbornly and angrily reject failure), when she takes the Bumfuck to bed and makes love to it, when she’s covered in despair, when she finds herself thinking about her choices. The rest of us chose to avoid that humiliation early. We were smart and didn’t even try. Or if we did, we never let anyone see it and gave up shortly thereafter. And look at us today. We just got back from our annual trip to Florida. It’s a good life.
But she has to spend some nights staring at the wall, probing for answers that will never come. Because her friends and family don’t know what to tell her, even though they have many strongly held opinions on her work and direction in life. Her teachers didn’t know (even the ones who praised her back at clown school). And ultimately, she doesn’t know, can’t know, even if she wins a Golden Bozo next year and gets to put “Genius” on her resume. She might just be a lucky clown, a clown of the moment, a one clown wonder. How do you ever really, truly know if you’re any good?
Genius. Hell, she can barely afford lunch. And so the questions: am I actually a no-talent, deluded ass-clown? Was taking out a loan to go to clown school the worst decision of my life? Should I have listened to my old high-school friend who went straight into an apprenticeship as a waste management professional and who is now debt-free, pumping out the city’s shit everyday for a middle-five-figure salary? The dude owns his own house. He loves reminding me how debt-free he is. He loves it.
Can I say the same? Do I love being a clown? I thought I did. But now that I’m out of clown school, I feel so alone. At least back there I had a useful amount of social friction, mutually shared productive spite, the catty competitiveness of nervous art students to hold me up and distract me.
Now I only have these four walls and the dirty mirror over the sink and the constant message that if it doesn’t make money, it’s a hobby, not a calling. A life spent vacuuming out the municipal sewer, by that definition, would be the Grail Quest. But that tract house and the vacation package in Florida speaks for itself.
How good do I have to be to take clowning seriously, to argue that it is my reason for living and not just a lukewarm pastime that regularly torments me. Sometimes, I wonder what good is—if it is something metaphysical, some hidden imprimatur, some mysterious proof, like divine grace received only through predestination. Do we know it when we see it? Or do we see it because we only know what we’ve been told?
How much telling is good? How much showing? If I get the emotional effect I want by the last line of my story, does that justify anything I do along the way, any narrative impropriety—like Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” one of the most structurally verfucked stories I have ever seen that nevertheless works? It works because it moves me. Me. Not necessarily you.
What’s more, when I get to the end, I know in the way that comes from having spent too much time with fellow ass-clowns, that “Hills Like White Elephants” would have never gotten a pass in clownshop. Poor sad clownbear. Put on your hardhat and gas mask. There’s shit pumping needs to be done.
I read the New Yorker and The Paris Review. For clowns, those are basically trade publications. Those clowns really know how to do it. They know what’s good, what’s right and wrong about art and culture, what should be published, what should be condemned. The people they feature—man, that is some serious clown shit. They really push the clownvelope. In fact, they are so serious at times that their work transcends everyday clowning and enters the Mime Plane. It’s a micro universe. All the mimes who ever existed and who ever will exist live there in an eternal limbo that can fit on the head of a pin. And yet it’s enormous. Space and time. You know. Like warm bubble-gum.
But I stay away from the mimes, like Alice Mimero and Jonathan Mimezen and Jeffrey Eumimedies and Mimeberto Eco. Their work is—I don’t even know how to describe it—it’s mysterious. Like pushing the wind or the transparent box or juggling the invisible chainsaws. Somehow, it’s supposed to seem dangerous or terrifying. Risky. But when an invisible chainsaw slips, there’s only invisible blood. Hard to see. You have to pretend it’s there. Mime stuff, you know. Everyone acts like they get it.
And yet they’re held up to us as the cultural elite. How does that work? Why are we still encouraged by the Big Six to think of these clowns as mysterious and compelling? I guess only those who put out effort to remain mysterious will continue to be seen that way. And perpetually wrapping yourself in a glamour of mystery is a lie. Because no one is actually that. But we lionize our artists. The publishing industry runs a lion circus. We want to believe they know something we don’t when they jump and roar.
Them lions is pathological. All they know is that gazelles are tasty. And us? We don’t even know that much.
I might know that shit stinks and pumping it for a living is a bummer. I know I’d give a hundred tract houses and a timeshare in Pensacola not to have that be the substance of my Grail Quest. I’d rather squander my life writing, even if I am a no-talent ass-clown.
But you? I’m not so sure about you. Maybe you’re not one of the Cheops Basement All-Stars yet. Maybe you’ll always be a bum somewhere in municipal Detroit, freezing in your bloodied clown suit. But I can tell you one thing. You’ll never really know if you’re any good. And you won’t be able to look at others for the answer. They’re all a bunch of ass-clowns, too.
All you can do is keep at it, day after day, hoping somebody somewhere sees what you see. All you can do is show up.
If I could tell you the number of stories and novels I’ve begun writing and not finished, we’d be here too long. But “not finished” doesn’t mean “discarded.” It means what it says.
The difficulty comes when I’ve convinced myself that I’m one sort of writer (the consistent, cheerfully productive kind) as opposed the other, less glamorous (or, at least, less visible) sort—a slave to the vicissitudes of the moon or some shit, the guy with 25 ongoing projects and an inability to stop working on any of them.
I know this about myself. I tell myself that it’s all part of the bigger creative process. I imagine all these incomplete pieces fermenting, cross-pollinating, mutating. Nothing lost. Everything in motion. And I take refuge in those ideas and metaphors so I can keep working. Being a writer, I tell myself a story. But it might be bullshit self-deceit.
The Romantics smoked opium to get closer to the moon and further from the Victorian head trauma of “productivity.” And when my genre writer pals do highly Victorian social media posts that go, “Sigh. Only 10 pages today,” I wonder whether they’re writing from inspiration or simply turning a lathe in some Dickensian word factory. Productivity equals commercial success, while moonbeams are their own reward. Still, I have word count envy no matter what I do.
The problems of productivity and self-deceit are at the center of trying to write the hard thing. They are the essential obstacles in making the fiction I came here to make instead of clocking in and lathing out a bunch of words to satisfy something or someone else. I don’t want to produce that which has been assigned to me by industry, necessity, or convention. I hate obeying. But am I achieving anything in my disobedience? For that matter, is achievement even the point?
When yet another publishing industry blog post comes out sounding like the vehement Alec Baldwin scene from Glengarry Glen Ross, I feel repulsed. I don’t want to spend time creating a fucking audience platform. Being an artist is not about “closing.” Just doing the actual writing takes up all my energy. I don’t want to frame pieces of my fiction as marketable units. I want to sit in a moonbeam and make something that arises from my own unique imperatives and disposition. I want the serendipity of inspiration. I live for it. And I resist the overtures of commercialism dedicated to consumption and to bullying artists into seeing themselves as part of a service industry.
Unfortunately, I also can’t avoid wanting the world to read my work and maybe give me some money so I can feed and clothe myself. It’s terrifying sometimes. Years ago, at an AWP conference, talking with a publisher after I put out Gravity, my first collection of stories, I felt like Nunez in “The Country of the Blind”—faced with the choice of getting what I loved if I voluntarily blinded myself or seeing clearly and climbing out of the hidden valley forever. In the end, I chose to keep my eyes.
“If you want to get a second book out using the momentum of your first,” he said, “you need to complete the manuscript in less than a year. More than that and people forget who you are. You won’t be able to position it. You’ll be starting over.” Six years later, my second book was done. And he was correct: from the marketing, word factory standpoint, I was starting over. From a creative-process standpoint, those six years were predicated on the six that came before. I wasn’t starting over. I was writing something hard that had emerged from my ongoing creative process, something I couldn’t have written in under a year.
Finishing writing in one’s own time instead of in service to the word factory is difficult. Discovering one’s limitations as an artist and then transcending them is very difficult. Putting in the years is difficult. Doing this up to and beyond age 30 is not only difficult but scary. Nevertheless, all can be accomplished if one is willing to believe in something greater than the word count. One says, it’s all part of my creative process and tries to calm down. One decides not to read (or write) certain self-aggrandising Facebook posts.
Of course, there might not be a bigger process. Maybe there is only Random House, Amazon, AWP conference ugliness, building a platform, positioning and branding, and Best American Monotony. Maybe. Maybe we exist in a world full of cynical anti-creative money-making ventures, cautious art, and nothing else. It’s always possible. The thought of it sometimes keeps me up at night, especially in those blocked periods of worrying and not writing.
It’s like reading about nuclear war or the earth dying from climate change: you have no agency, no option to mitigate the damage, soulless politicians are making horrible decisions, and there is only one way this can end. Apocalypse. Tragedy. No one at the wheel. Inhuman corporations controlling everything. And death, ignominious and unnoticed, unless you get with the program and start churning out formulaic units.
Capitalism wins. It usually does. But if there is a bigger process at work in your struggle to be an artist, it can’t have anything to do with metaphors of productivity on a factory timeline. That is a reality you must not accept.
How does a writer know what’s real? Is it moonbeam or production line? Is it both? Can it be both? Andy Warhol, Ernest Hemingway, and David Bowie say yes. For the rest of us, maybe not. For every Warhol, Hemingway, and Bowie, there are multitudes who weren’t lucky enough to have their unique artistry coincide with commercial demand.
Hugh Howey likes to write about Wool the way Elon Musk talks about launching a roadster into space: let me tell you about my unique genius and the origin of my success. But self-publishing fame and running a car company have one thing in common that never gets discussed: they exist because they are timely. So it is with any highly lucrative creative effort. And that intersection has to do with luck. Meanwhile, someone out there is no doubt making Peking opera, but they are unlikely to be buying villas on the Riviera anytime soon. Nobody cares. Their units don’t ship. And yet they also have the favor of the moon.
Writers are especially predisposed to misunderstand what is real—what is objective versus just a moonbeam. They spend a lot of time deliberately thinking in metaphors, some more useful than others. And if they’re not paying attention to their minds, they can mistake such metaphors for objective reality (which, incidentally, has nothing to do with capitalist realism). Over-absorption in a world of imaginative metaphors can become a source of anxiety when the non-make-believe world reaches out and reminds us that we can’t live totally in our imaginations. Make your Peking opera, sure, but also accept that the six years you put into it mean nothing in terms of branding and positioning.
A writer will see something and begin to imagine things about it—everyone does this, but writers seem to do it with particular intensity—and before long the writer starts to feel like he or she knows it or, even worse, is it. Then something from the world of physics and money communicates: no, you are not that. You can’t imagine yourself to fame and fortune if you’re doing original work. You might get lucky, yes, and I hope you (I hope I) do. But commerce and true creativity exist in different spaces.
So I look at my 25 open projects with a bit of trepidation as the days go by. I’m turning 46 this month. I’ve published a lot of stories in magazines and two books. These have been hard things. Are they enough? Will they ever be enough?
Don’t worry, I tell myself. There’s bigger process at work. There must be.
There are many different paths to greatness, not just the ones most commonly identified by conformist culture. As long as your basic needs are met, where you put your energy—how you pursue excellence—is completely your business. Realizing this can be difficult and gradual.
It seems true, even if we admit that discourses (value systems) will always compete with each other for dominance. And one of the most ruthless and rapacious, at least in the West, is that of “meritocracy.” A meritocracy is inherently based on an assumed set of cultural values. But you need to realize that you are free to opt out of those assumed values. What the masses consider to be good doesn’t have to define your life.
If you don’t accept meritocratic cultural values, merit-based judgments by those who do are irrelevant. In other words, it is a mistake to impose the rules of a game on someone who refuses to play; though, because discourses will compete with each other, people will usually try to impose their personal values-discourse on you. Often, they will do so because they’re not aware of alternatives. They may not even remember the moment they chose to buy in. And they may not understand that imposing values on someone else is an act of violence.
Remove the question of merit (and its various implications) and the locus of meaning in life shifts (possibly returns) from an external authority to the individual. One arrives squarely within Viktor Frankl’s “Will to Meaning“—not seeking meaning / value relative to others, but exploring what is already resonant / resident in the self. “Thy Will be Done” becomes “My Will be Done,” with all the freedoms and responsibilities arising from that shift.
It makes no difference if your private world is idiosyncratic to the point at which it would seem very strange to more common sensibilities. As long as you’re not behaving like a hypocrite by harming or otherwise curtailing the autonomy of others, your interiority (including the way you choose to perceive the world outside your self) is completely yours. And it doesn’t seem outrageous to conclude that this is how it should be. If you don’t own your thoughts, can you ever own anything else? In fact, it seems that the more you personalize your unique way of seeing and acting in the world, the stronger and more persuasive that uniqueness becomes.
Because discourse is grounded in conflict and competition, this self-originating, self-describing narrative you are spinning can have a destabilizing effect on others, who may accuse you of being a delusional, a dreamer, someone out of touch with (what the dominant culture considers) reality. But if it works for you, isn’t it the right thing? Isn’t that choosing inner freedom instead of pledging fealty to ideas and to a lifestyle that was designed (or emerged) without you particularly in mind?
Walking away from a meritocracy takes a lot of courage and effort. Because you are a social being, it can involve a certain amount of suffering, alienation, and lonesomeness. You risk being called a deviant, being labeled as a disaffected undesirable. Even if you don’t agree with those judgments, they will still hurt. Hopefully, your growing curiosity about your own sui generis greatness and freedom will mitigate that pain.
You might call this the “inward path,” the “artist’s way,” or “the path beyond the campfire” which leads into dark unmapped places, where all new things wait to be discovered.