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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.

 

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.

A short story in B-flat minor.

To wake to the sound of dragonfly wings is a rare pleasure usually enjoyed only by dragonflies.  The insects were moving in.  Great powdery moths like slivers of cake stuck upside down on the lights.  Caravans of black ants.  A cricket under the dresser.  Creamy brown roaches dazed on the carpet, crawling slowly toward the wall.  I saw a millipede slither down the bathtub drain, its legs as thin as hairs.  The humidity had come and, with it, all manner of flyers and crawlers, web-spinners, egg-layers.  I expected nothing less; the house had been built in the middle of an old riverbed at the bottom of a canyon.

Eventually, it would rain.  A tide of thick, greasy mud would swallow the front steps and climb a few feet up the sides of the house, leaving curlicue hieroglyphics flaked over the chipped white slats when it dried.  With every rain, the hieroglyphs changed.  If only I could have read them, I might have finally learned something.  But I didn’t know a thing.

Thankfully, dragonflies do not change like the weather.  Waking to the sound of one perched by my head was a sudden moment of grace.  I watched it fly to the ceiling and land upside down as my Swedish girlfriend, Elli, blew into the living room.

“I told you not to open the fucking screens,” she said.

“Hi.”

She looked at me and dropped her purse on the carpet.  “How do we live like this?  We don’t.  That’s how.”  She began to blast the corners of the room with the palm-sized can of bug-spray she took with her everywhere, guaranteed to kill anything smaller than a mouse.

“Hard day at the office?”

She didn’t dignify that with a response, leaving me there on the couch under a cloud of pesticide while all the lesser carnivera rolled on their backs in agony. 

I looked up, but the dragonfly had disappeared.

When she finished purifying the room, Elli did what she did every day when she got home from work.  After long hours having sex in front of a webcam for money, she had to scrub every inch of herself under smoking hot water.  She’d emerge from the bathroom with a vehement look on her face, her fair skin poached red and steaming, the burgundy streaks in her swept-up black hair like dim veins of fire in an ash cloud.

The emeralds of the world take flight and, with them, horseflies, fruit beetles, the slow flap of a pigeon’s wings, jeweled eyes with legs hanging down in the buzz of the early evening.  I went outside, stood in front of the house, and looked across the canyon at a cloud of pale gnats churning over a burned-out car wreck so old it had no color beyond its rust—a sedan someone crashed years ago and left to cook on the canyon floor—and I wondered what died in it this time.

Having cleaned herself, Elli sat in the front window in her white bathrobe.  She lit up and blew smoke at the back of my head through the screen.  “Talk to me,” she said.  “I hate it when you don’t talk to me.”

“In the Mississippi Delta, a dragonfly in the house is good luck.  We had one today.  I hope you didn’t kill it.”

“You’ve never been there.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “It’s a hoodoo thing I read about.”

“Hoodoo?  You don’t know fucking hoodoo.  This is Oregon.”

I nodded, looked at the sky, and thought, once again, about leaving.

Above the thorn bushes and poisoned fir trees, above the cracked stones at the canyon’s lip like bad broken teeth that should never be seen, pigeons and ravens fought over the air.  Behind them, gray sky and nothing but.  There’s no outside world when you’re living at the bottom of a canyon in a house from 1910, quarter-sunk in the mud of an old riverbed.

A friend of mine once wrote a haiku and gave it to me as a going-away present:

Murmuring traffic’s so far from the sea,

Still, you go farther, friend.

I thought of that poem and of the sea—not here near the Oregon coast, but in the southern California of my childhood—deserted Huntington Beach on a workday, yellow-white sand combed smooth by the wind, not a footprint, just the folding and refolding of the surf, the water’s blue-green shimmer, a seagull hanging still on the air like a kite.  I was 11 or 12.  If I left now, that’s where I’d want to go—to that time, not just that place. 

But the beach had changed.  California had changed.  My family, dead.  My fortune, lost.  Years, wasted.  The moment I left Elli, I’d be a genuine bum—no place of residence, no legal tender.  I had no job, no bank account to speak of, a suitcase full of clothes, and a $15,000 violin made by Sebastian Klotz of Mittenwald in 1743.

I played it for 5 hours a day—for free.  I played to the canyon and to the wrecked car and the gnats.  I played for the patronage of dragonflies and the largesse of cockroaches.  The broken rocks looked down from the balcony and the poisoned firs in the third row suffered a little bit less, I imagined, with LeClair in the air, a little curative Handel, Mozart after a rain.  Actually, the Klotz wasn’t worth a cent because I would never sell it.  So come, dear gnats, a little later, and we’ll have a nice Passacaglia in G-minor for your digestion.

Elli walked up next to me and squinted at the old wreck.  She’d put on a pair of cargo shorts and one of her tight T-shirts that had sassy, hep expressions across the tits.  This one said, ROCKSTAR, with a big gold star underneath.

“You going to come inside or stand here all night?”  She lit another cigarette off the remains of the previous one.  She smoked long, thin cigarettes and never packed the tobacco down.  A few unruly strands would sometimes stick out the tip.  I hated watching her light a cigarette when it was like that, seeing the strands of tobacco turn orange and curl.  I imagined them screaming in pain.

“You smoke like an old man in the park.”

“You think you’re funny,” she smirked, “but you’re not.  Come inside.”

Elli was only half-right.  I wasn’t funny.  But I knew I wasn’t.

The night unfolded the way it wanted to unfold, with Elli as the sexy, affected, Swedish center of the universe, and me as a half-bystander who knows he is not funny.

We played our game of cutthroat Monopoly, in which she insisted, as always, that I double-mortgage every one of my properties.  When I couldn’t make the rents, she offered me a one-time loan at 500% interest—and laughed.  When my hand accidentally brushed hers, she recoiled.  Tonight there would be no touching.  I was unclean.  Do not pass GO.  Advance token to nearest utility, but do not touch the owner thereof.

Later, I went outside and played to the rocks in the heat of our portable floodlight.  It immediately brought out the music lovers among the local moths and gnats, an  occasional cultured mosquito. 

Elli fell asleep in bed over her 2000-page fantasy novel, in which dragons with psychic powers take on human shape to save the world.  I came in and sat at the kitchen table in the dark.  Having opened every window screen, I felt things fly past my face, a sudden brush against the skin of my neck, the back of my hand.  I stayed there, drinking beer until I fell asleep with my forehead on my arms.  Sometime in the night, a coyote howled and I wished him well, one musician to another.  But it might have been a dream.

Elli was gone before I woke up—gone to have sex with another woman in front of a webcam for the gratification of adolescents all across the internet.  My friend Moe came by.  We smoked a very large joint, and I listened to him bitch about his English comp. students, but I knew he came around just to catch a glimpse of Elli.  Too late, Moe.

“I’m like, hello,this is not rocket science, you know?  Fucking junior college students, man, all they want to do is smoke out and get laid.”  Moe, with baseball cap on backwards, T-shirt, and beer belly, looked like the frat brother with the one-syllable nickname in all the college party movies.

“I should go back to school.”  I held in the smoke.

“All my students work at Taco Bell.  All of them.  You want one of these kids making your tacos?  That’s some crazy shit, man.  They can’t even set their margins right.  Too STONED.”

The trouble with Moe was that he had two masters degrees, a 3-page vita of academic honors and publications, and enough drugs in his body at any given moment to make him sublime—a pharmaceutical bodhisattva.  I couldn’t do anything for him.  I didn’t know what to say. 

All that enlightenment couldn’t keep him from falling in love with Elli.  And so the basis of our friendship had shifted from “we’re-two-losers” to “we’re-two-losers-but-you-don’t-appreciate-your-girlfriend-like-I-would-if-only-I-could-figure-out-how-to-let-her-know.”  When Moe wasn’t around, she referred to him as “den smutsiga svin,” the dirty swine.  When he was around, she didn’t refer to him at all.

“You know what we need?  We need a road trip.  When was the last time you took a road trip?”

“I think I was 19.”

“Exactly.  Why don’t grownups take road trips anymore?”

“Maybe they do.  I don’t know what grownups do.”  I smiled at Moe to calm him.  He was getting agitated, talking with his hands.

“You get married, right?  Your wife pumps out a kid or three.  You quit drinking and going to parties, lose all your friends, start clipping coupons.  It’s sad.  It sucks.  You get a fat ass.  You have to fight it.”

“Right.”  I picked up his tweezers and used it to hold the last smoldering bit of joint to my lips.

“Yeah, just the 3 of us, just get in the car some weekend, say fuck it, drive to Vegas.  What’s Vegas?  17 hours?  17 hours is child’s play.”

I nodded.  “Just the 3 of us.”

Moe stopped gesturing, his hands in his lap, palms up, like two pale crabs that had died at the bottom of a tank.  He looked down at them and blushed.

“You got any chips?”

“Let’s get a taco,” I said.

Parlance means a way of speaking, but nobody in Parlance, OR, seemed to talk much.  Locals drifted the main street like old reeds traveling vertically on the wind.  Fog in the mornings.  Overcast with drizzle in the afternoons.  Christmas lights on a combine harvester blinking a mile out every night.

Drive 28 miles east from The Dalles off the 84 and you hit Parlance.  Actually, you don’t hit it.  You miss it.  It’s too small to hit.  But, if you’re trying for it, if, for example, you’ve got good aim and a reason and a car that won’t get stuck in the mud, then you might succeed where so many lack the presence of mind to even fail: our town of Parlance.  It seemed more like the collection box at church than a town, a few sad-looking bills crumpled on green felt, a destination that, one feels, won’t do the bills or the box any good. 

Still, the town is there.  Somebody went ahead and put it on the map.  And, sitting in the Dixie Diner, contemplating the Russian sandwich I didn’t really want, I knew that Moe and I were two of those somebodys—two random fools supporting the local economy in cheap beer and Russian sandwiches, toilet paper, and sometimes a tank of gas.

Moe looked like he fit in, but he didn’t.  Once you got past his belly, his Harley T-shirt, the Orioles ball cap with the curve he’d put in the brim, all the drug talk, and the lewd comments about assorted women, you started to see the edges of his personality.  You started to see that all this stuff was only a smokescreen he threw up so people wouldn’t realize how angry he was with just about everything. 

He should have been sitting in the faculty lounge at NYU in a half-buttoned Brooks Brothers with a world-weary expression on his face, listening to some over-privileged student pitch a line of bullshit.  I should have been back in southern California, 10 years old in my uncle’s little pink stucco house with a tree outside my window and the Klotz singing in my hands.  But I didn’t have the Klotz back then. 

Moe was saying something about how happy he was that we forewent Taco Bell this time so he didn’t have to see his students, and I was nodding, but I was thinking about how life could have turned out differently if I’d owned the Klotz when I was young.  Would I have been sitting in the Dixie Diner?  Would I have ever polluted myself with a Russian sandwich? 

Moe said something inconsequential, yet another thing.  I looked at the watery depth of his eyes, at his own inner-self—which was also far away, thinking about something else—and tried to forgive him for all his anger and horniness and desperation. I thought about Elli, wondered if she was home yet, killing insects and scalding herself back to goodness, then picked up the Russian sandwich and examined it from various angles.

The question, posed: how does one live at the bottom of a canyon in Oregon?

The answer: an access road.

It wound down the side of the canyon and had enough boulders in it to support Elli’s Jeep even after a rain.  The trouble was that after a rain—like the one that had just swooped down two hours ago, disappearing as suddenly as it came—thick, greasy mud formed instantly.  Elli had to drive slowly.  There was no other way.  Her Jeep had to creep down the rocky slope like the water beetle currently vacationing in our sink.  Maybe that was what frustrated her so much: she had to drive like an insect.

“Ha-ha,” I said to the large white cat that had come to clean its fur while I tuned up for the day’s practice.  It wore a sky-blue collar that had a metal tag underneath shaped like a heart.  The cat scratched itself and the heart jingled.

“Don’t you see the irony?” I asked no one in particular—maybe the air or the cat.  I decided either the whole insect-killer-becoming-an-insect-metamorphosis-thing was lost on the cat or it had no sense of the absurd.  It looked up at me and blinked, then went back to its grooming.  It kept itself pure white while everything else, including my shoes and the cuffs of my jeans, was covered in dark mud.  How did it accomplish this?  Practice, I thought.

I drew out the opening to Spohr’s Duo Concertante in D-major as a warm-up, violating the phrasing but enjoying it.  I’d learned both parts; though, the prospects of getting a second violinist down through the mud were no doubt very slim. Elli drove too far to her left and the left rear wheel of the Jeep spun, fanning ropes of mud into the air.  The cat looked at her, then at me, and blinked.  Elli needed more practice.

I nodded: “My thoughts exactly.”

The cat and I had an understanding.  If it had had opposable thumbs, I’d have taught it the violin.

It took Elli a shower and a comprehensive house-purification before she was ready to speak in non-cusswords.  Later, I sat on the couch and smirked as she strafed the corners of the room and stomped whatever tried to reach the cover of the hassock or the old floor-heater. There was something enticing about motherfucker said in a Swedish accent that I couldn’t explain.  Occassionally, she’d shoot me a dark look.

“I saw the swine at the market and had to talk to him.  It pissed me off.”

The white cat stopped in front of the screen door and stared in at us with a wary look on its face.  Elli had scared it earlier when she’d gotten out of the Jeep, cursing, half-covered in mud, and tried to give it a kick.

“There’s something wrong with him,” she said.  “I don’t know—he’s weird or something.  I hate him.”

“Let’s not talk about him, okay?  He is who he is.”  If there were a composer named Scales, he would have been the most famous musician who ever lived.  “Know who wrote this piece?”

“You’re playing a scale, you idiot.”

“Ha ha ha, I make joke,” I said, letting B-flat-minor roll up two octaves and back down, playing legato, making sure each note caressed the one after it like perfect little cushions all in a row.

“But can you say what do you get being friends with him?”

I looked over at her.  “What does anybody get?  What could anybody ever get?  What do you get hanging out with me?”

Elli raised an eyebrow, looked away.  “That’s a good question.  Somebody asked me that a few days ago and I didn’t know what to tell him.”

“Is this where I get sad and withdrawn?”  I felt myself smile and I turned my attention to the scale.

“I’m moving out if you don’t get a job.”

“You say that every week.”

“You have to be a man.  I mean it.”

I shrugged and stood up, still working B-flat-minor.  “It’s your house.”

She did mean it.  But the thing that kept me from getting a job was the same thing that kept her from leaving.  It was a thing, an invisible force, a blanket of inertia.  It wasn’t the house.

“You’re the worst part of my life,” she said.

“Worse than your job?”

“Fuck you, asshole.”

I opened the screen door with my foot, having transitioned to D-major.  The white cat gave me room, blinked, looked away.

I went for days without seeing another dragonfly.

Writers on the pain of hindsight in publishing: 'It's like a bad breakup – you have to move on ...

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.

Welcome . . .

I write fiction and nonfiction for magazines, work as a freelance writer / editor / journalist, and teach composition and fiction writing.

This blog is mostly dedicated to writing about politics and media, travel essays, creative non-fiction, discussions about books, the MFA experience, publishing, and work I’ve already placed in magazines. But I might write anything.

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“To educate is to seek meaning in everything. It is to teach others to seek the meaning of things. This means mixing the dreams of children and young people with the experience of adults and the elderly. This exchange must always take place, or else there can be no humanity because there would be no roots, no history, no promise, no growth, and no prophecy.”

— Pope Francis, 5 June 20

“I write it myself, edit it myself, censor it myself, publish it myself, distribute it myself, and spend time in prison for it myself.”

— Vladimir Bukovsky

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“If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery—isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.”

― Charles Bukowski, Factotum

“La lecture est un acte d’identification, les sentiments exprimés sont déjà en nous. Autrement, le livre nous tombe des mains.”

— Madeleine Chapsal

“Time is said to be irreversible. And this is true enough in the sense that ‘you can’t bring back the past’. But what exactly is this ‘past’? Is it what has passed? And what does ‘passed’ mean for a person when for each of us the past is the bearer of all that is constant in the reality of the present, of each current moment? In a certain sense the past is far more real, or at any rate more stable, more resilient than the present. The present slips and vanishes like sand between the fingers, acquiring material weight only in its recollection. King Solomon’s ring bore the inscription, ‘All will pass’; by contrast, I want to draw attention to how time in its moral implication is in fact turned back. Time can vanish without trace in our material world for it is a subjective, spiritual category. The time we have lived settles in our soul as an experience placed within time.”

— Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time