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.
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.
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 was something evil in the glow of the room’s blue lights. I felt the weight of the man on top of me. He could no longer move. His eyes were closed. I stared long into his face. I realized that I wanted him. I wanted the passion he had until a moment ago. I wanted his shoulders, which were quite muscular for his age, and his naturally tan face. I got out from under his body, sat in a chair, and lit a cigarette. I had to wait like this until he fell into a deep sleep.
It was raining outside.
— The Kingdom, Fuminori Nakamura (trans. Kalau Almony)
Looking at photos of relatives from the early 20th century, I’m struck by how incredibly normal they look, how I could walk down any street and see the same faces. Such an insight comes easily since I live near the locus of my ancestral lines, but I think it’s a realization one could have anywhere. Stare into the faces of passers by and you will see many physical and psychological reflections of yourself, as if the genetic mirror were shattered, replicating the same fate, the same consequences, the same inner struggles across continents and generations.
Someone once said that all wars are the same war, that all short stories are just one long story, and that all people—no matter how diverse or alien they may seem on the surface—are actually one life and one humanity engaged in one struggle playing out simultaneously in every heart and mind. Being a gifted dancer, Michael Jackson once put it like this: “Consciousness expresses itself through creation. This world we live in is the dance of the Creator. Dancers come and go in the twinkling of an eye but the dance lives on.”
This is the 2000-year-old concept of Nataraja, the image of Shiva as the cosmic dancer who dispels illusion and reveals a higher truth. As part of the dance of time and space, forms rise and fall—in the microcosm of the individual mind and in the macrocosm of all creation—but the dance itself, the maelstrom of change, remains constant as an expression of something else, something beyond the perception of transient things. The ancient sages and priests of the Madhya Pradesh and Kashmir regions first portrayed Shiva this way around 6 C.E. in temple statues and paintings, depicting a true, eternal, changeless Self that is simultaneously immanent in every person and transcendent in the ubiquitous I AM.
Ram Dass, in Polishing the Mirror, expresses this when he writes, “The only thing you really ever have to offer another person is your own state of being.” Or whatever you offer to others, you are also confirming and offering as part of yourself. This posits an equals sign between people, not an arrow, a plus, or a minus. Is there anything new under the sun? Ecclesiastes says no. Read enough literature and I think most people will be inclined to agree: we find meaning in another because that meaning resonates in ourselves. Yeats wrote that ultimately it is not possible to distinguish the dancer from the dance. Repair the shattered mirror, the broken and limited perception of others that sees them as irreparably isolated from us, and a higher octave of meaning is revealed. We are isolate. We are also one. And, in our ultimate oneness, “we” and “are” and “one” cease to have any meaning and the truth of existence becomes evident.
Pay attention to your ancestors, to their lives, to the things they did and said. See yourself in them as one being. Then see yourself in others, in everything. Look past the superficial trivia that limits your understanding and obscures the truth of the matter: assumptions about linear progress (originally post-Enlightenment / Victorian but now, with our current STEM fetishism, solidly reductive materialist and technocratic) depend on an unexamined and distracted mind. There is no new thing under the sun in any meaningful sense. The are only forms, rising and falling, being born and dying.
Start paying attention to this. Start asking, Who am I? Start asking, Who is it that asks, “Who am I?” Go deep, beyond the forms. You are not those things. Get to the point where you can perceive the dance always taking place, the energy of creation itself, which is expressed as movement, as change. This is also synonymous with the highest, emptiest, most profound form of awareness. That is what we are.
“After negating all of the above-mentioned as ‘not this’, ‘not this’, Awareness alone remains – that I am.” – Ramana Maharshi
As I have said many times and in manydifferentways, graduate study in literature and creative writing is not easy for anyone, even in the most favorable circumstances. There is an inner, emotional, psychological, processual effort that no one talks about and an outer, technical, rhetorical, production effort that everyone takes for granted. Both of these “efforts” are difficult. They must run concurrently and consistently for satisfactory completion of your program. And no one—not advisors or fellow
students—will have the wherewithal to set aside their own problems in order to help you with yours. You are alone. You are responsible for expressing a universe of ideas in your own voice. You will accept this or fail.
If you pay attention, you will soon come to realize that your path is more or less unique—that you’re following a largely self-determined trajectory through the work. It may be partly modeled on someone else’s (such as that of a mentor with a strong personality telling you what you should be reading, writing, and thinking), but ultimately you’re making your own intellectual path by walking it. This is one of the signature characteristics of higher study in the humanities. It may be a strength.
A large part of this blog is dedicated to exploring these things, to making the implicit explicit for the good of those who feel drawn to the discipline of English studies and / or creative writing. It’s clear that I’m critical here of what I often see as hypocrisy and self-serving prevarication in greater academia. But I also disagree with the Libertarian voices currently developing the Don’t Go to Graduate School in the Humanities genre of business-oriented success advice. I think, in spite of very practical arguments to the contrary, if you feel called to study, write, and teach, by all means do it. Just don’t do it ignorantly and learn how to survive afterward so that you can keep doing it. How this unfolds in your life will be a mystery specific to your becoming.
With this in mind, I expose my own values here, my own work, which continues the inner-outer efforts I mention above. The Writing Expedition represents part of my disciplinary “production effort,” dedicated to expressing insights on what I have experienced in this field. Moreover, I think “expressing” is the right word because it implies a dichotomy. In order to ex-press something (or “squeeze out” if we want to look at the origin of the word), there must be an interior area where it already exists. An inner world. Often, a hidden world that can make the dominant scientistic discourse of reductive materialism very nervous. Like it or not, the Academy is subject to the dominant political, economic, and aesthetic tropes and discourses of the day; though, academics often find this distasteful and prefer to ignore it.
The ivory tower covered in camouflage.
It is safe to say that the Academy is an ancient type of institution that has survived to the present by appearing to be what society needs it to be in any era. Study the history of higher education in the West and it is easy to notice that the great universities have not existed in spite of what they imagine to be the barbarism and ignorance of the profane, but as a mode of cultural expression, a conglomeration of beliefs and rituals, a matrix of ideas given a particular form in the material world. In other words, the Academy is an extension of culture. It offers a product that society wants and survives by making that product seem relevant. It has always been that way; though the outer wrapper of the product is redesigned again and again to reinforce existing narratives of power and faith. In the rare times it fails to do this: Kent State, May 4, 1970.
As Martin Petersen writes of CIA tradecraft standards (intelligence agencies being very similar to universities), “We have to establish our credibility and usefulness individual by individual, administration by administration. There is no down time when it comes to quality” (“What I Learned in 40 Years of Doing Intelligence Analysis for US Foreign Policymakers,” Studies in Intelligence, Vol. 55, No. 1). Without being too cynical, we could easily convince ourselves that establishing credibility and usefulness is one of the ongoing directives of the Academy: we want to matter.
Enter: John, who also wanted to matter.
When I was in graduate school, studying creative writing and rhetoric, John, a friend of mine there who happened to be a gifted poet, went through a kind of nervous breakdown. Since no one knows what a “nervous breakdown” actually is, we can call it that or we can say he went through a season of harsh depression, anxiety, purposelessness, and emotional pain. His wife described it as a “slow-motion train wreck” and they both tried to laugh about it. But it was real and the pain he went through changed his life.
Before you even think it, I should note that this person is not me. Things may have changed for John since then, but what hasn’t changed is the high-schoolish competitiveness in our colleagues that has lingered for a long time. Since many of them read this blog, I will only tell the part of his story that everyone already knows. And I will do it for a particular reason. Nevertheless, I hope he forgives me for this and understands what I am trying to say. Knowing him, I think he will.
It started with the birth of his daughter in our second year. John had come to the PhD from a high-paying career in industry, such that he didn’t have to take out student loans and could rent a fairly large house (as opposed to the holes most of us were living in). His wife didn’t work and they were living off their considerable savings. Still, the pressure was on, partly because John now had a child to think about, but also because had an immense work ethic and he was no fool. He knew, as did we all, that there were very few full-time teaching positions available and that trying to get one (even getting an interview at AWP or MLA) was like playing the Irishsweepstakes.
Nevertheless, John applied himself, wrote good poems, said smart things, and generally did well. He was older, married, and didn’t waste his time like the rest of us at the sad graduate school parties or looking for love in all the wrong places. He had a particular energy around him that said, I know the truth and, if I don’t know, I’m sure we can discover it together. In short, he seemed like the type who should win the career sweepstakes and become an assistant professor. There should be more people like John in teaching positions. When I think of what it takes to be a great graduate student, I think of him.
But he reached a breaking point, something in his “inner process” that no longer worked the way he thought it should. The reality of being a father had become far more real and compelling than the realities he was creating as a student of English and a poet. His hair turned stark white over the course of a month and he went through a kind of existential fugue, which according to him involved a lot of crying, regret, and hopelessness. Eventually, he dropped out of the program. He moved with his wife and daughter to Arizona to live with his in-laws. And two or three years later re-entered a PhD program at a different university, this time to study British modernism. As far as I know, he’s now a professor somewhere in the Midwest and I am sure he is great.
I tell his story here because although it had an ostensibly happy ending, his dark night of the soul is one that most of us experienced on some level at some time in our work. The difference may have been that he suffered from pressures we didn’t have, destroying the credibility and usefulness of the Academy for him. I believe this as much as I believe that he also lacked certain essential qualities necessary for running those inner and outer efforts concurrently and consistently, at least the first time around.
The voice in the fire: one hears it or one does not.
A teacher of mine once made an interesting observation about “mystery.” The more one seeks out the lacunae in one’s life—the numinous moments, the noetic leaps of high strangeness that result in extraordinary creations, realizations, and states of consciousness—the more mystery seems to increase, not decrease. Seek the mysteries and you will find there are more mysterious things in this world than you ever imagined. Or maybe you will find yourself imagining more such things as you learn to accept new ways of knowing.
Conversely, if you let existing modes of expression, accepted narratives, the exoteric rituals of consensus culture (especially those of the Academy) crowd your senses, ways of knowing will become narrower; meaning will become increasingly delimited and rigid; and the dominant cultural discourses (for us, scientism and reductive materialism) will come to seem all-encompassing. This is what I believe happened to John in his first PhD program. His outer effort was strong, but his inner work was obstructed by the anxiety of feeling responsible for his family. I do not fault him for this. However, I think his experience offers us an interesting lesson.
Recall that the “inner effort” is an emotional, psychological process. It therefore partakes of mystery because interiority cannot be completely mapped. This is where the muse, the creative genius, lives. This is where we dream, where we hear that voice speaking to us about who we truly are and how we must express ourselves. It is the place artists go when they produce authentic and original work.
Funny thing about the muse. She gives and she takes. Dedicate your life to a particular mode of expression and you must always try to hear her. Your sense of the numinous will increase exponentially, but you will also have to make sacrifices. As your outer effort must concern itself with “credibility and usefulness,” your inner effort must be like a love affair with the mystery inside you, which is what we’re talking about when we refer to the inner life of an artist.
The dullard finds even wine tasteless but the sorcerer can be intoxicated by the mere sight of water. Quality of perception defines the world of intoxication–but to sustain it & expand it to include others demands activity of a certain kind—sorcery. Sorcery breaks no law of nature because there is no Natural Law, only the spontaneity of natura naturans, the tao. Sorcery violates laws which seek to chain this flow—priests, kings, hierophants, mystics, scientists & shopkeepers all brand the sorcerer enemy for threatening the power of their charade, the tensile strength of their illusory web.
A poem can act as a spell & vice versa—but sorcery refuses to be a metaphor for mere literature–it insists that symbols must cause events as well as private epiphanies. It is not a critique but a re-making. It rejects all eschatology & metaphysics of removal, all bleary nostalgia & strident futurismo, in favor of a paroxysm or seizure of presence.
Incense & crystal, dagger & sword, wand, robes, rum, cigars, candles, herbs like dried dreams–the virgin boy staring into a bowl of ink—wine & ganja, meat, yantras & gestures—rituals of pleasure, the garden of houris & sakis—the sorcerer climbs these snakes & ladders to a moment which is fully saturated with its own color, where mountains are mountains & trees are trees, where the body becomes all time, the beloved all space.
We can just as easily speak of it in terms of embracing a wider spectrum of expression. Viktor Frankl puts it this way: “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible” (Man’s Search for Meaning).
What, then, is the voice in the fire? It’s not a degree from Yale, tenure, and a tactless sense of entitlement. It’s that unmappable, ineffable interior effort, that numinous guidance system which instructs and inspires us to continue our work. It sustains us through years of advanced study, reveals the mystery inherent in the world (even in something as outwardly mundane as the sight of water), and helps us answer for our lives. If we are responsible practitioners of our art, we will listen to this voice just as carefully as we may express our work-products. If we stop listening and forget the internal process, focusing only on the external product, we will enter the dark night of the soul, which entails a lot of suffering.
This is the meaning of that famous line from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” If this is the life you choose (realizing that you have been chosen to answer for your life this way), I continue to wish the best for you.