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.