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.
Write seriously for any length of time and you learn that it’s a lonely business. Whether you’re writing essays, stories, poems, scripts, or novels, it’s just you and the page every day with no guarantee that your enormous investment of time, emotion, and energy is ever going to reach a satisfying conclusion. As Charles Bukowski wrote, you’re “betting on the muse.” And the muse is a cruel mistress.
Even if she’s the love of your life, sometimes you find yourself wishing the two of you had never met. Maybe, you think, if I hadn’t gotten addicted to writing, I might have made real progress in a day job. I might even have reached a point where I could have moved out of my tiny apartment, started paying off my student loans, and bought a car less than 30 years old, a respectable adult at last.
Instead, I chose to take all that energy and put it into words. When I’m lucky, when the muse deals me a good hand and I play it for all it’s worth, the words seem like they’ll never stop. There’s no better feeling than that. But no one can be lucky all the time. And sometimes you just go bust.
It doesn’t matter whether writing is a hobby or the way you keep the lights on. All writers have to face the same ups and downs, the same uncertainties, the same droughts, the same bad runs, the same unforgiving emptiness of a blank page with the muse nowhere to be found. Even the most talented among us can feel like imposters when we bet it all on one hand, fold, and leave the table with nothing but pocket lint and remorse.
But now we’re in a new abnormal. There’s a virus and civil unrest in the streets. Everything’s shuttered or broken. And our homes have become sci-fi biodomes where we drift through the day in a weird online approximation of the lives we used to lead. Lockdowns do that. Pandemics can change everything, even our writing habits.
Attending a poetry reading or just walking through a bookstore can feel like playing chess with the reaper. Surgical gear is the new black. And we can’t waste time in a coffee shop anymore, glowering at a blank screen over a latte with enough sugar to induce an intracranial coma in an elephant. That was the old world, old rules, old normal. Now everyone’s socially distanced and weird. Now everyone’s living like a writer.
We wait for life to reacquire some semblance of normalcy. We grieve for those who’ve died and want to safeguard the lives of those who haven’t. We keep in mind that all life is precious and that we’re in this together. And we hope that those who are now unemployed or alone or going into debt because of COVID-19 can find a way forward. We hope this for ourselves, too.
Yet, as with any pandemic, riot, or plague, there are darkly amusing dimensions. As a friend of mine put it recently, “This can’t go on for much longer. It’s just too stupid.” I had to agree. It is. Then again, he’s not used to betting on the muse, to leading a solitary hidden life with no assurance that the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t just an oncoming train. Writers are especially poised to continue work through a pandemic.
State Dependency Writing Works in a Lockdown
Ever wonder why you can’t seem to get into a good flow state without your bagel and cup of coffee? Why the little rituals and routines of settling down to write seem so essential? When you look at them rationally, they’re really nothing—small mundane comforts, little observances in your personal space, that pink bathrobe with the embroidered toucan on the back you only wear when you write.
Was it grandma’s? Did you get it at a yard sale in 1993? Or was it always waiting for you up there in the attic, waiting to become the key element that helped you finish your first novel manuscript? You don’t want to think about it. It’s your magic writing bathrobe. If you look at it too closely, the magic might go away.
I understand. I’m not here to gainsay your magic. But I will suggest that memory and brain chemistry are part of it. And this is why it still works when the rest of the world is stuck at home, day drinking and fantasizing about haircuts. Therapist and licensed counselor, David Joel Miller, calls it “environmental context-dependent memory” or “situational memory.” And it’s probably why I’ll be acknowledging Krispy Kreme when my third story collection gets taken.
Miller explains it as “an ability to remember information in one situation that you are unable to remember in another.” It’s closely related to state-dependent memory, which has more to do with internal chemistry than with location. Generally, we can say that both types of “state dependency” are invoked by our little magical writing habits.
Are We Talking About Trance States?
Yes and no. If “trance” is defined broadly as an altered mental state, then yes. We go into trances all the time—driving our kids to school, washing the dishes, binging five seasons of a show we can barely remember a few days later. When we do anything familiar enough that it becomes rote, we’re probably doing it in a light trance state.
This is not inducing a David Lynchian out-of-body dissociative episode where we have a conversation with a dead prophet on top of an Aztec pyramid and realize the existential meaning of our lives. We’re awake. We’re functional. We’re just in the flow state that Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, the founder of Positive Psychology, describes as a period of total absorption.
He calls flow “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” That sounds like my compulsive writing habit, my ongoing love affair with the muse. I also know that, when she deals me a bum hand, flow is impossible.
So just as a gambler will blow on the dice, keep a lucky talisman in a vest pocket, or say a quick prayer to Our Lady of the Full House, we fire up a triple espresso and get a chocolate iced glazed donut. We creep up to the attic and put on our toucan bathrobe. Because these invoke our situational memory of having written, of being in that enjoyable flow state.
Speaking of the Devil
Legendary writer and Iowa Writers Workshop professor, Madison Smartt Bell, recommends everything from post-hypnotic suggestion to binaural beats. In a 2011 New Yorker interview about his novel, The Color of Night, he notes that “Normally most writers don’t say, ‘I’m going into a mild hypnotic trance.’ Typically they don’t know how they do it. . . . Most people, when they have a good experience writing, they’re well placed in that state, which is also sometimes called a ‘flow state.’ If you don’t have trouble, you don’t have to think about it. But if for some reason you can’t get into that state, then you start to have writer’s block.”
Most of my pragmatic fiction writing teachers didn’t like to talk about writer’s block. Often, they denied its existence completely. I think it was because they were superstitious. Speak of the devil and he might appear. The most instruction I ever got along these lines was in the last year of my MFA, when the leader of our advanced fiction workshop said: “Your job as a writer is to go into a trance such that, when you come out of it, there are words on the page.”
So here we are in this afraid new locked down world with non-writers drinking wine in our attic and sad news on television. In times like this, writing is as essential as any form of art. And we’re the ones to do it.
We simply have to remember that even though the muse is fickle, even though sometimes we’ll hit a bad run, we can improve our odds by sticking to our rituals. When we can forget what’s going on in the outside world and enter flow, we won’t be writing in spite of the lockdown. We’ll just be writing. And that’s a wonderful place to be.
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.
Woke up this morning thinking about Sally Yates—how standing up to President Trump seems to have dramatically influenced the course of her life, how I’ve watched part of her emotional transformation through social media, specifically Twitter, and how her public narrative seems to reveal and confirm things I’ve suspected about the nature of personal meaning and career.
She seems to be undergoing a kind of emotional rebirth. As someone who works primarily in the emotional mind—emotional intelligence being the primary resource for teaching and doing creative writing—I have learned to recognize when someone is emerging into a deeper, more meaningful emotional life. She certainly is, even if only by a slight degree.
Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning consistently seems to prove out: it doesn’t matter what we do or where we are as long as we can find or create meaning for ourselves. And so I return to the question of my own career, my own meaning. When I think back to the teaching I have done, I’m faced with the choice of believing that most of my professional life has been meaningful vs. meaningless. Obviously, I prefer to think my work has made some kind of difference.
It’s hard to believe in things I cannot see, but I have to nurture a certain degree of faith in the teaching and writing I’ve done. Sally Yates, someone who has lived primarily in the analytical mind, is now at the beginning of something new—one hopes, something emotionally significant and transformative. To see someone publicly come into being like this is to bear witness to a largely unnoticed dimension of human experience. It’s something that sincere teachers get to see more often than any other profession.
But my personal question remains: how am I coming into being? Just as someone with Yates’ background and skill set might step into a more intuitive life (by running for public office instead of remaining in the legal-bureaucratic infrastructure), I bear the responsibility for my own development. Where am I going now? What’s next? The future is never fixed, never certain.
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.
Today, there was flooding in London. I was supposed to be there. But because I have no cartilage in my knees, I often wake up in agony on barometrically improvident days. Dark days of lying on the bed, focusing on my breathing. Days in which it’s hard to think, much less write. Days of codeine and jasmine tea and misanthropy. Walking from room to room is difficult and leaving the house is out of the question when I’m feeling like this and Port Meadow is up to 22C with 95% humidity.
Strangely, this never happened when I was living in Bangkok, one of the hottest, most humid places on the planet. Only here in the UK will the muscles in my legs tighten overnight, pulling the bones of my knees into each other, slowly, like a form of medieval torture. As with most manifestations of extreme pain, the experience transcends words. Maybe if I brushed up on my German, I could describe it. German seems like a good language for articulating suffering. At my current level of fluency, I can only say things about rain: schließlich, regnet es auf der Wiese. Or something like that. Maybe that’s all I need.
This condition has been going on regularly since 2003 when an orthopedic specialist gave me the option of surgery (resulting in no more pain but having to walk with a cane for the rest of my life) or occasional pain and my normal range of functionality on all the other days. I chose the second option, of course, which I still think was right. But goddamn, son, it hurts.
It’s a shame she won’t live – but then again, who does?
So it’s late afternoon. I’ve been trying to get meaningful writing done all day and a personal blog post is as good as it’s going to get. Lots of painkillers, tea, and sheer meanness seem to have worked such that I can at least get these words down. Lord knows I can’t allow a day to pass without producing some kind of manifesto, story, novel segment, editorial, white paper, or media rant. But, sitting here in my bathrobe, feeling like I’ve been put to the question by the town fathers for leading a black mass in the woods, I’m close to just dosing up, crawling back into bed, and moaning myself to sleep.
Nevertheless, I’ve been thinking. I know. Bad idea in my current state of mind. Still, I keep seeing the image of Deckard and Rachael making out in Deckard’s apartment, which admits of no rational explanation other than I associate rain, flooding, and climate change with the Blade Runner aesthetic. Blame PD James and Alfonso Cuarón for linking those together in my head via Children of Men.
Anyway, Blade Runner‘s about halfway over and Rachael’s been sitting at Deckard’s piano, talking about her dreams. And we feel bad for her because even though she’s sensitive and beautiful, we suspect she’s just some high-end Real Girl noir sexbot insinuated into Deckard’s life to distract him from the real nefarious shit that is likely going down over at the Tyrell Corporation. And every time I watch the movie, I read the moment they kiss in a different way.
Sometimes, I read it as Deckard giving in to the illusion. He knows she’s a replicant and doesn’t really care at that point because they’re both lost souls in a world where the distinction between natural and artificial has ceased to have any meaning—so forget about the fact that you’re lost and come over here.
Sometimes, I read it as Rachael giving in to the illusion that what she’s feeling for him is more than just an algorithm written into her synthetic gray matter by proto-Elon Musk Eldon Tyrell. Giving in because she wants to and maybe wanting is enough or everything.
And yes, if we look at that scene after reading Through a Scanner Darkly, we will have an emotional meltdown because Philip K. Dick was no fool and he understood something when he wrote:
But the actual touch of her lingered, inside his heart. That remained. In all the years of his life ahead, the long years without her, with never seeing her or hearing from her or knowing anything about her, if she was alive or happy or dead or what, that touch stayed locked within him, sealed in himself, and never went away.
So I do this. I think of this. And I listen to “Wish You Were Here” sipping my tea and breathing through the pain while I look at the meadow. And that last stanza, “We’re just two lost souls/ Swimming in a fishbowl/ Year after year/ Running over the same old ground/ And how we found/ The same old fears” means a lot to me; though, I have never felt more alien in this world.
The Voight-Kampff Empathy Test
Sometime back in 1993, William Gibson is supposed to have said, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed,” which is a saying that seems wise, then obvious, then wise again the more you think about it. But 23 years of hindsight later, the obvious part seems far more dominant than whatever might have proven insightful. It’s 2016. Has the sheer science-fiction-horror-dread of this moment in time caught up to us from the back end of the 20th century yet? The future is not evenly distributed, at least the good parts where someone like me can get bionic knees. In 1982, Blade Runner gave the world a vision of rebirth after decay instead of the unadulterated Kali Yuga we’re entering now.
Ridley Scott wanted to show us how replicants just want to be loved and how those replicants are really us. Instead, we’re seeing how we’ve failed to evolve beyond the dystopian Reagan-era cyberpunk automatons we fantasized about in the 1980s. We never got past Terminator. Now, all we can say, with any degree of sincerity, is: blame the drugs. But not the ones people were on in the eighties when they handed us the trickle-down theory. Blame the nasty synthetic street drugs that made the best story of the last two decades have to be about a high school chemistry teacher dying of cancer who starts cooking meth to pay his bills. Yeah. Debt. Meth. Drones. Endless war. Doesn’t it add up? Time for your meds.
All our dreams of machine salvation, online utopia, and some vague transhumanist singularity depending on an equally flimsy brain-as-hard drive metaphor became loud, stupid, self-important Neo from the Matrix—our savior, here to make us feel better about being consumers and take away our pain. The fridge logic singularity of Matrix Revolutions was merely the last cynical whimper.
But I’m in a bad mood today. Don’t listen to me. Now we have Trump and Hilary. Now the sweaty holographic fetish reel of decadent and naïve Reagan-era consumerism obviously didn’t work, but we’ve taken too much fluoxetine hydrochloride to care. It was never going to work. It wasn’t built to work. And it was always going to be ugly beyond words.
“And, for an instant, she stared directly into those soft blue eyes and knew, with an instinctive mammalian certainty, that the exceedingly rich were no longer even remotely human.”
I’ve written three books of fiction to date, all story collections; though, only one of them has been published.* This is not remarkable or typical in any sense, even if I do have the stereotypical writer’s voice in my head telling me that I should be submitting to more book contests, etc. My submission schedule results in about 2-3 stories placed in magazines every year, a process I actually enjoy, and I have no plans to stop doing that. Still, I sometimes wonder whether the world needs another immature literary magazine, another lousy e-book marketing campaign (what Chuck Wendig calls the “shit volcano”), or another mediocre career-building novel entering the flotsam. What does the world need?
Books are not the only way to be published, even if they are the fiction writer’s holy grail—specifically novels, ideally lots of novels—because they sell and therefore build careers. Or, as an industry professional once said to me at an AWP conference, “You need to write at least a novel a year for the next five years if you want to be a contender.” He was an important person in the publishing world, had a red nose, a cigar in his lapel pocket, and I was completely intimidated by him at the time. So I nodded as if I understood. But I didn’t and should have asked, “A contender for what, exactly?”
Publishing only feels like boxing. In reality, it’s business, the alchemy of transforming things into money. When business and art collide, a volatile chain reaction usually takes place resulting in all sorts of monstrous transmogrifications, creeping morbidity, and a certain amount of screaming. Put simply, how many writers have you heard of who built a career out of publishing a book a year? I can think of maybe one or two and none writing outside strictly defined genres.
The only literary writer who may produce full-length books with that kind of regularity is Joyce Carol Oates, someone as great as she is prolific but who is entirely unique. So “a book a year” might not be the best advice if you’re in this to make art. If you’re in it to make money, why aren’t you running a brothel, flipping houses, developing apps, or managing a hedge fund? You can probably make an app a year. Brothels, I don’t know, but I imagine their schedules are a bit more eventful.
Every writer asks a version of this question, sometimes on a regular basis: should I be writing harder, faster, longer, mo betta? Should I be soaking down the meadow like a frustrated stallion on horse viagra? How much is too much and why is it that by asking this question I feel soiled? Of course, as with most questions writers ask themselves, there are no answers. There are only opinions and that vague soiled feeling. To be honest, there is only subjectivity in this context.
So how much? Stop asking. Stop thinking about it. Just write. And if you want to be a “contender,” find a different metric against which to measure your progress.
* 2021 update: 3 published, 2 more currently seeking a home.