Category Archives: School of Life

On Knowing If You’re Any Good

Vintage circus photo sad clown antique photograph poster wall

 

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.

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Maybe being a success-bot isn’t the way after all?


Bangkok Power and Light

There comes a time in everyone’s life when a tactical regression is in order. Not the screaming hand-waving hysterics of those soon-to-be dinner for someone with sharper fangs, but a gentleman’s dignified reverse into the security of the kind and the known. Still, you can do nothing without electricity, especially if you live with me in the Imperial Sukhumvit Panopticon, where even breathing requires steady wattage.

I stepped out of the colonial bubble today at the On Nut sky train BTS station thinking about this and about the power disconnection notice I received three days ago. In truth, I thought I paid the bill. But apparently—between working 12 hour days, grinding out comments for 100+ research papers, and worrying about a panoply of things that stretch my angst around the globe such that I’m a true international stress case—I forgot.

So: screaming disconnection dismemberment and summary vivisection unless I pay 3,000 Thai Baht plus a 40 Baht service fee. And I’m like: Fine! What is that, $90 USD? Christ. I’ll pay the motherfucker. Just don’t turn off my juice, okay? Or something like that in a more polite, guest-in-this-country tone. But the Metropolitan Electricity Authority is not amused.

The Metropolitan Electricity Authority does not appreciate my lax attitude toward paying my farang electricity bills. In fact, the Metropolitan Electricity Authority thinks I’ve been running my a/c a bit much, even for a westerner. And so I must pay a fat chunk of Baht. Now. Through one orifice or another. Or they turn it all off and the party stops. See how I like the 90% humidity at 45º C then, eh? So, of course, I capitulate. I capitulate all the way down to On Nut with a gangster roll of 1,000 Baht notes in my pocket and -10 lbs. of water weight from involuntary dripping.

I look for the MEA office for 3 hours in the badly made Bata loafers that are slowly making my feet disintegrate. I receive 4 conflicting sets of directions. I spend 30 minutes feeling vomitous from polluted humidity in the food court of Tesco Lotus, where I am laughed at by 3 highly amused schoolgirls. My handkerchief is soaked.

By the time I find what might be the offices, the secretaries are streaming out of the building and the lights are off. I want to cry because this is how it is to be illiterate. (Aside: you know, I have a PhD. A real one. One that required a dissertation and a lot of high-level academic work. Someone I generally like asked me today if I’m actually qualified to teach research. What should I have said? No? This is where being a creative writer leads you, kids. Caveat scriptor.)

But, yes, illiterate.

I went home. The power was still on. My attempt to pay it as usual at 7/11 seemed successful yesterday. So maybe the MEA is willing to take my payment and look the other way for a change. I do love this country. I just don’t love being a stupid farang. Stay in school. Otherwise, your feet are going to hurt a lot more. Trust me on this.


In Whitehall Garden

Whitehall Garden

Whitehall Garden

When you work online, putting on normal clothing and actually leaving the house is important. This is why I work so often in cafes. Spend all day at home in your pajamas and you start to feel (and eventually act) like a guest of the state. Today the weather was nice. So I thought I’d go sit in Whitehall Garden and work on a scene that’s been bothering me for a week—change of venue, change of energy, etc.

Being by a river always helps me think. And on a good day, the various cultures of inner London can create a certain momentum as you pass through them, an electric crackle that you can use when you finally sit down and get to work. But the emotional energy in big cities also comes in waves, which can be problematic. Get enough people in the same space having a bad day, emoting at others who enter their perceptual range, and it’s going to spread like a black tide from neighborhood to neighborhood. I find this sort of thing is usually at its most repugnant in high tourist areas and throughout financial districts—places where miserable people naturally converge. Unfortunately, those are some of the best places to find writer-friendly cafes and public gardens.

So Whitehall Garden. On most days, it’s like a tiny, secluded paradise by the Thames. Quiet. Victorian fountains. Everyone keeps to themselves. There’s even an authentic Egyptian obelisk with sphinxes. And it doesn’t get much better than sphinxes on a weekday. When I got there, I felt ready to dig in and get some real work done. The gardens were as gorgeous as always. I had coffee, headphones, steno pad, and a wooden bench in the shade. Perfect, right? What could go wrong?

I was actually making progress on the scene when my bench lurched. To my right, on the connecting bench, a chubby bald man with a beard and 1950s bifocals sat next to his tiny over-tanned wife. They both wore identical cameras and flamingo-pink windbreakers and they were talking to an extremely thin woman with big sunglasses. Everything about the woman said money: cream leather jacket, white blouse, white pants, and leather riding boots that had never, in their existence, been used for riding. Her platinum blond was sprayed up in the anti-gravity bob that well-off middle aged women sometimes get to prove that they go to a salon. The blond woman was standing right in front of them, listing a little to the side, expressionless, mumbling. I took my headphones off, but I couldn’t make out what she was saying.

The man was repeating, “We don’t know. We don’t want any trouble.” And his tiny wrinkled wife was talking over him, calling the woman dear and saying it was going to be alright. It didn’t look like it was going to be alright. The three of them were still talking over each other a minute later when the blond woman lost her balance and fell forward into the man, who caught her in a stunned embrace. His wife stopped talking and blinked. The three of them froze that way for a moment. Whitehall park tableau. Then the blond woman pushed herself upright and they started apologizing to each other. Are you sure you’re alright? I’m terribly sorry. No, no, it’s fine, really. Then, as one, they looked at me. The man: embarrassed. His wife: bewildered with a little anger creeping into the corners of her frown. And the blond woman: expressionless again and, I could now see, higher than Keith Richards on the red eye to Tokyo.

I felt embarrassed for looking at their miniature drama. Then again, it was on the bench connected to mine, and this was the park. You can look in the park. It’s allowed, even encouraged. The blond woman came over and stood in front of me. “Have you seen my cell phone?”

I said I’d seen a phone sitting on a bench near the entrance when I came in.

She said, “Fantastic,” and drifted in that direction.

The bearded man, his wife, and I watched her go all the way down to the park gates, gliding between people with the grace that only comes to veteran drunks and pill-heads who know they must get home at all costs. Ghost ballet. I imagined her up in one of the elegant Second Empire hotels that front the Thames, standing at a window with a glass of scotch and a handful of Methaqualone, thinking, I’m going to go down and sit in Whitehall Garden. Or not even that. Maybe just: fuck him or nothing. Just pills and a long numb afternoon.

She came back and stood in front of me again: “Nothing, chap.” The first time in my life I’ve been called that. “But thanks anyway.”

I wished her good luck and she thanked me again before wandering off in the other direction. The bearded man and his wife stared at her, at me. Then the wife said, “If I was the one who found that phone and didn’t give it back, I’d be ashamed of myself.” She stared at me for a long moment until I looked at her. A few minutes later, I saw them down by the gates, looking through the bushes behind the row of benches like two flamingos dipping their beaks.

I didn’t take the phone. For all I knew, it was still sitting on that bench. But part of me wanted to go find that blond woman, put my arm around her, and make sure she got back up to whatever gold-leafed penthouse she’d fled; though, I don’t think people do that sort of thing anymore, not these days, not in London. And even now, hours later, I can’t decide whether I feel sad because of the emotions flowing right then through the city or because that woman lost her phone and, even high and ultimately miserable, had the decency to be polite to a complete stranger.


A Meditation on the Inevitability of Death

To myself, regarding death:

You are going to die.  You may not like to think about it, but it’s going to happen.  Maybe tomorrow.  Maybe in 50 years.  Who can say?  That’s the bit you can’t know (thankfully).  But you do know where you’re going to end up sooner or later.  You do realize how short 100 years are, don’t you?  You do realize how many people don’t even make it that far.

You are going to die.  Everything you loved and feared, all your petty remonstrances and trivial irritations will be dust.  Time will bury everything, wonderful and hateful, lies and truth.  And in a few short years after your death, it will be as though you never existed.  This alone should make you cling to every passing moment—no matter how monotonous or unpleasant—but you’re as dumb as a post, forgetful, myopic.  You don’t understand a thing.

You are going to die.  Yet you waste your days worrying about the opinions of others.  After you die, people will actively try to forget you—and will largely succeed—because you will remind them of their own mortality.  Even now while you are still alive, the only time people want to consider you or something connected to you is when it somehow makes them feel better about themselves.  How different will it be when you’re nothing but rotting meat?  At best, the thought of you will inspire grief and a sense of loss—at worst, revulsion, resentment, aversion.  No one will want to care.  Eventually people won’t take the time to speak your name—the word which used to stand for you but which now stands for nothing.

You are going to die.  Still, you waste time planning and striving as if worry and toil could add days to your life.  There is no life but the one you are living.  You don’t get more days.  You only get fewer.  And every moment spent enslaved to a meaningless job, a tyrant, an empty social obligation, an imaginary god, vain status seeking, or the quest for symbols of wealth / worth is an act of fraud against yourself.  The great herd trots into the slaughterhouse, worrying about tomorrow’s breakfast—never thinking that it will, in fact, be them.

You are going to die.  And until you realize it in your heart of hearts—until you embrace the specter of death and kiss its grinning skull and know and accept and understand that your time is painfully, stupidly short—you will not have begun to live.  Time will destroy everything but death.  There is no morality.  There are no obligations.  There are no commandments or requirements beyond this one realization.