Being a Creative Writer in an Age of Anxiety

A colleague of mine, a self-employed commercial artist and science fiction writer I will call “Jim,” recently declared, “If you’re a man getting close to your 50s and you haven’t done something yet, don’t say you’re doing to do it someday because you probably won’t.”  Jim was criticizing another guy in the same industry, who he doesn’t like and who seems to be loudly and visibly struggling in his career. 

Strangely, Jim is also getting close to his 50s, hasn’t done all the things he wants to do, and is also existing paycheck to paycheck, trying to live off his self-published work (which is quite good, in my opinion).  The difference between them is the other guy whines loudly and constantly plugs his GoFundMe, while Jim works harder and (mostly) swallows his frustration.

Jim’s comments on social media are usually criticisms of people who complain about their difficult lives instead of working hard like him.  I can accept that attitude.  If anyone has earned the right to be scornful of the weak, it’s someone who started off in a weak position and made themselves strong or, in Jim’s case, perhaps marginally stronger.  Still, it doesn’t feel good when his angst rises and he starts punching down.

His pronouncement above sounds like flinty entrepreneurial wisdom—Yoda in a self-made, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps vein: do or do not (in your career, in your life); there is no try.  But I know his criticism and anger are rooted in his own insecurities, not in some external source.  We’re always the most critical of our own family, our own friends, our own professional colleagues, members of our own communities and cultures because, when they fail, it makes us feel like we’re next. 

Jim was, to use a trendy term, “triggered,” and he had to release the vapors.  We all have that friend who tries to speak like a philosopher or social critic as a way of purging anxiety and legitimating his concerns.  Sometimes, I do that, too.  So I’m not trying to be inordinately critical of Jim or except myself from a behavior that seems common among sensitive people, particularly artists and writers.  If you’re not bothered by something, you usually have little motivation to write or speak about it publicly, especially on a blog or in a magazine op-ed or on social media.  But in order to understand the criticism Jim’s making, we also have to know something about arts communities and social timing.

A creative community, whether physical (like a writer’s colony, a brick-and-mortar magazine, or a college art program) or on social media, is a perpetual knife fight in a submarine.  It goes without saying that in every creative field, money is always tight, careers are always precarious, hyper-competitiveness is the rule, commercialism undercuts everything, and exploitation is a fact of life. 

These hardships and uncertainties naturally produce immense anxiety, since survival is always at issue on some level, even when you ostensibly “make it” and get famous.  As the actress, Jewel Staite, drolly notes on her Twitter profile, “I like routine, predictability, and living a non-stressful existence, which is why I’ve chosen the film industry.”  That’s darkly funny.  But it’s also true: life as an artist isn’t simple or calm.  You don’t get job security, even when people know who you are.  You’re always on the make.

Keeping this in mind makes it easier to see how tearing down other creatives can become a Malthusian side hustle.  If they’re wounded, the instinct may be to kick them where it hurts.  If they’re down, put your foot on their back.  Do unto others before they can do unto you.  More table scraps for you that way.  You’ll feel less vulnerable, less likely to die in poverty and obscurity, less hopeless, lost, and ashamed that you ever considered yourself worthy to live a creative life.

If publicly criticizing others relieves your constant, grinding dread, even if only for a moment, it will be tempting.  But there’s a problem with that way of being, apart from its meanness and craven pettiness: it makes you less able to do your own imaginative work.  Competitiveness and the anxiety that stimulates it erodes creativity.  It demands your emotional energy, the power you should be channeling into your creative process.  And it makes you feel like you have to court public visibility at all costs to protect yourself from others like you.  It brings to mind Putin parading around his nukes, saying don’t mess with me.  I’m serious business.  That’s exhausting.  Artists should not have nukes.

This is why I have generally avoided arts communities; though, social media has put most writers like me in a perpetual online detention camp with my peers (and the current surge of AI art paranoia isn’t helping one bit).  The pandemic only exacerbated the tensions and forced online interactions that would not have been advisable in any other era.  Add the wave of self-conscious, humorless, social-activist writing still moving through pop-culture and the creative life seems nothing but an exercise in misery.

Western, middle-class, social timing says that by certain decades of life, one should have certain things and be certain things.  But very few people will admit that they fall short of those ideals.  One cannot log onto Twitter or Facebook without seeing some financial marketing come-on that goes, “How many millions will you need to retire?”  In other words, how much money will you need to avert an ugly humiliating end after you retire?  Millions?  Most artists and writers have thousands (or hundreds) in the bank.  Some, who are actually very gifted and good at what they do, live below the poverty line.

So I think I understand Jim when he says if you haven’t done a thing by 50, you aren’t going to.  He’s not talking to you or me.  He’s talking to himself.  Because he’s thinking about social timing and emoting like a neurotic artist in a creative community, wondering if he’s destined to die in the gutter.

While I don’t accept the assumptions that go into the success / failure binary encouraged by middle-class social timing—I think it’s a little more complicated and there’s more room to live how you want to live, if you’re willing to make compromises—I also think it’s better to work hard than pump your GoFundMe for sympathy change.  But I feel sad when I see a talented colleague desperately cutting down some other poor sap who’s just trying to make the rent any way he can.

We get one life.  It isn’t over ’till it’s over.  And ultimately we get to do what we want as long as we’re willing to accept the consequences.  That means, if you really love being an artist, you’ll choose art.  The hard part is making that choice in a relaxed, generous way.

Dominance and Submissions

Let’s say you’ve labored long in the fields of creative writing and the People Who Know (or maybe just the people who’ve noticed) have appreciated your talent.  Some have appreciated it loudly and publicly, some quietly to friends in ways that eventually come back to you, some through amazing feats of jealousy, and others through an unrelenting aggressive competitiveness that beggars belief.  The lower the stakes, the higher the vitriol is an axiom of creative culture.

Let’s also say that for the first decade of writing and submitting short stories to magazines with names like Lost Nose QuarterlyBarbaric Yawp, and Bitch Review, the feedback of the 25-year-old readers working on these magazines mattered.  Susie Lillywhite, the fiction editor at Uncommon Snuff, writes you a personalized rejection, praising your “humorous story of cis-het men behaving badly,” and your ever-present grinding self-doubt abates for ten full minutes; though, on minute 11, you wonder how Susie writes dialogue (“Hello, Mister Cisgendered Heteronormative Male.  How are you today?” / “Hello, Thinly Veiled Proxy For Susie Designed To Signpost Authorial Identity And Abate Criticism.  I am fine.”).

You get the inevitable raft of rejections and a few acceptances.  In time, your acceptance average goes up.  You know this because you obsessively gamify your submission process on a spreadsheet like fantasy baseball.  Maybe your box scores show progress.  Maybe all this effort means something—if not anything tangible in your day-to-day existence, then perhaps in a kind of working-fiction-writer sabermetrics that suggests your chosen life direction hasn’t been a horrible mistake.  Maybe the 500 hypothetical readers of Dogwater International are upping your short story RBI.  It’s possible.  Don’t say it isn’t.

You’ve got a novel in progress.  This goes without saying.  Everyone has a novel in progress.  Your screenwriter friend, Gaurangi, tells you she has two novels in progress, a poetry chapbook in progress, and a book of essays in progress.  Yet, she’s miserable and hates her life.  “Is that because you’re still assistant manager at KFC and can’t break through the glass ceiling?”  “No,” she says, “it’s because you’re a fucking asshole.”  You’ve been friends for 15 years.  Her name means “giver of happiness.”

There is no joy like mine, you think.  I am a cherry blossom adrift in the infinite cosmos.  The form email from GOAT Bomb sits in your inbox.  You can see that it begins, “Dear Valued Author, thank you for submitting to GOAT Bomb . . .” but you’ve been meditating.  And if zazen has taught you anything, it’s that impersonal form rejections are naught but the transcendent meanderings of The Great Vehicle.  The rejections aren’t depressing you.  It must be something else.

So let’s say you’ve also learned how to save money as an effective freelance survival tactic.  Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you’ve managed to eke out an existence as a ghost writer and a copyeditor.  Let’s say, also for the sake of argument, that your cousin, who thought college was stupid, now makes low six figures as a construction manager and thinks you’re hilarious.  You see him at Christmas dinner, a rosy-cheeked beer-drinking construction Santa with a twinkle in his eye.  And he asks you the same thing he asked you last year: “Are you a mental midget?”  He finds the question hilarious.  “No,” you say.  “I mentally fidget.”  He can’t stop laughing.  “With your digits!”  In this family, we come together through spontaneous and combustive rhyming.  You don’t take it personally.

But you don’t follow baseball.  Thus, your spreadsheet submission game perpetually teeters on the edge of something else, deep and dark, eldritch and unspeakable, an existential abyss.  Why do you do it?  How does publishing another story in The East Punjabi Fiction Annual (that took you six months of sustained before-dawn writing sessions and seven painful drafts) matter in the construction management food-on-the-table sense?  You joke, but there are no rhymes for it, at least none that would entertain your cousin.

The fact is, you are a mental midget.  You must be if you still have to worry about putting ten more dollars on the credit card for a sandwich at Safeway—which isn’t Joe Biden’s fault.  So don’t start.  The supply chain is effed-up, yes.  Covid is ineffable, yes.  The pandemic shooed you out of Bangkok one step ahead of the Thai quarantine police, yes, and now you’re living in a Hawaiian jungle, but that has nothing to do with anything.  Here you are.  The feral rooster outside goes, “KEEEEE-YAAAAW-KOOOOO!”  And the great world turns with its comings and goings.

Smoke three cigarettes with Gaurangi in her Kia in the parking lot of KFC.  It’s midnight and she is off work.  You drove into Hilo just for this because it’s a miracle that you both now live in the same place and she texted you: come smoke a cigarette with me so I can cope with the fact that I manage idiots.  She won’t smoke at home because she has a two-year-old daughter and cigarettes are poison.  “I should move back to L.A.” she says.  “The fucking Big Island’s getting me nowhere.”  “You married a Hawaiian.”  She looks at you, drags deeply, and smiles.  “Yes.  That probably has something to do with why I’m here.”

One manages a KFC in Los Angeles if one wants to be a screenwriter, a whole different fantasy ballgame.  One brings one’s Hawaiian husband to a bungalow in Glendale.  Maybe one sells the script for She’s Gotta Have It 2, earning $135,000 for the original screenplay, including treatment, and suddenly it’s all cheddar.  One writes one’s friend in the jungle: I don’t hate L.A. now.  It is what it is.  Now one can calm down and finish that poetry chapbook in peace.

You’re drinking too much coffee and you read a lot of news. Some nut writing for The Conversation says Covid and climate change are going to turn coffee into a rare luxury item like Kobe beef or Cristal.  But the enormous tin of Safeway Select on top of your refrigerator suggests otherwise. You wonder how much the writer got paid to cook up a pandemic scare piece on coffee. What if you pitched something similar about a thing everybody wants being unceremoniously taken away by forces beyond one’s control? What about cheese: “Is Cheese Systemically Racist?  Biden Might be Coming for Your Gruyere.” Or sex: “The Death of Intimacy: Gen Z Prefers Online Porn to Sex and Who Can Blame Them?” Or healthcare: “The GOP Thinks Letting Grandpa Die is Good for the Economy.”  You write these ideas down and fire up the laptop.  There’s rent to be made.

At this point, there are many possibilities.  You’ve moneyballed your way into 30, 40 magazine publications.  You have three published story collections and a multitude of columns, articles, and essays floating through the aetheric digitalia.  But you still live in the jungle.  You’ve got a neighbor up the dirt road who deals with his emotions by smoking crack and shooting cats with his Marlin 60.  You’re still getting rejections from 25-year-olds and machines that go, “While we appreciate your interest in Dark Pissoir . . . “

Occasionally, some acquaintance on social media will pay attention to you for more than 30 seconds and wonder how you exist.  How do you make a living (or How can you possibly make a living?)?  You say as best you can.  There are 25-year-olds publishing novels with Random House.  There are 25-year-olds managing construction sites and getting welding certificates and buying their kids $900 gaming consoles.  And there’s a fine line of termite dust along the base of your hovel’s north wall.  Are you discouraged?  What does that mean, exactly?

On Forgetting One’s Humanity

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.

Freelancing Ain’t All Wine and Roses

My recent hiatus from freelance writing culminated in an existential crisis that I now think was actually about money.  It’s interesting how money—getting it, keeping it, losing it, worrying about it, hating it, enduring its fraught passage through our lives—often seems to be the underlying rule and mean in situations we first thought were about love or fate or right choices.  Life might not always be about money.  But lately I’ve had a hard time seeing when it isn’t.

The realization hit me while I was cutting banana trees for my neighbor.  Every freelancer encounters dry spells and every dry spell brings angst, a spate of dreadful job applications, and self-imposed austerity measures which help far less than you think they should.  In the middle of that, volunteering to prune banana trees should be therapeutic.  It some ways, it is.

In others, it only drives the nail of precarity deeper into your skull: what am I doing when I should be looking for a new paying project?  What am I doing volunteering for anything?  What is my age?  What choices have I made that put me here?  How much am I to blame?  How do I set this worry and anger aside so I can get back on the hustle?  Will this petty opportunity cost return as top ramen and hot dogs, holy T-shirts and rent anxiety?  Where will I be this time next year?  And will I have all the teeth I have now?

These are questions freelancers never want to ask but inevitably do.  This is the fear that only those with money have the luxury of being generous.  This is how your world gets smaller, how you end up optimizing every moment for work instead of living a life.  So I pruned my neighbor’s banana trees with a Ryobi P519 Reciprocating Sawzall in high tropical humidity and tried not to wallow.

Heavy yard work can be good for the soul, especially work that involves razor-sharp power tools.  Still, through the whole day, my inner existential calculator-self-critic-time-clock was hard at work dredging up a range of facts, assumptions, and figures that all led to the same thought: kindness is stupid when you’re broke.

Unfortunately, by that reasoning, so is art, writing, music, libraries, museums, public broadcasting, kite flying, junior college, cooking, learning languages, community theater, and any other thing that brings joy and meaning to someone whose emotional life isn’t completely constrained by making a buck.  It’s what the ladies’ self-help success guru, Penelope Trunk, used to say when she’d argue that graduate school in the humanities should require a trust fund. In her reductive materialism, culture and self-expression are supposed to come with a price tag like everything else.  And if you can’t afford it, well, get back in your cage.

The commodification of kindness and creativity is something I hate as much as anything I’ve ever hated, a set of beliefs about the world that I vehemently reject.  Of course, I do.  I’m a former English teacher.  I have a hard-earned PhD in the subject.  I write books.  And those skills also feed me as a freelancer, even if the life I lead is a bit like that of a low-stakes professional gambler.  Nevertheless, poverty sucks.

I dislike large parts of capitalism, at least, the post-industrial variety carried into my generation by the Boomers.  But I do think my fellow Gen-Xers doth protest a bit much.  My parents’ post-WWII generation did the best they could and, in many cases, that was pretty great.  The people around me, born in the early 1970s, who came of age in the late 80s and early 90s, also did their level best.  Put into the widest global perspective for our time, we had it pretty good.  And I believe in hard work.

Everyone I knew growing up in lower-middle-class southern California shared that belief and mostly survived.  Many of us, especially the arts and humanities types, went into debt and paid an enormous psychological price to do the things we felt called to do.  And we seemed to enjoy a much smaller return on those efforts than that of previous generations.  But we still shut our mouths and tried to make a living.  I guess we’re still trying.

But millennials?  Gen-Z?  I’m not sure I know what form of life they are.  Terms like “self-entitlement,” “performative victimhood,” and “Twitter mob” do come to mind.  When I interact with them socially or read about them as a group, I come away feeling like I’ve encountered an undulant mass of mewling, protoplasmic, always-online identity cosplayers.

I know that this is not true and that sweeping generalizations are inherently invalid.  And I suspect generations largely aggregate into the same qualities and quantities that have always existed; though, I’d be hard pressed to come up with an earlier analogue for Instagram catgirls,  and gig sensitivity readers. These generations are tomorrow’s freelance writers and Uber drivers. And there will be so many more of them.

At the same time, I wonder if people hitting the workforce now, in their 20s and 30s, with crippling debt, a lingering pandemic, and the hottest temperatures in recorded history, have the same inner fallout when they can’t find work.  I wonder whether they even want to work the way I have, the way I still work?  Do they doubt themselves, even after decades of professional experience?  Do the former English majors sometimes reach a point where they swear they’re giving up the thankless writing life (because, let’s face it, the last thing the world needs is another writer) but find themselves coming back to it again and again like an addiction?

I have no doubt that some of them will come around to my way of thinking while cutting banana trees and flirting with heat stroke: maybe what the world needs is not what I need.  Maybe a writer’s job is not to be respectable and flush, but to write and avoid getting flushed. Maybe no matter how many trees I prune, I know I’ll be heading back to the writing desk sooner or later, dental plan or not.  If not today, then tomorrow.  If not tomorrow, then next week.  If not next week, then never.  Because in this game, there is no victory scenario, no rest, no stopping until they put me in the ground.

Get ready for few changes around here.

I’ve been running The Writing Expedition for almost two decades in one form or another.  It began as a Blogger travel blog when I was living in Bujumbura, Burundi, and grew into kind of nexus for all my publications and writing projects.  This, my Pressfolios site, and my Substack newsletter have been really professionally useful, way more than the various Facebook pages I’ve started over the years.  If you follow me here, especially if you’re a long-term reader of my posts, I’m grateful.  It’s been a long road out of Africa to the UK, Austria, Ireland, Estonia, Denmark, Sweden, the Czech Republic, France, Thailand, Japan, and back to the States.  Thanks for traveling with me.

Sometime in the next two weeks, you’ll notice some changes to this site that have been pending for a long time.  Bluehost will be its new home (though the domain will stay the same—there’s nothing you have to do).  The obnoxious advertisements will (thankfully) be going away.  There will be discussion forums for asynchronous writing workshops.  I’ll also be offering some Zoom courses and private tutorials, covering beginning through advanced fiction writing, the magazine publishing process, how to win writing contests (I’ve won a few), increased editing opportunities (books, and short pieces, fiction and nonfiction), and story doctoring (which means you’ve written something but you’re stuck—we work on unsticking you).  My newsletter will be picking up again and my podcast will finally be getting underway.

I’ve been a bit dormant (for me) over the past two months, publishing one magazine short story, two columns in Splice Today, and a small collection of blog posts.  Mostly, this is because I moved to a rural area on the big island of Hawaii and just needed to rest, meditate, and take a semi-working vacation for the first time in 10 years.  It’s been glorious, but now it’s time to get busy.

Things I’m not going to do: spam you with advertisements or engage in aggravating e-marketing foolishness.  Most of what I’m offering will be through this site.  But I want to make this announcement, say thanks, and remind you that I’m still here, still inflicting my ideas and opinions on an unsuspecting world . . .

Hakalau at dawn.

 

If the Roof is on Fire, Just Keep Writing

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.

On Taking One’s Lumps: Reading and Writing in the Here and Now

After years of teaching creative writing and going through many creative ups and downs of my own, I’ve developed a very simple philosophy to guide what I do: don’t think about it; just put it out there and move on to the next thing.  Or, as a professor of mine once liked to say, be quiet and take your lumps.  If you develop a regular writing habit, I believe this is what you absolutely have to do—that is, if you intend to stay sane.

Consider that any amount of time a reader spends on your work is a compliment and a gesture of implicit encouragement.  Got a bad review?  That’s a lot more than the 10,000 other writers standing behind you got waiting for theirs.  Got a magazine rejection telling you not to quit your day job?  Do you realize how many submitters just got the form rejection or nothing at all?  Many.  Got panned on Twitter by a journalist with a chip on her shoulder?  Great.  You wrote something compelling or irritating.  That’s very good.  She’s helping you out, amplifying your message. 

You broke out of the silent apoplexy that turns most writers to stone.  You made someone feel something for a change.  That’s the point.  No matter how hostile or kind, excited or blasé readers act, the end result is the same: they spent their precious time considering what you wrote when they could have been doing something else.  The more you think about that, the more it will seem like a remarkable gift.  The only real failure, in that sense, is to misunderstand what you’ve been given.

Many writers misunderstand.  They’re so busy flogging their platforms, soothing their fragile egos, and vehemently promoting themselves that they start to act entitled, even if they don’t truly feel that way deep down.  It gives them a brittle exterior.  They risk being crushed by a bad review or even an apathetic response from their audience, which is a shame.  When they started writing, it wasn’t for applause.  It was to find creative satisfaction.  But over the years, they forgot about that.  Now they’re like a raw nerve.

So it can be helpful to remember that indulging in self-entitlement is a very bad idea.  While talk is cheap, words happen to be your business.  You have to be a word factory, constantly producing, constantly submitting and posting.  And if you can do that, you will realize yourself through that consistency, not by appealing to the fickle vagaries of taste.  But this also means sometimes you will take a public beating.  This is the meaning of take your lumps.

Of course, you don’t have to submit everything you write.  Conventional wisdom tells us to sit on a draft until we get some distance and objectivity.  I did it that way until a few stories I thought would never get published got taken right away and a novella I’d slaved over and considered and re-drafted and polished remained in submission turnaround for several years.  It taught me a valuable, counterintuitive lesson.  I realized I’m the worst judge of my own work and so is everyone else.

We never know if we’re any good and no one else knows, either.  We know what we like.  We know what our aesthetic values tell us is and isn’t quality work.  But those values are arbitrary to culture and conditioning.  They’re not immutable Platonic forms.  There is no universal objective standard for quality in the creative arts.  There’s only what I’m seeing from where I’m standing and how I got there. 

Maybe I’m a library or an archive or the Pulitzer committee or an English department.  And so I have a certain amount of status and gatekeeping authority conferred on me by said culture and conditioning.  But that doesn’t change anything.  It means some writers will have their scrolls preserved in the basement of Cheops and others will see their words crumble on the wind.  The “test of time” is no test of quality.  There is only what is being spoken, written, and read in this moment by these eyes.  The rest is a dream of something written in that past or a vision of something to be written in the future.

What an upsetting idea!  If that’s true, why do we even have English studies?  The answer to that is what the legendary Dr. Richard Kroll gave me in his office at UC Irvine when, as a naïve undergraduate, I asked a version of that question: we study English to be able to read and write with clarity and intelligence.  The rest is work for archaeologists, curators, and antiquarians—good work, valuable work, but not the work of words themselves.  Writing exists in the reader right now or it doesn’t at all.

For people who write stories, poems, essays, and plays, this has radical implications.  One is that critical feedback, while sometimes interesting and useful, is more like a eulogy than a prescription.  The work has been read.  The moment has passed.  And whatever rhetorical effects have been created, whatever ideational structures rose up in the mind of the reader, either accomplished their work or didn’t.

Another implication is that taste—especially publishing taste and the marketing that oozes from it—is a creature of recent history, not really of the moment.  By the time you finish taking that class in commercial screenplay writing that guarantees you’ll be producing blockbuster scripts by the end, the gaze of the industry has already shifted.  Writers constantly producing derivative work in the service of whatever is supposed to be commercial are always playing catch-up.

The answer to this can be a bit scary: don’t worry about it.  Flying blind is the only real way to fly.  It means taking a horrendous risk with your time, emotions, and energy every time you sit down at the desk.  But you wanted to be a creative artist, not a scholar of other people’s past art, right?  Then shut your mouth and take your lumps.  There will be lumps, many and various, if you’re doing it right.

On the other hand, it’s a reason to be joyful.  If you’re committed to the idea that you cannot objectively judge your own work and neither can anyone else, you reach a point where it’s not about them.  It’s about you finding your subject matter and your voice.  It’s about pursuing the development of those things as a way to realize yourself.  This is incredibly freeing.

My mom, who was a brilliant painter and sculptor, put it like this: once you finish a work of art, it doesn’t belong to you.  It’s not your baby.  It’s separate from you.  Whether or not you formally submit it to others makes no difference.  In an existential sense, it has entered the world.  It’s now a syllable in the dialogue of creation, for better or worse.  So get over it.  Once the ritual is complete, the magic has been sent forth to cause change.  And it will.

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.

Writing the Hard Thing

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

If I could tell you the number of stories and novels I’ve begun writing and not finished, we’d be here too long.  But “not finished” doesn’t mean “discarded.”  It means what it says. 

The difficulty comes when I’ve convinced myself that I’m one sort of writer (the consistent, cheerfully productive kind) as opposed the other, less glamorous (or, at least, less visible) sort—a slave to the vicissitudes of the moon or some shit, the guy with 25 ongoing projects and an inability to stop working on any of them. 

I know this about myself.  I tell myself that it’s all part of the bigger creative process.  I imagine all these incomplete pieces fermenting, cross-pollinating, mutating.  Nothing lost.  Everything in motion.  And I take refuge in those ideas and metaphors so I can keep working.  Being a writer, I tell myself a story.  But it might be bullshit self-deceit.

The Romantics smoked opium to get closer to the moon and further from the Victorian head trauma of  “productivity.”  And when my genre writer pals do highly Victorian social media posts that go, “Sigh.  Only 10 pages today,” I wonder whether they’re writing from inspiration or simply turning a lathe in some Dickensian word factory.  Productivity equals commercial success, while moonbeams are their own reward.  Still, I have word count envy no matter what I do. 

The problems of productivity and self-deceit are at the center of trying to write the hard thing.  They are the essential obstacles in making the fiction I came here to make instead of clocking in and lathing out a bunch of words to satisfy something or someone else.  I don’t want to produce that which has been assigned to me by industry, necessity, or convention.  I hate obeying.  But am I achieving anything in my disobedience?  For that matter, is achievement even the point?

When yet another publishing industry blog post comes out sounding like the vehement Alec Baldwin scene from Glengarry Glen Ross, I feel repulsed.  I don’t want to spend time creating a fucking audience platform.  Being an artist is not about “closing.”  Just doing the actual writing takes up all my energy.  I don’t want to frame pieces of my fiction as marketable units.  I want to sit in a moonbeam and make something that arises from my own unique imperatives and disposition.  I want the serendipity of inspiration.  I live for it.  And I resist the overtures of commercialism dedicated to consumption and to bullying artists into seeing themselves as part of a service industry.

Unfortunately, I also can’t avoid wanting the world to read my work and maybe give me some money so I can feed and clothe myself.  It’s terrifying sometimes.  Years ago, at an AWP conference, talking with a publisher after I put out Gravity, my first collection of stories, I felt like Nunez in “The Country of the Blind”—faced with the choice of getting what I loved if I voluntarily blinded myself or seeing clearly and climbing out of the hidden valley forever.  In the end, I chose to keep my eyes.

“If you want to get a second book out using the momentum of your first,” he said, “you need to complete the manuscript in less than a year.  More than that and people forget who you are.  You won’t be able to position it.  You’ll be starting over.”  Six years later, my second book was done.  And he was correct: from the marketing, word factory standpoint, I was starting over.  From a creative-process standpoint, those six years were predicated on the six that came before.  I wasn’t starting over.  I was writing something hard that had emerged from my ongoing creative process, something I couldn’t have written in under a year.

Finishing writing in one’s own time instead of in service to the word factory is difficult.  Discovering one’s limitations as an artist and then transcending them is very difficult.  Putting in the years is difficult.  Doing this up to and beyond age 30 is not only difficult but scary.  Nevertheless, all can be accomplished if one is willing to believe in something greater than the word count.  One says, it’s all part of my creative process and tries to calm down.  One decides not to read (or write) certain self-aggrandising Facebook posts.

Of course, there might not be a bigger process.  Maybe there is only Random House, Amazon, AWP conference ugliness, building a platform, positioning and branding, and Best American Monotony.  Maybe.  Maybe we exist in a world full of cynical anti-creative money-making ventures, cautious art, and nothing else.  It’s always possible.  The thought of it sometimes keeps me up at night, especially in those blocked periods of worrying and not writing.

It’s like reading about nuclear war or the earth dying from climate change: you have no agency, no option to mitigate the damage, soulless politicians are making horrible decisions, and there is only one way this can end.  Apocalypse.  Tragedy.  No one at the wheel.  Inhuman corporations controlling everything.  And death, ignominious and unnoticed, unless you get with the program and start churning out formulaic units. 

Capitalism wins.  It usually does.  But if there is a bigger process at work in your struggle to be an artist, it can’t have anything to do with metaphors of productivity on a factory timeline.  That is a reality you must not accept.

How does a writer know what’s real?  Is it moonbeam or production line?  Is it both?  Can it be both?  Andy Warhol, Ernest Hemingway, and David Bowie say yes.  For the rest of us, maybe not.  For every Warhol, Hemingway, and Bowie, there are multitudes who weren’t lucky enough to have their unique artistry coincide with commercial demand. 

Hugh Howey likes to write about Wool the way Elon Musk talks about launching a roadster into space: let me tell you about my unique genius and the origin of my success.  But self-publishing fame and running a car company have one thing in common that never gets discussed: they exist because they are timely.  So it is with any highly lucrative creative effort.  And that intersection has to do with luck.  Meanwhile, someone out there is no doubt making Peking opera, but they are unlikely to be buying villas on the Riviera anytime soon.  Nobody cares.  Their units don’t ship.  And yet they also have the favor of the moon.

Writers are especially predisposed to misunderstand what is real—what is objective versus just a moonbeam.  They spend a lot of time deliberately thinking in metaphors, some more useful than others.  And if they’re not paying attention to their minds, they can mistake such metaphors for objective reality (which, incidentally, has nothing to do with capitalist realism).  Over-absorption in a world of imaginative metaphors can become a source of anxiety when the non-make-believe world reaches out and reminds us that we can’t live totally in our imaginations.  Make your Peking opera, sure, but also accept that the six years you put into it mean nothing in terms of branding and positioning.

A writer will see something and begin to imagine things about it—everyone does this, but writers seem to do it with particular intensity—and before long the writer starts to feel like he or she knows it or, even worse, is it.  Then something from the world of physics and money communicates: no, you are not that.  You can’t imagine yourself to fame and fortune if you’re doing original work.  You might get lucky, yes, and I hope you (I hope I) do.  But commerce and true creativity exist in different spaces.

So I look at my 25 open projects with a bit of trepidation as the days go by.  I’m turning 46 this month.  I’ve published a lot of stories in magazines and two books.  These have been hard things.  Are they enough?  Will they ever be enough?

Don’t worry, I tell myself.  There’s bigger process at work.  There must be.