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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.

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.

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.

Read my latest in Splice Today: https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/jonathan-franzen-can-t-solve-climate-change-for-anyone-who-matters

 

Welcome . . .

I write fiction and nonfiction for magazines, work as a freelance writer / editor / journalist, and teach composition and fiction writing.

This blog is mostly dedicated to writing about politics and media, travel essays, creative non-fiction, discussions about books, the MFA experience, publishing, and work I’ve already placed in magazines. But I might write anything.

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Readings for May 2020

Fiction
Last Exit to Brooklyn, Hubert Selby, Jr.
Nine Stories, J.D. Salinger
City of Night, John Rechy
Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson
Almost Transparent Blue, Ryu Murakami
The Complete Short Stories, Hemingway
New York City in 1979, Kathy Acker
Non-fiction & Creative Non-fiction
Notes of a Dirty Old Man, Charles Bukowski
Child of Light: A Biography, Madison Smartt Bell
Swimming to Cambodia, Spalding Gray
Arguably: Essays, Christopher Hitchens
The Geography of the Imagination, Guy Davenport
Continued from Last Month
Narrative Design, Madison Smartt Bell
Alive Together: New and Selected Poems, Lisel Mueller
Transmetropolitan, Warren Ellis
Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, Hunter Thompson

We are here to unlearn the teachings of the church, state, and our educational system. We are here to drink beer. We are here to kill war. We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.

— Charles Bukowski

Subjects