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?

The Good Hustle

Today, I was advised to get an editing and proofreading certification from one of the many professional associations available to show potential clients that I am all business and not, as one would otherwise assume, a crank.  Three decades of professional writing, editing-for-hire, and proofreading won’t do it.  The representative who cold-emailed me on social media made it very clear that no matter how good I think I am, no one will take me seriously unless I’m professionally certified.  Luckily, she discovered me in time.

When I asked her if board certification exists for copy editors and proofers, she didn’t respond.  I’m still waiting, but I know the answer.  With a website, a PayPal account, and a fictious business name, you can establish a certification program for anything obscure and unregulated, say, antelope sign language.  You can then offer membership in a professional society based on your courses and the money flows in like sweet milk from heaven when people called to interpret for deaf antelopes feel insecure and go looking for a stamp of approval. 

You’ll pitch your service to the rubes with a great convincer: “Since there are no objective, widely accepted standards for professionalism in antelope sign language, you need our very formal, suitable-for-framing certificate to set you apart from all the dilettante competitors and desperate poseurs trying to steal your business.  You need this.”  I recognized the come-on immediately.  It’s how you sell a diet supplement, a tinfoil orgone collection helmet, a Learn Fluent Inuit in 20 Minutes-a-Day DVD set, or a religion.  You define the subject matter, identify the anxiety it produces, and offer a solution.

New religions always do this, since their subject matter is and must always be vague.  At a science fiction convention in 1948, L. Ron Hubbard is supposed to have said, “Writing for a penny a word is ridiculous. If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion.”  Like most of Hubbard’s material, it seems to have been cribbed from other sources—in this case from a letter written by George Orwell in his multivolume Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters.  But the principle is sound.  Give people something in which they can believe and posit yourself as its source or sole mouthpiece.

Interestingly, the Orwell-Hubbard dates may not match up.  Multiple volumes of Orwell’s collected works were released in the 1960s and, though it’s obvious earlier collections existed, it’s unclear which Orwell resources would have been available to Hubbard in the late 1940s while he was busy doing ceremonial magic in the desert with Jack Parsons and seducing Parsons’ girlfriend.  But we do know that, by 1948, Hubbard had left Parsons and overt occultism behind, well on his way to following through on his million-dollar scheme.

No matter how many conventions Hubbard attended, boats he owned, and storefront e-meter salons he opened, the comment about starting one’s own religion would follow him for the rest of his life and hang over his grave like a feculent mist.  Orwellian cynicism has always seemed perfect for the Church of Scientology.  The organization has appeared, at least since the early ’70s, much more interested in abusive litigation with a side of organized crime than in any sort of enlightenment or spirituality. 

Still, America loves a new religion, the sillier and more coercive the better.  Americans will love it twice as much if the guru requires lavish compensation for his wisdom.  It’s one of the perennial obsessions at the heart of the culture: we’re all looking for Jesus the Businessman, whether he comes as a computer inventor, an online bookseller, or an electric-car spaceship fetishist.  The more he up-sells us and demands to be loved for it, the more we’ll celebrate him.  If he can do this and offer us certificated in-group status, we’ll make him a fixture in our lives.

We want to be saved by someone who shares our values: money, cleverness, exclusivity, salesmanship, and the sado-masochism of the workplace as spiritual praxis.  It’s the reason why, at one point, Oprah commanded the reasoning and libido of 51% of the population, why Bezos’ Blue Origin rocket looks like a giant dildo, and why graffiti near 1 Infinite Loop in Cupertino, California, used to read “Steve Died for Your Sins.”  He unquestionably did.

But there’s an even deeper reason Hubbard and comparable messiah figures are able to operate until they go out of fashion and either become despised by the crowd that once adored them or go insane: no one has any stable concept of what’s real, including the gurus themselves.  They’re making up the landmarks and mapping the terrain as they go along. 

In fact, the fluidity of unreality, virtual reality, meta-reality, fandom, curated identity, and the floating demimonde of the so-called “knowledge marketplace” underlying these things is so popular and ubiquitous that it has become more convincing than religion ever was.  We’re looking for the next lifehack, supplement, or belief system to stave off our perpetual nervous breakdown because we have no idea what’s going on.  Sign me up.  Get my Level 1 Proofreader’s Certificate and Associate Membership Card.

Black Mirror, Ready Player One, and The Matrix are horrifying mostly due to what they imply about this desperate capacity to turn anything into religion, even down to the most banal and mechanistic corporate sensibilities.  And pandemic lockdown culture has not helped.  When Covid spread across Asia, I was living in Bangkok and noticed a line of herbal supplements being marketed in the malls by a popular Indian guru as protection against the disease.  The layout was very glossy.  There were life-sized cardboard standups of the smiling guru presenting his product at pharmacy endcaps.  People were buying it because they didn’t know what was real.  The guru was defining the problem and offering a solution.  L. Ron Hubbard would have loved Covid-19.

As Mencken put it, “There is nothing in religious ideas, as a class, to lift them above other ideas. On the contrary, they are always dubious and often quite silly. Nor is there any visible intellectual dignity in theologians. Few of them know anything that is worth knowing, and not many of them are even honest.”  But what they offer is certitude and certification in an uncertain, uncertificated world.

Thank you!

I’ve had an noticeable influx of new subscribers here recently, something for which I am profoundly thankful.

Thank you for spending time on my words.

Thank you for your emails—encouragement always matters to every writer.

And thank you for subscribing, whether paid or free. Whenever someone follows my newsletter or my blog, I’m reminded that I have an audience, that people are paying attention, which is priceless.

I have a lot of work planned for 2021. The journey continues.

Michael

The Lost Art of Avoiding Office Romances

A Bit of Sage Love Advice From Master Po

A former co-worker of mine called me on Skype a few months ago.  After a certain amount of hemming and hawing, he got down to it: I’m really into so-and-so and, now that we’re all working remotely, I want to let her know.  But I have no idea what I’m doing.  Tell me how.  I’m summarizing about 2000 words of wind-up, preface, and self-obfuscation, but the heart of the matter, like all truths, came out relatively simple.  He has an office crush in a time of no office.  Ah so.

I lied and told him I was busy.  He Skype-called me a few days later and wanted to talk.  I told him I had no idea and suggested he ask his therapist.  He told me he didn’t have a therapist and called me an asshole.  Then he started crying.  He’s in his 20s.  I’m in my 40s.  Gen Xers don’t cry.  But I felt bad.  I know.  I really am an asshole.  And to be completely honest, a small part of me was flattered.  Nobody asks me for advice about anything and probably for good reason.  I’m a horrible misanthrope.  And I know nothing.

Why he came to me I will never really understand.  Maybe I was the only person he could trust, since I’m also acquainted with so-and-so but I don’t work there anymore.  Maybe he sensed some sympathy on my part—a shared belief that, in a perfect world, they’d be wonderful together.  I suppose they would.  But we don’t live in a perfect world.  Some of us don’t even live.  I’m not sure what you’d call the day-drinking lockdown existence many people are leading these days, but I suspect “living” ain’t it.

After some awkwardness, I agreed to entertain his tale of woe in exchange for him not being upset if I wrote about it.  A devil’s bargain was struck.  Consummatum est.  I feel like people of my generation, having grown up before thirst-trap selfies and Onlyfans side-gigs, would never have agreed to such terms.  But Generation Z seems less inhibited.  That’s probably a good thing.  I’ll shoot my mouth off in writing, but if you know me in real life, you’ll find me to be pretty quiet and withdrawn.  Call it the Gen X split personality.  I remember a time when there were consequences for revealing too much of yourself.  Now everyone has closeups of their nipple rings on Instagram.  I guess that makes me an old fogey.

Fogeyism aside, I really didn’t know what to say.  Apparently, the stress was killing him.  He couldn’t stop thinking about her.  And he wanted to know if I thought he should unburden himself, if that would at least provide some kind of catharsis.  And then they could avoid each other in perpetuity on Zoom.  I thought about it for 30 seconds and this is what Master Po said.

First, don’t come on to co-workers.  Just don’t.  My thinking on this has evolved over the years.  I used to be romantic about it, asking, who am I to stand in the way of love?  But now I believe I have an answer to that question: an adult.  Adult self-control, being the basis of all civilization, requires that you keep it in your pants in a professional environment.  It’s right up there with germ theory, running water, and not frightening the horses.  It’s how the pyramids got built and why grandpa never had to go to prison.

So that’s the first premise: nay, lad, control thyself and petition Venus in her proper temple.  Here’s the logic.  If it turns out so-and-so isn’t interested in you like that, it’s a problem.  If she is interested, it’s an even bigger problem.  Keep work at work and don’t go looking for love in all the wrong places.

Second, there’s always a reason when it’s hard to talk to someone.  Yes, you’re shy and that’s something to consider, but there’s more to it than that.  When people are interested in you, no matter how shy one or both of you are, you will eventually feel that affinity.  This why the pre-Covid-19 handshake was so useful.  It was like taking a reading of the other person.

Between men and women, the nonverbal interaction can be subtle, but it’s always there, for better or worse.  And if it’s positive, it will eventually bring the two of you into proximity.  If it doesn’t draw you together, that means, on some level, there is resistance.  And that, Grasshopper, should not be overlooked.  If she’s nice but keeps her distance, respect that resistance.  It’s telling you how she feels, at least right now.  If she’s an adult, the resistance may also be there because she wants to keep work at work.  Respect that, too, and take a lesson.

Third, stop thinking strategically.  You can’t think your way from how you feel into her life.  There are no formulas.  Dating formulas and methods are, without exception, worthless and designed to part clueless men from their money.  They nearly always treat women like objects, complex puzzles that can be solved with a series of deft manipulations.  So-and-so is far more like you than she is like a combination lock.  And like you, she will resent it when she realizes you’re trying to game her.  So don’t do that.  Don’t confuse her with a boss fight in a video game.  Analytical thinking has no place in this.

Fourth, stop taking lust for love.  Master Po recommends large helpings of both, but he cautions you not to mix them up.  When you work with someone to whom you might feel attracted and you’re looking at that person every day, it’s easy to tell yourself that you’re developing feelings.  Maybe you’re just sexually frustrated.  It happens.

Here’s the test: picture Monica Lewinski being interviewed on Oprah.  After visualizing that conversation, revisit your feelings about so-and-so.  Do you like her just because you work with her and she’s the president (at least, the president of your heart) and has strong masterful shoulders?  Or do you actually have something that might qualify as two adults at the beginning of a romantic relationship?  Be honest.  Don’t change your name to Monica.

Last, I offer the relationship advice given to me by an older woman when I was in my 20s and lacking a clue: don’t start anything you can’t finish.  In other words, don’t trap yourself in a situation that you can’t walk away from if it makes you miserable.  This is a more general version of “keep work at work,” and it applies to just about everything in life.

We’re always telling ourselves stories about who we are and what we do.  Society is always telling us who we should be and what we should do, even though society could care less if we’re happy or fulfilled.  Everybody wants to be in charge, enforce their values, boss people about through the power of storytelling.  It’s almost a fact of human nature.

But nearly everything that makes us consistently happy involves a degree of antinomian rebellion against other people’s narratives, against should.  We’ve got should stories running all over the place designed to trap us into particular behaviors or commitments.  Consummatum est, as Mephistopheles said to Dr. Faustus.  But obligation-inducing narratives and reality are two different things.

Never start something if you can’t finish it, which is to say, if you don’t control the narrative and have to accept “shoulds.”  That includes research projects, reading books, baking pizzas, and starting up ill-conceived office romances that take place in a situation where you don’t have power and alternatives.  I know talking about power is unromantic.  But a huge power differential usually dooms a relationship from the beginning, especially if it’s situational.  Even if the situation has gone remote and online.  

After I told him all this, there was a moment of silence.  He said, “Thanks” and that he had to go.  I haven’t heard from him since.  I don’t think he took my sage advice.  It’s probably for the best.

Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

— Andrew Marvell

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.

Workaholism and Learning How to Relax

Being a self-employed workaholic and knowing how to effectively relax is one of the biggest professional conundrums I’ve faced as an adult.  And by “effective relaxation,” I mean not chemically induced relaxation or pseudo-relaxation that is just another form of work in disguise.  Accepting the necessity of down time is really hard when you’re the one in charge of your schedule.

Add cyclical insomnia, a lot of repressed anger, and an emotionally abusive work ethic instilled from childhood and you get a large part of why I was a difficult person to be around in my 20s and early 30s.  But I think I’ve learned a few things by now.  Here are some ideas if you happen to be someone who shares these or similar issues (and I can think of a number of my friends who probably do).

(1) The most important thing is to be honest about being Type-A, especially if you use work to avoid other unpleasant thoughts, situations, or confrontations.  The first and deepest honesty is with yourself.  Then comes the need to practice outward-facing honesty by releasing the burden of holding these unflattering realizations about your obsessiveness in all the time.  Speaking to others about it releases its hold on you.  If you are afraid of judgment, consider that those who criticize you might feel threatened because they don’t want you to change or don’t want to face their own “stuff.”  Honesty and transparency can renew you completely. And you probably need that kind of renewal.

(2) Understand your rhythms.  Everything flows in evolving patterns, including everything in you—in your body and mind.  If you can roughly predict when you will feel the urge to obliterate yourself by working to exhaustion, you can avoid that.  Go home early.  Make a nice dinner.  Take a shower and get in bed.  Avoid replacing one addiction with another: chemically induced relaxation will compound your problems.  Avoid the bar.  Instead, shut everything down for the moment.  Even allow yourself to fail sometimes.  Missing a deadline or taking an evening off in the interest of self-care will not result in the end of the world.  Stop trying to control everything, especially when you feel that you’re going to fall apart unless you double down and pull an all-nighter.  Because that’s what this is about: feeling like you need absolute control at all times.  Workaholism is like any other addiction.  It’s an ersatz mode of control.  Getting over it means learning to relinquish control.  It’s not easy, but it’s absolutely necessary if you want to progress.

(3) Be kind to yourself.  This sort of self-torture has deep roots in those who suffer from it.  You will slip up when you’re trying to lead a healthier life.  You will have to deal with the unpleasantness of giving up your lousy self-destructive coping strategy.  That cruel inner voice that says you need to prove your worthiness by striving for some unattainable and, frankly, mentally ill standard of perfection and productivity is not your friend.  It’s a part of you that got misaligned early in your development and that is probably sustained by the culture around you.  Learning to be kind to yourself is a good first step toward re-alignment.  A humble and wide perspective also helps, realizing that you will never be at your best if you’re in a constant state of turmoil and burnout.  Also accept that even when you are completely centered, well-rested, and healthy, you’re still fallible.  You’re not always going to be on top of your game.  Maybe never.  So what?  The overall quality of your life is more important.  When you’re dead, hell won’t give you credit for “time already served” up at your desk. 

And (4) avoid the game of childish posturing. In every workplace (and on the internet), you’ll meet a certain percentage of people who get off on how much they can overwork, as if that defines them as superior beings.  They are looking to others for cheap validation because they feel empty.  I know because I have been that person.  Don’t make my stupid mistakes, kid.  Working hard is good.  But setting limits adds value to everything.  Facing the reasons why you overwork might be painful, but it’s again about self-honesty.  You have a limited amount of time.  You should be using at least some of it to frolic in the dandelions and give biscuits to puppies.  I say this as the badass motherfucker you know and love: puppies. Frolic. Get to it.

It goes without saying that, by writing this, I am actually practicing these things in my own way.

Writing out a few sentences by Nakamura to see how they feel.

There was something evil in the glow of the room’s blue lights.  I felt the weight of the man on top of me.  He could no longer move.  His eyes were closed.  I stared long into his face.  I realized that I wanted him.  I wanted the passion he had until a moment ago.  I wanted his shoulders, which were quite muscular for his age, and his naturally tan face.  I got out from under his body, sat in a chair, and lit a cigarette.  I had to wait like this until he fell into a deep sleep.

It was raining outside.

The Kingdom, Fuminori Nakamura (trans. Kalau Almony)

The Writing Life Ain’t Easy, Kid

Today I’m thinking about how most people locate the center of meaning in their lives in their social identity, which is synonymous either with their career role or some caretaking role or both.  But the artist finds the center of meaning in the act of making art.  This is an important distinction to keep in mind, especially for me when I’m not writing.

When I don’t feel capable of producing writing, I nearly always get depressed to some degree.  My insecurities get stronger.  I start wondering whether I’ve wasted my life following insubstantial dreams.  Nevermind that I’ve already accomplished things my younger self could have never imagined possible.  It’s as if none of that ever existed.  It’s failure, failure, failure, failure, failure on repeat in my head.  And it never relents.

Of course, this doesn’t happen in productive times because, when I’m actually involved with my work, I’m not even considering other things.  At most those old insecurities are tiny thoughts, easily dismissed by the reality of the page filling up with words.  Writing is all-consuming when it’s happening.  When it isn’t, when I’m unable to move my mind into focus, I feel incredibly empty and worthless, which reminds me of something my first creative writing instructor once said: “Writers drink and use drugs probably because when they can’t write, they think they don’t exist.  And they will do anything to escape that pain.”  It took me years to fully understand what he meant.  But I don’t try to escape the pain that way.  I just suffer. 

No matter how much I publish, no matter how many stories and chapters and essays and posts I write, it’s never enough to make me feel satisfied like I’ve arrived in a secure, content, stable place in my life and work.  As soon as I write the last word of something, I’m already thinking about the next thing.  Only during those moments of actual work, when I can forget myself fully do I feel any respite.  

When I’m like a clear pane of glass and the light of my work is shining through me, I experience a kind of bliss, a satori.  Nothing is ever that good.  Drugs or alcohol can’t come remotely close because they shut down or at least reconfigure thought processes.  Writing, when I’m immersed in it, enhances all processes, all existing configurations of thought—even the critical and analytical routines that consider form and technique—and precipitates insights, perspectives, realizations.  This is far better than taking drugs.  These are the drugs of the mind.  And the only thing I live for is to be in that place, putting words on the page.  The rest of my life, actually 90% of what I do that isn’t writing, is preparing to write or recovering from having written so I can do it again.

This way of life emphasizes introspection and subjectivity.  It is not contingent on the opinions of others, permission from authorities or institutions, or any other sort of social frameworks external to my inward experience.  That is a wonderful thing, sometimes.  But sometimes the alienation I feel can be terrible: from friends, family, society, culture, what passes for normal life.  The constant pain of living in my own subjective universe and knowing that, while others may do the same, they can never truly share this experience with me, is very subtle but very tangible, especially when I’m depressed about not writing.  When there is no bliss, there is only emptiness and doubt, an inner stage devoid of actors, props, and background, all too easily filled with regret, self-criticism, worry, and the memory of past failures.  But that’s the life.  That’s its hard interior, even when it looks soft on the outside.  

It means I have to make a living somehow as well, whether though freelance work, teaching, or something else.  When I’m producing, that’s fine.  It’s easy to accept when you’re high on life.  But these needs, these ups and downs, having to be a responsible adult while also being this other thing, a writer, an artist, can make life quite difficult when the words aren’t there.  The thing that society labels “artist” the way people label “happiness” or “love” or “god”—using the term in an offhand way, while not truly knowing what it is or truly caring that they don’t—is the life of Persephone, half on the earth, half in that other place.

All jobs are hard.  All lives are challenging for the people living them.  This one, too.  Even those days when I manage to get it right.  Why do I do it?  Maybe I’m obsessed.  And I guess it’s something at which I’m reasonably competent.  And I like it better than mowing lawns.