Category Archives: Writing Expedition
“Two rich couples drop out of a limousine. The women are wearing outfits the poor people who were in ten years ago wore ten years ago. The men are just neutral. All the poor people who’re making this club fashionable so the rich want to hang out here, even though the poor still never make a buck off the rich pleasure, are sitting on cars, watching the rich people walk up to the club.”
— Kathy Acker
For every good writing day, I have 20 bad ones. A good writing day is one in which I feel inspired to make progress on a piece. But that doesn’t ensure that I will be able to finish it or feel satisfied if I do. It doesn’t mean that I will think I did a good piece of work or that I will be able to trust that judgment over time. All I know after a good day is that I felt good. All I know on those other days is that I felt frustrated, uninspired, and aggrieved whether or not I produced pages, whether or not I think (or will think) that those pages are worthwhile.
Optimal conditions rarely exist for creative work. There is always something getting in the way, some defect of body, mind, or circumstances that conspires to obstruct progress and generate despair and self-doubt. The only answer is to keep writing, to admit that I can and will generate unsatisfying work, to avoid wondering about my talent, and to just get on with things. As my trombonist friend, Mike Hickey, once said about being a musician: just keep playing.
Just keep writing.
No one feels they have talent all the time. In fact, most people feel the way I do: it’s hit and miss, always a struggle, always an emotional upheaval. If literary geniuses really do exist outside the marketing generated by a hypocritical and terrified publishing industry, they would, by definition, be critical of themselves. History confirms that creative work is hard, even for the most famous and memorable writers. And it can’t be genius to believe it’s always easy or that your talent will confer all the pleasures and none of the agonies.
Just keep writing.
I tell myself to forget the people who have advised me not to give up my day job; they don’t know and can’t judge. Forget the family members and acquaintances who wanted me to reflect their own lack of talent and resented me for trying to develop my own; they can only see disappointing reflections of themselves. Forget the graduate school competitors, the half-starved adjunct professors, the depressed self-diagnosed creative failures, the cynical postmodernists declaring everything already over; they’re all too emotional. They’re like sick dogs. And sick dogs don’t typically write fiction. Don’t be a romantic. Be methodical. Cultivate a classical mind. Stay dedicated to the work and just keep writing because all these feelings and emotional people will disappear.
The only thing left will be the words I’ve written down. Whether there are many words or just a few is irrelevant. The point will be that I wrote them and kept writing them. In the end, that’s all I will have because the books will get put away on a shelf or recycled or lost. The computer files will get forgotten or deleted. What I wrote will be no better than a half-remembered dream. Just as what I intend to write is nothing more than a flimsy possibility. A trombonist is nothing without his trombone in his hand. If he keeps playing, he’s a trombonist.
Nothing exists except for this moment and what I do in it. So if I call myself a writer, I have one job.
All libraries contain secrets, even the most sterile and unwelcoming collections. One thinks this must be why conservative politicians despise public libraries and continuously go after their funding. It can be frightening to imagine that the public has access to knowledge that those in power have neither the time nor the inclination to discover.
A library represents free information and therefore runs contrary to the ethos of authoritarian capitalism and consumerism: if something is free, it’s suspect because nothing of value can be free. So when corporate culture and its politicians aren’t creating more poverty to criminalize, they devote a certain amount of their free time to portraying libraries as cesspools of homelessness. People can’t be going there to learn. The knowledge marketplace demands that information be endowed with a certain market value.
Libraries are all too often described as places where bad-smelling, mentally ill, bearded men spend their afternoon snoring with titles like Les arts de l’Asie centrale or A Catalogue of Turkish Manuscripts and Miniatures, volume III as dusty pillows. No one sleeps in Amazon.com or on the stack of Reader’s digests and Wall Street Journals in front of the local newsstand. And that’s how conservative America likes it: if you’re not going to buy anything, please go away and die somewhere discreet. And maybe take The History and Development of Ancient Chinese Architecture with you. No one wants to buy that.
But I, for one, find unwashed old men in libraries reassuring if not a little endearing. Just as when it rains, I take solace in the regularity of storm clouds, when I hear that tell-tale snoring, I enjoy the thought that some vet named Burt will be sitting around the corner in the Dewey 930s, pretending to read a text in Arcadocypriot Greek when the librarian passes by. If you look closely, you might notice that the book is upside-down. But you won’t look that closely.
At the end of the day, when one of the librarians picks up the book to reshelve it, she’ll no doubt experience a sense of wonder: someone finally came in search of that obscure Peloponnesian dialect—and casually to the extent that the person didn’t even feel the need to check the book out! The possibility that it was merely being used as a sad old man’s headrest would be too cynical for a true librarian to entertain, at least straight away. Instead, she’d prefer to believe that someone walked in determined to learn more about the world of pre-Dorian Cyprus. And that is why true librarians are wonderful people (people filled with wonder). But, as with anything else in this late age of revenge politics, throwback Enlightenment scientism, and YA fiction for adults, true anything is rare.
Still, libraries, like museums, are meant to preserve such rarities. So it makes sense that a library might contain hidden practitioners of true arts the same way it secrets knowledge away from the broadcloth-and-pearl-wearing delinquents currently ruining the United States and demeaning the arts and sciences of the West. Maybe Burt was (is) a sculptor. Maybe the gentleman with the Fu Manchu and the Army surplus jacket at that table in the corner has a masters in historical musicology. Maybe the toothless wonder currently snoring into a puddle of drool once wrote a dissertation on the rejection of evidentialism in religious epistemology. You never know.
Maybe a star seen through a library window at midnight is actually a symmetrical angel—too distant to be clearly perceived in its full geometry. Yet, if viewed from within a dark library with one’s feet in the proper position while speaking the right Arcadocypriotic line from Pausanias’ Description of Greece, one might have a rare insight into stars and angels. One might even begin to comprehend the range of symmetrical possibilities that converge on a functioning library card: that a library is a city of doors, that it gratefully accepts the snores of sleeping homeless men the way the hills accept the rain, and that it is, above all else, an infinite palace of vaults and ritual chambers in which one finds all the angels, devils, and true adepts resident in the human imagination.
How many people will come along with the necessary Arcadocypriotic, having read the Pausanias’ prescribed ancient manuscript (even right-side-up in translation), and capable of accessing the library at midnight in order to stand by the dark window on the appropriate night and have this mysterious realization? Very few. This is how libraries veil their secrets. The information is available, but you have to do the work of discovering it. And then you have to engage with it beyond merely using the book as a headrest. The librarian believes in you.
If you succeed in this, unlike Betsy DeVos, you may attain a level of knowledge and conversation with the deeper mysteries of the library and what it represents; though, you may not reacquire your teeth or find a place to sleep after closing hours. But you will grasp the golden chain of true insight that has come down, unbroken, through the hands of countless artists, scholars, monks, philosophers, scientists, and mystics—the other end of which may be held by Venus or may disappear in the source of all books, a cloud of unknowing silence which nothing but silence can express.
I love Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop media franchise-festival-website-train wreck-tent revival-circus because it’s so bad, so transparent, so cynical, so marketed to the sad and the gullible, that it’s good. It fails so spectacularly that it inadvertently succeeds at being something else: not just more disingenuous commerce beneath a layer of new age double-talk, but, like Gwyneth herself, a new mutant reality, a fun house mirror that you can step into, like any magic mirror, and find yourself in some alternate world.
Whenever I witness something from Goop, I think, “Oprah did this” in the sense that Oprah’s marketing simultaneously harnessed the libidos of multiple generations of frustrated women across economic and ethnic boundaries in a way hitherto unrivaled by Madison Avenue. Oprah was up in everybody’s grill. Her media empire embodied the Wachowskis’ matrix concept: persistent, ubiquitous, artificial, verisimilar, and controlling. For 25 years, the Oprah Winfrey Show (with its attendant book club, “favorite things” endorsements, travel events, health trends, mail-order spirituality, and assorted celebrity mea culpas) gave viewers a voice, essentially Oprah’s voice.
But, for all that, one got the impression that she at least meant well. Beneath the innumerable folds of consumerism and coercive string-pulling, Oprah maintained a pearl of optimism about human beings. Much of her show focused on ways to realize oneself, actualize one’s unique gifts, and live a better life—not such a bad thing given the dry rot at the heart of American culture. The weight of that simple optimism seemed to counterbalance all the product placement.
Daytime talk show tabloidia could accept Oprah as a messiah figure perhaps because she came bearing free cars, spa trips, and the occasional house. Someone would walk on stage with a check the size of a Volvo and hand it to a weeping audience member. Confetti would fall from the ceiling. And everyone would bellow in orgasmic wonder.
But nobody wants to find their spiritual apotheosis in Gwyneth.
I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel. I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess. I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed.
– Charlie Brown