Category Archives: Writing Expedition
air and light and time and space
“–you know, I’ve either had a family, a job,
something has always been in the
I’ve sold my house, I’ve found this
place, a large studio, you should see the space and
for the first time in my life I’m going to have
a place and the time to
no baby, if you’re going to create
you’re going to create whether you work
16 hours a day in a coal mine
you’re going to create in a small room with 3 children
while you’re on
you’re going to create with part of your mind and your body blown
you’re going to create blind
you’re going to create with a cat crawling up your
the whole city trembles in earthquake, bombardment,
flood and fire.
baby, air and light and time and space
have nothing to do with it
and don’t create anything
except maybe a longer life to find
— Charles Bukowski
The story of my inner critic begins when I was very young, perceiving the unrest between my mother and father. Money was always a critical issue. My father lived in the same house but was generally unavailable, emotionally and otherwise. At the same time, my mother held powerful feelings of resentment against him for not taking part in anything, ever. For several years (until my parents mutually agreed to remain together for my benefit but lived as if they were strangers to each other in the same house), there was so much tension that I would vomit from stress at every meal. It was a great relief when my mother allowed me to eat alone in my room.
My mother watched a lot of local news. She was convinced that the public school system in our San Diego neighborhood at the time was a breeding ground for criminality. She made a point of telling me that I wouldn’t last 10 minutes there and constantly reminded me of my responsibilities—that I was attending a private Catholic school and all the tuition money would go to waste unless I did well. I was a very stressed-out kid.
Moreover, my mother put me into programs (swim class, piano lessons) and bought me a lot of toys (which always made me immensely guilty as much as I liked them because I knew how broke we were), but with each thing came the enormous imperative to excel at school. Nothing was ever without an emotional string attached. I gained a lot of weight around ages 7-10, had trouble making friends, and preferred to spend most of my time alone with books or with our dogs out in the canyon below our house. I was very lonely. My father’s mantra was “Leave me alone.” And my mother’s was “You should be ashamed of yourself.”
At school, I got into regular fights (with the crazy maladjusted rich kids around me) and lost most of them, causing me to be mocked by the boys, then punished for what I often felt wasn’t my fault. I got punished first at school, then got punished by my mother at home on a weekly basis. I was always either entering or leaving a period of punishment. My father had no idea (and preferred it that way). My mother wanted to know why I was ruining my life.
Getting spanked with the unscrewed wooden strut from the back of one of our kitchen chairs eventually transitioned into hours of house chores, yard work, and being grounded, which was a great improvement. But the psychological difficulties remained. I was always made to understand that every time I slipped up, I put the financial health of the family and my own future in jeopardy. My mother, for all of her great qualities (and she had many) had no sense of humor about this.
Most days at school, I was extremely unpopular and was avoided by the other kids. In the eight years I spent at that school, I had maybe one or two friends and, looking back, I can say those were not good friendships. But they were what I had. People made me inherently uneasy. I enjoyed animals far more.
I lived in particular fear of our PE classes, where the oblivious windbreakered “coaches” let the boys vent their frustrations on anyone and in any way they wanted as long as we left them alone. I disappeared to the tiny school library when I could. When I absolutely had to participate in some team sport (I was never good at any of them), I was automatically relocated to the outfield—the Siberia of the baseball field—where the unpopular kids got sent until a freak ball came their way and the whole world started angrily screaming. I liked the butterflies and sitting in the unkempt grass. So the outfield was just fine if no one noticed me.
On the infrequent occasions when the insane screaming would start, I’d just watch the more important kids run from their first base or pitcher spot to catch the ball themselves, usually giving me a kick in the process because I’d be sitting out there cross-legged, doing nothing. There were a few times when I was beaten by several kids for not trying to catch the ball, even though they’d shouted at me not to try. You can’t make this sort of absurdity up. As an adult, I look back in wonder at a culture that could produce kids like that. Then I read the news and stop wondering.
At the same time, the administration of the school was looking for excuses to dis-enroll students on the “Catholic discount” because we were costing them money. So, in a sense, I really was being observed carefully but not for educational reasons. The lawsuit-averse strategy was to identify some misbehavior or defect in a kid (never the wealthy ones with the hyper-aggressive blonde PTA mothers); send him or her to the school psychologist—a psychology graduate student from University of San Diego, the affiliated private Catholic university in town; establish a defensible reason for the kid being put into after-school programs and / or remedial classes; and then eventually, pending a second evaluation, recommend that he be transferred into the public system where other resources existed to address the “problem.”
Several broke problem kids on the discount disappeared as a result of this strategy, but my mother was determined to keep me in. She fought vehemently to keep me away from the graduate-student psychologist and to keep any evaluation mediated by the school out of my files. She felt that once there was a psych paper trail, I’d never be free of it.
She worried a lot about my “permanent record.” To be fair, this was the late 1970s. The school was being run by people who came of age and were educated in a conservative American Catholic culture of the 1950s and 1960s. So as far as I can tell, my mother was more right about the stigma of mental illness than she was wrong. It wasn’t about pumping the kids full of Adderall back then. It was a cruel kind of sorting hat, keyed to money and the displeasure of those in authority. Piss them off and you got “diagnosed.”
After too many lost fights, too many after-school detentions, and a broken convent window, the extremely uptight (worried about her job) principle finally demanded that I get a psych evaluation or be expelled. My mother paid out-of-pocket for a professional child psychologist recommended by Scripps Hospital (i.e. an independent expert witness for the defense). My father, after great protest that his schedule was being disrupted and a parental screaming fight in the living room, finally drove us over to the hospital annex. Needless to say, I felt horrible about it all. It was, you see, all my fault.
I remember that the psychologist had a bushy mustache and kind eyes. He talked to me for about 15 minutes. Then he asked to talk to my parents. Later, I learned from my mother that he said: “Your son is just fine. You both, however, should get some marriage counselling.” By telling me that, what my mom really meant was: “Your father is a horrible person,” but I wouldn’t decode it for years, until personal experience gave me enough insight to agree with her.
She was already seeing a psychiatrist independently and learning ways to cope with being trapped in an unhappy marriage. That’s what a lot of “women’s counselling” amounted to back then. But my 15 minutes of therapy did produce a letter attesting to my normalcy, which my mom brought to the school. And henceforth all administrative heads were bowed. They couldn’t argue with Scripps Hospital.
Those had been bad years. But things got better. I learned how to fight, actually, both from my mother and a 45-year-old North Vietnamese naval captain, named Tran. After the psych evaluation, mom decided I was too soft and, at the suggestion of my wonderful magical spiritualist aunt, my mother enrolled me in martial arts classes at the local YMCA. That is a story in itself—a much brighter, happier story, at least for a while until my dad entered it again—but the upshot was that I started practicing Vo Lam Kung Fu, Chin Na, and Iron Palm at age 10.
Pretty soon, I could speak a bit of Vietnamese, break bricks with my fists, disassociate myself from levels of physical pain, take a shot to the face without falling over, and because I lost weight and got strong, I also learned compassion for other kids like me. My mother’s training was supplemental: “If someone tries to hurt you, hit them as hard as you can in the face.” She was a master of the hard school.
I only needed to do that once or twice before the bullies left me to my books and butterflies. I was not expelled. And then I went to high school to start the next difficult chapter of my childhood, but for a while I was a lot happier as a person. I was still lonely and spent most of my time in my head, but I had a group of very tough grown men over at the Y (most of whom had already been soldiers by my age) who would treat me with respect because I was completely sincere. It was a special thing for me.
It took me about 25 years before I’d have to return to those early negative childhood experiences as I struggled with pervasive suicidal urges and a critical inner voice that wanted me, above all else, to just erase myself. After a lot of reading, writing, talking, and self-work, I learned to think of that inner torment as a fragment of my personality stuck in those early years of being bullied and stressed out, a splinter from my childhood mind that had never grown up. As an educated adult who practices a lot of introspection, I have been able to understand my self-destructive impulses in a way that helps me see what they really are: the impossible attempt of a kid trying to cope with his parents’ problems.
They never did get marriage counselling. But part of me is still back there in 1979, feeling like all the vehemence and shouting was my fault, anxious that any misstep could permanently bankrupt us, and searching feverishly for a place where I would not be noticed. Many of my life choices since then—some good, some not so good—can be traced back to those feelings. They are part of who I am, wired into the basis of my personality.
They’ve also helped me in a number of positive ways, especially, as a teacher, when I have encountered those things in students. But I know there will never be a time when I can take my own mind for granted. I will always have a self-destructive (and, when it’s at its worst, overtly suicidal) tendency to feel disproportionately responsible and to seek some kind of punishment, even if that self-punishment is inherently unjust.
The unevolved child in me thinks that if I had just disappeared everything would have been better for my parents or would be better now. Luckily, the compassionate adult part of me disagrees with that. And I prefer to live like an adult.
There is a writing life. And you could lead it if you could only get past everything else, which is to say yourself. This is what a lot of writers eventually believe, even if they don’t start out that way. Maybe you believe it, too. It’s not the wrong way to think (tell me there’s a right or wrong in this business and I’ll show you how that’s both right and wrong), but it is naïve.
So be naïve. There are worse things for a writer, like crippling cynicism or despair or (absolutely lethal) early unwarranted success. And what is success? Before we get into that, let’s start with trouble, which means we have to also start with money because they’re inseparable.
I was going to call this, “Of Trouble and Money,” but I realized that’s too broad. It covers everybody. And this is a post aimed primarily at writers and at those closeted egomaniacs grappling with the concept who call themselves, “aspiring writers.” So I added “the So-called Writing Life.” But that, too, is just a label, a concept, a paper hat, an identity that often proves to be more trouble than it’s worth.
You need something else, a different paper hat to stave off Bob, who works in IT and hates himself, at the dinner party you were coerced into attending. Bob despises everything in the world, but he’ll despise you so much more if you put on the writer hat. So you say, “I’m an English teacher” (nice and boring; he feels superior; well done) or “I’m a copyeditor” (also boring; satisfyingly obscure) or “I’m between jobs” (could be true; boring; allows Bob to feel superior and has the added benefit of desperation cooties, which will make Bob excuse himself in 30 seconds and avoid you for the rest of the evening). Say anything other than, “I’m a writer.” You don’t need the paper hat to lead the life.
You just need to lead the life. And what does that entail? First, trouble. You have it the minute you make the decision to put down words that amount to anything more than a grocery list. There’s the art, which takes a lifetime. There are the ponderous exigencies of time and space that seem to conspire against you from the beginning, making it very difficult to get anything completed. There are many pencils to sharpen and bagels to eat and horrific dinner parties to endure. There’s your recalcitrant mind, your spouse, your family, your friends, your old pals from high school at the reunion, your outright enemies, the publishing industry, crotchety reviewers, and posterity, which you won’t be around to appreciate but which you’ll worry about nonetheless. There’s needing to eat. And there’s existential dread that you’re wasting your time, which you’ll laugh at until it starts laughing, too.
Second, money. Another pernicious idea. A demon. The basis of all well-being in our mentally ill society. Getting it. Having it. Spending it. Losing it. Cycle, cycle, cycle, over and over. Writing doesn’t work on money. And the writing life doesn’t know money exists. All writing wants is more writing. All money wants is every part of you salted on a plate.
A young horror writer I know recently told me that he feels small presses are fine, but his goal is to make a middle-class income off his writing. So he has to go for bigger game. I told him that I thought it was possible, that I thought he could do it, and I was being honest. You can earn a middle-class living doing just about anything if you make that income level your goal and subordinate all other considerations to it. I admire his clarity. I never said, “I want that.” I only said I needed to write because if I didn’t I’d get (more) mentally unwell. For me, it’s a matter of health. For him, wealth.
We’re both writers. But he’s going to get what he wants because he actually knows what it is, which gives him wisdom. Very few writers are healthy, wealthy, and wise. All I ever knew was that I didn’t want to not write. When I did write, I was happier for it. I’m still on that track: write so I can avoid having not written, then get busy with all the other compulsions and machinations of my day, which are ultimately in place to facilitate one thing: me being able to avoid not writing again tomorrow.
So you eat the trouble-money sandwich every day. And if you can keep it down, if you can do your art on a regular basis with a free and sincere mind, you’re leading the writing life—insofar as we can call it that, since most serious writers will be equally serious when they tell you that’s no way to live. Go into plastics. Sell computers. Operate a used car lot. Go make Bolivia great again. Manage a bowling alley and spend all your free time watching spaghetti westerns and smoking weed. Care for a kitten. I guarantee, in the end, that kitten will make you happier than your writing, even if, from the beginning to the middle, your writing saves your life.
But what is your life worth? If you have an idea that it comes down to being a success and you can say what that is, you are most assuredly wrong. If you only have a compulsion to not not write, welcome to my world. I can’t be wrong because I can’t be right. Every morning with my coffee and steno pad, I’m a formless pulse, trying to be someone else, somewhere else, in my head. And that doesn’t make a body solvent. It doesn’t make people want to put your books in urns in the basement of a pyramid. You’ll get paid by teaching or working for Bob the IT professional or washing dishes in the back of Harley’s Place. And don’t complain. You made your choices. Complaining is for Bob, not you. He doesn’t get to do what you do.
So you accept that you’ve made this writer’s bargain. You’ve gone down to the crossroads and agreed that, in exchange for being able to live the writing life, you will never have a two-story house in the suburbs and drive a car that doesn’t look like a dirty toaster. You will be mindful of your whining. You will be grateful for this divine gift that makes you weird and ecstatic and keeps your head from exploding. And you will get up day-in and day-out and sit at the desk and go out of body to that place where your characters may be earning their middle-class incomes and driving new cars and having break-up conversations over linguine at the Chez Paul.
Maybe you’ll be a horror writer. Maybe you will attain your income goals. But I suspect that in order to accomplish such a thing, you’ll have to get past those goals along with everything else and exist in a liminal space where all that matters is the writing. In the meantime, you should know that cardboard inserts in your shoes can prevent your socks from getting wet. And a place that serves bottomless coffee is a joy forever.