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A profound bit of wisdom from Alan Watts.

I rarely repost to this blog, but I feel that this issue is so critical I’m going to make an exception.  If you’d like to view this as a PDF, I have made one here: https://app.box.com/s/m8znyevfwkkllpyowtut3xmvtd3vifao

The URL of the letter is here: https://harpers.org/a-letter-on-justice-and-open-debate/

Harper’s describes the letter like this on social media: “A statement signed by 150 people incl. Bill T. Jones, Wynton Marsalis, Jennifer Finney Boylan, Noam Chomsky, J.K. Rowling, Margaret Atwood, and Salman Rushdie expresses concern over the illiberal trend intensified by our national reckoning.” 

My compliments to Harper’s for publishing this.

This is the text:

A Letter on Justice and Open Debate

July 7, 2020

Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second. The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.

Elliot Ackerman
Saladin Ambar, Rutgers University
Martin Amis
Anne Applebaum
Marie Arana, author
Margaret Atwood
John Banville
Mia Bay, historian
Louis Begley, writer
Roger Berkowitz, Bard College
Paul Berman, writer
Sheri Berman, Barnard College
Reginald Dwayne Betts, poet
Neil Blair, agent
David W. Blight, Yale University
Jennifer Finney Boylan, author
David Bromwich
David Brooks, columnist
Ian Buruma, Bard College
Lea Carpenter
Noam Chomsky, MIT (emeritus)
Nicholas A. Christakis, Yale University
Roger Cohen, writer
Ambassador Frances D. Cook, ret.
Drucilla Cornell, Founder, uBuntu Project
Kamel Daoud
Meghan Daum, writer
Gerald Early, Washington University-St. Louis
Jeffrey Eugenides, writer
Dexter Filkins
Federico Finchelstein, The New School
Caitlin Flanagan
Richard T. Ford, Stanford Law School
Kmele Foster
David Frum, journalist
Francis Fukuyama, Stanford University
Atul Gawande, Harvard University
Todd Gitlin, Columbia University
Kim Ghattas
Malcolm Gladwell
Michelle Goldberg, columnist
Rebecca Goldstein, writer
Anthony Grafton, Princeton University
David Greenberg, Rutgers University
Linda Greenhouse
Kerri Greenidge, historian
Rinne B. Groff, playwright
Sarah Haider, activist
Jonathan Haidt, NYU-Stern
Roya Hakakian, writer
Shadi Hamid, Brookings Institution
Jeet Heer, The Nation
Katie Herzog, podcast host
Susannah Heschel, Dartmouth College
Adam Hochschild, author
Arlie Russell Hochschild, author
Eva Hoffman, writer
Coleman Hughes, writer/Manhattan Institute
Hussein Ibish, Arab Gulf States Institute
Michael Ignatieff
Zaid Jilani, journalist
Bill T. Jones, New York Live Arts
Wendy Kaminer, writer
Matthew Karp, Princeton University
Garry Kasparov, Renew Democracy Initiative
Daniel Kehlmann, writer
Randall Kennedy
Khaled Khalifa, writer
Parag Khanna, author
Laura Kipnis, Northwestern University
Frances Kissling, Center for Health, Ethics, Social Policy
Enrique Krauze, historian
Anthony Kronman, Yale University
Joy Ladin, Yeshiva University
Nicholas Lemann, Columbia University
Mark Lilla, Columbia University
Susie Linfield, New York University
Damon Linker, writer
Dahlia Lithwick, Slate
Steven Lukes, New York University
John R. MacArthur
, publisher, writer
Susan Madrak, writer
Phoebe Maltz Bovy
, writer

Greil Marcus
Wynton Marsalis, Jazz at Lincoln Center
Kati Marton, author
Debra Maschek, scholar
Deirdre McCloskey, University of Illinois at Chicago
John McWhorter, Columbia University
Uday Mehta, City University of New York
Andrew Moravcsik, Princeton University
Yascha Mounk, Persuasion
Samuel Moyn, Yale University
Meera Nanda, writer and teacher
Cary Nelson, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Olivia Nuzzi, New York Magazine
Mark Oppenheimer, Yale University
Dael Orlandersmith, writer/performer
George Packer
Nell Irvin Painter, Princeton University (emerita)
Greg Pardlo, Rutgers University – Camden
Orlando Patterson, Harvard University
Steven Pinker, Harvard University
Letty Cottin Pogrebin
Katha Pollitt
, writer

Claire Bond Potter, The New School
Taufiq Rahim, New America Foundation
Zia Haider Rahman, writer
Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, University of Wisconsin
Jonathan Rauch, Brookings Institution/The Atlantic
Neil Roberts, political theorist
Melvin Rogers, Brown University
Kat Rosenfield, writer
Loretta J. Ross, Smith College
J.K. Rowling
Salman Rushdie, New York University
Karim Sadjadpour, Carnegie Endowment
Daryl Michael Scott, Howard University
Diana Senechal, teacher and writer
Jennifer Senior, columnist
Judith Shulevitz, writer
Jesse Singal, journalist
Anne-Marie Slaughter
Andrew Solomon, writer
Deborah Solomon, critic and biographer
Allison Stanger, Middlebury College
Paul Starr, American Prospect/Princeton University
Wendell Steavenson, writer
Gloria Steinem, writer and activist
Nadine Strossen, New York Law School
Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., Harvard Law School
Kian Tajbakhsh, Columbia University
Zephyr Teachout, Fordham University
Cynthia Tucker, University of South Alabama
Adaner Usmani, Harvard University
Chloe Valdary
Lucía Martínez Valdivia, Reed College
Helen Vendler, Harvard University
Judy B. Walzer
Michael Walzer
Eric K. Washington, historian
Caroline Weber, historian
Randi Weingarten, American Federation of Teachers
Bari Weiss
Sean Wilentz, Princeton University
Garry Wills
Thomas Chatterton Williams, writer
Robert F. Worth, journalist and author
Molly Worthen, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Matthew Yglesias
Emily Yoffe, journalist
Cathy Young, journalist
Fareed Zakaria

Institutions are listed for identification purposes only.


Read it here: https://www.splicetoday.com/writing/navigating-literary-siberia

Secrets that involve state actors or politically important individuals are frequently hidden in plain sight. Most people don’t have the time, energy, or research skills to see them, which is what keeps the issue unexamined and quiet.  But those of us who are indefatigably curious often can’t help ourselves.  And, like a black cat in Vietnam, poking our whiskers into the wrong place can get us into serious trouble, even if we are committed to writing about such things.

In general, state secrets seem to originate in very abstract, political (industrial, military, territorial), and bureaucratic forms of aggression, fear, and greed.  These concerns inevitably trickle down to horrific policy decisions that have the potential to hurt people and create insecurity and some degree of social chaos if pointed out.  Unfortunately, there is no country immune from this.  It seems to come standard with the power of jurisdiction and geopolitical boundaries.

The only way to make diffuse information hidden in plain sight comprehensible is to pull together the disparate data and write a convincing story about how it all probably came into being.  Stories are how we’re primarily conditioned to understand what’s going on.  And a writer’s job is to facilitate the emergence of that truth for the public, even if it turns out to be just one of many “competing truths.”  Even in explanatory journalism, exposing secrets is rarely open-and-shut.

State secrecy exists because it needs to—because the decisions being made are contemptible (though sometimes necessary) or because the truth would create serious vulnerability in certain influential groups and individuals.  History is rife with examples.  Current events are also full of them (implicitly, sometimes explicitly) if you know how to look.

I’m not talking about conspiracy theories that involve secret cabals and cartoon evils.  I’ve never witnessed anything like that.  Instead, I’ve discovered very mundane things, real life horrors, birthed from unethical entities making self-serving, highly ambitious choices and fortified with time, encouragement, and usually immense resources.  Anyone with the inclination, research skills, and time can discover as much.  But not everyone can write well enough to help people understand.  More importantly, not everyone wants to or thinks they should.

You not only have to do your homework and be able to write about it, but you have to be mature enough to ask Cui bono? and consider the most quotidian possibilities, because that is usually where you discover useful threads.  The story you tell needs to dramatize the subject matter enough that people can stick with it to the end.  Dramatic tension is the delivery mechanism, even if the final impact of your writing proves too far-reaching and explosive.  In most cases, it will be.  The truth rarely sets people free.  More often than not, it burns a wide swath through everyone involved. 

The first step to being a good investigative writer is being fascinated with details and a good student of history and media.  Read everything.  Keep copious notes about anything that draws your attention.  When you wake up in the middle of the night thinking about something, don’t just roll over and go back to sleep.  Turn on your laptop and start writing those thoughts and insights down.  Then keep writing.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also encourage the use of a good research library in addition to the internet.  Research libraries are invaluable.  They contain a lot that isn’t retrievable online (microfiche, microfilm, archival data, FOIA queries, information stored only at state and federal levels or in restricted archives).  When someone out in the world refuses to talk to you or send you information, chances are what they’re holding back can be found in a newspaper or magazine archive.  And they don’t even know.

When a researcher draws the right conclusions and has an insight that makes a serious secret visible, it’s usually a life-defining moment. She can collect her findings and then write about it and attempt to expose it to the world, risking personal ruin (or murder). Or she can decide that being a martyr for exposing a secret—that may be subsequently covered up or otherwise made invisible anyway—is a bad outcome and that other very good work can be done without making herself so vulnerable.

States will always have their secrets.  It’s a fair bet that most will seize any advantage, regardless of the ethical implications and will then need to cover up what they can’t bury.  Key individuals may refuse to get involved in unethical projects and activities, acknowledging that simply following orders or following the funding is no excuse.  But they can be side-lined or removed.  One wonders whether it’s usually better not to know.

Personally, I take a moderate approach.  Most things I discover, I write about, even if those pieces don’t always find a publisher.  But my life is important to me. So there are a few items, uncovered through methodically correlating public domain, trade publication, and records searches, that I will not talk about.  It’s better to live and write another day.

It’s certainly starting to look that way. Read about it here: https://www.splicetoday.com/writing/david-brooks-has-become-a-sadomasochistic-performance-artist.

You can read it here: https://www.splicetoday.com/writing/all-tomorrow-s-lockdowns

I don’t often reblog other writing here, but this one is worth the trouble.  The author is Soraya Roberts. — M

If the most financially and critically successful artists don’t feel successful, maybe there’s something wrong with how we think about success.

Source: The Myth of Making It

impressions

A travel-blog post on my first impressions of Wales.  Read it here: https://bkk-writing.blogspot.com/2019/08/impressions-of-wales.html

Read it here: https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/mob-justice-for-jeffrey-epstein

 

Read it here: http://www.decompmagazine.com/preponderanceofthesmall.htm

http://www.westtradereview.com/

air and light and time and space

“–you know, I’ve either had a family, a job,

something has always been in the

way

but now

I’ve sold my house, I’ve found this

place, a large studio, you should see the space and

the light.

for the first time in my life I’m going to have

a place and the time to

create.”

no baby, if you’re going to create

you’re going to create whether you work

16 hours a day in a coal mine

or

you’re going to create in a small room with 3 children

while you’re on

welfare,

you’re going to create with part of your mind and your body blown

away,

you’re going to create blind

crippled

demented,

you’re going to create with a cat crawling up your

back while

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

new excuses

for.

— 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.

Read it here: https://www.splicetoday.com/writing/attacked-on-the-street

You Are Somewhere Else

“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.

A List of Luxury Fashion Designers That Decided To Go Fur-Free

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

Years ago, when I was in law school, I had a curious experience, one that has recently echoed back to me from the son of a friend coming to the end of his 1L.  I would attend classes for about 5-6 hours a day, then spend 8-10 more studying in the library. I was wired pretty tightly, well on my way to developing a host of stress- and anxiety-driven illnesses, a drinking habit, anger management problems, and a degree of generalized hatred for myself and all humanity. And I was one of the relatively soulful, philosophically minded, well-adjusted ones.  You wouldn’t have wanted to spend 10 minutes in my presence.

The substance abuse in my first and second years was incredible to behold. It was comparable to the level of fear sustained in the students by the policies of the school, the economy, and their own Type-A personalities. At this time, jobs in law were just starting to become scarce. People were deeply in debt, had sacrificed everything to get there, and were obsessively, neurotically, pathologically motivated to succeed. The most popular directions were intellectual property, cyber law, and various other strains of corporate or business-oriented practice. Those interested in criminal law were viewed with a mix of wonder and contempt. The poverty law clinic people were considered idealistic rubes destined to live on ramen and hot dogs for the rest of their miserable lives.

And so it went. There was a suicide at the end of 1L, a hushed-up sexual harassment scandal involving a star professor, a few students dropped out, one to get married and become a suburban housewife, another due to undisclosed health problems, another after an in-class meltdown. The rest of us soldiered on because we had to. What else did we have? We were children who’d practiced the tuba for hours and hours and now we were in Advanced Tuba School. Take our tubas away and, we felt, we’d have to go sleep in the park.

I was no exception to any of this. The only thing that I had going for me was a tiny secret flame of creativity that I kept lit. Every Sunday morning, like a religious ritual, I took an hour out to read a short story. That was my church and my scripture. It was also another source of pain because it reminded me that somewhere someone not in law had written those words.  My fellow students fantasized about opening surf shops, being school custodians, managing bowling alleys. The escape fantasies came thick and fast, especially around exams when the law library mostly reeked of coffee and body odor. I fantasized about these things, too, about being a writer custodian or a writer surf shop cashier.

One afternoon, sitting in a fern-laden restaurant I couldn’t afford with a drug lawyer who had become a mentor of sorts, I came to a realization. She was on her third glass of wine, telling me that I needed to love law school because it was only going to get worse afterward. She said, “When I was in law school, I got to the point where I thought that I might be able to get hit by a car and live. If my legs were broken, no one could blame me for quitting.” I walked out of that lunch feeling like I’d just visited the crossroads and the devil had handed me some solid advice: you can sell your soul, but why don’t you go home and think it over first?

In the grand synchronicity of all things magical, I’d gotten an email that day from a writer I admired. I’d sent him a few old short stories and asked the most annoying question a young writer can ask: “Am I any good?” But he was kind and honest. He wrote back and said, “Yes, in my opinion, you are. But the life of a writer is not easy and you should know what you’re getting into. If you want to come study with me, you’re invited.” Warnings and dire pronouncements were nothing new. I heard them every day. So the caveat made absolutely no impression on me whatsoever. His opinion about my writing did. Shortly thereafter, I left law school to study creative writing and subsequently get a PhD in English.

Still, you don’t just walk away from that life. Law school makes a deep impression. It made me strong in certain ways, forced me to stop seeing success in law as a grand test of self-worth. Law school isn’t an IQ test; it’s not a metric for willpower, character, cleverness, or discipline; though, it draws on all of those things (like anything made artificially difficult). Law is generally taught poorly, often emotionally brutalizes students, and is unforgiving of human frailty in totally unnecessary ways. It’s also idealized when it should be analyzed. People worship law education because succeeding there is held up as an objective way to know one’s worth, which is tragic.

I want to say these things to my friend’s son. But I know I can’t because I see in him all the masochistic investment that I saw when I was back in law school. Instead, I will say it here and add: someone who seems stupid and unsuccessful in one respect will be smart and successful in another. Often these things will not be superficially evident. Until you can accept this—that there is no way to judge your worth apart from looking for it inside yourself—you will always be sad, scared, and beholden to the social power of others.

Be free. Let it go. Try to experience love. Try to discover small things that make you happy and look for ways to share those things with others. That’s when life really gets good. When you see someone who appears to be the smartest or most powerful person in the room, take a step back and widen your perspective until that feeling of being impressed and intimidated passes. Then look again.

At the age of 25 most people were finished. A whole god-damned nation of assholes driving automobiles, eating, having babies, doing everything in the worst way possible, like voting for the presidential candidate who reminded them most of themselves. I had no interests. I had no interest in anything. I had no idea how I was going to escape. At least the others had some taste for life. They seemed to understand something that I didn’t understand. Maybe I was lacking. It was possible. I often felt inferior. I just wanted to get away from them. But there was no place to go.

– Charles Bukowski

Source: http://bit.ly/2DzrRnn

This is what I often try to communicate on this blog. Here’s Dave Grohl saying it from a musical perspective.

Caleb was a smart, funny, middle-aged real estate salesman who dressed well and seemed amused by the world.  He sat apart in my Shakespeare seminar, every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, shrouded in the kind of invisibility that accompanies older, returning, so-called “non-traditional” college students.  The rest of the class, early 20-something undergraduates, were only interested in each other and passing the 3 credits of Shakespeare required for their various humanities degrees.  But I paid attention to Caleb and listened to him when he occasionally spoke up.

Maybe this was because I spent my childhood and early adult years in search of male role models, my father having been emotionally absent for most of my life.  Whatever the reason, while the other students were busy trying to get together with each other and / or ridicule each other’s ideas—oblivious to everyone and everything (often including the professor and the work) that stood outside the narrow purview of their post-adolescent obsessions—I was taking it all in, especially the things Caleb said. 

I remember thinking that he seemed to have everything a man could want: intelligence, style, money, wit, and enough virtue to believe that he could better himself by getting a second bachelor’s degree.  In my own very naïve and superficial way, I thought he was teaching me something by example.  I paid attention because I believed there were life secrets in plain view that could be discovered as long as I showed up, closed my mouth, and opened my mind.  But the lesson I was destined to learn from Caleb would not be taught until I got to know him better.

Toward the end of the course, we had to find a partner and prepare a presentation on one of Shakespeare’s history plays.  I was a hard worker.  So the presentation was relatively easy.  And since, like Caleb, I was a social outsider in the class, it seemed natural that we would be partners.  In this way, I got to know him a lot better.  We met a few times at the country club, of which he was part owner, and he taught me the basics of golf—which I found interesting but which I have not played since then.

We did the work, but I also got drawn temporarily into his social sphere.  Caleb had a magnetic personality and was constantly surrounded by money, activity, assistants, and stunning women, most of whom were professionals in commercial real estate or finance.  His lifestyle was impressive and a bit overwhelming to me.  Still, working with him over the course of a month gave me an insight I hadn’t had, a vision of what life could be like after college.  But it all fell away one afternoon over lunch when Caleb gave me some frank advice.

We’d just finished eating with a woman named Eva, who was about 5 years older than me and already a heavyweight in east coast corporate real estate.  She could have easily been a girl in one of my classes, but she’d graduated a year before from Princeton.  She was also one of the most physically beautiful people I had ever looked at.  When she said her good-byes and went off towards the tennis courts, Caleb and I watched her go.  I felt like I’d been struck by a bolt of lightning—that curious blend of admiration and despair that started wars in the ancient world, made poets fill their heads with absinthe and jump off bridges, and makes everyday people like you and me weep in the dark.

Caleb noticed the look on my face and said, “Don’t be a walking wallet in your life, Michael.”

I said I didn’t understand and he just looked at me with a faint smile as if to say, yes, you damn well do.

“This is no life to fall in love with,” he said.  “Study hard.  Do what you’re good at.  This—” he frowned and waved his hand to take in the people sitting around us, Eva (now a tiny figure in a white skirt among other tiny white-skirted figures on the tennis courts), the rolling golf course, the perfect blue sky—“is artificial.”

Over the years, it has occurred to me more than once that I could have sincerely responded with: “Most things we want are.”  But I wasn’t that glib at age 21.  Instead, I must have nodded or changed the subject because I don’t remember the rest of the conversation.  I do remember how Caleb pronounced artificial, like it was covered in some kind of excrement.  And I clearly recall how my sense of Eva immediately changed from infatuation to a kind of dread. 

If Caleb, a man who seemed to have everything, could feel bitter about his choices, then what lay in store for Eva?  For me?  How long would it take for the acids of commercial real estate to etch lines of acrimony and despair into her beautiful face?  And to what lengths would she go to cover all that up and approximate her former smile?  To what lengths had Caleb gone?  And how unsophisticated and superficial was I that I couldn’t see this while he could read my deepest longings and insecurities over a Caesar salad at the club?

I suppose he’d taken his own advice in spite of his regrets.  Caleb was doing what he was good at: reading me, helping me understand how to find satisfaction.  A gifted salesman knows your likes and dislikes, knows how to help you get what you want.  At the deepest purest level, a salesman is your best friend.  No one cares more deeply about fulfilling your needs, about why and how you’re hungry and how to feed you.  It has occurred to me that a true salesman—someone following his inner gift such that a writer like Cormac McCarthy might say he carried the secret fire—is as much an artist as any painter or poet.  He merely works in a cruder medium: human desire.

Caleb was one of the few people I’ve met in my life who carried that fire alongside his pain.  The possibility that one could actually do this was the lesson he taught me in a single conversation on a beautiful California afternoon sometime in 1993.  It opened my mind, not to becoming a real estate salesman like him, but to the reality that I had the secret fire, too; that somewhere it was already burning; and that discovering it was more important than all the dreams of avarice.

The latest on Splice Today.

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3

Still twitchy, but he had to go to work. And, now that he’d arrived, swiped in, got his black coveralls on, printed a soy-tuna sandwich in the break room and put it in the mini-fridge, Donny almost felt normal. The pills would prevent the chip from communicating with his body for three or four days, but the inhibitory drug’s side effects would last a whole week. He wouldn’t be able to smell or taste anything and his pounding headache wouldn’t go away no matter how many vending machine painkillers he took. Felt like someone dropped a heavy weight straight down on top of his head. And then there would be the dangerous period when the pills wore off. The lingering side effects prevented Donny from taking more, leaving him completely vulnerable for a few days before he could dose up again.

The code didn’t always run on those unprotected days. There was no telling exactly when it would. But it did once, right in the middle of his shift. He barely survived that night. So he now kept a pair of handcuffs from the equipment locker with him at all times. There was a spot in the sub-basement where Donny could lock himself to a pipe coming out of the wall if he felt the chip coming online. Unlit hallway. Nothing else around. Even Loach, his supervisor, wouldn’t look for him down there. Because if Loach ever found out, that would be the end. And what better job was there for someone in Donny’s situation than as a night guard? Better to pass out down there in the dark and tell Loach he’d gotten drunk, overslept, something.

He made Postum in the ancient tin percolator and poured it into his thermos. The tiny break room had caged red lights in the ceiling to discourage sleeping on the job and it smelled like a rubber tire. Donny spent as little time in there as possible. Tonight, especially since he was feeling on edge, he wanted to get out and do his rounds, just be out there in the dark with the heavy flashlight and the motion detector, where nothing ever moved and the only sound was dripping water. He stepped into the dark and swiped his key card through the magnetic reader, locking the break room down. Old tech, but there wasn’t much of value in the tiny closet apart from the filthy printer. The red light at the bottom of the door faded, and Donny clicked the strong LED flashlight on, did a sweep around what had once been a synthetic play-garden for children. The beam lit up a 300-meter cone, made the distant shop windows flash and the drops coming down through the dome ceiling far above glitter like falling diamonds.

The Shung Building was gigantic, deserted, partly flooded on the ground floor. By the time Donny made his first round through the dark shopping levels with wires hanging from the ceilings and the old silver mannequins still posed in shattered storefronts, he’d be ready for his sandwich and second thermos. He didn’t remember being hired for the job at Bug Security. It, too, was from before. But he supposed it couldn’t have been hard to get. Most people probably didn’t enjoy being all alone in such an enormous dark space. Then again, Donny wasn’t most people. It suited him just fine. Even if he’d never been chipped, he felt he would have sought out a job like this.

As he passed, the smooth chrome eyes of a mannequin stared at him from a shop that used to sell synthetic canaries. He had no idea what use a canary shop would have had with a mannequin, but the whole place was like that. He noticed strange details now and then on his rounds—enough that he no longer questioned why a mannequin head might be staring up out of a broken toilet, why a half-skinned animatronic cat might be hanging from a snare in the one of the vacant bedrooms on the hotel level, or why the steel hatch to the jump pad on the roof might be banging open in the storm when it had been supposedly welded shut. Maybe normal people would be unnerved by things like that, things that didn’t have answers. But not Donny. The world was too much, too broken, too sick and evil for him to ever feel like it owed him an explanation.

The motion detector hummed softly, occasionally making a set of quiet pings when it sent out a pulse. The semi-circular display had a glowing grid he could use to pinpoint exactly how something was moving and how far it was from him. It never picked up anything bigger than a rat. And he’d killed the last rat weeks ago. He hooked the motion detector on his belt and took a sip from the thermos, panning the cone of light over the broken shop windows like jagged translucent fangs and then out across the vast ground floor. Far off in the dark, the constant rain had collected in a stagnant puddle that seemed more like a small lake. Loach said it was draining, but Donny didn’t see how it could. The rain never stopped.

Still, Loach was the man. You didn’t argue with him. Donny climbed the dead escalator, listening to the motion detector ping and then answer itself. Somewhere, on the other side of the dome, in an area where the subcrete floor had partly fallen into the basement level, there was the rubble of an old-fashioned 20th century glass elevator. Loach showed it to him on his first day, shining the flashlight at the shards of chemically treated glass, lighting them up like rainbows. Loach chomped on his cigar and said, “Look at them lights, man. You ever see anything like that?” Donny said he hadn’t. But, to be honest, maybe he had.

The mezzanine level was mostly broken equipment and piles of garbage. It overlooked the ground floor and was the real reason whoever owned the property still paid for Bug Security. There wasn’t much to steal, but if people wanted a quiet place to squat or smoke sand, this was it. Through Loach said he’d caught some junkies once, there was never anybody when Donny did his rounds. The motion detector pinged as he shined the light between piles of broken furniture, shredded paper, packing cartons, useless machinery brought down from the hotel level and dumped here long ago, the burned torso of a mannequin protruding from the side of a junk pile like it would crawl away if it only had arms.

There were 32 empty levels, part of a corporate arcology that never took off, and Donny’s job was to check them all three times during his shift. The Shung Corporation disappeared 30 years ago. Loach had told him all about its history, how the entire workforce lived at the top. When the company went bankrupt, everyone got chipped for a one year lifespan. The big tech corporations did things like that back then. And though it was still legal to contractually agree to a post-termination death date, technology had improved. Now an employer could reliably erase a worker’s memories without having to cause a fatal aneurysm, rendering corporate espionage and data insecurity a non-issue. The Shung Corporation had been notorious for a number of things. But they were long gone, just another ghost in a city of ghosts.

Still, someone was paying for the power. The whole building was jacked into the greater metropolitan grid and could be turned on from a control room in the basement. Donny found the access hall to the freight elevator. The two-meter-wide hallway was totally hidden unless you knew to turn right at an enormous urn that must have once held an equally large plant, maybe a shrub genetically engineered to grow as large as a tree and emit relaxing pheromones whenever anyone stood close to it. Now the urn was full to the brim with rain water. It was directly under one of the holes in the dome, which sat like a five story high blister at the base of the tower block. If you took a drone from LAX to Griffith Admin Center, the Shung Building resembled nothing if not an erect cock and ball. At least, that’s what Loach called it and now Donny couldn’t look at it any other way.

He reached the end of the access hall and swiped his key card on the elevator’s call panel. A distorted male voice said, “Thank you. The elevator is approaching.” It had an antique AI. Donny could talk to it, but what was the use? Its firmware hadn’t been updated in three decades. It never said anything interesting, though it might spontaneously offer inaccurate weather reports and the incorrect time. If he asked it a human question, like “Do you like it here?,” it would respond with “The Shung Corporation is on the cutting edge of biotechnological innovation.”

Donny stepped onto the elevator, pulled the steel doors shut, and told it to go to level three. Then he glanced, as he always did, between the safety bars that crisscrossed the top of the elevator car. Tiny points of light set in the dome twinkled like stars, some of them caught in an endless cycle of sputtering and flaring, and there was something beautiful about that—unintended beauty, like the shards of the old glass elevator or the silver eyes of the mannequins in the shops staring into the dark.

Do you like it here?” he said to the elevator.

The Shung Corporation is on the cutting edge of biotechnological innovation,” the elevator said.

Donny nodded and looked back up at the artificial stars.

< Read Ch. 4 here: http://wp.me/p2mP19-Iw >

< Read Ch 2 here: http://wp.me/p2mP19-Ir >

Trump knows he’s drowning. || Michael David

Source: The End of the Hustle

Trump’s last months in office. || Michael Davis

Source: The Crying of Lot 45

These are strange times to be an American. || Michael Davis

Source: Planespotting and the Persistence of Facts

We get up in the morning for a grande latte enema. || Michael Davis

Source: A Good Day to Die

In the wake of Trump’s victory, we must keep asking, “What now?” || Michael Davis

Source: When the World’s Turned Upside Down

Rise up. Create. Raise awareness. Raise consciousness. Build understanding. Drop the empty rhetoric of your “party” and focus on understanding. See the possibilities of becoming more than what you are. Recognize this in others. It’s not about religion. It’s not about tribe. It’s about art, expression, the grassroots potentialities that emerge as every person’s birthright–if we only pay attention. It’s about you and me. How can we come together? How can we build something excellent? The tools, the powers are right here, available, free.

voting-booth-polling-place-voters

It’s 4:30 AM as I begin to write this. I’ve already been up for an hour. I’m not sleeping that much these days. Over the last 48 hours, I’ve lost friends, given a lot of advice, gotten advice, been told off, and been accused of hypocrisy for taking a political stand while using the term “antinomian” to describe myself. But I think people misunderstand.

The broad definition of “antinomianism” (originally a Protestant term used to mean that divine grace releases one from the need to follow secular law) can be used to indicate spiritual non-conformity, not necessarily secular or political non-conformity. And whenever I use the term “spiritual,” I’m talking about consciousness, becoming more conscious and less under the sway of conformist culture. That is my spirituality—to become more conscious, to wake up to the vertiginous complexity and potential of everyday life as I’m living it and, in that never-ending process, to make the world reflect my best qualities.

Therefore, being anti-nomos (against law) is, for me, an internal, subjective stance, which may find expression in the objective-world choices I make, but which begins in the mind and heart. In this sense, the usage of the term is a lot like what Emerson means when he writes that “every revolution was first a thought in one man’s mind.” Inwardly rejecting the “normalization” exerted by conformist culture is anti-nomos; it amounts to a spiritual revolution.

That said, I do not believe that abstaining from voting and posting cynical, defensive statements about the political system does a bit of good. Not participating in the political process is, in my opinion, the height of stupidity and the position of default conformity. It is rooted in fear of having to make a choice and having to take an external, painful, perhaps terrifying objective-world position. Further, I believe it expresses weakness of character.

True spiritual antinomianism is to find what you truly believe, what expresses your most deeply cherished values and then work to make those values manifest in the world. It mandates work and, in light of recent events, it definitely mandates political involvement, even if such involvement amounts to voting for a third-party candidate or writing one in. Non-participation hands power and its jurisdiction over to others. It is the ultimate capitulation to conformist culture. It is opting out of the hard work of citizenship. And it is irresponsible to one’s Self, to that degree of consciousness one already possesses.

I’ve been posting two kinds of things for the last few days: news items critical of Trump and music. Because that’s where I am emotionally right now. I’m still processing what I feel is my country’s latest, greatest political blunder. I’m also questioning whether I should never return to the United States or whether the next opportunity for me to become more conscious lies in that direction.

Many of you saw me write, before the onslaught of private messages (both supportive and accusatory), that I wouldn’t be returning to the States again. I still feel that way, still completely averse to the decision my country has made to choose the worst, most disastrous candidate for President. But I’m also beginning to wonder whether that pain, that aversion, is a meaningful indicator from “myself to my Self,” i.e. from that inward part of me always on the lookout for ways to become more awake, more conscious, and less subject to groupthink.

It brings to mind two myths of Odin. In exchange for wisdom, he sacrifices one of his eyes for a drink from Mimir’s well, which will impart ultimate knowledge. It’s a deep myth in the sense that it contains layers of meaning (among others, consider the implication of gaining insight and yet seeing with one eye instead of two). And yet the value of an eye is undeniable. How far would we go to obtain internal gifts at the expense of our external bodies?

The second myth comes from the Havamal, an old Norse poem from the Viking age: “I know that I hung, on a windy tree, for all of nine nights, wounded with a spear, and given to Ódinn, myself to myself, on that tree, which no man knows, from what roots it runs.” In order to obtain the Runes, Odin submits to a nine-night ordeal, again making an external sacrifice for an inward gain, the Runes symbolizing, among other things, the power to create meaning through language.

In both of these and in many similar world myths and legends, we find the theme of pain as a doorway to greater consciousness. And deliberately, consciously embracing such pain when it arises is nearly always anti-nomos, in direct violation of the Pleasure Principle that delimits popular opinion and what passes for common sense.

So I’m still exploring these ideas, but I can tell you one thing: voting in a legal election is revolutionary in the most profound sense. However, in the aftermath of a failed revolution, one does not dig one’s grave in accordance with the wishes of those in authority. If one seeks to act politically as a conscious revolutionary instead of reacting obediently as a sleepwalker, one practices discernment in moments like this. One looks inward and asks, “What’s next? What’s best? What will make me more conscious? What can I do to raise the consciousness of others and thereby make the world a better reflection of my best qualities?”

There’s a lot of work to be done, I think.

We want a plan. We need a plan. || Michael Davis

Source: The State of Emergency

No one says what they’re really thinking: there is no escape. || Michael Davis

Source: The Debate Did Not Take Place

As I have said many times and in many different ways, graduate study in literature and creative writing is not easy for anyone, even in the most favorable circumstances. There is an inner, emotional, psychological, processual effort that no one talks about and an outer, technical, rhetorical, production effort that everyone takes for granted. Both of these “efforts” are difficult. They must run concurrently and consistently for satisfactory completion of your program. And no one—not advisors or fellow

"Philosopher with an Open Book" by Salomon Coninck (c. 1645)

Philosopher with an Open Book by Salomon Coninck (1645)

students—will have the wherewithal to set aside their own problems in order to help you with yours. You are alone. You are responsible for expressing a universe of ideas in your own voice. You will accept this or fail.

If you pay attention, you will soon come to realize that your path is more or less unique—that you’re following a largely self-determined trajectory through the work. It may be partly modeled on someone else’s (such as that of a mentor with a strong personality telling you what you should be reading, writing, and thinking), but ultimately you’re making your own intellectual path by walking it. This is one of the signature characteristics of higher study in the humanities. It may be a strength.

A large part of this blog is dedicated to exploring these things, to making the implicit explicit for the good of those who feel drawn to the discipline of English studies and / or creative writing. It’s clear that I’m critical here of what I often see as hypocrisy and self-serving prevarication in greater academia. But I also disagree with the Libertarian voices currently developing the Don’t Go to Graduate School in the Humanities genre of business-oriented success advice. I think, in spite of very practical arguments to the contrary, if you feel called to study, write, and teach, by all means do it. Just don’t do it ignorantly and learn how to survive afterward so that you can keep doing it. How this unfolds in your life will be a mystery specific to your becoming.

With this in mind, I expose my own values here, my own work, which continues the inner-outer efforts I mention above. The Writing Expedition represents part of my disciplinary “production effort,” dedicated to expressing insights on what I have experienced in this field. Moreover, I think “expressing” is the right word because it implies a dichotomy. In order to ex-press something (or “squeeze out” if we want to look at the origin of the word), there must be an interior area where it already exists. An inner world. Often, a hidden world that can make the dominant scientistic discourse of reductive materialism very nervous. Like it or not, the Academy is subject to the dominant political, economic, and aesthetic tropes and discourses of the day; though, academics often find this distasteful and prefer to ignore it.

The ivory tower covered in camouflage.

It is safe to say that the Academy is an ancient type of institution that has survived to the present by appearing to be what society needs it to be in any era. Study the history of higher education in the West and it is easy to notice that the great universities have not existed in spite of what they imagine to be the barbarism and ignorance of the profane, but as a mode of cultural expression, 9th gatea conglomeration of beliefs and rituals, a matrix of ideas given a particular form in the material world. In other words, the Academy is an extension of culture. It offers a product that society wants and survives by making that product seem relevant. It has always been that way; though the outer wrapper of the product is redesigned again and again to reinforce existing narratives of power and faith. In the rare times it fails to do this: Kent State, May 4, 1970.

As Martin Petersen writes of CIA tradecraft standards (intelligence agencies being very similar to universities), “We have to establish our credibility and usefulness individual by individual, administration by administration. There is no down time when it comes to quality” (“What I Learned in 40 Years of Doing Intelligence Analysis for US Foreign Policymakers,” Studies in Intelligence, Vol. 55, No. 1). Without being too cynical, we could easily convince ourselves that establishing credibility and usefulness is one of the ongoing directives of the Academy: we want to matter.

Enter: John, who also wanted to matter.

When I was in graduate school, studying creative writing and rhetoric, John, a friend of mine there who happened to be a gifted poet, went through a kind of nervous breakdown. Since no one knows what a “nervous breakdown” actually is, we can call it that or we can say he went through a season of harsh depression, anxiety, purposelessness, and emotional pain. His wife described it as a “slow-motion train wreck” and they both tried to laugh about it. But it was real and the pain he went through changed his life.

Before you even think it, I should note that this person is not me. Things may have changed for John since then, but what hasn’t changed is the high-schoolish competitiveness in our colleagues that has lingered for a long time. Since many of them read this blog, I will only tell the part of his story that everyone already knows. And I will do it for a particular reason. Nevertheless, I hope he forgives me for this and understands what I am trying to say. Knowing him, I think he will.

It started with the birth of his daughter in our second year. John had come to the PhD from a high-paying career in industry, such that he didn’t have to take out student loans and could rent a fairly large house (as opposed to the holes most of us were living in). His wife didn’t work and they were living off their considerable savings. Still, the pressure was on, partly because John now had a child to think about, but also because had an immense work ethic and he was no fool. He knew, as did we all, that there were very few full-time teaching positions available and that trying to get one (even getting an interview at AWP or MLA) was like playing the Irish sweepstakes.

Nevertheless, John applied himself, wrote good poems, said smart things, and generally did well. He was older, married, and didn’t waste his time like the rest of us at the sad graduate school parties or looking for love in all the wrong places. He had a particular energy around him that said, I know the truth and, if I don’t know, I’m sure we can discover it together. In short, he seemed like the type who should win the career sweepstakes and become an assistant professor. There should be more people like John in teaching positions. When I think of what it takes to be a great graduate student, I think of him.

But he reached a breaking point, something in his “inner process” that no longer worked the way he thought it should. The reality of being a father had become far more real and compelling than the realities he was creating as a student of English and a poet. His hair turned stark white over the course of a month and he went through a kind of existential fugue, which according to him involved a lot of crying, regret, and hopelessness. Eventually, he dropped out of the program. He moved with his wife and daughter to Arizona to live with his in-laws. And two or three years later re-entered a PhD program at a different university, this time to study British modernism. As far as I know, he’s now a professor somewhere in the Midwest and I am sure he is great.

I tell his story here because although it had an ostensibly happy ending, his dark night of the soul is one that most of us experienced on some level at some time in our work. The difference may have been that he suffered from pressures we didn’t have, destroying the credibility and usefulness of the Academy for him. I believe this as much as I believe that he also lacked certain essential qualities necessary for running those inner and outer efforts concurrently and consistently, at least the first time around.

The voice in the fire: one hears it or one does not.

A teacher of mine once made an interesting observation about “mystery.” The more one seeks out the lacunae in one’s life—the numinous moments, the noetic leaps of high strangeness that result in extraordinary creations, realizations, and states of consciousness—the more mystery seems to increase, not decrease. Seek the mysteries and you will find there are more mysterious things in this world than you ever imagined. Or maybe you will find yourself imagining more such things as you learn to accept new ways of knowing.

Conversely, if you let existing modes of expression, accepted narratives, the exoteric rituals of consensus culture (especially those of the Academy) crowd your senses, ways of knowing will become narrower; meaning will become increasingly delimited and rigid; and the dominant cultural discourses (for us, scientism and reductive materialism) will come to seem all-encompassing. This is what I believe happened to John in his first PhD program. His outer effort was strong, but his inner work was obstructed by the anxiety of feeling responsible for his family. I do not fault him for this. However, I think his experience offers us an interesting lesson.

Recall that the “inner effort” is an emotional, psychological process. It therefore partakes of mystery because interiority cannot be completely mapped. This is where the muse, the creative genius, lives. This is where we dream, where we hear that voice speaking to us about who we truly are and how we must express ourselves. It is the place artists go when they produce authentic and original work.

Funny thing about the muse. She gives and she takes. Dedicate your life to a particular mode of expression and you must always try to hear her. Your sense of the numinous will increase exponentially, but you will also have to make sacrifices. As your outer effort must concern itself with “credibility and usefulness,” your inner effort must be like a love affair with the mystery inside you, which is what we’re talking about when we refer to the inner life of an artist.

Hakim Bey discusses this in The Temporary Autonomous Zone and calls it “sorcery”:

The dullard finds even wine tasteless but the sorcerer can be intoxicated by the mere sight of water. Quality of perception defines the world of intoxication–but to sustain it & expand it to include others demands activity of a certain kind—sorcery. Sorcery breaks no law of nature because there is no Natural Law, only the spontaneity of natura naturans, the tao. Sorcery violates laws which seek to chain this flow—priests, kings, hierophants, mystics, scientists & shopkeepers all brand the sorcerer enemy for threatening the power of their charade, the tensile strength of their illusory web.

A poem can act as a spell & vice versa—but sorcery refuses to be a metaphor for mere literature–it insists that symbols must cause events as well as private epiphanies. It is not a critique but a re-making. It rejects all eschatology & metaphysics of removal, all bleary nostalgia & strident futurismo, in favor of a paroxysm or seizure of presence.

Incense & crystal, dagger & sword, wand, robes, rum, cigars, candles, herbs like dried dreams–the virgin boy staring into a bowl of ink—wine & ganja, meat, yantras & gestures—rituals of pleasure, the garden of houris & sakis—the sorcerer climbs these snakes & ladders to a moment which is fully saturated with its own color, where mountains are mountains & trees are trees, where the body becomes all time, the beloved all space.

We can just as easily speak of it in terms of embracing a wider spectrum of expression. Viktor Frankl puts it this way: “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible” (Man’s Search for Meaning).

The Green Muse by Albert Maignan (1895)

What, then, is the voice in the fire? It’s not a degree from Yale, tenure, and a tactless sense of entitlement. It’s that unmappable, ineffable interior effort, that numinous guidance system which instructs and inspires us to continue our work. It sustains us through years of advanced study, reveals the mystery inherent in the world (even in something as outwardly mundane as the sight of water), and helps us answer for our lives. If we are responsible practitioners of our art, we will listen to this voice just as carefully as we may express our work-products. If we stop listening and forget the internal process, focusing only on the external product, we will enter the dark night of the soul, which entails a lot of suffering.

This is the meaning of that famous line from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” If this is the life you choose (realizing that you have been chosen to answer for your life this way), I continue to wish the best for you.

Listen. And seek the mysteries.

So the holidays are over. I spent mine reading obscure horror stories from the 19th century and the nonfiction writing of various friends, drinking too much Tetley’s tea, and enjoying myself at home. I mostly stayed in Oxford this year; though, I did have fun going to London on Christmas Eve. It is, without a doubt, one of the greatest places on earth to spend any amount of time. Since I am so close, I go there often. The City of London had a fairly spectacular fireworks display yesterday that can be seen here if you missed it.

Like most relatively sane people, I try to avoid making resolutions at the beginning of a year. Nevertheless, I did make one for 2016. This year I intend to follow through on some of my very long projects to an appreciable degree, putting forth my best effort possible to get some things completed and in the mail before 2017. I should note that I am getting close to completing my third book. However, I’ve been working on it for 6 years (including many painful revisions and reversals), which is how long it took me to write the first one.

Something tells me that I should be writing faster, but I’m convinced that whatever that something is, it isn’t the voice of a writer (or at least of a very good one). So I have decided to keep ignoring it. The good news is that several long projects of mine are probably going to reach completion this year, which will nevertheless be an enormous relief.

What I’m Not Doing Anymore

One thing I’m definitely not doing any more is giving free fiction writing advice to people who send questions via my old WordPress email address. I have not publicly listed that email for some time and now it is completely shut down with no forwarding.  Unfortunately, it was still accessible until very recently.

There are a few good reasons for me shutting down the Q/A portion of my website. I realize that operating a public site, even a WordPress blog like this, exposes a person to all kinds of craziness in addition to pleasant interactions with like-minded readers. You need to have a tough attitude to do anything public. And you need to be willing to block the assholes immediately. I do all those things. On the other hand, I can get so wrapped up in talking about writing that sometimes it uses the energy I need in order to do my own work. That’s where the situation gets hard.

There is no shortage of good writing instruction and advice out there. I remain a huge fan of the Gotham Writers Workshop, where I taught for seven years. I can’t say enough good things about the workshops there. But now I’m writing more than I ever have and I need to sustain this intensity for as long as I can.

Moreover, I should pose the obvious question: who the hell am I?  Just another guy with a few degrees in English who learned early in his career how to publish short fiction in magazines. That’s about it. And that, plus composition and research, is what I’ve taught for most of my career. Sure, I can teach you how to write a story and maybe give you some tips about how to get it into a magazine or lit. journal. But a lot of people can do that. Just because I’ve done it for a long time and maintain a blog about writing doesn’t make me super special.

More than a few talented writing instructors are teaching at Gotham, Lit Reactor, and in various MFA programs right now. If that’s what you’re wondering about, honestly what are you waiting for? There’s never / always time to start thinking seriously about fiction writing, right? Get a portfolio together and start researching a program or dig through the Gotham / LR websites and learn what you have to do to get into the next shop.  Do it and resolve that you will make the best of the experience and get everything you can out of it.

Still, I’ve enjoyed teaching writing, especially being able to meet so many interesting students along the way. But no one can write like me (for that matter, no one can write like you—which has always been the basis of my writing pedagogy: develop your own voice because, more than anything else in your creative life, it will belong to you). So I’ve realized that, at age 42 with perhaps 28 years left on this planet as a cohesive entity, I need to move more fully and deeply into my unique creative vision.

This means that unless you intend to offer me a serious job or decent freelance work (feel free to message me on Twitter about this and only this)—both of which go to supporting my writing—please save us both the trouble. The fact that I will continue to post thoughts on this website is not an offer of free advice, free content writing “for exposure,” or feedback / editing of your own work (which is something I do for pay).

The Next Thing

I travel a lot. It’s part of how I make a living as a freelancer. It’s fun in many ways, especially when I get to spend time with friends as part of my travel plans. It can also be an enormous headache. So now more than ever, I try to operate in places not just because I have to but because I’ve fallen in love with them. My short list includes Paris, Tallinn, London, Boston, San Francisco, Washington D.C., New Orleans, Portland, Prague and Copenhagen. These are the places which I find myself thinking about (and often returning to) again and again. Within a year to 18 months, depending on certain conditions and things that will fall shortly into place, I will be living in one of them, maybe for good.

I mention this because it goes along with the theme of positive change. Living light and never staying in one place for long has its appeal. Since 2010, I’ve lead that life in earnest, seeking experiences instead of things. But I’ve also realized a fundamental truth: there are many great experiences to be had when you get to know your neighborhood, when you become reasonably fluent in the local dialect, when you have a library card—the simple pleasures of being able to live somewhere for more than 6 months and actually make some non-online friends.

This is a change I will be making. And I’m looking forward to it immensely.

Trouble

You don’t live this kind of life without burning bridges. Graduate school, for example, is a lot like high school. No matter how much you achieve, people always remember you the way you were and deeply resent having to revise their opinions if you’ve actually done well for yourself. It’s part of what makes class reunions so painfully entertaining. But MFA and PhD programs don’t usually have reunions (except for the two official orgies of desperation and loathing we call AWP / MLA). Instead, they have enduring envy and the urge to send occasional passive-aggressive messages.

In 2016, I will also be saying goodbye to various acid-tongued lurkers from my past who can’t seem to accept the fact that—in spite of how much I bitch about the writing world—it is my home and I am fundamentally happy here. Yes, I criticize a lot of what I see as hypocritical or false in writing programs or publishing. But please note that I spend time on these things because I care about them very much. Isn’t it obvious?

So if you are one of these people, go ahead and live a little. Work on your own stuff / self and let me work on mine. We’ll all be happier that way.  Remember to be kind to yourself. And good luck to you.

Upcoming Projects

Of course, I’ll continue to write about writing and publishing here. I also intend to start a creative writing video project on YouTube soon with the same sort of focus. I’ll cross-post it with this. So if you are one of the 2654 people already actively RSSing this blog to date, you don’t need to add the YT subscription. It will all show up here, too.

I’m also going to start reviewing more books and magazines (sorry Aaron, it’s coming very soon, really), writing about critical theory (especially postcolonial theory, which is an interest) and about the writers I love. Right now, it’s Bret Easton Ellis, J.G. Ballard, Thomas Ligotti, Fuminori Nakamura, Isaac Babel, Shirley Jackson, Catherynne Valente, James Cain, Jim Thompson, Asa Nonami, Yoko Ogawa, and Henri Barbusse. But there will be others, many and various.

I will be representing the Thrown Free writer’s group more often and I hope to feature the visual art of some of my multi-talented writer-artist friends as well.

All these things make me happy, which is why I do them or intend to. If you’re one of my print readers and / or a reader here, I appreciate your time and hope that 2016 allows me to bring further interesting material to your attention.

Happy New Year.

Michael

1. Veritas vos Liberabit

Karl Lessing and I decided to finish the five gallon jugs of flat Michelob his little brother had liberated from a frat party. It felt like a big decision. This was 1993. We were sitting in Karl’s parents’ garage, watching old footage of Tower of Power’s “What is Hip?” on Soul Train. And it all seemed to go together—the cheap plastic folding chairs, the Everlast heavy bag bandaged with silver electrical tape, the beat-to-shit Zenith with a wire hanger for rabbit ears, the VHS player I got at Kobey’s Swap Meet for $12, the incense cones Karl’s sister made out of ganja and cinnamon burning on a dinner plate. Nothing had changed since high school. We were two years older and both felt that because we hadn’t yet become wealthy, famous, and adored, we were obviously has-beens.

We didn’t talk much. We were better at being self-absorbed and sullen, experts actually. The way I remember it, it was a Saturday night and neither of us had girlfriends or anything interesting to do other than sit there and make the occasional comment about how much of a badass Lenny Willams was or how Mic Gilette had them chops. One thing I’d learned how to do since high school was get good grades. And, as a sophomore at San Diego State, that meant I had a lot of free time on my hands to think about music when I wasn’t feeling like a loser.

People our age were fixated on Nirvana and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but Karl and I were heavily into jazz and 70s funk. That was our main obsession—Tower of Power, Brass Construction, Average White Band, Graham Central Station, Chaka Khan, Sly and the Family Stone, The Gap Band, Sun Ra, Miles Davis, McCoy Tyner, Coltrane, on and on. In truth, we listened to all kinds of music when we weren’t playing it, but because Karl was one of my best friends and happened to have three bookcases of CDs, I got exposed to a lot of styles I would not otherwise have known about. I never took world music or music appreciation. I was a double major, music and English, and apart from what I learned from Karl, the trajectory of my influences was limited to what I did in my classes. Karl was also a music major. The difference between us was that, while Karl was already an accomplished jazz saxophonist from a family of professional musicians, I was just a lost soul.

But that’s not precisely true. Looking at the 20-year-old boy I was then, I can see that I was just a writer who just didn’t know it yet, not unlike a lot of the students I’ve taught over the years. At the time, I thought I was going to be a classical pianist, but I was doing exactly what a writer does—getting absorbed in other people’s lives, details, energies, seeing the world through their eyes. Not all creative people do this but I’ve recognized the tendency in many of the writers, actors, and assorted soulless vampires I’ve met along the way. And to be perfectly honest, I had the affinity and intellectual capacity for classical music but not the temperament. Temperament might be everything.

Even with all of these influences, tendencies, fears, and assumptions swirling around us in that garage like fate, the Michelob didn’t taste any better. That said, when you’re 20 and frustrated, flat stolen beer is there for you. And we were halfway to our sworn goal when something amazing happened. Maybe it was right around the moment when Lenny in all his green velour majesty, goes, Do you think it’s drivin’ a big fine car? Have you heard, it’s tryin’ to be a star?—though that would have been too perfect—that Karl had a moment of profound wisdom which has stayed with me all my life. He looked at the gallon jug balanced on his thigh, then at me, and said, “Davis, some people get everything they want in life. The rest of us become philosophers.”

2. My Life as a Philosopher

“I know the many disguises of that monster, Fortune, and the extent to which she seduces with friendship the very people she is striving to cheat, until she overwhelms them with unbearable grief at the suddenness of her desertion.”  ― Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy

17 years after Karl’s moment of Michelob profundity in the garage, I was sitting in a conference room at Western Michigan University looking at a class of creative writing students, all in their early 20s, all lost souls. It was the last year of my PhD. And in my private life, something I am not inclined to casually discuss with students, I had suffered immense personal losses by then—death, estrangement, betrayal, and disappointment. But what else is new? One still has to get up in the morning and put on one’s pants.

Unfortunately, the only way to earn the putting-on-one’s-pants insight is to suffer and then choose to become a philosopher, a choice these kids hadn’t faced yet. A lot of them looked at me and thought, this guy has it made. How do I do what he’s doing? Some of them actually said as much to me in my office hours, peering across the desk in a kind of half-disbelief that I could lead the writing life, the idyllic life they imagined they wanted but felt was forever beyond their reach. In other words, they were 20 and thought they were already losers.

The key ideas in my beginning workshop were simple: you have to read like a writer in order to teach yourself about what can be done. You have to learn how to evaluate your writing on its own terms. And you need to develop discipline, which includes an ability to survive criticism and make it work for you. Most students can emotionally grasp these things after a 15-week semester, but it usually takes about that long. The problem is that the most gifted ones, the ones with that extra something—that divine spark of talent given to them by the muse or an angel or the Prince of Darkness—are usually the ones who take a lot longer to get over themselves. They’re so busy trying to sort out the fact that they’ve internalized materialistic social values at odds with who they are, that they ignore the practical side of the work.

Just as I absorbed Karl Lessing’s love of music and the aura of professional musicianship that always surrounded him, my own students absorbed similar energies from me. Even the most gifted writers over the years were not insightful enough to see that it wasn’t me they were absorbing. Rather, they were admiring some eidolon, some mirage of ideal qualities they imagined I must have in order to do what I was doing. If I’d told them what Karl had said that night it the garage, would it have mattered? No. Because they hadn’t suffered enough to understand. You can’t tell someone who has been searching for the lost city of gold that the glimmer they think they see isn’t El Dorado. They don’t want to face reality and become philosophers. They want to be on Soul Train with Lenny Williams covered in green velour. And I don’t blame them.

One young man that semester, Paul, who stands out in my memory as having seemed broken and gifted in equal parts, came into my office hour looking pale and severe. And as soon as I looked up at him, I knew we were going to have one of those conversations—the kind that start off about writing and segue quickly into What do I do about my difficult life? To honor the teachers who put up with me when I was the one asking such things, I never slither away; though, I’m often tempted. It’s draining to talk with depressed, frustrated people. But it’s a small act of kindness, which is the only sort of kindness that really matters.

So he sat down and unleashed the kraken. He’d taken a beating in workshop the day before for his fairly chauvinistic first-person story about a guy who uses a pickup artist system to seduce a barista in some nameless college town. After using her sexually, he tells her to take a hike and she’s crushed. And that was the story. I still remember it, not only because Paul seemed to have that stricken shell-shocked look of someone who’d just gone through an Inquisition-style critique, but because the story really was tremendously bad. Also because Paul was generally talented as a fiction writer and it was unlike his other work.

After going on about various things and people he disagreed with in his critique, he stopped, deflated, and said, “This is mostly nonfiction. I don’t know if you’ve realized that.”

I nodded. “I think most of the class did.”

Then Paul turned red, stood up, and thanked me for my time. I watched him through my open door as he went down the hall. I felt a little sad for him. But I didn’t feel sad for the girl in the story, who I was pretty sure didn’t exist. Did Young Paul apprentice himself to a “How to Get Girls” system? I didn’t doubt it—as much as I didn’t doubt that he was girlfriendless and powerfully, elementally lonely.

The last scene of his story went something like this: the protagonist and the girl are standing under a streetlight or something. She’s clinging to him and he says it’s not going to work out because he just doesn’t feel things like normal people. He has a cold heart. And then he walks away and she collapses in tears. Everyone in the workshop thought (rightly) that it was an ending that resolved / showed nothing. Plus, it was melodramatic. Plus, Paul seemed completely immersed in what he called the “pickup artist movement” and the other students were sick of his critiques always somehow incorporating that material.

But what I saw (and didn’t say) was that Paul wasn’t the two-dimensional womanizing protagonist in his story; he was the girl left sad and alone under a streetlight. The protagonist was who he told himself he needed to be—someone with a cold heart who doesn’t get kicked around anymore. Though there was no world, no permutation of reality, in which he could be that. He was too much in love with love and didn’t even know it. All he’d done was absorb the “pickup artist” ideology for a time—like a writer tends to do.

In the practice of philosophy, which often comes down to a single question—What is good and how do I know?—personal truth sets us free. The lost city of gold is lost for a reason. In seeking it, we learn how to live. We don’t get what we think we want, but we become philosophers inured to the vicissitudes of fortune. It is only through this that later in life we are able to resist death’s constant alluring invitations.

3. Death Pact

In 1700, Lord Nabeshima Mitsushige, ruler of the Hizen Provence, died. Tsunetomo Yamamoto was one of his loyal samurai, but he did not follow his lord in death because Mitsushige had expressed a dislike of the practice. Instead Yamamoto traveled into the mountains to spend the rest of his life as a hermit. Nine years later, he narrated a book of thoughts and parables about the samurai life to a fellow warrior, which became known as The Hagakure or In the Shadow of the Leaves. It is a powerful book, not only because it teaches us about the historical reality of the samurai, but because one of its principle themes is that much of what the samurai thinks, does, and feels is hidden from public view.

The purest expression of this was accepting death to the deepest extent possible, essentially embodying an “already dead” perspective. One is so dedicated to one’s mission that life itself is secondary. He writes that “even if it seems certain that you will lose, retaliate. Neither wisdom nor technique has a place in this. A real man does not think of victory or defeat. He plunges recklessly towards an irrational death. By doing this, you will awaken from your dreams.”

By doing this, you will awaken from your dreams. I have thought deeply about this passage over the years. In my current understanding, this “dream” is a dream of the self—the self-centered fairy tale each of us carries in our hearts about what we wish our lives could be. We’ve spent so much of our time, as writers, absorbing the energies and beliefs of others that it can be hard to wake up. But if we are to become philosophers, our fairy tale dream cannot have a happy ending. In the words of Karl Lessing, we don’t get what we want. Instead, we start asking questions.

We’re shocked awake, in media res, and we realize that we’re running towards an irrational death. We didn’t plan any of it. It’s not logical. We were busy dreaming about winning and losing, success and failure, fortune and misfortune. Everything that used to make sense doesn’t anymore. Death is waiting. It’s inevitable. And nobody wins.

At this point, the writer, if he’s honest, says to himself, my mission is more important than my dream. I know I’m going to die. But I have to try to make art until that happens. This is the pact every creative person makes with death. It’s the moment we can answer the philosophical question, What is good and how do I know? It’s the moment we look back at our 20-year-old selves—those depressed narcissists already willing to concede and accept defeat because everything at that point is cast in terms of winners and losers—and smile. The lost city of gold must remain lost to mean anything. The gold is incidental.

Dogs cannot be made to look like human beings. You’re sitting on the rooftop deck at Dick’s Chop House in Fresno, California, and this is one thing you know. There is nothing modern science can do to make a dog resemble a person. The waitress comes and goes. Dennis lights a cigarette, leans back in his chair, and watches moths flit around pale yellow deck lights.

“Look,” you say. “It’s here: ‘Federal Scientific Panel Tests Limits of Cosmetic Surgery on Dogs.’”

Dennis coughs against the back of his hand. “Want to hear the one about how a dog both does and does not wag its tail at the same time?”

These trips to Fresno are making you nervous. Brown smears of pollution hang over searing afternoons. Police are everywhere. Fistfights on sidewalks. Porcelain statues of saints and shrines to dead relatives on porches. Car shows in parking lots. SUVs with rims and tint jobs bouncing high at the stoplights. From Dick’s roof, you can see Blackstone Avenue three stories below, stinking, pulsing, clotted with angry traffic at nine on a Friday night. Flashing lights in the distance. Always. Based-up mariachis from passing lowriders make your empty beer bottle vibrate on the patio table.

“I can’t shake the feeling we’re about to get shot,” you say.

Dennis looks at you for a moment and then holds up his cigarette, watches smoke uncoil from the tip. “Relax. Dogs can tell when they’re being filmed. Know that?”

You scan the rest of the front page. Murder. Lies. Bombing. Abductions.

“You can’t just film dogs when nobody’s around to see if they’ll wag their tails,” he says. “They always know you’re watching.”

You try to remember if you asked the waitress to bring another beer. You tell Dennis you can’t understand why someone funded a government project to see if dogs could look like people. You cross and re-cross your boots at the ankles, light one of his cigarettes, and think about the future. It’s been fifteen minutes since Warren went downstairs to meet the buyer. In about fifteen more, you will finally have enough money to live comfortably for at least a year or be arrested.

The waitress brings two more beers. Black hair, thin, pretty, she looks barely twenty-one. Dennis tips her a dollar, and she rolls her eyes. He smiles and watches her go.

“Schrödinger. It’s the tree in the forest thing,” he says. “First, you take a dog and put it in a room. Inside the room you have a bunch of nuclear waste. If the waste gives off too much radiation, a machine detects it and smashes a can of nerve gas. But if you look straight at the door of the room, there’s no way to tell if the machine has smashed the can or not.”

You imagine a plastic surgeon’s scalpel cutting into the muzzle of a screaming Golden Retriever and shake the thought away, drink your beer. A police copter hovers over distant city lights. Its search light probes like a glowing feeler.

“Which means you can’t tell if the dog is alive or dead,” Dennis adds.

“And that’s why you can’t tell if it’s wagging its tail?”

“No.” Dennis pauses, takes another drag, and looks at you a bit longer this time. “This is a hypothetical example. The tail comes in a minute.”

Five trips from San Diego to Fresno in as many months. And each time, you carried enough illegal items to stop your happy thoughts for a good, long time if you got caught. An hour ago, you parked stolen truck number five in the lot behind Dick’s. It’s loaded with one-hundred-and-seventy-eight cases of premium vodka that should have been in Reno, according to the bill of lading. Stealing interstate means federal time. A possibly dead driver means life. You smoke Dennis’s cigarette and try not to think about it. Instead, you read yesterday’s paper filled with all the heinous shit people already got caught for.

“So the fucking dog is now in a quantum state. It’s both alive and dead until you open the door. Maybe it’s wagging its tail. Maybe it’s just a stiff, little bundle of joy.”

“But wait. You can never find out because if you open the door you might get nerve-gassed. You can’t risk opening the door.”

“Fuck that,” says Dennis. “You’ve got a space suit. That’s not the point.”

Then it doesn’t matter because Warren walks up to the table with a grin. “All done.” He takes a long drink of your beer. “Andre says we’re good. We go out back right now and get paid.”

“Fucking-A,” you say, standing up. Dennis stands, too.

The waitress walks out onto the deck, sees Dennis, Warren, and you grinning at each other, and takes a step back. “What?” she says.

“Dogs,” says Dennis. “We like dogs.”

She looks at the three of you and nods slowly.

You wink.

Andre is an extremely large, extremely stupid man dressed like a farmer in a plaid shirt and overalls. He’s got a shaved head with a dark red birthmark shaped like Florida on the back. Every time you have to deal with Andre, you wonder what he would do if he lived in Florida and people kept asking him why the state was tattooed on his head. He’d likely kill a few of the slower people and then spend the rest of his life in prison. Prison. Something to not think about when standing in a parking lot beside a sixteen-wheeler full of highjacked vodka. Andre’s holding a can of Miller and doesn’t seem at all bothered by passing sirens on Blackstone Avenue.

He does look like he enjoys eating chops at Dick’s Chop House. That’s another thing you feel confident about besides the bit about dogs not looking like people. The question is: if you put the contents of Andre’s belly in a quantum state—i.e. with or without a chop—would that mean he’d be digesting and not-digesting at the same time? Would it mean he’d be simultaneously hungry and not-hungry? Andre’s eyes are very small. He gives you a glazed, faintly hostile look.

“So it’s all there,” says Warren.

“So it is.” Andre’s eyes shift to his beer.

You look at Andre, at Warren, at Dennis standing back a few feet, puffing his cigarette down to the filter, and wonder what’s going on. Usually, it’s Andre with a bag of bills and then good-bye, done. Not the current Andre with the beady expression of some fat, hostile marsupial in overalls. Marsupials. Koalas and shit. They eat bamboo, not chops.

“Thing is,” says Andre, “Jimbo don’t come down no more. He don’t like being recognized. You gotta drive it over to Madera. That’s where the money is.”

“What the fuck,” says Warren. He’s tall. Medium build. Sandy blond hair parted on the side. Warren wants to get mad, get up in Andre’s face. But Warren doesn’t get anything more than smart. “This is bullshit,” he says to the asphalt. He puts his hands in the pockets of his Pepsi windbreaker and looks down like a schoolboy.

Maybe Dennis could do something. He’s wiry but strong. You’ve seen him get in fights, get crazy, punch holes in walls. Once, he beat the hood of his ex-wife’s Firebird until his fists were all torn up. In the morning, the car looked like Dennis had won. But what’s there to do if you want to get paid?

Andre blinks. “Madera,” he says and drains his beer.

Madera will be a challenge. Only twenty minutes north, but getting there will be difficult. It’s Memorial Day weekend, and the police are out en masse, the Force in force, making people walk the line and count back in sevens from a hundred. There’s a sobriety checkpoint every five blocks. Driving north into Fresno earlier, you saw highway ninety-nine lit by flashing lights, the first unlucky drunks of the night standing pale and uneasy in patrol car floods. So the three of you decide to call it for the night and go out to the warehouse tomorrow noon. Dennis tells Andre. Andre will call Jimbo, and all will be right with the world.

For you—for obvious reasons—traceable cell phones are a no-no. You stare at the truck and dial your girlfriend, Christina, from a filthy phone booth in the dirt lot behind the Apache Motel. You parked the truck a few feet away, right next to the room you’ll share with Warren and Dennis. It looks like any other semi parked for the night, but the shadows in the cab remind you of a ghost town.

Your girlfriend’s roommates call her Tina. You call her Chris. You both call your little boy Jessup because that was your grandfather’s name and neither of you wanted a son named Jessie. Jessies go to jail; Jessups go to college, according to Chris, and you have no cause to disagree. But you wonder if someday he’ll wear a jean jacket and a mullet, if he’ll ride a motorcycle he calls a “dirt bike” and phone you from jail in the middle of the night like you did to your father. When that happens, you’ll feel as sad as your father once looked standing on the other side of shatter-proof glass at County, his failure complete.

Images of Dennis throwing a crowbar away from the highway. It was easy for him to whack the driver in the back of the head while Warren pointed a .45 in the guy’s face. Dennis and Warren didn’t like doing it that way. Neither did you. But highjacking trucks is what it is. Unless you want to spend the rest of your pathetic life in prison, it’s you or the driver, who should have known what he was risking when he took the job. You listen to the connection beep and tell yourself you’re a survivor. You try not to remember the groans or the sound the driver’s body made when you and Warren heaved him into a ditch in the darkness.

The connection goes beep-beep and the answering machine comes on, Chris and Jessup together, sounding happy, laughing, saying after the beep! You don’t mention anything about what you’re doing. You hesitate and say, “Hi, Chris. Hi Jess. It’s me. I miss you!”

Whenever she asks where you’ve been, you tell her a story. You say that you’re a dealer in dry goods, that you work for a trucking company, that sometimes you sell ladies’ hats out of boxes because it’s easier that way. You tell her you only sell high-end jewelry and only when you can get a good deal on it. You tell her you once owned a Zamboni that used to belong to the L.A. Kings, and that the price of shoes in Cleveland is much lower. Which, you add, is how you came into fifty-seven crates of Louis Vuitton Vienna Minimalisa High Boots in ostrich leather. You tell her there’s nothing better than family and not to ask where the money comes from because every dollar means I love you. You tell her to wait, to be patient, because you’re going to get her a house in a neighborhood not as violent. You tell her to be realistic because you are. You tell her you’re a hustler because, in this goddamn world, everybody is. And, most of the time, you feel you’re telling the truth.

“I’ll be back soon,” you say and wonder who’s standing beside the phone listening, maybe one of Chris’ cruel roommates, a blood-red nail hovering over ERASE.

“Tell Jessup I got him a present.”

Ghost town: the darkened windows of the truck are like the dead spaces of abandoned buildings at night, somewhere you wouldn’t want to go. After dark, they’re just void, negative space. The truck cab is empty. And, you think: twenty-five years to life for interstate highjacking and maybe an accessory to murder. You think: maybe what you tell Chris isn’t the truth; it’s just your truth. But that doesn’t make the Zamboni any less real or the fact that it came into your possession something false. You tell yourself no other thief in the world has successfully stolen and resold a Zamboni. That, too, is part of your story, your truth. Maybe, if you’re lucky, the bad karma of your thieving life will take a long time to kick in, unlike with your father. Maybe then you’ll know what is or is not absolutely true. Until then, you’ll keep calling from dirty phone booths outside ghost towns in the dark.

“I love you both,” you say. And the phone booth is silent. On its two-story pole beside the highway, the Apache Motel sign is a pale, yellow circle with hot-pink Vacancy across the center. But behind the L-shaped motel, the empty dirt lot continues into darkness. The motel is two exits up the ninety-nine from Fresno, a place Dennis says nobody cares about, where he’s stayed a couple times before. When you turn your back to the highway, the empty motel, and the truck, you look across the flat dirt and feel you’ve reached the end of something. After this, somewhere out there in the night, there may only be emptiness and the good chance of falling into it—or maybe twenty-five years to life, waiting patiently to pounce. You’re thirty-four years old. You’ve spent four of those years in Corcoran State Prison for stealing a tractor from a construction site in Chula Vista. And, right now, you’re headed for Madera.

The door to Room Six swings open silently. It’s unlocked. Dennis and Warren don’t give a shit. They’re sitting cross-legged on the bed, two grown men in their boxers, sweating, shuddering, smoking meth. Normally, they look like computer programmers from Akron. Windbreakers and Hawaiian shirts. Wire-rimmed glasses. Socks in Birkenstocks. Dennis is only thirty-eight, but his shoulder-length hair is dark gray streaked with white. He keeps it pushed behind his ears. Warren likes to wear sun visors. He knows card tricks.

The bowl of the lightbulb pipe is black where Warren’s lighter flame licks it. Warren grins at a square burn on his thumb from the lighter. The facial tick at the corner of his mouth is back and makes his grin look insane. Warren’s cockeyed. Cockeyed-stoned. He exhales a puff of used smoke and hands the pipe to Dennis. Neither of them speaks. You don’t hear a sound but the lighter, the pipe hiss, and the tick of the air conditioner in the wall. Chemical meth-smell hangs in the air. Dennis exhales and stands on the bed. He turns on the TV and starts jumping, flipping channels with the remote. This makes Warren fall over backwards. He gasps and curses but doesn’t get up. Instead, he stretches out on the floor between the bed and the wall. You hear the hiss of the pipe.

The bathroom is cool and dark. Thankfully, it has a tub. You take your jacket and shirt off. You’re careful to remove your wallet, keys, and the thin survival knife you found in the truck’s glove box. This won’t be the first time you’ve used your clothing as a mattress in a strange bathtub. You curl up on your side and pull the shower curtain closed. Outside, Dennis yells at the television. Warren yells at Dennis. They will do this for five, six hours, then crash.

It’s a long way to freedom with a girlfriend and son behind you and Madera in the front. You might be an accessory to murder. Accessory. The word tumbles around in your head. You hear it the way one hears a foreign term and can’t forget it. The word for prison in German is Gefängnis. You took German in high school from Mr. Antonucci. Du mußt nicht ins Gefängnis gehen, he’d say and laugh. Don’t go to prison. Gefängnis, you think, accessory.

“Szechwan chicken is not fucking fried!” screams Dennis.

“Fuck that. The fucking chef knows what he’s doing!” screams Warren. “He’s the chef, man.”

It’s been almost six hours with sleep as a distant fantasy and the two assholes in the next room, arguing about (1) the Musical Chef; (2) the differences between Fiats and Škodas; and (3) whether Nixon was better than our current chief executive—Fucking-A he wasn’t. Nixon was an idiot—Fuck you, Dennis, Bush is a FAGGOT—with the occasional Learn your shit! and Why don’t you just shut the fuck up? thrown in. Yes, you frown, pulling your knees up closer to your chin, yes, why don’t you?

Then, finally, when silence comes, it’s total, sudden, and ominous. You dress, put your things back in your pockets, and creep out of the bathroom, cheering yourself with images of Dennis and Warren contorted in a final death-embrace, hands around each other’s throats, neck veins still bulged-out. Instead, it’s the usual scene. Dennis is spread-eagled on the bed, head hanging upside-down off the edge, snuffling with his mouth open. Warren’s on his side, sleeping on the round table under the window. He didn’t bother to brush away the wrappers from the vending machine food and looks like he’s been sleeping at the bottom of a trashcan. You walk out of the room, shut the door, and stare at the low-slung peel of moon just above the horizon. Maybe you should call Chris again. You’re out of change. You’d have to call collect.

The woman in the motel office is also stoned. How many times have you seen this in the late night offices of motels, trailer parks, campgrounds? The bored, slightly pathetic life form behind the desk, hooked into bad TV and whatever happens to be on the smoking menu that evening. There’s usually nobody around, and it’s a real bummer when somebody steps in with some problem. She’s thought ahead, has a cigarette burning in the ashtray to cover up the hash smell. But hash is hash, as a wise man once said. In your humble opinion, hash is a good thing. Let there be hash.

She looks over at you, wishing the one thing in the world you won’t do is speak. You mosey over to the urn of free coffee and get a cup. The coffee tastes like hot, bitter plastic, but it warms you from the inside, which is always the best way to get warm. When you were a kid, warm felt like that. Your dad would make instant coffee on the kitchen counter in the morning—thin and steaming, without sugar. Was it his way of saying, I’m sorry your worthless mother o.d.’d in your bed and you had to come home from school and find her there? Was it his way of saying, I apologize for the stints in various orphanages while I did six months in prison here, a year there? Maybe he wasn’t trying to say anything but Drink up. You’ve thought about these things for years. You can take all the time you need, think about it for the rest of your life if you want. It might take that long to figure your childhood out. The important thing is, standing in the office of the Apache Motel, looking at the sad array of yellowed tourist brochures from fifteen years ago, you feel warm. You’ve got coffee. You’ve got a son named Jessup. You’re not in jail. You’re not dead.

“I suppose there’s something you want.”

“Nothing,” you say. “Coffee.” You hold up the Styrofoam cup and smile on your way out. She turns back to her show without a word. Her cigarette has burned down to the filter, leaving a two-inch worm of ash. Doesn’t look like she smoked any of it. She’s in her thirties, getting curves where she shouldn’t, platinum-dyed hair tied back in a band.

Outside, you look at her through the windowpanes in the door. She’s sitting there, not blinking, staring at the television as if she’s part of it. A machine could do her job. Someday, you think, a machine will. You notice a blue pushbutton with a black circular base beside the door. Around it, Press Button if Offise Closed is written in Magic Marker. You walk down the side of the motel, following the wires running from the button. The wires are covered in the same tan paint as the rest of the motel.

Ah. You feel good for the first time since you started this trip. If Dennis were here, you might even consider discussing whether you’re about to enter a quantum state. Or, rather, whether the blonde’s cottage is, because that’s where the bell wires end, and you’ve still got that survival knife in your pocket. While she sits over in the motel office, the rest of the cosmos waits in one of Dennis’ probabilistic equations—with and without her hearing you snap the latch on the cottage’s screen door and pry the survival knife into the lock; with and without her getting up to check (probably not—if you want to talk about likely hits from a very probable hash pipe); with and consequently without some interesting items, which she should have made a lot more secure.

You smile, picturing how irritated Dennis would be with you narrating all the possible outcomes of the situation as you easily, absently, twist the knife in the ancient lock and shoulder the door open. Probabilistically speaking, you’d say to Dennis, dogs simultaneously wagging and not wagging their tails misses the point. You pause in the darkness of the living room and think about Dennis’ hypothetical. Who cares what’s behind Door Number One? That’s the real question. Nerve gas? A yipping daschund? If you want to know, twist a knife in the lock. If you don’t, let poisoned, radioactive daschunds lie.

It’s a small cottage, but the living room seems large in the dark. A digital clock face glows red from a bookshelf. You hear a slow drip-plop from the kitchen, and decide to feel your way to the bedroom first. What’s wrong with a little thievery, really, everything being equal and equally thieved? Money. Time. The Beatles thieving Little Richard. The US thieving Mexico thieving the Indians, body and soul. Everybody thieving oil and oil thieving right back. Children thieve the future from their parents as parents thieve the past. Dracula pulls up in front of the blood bank, and the President invades Iraq. It’s the way you live, the way we live, the way we’re all going to die—thieving one more taste of life in this desert of trouble and mistakes until death gets its own hustle on. The only downside is getting caught reminding people of the truth, not just your truth but everybody’s: the world is a criminal. If your son were here, you’d sit him down and tell him just that. The whole world, Jessup. The very earth.

The bedroom smells like cigarettes and strong perfume, and it cheers you right away. Your new best friend has cases on her pillows. Good. You strip both pillows in the dark. Now you have two sacks. Tossing a house, really stripping it, might take an hour or two. But if you don’t want the gold out of someone’s teeth (and normally you don’t—too burdensome, too hard to get rid of every last, little thing), it ought to take ten minutes, less. Appliances. Jewelry. Grandpa’s roll of bills under the mattress. People have no imagination. They’re sheep. They buy the fake Ajax can to hold their pension and go to sleep feeling like its safer than the bank.

Sheep. Like this girl—diamond earrings, five-hundred, and a dime bag rolled into an old sock in her panty drawer—the place you usually look after the mattress. Someone should tell her she’s right. The bank isn’t safe. No place is. Someone should tell her, if she put down the hash pipe, just for tonight, and did her rounds, you wouldn’t be able to rob her blind, and there’s no FDIC on an Ajax can.

“Baa,” you say to the living room, bagging the DVD player and some nice stereo components—far too nice for a motel manager, which proves your point yet again. Who really owns anything? You’re a goddamn social revolutionary, quantum dog state or not. You pull the clock’s power cord out of the wall, wrap it around the clock, and put the clock in your sack. The entire escapade has taken about twelve minutes in the dark.

On your way out, you turn on the bathroom sink and the shower. This is great—a little, original twist. Most people will run straight into the bathroom and stare dumbly at the floor, going, “Baa.” Did the pipes explode? Did the toilet overflow? (Oh shit!) Meanwhile, you’re several miles down the road, feeling good for having played your role in the great, daily sacrament of human crime.

Back in the office, she’s still sitting behind the desk, slack-jawed, watching television. You look at her again through the glass in the door, then enter, leaving your sacks leaning against the wall outside.

“What’s on?” Another cup of coffee seems good. It swooshes into the cup.

Real Life. It’s a reality show.” She doesn’t look at you. Her words sound stilted, deliberately linked, as if she thought about each one before adding it to the sentence. You wonder if she might be thinking about just how much attention it’s going to take for you to leave smoothly, without a fuss, without screwing up her high.

“Reality, eh?” You’ve heard of this kind of show, but you’ve never seen one of them. You haven’t watched TV in about ten years. “Does that mean other shows aren’t real?”

“Of course they’re not real. Where’ve you been?”

“I work nights.”

She turns and gives you a long, slow stare, one part disbelief, two parts weariness.

“If we can talk about them, aren’t they real?”

“What the fuck do you mean?” Hostile. She swivels all the way around to face you. You are a problem. Now she has to deal with you.

You take a sip of coffee and smile, stepping back. “Shows are real shows, right?”

“Are you looking for something? ‘Cause I don’t have anything for you. Understand what I’m saying?”

“Just talking.” You shrug. Smile. Move toward the door.

She stands up, brow knitted, concentrating. “Look,” she says to the desk, “shows are shows. Some shows are real. Some are all made up. Is that what you’re asking?”

“So what’s real life, then?”

“They just take a camera into some place, like a store, and let it sit.”

You put your hand on the doorknob. “That’s crazy. What do you see?”

She is convinced you’re an idiot. She gestures with the backs of her hands, fingers up, as if to show how evident it all is. She looks like a surgeon about to operate. “Everything. They went to this butcher shop. People came in and said fucked-up things to the butchers. Then they cut some meat.”

“Like nasty things?”

“This one chick goes, ‘I want a piece of rump,’ and the butcher, all covered in blood and shit, goes, ‘Me, too.’ How fucked-up is that?” She’s still standing as if she’s about to pull a can of mace out from behind the desk, but the corner of her mouth curls in glassy amusement. Thinking about it makes her laugh and cough.

“Ever want them to come here?”

“And film what? Me watching the show? That would mess with your head.”

“It sure would.” You toast her with the Styrofoam cup and walk out, picking up your sacks on the way to the room.

Baa.

The truth happens. Sometimes, absolute truth happens. And, when it does, you’ve decided you don’t want to be anywhere close. Fifty megatons of truth with a half-life of regret for eternity. When the truth comes down, it drops like a bomb or a burning flare. Facts that follow you. Fallout in perpetuity, in the midnight hour, staring at a dark ceiling or out the window of a stolen truck, thinking of all the people you’ve robbed, defrauded, screwed. Of how you went to college for two years and could have wound up better.

Sitting in the passenger’s seat of the jacked semi as Dennis drives it up the ninety-nine, you look out at tractor dealerships, broken motels, heavy machinery yards in the orange-white envelope of a burning, San Joaquin Valley afternoon. You think of the original driver, pale in his own headlights, as if sculpted in wax. You imagine his upturned face burning white at the bottom of the ditch where you threw him, the ditch itself like a ghost town. Marking the spot: this is where they left me to die, the truth finally come down. Burning where it fell. Clinging to the earth for as long as it could. Not your truth. Not anyone’s. But the truth. Absolute truth this time—hideous, brutal, and rare.

Regret for eternity. How much for taking that poor chick’s DVD player and pot and clocks? More, you’re sure, for having drawn her just the smallest bit out of her bolt hole of hash and Real Life. Eternity plus five.

“So I’ve been thinking,” says Dennis, “about the possibilities. You know. With the dog.”

“You’re still on this?”

“On what? What the hell, man? Don’t you care about the meaning of life?”

“That sounds like a show.”

“Work with me. We’ve got a dead-or-not-dead dog trying to wag his tail. We need to solve this shit.” Dennis downshifts and grins. The silver cap on his right incisor is turning black. His eyes are still bloodshot from the meth.

Warren’s stolen, brown Datsun two cars behind is holding steady in the side mirror. It looks like it’s been smoking meth, too. And Warren inside it: hair straight up, face partly swollen as if he’s been punched a few times which, in a way, he has. Warren got up this morning like Night of the Living Dead. Dennis laughed, said, “Rise! Rise!” To which, Warren responded with his usual, “Fuck. You.”

Plus five. Plus five with fire and perdition. With your whole ancestral line for generations back, through dispossessed French Huguenots and amoral Scotsmen—the balance of whom were probably hung as thieves or burned as liars. And drawn. And quartered. And blamed. And mortared. And taken off all books of contributing members before being dismembered. But not before they could breed the next generation into this confusion. The confused, jagged screech of a newborn slapped hard on the ass so it takes its first breath—what better way to symbolize life than this? That hurt. I don’t feel good. And this place very clearly sucks.

You’re thinking about all this, letting it tumble through your brain, while Jimbo checks the truck. A slight man, Jimbo, slight and low-talking. He mumbles. He murmurs. He stands by the truck and says things to Andre, who nods like he’s taking dictation. Maybe Andre is. There’s no telling what a relationship could be between a beady-eyed, marsupial-faced thug and a little man from Nigeria with colored braids and a dark green polo. All that matters is Jimbo has the cash. That’s all you need to know. And Jimbo’s got a kid named Omar who’s fidgeting with the latch on the truck, over-excited, asking you too many questions: “Hey, man, you do this a lot? It looks like the money’s good.”

Andre goes to get the payment while Jimbo and Warren talk off to the side, Jimbo’s voice like the hum of distant equipment, Warren gesturing with his hands.

“It’s fine,” you say and look at the kid.

Omar nods, uses his palm to wipe the sweat off the top of his head. Dennis yawns and lights a cigarette. The warehouse is empty except for the truck. And it’s big—as big as a hangar. Might have been a factory once or a machine shop for heavy equipment. You watch Andre get smaller as he walks across the cement floor, way back to the other side of the warehouse, where the dark office door stands open. Then he lumbers back, carrying the bag. The wrinkled, paper grocery bag. The bag of bags.

The bag with the money.

Everybody gets paid, and everybody gets happy. Andre buys both sacks from you for a crisp hundred-dollar bill off his roll before he gets in the truck with Jimbo. You watch them go, Kennworth ghost town vanishing to the underworld. The warehouse is dead-silent. It’s all over, done, and no problems. You tell yourself you should feel good.

You get into the passenger seat of Warren’s Datsun. Warren slides behind the wheel and tries to get the engine to turn over, Dennis and Omar in back. Omar’s nervous, trying to act like he’s cool. But he’s wired, staring at the three of you when he thinks you’re not looking.

“I gotta ditch this shit in Bakersfield. I’ll drop anybody on the way.” Warren sighs, stretches. Nobody says a word or counts any money. You look at Dennis’ eyes in the rearview mirror as the car pulls out and leaves a cloud of white smoke behind it that reminds you of meth. Dennis is getting freaked out by Omar. You’re mildly surprised Dennis waits until you get on the 99 before he starts messing with the kid.

“Why you lookin’ at me?” he says to Omar in a half-whisper. “Don’t you fucking look at me.”

“Sorry.” Omar looks like he might piss himself.

“Why you here, anyway?” Dennis pulls the .45 and presses Omar’s face against the window with it. “Why the fuck are you here? Why didn’t you leave with Andre?”

The kid doesn’t say anything. He clamps his jaw shut. You turn around in your seat and watch. Omar’s got a sweat stain around the neck of his T-shirt and straight down the front like a ruff.

“That’s a good question,” says Warren, driving with his left elbow on the door and his face propped in his hand. He sounds like he’s about to fall asleep, still hung-over from all the happy meth.

“Pull over,” says Dennis. “I think I’m gonna shoot this asshole right here.”

“No,” says Omar, squeezing his eyes shut.

“Okay,” sighs Warren. The Datsun rolls to a stop in another cloud of smoke.

How many times, you wonder, has something like this happened on the 99-south?

“Get the fuck out,” screams Dennis as he runs around the back of the car, gun in hand.

Omar tries to lock the door, but Dennis yanks it open and pulls him out by his foot.

Omar’s crying, on his knees, with Dennis pushing the .45 into his forehead in broad daylight.

“You pathetic piece of shit,” screams Dennis over air and traffic, “gimme your wallet.” A semi, not unlike the one you’ve been driving for the past several days, makes the Datsun rock like a boat. Dennis whacks Omar in the side of the head with the gun to snap him out of his crying. A passing car leans on its horn. You imagine the call: Police! Send the SWAT team! There’s a guy getting executed on the 99!

“Come on. This is taking forever.” You yell it into the wind, not wanting to get out and make yourself more identifiable, hoping Dennis doesn’t actually shoot him. But, by the time you say it, Dennis is already in the backseat. Warren hits the gas and whips into the slow lane. Behind you, Omar is still kneeling but bent over, forehead on his hands as if in prayer.

“Look at that.” Dennis has Omar’s watch on. This is the real Dennis, you think—not the philosophical guy who likes to take it easy and talk about dogs wagging their tails. This is the criminal. You wonder where you fall on Dennis’ scale and whether you’d have left Omar bent over and weeping in the heat.

“That’s not a real Rolex,” you say. “A real Rolex doesn’t have its hands click forward like that. They’re smooth.”

“So? Shit, I knew that.”

Warren and Dennis start laughing. You laugh, too, because not laughing when a crazy meth-addicted asshole is sitting behind you with a loaded gun is not an option. You tell yourself this might be it. No more truckjacking. Fuck the money. A box of high-end Louis Vuittons doesn’t shoot you in the head.

Dennis is still laughing when he taps you on the shoulder with the butt of the .45.

“Wasn’t loaded,” he says and shows you the empty space where the clip should be. He makes a hard face. “You like my gangsta-gangsta?”

“Yeah, man.” You smile: funny joke. “I believed it.”

“I’ve got talent.” He takes his wire-rimmed glasses out of his leather case and polishes them with his shirt.

You nod and keep smiling.

These trips have made you close to $50,000. But none of them were as violent as this one. You think of Omar bent over on the side of the highway. You should put him out of your mind. You tell yourself you’ve been Omar. You tell yourself that if Omar keeps his mouth shut and learns a thing or two, he might just live to be you.

 

burundiI started this website years ago, when I was living in East Africa and had no idea when I’d be leaving. The idea was to experiment with travel non-fiction essays I might eventually submit to magazines. But, over time, The Writing Expedition became more than that. I’ve begun to notice a theme emerging—the same theme that characterized most of the stories in my first collection, Gravity:

[T]he assumption that everything in life depends on being solvent, employed, and generally needed. These things constitute the gravity, or the seriousness, of one’s situation—that which holds a person’s life together and makes it mean something.

I guess I’m still thinking about what it means to survive in our often unforgiving, inhuman post-industrial economy. It seems that writing and thinking about this is emerging as an aspect of my life’s work—my overall artistic project. I think I should probably be reading more Studs Terkel, Orwell, Huxley, Ignacio Silone, Walter Benjamin, Viktor Frankl. I should be doing a lot of things.

indexSince my book came out in late 2009, I’ve published in more magazines. I’ve taught more students at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop. I’ve received praise for my work from those who get my project and the inevitable pushback from those who don’t. It’s all part of the writing life. Nevertheless, times change and we change with them. Recently, I’ve had occasion to look back the at the road behind me and also wonder about the future.

Abre Camino

After a number of reversals, sickness, and a new appreciation for my mortality, I left Burundi sooner than I thought I would. I wrote a story loosely based on my experiences there, sweated profusely in Belgium, led a charmed existence in Tallinn (a city fairly close to how I imagine paradise), and then had to leave the Schengen due to an unresolvable issue with my visa. I spent a few discombobulated days in Oxford before it was back to central California again for hard times, family betrayals, and a veritable buffet of disappointments and bad luck. 

As soon as I got back, I knew I had to leave again. So I did. Since I work primarily online, I was able to go places where I could also enjoy myself—San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, Washington D.C. Then I left for England again, living in Oxford for a good while. I had a short interlude, staying with friends in a village outside Vienna. And then London. Soon, I will return to Oxford before heading out to Asia. It’s a good life if you can stay flexible and you don’t want to own a lot of things.

The Hounds of the Grass

Another theme has been that of trading financial stability for time and interesting experiences. In the beginning, this was not altogether intentional. I got my PhD at Western Michigan University and hit the job market, which, I discovered, hits back. I have three advanced degrees, 17 years teaching experience, an expert ESL certification, numerous magazine publications, a book with an academic press, and a winning personality.

Still, the tenure track job interviews right out of my program were not forthcoming. I had a few in which I was competing tooth-and-nail with a large number of equally qualified candidates for, say, one position. I talk about this experience often on this blog. I think it’s important that some people tell the truth about the process. In the end, Thomas Benton’s notorious “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go” has proven out. What he describes hasn’t quite been my experience. I’ve been lucky that way. But I think Benton has been nearly prophetic for a number of my friends who I’ve seen lied to, exploited, blamed, and disregarded by a broken system packed with terrified neurotics. I say go get the degree you want to get. But do it with open eyes and be willing to do what you have to do to survive.

Kephera - Egyptian Neter of Coming into Being

Kephera – Egyptian Neter of Coming into Being

So this morning, I got up and looked at the calendar. In 24 days, I will turn 41. And, thinking about that over my coffee, I realized that I’ve had many, many interesting experiences over the years. I’ve done some amazing things—at first from necessity, then in order to court eustress and test myself. Now I really do think I’ve changed. I love teaching, without a doubt, it’s part of who I am. But I no longer have that sense of desperation that characterized those of us who made it through the PhD relatively sane. I’m no longer that brittle academic refugee. I’ve evolved.

No one knows what’s around the next corner. Though, after 4 decades of life, it seems preferable to hold Will to Meaning as my highest good instead of Will to Productivity or Consumption. In my ongoing search for a meaningful life, I’ve come to experiences over approval, freedom and time over money and obligations. Or, as the Uncle Aleister used to say, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.”

I sat down today intending to write a piece critical of certain shrill MFA voices that seem to have gotten shriller since MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction hit the shelves last February. Is “shriller” actually a word? It is. But it only takes meaning as a comparative adjective once something that was brittle, high-pitched, piercing, and so exaggerated as to be deeply annoying gets intensified beyond the bounds of reason and tolerance.

In fact, this was going to be one of those, “I think yon highly privileged (shrill) MFA Child Of The Universe doth protest too much, Horatio” posts. In it, I would have been sure to impart a sense of having been there and done that, taking care to insinuate that I was a hard bitten veteran of the academic creative writing hustle. I might have added a touch of weary exasperation that the culture of many workshop-based programs is about everything but the work. And I might have tried for a some kind of brief reversal three-fourths of the way through so that I could have ended on a slightly hopeful note.

Nope.

But come on. I’ve done all that. I’ve argued both sides: that MFA writing programs are excellent ways to focus on learning craft for two to three years without the distractions that would otherwise apply. I’ve also argued that the bloated culture of privilege and cynical, thinly veiled mediocrity in many of these programs short-changes students from the beginning. I still believe all of this. I also believe that if you go into it with open eyes, intending to use the program as a tool to facilitate your development as an artist, you will not regret your decision. If you go in and expect a big hug and Wonder Boys, your life will come to resemble a Muddy Waters song.

I’ve written a lot, here and elsewhere, on MFA programs—why I think we should still believe in them and the ways I think they utterly fail everyone involved. And by “everyone,” I actually mean anyone interested in the mission of creative writing, which I guess means everyone. The Big Everyone—like you, me, the kid on the big wheel down the block, President Obama, and Ray Kurzweil. Everyone. Because, in my opinion, the mission of art school is nothing less than cultural transformation. It’s founded on the assumption that the arts can and should have a place in society.

So I don’t know. Maybe I should recognize a certain degree of irony implicit in any post I write about gifted, neurotic, highly privileged 20-somethings in creative writing programs. I was one. In many ways, I still am. I feel at home with that crowd. And as a freelance writer and fiction instructor for the Gotham Writers’ Workshop, I’m still connected to the academic MFA world. I guess the question is whether there is anything new to be said about it. The perspectives in MFA vs. NYC have not been very surprising or insightful. It seems like the same old array of objections and justifications we’ve been hearing for years. Now they’ve been collected in a book instead of appearing in The Atlantic or on websites.

Maybe an even better question is whether anyone sees MFAs clearly at all. What if I point out that there is a perceptual “distortion field” around MFA programs which encourages students to believe themselves at the center of the universe? What if I argue that, because of this world-view, many MFA students also believe that the universe is in a state of perpetual collapse—because its center has been revealed to contain semen, bent paper clips, and cotton candy instead of the fire of the gods? And what if I describe the almost universal malaise that seems to descend on these young lords and ladies of creation around the time they’re halfway through their programs? A certain melancholy made from dwelling on the absurdly large student loans they took out in order to be “student writers” and how this seems like a perverse existential joke considering their post-program job prospects?

Oh, don’t be sad. There’s enough cotton candy for everyone.

 

​Here are some random thoughts on getting creative work done with a minimum of grief.

Basic Artistic Needs.  In order to write, I need, at minimum:

1. Quiet.
2. Solitude.
3. Minimal levels of discomfort​ – i.e. not feeling feverish and sick (including being hung over, exhausted, or otherwise ill), the heater not turned all the way up / down, people walking back and forth through the room or shouting / throwing things against the wall next door​, the gardener blowing leaves under the window, etc.  ​The idea is to be able to forget one’s surroundings for a short period of time in order to free the imagination.  This can’t happen with constant chaos and upheaval. 

Artistic Time vs. Regular Time:

Artistic time is subjective.  If I haven’t written in 3 days, it feels like a week.  When I haven’t written for a week, I feel dead–like I may never have the enormous amount of energy it will take to find the particular emotional structure I was working on before.  This is why Bukowski, Hemingway, Carver, and probably every other non-hack in existence worries about waking up one day and realizing that one’s talent has disappeared.  But such worries just amount to performance anxiety.  I get back into the process and they disappear.

Money and Making a Living as Justification for Complaints:

I am unable to justify any of these needs in terms of what I need to make a living.  It is not persuasive to say: maybe if I had a regular schedule (i.e. a better day job, more money coming in) I wouldn’t be having these problems.​  Money has nothing to do with it and publishing advances will not ultimately validate these needs.  Personally, I am writing highly specialized literary fiction.  I will be most likely to publish in literary magazines and small / university presses​ where there is an audience for my work.  I will not be able to support myself with my work because there are not enough consumers to make it profitable.  Therefore, all the demands I make about needing time, needing space, and needing minimum levels of comfort must always seem baseless and unjustifiable in any practical sense. 

Keeping on Keeping on:

I meditate and exercise.  Music plays a large role in my process.  Whatever it takes to continue is what you need to do.  The point is to continue.

Objections are Inevitable:

Objection 1: Resentful voice from the Internet: “I am a scholar / artist / salesperson / programmer / thought-worker and I need time and space, too!”  (Yes, I completely agree.  This doesn’t mean that just because you are having trouble along the same lines, I stop having trouble as a writer.)

Objection 2: Spouse / flatmate / friend / parent / magical talking dog who lives in the closet: “I am doing my part to help you have the conditions you need to write (so stop complaining)!”  (My complaints come from my sense of frustration not from any perception of insincerity or failure to help on your part.)

Objection 3: Regular reader of my blog: “But you write in crowded cafes all the time.”  (I can write in cafes when I am surrounded by strangers I can ignore and only when they are sufficiently quiet or oblivious.  I am unable to write in cafes (a) where there is someone I know staring at me or walking back and forth; (b) where people are emoting too much–like irritated tourists or upset locals; and (c) where people are sitting too close to me.  Because the art-production process is rarely 100% systematic, there will always be experiences that stand as exceptions to these things.  Still, I am talking in general, not about the exceptions.)

​Objection 4: Upset writer trolling posts tagged with writing terms: “So-and-so produces ten times the amount of work you say you produce and has none of these complaints.”  (So?  Many writers and artists have these complaints​.  If you want to point out an anecdotal counter-example to me, ​I can again note that there will be exceptions.  Unfortunately​, I am more typical​ in my needs than atypical.  If this makes me somehow complicit in my own misery, so be it.  But if that is true, then I am joined my many, many others experiencing the same problems.)

Objection 5: My disillusioned ex-girlfriend who wanted me to stop writing and go into sales to support her modeling career: “Why do you choose to do this work in the first place when it is so difficult and thankless?” ​  (Because even though it is difficult and thankless, writing fiction provides me with intellectual, emotional, and spiritual relief that would be lacking if I were merely working to make money.  People have said that an artistic calling is a curse because once you develop yourself artistically, you typically feel compelled to continue no matter the personal consequences.  Nevertheless, I can say with a certain degree of conviction that  if I didn’t have this relief, I would exit life as quickly as possible.  This is not to reduce art to the level of therapy, but it is therapeutic.  And I believe that is a large part of what makes it compelling.  That said, no artist actually chooses art.  It chooses the artist, my young apprentice.)

Objection 6: Well-intentioned genre writer with anxiety from listening to editorial advice on how to be more formulaic and saleable: “I read that in order to be a professional you need to (a) produce 1-2 novels a year; (b) write at a 7th grade level; (c) have your work vetted by test readers that function like focus groups, guiding your revision process to the most genre-acceptable trajectories; (d) spend twice as much time self-promoting as you do writing; (e) give away free content to entice readers, etc.” (No.  These things come from a particular stratum of the publishing industry that is usually heavy with genre fiction​ aimed at a very tight reader demographic.  These professional standards are neither right nor wrong.  However, they are definitely narrow enough to apply only to the new pulp fiction industry that has emerged from the convergence of e-publishing, self-publishing, and a powerful online consumer base.  If you are a literary writer or someone whose aesthetic does not fit into the highly calculated style sheets of these pulp houses, don’t fucking worry about it.  The publishing industry is a lot bigger than it seems.  Do not make the mistake of thinking that just because a particular writer on a particular blog says this is how it is, that is how it must be for every writer everywhere.  Apply critical thinking.  And don’t forget to do that with what I’m telling you here as well.  Remember that I am just another writer with a perspective on his industry.)

Objection 7: One of my Facebook friends: “You like James Altucher, but he says publishing is dead and we should all self-publish.  How do you reconcile that?”  (I don’t.  Altucher is a good writer and is entitled to his opinion about publishing.  I don’t completely agree with him because I have had some success in traditional publishing.  I have not made much money; though, I am not concerned with making a living this way.  I will probably always have a day job.  If I were writing Harlequin romances to make a living, I would be very concerned and would probably put all my books on Amazon.com via Createspace instead–because I fundamentally believe what he is saying about skipping the middleman in the publishing process.  It makes sense.  I actually like that idea and am not ruling out self-publishing for myself at all.  I just don’t think that self-publishing is the only viable way to publish.  And if you’re alright with the (admittedly crazy) traditional methods, then relax and put your manuscript in the mail.  He uses 50 Shades as an example of a successful way of bootstrapping oneself into publishing using self-published material.  Okay but I would like to point out that the books he mentions reading are somewhat different from that and any given piece of his own writing is superior to that of EL James (I have read some of her work and am not making this criticism arbitrarily).  Altucher is too modest to make that claim for himself.  I also think 50 Shades of Grey is a good example of a turd that everyone has decided to eat.  For that matter, I think Eat, Pray, Love, She’s Come Undone, The Notebook, and most of what Random House releases every year is comparable.  This doesn’t mean I won’t read such books.  I will read them to learn more about what I like and don’t like.  Maybe I’ll check them out from the library instead of giving my money to the Big Six.)

Woof?  Woof.

Writing seriously means nursing enormous egotism, believing that your inner life is worthy of concrete expression, worthy of sharing. The outside world wants to constantly remind you that you are nothing but a small, failed, decaying byproduct of its grand mulching system.  But bringing forth what’s inside you gives independent life to something that never before existed outside your mind, something that cannot be immediately quantified, digested, and mulched.  Therefore, writing is subversive.  Writing is Occupy Consciousness.  Writing is black magic.  It’s an external frame of reference, a constellation of ideas, a place outside the compost heap.  And we can go there together.

In which 2014 wants to eat you for dinner and The Desolation of Smaug is revealed as an awkward sequel to Blade Runner.

2014 thinks you look  juicy and flavorful.

2014 thinks you look juicy and flavorful.

Long about the second imagination-numbing meet cute—in which replicant Evangeline Lilly and replicant Aidan Turner execute their romantic sub-plot algorithms with the machined precision of highly efficient synthetic organisms—it struck me how much 2013 has been like The Desolation.  2013 has unquestionably been a bloated, tired, flash in the pan.  A Potemkin village of a year. Everything bad-false and nothing good-true.  Desolation is right.  Desolation forever.  2013 was the year I wished would end after experiencing about a week of it.  That’s how it went: oh shit, more of this?  Okay, maybe you had a great time.  Then again, you probably didn’t.  If you’re bitter about it, get on the bus.  There’s always room for one more.  And we would like to note our suspicion that 2014 is already peering at us hungrily from the tall grass.

The elf and the dwarf have to hook up?

The elf and the dwarf have to hook up?

Sitting in The Phoenix two days before Xmas, surrounded by the farting, despondent matinée demographic of Oxford, I wept at the destruction of yet another childhood treasure.  When I watch sci-fi or fantasy, I like feeling as if I’m at least on the edge of something relevant, as if at any moment the elements of the unreal fairytale world might snap together with perfect clarity and show me something about my life.  But The Desolation of Smaug didn’t, couldn’t, wouldn’t.  The Lord of the Rings, for example, made me think deeply about moral ambiguity and how growing up means admitting that Sauron is often the better choice.  Instead, the message here was straight out of Jack Lipnik’s dialogue in Barton Fink: “Look, I’m not one of those guys who thinks poetic has got to be fruity. We’re together on that, aren’t we?”  Peter Jackson made a bad call: no poetic fruit in Mirkwood.  None at all.  Not even a digitized grape.

There was a decided lack of metaphorical produce throughout the film. 

Stephen Fry and sidekick – straight out of Deliverance but for  cuir bouilli and an Achaemenid moustache.

Stephen Fry and sidekick – straight out of Deliverance but for cuir bouilli and an Achaemenid moustache.

Authentic agricultural products cannot exist in an over-written, computer-generated, orc Kung Fu movie acted by replicants.  So, enveloped in the bodily odors of liquor and bad lunchtime decisions, I had time to think about all that was dramatically non-fruity, such as: why Ian McKellen looks exhausted and noticeably older in this film even though it takes place before LOTR (we hope the reason is that he, too, thinks the film sucks); why Legolas functions exactly like the “jerk jock” antagonist in every single teen-oriented Hollywood movie ever; why the fight scenes run like wire fu choreographed by HAL 9000, and why Stephen Fry’s character is absolutely the best thing about the film.  Actually, this last one is not surprising.  Fry is a dramatic lucky rabbit’s foot.  Put him in a movie, even in a cameo, and everything improves.

Nexus 6es trying to act.

Nexus 6es trying to act.

Anyway, I did realize that Dr. Eldon Tyrell had to have been The Desolation of Smaug’s chief technical advisor even though he’s not credited.  Why is that?  Buggy Nexus 6es from Blade Runner seem to have self-activated and wandered out of an old Tyrell Company storage unit in Burbank.  I don’t know how they made it into a Hobbit film or why they reactivated in the first place, but I suspect it has something to do with stretching a children’s novel into a trilogy in order to make as much money as the previous trilogy did.  One thing, however, is clear: “More Human Than Human” is now Peter Jackson’s motto.

But who cares?  I had to go see it.  We all have to go see it.  This is mainly because there was a difficult moment—for many of us it was sometime in 2011 toward the end of Deathly Hallows—when we realized that Voldemort was just László Almásy from The English Patient with alopecia.  We admitted to ourselves that Neville Longbottom was the only truly heroic character in any of the movies.  And we resolved to make amends to all those we harmed as a result of our involvement with Harry Potter, except when to do so would injure them or others.

Hairless, haunted, misunderstood.

Hairless, haunted, misunderstood.

Moreover, since the most logical fantasy genre response to the cloying irrelevance of the Harry Potter franchise is Game of Thrones, something had to be done.  In spite of its many virtues, Game of Thrones isn’t interested in the kind of childhood wonder that fantasy creates.  And without wonder, we might as well go read a historical novel about Cesare Borgia and get over it.  We had to believe that Peter Jackson could save us from ourselves this year.  We had to believe in fantasy one more time.  This, even though by the end of the first Hobbit film, I was wishing they’d run into the hillbillies from Deliverance instead of stone trolls.

And so this is Boxing Day.  I’ve seen Peter Jackson’s abomination and must recover as best I can.  2014 has to be better.  We’re together on that, aren’t we?  Or maybe another hot mess is set to hit the air conditioning in less than a week.  The indecencies of Xmas are mostly behind us.  But I get the feeling that the dreaded new year is waiting like a lion on a warthog burrow.  You know about lions and warthogs, right?  Larry Brown wrote about them in Dirty Work and the metaphor is perfect:

DirtyWorkPage5

All over with.  That’s from page five.  But don’t let it get you down.  There and Back Again is set for December 17th, 2014.  I’m sure, by then, everything will be better than ever.

The discipline has three steps.  It begins at home.

You want to do something–paint, write, act, play the hammered dulcimer, whatever–because it calls to you.  It’s more than just a passing interest and you’re aware of this (I think hammered dulcimers are kind of cool, but I feel no compulsion to start taking lessons down at Jim’s Dulcimer Academy).  This thing calls to you more deeply than it does to the dilettante.  You think about it when other things aren’t distracting you.  Then it becomes the distraction.  You love and even idolize existing practitioners of the art.  You read their interviews, their Wikipedia pages, the pretentious Rolling Stone pieces that treat them like geniuses or flops.  You fantasize about that being you.

So you take a step and get some training.  Lessons.  You pay for a class at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop.  Extension courses at the local community college.  Don Webb’s class at UCLA.  Maybe you get a method book or join a group that meets in the back of a bookstore once a month.  Maybe you hit the pawn shop and buy that beat-to-hell Mexi Strat in the window with some Dylan tablature.  Maybe you just get some paper, a pen, a stack of your favorite Stephen King novels, and start imitating.  The point is that your brain is a learning computer and, whether you’re aware of it or not, you’re learning.

So it goes: you produce a lot of bad material that you soon come to recognize as such.  Then maybe you make something small and good.  Then a few more small good creations like it.  Things begin to seem possible.  Your teachers (if they’re ethical) encourage you and suggest possible directions.  You start to calibrate your “built-in, shockproof, shit detector.”  You’re at the door of the Shaolin Temple.  Again, whether you know it or not, you’re standing there looking for admittance with your duffel bag and $300 in personal burial money.  You are not coming into fame and fortune at the top level with connections, Aspen lift tickets, and a sugar daddy to introduce you to literary agents or casting directors.  You’re doing it yourself.  And you’re probably starting to get pushback from those who now identify you as competition and want to end the threat before it begins.

As soon as people start trying to stand in your way–friends, family, other practitioners, teachers, coworkers–you know you’re moving forward.  This is also the moment when you truly have to apply “the discipline.”  Here it is as I have formulated it for myself.  This is a theme that runs throughout my writing on this blog and, in a more subtle way, my fiction.  The two things I care about most in life are helping people find their “thing” (bliss / true will / highest actualization–whatever you want to call it) and being able to follow my own path as a creative writer.  This has led me into teaching, which I love, and a lot of philosophical / sociological / life-hacking explorations.

Step 1: Mental Discipline: orienting all ambitions toward your art but expecting nothing in return save the art itself.  Just as publishing houses care primarily about volume of sales and production companies about box office returns, see commercial art for what it is.  In exchange for the freedom to make the art you want to make (if you’re not a commercial artist–if you are, you have a different set of problems than I’m addressing in this post), accept that “industry values” come from a vastly different universe than those of fine art and never think commerce cares about art beyond its baseline profitability.

You can’t control whether someone wants to buy your work.  You can slavishly imitate the trends, hoping that there will be room for one more clone.  Or you can recall what inspired you to start doing art in the first place–the possibility and texture of self expression.  So if you want to be authentic and original, save yourself a lot of pain and disappointment by accepting that your work may or may not be appreciated by those who seek to profit by the creativity of others.  By all means, submit your creations for publication and consumption.  But make that peripheral to your emotional center as a practitioner.  Make the work come first and the marketing come second.

This is the first step of the discipline because there will be enormous pressures levied against you for even thinking that you have the right to be original.  The publishing industry, like the movie industry, does not run on originality.  It runs on predictability.  Taking chances can be disastrous for them in the worst, career-wrecking sense.  You will be told a version of this in 1000 different implicit and explicit ways: try to imagine your audience and write to their expectations.  The serious artist will be following something else in her work than trend and established taste–something industry professionals may not even believe exists.  Two different sets of values.  Different universes.  Thus, the serious artist must be disciplined in what she believes, how she lets herself be influenced, what choices she makes about the integrity of her work.  The best way I know to do this is to embrace the real possibility of being ignored while continuously putting your work out there.  It can be emotionally difficult at first.

Step 2: Financial Discipline: keeping survival (but not respectability) always within your peripheral vision.  The second wave of pushback comes with the very real threat of extreme poverty.  Staying away from the infectious and materialistic mechanisms of the business world, status jobs, job trends, upward corporate mobility, and attendant notoriety is essential.  At best, these things are distractions from your daily commitment to furthering your art.  At worst, they will lead you into value systems that are openly antagonistic to serious, non-commercial productivity.  The same attitude behind “A BA in philosophy?  What are you going to do with that?” is the one that will frame you as an unrealistic dreamer who is certainly crazy and misguided, possibly stupid in a number of hidden ways, and someone we don’t want our daughters dating.

But these worlds and their inhabitants will be more than willing to ignore you if you ignore them–if you do not ask them for a handout or add to their unabated misery, jealousy, and covetousness by showing them the contrast between your values and theirs.  Rather, the second step in the discipline involves smiling and waving good-bye to middle-class ambitions; practicing “cheerful retreat”; and going your own way.  Being non-threatening (actually invisible) to those who hold status and money as the highest good will allow you to (1) avoid being influenced by their values; (2) avoid having to defend yourself against them; and (3) the space and time to simplify your life financially.  You are not a threat–so the fact that you are living humbly and frugally is a non-issue for them.

Simplifying your life is easier said than done.  And it may not seem like others would have a problem with this, but people will actively try to prevent you from simplifying and reducing your levels of consumption if they feel threatened by this.  However, you must arrange it so that the bulk of your personal responsibility can be shifted toward your art.

Because it’s good to live in human society–because that, too, provides fuel for your work–accept that “shifting personal responsibility toward your art” will entail a certain amount of discipline.  You may have to take the kids to football practice.  You may have to do what seems like an all-consuming job as a psychologist or a Zamboni driver or an IRS agent or a drug lawyer or a hot dog vendor in the mall.  All of these can be scaled down.  Take fewer hours.  Accept two (or three?) part-time jobs instead of a full-time job if that will build in greater flexibility.  Plead your health, your ailing family life, your grandmother’s lumbago, but reduce, reduce, reduce.  Become a freelancer.  Become a contractor.  Become a minimalist in everything but your work (and even in your work if that’s where your creativity leads you).  Read and apply The Four-Hour Workweek, Choose Yourself, How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World, Possum LivingThe Shoestring Girl, Working, The Outsider and Gordon White’s brilliant blog, Rune Soup–especially “Apocalypse Timeshares: Radical Strategies from Inside the OAT.”

Step 3: Be Determined / Take Your Lumps.  Do not think that frugality means limited options in any sense.  This is another cruel fiction propagated by the industries that depend on a manufactured, highly misleading, and unhealthy post-WWII middle-class will-to-respectability.  As a person practicing this discipline, you can do anything you want to do as long as you are willing to approach it in a transactional way (ironic, given the degree to which I inveigh against zero-sum materialism, but this is not always synonymous with transactional thinking as I use it here–see Browne’s book linked above).

In other words, if you want to, say, study herbalism in Shanghai, you can.  You may have to become a dishwasher, an ESL teacher, a private tutor, a person who carries pipes in a shit field, a dog-walker, a nanny.  You may have to cut costs by mostly eating rice, thin broth, and yam cakes.  You will have to learn a version of Chinese to a practical extent.  You will have to sharpen your social skills in order to get along and get what you need.  All of this takes energy.  All of this is disruptive and sometimes painful.  All of this can be done while functioning as an artist.  But you will have to pay for these experiences through a degree of chaos, stress, effort and the disapproval of others.  There will be dreadful moments.  But if you want to lead a different life–one that includes art and new experiences, you will accept the trouble as a necessary payment for doing what you want to do.  The discipline means taking your lumps and eternally paying dues.  Nothing comes for free but sometimes the payment is fun and sometimes it doesn’t even matter.

People enmeshed / immobilized in a fugue of “respectability” (in my opinion, a parasitic set of social mores and strictures that slowly consume the time and energy–life–of innocents whose only mistake was doing what they were told from an early age) will say you are crazy, unambitious, stupid, a loser.  They will do this because you haven’t had the time and wouldn’t spend the effort to become a stakeholder in their hierarchy of values.  I have experienced this firsthand and still do from time to time when the ripples of life-decisions I made in my late 20s come back to me.  But I do not have regrets.  I have largely overcome my personal demons, the emotional, familial, social fallout associated with owning my life.  That’s why this is a discipline.  You have to practice it.  It’s not something you do once.  It’s a way of life.  And I want that for you if you want it for yourself.

It was the worst of times.  It was the worst of times.  It was incontrovertibly, without a doubt, the absolute worst of times.  And yet my former student—we will call her Mary Sue—still had the presence of mind to ask me how I was before she broke down in tears.  She’d gotten rejected by 7 MFA programs for creative writing and zero acceptances.  This is not because she is not an excellent and talented story writer.  I’m not the only one who thinks she is a very good, very talented writer.  I worked with her through the process of submitting her stories to magazines, stories which eventually got published.  And she taught me as well in the way that every good student teaches his or her teacher.  Still, she hasn’t written a line since the first MFA rejection came in the mail.  I think she took a month to mourn each one before finally Skyping me a few days ago with the ultimate question: Why?

I get a lot of questions and comments about writing on this blog, most of which I respond to via email.  However, now and again, I’ll hear from a student I taught at a previous school or online at the Gotham Writers Workshop.  Sometimes these messages will be positive and cheerful.  But, more often, they will be full of bitterness and frustration.  Before you laugh—haha those silly little writers and their silly little angst—I suggest you try it.  If you have, you know what I’m talking about.  If you haven’t and still want to make fun, I suggest you fuck right off.

Anyway, I did my best to respond to her in a reasonably useful manner.  But it is worth noting—as I did in our Skype conversation—that there is no real way for me to divine why she was so consistently rejected.  I was tempted to respond with something long the lines of: harden up.  If you want to last in this business, you’d better make friends with rejection.  But a comeback like that solves nothing and would only serve as a way for me to avoid sincerely answering her question, a tactic I encountered all too often as a student.

In truth, I have been there.  I have felt sad and kicked around by the writing world.  I’ve been scoffed at by fellow graduate students, had my stories panned in workshop.  I’ve felt like a fraud many times.  I’ve been told not to give up my day job (or to get a day job or, post-911, to put a fireman in my novel / write some urban fantasy because that’s where it’s at right now, Davis—an office hour conversation that put me into a week of depression because a professor who talks like that has never said an honest thing in his life).  In fact, there were long, long stretches of time where I got absolutely no encouragement from anyone other than my immediate family and sometimes not even that.  So I felt for Mary Sue.  Being a creative artist is hard—hard in many hidden, difficult, often deeply painful ways.  Brutal, elemental rejection, when a young writer first experiences it, is something that lasts, that must be dealt with and overcome.  If we’re serious, we ask why over and over.*

She wanted to tell me that she felt like this was it.  Her writing career was over before it could begin.  And I don’t think it would be unfair for me to add that there was a subtle degree of accusatory shading there, to wit, why did you encourage me when this proves that I am clearly a loser?  Her mother wants her to go into nursing.  Her father hasn’t spoken to her since she told him she’s always liked girls more than boys.  All of this fits together in the nasty, if stereotypical, jigsaw experience of young people trying to develop themselves in unique ways after college.  So, with her permission and (I’m relieved to say) amusement, I am writing this in the hope that it will inspire others who may be in similar circumstances.  I know a lot of writers visit this blog.

Most of my initial response to Mary Sue came from my experiences working closely with professors in creative writing programs—at two different MFAs and then a PhD.  Here, I’m not speaking about any of those programs in particular.  I’m offering a general picture of the graduate creative writing admissions process as I’ve come to understand it.  I know some readers will have a hard time with this, but I will neither whitewash nor condemn what I think goes on based on some very vivid firsthand observations.  Instead, I’ll try to be fair when answering the question: how, if I’m so great, could they possibly reject me?

Let’s start with who’s reading your application.  No, I don’t mean the drones at the graduate college who only look to see if all the components are in place and you’ve actually taken the GRE / Single Subject Exam.  I mean the actual professors who sit around a table reading applications.

There might be anywhere from 50 to 150 applications in manila folders, stacked in the middle of the table.  150?  Aren’t you exaggerating, Davis?  Really.  150.  I’ve never heard of that many applications for, say, 2-4 PhD or 8-10 MFA acceptances.  You must have mistyped.  No, actually, I did not mistype.  There will typically be 3 or 4 professors who—in addition to all their usual teaching, writing, conference attending, committee participating, student advising, recommendation writing, colleague slandering, cat brushing, and therapist meeting—will be expected to make thoughtful decisions about a lot of people they’ve never met in a very limited period of time.

Most of these professors, reasonably or unreasonably, will quietly resent having to read these applications year after year.  Again, I recommend that we do not criticize them too harshly for this.  Yes, it is part of the job.  But reading those application packets is not easy or fun.  In fact, I have seen professors get incredibly exhausted when all of the duties and expectations they normally have converge with the application deadline(s).

What are they looking for?  Oh, you mean the paragraph of meaningless rhetoric on the department website where it says they’re looking for talented hardworking individuals who show unique promise and dedication to the field?  Set that aside for a moment and consider the existential state of an English department.  You have a collection of more or less gifted individuals who have dedicated their lives to an aspect of their field.  They, like you, majored in English because there was something about it they came to love.  In fact, they loved it so much they kept on with it year after year, even when good judgment and the economy told them they’d be better off working in a nail salon.

Many of these people have spent their entire lives in academia, got their degrees from an R1 institution, and deeply, religiously believe in the mission of their discipline.  Given the way the humanities degrees are generally treated by society at large, English professors also tend to exist in a perpetual state of consternation—exasperated by having to justify the relevance of their field to those who cannot or will not stop questioning whether it’s cost effective to offer anything beyond “Communication for Business Majors.”

Moreover, most of the English professors I’ve met have been fundamentally decent people.  Unfortunately, a university is not built to encourage fundamental decency.  It is, at heart, a relic from the old world—a patchwork of highly distorted medieval, renaissance, and Enlightenment thought-styles and power dynamics.  Its circulatory system is patronage (funding, awards, other less mentionable bonbons).  Machiavellian feuding exists on all levels.  And the outer covering of any given thing is nearly always a façade.

When you live in a world like that for a few decades, when your emotional life distributes itself along those channels, you tend to see people in terms of career opportunities; you tend to see career opportunities in terms of survival and self-protection, tenure notwithstanding.

With this in mind, the people reading your writing program application tend to be interested in one or more of the following: (1) your existing connections / prestige—will your existing status make them / the department look good if they accept you (Iowa / A-list magazine publications / famous daddy / already have a book contract)?  (2) your staying power—will they be wasting their time on you because you’re going to leave for law school next year?  (3) your potential level of compliance—will you be a problem, will you show up at their house in your underwear at 2AM in the middle of a nervous breakdown sometime in spring semester?   (4) your work ethic—how much of their busywork do you seem like you might take on for free if they told you it would look good on your resume?  And (5) sadly, mostly for the young-ish female applicants who have made a visit ahead of time, do you seem datable?

But what about the writing sample?  What about the letters of recommendation?  What about them?  How long does it take to briefly skim the top page in a packet when there are 49 more to read by tomorrow night?

Davis, you’re so cynical.

No.  Back up.  Think for a moment.  Getting an advanced degree and a tenure-track professorship does not automatically confer a “Good Guy” badge.  It is a mark of professional and academic achievement.  It shows that you have rhetorical savvy, that you’re gifted, that you care about something besides just turning a buck.  And it strongly suggests that you have willpower, that you still have some idealism, and that you may also care about at least part of the world—the part that involves your field of study.  It does not make you ready for canonization.

If you want to believe that everyone reading your application is a perfect and impartial judge of quality, sitting in a clean room, saying a decade of the rosary to the Blessed Virgin between those piles of dismal prevarication and puffery known as MFA applications, go ahead.  I’d also like to interest you in some beachfront real estate.

Most professors reading MFA apps do their best, which is to say, they try hard to balance all the above considerations against what they think might be good for the department in terms of the funding and other resources at hand.  It’s very hard.  And I have been present during such a process on three separate occasions.  Unprofessional, you say?  Don’t start.

Goes like this:

Professor 1 and Professor 2 are sitting in a conference room.  The obscene pile of applications in manila folders is on the table between them.  It is late morning on a Friday.  Neither of them are smiling.

P1: “Who’s this now?  Okay.  Thomas Anderson . . . from . . . Upper Hoboken State College.  Hmm.”

P2, who has been given to understand in no uncertain terms by her cousin, Thomas Anderson’s mother, that if he doesn’t get accepted, there will be hell to pay: “Yes.  Yes, that is a very fine school, I hear.  Yes.  Really.  And look, he’s published in two journals.”

P1: “Is that so.”  He removes his glasses and massages the bridge of his nose.  “Lost Nose Quarterly and Foetid Goat.  Have you ever read anything in Foetid Goat?”  He glances at the top page of Thomas Anderson’s writing sample, then moves the entire application packet to the side with the blade of his hand.  “Now how about this other one.  Sarah Prim.  She went to NILU, I understand.”**

P2: “Sure.  NILU.  But did you read her writing sample?  She hasn’t published anything.  I mean, given the number of applications—”

P1: “But she went to NILU.”

P2, seeing her cousin’s face: “Sure.  Right.  But I really think it’s important to give extra weight to publication—”

P1 puts his glasses back on, peers across the pile of application packets at P2: “Did you read their writing samples?”

P2 hesitates, then: “Of course I did.”  She takes a long drink of coffee.

P3 enters the room, visibly, wretchedly hung over.  “Hello.  Everyone.”  He sits way down at the end of the table, realizes that he will have to come closer to the pile of application packets, and moves two seats away from P2.  He clears his throat, massages the back of his neck, sighs.

P1 and P2 wait in silence for P3 to read both applications.  P3 skims Thomas Anderson’s CV, then takes a deep breath and excuses himself.  He can be heard running toward the men’s room at the end of the hall.

The professors break for lunch.  Three hours later, they reconvene and P3 looks healthier after a massive infusion of coffee and five cigarettes.  They sit back down in their places, everything right where they’d left it.  There’s no question that they’re now ready to work.  They’re going to get the day’s application reading done.

P3 scans Anderson’s CV again.  He takes Sara Prim’s CV out and sets it down beside Anderson’s, murmurs to himself, “NILU.  How about that,” thinking about the two-story Victorian just off the NILU campus where visiting writers and other dignitaries live for a semester.  All that stained glass.  NILU is one of the places he’s wanted to teach for a semester.  Who’s the chair there?  Dr. Smith?  Look at this.  Dr. Smith wrote Sarah Prim a letter of rec.  Good for you, Sarah Prim.

I’m not writing this to make anyone feel bad or to point my finger at the unfairness of the process.  I can’t.  I was selected by good programs where I was an exception to this sort of nonsense because there were professors who refused to behave like this.  Unfortunately, I have been present, physically present multiple times, while this sort of thing went on.  And I have not forgotten it.

This is not to say that P1, P2, and P3 are bad people.  It’s to say that they are people.  And that they are forced to make judgment calls in an unforgiving system where an enormous amount of stress stays hidden under the surface of daily work.  I think it’s important for us to stay aware of this.  And admissions decisions become inherently absurd when based on overheated letters of recommendation, CVs, dreadful cover letters, and careful writing samples that may or may not reveal actual talent.

So let’s take out our writer’s crystal ball and do some projecting.

A few months after the scene in the conference room, Sarah Prim receives her acceptance letter and a similarly worded yet somehow heartfelt boilerplate acceptance email from the department’s graduate advisor.  It begins, Dear Sarah, I am delighted to inform you . . . and ends, to welcome you to the department!  Sarah is overjoyed.  It was her first choice.  She takes a stroll in the park with her writing journal but is too overwhelmed to write anything today.  She just sits on a warm bench and watches kids play on the jungle gym.  She smiles at the world and says to herself, Maybe I do have some talent.  Dad was right.  I just have to work hard and apply myself.  I think I’ve learned something hopeful about the world.  I’m going to be a writer.  When I publish my first book, I’ll dedicate it to mom and dad.

At that same moment, somewhere in Jersey, Thomas Anderson takes a smoke break behind the coffee shop where he’s working a double shift because his dick of a manager, Trevor, can’t be bothered to get up off his ass and hire another barista.  When Anderson checks email on his phone, he drops his cigarette.  The email begins, Dear Mr. Anderson, I regret to inform you . . . and ends, that there have been many qualified applicants this year.  We wish you success in your future endeavors.  He feels crushed.  This was his first, and only, choice.  He says to himself, Dad was right.  I just don’t have what it takes.  What can you do with a fucking degree like this anyway?  I’m not going to even tell him.  I was crazy to think I could do this.  I never get picked.  Story of my life.

Thomas Anderson will apply again next year and will probably get in to a state college MFA program that’s less prestigious than the one that just rejected him.  He’ll go through his 2 or 3 years and produce a book-length manuscript of short stories, some of which he’ll publish in magazines with names like Burning Trout, Load, and Catscratch Fiction Review.  He’ll also secretly produce a novel fragment that won’t work and that he’ll abandon around page 70.  He’ll give a thesis reading, go to the AWP Conference a few times and walk around aimlessly, worrying about money.  Then he’ll get a job as a dispatcher for a garbage truck company.

At that point, all bets are off.  He could go back to academia and get another degree.  He could join the Foreign Service.  He could settle in and keep dispatching them garbage trucks.  Whether or not he continues to write and publish in foetid magazines is entirely up to him.  And that’s the purity of a situation like his.  His entire education, his entire preparation, what he’s acquired as an artist will resonate more with the concept of the “Invisible College” than with the cottage industry of creative writing.

Meanwhile, Sarah Prim begins her program.  While there, she makes a lot of friends from Brown, Vassar, Mills, Middlebury, and Bennington.  She produces very few short stories and takes the bare minimum of workshops.  This is because, she is told early on that novels are where it’s at.  And that is correct, from a career-advancement standpoint.  The year before she is set to graduate with her MFA, she will have completed the first draft of a novel.  It will be about a wealthy yet sensitive 20-something, with an advertising job in Manhattan, who comes to terms with her identity through a series of colorful romantic entanglements.

While skiing in Vail over Christmas break with a few friends, Sarah will meet an older, newly single art history professor from NYU.  He’ll invite her to the city.  Shortly thereafter, she’ll be living in two places.  She will also have an entire new circle of friends, one of whom is a well-known literary agent.  After her MFA, she will move to New York City and get a small job as a copy editor for a fashion magazine.  Her novel will come out as part of a 2-book deal and she will be featured in a Writer’s Chronicle piece alongside Wally Lamb, Gary Shteyngart, and Dave Eggers.

At this point, she will decide that teaching might be interesting.  She’ll be offered an assistant professorship at a small liberal arts college the same way she was accepted to her first choice MFA program.  (If Thomas Anderson ever met Sarah, he would somehow realize that Sarah has never dropped a cigarette due to shock and dismay.  She would find being in his presence extremely uncomfortable—maybe that look in his eyes.  Maybe he’s just an awkward, hostile person by nature?)

So who’s the success?  Who worked harder?  Who “made it”?  These are stupid questions.  Both of them are writers.  Both have something to say in their work.  Both will speak a completely different language, will live in completely different worlds, will think of themselves in completely different ways.  And both of them deserve the best future they can make for themselves as artists—as long as they don’t forget one essential thing: art is not about any of this.  Art is what creative writers do at home at their desks.  Art doesn’t care about your CV or how much you can stroke the world or how the world might stroke you back.  Your only obligation is to your art.

So.  The bottom line:  if you say you want to go to a graduate creative writing program, by all means go.  But remember: keep your head straight.  Understand that the university is, has, and always will be a patronage system at heart.  It’s misunderstood by society at large and generally loved and hated by everyone in equal parts—especially by those who spend their lives inside it.

We can argue that things should be otherwise, but that would be a waste of our precious energy and attention.  Instead, let’s go skiing in Vail.  Let’s dispatch the garbage trucks (if we don’t, who will—no job should be beneath us just because we went to grad school).  And let’s get all of it over with so tomorrow we can get up at dawn and sit at the desk and write a story.

* Incidentally, this is the reason every writer should make friends with a dog if possible—a dog will always have the most sublime optimism, the deepest solicitousness for our struggle.  I once knew a miniature German Shepherd, named Molly, who would growl at bad paragraphs in our story workshop.  She would never growl at the writer.  That dog understood things.

** Near Ivy League University.

The loa of animosity ride down through the streets, looking for furious horses but finding only bitter sheep.  So what do we expect when they drive us to the edge of the cliff, in front of the bus, to that drawer under the sink, to the shoebox on the closet shelf, to the fireplace poker we never use.  Let the sky fall.  Let the buildings come down.  Knock over the steeples.  Let it all burn.  There are periods (sometimes days, sometimes weeks) when, for no discernible reason, I exist in a toxic emotional hell.  Life seems pointless. A giant hand seems to be pressing down (sometimes literally) on my brain. And I feel a great unfathomable anger–loathing might be a better word if HST doesn’t somehow still own it–for all humans everywhere including (especially) myself.  It gets worse or slightly better.  Maybe it gets worse again.  It.  The loathing one feels for one’s fellow man, the distaste, the need to get away from everyone, everything.  The feeling that can sometimes even boil into pure hatred.

On such days, it’s all I can do to avoid others. Spending time with animals helps. Writing helps. Doing things for others–being outwardly directed–helps if I can stand the company. But this is the secret I’ve discovered and it’s better than any drug, therapy, or puja: I stop thinking critically about things. I stop passing judgment and drawing conclusions. I stop with the sweeping generalizations and all the cruel theories. I just stop being a critical thinker and I instead narrow my awareness such that I only focus on things and individuals I admire.

Admiration is a tunnel that begins in appreciation and ends in gratitude. It’s an escape tunnel from the prison of my own mind. This sort of gratitude is not the false facade thrown up by the Sunday morning Christian; it’s personal. It’s an antidote for an irrational hatred that’s born in brain chemistry and lives in a kind of self-perpetuating pseudo-logic designed to keep me as miserable as possible. I don’t believe in giving up control or that life is what happens when we’re making other plans. But I do believe in recreation (re|creation) through various acts of admiration that lead back to a sense of inner equipoise. And it’s free, too.

 

O Divine Poesy
Goddess-Daughter of Zeus
Sustain for me
This song of the various-
Minded man
Who after he had plundered
The innermost citadel of
Hallowed Troy
Was made to stay grievously
About the coasts of men
The sport of their customs
Good or bad

While his heart
Through all the sea-faring
Ached in an agony to redeem
Himself
And bring his company safe
Home

Vain hope— for them
For his fellows he strove in vain
Their own witlessness cast
Them away
The fools
To destroy for meat
The oxen of the most exalted
Sun
Wherefore the Sun-God blotted
Out
The day of their return

Make the tale live for us
In all it’s many bearings

O Muse

 

– Homer in Book I of The Odyssey, Translated from Greek by T.E. Lawrence.

 

The world of fiction writing needs to move away from the Manhattan literary formula into something weirder and more open to different voices.  I’d love to see Isaac Babel and Guy de Maupassant being talked about alongside memoirists like Nick Flynn and fiction writers willing to do interesting things–like Aravind Adiga and early Denis Johnson or Sam Lipsyte or Arthur Nersesian.  I think innovative writers like these guys, over the last 10-15 years or so, have been successful in spite of a system that sets a dollar value to every word.  And I think they developed unique voices because there were some teachers and writers connected to literary culture who said, “Look, Richard Ford is a really great writer and so was Raymond Carver and so is Alice Munro.  But their work has been so commodified–so accepted and worshiped and established and emulated–that we’re boring ourselves to death.”  Do we really want another coming of age story focused on a well-off young person discovering new things about relationships and sexuality?  Do we want more stories about suburban disillusionment or suffocating marriages or precocious children surviving war and famine?  If we have these stories, maybe we want them told in new ways.  I think they have to be because otherwise we’re dead; we’re not growing; we’re creating copies of copies.

So I think literary culture–and by this I mean global literature, because I think once something has been written and published at a certain level, it enters a global discourse (another reason we need to keep training good translators)–can change.  I don’t think the apoplectic elements of the New York publishing industry necessarily have a lock on all creativity in the western world.  And I think that those of us who care about literary art and who have the will to act have a responsibility to add to the creativity and newness in fiction.  It could be through individual creative work, but we could also do it through creating local literary environments that teach, promote, and encourage others to create for themselves instead of according to a pre-existing, vetted, marketable formula.  There have to be voices out there that wake people up to other possibilities.  And every interesting writer, at some point, picked up a book or attended a reading or listened to a teacher who said, “Fuck writing like that guy.  Do it your own way.”

 

3 thoughts for the day: (1) Jettison everyone and everything that does not contribute to you evolving into a happier, more effective, more engaged human being; (2) never feel sorry for an institution–no matter the propaganda, it doesn’t care about you beyond the extent to which you help it perpetuate its directives; and (3) if you are surrounded by loathsome fools, you make loathsome foolishness part of your life–a few good friends and enough resources to live your own way are far better than fame, fortune, and the envy of organic automata.

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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To educate is to seek meaning in everything. It is to teach others to seek the meaning of things. This means mixing the dreams of children and young people with the experience of adults and the elderly. This exchange must always take place, or else there can be no humanity because there would be no roots, no history, no promise, no growth, and no prophecy.

— Pope Francis, 5 June 20

I write it myself, edit it myself, censor it myself, publish it myself, distribute it myself, and spend time in prison for it myself.

— Vladimir Bukovsky

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If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery—isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.

― Charles Bukowski, Factotum

La lecture est un acte d’identification, les sentiments exprimés sont déjà en nous. Autrement, le livre nous tombe des mains.

— Madeleine Chapsal