Read my latest on Splice Today, a response to Alex Perez’s piece on the not-so-lost art of “dirty realism”: https://www.splicetoday.com/writing/dirty-realist-protests-too-much
Let’s say you’ve labored long in the fields of creative writing and the People Who Know (or maybe just the people who’ve noticed) have appreciated your talent. Some have appreciated it loudly and publicly, some quietly to friends in ways that eventually come back to you, some through amazing feats of jealousy, and others through an unrelenting aggressive competitiveness that beggars belief. The lower the stakes, the higher the vitriol is an axiom of creative culture.
Let’s also say that for the first decade of writing and submitting short stories to magazines with names like Lost Nose Quarterly, Barbaric Yawp, and Bitch Review, the feedback of the 25-year-old readers working on these magazines mattered. Susie Lillywhite, the fiction editor at Uncommon Snuff, writes you a personalized rejection, praising your “humorous story of cis-het men behaving badly,” and your ever-present grinding self-doubt abates for ten full minutes; though, on minute 11, you wonder how Susie writes dialogue (“Hello, Mister Cisgendered Heteronormative Male. How are you today?” / “Hello, Thinly Veiled Proxy For Susie Designed To Signpost Authorial Identity And Abate Criticism. I am fine.”).
You get the inevitable raft of rejections and a few acceptances. In time, your acceptance average goes up. You know this because you obsessively gamify your submission process on a spreadsheet like fantasy baseball. Maybe your box scores show progress. Maybe all this effort means something—if not anything tangible in your day-to-day existence, then perhaps in a kind of working-fiction-writer sabermetrics that suggests your chosen life direction hasn’t been a horrible mistake. Maybe the 500 hypothetical readers of Dogwater International are upping your short story RBI. It’s possible. Don’t say it isn’t.
You’ve got a novel in progress. This goes without saying. Everyone has a novel in progress. Your screenwriter friend, Gaurangi, tells you she has two novels in progress, a poetry chapbook in progress, and a book of essays in progress. Yet, she’s miserable and hates her life. “Is that because you’re still assistant manager at KFC and can’t break through the glass ceiling?” “No,” she says, “it’s because you’re a fucking asshole.” You’ve been friends for 15 years. Her name means “giver of happiness.”
There is no joy like mine, you think. I am a cherry blossom adrift in the infinite cosmos. The form email from GOAT Bomb sits in your inbox. You can see that it begins, “Dear Valued Author, thank you for submitting to GOAT Bomb . . .” but you’ve been meditating. And if zazen has taught you anything, it’s that impersonal form rejections are naught but the transcendent meanderings of The Great Vehicle. The rejections aren’t depressing you. It must be something else.
So let’s say you’ve also learned how to save money as an effective freelance survival tactic. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you’ve managed to eke out an existence as a ghost writer and a copyeditor. Let’s say, also for the sake of argument, that your cousin, who thought college was stupid, now makes low six figures as a construction manager and thinks you’re hilarious. You see him at Christmas dinner, a rosy-cheeked beer-drinking construction Santa with a twinkle in his eye. And he asks you the same thing he asked you last year: “Are you a mental midget?” He finds the question hilarious. “No,” you say. “I mentally fidget.” He can’t stop laughing. “With your digits!” In this family, we come together through spontaneous and combustive rhyming. You don’t take it personally.
But you don’t follow baseball. Thus, your spreadsheet submission game perpetually teeters on the edge of something else, deep and dark, eldritch and unspeakable, an existential abyss. Why do you do it? How does publishing another story in The East Punjabi Fiction Annual (that took you six months of sustained before-dawn writing sessions and seven painful drafts) matter in the construction management food-on-the-table sense? You joke, but there are no rhymes for it, at least none that would entertain your cousin.
The fact is, you are a mental midget. You must be if you still have to worry about putting ten more dollars on the credit card for a sandwich at Safeway—which isn’t Joe Biden’s fault. So don’t start. The supply chain is effed-up, yes. Covid is ineffable, yes. The pandemic shooed you out of Bangkok one step ahead of the Thai quarantine police, yes, and now you’re living in a Hawaiian jungle, but that has nothing to do with anything. Here you are. The feral rooster outside goes, “KEEEEE-YAAAAW-KOOOOO!” And the great world turns with its comings and goings.
Smoke three cigarettes with Gaurangi in her Kia in the parking lot of KFC. It’s midnight and she is off work. You drove into Hilo just for this because it’s a miracle that you both now live in the same place and she texted you: come smoke a cigarette with me so I can cope with the fact that I manage idiots. She won’t smoke at home because she has a two-year-old daughter and cigarettes are poison. “I should move back to L.A.” she says. “The fucking Big Island’s getting me nowhere.” “You married a Hawaiian.” She looks at you, drags deeply, and smiles. “Yes. That probably has something to do with why I’m here.”
One manages a KFC in Los Angeles if one wants to be a screenwriter, a whole different fantasy ballgame. One brings one’s Hawaiian husband to a bungalow in Glendale. Maybe one sells the script for She’s Gotta Have It 2, earning $135,000 for the original screenplay, including treatment, and suddenly it’s all cheddar. One writes one’s friend in the jungle: I don’t hate L.A. now. It is what it is. Now one can calm down and finish that poetry chapbook in peace.
You’re drinking too much coffee and you read a lot of news. Some nut writing for The Conversation says Covid and climate change are going to turn coffee into a rare luxury item like Kobe beef or Cristal. But the enormous tin of Safeway Select on top of your refrigerator suggests otherwise. You wonder how much the writer got paid to cook up a pandemic scare piece on coffee. What if you pitched something similar about a thing everybody wants being unceremoniously taken away by forces beyond one’s control? What about cheese: “Is Cheese Systemically Racist? Biden Might be Coming for Your Gruyere.” Or sex: “The Death of Intimacy: Gen Z Prefers Online Porn to Sex and Who Can Blame Them?” Or healthcare: “The GOP Thinks Letting Grandpa Die is Good for the Economy.” You write these ideas down and fire up the laptop. There’s rent to be made.
At this point, there are many possibilities. You’ve moneyballed your way into 30, 40 magazine publications. You have three published story collections and a multitude of columns, articles, and essays floating through the aetheric digitalia. But you still live in the jungle. You’ve got a neighbor up the dirt road who deals with his emotions by smoking crack and shooting cats with his Marlin 60. You’re still getting rejections from 25-year-olds and machines that go, “While we appreciate your interest in Dark Pissoir . . . “
Occasionally, some acquaintance on social media will pay attention to you for more than 30 seconds and wonder how you exist. How do you make a living (or How can you possibly make a living?)? You say as best you can. There are 25-year-olds publishing novels with Random House. There are 25-year-olds managing construction sites and getting welding certificates and buying their kids $900 gaming consoles. And there’s a fine line of termite dust along the base of your hovel’s north wall. Are you discouraged? What does that mean, exactly?
Today, I think I overcame my hitherto impassable mental block, the one I always get between pages 50 and 70, that indicates I’ve hit the “swampy middle.” The term “great swampy middle” wasn’t invented by me. In fact, I have no desire to discover who first coined the term because I have no desire to utter it ever again; though, I fear that’s just wishful thinking. Of course, I’m going to talk about, think about, and confront the GSW again. I always get bogged down in the middle. It’s stopped me from completing whole books. It hits me in longer stories, too. The hideous abyss waiting for writers at the middle of a piece of fiction is an inevitable occupational hazard.
I’ve been struggling with this novel for several weeks. The first 50 pages emerged quickly. And, in all seriousness, I think they’re very good pages, some of my best. So I can’t allow myself to seriously entertain thoughts of abandoning the project. I have to see it through if only for those good pages.
The only way out is to make an outline. I hate outlines. When I write, I want to be in a creative trance, driving the muse’s burning chariot through the dark firmament of hell. Or something like that. Bukowski promised that you’d know the gods and your nights would flame with fire. When his promise comes true, it really is the best thing. When the divine chariot is half-submerged in the swamp, when it backfires a cloud of rancid bio-diesel and won’t even start, when the muse doesn’t even show up because she was partying with some publishing industry types last night and has to sleep it off, when the way forward is just a mucky green-brown maze of shit-streaked walls, you need a scaffold. You need to build a ladder out of the swamp. You need to draw a map. So that’s what I did.
I will always hate outlines. But now the editor part of my brain can see the way forward. Now I have a schematic. I know I can follow it—if everything doesn’t change tomorrow, if the muse doesn’t laugh at me and send me a dream that completely turns my scaffold upside-down. That happens, too. We’ll see.
Twenty years ago, she might have lit a cigarette. That would have been better. Twenty years and people still didn’t know what to do with their hands. Now they looked at each other and waited.
“I love him. Is that what you want to hear?”
“I don’t really care about that, Mrs. Sorrel. Not what I’m asking.”
“You don’t care? That’s a little cold.” She balanced her silver purse on her thigh, then turned it slightly. “And it’s Barbara.”
“What I mean is were you home that night?”
“Instead of with a friend?”
“Yes. Instead of with a friend.”
“Let me put it to you this way, Mr. Gaffney, after ten years of marriage to Ivan, my friends don’t come around much anymore.”
People waited patiently through what used to be lighting-up-and-smoking pauses. They looked at each other with blank expressions. They used the spaces to figure out what they wanted to say next. In this way, modern conversations were formed. Women used to listen more than men. Now nobody listened. Now people addressed themselves in the presence of others and called it talk.
“I think we should start over, Barbara. I have to ask because it helps me get an idea of what went on. Any little thing, you know?”
He smiled, went over to the pot of stale coffee by the window. Nobody liked it when you handed them a Styrofoam cup of office coffee, but everybody took it and then felt like they owed you something. This Stan Gaffney knew like he knew the time or the traffic five floors down on 32nd Street. Small things to keep in mind. Small things that made up large things.
She said thank you, took the coffee, and set it on the edge of his desk, far enough away without seeming impolite. Then she turned her purse on her thigh again, unzipped it, looked inside. No answers in there. She zipped it back up. “Alright. Sure. I was home. I was asleep.”
“At 8:00 in the evening?”
“I drink. Can I call you Stan?”
“You were drunk? Passed out?”
“If you want to put it like that.”
“What were you drinking?”
When she came in, she’d set her phone on the other wooden chair facing his desk: Mrs. Barbara Sorrel and companion, Mr. iPhone. Now she checked it, tapped it with her thumb, trying not to seem like she was stalling. Maybe the cell phone was the new cigarette.
His question put her off. Why did the type of booze matter? It didn’t. What mattered was the amount of time it took her to think up a brand. Back in the day, she’d have just taken out another smoke. Blonde, late 30s or early 40s, good skin, she’d have been nervous, an upscale woman like her with a missing husband, sitting Gaffney’s dusty office on the fifth floor of the old Martindale Agricultural Building. She wouldn’t come in wearing a pinstriped blazer over a designer T-shirt with yoga love in gold cursive and long-pleated cream pants. She wouldn’t look like she’d just had her hair done. She’d have been—or at least would have pretended to be—distraught. Too bad she wasn’t.
“It was Camitz.”
“How many bottles?”
“What do you take me for, Mr. Gaffney? Not even a whole one. I was hardly drinking, actually, just very sleepy.”
“Not that night.”
“Okay,” he said. “Thank you. I guess that’s it. Anything else you think I should know?”
“There’s a lot I think you should know. Like, where’s my husband?”
“We’ll get to that.”
“You better for what I’m paying you.”
Now they both smiled together, hard, perfunctory. They’d been talking for 90 minutes. She wanted to find out what became of her husband after his birthday party four nights earlier, an event attended by about a hundred people, the part of Kansas City that still had money.
Stan wanted to know what was so special about the orientation of the purse on her thigh, why she kept turning it, why she talked tough but couldn’t make eye contact, why she’d walked into his office smelling like high-end Baccarat Rouge, why she’d lied about passing out drunk, why she’d come to him at all. Small things that turned into large things. Little pieces that fell out of a puzzle. Put them back in and you saw the picture.
On her way out, Mrs. Sorrel turned, holding her silver purse in front of her like some society matron in a stiff vanity portrait, the sort of thing people hung in the foyers of tasteless mansions. “You’re probably going to discover that Ivan has a long-term girlfriend named Cheryl O’Neil. I can get you her address.”
“You’ve been aware of her for a while?”
She nodded at the carpet. “Even came to our wedding, if you can believe that. I didn’t know her name at the time. I found out later.”
“But you were suspicious even then?”
“You want to stay married to a man like my husband, Mr. Gaffney, you don’t get suspicious. You get realistic.”
Barbara Sorrel had enough money to get as realistic as she wanted. When she came in, Stan gave her his highest rate and she cut the check then and there like it was nothing. But maybe all that realism meant she couldn’t trust the usual cadre of flunkies and stool grooms attendant on a man like Ivan. Maybe she couldn’t put her faith in anyone she knew. Maybe she felt that finding her missing husband meant she had to drive out to central Missouri to a little town named Hauberk and hire a private investigator nobody ever heard of.
“Well,” he said. “I’ll be in touch. And Mrs. Sorrel? Have a better day.”
She laughed, nodded, and the door closed softly behind her.
The transition from dilettante to serious artist is always indistinct. As with any art form, one becomes what one does. One becomes a writer by saying, “I’m a writer” and then writing. I suppose one becomes “serious” after demonstrating or announcing one’s seriousness at some later date. But isn’t it a little absurd to say, “I’m a serious writer”? It immediately raises the question, “How serious?”
To which one may respond: I’m dead serious, more serious than a heart attack. So serious I got two degrees in it. So horrifically, agonizingly, putridly serious that I’ve kept doing it through poverty, flood, plague, and famine. More serious than a white sale in June. More serious than the fine print. Hell, I am the fine print. I’m a serious dude. It’s my thing. I might as well put it on my business card: Serious Writer Since 1997. That’s over two decades of seriousness, okay?
Maybe that is the required declaration, the necessary attestation of commitment at the necessary volume to prove you’re the real deal. Because you have to prove it, right? Because no one can assume how serious you are by just looking at you the way they might if you were some other sort of professional. No one’s a part-time brain surgeon. No one does constitutional law as a hobby. No one flies for Lufthansa as a side gig. No one asks how serious a nuclear engineer is. When Red October is about to go under the ice, no one says, “Sure, but how serious is the captain?”
In the arts, however, people always wonder. Some journalist, critic, competitor, or professor is always ready to say, “You Don’t Deserve to Live was an entertaining novel, but it’s not serious.” And then everyone must nod as if that makes sense. This is probably because no one will ever truly agree on how to define a serious writer producing serious writing. No one has a clue.
Does money show it (James Patterson)? Do numerous film adaptations of your work show it (Stephen King)? How about literary and cultural iconicity (Alice Munro, Bret Easton Ellis)? What about your books frequently showing up on university syllabi (Michael Cunningham, Francine Prose)? What about your writing having been convincingly marketed as a “modern classic” such that it will one day be hermetically sealed in the basement of Cheops for post-apocalyptic archaeologists to dig up (Margaret Atwood, Donna Tartt)? Where’s the benchmark for quality? Who can say? I can say I like some of these writers and dislike others. But I like a lot of things and people, many of which will no doubt be adjudged “not serious” as soon as we can determine what that is.
Maybe no one asks Alice Munro whether she’s a serious writer anymore because she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013. Maybe that’s the only reliable standard. No one argues with the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Nobel committee called her a “master of the short story” and said she revolutionized modern literature. Of course, three years later they said as much about Bob Dylan. Three years between literary revolutions can make one’s head spin, but these are interesting times. Next, the Nobel committee may award Munro a prize for her influence on folk music. Then we can all relax. They know what they’re doing.
Of course, there’s still the inner, subjective, impressionistic option. At various stressful moments in my childhood, my mom would quote a line from “Duration,” my birth hexagram in the I-Ching: “[T]he dedicated man embodies an enduring meaning in his way of life, and thereby the world is formed. In that which gives things their duration, we can come to understand the nature of all beings in heaven and on earth.” She said this often enough that I had it memorized by age 12. An enduring meaning in his way of life. Maybe that’s it. “Enduring meaning” has a nice sound. It’s certainly a better formulation and standard than any of the others given above.
But Nobel doesn’t award prizes for embodying an enduring meaning in one’s way of life. It happens quietly, without parades and gold medals and book tours and exhausting four-hour dinners in New York and swarms of desperate grad students. The only revolution it can incite is an inner revolution, an inner revelation. The New York Times Book Review won’t be covering it. Alice will remain in Canada. Bob will stare at a tree outside the window and hum a little tune.
So how do you know if you’re a serious writer, if you have talent, if you aren’t wasting your time? You can never know these things relative to what people say or how much money you’re making off your work or whether the gatekeepers and critics deem you worthy. You can know whether the act of writing sometimes makes you feel good. And in that feeling, there may be a quiet, personal meaning. And if you write regularly, you may embody that meaning such that it becomes part of your life, a way of life. And then you can stop asking questions that originate in commercial and social status anxiety instead of in the metaphysics of the creative process.
A new story published in The Nonconformist Magazine. Read it here: https://nonconformist-mag.com/the-ashes-of-the-trumpocene/
(Part of a long story in progress.)
It was around this time that the dreams began. Looking back, it seems remarkable that they hadn’t begun sooner in all of us. But, even if they had, we probably wouldn’t have known. We wouldn’t have talked about it.
Tyler would have belched and blamed the beer or the Eagles or the general stupidity of Carling. Greg would have gone along with him, regardless whether he secretly harbored some superstitions or otherwise fanciful beliefs about the provenance of dreams. And Lindsey, perhaps the smartest and most insightful of us all, would have left it open. “Maybe it all means something,” she’d say. “Or maybe not.” Then she’d ask, again, about the bonfire.
To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure I would have been more forthcoming than Lindsey. Someone who has a hard time talking about love wouldn’t be able to easily broach the subject of dreams—which supersede love and, in that sense, seem to grant access to an even more private, deeper vulnerability. It was better for all of us not to ever speak about dreams or love, as was our custom. But the dreams were real, as real as dreams can be. And there was no escape, no respite, no bright simple explanation for how they seemed to dovetail with our thoughts, our anxieties.
In the shadows of my dreams, I saw the lighthouse at Beacon Point. And the vision struck me like the resonance of a deep temple bell, though when I woke I could not say exactly how or why. The lingering impression of something incongruous and dense just beneath the surface of the very mundane lighthouse made me doubt my mind.
Dreams of water and rain, of a dark rusted hospital ship drifting toward the rocks. Waking to thunder and lightning outside my bedroom window. It had been storming just off Beacon Point for days, never moving too far inland, just enough to cover Carling and the beach. How much had I slept? Three hours? Two? I went into the kitchen and started some coffee.
Dreams and the fragments of dreams. Echoes and reflections of a mind untethered. I didn’t like it when I dreamed, the loss of control, the stillborn sense that I’d been somewhere else, leading a wholly different life. The residue of those feelings and the fragments that sometimes returned throughout the day: the lighthouse illuminated from behind by an unknown source, its tiny circular windows dark and still, the rain coming down hard but completely silent. Such images would come back to me like memories.
In my mind’s eye, I’d recall the surf crashing noiselessly against the rocks, arms of white water raised in a voiceless paean. And the dead hospital ship making its way inexorably toward the land. It would crash against the shipways. The destruction would be incredible. Enormous. In my dream, I felt desperate to tell someone. But I was always alone.
The coffee maker beeped. I leaned against the sink, looking out through the little window far above the apartment lot, the space tinged green by sodium floods. And watched the sheets of rain glitter pale emerald against the night.
I once drove a forklift in a magazine distribution warehouse for a living and got to know romance, action adventure, and western paperbacks of the 1980s and 90s fairly well, since we handled a high volume of grocery store book sales. I read the cast-offs that got damaged in the sorting process on my breaks. The writing was usually atrocious, but it was an incremental education in what readers actually want.
Years later, when 50 Shades of Grey sold 15.2 million copies, I wasn’t shocked. When James Altucher called the book great literature on account of its sales figures, I shrugged. Someone was bound to make the “volume of sales” argument. It fit with what I was packing every day into forklift innerbodies. And it fit with what I knew about the mentality of the publishing industry, where books are “units” and the bottom line runs deeper than all literary pretension.
Recently, I had a long email exchange with a romance writer friend of mine about changes in her genre, which is now almost unrecognizable to me, since I haven’t done a lot of romance fiction editing and it’s been a long time since I’ve had a warehouse-level view of what is being shipped.
I learned some interesting things from her about the how genre fiction publishing is evolving. But I came away with one difficult unanswered question. Why do the main characters in romance novels now all seem to have unremarkable porn names—i.e. names suggestive of bank managers and legal assistants in gray office complexes somewhere in middle America? Ethan Chase. Julie Steel. Laura Woods. Richard Ward. Shannon Green. One gets the impression they should either be overseeing new accounts on the 15th floor or having a highly choreographed threesome in the back of a speedboat somewhere in Florida. Or both.
There are no more 70s porn names. Nobody’s named “Hung Johnson” or Cyndi Squeals anymore (and I suppose there never were in romance writing). Now there’s just boring character names like Sean Parker, Katie White, and Corey Davidson and equally boring characterization to follow. At least the Fabio romance novels of the early 90s had lurid bodice-ripper paintings on the covers to go along with “Pirate Fabio” or “Fabio in Space” or “Fabio Conquers the Cavemen” or “Fabio and the Secret of the Dragon Crystal”—basically all the same book with a different configuration of adjectives. They never called him “Andrew Roberts.” He was always Fabio, the bodybuilder who got his nose broken by a duck on a rollercoaster in Williamsburg, who now wants to ravish you and save the dolphins.
Thinking I might do some research on the evolution of character-naming trends in romance writing and porn and write about it for a magazine, I did some digging and found a news story about how porn sites have seen a dramatic uptick in popularity as a result of Covid isolation. It got me thinking about a Wired piece from 2015 on how social media, cell phones, and the internet in general have disrupted the entire porn industry. I wondered whether there was a relationship between how audiences were being trained to consume online adult entertainment and how they’re reading romance fiction, which often blurs the lines between erotica and tamer forms of storytelling.
I discovered that online pornography seems to be heading toward extreme minimalism in terms of story, characterization, and acting, emphasizing short clips appropriate for “tube” sites as well as smartphones. The companies still making longer “movies” routinely expect to see them cut into more easily sharable segments. This affects everything from the way people are hired to what they’re paid to how long they can expect to legitimately work in the field. But culture magazines like Wired aren’t interested in how this tech shift might have overturned adjacent industries like literary erotica and romance fiction. As a book editor, I am interested in that, especially in the aesthetic changes (some might say aesthetic fallout) that have ensued. My friend didn’t have answers, but she thought it was interesting, too.
She said many of the in-house style sheets currently handed out to low-status and even midlist romance writers now require interchangeable sorts of everyman characters. If Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw had an unremarkable name, at least she distinguished herself through Bushnell’s idiosyncratic narrative first person (and on TV through Sarah Jessica Parker’s ironic Magnum P.I.-esque voice-overs). But even though the TV series ended in 2004, it was still squarely within the female-oriented rom-com story genre—occasionally with a racy B- or C-plot but nothing too far outside the (fairly permissive, though still present) bounds of HBO propriety.
But now there seems to be a blankness creeping in. The protagonists seem increasingly like pornographic blank slates, primarily distinguished by lowly positions on the corporate hierarchy, by what they own and don’t own, and who they have to worry about at work. There’s an unremarkable ex or a lingering, equally blank high school / college boyfriend. And then there’s Christian Grey, who’s going to make everything happen, but who is about as interesting as a self-cleaning oven.
I’m beginning to suspect that the romance genre is actually now about consumerism itself: corporate style, money, granite tabletops, the Ivanka Trump winter collection, and the bourgeois dream of neatly trimmed lawns and not having to worry about paying for your route canal because the arrogant Ferrari-driving CEO wants to take care of it for you.
Maybe it’s all about suburbia, even when it’s about dragon crystals. Maybe it’s the same formula, just more direct: young, shy-and-willowy Victoria Grantwell works for an attorney named Jonathan Charles, who has a lot of money and devilish good looks. Ravishing ensues—somewhere in the vicinity of walnut wastebaskets and corner offices. By the end, Jonathan Charles is so moved he has an emotion. All because her passion taught him how to love.
I realize I may have just described the plot of Jerry Maguire. Maybe it was all porn from the beginning.
News this good doesn’t arrive every day.
My third collection of stories, Living the Dream, just got accepted by Terror House for publication in 2021. I will be updating my websites when I have more information.
Thanks to everyone for following my writing. It matters.