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The first time I realized I didn’t have the temperament to be a concert pianist, I was sitting in an enormous practice hall at San Diego State University with my teacher, Dr. Conrad.  I was 16 years old.  Eight years before that, through a serendipitous confluence of family connections, happenstance, and generosity on the part of my mother, I’d started taking piano lessons from him at $10 a week.

Even in 1989, that amount seemed considerable, given that living in San Diego ate up most of my father’s middle-class teaching salary and my mom wasn’t working.  So I felt rightly privileged to learn from a professor of piano and composition, who I discovered many years later, actually had a reputation as being one of the most difficult, ferocious members of the music department. 

To me, he was a kind gentle person, always willing to cancel a session to talk about the lives of the composers or take me down to the recital hall to look at the harpsichords or just tell jokes.  One day, we took an upright piano apart, piece by piece, to look at how it worked and produced its range of sounds.  The experience had me fantasizing about becoming a professional piano tuner for years. 

But really I was just in awe of Dr. Conrad, who seemed surrounded at all times by an aura of brilliance and gentility and yet had a goofy sense of humor and a love of children.  I learned more from him about music, teaching, and life than anyone I can think of.  He was an important person to me.

But the day he told me I just didn’t have it, I took it very hard.  I knew a number of kids at my school who were into theater and music, many of whom had formal training like me, but who always seemed better, sharper, one step ahead.  It kept me up at night.  I wanted to be like them, as good as they were. 

Having been surrounded by poets, painters, and professors throughout my short life, I thought creative artists, especially classical musicians, were a breed apart.  My idol at the time was John Field, an Irish pianist who studied under Muzio Clementi.  He was considered a weak student early on, but he rose to greatness later in life, praised by Beethoven, and even mentioned in War and Peace.  The reasons I took him as a model should be obvious.

That improbable dream seemed to melt away the day I asked Dr. Conrad the ultimate stupid question, one that I have since been asked many times by young (and more than a few older) writing students: Do I have the talent to make this a career?  It’s a horrible question, one that should never be asked by or of anyone, not even of oneself. 

Unfortunately, it’s asked by everyone at least once, and it’s something every art teacher hears over and over.  Do I have it?  Am I good enough?  Am I worthy?  Will Béla Bartok let me into heaven?  Will Gustav Holst discourse with me on the nature of the spheres while Mozart packs my bong?  I know das Leben ist kurz, aber die Kunst ist lang, but I’m ready to go the distance.

Up to that day, I’d had no idea Dr. Conrad smoked.  Besides, it was forbidden in the practice halls.  But before he answered my question, he motioned me outside.  The hall with about 50 grand pianos was on the second floor and, from the balcony walkway outside, we could see the women’s gymnasium, the campus tennis courts, and the great parking lot beyond, packed with cars glittering in the late afternoon.

It was windy that day.  I remember Dr. Conrad setting a lit cigarette in the corner of his mouth, crossing his arms, looking into the distance, and thinking for a moment.  He had the habit of stopping to think, as if he were listening to a voice only he could hear, and I knew not to interrupt him.  But it only made the moment heavier, more dreadful, as if my entire future depended on what he was about to say.

After what seemed like a very long moment, he flicked ash over the metal railing, looked at me, and said, “Michael, you’re very creative and I have no doubt that you will find the right way, but you lack the temperament for serious musical study.”

I nodded.  What could I do but nod?

Then he said, “I think we’re through for today.”  Because he knew that if you’re going to tell someone what you consider to be a hard truth, you have to allow them time to mourn their lies, their comforting illusions.

Of course, I was crushed.  But there was nothing but honesty and kindness in him when he said it.  And even then, I knew that when someone speaks the truth at that level, with that much transparency and, actually, compassion, you should accept it at face value.  You might not agree with it, but you cannot disagree with the sincerity behind it. 

A very deep part of me knew that he was right.  It would take years for me to fully accept it, years spent both struggling with music and becoming fascinated with English literature and essay writing.  It was me finding my true will, that path Dr. Conrad said he had no doubt I would eventually discover.  But it wasn’t pleasant; it took a long time; and it demanded a lot in return—the general template for most things in my life.

I was a weak music student, but not because I didn’t practice hard.  I practiced so hard that at times it affected my health.  I had the obsessive nature of a musician without the bifurcated mind necessary to be both mathematician and sculptor at the same time.  In retrospect, even then, I thought more like a writer, but I wouldn’t realize this about myself for almost a decade.

At the time, my dedication to piano, though misplaced, brought me a certain amount of instructive grief.  I took a long time to analyze pieces; I was often deeply, inconsolably frustrated at my technical inability; and my adolescent self-doubt was only amplified by these things, rendering me morose and miserable much of the time.  Add to that, my lack of social development and the fact that my heroes weren’t celebrities or pop stars but 17th and 18th century composers.  And I had the perfect recipe for spontaneous teenage bridge jumping.

Though I came close a few times, I would not trade those grueling hours in the practice rooms or my loneliness—as much due to the other facets of my life as my musical studies—for anything.  I learned discipline.  I learned what it is to do everything right and still fail.  I learned compassion.  I learned to revere the creative life as one of invisible risks, enormous sacrifices, and sometimes rewards that make those things worthwhile.  And I learned the value of telling the hard truth as I understood it to my own future students.

Dr. Conrad never told me I didn’t have talent.  He always said that’s something no one can know, not even about oneself.  He told me I didn’t have the temperament.  And that’s why he was correct.  I have the temperament of a writer, something he recognized but didn’t know well enough to name.  His world was music.  And because of him, I was able to exist in that world long enough to acquire some of its virtues and vices.

When I do play piano these days, it’s for my own amusement.  And I can only be amused at my ability (and lack thereof).  In the fullness of time, when I get my Roland out of storage, I think I’d like to start practicing again, maybe learn some Professor Longhair.  If I manage it, one day I can be that grinning old man with long white hair, playing boogie woogie on his balcony. 

Who’s that up there?

Just some old creep, honey.  Don’t look at him.  Get in the car.

A letter story after Bret Easton Ellis.

The funeral was horrible.  And you want me to say it wasn’t.  And I want that, too.  But every time I lie, I feel worse.  I don’t blame you.

What to do.  Where to be.  What we should have done.  How it all might have been better.  Or different.  Or maybe just not so bad.  I think about this shit all the time.  I should stop thinking. 

So you’re out in Spain.  That’s cool.  Spain gets you away from all this.  It’s a good choice.  Seriously.  And I hope Patty’s making it.  At least, I hope she’s physically alright.  Have some gazpacho for me, okay?

This morning, early, I drove out to Mount Lee, hiked up behind the Hollywood sign, looked out between the L and the Y where it happened.  The air was pretty clear and I could see all the way to downtown.  Of course, Bella didn’t come.  She won’t even say Alisa’s name. 

Bella’s been drinking a lot more now.  She looks pissed off all the time.  But you understand, right?  I mean, you and Patty went to Spain.  Drunk is Bella’s Spain.

There’s nothing up there now.  No police tape.  Not even trash since it rained.  All gone.  I thought I’d put some flowers down, but I forgot to get any.  So I just stood there and thought about the funeral.  I can’t begin to explain how depressing it was.  Trust me, Spain was a good move.

One thing Bella said two weeks ago, when we had our first big relationship-defining fight that we’re still calling a conversation: “Alisa was a money-hungry talentless slut and this was about attention.”  That was Stupid Drunk Bella going on.  You know. 

I broke my hand that night after she took off.  I don’t know why because we weren’t even screaming.  I had some klonopin.  We were in the living room with the lights off, trying to talk about boundaries or some shit and whether I should get my own place.  It seemed like we were making progress for about 10 minutes.  But now the Toyota needs a new passenger window.  

I think about Alisa for no reason at all.  About all of us, really.  You two were hooking up and, no, you don’t have to deny it.  We’re beyond that and you’re in Spain.  So don’t worry.  Nobody’s going to tell Patty.  I think that’s why Bella hates Alisa.  I keep telling her it’s ridiculous to hate a dead person.

I was fucking Bella behind Alisa’s back and you were fucking Alisa behind Patty’s back.  And all we did was sneak around and fuck each other and lie to each other.  We were so much better when we were friends just living together and failing at life.  What happened?

They had an open casket.  It was a bad decision.  The bullet did things to Alisa’s face that makeup couldn’t fix.  I thought her cousin was going to puke when she walked up to view the body.  Alisa was too pretty to have an open casket like that.  I don’t know what the logic was there.  I can’t get it out of my head.

Bella and I are still together, even after everything, because I think it’s just easy.  It’s easier than sleeping in our old bedrooms and having to be polite and pretend.  I guess we’re sleeping in the same bed and doing that.  She’s auditioning all the time.  I think she’s in a commercial for some kind of bean dip.  You should google her.  She’s good.  But she doesn’t make me want to buy the bean dip.

I’m still waiting tables at Earth.  It’s boring, but I don’t have to be home a lot that way, which I know is a fucked up kind of therapy.  But I guess it works well enough.  I go up to Mount Lee a few times a week.  I can’t sleep.

I found the video of the camping trip we took last summer.  I’m attaching it in case you care.  I don’t recommend it unless you actually like feeling bad, but I looked at it a few days ago.  I was in the living room, playing it on my laptop and crying a little, when Bella came in.  She just got the lead in the new Mata Hari opening at the Vantage because someone poisoned the person ahead of her.  She was in a good mood for once, singing, twirling around the room, which made me break down in a complete mess.  Things didn’t really go anywhere that night in terms of human decency.  She says she still wants to be with me.  She just doesn’t want to live with me.  I don’t want to live with me, either.

If you were here, I guess I’d ask what you think, if you have an opinion on any of it.  But I seriously do not want you to write an email back to me like this one and talk about Alisa’s suicide.  I know you don’t want to.  I don’t even expect you to have read this far.  I wouldn’t.  Just enjoy Spain and be nice to Patty.  Drink a lot of beer.  Go to a museum.

I keep having this thought.  I keep thinking that I knew Alisa was going to do it, that I was watching her slip away, and I didn’t do anything.  Why?  I don’t understand how we could just let her get worse and worse.  Like when she didn’t get the part in Veracity and took all your valium.  I mean, what the actual fuck was that? 

Bella says it was  about attention, but why weren’t we paying attention?  It fucks me up.  And how did she get a gun?  Nobody knows a thing.  You want to guess about that one for me?  Because I know it wasn’t mine.  I’ve never owned one in my life.  We were up our own asses is the answer, which is no answer at all but still absolutely true.

Last week, I hiked Mount Lee just before dawn.  L.A. looked like a bunch of orange stars under a black sky.  I was thinking that more people have killed themselves in this town than all the lights you can see from there.  It’s morbid and it’s also beautiful.  Like Alisa.  We should start naming the lights the way we name the constellations.  I’m probably going to keep going there.  Because what else is there?  Maybe some morning I’ll be able to figure out which light is her. 

I lead a mostly inward existence.  The part that isn’t, my small public-facing side, is bound up with my art, with what I write and submit for publication.  In this way, I’m constantly reinforcing and reiterating my identity, performing it.  I have to do this.  We all do if we expect to survive, immersed in the strange demimonde of the writing life. 

Since you never know if you’re any good and there is always someone saying you aren’t—including your own inner sadist—you have to affirmatively decide that you’re a writer and reject all arguments and criticisms to the contrary.  When you can do that and put words on the page, you are one.  If you can’t do that and you’re still waiting for permission, you’re not.  Not yet, at least.

A big part of making that decision and then constructing your identity publicly involves not letting respectability get in the way.  In 2013, feeling like I’d discovered this and that it was true, I wrote “The Discipline: In Your Head, Off the Street, and Away From the Club.” At the time, I thought I was articulating a set of beliefs and practices that could make it possible for creative people to continue in spite of the ubiquitous, overwhelming pressure to stop. 

Here is the concluding paragraph.  My sentences tend to get long and loopy when I’m writing Something Very Serious:

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 first-hand 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.

Seven years later, I feel less certain about this.  I think I was shoring up my identity for myself, talking to myself in the mirror, convincing myself.  While I’ve had a considerable amount of positive feedback from writers about that essay, it now seems more like a lacuna than a manifesto—a place where the reader can deposit her anxieties and, if only for a little while, dismiss them.  But the question remains: was I talking myself into or out of something in that piece?  What was the real opportunity cost of deciding to set foot on this odd, widely misunderstood, extremely demanding path?

Over the years, I’ve stayed faithful to the discipline, mythologizing my life in the way of a writer trying to buffer himself against the world.  A lot of creative people do this, using their imaginations not only to produce work, but also to perform their identities as artists in order to keep the cynical, draining importunities of late-stage capitalism at bay.  Unfortunately, just as an actor can get lost in a role, forget himself, and believe he is the character, it’s easy to mistake self-construct for reality, map for territory.

I’ve often lost myself, performing a writerly persona.  And I’ve had to return to the great voice-driven modernists I’ve always loved—Celine, Henry Miller, Hemingway, Bukowski, Hunter Thompson, Melanie Rae Thon, Brett Easton Ellis, John Fante, Denis Johnson, Isaac Babel, Osamu Dazai, Ryu Murakami—as a corrective.  In their fiction, the “constructedness” (“artificiality” isn’t quite right) of idiosyncratic first person always reminds me of the distinction between map and territory, between the “author brand,” or as Foucault says, “the author function” in discourse, and the unknowable human beings who’ve disappeared behind their texts.

As the constructed persona, I’m perfectly fine with the discipline “in my head and away from the club,” living on the edge, by my wits, freelancing and being a ghostwriter in a plague year.  I’m even writing a novel based on it.  I maintain a fierce, self-aggrandizing positivity and narrate myself as the protagonist of the story, on my hero’s journey, making the raw material of my life into text I hope people will find interesting.

But this is a plague year.  Millions are out of work.  The economy is flatlining.  Although it may seem like that would have less of an effect on someone leading the introspective writing life, I’ve realized that without society, there’s nothing for me to eschew, no place get away from.  Self-isolation means something different when everyone’s doing it. 

The pandemic has changed everything in the course of a few months and we have changed, are changing, along with it.  As Guitar Slim liked to say, “The things that I used to do, lord I won’t do no more”—not as a matter of preference, but as a matter of survival.  Like most people, I want to live past next month.  Yet, in order to do that, I need society to play along.  And right now, society just isn’t up to it.

In The Atlantic, Yascha Mounk, a professor at Johns Hopkins, published a very dark, pessimistic appraisal of our future with COVID-19, observing that “After weeks in which it made sense to hope that something would happen to end this nightmare, the prospects for deliverance are more remote than ever.”  He might be right.  If he is, what then?

I read about drug cartels, poachers, and conmen taking advantage of the lockdown hysteria.  I get into online discussions with fellow writers about whether Andrew Cuomo is doing the right thing and whether Bret Stephens knows what he’s talking about.  And I ask the question everyone’s asking: if it all goes dark, what will become of us, of me?

It’s necessary to offer something to the world and receive things from it if you intend to function outside a monastery or an ashram.  But, practicing my creative discipline, I’ve always felt I could be happy sitting in a small room, surrounded by books, with a narrow-ruled steno pad, a laptop, and a small refrigerator.  I have a lot of memories and thoughts to explore.  I have the voices of other writers always drifting around in my head and a very small circle of friends in the world who write to me.  I’ve never wanted much more than that.

But these days I feel transparent and weightless, untethered.  In one sense, it’s fine.  I’m not afraid to die.  I’ve accomplished most of the things I set out to accomplish in my life.  But I would like to finish this novel.  I’d like to see my third book of stories find a publisher.  And even teach story writing to a few more people before I go.  Those things would be nice, but they’re contingent on systems that are undergoing radical changes.  I fear the old world is slipping away.  I fear I am, too.

“Everything was all right for a while. You were kind.” She looks down and then goes on. “But it was like you weren’t there. Oh shit, this isn’t going to make any sense.” She stops.

I look at her, waiting for her to go on, looking up at the billboard. Disappear Here.

— Brett Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero

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

Recently, I had a moment where I thought someone couldn’t possibly be for real and I was about to use his face to sharpen my claws . . . and then he responded with disarming sincerity.  It’s wonderful when that happens.

Sincerity—not honesty but the good-faith attempt to be honest, which seems far more powerful and important—is like a force of nature. It’s a technique of relating to other people and to oneself that supersedes all the usual forms of vanity, deceit, coercion, and betrayal we regularly inflict on each other just to make it through the day.

It’s something I tend to forget, since the vast majority of people I deal with are usually cynical, conniving, lost souls.  My economic survival often means, as a freelancer, staying one step ahead of them and being prepared for the worst they have to offer.  I’ve been burned in most ways you might imagine and in some ways you might not.  And, because it is necessary to be a student of human nature, I usually walk away, saying, Fool me once . . .

But people can surprise you.  When they do, it’s worth noting—not only because it’s rare, but because sincerity is like water in the desert.  You don’t know when you’ll see it again but, for the moment, it’s a relief.

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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Readings for May 2020

Fiction
Last Exit to Brooklyn, Hubert Selby, Jr.
Nine Stories, J.D. Salinger
City of Night, John Rechy
Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson
Almost Transparent Blue, Ryu Murakami
The Complete Short Stories, Hemingway
New York City in 1979, Kathy Acker
Non-fiction & Creative Non-fiction
Notes of a Dirty Old Man, Charles Bukowski
Child of Light: A Biography, Madison Smartt Bell
Swimming to Cambodia, Spalding Gray
Arguably: Essays, Christopher Hitchens
The Geography of the Imagination, Guy Davenport
Continued from Last Month
Narrative Design, Madison Smartt Bell
Alive Together: New and Selected Poems, Lisel Mueller
Transmetropolitan, Warren Ellis
Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, Hunter Thompson

We are here to unlearn the teachings of the church, state, and our educational system. We are here to drink beer. We are here to kill war. We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.

— Charles Bukowski

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