My latest on Splice Today: https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/biden-s-obsession-with-optics.
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.
This morning, I read an essay by a fellow freelancer-ghostwriter on how depressing the paid writing hustle is and how editors can screw your work up after you’ve exhausted yourself querying and pitching articles. I sympathize. It’s rough. At the same time, if you’re doing it right, you shouldn’t feel exhausted and demoralized all the time.
Freelancing is a hard way to make a living—at least as hard as any other job people do. But it’s harder for some than for others, which is important to bear in mind. Living this life means accepting constant rejection, dealing with assholes, getting cheated at least some of the time, being prudent with your money months in advance (in case you hit a dry spell), writing for hours every day, and being willing to produce what other people say they want you to write (writing to spec) instead of what you may want. The reason I rarely complain about all this is because, deep down, I like doing it. The aggravations don’t get me down.
I would not be a good concert pianist, race car driver, or nuclear physicist. I can accept that. But people tend to think being a freelance writer is some kind of stage magic that anybody can learn if they just apply themselves to the grind. Not true, if you don’t want to be a miserable wreck. All jobs are hard, no matter what they are. The trick is to know yourself well enough to find the good kind of hard as opposed to the horrible rat-race kind.
Charles Bukowski famously said, “Don’t try.” It’s on his gravestone. He meant that there is too much of everything in the world. You don’t have to do something you’re not good at. Don’t try to be what you’re not. Let who you really are guide you and you won’t have to hate your life. This is so true, especially for freelancers and writers. It doesn’t mean “Don’t work hard.” It means work hard in the area that resonates most powerfully with who you are. Then take it as far as you can. When you do something for its own sake, without obsessing about getting ahead, you don’t have to hustle and scheme. It’s a joy in itself. And the drawbacks become, if not negligible, then at least less important.
What takes an enormous amount of hustling and self-contortion for you—networking, pitching, worrying, querying, dealing with rejection, dealing with horrible people—takes less for someone else, who may be better connected or generally better suited for that particular profession or venture. Luck also matters. And fate. Every auditioning actor will tell you this. Every magazine writer will, too.
The opportunity cost of having to spend your energy on breaking through obstacle after obstacle can be avoided with a bit of self knowledge. You don’t have to (actually, you shouldn’t) spend your days feeling like the world is handing you a raw deal. Instead, find the thing that seems fluid, open, and easy, then do it as intensely and diligently as you can. Someone else will try to hustle for that, but you will leave him or her behind because, at least for you, it’s as natural as breathing.
Hustle culture comes from people being in the wrong place, not realizing it, and stubbornly grinding forward, demanding that things work without acknowledging the truth: not everyone is meant to be good at everything. But you’re good at something. Do that.
My recent hiatus from freelance writing culminated in an existential crisis that I now think was actually about money. It’s interesting how money—getting it, keeping it, losing it, worrying about it, hating it, enduring its fraught passage through our lives—often seems to be the underlying rule and mean in situations we first thought were about love or fate or right choices. Life might not always be about money. But lately I’ve had a hard time seeing when it isn’t.
The realization hit me while I was cutting banana trees for my neighbor. Every freelancer encounters dry spells and every dry spell brings angst, a spate of dreadful job applications, and self-imposed austerity measures which help far less than you think they should. In the middle of that, volunteering to prune banana trees should be therapeutic. It some ways, it is.
In others, it only drives the nail of precarity deeper into your skull: what am I doing when I should be looking for a new paying project? What am I doing volunteering for anything? What is my age? What choices have I made that put me here? How much am I to blame? How do I set this worry and anger aside so I can get back on the hustle? Will this petty opportunity cost return as top ramen and hot dogs, holy T-shirts and rent anxiety? Where will I be this time next year? And will I have all the teeth I have now?
These are questions freelancers never want to ask but inevitably do. This is the fear that only those with money have the luxury of being generous. This is how your world gets smaller, how you end up optimizing every moment for work instead of living a life. So I pruned my neighbor’s banana trees with a Ryobi P519 Reciprocating Sawzall in high tropical humidity and tried not to wallow.
Heavy yard work can be good for the soul, especially work that involves razor-sharp power tools. Still, through the whole day, my inner existential calculator-self-critic-time-clock was hard at work dredging up a range of facts, assumptions, and figures that all led to the same thought: kindness is stupid when you’re broke.
Unfortunately, by that reasoning, so is art, writing, music, libraries, museums, public broadcasting, kite flying, junior college, cooking, learning languages, community theater, and any other thing that brings joy and meaning to someone whose emotional life isn’t completely constrained by making a buck. It’s what the ladies’ self-help success guru, Penelope Trunk, used to say when she’d argue that graduate school in the humanities should require a trust fund. In her reductive materialism, culture and self-expression are supposed to come with a price tag like everything else. And if you can’t afford it, well, get back in your cage.
The commodification of kindness and creativity is something I hate as much as anything I’ve ever hated, a set of beliefs about the world that I vehemently reject. Of course, I do. I’m a former English teacher. I have a hard-earned PhD in the subject. I write books. And those skills also feed me as a freelancer, even if the life I lead is a bit like that of a low-stakes professional gambler. Nevertheless, poverty sucks.
I dislike large parts of capitalism, at least, the post-industrial variety carried into my generation by the Boomers. But I do think my fellow Gen-Xers doth protest a bit much. My parents’ post-WWII generation did the best they could and, in many cases, that was pretty great. The people around me, born in the early 1970s, who came of age in the late 80s and early 90s, also did their level best. Put into the widest global perspective for our time, we had it pretty good. And I believe in hard work.
Everyone I knew growing up in lower-middle-class southern California shared that belief and mostly survived. Many of us, especially the arts and humanities types, went into debt and paid an enormous psychological price to do the things we felt called to do. And we seemed to enjoy a much smaller return on those efforts than that of previous generations. But we still shut our mouths and tried to make a living. I guess we’re still trying.
But millennials? Gen-Z? I’m not sure I know what form of life they are. Terms like “self-entitlement,” “performative victimhood,” and “Twitter mob” do come to mind. When I interact with them socially or read about them as a group, I come away feeling like I’ve encountered an undulant mass of mewling, protoplasmic, always-online identity cosplayers.
I know that this is not true and that sweeping generalizations are inherently invalid. And I suspect generations largely aggregate into the same qualities and quantities that have always existed; though, I’d be hard pressed to come up with an earlier analogue for Instagram catgirls, and gig sensitivity readers. These generations are tomorrow’s freelance writers and Uber drivers. And there will be so many more of them.
At the same time, I wonder if people hitting the workforce now, in their 20s and 30s, with crippling debt, a lingering pandemic, and the hottest temperatures in recorded history, have the same inner fallout when they can’t find work. I wonder whether they even want to work the way I have, the way I still work? Do they doubt themselves, even after decades of professional experience? Do the former English majors sometimes reach a point where they swear they’re giving up the thankless writing life (because, let’s face it, the last thing the world needs is another writer) but find themselves coming back to it again and again like an addiction?
I have no doubt that some of them will come around to my way of thinking while cutting banana trees and flirting with heat stroke: maybe what the world needs is not what I need. Maybe a writer’s job is not to be respectable and flush, but to write and avoid getting flushed. Maybe no matter how many trees I prune, I know I’ll be heading back to the writing desk sooner or later, dental plan or not. If not today, then tomorrow. If not tomorrow, then next week. If not next week, then never. Because in this game, there is no victory scenario, no rest, no stopping until they put me in the ground.
I’ve had many mad, bad, dangerous housemates and roommates over the years. Depending on the rental market, I’ve lived with family or in some kind of shared arrangement with people I hardly knew, without much concern or preference either way. Given that work and other life changes have caused (forced?) me to live in 13 different countries in the last decade, worrying about who’s belching in the attic or in the bedroom next-door or in the bed on the other side of the partition would have been unwise and unhealthy. But sometimes—sometimes I realize I’m living with a maniac.
Maybe she’s loudly bipolar. Maybe he’s 3D-printing a gun, terrified Mossad is following him. Maybe she’s carrying on a deep love affair with heroin and likes to pass out in your bed. Maybe she comes home violently drunk, crying and breaking your dishware (never ask me why my very small collection of plates and bowls don’t match). Maybe her ex-boyfriend is a vicious nutcase who keeps threatening to burn the house down. Maybe he’s a swinger and hosts loud fetish parties. Maybe he’s a stressed-out evangelical, thinks you’re a devil worshipper, and slips into your room when you’re not there, looking for evidence of black magic. I’ve experienced all of these maybes. Each one was lovely and ended as well as you might imagine.
People, the Lizard King says, are strange. That’s unquestionably true. But I’m so low key (headphones, up before dawn, early to bed, focused on my work, meditating every day, cooking small meals, careful about cleanliness) that I might be the ideal housemate for weirdos. With me around, they always have enough space to engage in moaning S&M without worrying I’m going to kick open the door with a fire extinguisher. By all means, leave your sex toys in a shoe box out on the kitchen table. I don’t eat there anyway. Feel free to get naked and OD on my toilet. I’ll drive you to the ER just like last time. Pilfer my food, even when I put it in my sacred fridge zone. Et cetera.
So I suppose my previous housemate’s self-righteous veganism was small potatoes. The fact that he dressed like an 18th century Japanese shopkeeper and constantly commented on my (inexpensive, minimal) wardrobe or non-vegan food choices was really nothing. That he brought his secret Tinder dates over when his girlfriend had to work at night and had loud banging sex on the other side of the wall was not my business. Him regularly contaminating the atmosphere with cheap cologne was negligible. Things could always have been worse—like the unrelenting termite infestation where I’m living now. But I digress.
I tell myself at least he wasn’t making bombs. And I honestly do want everyone to get laid, smell the way they want, and be well fed. Let there be golden copulations as far as the eye can see. Stir fry your flaccid tofu with your vegan cheese substance. Watch anime late into the night and have a nice relaxing wank. It’s a free country and that has nothing to do with me.
I don’t even care if you constantly make snide comments and strut around the place acting superior. You can be superior. Just let me get my sleep, brother. Just find someone to deal with the termites. Just let me follow my routine and stay out of my way. I’m a freelancer. I work at home, online, with words and I don’t get days off. I can only maintain that life if I practice rigid self-discipline and minimalism. Let me be minimal. Because if I don’t have time and space to write, I disappear. The carriage turns back into a pumpkin. The glass slipper cuts my foot.
I’m simple. I like to keep everything that way because it means productivity and me making a living. Complicated hasn’t treated me well in the past. People may be strange when you’re a stranger. But this time, please OD within walking distance of Urgent Care. And when you’re dousing yourself with Axe Wild Spice, please ventilate. It’s okay. I understand. We’re fumigating the house on Tuesday.
There will always be at least one student who asks for an extension. He or she will explain: I couldn’t figure out MS Word; I had to visit dad in jail; my car broke down; grandma caught the AIDS; someone lit my house on fire; my girlfriend, boyfriend, internet spouse, polyamorous partnership cell is pregnant; an Uber driver held me up; an Uber driver stole my hard drive while I was high; I got deported; my pants didn’t come back from the cleaners; I’m getting sent to a military academy in India; the deadline triggered my epilepsy; I’m dropping out; an Uber driver told me to drop out; there were locusts, columns of fire; I think you’re profiling me; Deuteronomy 18:10; this assignment is stupid.
Agree with everything. Grant the extension without argument. If he or she does the work, great, reduce the end-grade on the assignment and then maybe learning can continue. If the student still hasn’t done the work, he or she will explain: my cat got gastritis; I’m an indigo child; COVID; the assignment gave me gastritis; I’m leaving to become an Alaskan fishing boat hand, catalogue model, dog walker, Sufi mystic, fire watcher; I decided to live the novel; I won’t need these skills driving for Uber; you are so unfair; Isaiah 41:10; this assignment is stupid.
Agree with everything. Grant a second extension without argument. If he or she does the work, great, reduce the end-grade on the assignment again and then maybe learning can continue. If the student still hasn’t done the work, he or she will either never return to class or will buy a paper online. If he or she never returns to class, wish your student well on his / her new career as a munitions tester in Laos.
If he or she buys a paper online, read it carefully. Your research assignment will have been generated through intensive one-on-one work with each student (see Part 2: Night of the Living Assignment). Because you have avoided clichéd research paper topics (gun control, abortion controversy, pollution, beauty standards, Trump existing in a three-dimensional time-space continuum, homelessness, etc.) and you guided the students toward subjects specific to their lives, it will be very hard for them to buy papers that are on point.
In the end, desperate, they will turn in anything: Gas Grilling Techniques; The Mousetrap Scene in Hamlet; Gun Control is Good; Some People Say Abortion is Wrong; Cars Pollute Cities; Barbie Reinforces Negative Beauty Myths; Trump Is Stupid Or Is He, There is a Lot of Homelessness in the World. You will look at these (often horribly written) papers that reflect none of what you’ve covered in class and sigh.
He or she will attempt to explain and will fail. Then: “I really, really don’t want to be expelled.” Agree with this. Grant another extension without argument. Tell the student you will keep the fake paper on file and offer opportunity for the student to write a real one. 90% of the time, you will never see them again. The 10% of students who actually make the attempt are the students you really want to teach. Meet with them two or three times individually. Have them revise their work. Give them fair, reduced grades, but see this for what it is: growth.
A Fateful and Lonesome Journey to the Dark Heart of the American Library
After working with the students on developing personally relevant topics, you’ll have helped them sharpen those topics into specific areas of research. Then, on a cold day sometime in early October, you’ll all shuffle over to the campus library.
You will have written, “WE ARE IN THE LIBRARY TODAY” in enormous block letters on the board, but the two students who come late won’t read it, initiating a chain reaction involving the department secretary looking up the outdated copy of your syllabus on file in the office; a feverish exegesis of your original assignment sequence that has already been amended six times in class; and a multitude of calls to you which will go unanswered because your phone is off.
Meanwhile, the librarian’s assistant will be taking your students through an online guided tour of available resources for undergraduate research papers as slowly as humanly possible. Three students will have opened Facebook on the library terminals. One will be playing a bowling app on her iPad. It is important, at this point, to resist sudden irrational sadness.
The walking tour will then ensue. It will consist of the reference section, some of the book stacks, and the periodical room in the basement. The students will peer at the 1970s sci-fi microfilm readers. They’ll show a slight tourist curiosity toward the untouched literary journals laid out in immaculate columns on the shelves. Someone at the back of the group will whisper, “This is so intimidating.”
Class will be nearly over at that point. Everyone will shuffle back to the front desk. You will elaborately thank the librarian’s assistant who will smile and wave at the class as if he’d just demonstrated how to teach algebra to grizzly bears. Then the two late students will arrive with contemptuous expressions, but everyone will ignore them.
You’ll take a moment to talk about the value of working with physical books and the weird serendipity that comes from personally browsing the stacks. You’ll explain how it can sometimes result in discovering the perfect text, or an author of whom you were not previously aware, or a useful book that had been misshelved or miscatalogued. You’ll describe this experience as wonderful and mysterious—because it is, but maybe only to you.
Your students will be checking their watches, getting combos on Pro Bowler, and will often seem to be staring through your physical form at the gulf of infinity. But the librarian’s assistant will be listening intently as you describe this esoteric process. You are, he’ll decide, somewhat smarter than you look.
You’ll finish by talking about what the students should be doing before the next class meeting. A few of them will make sure you notice that they’re writing it all down. Everyone will be extremely tired. Of the 15 who shuffled in, you will count 11 shuffling out.
What happened to the other 4? Don’t ask.
Somewhere in the last few years—and I can’t pinpoint exactly when—a vague yet almost overwhelming and irrational annoyance started tearing through me maybe up to a dozen times a day. This annoyance was over things so seemingly minor, so out of my usual field of reference, that I was surprised by how I had to take a deep breath to dismantle this disgust and frustration that was all due to the foolishness of other people: adults, acquaintances and strangers on social media who offered up their rash opinions and judgments, their mindless preoccupations, always with an unwavering certitude that they were right. A toxic attitude seemed to drift off every post or comment or tweet whether it was actually there or not. This anger was new, something I’d never experienced before—and it was tied in with an anxiousness, an oppression I felt whenever I ventured online, a sense that I was going to somehow make a mistake instead of simply offering an opinion or make a joke or criticize someone or something. This idea would have been unthinkable ten years earlier—that an opinion could become something wrong—but in an infuriated, polarized society people were blocked because of these opinions, and unfollowed because they were perceived in ways that might be inaccurate. The fearful began to instantly see the entire humanity of an individual in a cheeky, offensive tweet and were outraged; people were attacked and unfriended for backing the “wrong” candidate or having the “wrong” opinion or for simply stating the “wrong” belief. It was as if no one could differentiate between a living person and a string of words hastily typed out on a black sapphire screen. The culture at large seemed to encourage discourse but social media had become a trap, and what it really wanted to do was shut down the individual. What often activated my stress was that other people were always angry about everything, presenting themselves as enraged by opinions that I believed in and liked or thought were simply innocuous. My pushback against all of this forced me to confront a degraded fantasy of myself—an actor, as someone I never thought existed—and this, in turn, became a constant reminder of my failings. And what was worse: this anger could become addictive to the point where I just gave up and sat there exhausted, mute with stress. But ultimately silence and submission were what the machine wanted.
— from the beginning of White, Bret Easton Ellis.*
* Yes, this is all one paragraph in the original. – M