Write seriously for any length of time and you learn that it’s a lonely business.  Whether you’re writing essays, stories, poems, scripts, or novels, it’s just you and the page every day with no guarantee that your enormous investment of time, emotion, and energy is ever going to reach a satisfying conclusion.  As Charles Bukowski wrote, you’re “betting on the muse.”  And the muse is a cruel mistress.

Even if she’s the love of your life, sometimes you find yourself wishing the two of you had never met.  Maybe, you think, if I hadn’t gotten addicted to writing, I might have made real progress in a day job.  I might even have reached a point where I could have moved out of my tiny apartment, started paying off my student loans, and bought a car less than 30 years old, a respectable adult at last.

Instead, I chose to take all that energy and put it into words.  When I’m lucky, when the muse deals me a good hand and I play it for all it’s worth, the words seem like they’ll never stop.  There’s no better feeling than that.  But no one can be lucky all the time.  And sometimes you just go bust.

It doesn’t matter whether writing is a hobby or the way you keep the lights on.  All writers have to face the same ups and downs, the same uncertainties, the same droughts, the same bad runs, the same unforgiving emptiness of a blank page with the muse nowhere to be found.  Even the most talented among us can feel like imposters when we bet it all on one hand, fold, and leave the table with nothing but pocket lint and remorse. 

But now we’re in a new abnormal.  There’s a virus and civil unrest in the streets.   Everything’s shuttered or broken.  And our homes have become sci-fi biodomes where we drift through the day in a weird online approximation of the lives we used to lead.  Lockdowns do that.  Pandemics can change everything, even our writing habits.   

Attending a poetry reading or just walking through a bookstore can feel like playing chess with the reaper.  Surgical gear is the new black.  And we can’t waste time in a coffee shop anymore, glowering at a blank screen over a latte with enough sugar to induce an intracranial coma in an elephant.  That was the old world, old rules, old normal.  Now everyone’s socially distanced and weird.  Now everyone’s living like a writer. 

We wait for life to reacquire some semblance of normalcy.  We grieve for those who’ve died and want to safeguard the lives of those who haven’t.  We keep in mind that all life is precious and that we’re in this together.  And we hope that those who are now unemployed or alone or going into debt because of COVID-19 can find a way forward.  We hope this for ourselves, too.

Yet, as with any pandemic, riot, or plague, there are darkly amusing dimensions.  As a friend of mine put it recently, “This can’t go on for much longer.  It’s just too stupid.”  I had to agree.  It is.  Then again, he’s not used to betting on the muse, to leading a solitary hidden life with no assurance that the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t just an oncoming train.  Writers are especially poised to continue work through a pandemic.

 

State Dependency Writing Works in a Lockdown

Ever wonder why you can’t seem to get into a good flow state without your bagel and cup of coffee?  Why the little rituals and routines of settling down to write seem so essential?  When you look at them rationally, they’re really nothing—small mundane comforts, little observances in your personal space, that pink bathrobe with the embroidered toucan on the back you only wear when you write. 

Was it grandma’s?  Did you get it at a yard sale in 1993?  Or was it always waiting for you up there in the attic, waiting to become the key element that helped you finish your first novel manuscript?  You don’t want to think about it.  It’s your magic writing bathrobe.  If you look at it too closely, the magic might go away.

I understand.  I’m not here to gainsay your magic.  But I will suggest that memory and brain chemistry are part of it.  And this is why it still works when the rest of the world is stuck at home, day drinking and fantasizing about haircuts.  Therapist and licensed counselor, David Joel Miller, calls it “environmental context-dependent memory” or “situational memory.”  And it’s probably why I’ll be acknowledging Krispy Kreme when my third story collection gets taken.

Miller explains it as “an ability to remember information in one situation that you are unable to remember in another.”  It’s closely related to state-dependent memory, which has more to do with internal chemistry than with location.  Generally, we can say that both types of “state dependency” are invoked by our little magical writing habits. 

 

Are We Talking About Trance States?

Yes and no.  If “trance” is defined broadly as an altered mental state, then yes.  We go into trances all the time—driving our kids to school, washing the dishes, binging five seasons of a show we can barely remember a few days later.  When we do anything familiar enough that it becomes rote, we’re probably doing it in a light trance state.

This is not inducing a David Lynchian out-of-body dissociative episode where we have a conversation with a dead prophet on top of an Aztec pyramid and realize the existential meaning of our lives.  We’re awake.  We’re functional.  We’re just in the flow state that Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, the founder of Positive Psychology, describes as a period of total absorption.

He calls flow “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”  That sounds like my compulsive writing habit, my ongoing love affair with the muse.  I also know that, when she deals me a bum hand, flow is impossible.

So just as a gambler will blow on the dice, keep a lucky talisman in a vest pocket, or say a quick prayer to Our Lady of the Full House, we fire up a triple espresso and get a chocolate iced glazed donut.  We creep up to the attic and put on our toucan bathrobe.  Because these invoke our situational memory of having written, of being in that enjoyable flow state.

 

Speaking of the Devil

Legendary writer and Iowa Writers Workshop professor, Madison Smartt Bell, recommends everything from post-hypnotic suggestion to binaural beats.  In a 2011 New Yorker interview about his novel, The Color of Night, he notes that  “Normally most writers don’t say, ‘I’m going into a mild hypnotic trance.’ Typically they don’t know how they do it. . . . Most people, when they have a good experience writing, they’re well placed in that state, which is also sometimes called a ‘flow state.’ If you don’t have trouble, you don’t have to think about it. But if for some reason you can’t get into that state, then you start to have writer’s block.” 

Most of my pragmatic fiction writing teachers didn’t like to talk about writer’s block.  Often, they denied its existence completely.  I think it was because they were superstitious.  Speak of the devil and he might appear.  The most instruction I ever got along these lines was in the last year of my MFA, when the leader of our advanced fiction workshop said: “Your job as a writer is to go into a trance such that, when you come out of it, there are words on the page.”

So here we are in this afraid new locked down world with non-writers drinking wine in our attic and sad news on television.  In times like this, writing is as essential as any form of art.  And we’re the ones to do it.  

We simply have to remember that even though the muse is fickle, even though sometimes we’ll hit a bad run, we can improve our odds by sticking to our rituals.  When we can forget what’s going on in the outside world and enter flow, we won’t be writing in spite of the lockdown.  We’ll just be writing.  And that’s a wonderful place to be.

The time will come—I don’t know when but sooner than we’d like—when many in positions of authority are going to have to decide what orders that they may receive should be considered unlawful by statute, by the Constitution, and even by international law. Start thinking on it now.

Seth Abramson, 1 June 2020

 

 

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

A short short about interpretive horticulture.

 

Over lunch, Luke tells me about the murder, how he looked up and saw a black cow standing all by itself in the field.  And how that was what made him cry.  After everything.  The cow standing there all alone, completely black.

Luke says he’s not afraid anymore.

I look for a cigarette, then think I must be losing my mind since I’ve been quit for over a year.  Luke has switched to vaping.  So I can’t bum one off him.  Instead, I ask why he came to San Diego, but he only adjusts his sunglasses and shrugs.

Life fell apart, he says, when he quit drinking.  Marianne got promoted.  He couldn’t go out anymore.  His sponsor relapsed, disappeared.  He spent a lot of nights alone.

“So that’s why—it happened?”  I can’t bring myself to say it.

The waiter comes over and asks if we want anything else.  I order another beer.  Luke gets a club soda.

“That’s just it.  I don’t know.  It wasn’t me.”

The wind blows a plastic bag along the sidewalk by our table and we both look down at it instead of at each other.

“She was beautiful that day.”

Two blocks west, Pacific Beach rolls white static in the heat.  We can look down Chalcedony Street and see the thin line of the break coming in.  Everybody here is tan except Luke, who’s a waxy Missouri pale.  He got thin since I left Hauberk.  He grew his hair long, dyed it black.

“I don’t understand,” I say.

He looks at a waitress inside the cafe laughing at a table with three blond surfers.  “I don’t understand, either.”

But Luke says he remembers everything.  He’ll never forget how happy Marianne was when Bulldog moved her desk into his office.  Bulldog has a real name.  Everyone just calls him that out of affection, but everyone hates him.

“Marianne hated him.  But she was so happy.”

“She always seemed happy.”

Luke takes out his vape pen.  It’s chrome, has GOLIATH down the side in a space-age font.

“You met her twice,” he says.

She started going out after work with guys from the office.  To Nene’s, the Burmese Lounge, the Five Dimes.  He’d call around until he found her, ask her to come home.  Luke was never invited.  What was he going to do?  Sit there and drink 7-Up?  He tells me nobody liked him.  Bulldog made fun of him, called him Sauron.  Marianne thought it was funny.

“She didn’t really think it was funny.  She just said she did.”

“Is that why—”

Luke exhales a thick cloud that smells like a chocolate liqueur dissolved in alcohol.  “Stop.  Can you please?”

I feel embarrassed even though I didn’t do anything.  I don’t know where to put my hands now that I’m done with my salad.  So I put them in my pockets, which still feels awkward.  But Luke doesn’t notice.  He’s watching the waitress talk to the surfers inside.

I’ve never met Bulldog, but I’ve met Marianne and I can imagine: up goes her desk to the third floor right next to the Dog, who’s taking her out to Nene’s later with the lucky few who can’t say no.  And Sauron isn’t coming because, frankly, he’s embarrassing and uncomfortable and not too stable.  And what’s she doing with him anyway?

I picture Luke next to Marianne in the dark, eyes open, maybe whispering her name, maybe putting his hand on her arm.  That’s great, but their lives, like their stuff, are all mixed up together because they’ve been living with each other for three years.  Situations like that don’t get solved by calling around at bar time or touching someone’s arm in the middle of the night.  Maybe she says, “Luke, let’s get some sleep.”  And maybe that’s what they pretend to do.

He tells me how numb he feels.  “Like I’ve been away somewhere for a really long time.  Like I’m someone I don’t know.”

“That’s how you seem to me, too.  No offense.”

“None taken.”

He vapes.  He watches the waitress inside the cafe.  I look at the V of ocean down at the end of Chalcedony Street and think about how the water is pale jade but it looked gunmetal a week ago and how this is a lesson of some kind.

Luke could have learned to accept Bulldog in Marianne’s life.  “He has this five-story house in north Hauberk.  One of the old Victorians.  It used to be the girls’ school.  He has a refrigerator that plays music.  His wife, Kathy, she wears a lot of gold.  She’s a treasury.  That’s what he says, my baby’s a treasury.  But he means all the gold.”  And it could have been okay like that.  But the one time Luke and Marianne came over for dinner, Kathy’s old shih tzu pissed on Luke’s leg.  So Bulldog threw Luke out.

“Funny that he’s named Bulldog and he has a dog.”

“Marianne thought so.”

“Sorry.”

Luke looks at me.  I can’t see his eyes behind his black aviators.

“Nobody’s ever sorry,” he says.

He’s not the kid I knew in high school.  Piers Anthony novels at lunch and Judge Dredd comics and too much Black Sabbath and his dad on duty in Gavin Long Men’s Facility five nights a week.  His mom died before he got to know her.  Maybe that’s what we’ll say in the end—that’s what fucked Luke up.  But in the end no one will probably say anything.  Marianne’s dead.  I don’t know what it means.

“So I ran over the dog.  It’s name was Scruffy.  I ran over Scruffy.”

“Did you kill anything else?”

“No.  Just the dog.”

I nod, like, that’s good.  It’s good you only murdered one human and one dog.

“It didn’t suffer.”

Two years ago, I went back to Hauberk for my uncle’s farewell.  Luke came and it was good to see him.  He was quiet, stood in the back of the church, and tried not to stare when my aunt collapsed on the coffin.  Who will go to Marianne’s funeral?  Will Luke stand in the back and try not to stare?  Will I?

“Where are you going now?”

“Mexico, I think.  Maybe nowhere.  I stabbed her.  With a bread knife.”

“Jesus Christ, man.  I mean—”

“I stabbed her and she was wearing this Hawaiian sun dress.  It was white but it had huge red flowers on it.  You couldn’t see anything.  She didn’t suffer.  I promise.”

“Alright,” I whisper.  “I guess that’s good.”

Tears run down under his aviators, but his mouth stays flat, his voice level.  “You believe me, don’t you?  That she didn’t suffer?”

“I believe you.”

“We were having a picnic by this little stream.  It was a good place.  It was peaceful.  You could hear the water on the rocks.  Then I looked up at that black cow.  And it didn’t seem nice anymore.”

My throat’s too tight to speak.  I drink some beer.  Then I look at Luke and say, “Yes.  I understand.”

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.

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

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“Either you repeat the same conventional doctrines everybody is saying, or else you say something true, and it will sound like it’s from Neptune.”

― Noam Chomsky

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“Perhaps if you know you are insane then you are not insane. Or you are becoming sane, finally. Waking up.”

― Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle

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“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

“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