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Vintage circus photo sad clown antique photograph poster wall

 

If you’re a writer, you’ll live your life not knowing if you’re any good.  And you’ll die not knowing.  I think John Berryman said that. 

After Phil Levine published his first book of poems, people said, yeah, but can you do it again?  Then he did it again.  Then they said, yeah, but have you been featured in the New York Times Review of Books?  Then he got a review.  So they said, yeah, but have you won any major awards?  He won several.  Then they said, yeah, but we remember you back when you were broke in Detroit.  You’ll always be a bum

There is no escape.  Nobody from the old neighborhood wants to see you get ahead.  It’s a law of nature, the Bumfuck Reflexive Property.  You can ruin your life if you burn your emotional energy wondering whether they’re right.  Every moment you spend doing that is a waste.  But all writers do it.

Hang around with writers and artists and you realize they’ve got a particular tangible proficiency at their kind of art.  Maybe they were born with it or, more likely, they worked hard at developing what little gift they had into something presentable.  The gift, whatever it is, is real and observable.  But whether they’re mediocre or brilliant, derivative or original, a flash in the pan or someone whose art is set to be preserved in the basement of Cheops, you will never know.  More significantly, they will never know. 

If you like their work, great.  If you don’t, you can always recall the time they were broke and living in the projects across from Wayne State.  HA.  HA.  HA.  Let’s all laugh at the sad clown.  Some people and their lousy choices.  Am I right?  If they were any good people would want to pay them for their work.  I mean, that’s just common sense.

I suppose it’s sad when an artist hasn’t learned how to fail (or how to stubbornly and angrily reject failure), when she takes the Bumfuck to bed and makes love to it, when she’s covered in despair, when she finds herself thinking about her choices.  The rest of us chose to avoid that humiliation early.  We were smart and didn’t even try.  Or if we did, we never let anyone see it and gave up shortly thereafter.  And look at us today.  We just got back from our annual trip to Florida.  It’s a good life.

But she has to spend some nights staring at the wall, probing for answers that will never come.  Because her friends and family don’t know what to tell her, even though they have many strongly held opinions on her work and direction in life.  Her teachers didn’t know (even the ones who praised her back at clown school).  And ultimately, she doesn’t know, can’t know, even if she wins a Golden Bozo next year and gets to put “Genius” on her resume.  She might just be a lucky clown, a clown of the moment, a one clown wonder.  How do you ever really, truly know if you’re any good?

Genius.  Hell, she can barely afford lunch.  And so the questions: am I actually a no-talent, deluded ass-clown?  Was taking out a loan to go to clown school the worst decision of my life?  Should I have listened to my old high-school friend who went straight into an apprenticeship as a waste management professional and who is now debt-free, pumping out the city’s shit everyday for a middle-five-figure salary?  The dude owns his own house.  He loves reminding me how debt-free he is.  He loves it.

Can I say the same?  Do I love being a clown?  I thought I did.  But now that I’m out of clown school, I feel so alone.  At least back there I had a useful amount of social friction, mutually shared productive spite, the catty competitiveness of nervous art students to hold me up and distract me. 

Now I only have these four walls and the dirty mirror over the sink and the constant message that if it doesn’t make money, it’s a hobby, not a calling.  A life spent vacuuming out the municipal sewer, by that definition, would be the Grail Quest.  But that tract house and the vacation package in Florida speaks for itself.

How good do I have to be to take clowning seriously, to argue that it is my reason for living and not just a lukewarm pastime that regularly torments me.  Sometimes, I wonder what good is—if it is something metaphysical, some hidden imprimatur, some mysterious proof, like divine grace received only through predestination.  Do we know it when we see it?  Or do we see it because we only know what we’ve been told? 

How much telling is good?  How much showing?  If I get the emotional effect I want by the last line of my story, does that justify anything I do along the way, any narrative impropriety—like Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” one of the most structurally verfucked stories I have ever seen that nevertheless works?  It works because it moves me.  Me.  Not necessarily you. 

What’s more, when I get to the end, I know in the way that comes from having spent too much time with fellow ass-clowns, that “Hills Like White Elephants” would have never gotten a pass in clownshop.  Poor sad clownbear.  Put on your hardhat and gas mask.  There’s shit pumping needs to be done.

I read the New Yorker and The Paris Review.  For clowns, those are basically trade publications.  Those clowns really know how to do it.  They know what’s good, what’s right and wrong about art and culture, what should be published, what should be condemned.  The people they feature—man, that is some serious clown shit.  They really push the clownvelope.  In fact, they are so serious at times that their work transcends everyday clowning and enters the Mime Plane.  It’s a micro universe.  All the mimes who ever existed and who ever will exist live there in an eternal limbo that can fit on the head of a pin.  And yet it’s enormous.  Space and time.  You know.  Like warm bubble-gum.

But I stay away from the mimes, like Alice Mimero and Jonathan Mimezen and Jeffrey Eumimedies and Mimeberto Eco.  Their work is—I don’t even know how to describe it—it’s mysterious.  Like pushing the wind or the transparent box or juggling the invisible chainsaws.  Somehow, it’s supposed to seem dangerous or terrifying.  Risky.  But when an invisible chainsaw slips, there’s only invisible blood.  Hard to see.  You have to pretend it’s there.  Mime stuff, you know.  Everyone acts like they get it.

And yet they’re held up to us as the cultural elite.  How does that work?  Why are we still encouraged by the Big Six to think of these clowns as mysterious and compelling?  I guess only those who put out effort to remain mysterious will continue to be seen that way.  And perpetually wrapping yourself in a glamour of mystery is a lie.  Because no one is actually that.  But we lionize our artists.  The publishing industry runs a lion circus.  We want to believe they know something we don’t when they jump and roar.

Them lions is pathological.  All they know is that gazelles are tasty.  And us?  We don’t even know that much.

I might know that shit stinks and pumping it for a living is a bummer.  I know I’d give a hundred tract houses and a timeshare in Pensacola not to have that be the substance of my Grail Quest.  I’d rather squander my life writing, even if I am a no-talent ass-clown.

But you?  I’m not so sure about you.  Maybe you’re not one of the Cheops Basement All-Stars yet.  Maybe you’ll always be a bum somewhere in municipal Detroit, freezing in your bloodied clown suit.  But I can tell you one thing.  You’ll never really know if you’re any good.  And you won’t be able to look at others for the answer.  They’re all a bunch of ass-clowns, too.

All you can do is keep at it, day after day, hoping somebody somewhere sees what you see.  All you can do is show up.

Writers on the pain of hindsight in publishing: 'It's like a bad breakup – you have to move on ...

If I could tell you the number of stories and novels I’ve begun writing and not finished, we’d be here too long.  But “not finished” doesn’t mean “discarded.”  It means what it says. 

The difficulty comes when I’ve convinced myself that I’m one sort of writer (the consistent, cheerfully productive kind) as opposed the other, less glamorous (or, at least, less visible) sort—a slave to the vicissitudes of the moon or some shit, the guy with 25 ongoing projects and an inability to stop working on any of them. 

I know this about myself.  I tell myself that it’s all part of the bigger creative process.  I imagine all these incomplete pieces fermenting, cross-pollinating, mutating.  Nothing lost.  Everything in motion.  And I take refuge in those ideas and metaphors so I can keep working.  Being a writer, I tell myself a story.  But it might be bullshit self-deceit.

The Romantics smoked opium to get closer to the moon and further from the Victorian head trauma of  “productivity.”  And when my genre writer pals do highly Victorian social media posts that go, “Sigh.  Only 10 pages today,” I wonder whether they’re writing from inspiration or simply turning a lathe in some Dickensian word factory.  Productivity equals commercial success, while moonbeams are their own reward.  Still, I have word count envy no matter what I do. 

The problems of productivity and self-deceit are at the center of trying to write the hard thing.  They are the essential obstacles in making the fiction I came here to make instead of clocking in and lathing out a bunch of words to satisfy something or someone else.  I don’t want to produce that which has been assigned to me by industry, necessity, or convention.  I hate obeying.  But am I achieving anything in my disobedience?  For that matter, is achievement even the point?

When yet another publishing industry blog post comes out sounding like the vehement Alec Baldwin scene from Glengarry Glen Ross, I feel repulsed.  I don’t want to spend time creating a fucking audience platform.  Being an artist is not about “closing.”  Just doing the actual writing takes up all my energy.  I don’t want to frame pieces of my fiction as marketable units.  I want to sit in a moonbeam and make something that arises from my own unique imperatives and disposition.  I want the serendipity of inspiration.  I live for it.  And I resist the overtures of commercialism dedicated to consumption and to bullying artists into seeing themselves as part of a service industry.

Unfortunately, I also can’t avoid wanting the world to read my work and maybe give me some money so I can feed and clothe myself.  It’s terrifying sometimes.  Years ago, at an AWP conference, talking with a publisher after I put out Gravity, my first collection of stories, I felt like Nunez in “The Country of the Blind”—faced with the choice of getting what I loved if I voluntarily blinded myself or seeing clearly and climbing out of the hidden valley forever.  In the end, I chose to keep my eyes.

“If you want to get a second book out using the momentum of your first,” he said, “you need to complete the manuscript in less than a year.  More than that and people forget who you are.  You won’t be able to position it.  You’ll be starting over.”  Six years later, my second book was done.  And he was correct: from the marketing, word factory standpoint, I was starting over.  From a creative-process standpoint, those six years were predicated on the six that came before.  I wasn’t starting over.  I was writing something hard that had emerged from my ongoing creative process, something I couldn’t have written in under a year.

Finishing writing in one’s own time instead of in service to the word factory is difficult.  Discovering one’s limitations as an artist and then transcending them is very difficult.  Putting in the years is difficult.  Doing this up to and beyond age 30 is not only difficult but scary.  Nevertheless, all can be accomplished if one is willing to believe in something greater than the word count.  One says, it’s all part of my creative process and tries to calm down.  One decides not to read (or write) certain self-aggrandising Facebook posts.

Of course, there might not be a bigger process.  Maybe there is only Random House, Amazon, AWP conference ugliness, building a platform, positioning and branding, and Best American Monotony.  Maybe.  Maybe we exist in a world full of cynical anti-creative money-making ventures, cautious art, and nothing else.  It’s always possible.  The thought of it sometimes keeps me up at night, especially in those blocked periods of worrying and not writing.

It’s like reading about nuclear war or the earth dying from climate change: you have no agency, no option to mitigate the damage, soulless politicians are making horrible decisions, and there is only one way this can end.  Apocalypse.  Tragedy.  No one at the wheel.  Inhuman corporations controlling everything.  And death, ignominious and unnoticed, unless you get with the program and start churning out formulaic units. 

Capitalism wins.  It usually does.  But if there is a bigger process at work in your struggle to be an artist, it can’t have anything to do with metaphors of productivity on a factory timeline.  That is a reality you must not accept.

How does a writer know what’s real?  Is it moonbeam or production line?  Is it both?  Can it be both?  Andy Warhol, Ernest Hemingway, and David Bowie say yes.  For the rest of us, maybe not.  For every Warhol, Hemingway, and Bowie, there are multitudes who weren’t lucky enough to have their unique artistry coincide with commercial demand. 

Hugh Howey likes to write about Wool the way Elon Musk talks about launching a roadster into space: let me tell you about my unique genius and the origin of my success.  But self-publishing fame and running a car company have one thing in common that never gets discussed: they exist because they are timely.  So it is with any highly lucrative creative effort.  And that intersection has to do with luck.  Meanwhile, someone out there is no doubt making Peking opera, but they are unlikely to be buying villas on the Riviera anytime soon.  Nobody cares.  Their units don’t ship.  And yet they also have the favor of the moon.

Writers are especially predisposed to misunderstand what is real—what is objective versus just a moonbeam.  They spend a lot of time deliberately thinking in metaphors, some more useful than others.  And if they’re not paying attention to their minds, they can mistake such metaphors for objective reality (which, incidentally, has nothing to do with capitalist realism).  Over-absorption in a world of imaginative metaphors can become a source of anxiety when the non-make-believe world reaches out and reminds us that we can’t live totally in our imaginations.  Make your Peking opera, sure, but also accept that the six years you put into it mean nothing in terms of branding and positioning.

A writer will see something and begin to imagine things about it—everyone does this, but writers seem to do it with particular intensity—and before long the writer starts to feel like he or she knows it or, even worse, is it.  Then something from the world of physics and money communicates: no, you are not that.  You can’t imagine yourself to fame and fortune if you’re doing original work.  You might get lucky, yes, and I hope you (I hope I) do.  But commerce and true creativity exist in different spaces.

So I look at my 25 open projects with a bit of trepidation as the days go by.  I’m turning 46 this month.  I’ve published a lot of stories in magazines and two books.  These have been hard things.  Are they enough?  Will they ever be enough?

Don’t worry, I tell myself.  There’s bigger process at work.  There must be.

Read my latest in Splice Today: https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/jonathan-franzen-can-t-solve-climate-change-for-anyone-who-matters

 

There are many different paths to greatness, not just the ones most commonly identified by conformist culture.  As long as your basic needs are met, where you put your energy—how you pursue excellence—is completely your business.  Realizing this can be difficult and gradual.

It seems true, even if we admit that discourses (value systems) will always compete with each other for dominance.  And one of the most ruthless and rapacious, at least in the West, is that of “meritocracy.”  A meritocracy is inherently based on an assumed set of cultural values.  But you need to realize that you are free to opt out of those assumed values.  What the masses consider to be good doesn’t have to define your life.  

If you don’t accept meritocratic cultural values, merit-based judgments by those who do are irrelevant.  In other words, it is a mistake to impose the rules of a game on someone who refuses to play; though, because discourses will compete with each other, people will usually try to impose their personal values-discourse on you.  Often, they will do so because they’re not aware of alternatives.  They may not even remember the moment they chose to buy in.  And they may not understand that imposing values on someone else is an act of violence.

Remove the question of merit (and its various implications) and the locus of meaning in life shifts (possibly returns) from an external authority to the individual.  One arrives squarely within Viktor Frankl’s “Will to Meaning“—not seeking meaning / value relative to others, but exploring what is already resonant / resident in the self.  “Thy Will be Done” becomes “My Will be Done,” with all the freedoms and responsibilities arising from that shift.

It makes no difference if your private world is idiosyncratic to the point at which it would seem very strange to more common sensibilities.  As long as you’re not behaving like a hypocrite by harming or otherwise curtailing the autonomy of others, your interiority (including the way you choose to perceive the world outside your self) is completely yours.  And it doesn’t seem outrageous to conclude that this is how it should be.  If you don’t own your thoughts, can you ever own anything else?  In fact, it seems that the more you personalize your unique way of seeing and acting in the world, the stronger and more persuasive that uniqueness becomes. 

Because discourse is grounded in conflict and competition, this self-originating, self-describing narrative you are spinning can have a destabilizing effect on others, who may accuse you of being a delusional, a dreamer, someone out of touch with (what the dominant culture considers) reality.  But if it works for you, isn’t it the right thing?  Isn’t that choosing inner freedom instead of pledging fealty to ideas and to a lifestyle that was designed (or emerged) without you particularly in mind?

Walking away from a meritocracy takes a lot of courage and effort.  Because you are a social being, it can involve a certain amount of suffering, alienation, and lonesomeness.  You risk being called a deviant, being labeled as a disaffected undesirable.  Even if you don’t agree with those judgments, they will still hurt.  Hopefully, your growing curiosity about your own sui generis greatness and freedom will mitigate that pain.

You might call this the “inward path,” the “artist’s way,” or “the path beyond the campfire” which leads into dark unmapped places, where all new things wait to be discovered.

A fortune teller in Northern California looked at my palm and said, “You’re going to lead an unnaturally long life.”  Then she slid my money back across the table and added, “I feel bad for you.”  This was in 2008 or 2009.  My memory of the year is less distinct than the mournful expression on her face, how she pulled off her chintzy Madame Sofia veil, leaned back, and lit a cigarette as if to say, sorry, kid, that’s how it is.

I was supposed to pay her $30 for 30 minutes, but we sat there for almost two hours while she read my tarot cards.  By the time she got around to looking at my hands, she’d already told me three important things about my future.  I was going to travel across an ocean.  I was going to do things no one in my family had ever done.  And I was going to outlive everybody I knew.  As of 2018, two of those three predictions have come true.

It’s amazing how quickly life can change.  You leave the house every day and say, this is the job I do.  This is the market where I shop.  This is the person I live with.  These are the faces I see as I walk down my street.  This is the field with daisies nodding in the wind.  This is me.  For the moment, at least, this is me.

And if you succeed, if you’re healthy and disciplined and dedicated and proficient, if you don’t weaken and get that regular colonoscopy and save your money, you might last long enough to see all your variables change.  Then you’ll say, this is me—isn’t it?  But you won’t know how to answer.  You’ll remember the fortune teller saying, “I feel bad for you,” and you’ll understand what she meant.  You won’t know how to recognize yourself.  You’ll be a survivor.  And nobody actually ever wants that.  The last man standing is, by definition, all alone.

Some of us die and are reborn in a single lifetime.  In my four-and-a-half decades, I’ve already lived several full lives, played roles that had perfectly formed inciting incidents, climaxes, and denouements, which in earlier times or in other places could have described the total breadth and depth of a person’s lived experience.  I’m 44 years old, not too old but not that young, either.  Most days, I look 10 – 15 years younger than that.  Is that good?

I spend a lot of time lost in my own head, reading, walking around and looking at things.  And I’ve managed to orchestrate a life where I can do that.  I can become fascinated by very simple experiences, the wind in different kinds of trees, for example, or the way sound echoes on the canal beneath my bedroom window.  There’s a lot going on everywhere you look.  Sometimes, it’s hypnotic.  Sometimes, it’s beautiful.  Sometimes, it makes me want to scream for a real long time.  The world is too much.  It isn’t interested in making sense or being rational.  We’re the ones who make it matter.  But do we really?

I don’t recommend going to fortune tellers very often.  If they’re good, you’ll know too much.  If they’re bad, you’ll be wasting your money.  If they’re stupid, you’ll feel stupid.  And if they’re clever, you’ll feel even more stupid.  A fortune teller is like a bad pizza.  You paid for it.  So you’re going to eat it.  You might feel disgusted afterwards.  You might not want to talk about the experience.  You might want to put it away in the file labeled Decisions About Which I Will Feel Forever Ashamed and vow never again.  But you’ll probably be back. 

It’s how magical things work.  It’s how art works.  You go see the performance piece at the museum and it has some guy drenched in urine and suspended upside-down by fish hooks from the ceiling for hours over plaster of Paris horses having sex.  And you think, wow, that is neither pleasing to the eye nor conceptually interesting.  It’s pretentious and it’s trying way to hard to be something that isn’t boring.  You write scathing things about it on your blog.  You try to put it out of your mind because you know that every minute you spend thinking about it is a minute you’ll never get back.  But six months later, you go, I wonder what’s showing at the museum.  So do you want anchovies on your plaster horsefucking pizza this time?  Of course you do.  Want to know the future?  Just let me shuffle these cards.

I took piano lessons as a kid.  I was very serious about them.  My teacher was a professor in the music department at the university.  He was a lot like Mr. Rogers.  He radiated that improbable blend of whipsmart intelligence shrouded in simplicity and humor.  He was a remarkable man, a truly gifted person who knew how to appreciate life.  And one of the things he really appreciated was teaching children classical piano.  I learned an immense amount about how to be a decent human being just by spending time with him. 

I remember us sitting in a room with about 50 grand pianos.  He played a single note and we listened to it until it passed away.  Then we discussed its shape, its color, its temperature.  There was an entire life in that sound, a whole universe from the big bang to the last chapter of the Book of Revelation with dinosaurs and empires and prophets and an Industrial Revolution and fiber optics and climate change and insane politicians and Mad Max and the heat death of a wandering star.  All we had to do was listen.  And, like gods, we knew we could always play another note—that, in fact, we or someone of our great pantheon would play another one and would inevitably bring another cosmos into being.

Years later, far away at a different university, I’d study the Metaphysical Poets and I’d encounter Thomas Traherne’s poem, “Shadows in the Water.”  It contains these lines:

I my companions see
In you, another me.
They seeméd others, but are we;
Our second selves these shadows be.

And I’d write a half-baked undergraduate essay on the metaphysics of sound as expressed through the semiotics of Traherne’s mirror imagery.  Fabulous.  The only important thing about it was that I remembered listening to my piano teacher play that note when I read “Thus did I by the water’s brink/ Another world beneath me think” and thought: exactly.  Our second selves these shadows be.  The gods look down from Olympus and see their reflections in us as we, in turn, look and listen to our own universes encapsulated in the breadth of a single note—as above, so below.  Quod est superius est sicut quod est inferius, ad perpetranda miracula rei unius.  I’ve lived many lives, been reborn into many universes.  Godlike, I’ve brought universes into being.

All being depends on context, which is to say, on the existence (meaning) of a universe.  One of the many reasons I love Carl Sagan is that he said, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”  This is as true for the pie as it is for the pie maker—they both depend on the existence of a universe to contain them and give them meaning.  By extension, if the pie maker is the last man standing in his universe, all meaningful correlation between the existential condition of the pie and that of the universe eventually breaks down. 

In short, one can only eat one’s own apple pies in solitude for so long before one goes insane.  The existence of a pie implies both future and past in space: in the future, someone will sit in a landscape and eat the pie which the pie maker made in the past.  Because of this, if you succeed at the game of life, I will feel bad for you. 

You will outlast your universe; your apple pies will no longer be meaningful.  You will survive and will have no one for whom you can make an apple pie or anything else.  You will see the sky fall, the stars burn out, the destruction of the world.  You will be haunted by memories of times long past and people you loved and wars that no one remembers.  That is a truly horrible fate.  Do you want to win this game?  For your sake, I sincerely hope not.

All libraries contain secrets, even the most sterile and unwelcoming collections.  One thinks this must be why conservative politicians despise public libraries and continuously go after their funding.  It can be frightening to imagine that the public has access to knowledge that those in power have neither the time nor the inclination to discover. 

A library represents free information and therefore runs contrary to the ethos of authoritarian capitalism and consumerism: if something is free, it’s suspect because nothing of value can be free.  So when corporate culture and its politicians aren’t creating more poverty to criminalize, they devote a certain amount of their free time to portraying libraries as cesspools of homelessness.  People can’t be going there to learn.  The knowledge marketplace demands that information be endowed with a certain market value.

Libraries are all too often described as places where bad-smelling, mentally ill, bearded men spend their afternoon snoring with titles like Les arts de l’Asie centrale or A Catalogue of Turkish Manuscripts and Miniatures, volume III as dusty pillows.  No one sleeps in Amazon.com or on the stack of Reader’s digests and Wall Street Journals in front of the local newsstand.  And that’s how conservative America likes it: if you’re not going to buy anything, please go away and die somewhere discreet.  And maybe take The History and Development of Ancient Chinese Architecture with you.  No one wants to buy that.

But I, for one, find unwashed old men in libraries reassuring if not a little endearing.  Just as when it rains, I take solace in the regularity of storm clouds, when I hear that tell-tale snoring, I enjoy the thought that some vet named Burt will be sitting around the corner in the Dewey 930s, pretending to read a text in Arcadocypriot Greek when the librarian passes by.  If you look closely, you might notice that the book is upside-down.  But you won’t look that closely.

At the end of the day, when one of the librarians picks up the book to reshelve it, she’ll no doubt experience a sense of wonder: someone finally came in search of that obscure Peloponnesian dialect—and casually to the extent that the person didn’t even feel the need to check the book out!  The possibility that it was merely being used as a sad old man’s headrest would be too cynical for a true librarian to entertain, at least straight away.  Instead, she’d prefer to believe that someone walked in determined to learn more about the world of pre-Dorian Cyprus.  And that is why true librarians are wonderful people (people filled with wonder).  But, as with anything else in this late age of revenge politics, throwback Enlightenment scientism, and YA fiction for adults, true anything is rare.

Still, libraries, like museums, are meant to preserve such rarities.  So it makes sense that a library might contain hidden practitioners of true arts the same way it secrets knowledge away from the broadcloth-and-pearl-wearing delinquents currently ruining the United States and demeaning the arts and sciences of the West.  Maybe Burt was (is) a sculptor.  Maybe the gentleman with the Fu Manchu and the Army surplus jacket at that table in the corner has a masters in historical musicology.  Maybe the toothless wonder currently snoring into a puddle of drool once wrote a dissertation on the rejection of evidentialism in religious epistemology.  You never know. 

Maybe a star seen through a library window at midnight is actually a symmetrical angel—too distant to be clearly perceived in its full geometry.  Yet, if viewed from within a dark library with one’s feet in the proper position while speaking the right Arcadocypriotic line from Pausanias’ Description of Greece, one might have a rare insight into stars and angels.  One might even begin to comprehend the range of symmetrical possibilities that converge on a functioning library card: that a library is a city of doors, that it gratefully accepts the snores of sleeping homeless men the way the hills accept the rain, and that it is, above all else, an infinite palace of vaults and ritual chambers in which one finds all the angels, devils, and true adepts resident in the human imagination.

How many people will come along with the necessary Arcadocypriotic, having read the Pausanias’ prescribed ancient manuscript (even right-side-up in translation), and capable of accessing the library at midnight in order to stand by the dark window on the appropriate night and have this mysterious realization?  Very few.  This is how libraries veil their secrets.  The information is available, but you have to do the work of discovering it.  And then you have to engage with it beyond merely using the book as a headrest.  The librarian believes in you.

If you succeed in this, unlike Betsy DeVos, you may attain a level of knowledge and conversation with the deeper mysteries of the library and what it represents; though, you may not reacquire your teeth or find a place to sleep after closing hours.  But you will grasp the golden chain of true insight that has come down, unbroken, through the hands of countless artists, scholars, monks, philosophers, scientists, and mystics—the other end of which may be held by Venus or may disappear in the source of all books, a cloud of unknowing silence which nothing but silence can express.

Looking at photos of relatives from the early 20th century, I’m struck by how incredibly normal they look, how I could walk down any street and see the same faces.  Such an insight comes easily since I live near the locus of my ancestral lines, but I think it’s a realization one could have anywhere.  Stare into the faces of passers by and you will see many physical and psychological reflections of yourself, as if the genetic mirror were shattered, replicating the same fate, the same consequences, the same inner struggles across continents and generations. 

Someone once said that all wars are the same war, that all short stories are just one long story, and that all people—no matter how diverse or alien they may seem on the surface—are actually one life and one humanity engaged in one struggle playing out simultaneously in every heart and mind.  Being a gifted dancer, Michael Jackson once put it like this: “Consciousness expresses itself through creation. This world we live in is the dance of the Creator. Dancers come and go in the twinkling of an eye but the dance lives on.” 

This is the 2000-year-old concept of Nataraja, the image of Shiva as the cosmic dancer who dispels illusion and reveals a higher truth.  As part of the dance of time and space, forms rise and fall—in the microcosm of the individual mind and in the macrocosm of all creation—but the dance itself, the maelstrom of change, remains constant as an expression of something else, something beyond the perception of transient things.  The ancient sages and priests of the Madhya Pradesh and Kashmir regions first portrayed Shiva this way around 6 C.E. in temple statues and paintings, depicting a true, eternal, changeless Self that is simultaneously immanent in every person and transcendent in the ubiquitous I AM.

Ram Dass, in Polishing the Mirror, expresses this when he writes, “The only thing you really ever have to offer another person is your own state of being.”  Or whatever you offer to others, you are also confirming and offering as part of yourself.  This posits an equals sign between people, not an arrow, a plus, or a minus.  Is there anything new under the sun?  Ecclesiastes says no.  Read enough literature and I think most people will be inclined to agree: we find meaning in another because that meaning resonates in ourselves.  Yeats wrote that ultimately it is not possible to distinguish the dancer from the dance.  Repair the shattered mirror, the broken and limited perception of others that sees them as irreparably isolated from us, and a higher octave of meaning is revealed.  We are isolate.  We are also one.  And, in our ultimate oneness, “we” and “are” and “one” cease to have any meaning and the truth of existence becomes evident.

Pay attention to your ancestors, to their lives, to the things they did and said.  See yourself in them as one being.  Then see yourself in others, in everything.  Look past the superficial trivia that limits your understanding and obscures the truth of the matter: assumptions about linear progress (originally post-Enlightenment / Victorian but now, with our current STEM fetishism, solidly reductive materialist and technocratic) depend on an unexamined and distracted mind.  There is no new thing under the sun in any meaningful sense.  The are only forms, rising and falling, being born and dying. 

Start paying attention to this.  Start asking, Who am I?  Start asking, Who is it that asks, “Who am I?”  Go deep, beyond the forms.  You are not those things.  Get to the point where you can perceive the dance always taking place, the energy of creation itself, which is expressed as movement, as change.  This is also synonymous with the highest, emptiest, most profound form of awareness.  That is what we are.

“After negating all of the above-mentioned as ‘not this’, ‘not this’, Awareness alone remains – that I am.” – Ramana Maharshi

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

Peril Jack is political art. But what does political art mean? Come find out.

Source: Political Art | Kurt Cole Eidsvig

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

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

Philosopher with an Open Book by Salomon Coninck (1645)

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

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

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

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

The ivory tower covered in camouflage.

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

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

Enter: John, who also wanted to matter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Green Muse by Albert Maignan (1895)

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

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

Listen. And seek the mysteries.

It was the beginning of a time when it was almost as if the novel itself didn’t matter anymore. Publishing a shiny booklike object was simply an excuse for parties and glamour and goodlooking authors reading finely honed minimalism to students who would listen rapt with slack­jawed admiration, thinking, I could do that, I could be them. But of course if you weren’t photogenic enough, the sad truth was you couldn’t. – Bret Easton Ellis

John Berryman is supposed to have said that a writer never knows if he’s any good. He asks himself this throughout his life and dies without a satisfactory answer—no matter what prizes, money, publications, or objects of social approval have been tossed his way. It’s easy to conclude that this is just an egotistical hangup for celebrities with enough time and money to fish for validation. Am I good? Tell me. Really? Tell me again. But what Berryman didn’t say was that these doubts seem to come to every person in every field. And insofar as nothing in this world is ever finished or static, such questions must always remain open.

In fact, most things a writer may ask herself about writing (usually in a fallow time when she isn’t writing and feels hollow and dead inside) have no real answers. There is no objective standard for writerly success. You’re never going to know, quoth Berryman. Perhaps because of this, the path of a developing writer is fraught will all kinds of psychological pitfalls, uncertainties which emerge in the space between creation and judgment—writing the thing and then deciding whether it’s worthy.

Consider the luminous transcendent moment when Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for literature. Let’s be honest: she fucking deserved it as well as anybody else. Do you mean to tell me she isn’t a skilled writer? That she hasn’t led the life? That she doesn’t deserve to get paid? Sure, the Nobel system is a politicized, public relations hype-sandwich. In that, it’s no different than the Pulitzer, the MacArthur Genius Grant, the Stegner, or any of the other smaller awards that function as patronage for writers.

Still, I had to laugh when Bret Easton Ellis—who is also great but very different—commented that “Alice Munro was always an overrated writer and now that she’s won The Nobel she always will be. The Nobel is a joke and has been for ages.” After the inevitable social media backlash, he added, “The sentimental hatred for me has made me want to re-read Munro, who I never really got, because now I feel like I’ve beaten-up Santa Claus.” That one kept me laughing for about a week. But the truth is a lot simpler than whether or not Ellis beat up Father Christmas: Munro might not be his cup of tea. But nobody can say definitively that she is “completely overrated” because nobody actually knows. Not even, I will venture to say, Alice.

Young writers (in years and / or in terms of artistic development) especially try to fill this gap with metrics designed to quantify success and banish their excruciating doubts. But most writers have to fight this battle, some throughout their entire careers. Over the course of many years in the writing life, one sees it all:

  • the hack machine who puts out a formulaic novel every three months like clockwork and points to this as the ultimate sign of achievement;
  • the bitter self-publisher, who has completely dismissed the Manhattan book industry as a hive of scum and villainy, and who now only writes direct-to-Lulu ebooks because nothing else matters anymore;
  • the one who can tell you any any minute of the day or night how much money his books are making and exactly why other writers are so jealous of his commercial prowess;
  • the defensive YA-ist (Young Adulterer? Young Adulterator?), who started out trying to be Pam Houston but after the first orgy of rejections turned to Harry Potter the way an abused housewife turns to brandy—it takes the edge off in the middle of the day, helps her convince herself that writing about fairy children with super powers is her true calling, and makes it possible for her to stop experiencing those week-long fugues of black existential dread in which she used to compare herself to Pam;
  • the lost soul in the MFA program, trying desperately to clone herself into Alice Munro or Donna Tartt or Jonathan Foer or Gary Shteyngart or whoever else is currently receiving the publishing industry’s golden shower du jour (Look how closely I can imitate X! Can I get a cookie? Do you love me? Why won’t anyone love me? You promised me a cookie. Where’s my cookie! I’ll be over there, cutting myself, until you bring me my cookie.);
  • the lost soul after the MFA program, trying desperately to justify himself to his drunk brother-in-law at Christmas dinner by mentioning all his literary journal publications (I just put a story in Bumfuck Quarterly! It’s my fifteenth publication! And fuck you, you philistine.);
  • the lost soul who got the two-book deal early on, enabling her to worm her way into a tenure track position at a small liberal arts college, and who behaves outwardly as if this validates every word she has written and will ever write (but who continually asks, Is this it? when she’s not buying cases of gin at the package store because maybe Gilbey’s is the only answer);
  • others, many and various.

I know. I’m being cruel. Although cruelty does come standard with the writing life, these are stereotypes and we all have a little of this inside us.  So pointing fingers is a bit hypocritical.  Call it the pathology of trying to be a writer in a system that presents itself as a meritocracy but functions via medieval power games and nepotism. And we can be as angry as we want. We can shake our little fists at the heavens or spend hours upbraiding ourselves in the mirror. But we’re never going to know how to be good. We’re only ever going to know that we want to be.

 

  1. You don’t need to be famous to be an artist. You just need to make art.
  2. You don’t need to make art in any particular style or volume or at any particular rate. These considerations come from industries interested in art as a product that can be sold, irrespective and ignorant of the creative process. Such considerations can often be destructive and should be understood by the artist, then carefully set aside.
  3. You do need to share your art with others because doing so magnifies it. Having an audience, no matter how limited, transforms your work in the minds of others. The art you make should grow beyond you, transcending the boundaries of your personal subjectivity. People are good for art. By offering your art to people, they become part of it and it becomes part of them. 
  4. You do need to have a day job. Engage with the world around you and do not allow yourself to stagnate. It’s good to have mundane concerns like employment, stability, friends, and family. What you do when you’re not making art is less important than the fact that you are out there, living, doing it. So find something you like and try getting good at it for a while. An artist needs to live a human life in order to understand human experience. You are human.  Come down from the attic.
  5. You do need to control time and space.  You are also divine.  Time could be as short as an hour a day as long as it is consistently available. Space could be a small as a closet as long as it is consistently available. Go back to the attic.
  6. You do need to keep learning and changing. Inspiration depends on it. Eschew formulaic thinking and comfortable templates. Give yourself increasingly ambitious assignments. Integrate everything you learn into new projects. This is how you develop.  Stagnation is death.
  7. You don’t need to make a living on your art in order to feel like you’re really an artist. Every artist has an identity problem and there will always be someone telling you to quit. People with the fortitude to develop themselves creatively often aggravate those too scared to take the first step. And there are always more of the latter than the former.
  8. You don’t need to talk about your ongoing project with friends and family. Doing so can make otherwise good people into passive-aggressive antagonists. Better to let them read the finished product and criticize you behind your back. Your life will be simpler and you will still be able to attend the family reunion without getting drunk first.
  9. You do need to realize that art is more than just cleverness and craftsmanship. Consider this statement and see how you feel about it: the creative process is the act of recognizing the limitlessness of the psyche in the sense that all is mind and that a work of art is an embodiment of that totality in space and time.

No matter how dreadful their work may seem, keep these things in mind before you dismiss them as artists:

  1. You may not understand their creative project. (You may not be the best audience member / reader / consumer of their work.)

  2. They may be developing in a way that isn’t obvious.

  3. Their work may be in response to something you don’t know about / don’t understand.

  4. Their work may take some time to appreciate. (Not a bad thing at all.)

  5. They may have deliberately violated artistic conventions and you can’t see it yet.

  6. They may be about to produce something else that you will like. Or maybe they already did.

  7. The piece / performance in question might be functioning as a stepping stone or a link in a much longer series of pieces. How deeply have you studied this person’s work?

  8. The context of the work may be interfering with how you receive the work.

  9. Your emotional / aesthetic background may be interfering with how you receive the work.

  10. You may see the work differently if you come back to it later (after a sandwich and a nap).

We can’t know what waits to be born from the hearts and minds of our fellow humans. All we can do is try to understand what we experience with our senses, keeping in mind that to respond to creative work is to participate in its existence (and, by extension, its creation). This carries a lot of responsibility above and beyond casual momentary consumption. As such, it is best to withhold judgment until we have thought about the work for a while—because we are neither infallible nor prescient. And if we are positioned to pass judgment on perceived flaws in the work, let us instead talk sincerely about what the work is doing right, about what it inspires in us, and about what we would like to see happen next.

Don’t buy into the romantic assumption that being a creative artist is easy for those who are truly talented and meant to do it.  This is a materialistic commercial lie.  Something I believe: art is part of being human and must therefore be available to everyone.  And those who do it right never find it easy; though, the publishing industry, for example, may find it easier to sell certain books if readers believe that the writers being published are like idiot savants.

Everyone has an aptitude for some kind of creative process.  Finding out what it is means finding out more of what it means to be human and alive.  Not investigating this firsthand means voluntarily accepting an impersonal, commercially interested assumption about one’s creative potential—some external story about you imagined and written by someone who doesn’t even know you.  It’s an affront to everything unique and valuable in the individual self.

Moreover, it elevates money over art, which is fundamentally disconnected from the reasons we make art in the first place.  This is essentially stupid.  Therefore, we need to appreciate art.  We should create it and consume it, but we should not assume that it is something  mysterious, selective, elite, or random.  It is better to think of artistic ability as an attainment, a product of self-cultivation that uses materials we already have.  And our job is to understand it, interact with it, develop it, and teach this praxis to others.  Our job is not to worship those being held up to us as a select, anointed group.  Our job is to understand how commerce reacts with art and then to set all that aside so we can do our own work.

1. Bad Juju

My eyes were opened and I understood.

Higgins Street Bridge

“I can tell you one thing,” said Louie, taking a drag on his cigarette and leaning back in his chair, “he steps over the line again and we’ll have words.”

“You won’t do anything of the sort. Don’t be ridiculous,” said Burt.

“I’ll kill the motherfucker. Got an ice-pick right in my trunk.”

“Kill a professor and you’ll go straight to the chair,” I said. “They’ll pump you so full of voltage you’ll be shitting the Bozeman power grid.”

Louie smiled at that, catlike, squinting at me through his smoke cloud. He was wiry, not an ounce of fat on him, with a working-outside-everyday tan, veins and muscles in clear relief.

“There’s no escaping it,” Burt said. “Our program’s sick. We have no future. If people are killing themselves—I mean we’re all killing ourselves if you really think about it. But this whole thing with Theresa Miles. I can’t get over the thought that Jason’s somehow behind it.”

“We shouldn’t blame Jason for all the evil in the world,” I said, checking my pulse under the table. “He’s an asshole. But he didn’t tell her to cut her wrists. She did that on her own.”

“He’s an asshole on the meter. You’ll see if I take his shit much longer.” Louie frowned and stubbed out his cigarette. Louie had dreads that he tucked into his collar. In the spring, he taught composition in a T-shirt and one eventually saw that his torso was completely covered with Chinese dragons, stars, portraits of his family, words in Greek cursive, clouds, Fraktur lines from Rilke. Louie didn’t look like a graduate student. And I believed he had probably done some deeply perverse things in his short life. But killing somebody? Louie wrote poetry.

Shelly, the Wiccan priestess, would have been able to read my ham sandwich like a palm. She’d open up the bread, squint, and tell me all about how my ordering it stemmed from a long line of causes, magnetic thoughts, manifestations, astral translocations. “You don’t care about yourself,” she’d say. “Look at this ham. You have a death wish. There’s a shadow in your aura.” Then she’d adjust her polkadotted doo-rag and smile at me across the manicure table.

2. Midnight in Paris

Bad ham and ice-picks: you don’t look into a sandwich you’ve bought in a bar when having a life-changing nervous breakdown. And you don’t then ask creative writers to explain the realization to you—even if you are also a creative writer and already possess their unique lexicon of neurotic self-obsessions, vanities, and cynicisms—especially writers with MFAs, especially graduate students trying to get MFAs, especially Burt and Louie.

The shadow in my aura must have been embarassingly obvious. I had already made 2 mistakes in this sad life. Transfigured by a radical shift in consciousness brought on by low-quality pork and an acceptance of the transcendent metaphysical principle binding all things together, I violated the Sandwich Rule and the Don’t Ask Creative Writers Anything Important Rule almost simultaneously. I said: “I think I’m to blame for every single bad thing in my life. What do you think about that? It’s called the Law of Attraction.” Burt probably already believed this about himself due to what he often referred to as his “destructive Jewish upbringing.” But making it overt and tangible, dragging it into the light of immediate consciousness, had crossed into his and Louie’s sense of the forbidden in a very bad way.

Burt flashed me a sideways look and then spoke into his beer. “You’ve been hanging out with that new age girl at the nail place, right?”

“Shelly has nothing to do with this,” I lied. “This is straight metaphysics.”

“What if the Wiccans have the answer?” said Louie. “What if gods and goddesses live in trees and the garden gnome on my front lawn has feelings?”

“I’m a non-practicing Catholic,” I said. “You’re pretty intolerant for someone with dreadlocks.”

“Yep. And I’m a vegetarian. And I will now take a leak.”

Louie got up and made for the restroom. When he was out of earshot, Burt put his hand on my arm and said, “Mike, I really do think you need to get some help before things get worse.”

“I need to go home and write,” I lied.

Angry dread. Burt looked at me as if I’d said I planned to find him later and cut his throat. When did writing fiction become so terrifying? Burt couldn’t write anymore and neither could I. Two years of MFA vitriol had stopped most of us in the program from doing anything but recycling old work. And drugs, both legal and otherwise, were how most of us got through. Only Louie seemed to be going strong, publishing poems and stories on a regular basis.

“Don’t push it,” Burt said. “Remember the hotline.”

I said I’d keep it in mind as if the idea were ridiculous, even though, to be honest, I’d had certain thoughts of my own lately, certain pleasing fantasies of self-destruction, bombs going off, being instantly vaporized in an electrical field, o.d.ing on something gentle and mothersweet, gas leaks, getting struck by an errant cement mixer—one minute my old wretched self, the next free and clear forever.

Everyone in my graduate program was having these thoughts; though most would only admit it while in the depths of a drunk in the wee hours on someone else’s sofa or to the person with whom they were was sleeping, who’d then spread the knowledge of it around as much as possible after the inevitable breakup. Such was graduate school. Most of it originated in the almost universal belief that there were no academic jobs forthcoming after graduation; in the prospect of being broke forever; and in a fat position as a UPS driver if you were lucky. Maybe I’d only just begun to have these thoughts now, at the end of my program, because I’d had other jobs before graduate school and wasn’t afraid of UPS heaven. I wasn’t delicate. I could rake coals in hell if I had to. What scared me was the feeling that raking coals in hell was something I wanted on some level in order to prove I was different from my fragile, neurotic colleagues.  Maybe.

Louie came back and we walked out front. I said good-bye and we went in separate directions. Half a block away, I looked back at Burt. He was hugging himself in the street light, staring at the snow. I’d been so immersed in my thoughts that all I’d wanted was not letting Burt intrude. He’d been saying something to us earlier about an editing job, but I hadn’t cared to listen. A few blocks later, I threw the sandwich into a snow bank. In May, it would emerge, a thawed and monstrous ham-thing in the sun. And Burt would likely emerge the same way a few days hence, expecting me to know all about what he’d been saying, expecting me to be ready for something, and wounded when I had no idea what he was talking about.

Then again, I thought about all the metaphysical discussions I’d had with Priestess Shelly those nights I’d visited her at Christine’s, maintaining rigid and neigh-flawless eye discipline when she’d lean toward me over her coffee and say something extra deep about the goddess. I wondered if I would forget to think of Burt and therefore temporarily negate his existence. Or the sandwich—blinking straight out of creation when the only mind holding its manifestation ceased to be mindful. Lord knows, I wouldn’t forget Shelly. I beat the cold out of my hands and sighed.

Midnight in Missoula with too much snow, sudden and unkind on the head of the nocturnal graduate student outside his natural habitat. Somber and half-blind from flurries, he makes his way slowly toward the safety of his hole, where he can curl up beside his ancient space heater until morning. He is an odd, fitful creature. And perhaps, we can sympathize with the rare quality of his suffering, bumped up the academic chain of being like some proto-sloth in need of mutation—not quite ready for the tree branch, but not quite capable of slumming it any longer with the other sloths back in California who’d gone straight from high school to Marines to sales. Now they all owned Escalades. And our sad friend slishing his way home has had trouble with the bus—his ability to teach a wicked freshman comp class and his grasp of ageless metaphysical wisdom notwithstanding.

While I walked, I considered my power to unthink Burt, the tragedy of the short-necked giraffe, and all the good things Hemingway said about being broke and hungry in Paris. As long as one didn’t indulge in too much natural selection with an extension cord out the window of one’s attic room, one might actually come to think of Missoula as the Paris of the northwest. Life was beautiful. These were the best of times.

3. Hair & Nails: the Clergy Holds Forth

“I need to make a confession,” I said to her.

“The Goddess don’t care about confessing.”

“Yeah, but I’m a former Catholic.”

“What about all that ‘I want to be a Wiccan stuff?’ The Goddess don’t care about Catholics.”

“I think of myself as a post-Catholic pre-Wiccan.”

“No such thing.”

“Yes such thing. You said it yourself: the Goddess doesn’t care. So the field’s wide open.”

“I never heard of a post-Catholic Wiccan.”

“Well, I’d like some tolerance, please.”

4. An Occurrence at Higgins Street Bridge

In the second year of our MFA, everyone started to write their own eulogies.  We did it reflexively.  Because I didn’t own a car, I did it while walking across town.  Despair kept me warm.

Snowflakes as thick as feathers, falling the way feathers fall, thick bright globes of them around headlights.  They came down in silent brocades over the yellow window panes of houses, black branches shadow-to-shadow across the light.  The hiss of passing cars faded up Higgins Street and over the iron bridge that was slick black during the day, the sides of its enormous bolts brushed with orange rust.  At night, Higgins Street Bridge was little more than an isthmus of ice over darkness, translucent stalactites fanged from its hanger cables.  Below it, the Clark had turned a solid murky green and held deformed bicycles and grocery carts, driftwood, bags of trash.  During the day, you could see the spokes and edges sticking up from the ice or slightly below the surface, all frozen in stasis until the spring.

I stopped halfway across.  My heart began beating fast and wouldn’t stop.  I tried breathing deeply.  Melatonin, whiskey, Valerian root for ease-downs in the middle of the day—none of it was working the way it used to.  My hands shook almost all the time now.  I couldn’t hold them flat in the air without my whole body vibrating.  And I’d begun to stutter at times, missing the right word, struggling to find it in the middle of a conversation.  There were moments of extreme paranoia.  I wasn’t sleeping.  Instead of writing, I read obsessively about nervous breakdowns, schizophrenia, depression, chronic insomnia.  I fit all the criteria.  It was possible that I was either bipolar with multiple personalities and recurring psychotic breaks or I was just stressed out.  Spending time with Burt and Louie didn’t help.

Burt and Louie had been thinking bad. So had I. And the Universal Law of Attraction had brought it to me without exception, relief, exit, or temporary refuge. I realized I was responsible for the deficiencies of my sandwiches. And I took such responsibility with a deep and terrible gravity that made me feel horrible about myself. I was responsible for the snow that had seeped into my shoes and wet my socks, for Burt and Louie, for stinking Amvets, for the semester left of my stinking MFA, for my perpetual lusts that went perpetually unsatisfied, for my mediocre thesis, for my general inability to write and for the particular exceptions when I did. The Universal Law of Attraction. I was even responsible for that. Or, at least, for my present understanding of it, which amounted to the same thing as far as I was concerned.

Not doing yourself in was key. The city and the greater Bitterroot Valley area now had a suicide hotline staffed around the clock. Many of them were MFAs trying to make enough money to supplement their miniature teaching stipends, and it was a job that allowed one to read books while on duty. Perfect. A few months after Theresa Miles drank too much one night and cut her wrists in her bathtub, Burt passed out business cards with Don’t Do Something You’ll Regret on one side, and the hotline number on the other. His way of dealing.

While she was in the hospital, open sarcasm became unfashionable for a time. But as soon as everyone heard she hadn’t died, the snide jokes began. The whole thing seemed to please her fellow poetry students the most. She’d come from an ivy background, was highly talented, already published, and attractive—a recipe for instant resentment if ever there was one. Burt might have had a shrine to Theresa Miles in his basement. I didn’t really want to know. But, of course, I reminded myself, if I did someday go in there and see her picture on a saffron-shrouded altar strewn with garlands and incense, I would have been the one who’d manifested that into my own experience. Along with the basement. Along with Theresa—and Burt.

5. The Theological Discourse Continueth, Selah

“The Catholics are the ones who burned witches at the stake.”

“Nope. Those were the Calvinists. Name one witch-burning Catholic. The Pope wouldn’t burn a witch.”

“How do you know? Have you seen him? Have you actually looked at the Pope? He scares the living shit out of me.”

“He’s got a lot on his plate.”

“People said that about George W. Bush, if you remember. People said, ‘Bush is kind of stupid,’ and then somebody would be, like, ‘Yeah, but he’s got a lot on his plate.’ Still fucked up the country though, didn’t he.”

“Bad comparison. The Pope is goddamn smart. He speaks about 10 languages.”

“If all I had to do was bless gold crosses and ride around in the Vatican all day, I’d know ten languages, too.”

“Shelly, I need to make a confession.”

“I have my doubts about you. You eat too much red meat. And you’re a fucking Catholic.”

“Maybe so, but you’re a priestess, and I’m in need of the clergy.”

“Bitch please.”

6. Brokeback Burton

I stood on the bridge so long, that Burt left Amvets to find me.

“Shit,” he said. “I can’t breathe. I think I need some air.”

I hadn’t seen him walk up to me through the snow.  “Jesus fucking Christ,” I said.  I must have seemed feverish at that point. I might have spoken too forcefully. “I’m the constant. Everything else is the variable, Burt. If I’ve got a problem, it’s me. But don’t go fucking sneaking up on me.”

Amvets_Missoula

Burt had brought me another poison sandwich from the bar.  He handed it to me wrapped in a greasy piece of cellophane.  Then he took out his inhaler, but there was nothing left in it. “I’ve got a problem,” he said. “I can’t breathe.” He did the calming exercise he’d learned in therapy, his palms pressed against his chest.

I took a bite of the sandwich, immediately regretting it but reminding myself that there was no use for regret when everything in life, positive, negative, animal, vegetable, mineral, had, according to universal law, been drawn to me by my wanting it nor not wanting it on some level. This was the teaching of my foil and muse: 23-year-old Wiccan priestess Shelly Montgomery, anthropology major and part-time beautician at Christine’s Hair and Nails. And this could be the story of a certain kind of wanting. Me of her. Her of an unnamed female deity. And of the big, whirling empty we’d all unearthed at the center of MFA wasteland. Such was my curious state, one in which I would become mewed up in these wants—living a nocturnal existence for 2 years in Missoula, Montana, Big Sky Country, where the sky would come to seem entirely too big, wholly my creation, hostile, and unwilling to let me go.

“I’m allergic to this place,” said Burt.

To the place, I wanted to say, or to the thought that perhaps the universe was not, after all, conspiring to bury us under a pile of misery; that perhaps Burt was the sole origin of his own angst, his own impending unemployability after grad. school, his own inability to hold a conversation with a member of the opposite sex even though he was almost 34 and neither an amputee nor diseased. I wanted to shake him like the child you suddenly hate for being sickly, hating yourself at the same time for being so small. I wanted to tell him that if he was allergic, he was to blame. But I just stared at his gasping and swallowing while I took bites of chemical sandwich. The snow came down around us as walked back to Amvets.

Warmth and a Pabst can fix anything.  After a few minutes of silence and worried looks from the mute bartender across the room, Burt’s calming breaths began to help. He could suddenly breathe without wheezing, mucus draining, anaphylaxis creeping back into the oracular murk of his extremely thin, pale body. He hawked into a napkin and gave me a weak smile.

“Maybe I should leave Montana,” I said. “I’m not learning anything. I’m not doing anything of value whatsoever. And it is my fault. I’m responsible.”

Burt shook his head, coughed. “We’ve got one semester to go. Don’t be in such a hurry to get back into retail.”

But I had no real intention of working some shit job after my MFA, which was precisely what Burt couldn’t understand. After 30 minutes of listening to Patsy Cline on the sound system, we walked back out so Burt could breathe air that didn’t smell like cigarettes and old beer. It was a cold night, snow in the streets, Christmas break in a week.

I’d brought the sandwich with me, which was absurd—the sandwich itself, of course, but standing there, gesturing with it more so. And I didn’t notice because I felt I had realigned my perceptions, had come stumbling painfully, maybe even mistakenly, into what might have been a perfect understanding of this impossible life. I was wrong. But, at the time, I began to feel like I might be a genius.

Burt hugged himself, shin-deep in  snow. “We should go somewhere else, get drunk.”

By “somewhere else,” he meant we should go to Missoula’s other gay bar, Lilac. When Amvets wasn’t a gay bar, it was empty or, very occasionally, filled with tuque-wearing, geriatric vets still so pissed off at society for permitting WWII and Vietnam that they’d trot out the Gadsden flag, the rainbow flag, the old Soviet flag, the FARC flag of Subcomandante Marcos and red posters of Che and Mao in response to any public event whatsoever. In their anger, they were one of the few tolerant groups in town, despising everyone equally.

As far as I knew, none of them were gay. And as far as I knew, neither Burt nor I was gay. But gay was okay at Amvets and Lilac, where cowboys, bat-wielding fundamentalists, angry Flathead Indians down from the rez, Klansmen, and hormonal fraternity brothers generally feared to tread—the only bars where Burt wouldn’t immediately have anxiety-fueled bouts of anaphylaxis urticaria with hypotension and bronchospasms.

“I think I want to go home,” I said, envisioning electron magnets and asteroid fields, weird gravitational anomalies pulling all the space junk of creation to me with every manifesting thought. The snow pressed beneath my shoes contained worlds within worlds, blindly drawn to me by my wanting, on some level, for them to exist. I had to guard my mind.

Ethically, I felt responsible for controlling all possible manifestations of thought in order to prevent, say, an Astraeus 757 from falling out of the sky and atomizing downtown, epidemics of flesh-eating bacilli, fiery mushroom clouds, all the awful things regularly in my head. These thoughts terrified me because they seemed so much more likely now that I understood how the Universal Law of Attraction made me universally accountable.

I looked at Burt, who was clearly disappointed that we wouldn’t be sitting in the corner of Lilac for 2 more hours, bitching about our graduate program and drinking whiskey. I wanted to apologize for manifesting him in my reality as such a morose, narcissistic fuck. But then who was worse? I was the one seriously considering that I could make planes fall from the sky with my thoughts.

7. The Reports of My Death have been Appropriately Exaggerated

Why in the world would I manifest all that when all I really wanted to manifest was employment, sun, and a Wiccan priestess to share it with? I had a headache (for which I knew I was responsible) that would probably last the whole long, cold walk back to my room above the garage.

For people like Burt and me, there might not have been a lonelier place in the world than Missoula in winter—his family mostly dead except for a distant uncle and a maternal grandmother he never saw, and mine mostly away in California with no money to go see them and an awkward call every couple weeks. If everyone must pass through a period of estrangement from the light, life, and love of childhood, my graduate degree had become the far promontory of that experience for me—an estrangement into ice and the persistent sense of being involved with a group of people focused solely on fear of the future and distrust of the present.

A few days before I left Burt in front of Amvets, the director of my thesis, who I will call Jason, told me that the best thing about my stories were that he’d been able to get through them quickly.

“I know you want this life, Davis,” he’d said, my story manuscripts in a pile on the floor by his desk, “but you’re not gonna get it.”

Wanting. Not wanting. Jason’s knowing smile.

He’d been harder on Burt, whose chain smoking, drinking, and oxytocin use increased exponentially after Jason threw his thesis down the hallway. Apparently, Burt had argued with him about the validity of magical realism, feeling brave because he’d just published a story in which a man became a cloud. Now Burt was becoming a cloud, dissipating, layer-by-layer, into progressively more vaporous forms.

I, too, began a descent of sorts, a series of self-transformations dedicated to the possibility that moving back to California and getting a service job—which, according to Jason, made sense, given my level of writing talent—was not my only option.

I became adversarial in everything I did. I joined a boxing gym for a few months and convinced everyone there that I had severe emotional problems when I’d stay late 3 times a week to hit the heavy bag like I was trying to kill it. No one wanted to train with me after I accidentally broke my partner’s ribs and put him in St. Patrick’s for a week. When I finally blew my left rotator cuff, I couldn’t lift my arm for a while and I didn’t bother going back. I was looking for answers, to what I wasn’t sure—to the meaning of life, to the key to my predicament.

My self-eulogizing grew progressively melodramatic and resentful.  I stood outside in lightning storms and took fifteen-hour walks through heavy snowfalls in which I could barely see, the sound of my breath in my ears. I tried Buddhism for a few days. I tried going back to the Catholicism I’d abandoned as a kid and wound up writing angry letters to Sister Carmel, my second grade teacher. I got a lot of mileage from Aurelius’ Meditations, Boethius, Nietzsche, and Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, but there weren’t any true answers—only fragments of answers, entertaining ideas, temporary escapes.

By the time Burt, in our late night Amvets bitch sessions, got around to talking about “the sheer meaningless shit of life,” I’d usually had enough liquor to start agreeing with him. It was as if by convincing me, he could convince himself. And, by convincing himself, he could finally abandon all hope, which was freeing.

But you don’t get free for long by abandoning all hope. Something brings you back. And you don’t get free from Wiccan fu or the Universal Law of Attraction, despite how much or how little of it you might have felt for a certain anthropology student who knew magic and manicures. She’d said she wanted to paint my nails purple.  Ah, purple nails.  What might have happened had I gone along with that?

Welcome . . .

I write fiction and nonfiction for magazines, work as a freelance writer / editor / journalist, and teach composition and fiction writing.

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

— Pope Francis, 5 June 20

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

— Vladimir Bukovsky

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

― Charles Bukowski, Factotum

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

— Madeleine Chapsal