Tag Archives: Creative Writing

2010

First, a Sincere Declaration of Thanks

I’ve spent most of my life running in circles looking for something authentic, then waiting for permission to explore it, and harshly criticizing myself when I didn’t get that permission.  Maybe other people have different experiences, but this has been mine, my personal through-line from childhood to the present.  So I try to be as sincere as possible when I write about my frustrations and failures.  Because what else can I do?  While it’s true that sincerity doesn’t make you friends, at least it makes you the right sort of enemies.  I imagine this blog post will do more of that.

Still, I try to avoid self-pity and, because of this, I usually take a long time to form opinions about what I’ve done or failed to do and how others have reacted.  I ruminate.  I turn things over, trying to see past faulty assumptions, convenient rationalizations, and other self-serving anodynes.  Most people probably do this to some extent, but I think I do it more.  Sometimes, it works.  Other times, what I took for a true perception, for reality, eventually dissolves into just another subjective field, just another corridor of the maze that I have come to think of as my life.  In a maze, you never know what the next twist will bring.  Usually, it brings another twist.

With this in mind, I should begin by saying that in 2010 I came very close to ending my life.  This essay is about that time, but it’s not just about depression and not really about suicide.  It’s not a success narrative where I write about how I overcame great difficulties and am now nearing perfectibility.  It’s not about taking revenge on others through a misguided petty hit piece.  And it’s certainly not about castigating myself for the many imaginary errors I’ve regretted and then dismissed over the last eight years in order to keep getting up in the morning.  It’s a slice of life—a big, fat, ugly slice that tries to embrace the broadest range of experience in order to get closer to the truth.  In this, it’s a lot like an advanced non-fiction exercise.

“Advanced” because it is not easy and not something you would assign to a 17-year-old English major in an introductory writing workshop.  “Non-fiction” because it’s a mode of creative expression that pretends a certain degree of inviolable objectivity, even though we know that’s impossible.  Every memoir, no matter how fabulous, must begin implicitly or explicitly with an assertion of truth or at least with a sincere declaration of authorial good faith: “I did this.  I saw this.  This happened.  At least, I think it happened.”  Rousseau’s Confessions does it with style:

Whenever the last trumpet shall sound, I will present myself before the sovereign judge with this book in my hand, and loudly proclaim, thus have I acted; these were my thoughts; such was I.  With equal freedom and veracity have I related what was laudable or wicked, I have concealed no crimes, added no virtues; and if I have sometimes introduced superfluous ornament, it was merely to occupy a void occasioned by defect of memory: I may have supposed that certain, which I only knew to be probable, but have never asserted as truth, a conscious falsehood.

This is my favorite passage from the first part of the book because literary historians have proven that the Confessions contains many misstatements if not deliberate falsehoods.  Such graceful bald-faced prevarication is a rare and beautiful thing.  But I am not so talented.  And I have no plans to weigh my heart against a feather on the last day. 

Instead, I will put it this way: I suspect I am not a horrible person.  I have faith that I’m not even tactless.  I believe my greatest defect is that I lack the imagination necessary to see several moves ahead.  I lack interpersonal foresight, which has made me a poor manager of nervous egomaniacs and a terrible chess player.  But I love chess.  And that is a serious problem, even if I hate the high-strung pampered egomania of academic writing programs, because everything toward the end of my PhD program was just a version of that game.

Robert Greene, in the acknowledgements of The 48 Laws of Power—a book loved equally by goateed 25-year-olds with a Libertarian Bitcoin fetish and the morose IT professionals you see combing the self-help section for books on how to become an alpha male—has a similar protestation of sincerity:

I must also thank my dear friend Michiel Schwarz who was responsible for involving me in the art school Fabrika in Italy and introducing me there to Joost Elffers, my partner and producer of The 48 Laws of Power.  It was in the scheming world of Fabrika that Joost and I saw the timelessness of Machiavelli and from our discussions in Venice, Italy, this book was born. . . . Finally, to those people in my life who have so skillfully used the game of power to manipulate, torture, and cause me pain over the years, I bear you no grudges and I thank you for supplying me with inspiration for The 48 Laws of Power.

If we read this carefully, we have to smile.  Greene is doing what we might call an “inverted Rousseau,” making the same assertion in a backwards way: this is a book about real things; therefore, I thank all those who have manipulated and tortured me for providing good material and, in the process, I declare my sincerity. 

Greene puts us on notice that his book is based on subjective material that emanates from his and Elffers’ lived experience, creating a Rousseau-esque escape hatch.  As The 48 Laws of Power is all highly subjective (essentially a kind of implicit portrait of Greene stitched together in historical anecdotes), the value of whatever he writes defaults to his apparent sincerity (“I may have supposed that certain, which I only knew to be probable, but have never asserted as truth, a conscious falsehood”).  It’s not about an objective truth process.  It’s about rhetorical ethos.

That is wonderful because ethos might be the only sincere rhetorical mode.  After logos topples from an unstable foundation of assumption, appeal to authority, and generalization; after pathos is unmasked as merely a screen of emotion recollected in tranquility; the persuasive credibility of the speaker is all that remains.  In a world where absolute truth does not exist, everything is ethos.  And so I construct my own ethical escape hatch. 

2010 was the worst year of my life, the year after my mother died of lung cancer; the year after my first book was published; the year I got my PhD in English; the year I attended my last AWP Conference; the year I traveled to the deep South for an excruciating week-long job interview and realized the English department clichés also obtain south of the Mason-Dixon Line; the year I got very ill; the year I was admonished by my mentor for questioning the value of my degree and told to be grateful for indefinite unemployment; the year my father began another surly adolescence; the year I began to think that there was no place for me in this world.  There are many years I’d relive if I could.  2010 is not one of them.  But I have been told to be thankful for these experiences because they have supplied me with a lot of inspiration.  As such, this writing is my sincere declaration of thanks.

Prelude

You never know what the next twist in the maze will bring but, in 2009, I think I was doing as well as could be expected when I stood in front of the department graduate adviser’s desk and said I needed a leave of absence to visit my mother in hospice.  For some reason, that moment stands out as a prelude for the upcoming year.

The adviser, the department’s resident medievalist, seemed to exist in an acid vapor of contempt for all creative writing students and their keepers.  She disliked me in particular because I’d dropped her Old English seminar the previous semester and she’d taken it personally.  Since I was doing a PhD with a creative dissertation (the final product would become Gravity, my first story collection), I didn’t need to be in her class.  But she needed me there.  Or, at least, she needed to feel loved by as many students as possible.

This was the woman who would thereafter try to prevent me from graduating so that my funding would run out.  This was the woman—whether due to old workplace feuds or out of resentment that there were more creative writing events on campus than dramatizations of Piers Plowman and undergraduate maypole dances—perpetually tried to block funding to the creative writing program and force out the graduate students depending on tuition waivers.  Her style of chess was to kill the pawns first.  Attack the supply lines, starve the more dangerous units in their fortifications, and wait for winter.  Classic medieval siege tactics.

However, standing before her desk, I was barely aware of the billowing acid cloud.  I was half-blind with grief.  All I thought about was my mom and how I had to get back to California to see her.  Looking back, I’m surprised I even had the wherewithal to stand up straight, much less ask for a leave of absence.  But I was very responsible.  I took everything seriously.  I thought a lot about my future in academia, especially in creative writing instruction.  And I felt my future depended on me contentiously following up on every detail.  I was, essentially, as sincere as I have ever been in my life.  I shouldn’t have been that sincere.

Given my emotional state, what the adviser said to me didn’t register until I’d left the building.  The conversation went something like this:

“I need a leave of absence to go to California because my mother is dying of cancer.”

She rolled her eyes, looked out the window as if she were considering it, sighed, then shook her head.  “No can do.  You only have so much funding.  Your funding will not cover you for another semester.”

“My mother is dying.  She doesn’t have long.  I’ve completed my course work.  My dissertation only needs to be approved.  I don’t even need any more credits.”

Another sigh.  More contemplating the clouds.  “Well, that’s really too bad.  You have to be in residence or your funding will run out while you’re gone.  Good luck.”

I stood there, trying unsuccessfully to process this. Then she rolled her eyes and asked me if there was anything else.

The grief robot turned and left her office, got on the elevator, rode it down to the bottom floor, walked out to the fountain in the center of the courtyard, and stared at the water for a long time.  Only then, did he think of the graduate adviser rolling her eyes.  Over the ensuing 9 years, the moment of her eye roll would be impressed in his memory as a perfect metaphor, a perfect image foreshadowing all the inspiration and gratitude to come.

The Tragedy of Not Dying

A hospice is a horrible place.  It’s like being given a lollipop for a bullet wound.  You’re bleeding out and everyone tells you to enjoy your lolly.  It’s cherry.  It’s got a smiley face.  Why aren’t you happy? Visiting my mother with my father there added another layer to the experience.  In spite of the pain and horror of the place, in spite of watching my mother waste away in her bed, hallucinating and suffering and being afraid, I came to understand that my father’s grief was different from mine.  I was feeling bad for my mother.  He was feeling bad for himself.

This was still 2009.  My only course, aside from empty dissertation credits, was a German reading and literature seminar.  The professor, a kind old man about to retire in his late 60s, loved his students the way he loved his trees—which is to say, far more than he loved the university.  I asked him for advice because he was the only person I could ask.  And he made it possible for me to exist in two places at once.  I gave my own writing students two weeks of work and held online course meetings via Skype and I emailed my German professor my work, which made it seem like I was present.  This is what allowed me to fly to California and see my mom for the last time.

In those first awful trips to the hospice, I’d naïvely hoped that my father and I could come together in our grief and support each other.  Of course, this was pure fantasy since he’d always enjoyed being a father but had rarely done any fatherly things.  I could count the number of times we’d gone to movies, the one thing we could do together because it involved no conversation.  And there were a few other misadventures over the years where my mother badgered him into going to some school play (he stood by the door to be the first person out) or taking me fishing (we did a U-turn at the access road to the lake and went home) or camping (it rained and so we packed up in the middle of the night and left).  He never beat me and he brought home a paycheck.  To the best of my knowledge, he never stepped out on my mother.  But he was never involved more than that; though, he lived with us in the same house—somewhat more than a housemate, somewhat less than a relative.

So my hope that he would be able, somehow, if in a manly way, to share this painful experience with me, was not based on reality.  After a certain amount of talk about how sad he was, it became noticeable that he never talked about my mom.  He sat by her bed, lost in his own self-pity, as the cancer ate its way through her brain and wasted her body.  As she died by inches, he proceeded as usual, focusing on his own needs above all else.

I witnessed this.  My wife witnessed this.  But I was so aggrieved I could barely speak.  Sometimes, my wife had to help me walk from the car to my mother’s room.  Have you ever been so upset that you can barely walk?  Until you have, you won’t know the feeling.  When you have, you’ll never forget it.  It transcends description.

I focused completely on my mom.  I waited for her moments of clarity.  I told her I loved her.  I told her the good things about my PhD program.  I made jokes and she tried to laugh.  One day, my great aunt—a stately old Italian woman who sounded like my late grandmother and seemed covered in the old-world charm that vanished with her generation—showed up with a peach and a kitchen knife.  She cut slices and fed them to my mom with a smile on her face.  Even now, as I write this, I cry a little because it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.  That kind of goodness doesn’t exist much in this world.

It was a very difficult time.  Two weeks later, I returned to finish my program.  In one of her last moments of clarity, my mom had ordered me to go back.  She didn’t want me to see her die and me being in the PhD program meant a lot to her.  I think she felt ashamed that she wasn’t going to be around to take care of my father and me the way she always had.  And knowing that I was going to get a doctorate was a relief, as if it would be the next best thing.  She also had a lot of pride in her appearance and the cancer had been unkind.  So when I offered to stay, she insisted that I not.  About two weeks after that, my father called and said to say good-bye to her.  I told her I loved her.  And I think she died shortly thereafter.

I miss her every day.  But this isn’t about that, either.  It’s about the aftermath, how everything changed as a result of her death.  Some people are the linchpins of their families.  When they go, everything goes.  That was what happened.  I flew back again for her funeral.  She was buried holding a photo of my father and me.  It was a closed casket and I don’t remember much else, just bits and pieces.  I was out of my mind. 

As we moved toward the Fall semester of 2010, I felt melted down and recast as a different person.  I’d lost my happy thoughts.  I didn’t go out or talk to many people other than my wife and my program mentor.  I stopped writing fiction.  Most of what I did was perfunctory.  But I knew I had to get my degree.  Even if I collapsed afterward, I would complete the PhD.

The Reading Series

The year before, I’d allowed myself to be persuaded that working as the assistant coordinator for the university literary reading series would “look good on my resume.”  And I did my best as the monthly, sometimes bi-monthly, flier maker, venue securer, introducer-to-the-introducer, complaint taker, fielder-of-calls from mentally unstable bookstore proprietors, irradiated scapegoat, and general handler of said low-rung celebrity infants terribles

Sometime before I left town for good, one of the faculty members admitted to me that the assistant coordinator position was really only supposed to entail flier making and that the professor who was getting paid to be to be doing the other things had dumped the rest on me.  But by then I was so depressed that I couldn’t summon the necessary outrage.

One writer wanted a per diem that wasn’t in his agreement.  Another wanted intel on, in his exact words, “the most fuckable students who might be around.”  The butch lesbian poet would only communicate with me through an intermediary because I was straight and male.  The playwright was supernaturally high throughout his entire visit and had to be physically guided to the stage.  The “local writer,” penciled in because there was a vacancy in the schedule that month, struggled to contain her spiritual darkness through the entire event such that when I handed her the honorarium (significantly less than what the other, slightly more famous writers had received), she snatched it out of my hand, hissed a “Go fuck yourself,” and then smiled broadly at an approaching faculty member.  These were some of the more endearing ones.

Needless to say, it was not the greatest collection of individuals.  They generally came across as worn out, mediocre, vain, full of fear, full of resentment, and perpetually on the hustle for any crumb of recognition.  Calling them fools wouldn’t be accurate because they were all reasonably intelligent.  They simply knew the score too well, knew they should have received more for their dedication and efforts.  You could see that loathsome awareness stamped on their faces.  Now they were privileged to read their work to the smirking tenured faculty who hadn’t hired them, a menagerie of twitchy English students, and whichever townies may have wandered in looking for free wine.  It wouldn’t get much better than that.

I disliked the visiting readers even though I saw myself and my fellow grad students reflected in them.  Most of the people featured in the series that year hadn’t been picked for life’s cheer squad.  They were the leftovers, the understudies, the adjuncts with slim books from presses you’ve never heard of.  Many, it seemed, faced depression so considerable that they were pharmaceutically enhanced 100% of the time.  I wondered more than once how they could continue to produce writing.  The greatest irony was that most of them had already gone further in their careers than anyone currently in my PhD program stood to go.

There were a few exceptions, a few graceful and brilliant souls who’d agreed to come as personal favors to various faculty members.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention them as well as the moments of hilarity you find in every English department.  2010 wasn’t all doom and gloom, just most of it.

The second time I was told to go fuck myself was around 3 AM on a Sunday morning toward the end of Fall semester.  My insomnia had become pretty dependable at that point and I was already awake when the phone rang.  I got out of bed, told my wife I had no idea who it was, and shuffled into our tiny living room, where I sat on the couch and listened to the breather on the line.  He was panting hard.  I thought it was quaint that in this day and age people still gave breather-masturbator calls.  The caller ID came up with nothing.

When he realized I’d said hello and was listening, he rumbled out a “Go fuck yourself” and hung up.  I sat in the dark for a while, thinking about the human condition.  Then he called back.  It was F, one of the few grad students who’d been asked to read in the series.  He mumbled some things and then shouted that he thought I had a problem and should get help.  He was drunk off his ass.

I asked him why he felt that way and he broke it down for me.  F had read with his wife, you see, and I’d made the mistake of introducing him before her.  Neither of them were ever going to get over it.  Plus, she was a Navajo princess and I’d introduced them as husband and wife.  You don’t do that to a Navajo princess.  Didn’t I fucking know that?  What was wrong with my head?

“Princess?  Really?  I thought you guys were from Pittsburgh.”

He hung up again and didn’t speak to me until I ran into him at the AWP Conference a few months later—where he was keyed up and sweaty, slapping me on the back, telling me how he’d been featured in a very cool spontaneous reading held on one of the convention center’s escalators that drew an enormous crowd.  Now he had a pocket of phone numbers to network.  Amazing.  He didn’t remember a thing about calling me in the dark and telling me what I could go do with myself. 

Or maybe he’d repressed that memory along with his courtship of the Navajo princess, that hard winter living as tribe’s writer, the majestic swish of his khakis as he hunted buffalo, armed only with an unpublished manuscript.  I haven’t seen him or heard a thing about him since the conference, but I suspect he’s either got tenure by now or he’s back in Pennsylvania selling pre-loved automobiles like it’s a poetry slam.

The End, My Friend

Depression is a very idiosyncratic and personalized illness.  But those who have it tend to have a few things in common, one of which is that depression can be cumulative in its gravity and magnitude.  Today, you’re not feeling good.  Tomorrow, you can’t get out of bed.  The day after that, you’re standing on a chair with a vacuum cleaner cord around your neck and you think you’re the only one in the history of the world who’s endured such a linear degeneration.  Feeling alone is a big part of it.

I felt alone until I discovered  Darkness Visible by William Styron and recognized a lot of what I’d been going through.  I don’t know how I found the book, whether it was in the fiction section of the library where I sometimes studied or whether I encountered it in a used bookstore or somewhere else.  While it wouldn’t be true to claim that the book “saved” me, I can say it helped enough to get me down off the chair, multiple chairs, actually.

Reading it was an emergency measure, but it was something I could depend on.  I didn’t talk about my feelings.  I’ve never been very good at that, not even with my loved ones.  But I could read someone else talking about his.  And since I loved Styron’s fiction, I felt like I could trust him.  If he said it, I could accept it enough to be able to think about it.  And that was usually all it took for me to keep going.

By Spring break, I was prepared to submit my dissertation.  I missed my mom horribly and my wife and I returned to California to take care of the empty house where all my mother’s things sat gathering dust.  My father wouldn’t go near the place.  When he wasn’t drunk, he was hard at work rediscovering his hormones in erratic, awkward, and desperate ways.  Our relationship, never substantial to begin with, began to splinter irreparably when, out of guilt, he started to regularly criticize my mom. 

He was a self-righteous Catholic for most of my life, who often amused himself by telling me to get my ass to church and that since I’d been baptized I could never not be a Catholic.  But after a year of drinking, trash talking, and a pissed-drunk rape attempt on my cousin in front of me, he was ready to start up a relationship with an equally neurotic married woman who’d run after him at an event.

He confessed this to me one afternoon because I guess he couldn’t confess it to his priest.  Then he added that it was like a DH Lawrence love story.  Then he said she was going to get a divorce from her despicable husband and they’d marry each other.  Lovely.  I didn’t want to hear about it.  I especially didn’t want to hear him ask me to be his best man.  I could hardly speak.  It shows how detached and self-involved he was that he thought it was something he could ask me. 

“What about all that Catholicism?” I remember asking.  I don’t remember if he answered.

Around that time, because he wouldn’t help me clean out my mother’s things, I’d been over at the house, crying, putting her clothes in Goodwill boxes, packing up old photo albums, doing all the things we could have done as a family.  Instead, my wife helped and we did the best we could in a few days.  Much was overlooked, things from my childhood, things in the garage that I really do wish I could have kept.  But we only had so much time.  Now I imagine my father and his new wife paid at some point to have it all carted to the dump.  But I have no way of knowing, since I haven’t been back in years.

I do recall taking to the gardener, who revealed that he’d had my mother making food for him right up to the point where she went into the hospital for the last time.  She couldn’t lie down straight in bed.  So she was sleeping sitting up in a chair in order to breathe, then walking around on crutches, cooking and cleaning.  According to the gardener, he screamed at her frequently.  She was fucking dying and this is how he treated her.  That’s abuse.  It’s horrible fucking abuse.  And my mother, who was just about a saint in every way, did her best.

My mother was a talented painter and sculptor, but he’d left her art in a shed that had a broken roof.  It rained a lot that year and most of her work was ruined.  I’d been standing in the backyard, looking at the shed, unable to get in because he neglected to give me the key to the deadbolt (probably because he didn’t want me to see what had happened) when he called with a task for me.  It was something small, something to do with getting a TV boxed up for him and cancelling the  TV service that my mom had in her hospice room.  I’d already taken care of it, but he spoke to me with contempt, as if I were very lazy.  He said, “After all I’ve done for you, couldn’t you take care of this one thing?”

I thought of my mother on crutches, making him breakfast.  I thought of her art destroyed through neglect.  I thought of my father drinking a case of my cousin’s high-end champagne and then trying to fuck her in front of me.  I thought of all the nasty things he said about my mother when she was gone, after he’d cried his eyes out for himself, after he blamed me for not being there when she died, after the sizeable amount of heirloom gold from old Italy that my mom wanted to come to me but that disappeared right around the time my father and his new cadaverous lady friend got a second condo in San Antonio.  I thought about all these things and saw that no matter what his paycheck had been worth, no matter how much I may have cost as a child, no matter what my mom and he may have given me as a teen or a confused 20-year-old, I owed him nothing. 

I felt something snap and a certain coldness overtook me.  My depression had come to be replaced with something more useful: calm, thoughtful anger.  We had it out.  He told my wife and I we had to be out of the house.  Within 48 hours, we were.  I’ve never looked back.

Gone for Good

I got my PhD without fanfare.  My wife and I went out to dinner and it was nice, just the two of us.  I knew I’d miss my mentor in the program and her brilliant husband.  I’d miss certain things about the university town and my own writing students, several of whom had become more like friends.  But I was glad to be done—done with the degree, done with my father, done with trying to hump the dream of being an academic creative writer.

In the eight years since the day we drove south, blasting M. Ward’s “Helicopter” with the windows rolled down, I’ve thought about 2010 quite a lot.  I still get depressed.  But I can cope.  I’ve learned that it is possible and, for me, even preferable to have a life outside academia.  And I’ve come to accept that family isn’t really who raises you when you don’t have a say in the matter.  It’s who you choose when you do.

I miss my mom every day and I write fiction every day.  As of this writing, I’m working on my third collection of stories with a novel draft mostly written.  I’ve published over 30 items in magazines, worked as a freelance writer and journalist, and lived in 9 countries.  I’m healthy.  I really don’t have anything to complain about right now.  And sometimes I even give myself permission to think I’m happy.  Somewhere, there’s a Navajo princess riding through the clouds over Pittsburgh, but I doubt our paths will cross again.

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STEM, Scientism, and the Decline of the Humanities – my latest on Splice Today

Read it here: https://www.splicetoday.com/on-campus/stem-scientism-and-the-decline-of-the-humanities


The Writing Life Ain’t Easy, Kid

Today I’m thinking about how most people locate the center of meaning in their lives in their social identity, which is synonymous either with their career role or some caretaking role or both.  But the artist finds the center of meaning in the act of making art.  This is an important distinction to keep in mind, especially for me when I’m not writing.

When I don’t feel capable of producing writing, I nearly always get depressed to some degree.  My insecurities get stronger.  I start wondering whether I’ve wasted my life following insubstantial dreams.  Nevermind that I’ve already accomplished things my younger self could have never imagined possible.  It’s as if none of that ever existed.  It’s failure, failure, failure, failure, failure on repeat in my head.  And it never relents.

Of course, this doesn’t happen in productive times because, when I’m actually involved with my work, I’m not even considering other things.  At most those old insecurities are tiny thoughts, easily dismissed by the reality of the page filling up with words.  Writing is all-consuming when it’s happening.  When it isn’t, when I’m unable to move my mind into focus, I feel incredibly empty and worthless, which reminds me of something my first creative writing instructor once said: “Writers drink and use drugs probably because when they can’t write, they think they don’t exist.  And they will do anything to escape that pain.”  It took me years to fully understand what he meant.  But I don’t try to escape the pain that way.  I just suffer. 

No matter how much I publish, no matter how many stories and chapters and essays and posts I write, it’s never enough to make me feel satisfied like I’ve arrived in a secure, content, stable place in my life and work.  As soon as I write the last word of something, I’m already thinking about the next thing.  Only during those moments of actual work, when I can forget myself fully do I feel any respite.  

When I’m like a clear pane of glass and the light of my work is shining through me, I experience a kind of bliss, a satori.  Nothing is ever that good.  Drugs or alcohol can’t come remotely close because they shut down or at least reconfigure thought processes.  Writing, when I’m immersed in it, enhances all processes, all existing configurations of thought—even the critical and analytical routines that consider form and technique—and precipitates insights, perspectives, realizations.  This is far better than taking drugs.  These are the drugs of the mind.  And the only thing I live for is to be in that place, putting words on the page.  The rest of my life, actually 90% of what I do that isn’t writing, is preparing to write or recovering from having written so I can do it again.

This way of life emphasizes introspection and subjectivity.  It is not contingent on the opinions of others, permission from authorities or institutions, or any other sort of social frameworks external to my inward experience.  That is a wonderful thing, sometimes.  But sometimes the alienation I feel can be terrible: from friends, family, society, culture, what passes for normal life.  The constant pain of living in my own subjective universe and knowing that, while others may do the same, they can never truly share this experience with me, is very subtle but very tangible, especially when I’m depressed about not writing.  When there is no bliss, there is only emptiness and doubt, an inner stage devoid of actors, props, and background, all too easily filled with regret, self-criticism, worry, and the memory of past failures.  But that’s the life.  That’s its hard interior, even when it looks soft on the outside.  

It means I have to make a living somehow as well, whether though freelance work, teaching, or something else.  When I’m producing, that’s fine.  It’s easy to accept when you’re high on life.  But these needs, these ups and downs, having to be a responsible adult while also being this other thing, a writer, an artist, can make life quite difficult when the words aren’t there.  The thing that society labels “artist” the way people label “happiness” or “love” or “god”—using the term in an offhand way, while not truly knowing what it is or truly caring that they don’t—is the life of Persephone, half on the earth, half in that other place.

All jobs are hard.  All lives are challenging for the people living them.  This one, too.  Even those days when I manage to get it right.  Why do I do it?  Maybe I’m obsessed.  And I guess it’s something at which I’m reasonably competent.  And I like it better than mowing lawns.


Oblivion

A short story I decided not to submit to magazines.  It will be included in my third story collection, Living the Dream.

 

There was nothing. I told myself I just wanted to get out for a while. I went to the Post Office Bar with Elka and had some drinks. Elka wasn’t quite five feet tall, but she drank like a Ukrainian diplomat and only wore black.

Maybe I thought things were too still. Back at the apartment, the rooms were too white, too still, too silent. We didn’t own anything but a couch and a bed. My wife was on one. Then she was on the other. All day long. She needed everything quiet all the time. Quiet, so she could think. There’d been a death in the family, you see. So it had to be quiet. But really, there was nothing left. I’d been selling everything we owned. Now we had paper plates. My wife had a little Sony she watched with the sound off in the afternoons. But there was nothing. And I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Nothing left. Nothing but white walls. Nothing to do but leave her alone. Nothing to say.

But then Elka. Shrieking. Sweating. Her big Italian sunglasses. Screaming, “Take it off, bitch!” when the gay threesome came on dressed like neighborhood postmen.

The DJ announced that they were gonna go postal and Elka laughed so hard she splashed gimlet across her 12-year-old boy’s v-neck.

“Shit,” she said. “I love this fucking place.”

And, right then, so did I.

Later, we knew that time had passed because we were out of money and cigarettes and Elka had lost her voice. We staggered out the side door into the snow. The tiny lights of Hauberk looked blurry and far away like a Walmart Christmas tree rolled down to the end of the alley.

Elka wheezed, pounded on her chest. “What am I gonna do with you, Percival?”

“You’re gonna stop calling me Percival.”

She tripped, landed on her right knee in a snow drift that came up to her chest, which we both found funny.

“What, you wanna go living a lie?”

“Fine.” I helped her up and we almost fell together. “Go ahead. Call me Percival.”

My name is Carmine. Carmine is better than Percival or Percy. But nobody calls me Carmine. Some people call me Jeff or Skip. My wife used to call me Tim, even though she knew Carmine was it. Her name was Lilly, like the flower.

Elka and I tried to make out, but she was too short and that always made it impossible. We walked out of the alley and stopped on the sidewalk blinking at each other.

She stood on her tiptoes and patted my cheek like grandma from the old country. “Be good to yourself,” she said and tottered over to her antique black Karmann Ghia. I leaned against the corner of the Post Office Bar and watched her drive the four blocks between the bar and her house. She parked with one wheel up on the curb, got out, fell in the snow, lost her balance, found her keys under the car, and staggered to her door. Then I was alone again.

Hauberk, Missouri, is not a large place. But it has a downtown and an uptown, train tracks, and, beyond them, a zone of inbred criminality before you get out to the farms. I’d lived in various parts of Missouri all my life and people said everything was changing. But at 3:00 AM all cities are one. They even smell the same. After a night in the Post Office Bar, you noticed booze and mold and body odor and stale cigarettes peeling off into the crisp night. And that’s the fuel you needed to keep walking and breathing in the good wholesome darkness after all those cocks went postal.

I wandered down Artichoke Lane and took a right on Fugit. I didn’t have a destination other than not home. What do they say? You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here? What did the DJ say? Now that we’ve gone postal, let’s go ball-istic—AT THE AFTERMATH! There was a bus outside for all the drunks who wanted to keep the party going. Elka wanted to go, but she was broke. And I was too square for after-hours party buses or the chicken adventure someone said they were about to have on the one outside. We’re gonna have a chicken ADVENTURE, people! Maybe that’s why I was unhappy. I didn’t get down with the poultry on a Thursday night.

Still, Elka was a good drinking buddy and she seemed to like me, even if she still didn’t know my name after a decade of working at the same car lot. She sold many Range Rovers to senior citizens who wouldn’t be allowed to drive in a year. What was she? 60 years old? It was hard to tell with the little people. But she was a hell of a saleslady.

By the time I got to Areopagus Avenue I started to seriously wonder why this part of Hauberk had the most fucked-up street names I’d ever seen. Then I realized the answer in one of those sudden bursts of clarity that only bloom in the botanical quietude of a cheap gin drunk: because I was walking towards the cemetery and everything gets self-consciously fucked-up around Midwestern cemeteries.

No one mentions it. You don’t think about the superstitiousness until you notice it for yourself. After you do, it’ll stick with you like a nasty fact of life you’d rather not remember. It’ll bother you forever on a deep gut level, even if it does seem like something that could be a story you could probably tell at dinner. I realized I was entering a distortion field of nervy Midwestern superstition as surely as the street was named “Areopagus.”

I crossed over and went down along the tall wrought iron fence that separated the world of the Hauberk dead from the lowest rent housing this side of the tracks. People say you’re supposed to whistle to keep the spirits off. And I will not claim to be wholly unsuperstitious; though, I’d had enough gin that whistling would have probably interfered with walking and right then one was more important than the other.

Nimcato Cemetery explained the fanciful street names, why front doors opened onto driveways on the other sides of the houses, and why there was not a single window facing Areopagus Avenue. People didn’t even like to park their cars on streets that ran along a graveyard. Or, if they did park there, you might see little crosses drawn in the dust on the corners of a hood. Plastic Jesuses. Bibles in back windows between stuffed Tiggers and Kleenex boxes. And every now and then, some old lady hammering nails into the corners of her front yard to “nail down the sin.” That was Hauberk, Missouri, when nobody was looking. Still, I didn’t aim to get primitive with the locals. Sin rhymed with gin and the only thing getting nailed that night was my liver.

But then I said, “Oh Jesus. Oh Jesus Mary Joseph Mother of Christ Saint Expedite Infant Savior of Prague Saint Anthony Defend Us In Battle Holy Spirit Amen. And all the souls in purgatory may they fucking protect me.” I said this out loud and with great sincerity, the fumes of my iniquity rising up out of my mouth like some reverse gimlet Pentecost, not only because no one else was visible in the pools of yellow-bright streetlight but because when I finally got to the corner of Areopagus and Bardolph, I could see the front gates of the Nimcato Cemetery standing wide open.

I didn’t know if the gates were always left open, but I suspected they weren’t. This bothered me. It might have scared the shit out of me—at least enough to bring on some religion. And if anyone had been around in that superstitious moment, I might have further confessed that if Elka hadn’t arrived to pick me up at the dog park three blocks from my apartment, I’d been prepared to drink the pint of Gilbey’s I’d bought as a safety measure earlier in the day. Drink it straight, sitting in the dog park. Hallelujah. It’s a wonderful life. Moreover, I realized I was sipping on this same pint as I wandered onto Bardolph and then through the cemetery gates. But liquor is never an explanation for anything.

It started to snow again. In the pale glow from the streetlights, the mausoleums and sepulchers seemed like an alien world, an abandoned planet of monuments and pylons under a dead sun. And I walked right in, not only because I was drunk but also because the booze had breached some iron-bound vault deep down in the sub-basement of my being where I kept thoughts of my wife’s mental illness alongside memories of the times she used to speak and live. Memories that went back before her father put a gun in his mouth, before there was nothing. And though I was not an unsuperstitious man, I simply didn’t have the capacity to cry and also wonder why the gates were open or whether it would be wise to walk through them. Thus, I was deep inside before I started to get truly upset.

But upset isn’t the right word. It would be better to say that I had a moment of terror, knee-deep in a drift, looking up at a weeping angel looking down at me, snow collecting on the top of his head, his shoulders, his pointing hand. It was the saddest largest marble angel I’d ever seen, sculpted to heroic proportions, his wings outspread like the goddess of victory. And how he was lit in that ghost light. And how the contours of shadow behind a falling sheet of snow made his expression seem impossible and beautiful and wholly unsympathetic to any sort of human grief, a thing of perfect tragedy up from the foundations of the world. At least, that’s how he seemed to me as I stared awestruck and drunk in the snow, gripping my Gilbey’s like a magical weapon.

The gin might have been magic—if I’d turned my back and downed it all with oblivion in mind. But the bottle slipped from my fingers when I looked along the angel’s extended arm to where he was pointing. And, with that, oblivion was but a transient thought, a sincere wish lost to a saner, soberer life where the dead don’t walk. Or, in this case, lie on top of graves.

I looked at where the angel was pointing and I saw my wife, Lilly, lying on a grave, the nightgown she never took off arranged just the way she liked, bunched up beneath her knees. Her delicate ankles. Her feet askew. Her hair draped over her shoulders like I saw it some nights when I looked at her in the moonlight, thinking about nothing, no future and no past, trying hard to wish away my hopes and dreams one by one.

“Lilly?” I whispered and took a step. “Lilly?” Almost as if to say her name out loud was the deepest obscenity I could utter in that place. And then I fell and didn’t want to stand up and look at the angel’s face or at what might have been my dead wife in the saddest strangest part of town.

I lay face down in the snow until I imagined that I, too, was dying, losing feeling all over my body from the cold. But because I am a coward and because I may have been screaming when I finally staggered to my feet, I found I was facing the opposite direction. I found myself running out as unconsciously as I had come in, running for the gates which I imagined might close any minute. I knew with some animal certainty that if they closed on me, I would vanish, all trace of me gone forever, even my footprints in the snow.

I shot into the street and kept running down Bardolph, as fast and as far as I could, my breath wheezing out Camel Lights and lime-gin. I ran until I reached the cheap Christmas lights of Hauberk’s downtown and burst into the Dixie Diner—panting, wild eyes, covered in snow like the yeti.

The obese pink polyestered waitress behind the counter took me in piece by piece. “You need a hand?”

The two men at the counter—who were both dressed in gray felt suits and skinny black ties like door-to-door vacuum salesmen from 1950s, but who could have been anything at 4:00 AM in a diner in central Missouri—looked up from their Denver omelets and grinned.

The wiry, nervous cook covered in grease leaned around the door to the kitchen.

The old lady with horn-rimmed glasses in a booth by the window, eating a chili bowl and reading a paperback, glanced over, the corners of her mouth stained orange.

And I said: “I think I need a cup of coffee.”

The waitress poured it without a word. I sat at the counter and tried to drink it, but my hand shook so much it spilled.

The two vacuum salesmen to my right were still grinning.

“Tough night, pal?”

I didn’t say anything. I tried to sop up the spill with a napkin, but even my napkin hand was shaking.

“Look,” the waitress said to the spill. “You don’t have to pay for that coffee. But I’d ask you to drink it and go. We don’t want no trouble in here. No druggies.”

The other of the two men—the one who hadn’t spoken yet, content to eye me like a feverish delighted vulture looking at a corpse—slapped his palm on the counter and said, “Aww, come on, Junebug. He ain’t gonna be no trouble. Look at him. He couldn’t find his cock in a rainstorm.”

This made Junebug and the other vacuum salesman laugh. And that’s when I started crying.

“Shit,” Junebug said and got a box of tissues from behind the counter. She put it in front of me beside the puddle of coffee. Then she took out two tissues for herself. The sight of me crying made her want to cry, too.

“Well I’ll be damned,” said the first vacuum salesman. “This is a cry-diner. A criner.”

“That it is, fucko,” his partner said. “That it is.”

Nothing made any sense. I looked at the coffee in the cup, at the spill on the counter like it was a logic problem I couldn’t solve. I didn’t know if I should stand up or fall down or run into the street.

“I need to get home to my wife.”

The old lady in the booth peered at me through her horn-rimmed glasses.

Junebug sniffed and polished the pie case. “That sounds like a very solid idea, hun.”

But because I was a coward, I gripped the counter as if I might get swept away into space, into the deep ocean, into the cold endleess nothing. I didn’t want to go home all of a sudden and learn where Lilly was: there, not there, lying in Nimcato Cemetery on top of a grave, being pointed at by the saddest angel in the world.

Fucko wouldn’t stop. “I’d like to buy this gentleman breakfast. “Whadya say, huh?” He slapped me on the back. I could smell his cologne drift over me in a great cloud of chemical musk. You could spray it on villages in the desert and go down for war crimes. “Whadya say? Ham and eggs? Junebug? Ham and eggs? Give him a plate for fuck’s sake.”

She looked at him. “I don’t think that would be the wisest course, given his precarious condition.”

“Come on. I’m paying. Give him some ham and eggs. Ain’t this a business? Ain’t I a customer?”

“You’re getting on my nerves is what you are.” Junebug sniffed, dabbed the corner of her eye with a new tissue, and sighed. “Don’t make me come across the counter and crack your face open, sweetie.”

Fucko shut his mouth. Then his friend looked at his watch and said, “Come on. Time waits for no man, am I right?”

“Yeah. Too bad for you. No ham and eggs.” Fucko got up and they walked out.

The sun was rising. The old lady with the horn-rimmed glasses was long gone. Junebug offered me another tissue but I didn’t notice until she was stuffing it back in the box.

“What’s really going on with you, if you don’t mind me asking.”

“I wandered into the cemetery. I saw an angel. And I thought I saw my wife lying on top of a grave.”

“I guess it was a long night,” she said. “You know them old visions are only in your head, right? My old man used to see his grandpa coming for him with a knife after drinking moonshine all night. You ever try moonshine?”

“I might have had it once.”

“Well then you know.” She nodded and refilled my coffee. “I’d call you a cab but the cabs don’t start up for another hour.”

“I’ll make it.”

“Go home. Kiss your wife. You’ll be fine. Some nights you just get lost. Drink enough moonshine and you get into all kinds of weird shit.”

I shrugged. I couldn’t process. I didn’t know which end was up.

There was no way I could have foreseen that three years later, standing at the memorial service after Lilly finally ended it all, I’d think back to that night and to what Junebug had said. Sometimes, you just get lost. How could I have known then, how could I have told her, that she would be right?


On Productivity and Publishing

I’ve written three books of fiction to date, all story collections; though, only one of them has been published. This is not remarkable or typical in any sense, even if I do have the stereotypical writer’s voice in my head telling me that I should be submitting to more book contests, etc. My submission schedule results in about 2-3 stories placed in magazines every year, a process I actually enjoy, and I have no plans to stop doing that. Still, I sometimes wonder whether the world needs another immature literary magazine, another lousy e-book marketing campaign (what Chuck Wendig calls the “shit volcano”), or another mediocre career-building novel entering the flotsam. What does the world need?

Better: what do I need?

Books are not the only way to be published, even if they are the fiction writer’s holy grail—specifically novels, ideally lots of novels—because they sell and therefore build careers. Or, as an industry professional once said to me at an AWP conference, “You need to write at least a novel a year for the next five years if you want to be a contender.” He was an important person in the publishing world, had a red nose, a cigar in his lapel pocket, and I was completely intimidated by him at the time. So I nodded as if I understood. But I didn’t and should have asked, “A contender for what, exactly?”

Publishing only feels like boxing. In reality, it’s business, the alchemy of transforming things into money. When business and art collide, a volatile chain reaction usually takes place resulting in all sorts of monstrous transmogrifications, creeping morbidity, and a certain amount of screaming. Put simply, how many writers have you heard of who built a career out of publishing a book a year? I can think of maybe one or two and none writing outside strictly defined genres.

The only literary writer who may produce full-length books with that kind of regularity is Joyce Carol Oates, someone as great as she is prolific but who is entirely unique. So “a book a year” might not be the best advice if you’re in this to make art. If you’re in it to make money, why aren’t you running a brothel, flipping houses, developing apps, or managing a hedge fund? You can probably make an app a year. Brothels, I don’t know, but I imagine their schedules are a bit more eventful.

Every writer asks a version of this question, sometimes on a regular basis: should I be writing harder, faster, longer, mo betta? Should I be soaking down the meadow like a frustrated stallion on horse viagra? How much is too much and why is it that by asking this question I feel soiled? Of course, as with most questions writers ask themselves, there are no answers. There are only opinions and that vague soiled feeling. To be honest, there is only subjectivity in this context.

So how much? Stop asking. Stop thinking about it. Just write. And if you want to be a “contender,” find a different metric against which to measure your progress.


Acts of Defiance

I once took a creative writing workshop from Richard Ford, in which he spent a lot of energy inveighing against the epiphany in short fiction. This must have been in 1997 or 1998. Little did any of us suspect at the time that his vehemence was probably a reaction to a single bad review that had come out for Women with Men by some no-name writer with an ax to grind. The review criticized Ford for being unwilling to let his characters change or realize very much as they suffocate though postmodern American decline.*

I’ve tried unsuccessfully over the years to find that review. It has mysteriously disappeared from the internet. Does that actually happen? Does the writer now swim with the fishes? Maybe it came out in Kirkus or in the AWP Chronicle; though, I tend to think it wouldn’t have been the Chronicle, given how careful they are with avoiding the faintest whiff of contentiousness toward the darlings of the Big Six in one of the most atavistic industries in the world. So probably Kirkus. Or Salon. I think people at Salon could still read at that point.

Anyway, the review was scathing. I remember it not because I necessarily agreed with it, but because at that time I was in awe of Ford in one of the most unproductive and frankly brutal workshops I’d ever experienced. The Xanax intake in our class went up precipitously after the second meeting, while the likelihood of dissent dropped to 1938 Great Purge levels. All heads were bowed. Everyone had joined the party. Dissidence was shown zero tolerance. And I felt that our instructor had gradually begun to resemble Frank Booth offering Jeffrey a ride in Blue Velvet as if we relived that scene in each critique.

Ford’s ability to craft fiction nevertheless spoke for itself. That was the problem: you might think the guy tuning your piano is a surly misanthrope until he starts playing Rachmaninoff. Then you decide you must have been wrong about everything. How much more do you think a highly accomplished yet incredibly acerbic celebrity could shock a group of young students just starting out? Several of my classmates quit writing fiction for good after sitting through critiques that took apart their 20-page stories sentence by sentence. The rest of us were intimidated yet determined not to seem that way. We wanted to be real writers. We would endure. Since then, I’ve come to believe I was more impressed with Ford’s craft and less with his worldview; though, young writers tend to conflate the two when under the influence of a particular teacher and I certainly did.

So when he talked about the epiphany in fiction as being largely an empty obsolete convention, we nodded and wrote it down. What the hell did we know? Besides, the term had religious overtones. That was an absolute no-no. The largely white, upper-middle class Breakfast Club of terrified 20-somethings in my shop immediately started to write gutless (and mostly bad) Ford-Carver imitations—pared-down realism in simple declarative sentences where nothing much happens beyond a .000001% change in the protagonist’s depression.

The theme of every piece became: please don’t hurt the writer of this story. Joan, a secretary at a Toyota dealership—who’d decided to take a story writing class through open university because she liked reading Stephen King—was the only student who’d had the guts to write a scene involving prayer. I remember her story. Though it was painful to read, she may have been the worst writer and the best human being in the room. After her second critique, she developed a facial tic, but she kept coming. I kept coming, too, and tried not to notice that my cigarette and coffee intake had almost tripled as I subconsciously girded myself for fiction fight club. And I also took multiple beatings. You don’t forget beatings like that. They qualify as formative experiences, not because they help you be a better writer but because they show you what not to do, what psychological damage feels like, and how unnecessary it is.

Class and money, of course, were part of the problem. This was at a state university in California, the program I was in before I applied to the MFA at the University of Montana and learned that not all writing programs are created equal. Maybe fortunately, I hadn’t yet seen how students in Ivy or near-Ivy writing programs are coddled and courted as long as they have connections. In Montana, several of my classmates had agents before they even started (or wrote anything). Famous visiting writers showed up twice a week and yawned through their workshops, occasionally meting out a beatdown to the group pariah—usually the kid on heavy student loans whose parents don’t happen to be international art dealers. It makes strategic sense to do this. You look like you’re doing your job and a bit of focused brutality keeps the others in line. Plus some kid without connections won’t likely be a problem in the future.

To his credit, this did not happen in Ford’s workshop. Everyone took a beatdown. Then again, no one had an evident future in creative writing. So he might have been shouting at a room full of corpses, professionally speaking. He seemed angry about having to teach the class in the first place. I think he was there as a personal favor, produced no doubt through the clandestine machinery of patronage and obligation that keeps the MFA Ponzi scheme up and running even in the lowliest regional colleges. Look at the list of visiting writers on any half-page AWP Writer’s Chronicle MFA program advertisement and compare this to the names consistently showing up in Best American Short Stories over the last 20 years. Then look up who’s publishing those people and where they’re teaching now. Who takes those classes? Who can qualify to enter those MFA programs? You’ll figure it out. It’s not hard. And, after that, I’d like you to sweep out the break room.

However, there is another difference between the finishing-school MFA and the one I was in at that time: lack of tact. Students in the highfalutin MFA programs, especially the students on big loans, have a very powerful sense that they must not argue too loudly. They are, after all, being taught by MacArthur fellows and the Pulitzer winners. But go down to a state college on the edge of a farm community where Animal Sciences gets more funding than English, Art, and History together. There you will encounter a type of student looking for an education and angry that she isn’t getting it. Already alienated, many of these kids will gravitate towards the arts, not because it’s a cool thing to talk about at daddy’s dinner parties, but because they have become true believers. Debt is going to be part of their lives forever, but maybe they’re still idealistic enough to want to become artists even though their future as parking lot attendants is pretty much locked in at that point. Every class matters to them. Every text is something that they’ve had to sacrifice for. And if they’re going to be publicly abused and their work put to the question, they want it to be for a good reason.

Thus it came to pass that on the day we were talking about publishing (such that it was clear none of us would ever publish a damn thing because, hey, look around), Karin** raised her hand. I knew it was coming. I could feel the barometer drop as Ford, in mid-sentence, looked over at her. She’d had a pissed-off look since the first day and, meeting by meeting, she seemed to be holding in the rage. I never got to know Karin very well, but I remember that she had a lot of piercings and bright carrot-orange hair which must have been dyed. She was gravely serious about becoming a writer. She was making it happen through loans and waitressing at Denny’s. Moreover, she had a two-year-old son. Karin did not lead an easy life. She led a determined one. And she was not impressed.

She asked a question: “Can you talk about how you first got published? I mean, isn’t it true that you’re so famous whatever you write can get automatically published at this point?” In the spirit of Mark Twain’s after-dinner speech at John Greenleaf Whittier’s birthday party, “the house’s attention continued, but the expression of interest in the faces turned to a sort of black frost.” The daffodils in the faculty club immediately turned to ash and crumbled. Dogs began to howl. The corner of Joan’s eye began to violently twitch.

The way I remember his response was that it was something acidic and dismissive. It was not altogether as harsh as I had expected and, to my surprise, he did not command her to commit ritual suicide then and there. But Karin never came back to class after that meeting. I may not recall his exact words because, in that moment, I was having what can only be described as a major epiphany. I realized it wouldn’t make a bit of difference if I came to the next meeting or went to a bar and got drunk or wrote 20 pages of the best possible prose. What mattered was my attitude to my own work, how sincere I was while remaining dedicated to learning the craft. That’s what being a real writer is. I have Ford’s workshop to thank for that.

It was the first big realization I had in the writing life: every act of writing is an act of defiance. All else is opinion, vanity, and marketing. If that sounds too extreme, let me respectfully suggest that you’re not expressing yourself as fully or as honestly as you could. Let me suggest that you write something that people will disagree with and that you also happen to believe. And let me suggest that you put it out there to publishers and learn to deal with the inevitable beatings. And then defy those and do it again.

 

 

* Kathy Knapp does an updated version of this critique in American Unexceptionalism: the Everyman and the Suburban Novel After 9/11 (2014).

** Not her actual name but close enough for those who might remember.


How to be Good

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.