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.
For every good writing day, I have 20 bad ones. A good writing day is one in which I feel inspired to make progress on a piece. But that doesn’t ensure that I will be able to finish it or feel satisfied if I do. It doesn’t mean that I will think I did a good piece of work or that I will be able to trust that judgment over time. All I know after a good day is that I felt good. All I know on those other days is that I felt frustrated, uninspired, and aggrieved whether or not I produced pages, whether or not I think (or will think) that those pages are worthwhile.
Optimal conditions rarely exist for creative work. There is always something getting in the way, some defect of body, mind, or circumstances that conspires to obstruct progress and generate despair and self-doubt. The only answer is to keep writing, to admit that I can and will generate unsatisfying work, to avoid wondering about my talent, and to just get on with things. As my trombonist friend, Mike Hickey, once said about being a musician: just keep playing.
Just keep writing.
No one feels they have talent all the time. In fact, most people feel the way I do: it’s hit and miss, always a struggle, always an emotional upheaval. If literary geniuses really do exist outside the marketing generated by a hypocritical and terrified publishing industry, they would, by definition, be critical of themselves. History confirms that creative work is hard, even for the most famous and memorable writers. And it can’t be genius to believe it’s always easy or that your talent will confer all the pleasures and none of the agonies.
Just keep writing.
I tell myself to forget the people who have advised me not to give up my day job; they don’t know and can’t judge. Forget the family members and acquaintances who wanted me to reflect their own lack of talent and resented me for trying to develop my own; they can only see disappointing reflections of themselves. Forget the graduate school competitors, the half-starved adjunct professors, the depressed self-diagnosed creative failures, the cynical postmodernists declaring everything already over; they’re all too emotional. They’re like sick dogs. And sick dogs don’t typically write fiction. Don’t be a romantic. Be methodical. Cultivate a classical mind. Stay dedicated to the work and just keep writing because all these feelings and emotional people will disappear.
The only thing left will be the words I’ve written down. Whether there are many words or just a few is irrelevant. The point will be that I wrote them and kept writing them. In the end, that’s all I will have because the books will get put away on a shelf or recycled or lost. The computer files will get forgotten or deleted. What I wrote will be no better than a half-remembered dream. Just as what I intend to write is nothing more than a flimsy possibility. A trombonist is nothing without his trombone in his hand. If he keeps playing, he’s a trombonist.
Nothing exists except for this moment and what I do in it. So if I call myself a writer, I have one job.
A long time ago, I watched a black-and-white movie about the French Foreign Legion in Algeria. The title escapes me, as does most of the plot, but I vividly remember one scene. A young recruit had snuck off to a local village to visit a girl he liked and was arrested for deserting his post. He was brought before his commanding officer, who gave him a lecture very similar to a bit of dialogue in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, a film I have watched over and over. I think that’s why I remember the scene from the former otherwise forgettable film.
In any case, the lecture went something like this: You think you care about this girl, but you’ve already seen people die all around you. You think you want to go back home someday, have a family, and grow old comfortably. But these are civilian dreams. You are not part of that world. You have no need for that world, and it has no need for you. The recruit is visibly agitated, angry, surprised. He asks whether they aren’t there to make the world a better place as they have been told—to fight the National Front for democracy and to preserve social order. The commander shakes his head and says: Today, we fight them. Tomorrow, we fight with them against somebody else. Politics changes like the weather. But we stay the same.
I’m reconstructing this conversation from memory. So it may not be exact, but I think I’ve captured the essence of the dialogue. It was a good scene, maybe the only good scene in the movie, but still very romantic in how it evoked the “this life is not for you” sense of doomed heroism we love in stories about the cult of the warrior.
For many years, I’ve rejected this romantic perspective. I’ve thought about professional soldiers the way I’ve thought about sport hunters: anachronisms at best. More often, they seem dangerous and cynical, full of misplaced machismo and the need to justify their existence with bullets instead of brains. So I felt annoyed when someone recently referred to my freelance writing as “being a hired gun.” Not only is that inaccurate—though I can see it in terms of private investigators, lawyers, even lobbyists—but I think it sensationalizes what is basically a very humble line of work.
While there is a lot of professionalism in the field, writing content for media sources and corporations has always struck me as nothing like being a mercenary, a legionnaire, or even a samurai. It always felt more like being a craftsman who specializes in a very specific sort of product. Still, it got me thinking about what a “professional” actually is in a philosophical sense. And now I’m not so sure about these distinctions. This morning, I gave myself a writing assignment, something working writers, especially freelancers, need to do on a regular basis. I set a goal of 700 words in response to: what is a professional?
The Existential Condition of the Professional
I started thinking about that Foreign Legion movie scene and the moment in Seven Samurai when the samurai have successfully defended the farmers against the bandits; though, their friends have died in the process. Kambei Shimada expresses the inherently Pyrrhic nature of military victory: “Again we are defeated. The farmers have won. Not us.”
It’s a melancholy moment that resonates with You have no need for that world, and it has no need for you. But, thinking about it in terms of my many varied writing jobs over the years, I think I’ve come to a deeper understanding. Being a professional means walking the path of mastery and radical individualism. So while it may be true that “civilian life is not for you,” such a path seems more like an existential choice than involuntary alienation from normal life.
It seems to me that if you are a true professional, you engage in one thing so deeply and exclusively that it emerges as an aspect of your nature. Your will, your inner self, and this thing you do are indivisible, indistinguishable. Essentially, you learn that it is who and what you have always been. It’s an inner part of your character that has now found expression in your life as some kind of career or activity. This emergence ultimately transcends existing categories of normal, mundane life, realigning your values with the profession as the most profound and worthwhile source of meaning. All else must take second place or no place.
The I-Ching alludes to it in hexagram 32, Heng / Duration: “The dedicated man embodies an enduring meaning in his way of life, and thereby the world is formed.” To embody an enduring meaning is to become synonymous with it, to presence it such that you are its student and its conduit. As Yeats says at the end of “Among School Children,” “O body swayed to music,/ O brightening glance,/ How can we know the dancer from the dance?”
The Superior Man vs. the Inferior Man
Not everyone is called to be a professional in this esoteric sense of the term. Its exoteric definition simply indicates a level of proficiency where one can expect to be paid for one’s efforts. But there seems to be a deeper stratum of self-awareness that emerges in some practitioners. The I-Ching calls this person the “superior man,” meaning that he or she operates on a more profound, more philosophical level.
The “inferior man” is someone content to live more superficially within existing, inherited cultural frameworks. Above all else, the inferior man values gratification and relief from the problems in his life and offers up obedience to conventional society in exchange. Conversely, the superior man seeks mastery and will pursue it to the detriment of family, friends, finances, and even social respectability—which is not to say she automatically gives up these pleasures. Rather, she assigns them second place in her life.
In The Hagakure: A Code to the Way of the Samurai, Tsunetomo Yamamoto, a 17th century Edo samurai in the service of Lord Nabeshima Mitsushige, writes “Even if it seems certain that you will lose, retaliate. Neither wisdom nor technique has a place in this. A real man does not think of victory or defeat. He plunges recklessly towards an irrational death. By doing this, you will awaken from your dreams.” To a samurai, “awakening from your dreams” means accepting death as the most likely consequence of your profession. It is pursuing the path of mastery regardless of the consequences. And it is therefore the way of the superior man, who embodies an enduring meaning in his way of life above and beyond the conventional joys and trials of mundane existence.
Seduction of the Youth
This way of life can seem very romantic. The young, in particular, are often attracted to its emphasis on integrity and its ostensible clarity. This is how it should be. If the long painful road to mastery didn’t enchant and seduce people from an early age, humanity’s deepest knowledge would eventually be lost to time and mortality.
And yet, very few set foot on the path of Duration fully realizing how much they will be asked to sacrifice. In the fullness of time, they will die to their old lives and be reborn in the image of their chosen profession, which is to say, they will embody this thing which now sustains them, which flows through them, and which has come to define the purpose of their existence.
Consider the difference between these two expressions: he is a dancer versus he dances. The first describes a professional. The verb of being shows equivalence. He = dancer. There is no distinction between the two. Contrast this with the second expression where dancing is something he does. It is an action undertaken by a noun, not an existential state. He does some dancing. It is not what he is.
Many people who are frustrated with their lives, especially teenagers and disappointed young adults, fantasize about being absorbed into the lifestyle of some profession. They think, if only I could be like so-and-so (often a professional athlete, artist, or celebrity), then I wouldn’t have these problems. But becoming a true professional involves as much pain as it does pleasure. It can mean cutting out everything that is not the profession—a high price to pay that becomes a brutal requirement for those trying to progress. Lawyers will sometimes say, “law is a cruel mistress,” which is undoubtedly true for all professions where mastery is concerned.
Who Becomes a True Professional
Anyone can do it, but few will, since the obstacles are wholly internal. Time, age, finances, social permission, and starting ability are ultimately irrelevant because the path of the true professional is a state of mind. Only the inferior man has to worry about those external things, since he functions primarily within the constraints placed on him by others. The true professional, being the superior man, develops his own set of constraints organically by paying attention to his character and the dictates of his heart.
This is a matter of discernment, of self-understanding, which makes the professional mindset possible through a succession of insightful shocks or moments of clarity. Such realizations often come when certain sacrifices have been made.
For example, the time, money, and logistical arrangements necessary for living in a remote cabin for three months in order to finish your novel will produce not only work product but also greater awareness of what you really want to write and who you really want to become. This, in turn, will provide a vision of the next step, the next goal and its necessary sacrifices. Every step entails a sacrifice to be made, something material that will be given and received, a self-insight, and an altered state of consciousness.
In some philosophies, this pursuit of mastery is considered dangerous, an outlaw ethos. It’s seen as “antinomian” (anti / opposite or against + nomos / rule or law) in the sense that it often disregards approved social norms. Those who have become proficient to the degree that they have “awakened from their dreams” have disregarded the desires and statuses manufactured by consensus culture. They threaten the system by their very existence. They have undertaken a path of radical individualism that privileges subjective personal meaning and depends on mastery and self-understanding for forward progress.
It is very hard to control such a person with conventional rewards and punishments. The path of the true professional stands in stark contrast to lifestyles that interpolate people into preexisting categories designed to provide gratification and relief in exchange for obedience in thought, word, and deed. Instead, having transcended superficial levels of meaning, the professional finds himself enjoying hidden pleasures and suffering from unique pains. He can talk about his discipline to beginners and to the uninitiated, but only to a point. There are things that can only be understood by those with eyes to see and ears to hear, developed through firsthand experience.
There is no Going Back
It’s not hard to see that the path of the true professional, being extremely demanding and fraught with difficulties, is not for everyone, nor should it be. There is something to be said for the joys of a simple mundane life and the fun of dilettantism. Moreover, as you walk the path of individuation, you may come to a sobering realization: once you took the first faltering steps toward what would become a life-defining quest for mastery in your field, there was no going back.
In a sense, as the commanding officer says to the legionnaire recruit, you reach a point at which you have no need for that world, and it has no need for you. The path has changed you forever as you’ve sacrificed and been reborn again and again. The Egyptologist, Isha Schwaller de Lubicz, expresses this beautifully in Her Bak: the Living Face of Ancient Egypt, a speculative account of initiation into an Egyptian mystery cult where radical self-transformation is the highest goal:
What is life? It is a form of the divine presence. It is the power, immanent in created things, to change themselves by successive destructions of form until the spirit or activating force of the original life-stream is freed. This power resides in the very nature of things. Successive destruction of forms, metamorphoses, by the divine fire with rebirth of forms new and living is an expression of consciousness that is independent of bodily circumstance.
When the dancer is the dance, both emerge as an expression of consciousness, a state of mind above and beyond the movements of the body. This is the reality of the true professional.