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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.

When I began teaching as a graduate student, publishing in magazines, and generally moving my life forward in visible ways, I learned a difficult lesson that accompanies progress: people don’t like it when you succeed. 

They don’t want to see it.  They don’t want to know about it.  And if they become aware that you are bettering yourself, they will do whatever they can, exert whatever influence they have, to change that.  They really would prefer that you sink back into a swamp of stuckness and frustration.  And they find it highly offensive if you don’t accommodate them in this.

Somehow you moving forward makes them more aware of their own sense of inadequacy and stasis.  And they will not stop trying to convince you, themselves, and anyone willing to listen that you’re really not so special.  Your achievements, however modest, can cause friends, family, colleagues, and sometimes people you don’t even know, to behave defensively towards you as they attempt to safeguard their fragile egos.  This is especially true if you’re doing something that they wish they could do.

Granted, nobody likes to feel bad about themselves.  But it can be shocking when you notice who your detractors are.  Uncle Bob?  You heard he got drunk at the reunion and offered up a loud unkind opinion about your novel, citing various incidents from your childhood and early adolescence to prove you “aren’t such hot shit.”  What did you ever do to him?  Juniper, that girl in accounting who wears the big sweaters?  You talked to her, what, twice?  Why is she spreading rumors about you?  You might expect it from a direct competitor (even if there is a modicum of professional courtesy that can dial it down in most cases), but Millie from high school, talking trash about you on Facebook?  You haven’t interacted with her since at least 1990.  Has she been ruminating about you for 30 years?  Maybe so.  Or maybe she just looked you up yesterday.

There’s a word for this sort of person: hater, and the first thing you need to know is that haters can be anyone, given that the hate is not really about you.  It’s about them.  You’re just a convenient projection screen for the hater’s unflattering (and probably distorted) self-image.  Unfortunately, the more visible you are, the more you seem to be getting your life together and doing what you want to do, the higher resolution those lousy images will have in the hater’s mind.  And it’s far easier to tear someone else down than it is to engage in determined self-work.  Some people are born with the efficiency and drive of the domestic land slug.

As much as I agree with Tim Teeman—that “haters gonna hate” is a fundamentally stupid expression “born of our social media addiction, especially Twitter, where brouhahas and firestorms burst into existence, and everyone eventually leaves the arena feeling unfairly targeted and victimized”—there’s a reason it became a viral catchphrase, functioning as an updated version of the old “dog will hunt.”  It’s simple.  A thing behaves in accordance with its nature.  And envy is ubiquitous.

Perform successfully—even in something as minuscule and transitory as getting your creative work published—and someone, somewhere, is bound to suffer as they compare themselves to you.  That suffering breeds resentment.  And, though it is inherently unwise, resentment often demands a soapbox.  Publicly trashing someone can provide a moment of relief, a brief pause in the constant fecal downpour underway in the hater’s inner world.  Who wouldn’t seek shelter from that storm, from a grinding sense of inferiority that never lets up?

Still, if you put yourself in front of the public in any way, you’d better be ready for this.  Since at least 1880, with the rise of vaudeville, the cheap seats were situated in the top rear sections of theaters.  If people up there didn’t like the performance, they heckled the actors and threw peanuts at the stage.  It’s where we get the term, “peanut gallery.”  And peanut throwing still takes place, only the gallery has now become synonymous with the broad scope of social media.  So try not to take one in the eye if you can. 

And because flying peanuts are inevitable, perhaps contemplate the enduring wisdom of Father Baltasar Gracián y Morales, Friedrich Nietzsche’s favorite Jesuit social philosopher: The envious man dies not only once but as many times as the person he envies lives to hear the voice of praise; the eternity of the latter’s fame is the measure of the former’s punishment: the one is immortal in his glory, the latter in his misery.

 

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.

 

America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing. 
America two dollars and twenty-seven cents January 17, 1956. 
I can’t stand my own mind.

—Allen Ginsberg, America

If there is such a thing as a formula for success in life, it might go something like this: don’t complain, get results, and watch your back. Notice I said success, not happiness. We can determine metrics for success relative to a given line of effort in a given context—even if such achievement must therefore be contingent and temporary. Still, we can develop certain best practices for success within those parameters. But we have no idea how to determine happiness.

Since 1964, smart people have agreed with Paul that you cannot, under any circumstances, buy love. Clever people (who probably like John’s “Watching the Wheels” a lot more than anything on A Hard Day’s Night) say you may not be able to buy love, but you can certainly buy the conditions most favorable for finding it. However philosophers, especially mathematicians and rhetoricians, respond that “favorable conditions” mean very little when dealing with a binary (love / not love). And playing even-money odds is still a losing game. In other words, correlating a certain quantity and quality of conditions will not necessarily cause a particular outcome. So put your raggedy wallet back in your pants, eh?

Thinking you can beat the system by “bettering your chances” is sloppy, unnecessarily mystical, and prone to failure. It also happens to be in our nature and one of the emotional drivers of post-industrial culture. Part of us may be secretly relieved that we can’t buy love in a Tokyo vending machine, but an even deeper, more pathological part assumes there’s some morality always-already implicit in winning.

We despise the weak, the downtrodden, the unfortunate. We’d prefer that our Bentley be polished by a former office manager recently hoovered into the service economy, not by the mentally ill bearded man who’s been sleeping in the bus station. But we shouldn’t blame ourselves for feeling this way. We know what we like, even if all of heaven’s angels think we’ve grown into monsters.

Max Weber identified this justification-by-success 111 years ago when he wrote that:

the peculiarity of this philosophy of avarice appears to be the ideal of the honest man of recognized credit, and above all the idea of a duty of the individual toward the increase of his capital, which is assumed as an end in itself. Truly what is here preached is not simply a means of making one’s way in the world, but a peculiar ethic. The infraction of its rules is treated not as foolishness but as forgetfulness of duty. That is the essence of the matter. It is not mere business astuteness, that sort of thing is common enough, it is an ethos. (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, 16-17)

In our present economy, this pathological faith seems to have mutated into an ethos blind to pervasive redundancy, obsolescence, dehumanization, and systemic violence so toxic and transpersonal as to make one long for a time machine. No one actually believes he or she is secure anymore or will be in the foreseeable future. No one believes (or even likes) the baby boomers, but everyone wants to believe what they say about things naturally improving.

We could argue that western economic systems have been in decline at least since the state of the “special relationship” in the Reagan / Thatcher administration. The modernist concept of empty-at-the-center radiant socioeconomic decay is now a legitimate way of describing our post-modern reality. Gordon White puts it well in his book on chaos and economics: “By refusing to adjust your strategy from the recommended life offered to the baby boomers forty years ago, what you are saying is that you have every confidence in the system; the current challenges are just temporary, and someone will come and sort it all out for us” (The Chaos Protocols). Right. I have yet to find someone willing to identify this messiah without having to listen to incoherent bellowing about making America great again.

So maybe if we’re not as successful as we think we should be, we can at least remind ourselves that we are trying to avoid being completely evil, that the morality of winning is a hollow and damaging ideal, and that we’re doing our part to bear witness to this:

I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round,
I really love to watch them roll,
No longer riding on the merry-go-round,
I just had to let it go.

Personally, I’ve done what I could to disconnect from what a professor of mine once called the “cant of success,” but I still get suckered by the likes of Malcolm Gladwell and four-hour work weeks and the undergrad-in-communications-level presentations on TED and Big Think. I still read too many articles about “lifehacking” designed to make me a more efficient self-propelled office mechanism. But I read a lot of Allen Ginsberg, too. Like, America:

America why are your libraries full of tears? 
America when will you send your eggs to India? 
I’m sick of your insane demands. 
When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks? 
America after all it is you and I who are perfect not the next world. 
Your machinery is too much for me. 
You made me want to be a saint. 

I want to be a saint, but I’m afraid. I want to love everyone, but I’m afraid. I want to tell the truth, but I’m worried that I don’t know what I’m doing. And I worry that we are all actually perfect and have nowhere to go. As a real life saint once said to me: “There’s nothing to be done. There’s nothing to achieve.” This breaks my heart a little bit more every time I think of it.

Who am I to say what is good or bad?  The bad parts are as integral to my life as the good parts. Sartre said that, and I think I agree.  I’m told to want certain things.  I feel like I have desires and pains.  But if I’m going to be honest with myself, I have to accept that desire and pain are both are necessary for a full life.  This, too, breaks my heart in unforeseen circuitous patterns.

Because I know happiness will remain as distant and ephemeral as the next world, until it comes.

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

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

― Noam Chomsky

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— Vladimir Bukovsky

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

― Charles Bukowski, Factotum