Of Trouble, Money, and the So-called Writing Life

There is a writing life.  And you could lead it if you could only get past everything else, which is to say yourself.  This is what a lot of writers eventually believe, even if they don’t start out that way.  Maybe you believe it, too.  It’s not the wrong way to think (tell me there’s a right or wrong in this business and I’ll show you how that’s both right and wrong), but it is naïve. 

So be naïve.  There are worse things for a writer, like crippling cynicism or despair or (absolutely lethal) early unwarranted success.  And what is success?  Before we get into that, let’s start with trouble, which means we have to also start with money because they’re inseparable. 

I was going to call this, “Of Trouble and Money,” but I realized that’s too broad.  It covers everybody.  And this is a post aimed primarily at writers and at those closeted egomaniacs grappling with the concept who call themselves, “aspiring writers.”  So I added “the So-called Writing Life.”  But that, too, is just a label, a concept, a paper hat, an identity that often proves to be more trouble than it’s worth.

You need something else, a different paper hat to stave off Bob, who works in IT and hates himself, at the dinner party you were coerced into attending.  Bob despises everything in the world, but he’ll despise you so much more if you put on the writer hat.  So you say, “I’m an English teacher” (nice and boring; he feels superior; well done) or “I’m a copyeditor” (also boring; satisfyingly obscure) or “I’m between jobs” (could be true; boring; allows Bob to feel superior and has the added benefit of desperation cooties, which will make Bob excuse himself in 30 seconds and avoid you for the rest of the evening).  Say anything other than, “I’m a writer.”  You don’t need the paper hat to lead the life.

You just need to lead the life.  And what does that entail?  First, trouble.  You have it the minute you make the decision to put down words that amount to anything more than a grocery list.  There’s the art, which takes a lifetime.  There are the ponderous exigencies of time and space that seem to conspire against you from the beginning, making it very difficult to get anything completed.  There are many pencils to sharpen and bagels to eat and horrific dinner parties to endure.  There’s your recalcitrant mind, your spouse, your family, your friends, your old pals from high school at the reunion, your outright enemies, the publishing industry, crotchety reviewers, and posterity, which you won’t be around to appreciate but which you’ll worry about nonetheless.  There’s needing to eat.  And there’s existential dread that you’re wasting your time, which you’ll laugh at until it starts laughing, too.

Second, money.  Another pernicious idea.  A demon.  The basis of all well-being in our mentally ill society.  Getting it.  Having it.  Spending it.  Losing it.  Cycle, cycle, cycle, over and over.  Writing doesn’t work on money.  And the writing life doesn’t know money exists.  All writing wants is more writing.  All money wants is every part of you salted on a plate.

A young horror writer I know recently told me that he feels small presses are fine, but his goal is to make a middle-class income off his writing.  So he has to go for bigger game.  I told him that I thought it was possible, that I thought he could do it, and I was being honest.  You can earn a middle-class living doing just about anything if you make that income level your goal and subordinate all other considerations to it.  I admire his clarity.  I never said, “I want that.”  I only said I needed to write because if I didn’t I’d get (more) mentally unwell.  For me, it’s a matter of health.  For him, wealth. 

We’re both writers.  But he’s going to get what he wants because he actually knows what it is, which gives him wisdom.  Very few writers are healthy, wealthy, and wise.  All I ever knew was that I didn’t want to not write.  When I did write, I was happier for it.  I’m still on that track: write so I can avoid having not written, then get busy with all the other compulsions and machinations of my day, which are ultimately in place to facilitate one thing: me being able to avoid not writing again tomorrow.

So you eat the trouble-money sandwich every day.  And if you can keep it down, if you can do your art on a regular basis with a free and sincere mind, you’re leading the writing life—insofar as we can call it that, since most serious writers will be equally serious when they tell you that’s no way to live.  Go into plastics.  Sell computers.  Operate a used car lot.  Go make Bolivia great again.  Manage a bowling alley and spend all your free time watching spaghetti westerns and smoking weed.  Care for a kitten.  I guarantee, in the end, that kitten will make you happier than your writing, even if, from the beginning to the middle, your writing saves your life.

But what is your life worth?  If you have an idea that it comes down to being a success and you can say what that is, you are most assuredly wrong.  If you only have a compulsion to not not write, welcome to my world.  I can’t be wrong because I can’t be right.  Every morning with my coffee and steno pad, I’m a formless pulse, trying to be someone else, somewhere else, in my head.  And that doesn’t make a body solvent.  It doesn’t make people want to put your books in urns in the basement of a pyramid.  You’ll get paid by teaching or working for Bob the IT professional or washing dishes in the back of Harley’s Place.  And don’t complain.  You made your choices.  Complaining is for Bob, not you.  He doesn’t get to do what you do.

So you accept that you’ve made this writer’s bargain.  You’ve gone down to the crossroads and agreed that, in exchange for being able to live the writing life, you will never have a two-story house in the suburbs and drive a car that doesn’t look like a dirty toaster.  You will be mindful of your whining.  You will be grateful for this divine gift that makes you weird and ecstatic and keeps your head from exploding.  And you will get up day-in and day-out and sit at the desk and go out of body to that place where your characters may be earning their middle-class incomes and driving new cars and having break-up conversations over linguine at the Chez Paul.

Maybe you’ll be a horror writer.  Maybe you will attain your income goals.  But I suspect that in order to accomplish such a thing, you’ll have to get past those goals along with everything else and exist in a liminal space where all that matters is the writing.  In the meantime, you should know that cardboard inserts in your shoes can prevent your socks from getting wet.  And a place that serves bottomless coffee is a joy forever.

The Heat Death of a Wandering Star

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Mad Dance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tiredness, Truth, and Mockery: the American Way

...
Early rendition of Alfred E. Neuman, 1908.

Today, I wonder whether I should re-think some of my ultra-liberal biases and attendant leftist news consumption.  This is good.  But, man, I’m beat.

The alt-right (and the radical religious right) to me seems like a uniquely American expression of deep stupidity but, of course, I would say that. Look at my demographic: college educated, democrat, fiction writer, from Southern California, who’s been an expat for almost a decade. Of course, I think Trump is the worst thing that could have possibly happened to the world. Of course, I wanted Bernie but voted Hillary. Of course, I want net neutrality. Of course, I support many (but not all) positions taken by the ACLU. Of course, I believe that, in an earlier era, Obama would have been considered a moderate republican. Of course, I have a problem with drones, civilian casualties, the terrific scope creep of the Patriot Act, and the “war on drugs.” Of course, I care about my country.

If I didn’t think the Green Party was run by bumblers, I would probably join. I’m pro-choice, pro-Planned Parenthood, and I support gay marriage. I think many of these things should not even have to be controversial in a liberal democracy. I dream of a day when there will be universal healthcare and free college tuition. I think climate change is one of the most, if not the most, serious issues we face today. But the truth is that most of these biases and beliefs can be (and are) predicted by an algorithm. The even sadder truth is that I only have so much energy I can devote to fact checking and being outraged. This is a problem. Tiredness is a problem.

The problem is not that there is a right answer we have to find. The problem is that uncertainty and complexity are exhausting over time, especially when you’re necessarily engaged in other things. Most Americans are not, actually, stupid. They’re invested in certain areas–mostly job and family–and in most other respects have a general (superficial) understanding of the world, including political issues and identifying yellow journalism, confirmation bias, and what passes for fear mongering click-bait. I have also seen this in European and Asian countries, relative to various cultural differences and levels of education. The USA doesn’t own “stupid.” Every country with a powerful media has a horse as a proconsul somewhere. The difference is that the States likes to put its toga-wearing horses on display, whereas other countries have not. But this is changing.

In an enormous post-industrial society, you will have many levels of political, historical, and economic awareness and many opinions emerging constantly in the news media. You will also have crackpot theories; secessionism; separatism based on race, religion, and / or gender biases; conspiracy paranoia; multi-directional shaming; late night talk show infotainment; social justice fanatics; religious absolutists; new age hucksters; ambulance chasers; a continuous horde of cynics; doom-saying historians looking for their 15 minutes; the resurgence of failed orthodoxies (like Nazism, ethno-nationalism, and whatever Steve Bannon happens to be reading); and the all-encompassing opportunism that feeds off these things. What you won’t have is a simple black-and-white truth. You will have truthiness.

To live in an information society infected with truthiness is extremely taxing. But just as there is no black-and-white truth, there is no easy solution. A friend of mine has suggested “slow news” as opposed to internet news feeds. It seems like there are some merits there. But slow news does not necessarily safeguard against yellow journalism, which has been around since newspapers could fold. In many ways, the 24-hour news cycle and its problematic presence on social media makes it harder for governments and corporations to spin interpretations in their favor. We should be grateful for the ineptitude of Sean Spicer and the alacrity with which he and his boss are covered by the press corps.

I don’t have answers. I don’t think there is a single version of what is true—at least not one that can be had through the media. But I also don’t think the cross-eyed chants of “burn it down” and “fuck your feelings” have done any good. They helped Trump get elected as president, and he has thus far made a mockery of America. The left understandably wants him gone. The GOP wants him to calm down and let them get on with the kleptocracy. His base supporters are currently upset because he bowed 5 inches to receive an award in Saudi. Some of his supporters are no doubt upset that the Reich hasn’t yet emerged in all its glory. I suspect they will still be upset when he gets impeached.

“Nothing is an absolute reality; all is permitted” – Hassan-i Sabbah

Thoughts on Sally Yates

Sally Yates at Carter Center

Woke up this morning thinking about Sally Yates—how standing up to President Trump seems to have dramatically influenced the course of her life, how I’ve watched part of her emotional transformation through social media, specifically Twitter, and how her public narrative seems to reveal and confirm things I’ve suspected about the nature of personal meaning and career.

She seems to be undergoing a kind of emotional rebirth.  As someone who works primarily in the emotional mind—emotional intelligence being the primary resource for teaching and doing creative writing—I have learned to recognize when someone is emerging into a deeper, more meaningful emotional life.  She certainly is, even if only by a slight degree.

Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning consistently seems to prove out: it doesn’t matter what we do or where we are as long as we can find or create meaning for ourselves.  And so I return to the question of my own career, my own meaning.  When I think back to the teaching I have done, I’m faced with the choice of believing that most of my professional life has been meaningful vs. meaningless.  Obviously, I prefer to think my work has made some kind of difference.

It’s hard to believe in things I cannot see, but I have to nurture a certain degree of faith in the teaching and writing I’ve done.   Sally Yates, someone who has lived primarily in the analytical mind, is now at the beginning of something new—one hopes, something emotionally significant and transformative.  To see someone publicly come into being like this is to bear witness to a largely unnoticed dimension of human experience.  It’s something that sincere teachers get to see more often than any other profession. 

But my personal question remains: how am I coming into being?  Just as someone with Yates’ background and skill set might step into a more intuitive life (by running for public office instead of remaining in the legal-bureaucratic infrastructure), I bear the responsibility for my own development.  Where am I going now?  What’s next?  The future is never fixed, never certain.

Freedom

There are only two sureties in life: that we have been born and that we will die. The rest, at least from a finite human perspective, is variable.

No True Answers, No Answerable Truths

Contemplating the mystery of our birth—why was I born?—is likely to cause a certain degree of anxiety, at least for those of us who judge ourselves to be in mundane circumstances: my family is not wealthy; I am not wealthy; I am not famous; my job is not glamorous; my children are unimpressive; my spouse is boring; I am not exceptionally beautiful or witty or gifted; and, though I secretly tell myself I’m smarter than most people, I just as often fear that I am not. Erase me completely and there will be someone very much like me to take my place. Why, then, do I exist? The world is quick to provide temporary relief and sell us an answer to this unanswerable question. If we’re honest with ourselves, maybe after purchasing a few bottles of snake oil (and who can blame us for that), we will eventually come to the conclusion that if we can’t know about the reason for our own lives, no one can.

Death is a similar mystery with no good answers or reasons. We know what happens biologically after the cessation of life, insofar as we are able to agree on what actually constitutes life. But we do not know whether mind is coterminous with brain. If it isn’t, then where does the mind go after the body rots? If it is, then human consciousness is an epiphenomenon of matter and is therefore unlike any other thing (event? concept? process? ghost? singularity?) in the known universe—another unfathomable mystery. As Marcus Aurelius says: “Providence or atoms” (Meditations, IV.3). Life comes down to one or the other, even if we can’t know what either truly is.

Only We Care About What Our Lives May Mean

Even before we’re naught but dust, we will watch ourselves vanish by inches. Consider that in a few years, society will tell us that our significance has already passed. We won’t be dead yet, but we will still be told that it is time to retire and make way for those who are younger and therefore more socially relevant. Our worth will be judged according to what we have earned for ourselves in 20-30 years of active adult life. And such judgment will be based on the social values of the moment—ideas presently in fashion, not even, necessarily, what we were thinking about when we started the company, wrote the book, or climbed the mountain.

We will still be asking, Why, then, do I exist? And, as we reach retirement age, we may find others asking us that, too. Moreover, we may complain about the stereotypical characteristics of the Millennials, but every generation (like every individual) judges the world according to its own perspective and values. We, in Generation X, also judged the Baby Boomers. And they cruelly judged us as well as the Lost Generation, etc. Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis. Times change, and we change with them. And so goes the world.

But in spite of our all-encompassing solipsism, we will still have regrets. We will either have worked very hard in practical ways to do what was expected of us (and feel that we never fully addressed our inner potential) or we will have pursued some path of inner realization (and feel that we never got to experience conventional kinds of success and recognition). This may be an oversimplification, but the principle is sound. We will eventually realize, on some level, that we cannot have it all because we are going to die and our time is limited. This may make us cry because we can’t stop asking why we had to go through all this anguish and absurdity just to wind up in the ground. Or it may make us free because the inevitability of death puts all the anguish and absurdity into perspective.

Freedom From the Burden of Meaning

There may be some value when we contemplate life in terms of death. Embracing the inevitability of death can free us from what we may feel is a mundane and meaningless existence. Someday soon (especially if we consider the relative shortness of life), we will all be dead. All the people we know will be dead. All the things we cared about will have changed, some far beyond what we could have imagined. And those who follow will not think about us much. How often do you think about your great-grandparents? Your grandparents? Your great uncles and aunts? They are not a relevant or functional part of your day to day existence, even if you do have some way to regularly honor them.

At best, the people living after us will have certain ideas of who we were, since it is impossible to convey the dimensionality of a human life. If we are lucky, we will be summarized in terms of our professional achievements and historically significant actions (if any). Our images may be preserved in photos or videos, but those images won’t be us, either. People will never know who we really were inside, what we truly thought, how we truly felt. In every way that counts, we will be gone, questions silenced, problems solved, story told.  We will be free.

 

I met a traveller from an antique land, 
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone 
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand, 
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown, 
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, 
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read 
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, 
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed; 
And on the pedestal, these words appear: 
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; 
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! 
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay 
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare 
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

“Ozymandias,” Shelley’s Poetry and Prose (1977)

The Voice in the Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ivory tower covered in camouflage.

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

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

Enter: John, who also wanted to matter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Green Muse by Albert Maignan (1895)

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

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

Listen. And seek the mysteries.

I Just Had to Let It Go

 

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.

On writing when you feel uninspired and dead inside . . .

  • Set a word count goal. My minimum goal is 7 pages per week, which comes to about 2450 words.
  • Give yourself permission to write poorly. You are the worst judge of your own writing, especially in a first draft. You need to get around your hangups if you want to be productive.  The only way to do this is to stop caring what the world will think.
  • Meditate. I do it for 15-20 minutes before I start. I close my eyes, pay attention to my breathing, and still my mind. You can’t focus if you have a head full of burning spiders.
  • Never talk about what you’re currently writing. Talk about what you’ve already written if you must. Ideally, unless you need to be flogging your “platform” and self-promoting, don’t talk about your writing at all.  Put it out there and let others talk about how great or horrible you are.
  • Always talk about the craft of writing but only after you’ve done your writing for the day.
  • Program yourself by creating rituals and routines that inform your body and mind it’s time to write. I try to write at the same time every day.  After I meditate, I have coffee, light a little incense (which replaced a cigarette years ago), and disconnect from electronic media.
  • Always end with something more left to say in the scene. It will take far more energy tomorrow to start from zero than in media res.
  • Do not compare yourself to other writers, ever. You are a unique snowflake. Believe it.
  • Avoiding low blood sugar is one of the secret keys to intellectual productivity, especially for creative people. Have your donut, but be sure to also snack on fruit and seeds.
  • After you write and dump all your energy into your work, do a little exercise to avoid feeling exhausted for hours. I currently do yoga and chi gong, but a good swim or a jog would be just as effective, I think.