Tag Archives: Wisdom of the ancients

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.

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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.

You Do What You Are

Back in Michigan, I studied more literature than was required for my degree because I enjoyed being around lit professors and grad students. Once a well-meaning lit student in one of those classes said to me, “It’s great that you want to become a fiction writer.” I said, “Actually, I am a fiction writer. But I agree, it’s great that I want to become more of one.”

When you know and develop what you are–writer, artist, teacher, programmer, lawyer, entrepreneur, soldier, whatever–you radiate that. You become a catalyst for that kind of change no matter what you are doing or where you are. It’s not that you are what you do–because that implies that if you’re not doing it, you don’t exist. It’s that you do what you are, always.

So a photographer sits in the waiting room of her dentist’s office. She is a photographer in a waiting room. She is not someone who was a photographer for two hours yesterday and is now nothing or some kind of post-photographer waiting to be a photographer again tomorrow. She is what she is, and she is constantly thinking like a photographer. In her actions, conversations, thoughts, memories, and impulses, she is a photographer, whether she has a camera in her hands or not. By doing her art, she can deepen her sensibilities and technical ability. But she does not rely on anything outside herself to be who she is, even if she relies on cameras to express that state of being externally. Likewise, she does not need the recognition, money, or approval of the world in order to exist.

As a writer and a teacher, I am always writing and teaching–whether I am at my desk, in a classroom, watching a movie, or taking a walk across town. I radiate that and cause change around me according to it. It is the way I connect with the world. Moreover, I can recognize the same sensibilities in others.

My classmate understood this immediately. She said, “You’re right. I’m sorry.” But it wasn’t an awkward moment. I could see that she’d already turned inward and had begun to ask herself: “Who am I? What do I radiate? What am I becoming? What sort of change do I create?” It was a really good moment because these are the questions we all have to ask and never stop asking.


A Meditation on the Inevitability of Death

To myself, regarding death:

You are going to die.  You may not like to think about it, but it’s going to happen.  Maybe tomorrow.  Maybe in 50 years.  Who can say?  That’s the bit you can’t know (thankfully).  But you do know where you’re going to end up sooner or later.  You do realize how short 100 years are, don’t you?  You do realize how many people don’t even make it that far.

You are going to die.  Everything you loved and feared, all your petty remonstrances and trivial irritations will be dust.  Time will bury everything, wonderful and hateful, lies and truth.  And in a few short years after your death, it will be as though you never existed.  This alone should make you cling to every passing moment—no matter how monotonous or unpleasant—but you’re as dumb as a post, forgetful, myopic.  You don’t understand a thing.

You are going to die.  Yet you waste your days worrying about the opinions of others.  After you die, people will actively try to forget you—and will largely succeed—because you will remind them of their own mortality.  Even now while you are still alive, the only time people want to consider you or something connected to you is when it somehow makes them feel better about themselves.  How different will it be when you’re nothing but rotting meat?  At best, the thought of you will inspire grief and a sense of loss—at worst, revulsion, resentment, aversion.  No one will want to care.  Eventually people won’t take the time to speak your name—the word which used to stand for you but which now stands for nothing.

You are going to die.  Still, you waste time planning and striving as if worry and toil could add days to your life.  There is no life but the one you are living.  You don’t get more days.  You only get fewer.  And every moment spent enslaved to a meaningless job, a tyrant, an empty social obligation, an imaginary god, vain status seeking, or the quest for symbols of wealth / worth is an act of fraud against yourself.  The great herd trots into the slaughterhouse, worrying about tomorrow’s breakfast—never thinking that it will, in fact, be them.

You are going to die.  And until you realize it in your heart of hearts—until you embrace the specter of death and kiss its grinning skull and know and accept and understand that your time is painfully, stupidly short—you will not have begun to live.  Time will destroy everything but death.  There is no morality.  There are no obligations.  There are no commandments or requirements beyond this one realization.


Late-Night Thoughts on the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis…

English: Edward Sapir (1884-1939), linguist, a...

Edward Sapir

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, grossly simplified, goes like this: “the semantic structure of a language shapes or limits the ways in which a speaker forms conceptions of the world” (Nordquist). How, then, can we talk about enhancing our fluency in a foreign language without taking the formation of meaning into account? One of the reasons I love Sapir-Whorf, as controversial and unprovable as the hypothesis remains, is that it assumes the inseparability of language and meaning. This is especially interesting to me since I have begun to teach a practicum in conversational English to graduate students in an interpretation school.

Consider what Edward Sapir says in “The Status of Linguistics as a Science”: “The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality.” If we accept these assumptions, the interpreter becomes a gateway for meaning, an arbiter of what can be said and, consequently, of what can be meant.

One of the lessons I’ve already learned about language interpretation is that it’s not simply conveying the information from one language into another; it’s absorbing meaning created by one language and recreating a highly similar meaning in another. And therein lies the art, as far as I understand it.


3 Thoughts for the Day…

3 thoughts for the day: (1) Jettison everyone and everything that does not contribute to you evolving into a happier, more effective, more engaged human being; (2) never feel sorry for an institution–no matter the propaganda, it doesn’t care about you beyond the extent to which you help it perpetuate its directives; and (3) if you are surrounded by loathsome fools, you make loathsome foolishness part of your life–a few good friends and enough resources to live your own way are far better than fame, fortune, and the envy of organic automata.