On Knowing If You’re Any Good

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.

Writing the Hard Thing

Writers on the pain of hindsight in publishing: 'It's like a bad breakup – you have to move on ...

If I could tell you the number of stories and novels I’ve begun writing and not finished, we’d be here too long.  But “not finished” doesn’t mean “discarded.”  It means what it says. 

The difficulty comes when I’ve convinced myself that I’m one sort of writer (the consistent, cheerfully productive kind) as opposed the other, less glamorous (or, at least, less visible) sort—a slave to the vicissitudes of the moon or some shit, the guy with 25 ongoing projects and an inability to stop working on any of them. 

I know this about myself.  I tell myself that it’s all part of the bigger creative process.  I imagine all these incomplete pieces fermenting, cross-pollinating, mutating.  Nothing lost.  Everything in motion.  And I take refuge in those ideas and metaphors so I can keep working.  Being a writer, I tell myself a story.  But it might be bullshit self-deceit.

The Romantics smoked opium to get closer to the moon and further from the Victorian head trauma of  “productivity.”  And when my genre writer pals do highly Victorian social media posts that go, “Sigh.  Only 10 pages today,” I wonder whether they’re writing from inspiration or simply turning a lathe in some Dickensian word factory.  Productivity equals commercial success, while moonbeams are their own reward.  Still, I have word count envy no matter what I do. 

The problems of productivity and self-deceit are at the center of trying to write the hard thing.  They are the essential obstacles in making the fiction I came here to make instead of clocking in and lathing out a bunch of words to satisfy something or someone else.  I don’t want to produce that which has been assigned to me by industry, necessity, or convention.  I hate obeying.  But am I achieving anything in my disobedience?  For that matter, is achievement even the point?

When yet another publishing industry blog post comes out sounding like the vehement Alec Baldwin scene from Glengarry Glen Ross, I feel repulsed.  I don’t want to spend time creating a fucking audience platform.  Being an artist is not about “closing.”  Just doing the actual writing takes up all my energy.  I don’t want to frame pieces of my fiction as marketable units.  I want to sit in a moonbeam and make something that arises from my own unique imperatives and disposition.  I want the serendipity of inspiration.  I live for it.  And I resist the overtures of commercialism dedicated to consumption and to bullying artists into seeing themselves as part of a service industry.

Unfortunately, I also can’t avoid wanting the world to read my work and maybe give me some money so I can feed and clothe myself.  It’s terrifying sometimes.  Years ago, at an AWP conference, talking with a publisher after I put out Gravity, my first collection of stories, I felt like Nunez in “The Country of the Blind”—faced with the choice of getting what I loved if I voluntarily blinded myself or seeing clearly and climbing out of the hidden valley forever.  In the end, I chose to keep my eyes.

“If you want to get a second book out using the momentum of your first,” he said, “you need to complete the manuscript in less than a year.  More than that and people forget who you are.  You won’t be able to position it.  You’ll be starting over.”  Six years later, my second book was done.  And he was correct: from the marketing, word factory standpoint, I was starting over.  From a creative-process standpoint, those six years were predicated on the six that came before.  I wasn’t starting over.  I was writing something hard that had emerged from my ongoing creative process, something I couldn’t have written in under a year.

Finishing writing in one’s own time instead of in service to the word factory is difficult.  Discovering one’s limitations as an artist and then transcending them is very difficult.  Putting in the years is difficult.  Doing this up to and beyond age 30 is not only difficult but scary.  Nevertheless, all can be accomplished if one is willing to believe in something greater than the word count.  One says, it’s all part of my creative process and tries to calm down.  One decides not to read (or write) certain self-aggrandising Facebook posts.

Of course, there might not be a bigger process.  Maybe there is only Random House, Amazon, AWP conference ugliness, building a platform, positioning and branding, and Best American Monotony.  Maybe.  Maybe we exist in a world full of cynical anti-creative money-making ventures, cautious art, and nothing else.  It’s always possible.  The thought of it sometimes keeps me up at night, especially in those blocked periods of worrying and not writing.

It’s like reading about nuclear war or the earth dying from climate change: you have no agency, no option to mitigate the damage, soulless politicians are making horrible decisions, and there is only one way this can end.  Apocalypse.  Tragedy.  No one at the wheel.  Inhuman corporations controlling everything.  And death, ignominious and unnoticed, unless you get with the program and start churning out formulaic units. 

Capitalism wins.  It usually does.  But if there is a bigger process at work in your struggle to be an artist, it can’t have anything to do with metaphors of productivity on a factory timeline.  That is a reality you must not accept.

How does a writer know what’s real?  Is it moonbeam or production line?  Is it both?  Can it be both?  Andy Warhol, Ernest Hemingway, and David Bowie say yes.  For the rest of us, maybe not.  For every Warhol, Hemingway, and Bowie, there are multitudes who weren’t lucky enough to have their unique artistry coincide with commercial demand. 

Hugh Howey likes to write about Wool the way Elon Musk talks about launching a roadster into space: let me tell you about my unique genius and the origin of my success.  But self-publishing fame and running a car company have one thing in common that never gets discussed: they exist because they are timely.  So it is with any highly lucrative creative effort.  And that intersection has to do with luck.  Meanwhile, someone out there is no doubt making Peking opera, but they are unlikely to be buying villas on the Riviera anytime soon.  Nobody cares.  Their units don’t ship.  And yet they also have the favor of the moon.

Writers are especially predisposed to misunderstand what is real—what is objective versus just a moonbeam.  They spend a lot of time deliberately thinking in metaphors, some more useful than others.  And if they’re not paying attention to their minds, they can mistake such metaphors for objective reality (which, incidentally, has nothing to do with capitalist realism).  Over-absorption in a world of imaginative metaphors can become a source of anxiety when the non-make-believe world reaches out and reminds us that we can’t live totally in our imaginations.  Make your Peking opera, sure, but also accept that the six years you put into it mean nothing in terms of branding and positioning.

A writer will see something and begin to imagine things about it—everyone does this, but writers seem to do it with particular intensity—and before long the writer starts to feel like he or she knows it or, even worse, is it.  Then something from the world of physics and money communicates: no, you are not that.  You can’t imagine yourself to fame and fortune if you’re doing original work.  You might get lucky, yes, and I hope you (I hope I) do.  But commerce and true creativity exist in different spaces.

So I look at my 25 open projects with a bit of trepidation as the days go by.  I’m turning 46 this month.  I’ve published a lot of stories in magazines and two books.  These have been hard things.  Are they enough?  Will they ever be enough?

Don’t worry, I tell myself.  There’s bigger process at work.  There must be.

Workaholism and Learning How to Relax

Being a self-employed workaholic and knowing how to effectively relax is one of the biggest professional conundrums I’ve faced as an adult.  And by “effective relaxation,” I mean not chemically induced relaxation or pseudo-relaxation that is just another form of work in disguise.  Accepting the necessity of down time is really hard when you’re the one in charge of your schedule.

Add cyclical insomnia, a lot of repressed anger, and an emotionally abusive work ethic instilled from childhood and you get a large part of why I was a difficult person to be around in my 20s and early 30s.  But I think I’ve learned a few things by now.  Here are some ideas if you happen to be someone who shares these or similar issues (and I can think of a number of my friends who probably do).

(1) The most important thing is to be honest about being Type-A, especially if you use work to avoid other unpleasant thoughts, situations, or confrontations.  The first and deepest honesty is with yourself.  Then comes the need to practice outward-facing honesty by releasing the burden of holding these unflattering realizations about your obsessiveness in all the time.  Speaking to others about it releases its hold on you.  If you are afraid of judgment, consider that those who criticize you might feel threatened because they don’t want you to change or don’t want to face their own “stuff.”  Honesty and transparency can renew you completely. And you probably need that kind of renewal.

(2) Understand your rhythms.  Everything flows in evolving patterns, including everything in you—in your body and mind.  If you can roughly predict when you will feel the urge to obliterate yourself by working to exhaustion, you can avoid that.  Go home early.  Make a nice dinner.  Take a shower and get in bed.  Avoid replacing one addiction with another: chemically induced relaxation will compound your problems.  Avoid the bar.  Instead, shut everything down for the moment.  Even allow yourself to fail sometimes.  Missing a deadline or taking an evening off in the interest of self-care will not result in the end of the world.  Stop trying to control everything, especially when you feel that you’re going to fall apart unless you double down and pull an all-nighter.  Because that’s what this is about: feeling like you need absolute control at all times.  Workaholism is like any other addiction.  It’s an ersatz mode of control.  Getting over it means learning to relinquish control.  It’s not easy, but it’s absolutely necessary if you want to progress.

(3) Be kind to yourself.  This sort of self-torture has deep roots in those who suffer from it.  You will slip up when you’re trying to lead a healthier life.  You will have to deal with the unpleasantness of giving up your lousy self-destructive coping strategy.  That cruel inner voice that says you need to prove your worthiness by striving for some unattainable and, frankly, mentally ill standard of perfection and productivity is not your friend.  It’s a part of you that got misaligned early in your development and that is probably sustained by the culture around you.  Learning to be kind to yourself is a good first step toward re-alignment.  A humble and wide perspective also helps, realizing that you will never be at your best if you’re in a constant state of turmoil and burnout.  Also accept that even when you are completely centered, well-rested, and healthy, you’re still fallible.  You’re not always going to be on top of your game.  Maybe never.  So what?  The overall quality of your life is more important.  When you’re dead, hell won’t give you credit for “time already served” up at your desk. 

And (4) avoid the game of childish posturing. In every workplace (and on the internet), you’ll meet a certain percentage of people who get off on how much they can overwork, as if that defines them as superior beings.  They are looking to others for cheap validation because they feel empty.  I know because I have been that person.  Don’t make my stupid mistakes, kid.  Working hard is good.  But setting limits adds value to everything.  Facing the reasons why you overwork might be painful, but it’s again about self-honesty.  You have a limited amount of time.  You should be using at least some of it to frolic in the dandelions and give biscuits to puppies.  I say this as the badass motherfucker you know and love: puppies. Frolic. Get to it.

It goes without saying that, by writing this, I am actually practicing these things in my own way.

Writing out a few sentences by Nakamura to see how they feel.

There was something evil in the glow of the room’s blue lights.  I felt the weight of the man on top of me.  He could no longer move.  His eyes were closed.  I stared long into his face.  I realized that I wanted him.  I wanted the passion he had until a moment ago.  I wanted his shoulders, which were quite muscular for his age, and his naturally tan face.  I got out from under his body, sat in a chair, and lit a cigarette.  I had to wait like this until he fell into a deep sleep.

It was raining outside.

The Kingdom, Fuminori Nakamura (trans. Kalau Almony)

The Writing Life Ain’t Easy, Kid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ancient Art of Writing for Money

20 thoughts on what it takes and how to do it.

1. Nobody owes you time, money, or sympathy. Editors have hard jobs and need to balance a lot of concerns that writers don’t. If an editor or some other client is spending time on you, take it as a compliment. This is true for all readers of your professional work, whether they’re publishers, managers, or website owners. Any time spent on you and your writing is a vote of hope and confidence in your abilities, even if the reader is critical or has a hard-edged personality. It’s a tough business. Keep that in mind.

2. Never write for “exposure” or because someone says the job will “look good on your resume.” That is usually a mistake.

3. Don’t waste time. There are a lot of ways to do this that seem good at first. Sometimes, you have to take a risk on something that will ultimately turn out to be a wasted effort. But most of the time, money is a good test. Are you getting paid? For real? In legal tender as opposed to “exposure”?

4. Write outside your comfort zone and don’t be afraid to do research. It’s the only way to grow. Get used to pushing yourself. You should be surprising yourself at what you can do on a regular basis. How do you expect your work to impress others if it’s the same old thing putting you to sleep?

5. The truth is compelling. Try to tell it as much as possible in and about your work. Contrary to popular belief, telling what you believe to be the truth is likely to result in a higher degree of personal effectiveness.

6. Don’t complain that it’s hard. Of course it’s hard. You can always go clean carpets for a living if you can’t handle being a writer.

7. Don’t complain that you’re broke. Of course you’re broke. A writer trades social respectability and small middle-class luxuries for the big luxury of being a professional writer.

8. Play the field. No one knows you exist unless you make them know. Moreover, rejection will be a constant. The writing world communicates primarily in metaphors of loss and rejection. Remember that it will hardly ever be personal, even when people try to make it seem that way.

9. An agent is not your personal savior. An agent is a businessperson who understands how to make money in your particular field of writing. Sometimes, agents help. Other times, they’re a waste of precious time and effort (see point 3 above).

10. Always plan six months to a year ahead of time. You will hit dry spells and in freelancing there is no security net on which you can depend.

11. Avoid wasting time convincing judgmental friends and relatives that you are honest and have an actual job (see point 3 above). People will be curious about how you exist. They will often assume that you are gaming the system somehow while they have to break their backs at jobs they hate. To non-writers, it will seem like you are getting paid for doing something everybody does on a daily basis. This attitude is grounded in ignorance, but don’t tire yourself out trying to correct it. For example, if you also write screenplays and novels, it’s better not to mention it. When people hear, “I write fiction,” the first thing they’ll think is, “How come I’ve never heard of him? If he were any good, I would have.” The way to avoid people automatically concluding that you’re a loser and a failure is to stay as boring as possible: “I mostly write technical stuff.” The upside is that if you’re a freelancer for any length of time, this will be at least partly true.

12. Get sleep. This should be obvious, but early college programming dies hard. You can’t write well with a bleary mind.

13. Don’t be afraid to disappear to get work done. Time gets distorted when you’re writing intensively. What seems like a week to you might only be a few days of sustained work. Often, your friends and family won’t even notice that you’ve spent the weekend at a small table in the attic.

14. Get out and meet people. Freelancers usually prefer to write from home in their pajamas. Outdo them by dressing like a professional and offering to meet with clients. Some people won’t be interested, but some will jump at the chance to avoid having to express themselves in text (their problem in the first place). This is especially true if you soak up the travel expense. While meeting with them, take pictures, notes, recordings. Practice active listening. Stay as engaged as possible with the culture of their organization. You may also mention that you offer writing tutorials and intensives. Be a walking advertisement of all you can do for them. You will develop some very meaningful business relationships that way.

15. Accept that much of what you write will be secret. It’s called “ghostwriting” and it exists at all levels in all fields. People don’t want it known that they had to hire you because they didn’t have the opportunity or capacity to do the writing themselves. Your CV should be honest, but accept that you’ll always have done more work than you can show. This is part of your professionalism. Some of the highest paying clients will require the most discretion.

16. You don’t need to impress anybody. That’s for escorts and politicians. Your writing has to impress people. It does this by being clear, precise, imaginative, and otherwise correct as defined in your guidelines. As long as you can produce work like that, you will get a lot of repeat business.

17. Have fallback income to reduce stress. This goes beyond just saving half a year in advance. There will be times when no one wants to hire you and you’re burning through your savings while you wait for new leads. This doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It’s just the way things go sometimes. Having a secondary way to pay the rent and get your teeth cleaned will keep you sane and actually make you a better writer by giving you new experiences. It also toughens you up in a lot of different ways. Just like Aunt Fanny used to say: every artist needs a trade.

18. Give yourself assignments. Writing well takes constant practice—just like playing the viola, only the viola is the writing part of your mind. So you need to write regularly even if no one is paying you to do it. You can use those pieces later as samples if you don’t have professional clips yet. Post your uncomissioned pieces to a blog and let the world in on what you’ve been thinking about. This practice is indispensable.

19. Help other writers out when you can. “Good will” comes back to you when you least expect it. This is another hidden dimension of what it is to function as a professional. It’s also just a decent way to live. That said, sometimes helping someone out means giving an honest appraisal of their work when they ask. It doesn’t mean hurting their feelings if you can avoid doing so. Never expect others to be as tough as you pretend to be.

20. Never apologize for what you do. Your cousin, Jimmy, might imagine that all you do is sit around all day while he busts his ass at the car lot. Send him a card at Christmas and let him feel superior. He will never understand your strange world of ideas, structures, and sounds. He doesn’t need to. Not everyone can sustain the writing life (see point 11 above).

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.

On Productivity and Publishing

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

Better: what do I need?

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

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

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

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

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

* 2021 update: 3 published, 2 more currently seeking a home.

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.