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Read it here: https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/the-new-york-times-is-rotting-at-the-seams

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.

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.

Read my latest in Splice Today: https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/jonathan-franzen-can-t-solve-climate-change-for-anyone-who-matters

 

impressions

A travel-blog post on my first impressions of Wales.  Read it here: https://bkk-writing.blogspot.com/2019/08/impressions-of-wales.html

air and light and time and space

“–you know, I’ve either had a family, a job,

something has always been in the

way

but now

I’ve sold my house, I’ve found this

place, a large studio, you should see the space and

the light.

for the first time in my life I’m going to have

a place and the time to

create.”

no baby, if you’re going to create

you’re going to create whether you work

16 hours a day in a coal mine

or

you’re going to create in a small room with 3 children

while you’re on

welfare,

you’re going to create with part of your mind and your body blown

away,

you’re going to create blind

crippled

demented,

you’re going to create with a cat crawling up your

back while

the whole city trembles in earthquake, bombardment,

flood and fire.

baby, air and light and time and space

have nothing to do with it

and don’t create anything

except maybe a longer life to find

new excuses

for.

— Charles Bukowski

There are many different paths to greatness, not just the ones most commonly identified by conformist culture.  As long as your basic needs are met, where you put your energy—how you pursue excellence—is completely your business.  Realizing this can be difficult and gradual.

It seems true, even if we admit that discourses (value systems) will always compete with each other for dominance.  And one of the most ruthless and rapacious, at least in the West, is that of “meritocracy.”  A meritocracy is inherently based on an assumed set of cultural values.  But you need to realize that you are free to opt out of those assumed values.  What the masses consider to be good doesn’t have to define your life.  

If you don’t accept meritocratic cultural values, merit-based judgments by those who do are irrelevant.  In other words, it is a mistake to impose the rules of a game on someone who refuses to play; though, because discourses will compete with each other, people will usually try to impose their personal values-discourse on you.  Often, they will do so because they’re not aware of alternatives.  They may not even remember the moment they chose to buy in.  And they may not understand that imposing values on someone else is an act of violence.

Remove the question of merit (and its various implications) and the locus of meaning in life shifts (possibly returns) from an external authority to the individual.  One arrives squarely within Viktor Frankl’s “Will to Meaning“—not seeking meaning / value relative to others, but exploring what is already resonant / resident in the self.  “Thy Will be Done” becomes “My Will be Done,” with all the freedoms and responsibilities arising from that shift.

It makes no difference if your private world is idiosyncratic to the point at which it would seem very strange to more common sensibilities.  As long as you’re not behaving like a hypocrite by harming or otherwise curtailing the autonomy of others, your interiority (including the way you choose to perceive the world outside your self) is completely yours.  And it doesn’t seem outrageous to conclude that this is how it should be.  If you don’t own your thoughts, can you ever own anything else?  In fact, it seems that the more you personalize your unique way of seeing and acting in the world, the stronger and more persuasive that uniqueness becomes. 

Because discourse is grounded in conflict and competition, this self-originating, self-describing narrative you are spinning can have a destabilizing effect on others, who may accuse you of being a delusional, a dreamer, someone out of touch with (what the dominant culture considers) reality.  But if it works for you, isn’t it the right thing?  Isn’t that choosing inner freedom instead of pledging fealty to ideas and to a lifestyle that was designed (or emerged) without you particularly in mind?

Walking away from a meritocracy takes a lot of courage and effort.  Because you are a social being, it can involve a certain amount of suffering, alienation, and lonesomeness.  You risk being called a deviant, being labeled as a disaffected undesirable.  Even if you don’t agree with those judgments, they will still hurt.  Hopefully, your growing curiosity about your own sui generis greatness and freedom will mitigate that pain.

You might call this the “inward path,” the “artist’s way,” or “the path beyond the campfire” which leads into dark unmapped places, where all new things wait to be discovered.

You Are Somewhere Else

First, a Sincere Declaration of Thanks

I’ve spent most of my life running in circles looking for something authentic, then waiting for permission to explore it, and harshly criticizing myself when I didn’t get that permission.  Maybe other people have different experiences, but this has been mine, my personal through-line from childhood to the present.  So I try to be as sincere as possible when I write about my frustrations and failures.  Because what else can I do?  While it’s true that sincerity doesn’t make you friends, at least it makes you the right sort of enemies.  I imagine this blog post will do more of that.

Still, I try to avoid self-pity and, because of this, I usually take a long time to form opinions about what I’ve done or failed to do and how others have reacted.  I ruminate.  I turn things over, trying to see past faulty assumptions, convenient rationalizations, and other self-serving anodynes.  Most people probably do this to some extent, but I think I do it more.  Sometimes, it works.  Other times, what I took for a true perception, for reality, eventually dissolves into just another subjective field, just another corridor of the maze that I have come to think of as my life.  In a maze, you never know what the next twist will bring.  Usually, it brings another twist.

With this in mind, I should begin by saying that in 2010 I came very close to ending my life.  This essay is about that time, but it’s not just about depression and not really about suicide.  It’s not a success narrative where I write about how I overcame great difficulties and am now nearing perfectibility.  It’s not about taking revenge on others through a misguided petty hit piece.  And it’s certainly not about castigating myself for the many imaginary errors I’ve regretted and then dismissed over the last eight years in order to keep getting up in the morning.  It’s a slice of life—a big, fat, ugly slice that tries to embrace the broadest range of experience in order to get closer to the truth.  In this, it’s a lot like an advanced non-fiction exercise.

“Advanced” because it is not easy and not something you would assign to a 17-year-old English major in an introductory writing workshop.  “Non-fiction” because it’s a mode of creative expression that pretends a certain degree of inviolable objectivity, even though we know that’s impossible.  Every memoir, no matter how fabulous, must begin implicitly or explicitly with an assertion of truth or at least with a sincere declaration of authorial good faith: “I did this.  I saw this.  This happened.  At least, I think it happened.”  Rousseau’s Confessions does it with style:

Whenever the last trumpet shall sound, I will present myself before the sovereign judge with this book in my hand, and loudly proclaim, thus have I acted; these were my thoughts; such was I.  With equal freedom and veracity have I related what was laudable or wicked, I have concealed no crimes, added no virtues; and if I have sometimes introduced superfluous ornament, it was merely to occupy a void occasioned by defect of memory: I may have supposed that certain, which I only knew to be probable, but have never asserted as truth, a conscious falsehood.

This is my favorite passage from the first part of the book because literary historians have proven that the Confessions contains many misstatements if not deliberate falsehoods.  Such graceful bald-faced prevarication is a rare and beautiful thing.  But I am not so talented.  And I have no plans to weigh my heart against a feather on the last day. 

Instead, I will put it this way: I suspect I am not a horrible person.  I have faith that I’m not even tactless.  I believe my greatest defect is that I lack the imagination necessary to see several moves ahead.  I lack interpersonal foresight, which has made me a poor manager of nervous egomaniacs and a terrible chess player.  But I love chess.  And that is a serious problem, even if I hate the high-strung pampered egomania of academic writing programs, because everything toward the end of my PhD program was just a version of that game.

Robert Greene, in the acknowledgements of The 48 Laws of Power—a book loved equally by goateed 25-year-olds with a Libertarian Bitcoin fetish and the morose IT professionals you see combing the self-help section for books on how to become an alpha male—has a similar protestation of sincerity:

I must also thank my dear friend Michiel Schwarz who was responsible for involving me in the art school Fabrika in Italy and introducing me there to Joost Elffers, my partner and producer of The 48 Laws of Power.  It was in the scheming world of Fabrika that Joost and I saw the timelessness of Machiavelli and from our discussions in Venice, Italy, this book was born. . . . Finally, to those people in my life who have so skillfully used the game of power to manipulate, torture, and cause me pain over the years, I bear you no grudges and I thank you for supplying me with inspiration for The 48 Laws of Power.

If we read this carefully, we have to smile.  Greene is doing what we might call an “inverted Rousseau,” making the same assertion in a backwards way: this is a book about real things; therefore, I thank all those who have manipulated and tortured me for providing good material and, in the process, I declare my sincerity. 

Greene puts us on notice that his book is based on subjective material that emanates from his and Elffers’ lived experience, creating a Rousseau-esque escape hatch.  As The 48 Laws of Power is all highly subjective (essentially a kind of implicit portrait of Greene stitched together in historical anecdotes), the value of whatever he writes defaults to his apparent sincerity (“I may have supposed that certain, which I only knew to be probable, but have never asserted as truth, a conscious falsehood”).  It’s not about an objective truth process.  It’s about rhetorical ethos.

That is wonderful because ethos might be the only sincere rhetorical mode.  After logos topples from an unstable foundation of assumption, appeal to authority, and generalization; after pathos is unmasked as merely a screen of emotion recollected in tranquility; the persuasive credibility of the speaker is all that remains.  In a world where absolute truth does not exist, everything is ethos.  And so I construct my own ethical escape hatch. 

2010 was the worst year of my life, the year after my mother died of lung cancer; the year after my first book was published; the year I got my PhD in English; the year I attended my last AWP Conference; the year I traveled to the deep South for an excruciating week-long job interview and realized the English department clichés also obtain south of the Mason-Dixon Line; the year I got very ill; the year I was admonished by my mentor for questioning the value of my degree and told to be grateful for indefinite unemployment; the year my father began another surly adolescence; the year I began to think that there was no place for me in this world.  There are many years I’d relive if I could.  2010 is not one of them.  But I have been told to be thankful for these experiences because they have supplied me with a lot of inspiration.  As such, this writing is my sincere declaration of thanks.

Prelude

You never know what the next twist in the maze will bring but, in 2009, I think I was doing as well as could be expected when I stood in front of the department graduate adviser’s desk and said I needed a leave of absence to visit my mother in hospice.  For some reason, that moment stands out as a prelude for the upcoming year.

The adviser, the department’s resident medievalist, seemed to exist in an acid vapor of contempt for all creative writing students and their keepers.  She disliked me in particular because I’d dropped her Old English seminar the previous semester and she’d taken it personally.  Since I was doing a PhD with a creative dissertation (the final product would become Gravity, my first story collection), I didn’t need to be in her class.  But she needed me there.  Or, at least, she needed to feel loved by as many students as possible.

This was the woman who would thereafter try to prevent me from graduating so that my funding would run out.  This was the woman—whether due to old workplace feuds or out of resentment that there were more creative writing events on campus than dramatizations of Piers Plowman and undergraduate maypole dances—perpetually tried to block funding to the creative writing program and force out the graduate students depending on tuition waivers.  Her style of chess was to kill the pawns first.  Attack the supply lines, starve the more dangerous units in their fortifications, and wait for winter.  Classic medieval siege tactics.

However, standing before her desk, I was barely aware of the billowing acid cloud.  I was half-blind with grief.  All I thought about was my mom and how I had to get back to California to see her.  Looking back, I’m surprised I even had the wherewithal to stand up straight, much less ask for a leave of absence.  But I was very responsible.  I took everything seriously.  I thought a lot about my future in academia, especially in creative writing instruction.  And I felt my future depended on me contentiously following up on every detail.  I was, essentially, as sincere as I have ever been in my life.  I shouldn’t have been that sincere.

Given my emotional state, what the adviser said to me didn’t register until I’d left the building.  The conversation went something like this:

“I need a leave of absence to go to California because my mother is dying of cancer.”

She rolled her eyes, looked out the window as if she were considering it, sighed, then shook her head.  “No can do.  You only have so much funding.  Your funding will not cover you for another semester.”

“My mother is dying.  She doesn’t have long.  I’ve completed my course work.  My dissertation only needs to be approved.  I don’t even need any more credits.”

Another sigh.  More contemplating the clouds.  “Well, that’s really too bad.  You have to be in residence or your funding will run out while you’re gone.  Good luck.”

I stood there, trying unsuccessfully to process this. Then she rolled her eyes and asked me if there was anything else.

The grief robot turned and left her office, got on the elevator, rode it down to the bottom floor, walked out to the fountain in the center of the courtyard, and stared at the water for a long time.  Only then, did he think of the graduate adviser rolling her eyes.  Over the ensuing 9 years, the moment of her eye roll would be impressed in his memory as a perfect metaphor, a perfect image foreshadowing all the inspiration and gratitude to come.

The Tragedy of Not Dying

A hospice is a horrible place.  It’s like being given a lollipop for a bullet wound.  You’re bleeding out and everyone tells you to enjoy your lolly.  It’s cherry.  It’s got a smiley face.  Why aren’t you happy? Visiting my mother with my father there added another layer to the experience.  In spite of the pain and horror of the place, in spite of watching my mother waste away in her bed, hallucinating and suffering and being afraid, I came to understand that my father’s grief was different from mine.  I was feeling bad for my mother.  He was feeling bad for himself.

This was still 2009.  My only course, aside from empty dissertation credits, was a German reading and literature seminar.  The professor, a kind old man about to retire in his late 60s, loved his students the way he loved his trees—which is to say, far more than he loved the university.  I asked him for advice because he was the only person I could ask.  And he made it possible for me to exist in two places at once.  I gave my own writing students two weeks of work and held online course meetings via Skype and I emailed my German professor my work, which made it seem like I was present.  This is what allowed me to fly to California and see my mom for the last time.

In those first awful trips to the hospice, I’d naïvely hoped that my father and I could come together in our grief and support each other.  Of course, this was pure fantasy since he’d always enjoyed being a father but had rarely done any fatherly things.  I could count the number of times we’d gone to movies, the one thing we could do together because it involved no conversation.  And there were a few other misadventures over the years where my mother badgered him into going to some school play (he stood by the door to be the first person out) or taking me fishing (we did a U-turn at the access road to the lake and went home) or camping (it rained and so we packed up in the middle of the night and left).  He never beat me and he brought home a paycheck.  To the best of my knowledge, he never stepped out on my mother.  But he was never involved more than that; though, he lived with us in the same house—somewhat more than a housemate, somewhat less than a relative.

So my hope that he would be able, somehow, if in a manly way, to share this painful experience with me, was not based on reality.  After a certain amount of talk about how sad he was, it became noticeable that he never talked about my mom.  He sat by her bed, lost in his own self-pity, as the cancer ate its way through her brain and wasted her body.  As she died by inches, he proceeded as usual, focusing on his own needs above all else.

I witnessed this.  My wife witnessed this.  But I was so aggrieved I could barely speak.  Sometimes, my wife had to help me walk from the car to my mother’s room.  Have you ever been so upset that you can barely walk?  Until you have, you won’t know the feeling.  When you have, you’ll never forget it.  It transcends description.

I focused completely on my mom.  I waited for her moments of clarity.  I told her I loved her.  I told her the good things about my PhD program.  I made jokes and she tried to laugh.  One day, my great aunt—a stately old Italian woman who sounded like my late grandmother and seemed covered in the old-world charm that vanished with her generation—showed up with a peach and a kitchen knife.  She cut slices and fed them to my mom with a smile on her face.  Even now, as I write this, I cry a little because it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.  That kind of goodness doesn’t exist much in this world.

It was a very difficult time.  Two weeks later, I returned to finish my program.  In one of her last moments of clarity, my mom had ordered me to go back.  She didn’t want me to see her die and me being in the PhD program meant a lot to her.  I think she felt ashamed that she wasn’t going to be around to take care of my father and me the way she always had.  And knowing that I was going to get a doctorate was a relief, as if it would be the next best thing.  She also had a lot of pride in her appearance and the cancer had been unkind.  So when I offered to stay, she insisted that I not.  About two weeks after that, my father called and said to say good-bye to her.  I told her I loved her.  And I think she died shortly thereafter.

I miss her every day.  But this isn’t about that, either.  It’s about the aftermath, how everything changed as a result of her death.  Some people are the linchpins of their families.  When they go, everything goes.  That was what happened.  I flew back again for her funeral.  She was buried holding a photo of my father and me.  It was a closed casket and I don’t remember much else, just bits and pieces.  I was out of my mind. 

As we moved toward the Fall semester of 2010, I felt melted down and recast as a different person.  I’d lost my happy thoughts.  I didn’t go out or talk to many people other than my wife and my program mentor.  I stopped writing fiction.  Most of what I did was perfunctory.  But I knew I had to get my degree.  Even if I collapsed afterward, I would complete the PhD.

The Reading Series

The year before, I’d allowed myself to be persuaded that working as the assistant coordinator for the university literary reading series would “look good on my resume.”  And I did my best as the monthly, sometimes bi-monthly, flier maker, venue securer, introducer-to-the-introducer, complaint taker, fielder-of-calls from mentally unstable bookstore proprietors, irradiated scapegoat, and general handler of said low-rung celebrity infants terribles

Sometime before I left town for good, one of the faculty members admitted to me that the assistant coordinator position was really only supposed to entail flier making and that the professor who was getting paid to be to be doing the other things had dumped the rest on me.  But by then I was so depressed that I couldn’t summon the necessary outrage.

One writer wanted a per diem that wasn’t in his agreement.  Another wanted intel on, in his exact words, “the most fuckable students who might be around.”  The butch lesbian poet would only communicate with me through an intermediary because I was straight and male.  The playwright was supernaturally high throughout his entire visit and had to be physically guided to the stage.  The “local writer,” penciled in because there was a vacancy in the schedule that month, struggled to contain her spiritual darkness through the entire event such that when I handed her the honorarium (significantly less than what the other, slightly more famous writers had received), she snatched it out of my hand, hissed a “Go fuck yourself,” and then smiled broadly at an approaching faculty member.  These were some of the more endearing ones.

Needless to say, it was not the greatest collection of individuals.  They generally came across as worn out, mediocre, vain, full of fear, full of resentment, and perpetually on the hustle for any crumb of recognition.  Calling them fools wouldn’t be accurate because they were all reasonably intelligent.  They simply knew the score too well, knew they should have received more for their dedication and efforts.  You could see that loathsome awareness stamped on their faces.  Now they were privileged to read their work to the smirking tenured faculty who hadn’t hired them, a menagerie of twitchy English students, and whichever townies may have wandered in looking for free wine.  It wouldn’t get much better than that.

I disliked the visiting readers even though I saw myself and my fellow grad students reflected in them.  Most of the people featured in the series that year hadn’t been picked for life’s cheer squad.  They were the leftovers, the understudies, the adjuncts with slim books from presses you’ve never heard of.  Many, it seemed, faced depression so considerable that they were pharmaceutically enhanced 100% of the time.  I wondered more than once how they could continue to produce writing.  The greatest irony was that most of them had already gone further in their careers than anyone currently in my PhD program stood to go.

There were a few exceptions, a few graceful and brilliant souls who’d agreed to come as personal favors to various faculty members.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention them as well as the moments of hilarity you find in every English department.  2010 wasn’t all doom and gloom, just most of it.

The second time I was told to go fuck myself was around 3 AM on a Sunday morning toward the end of Fall semester.  My insomnia had become pretty dependable at that point and I was already awake when the phone rang.  I got out of bed, told my wife I had no idea who it was, and shuffled into our tiny living room, where I sat on the couch and listened to the breather on the line.  He was panting hard.  I thought it was quaint that in this day and age people still gave breather-masturbator calls.  The caller ID came up with nothing.

When he realized I’d said hello and was listening, he rumbled out a “Go fuck yourself” and hung up.  I sat in the dark for a while, thinking about the human condition.  Then he called back.  It was F, one of the few grad students who’d been asked to read in the series.  He mumbled some things and then shouted that he thought I had a problem and should get help.  He was drunk off his ass.

I asked him why he felt that way and he broke it down for me.  F had read with his wife, you see, and I’d made the mistake of introducing him before her.  Neither of them were ever going to get over it.  Plus, she was a Navajo princess and I’d introduced them as husband and wife.  You don’t do that to a Navajo princess.  Didn’t I fucking know that?  What was wrong with my head?

“Princess?  Really?  I thought you guys were from Pittsburgh.”

He hung up again and didn’t speak to me until I ran into him at the AWP Conference a few months later—where he was keyed up and sweaty, slapping me on the back, telling me how he’d been featured in a very cool spontaneous reading held on one of the convention center’s escalators that drew an enormous crowd.  Now he had a pocket of phone numbers to network.  Amazing.  He didn’t remember a thing about calling me in the dark and telling me what I could go do with myself. 

Or maybe he’d repressed that memory along with his courtship of the Navajo princess, that hard winter living as tribe’s writer, the majestic swish of his khakis as he hunted buffalo, armed only with an unpublished manuscript.  I haven’t seen him or heard a thing about him since the conference, but I suspect he’s either got tenure by now or he’s back in Pennsylvania selling pre-loved automobiles like it’s a poetry slam.

The End, My Friend

Depression is a very idiosyncratic and personalized illness.  But those who have it tend to have a few things in common, one of which is that depression can be cumulative in its gravity and magnitude.  Today, you’re not feeling good.  Tomorrow, you can’t get out of bed.  The day after that, you’re standing on a chair with a vacuum cleaner cord around your neck and you think you’re the only one in the history of the world who’s endured such a linear degeneration.  Feeling alone is a big part of it.

I felt alone until I discovered  Darkness Visible by William Styron and recognized a lot of what I’d been going through.  I don’t know how I found the book, whether it was in the fiction section of the library where I sometimes studied or whether I encountered it in a used bookstore or somewhere else.  While it wouldn’t be true to claim that the book “saved” me, I can say it helped enough to get me down off the chair, multiple chairs, actually.

Reading it was an emergency measure, but it was something I could depend on.  I didn’t talk about my feelings.  I’ve never been very good at that, not even with my loved ones.  But I could read someone else talking about his.  And since I loved Styron’s fiction, I felt like I could trust him.  If he said it, I could accept it enough to be able to think about it.  And that was usually all it took for me to keep going.

By Spring break, I was prepared to submit my dissertation.  I missed my mom horribly and my wife and I returned to California to take care of the empty house where all my mother’s things sat gathering dust.  My father wouldn’t go near the place.  When he wasn’t drunk, he was hard at work rediscovering his hormones in erratic, awkward, and desperate ways.  Our relationship, never substantial to begin with, began to splinter irreparably when, out of guilt, he started to regularly criticize my mom. 

He was a self-righteous Catholic for most of my life, who often amused himself by telling me to get my ass to church and that since I’d been baptized I could never not be a Catholic.  But after a year of drinking, trash talking, and a pissed-drunk rape attempt on my cousin in front of me, he was ready to start up a relationship with an equally neurotic married woman who’d run after him at an event.

He confessed this to me one afternoon because I guess he couldn’t confess it to his priest.  Then he added that it was like a DH Lawrence love story.  Then he said she was going to get a divorce from her despicable husband and they’d marry each other.  Lovely.  I didn’t want to hear about it.  I especially didn’t want to hear him ask me to be his best man.  I could hardly speak.  It shows how detached and self-involved he was that he thought it was something he could ask me. 

“What about all that Catholicism?” I remember asking.  I don’t remember if he answered.

Around that time, because he wouldn’t help me clean out my mother’s things, I’d been over at the house, crying, putting her clothes in Goodwill boxes, packing up old photo albums, doing all the things we could have done as a family.  Instead, my wife helped and we did the best we could in a few days.  Much was overlooked, things from my childhood, things in the garage that I really do wish I could have kept.  But we only had so much time.  Now I imagine my father and his new wife paid at some point to have it all carted to the dump.  But I have no way of knowing, since I haven’t been back in years.

I do recall taking to the gardener, who revealed that he’d had my mother making food for him right up to the point where she went into the hospital for the last time.  She couldn’t lie down straight in bed.  So she was sleeping sitting up in a chair in order to breathe, then walking around on crutches, cooking and cleaning.  According to the gardener, he screamed at her frequently.  She was fucking dying and this is how he treated her.  That’s abuse.  It’s horrible fucking abuse.  And my mother, who was just about a saint in every way, did her best.

My mother was a talented painter and sculptor, but he’d left her art in a shed that had a broken roof.  It rained a lot that year and most of her work was ruined.  I’d been standing in the backyard, looking at the shed, unable to get in because he neglected to give me the key to the deadbolt (probably because he didn’t want me to see what had happened) when he called with a task for me.  It was something small, something to do with getting a TV boxed up for him and cancelling the  TV service that my mom had in her hospice room.  I’d already taken care of it, but he spoke to me with contempt, as if I were very lazy.  He said, “After all I’ve done for you, couldn’t you take care of this one thing?”

I thought of my mother on crutches, making him breakfast.  I thought of her art destroyed through neglect.  I thought of my father drinking a case of my cousin’s high-end champagne and then trying to fuck her in front of me.  I thought of all the nasty things he said about my mother when she was gone, after he’d cried his eyes out for himself, after he blamed me for not being there when she died, after the sizeable amount of heirloom gold from old Italy that my mom wanted to come to me but that disappeared right around the time my father and his new cadaverous lady friend got a second condo in San Antonio.  I thought about all these things and saw that no matter what his paycheck had been worth, no matter how much I may have cost as a child, no matter what my mom and he may have given me as a teen or a confused 20-year-old, I owed him nothing. 

I felt something snap and a certain coldness overtook me.  My depression had come to be replaced with something more useful: calm, thoughtful anger.  We had it out.  He told my wife and I we had to be out of the house.  Within 48 hours, we were.  I’ve never looked back.

Gone for Good

I got my PhD without fanfare.  My wife and I went out to dinner and it was nice, just the two of us.  I knew I’d miss my mentor in the program and her brilliant husband.  I’d miss certain things about the university town and my own writing students, several of whom had become more like friends.  But I was glad to be done—done with the degree, done with my father, done with trying to hump the dream of being an academic creative writer.

In the eight years since the day we drove south, blasting M. Ward’s “Helicopter” with the windows rolled down, I’ve thought about 2010 quite a lot.  I still get depressed.  But I can cope.  I’ve learned that it is possible and, for me, even preferable to have a life outside academia.  And I’ve come to accept that family isn’t really who raises you when you don’t have a say in the matter.  It’s who you choose when you do.

I miss my mom every day and I write fiction every day.  As of this writing, I’m working on my third collection of stories with a novel draft mostly written.  I’ve published over 30 items in magazines, worked as a freelance writer and journalist, and lived in 9 countries.  I’m healthy.  I really don’t have anything to complain about right now.  And sometimes I even give myself permission to think I’m happy.  Somewhere, there’s a Navajo princess riding through the clouds over Pittsburgh, but I doubt our paths will cross again.

A recent short short of mine, “You Are Somewhere Else,” is forthcoming in Visitant and should be available online.  As usual, I will post the links when the story comes out. – M

Read it here: https://www.splicetoday.com/on-campus/stem-scientism-and-the-decline-of-the-humanities

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.

“Some people write for fifteen years with no success and then decide to quit. Don’t look for success and don’t quit. If you want to write, write under all circumstances. Success will or will not come, in this lifetime or the next. Success is none of our business. It comes from outside. Our job is to write, to not look up from our notebook and wonder how much money Norman Mailer earns.”

– “The Long Quiet Highway,” Natalie Goldberg

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.

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First dig two graves. I think Confucius said that. But nobody started off by saying I wanted to stab my girlfriend and bury her in the backyard, but I was reading Confucius. So I dug two graves. Instead, they usually began with I really don’t remember. I’m not too clear on what happened. It was a mistake. It was an accident. I didn’t mean to do it. I didn’t do it. I did it, but she had it coming. She begged me to do it. I don’t remember digging. I didn’t dig. I’m on meds. I walk in my sleep. I’d had some drinks, Ambien, Klonopin. I couldn’t have done it. If I did it, I didn’t mean it. I didn’t do it but, if you say so, I don’t know. Maybe.

They started all kinds of ways, but they usually finished the same: You need to understand. If you’d been in my shoes. If you were me. If you only knew. You’d have done it, too. They wanted you to see, to make sure you understood, it could have been you. So put a No. 2 pencil through the left eye of your cousin because he took your favorite CD and then say, you’d have done the same thing. How can you say you wouldn’t?

On April 6, 2010, I sat in a motel room in Denver, watching people say this over and over. It was my last year of graduate school and because I’d picked up a paralegal certificate along the way to my PhD, I’d gotten a job transcribing around 100 digitized police interviews for a defense attorney’s office. The original transcriptions had been lost and they were desperate. I told myself it was just another job because it paid like one. But it wasn’t. It was a journey through human dread and pain. Watching those confessions brought back my nightmares, then my relentless insomnia, then my chain smoking, then a depression so thick and wide I felt like I was drowning.

I’d driven out from Kalamazoo, Michigan, two days before in a rented Ford Econoline 150 that I’d meant to use as a living space while I attended the AWP Writer’s Conference at the Colorado Convention Center. The van was completely empty except for the driver’s seat and some bungee cords. I had a sleeping bag, a cardboard box full of books, some clothes, my backpack, and a laptop. The Conference was four days long. I planned on driving over to the hotel every morning, then relocating to a distant parking lot every evening. It was a good plan in theory.

But I felt shaken when I saw the van start moving towards the interstate at a rest stop somewhere in Nebraska. I barely reached it before it rolled into traffic. And even though I’d found a cinder block to put under one of the wheels, I couldn’t relax after that. I kept imagining it going head-on into a family of six. So when I got to Denver, I found the cheapest motel room I could, charged it to my sad broken credit card, put the van in their empty asphalt lot out back with boulders and cinder blocks under all four wheels, and tried to calm down. I told myself at least I wouldn’t be sleeping inside it when the family went boom.

My memory of that time is intensely vivid. I’d never been to Denver before. And, though it was my third AWP Conference, I’d decided that this was the one that mattered. I was about to get my PhD in English; I was waiting on several university job interviews and had one lined up at the Conference; and it was possible, against all odds and popular opinion, that my career plans were actually going to work out. I just needed a little more cash. Hence, the transcriptions. I had a deadline, an envelope of flash drives, and a supervising attorney who never returned my emails. I was transcribing about ten interviews and confessions every day. And I was starting to feel not right the way one feels after watching Triumph of the Will or the 2016 presidential debates: this can’t be real.

I suppose I’ve been thinking about Denver because my old friend, Theo, emailed me the other day while I was watching the final Trump-Clinton debate. The last time I saw him was six years ago at AWP. So the fact that he emailed me suddenly, after so long, was surprising all on its own. But I opened Theo’s email right when Trump started talking about Clinton being okay with ripping babies from their mothers’ wombs, right as I was starting to feel the old out-of-control nightmare anxiety rising in my chest, the sense that things were not right, that I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

Theo wanted to know how I was liking Kentucky, if I was still writing, why he hadn’t seen me at any conferences. I thought, Kentucky? And then I remembered. That was the interview I’d had at the 2010 AWP, a small regional college located close to the Tennessee state line. While Trump was saying, “In the ninth month. On the final day,” I looked at Theo’s paragraph and thought, this is what he remembers about me. This is what motivated him to write to me after six years. Trump says, “That’s not acceptable,” and I think, Jesus Christ.

How do you make a true confession? You sit in an interview room at the police station, sometimes in a hotel room or a conference room. White walls. Simple table or none at all. It’s not often an interrogation room. It’s for interviews. It’s small and everything is plastic, metal, Formica. Maybe people walk around in the background. Maybe it’s completely quiet. Lean forward in the steel chair that’s bolted down and doesn’t swivel. Fold your hands on the table that comes directly out of the wall. Start off with: “I’m not sure. I don’t remember.” And even though he’s recording what you’re saying, he’s also nodding and jotting it down on a steno under your name, which tonight is something normal, like Jim. He notes that you have a wandering right eye, a cleft lip, and a green tattoo of a cat on the side of your neck. He notes this in spite of the fact that it has already been noted in your file because he’s bored. But you’re thinking, trying to remember. You’re a bit stunned. You think you can talk your way out of this.

File after file, story after story, it only got worse. Around 9:00 AM on the first day of the Conference, I found myself in the back row, watching a panel discussion entitled “Decolonizing Poetics: Womanism and the Art of Decolonization.” As I sat there, I listened with my right headphone to a man explain how he pulled his brother out of their burning vehicle. He’d been driving, had a BAC off the chart. He said he didn’t know his brother was dead. And in my left ear: poetry’s essential role in the decolonization of bodies from centuries of white supremacist, capitalist, heteronormative intrusion. It was hard for me to concentrate on the evils of patriarchal hegemony while listening to someone crying, saying I didn’t know. How could I know? And the detective saying, I understand. Take your time. I was typing furiously on my laptop in order to keep up. People thought I was taking lots of notes on the decolonization of la mujer.

The room was packed, which was good. My undergraduate creative writing students from Kalamazoo wouldn’t be able see me from the hall. I was in no shape to interact with them. Of course, I hadn’t slept. Around 3:00 AM, I’d watched The Mothman Prophecies in the motel room, probably not the best thing to do, given my state of mind. But it’s one of those movies you can sink into, like Blade Runner, Vertigo, or Chinatown—movies I always keep with me, maybe just to have them playing in the background while I’m doing something else. I’d shut the laptop in the middle of a deposition involving a juvenile accused of multiple homicide. Even though I’d only transcribed about one-fourth of the files and I was half a week behind, I just had to stop for a while. I smoked a pack of Camel Lights and watched John Klein have creepy phone conversations with Indrid Cold until the sun came up.

The supreme irrelevance of the panel discussions at AWP is a thing of legend. After 90 minutes of decolonization, I remember meeting Theo on the mezzanine, where we drank vending machine coffee and read the Conference program. “Play Ball: the Language of Sports,” “The Writer as Literary Outsider,” “Bollywood, Bullets, and Beyond,” “What’s Not Funny About Serious Disease?” “The Person Within Myself.” I thought they were hilarious and stupid, but Theo was upset. He took everything seriously and was trying to figure out why he’d flown to Colorado just to listen to low-rung literary celebrities talk about whether they wrote on a word processor or with a pen. I told him I’d heard there was going to be a meet-and-greet with some Big Six agents from New York. But Theo just looked at me. No one was going to be interested in his book-length memoir about teaching English in Guam.

Theo was skinny, had bushy brown hair, and wore ripped thrift store clothing, whether from choice or necessity I never knew. He also smoked but wasn’t concerned with quitting. I think he needed to smoke because, in his own very quiet, withdrawn way, he was just as stressed out as me, maybe more. He was about to hit the job market with no publications, no interviews, one composition class of which he’d been the teacher of record, and a six-year PhD in English that he’d financed mostly through private loans. I never asked why he’d done it like that or what he planned to do after we earned our degrees, but his protracted silences and occasional outbursts didn’t militate in favor of wine and roses. Instead, he sat across from me, slurping chemical coffee and shaking his head: “’Aroused, Parched, and Fevered: the Translation of Sexual Poetry?’ Goddammit. Why am I here?”

I didn’t have an answer. I was there for the interview. That was my reason and I felt it was a good one, maybe the only legitimate motivation one could have for going to AWP.

He stood up, said he was going to go wander around the area, maybe find a bar where he wouldn’t have to see perspiring writers handing each other business cards. I watched him walk down the convention center mezzanine as long as a football field. I didn’t know it at the time, but his brother had been involved with a conservative group demonstrating against the “Ground Zero Mosque” that was supposed to have been built near the site of the former World Trade Center. Theo was constantly talking about how crazy the Tea Party was, about how Obama couldn’t get anything accomplished because of GOP obstruction. At the time, I think we all felt that American politics couldn’t get any more embattled. And Theo seemed to suffer from the political upheavals that year the way we all do now, worrying that no one is capable of guiding us away from self-destruction, that our world is careening out of control.

I put my time in. My interview wasn’t until lunch the next day. So I drifted through random poetry readings and panel discussions, across the book fair area where small presses and magazines had tables covered with all the books they’d published that year. Lost Nose Quarterly. The Dingus. Barbaric Yawp. Boilerplate Cadenza Press. And then the big trade houses, tables manned by the best dressed interns in the world who’d drawn the short straw and had to sit there glowering at peons all day.

I knew a few people, grad students from my university, professors, employees of magazines that had published my stories over the years. I was happy to see a few of them. But I didn’t talk much. I simply exchanged nods or a quick word, keeping my distance. This is because AWP is a place of reckoning for most English studies people. You will inevitably notice your friends and colleagues there in the process of making horrible life-wrecking decisions. For example, if you’re going to walk around with your girlfriend where people will notice and tell your wife all about it, why not let it be at the world’s biggest book fair and writer’s conference?

I remember colliding with a professor I’d known for years, who normally dressed like Agatha Christie, but that day was done up in black leather and heels. A wispy undergrad who’d been unsuccessfully attempting a mustache was holding onto her arm with both hands.

“It’s you.”

“Yes,” I said. “It’s me.”

“What are you doing here?”

“I have an interview.”

She did a double take. Her companion looked from her to me the way one watches a flying squirrel jump from tree to tree. It’s alien and incomprehensible and a bit unnatural. But we’re all mammals, so one has to look.

“You do?”

“Yes.”

It seemed crazy to her that someone could be considering me for an actual job. I recall telling her where and seeing the look of relief on her face when she realized it was somewhere far away from anywhere she would be. Why? This happened a lot in my world and not just with me. It was as if people were living in pampered, self-congratulatory reality bubbles. And, when those bubbles collided, there was immense cognitive dissonance, distaste, even dread. I must have been a destructive force to her—someone presenting a very unflattering reflection. All that black leather. She’d bought it for a reason and I was ruining her cosplay experience with young Werther.

She mumbled out something like good luck and moved into the crowd, pulling Werther along with her. I watched her go, feeling grateful that Theo hadn’t been there to analyze, for an hour, why she and the kid and the conversation we just had was so fucked up. But that year everything was fucked up, painful, riddled with lies and disappointments.

At the same time, I was learning that the way to make a true confession is to believe there is a truth and you know it. There’s what happened. There’s what you think might have happened. And there’s what you confess. It doesn’t matter if you’re the only person left alive, the only one who saw, the only one who’s supposed to know. You’re being asked to tell a story. So you do.

Jim’s interview is long, full of silences, false starts, retractions. The detective has gone from uninterested to barely awake, murmuring his questions from behind the camera.

“I’m coming out of the Elbow Room,” Jim says. “It’s late. They kicked us all out at bar time. And that’s when I see Sean. He’s got a board.”

“A board?”

“Yeah, like a board with some nails pounded in it. And I say, ‘When you gonna give me back my Steel Wheels?’ And he goes, ‘Fuck you, Jim,’ and tries to swing on me. And I had a pencil in my pocket.”

I write it all down, word for word, but I don’t contextualize: maybe you’re not stupid, but you’re drunk. Or you’re not drunk, but you’re scared. Or you’re scared, but you’ve been in this steel chair before, which makes you really scared. Or you haven’t, which makes you terrified. And the detective says, I understand. Take your time.

Back at the motel, I made progress with the work, but it took a toll on my body as well as my mind. I subsisted on beef jerky, fruit cups, and tap water while I typed until my fingers ached. Like any good student, I had a due date. I had to get it done. I moved between the particleboard desk and the moldy bed, changing positions whenever my back started to hurt too much.

“You sure about that, Jim?”

“About what?”

“Him swinging the board at you.”

“I think he did. It looked like he was.”

And there you have it: the moment of truth, wherein Jim enters what could reasonably be called his own personal Air-Conditioned Stupid Place or The Shitcloud of Unknowing or, my personal favorite, The Solid Gold Stinking End of All Life—that empty space between the known, the unknown, and what gets said about it, where admissions of guilt are born and go to die. And you go with them. Maybe the only thing the court will know for sure by the end of its time with Jim is that there’s a right way and a wrong way to make a true confession.

Three people I didn’t know in a very warm room at the Hyatt Regency. I was sitting in the stiff-backed desk chair. They were sitting on the bed.

Left, Betsy: Victorian lit., floral-print dress under beige grandpa sweater, belly bulge, black leggings, bags under eyes, gray-streaked brown hair still damp from midday shower, unmistakable hangover wretchedness on her like some kind of odorless colorless gas. She scowled at me over her tumbler of coffee.

Middle, Jack: British Modernism, cadaverously thin, didn’t know what to do with his hands baby-blue polyester suit like a sagging dirigible, black tie with salmon swimming up toward the knot, rimless glasses—the expensive kind that darken when you go outside—now half-dark.

Right: Abeline: creative writing: Levis and a man’s white button down, hair combed behind her ears, tight practiced smile, multiple silver rings on each finger.

How long, I wondered, had this hiring committee been looking?

Abeline dropped her hands on her knees. Her silver rings clinked. “You know, it’s a funny story. We saw this guy in the elevator—where was he from?”

Silence.

Then Jack, to the carpet: “He—”

“Ole Miss.” Betsy frowned into her coffee, then snapped her gaze up as if I were about to argue.

“Yes. Ole Miss.” Abeline’s smile never moved. She leaned forward to refocus my attention. “He was wearing a wig and a fake mustache. Can you believe that?”

I opened my mouth, but she wasn’t asking me.

“Ha,” said Jack.

“Typical,” said Betsy.

They looked at me. I said: “That’s strange.”

“Not so strange. Actually, no.” Abeline tilted her head to the side in the way of a raptor about to steal an egg from a nest. I realized her smile was small so it could stay fixed without hurting the muscles in her face.

“Not so strange for AWP.” Jack shot a glance at Betsy, who glared at him.

“He was looking for a different job,” Abeline said. “Going behind someone’s back.”

I attempted a smile. “Are you enjoying the conference?”

Jack cleared his throat. “So we like your CV. It’s a good CV.”

Abeline nodded. “It’s a very good CV. You have a lot of teaching experience. I suppose that should count for something, right?”

I nodded. I was having trouble processing, following the implications. Something? Should count? Did that mean the default was that it counted for nothing? And if you stripped away my teaching experience; if you discounted my letters of rec.—which hadn’t and, I knew, wouldn’t be mentioned because they hadn’t been read; and if the entire committee was made up of two lit. professors, who probably didn’t read much outside their specialty areas, and a creative writer, who seemed more a product of natural selection than a sympathetic colleague; my hybrid fiction-theory dissertation wasn’t going to matter. I had nothing. I was screwed.

Betsy peered at me, a knowing grin spreading across her face. “What makes you want to work in our department?”

“Ha,” said Jack.

Abeline nodded, looked me over.

I’d prepared a speech. I’d practiced. Because I was scared. Because there was a woman who wrote on the internet about what not to do in an academic job interview and I’d believed her. Because I had one interview and this was it. I launched into a disquisition on their department, on who was publishing what and how I thought my work would make a good fit, on my student-centered decentralized teaching style, on my commitment to diversity. And, though all of it was true, I saw the expressions on their faces change like time-lapse of a decaying corpse. I saw each of my memorized bullet points float away into the abyss between me and the three professors sitting on the bed. But the woman on the internet had said, focus on what you can do for them, not on what you want them to do for you. So I focused. I focused like a motherfucker.

4:00 AM. Beyond exhaustion in the dead gray motel room, I was almost done with the transcriptions. Dry mouth, stinking of instant coffee, I didn’t even have the energy to feel my usual anxiety. I watched a tiny spider on the window sill laboriously rope the legs of a fly three times its size. It seemed to take a long time, the fly getting tired, then struggling in frenetic terrified bursts, the spider crawling all around its body, staying on top of it, relentless. It seemed like a big meal for such a little spider.

On my laptop, Albert Leek was explaining to John Klein that telling the world about phone messages from spirits accomplishes nothing. It was the scene where they’re standing in Leek’s “college professor’s house,” straight out of central casting, with the usual stacks of books, dust, sad photographs, and regret—Leek in a crew cut like some retired police captain who’s seen too much, a little heavy, a little tired, and Richard Gere in his Washington Post reporter’s overcoat. He’s supposed to be John Keel, aka John Klein, but he’s really just the same old Richard Gere, gently bewildered, just crazy enough around the eyes for us to believe he’d go looking for an author on psychism to explain Indrid Cold—the voice on the phone, the invisible presence in every scene, the psychopomp of Point Pleasant, West Virginia.

It’s a good scene, maybe the best scene in the movie. Leek is a tormented man, not just by ghost voices but by everything he’s lost in his attempts to tell the world about his discoveries—

“John, I had tapes of their voices! But so what? Nobody cared. I knew a building was going to blow up. I tried to prevent it, but no one listened . . .”

“What happened?”

“People died.”

—tormented the way we feel John Klein will be if he continues trying to reveal the truth.

Five hours later, after a shower, a fast food breakfast, and taking the wrong freeway exit on my way to the convention center, I found myself in “Tips, Trips, and Techniques for Publishing Insiders,” where I watched Charlie Sheen’s estranged twin go over each step in the publishing process as if he’d personally invented it. But I was still thinking about Albert Leek and Indrid Cold and that spider, as merciless as any force of nature, crawling around its prey.

The high point in the talk was when the blasé panel of Big Six agents and junior editors slid into Q&A and began to explain how tired they all were, how overwhelmed, and what this meant for the the future of publishing. Charlie’s twin, replete with slicked back hair and facetious grin, was saying something about having five novel manuscripts to read on his flight back to New York the next day.

Then a hand went up.

“Yeah?”

“But what are you reading for dinner tonight?”

She must have been 24 or 25. No one in the room seemed to know how to react to her question.

Even Charlie hesitated. “I think I’m free.”

Nice. There was an exhalation. Somebody clapped. People laughed. Love conquers all. An elderly woman with long silver hair, her face flushed purple, stood up, said, “Shit,” to no one in particular, and stalked out of the room. She couldn’t accept the inherent beauty of a community of writers coming together to engage in mutually beneficial intercourse.

I thought: somewhere Indrid Cold is watching all this. Toward the end of the scene, we realize John Klein can’t accept that the older man is just telling him to give up.

“I was investigated, almost arrested. My wife divorced me. My kids stopped speaking to me. Do you know what four years in a psychiatric hospital can do to you? Being right is worse than being wrong. If you’re wrong, you’re just a fool. If you’re right, you’re a suspect.”

I knew the lines by heart. Was it better to be a fool or a suspect? What do people want to hear? And why should anyone care? Bring your manuscript to dinner. Wear something sexy.

Somebody raised a hand and asked whether literary fiction, given Harry Potter, was finally dead. One of the editors started to describe how he’d first met J.K. Rowling and what a wonderful person she was. The woman who’d invited Charlie to dinner sat there with arms crossed, not looking at anyone, a smug expression on her face. That’s when I left, too.

If you’re smart, you don’t confess it the way you think it happened. You’re smarter than Jim. You’ll say, The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had born as best I could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge. You’ll say, I swear I was in my right mind at the time, just as I am now, and I recall everything perfectly. I chose to do it. I planned to do it. Moreover, I’d do it again. As I transcribed those words, I’d know that you were lying. But the detective will merely sigh and say, go on.

To tell a true confession is to confess it like it’s true. It’s not about what happened, what Indrid Cold whispered to you over the phone at midnight. It’s about how you narrate what happened. It’s about your delivery. It’s about suspension of disbelief. If you want to tell it right, you have to set the scene. You lay down some back story. You make it plausible—even if you are lying and are trying to confess a crime you didn’t actually do.

“You always walk around with sharpened pencils in your pockets, Jim?”

“I just had one, alright?”

“How sharp was it?”

“Pretty fuckin’ sharp.”

“Give me the sharpness on a scale of one to ten.”

“Are you kidding me? It was a pencil. All I know is it was sharp.”

Later, after “Horror and Sci-Fi Taken Seriously” and “Ecological Cowboy Prose of the New American West,” I decided drive back to Michigan the next day. Theo found me on the phone in the lounge of the Hyatt, letting the car rental company know. When I hung up, I could see that he was functionally yet unquestionably drunk.

I told him about the interview, how all they’d really wanted to know was whether I’d take a one-year teaching appointment instead of the tenure-track position they’d advertised. Theo shook his head the way you do when you hear your teenage cousin got arrested again. He’d been drinking gin steadily since the night before, his own bottle, up in his room.

I asked him what he’d gone to at the conference and he said, “Do you . . . think I could make it in sales?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Good. Because this English crap won’t hunt.”

I agreed. The English crap wouldn’t hunt. It wouldn’t bark or roll over or bring you your goddamn slippers unless you took it out to dinner. I told him I was driving back in the morning. But he was concentrating hard on standing up.

“Sales,” he said.

I nodded. “Sales.” And I raised my fist.

I finished the last transcript sometime after midnight, then finally got a little sleep. I left my plastic key in the motel’s after-hours drop box and got on the road before dawn, feeling like this was probably going to be the last AWP Conference I’d be attending.

I’d wasted a lot of money and time to bear witness to the fall of the academic-trade segment of the publishing industry with all its slaves, clowns, and dancing bears. I didn’t have a job offer or a book deal. Then again, I wasn’t the one getting plugged by a poor-man’s Charlie Sheen in exchange for him reading my novel manuscript. The road, at that point, felt like a relief.

I suppose Confucius said that you should dig two graves because vengeance is the path of destruction and that which you offer to others, you offer to yourself. The wisdom of this is beyond reproach. I’ve thought about it carefully. However, it does not account for how you will get your victim and yourself into the graves once you’ve committed the act—to say nothing of who will replace the dirt on top of you.

This means you will either need accomplices or the second grave isn’t for you. The entire interpretation changes. And the true nature of Confucius emerges as a lethal, cold-blooded killer. Don’t just take out your enemy. Take out his friend or a family member likely to avenge him. Do it in twos. You’ll be glad you dug the graves ahead of time. Then at least you’ll have a good story to confess.

So It’s the end of October now and I think I’m going to vote for Hillary, even though I have my reservations. I’ve seen too many lousy politicians come and go to consider the alternatives. But the harder thing will be what to say to Theo. I’ve changed a lot in these last six years. I’m not sure how I could possibly explain, in an email, the twists and turns my life has taken since I left Denver in that rented van. If Albert Leek is right, confessions make you into either a fool or a suspect. And I suppose what I’ve written here will do both. But it’s something. And it’s all true, as well as I recall it. Would you believe it? And believing, would you hear me out if my name were Indrid Cold?

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).

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.

One of the great, maybe incredible, things about having interesting friends is that you have a lot of stories to tell, if you’re the sort of person who likes telling stories, which I am. One of the sad, maybe horrible, things is that your friends are often your primary audience for these stories and people reach a point at which they stop trusting you with the events of their lives. They think you’re going to reveal everything ugly and embarrassing written on their hearts and on their faces, and their inherent defectiveness will then be shamefully exposed to the world. Who wants that?

So it’s not hard to see that misunderstandings will be inevitable and a certain degree of paranoia will definitely set in. In fact, your friends are sure to become convinced everything you write is about them personally. Oh sure, maybe you’ve used different details (like age, gender, geographical location, profession, background, ethnicity, species of house pet, and everything that happened) but really it has to be about them. They might as well have told the story themselves about themselves. And sometimes they do.

But more often they don’t. Because if they had, they’d understand that a good story is like an exotic bird. It’s nice to look at for a while, but how much more wonderful would it be to watch it fly out of your house and into someone else’s, then, squawking, fly into another house and another house until the entire block is pissed off and lights are coming on and maybe somebody throws a shoe and shatters his own windowpane and then the baby starts crying and somebody says I never loved you while standing at the sink and everyone winds up having an affair and life is changed forever. You story did that. So you don’t really have a choice. You have to tell it because what else could have such a remarkable effect? It’s magic. The Resplendent Quetzal has to fly.

Then again, if the story is completely unbelievable—even if it really happened—certain steps must be taken. Say, for example, you have a friend who wins an absurd amount of money in a poker game he should never have been playing. The amount he wins is so large that he fears for his life. But that’s not what makes the story great. The great part is that he had an immense amount of student loan debt, the sort that if he worked long hours for most of his life and never took a vacation or retired, he still wouldn’t be able to get out from under it. And a single poker game put him in a position to eventually pay the whole thing off.

Of course, what really happened is more complicated than that. And, for two years, you mull the story over, trying to come up with a way to tell it—how he paid off his debts and turned his life around and especially how he never played cards again, figuring his luck was divine and the gods don’t do favors like that more than once. For two long years, you feed the bird, imagining what would happen if you let it out on a warm spring night when the chimes are tinkling and everything seems quiet and slow.

Do you have a responsibility here? How much would everyone (especially your friend) hate you for writing the story? The cost-benefit is agony—especially since you know deep down that you’re doing to write it, that your friend is a great person but that you have this compulsion and eventually you will be powerless against it.

So one warm night with the chimes tapping the window and too much caffeine in your veins, you tell yourself you’ll just write it. You won’t send it to a magazine or post it on your blog. You’ll write it like an exorcism and be done with it once and for all. Your friend will never know. And the story will fly out of town, down to some rainforest canopy in the feral part of your hard drive to live with the Splendid Fairywren and the Lilac-Breasted Tern in the cold confetti of paradise.

At least until you drop your laptop in a motel pool on some drunken Sunday far in the future. The point is that you write the story. And, in the course of constructing a realistic narrative about an unreal thing that really happened, you realize that your friend is a fundamentally decent human being. The discontinuities and convolutions of doing creative nonfiction to a bit of his life reveal his essential goodness not unlike a magic mirror. The glass clouds over and it’s not your face looking back. ‘Tis true. He’s a thousand times better than you, oh hypercaffeinated story-writing fool with disheveled hair and guilty conscience.

All you can do is try to render what you consider to be his essential goodness and the wonder of his story—one which has been told many times by many writers better than you but which rarely comes about in real life. The poor, hardworking underdog wins for once and actually does the right thing with the money. Somehow, it’s even better because you can admit that if you had that much, you’d be sunning yourself ricky tick on a super-yacht off the coast of Zadar with Anastazija and Ljubica. He is basically, without a doubt, a better person. And this is why the gods do you no favors. So maybe you do understand a little bit about the world.

In any case, the bird, like the bennu-phoenix of antiquity, rises off your laptop like a flame from its own ashes. Where before it was merely a delicately feathered idea of itself, your writerly fever gives it shape and magical fire. It explodes into words. Then it demands a cookie. Because it is your bennu-phoenix, it prefers Mcvities Milk Chocolate Caramel Biscuits with a cup of strong Assam tea and a little coconut milk. But this is only natural. The real question is: how long do you expect such a marvelous bird to stay put?

Your friend comes to visit and you say nothing. You’re probably so busy shrugging and blaming the houseboats down on the river for the burning smell, that you don’t notice how he’s changed. It smells like an upholstry fire? Well, you know those boat people are always sailing their barges on the other side of the meadow. They’ll strip an empty house clean for fuel. They do it all the time. And you surreptitiously drop a cookie between the seat cushions, hoping the bennu-phoenix will quit trying to nip you in the ass while you’re sitting across from the reason for its existence. The bird wants out.

But your friend has changed, hasn’t he. He’s still got a considerable amount left over after paying his debts and even contributing significantly to his niece’s college fund. A certain air of respectability rides on his shoulders, as if it were now his duty, his burden, to have opinions about things. He’s been reading art history, you see. Politics. He uses the word consequence enough to make you think the word must have tiny lead counterweights roped to it like a piece of flying scenery.

And so you work very hard at having a conversation with this person while trying to square your perception of who he is becoming versus who you have imagined him to be. You feel like your house might burn down from shame at any moment and, though bennu birds might rise and fall, a house only goes one way if it isn’t standing straight. Such shame: that you could have been so wrong, that no matter how many caramel biscuits you feed your creation and no matter how its feathers seem to rake the air with brilliant fire, it is fundamentally false when you thought it was true. Your friend has become a pretentious asshole.

“And so I explained,” he waves his hand and the little counterweighted words bob and weave in the air between you, “that I’m taking this extremely seriously. I said, I’m a shareholder in this company. I’ve got two advanced degrees. And if you’re questioning my judgment on something someone in my position deals with every day, we’re going to have words.”

“So what did he do?”

“He backed down. He had to. I mean, seriously.”

Seriously? He goes. That night, you can’t sleep. You’re covered in a kind of mourning. You thought he had the greatest, most classically great story you’d ever heard—conceived in essential human goodness and dedicated to the proposition that not everyone will be transformed by money into a self-obsessed unaware narcissist.

So you let the bird out, feeling sad and betrayed and blaming yourself, too, for being just as unaware. And it flies onto your blog and burns there for a while. And you hope it has as good a life as any bennu-phoenix could have, it’s origins shrouded in myth, its destiny a riddle.

 

Written for a friend who sleeps the sleep of the just while the cold stars wheel above our heads.

26 May 2016

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.

  • 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.

I once took a creative writing workshop from Richard Ford, in which he spent a lot of energy inveighing against the epiphany in short fiction. This must have been in 1997 or 1998. Little did any of us suspect at the time that his vehemence was probably a reaction to a single bad review that had come out for Women with Men by some no-name writer with an ax to grind. The review criticized Ford for being unwilling to let his characters change or realize very much as they suffocate though postmodern American decline.*

I’ve tried unsuccessfully over the years to find that review. It has mysteriously disappeared from the internet. Does that actually happen? Does the writer now swim with the fishes? Maybe it came out in Kirkus or in the AWP Chronicle; though, I tend to think it wouldn’t have been the Chronicle, given how careful they are with avoiding the faintest whiff of contentiousness toward the darlings of the Big Six in one of the most atavistic industries in the world. So probably Kirkus. Or Salon. I think people at Salon could still read at that point.

Anyway, the review was scathing. I remember it not because I necessarily agreed with it, but because at that time I was in awe of Ford in one of the most unproductive and frankly brutal workshops I’d ever experienced. The Xanax intake in our class went up precipitously after the second meeting, while the likelihood of dissent dropped to 1938 Great Purge levels. All heads were bowed. Everyone had joined the party. Dissidence was shown zero tolerance. And I felt that our instructor had gradually begun to resemble Frank Booth offering Jeffrey a ride in Blue Velvet as if we relived that scene in each critique.

Ford’s ability to craft fiction nevertheless spoke for itself. That was the problem: you might think the guy tuning your piano is a surly misanthrope until he starts playing Rachmaninoff. Then you decide you must have been wrong about everything. How much more do you think a highly accomplished yet incredibly acerbic celebrity could shock a group of young students just starting out? Several of my classmates quit writing fiction for good after sitting through critiques that took apart their 20-page stories sentence by sentence. The rest of us were intimidated yet determined not to seem that way. We wanted to be real writers. We would endure. Since then, I’ve come to believe I was more impressed with Ford’s craft and less with his worldview; though, young writers tend to conflate the two when under the influence of a particular teacher and I certainly did.

So when he talked about the epiphany in fiction as being largely an empty obsolete convention, we nodded and wrote it down. What the hell did we know? Besides, the term had religious overtones. That was an absolute no-no. The largely white, upper-middle class Breakfast Club of terrified 20-somethings in my shop immediately started to write gutless (and mostly bad) Ford-Carver imitations—pared-down realism in simple declarative sentences where nothing much happens beyond a .000001% change in the protagonist’s depression.

The theme of every piece became: please don’t hurt the writer of this story. Joan, a secretary at a Toyota dealership—who’d decided to take a story writing class through open university because she liked reading Stephen King—was the only student who’d had the guts to write a scene involving prayer. I remember her story. Though it was painful to read, she may have been the worst writer and the best human being in the room. After her second critique, she developed a facial tic, but she kept coming. I kept coming, too, and tried not to notice that my cigarette and coffee intake had almost tripled as I subconsciously girded myself for fiction fight club. And I also took multiple beatings. You don’t forget beatings like that. They qualify as formative experiences, not because they help you be a better writer but because they show you what not to do, what psychological damage feels like, and how unnecessary it is.

Class and money, of course, were part of the problem. This was at a state university in California, the program I was in before I applied to the MFA at the University of Montana and learned that not all writing programs are created equal. Maybe fortunately, I hadn’t yet seen how students in Ivy or near-Ivy writing programs are coddled and courted as long as they have connections. In Montana, several of my classmates had agents before they even started (or wrote anything). Famous visiting writers showed up twice a week and yawned through their workshops, occasionally meting out a beatdown to the group pariah—usually the kid on heavy student loans whose parents don’t happen to be international art dealers. It makes strategic sense to do this. You look like you’re doing your job and a bit of focused brutality keeps the others in line. Plus some kid without connections won’t likely be a problem in the future.

To his credit, this did not happen in Ford’s workshop. Everyone took a beatdown. Then again, no one had an evident future in creative writing. So he might have been shouting at a room full of corpses, professionally speaking. He seemed angry about having to teach the class in the first place. I think he was there as a personal favor, produced no doubt through the clandestine machinery of patronage and obligation that keeps the MFA Ponzi scheme up and running even in the lowliest regional colleges. Look at the list of visiting writers on any half-page AWP Writer’s Chronicle MFA program advertisement and compare this to the names consistently showing up in Best American Short Stories over the last 20 years. Then look up who’s publishing those people and where they’re teaching now. Who takes those classes? Who can qualify to enter those MFA programs? You’ll figure it out. It’s not hard. And, after that, I’d like you to sweep out the break room.

However, there is another difference between the finishing-school MFA and the one I was in at that time: lack of tact. Students in the highfalutin MFA programs, especially the students on big loans, have a very powerful sense that they must not argue too loudly. They are, after all, being taught by MacArthur fellows and the Pulitzer winners. But go down to a state college on the edge of a farm community where Animal Sciences gets more funding than English, Art, and History together. There you will encounter a type of student looking for an education and angry that she isn’t getting it. Already alienated, many of these kids will gravitate towards the arts, not because it’s a cool thing to talk about at daddy’s dinner parties, but because they have become true believers. Debt is going to be part of their lives forever, but maybe they’re still idealistic enough to want to become artists even though their future as parking lot attendants is pretty much locked in at that point. Every class matters to them. Every text is something that they’ve had to sacrifice for. And if they’re going to be publicly abused and their work put to the question, they want it to be for a good reason.

Thus it came to pass that on the day we were talking about publishing (such that it was clear none of us would ever publish a damn thing because, hey, look around), Karin** raised her hand. I knew it was coming. I could feel the barometer drop as Ford, in mid-sentence, looked over at her. She’d had a pissed-off look since the first day and, meeting by meeting, she seemed to be holding in the rage. I never got to know Karin very well, but I remember that she had a lot of piercings and bright carrot-orange hair which must have been dyed. She was gravely serious about becoming a writer. She was making it happen through loans and waitressing at Denny’s. Moreover, she had a two-year-old son. Karin did not lead an easy life. She led a determined one. And she was not impressed.

She asked a question: “Can you talk about how you first got published? I mean, isn’t it true that you’re so famous whatever you write can get automatically published at this point?” In the spirit of Mark Twain’s after-dinner speech at John Greenleaf Whittier’s birthday party, “the house’s attention continued, but the expression of interest in the faces turned to a sort of black frost.” The daffodils in the faculty club immediately turned to ash and crumbled. Dogs began to howl. The corner of Joan’s eye began to violently twitch.

The way I remember his response was that it was something acidic and dismissive. It was not altogether as harsh as I had expected and, to my surprise, he did not command her to commit ritual suicide then and there. But Karin never came back to class after that meeting. I may not recall his exact words because, in that moment, I was having what can only be described as a major epiphany. I realized it wouldn’t make a bit of difference if I came to the next meeting or went to a bar and got drunk or wrote 20 pages of the best possible prose. What mattered was my attitude to my own work, how sincere I was while remaining dedicated to learning the craft. That’s what being a real writer is. I have Ford’s workshop to thank for that.

It was the first big realization I had in the writing life: every act of writing is an act of defiance. All else is opinion, vanity, and marketing. If that sounds too extreme, let me respectfully suggest that you’re not expressing yourself as fully or as honestly as you could. Let me suggest that you write something that people will disagree with and that you also happen to believe. And let me suggest that you put it out there to publishers and learn to deal with the inevitable beatings. And then defy those and do it again.

 

 

* Kathy Knapp does an updated version of this critique in American Unexceptionalism: the Everyman and the Suburban Novel After 9/11 (2014).

** Not her actual name but close enough for those who might remember.

So the holidays are over. I spent mine reading obscure horror stories from the 19th century and the nonfiction writing of various friends, drinking too much Tetley’s tea, and enjoying myself at home. I mostly stayed in Oxford this year; though, I did have fun going to London on Christmas Eve. It is, without a doubt, one of the greatest places on earth to spend any amount of time. Since I am so close, I go there often. The City of London had a fairly spectacular fireworks display yesterday that can be seen here if you missed it.

Like most relatively sane people, I try to avoid making resolutions at the beginning of a year. Nevertheless, I did make one for 2016. This year I intend to follow through on some of my very long projects to an appreciable degree, putting forth my best effort possible to get some things completed and in the mail before 2017. I should note that I am getting close to completing my third book. However, I’ve been working on it for 6 years (including many painful revisions and reversals), which is how long it took me to write the first one.

Something tells me that I should be writing faster, but I’m convinced that whatever that something is, it isn’t the voice of a writer (or at least of a very good one). So I have decided to keep ignoring it. The good news is that several long projects of mine are probably going to reach completion this year, which will nevertheless be an enormous relief.

What I’m Not Doing Anymore

One thing I’m definitely not doing any more is giving free fiction writing advice to people who send questions via my old WordPress email address. I have not publicly listed that email for some time and now it is completely shut down with no forwarding.  Unfortunately, it was still accessible until very recently.

There are a few good reasons for me shutting down the Q/A portion of my website. I realize that operating a public site, even a WordPress blog like this, exposes a person to all kinds of craziness in addition to pleasant interactions with like-minded readers. You need to have a tough attitude to do anything public. And you need to be willing to block the assholes immediately. I do all those things. On the other hand, I can get so wrapped up in talking about writing that sometimes it uses the energy I need in order to do my own work. That’s where the situation gets hard.

There is no shortage of good writing instruction and advice out there. I remain a huge fan of the Gotham Writers Workshop, where I taught for seven years. I can’t say enough good things about the workshops there. But now I’m writing more than I ever have and I need to sustain this intensity for as long as I can.

Moreover, I should pose the obvious question: who the hell am I?  Just another guy with a few degrees in English who learned early in his career how to publish short fiction in magazines. That’s about it. And that, plus composition and research, is what I’ve taught for most of my career. Sure, I can teach you how to write a story and maybe give you some tips about how to get it into a magazine or lit. journal. But a lot of people can do that. Just because I’ve done it for a long time and maintain a blog about writing doesn’t make me super special.

More than a few talented writing instructors are teaching at Gotham, Lit Reactor, and in various MFA programs right now. If that’s what you’re wondering about, honestly what are you waiting for? There’s never / always time to start thinking seriously about fiction writing, right? Get a portfolio together and start researching a program or dig through the Gotham / LR websites and learn what you have to do to get into the next shop.  Do it and resolve that you will make the best of the experience and get everything you can out of it.

Still, I’ve enjoyed teaching writing, especially being able to meet so many interesting students along the way. But no one can write like me (for that matter, no one can write like you—which has always been the basis of my writing pedagogy: develop your own voice because, more than anything else in your creative life, it will belong to you). So I’ve realized that, at age 42 with perhaps 28 years left on this planet as a cohesive entity, I need to move more fully and deeply into my unique creative vision.

This means that unless you intend to offer me a serious job or decent freelance work (feel free to message me on Twitter about this and only this)—both of which go to supporting my writing—please save us both the trouble. The fact that I will continue to post thoughts on this website is not an offer of free advice, free content writing “for exposure,” or feedback / editing of your own work (which is something I do for pay).

The Next Thing

I travel a lot. It’s part of how I make a living as a freelancer. It’s fun in many ways, especially when I get to spend time with friends as part of my travel plans. It can also be an enormous headache. So now more than ever, I try to operate in places not just because I have to but because I’ve fallen in love with them. My short list includes Paris, Tallinn, London, Boston, San Francisco, Washington D.C., New Orleans, Portland, Prague and Copenhagen. These are the places which I find myself thinking about (and often returning to) again and again. Within a year to 18 months, depending on certain conditions and things that will fall shortly into place, I will be living in one of them, maybe for good.

I mention this because it goes along with the theme of positive change. Living light and never staying in one place for long has its appeal. Since 2010, I’ve lead that life in earnest, seeking experiences instead of things. But I’ve also realized a fundamental truth: there are many great experiences to be had when you get to know your neighborhood, when you become reasonably fluent in the local dialect, when you have a library card—the simple pleasures of being able to live somewhere for more than 6 months and actually make some non-online friends.

This is a change I will be making. And I’m looking forward to it immensely.

Trouble

You don’t live this kind of life without burning bridges. Graduate school, for example, is a lot like high school. No matter how much you achieve, people always remember you the way you were and deeply resent having to revise their opinions if you’ve actually done well for yourself. It’s part of what makes class reunions so painfully entertaining. But MFA and PhD programs don’t usually have reunions (except for the two official orgies of desperation and loathing we call AWP / MLA). Instead, they have enduring envy and the urge to send occasional passive-aggressive messages.

In 2016, I will also be saying goodbye to various acid-tongued lurkers from my past who can’t seem to accept the fact that—in spite of how much I bitch about the writing world—it is my home and I am fundamentally happy here. Yes, I criticize a lot of what I see as hypocritical or false in writing programs or publishing. But please note that I spend time on these things because I care about them very much. Isn’t it obvious?

So if you are one of these people, go ahead and live a little. Work on your own stuff / self and let me work on mine. We’ll all be happier that way.  Remember to be kind to yourself. And good luck to you.

Upcoming Projects

Of course, I’ll continue to write about writing and publishing here. I also intend to start a creative writing video project on YouTube soon with the same sort of focus. I’ll cross-post it with this. So if you are one of the 2654 people already actively RSSing this blog to date, you don’t need to add the YT subscription. It will all show up here, too.

I’m also going to start reviewing more books and magazines (sorry Aaron, it’s coming very soon, really), writing about critical theory (especially postcolonial theory, which is an interest) and about the writers I love. Right now, it’s Bret Easton Ellis, J.G. Ballard, Thomas Ligotti, Fuminori Nakamura, Isaac Babel, Shirley Jackson, Catherynne Valente, James Cain, Jim Thompson, Asa Nonami, Yoko Ogawa, and Henri Barbusse. But there will be others, many and various.

I will be representing the Thrown Free writer’s group more often and I hope to feature the visual art of some of my multi-talented writer-artist friends as well.

All these things make me happy, which is why I do them or intend to. If you’re one of my print readers and / or a reader here, I appreciate your time and hope that 2016 allows me to bring further interesting material to your attention.

Happy New Year.

Michael

It was the beginning of a time when it was almost as if the novel itself didn’t matter anymore. Publishing a shiny booklike object was simply an excuse for parties and glamour and goodlooking authors reading finely honed minimalism to students who would listen rapt with slack­jawed admiration, thinking, I could do that, I could be them. But of course if you weren’t photogenic enough, the sad truth was you couldn’t. – Bret Easton Ellis

John Berryman is supposed to have said that a writer never knows if he’s any good. He asks himself this throughout his life and dies without a satisfactory answer—no matter what prizes, money, publications, or objects of social approval have been tossed his way. It’s easy to conclude that this is just an egotistical hangup for celebrities with enough time and money to fish for validation. Am I good? Tell me. Really? Tell me again. But what Berryman didn’t say was that these doubts seem to come to every person in every field. And insofar as nothing in this world is ever finished or static, such questions must always remain open.

In fact, most things a writer may ask herself about writing (usually in a fallow time when she isn’t writing and feels hollow and dead inside) have no real answers. There is no objective standard for writerly success. You’re never going to know, quoth Berryman. Perhaps because of this, the path of a developing writer is fraught will all kinds of psychological pitfalls, uncertainties which emerge in the space between creation and judgment—writing the thing and then deciding whether it’s worthy.

Consider the luminous transcendent moment when Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for literature. Let’s be honest: she fucking deserved it as well as anybody else. Do you mean to tell me she isn’t a skilled writer? That she hasn’t led the life? That she doesn’t deserve to get paid? Sure, the Nobel system is a politicized, public relations hype-sandwich. In that, it’s no different than the Pulitzer, the MacArthur Genius Grant, the Stegner, or any of the other smaller awards that function as patronage for writers.

Still, I had to laugh when Bret Easton Ellis—who is also great but very different—commented that “Alice Munro was always an overrated writer and now that she’s won The Nobel she always will be. The Nobel is a joke and has been for ages.” After the inevitable social media backlash, he added, “The sentimental hatred for me has made me want to re-read Munro, who I never really got, because now I feel like I’ve beaten-up Santa Claus.” That one kept me laughing for about a week. But the truth is a lot simpler than whether or not Ellis beat up Father Christmas: Munro might not be his cup of tea. But nobody can say definitively that she is “completely overrated” because nobody actually knows. Not even, I will venture to say, Alice.

Young writers (in years and / or in terms of artistic development) especially try to fill this gap with metrics designed to quantify success and banish their excruciating doubts. But most writers have to fight this battle, some throughout their entire careers. Over the course of many years in the writing life, one sees it all:

  • the hack machine who puts out a formulaic novel every three months like clockwork and points to this as the ultimate sign of achievement;
  • the bitter self-publisher, who has completely dismissed the Manhattan book industry as a hive of scum and villainy, and who now only writes direct-to-Lulu ebooks because nothing else matters anymore;
  • the one who can tell you any any minute of the day or night how much money his books are making and exactly why other writers are so jealous of his commercial prowess;
  • the defensive YA-ist (Young Adulterer? Young Adulterator?), who started out trying to be Pam Houston but after the first orgy of rejections turned to Harry Potter the way an abused housewife turns to brandy—it takes the edge off in the middle of the day, helps her convince herself that writing about fairy children with super powers is her true calling, and makes it possible for her to stop experiencing those week-long fugues of black existential dread in which she used to compare herself to Pam;
  • the lost soul in the MFA program, trying desperately to clone herself into Alice Munro or Donna Tartt or Jonathan Foer or Gary Shteyngart or whoever else is currently receiving the publishing industry’s golden shower du jour (Look how closely I can imitate X! Can I get a cookie? Do you love me? Why won’t anyone love me? You promised me a cookie. Where’s my cookie! I’ll be over there, cutting myself, until you bring me my cookie.);
  • the lost soul after the MFA program, trying desperately to justify himself to his drunk brother-in-law at Christmas dinner by mentioning all his literary journal publications (I just put a story in Bumfuck Quarterly! It’s my fifteenth publication! And fuck you, you philistine.);
  • the lost soul who got the two-book deal early on, enabling her to worm her way into a tenure track position at a small liberal arts college, and who behaves outwardly as if this validates every word she has written and will ever write (but who continually asks, Is this it? when she’s not buying cases of gin at the package store because maybe Gilbey’s is the only answer);
  • others, many and various.

I know. I’m being cruel. Although cruelty does come standard with the writing life, these are stereotypes and we all have a little of this inside us.  So pointing fingers is a bit hypocritical.  Call it the pathology of trying to be a writer in a system that presents itself as a meritocracy but functions via medieval power games and nepotism. And we can be as angry as we want. We can shake our little fists at the heavens or spend hours upbraiding ourselves in the mirror. But we’re never going to know how to be good. We’re only ever going to know that we want to be.

 

Cunning is what counts in this life, and even that you’ve got to use in the slyest way you can; I’m telling you straight: they’re cunning, and I’m cunning. If only “them” and “us” had the same ideas we’d get on like a house on fire, but they don’t see eye to eye with us, and we don’t see eye to eye with them, so that’s how it stands and how it will always stand. The one fact is that all of us are cunning, and because of this there’s no love lost between us. – Alan Sillitoe, “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner”

Long ago, in another, more colorful life, I knew an aging exotic dancer named Juliette. She was 22 years older than me and beautiful in ways exotic dancers half her age weren’t or weren’t anymore. Usually when someone starts off by saying, “I knew an exotic dancer named Juliette,” the preterit know must be read in the most expansive and liberal sense. However, Juliette and I had a far more intimate connection—the greatest intimacy with many in her profession being not so much sexual or romantic as sincere. We were friends. We got along.

Specifically, I would sit in the club with a bottomless coffee (yes, even the coffee) and write fiction. On her breaks, she’d sit with me and eat—a bowl of potato soup or chili con carne, pot pies, various pulverized Stouffer TV dinners heated up at the liquor store a block away. Dancers need to eat just like the rest of us. And her breaks were the times she didn’t have to try to be sexy or smile at people, even though she still did when we’d sit in the back and talk about the weather. There is nothing sexy about a pot pie.

I was a 29-year-old graduate student. And Juliette—especially given the local culture of Missoula, Montana—was certainly old enough to be my mother. At 50, she occasionally looked her age. But she most often looked about 25. She was one of those gifted people who always look young and who always look happy even when they’re sad. Born in Manchester, England, she’d made her way across the Atlantic and across Montana first by marriage then by inertia. And she once told me she didn’t see how Missoula was any better or worse than where she grew up in “Gunchester.” It’s an old story. Goes like this: you get married; you get citizenship; you get away from Anaconda, MT the way you got away from the UK; you take off your clothes for men every night in a bar; you get money for regular frozen beef stroganoff and peas; you befriend the dopey-looking guy scribbling on a steno pad in the corner. You are amused. He publishes a story about you. It’s a living.

Things Get Weird in the Chong Market

So yesterday I came down with a bad case of synchronicity. I hadn’t thought of Juliette and our conversations for a long time. She was entirely unique, one of nature’s prototypes, completely unashamed of her body, and someone who shouldn’t be forgotten. Unlike most in her profession, she didn’t secretly hate men for being the hog-faced repellent bastards that we generally are. And that alone should have commended her to my active memory. Still, a lot had happened since then. I’d lived in five countries and spent a significant amount of time in several more, lost myself, found myself, learned to speak poorly in various foreign languages, deliberately forgot certain things and inadvertently remembered others at the least advantageous times.  I’d done my own long slow dance with the devil in the pale moonlight.

I did not dwell on the painful exigencies of the past because I typically do not like feeling depressed. And my MFA years were full of neuroses, desperation, and dread—in my fellow grad students and in myself—which is what I mostly think of when I remember living in Missoula. People in the English department there hardly ever seemed stable and never seemed happy. All in, it was a stereotypically morose humanities graduate program experience best forgotten, which might go toward explaining why I wrote half my first book in a strip club. But that is a subject for a different (and no doubt equally painful) excavation of the past.

But synchronicity: standing in the narrow crowded Chong Market (the only place I can find Mama-brand noodles in Oxford that taste like the ones I had on a daily basis in Bangkok—I am that guy), I had what can only be described as a supernatural-level return of the repressed. While looking at a stack of tiny red plastic offering bowls, I heard someone pronounce “Chinese bowls” like “Chinese bowels.” I wasn’t sure who said it (the place was packed), but I remembered Juliette and her innumerable bowls of chili, which she called as “bowels of chili soup.” I never mentioned how funny that sounded to me because I was afraid she’d take it the wrong way. Over time, her accent had evolved from heavy Mancunian English to some utterly unique amalgam of Manchester dialect plus upper United States and lower Canadian. It was an amazing moment. And, for the rest of the day, I felt surrounded by the kind of trippy new age glitterdust that only comes with spooky action, tinfoil-hat Sedona harmonic convergences, and Tinker Bell. How could I have forgotten Juliette?

A Moment of Spontaneous Hoodoo

One of the greatest features of the Chong Market—other than their extensive assortment of ramen and fish sauces—is the enormous red and gold Hotei shrine dead center in the store. Having had such an intense resurgence of memory, I decided something momentous had just happened. When the hand of the past reaches out and tweaks one’s nose, one should pay attention.

I thought of making an offering to Hotei Buddha for the health and excellence of my longish writing projects, even though that had nothing directly to do with my memory of Juliette. Of course, I’m not in Asia but in Oxford and so, after standing there for a while, drawing weird looks from people going down the narrow aisle, I started to think Hotei might not be the way to go. If I was feeling like working some kind of old-timey Seven Lucky Gods Hotei hoodoo, would it not have been even better to go the Saint Friedeswide route and light a candle in the abby down the street?  The trouble was, the culture of Oxford doesn’t particularly like its medieval saints and I’m still waiting for Frida to return my previous call (it’s not me, it’s her—she’s been busy—don’t I think it might be good to start seeing other towns?—am I seriously jealous of the time she’s been spending with Binsey?—let’s act like adults for once—she needs some space). So I decided to settle for just my little Hotei figurine at home, some incense, a stack of hell money, and a shot of something strong to salute the mystery of it all.

Because moments like that are all about mystery. Synchronicity is memory plus pattern recognition. And memory is narrative, wherein lies what the ancient Greeks referred to as the mysterion—more than just your garden-variety Professor Plum with a revolver in the conservatory. It’s the thing that only reveals itself in your life by degrees, unfolding like a Rose of Jericho. It’s the palimpsest you solve over time. It demands interpretation.  I bought my noodles, put two pence on Hotei’s shrine, and drifted along Hythe Street Bridge, feeling Tinker Belled, like I was missing something. What message was I sending myself?

If You Were Any Good . . .

By the time I reached the other side of the bridge, I felt I had the answer: it’s important to remember as much as you can, no matter how painful, because this is what creates you. By extension, it is how you create.

Earlier in the day, I’d had a conversation about a family member who’d written me off a long time ago to the tune of if you were any good, you’d ________. Every writer hears that at some point; though, I count myself as one of the unfortunates who’ve had to hear it more than once from resentful friends as well as distant and immediate relations. Okay, friends? Maybe “people I used to know and no longer like all that much.” But you can’t beat hearing “if you were any good” from family. That’s a special kind of wonderful. When you hear this, remember it because the past is a mysterion you need to constantly interpret and whoever said that, no matter how much they grin and prevaricate, will have your worst interests at heart going forward. As the person writing the developing narrative of your life, you are the one responsible for writing the plot.

There is absolutely no way a writer can avoid dealing with the past. The entire problem of leading a creative life is bound up with personal history and the old sad “if you were any good” attack. It’s the meritocratic lie that creeps up from the subconscious in the long dark of your novel-length writing project. It’s a nutty relative coming out of nowhere to say she knows that what you wrote is all about her and that’s why she’s so upset. It’s your uncle asking you if you have an agent yet. It’s feeling like you have to do NaNoWriMo to prove something on Facebook. It’s the thing you should never forgive or forget if you respect yourself as an artist. Let them insult you all they want and critique your work on its merits, but never put up with them insulting you through your work.

All of this, as Ecclesiastes might say, is vanity. It gets in the way of mental health, but more so if you allow yourself to forget it.  NaNoWriMo, for example, is an interesting exercise the way having a colonoscopy can be interesting. It’s a unique experience. You have troubling thoughts about the people providing that experience. You walk out stiffly and tell yourself you’re glad you did it; though, you’re not altogether sure it was necessary, and you quietly resolve to never do it again. If you were any good, you’re sure you’d have loved it.  Keep that in mind for next year.

For that matter, if you were any good, you’d be living in New York City. If you were any good, you’d have a novel being optioned, you’d be on the NY Times bestseller list, have a Stegner Fellowship, and no doubt have rancid AWP Conference hookup fellatio scheduled right after the panel discussion in which Charles Baxter says things about moral fiction that everyone will try to forget. If you were any good, you’d be something in residence somewhere. You’d be making a fuckload of money for yourself and around 200 better dressed people who majored in English at Brown and Vassar. More importantly, you’d be making your friends and relatives finally shut up about your life choices because you’d be on that Limitless drug that shot Bradley Cooper through a cannon and transformed him from a writer into a low-fi Jeb Bush. All these things you have to have and make and do in order to be real. If I’d said as much to Juliette, she would have laughed me out of the strip club.

Oh Yes Money is Part of It: The James Patterson Experiment as a Case Study in Thuggery, Bullshit, and Woe

I took my Chong Market mysterion as an opportunity provided by my subconscious to remember and therefore create. In other words, don’t have selective memory. Hold onto the good things, the good conversations, the good people, but keep the painful things pressed hard against your heart. For creative writers, this is essential. Allow yourself to forget a good person and you profane what the world has given you. Allow yourself to forget a painful experience and you lose a hard-won part of your soul.

Walking back home across a city in which people put razor-sharp spikes on four-foot backyard fences because they feel they should, I thought about my old friend, Juliette, and wondered where she was, if she still was. Was she back in Gunchester? Did she get married and become a happy homemaker? Did she wail off half-naked to the horizon on the back of some werewolf’s Harley? Juliette could have done anything because she knew how to survive anywhere. One thing she understood better than I ever have: money will win in the end but that doesn’t excuse us from anything.  We still look to the past in order to create the future.

Consider the “James Patterson Experiment,” which sounds like a funk band started in 1975 at Chico State but which, in reality, was a cynical (but rather funny) project by an unpublished ebook writer named Paul Coleman. Coleman boiled James Patterson’s bestseller formula down to a relatively depressing yet realistic set of principles: “Paul is using Patterson’s fast-paced style (short paragraphs, short chapters), plenty of action (‘when in doubt, blow something up or shoot someone’), and plain language (no purple prose here), among other tactics.” Why? Because Paul wants to get published and pay rent and James Patterson is one of the wealthiest writers alive ($94 million).

Now also consider that there are other “real” writers out there: E.L. James ($80 million), Danielle Steele ($23 million), Stephanie Meyer ($14 million). Searching for literary authors with money gets us the likes of Richard Ford, Haruki Murakami, and Donna Tartt (who, according to Vanity Fair two years ago, was the “It Girl” who’d become the “It Author,” having written The Goldfinch, described as the “It Novel”— read some Vanity Fair and then say it with me: fuck It). These people have all the talent. And if you don’t agree, we’ll replace you online with a 404 Error page and send some Viking-Penguin leg breakers to beat your mother into submission. If you were any good, you wouldn’t be googling the net worth of the person who wrote 50 Shades of Grey.

You don’t mess with enfants terribles littéraires who suddenly get money. And you definitely don’t mess with the hideous lampreys who make a living off of them. There is no one more gangsta than an author (plus lamprey cloud) who can now tell the world to kiss his ass. To be fair, most authors feel they’re due for a little ass worship, given the abuse that comes standard with the writing life. But feelings aren’t the point. In the immortal words of Boss Hogg, “Blood may be thicker than water, but money’s thicker than blood.”

When you’re talking about creative works that produce millions, it’s no longer about art or even about taste; it’s about intellectual property. So Paul Coleman’s website is now a 404 Error result. Why is that, do you think? Where is Paul Coleman now? Google “James Patterson Experiment” and see what comes up for the first 10 pages of results. No, this is not paranoia. This is the notion of “loss prevention” filtered through high-end corporate logic.

To wit: if you pose the classic Foucaldian question: “What is an author?” you may receive a list of brand names that represent intellectual property interests distantly related to human beings alive or dead. If you disagree with this list, we throw our heads back and laugh because you’re broke, chump! Get some talent and you’ll get paid. Then you’ll be real. Only then. If we don’t disappear you in the meantime for asking too many questions since, if you were any good, you’d be something you’re not right now. But I think about Juliette, who was wholly herself. And yesterday, I may have asked the Foucaldian What, exactly, am I? more than once on my way to my little house on the meadow.

One Last Tiresome Synthetic Connection Evoking the Restless Spirit of Bob Nucklet c. 1989

Bob Nucklet (Where are you now, Bob Nucklet?) played the trombone. He was tall, still wore his band letterman jacket two years after graduation, and had his drunk of a father to thank for the fact that he couldn’t walk straight. Bob was an amazing trombone player, but his day job was waiting tables at Horton Plaza in downtown San Diego. We’d stayed friends after I’d transferred and he graduated due to our mutual love of comics and music. Picture me, 17 years old, tooling around San Diego with Bob in a broken-in-every-way-possible 280ZX to buy comic books. We’d discuss Seven Samuroid and Axl Pressbutton over 7-11 coffee with the intensity of post-Soviet avaunt-garde film critics.

When I woke up this morning, thinking about the past, about all these things and more, I had another resurgence of memory: me haltingly trying to explain to Bob that I was picking up classical guitar as well as piano, worried that he would respond like all my other musician friends with piano players think they can play anything. Instead he simply nodded and said, “Just keep playing, Michael. Just keep playing.” And I think I should keep that memory close as well because I have kept playing in my own way—with words and doing my best to avoid the if-you-were-any-goods coming at me from time to time.  Hotei knows, it hasn’t been easy.  

I wonder what Juliette would think if she met Bob. I’m sure they’d fall in love.

1. Veritas vos Liberabit

Karl Lessing and I decided to finish the five gallon jugs of flat Michelob his little brother had liberated from a frat party. It felt like a big decision. This was 1993. We were sitting in Karl’s parents’ garage, watching old footage of Tower of Power’s “What is Hip?” on Soul Train. And it all seemed to go together—the cheap plastic folding chairs, the Everlast heavy bag bandaged with silver electrical tape, the beat-to-shit Zenith with a wire hanger for rabbit ears, the VHS player I got at Kobey’s Swap Meet for $12, the incense cones Karl’s sister made out of ganja and cinnamon burning on a dinner plate. Nothing had changed since high school. We were two years older and both felt that because we hadn’t yet become wealthy, famous, and adored, we were obviously has-beens.

We didn’t talk much. We were better at being self-absorbed and sullen, experts actually. The way I remember it, it was a Saturday night and neither of us had girlfriends or anything interesting to do other than sit there and make the occasional comment about how much of a badass Lenny Willams was or how Mic Gilette had them chops. One thing I’d learned how to do since high school was get good grades. And, as a sophomore at San Diego State, that meant I had a lot of free time on my hands to think about music when I wasn’t feeling like a loser.

People our age were fixated on Nirvana and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but Karl and I were heavily into jazz and 70s funk. That was our main obsession—Tower of Power, Brass Construction, Average White Band, Graham Central Station, Chaka Khan, Sly and the Family Stone, The Gap Band, Sun Ra, Miles Davis, McCoy Tyner, Coltrane, on and on. In truth, we listened to all kinds of music when we weren’t playing it, but because Karl was one of my best friends and happened to have three bookcases of CDs, I got exposed to a lot of styles I would not otherwise have known about. I never took world music or music appreciation. I was a double major, music and English, and apart from what I learned from Karl, the trajectory of my influences was limited to what I did in my classes. Karl was also a music major. The difference between us was that, while Karl was already an accomplished jazz saxophonist from a family of professional musicians, I was just a lost soul.

But that’s not precisely true. Looking at the 20-year-old boy I was then, I can see that I was just a writer who just didn’t know it yet, not unlike a lot of the students I’ve taught over the years. At the time, I thought I was going to be a classical pianist, but I was doing exactly what a writer does—getting absorbed in other people’s lives, details, energies, seeing the world through their eyes. Not all creative people do this but I’ve recognized the tendency in many of the writers, actors, and assorted soulless vampires I’ve met along the way. And to be perfectly honest, I had the affinity and intellectual capacity for classical music but not the temperament. Temperament might be everything.

Even with all of these influences, tendencies, fears, and assumptions swirling around us in that garage like fate, the Michelob didn’t taste any better. That said, when you’re 20 and frustrated, flat stolen beer is there for you. And we were halfway to our sworn goal when something amazing happened. Maybe it was right around the moment when Lenny in all his green velour majesty, goes, Do you think it’s drivin’ a big fine car? Have you heard, it’s tryin’ to be a star?—though that would have been too perfect—that Karl had a moment of profound wisdom which has stayed with me all my life. He looked at the gallon jug balanced on his thigh, then at me, and said, “Davis, some people get everything they want in life. The rest of us become philosophers.”

2. My Life as a Philosopher

“I know the many disguises of that monster, Fortune, and the extent to which she seduces with friendship the very people she is striving to cheat, until she overwhelms them with unbearable grief at the suddenness of her desertion.”  ― Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy

17 years after Karl’s moment of Michelob profundity in the garage, I was sitting in a conference room at Western Michigan University looking at a class of creative writing students, all in their early 20s, all lost souls. It was the last year of my PhD. And in my private life, something I am not inclined to casually discuss with students, I had suffered immense personal losses by then—death, estrangement, betrayal, and disappointment. But what else is new? One still has to get up in the morning and put on one’s pants.

Unfortunately, the only way to earn the putting-on-one’s-pants insight is to suffer and then choose to become a philosopher, a choice these kids hadn’t faced yet. A lot of them looked at me and thought, this guy has it made. How do I do what he’s doing? Some of them actually said as much to me in my office hours, peering across the desk in a kind of half-disbelief that I could lead the writing life, the idyllic life they imagined they wanted but felt was forever beyond their reach. In other words, they were 20 and thought they were already losers.

The key ideas in my beginning workshop were simple: you have to read like a writer in order to teach yourself about what can be done. You have to learn how to evaluate your writing on its own terms. And you need to develop discipline, which includes an ability to survive criticism and make it work for you. Most students can emotionally grasp these things after a 15-week semester, but it usually takes about that long. The problem is that the most gifted ones, the ones with that extra something—that divine spark of talent given to them by the muse or an angel or the Prince of Darkness—are usually the ones who take a lot longer to get over themselves. They’re so busy trying to sort out the fact that they’ve internalized materialistic social values at odds with who they are, that they ignore the practical side of the work.

Just as I absorbed Karl Lessing’s love of music and the aura of professional musicianship that always surrounded him, my own students absorbed similar energies from me. Even the most gifted writers over the years were not insightful enough to see that it wasn’t me they were absorbing. Rather, they were admiring some eidolon, some mirage of ideal qualities they imagined I must have in order to do what I was doing. If I’d told them what Karl had said that night it the garage, would it have mattered? No. Because they hadn’t suffered enough to understand. You can’t tell someone who has been searching for the lost city of gold that the glimmer they think they see isn’t El Dorado. They don’t want to face reality and become philosophers. They want to be on Soul Train with Lenny Williams covered in green velour. And I don’t blame them.

One young man that semester, Paul, who stands out in my memory as having seemed broken and gifted in equal parts, came into my office hour looking pale and severe. And as soon as I looked up at him, I knew we were going to have one of those conversations—the kind that start off about writing and segue quickly into What do I do about my difficult life? To honor the teachers who put up with me when I was the one asking such things, I never slither away; though, I’m often tempted. It’s draining to talk with depressed, frustrated people. But it’s a small act of kindness, which is the only sort of kindness that really matters.

So he sat down and unleashed the kraken. He’d taken a beating in workshop the day before for his fairly chauvinistic first-person story about a guy who uses a pickup artist system to seduce a barista in some nameless college town. After using her sexually, he tells her to take a hike and she’s crushed. And that was the story. I still remember it, not only because Paul seemed to have that stricken shell-shocked look of someone who’d just gone through an Inquisition-style critique, but because the story really was tremendously bad. Also because Paul was generally talented as a fiction writer and it was unlike his other work.

After going on about various things and people he disagreed with in his critique, he stopped, deflated, and said, “This is mostly nonfiction. I don’t know if you’ve realized that.”

I nodded. “I think most of the class did.”

Then Paul turned red, stood up, and thanked me for my time. I watched him through my open door as he went down the hall. I felt a little sad for him. But I didn’t feel sad for the girl in the story, who I was pretty sure didn’t exist. Did Young Paul apprentice himself to a “How to Get Girls” system? I didn’t doubt it—as much as I didn’t doubt that he was girlfriendless and powerfully, elementally lonely.

The last scene of his story went something like this: the protagonist and the girl are standing under a streetlight or something. She’s clinging to him and he says it’s not going to work out because he just doesn’t feel things like normal people. He has a cold heart. And then he walks away and she collapses in tears. Everyone in the workshop thought (rightly) that it was an ending that resolved / showed nothing. Plus, it was melodramatic. Plus, Paul seemed completely immersed in what he called the “pickup artist movement” and the other students were sick of his critiques always somehow incorporating that material.

But what I saw (and didn’t say) was that Paul wasn’t the two-dimensional womanizing protagonist in his story; he was the girl left sad and alone under a streetlight. The protagonist was who he told himself he needed to be—someone with a cold heart who doesn’t get kicked around anymore. Though there was no world, no permutation of reality, in which he could be that. He was too much in love with love and didn’t even know it. All he’d done was absorb the “pickup artist” ideology for a time—like a writer tends to do.

In the practice of philosophy, which often comes down to a single question—What is good and how do I know?—personal truth sets us free. The lost city of gold is lost for a reason. In seeking it, we learn how to live. We don’t get what we think we want, but we become philosophers inured to the vicissitudes of fortune. It is only through this that later in life we are able to resist death’s constant alluring invitations.

3. Death Pact

In 1700, Lord Nabeshima Mitsushige, ruler of the Hizen Provence, died. Tsunetomo Yamamoto was one of his loyal samurai, but he did not follow his lord in death because Mitsushige had expressed a dislike of the practice. Instead Yamamoto traveled into the mountains to spend the rest of his life as a hermit. Nine years later, he narrated a book of thoughts and parables about the samurai life to a fellow warrior, which became known as The Hagakure or In the Shadow of the Leaves. It is a powerful book, not only because it teaches us about the historical reality of the samurai, but because one of its principle themes is that much of what the samurai thinks, does, and feels is hidden from public view.

The purest expression of this was accepting death to the deepest extent possible, essentially embodying an “already dead” perspective. One is so dedicated to one’s mission that life itself is secondary. He writes that “even if it seems certain that you will lose, retaliate. Neither wisdom nor technique has a place in this. A real man does not think of victory or defeat. He plunges recklessly towards an irrational death. By doing this, you will awaken from your dreams.”

By doing this, you will awaken from your dreams. I have thought deeply about this passage over the years. In my current understanding, this “dream” is a dream of the self—the self-centered fairy tale each of us carries in our hearts about what we wish our lives could be. We’ve spent so much of our time, as writers, absorbing the energies and beliefs of others that it can be hard to wake up. But if we are to become philosophers, our fairy tale dream cannot have a happy ending. In the words of Karl Lessing, we don’t get what we want. Instead, we start asking questions.

We’re shocked awake, in media res, and we realize that we’re running towards an irrational death. We didn’t plan any of it. It’s not logical. We were busy dreaming about winning and losing, success and failure, fortune and misfortune. Everything that used to make sense doesn’t anymore. Death is waiting. It’s inevitable. And nobody wins.

At this point, the writer, if he’s honest, says to himself, my mission is more important than my dream. I know I’m going to die. But I have to try to make art until that happens. This is the pact every creative person makes with death. It’s the moment we can answer the philosophical question, What is good and how do I know? It’s the moment we look back at our 20-year-old selves—those depressed narcissists already willing to concede and accept defeat because everything at that point is cast in terms of winners and losers—and smile. The lost city of gold must remain lost to mean anything. The gold is incidental.

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Rundetaarn

I was sitting in a cafe across the street from Rundetaarn, a Masonic dragon tower in Copenhagen, trying to make progress with William Gibson’s novel, The Peripheral, when I realized it’s constipated with words and it wasn’t going to get any more regular after 100 pages. It’s so self-referential, so overwrought and self-conscious that it broke my heart a little bit. This is not a realization one wants to have in a city so far from home, even if the concept of home no longer makes sense. Consider the beginning of chapter 8, “Double Dickage”:

The boss patcher, unless he wore some carnival helmet fashioned from keratotic skin, had no neck, the approximate features of a bullfrog, and two penises.

“Nauseating,” Netherton said, expecting no reply from Rainey.

Perhaps a little over two meters tall, with disproportionately long arms, the boss had arrived atop a transparent penny farthing, the large wheel’s hollow spokes patterned after the bones of an albatross. He wore a ragged tutu of UV-frayed sheet-plastic flotsam, through whose crumbling frills could be glimpsed what Rainey called his double dickage. The upper and smaller of the two, if in fact it was a penis, was erect, perhaps perpetually, and topped with what looked to be a party hat of rough gray horn. The other, seemingly more conventional, though supersized, depended slackly below.

When you read something like this, unless hard work has already been done to make it clear, all you can do is give the book the benefit of the doubt and hope. Maybe in 50 pages, bullfrog dicks and frills will make sense in a way that allows suspension of disbelief. Maybe in 150.

To be fair, sometimes this actually does happen. A novel reaches a point at which its unique terms and weird settings stabilize in a comprehensible way, allowing the reader to orient herself and understand what matters in the world of the story. This is especially true in books written in a 1970s sci-fi prose style, where sensory and linguistic overload establishes a specialized language in which author, text, and reader can identify as a discourse community (cf. Tvtropes.org’s definition of “Fan Speak”). For example, when I first read Samuel Delaney, I had the experience of feeling completely overwhelmed by an alien prose style that seemed to function in performative resonance with the subject matter. I felt like I had to assimilate to this world. I was the alien.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one who had this experience. Jo Walton writes about that same feeling on the Tor.com website, in “Overloading the Senses: Samuel Delaney’s Nova.” But if the language and settings of a novel can’t become the new normal, if there is no way for the reader to orient himself, there can be no suspension of disbelief. Overload becomes noise instead of a communal bonding experience. And the reader loses interest because there is no way to become emotionally involved. There reader is shut out. It’s like peering into the murky waters of an aquarium, unsure what exactly is supposed to be on display.

Nevertheless, this is William Gibson, one of the great sci-fi writers of the late 20th century, someone I grew up reading, admiring, and trusting, which I suppose exacerbates the tragedy of the double dickage on the reader. At least, I felt doubly dicked over. Compare the above, to the opening chapter of Mona Lisa Overdrive, “The Smoke,” which is lyrically beautiful and which exemplifies everything I love about Gibson’s sensibilities:

The ghost was her father’s parting gift, presented by a black-clad secretary in a departure lounge at Narita. For the first two hours of the flight to London it lay forgotten in her purse, a smooth dark oblong, one side impressed with the ubiquitous Maas-Neotek logo, the other gently curved to fit the user’s palm. She sat up very straight in her seat in the first-class cabin, her features composed in a small cold mask modeled after her dead mother’s most characteristic expression. The surrounding seats were empty; her father had purchased the space. She refused the meal the nervous steward offered. The vacant seats frightened him, evidence of her father’s wealth and power. The man hesitated, then bowed and withdrew.

Very briefly, she allowed the mask her mother’s smile.

Ghosts, she thought later, somewhere over Germany, staring at the upholstery of the seat beside her. How well her father treated his ghosts. There were ghosts beyond the window, too, ghosts in the stratosphere of Europe’s winter, partial images that began to form if she let her eyes drift out of focus. Her mother in Ueno Park, face fragile in September sunlight. “The cranes, Kumi! Look at the cranes!” And Kumiko looked across Shinobazu Pond and saw nothing, no cranes at all, only a few hopping black dots that surely were crows. The water was smooth as silk, the color of lead, and pale holograms flickered indistinctly above a distant line of archery stalls. But Kumiko would see the cranes later, many times, in dreams; they were origami, angular things folded from sheets of neon, bright stiff birds sailing the moonscape of her mother’s madness.

The difference is striking. Here, the immersion is immediate, the images are beautiful, and there is still enough weird dramatic tension for us to understand that this is not the world we take for granted when we get on a plane to Big Smoke.

Now I’m living in England again; though, I’m back in Oxford instead of the Smoke. I wish I had something like Gibson’s Pattern Recognition or All Tomorrow’s Parties to carry with me, to help me contextualize the inherent (sometimes pleasant) weirdness of this place, which, on a good day, can seem a bit like home. I learned so much from him when I was just starting to read like a writer. And on those rare occasions when I find myself teaching a creative writing class, I still assign his cinematic vignette, “Thirteen Views of a Cardboard City,” as an example of how prose can be minimalist and immersive at the same time—especially when the students seem to have developed an unhealthy Raymond Carver fetish.

You can only read lines like, Randy, she said, I can’t do this anymore. Randy poured another glass of scotch. They looked out at the empty parking lot, before you start longing for more adjectives. (Yes, I know Carver is great. He is actually one of my favorite writers. And, yes, I can see my father right now, sneering at me, saying, Raymond Carver you ain’t. And I have to agree with him. Carver is a truly great writer and maybe by saying “Raymond Carver fetish,” I’m dismissing him unfairly. But in the neurotic, self-castigating, New Critical environment of most MFA programs, Carverian minimalism is as much a problem as it is a protection. Writing outside the boundaries of late 20th century minimalism takes courage. Description makes us vulnerable. And being willing to make oneself vulnerable is one of the hardest and most valuable lessons to learn as a creative writer. So, yes, Carver I ain’t. And Carver you ain’t, either.)

So back to the dragon tower. The Peripheral was killing me. I was doing my best, trying hard to find some way into the story, but I was failing. And it didn’t help that I had come to Denmark for a variety of reasons, none of them having to do with science fiction or reading. One reason I was there had to do with a kind of spiritual journey. I do this. I set a destination, sometimes with friends, sometimes just for me, and I go there, trying to realize / recognize another part of myself.

I once read a short story in OMNI magazine—I must have been ten or eleven years old—about people living on a space station that had somehow been stabilized at the edge of a wormhole. They would go on space walks into the anomaly and return with cures to diseases, ancient historical artifacts lost to time, new mathematical theories, answers to the great unsolvable questions. The only catch was that anyone who went out came back a little more suicidally insane. Eventually, if they went out too many times, they’d carve themselves up with surgical scalpels or blow themselves out the air lock or something equally horrible. The question for the main character was how far she was willing to go, how much of herself she was willing to sacrifice. I’ve never forgotten the story because I have always felt that I, like her, would give it all in the end—not because I care so much about humanity or so little for myself, but because the opportunity to experience what might be on the “other side” and come back would be worth anything, even if it ultimately consumed me. My spiritual journeys around the world are like that, only I come back with more of myself instead of less.

There always has to be a way to fund the trip, some work tie-in or set amount of money I know I can spend. But once I have things locked in, wherever I happen to be, I go looking immediately for the dragon tower. I go looking for those places—like Stonehenge or the Ha’penny Bridge or the Russalka Memorial—that speak to me about myself. This is entirely subjective and often inexplicable, but that’s the whole point. I don’t make these journeys for other people. I go because there are things I need to understand. I have my own “great unsolvable questions.” Maybe I never solve them completely, but every time I go, I have at least one moment like Kumiko where I see the cranes, tiny origami mysteries that unfold the corners of who I am, which makes the space walk worthwhile.

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The walk up to the top of the tower.

Rundetaarn is beautiful, symmetrical, solid, powerful—all things pleasing to the eye that carry a sense of divine perfection. I have visited it many times in dreams since then. But that day in particular, sitting in the window across the street, I wasn’t thinking about spiritual things as much as the past. The Peripheral was depressing. So I reread the postcard I was using as a bookmark. It was from Kurt, a friend who went to graduate school with me. We don’t see each other much. But every now and then, we’ll send emails or postcards or a Facebook message. He’s a painter and a poet, gifted and serious, and one of the best people I know. His note covered a lot of things but what really stuck with me was the observation he made that so few who got MFAs with us are still writing after more than a decade. He’s right and I’ve wondered about that, too.

So I was sitting there, looking up at Rundetaarn, and thinking about how the past never squares with the present. Life always seems better before. We were always saner, more prolific, healthier, more blissfully ignorant. Is this why I couldn’t connect with Gibson’s novel? Was I clinging, like a brittle fanboy, to an idiom that the writer already transcended without me noticing? Was I clinging to the idea of what it was to be an MFA student back at the University of Montana when I should just accept that not everyone wants to die in loveless penury? Was this the part of myself I was meant to bring back from my space walk—the realization that obsessing about the past is double dickage I don’t need?

(Possible corollary: obsessing about the past is actually obsessing about the present; it’s all the same space walk. It just seems different because our linear presuppositions about the nature of change blind us to the reality that everything is taking place all at once. We just see experience from progressively different angles because our perceptions are bound to what we consider the “physical world” and therefore receive the impression that things are constantly degenerating. All things change. All things are subject to cycles of entropy. But change itself is eternal, apart from our flawed conventional idea of time.)

After thinking about these things, watching tourists go in and out of the tower, I finally wrote a response to Kurt. I said:

I don’t understand why so many of the talented people we knew stopped writing because I don’t really understand the Manhattan publishing industry. I think there’s a strong connection. . . . What I am is tired of gatekeepers so worried about their careers that they only think in categories. Barton Fink comes to mind a lot. Maybe people stop writing post-MFA because they get worn out, some sooner than others. People are wired to be social and run on interpersonal feedback. Ignore them long enough and they will lose their happy thoughts. Then there are the weirdos like us who keep doing it anyway. It sometimes feels like I’m sitting in a dark room, talking to no one in particular and yet hoping someone is standing there listening. I don’t actually believe someone is there in the dark, though. That’s the problem. I can’t make myself believe it. There must be another reason. Compulsion? Obsession? I don’t know. I wrestle with this stuff a lot.

I wrote it in my journal and then emailed it to him a few weeks after getting back to Oxford. But I’m still thinking about it. And I suspect that Gibson wrote The Peripheral because it was simply time for him to write another novel—because he, being commercially successful, explicitly does not have the problem I’m talking about. The problem of dying cold, alone, unrecognized, and broke that most artists have to face. Moreover, I’m glad he’s written what he has. His recent novel might not be my cup of tea, but I suppose I am still a Gibson fan despite the double dickage.

Still, I had to wonder what it was that I was supposed to find in Copenhagen. I did a lot of different things while I was there. I had many important insights. But it wasn’t until a few days ago, when I read Felicia Day’s memoir, You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), that it all came together for me. I’m not much of a fan when it comes to celebrities. To be honest, the only other celebrity autobiography I’ve read is David Carradine’s Endless Highway. Unlike many famous people, Carradine could write. And I think Day can write as well. She’s funny, smart, and reminds me a lot of her character on Supernatural that way. It was an easy read with some very interesting parts—chapters on Gamergate and her experience as a double major in violin performance and math at UT Austin. She reminds me of a lot of people I was friends with in college—people more interested in how things work than in how much they’re going to make after graduation.

There is one passage in her book that clicked everything into place and brought me back to that day in Denmark when I was sitting by the tower. In her chapter about struggling to make it in Hollywood, Day writes:

No one had a place for my geeky, weird, homeschooled, video-game-loving inner self. They could only see me as an extremely clean but neurotic secretary. . . . . I painted myself into a tiny corner, so I could be simpler and cleaner and more hirable by Hollywood. I was rewarded for it, but it made me miserable, and I didn’t even realize it. When the system you want to be a part of so badly turns you into someone you’re unhappy with and you lose sight of yourself, is it worth it? Er . . . probably not. But self-reflection wasn’t my strong suit at the time. I just knew that I kept getting opportunities that I couldn’t turn down, that I would have killed to have in the dry years before. I never stopped to wonder, Why am I so depressed all the time after all this success?

  • Because playing a two-dimensional background stereotype of a secretary wasn’t fulfilling her as an artist.
  • Because publishing a constipated inaccessible science fiction novel by virtue of an author’s pre-existing fame is nothing more than a cynical publishing industry gesture.
  • Because giving up your art after getting an MFA is a crime against yourself committed from a place of despair and futility.
  • Because the part of me that I retrieved from my space walk was simply this: there is art and there is the business of selling it. I am and always will be invested in the former to the detriment of the latter. It’s so easy to conflate the two. And people who don’t know do this all the time—You’re a writer? So how come you’re not living in New York? How come I’ve never heard of you? There is no way to answer questions like that without sounding defensive about not “making it.” But the truth is very simple: the person courting fame is not focusing on her art. There is often a difference between what is salable / commercial and what you have to personally do as a creator.

Sometimes these things come together, like when Day’s web series, The Guild, got attention on YouTube, helping her circumvent the Hollywood gatekeepers and advance her acting career. There are many examples of this in self-publishing as well. But the point is not to find a new clever way of climbing the ladder to commercial bankability. The point is to express yourself through your work. The rest is incidental. What you find when you step through the wormhole is ultimately yourself. You climb the dragon tower and see the cranes—origami, angular things, the stuff of your dreams, unfolding.

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I finished the first draft of my novella last night. But I don’t feel anything except that same old sense of loss and emptiness. The only time I ever enjoy writing is when I’m in the middle of it. Once I finish–and I mean like 10 minutes after I write the last word of the first draft–I feel like I just got back from a friend’s funeral and all that’s left is some absurd memory of something they did.

The act of submitting my work for publication is a mechanical afterthought. It’s necessary, at least in how I choose to lead my life, but it’s not the reason I write. Put me in a box with all my manuscripts and drop me in the ocean. Never read a word I’ve written or speak of me again. Grind me into dust. Throw every trace of me into a furnace. And nothing will have changed. The process will still have mattered as much to me as it does right now. It’s the process, the act, the engagement, the work–always changing, always the same. And when it’s finished, I need it to start again. Immediately.

There is an emotional truth or reality at the center of a story I may be writing.  I have a fleeting sense of it and then I start off by trying to explore it, trying to get to the center.  Then I always stop.  Sometimes it’s because I’ve forgotten that “fleeting sense” and consequently do not know how to proceed (a kind of amnesia in which I know that I had the emotion, but I can’t feel it or understand how to be guided by it anymore).  Sometimes, it’s because I can’t face what I’ve discovered–conditions in my life have made such an emotional realization too painful or too difficult in some way.  But if I can realize the truth of that emotional center deeply in myself, if I can come to terms with it in the deepest possible way, then I can move the story toward completion.  The end of the story is always a revelation because it remains hidden for most of the process.

In this sense, many of my “story fragments” are still waiting for me to come around to that place where I can recognize what they are and what they mean.  A fragment waiting to be finished is a piece of me waiting to be recognized and realized.

This goes further.  As with stories, so with certain themes in life, certain personal relationships, certain avenues of self-work.  Everything is ultimately and inherently a story, which is to say, an unfolding emotional self-realization.  This is mysterious.  This is why it takes endurance to write outside of outlines and formulas.  And this is the difference between making art and telling someone else’s story–which is something you haven’t lived and are not.  This is also why no one can tell you what your creative project should be.  No one can know what you need to realize.  No one can see that far into you.  Only you can seek this mystery.  And it begins in that painful moment when you are entirely alone before the blank page, which is to say, before the mirror, asking, “Who am I becoming?”

Miss Tomoike can’t pronounce the German for money. The problem is, neither can I.

I am in love with Miss Tomoike.

I say, Ich habe kein Geld. I have no money. And the class responds, Wir haben kein Geld. We have no money. In my world, the world of German 2A, no one ever has any money. But I am still in love with Miss Tomoike.

Problems.

She is sixteen years old. I am thirty-one. It is a clichéd, old story—probably as clichéd and old as having no money. Miss Tomoike’s d’s sound like t’s. If I’m not careful, mine do too: “Wir haben kein Gelt.”

Nein.

Nein, nein, nein.

I dance around the room for no reason at all and the class snickers. Geld: gay-aey-elle-day. The class repeats. They are patient, indulgent. They see my lighthearted antics and raise me my lack of correct pronunciation despite the fact that every day, at 9:10 AM in room 22, I am barely in the game.

My feelings for Miss Tomoike endure. They torment me from her wonderfully messy homework, the lopsided A’s, the undotted i‘s. I’ve bought a pack of the pens she uses: Pilot Precise V5 Rolling Ball, blue (extra fine). Sometimes I copy her signature over and over. I am a sad, sad man.

Jeremy Hoff raises his hand. Both of his parents are from Augsburg, directly from Augsburg. He could teach my class, and he makes sure I know this every day. Jeremy Hoff is the worst thing in my life.

He reminds me: “We did this yesterday.”

“Yes,” I say, “yes,” and retreat to the table at the front of the room where the teacher’s answer book is open to the lesson I almost understand.

Jeremy laces his fingers behind his head and leans back in his desk. He’s wearing western boots. He crosses his legs straight out at the ankles and the boots make a thok-thok on the hardwood. “What did you do before you were a teacher?” he asks.

I tell them to open their books.

He says something in a complex Bavarian slang I don’t understand, and the class snickers again. I ignore him. Miss Tomoike has beautiful eyes. Her short black hair is meticulously clean. She smiles up at me and I move on to verbs. Verbs are good. One can depend on verbs. I say, “sprechen,” and try not to stare as she conjugates.

I took it as the innate goodness and simplicity of small town folk that Claire Dunlop, the principal of Alexander Weiskopf H. S., offered to rent me a room until I could find a place of my own. Now we have a different principal and Claire Dunlop is gone. Two years have passed, but I am a hundred years older and I think back to my arrival as if it happened in a different era. I was in the last group of teachers to live in her house on Main Street, equidistant from the gas station and the school.

Hired by Claire right out of college, I moved from California so I could teach English and wouldn’t have to be a jeweler like every other member of my family. I would have gone just about anywhere. And Hauberk, Missouri, seemed okay even though tornados ripped across the state every year and the Hauberkians didn’t appear to care as long as their own, personal houses still had roofs when they got home from work. Sometimes entire barns were razed, animals carried for miles, tumbleweeds, bushes, and dirt pulverized into clumps by the road or rising out of the blasted cornfields in lopsided columns—messages in the great symbolic language of creation: DON’T STAY HERE. I didn’t listen.

Claire sent the algebra teacher, Henry Barber, to pick me up at the Greyhound one county over. He was a thin-lipped man, completely bald, with high cheekbones and a heaviness around him as if he traveled in his own pocket of dense air. He drove an old mint Packard in mint condition, which made me want to like him. But neither of us spoke much on the drive back to Hauberk.

Henry. What is there to say about him? He had the stick-to-itiveness of Midwestern farm culture all over him, the implicit understanding that anything worth being done was worth the time necessary to do it. Consequently, he didn’t drive over forty m.p.h. and I spent most of the trip doing what I’d been doing on the bus. I watched the geometry of the fields, haystacks, distant crows fluttering up in bursts, how the sky bent into the earth at the edge of sight and seemed to get darker there, as if an end really did exist beyond which all Missouri would disappear. Winter was coming. Later that day, I’d see blue run into gray, clouds like dead chunks, clotted and falling. I’d get used to seeing the sky as a dour, unfriendly predictor: tinged green for tornados, red for heavy wind, blue for dense humidity, gray for everything else. And, like the Midwestern sky, Henry Barber’s face was bland and serious, both long and compressed at the same time with a set expression and flat hazel eyes that seemed to be looking at the horizon even when they were looking at you.

“Yep, here we are, I guess,” he said. His voice startled me after the long silence.

There were only eight streets in Hauberk, and I hadn’t noticed that we’d come in. Though we were supposedly in the heart of the “downtown” area, it seemed like we’d entered a slightly more versatile truck stop. We got out and Henry put some quarters in an ancient parking meter.

It was the biggest house in this part of the world. If Claire Dunlop hadn’t been waiting at the top of her front steps, I would have thought we’d stopped at the county courthouse. As it turned out, the courthouse was one block away on the other side of the street. And it was smaller. Henry leaned against the car and sighed. Claire was looking down from the porch, raising her arms like Christ over Rio, embracing us, the town, the sacred perfection of everything that led up to her door.

Her T-shirt is tight and pink, says Love Kitten over a gray cartoon cat with hearts for eyes. She hands me her Midterm Progress Report and smiles. Ice glittering on the frosted window makes a pinwheel of light on her neck. I look at it and smile back, feeling just like that gray love kitten curled up in the sun. The students press out of my classroom—all but Jeremy Hoff glaring from the door.

There are only a few reports left for me to sign. In the totalitarian world of high school, a report of “Not Satisfactory” results in the victim being sent to the school psychologist and an emergency conference with parents and teachers. A “Poor” means regular therapy, tutoring every day, and a grand jury investigation. Probably electro-shock. There are no “Poor” students at Alexander Weiskopf High School.

“How are you?” asks Miss Tomoike, still smiling, beaming out ten-thousand gigavolts of Love Kitten all over me.

I grin like a boy and mark the “Very Good” box.

“Okay,” she says. “Thank you. Have a good day.” A few more bonus volts before the smile disappears and she’s out the door with Jeremy, who’s been having a desperate power shortage—blackouts, failures, exploding circuits. He hates me, yes, but that’s nothing compared to how much I hate him. I step into the hall, hands clasped behind my back, and watch them go to her locker.

Miss Tomoike’s American name is Lydia. And, of all the Lydias I’ve known, she is the most un-Lydia, which makes me love her even more. Her real name is Aniko, but everyone must call her Lydia, the name of three of my ex-girlfriends. I am cursed by that name.

First there was Lydia MacLeod: tall, redhead, hated father, abortion at fifteen, moved to Canada then hated Canada, made me bleach my hair, left me for a bouncer.

Then there was Lydia Horton: med student, chess and bowling, eating disorder, hated father, moved to Sri Lanka to build huts for the blind.

And Lydia Ründegaard: married to textile magnate, bisexual, abstract photographer, chain smoker, hated father, broke my television.

Now I no longer own a television and Miss Tomoike doesn’t bowl. She is an exchange student. Her parents live in Tokyo—bankers, businessmen, important people of commerce. I imagine sitting down with them. She’ll bring me home to meet them. Finally, yes, things will work out. An unconventional match? Of course, but aren’t all the great ones unconventional? I’ll sit down over awabi and twig tea with eight-thousand-year-old grandfather, exchanging deep existential truths in the form of short poems that seem like politeness. I’m preparing for it. I’ve learned three expressions from my Japanese On One Word-a-Day: Gaido-san desu-ka? Are you a guide? Saiko sokudo hyaku kiro. Maximum speed one-hundred kilometers. Iro, iro domo arigato. Thank you for everything.

When Henry and I drove up, she emerged in state. There was James Reid, music teacher, to her left, and coach Spinadella on her right. She’d wrapped herself in gauzy yellow cotton, something between Cleopatra and Glenda the Good Witch of the North. And she seemed to radiate, if not beauty, then a certain conviction of her own seductiveness, trying to flow down her whitewashed steps but having to go very deliberately so as not to trip on the hem of her dress. This was a different Claire Dunlop than the person I’d met at the interview, sitting in the Oleander Room at the Day’s Inn outside Saint Louis, where she was all polyester angles and sobriety, black coffee and the students and educational theory and what we expect. Henry, I noticed, had already become steam, blowing away so quietly I hadn’t had time to thank him for the ride. So I left my bags in the Packard and met Claire’s hand half-way up the steps. Everyone tried to smile.

“Would you?” she said. It was a question, but the flick of her hand toward my bags said Go and Spinadella went. That was the beginning. A more intelligent person would have seen past, present, and future all phenotyped at once in that gesture. A more intelligent person would have jumped back in the Packard, punched it, shot the covered wood bridge over the dry creek outside of town and been down the I-44 before any of them had a chance to say what. But I wasn’t that smart and Packards don’t go very fast and I was constrained by all the usual human courtesies.

It might have been the awe I felt at Spinadella’s thirteen-inch biceps that made me go along. His blond hair was so clean it gleamed: the first Italian Viking. We watched him open the Packard, scoop up my suitcase and backpack in one gesture, and lumber up into the house without a word.

“We’re so very, very happy you’re here,” said Claire, putting her arm around my shoulders and leading me up the steps, while James Reid smiled behind us like someone in her livery waiting for an order or maybe just waiting to catch her if she tripped and fell backwards.

I was amazed at the house. Safavid rugs, crystal chandeliers, authentic Victorian chic right down to cloth tubes over the chair legs. It was in the National Register of Historic Places. An ante-bellum plantation two-story, replete with Corinthian columns, domed pergola in the back yard, and two-hundred years of whitewash—one of the few buildings left from Missouri’s time as a slave state. The whole town took a certain pride in it. Carolers began there every Christmas. The Lutheran youth group whitewashed it once a year. People got married on its wide front lawn.

“We have no electricity here.” She smiled with an air of confidence and secrecy that told me she could see I was down for whatever. “We preserve our traditions here just as they have always been preserved, meaning a respect for the past.”

I nodded. Of course.

Claire was no stranger to history. She taught the European variety to juniors every semester. And, though she’d never been outside Missouri, her subject and her position as principal made her the local sage. In the deep, violating humidity of the Missouri summer, the mayor could often be seen conferring with her in the shade of the pergola, sipping fortified punch and hiding from the brutal realities of the political life.

She took me up the grand staircase into my room at the top. It was small and the ceiling was low, but it was very clean and white. Spinadella had left my bags on the bed. There was a wash-basin and a bureau with a small round mirror, a free-standing oak closet, throw-rug alongside the bed, writing table with a candelabra, and an oversized crucifix on the wall above it. Jesus’ wounds were bright and dripping. Dinner was at five. The housekeeper’s name was Pattie.

After class, I go to the cafeteria for coffee and a pudding. Jorge Rodriguez-Jackson is there sucking on a toothpick, plotting, squinting into the suspect distance. He looks me over and nods. I nod back and focus on the pudding. Pudding might be one of the last good things in life. Pudding is innocent, beyond reproach. Pudding would never get you accused of making someone disappear. Nor would eating it make you want to disappear anyone. If I were Jorge Rodriguez-Jackson staring at me eating pudding, I’d know right away that I was not a disappearer. But he is not so perceptive. He blames me for Claire Dunlop’s untimely vanishing act two years ago.

Jorge and his wife are from Kansas City. He teaches health and English lit., has always taught health and English lit., will always teach health and English lit. I was supposed to have been hired to replace him. If anyone should be suspect for her disappearance, it should be him. Still, he blames me. He is a Marxist.

He has a Marxist righteousness, a Marxist nose for sniffing out iniquity. He has channeled Karl Marx for so long that he has come to look like him: the jowly frown, the intensity in the eyes. At the first faculty party, I wandered into his study—a veritable Marxist bacchanalia—three complete editions of Kapital in different leathers, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts leaning provocatively against a marble book-end, Grundrisse, A Critique of Political Economy, the whole sticky tangle in both German and English. A framed picture of Marx over the writing table. There was a Marxist tinge to everything in the house, a certain alien consciousness at work, even in his wife, who’d arch her eyebrows as if all the things she’d heard about me were coming true in front of her.

He twirls the toothpick in the corner of his mouth and looks away a split-second before I look at him. Feeling him about to turn his head, I glance up at the water stain shaped like a coffee ring on the ceiling. I know he’s scanning my face. The three girls at the table behind me hiss angrily about hair. The janitor over in the corner stares into his chicken soup as if it were saying something remarkable. Jorge, no doubt, is recording everything, memorizing it for some future testimony.

When I asked other faculty about his politics, they looked like I’d said something dirty. Decent folk don’t bring up things like that. So okay. So Jorge Rodriguez-Jackson and his squinting and his contempt. He’ll never stop hunting me for crimes against humanity. And if I breathe the smallest sigh for Miss Tomoike, if the smallest, helpless human emotion slips out, he’ll be on me—chains and culpability, scandal, perversion. I can see myself behind bars. I can see myself lynched in a field. Missouri: where the great Confederate rebels went criminal, knocking over banks, Jesse James, heads blown off, segregation, Indian slaughter. It’s in the people’s blood. You can see it bubbling under their skin when the proletarian in the truck next to you looks at you like you just felt up his mother. Missouri’s angry. Missouri wants revenge for whatever you’re about to do, and Jorge Rodriguez-Jackson’s watching. I can’t let myself even think of Miss Tomoike when he’s around. He can sense a certain furtiveness in me. He’d like to put me under a harsh smoking light, ask me angry questions, write my name on the floor in chalk. He knows dirty when he sees it.

I get up to leave and he makes an inquisitive face, “Finished so soon?”

“Uh, yes, pudding, you know.”

“Oh?”

“It’s easy to eat.”

“Is that right. Easy to eat.”

I move toward the cafeteria’s double-doors, slowly, casually.

Days and dinners came and went, and everyone was polite. Barber, Spinadella, Reid, and I shared the bathroom at the end of the hall with absolute maturity. We passed the salt down the table when someone wanted it and stayed off the third floor, which was Claire’s.

If she was in a good mood, she’d be vampy, fluttering and quick and trying to flirt with sudden meaningful looks designed to smolder. If she was in a bad mood, the looks grew heavy, the dark around her eyes got that way without makeup, and a pall hung over dinner. Barber would do his steam routine. And coach Spinadella wasn’t very articulate in the first place—whether from that last stubborn Viking chromosome or from the horse-juice he’d probably done as a bodybuilder. He was Claire’s barometer. If she was in a funk, then so was Spinadella. He’d beam ultra-hostile glances at everyone, like he was about to chop the table in half, then eat another spoon of peas.

Only Reid kept a cheerful face no matter what. Claire would have a mausoleum death-spell hanging over the table, and Reid would be shoveling food into his mouth as if he’d just been paroled, saying, “Hey, anybody watching the Chiefs tonight?”

Nobody was even if they were.

At first, I took it as passive resistance, aggressive cheerfulness. Then it seemed that Reid was inherently happy—one of those rare individuals at peace with himself and his life. But, ultimately, I understood that he was just plain insensitive. He didn’t focus on anything beyond himself and so was completely content. James Reid remains for me, at least in this sense, one of history’s unacknowledged geniuses.

School started and I began to teach freshmen and sophomore English under the supervision of Jorge Rodriguez-Jackson, who sat at the back of my room every day to make sure I was using his lesson plans. Assignments full of nutritious Marxism that I, with my degraded bourgeois ideology . . .

Question: How does Kent’s vehemence towards Oswald in Act II, Scene ii, help portray Oswald as a capitalist prototype? (Skipped in favor of What kind of a guy do you think Lear is?)

Question: How does personification of The Red Death symbolize the embodiment of false consciousness and the effects of aristocratic exclusivity? (Skipped in favor of Describe the big moment in the story.)

Question: How does the willingness of the indigenous Africans to be exploited by Kurtz reflect the function(s) of an internalized ideological state apparatus? (Skipped in favor of Did you like Heart of Darkness?)

The revolution was put down in all of my classes. Satanic capitalist ideology prevailed despite baleful looks from the political officer at the back of the room. I imagined Jorge Rodriguez-Jackson’s Health 2 students marching through the quad in olive uniforms, his AP English politburo lecturing their parents after grace about the opiate of the masses.

Still, at first, things seemed okay, seemed doable until the heavens opened up on my head. I was two weeks into my first semester at Alexander Weiskopf when it hit. It came on like one of the local twisters I’d heard about, the kind where you’re supposed to jump in the bathtub and hold a mattress over your head while cows from the next county are hurdling through the air. A death in the faculty. No one to teach German. Horror. And I was the only one who could fix it. Could I substitute maybe? Could I teach a few lessons until they found someone else? It wouldn’t be hard. I’d had a few years as an undergraduate. Sure, of course, I wanted to get along. Old Mr. Jürgen—who lived with his mother thirty miles outside town and only spoke Hochdeutsch, who’d been learning English his whole life and never quite got it down so that it pained him to speak it—had choked on phlegm and left me alone with his Kulturspiegel, his Arbeitsplan, and his fifty students, each secretly suspecting what I knew to be true: I was planlos, without plan. I was cluelos.

Later, I’d come to believe Claire had hired me just for this, that she’d foreseen it. There was no bathtub to shield me from the twister. There was no mattress. The winds had picked me up with the livestock and dropped me in Germany. And everything took on sinister proportions. The vicious underbelly of Claire’s flirtiness: was I expected to flirt back? If I did, would she let me return to just teaching English? I had one-hundred and fifteen dollars in the bank, enough for a one-way ticket to nowhere. My family back in Los Angeles had disowned me: two generations of angry jewelers with no faith in education. Grandpa Gordon had been an anarchist. Dad left when I was twelve. Draft-dodgers. Vehement, non-conforming Welshmen with an uncle still doing time in Mount Joy for polygamy. They’d laugh me into the street. I had nothing to go back to.

“What do you mean by ‘big moment’?” asked one of my brighter sophomores.

The problem with Pandora wasn’t her curiosity as most people think. It was that Zeus gave her the box in the first place. Come on, people, let’s have a little sensitivity for the Pandoras of the world. I’m thinking this—meditating on it, sympathizing with all the misunderstood little destroyers of creation—on the corner of Main and Shelly, staring into the Main Street Diner, while beside me James Reid squeaks bad saxophone at the falling snow. Reid was originally a drummer not a sax player. And, even though he teaches everything from horns to strings, drums are the only things he can play correctly.

My feet are damp. Reid has enough air in his lungs to kill everything within a six-block radius. And I’ll count myself lucky if the next time he squeaks up that b-flat it’ll disconnect my heart, blast me to a pile of dust, scatter my molecules into gray gutter snow. Make it quick and make it final. But that would be too easy. Tonight, my very own Pandora is on a dream date with Jeremy Hoff, and I’m destined to watch.

Yeah. Didn’t Norman Rockwell paint something like this? Johnny and Jenny sharing a malt in a brightly lit diner while fluffy snowflakes glide down outside and God is in his heaven and all is right with the world? Norman never painted me. I’m freezing and I still can’t figure out how Reid can play in these conditions.

He stops for a blessed moment to say, “Hey there, are you asleep?” And then his Chic Corea version of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen starts up again like large pieces of metal crumpling into each other. Jazz, dig?

It’s my job to scoop snow out of the taupe fedora on the sidewalk in front of us. James does this two nights a month for pocket money, but this is the first time I’ve helped him. Usually, it’s his sister scooping snow out of the fedora, but she has pneumonia. He’s in his forties but looks about seventy-eight—stooped, wrinkled, completely gray. It’s a Friday night. Our students walk by, bored in Hauberk’s tiny downtown, on their way no doubt to drunken naked pleasures neither James Reid nor I will ever know. They drop a few pity-dollars in the hat when they pass, faces blank, embarrassed for us.

Dreamy: let’s have a cultural exchange. Jeremy Hoff can be second-generation German-American corn-fed Romeo from the heart of the heart of the country. And Miss Tomoike can be happy optimistic Asian beauty, who cares about the environment and wants everyone to live well. Together, they’ll be a force so powerful it will blow the glass of the diner into the street, rip the space-time continuum, end reality as we know it—true enlightenment, no more pain and suffering, human evolution advanced to the next stage because of this most sacred and perfect union, Amen.

Only that’s not happening, is it?

Jeremy Hoff’s putting his high school moves on her as only an adolescent lizard like he can. Pure reptile: the sort of seduction that makes young girls think it’s true love forever. It’ll never be true love. Lizards don’t fall in love. It’s a constitutional fact. And it’s never been Pandora’s fault. All Zeus: the prototype, the lying, cheating, seducing sky-lizard.

Maybe Jeremy got “hurt” a little in the past. He looks down, smiles. He’s shy but he might let his “true feelings” show through his “confidence” because Miss Tomoike and he “really click” and they’ve got, like, “something special.” I realize I’ve walked forward and am standing in the middle of Main, staring at them in their window seat. Ah, acid jealousy, burn, work your evil.

Reid stops playing. “What are you doing? My hat’s full of snow.”

Of course, there’s a job to be done. When I clean the hat out, there’s a dollar-fifty in it. I slip the money into his trench coat and walk up the street towards my car.

“Hey,” he yells. “Wait. Where you goin’?”

Good question.

My bad situation couldn’t have been more perfect for Claire, who drifted through the rooms at night like a wraith. She could be as eccentric as she wanted in the House for Orphaned Teachers. Claire never slept and neither did I, hours of stay-ahead German in my brain like a nightly violation. I’d be heating a pan of water in the kitchen for my midnight don’t-worry-everything’s-going-to-be-okay tea and see her drift soundlessly through the next room, stopping briefly to touch something on an end-table or run her fingers along the curtains.

I’d ask myself whether she meant for me to see her. Was it all part of some preternatural courting ritual for high school faculty? Was Reid involved? Spinadella? Barber? Was I paranoid or had the deciding factor in hiring me been that I’d have nowhere to run? Today, German. Tomorrow, physics, calculus, organic chemistry. I could see my future forming in all its nasty glory. She could make me do anything. And what would I be able to do about it? Just nod and start reading the textbooks. After the rent deduction, there was no way for me to afford utilities and pay Claire for my portion of the dinner budget. I already owed her. If I ran, I knew she’d send Spinadella to collect.

He was the perfect leg-breaker. Spinadella and his linemen regularly growled at the top of their lungs in the tiny weight room attached to the gym. They’d scream out blood-death calls in some language invented by the Frankensteins, Albertus Magnuses, Doctor Moreaus of the world—mastermind handlers who knew how to control the beasts. But now the creatures were loose and in high school, free to shave their heads and pump as much iron as they wanted, free to flex their way through any class—untouchable, terrifying, and hog-dumb. They stood at least a foot taller than the other students and had the same slow contempt for other life forms that one has for ants trying desperately to avoid the shoe.

Their shrieks and grunts played out in echoes over the quad, knocking between the buildings as if the linebackers had mated, multiplied, and had finally broken their cage locks. Free at last. Fresh meat. Like their coach, they always seemed to be wavering on the edge of a steroid berserk. Teachers passed them partly out of pressure to keep the football team intact, partly out of self-preservation. Françoise, the bulimic French instructor from Lyons, would run to the bathroom and vomit after first period—not for her usual bulimic reasons but because she was shaking from fear. Unnamed persons had once held her upside down and pinched her nose shut while she counted backwards from cent.

I should have felt lucky not to have gotten any of them in German. But I would have gladly vomited every day in exchange for not having to live with Spinadella, who’d openly stare at me like he wanted to kill me. On the surface, he respected my personal space, a clear-cut DMZ that he wouldn’t violate. But there were stray shots: the hard looks, the collision in the hall that left a baseball-sized bruise above my bottom rib. I didn’t know what he had against me. I went over everything, searching for a slight, a stupid joke, an off-color word skewed to an insult when I wasn’t looking. But, of course, I had no idea. I avoided him in the cafeteria, made no eye contact at dinner, kept to myself, afraid for my life.

Borges’ parable: Dante, exiled in Ravenna, dreams of a tiger dreaming in a cage below the Coliseum and then realizes that he is dreaming about himself. He is the tiger; Ravenna is the cage. He and the tiger share a blessed unity in the dream-state. I wonder why I haven’t had a similar dream. All the greats had a guiding star—Constantine’s floating cross, Hemingway’s bull fights, Blake’s demons giggling in his shop. I have nothing but Miss Tomoike.

Looking through black branches at her studying on her bed, I realize that this parable stinks: alone in the darkness under a dead maple tree, the pathetic exile nurses a broken heart without the luxury of tigers. And in the end—every parable needs a twist—is he redeemed? Is he relieved? Or does he wake up in Ravenna?

She’s not looking out the window. And, if she did, what would she expect to see? Twenty squares of beveled darkness. People don’t bother curtaining their windows because Hauberk has never had a peeper. Not until now. I walk up and press my palms against the warm glass. My breath makes crystals on the pane before interior heat turns them to droplets that freeze half-way down.

A strand of her hair is caught in the corner of her mouth. She’s wearing black overalls and a T-shirt. I can’t tell what she’s reading. It’s not German. Good for her. Miss Tomoike’s English is so good that she can take German in America; she’s brilliant. The glass is warm, comforting in the cold like touching a living thing.

How could someone so beautiful and intelligent fall in love with a kid like Jeremy Hoff? It’s the question I’d really like to ask. If I were her father, I’d ask it. If I were her friend. Anyone but me. Nothing to do but spread my palms on the glass and ask myself: how could she?

I walk away slowly, pulling a branch off the maple tree with a hard crack. I don’t care if she looks out. Let her see me swinging gashes in the snow, splintering the branch against a wooden post. My hands are cold and I don’t feel the splinters, cutting diagonally across a hard-packed snowfield, hitting any lump or post until I’m holding a wooden fragment. I’ll bet Miss Tomoike didn’t even get up. If she did, she didn’t think of me. She saw part of a handprint, the residue of breath, and thought of Jeremy Hoff or maybe thought of nothing, not so brilliant after all.

The sight of a distant car, however, gives me pause. It’s Jorge Rodriguez-Jackson’s brown Škoda. How many other people in Hauberk drive a brown Škoda? I walk straight towards it, but it takes off before I can make out who the driver is through the new snowfall. I tell myself I am not an offender. I repeat.

Claire had been leaning in the doorway to my room, staring at me. I was studying. The German had blunted my senses and I’d forgotten the door ajar.

“Yes?” I cleared my throat and made an unintimidated face.

Her eyes flicked to the cross-shaped bright spot on the wall above my desk where the crucifix was supposed to be. Every night, I took it down and hid it because Jesus’ gaze would follow me in the flickering candlelight. Every day, the housekeeper would find it and put it back. In the interview, Claire had asked if I was a Lutheran. I told her I’d been a devout Lutheran my whole life, making a mental note to learn what that was. And now she’d caught me, but Claire only smiled. She was in her nightgown.

“Just looking at you.” Her voice was even-toned, but I could see a distant, glazed look in her eyes. Had she just taken her medication or did she need some? The door closed. The nightgown came off. Claire’s body was shaped like a large white thumb. She walked to the bed and looked at me.

“Get over here,” she said.

I closed my notebook and quietly laid my pen down on the desk. I felt detached; the sight of Claire’s body had shocked me into some basic motor-survival mode. I thought I might go downstairs and take a walk. The fact that I was in my pajamas and slippers did not occur to me. When I opened the door, Spinadella glared at me from the end of the hall, all bulging six-three, two-hundred and fifty pounds of him.

I thought of my job and of how the one-hundred and fifteen dollars I had wouldn’t cover a new set of teeth. Claire was waiting behind me, hands on hips, mouth in a tight knowing smile. She grabbed my crotch and backed me onto the bed.

“Tell me you love me,” she said.

The word for the day is Gewissensbisse. The phrase for the day is Gewissensbisse haben: remorse, to have remorse, to feel remorseful.

Here’s Miss Tomoike with her big brown eyes.

Her midterm looks like an execution. I emptied the red pen. Invented new criticisms on the spot. Large heaps of teacherly lash. And for what? Vengeance. If I could have nailed Jeremy Hoff, I would have, but his work is untouchably good. Deep, in the inner darkness of my being, I have sometimes prayed for him to fail an assignment. Yes, a cardinal sin—paradise lost, lake of fire, burning, gnashing of teeth, no teacher heaven when I die.

She’s the last student left in the room. She’s trying not to break down. I half-sit on the table up front, just like an adult, waiting, as if to say, That’s life, honey. And the sad thing is I’m right. There are a lot of pathetic, vindictive, lonely people out there, Miss Tomoike (can I call you Lydia?), and you just got yourself one.

“I tried . . . hard.” Pristine, angelic teardrop down cheek.

“I know,” I say. “I understand.”

Now she’s weeping. She’s letting it all out. Sobs. Even a few wails, moans. Miss Tomoike looks down at her paper as if she still can’t believe it. Actually, it’s not that bad. I don’t tell her that after seeing her on a date with Jeremy Hoff my standards for her work went up five-hundred percent. And the part of me that wants to burn down the children’s hospital, spray the petting zoo with toxic waste, see all privileged sniffling little flowers broken under boots—that part is completely satisfied. That’s right: suffer, suffer, suffer.

“Am I going to fail? Is there anything I can do?” The skin under her eyes is extra red where she’s viciously attacked her tears with the sleeve of her sweater. Miss Tomoike hates her tears. She sits very straight in her desk.

“Of course, there’s always something you can do. Failure is pretty far off, I think, if you want to put out some extra effort.”

“Yes.” Smiling, nodding, wiping her eyes.

“Why don’t you meet me here after school tomorrow and we’ll go through your paper, maybe talk about re-writing it.” That’s reasonable, isn’t it? She thinks so. I picture what she’ll be wearing tomorrow after school and smile benevolently.

Miss Tomoike is now incredibly happy: good people do exist, forgiveness is a beautiful thing. Teacher wants you to learn. He’ll correct your faults. She thanks me profusely, but I wave it off. “Don’t mention it,” I say and watch Love Kitten No. 1 walk out of my room.

I tried to laugh it off, but I didn’t have any more energy. I’d been too accommodating. I’d hesitated, there, in the kitchen, watching her drift through the rooms. Was it the hesitation? How does a man put this into words? We have no language for it.

After a while, Claire no longer needed the threat of Spinadella to force me into it. She had her own key and entered at night. We never talked. Her nightgown came off and my body did what it did while my mind was on a beach in California, contemplating the waves or how wind takes root in the palms and seems to live there for a time. In the morning, I’d stare at the dark ceiling over my bed and think: why did I have to wake up? I’d think: there must be a logic to this. I’ve always believed there’s a logic to everything.

Tired. Days muted to their lowest setting. I’d walk through the halls and look at the students as if they were fish in an aquarium. When had all adolescents begun to look exactly the same—drifting down the halls in groups, quietly glassed-off from existence, unaware of anything beyond themselves? Had they always been like this? And my life too: a different kind of fish but equally distant or maybe just an empty tank thrown open to the sun—yellow-green depth, sediment lit from above, where you might stop to wait for a fish and, when it didn’t appear, feel ridiculous for staring into empty water.

Claire owned me. What objection could I make that anyone would take seriously? What hold did she have on Spinadella, on Reid and Barber? No one talked about it. There was no resistance, no underground railroad, no solidarity. I looked for a sign, a bent word, a wink, any kind of acknowledgement, code tapped on the pipes at night. But nothing. Dinner remained dinner, light pitter-patter, long protracted silences. Claire would be having an up day or a down day. Reid would be gently oblivious, Barber impersonating a distant cloud formation, and Spinadella beaming out hostility like hell’s only lighthouse. With my inner volume turned down, I had nothing to say. I was the Quiet One. It was all I could do to keep the candelabra lit on my study-desk at night after hiding the crucifix someplace new.

I never heard steps on the thick rugs, but her weight made the floorboards creak. In the middle of the night, I’d listen to Claire pace and stop, pace and stop for hours, and sometimes, a much heavier person—Spinadella—faint dancehall music from the thirties filtering down through the wood. The thought of them dancing above me seemed terrifying and obtuse the way the reenactment of a battle leaves corpses in the landscape that aren’t dead. Undead. One word and the corpses stand up grinning, a pantomime of life.

Love maketh men do strange things, Horatio.

The day is all anticipation. Am I too pale? Is the gut showing? Is my hair out of whack? It feels like prom. I never went to prom, spending the night instead on the roof of the Imperial Toy Company in downtown L.A., reading Camus, hoping that the girl I’d casually mentioned it to would find me mysterious enough to follow. She never showed up. I went home when it started to rain.

But Miss Tomoike, she’ll be here. Seduction of the innocent. The predator doesn’t worry about the baby giraffe. If he did, how would he eat? There’s no blame in nature, no blame when you’re starving for some giraffe. Come not betwixt the dragon and his wrath, says Lear. That’s right. Come not. And if you do come, well, that’s fate isn’t it.

I go to the men’s room between classes and stare at my face in the mirror. I don’t look like the dragon and his wrath. More like the baby giraffe. Not even that good. Sallow. Sunken eyes. Wrinkles around the mouth. More like the aging Komodo dragon. At thirty-one, I’m already a half-gray, wrinkled, German-teaching Komodo. It’s ridiculous to think I could seduce her. But here I am.

Miss Tomoike’s class is its old ugly self. Twenty-five separate shades of contempt looking back at me. Jeremy Hoff’s work, no doubt. The phrase list we’re on deals with a trip to the dentist. I say X and the students answer Y. It’s not supposed to be hard.

Ist es ein Abszeß? Is it an abscess? I manage to pronounce the sentence pretty well, I think, but a wave of sniggering goes around the room.

Ja, they answer, es ist ein Absezß.

Jeremy Hoff is participating today, still riding the glory of having thrown the winning pass against Rigg County last night. He and Miss Tomoike exchange glances when they think I’m not looking.

Können Sie mir eine Spritze geben? Can you give me anesthetic?

Nein, they say, nein, wir haben keine Spritze. We have no anesthetic.

Ich kann nicht schlafen. I can’t sleep.

Ja, they answer. No more sniggering.

Ich kann nicht essen. I can’t eat.

Ja. Some of the students nod or look away.

Ich habe Schmerzen. I’m in pain.

No one says anything. Maybe it’s my tone.

“Come on.” I grip the edges of the table, lean towards them. Wiederholen Sie. Repeat.

The clock’s broken hands spasm and click. Wir haben Schmerzen, Jeremy says.

We look at each other.

Outside, the sophomore girls are shrieking by their lockers. A boy is laughing the long, high, mean-spirited laugh of the adolescent. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA-HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH. The kind of laugh that comes with pointing, that’s serrated, that leaves one bleeding, with an Abszeß, in need of immediate attention. Someone at the back of the room coughs. I look down at the last phrase on the list.

Wieviel bin ich Ihnen schuldig? I ask. How much do I owe?

Claire’s sudden disappearance, when it came, had far less tragedy for those of us who lived with her every day than for greater Hauberk, suddenly buzzing with the hint of scandal. I wasn’t going to miss her.

They found her clothes laid out on a chair. Everything up on the third floor was as it had always been, Victorian tea furniture unbroken, crystal figurines of ballet dancers perfectly arranged in their wall case, her gigantic lace doilies unrumpled, no psychopathic messages in lipstick on her gilded bathroom mirror, no bloody prints in the porcelain tub. Nothing. Just poof and gone. Claire’s British history class had been the last to see her. According to them, there had been nothing exceptional in her behavior that day. God save the Queen.

Dinner on that first Clairless night had been extra awkward. Very little was said. We were stunned. It was the first dinner Claire had ever missed. And, for many dinners after, we would still be unsure what to say to each other. We’d become like medieval prisoners blinking suddenly into daylight, our new liberty glaring and unwieldy.

The sheriff came sniffing around as sheriffs are supposed to, but he didn’t sniff too vigorously. The farmland outside Hauberk was searched. The house’s basement was dug up and found to be no dirtier than dirt. There were no newly cultivated mounds in the backyard. No telling piles of ash and fillings in the snowfield behind the graveyard. In short, she’d left the earth without a trace. And I felt like dancing a moonlight samba. I felt like having cases of burgundy delivered to all inbred schizophrenic killers hiding in barn lofts for a hundred miles. At night, I heard the patter of little feet—my own. I was even dancing in my sleep.

Of course, there was Jorge Rodriguez-Jackson: all suspicion, that toothpick in the corner of his mouth. But the life of Hauberk, Missouri, continued. People got tired of speculating, inventing theories. The paper stopped running her picture. A tornado had taken out a village to the east. Drought was expected that summer. A graduate student at the University of Missouri had committed suicide. These things were news, not Claire’s disappearance, which became uninteresting and thus faded out of the collective consciousness as if it had never happened.

Hulking Spinadella, at least for me, was the prime suspect. But he went crazy on one of his halfbacks during a scrimmage and crippled the boy with his fists. He’s still in jail. Reid moved in with his sister and I found my cottage outside town. Only Barber remained. Claire had willed the house to the mayor, who became the new landlord, and the space suited Henry just fine. I dropped by to visit him a few months later, but he didn’t ask me in. We stood on the porch and stared into the darkened Jiffy Lube across the street. He kept his hands in his pockets, and I could see that the solitude had not made him any more pleasant.

“Well,” he said, “I guess she’s gone.”

“Guess so.”

“I guess you’ll miss her.”

I looked at him, but he was staring into Jiffy Lube like he might learn something important if only he didn’t blink. We listened to the night. Crickets were chirping somewhere far away, somewhere I wanted to be.

“Henry?”

“Yeah?”

“Fuck off, okay?”

If there’s a time I can meet with you off-campus, maybe, with just a little more help, instruction, tutoring, supervision thinks the old Komodo. But her midterm sits on the table between us like a chessboard, and what was so simple in my fantasies seems Byzantinely complex now. Checkmate in three? I don’t think so. Miss Tomoike’s arms are crossed. She’s looking down, her aura dark. What did I expect? She’s assimilating. Ten minutes ago, like a loose American girl, she was kissing Jeremy Hoff by his locker and then they walked, hand-in-hand, toward my room—slowly, as if one of them were about to be executed. “I’ll be right outside,” he said too loudly. Her protector.

We sit in silence for a few moments, both of us staring at her exam. I imagine Jeremy in the hall listening, his ear to my door. In a samurai film, I would hear his heartbeat, firing arrow suddenly through paper partition into chest of interloping spy. Just so. Impudent Romeo dispatched with alacrity by old arrow-shooting Komodo.

She uncrosses her arms and I notice her fingers are stained with ink. She’s been writing: love notes to Jeremy, letters of discontent to Tokyo. Japanese in ballpoint, such a waste. One requires a brush, a straight back, high virgin-white vellum that takes the ink like a momentous event. The paper loses a certain innocence but gains the character of the writing, bringing the female-yin-black letters together with the male-yang-white sheet—the unification of all duality. That’s the sort of writing instruction I’ve had in mind for Miss Tomoike (segue to Confucius: “It furthers one to undertake an affair with an older man. No blame.”). More likely: Mother, Father, the teachers here are horrible. There is this one monster in particular. He looks like a lizard.

“I’m sorry, but could you tell me how this is wrong?” Tentative, polite, sincerely worried, but with an undercurrent. Resentment? No. Coaching. I can hear Jeremy telling her to question me, telling her I don’t know what I’m talking about. The truth is that her answers are fine. The questions were short-answer, interpretive. I look at my red Xs, where I pressed so hard the pen left furrows in the page, and feel ridiculous.

“Well,” I say, “the questions were pretty open-ended.”

She nods, her expression blank.

“And there’s a certain degree of subjectivity . . .”

“I don’t understand.” More forcefully now. Jeremy Hoff in ballpoint all over her. All she’s missing is his regulation sneer. The truth is that her answers are probably better than what I might have written. The truth is that I’m an apprentice molester and Confucius was Chinese.

Bright hot reality: Miss Tomoike is a child. Love Kitten doesn’t even factor in. I’m horrified at the sudden clear vision of myself as Claire. I hear Jeremy clear his throat loudly outside my door.

“The truth is, Miss Tomoike, I’ve called you here to tell you that I’ve re-evaluated your work. I’m changing your grade.”

A thousand thank-yous. She doesn’t ask why. And she’s out the door before I can find the inner pulleys that make my face smile. The Christmas cologne I never wear sickens me. I go to the window and stare out over a runny snowfield at my home—the worthless, never-ending latitude of Missouri.

All this happens. The snow has melted and the news says there’s a tornado coming. But I don’t know. There’s always a tornado coming. Shadows are indistinct. The day begins dark and never truly gets light, while the ghost of old Mr. Jürgen wanders the state, trying to explain itself in correct English. I laugh, but who can say why a tornado takes one house and leaves another. Just get in the bathtub. Maybe Claire Dunlop is living a quiet life on the Santa Monica strand with a husband and a tight pink T-shirt that reads Love Kitten. Maybe Jorge Rodriguez-Jackson has a file on me waiting for the FBI. Maybe right now Miss Aniko Lydia Tomoike is breaking all available speed laws, jumping snow banks in a Husq Varna Motorized 2023 Ice Sled, headed here with apologies, justifications, words of love and eternity. It wouldn’t surprise me. Odds are garbage. Opinions are meaningless. Everything happens. It’s all here.

  1. You don’t need to be famous to be an artist. You just need to make art.
  2. You don’t need to make art in any particular style or volume or at any particular rate. These considerations come from industries interested in art as a product that can be sold, irrespective and ignorant of the creative process. Such considerations can often be destructive and should be understood by the artist, then carefully set aside.
  3. You do need to share your art with others because doing so magnifies it. Having an audience, no matter how limited, transforms your work in the minds of others. The art you make should grow beyond you, transcending the boundaries of your personal subjectivity. People are good for art. By offering your art to people, they become part of it and it becomes part of them. 
  4. You do need to have a day job. Engage with the world around you and do not allow yourself to stagnate. It’s good to have mundane concerns like employment, stability, friends, and family. What you do when you’re not making art is less important than the fact that you are out there, living, doing it. So find something you like and try getting good at it for a while. An artist needs to live a human life in order to understand human experience. You are human.  Come down from the attic.
  5. You do need to control time and space.  You are also divine.  Time could be as short as an hour a day as long as it is consistently available. Space could be a small as a closet as long as it is consistently available. Go back to the attic.
  6. You do need to keep learning and changing. Inspiration depends on it. Eschew formulaic thinking and comfortable templates. Give yourself increasingly ambitious assignments. Integrate everything you learn into new projects. This is how you develop.  Stagnation is death.
  7. You don’t need to make a living on your art in order to feel like you’re really an artist. Every artist has an identity problem and there will always be someone telling you to quit. People with the fortitude to develop themselves creatively often aggravate those too scared to take the first step. And there are always more of the latter than the former.
  8. You don’t need to talk about your ongoing project with friends and family. Doing so can make otherwise good people into passive-aggressive antagonists. Better to let them read the finished product and criticize you behind your back. Your life will be simpler and you will still be able to attend the family reunion without getting drunk first.
  9. You do need to realize that art is more than just cleverness and craftsmanship. Consider this statement and see how you feel about it: the creative process is the act of recognizing the limitlessness of the psyche in the sense that all is mind and that a work of art is an embodiment of that totality in space and time.

So I finally finished Season 5 of Game of Thrones and I know I should be emotionally manhandled at this point by all the cynical backstabbery, but I’m not. Martin Scorsese once said that it’s easy to get your audience to feel something—just put a puppy on stage and drop a safe on it. You’ll get the feels. Sadly (or happily), that doesn’t make for good drama.  Here’s my (I know, unsolicited) assessment with as many spoilers as possible now that the last episode has been out for a while. Look away now if you’re still planning on bingeing the season.  I haven’t felt compelled to write some kind of review since the second hobbit movie.  I know the world is probably better for it but Game of Thrones has had a special hobbity place in my heart ever since I watched the first season sick in bed in Bujumbura.  So here it goes.

The Artist Formerly Known as Theon: whatever. He has a Vader moment and takes a leap off the battlements with Sanza, the girl with the same two alternating expressions since the beginning of the show. Okay. If the fall doesn’t make them both quadriplegics in Season 6, I’ll be rooting that they don’t get flayed and salted into Bolton jerky. That’s good, I guess. I have a hard time caring about what has happened to Theon’s manhood or Sanza’s happy thoughts.

Ramsay “Lecter” Bolton: everybody wants him to die horribly because he’s such a sadistic yet annoying formulaic psychopath. He has everything Nazi but the dueling scars and the monocle, even the black leather get-up. I think his best quality is the frozen maniacal grin that every Nazi doctor from Central Casting has had since Laurence Olivier did Dr. Christian Szell in Marathon Man. That was in 1976. I was 3 years old. And, believe me, I can appreciate the number of torture-obsessed Nazi doctors churned out by Hollywood since then.

If Iwan Rheon radiated just a bit more charm, he could star in some deflated prequel to Silence of the Lambs. His character’s personality has zero depth, which, ironically is realistic when we think about how stunted serial killers and mass murderers are said to be in real life. Still, real life should not intrude when it would make a character tedious. If we don’t want to dwell on the obvious Hannibal Lecter contrast, we can always recall Jeremy Irons as Claus von Bülow in Reversal of Fortune.  Claus is evil, yes, and we think he probably killed his wife.  Yet we just don’t care because the man has wit. Ramsay could use some wit, even just a little.

Stannis: he, however, gets 3 whole expressions: exasperation, bewilderment, and dread. And he doesn’t have to go through them sequentially anymore.  He burns his unrealistically angelic daughter, Shireen, at the stake because vampy evil stepmother Melisandre says the kid has to go. As soon as Davos gives Shireen the carved deer, we know the kid is done for. The whole arc is a sad case of writerly: look, I’m not pulling any punches here! I mean it! Nobody is safe! But if we don’t care about the characters—if they don’t have depth, if there is no redemptive vision at all—we’re in a 2D hellworld and everybody is worth exactly nothing. Sure, kill the kid if you want or drop a safe on the puppy. It’s all the same to us. This is hell, after all.

Jamie and Bronn: we know their expedition to Dorne isn’t going to end well. One good thing is that we keep expecting Bronn to be horribly eviscerated, stuffed with scorpions, and lit on fire by the end of their adventure, but all he gets is a sexy bite on the ear lobe. Otherwise, more backstabbery. In a country where everyone looks like Portuguese supermodels and dresses like medieval Turks, I guess you have to fall in love and someone is then required to put poison in your tea and you’re then fated to wake up in bed covered with snakes. Or something. You will still find the person who did it incredibly attractive.  One other thing is also certain: sweet and innocent daughters of noble houses die horribly. We know that already.

Arya Who Joined the Zen Death Circus: This has been my favorite plot strand. But by Episode 10, Arya has also gotten predictable. She was interesting for a long time—until she took revenge (oddly unsatisfying for all its gore) on demonically one-dimensional Sir Meryn. Faceless Assassin Master Po blinds her after some intentionally obscure Zen bullshit about “being no one.” All of it is a let-down because blinding is not what Arya needed. Transforming / revealing a new side to her character is what she needed. We all want her to either accept her new identity as a magical assassin or reject it and evolve into someone different. But we don’t get character change. We get Zen bullshit and Mission Impossible CGI masks. Disappointment—we get that, too.  I miss The Hound.  Bring back The Hound.  At least, he was funny.

Of Cersei, what is there to say? take one of the most beautiful actresses in the world; strip her down; and have a scene where she does the medieval walk of shame. It again works a la the safe and the puppy. Cersei’s hateful for most of the show up to this point (that’s 5 years of hate, people—think about it). So we’re meant to have mixed feelings about her “atonement.” And the whole scene has unintentional Monty Python potential. I don’t know. Lena Headey can read the dictionary in a space suit and it wouldn’t matter. We’ll still watch and try not to blink. Bright sparkles will still be floating around her in the air. But I didn’t quite believe the walk of shame scene was authentic, which is to say organic, to her character development. I know that sort of thing really historically happened (doesn’t matter, this is King’s Landing not Earth). And I know the plot can (barely) support the scene (also doesn’t matter). I just don’t think Cersei—as we have come to know her—would submit like that. One of the reasons she’s so compelling is that she does have dimensionality to her character. She does have wit. She has strong emotions and uncompromising direct motivations. We want her to do something grand.  Instead, we are given nakedness and rotten fruit.  And it doesn’t enhance our insight into her.  It also doesn’t cause her to change.  She takes a lot of abuse and has revenge in her eyes by the time she gets back to the castle. Right.  But what else?

Lastly, Jon Snow really does know nothing: His is the only death I actually believe—surprising because it isn’t surprising at all. The Castle Black plot strand is, in my opinion, stronger than the others. I found myself wanting Alliser Thorne to remain the prick that we all feel he is. And I wasn’t let down at all. Still, I don’t really believe that Jon Snow is actually dead. Maybe so. Maybe not. Of all the characters in the show, I care about him the most. I think this is because he has some redemptive qualities. He’s not just a resident sufferer in Hellworld. He’s trying to find and sustain some sense of justice. This is why I think we might be seeing him again in Season 6. Without him, Game of Thrones has no soul.

Oh, the puppy. Everyone wept for the puppy. Tears rolled down my wife’s cheeks as she cried through the night. Little Jessica next door wouldn’t say hello and took a week off from school. Jessica’s mother stopped coming outside and stopped speaking to me altogether. The puppy. Little fluffy puppy that didn’t have a name. Big brown eyes. Pink tongue. It was so cute. Someone decapitated it with a shovel. After that, its cuteness declined. It’s useless to add, when our neighbor was hit on his bicycle last year and sent at high velocity through the trunk of the tree across the street, his cuteness also declined. The man was forty-five, a mechanic with three DUIs and a failed marriage, who couldn’t look you in the eye. When it happened, my wife, Cheryl, said: “Too bad he’s dead,” and walked in the other room.

Yes, I thought, too bad. Too bad was what it was.

I thought the same thing watching Cheryl get nailed by Gary, our attorney, on a day I was supposed to be out looking for work. I stood outside our open bedroom window, briefcase in hand, my tie, my overcoat, watching Gary give it to her from behind. The sound of his body slapping against my wife’s ass made me a bit upset. I was somewhere in the vicinity of “too bad,” or maybe something a little stronger, when I drank half a bottle that night and rolled Cheryl’s Accord into a ditch. Given enough time, all things wind up in a ditch by the side of the road. Our airborne neighbor should have known that. Maybe not the puppy. Certainly Gary. And my wife.

Mister .38-caliber knew it. Every time I looked into his dark mouth, he repeated it to me. Ditches: the end of all things with broken windshield and sincerest regrets. I hope you remembered your seatbelt. If not, well, that’s too bad. I was sitting on the old orange step-stool in the garage one day, trying to explain to Mister .38 that getting out of Texas was just about the best thing that ever happened to me when I saw the neighbor’s bloody shovel lying under his box-hedge. The puppy was there, too. Both parts. Who would do such a thing, I asked Mister .38.

Nothing’s worth anything unless you can get away from it. The problem is money. Having it. Getting it. Keeping it. Losing it. Loving it. Leaving it. Money. Some even run from it, from money itself, which, no surprise, requires money. But you can get away from that, too, if you know people in West Des Moines, Iowa.

By the time you get out of Texas and into West Des Moines, everything’s taken care of, problems sorted, checks posted, accounts dissolved. Shit, by the time you show up in West Des Moines, you don’t even exist anymore. And, when you wake up on a beat-to-hell futon in your friend, Max Latham’s, basement, you feel like you can say just what this world is worth—because there it is, way behind you. There’s nothing left but dust, the futon, some bookshelves, and the sound of water running in the kitchen above. Everything you know, you’ve gotten away from, and that, my friend, is living.

Unfortunately, if you then make the mistake of getting married, it’s all down-hill from there. At the bottom of the hill is a house in California one block away from a polluted beach, a wife who hates you, a lot of remorse, and a decapitated puppy. But you’re not there yet. You’re still, at present, stuck deep in the bad reality of getting out of Texas the hard way, which means getting out for good and for good reason—with bullets somehow involved and, for all you know, with that good reason back up the highway behind you, coming on strong. Right now, you’re into more than just a speeding U-Haul, because Jackson Jackson is driving and that special goodness behind you might just be the Texas Rangers. Not the ball team.

Consider what you know about your old chum, Jackson Jackson: He’s tall and thin. He does calisthenics every morning at 5 religiously no matter where he is and he always has for as long as you’ve known him. In the Navy, he was a forklift operator and a shotgun expert. He’d send you postcards from exotic locations where he’d had many drinks with beautiful local women. He’s the only black man you’ve ever met who listens to Rush. In high school, he ran track and laughed a lot, the kind of kid who’d give you the last dollar in his pocket and not mention it. But now, Jackson Jackson has become a bitter motherfucker. Now he keeps a .38 somewhere on him at all times, which he addresses as “Mister .38.” He has a .44 in the luggage and a disassembled AK-47, which he calls Kalashnikov as if it were the lost testament of Jesus and Jackson Jackson just got religion. “Treat Kalashnikov with respect,” he’d say, then wink with a smile that was more like shorthand for some wrong, homicidal mission-statement he’d learned in the Navy: I’m gonna operate my forklift, clean my shotgun, then do you like you’ve never been done before. Or, at least, that’s how it seemed when he’d mention the AK. “Finest quality,” he’d say. “Superior workmanship.”

Consider that he’d been out of the Navy for six days; that you hadn’t seen him in person for six years; that his grandmother, who’d raised him, had just died; and that there were large bullet holes all over the back of the U-Haul. Say to yourself: there is no causal connection between these things. Granted, his grandmother died of natural causes. She was very old. One does not, however, acquire bullet holes through natural causes. When asked, Jackson Jackson’s only response was to nod and say, “I know. Shit’s fucked-up.”

Indeed.

Now say you’re me. That’s the situation in which I found myself: shit = all fucked up. I contemplated the variables from the passenger’s seat as dead-flat Texas got rainsoaked to the horizon, and my old friend stared straight ahead, pissed at past, present, and future all at once.

Consider the piano that fell out the back of the truck and hit the highway. It was interesting. The whole thing exploded, wood going everywhere, keys, the big metal harp inside clanging down over its hammers in the middle lane. It was fun to watch it all burst apart in the side mirror. In the rain, the fragments sticking up at odd angles reminded me of a shipwreck. Jackson Jackson looked in his mirror, held his hand out for the whiskey bottle, and said nothing.

We were both sweating. Outside, it was fifty degrees and pouring but, in the truck, it was Cabo San Lucas at peak tourist season. The heat hadn’t worked for the first thirty minutes out of Austin. Trying to get it going, I’d turned it up all the way and broke the switch. Now, if we rolled the windows down, we got a big Texas facial. So there we were: drinking Black Velvet and losing weight by the mile.

“Well,” I said, “we’re almost to Dallas.”

“Bed’s about to go.”

He was right. It took me a second before I saw the top sheet fluttering around the side like a white flame. His grandma’s big, oak poster-bed with the carved lion feet. She’d just had too much stuff. We’d tied the door down with a bungee cord, but that didn’t even hold it to Buford Station, and the door’s bent latch kept coming open.

“You want to stop again?” I asked, reaching to turn down the Beach Boys Reunion, the only tape besides Doctor Hook and the Medicine Show we could get at the Bi-Lo in Martenville. It got stuck in the tape player and auto-reversed at the end of each side in spite of all my attempts to pry it out.

“Do not touch that fucking dial.”

“We better stop,” I said.

He handed me the bottle without looking and put the truck in fourth. The lead Beach Boy, the one who got fat and started looking like a latter-day Spanky, sang she’s giving me excitations. It was the seventeenth time we’d listened to the song, but Jackson Jackson wouldn’t let me turn it off, wallowing in his misery.

I guess he missed his grandmother. I’d talked to her a few times back when Jackson Jackson and I were in high school in L.A. She seemed like a nice lady, but I couldn’t imagine why she’d moved to Austin. Jackson Jackson didn’t know anybody in Texas. She raised him, but he didn’t say anything about her funeral, or his family when he asked me to go along. He just said, “She’s got this glass bar, right? And it’s real nice. We could set it up in the basement.”

Possibly, I came along to just help him out. Possibly, it was also convenient that I was leaving Texas, too. But the world wouldn’t weep for one less upright piano, and I was pretty sure we’d have to sell that bed off or put it on the roof because it wasn’t going to fit through the front door of Max Latham’s house.

Max was waiting in Iowa with open arms and open basement. Everybody needs an old high school friend with a wife, a stable job, and an empty basement. It’s necessary when the Navy’s made you weird. Or, in my case, when you went off to study writing and philosophy, but wound up in Texas with a large gambling debt and no gainful employment.

When the bed hit the highway, it didn’t shatter like the piano. It went down crunch-crunch on all four lion feet, and there it was, linens flapping in the rain around the triple-band of silver electrical tape we’d put down to keep everything in place.

“They don’t make them like that anymore,” I said. “Crashworthy.”

Jackson Jackson pulled a three-point turn suddenly and with such vehemence it almost tipped us over.

“You had to say that,” he said.

It took us an hour and a half to put the bed back in and tie it down.

Close my eyes. She’s so much closer now. Softly smile, I know she must be kind.

I woke up on the couch as usual, went into the kitchen, and made a cup of instant coffee. I couldn’t stop thinking about the puppy. I’d dreamt its severed head was licking my hand.

The bedroom door was locked, of course, and that was a good thing. Maybe Gary was in there right now sleeping blissfully in the arms of my wife. My wife: Max Latham’s former wife. A year ago, I’d been in the Gary Position. Now I was in the Max Position. Did it serve me right? Had anything ever served Jackson Jackson right on our fateful trip, his short trajectory from Navy to Iowa basement to bullets to Ft. Madison State Penitentiary?

Maybe it was time for Mister .38 to finally have a coming-out party. Maybe three shots for Cheryl and three for Gary, Jackson Jackson style. Then a quick reload and six more in the ceiling as I howled and did a crazed, murderous hat-dance. El Danceo de Vengeance. But the door was locked and closed. Whatever was behind it was still awash in a haze of quantum possibilities: Gary? Cheryl? Some other guy? Another headless house pet? The string section of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra all pressed together cheek-and-jowl, their instruments held gingerly above their heads as if they were fording a river? Maybe. But I didn’t have to deal with it if I didn’t see it. So I decided to take my coffee down a block and talk to the ocean.

Imperial Beach stunk. Literally. The sand itself smelled like a fouled toilet, and there were red signs saying TOXIC and HAZARD at the end of every street going to the cement boardwalk. The beach had been critically polluted going on four months, blocked up toilets in Mexico, overflowing sewers, sending the shit north. But toxic sand never killed anybody through their feet. And brown tide hadn’t killed the surfers. You could see it in the waves. The whitewater wasn’t white. Yet the kids were out on their boards, surfin’ the break every day.

I curled my toes into the sand, sipped my coffee, stared at gray morning. “What do you expect me to do?” I asked the beach. “What’s required when a man catches his wife blatantly cheating it up?” I looked to the brown tide for answers. Asking the tide was crazy. It didn’t make sense. But what made sense? Forty-five minutes south of San Diego, Imperial Beach was the broke-ass redheaded stepchild of southern California. Gang members didn’t even come there anymore due to the stench. But the locals kept walking their dogs every morning in pathetic imitation of the beautiful crowd up north. The surfers still surfed.

I heard, “Dude!” as two overtanned kids came out of the water holding their boards. These were the same kids with the same boards saying the same Dude! that you’d find on any beach, except here the kid on the left was picking toilet paper out of his waistband instead of kelp. “Nasty,” said the other. I smiled and nodded as they passed. Nasty was right. And, more importantly, somebody close by had whacked that puppy. I wondered who. That was something Jackson Jackson, at his lowest, might have done.

It’s a fifteen hour drive from Austin to West Des Moines. After six hours, I took the wheel but decided to stop when I realized I was driving on the wrong side of the highway. Jackson Jackson just laughed, turned up Surf Safari, and said, “No, man, just keep on going. We’ll get there.” But we were on one of those long stretches of dark Texas nothing, where you can see a light from a great distance. And not seeing one, not seeing anything through the rainglittered windshield but fifty feet of highway caught in the headlights, made me nervous.

“I don’t feel right,” I said, pulling over to the side.

“Doesn’t stop me day-to-day.”

“Too many variables. I’m too tired. Let’s get some sleep.”

He didn’t say anything to that. I closed my eyes and tried to get comfortable in the seat. Time passed in blessed post-Beach Boys silence. The air seemed cleansed now that the tap of rain on the truck had replaced a bushy bushy blonde hairdo. I also had the slosh of the Black Velvet bottle to remind me that Jackson Jackson did not share my views on sleep as opposed to facing the dark infinity of Texas. I hoped he’d drink the rest of the BV and pass into whiskey dreamland. Jackson Jackson hung-over couldn’t have been that different from Jackson Jackson sober. And I wondered if it was all just the Navy and his grandmother. I wondered what had happened in the last six years to change him so drastically and so much for the worse.

Of course, he did sleep eventually. When I woke up sometime in the late morning, he was out with the empty bottle upright on the floor between his feet. I had the overall lousy feeling of having slept in the driver’s seat of a U-Haul. But, all things considered, there was no harm done and soon we would be out of Texas, which brought a certain joy to my heart.

I was so confident, in fact, that I thought it would be a good time to call Maddog, the man to whom I owed a total of $17,870 as a result of the three worst poker games of my life. I didn’t own a cell phone for many good reasons, so I took Jackson Jackson’s out of the ashtray and dialed Maddog from memory.

How I got involved with a man named Maddog is, in itself, a tale to be told. Suffice it to say, there are still a few ways left to struggle without having to get a soul-destroying, ass-numbing nine-to-five. And one of those ways, apart from murder or dealing mountains of drugs out the trunk of your car, is card playing. You just have to have patience and sit in the small games until you meet the right people who can hook you up with the bigger games. You also have to be good, and you have to have enough honesty with yourself to know whether you are. That’s where Maddog came in. He didn’t play cards; he played money. I told myself I was good enough to borrow his, pay my debts, make my rent, and pay his back. I told myself that three times in a row and, all three times, I was lying.

“I don’t know you,” was how he answered the phone. Okay: caller-id, cell phone technology and all that meant he could see who was calling, and he didn’t know Jackson Jackson from Adam (good for Jackson Jackson). But the real reason Maddog answered that way was that he didn’t associate with one single respectable person. He was something out of a B-gangster film, and he did the things that B-gangsters in films did. Maddog wasn’t from Austin. He was from Queens. He sounded every bit of it when he answered.

“Maddog. It’s Christian.”

“You fucking rat bastard.”

“Yeah, about that—”

“Now is not time for the bullshit, Christian. Bring my money over right now, and you’ll be glad you did.”

“I’m on vacation. I won’t be around for a while. I hope that doesn’t put you out.”

“I’ll find you. Don’t worry about that.”

“God bless you, Maddog. You’re a Mother Theresa. You know that? A big, goddamn, stupid, stinking Mother Theresa who doesn’t know when to quit. Pretty soon, you’ll be nailing the sick in Calcutta.”

“I get my hands on you, and it won’t be so funny.”

Why did I take the trouble to agitate the idiotic, leg-breaking asshole who was right then scouring the Austin card rooms for the faintest scent of my trail? I don’t know. Maybe, in my own way, I was equally as stupid. If he was a mad dog, I was a weasel. I’d just made the most weasely phone call of my adult life. But it felt good. One last kiss-my-ass—coming from me this time—as I vanished into the comforting embrace of God’s own American Midwest.

“There’s a little more to you leaving Austin, huh?” Jackson Jackson still had his eyes closed, but his snoring had stopped.

“You want to tell me about the bullet holes in the back of the truck then? And we can have a heart-to-heart about all the heinous shit we’re dealing with here?”

“Now I will piss.” He climbed out on his side and pissed to the east. I climbed out on mine and pissed to the west. I had no doubt right then that, just like me, he was reviewing the unlikely and unfortunate events that had conspired to have both of us pissing on the same latitude.

Schopenhauer wrote: “The ordinary man places his life’s happiness in things external to him, in property, rank, wife and children, friends, society, and the like, so that when he loses them or finds them disappointing, the foundation of his happiness is destroyed.” I believe the Beach Boys put it this way: I’m gettin’ bugged driving up and down the same old strip/ I gotta find a new place where the kids are hip. Just so. But putting my happiness elsewhere and moving on from Imperial Beach to the next thing, from Cheryl, who’d been Max Latham’s unfaithful wife and who’d once seemed like my salvation, would not be easy or simple. She had a steady job as a RN at Kaiser. I’d been looking for a job. The Accord was in her name. Since I rolled it, I only used it when she didn’t need it. She put all the money we’d stolen from Max toward a down-payment on the house. If I walked, where would I go? I’d be sleeping in the Greyhound Bus Terminal. External things? Yes. When I got back home from the ocean, Cheryl was having it out with Gary in the living room.

Gary was in boxers and a T-shirt. Strangely, he was also wearing brown loafers with brown dress socks. My wife was in panties and a Cal sweatshirt I’d never seen before. Her long, brown hair was only partly tied back, and she had the same fierce, wide-eyed expression as the day she’d done half a bag of speed and threatened the mailman.

“I saw you,” she said. “You think I don’t know where you go?”

Gary crossed his arms. “A lot of people look like me from a distance. Right, Christian?”

I glanced from Gary to Cheryl. The fact that he was fucking her was one thing. I was ready for that. But backing him up in an argument? I wasn’t ready. I thought about running for the safety of the garage and my little orange step-stool.

“Don’t bring him into this.” She crossed her own arms, squared her stance, shaking a little from the dope she’d obviously done. “He can’t even get it up.”

What?

“I think you’re paranoid. I think you’ve got a substance habit,” he said.

“Asshole,” she screamed as she ran back into the bedroom. “I’m gonna find that bitch and cut her bitch heart out.”

“You do that, but don’t call me when you’re down for assault. Find somebody who cares.”

I sat on the couch and looked at the brown hairline cracks on the bottom of my coffee cup. I felt like a kid again, watching my parents.

“Screw you.” Cheryl had put on some jeans. She stormed through the living room and out the front door. The screen slammed behind her with a thwack.

We listened to the car peel out.

Now the house was silent. Gary sat down on the other end of the couch and stared at the gray TV screen.

“Women,” he said.

I went into the kitchen and put my cup in the sink. It was a mess, dishes piled everywhere, a big brown roach on top with its head stuck in a glob of ketchup, the smell of death from the overstuffed garbage disposal. We didn’t have any utensils in the utensil drawer. I wondered where they’d gone and had the crazy thought that maybe my wife had gotten guilty and sent all the cutlery back to Max. All I saw was a wine corkscrew with a burgundy-stained cork on it and a couple of small, water-spotted pairing knives.

Gary turned on some basketball and settled in with his hand in his boxers. I walked over and sat down on the arm of the couch. “This is for the puppy,” I said and stabbed him in the stomach.

“Fuck,” he said. “What the fuck did you do that for?”

The pairing knife had gone in about a quarter of an inch. It was the first time I’d ever stabbed someone. It wasn’t as easy as I thought.

“I can get it up.”

Gary looked at me and nodded, pressing his hand over the wound. “I believe you.”

I gave him a hard stare before I went to the bathroom for the hydrogen peroxide and some Band-Aids.

We were over halfway there. Hours of fields and flat, open nothing: Toline, Eagle, Lungerberg, Gainesville. Dallas sliding past in the gray flash of morning. Rain coming down, then not, then again, ice-cold, fat, Texas drops as big as the locusts that could storm up in summer and band the flesh off a grown cow.

Jackson Jackson had found a pair of black, leather gloves somewhere in the luggage. They creaked as he tightened his jaw and tightened his grip on the wheel.

“I put those holes in the back of the truck before you showed up, okay?”

He said it spontaneously somewhere outside of Baton Springs. I pictured him with those gloves on, screaming incoherent syllables in his grandmother’s front yard, firing round after round from Kalashnikov into the back of the U-Haul.

I asked him why. He thought of what he wanted to say. And I waited, watching the scrub go from Texas brown to Oklahoma red. The Beach Boys sang with gravity and passion about a little deuce coupe, and Maddog rang Jackson Jackson’s phone for what must have been the twentieth time. We were a happy caravan of goodness. Even then, I pitied Max Latham for the sorrow that was clearly about to descend on his head.

“I broke my old fishbowl.”

I nodded, but it made no sense. Fishbowl?

Just as all men need a former high school friend who’s married and stable, so the friend needs to know better. Usually, the wife says something like, oh no, they’re not moving into my basement—if she’s a good woman, if she’s done her wifely duty in distancing her man from all his old hoodlum friends. But I would find that Cheryl was not a good woman, and the shot-up U-Haul was raging down the interstate like Satan’s private livery. What would happen, I wondered, when Max’s wife saw the beaten, claw-footed bed with all its linens duct-taped in place? How would we account for the bullet hole-fish bowl connection? For the leather gloves? For the whiskey-sweat reek of the cab still pulsing with heat and Beach Boys perdition? No, it wouldn’t do. We were all wrong.

Oklahoma passed with crops and sprinklers, with the smell of pesticide and fertilized soil. Then we were on the I-35 North, crossing into Kansas. At about that time, I concluded that everything about the fishbowl story was complete and utter bullshit. Maybe it was Kansas clearing out the last of Texas, the last part that had slipped up into Oklahoma as the South tried to rise. Kansas was rational. Kansas knew: one does not put a clip of 7.62mm into the air over a fishbowl. Not even an emotional Naval forklift operator and shotgun expert would do such a thing. Maybe I’d lost my judgment for a while in the unreality of the trip, but my mind started coming back when Jackson Jackson answered one of Maddog’s calls.

“Yes, hello, can I help you?” His all-professional-and-polite-noon-in-the-haberdashery-voice.

I stared at Jackson Jackson, but he just winked and gave me a minty smile. I could hear Maddog screaming on the other end, but I couldn’t make out the words.

“503 Pearl Street, West Des Moines, Iowa.” I heard a black, leather glove creak on the wheel. “You got it, buddy.” And Jackson Jackson hung up. He seemed deeply pleased with himself, smiling at the distance as if all the joy in the world had now become his.

I said: “You realize Maddog wants to kill me. You did realize that before you gave him our destination.”

Jackson Jackson kept smiling. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I got guns.”

I was behind the wheel because Gary felt too fragile to drive.

“Shouldn’t we be armed for this sort of thing?”

“We’re just looking,” I said. “You know, for a lawyer, you’re a nervous bastard. What are you trying to be, some kind of gangster?”

He winced and looked to see if there was blood on the palm of his hand. “I got stabbed today,” he said.

I’d done a good job with the Band-Aids, but Gary still kept his hand pressed on his stomach as if his guts might shoot out at any minute. We were sitting in his forest green Jeep Cherokee across the street from Cheryl’s favorite bar, The Brig. She’d been in there over an hour.

“Quit complaining. I should have killed you.”

“Over her?”

We looked at each other.

“Did you behead that puppy in my backyard?”

Gary checked his palm again. “That’s disgusting,” he said. “Don’t talk like that. It’s bad luck to even hear something like that.”

I looked him over and shook my head. “Somebody did. Puppies don’t behead themselves.”

“Maybe she did it.”

Cheryl stumbled out through the tinsel in the bar’s doorway. Behind her came a large man in jeans and a flannel shirt. He was grinning like he’d just won the state lottery and had nothing to do with the money but refurbish his trailer. We sat in silence as my wife leaned back against her Honda and made out with today’s lucky number. Watching her, I knew deep in the cockles of my own, small, criminal heart that the last bit of attraction I carried for this woman had just lifted away, replaced by a certain cold revulsion. I thought of our neighbor, Willis, knocked through a tree and her saying it was too bad. I thought of the puppy. Of Jackson Jackson’s grandmother silent in her grave under Texas rain.

I moaned, and Gary shot me a startled look. I moaned the way I imagine Jackson Jackson might have moaned when he gunned down Maddog in the street in front of Max Latham’s house. Moaned, not for Cheryl or a broken fishbowl or the polluted tide that never had any answers, but for all the choices I’d made that had put me on this latitude and for the cruel gravity that conspired to hold me to it.

“Don’t do anything crazy,” said Gary. “I’m an officer of the court.” He winced and checked his palm. “I live by morality.”

My wife and Lucky had gotten in her car and were pulling away. I started up the engine. “No,” I said, “you live by me. And you fuck my wife.” I hit the gas and the Cherokee surged. A red Honda Accord is no match for a green Jeep Cherokee in a collision. We sheared off her trunk and the Accord skidded up onto the sidewalk, bent trunk hood bouncing over nothing. I hoped Lucky would jump out so I could run him over, but Cheryl was still going on a snootful of speed that no amount of Brig drinks could negate. Smoke came off her back tires. She shot down the street, new friend and bouncing hood notwithstanding. In about three seconds, I was right behind her. Gary had stopped pressing his stomach and was now holding onto the dashboard and handbrake for the grace of god and deliverance from evil.

“The trouble is,” I said as I put the pedal all the way down and rammed the back of the Honda, “the puppy was innocent. It didn’t do anything to anybody. It just wanted to be loved.” I hit my wife’s car again and it fishtailed, rims flying, the back left tire wobbling badly.

Gary’s mouth moved, but no sounds came out. It was all too much for him. I might have looked at him too long, too long as in one millisecond over. The road veered sharply to the right, I looked away from Gary and saw the edge coming, tried to turn, heard him pull up on the handbrake. There was a soft, empty moment where the Jeep Cherokee became a feather floating in a white nothing. All the fluids in my body began to rise, as we went over the edge of a canyon.

I wanted to speak. There was no time to speak. The front of the Jeep became my nose, the windshield my eyes, the steering wheel my cheeks, my mind the sky, my anger a dark, fiery cloud rolling upwards without sound. The rain of blood inside the Jeep made me think back to Texas one last time—one last, nervous thought that yanked me sideways into black.

Max Latham’s house in the blue light of morning. And Max standing there watering his lawn as if the storm wasn’t moving north from Texas. Anyone who thought to look could have seen it rolling up on the edge of the horizon like a polluted tide, bringing with it all manner of flotsam, heavily armed fools in U-Hauls, homicidal moneylenders from Queens, and 100,000mg of unmerciful fate delivered right to his front door. But that was exactly Max’s problem. He never thought to look.

When we got out and walked up behind him, he was talking to Cheryl. She was sitting on the sill of the second-story bedroom window in jeans and a bra, smoking. Max absently held the hose to the side. The water bored a hole in the grass and puddled around his sneakers.

“Well, don’t close the windows, then. I don’t want my ass blown off in the middle of the night.”

“Radon doesn’t do that,” said Cheryl. “It kills you in your sleep. You’d never know.” She exhaled a tongue of smoke that hung over the porch for a moment before twisting into a draft.

Jackson Jackson and I stood behind Max and said nothing. Cheryl gave us an empty look and took another drag.

“Oh, that’s so much better. I’m so happy. Die in my sleep. Fuck.” Max gestured with the hose and pebble-sized clumps of water flew in an arc.

Then he turned and saw us. His expression changed from the morose, Midwestern husband with receding, close-clipped, blonde hair and wire-rimmed glasses, to a boy delighted that his sandcastle had withstood the waves after all—complete with toothy grin and mud on his shoes. His old friends had arrived. No amount of radon could change that.

Max: the image of a chump, a fall-guy, a perpetual victim. In school, he’d been the one who got tricked, a bewildered, hurt expression on his face, as the bus pulled away. Yet there was always a streak of cheerfulness in him that enabled him to forgive everyone, to make it alright again. Seeing him made me want to smile, to clap him on the shoulder and celebrate something—maybe his innate goodness, maybe just the contrast between him and me. I may have fallen in love with his wife a little later. But, then again, I may have fallen in love with her at first sight, seeing her sitting up in the window, smoking, like she didn’t care about a thing. Max was oblivious from the start. He had a paunch and obsessed about things like invisible gas poisoning, EMFs, and keeping a perfectly well-groomed front lawn. Many times during that first night, as we unpacked the truck and got extremely drunk, he grinned at the lawn and said, “Isn’t that a fucking gorgeous piece of grass right there?”

Toward the end of the night, I think he may have hugged his front yard, but he could have simply fallen face-down on it, spread-eagled as if the whiskey and PBR had temporarily reversed all local gravity and the lawn was the only thing that cared enough to keep him from floating away. Max had been married for four or five months. I wondered how long he’d had his lawn.

We piled everything in the basement, everything, that is, except the bed, which we had to leave in the driveway under a tarp. Jackson Jackson said little. When I asked him how he felt about leaving the bed out, his only response was: “Light the fucker on fire.” His mood, apparently, had not improved by arriving in West Des Moines.

No one lit the fucker on fire but, staggering drunk down the long, railless basement stairs at 3:00 in the morning with a tiny flashlight, I saw our mountains of boxes piled like miniature ziggurats in the dark, a tiny Babylon. Toward the center of the darkness, Jackson Jackson was snoring on the futon, probably with arms crossed like King Tut and a loaded gun in each hand. I passed out in the corner. I hoped, away from existing lines of fire.

Sometime, in the wee hours of the morning, Max and Cheryl had a horrendous argument. I woke with the spins, my stomach lurching, and remembered hearing them screaming at each other and slamming things around. I would eventually discover that she threw his computer through one of the upper windows that morning and Max spent the rest of the dark hours cruising around town in his brown El Camino as he listened to Dwight Yoakum and drank more beer. The way she told it to me later was that she’d kicked him out of the house and it hadn’t been the first time.

Problems. The first was extricating myself from the airbag. I came to upside-down, the mouse-grey pillow almost suffocating me. The second problem was Gary. He was out, belted in place. It looked like the passenger airbag had shot forcefully enough to break his nose or something else had. Gary’s blood was everywhere. His forehead was dark red with it, and there was a little puddle of it just below his head on the Cherokee’s roof liner. He moaned and snuffled, a bloody bubble popping in his nostril.

I squirmed out, went around and unbelted Gary and pulled him through the shattered passenger-side window. The Cherokee was on fire, a little fire. It had been the source of the black firecloud that I saw in the rearview mirror after we went end-over-end and landed on the canyon floor. As soon as I dragged Gary away, the gas tank exploded with a hollow thump into sparks and green-orange streaks of flame, jagged strips of glass, and sizzling plastic.

Neither of us had cell phones. So I turned Gary on his side, leaned back into the ice plant and stickerweed on the slope of the canyon, and watched the Cherokee cook. A burning vehicle in the middle of a residential area: someone would call. There would be fire trucks, police, ambulance. Gray wheezed and snorted blood. I watched a seagull glide over the rooftops of houses on the other side of the canyon.

Two hours passed, and Gary grew silent. I couldn’t tell if he was alive or dead. I put my ear to his back and still couldn’t tell. No one arrived. No sirens in the distance. Nothing but the occasional gull overhead, the smell of melted plastic.

So I did the only other thing I could do. I walked. People don’t like people who walk away. It’s unpopular. It’s ugly. It shows a certain changeability, weakness, lack of determination. I didn’t feel good about it, but I went anyway. I left (blood-spattered, probably dead) Gary on the slope of the canyon and walked my way to freedom. Or, if not to freedom, then at least out of a certain kind of bondage that would have involved explaining to police how we’d arrived at the bottom of the canyon in the first place. I told myself repeatedly it was actually good that no one called or came, that Gary got what he deserved.

The ice plant roots were twisted like rigging and, even though I was beaten and dizzy, it enabled me to climb right up and out of the canyon. I went down the sidewalk, wondering what I was going to do now that I had no home.

Late afternoon and nobody was on the street. It was a quiet, residential neighborhood not far from the beach. Little brightly colored one-story houses. Kids’ toys strewn on front lawns. 3-foot high white picket fences. Party sounds came from a backyard, pool splashes, laughter. Pure, bright clouds hung low in the hard blue sky. I went down the driveway of a house towards the party sounds, half-thinking that I should say something to someone about Gary, half-thinking that it would be nice to lie down next to a pool where people are laughing and sleep. I had a powerful urge to sleep.

3 metallically clean, blond teenagers tossed a beach ball in the pool, 2 girls and a boy. They looked happy and perfect like models, like they’d been pressed from a mold. On the far side of the pool, another boy was grilling burgers. A tiny cd player with speakers plugged into it played music I’d never heard before, a crackly kind of accelerated country with the singer whispering nervously over the guitar.

I sat down in a white chaise lounge and looked at them. Eventually, the boy and girls in the pool waded towards me. They didn’t get out. The boy on the other side looked over but kept grilling. The music scraped out of the speakers on the patio table next to me as the singer stammered and strummed his guitar. I caught lyrics about love and radiation coming from the sky.

“You’re bloody,” said one of the girls.

I turned my head slightly to see her, realizing that there was something wrong with my neck.

“Who messed you up?” asked the boy in the pool next to her.

I noticed that there was a tear across the filthy bloodstained button-down that had been white when I’d bought it long ago at the Austin J.C. Penny. The boy who’d been grilling came around and stood next to the cd player, holding the grilling fork with a smoking hamburger patty stuck on the prongs. I looked up and smiled. The boy in the pool took a step back.

Maddog was on his way. Jackson Jackson had already cleaned and assembled the AK in anticipation and was sitting down in the basement, testing the firing action and loading clips with black-jacketed 7.62mm cartridges that looked more like a bad day in Baghdad than home defense. Jackson Jackson looked like a bad day in Baghdad. He’d never been more cheerful, but with that crisp smile that was heavier on the homicide than the happy. I knew he wouldn’t be after Max’s wife. Everything that had formerly been Jackson Jackson the human had gotten jettisoned into some distant, pockmarked landscape in a USMC Government Issue Standard Waste Disposal Receptacle. All that was left was Jackson Jackson the Pile of Endless Rage with the occasional episode of Malicious Joy thrown in by the gods for flavor.

I don’t know what it is about upheaval that makes people seek it out, or what it is about very personal, very utter destruction that makes people hungry for it like no other. But I knew then, in the way of knowing that seems completely clear, even though it’s completely corrupt, just how good Cheryl looked to me when I staggered up from the basement the next morning, my hair like a bush hit by too much wind.

Was I corrupt or just aware? Why was it that neither Jackson Jackson nor Max had any desire for this well-endowed brunette, who, as I emerged from the basement, happened to be drinking a beer in her underwear—very narrow, very sexy black underwear? She leaned back against the kitchen sink and gave me a look so clear and blank her eyes might have been polished glass—the same look she’d given me from the window the day before. As we stood there blinking at each other, I wondered what it would be like waking up next to her legs, what her belly would look like when she stretched and arched her back.

Right then, I should have jumped in the U-Haul, turned up the Beach Boys, and wailed through the cornfields until inertia and gas mileage won and all there was was an atomized pin-flat duskline as far as I could look, the nearest telephone pole 50 miles gone. Then I should have started to run. I knew this just like I knew the house was ready to pop with Max hung-over upstairs face down in his bed and Jackson Jackson in the basement getting ready for war. He’d traded up the Beach Boys for Funk Soul Brother on infinite repeat as he kissed each cartridge and whispered to it before grinning and sliding it into the clip.

Yes. Crazy. But all I could think was how cool Cheryl was, drinking a beer all by herself in the kitchen at noon in her black underwear and not giving a shit.

“No,” she said, “You don’t get a beer. This is the last one.”

“I wasn’t asking.”

She raised an eyebrow and put the empty bottle in the sink. “This, from someone living rent-free in my basement?”

“Don’t worry about the money. It’ll flow like sweet milk from heaven as soon as we stock the bar down there and get our liquor license.”

“Funny man.”

Nobody who says funny man ever means it the way it sounds. It’s always a placeholder for something else, some other stronger observation that can’t be voiced right then. What I didn’t realize, as Cheryl moved close to me and rested her palm lightly on my chest, was that she was about to kiss me.

When I become a learned philosopher, my first book will be entitled The Beach Boys as Ontological Modality: An American Response to Schopenhauer’s Primacy of Will. I will argue that the term, “hodaddies,” as it occurs, for example, in the song “Surfers Rule,” is a mystery term, an intentionally ambiguous sign, carrying a multiplicity of culturally significant meanings: The hodaddies sittin’ while the surfers are draggin’/ The surfers are winnin’ and they say as they’re grinnin’/Surfers rule. Hodaddies. What does Schopenhauer have to say in response to hodaddies? That angle has been completely overlooked by scholars. It will be the first of many important books I will write. The second will be an exploration of death. Specifically, how little deaths create chain reactions that result in big deaths. I will reference hodaddies.

Hodaddy No. 1: Little fluffy puppy that didn’t have a name. The puppy that haunted my dreams, severed head, blood crusted into white fur.

Hodaddy No. 2: Max Latham, who now also haunts me in his own sad way, who stumbled downstairs too late to catch his wife kissing me, who, like the puppy, only ever wanted to be loved and free to focus on harmful minerals in the tap water and the hygiene of his front lawn. He didn’t ask for nihilistic, ex-naval shotgun experts and failed gamblers. Max didn’t ask for philandering wives in sexy black underwear. But this world is full of victims. And so there would come a time when the puppy would have to lose its head, Max his wife, Jackson Jackson his freedom, Maddog his life, and me my immortal soul.

And then, of course, Hodaddio Grande del Mundo: the flight of bullets through the air, cyclic rate of fire as estimated by the US Department of Defense: 650-750 rounds per minute, give or take variations in barrel design that might affect velocity. The grand Hodaddy doing its thing over your rental car, the street, up the front of your body, and out the back.

“Where’s Jackson?” Max asked, not even noticing that Cheryl was standing there in her black underwear or maybe not even caring since their fight the night before.

She shrugged, and the glimmer of interest I’d seen in her face when she kissed me receded into the mask of blank indifference that seemed to be her normal state—and would be until, much later, when she’d discover she liked to do speed with various unwashed individuals in the washroom of The Brig.

“I think he’s downstairs, loading his weapons,” I said.

“Oh.” Max frowned deeply and poured distilled water into the coffee pot by the sink, blinking his bloodshot eyes slowly against the light. I wondered how much was hangover and how much was anxiety that the trouble with his wife or maybe the brooding arsenal in the basement would somehow negatively impact his lawn. How could a man who was ingenious enough to build a tri-level water-distiller in his kitchen from hardware store parts and a battery pack completely overlook his wife? Or, for that matter, how could he overlook the very depressed, dangerous man sitting in his basement giving each bullet its own unique name?

Max put the grounds in, turned it on, and the smell of percolating coffee filled the air. For that moment, as the three of us stood there blinking at each other, I hoped it all might work out. I told myself I’d legitimately put Texas behind me. I could get a straight job, pay off my debts, maybe get a lawn of my own. Max had to know something the rest of us didn’t. Unfortunately, the moment after that, I realized Jackson Jackson was not still in the basement loving his bullets. He was in the street outside, firing them.

We ran out like idiots. I saw Maddog on his back in the street, red long-sleeved button-down shirt, sneakers pointing up, and jeans washed in blood. His scraggly beard. His fat belly. A pistol in his left hand. His eyes staring straight up at Holy Astral Queens, the loan shark heaven. I didn’t feel good about him dying, but then I didn’t feel bad about me living. And it looked like Jackson Jackson wasn’t feeling anything, standing there like a statue with Kalashnikov smoking.

The bullet holes were large. The same ones that covered the back of the U-Haul had riddled Maddog’s rented Taurus. Jackson Jackson frowned at them as if they’d failed to live up to his expectations point-by-point. He was a death artist, and this was his performance, his installation in the center of 503 Pearl Street, with cordite in the air and Max back inside, sweating and pissing and hissing an emergency-911-death-immediately-now hoddady into the telephone.

Jackson Jackson sat down right where he was, in a half-lotus, and proceeded to disassemble and clean each part of his weapon with a little, white bristle-brush and a can of machine oil from his pocket. When the SWAT team arrived, no shots were fired. A gun-cleaning kit was confiscated along with the AK parts and several pockets of ammo..

The next day, Max didn’t go to work and started drinking at 8:00 AM. No one had been shot in front of his house before, and he was taking it hard. He sat in the den, sipping whiskey as he clicked the TV remote with a trembling hand. The fact that he’d started on a brand-new bottle of Black Velvet was not lost on me. So many synchronicities seemed present when I realized he was watching a biography on Dennis Wilson, the Beach Boys’ drummer. Everything comes together. Everything converges. I said it to myself over and over. This is not a chaotic, disconnected whirlwind of shit and suffering. There are reasons. There is a tide, even if it happens to be brown. If you don’t want to ask the tide, ask Schopenhauer. He’ll tell it true.

I kept saying this all to myself when I crept down into the basement to do some secret packing and found Cheryl waiting there with one suitcase full of money and another full of clothes. My clothes. My suitcases. Max’s money. It looked like all of Max’s money. She unzipped my little blue valise and showed me how she’d rolled the twenties and fifties in fat little bundles, each one like something a movie gangster would have in his pocket after selling a pound of crack. How many pounds would this represent? It looked like harvest day in Crackland.

“I love beautiful women smiling at me with suitcases full of cash,” I said, “but I hate jail and, oh, who knows, bounty hunters and enraged husbands and death.”

Cheryl shrugged. “I don’t give a fuck, and I won’t offer twice. Max is an asshole. He deserves it.”

Maybe seeing Jackson Jackson take out Maddog in the street jarred something loose. Maybe she was just as fundamentally evil and crazy as everyone else, sexiness notwithstanding. But such a woman in such a situation making such an offer could seem right even if it were wrong. No matter the reasons, in a life of lousy decisions, leaving with her seemed like the answer, the next thing. Everything comes together.

“When?”

“Tonight.”

“How?”

“I’ve got a car.” Cheryl zipped the suitcase back up. “This is everything. I’ve been planning this. Max is screwed right now, but he doesn’t even realize it. He won’t have time to come looking.”

I nodded. She smiled. And then we, too, came together. A few hours later, we were gone.

All these things. Convergences, mistakes and imperfections, resurgences, corrections, convections, exceptions. The slow path of a leaf or a bullet through the air. And I ask myself who the puppy is: Gary, Jackson Jackson, Max, or me. And who is West Des Moines? And who is the futon in the basement? Who are the bullets? And who is the problem? Money? And how are we getting away from it, money? And gravity, why gravity, when all we want to do is leave?

* Note: this first appeared in Willow Springs 62 (2008): 67-83.

Some time has passed since I’ve encountered a post-graduate heartbreak narrative as deadening as that of Jonathan Gottschall in “Survival of the Fittest in the English Department.” Maybe this is because I’ve abstained from reading The Chronicle of Higher Education, concluding (rightly, I still think) that it lives on a kind of niche-demographic sensationalism meant to make its readers more neurotic than they already are.

Granted, the article is filed under “Opinion & Ideas.” And reading about the struggles of young Jonathan, one thinks chron snip1there must be some opinions and ideas forthcoming—maybe just floating around in there like the lingering odor of a badly cooked meal. An over-fried opinion Denver omelet. A whiff of a curdled assumption. The effluvium of a half-baked generalization. Someone turn on the ceiling fan and open a window.

Honestly, I have nothing against Jonathan Gottschall, the subject of the article. I have nothing against David Wescott, either, who knows how to write a clean journalistic line and is, like Gottschall, just trying to get paid and do his thing. In fact, let them both get paid, especially Gottschall, who, according to Wescott, has been ignored by the Academy and relegated to perpetual-adjunct Siberia in spite of his unique “literary Darwinist” approach to English studies. Gottschall wants to critique literature in terms of evolutionary biology in order to make it more relevant and fundable in an increasingly STEM-dominated world:

On a tour of the campus, Gottschall points out what he calls the “Taj Mahals.” To the left, a multimillion-dollar, LEED Silver-­certified science center with a grand entrance; to the right, a stately life-sciences building that contains labs, classrooms, and a greenhouse. Sandwiched between the two, he adds, is the “hovel” of the English department. (One English professor says that the small building, which has clearly seen better days, has been home to a hornets’ nest, toxic mold, broken windows, and even indoor mushrooms.)

“If you look at these buildings,” Gottschall says with a sweep of the hand, “it’s not hard to see what society values more.”

But apparently English departments—at least the ones hiring for positions more substantial than adjunct—don’t care for Gottschall’s ideas. It’s a tragedy, this pro-science bigotry, this perpetual adjunct gulag for those unwilling or unable to agree with the academic establishment. Worse, the article implies that just as there is no remedy for this neurosis-inducing decline, there is nothing to be done for Gottschall himself, who is yet another casualty of higher education: “Asked about Gottschall’s stalled academic career, David Sloan Wilson seems to regard it as unfortunate but perhaps inevitable in its larger intellectual context: ‘This is true of all paradigmatic changes. If you lose, you can’t get a job anywhere. If you win, you can get a job at Harvard.'” Can you hear all the stained glass windows in all the churches of the world shattering at once? I think you can.

Gottschall’s sad story is also a way for Wescott to introduce the same old formulaic axe that the Chronicle has been grinding for years: look at this bright young intellectual being denied an opportunity to pursue his life’s work by the agents of impersonal, anti-humanistic, anti-life academic bureaucracy. Oh yes, my child, there are malign forces lurking, waiting to destroy everything we love. Be very afraid.

Frankly, I am tired of this. Scientism is nothing new and it’s not going to save English studies. But who said English needs saving? Everyone loves apocalypse stories and The Chronicle seems particularly obsessed with a coming academic apocalypse in the humanities—some kind of English department Mad Max brought on by too much poststructural critique and too little funding. Shakespeare with battle-axes and leather jockstraps. Well, okay. After Derrida that might be the next logical step.

But look how Wescott’s piece begins: “For a scholar ignored or condemned by almost everyone in his discipline, a career adjunct unable to secure job interviews much less a tenure-track position, Jonathan Gottschall is unusually prominent.” The ordure of piss-yellow sensationalism is unmistakable, especially if we consider that the target audience is college professors and adjuncts who have lived through some austere times in academia.

People are as worried about their careers in academia as anywhere else—every hour of the day, every day of the year. So when Wescott pushes the same old fear-buttons, we feel the same old things: dread, angst, a certain pressure to read on to the end of the piece in case Wescott offers us some relief. But there’s no redemptive vision here and the destruction of Gottschall’s dreams appears unavoidable:

Inside the English department’s building, Gottschall points to the cubicle where he once held office hours. He had spent some lean years working here. Loans, credit-card debt, saving up for a house: From 2009 to 2012 he got by on an adjunct’s income, a small book contract, and the occasional speaking gig, along with his wife’s salary as a professor of economics at the college.

Wow three years of hardship like a three-verse funeral dirge in which every dream is dead and every flower has wilted. On the other hand, he is married to a professor who, it seems, has a full-time gig. So you mean Gottschall isn’t adjuncting at five community colleges simultaneously to pay for a studio apartment that violates the Implied Warranty of Habitability in 16 states? You mean he hasn’t been misled time and again into thinking that if he took on extra unpaid administrative duties he might be first in line when the latest hiring freeze is over? You mean he actually got a cubicle to use as an office instead of having to meet with students down the street in the Dairy Queen? You mean he’s published multiple books? He has interesting ideas that he’s been able to research without sleep deprivation giving him organ damage and a facial tic? You mean he’s the subject of a Chronicle article?

Take out your books.

Hot damn. Maybe he isn’t doing so poorly after all. Maybe, just maybe, this article is a fine bit of sensational apocalyptic fear mongering, saying just the right things to rile the readers up. But maybe it has also all been said before, many times in more serious, more responsible ways. Maybe things will change in academia. Maybe they won’t. And maybe Generation Z will be learning IT instead of Milton and their comp teacher will look like Dennis Hopper in Waterworld.

But I can tell you one thing: I don’t weep for Johnathan Gottschall. I celebrate him. He’s doing what he wants to do, maybe what he was born to do. And even if I think a scientistic critique of literature will ultimately fail to bring status, money, and relevance to what many of my fellow neurotics believe is a dying discipline, I do like the idea, maybe the only idea worthwhile in this article. Let’s have more interesting ideas like that and fewer apocalyptic opinions.

burundiI started this website years ago, when I was living in East Africa and had no idea when I’d be leaving. The idea was to experiment with travel non-fiction essays I might eventually submit to magazines. But, over time, The Writing Expedition became more than that. I’ve begun to notice a theme emerging—the same theme that characterized most of the stories in my first collection, Gravity:

[T]he assumption that everything in life depends on being solvent, employed, and generally needed. These things constitute the gravity, or the seriousness, of one’s situation—that which holds a person’s life together and makes it mean something.

I guess I’m still thinking about what it means to survive in our often unforgiving, inhuman post-industrial economy. It seems that writing and thinking about this is emerging as an aspect of my life’s work—my overall artistic project. I think I should probably be reading more Studs Terkel, Orwell, Huxley, Ignacio Silone, Walter Benjamin, Viktor Frankl. I should be doing a lot of things.

indexSince my book came out in late 2009, I’ve published in more magazines. I’ve taught more students at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop. I’ve received praise for my work from those who get my project and the inevitable pushback from those who don’t. It’s all part of the writing life. Nevertheless, times change and we change with them. Recently, I’ve had occasion to look back the at the road behind me and also wonder about the future.

Abre Camino

After a number of reversals, sickness, and a new appreciation for my mortality, I left Burundi sooner than I thought I would. I wrote a story loosely based on my experiences there, sweated profusely in Belgium, led a charmed existence in Tallinn (a city fairly close to how I imagine paradise), and then had to leave the Schengen due to an unresolvable issue with my visa. I spent a few discombobulated days in Oxford before it was back to central California again for hard times, family betrayals, and a veritable buffet of disappointments and bad luck. 

As soon as I got back, I knew I had to leave again. So I did. Since I work primarily online, I was able to go places where I could also enjoy myself—San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, Washington D.C. Then I left for England again, living in Oxford for a good while. I had a short interlude, staying with friends in a village outside Vienna. And then London. Soon, I will return to Oxford before heading out to Asia. It’s a good life if you can stay flexible and you don’t want to own a lot of things.

The Hounds of the Grass

Another theme has been that of trading financial stability for time and interesting experiences. In the beginning, this was not altogether intentional. I got my PhD at Western Michigan University and hit the job market, which, I discovered, hits back. I have three advanced degrees, 17 years teaching experience, an expert ESL certification, numerous magazine publications, a book with an academic press, and a winning personality.

Still, the tenure track job interviews right out of my program were not forthcoming. I had a few in which I was competing tooth-and-nail with a large number of equally qualified candidates for, say, one position. I talk about this experience often on this blog. I think it’s important that some people tell the truth about the process. In the end, Thomas Benton’s notorious “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go” has proven out. What he describes hasn’t quite been my experience. I’ve been lucky that way. But I think Benton has been nearly prophetic for a number of my friends who I’ve seen lied to, exploited, blamed, and disregarded by a broken system packed with terrified neurotics. I say go get the degree you want to get. But do it with open eyes and be willing to do what you have to do to survive.

Kephera - Egyptian Neter of Coming into Being

Kephera – Egyptian Neter of Coming into Being

So this morning, I got up and looked at the calendar. In 24 days, I will turn 41. And, thinking about that over my coffee, I realized that I’ve had many, many interesting experiences over the years. I’ve done some amazing things—at first from necessity, then in order to court eustress and test myself. Now I really do think I’ve changed. I love teaching, without a doubt, it’s part of who I am. But I no longer have that sense of desperation that characterized those of us who made it through the PhD relatively sane. I’m no longer that brittle academic refugee. I’ve evolved.

No one knows what’s around the next corner. Though, after 4 decades of life, it seems preferable to hold Will to Meaning as my highest good instead of Will to Productivity or Consumption. In my ongoing search for a meaningful life, I’ve come to experiences over approval, freedom and time over money and obligations. Or, as the Uncle Aleister used to say, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.”

I sat down today intending to write a piece critical of certain shrill MFA voices that seem to have gotten shriller since MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction hit the shelves last February. Is “shriller” actually a word? It is. But it only takes meaning as a comparative adjective once something that was brittle, high-pitched, piercing, and so exaggerated as to be deeply annoying gets intensified beyond the bounds of reason and tolerance.

In fact, this was going to be one of those, “I think yon highly privileged (shrill) MFA Child Of The Universe doth protest too much, Horatio” posts. In it, I would have been sure to impart a sense of having been there and done that, taking care to insinuate that I was a hard bitten veteran of the academic creative writing hustle. I might have added a touch of weary exasperation that the culture of many workshop-based programs is about everything but the work. And I might have tried for a some kind of brief reversal three-fourths of the way through so that I could have ended on a slightly hopeful note.

Nope.

But come on. I’ve done all that. I’ve argued both sides: that MFA writing programs are excellent ways to focus on learning craft for two to three years without the distractions that would otherwise apply. I’ve also argued that the bloated culture of privilege and cynical, thinly veiled mediocrity in many of these programs short-changes students from the beginning. I still believe all of this. I also believe that if you go into it with open eyes, intending to use the program as a tool to facilitate your development as an artist, you will not regret your decision. If you go in and expect a big hug and Wonder Boys, your life will come to resemble a Muddy Waters song.

I’ve written a lot, here and elsewhere, on MFA programs—why I think we should still believe in them and the ways I think they utterly fail everyone involved. And by “everyone,” I actually mean anyone interested in the mission of creative writing, which I guess means everyone. The Big Everyone—like you, me, the kid on the big wheel down the block, President Obama, and Ray Kurzweil. Everyone. Because, in my opinion, the mission of art school is nothing less than cultural transformation. It’s founded on the assumption that the arts can and should have a place in society.

So I don’t know. Maybe I should recognize a certain degree of irony implicit in any post I write about gifted, neurotic, highly privileged 20-somethings in creative writing programs. I was one. In many ways, I still am. I feel at home with that crowd. And as a freelance writer and fiction instructor for the Gotham Writers’ Workshop, I’m still connected to the academic MFA world. I guess the question is whether there is anything new to be said about it. The perspectives in MFA vs. NYC have not been very surprising or insightful. It seems like the same old array of objections and justifications we’ve been hearing for years. Now they’ve been collected in a book instead of appearing in The Atlantic or on websites.

Maybe an even better question is whether anyone sees MFAs clearly at all. What if I point out that there is a perceptual “distortion field” around MFA programs which encourages students to believe themselves at the center of the universe? What if I argue that, because of this world-view, many MFA students also believe that the universe is in a state of perpetual collapse—because its center has been revealed to contain semen, bent paper clips, and cotton candy instead of the fire of the gods? And what if I describe the almost universal malaise that seems to descend on these young lords and ladies of creation around the time they’re halfway through their programs? A certain melancholy made from dwelling on the absurdly large student loans they took out in order to be “student writers” and how this seems like a perverse existential joke considering their post-program job prospects?

Oh, don’t be sad. There’s enough cotton candy for everyone.

 

The discipline has three steps.  It begins at home.

You want to do something–paint, write, act, play the hammered dulcimer, whatever–because it calls to you.  It’s more than just a passing interest and you’re aware of this (I think hammered dulcimers are kind of cool, but I feel no compulsion to start taking lessons down at Jim’s Dulcimer Academy).  This thing calls to you more deeply than it does to the dilettante.  You think about it when other things aren’t distracting you.  Then it becomes the distraction.  You love and even idolize existing practitioners of the art.  You read their interviews, their Wikipedia pages, the pretentious Rolling Stone pieces that treat them like geniuses or flops.  You fantasize about that being you.

So you take a step and get some training.  Lessons.  You pay for a class at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop.  Extension courses at the local community college.  Don Webb’s class at UCLA.  Maybe you get a method book or join a group that meets in the back of a bookstore once a month.  Maybe you hit the pawn shop and buy that beat-to-hell Mexi Strat in the window with some Dylan tablature.  Maybe you just get some paper, a pen, a stack of your favorite Stephen King novels, and start imitating.  The point is that your brain is a learning computer and, whether you’re aware of it or not, you’re learning.

So it goes: you produce a lot of bad material that you soon come to recognize as such.  Then maybe you make something small and good.  Then a few more small good creations like it.  Things begin to seem possible.  Your teachers (if they’re ethical) encourage you and suggest possible directions.  You start to calibrate your “built-in, shockproof, shit detector.”  You’re at the door of the Shaolin Temple.  Again, whether you know it or not, you’re standing there looking for admittance with your duffel bag and $300 in personal burial money.  You are not coming into fame and fortune at the top level with connections, Aspen lift tickets, and a sugar daddy to introduce you to literary agents or casting directors.  You’re doing it yourself.  And you’re probably starting to get pushback from those who now identify you as competition and want to end the threat before it begins.

As soon as people start trying to stand in your way–friends, family, other practitioners, teachers, coworkers–you know you’re moving forward.  This is also the moment when you truly have to apply “the discipline.”  Here it is as I have formulated it for myself.  This is a theme that runs throughout my writing on this blog and, in a more subtle way, my fiction.  The two things I care about most in life are helping people find their “thing” (bliss / true will / highest actualization–whatever you want to call it) and being able to follow my own path as a creative writer.  This has led me into teaching, which I love, and a lot of philosophical / sociological / life-hacking explorations.

Step 1: Mental Discipline: orienting all ambitions toward your art but expecting nothing in return save the art itself.  Just as publishing houses care primarily about volume of sales and production companies about box office returns, see commercial art for what it is.  In exchange for the freedom to make the art you want to make (if you’re not a commercial artist–if you are, you have a different set of problems than I’m addressing in this post), accept that “industry values” come from a vastly different universe than those of fine art and never think commerce cares about art beyond its baseline profitability.

You can’t control whether someone wants to buy your work.  You can slavishly imitate the trends, hoping that there will be room for one more clone.  Or you can recall what inspired you to start doing art in the first place–the possibility and texture of self expression.  So if you want to be authentic and original, save yourself a lot of pain and disappointment by accepting that your work may or may not be appreciated by those who seek to profit by the creativity of others.  By all means, submit your creations for publication and consumption.  But make that peripheral to your emotional center as a practitioner.  Make the work come first and the marketing come second.

This is the first step of the discipline because there will be enormous pressures levied against you for even thinking that you have the right to be original.  The publishing industry, like the movie industry, does not run on originality.  It runs on predictability.  Taking chances can be disastrous for them in the worst, career-wrecking sense.  You will be told a version of this in 1000 different implicit and explicit ways: try to imagine your audience and write to their expectations.  The serious artist will be following something else in her work than trend and established taste–something industry professionals may not even believe exists.  Two different sets of values.  Different universes.  Thus, the serious artist must be disciplined in what she believes, how she lets herself be influenced, what choices she makes about the integrity of her work.  The best way I know to do this is to embrace the real possibility of being ignored while continuously putting your work out there.  It can be emotionally difficult at first.

Step 2: Financial Discipline: keeping survival (but not respectability) always within your peripheral vision.  The second wave of pushback comes with the very real threat of extreme poverty.  Staying away from the infectious and materialistic mechanisms of the business world, status jobs, job trends, upward corporate mobility, and attendant notoriety is essential.  At best, these things are distractions from your daily commitment to furthering your art.  At worst, they will lead you into value systems that are openly antagonistic to serious, non-commercial productivity.  The same attitude behind “A BA in philosophy?  What are you going to do with that?” is the one that will frame you as an unrealistic dreamer who is certainly crazy and misguided, possibly stupid in a number of hidden ways, and someone we don’t want our daughters dating.

But these worlds and their inhabitants will be more than willing to ignore you if you ignore them–if you do not ask them for a handout or add to their unabated misery, jealousy, and covetousness by showing them the contrast between your values and theirs.  Rather, the second step in the discipline involves smiling and waving good-bye to middle-class ambitions; practicing “cheerful retreat”; and going your own way.  Being non-threatening (actually invisible) to those who hold status and money as the highest good will allow you to (1) avoid being influenced by their values; (2) avoid having to defend yourself against them; and (3) the space and time to simplify your life financially.  You are not a threat–so the fact that you are living humbly and frugally is a non-issue for them.

Simplifying your life is easier said than done.  And it may not seem like others would have a problem with this, but people will actively try to prevent you from simplifying and reducing your levels of consumption if they feel threatened by this.  However, you must arrange it so that the bulk of your personal responsibility can be shifted toward your art.

Because it’s good to live in human society–because that, too, provides fuel for your work–accept that “shifting personal responsibility toward your art” will entail a certain amount of discipline.  You may have to take the kids to football practice.  You may have to do what seems like an all-consuming job as a psychologist or a Zamboni driver or an IRS agent or a drug lawyer or a hot dog vendor in the mall.  All of these can be scaled down.  Take fewer hours.  Accept two (or three?) part-time jobs instead of a full-time job if that will build in greater flexibility.  Plead your health, your ailing family life, your grandmother’s lumbago, but reduce, reduce, reduce.  Become a freelancer.  Become a contractor.  Become a minimalist in everything but your work (and even in your work if that’s where your creativity leads you).  Read and apply The Four-Hour Workweek, Choose Yourself, How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World, Possum LivingThe Shoestring Girl, Working, The Outsider and Gordon White’s brilliant blog, Rune Soup–especially “Apocalypse Timeshares: Radical Strategies from Inside the OAT.”

Step 3: Be Determined / Take Your Lumps.  Do not think that frugality means limited options in any sense.  This is another cruel fiction propagated by the industries that depend on a manufactured, highly misleading, and unhealthy post-WWII middle-class will-to-respectability.  As a person practicing this discipline, you can do anything you want to do as long as you are willing to approach it in a transactional way (ironic, given the degree to which I inveigh against zero-sum materialism, but this is not always synonymous with transactional thinking as I use it here–see Browne’s book linked above).

In other words, if you want to, say, study herbalism in Shanghai, you can.  You may have to become a dishwasher, an ESL teacher, a private tutor, a person who carries pipes in a shit field, a dog-walker, a nanny.  You may have to cut costs by mostly eating rice, thin broth, and yam cakes.  You will have to learn a version of Chinese to a practical extent.  You will have to sharpen your social skills in order to get along and get what you need.  All of this takes energy.  All of this is disruptive and sometimes painful.  All of this can be done while functioning as an artist.  But you will have to pay for these experiences through a degree of chaos, stress, effort and the disapproval of others.  There will be dreadful moments.  But if you want to lead a different life–one that includes art and new experiences, you will accept the trouble as a necessary payment for doing what you want to do.  The discipline means taking your lumps and eternally paying dues.  Nothing comes for free but sometimes the payment is fun and sometimes it doesn’t even matter.

People enmeshed / immobilized in a fugue of “respectability” (in my opinion, a parasitic set of social mores and strictures that slowly consume the time and energy–life–of innocents whose only mistake was doing what they were told from an early age) will say you are crazy, unambitious, stupid, a loser.  They will do this because you haven’t had the time and wouldn’t spend the effort to become a stakeholder in their hierarchy of values.  I have experienced this firsthand and still do from time to time when the ripples of life-decisions I made in my late 20s come back to me.  But I do not have regrets.  I have largely overcome my personal demons, the emotional, familial, social fallout associated with owning my life.  That’s why this is a discipline.  You have to practice it.  It’s not something you do once.  It’s a way of life.  And I want that for you if you want it for yourself.

Welcome . . .

I write fiction and nonfiction for magazines, work as a freelance writer / editor / journalist, and teach composition and fiction writing.

This blog is mostly dedicated to writing about politics and media, travel essays, creative non-fiction, discussions about books, the MFA experience, publishing, and work I’ve already placed in magazines. But I might write anything.

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To educate is to seek meaning in everything. It is to teach others to seek the meaning of things. This means mixing the dreams of children and young people with the experience of adults and the elderly. This exchange must always take place, or else there can be no humanity because there would be no roots, no history, no promise, no growth, and no prophecy.

— Pope Francis, 5 June 20

I write it myself, edit it myself, censor it myself, publish it myself, distribute it myself, and spend time in prison for it myself.

— Vladimir Bukovsky

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

― Charles Bukowski, Factotum

“The job of a President is to lower the temperature, to bring people who disagree with one another together, to make life better for all Americans, not just those who agree with us, support us, or vote for us.”

— Joe Biden