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.
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
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
I’ve sold my house, I’ve found this
place, a large studio, you should see the space and
for the first time in my life I’m going to have
a place and the time to
no baby, if you’re going to create
you’re going to create whether you work
16 hours a day in a coal mine
you’re going to create in a small room with 3 children
while you’re on
you’re going to create with part of your mind and your body blown
you’re going to create blind
you’re going to create with a cat crawling up your
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
— 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.
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.
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