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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.

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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

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.

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?”
  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.
Whitehall Garden

Whitehall Garden

When you work online, putting on normal clothing and actually leaving the house is important. This is why I work so often in cafes. Spend all day at home in your pajamas and you start to feel (and eventually act) like a guest of the state. Today the weather was nice. So I thought I’d go sit in Whitehall Garden and work on a scene that’s been bothering me for a week—change of venue, change of energy, etc.

Being by a river always helps me think. And on a good day, the various cultures of inner London can create a certain momentum as you pass through them, an electric crackle that you can use when you finally sit down and get to work. But the emotional energy in big cities also comes in waves, which can be problematic. Get enough people in the same space having a bad day, emoting at others who enter their perceptual range, and it’s going to spread like a black tide from neighborhood to neighborhood. I find this sort of thing is usually at its most repugnant in high tourist areas and throughout financial districts—places where miserable people naturally converge. Unfortunately, those are some of the best places to find writer-friendly cafes and public gardens.

So Whitehall Garden. On most days, it’s like a tiny, secluded paradise by the Thames. Quiet. Victorian fountains. Everyone keeps to themselves. There’s even an authentic Egyptian obelisk with sphinxes. And it doesn’t get much better than sphinxes on a weekday. When I got there, I felt ready to dig in and get some real work done. The gardens were as gorgeous as always. I had coffee, headphones, steno pad, and a wooden bench in the shade. Perfect, right? What could go wrong?

I was actually making progress on the scene when my bench lurched. To my right, on the connecting bench, a chubby bald man with a beard and 1950s bifocals sat next to his tiny over-tanned wife. They both wore identical cameras and flamingo-pink windbreakers and they were talking to an extremely thin woman with big sunglasses. Everything about the woman said money: cream leather jacket, white blouse, white pants, and leather riding boots that had never, in their existence, been used for riding. Her platinum blond was sprayed up in the anti-gravity bob that well-off middle aged women sometimes get to prove that they go to a salon. The blond woman was standing right in front of them, listing a little to the side, expressionless, mumbling. I took my headphones off, but I couldn’t make out what she was saying.

The man was repeating, “We don’t know. We don’t want any trouble.” And his tiny wrinkled wife was talking over him, calling the woman dear and saying it was going to be alright. It didn’t look like it was going to be alright. The three of them were still talking over each other a minute later when the blond woman lost her balance and fell forward into the man, who caught her in a stunned embrace. His wife stopped talking and blinked. The three of them froze that way for a moment. Whitehall park tableau. Then the blond woman pushed herself upright and they started apologizing to each other. Are you sure you’re alright? I’m terribly sorry. No, no, it’s fine, really. Then, as one, they looked at me. The man: embarrassed. His wife: bewildered with a little anger creeping into the corners of her frown. And the blond woman: expressionless again and, I could now see, higher than Keith Richards on the red eye to Tokyo.

I felt embarrassed for looking at their miniature drama. Then again, it was on the bench connected to mine, and this was the park. You can look in the park. It’s allowed, even encouraged. The blond woman came over and stood in front of me. “Have you seen my cell phone?”

I said I’d seen a phone sitting on a bench near the entrance when I came in.

She said, “Fantastic,” and drifted in that direction.

The bearded man, his wife, and I watched her go all the way down to the park gates, gliding between people with the grace that only comes to veteran drunks and pill-heads who know they must get home at all costs. Ghost ballet. I imagined her up in one of the elegant Second Empire hotels that front the Thames, standing at a window with a glass of scotch and a handful of Methaqualone, thinking, I’m going to go down and sit in Whitehall Garden. Or not even that. Maybe just: fuck him or nothing. Just pills and a long numb afternoon.

She came back and stood in front of me again: “Nothing, chap.” The first time in my life I’ve been called that. “But thanks anyway.”

I wished her good luck and she thanked me again before wandering off in the other direction. The bearded man and his wife stared at her, at me. Then the wife said, “If I was the one who found that phone and didn’t give it back, I’d be ashamed of myself.” She stared at me for a long moment until I looked at her. A few minutes later, I saw them down by the gates, looking through the bushes behind the row of benches like two flamingos dipping their beaks.

I didn’t take the phone. For all I knew, it was still sitting on that bench. But part of me wanted to go find that blond woman, put my arm around her, and make sure she got back up to whatever gold-leafed penthouse she’d fled; though, I don’t think people do that sort of thing anymore, not these days, not in London. And even now, hours later, I can’t decide whether I feel sad because of the emotions flowing right then through the city or because that woman lost her phone and, even high and ultimately miserable, had the decency to be polite to a complete stranger.

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.”

Dost thou wish to be praised by a man who curses himself thrice every hour? Wouldst thou wish to please a man who does not please himself? Does a man please himself who repents of nearly everything that he does? – Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations, Book VIII

Most writers will tell you that envying the success of others is lethal, stupid, wasteful. They will tell you this because they have no doubt experienced the consequences of crippling envy firsthand. It comes with being an artist. But it’s something we have to get past and learn how to avoid. Envy is one of the many things that will destroy a writer emotionally, creatively, and sometimes even physically.

A True Story from the MFAkong Delta

I remember one afternoon toward the end of my MFA. I’d been teaching a beginning fiction writing class and was fortunate enough to have a good group of undergraduates in the workshop. They were serious, smart, and several of them were in the process of applying to MFA programs themselves.

Because it was late spring and because my tiny office in our brutalist 1970s humanities building resembled a janitorial closet in a parking structure, I held my office hours outside. Twice a week, I could be found sitting on a grassy hill in front of the administration building. Students actually showed up and we talked about their work. It was good. It also kept me away from the toxic environment of the English department and the Machiavellian absurdities in perpetual flux on every level at every moment. Give me grass and sunshine and a passing Golden Retriever any day.

My students and I had a friendly relationship and I looked forward to meeting with them. One afternoon, we were sitting on the grass immersed in conversation when I felt someone staring at me. It was one of the professors in my writing program. Here I will call him “Professor Careerist.” (Why Careerist? Because the vast majority of the things he said in my workshops had to do with getting published by the Big Six and what not to write if you wanted to be famous.)

Anyway, I noticed him standing across the quad, glaring with a mixture of contempt and disgust. Later, I had the misfortune of passing him in the hallway outside the department office. His expression hadn’t changed. When I was far enough away that a full conversation would have been impossible, he turned and called out, “Davis, don’t get used to this life for much longer. You’re not going to have it.

At the time, I took this to mean that I’d be graduating and moving on—and that thinking about this pleased him deeply. I also felt that Prof. Careerist disliked anyone who seemed remotely content not to be hustling and constantly self-promoting. When he noticed students putting thinking about art before trying to get ahead, it offended him deeply.

Ironically, Professor Careerist taught me as much if not more than any of my other professors—about what not to do. His negative example has served as a guide in very tough times. And what he said to me in the hallway has unfolded with many levels of meaning over the years. One of the most profound is: there is no free lunch, not in writing or in anything else. Because of this, an artist has to make a decision whether to write for a commercial interest or for herself or for a little bit of both. But she should never expect the world to take care of her (or even pay attention to her) unless she’s offering something of value in return.

The Kindness of Strangers

When Careerist said, you’re not going to have it, what he really meant was you’re not going to have it without my help. And, brother, that’s one thing you’re definitely not getting. In that, he was correct. I didn’t get his help and didn’t get that life.

Nearly every one of my fellow MFA students was a gifted writer. Some were shockingly brilliant. But today only a handful of us are still writing. And an even smaller group of us have found permanent teaching positions. This is not because we weren’t all talented, hard working, and sincere about becoming creative writers and teachers. It’s because some of us had help and some did not. Some of us offered something of value. Others sat back and waited for a line to form outside their door.

Prof. Careerist never helped me (deliberately), but others did—enough to help me continue. And, because I had very little to offer those who helped me, I have to add that maybe there is a free lunch sometimes. Maybe I was a rare, lucky exception to this cruel economy of patronage and fear. I’m still writing, still interested, still doing my thing. I seem to have had the knack for showing up when certain professors and administrators were about to do their good deeds for the day.

Dry Rot and Perdition

Years later, about to finish my PhD, I had lunch with a fairly well-known visiting novelist. I’d just published my first book of stories, Gravity, with Carnegie Mellon UP (through a largely serendipitous convergence of allegiances that had little to do with me as a writer). I also had 18 or 19 magazine publications and a handful of small writing contest wins. I was not (nor am I now) a big deal. But the novelist (who was a big deal) really wanted to know if the other graduate students in my program hated me now that my book had come out. I said that I didn’t know and I was being honest. My mom had just died horribly. My father had started a second pathological adolescence. I was worried sick about the future. I didn’t care what my fellow neurotics in the department had to say.

I guess the reason he asked was because something like that had happened to him. And he still cared, though he’d been out of his MFA program for close to 20 years. At some point, people had envied him, despised him, traumatized him. And this highly accomplished, famous, established writer was still thinking about it.

That night, at his reading, I sat in the audience while he spent half an hour talking about his creative process. His thinly veiled egotism curdled the air like a rotten onion for nearly 2 hours. I could see him, sitting at home, reading the AWP Writer’s Chronicle and giving himself an ulcer because so-and-so got an interview or some other bonbon and he didn’t. And I could see that even now, deep down, he feared he was a bum. This is what happens when writers forget why they write. This is what envy does to us.

So why do we do it?

I guess there are as many reasons as there are writers. But I think it often comes from the inability to separate commercial success from creative satisfaction. We’re told to eschew fame but emotionally wired to seek it. We’re told that success as an artist is a meritocracy—much like what we’re told in graduate school about finding teaching positions: if you’re good enough, there will always be a spot for you. Right.

Moreover, most of us hold ourselves responsible for our relative success or failure, forgetting that much of it depends on the opinions and assistance of others—people who may only be thinking about sales or who may be in the position of gatekeepers but who may have no aesthetic sense or artistic ability whatsoever. We often overlook (in fact, we’re often encouraged to overlook) the fact that a commercially successful career as a working artist depends very much on trends, consumer demographics, timing, and the decisions of those who may or may not stand to gain by helping us. Patronage is alive and well. We ignore this and we suffer accordingly.

When we do experience a modicum of success, we often celebrate a bit too loudly as a way to release all the angst we’ve otherwise acquired. Unfortunately, it is guaranteed that someone is hating us twice as much as a result. First, for our success. Second, because we seem to be enjoying it too much. And the extent to which we crow about our successes is the degree of envy we will feel when others pass us by. It’s absurd. It turns us into fools, victims, slaves.

Remembering Who We Are

Caught up in all the envy and jealousy, we tend to forget ourselves—that we originally became artists not for fame, wealth, or to demonstrate our worth to a cruel world. We did it because we wanted to create.

We have to keep in mind that the pain of not being able to create to our own satisfaction is only superseded by the pain of self-doubt that gnaws away at us and will not depart until we accept that we have limitations. Ultimately, being an artist is a love affair with our creative impulse—not with hype, not with fame, not with feeling clever or showing up the competition.

It’s far healthier to say, I am going to make this small interesting thing. I am going to do the best I can and then send it out into the world and forget about it. I am going to do this over and over because it makes me happy. So please don’t tell me what it should say, how much I should be adored at this point in my professional life, how much money I should be making , or who should be coming over for dinner.

You write your thing and I’ll write mine. And if I’m writing for pay, let me do the best possible work for my employer. If I’m writing just for myself, let me know my creative genius in the deepest possible way.

My friend and fellow writer, K. Murphy Wilbanks kindly mentioned me in a blog post focusing on what she’s working on right now. So I will follow suit. Though I have the usual 100 things blowing up my computer, I am focusing on a few big projects at the moment.

What am I working on?

First and most painfully, I’m working onVelouria, my novel about a guy who lives in Washington D.C. and works for one of the smaller Smithsonian museums. I’m just about to close out the first draft at 250 ms pages, which warms the cockles of my heart. I will be completing this draft in just over a year of toil and misanthropy in poorly lit rooms.

Then there’s Heavy Industry, my novel about snow, murder, and the food and beverage industry in Illinois. That is also nearly finished and waiting for me to come back to it. But, since I’m getting ready to finish Velouria, I’ve already resumed work on it a bit.

My third story collection is in progress. I think I need about four more stories. Cruel Stars, my second, is still making the rounds at small presses and literary contests. I’ve had a lot of close-but-good-luck-to-you interest in it. Sometimes, I wonder if it’s going to get published before I’m too old to remember that I wrote it. But that’s how it goes with literary submitting, specially with story collections. Everyone tells me to self-publish. I might do this around the 100th rejection. I’m only up around 20 or so. Yay. Let’s submit 80 more times!

I’m also working on a super-secret screenwriting project, which is one of the most enjoyable things I’ve done, well, ever. I’m also learning that screenwriting is different enough from fiction writing to present an entirely unique spectrum of writerly challenges. That, in itself, is cool because I feel like I’m learning more about narrative structure and how to control a story.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

Literary fiction is a genre. But that doesn’t mean it has to march in lockstep with an editorial style sheet. At least, we like to imagine the best literature takes its own shape and carries its own unique message. A lot of this uniqueness comes from particularity—how a piece of writing expresses a vision that has not been expressed before. Of course, this can be highly threatening to those who spend a lot of time identifying with existing motifs and types in their genres in order to advance their careers.

So this question can be taken a number of ways. I prefer to read it as a question about particularity instead of the kind of theme-and-variation question we sometimes see in publishing industry blogs and magazines—designed to make hack writers and their handlers feel like they’re not just automatically churning out the same old thing. In other words, I’m not interested in a question that goes something like, how does your work stay faithful to the editorial hand that feeds you while still allowing you to feel like a creator? Whatever. I’ll answer this one: how do you imagine that your work finds a unique vision and voice relative to everything else? A writer should be able to answer this.

My answer is that I’ve gone through a long period of exploring idiosyncratic first person. That was what my first book, Gravity, was mostly about—seeing how voice can implicitly move a story forward without having to rely on the tired scaffolding of transparent, third-person realism. Basically, I was apprenticing myself to the tradition of literary maximalists in North American fiction. It’s a tradition that goes back at least as far as Stanley Elkin in the 1960s and runs up through David Foster Wallace and William Vollmann. But I’ve moved on now, I think.

Now I’m more interested in the atmosphere of place and the kinds of textures that can spontaneously arise from physical environments. I still have my obsessions: unemployment, suicide, social alienation, love, darkness, funerals, architecture, snobbishness, explosions, travel and petty theft—maybe a few others. But I’m thinking about all of these things in terms of environment now. I see my characters relative to their environments and how they interact with them. I think this makes my work particular. At minimum, it gives me a focus that other published writers don’t appear to have right now. I’m sure there are others out there who share my current interests. Let’s hope I don’t meet them before I finish this round of projects.

Why do I write what I do?

I write what I can. My work and my creative impulse are very closely aligned. So I don’t choose what I write as much as make myself receptive to what’s already there, if that makes any sense. I will write anything, in any mode or form or genre, that pleases me. Maybe it is better to say that I will write anything that pleases that part of me over which I exert little control.

It’s like sex. We like what we like. It’s not a studied decision unless we’re intimidated into functioning like whores. And then are we really enjoying it? Sometimes, maybe—the way any professional can enjoy the familiarity of an articulated process. Then again, I see a difference between simply being highly professional and being a highly professional artist. The artist puts the art first and the professionalism second becauseno matter what your publicist may say in that passive-aggressive conversation about how they might “position your book”professional polish and artistic creation are two different things.  A lover puts the love first and the sexual maneuvers second.  That isn’t professional, but it’s authentic.

That said, I think I also write because otherwise I would be a severely self-destructive, depressed, impossible person. It’s a common thing to say, maybe a cliché, but I think it’s true for me. Writing is my outlet. I have always escaped into my imagination. Now I do it so that others can join me there. That is very satisfying in a number of ways.

How does my writing process work?

I write as often as I can, ideally every day. Though, it doesn’t always work out like that. I try to write about 2 ms pages a day. This produces a story or a chapter every month. That’s as fast as I can do it and I find that’s all I need to do. It gives me time to think and keeps me from burning out.

I write what I feel drawn to write that day. Surprisingly, I get nearly everything done because I always have multiple projects in development. As long as I show up ready to get out of the way and let the creative impulse guide me, I’m good.

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.

 

For me, writing fiction means staying wide open to human experience by giving myself permission to be vulnerable and to intuit how other people can be vulnerable in the same ways.  It’s about representing that complex emotional mystery with as much sincerity and authenticity as possible—not as some kind of living camera, but as an individual person limited by defects and inhibitions, who is nevertheless willing to express what he feels.  That’s why I will never be finished becoming a writer.  I’ll never get it done.  I’ll never be able to say, “Okay, now I’ve done my best work.”

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

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

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

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

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

Holding a cup and overfilling it
Cannot be as good as stopping short
Pounding a blade and sharpening it
Cannot be kept for long

Gold and jade fill up the room
No one is able to protect them
Wealth and position bring arrogance
And leave disasters upon oneself

When achievement is completed, fame is attained
Withdraw oneself
This is the Tao of Heaven

– Chapter 9, The Tao Te Ching, translation by Derek Lin

​Here are some random thoughts on getting creative work done with a minimum of grief.

Basic Artistic Needs.  In order to write, I need, at minimum:

1. Quiet.
2. Solitude.
3. Minimal levels of discomfort​ – i.e. not feeling feverish and sick (including being hung over, exhausted, or otherwise ill), the heater not turned all the way up / down, people walking back and forth through the room or shouting / throwing things against the wall next door​, the gardener blowing leaves under the window, etc.  ​The idea is to be able to forget one’s surroundings for a short period of time in order to free the imagination.  This can’t happen with constant chaos and upheaval. 

Artistic Time vs. Regular Time:

Artistic time is subjective.  If I haven’t written in 3 days, it feels like a week.  When I haven’t written for a week, I feel dead–like I may never have the enormous amount of energy it will take to find the particular emotional structure I was working on before.  This is why Bukowski, Hemingway, Carver, and probably every other non-hack in existence worries about waking up one day and realizing that one’s talent has disappeared.  But such worries just amount to performance anxiety.  I get back into the process and they disappear.

Money and Making a Living as Justification for Complaints:

I am unable to justify any of these needs in terms of what I need to make a living.  It is not persuasive to say: maybe if I had a regular schedule (i.e. a better day job, more money coming in) I wouldn’t be having these problems.​  Money has nothing to do with it and publishing advances will not ultimately validate these needs.  Personally, I am writing highly specialized literary fiction.  I will be most likely to publish in literary magazines and small / university presses​ where there is an audience for my work.  I will not be able to support myself with my work because there are not enough consumers to make it profitable.  Therefore, all the demands I make about needing time, needing space, and needing minimum levels of comfort must always seem baseless and unjustifiable in any practical sense. 

Keeping on Keeping on:

I meditate and exercise.  Music plays a large role in my process.  Whatever it takes to continue is what you need to do.  The point is to continue.

Objections are Inevitable:

Objection 1: Resentful voice from the Internet: “I am a scholar / artist / salesperson / programmer / thought-worker and I need time and space, too!”  (Yes, I completely agree.  This doesn’t mean that just because you are having trouble along the same lines, I stop having trouble as a writer.)

Objection 2: Spouse / flatmate / friend / parent / magical talking dog who lives in the closet: “I am doing my part to help you have the conditions you need to write (so stop complaining)!”  (My complaints come from my sense of frustration not from any perception of insincerity or failure to help on your part.)

Objection 3: Regular reader of my blog: “But you write in crowded cafes all the time.”  (I can write in cafes when I am surrounded by strangers I can ignore and only when they are sufficiently quiet or oblivious.  I am unable to write in cafes (a) where there is someone I know staring at me or walking back and forth; (b) where people are emoting too much–like irritated tourists or upset locals; and (c) where people are sitting too close to me.  Because the art-production process is rarely 100% systematic, there will always be experiences that stand as exceptions to these things.  Still, I am talking in general, not about the exceptions.)

​Objection 4: Upset writer trolling posts tagged with writing terms: “So-and-so produces ten times the amount of work you say you produce and has none of these complaints.”  (So?  Many writers and artists have these complaints​.  If you want to point out an anecdotal counter-example to me, ​I can again note that there will be exceptions.  Unfortunately​, I am more typical​ in my needs than atypical.  If this makes me somehow complicit in my own misery, so be it.  But if that is true, then I am joined my many, many others experiencing the same problems.)

Objection 5: My disillusioned ex-girlfriend who wanted me to stop writing and go into sales to support her modeling career: “Why do you choose to do this work in the first place when it is so difficult and thankless?” ​  (Because even though it is difficult and thankless, writing fiction provides me with intellectual, emotional, and spiritual relief that would be lacking if I were merely working to make money.  People have said that an artistic calling is a curse because once you develop yourself artistically, you typically feel compelled to continue no matter the personal consequences.  Nevertheless, I can say with a certain degree of conviction that  if I didn’t have this relief, I would exit life as quickly as possible.  This is not to reduce art to the level of therapy, but it is therapeutic.  And I believe that is a large part of what makes it compelling.  That said, no artist actually chooses art.  It chooses the artist, my young apprentice.)

Objection 6: Well-intentioned genre writer with anxiety from listening to editorial advice on how to be more formulaic and saleable: “I read that in order to be a professional you need to (a) produce 1-2 novels a year; (b) write at a 7th grade level; (c) have your work vetted by test readers that function like focus groups, guiding your revision process to the most genre-acceptable trajectories; (d) spend twice as much time self-promoting as you do writing; (e) give away free content to entice readers, etc.” (No.  These things come from a particular stratum of the publishing industry that is usually heavy with genre fiction​ aimed at a very tight reader demographic.  These professional standards are neither right nor wrong.  However, they are definitely narrow enough to apply only to the new pulp fiction industry that has emerged from the convergence of e-publishing, self-publishing, and a powerful online consumer base.  If you are a literary writer or someone whose aesthetic does not fit into the highly calculated style sheets of these pulp houses, don’t fucking worry about it.  The publishing industry is a lot bigger than it seems.  Do not make the mistake of thinking that just because a particular writer on a particular blog says this is how it is, that is how it must be for every writer everywhere.  Apply critical thinking.  And don’t forget to do that with what I’m telling you here as well.  Remember that I am just another writer with a perspective on his industry.)

Objection 7: One of my Facebook friends: “You like James Altucher, but he says publishing is dead and we should all self-publish.  How do you reconcile that?”  (I don’t.  Altucher is a good writer and is entitled to his opinion about publishing.  I don’t completely agree with him because I have had some success in traditional publishing.  I have not made much money; though, I am not concerned with making a living this way.  I will probably always have a day job.  If I were writing Harlequin romances to make a living, I would be very concerned and would probably put all my books on Amazon.com via Createspace instead–because I fundamentally believe what he is saying about skipping the middleman in the publishing process.  It makes sense.  I actually like that idea and am not ruling out self-publishing for myself at all.  I just don’t think that self-publishing is the only viable way to publish.  And if you’re alright with the (admittedly crazy) traditional methods, then relax and put your manuscript in the mail.  He uses 50 Shades as an example of a successful way of bootstrapping oneself into publishing using self-published material.  Okay but I would like to point out that the books he mentions reading are somewhat different from that and any given piece of his own writing is superior to that of EL James (I have read some of her work and am not making this criticism arbitrarily).  Altucher is too modest to make that claim for himself.  I also think 50 Shades of Grey is a good example of a turd that everyone has decided to eat.  For that matter, I think Eat, Pray, Love, She’s Come Undone, The Notebook, and most of what Random House releases every year is comparable.  This doesn’t mean I won’t read such books.  I will read them to learn more about what I like and don’t like.  Maybe I’ll check them out from the library instead of giving my money to the Big Six.)

Woof?  Woof.

I spend a lot of time writing about writing, but I don’t say very much about reading.  Since the line between what we write and read is always very thin, I think I should remedy that.  I’m planning a “creative writer’s reader response” post sometime soon.  For now, I think it would be fun to post something like an annotated bibliography of current reads.

Websites & Blogs: Here is a short list of some of the things I read online.  I’m fascinated by blogs that show me something new, and I find the following sites really interesting.  The subject matter skews sharply toward my interests in architecture, civil engineering, creative writing, Asia, funerals, life-hacking, languages, and abandoned places.

  • The Forgotten City of Iram – Natasha Edgington’s image blog.
  • Bones Don’t Lie – A PhD student in anthropology who specializes in mortuary archaeology.
  • Bridgioto! – A gifted animator who isn’t afraid to show her work toward becoming a better painter.
  • Grinding.be – Articles about dystopias, architecture, and post-humanism.
  • I’ve Infused Myself with Puppy DNA – Voice-driven creative nonfiction by a gifted, if sometimes unfocused, writer.
  • Japanese Rule of 7 – Ken Seeroi’s thoughts about living in Japan as an English teacher.  Smart and often very funny.
  • My Hong Kong Husband – Multicultural marriage, Hong Kong, strange things afoot.
  • Functional Shift – Lisa Minnick is a linguistics professor and a gifted teacher.  Her thoughts on the implicit and explicit uses of English are fascinating.
  • Ribbonfarm – Venkat Rao’s writings on the relativity of perception and other interesting concepts.  Very smart guy.
  • Rune Soup – Gordon White is a funny, insightful, somewhat pissed off, chaos magician.  Reading his blog gives me story ideas and that would be reason enough, but I should note that he is clearly one of nature’s prototypes.
  • Order of the Good Death – Caitlin Doughty, licensed mortician and founder of the Order of the Good Death, a blog dedicated to fostering an intelligent discussion of death and “death theory.”
  • Things I Don’t Understand And Am Definitely Not Going To Talk About – Jen Snow’s small, highly absurd posts sometimes read like status updates and other times like well-crafted micro-fiction pieces.
  • Judecca – a webcomic by Jonathan Meecham and Noora Heikkilä about three lost souls who live on an island in one of hell’s rivers.  It’s well done.  A love story in hell.
  • Damned to Deutschland – Poems and short shorts.
  • The Witch of Forest Grove – Sarah Anne Lawless is a real-life witch / shaman as well as a very talented crafter, illustrator, and herbalist.
  • Du Fuchs – Photography and urban research in Tokyo.
  • Life in Russia – Traveling through post-Soviet spaces.

Books: What am I reading right now?  What will I be reading after that?  (I do update Goodreads from time to time as well.)

At present:

  • The Beautiful and the Damned – F. Scott Fitzgerald.
  • The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea – Yukio Mishima
  • The Walk – Robert Walser
  • Oxfordshire Folk Tales – Kevan Manwaring
  • The Melancholy of Mechagirl – Catherine Valente

Waiting on my desk:

  • The Informers – Bret Easton Ellis
  • Amerika – Franz Kafka
  • Chasing the Dime – Michael Connelly
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell – Susanna Clarke
  • The Prague Cemetery – Umberto Eco

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.

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

Something new: “On the Art of Talking to Oneself.”

http://superstitionreview.asu.edu/blog/2013/02/23/guest-post-michael-davis-on-the-art-of-talking-to-oneself/

The way to lead the writing life is brutally simple–simple because it’s easy to understand, brutal because it’s difficult to do.  Here it is in three steps: write, bring into your life everything that helps you write, and eliminate from your life everything that prevents you from writing.  This includes jobs, family members, social obligations, habits of mind and body, friends, and the opinions of others (especially other writers). Evaluate each one. Does the thing or the person help you accomplish your writing? If yes, good. If no, be ruthless in getting rid of that thing or person.

Additional advice that follows from this:

Learn to accept (and ideally ignore) the low opinions of others. They are not doing what you are doing and cannot be expected to understand. Forgive them and then jealously guard the rest of your emotional energy. This includes critics of your work. They may be accurate when they tell you that you have produced shoddy work, but whether their criticisms are accurate or not is irrelevant. You will write more. You will improve or take a different path in your writing. But promise yourself that it will not be in response to their braying.  In creative workshops, see your colleagues as assistants and apply the test: are they helping you improve? If yes, take what is useful from their comments. If no, recycle their responses and save trees.

You can be a creative writer if you have space, time, and the ability to satisfy personal needs. Getting these amounts to bringing into your life everything that helps you write. You can be an electrician, secretary, housewife, criminal, janitor, teacher, cook, paralegal, or any other job that gives you space, time, and wellness. If you are working at the office 80 hours a week, you will not make it. Accept lower social status and forgive your disappointed parents. You do not have to be poor. By all means, be rich (and send some to me).

Read. You are not a scholar. You are a creative artist. This means you can read anything that inspires you, from recipes to comic books to Proust to the Greek Magical Papyri to Don Delillo. You don’t have to worry about acquiring an encyclopedic understanding of Kafka. If you like “In the Penal Colony” and do not like “The Metamorphosis,” good. You know what you like, which is part of being inspired. Read without guilt as long as you are learning and becoming inspired. As soon as you read literature out of obligation, you are no longer functioning as an artist.

Avoid trendiness and over-stylization. These are traps designed to convert art into money. If you want to make money your primary focus, go into business and save yourself the trouble. Do your own thing aesthetically. You know what you like, which is an invitation to pursue it artistically.

There is a lot more that can be said along these lines. However, it all comes down to the three essential steps: write, bring into your life everything that helps you write, and eliminate from your life everything that prevents you from writing.

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

La lecture est un acte d’identification, les sentiments exprimés sont déjà en nous. Autrement, le livre nous tombe des mains.

— Madeleine Chapsal