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Light the gas

Wednesday 8/26/20

I'm doing edits on an essay which actually needs no edits but I am doing them anyway because I need money, so I say nothing and just do it. It's a huge amount of work--what would take most writers a full month of writing--for a couple hundred bucks. Because that's where it's at right now. Beggars may not be able to be choosers, but geniuses really can't be, it seems. Better to be a beggar than a genius right now. You wonder often if you're being gaslit. You look at something, it so clearly is what it is, but that's not how anything works here. You look at it again and again and again and again and again. People you know, from all walks of life, but not in this industry, look at it, marvel at it, wish they could do it sometimes, but usually they're just happy that another human being can, and they want that human being to succeed, believe that they, and the world, needs what that human being can do.


But here, in this psychiatric hospital, or death house, or whatever it is, nothing gets to be what it actually is. Everything is a vitiating of something's implicit reality. The lens are always distorted and distorting. The bad book that everyone who is not in this hospital knows is the bad book is touted as brilliant. The truly brilliant work is seen as utterly foreign, baffling, even banal (they use words like "too subtle" or "too intricate," which really means, "this isn't a copy of things I have come to expect") because it slides completely away as unrecognizable, does not prompt anyone to say, "Oh, it's one of those," or "It's like that."


But I need the $200, so I do this. Thousands and thousands of words for money that disappears instantly, lots of time and energy that takes me away from other things, like books, which, right now, have no chance with my name atop them, given the whole hate, envy, blackball, embargo on any coverage thing. What I end up doing is just writing more and more words that someone the other day described as untouchable. They were talking about the fiction, but fiction, nonfiction, it's all the same to me, albeit different. What I have is no control. I cannot work harder, I cannot write better, I cannot perform at a more commanding level. I am entirely dependent on these people. They own my life. They own my soul, really, right now. My finances. Prospects. The seething envy and hate with some of them. A Bradford Morrow. And the immaturity. The raging childishness. I don't think there are so-called "problem children" in Kindergarten more petty, petulant, prone to tantrums, than someone like a Bradford Morrow. I'll get into that later. This entry is not about him. And his is just a journal--Conjunctions--that does not pay, and which is a club of people getting hooked up. We can go through the examples and reasons later. And we will. And I'll also reveal how this individual saw fit to speak to me.


The person in this particular example is a nice person. There's nothing nasty at play. I am fond of them, even. But there just are not real edits to do here. Sometimes there is. For instance, yesterday I spent hours altering a story from summer 2018, called "Dunedin." It was skeletal and shaky, and it needed a lot of work, though there was great stuff in it. So I did the work. I'll always do the work when there is work to be done. It doesn't hurt my feelings. Doesn't shake my confidence. I don't really have confidence. I know what I do and the level I do it at. It's when you're staring at something that is done, and you have to change it. Or, you have something that would light the world up with wonder--a "Fitty"--and these people, reared on the same old, same old, that soulless, plastic, stiff, center-less writing, can't see it. Your neighbor could see it, but your neighbor gets their marching orders from what they're told is amazing, what won the Pulitzer, what people are talking about. Your neighbor doesn't sail forth on their own, seek out work that isn't discussed, awarded, and then say sing the praises of the work to other people.


I definitely think it's human nature for someone who has nothing against you to still wish to take you down a peg, or several, if they think that you can do things they can't. I don't say that they choose to do this, consciously, but they do do it. I think sometimes with such a person that if I had a mediocre piece, and my career had not been what mine has been, there'd be less instances of me being put through laborious paces that are not germane, and improve nothing.


So there I am, fronted with having to do a lot of work on something I feel needs no work. There are definitely times when I think, "oh, right, must fix that, take that out, yikes that's a mess," etc. But then there are other times when I know it's not on me. Then I have to change the thing. It feels so fruitless, what you're doing, you're doing it all for that tiny check. You're not making the work better. You're just making it different. I have a bottomless well, so I just take some more water--words--from it. What you get is another great piece, no better, and you are rolling the dice out there. You have no control. You had no control before. I honestly have no clue sometimes whether it's going to be "yep, awesome, don't need to change a word," or I have dozens of hours of work in front of me. Because it's not about the quality of the work. Usually, it's about hate, envy, bigotry, incompetence. If you are someone's friend. If you are in their clique. If you are like them. But other times, with nicer people, it's about caprice. How they happen to see something, not how something actually is. I control the "is." That's my domain. I can't get in someone's head and stop them from projecting, or being in a bad mood, or what have you.


You end up getting words like these. They're mostly all new. I just make them. I just have to do them. I do them while I work on half a dozen other things at the same time. You have to be careful with information like that, because they want to use it against you. "Maybe if you had more focus," etc. Jon Peede at the VQR--where I am banned now (they hate me a great deal)--used to say that to me a bunch. He loved that. And it showed, of course, his complete ignorance about great artists through the ages, who were always prolific. But I could say to someone, "I labored on this exclusively for nine months, it was vetted by thirty writer friends, all of whom gave me extensive notes, it was the sole thing I worked on at Yaddo, there were days I forgot to eat, it became my reason to exist, the creation of this one work," and I think my stuff all reads that way (though I'd take a staple gun to my ball sack before I went to Yaddo).


I simply choose not to lie. What you'll make of that truth, is dependent on what you believe I am, or what you believe a human can be and do. If you ascribe to me abilities that you possess, or you have known others to possess, you're not going to accept this, and you'll project and decide--not because of what anything actually "is"--that the work must necessarily be flawed. If you accept what I am--and I think very clearly am--then you won't be surprised in the least that I wrote "Rehearsal Visit" and "Green Glass Door" and "The Wad" simultaneously, moving from one to another with sentence to sentence, and many other works, too; personal essays, arts pieces, blog/journal posts, op-eds. But then you have to go there. Dunt dunt dun. And say, and admit, what this person is. Very few people in publishing are secure enough and mentally stable enough to be able to do that. I'm not necessarily saying that people out in the world massively excel at this either. But they are better.


An editor wrote me last night about some objection a person had to something I wrote in a recent feature. The objector was quite upset. It was about who played what in a piece of music. I'm not going to make a mistake like one might think or hope. I make copy-edit mistakes. Typo kind of stuff. But if I say someone played a given part, I'm not saying that idly, or passively, or having pulled something from my ass. I say it with conviction and forethought. Now, I might be wrong, but not only is that rare, it's usually not definitively provable. Because the issue--or it was in this case--is up for debate. To be honest with you, I don't care if I'm right or wrong. I care about the writing, and the ideas being evinced. I care about making people think, feel, connecting with them. But what many people now care about--and there's much more of this in 2020 than at any time previous--is being able to say, "Gotcha! The expert is wrong! He sucks! He's no better than me!"


A lot of people get off on that. They hunt for that. (I even learned, over time, as I evolved more, as an artist and person, that family and friends are this way. If yo--by which I mean, the example you set--make people feel like they're not doing enough, or knowing enough, they're going to take that out on you. In publishing, they will discriminate against you. They won't publish you, they won't anthologize you, award you, or even respond to you. But they will get off on watching you try, and think they're playing a part in stopping you.) Their lives, in fact, are oriented around those moments. They think it's a leveling of the playing field. They think they're sticking up for their rights. They think it pulls down someone who is no better than they are. "See? You're no better." That's the tone of these gambits. People don't like experts right now. Which is a good thing for most experts, because most experts are not experts at all. They're just labeled that way, because someone has to be. Now, an expert who is an expert for real, and on many things that seemingly have nothing to do with each other? Beatles expert is hockey expert is Keats expert and so on?

Yeah. That's not good. Sounds like it should be good. Cool. Definitely unique. A lot of gold to be mined there. And information, and insight. But that's not what a lot of people will allow themselves to want or be open to right now. They want the expert who is not an expert whose words--written and spoken and Tweeted--exactly echo and reinforce their own words. They want the comfort food expert, who is no expert at all. It's just their label, their costume.


Regarding this piece, if I had said that someone else played this part in that musical performance, someone else would have done the "I gotcha" thing. A piece is an expression of a viewpoint. That doesn't mean that the viewpoint skews from the actual reality. But there are points when one says, "I'm not stating that this is the end all be all of how it was, but this is what I believe, and this is why, but we are talking mere attribution, which is also not the point; the point is the work, the art, what was conveyed; that's the focus."


The "gotcha" person will cite other sources--like an autobiography in this instance-as though I have never heard of those things. (It's kind of hilarious to me--in a grim way--when someone says I should check out a Beatles song or George Harrison or something.) Not only have I always heard of those things and heard, watched, read them, the chances are nil that I have not written on them, at length, in multiple venues. Sometimes the "gotcha" person will discover this, and it's like they've had one of their go-to weapons taken from them, the ability to say, "aha, but you don't even know about this!" They learn you are also an expert on that "this," and then they tend to dislike you more. The more of the "this"'s they find, the greater that dislike. With me, you're just going to be keep finding it. You'll get upset, if you were the sort of person who wished to expose me in some way as lacking in knowledge, background, ability. You won't like me.


That's a huge problem for me right now. I have this whole industry situation, but my larger problem is really with the world. What people wish to see in the people they like right now. They want mediocrity. It's a cold comfort, but they do take comfort in it. I don't have any mediocrity to offer you. It's not what I do, it's not who I am. I don't have it in me if I wanted it to be what I do.


I'll paste in the new parts of this essay. The do it to do it--meaning, get a couple hundred bucks--through-the-motions bit. I could just do this over and over again. Look at it. Speaks for itself. But so did what was already there.


***


Starting October 26, 1959, and continuing on as an annual tradition, Linus, the large-hearted believer who also suffered no fools—but generally retained tact, unless a situation called for a mighty tantrum—began a search for the sorely underrated Great Pumpkin, second fiddle to the portly fellow at the North Pole. If you don’t know the Great Pumpkin, here is his gist: Every year—according to Linus—the Great Pumpkin, whose appearance is never described, picks out a single pumpkin patch, one which he determines has the greatest amount of sincerity. Whatever that means. We know that this spectral being flies—Linus makes this bird-like flapping motion with his arms as an example—and he comes bearing gifts. If Santa and the Headless Horseman mated with some Keatsian bird of the night, that’s the sort of Hallow’s Eve griffin we’d be talking.


In the opening frame, Linus is penning a letter. His sister, Lucy, as per usual, has arrived to dish out her latest serving of sibling teasing. Lucy trolled before there was trolling. And she trolled hard.


She asks her brother what he is doing, and Linus, not looking up—for he is busy with his task—responds, “Don’t you know?”


The smartest people ask questions that sound like statements containing multiple possible statements at once. What are some of those statements for Linus?


You could know. Maybe you should know. You have your own version of your passions and I will show one of mine with you. You can get in on this, too.


Linus might have answered with a statement—“Eh, I’m writing a letter to a magical pumpkin, don’t bust my balls.” But Linus’s question brings Lucy into this particular mix, makes her an active participant, turns portraiture into diptych. That means connectivity. Even if she’s going to josh him. She’s a part of this now, a discourse attendee, and as such the accusatory intent she has winnows. Lucy rants and rails—in today’s soft-shell world, she’d be termed verbally abusive, I suspect—but one had the sense that she liked nothing more than an invite, a reason to partake of something she might not have discovered on her own, given that she tends to stick to what we can think of as the meaty part of the curve—that place where the other kids (and other people) usually are. Lucy is not an individualist on her own, but she’ll be one with some encouragement. I think that’s why she loves Linus like she does, not that she outright says it. She isn’t so much speechless—which Lucy practically never is—as in a position where she’ll listen. Once involved, people listen. They have a personal stake. It does not need to be the same stake you have, but it can end up being that, or more.


Linus pops up from his chair, and for the remaining three panels, he tells the tale of the Great Pumpkin, who rises out of the pumpkin patch bearing toys for those with the courage—that is to say, the individuality—of personal belief.


Linus’s best known moment is arguably his Biblical speech—sourced from the Gospel of Luke—at the end of 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas. Now, don’t get frightened, non-religious people. The speech, as Linus delivers it, emphasizes perspective, on having balance in one’s life as to what is important and what is not, though there’s lots of play regarding that centrality of focus from person to person. But it is in this very secular pumpkin patch that we see Linus’s true deity: personal wonder. It’s a good god to have—a godless god of the human breast.


I was into Halloween, but this was all new to me. Halloween was a holiday where you indulged a love for the macabre—if you had one—and dressed up and talked about what you were going to wear with your friends, but Linus became one of the two figures who shifted the locus of Halloween for me from “boogity boogity,” to “passion and individuality foster art, if you allow them to take flight.”


The Great Pumpkin rises. Linus uses the word again and again. He uses it in the strips and in the 1966 TV special, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. The Great Pumpkin is personal identity. And I think that’s why I loved the idea so much as a kid who was trying awfully hard to write stories, when that’s not what most other kids were particularly interested in.


Spend some time on a dating app and you will encounter thousands of profiles comprised of the same words. There is no variance in the bromides. On these profiles, people will cite their interests in shows, movies. It will always be the same two or three. There is a world of options out there, but we seem intent on all but cloning ourselves to the point that we have no personal predilections.


It is identity that helps us develop relationships, love fully, know and love ourselves. How many people do you know with an interest that no one else has, or few people have? How many people do you know are, say, a Civil War buff? A ravening devourer of Golden Age detective fiction? An amateur herpetologist?


Or do they just say they like The Office and Netflix? Or they care so much about various social justice causes when they had zero interest in those causes, which always existed, several years ago despite hardly anyone speaking of these things?


So why do we park our car in that one spot and never move it from that crowded lot again, until everyone use up and drives to a different lot?


We are talking of Halloween, so it’s appropriate that part of the answer is fear. We quake so much over the idea that someone will term us different, not a full-fledged member of an enormous pack that is all seething mass and no delineated definition, that we will pare away—we will forgo—our birthright, our great human gift, of being one’s own person.