Yesterday I was sitting at Starbucks when Emma arrived after school. She had on pink and black eyeliner and I told her she had a Ziggy Stardust vibe going on and she said that was what she was going for. She sat down and informed me that she had been reading a story of mine in class and she started crying really hard and the teacher had to ask if she was okay. I guess she finished her writing assignment before the other kids--it's Emma, which of course makes sense--and she had the story in her bag. I asked her which it was, expecting, I suppose, she'd say one of the two I composed last week, which I have not mentioned on here, really. One was titled "The Sawhorse," which is indeed about one, sort of, and also pertains to a Billie Holiday song. I am very confident in it. Then at the end of last week I wrote a story called "Unity," that word being synonymous with the number one. Each sentence in the story is exactly one word long. There is nothing like it. It's as strong as I can write. Powerful, innovative, unique. The most rhythmically-charged work of prose. Musically it is Mozartian. I do not mean that it is like him. But that is the level of music in the piece, but I would say more so because the music comes from a less likely, on the face of it, source. You could straight up call it music, though. A writer alone could not write it.
I did it that way because that was the form that best told this particular story. I would never write a story a certain ostensibly more novel way for the sake of doing so. The story will dictate what the form will be, the story will tell me its form, just like the characters tell me the story. And whatever the story tells me, no matter what that challenge might be for someone else, I can do it, I can do it right away, all is within my ability to do what the story tells me is best, and to realize the story the characters have told me. Everything is told to me. Then I do the realizing. And I can realize absolutely anything with words. But she was not talking about these works. She was talking about one from the week before called "(field watcher)". I get so few words back from anyone on anything I write--including from friends and family--that I have become conditioned to something not good at all, this feeling of surprise when there is anything positive.
A friend was remarking to me last night that each and every story here is the best story yet written, all tied with each other, that none is better than any other I do, that you cannot even compare because each is unique, each is the ne plus ultra of quality, each drops the jaw, staggers the reader, staggers them as work and that this has been done, and is done again, and again, and again, with no form of limits. This friend also says that even with the people in my life, they don't know what the hell to say, they overwhelmed, they feel that they could not do it justice, it's just so powerful, so unlike anything they have experienced. This individual maintains that I will see evidence, expressed passionately and regularly, of this reaction in people, millions of people, at a future point. "I can think of ten things right now, off the top of my head, that would each make you millions of dollars. You would not even be talking about getting your house back to live in, you'd be talking about getting it back to be an office." There will be no consensus on one work being esteemed or celebrated as worthier, more lasting as art, than the others, everything will be fair game and will be cited by enough people as the best there is. We go 'round and 'round, my friend and myself. I push back hard on all of this, while also understanding--I think I do--that living like this, I maybe cannot even allow that a pinprick of light could ever penetrate this blackness. I do live in a black hole on earth. I try to have him be my eyes when possible, but the hopelessness I feel does not, I still believe, stem from emotions, but rather pure, crackless cognition.
I'd like to see that, though, this future, and I know,too, that it must come soon, I cannot hold out indefinitely, and if I am not in the eleventh hour, I am in the tenth, so to speak. I personally get excited about some works like Meatheads (both a perfect work of art and a perfect work of entertainment, that funniest book ever written, but it is not like anything else, and that, more than anything, in terms of qualities a work might possess, is the ultimate death note in publishing right now; they have no clue what to do, it takes them galaxies beyond their comfort zone, with originality; they simply opt out without starting), "Fitty," "Unity," "Pillow Drift," "Post-Fletcher," "Cheer Pack," but I also worry and fear, frankly, and expressed this to my friend, that this is too much, there can be too much genius and too much art and too much entertainment, and what people want, what the model is set up for, even if I get past this industry, is to have a writer produce one middling work every three or four or five years, you buy that work (provided that mediocre writer has been shilled for by the system and the system wants them to succeed, such as this is succeeding), you get your fill, you move on, another five, six, seven years pass (with much industry bollocks in the meanwhile like, "She takes the time to get it right, look how long she labors over her creation, that's how amazing it is," when it's all a giant cover-up that no one here has a speck of actual talent; the book finally comes out, or a short story in The New Yorker after the person has been gone for years, and it is automatic that every single place oohs and ahhhs and it is like the reviews and comments were just waiting to go, inevitable, so fake, a fait accompli of how it works for people in this system whom the system endorses; every review will be unilaterally positive, because it's all fluffing and fulfilling its part in this system, none of it is real; so when they see me create as much as I do, it's easier for them to write that off by saying it must be careless and sloppy, they need to say that, that's a comfort for them, an attempted comfort, because no one could write that much that well, though every great artist in history has created a lot, quickly; it's a way for them to manage their egos, their frail self-esteem; but this is what they do, they invert everything, they make bad things good, unfunny is touted as funny, inaccessible is touted as smart/artful, production is labeled as being manic, having no ability and producing some dreck every half dozen years is "getting it right"), they have another, you get it and read it on your vacation, if you are one of the few readers left in the world because why would you read when this is all that is offered in exchange for your time and energy?
Tea Obrecht. That model. Look her up. It's all system. System sanctioned, parade of awards, no talent, hardly any production, the right timeline. That's the only time and energy you devote. Given the state of what is published and celebrated, the people who devote that time and energy are cutting back on it, because they are getting less and less of a return, and there is so much out there, and it's easier to turn to that, to something else. We're already at a point where I don't think anyone could devote enough time and energy to partake of a quarter of my works if my work was the biggest interest in their life, what the Beatles were once to me. I have no doubt that my work is better than the Beatles' work, nor do I doubt that it could mean more to the world in all of the forms that my work takes. I have always seen them as the competition, what I wanted to be "bigger" than and believed, based upon my ability and what I offer, in many forms and mediums, I could be. Then, of course, there were things to deal with; being the single most hated person in your industry, being suppressed, while not being able to turn to the general population for a bailout, as such, because the world, now far more than ever, with a trillion things launched at it, and humans being lazier than at any previous time, only goes towards things that are hyped, that win the awards, get the publicity, and how do I generate any of that when an entire industry has me on lockdown and insists more than anything that I must not succeed?
My friend said that won't matter so far as people and their time and energy go, people will be able to partake deeply and often, and others will go to spots they like and mostly stay there--the humor fan will go there, the memoir fan will go there, the short fiction fan there, the YA fan there, the radio fan there, the novel fan there, the movie fan there, the current events op-ed person there, the Beatles fan there, the sports fan there, etc.--that there is something for everyone and that thing, each and every last one of those things, is the absolute best of its kind. Then we talked about how I am sitting here with twenty-nine short stories composed since last June (the smallest component of my output in that time), which no one in this industry will allow to come out, not a single one of those stories. Do you think I got worse at writing after publishing fiction in Harper's? Of course not. I get so much better all of the time. What did happen, though, is when the industry learned about that upcoming publication, it entirely shut me down, the few parts of it that had not already. That was too much for them. They were not going to let me progress further. They hated to see that I was doing that. "No more, not on my watch" went the refrain. Let me tell you something else. I am sitting here on Tuesday morning, and an op-ed on the myth of mansplaining is about to come out in The Wall Street Journal--and who else would have the courage to write that?--which is what, the highest or second highest circulation newspaper in the United States?; plus a piece on Booth Tarkington in the TLS (I signed off on the galley yesterday morning), this venerated literary institution that has been around for over a century, a long essay on Melville's short fiction in The American Interest that ties said fiction into today, and into my ideas, so that you don't even need to care about Melville; a personal essay on how the computer game King's Quest helped turn me into a writer in The Smart Set, a short story in London Magazine, which published the likes of John Keats. And all of that may come out by this week or next. JazzTimes has like nine feature articles piled up from me. I don't know if they are going to come out at all.
That's not normal. That's not a normal thing for anyone to be able to do in seventy years, let alone a few days. I do it endlessly, and that's just a fraction of what I do, even while totally suppressed, a small pocket of time. Shouldn't somebody be launching this person out there into the stratosphere for the public to see? But the agent wants some fifty-eight-year-old, random Vermont professor who writes coded postmodernist fiction that no one on earth can understand, which is sold to his thirteen friends who also write that way whom he sees at conferences. Why? What is the point? Shouldn't there be someone here with enough vision to do the launching, or drop a dime and say, "hey, I follow you, man, I think we could do something, how do you feel about agents, because I'm a go-getter," or commission, or hire, or extend the staff post to, or make this dude the jazz critic, or the weekly op-ed writer, or the sports columnist, or equip with a radio program, or bring the book contract to, or grab the attention of the world and lawmakers by printing "Fitty"? How far does the discrimination, fear, and incompetence really need to go?
(Speaking of fear: The other day, I was updating the radio tab on this website. I get down, obviously, I don't want to see the things I've done, I don't want to think about how I've killed it on the radio and how brilliant and funny and smart those segments are, how unlike anything else in radio. But eventually I do the updates. Not all. The tabs you do see for everything represent about ten percent of my published output. Which is disturbing, isn't it, given how many links there are in each category? And, too, the blackballing. What would it all look like if there was none of that? Hard to even begin to imagine. So, I went to the Downtown page to grab a link, and there was this really nice note written by someone trying to reach me. They had heard me on the radio, and they had read a feature I wrote on Billie Holiday for JazzTimes, which will be in my book of jazz writings, Say It Dangerous. They wanted to share a story with me about when they first came to Boston to study music and getting into Billie Holiday. And they said they were scared to talk to me. They had trepidation. There is a lot of this. My mind frightens people. I think that's a big part of the reason why people say nothing to me, even people who theoretically like me. I think it's pretty obvious I'm a nice and good person. People hear me on the radio. People read these pages. I sound nice, no? And not in some fake "I'm virtue signaling for social media likes" way. People do read about me hanging out with a fifteen-year-old girl whom I obviously think the world of and love so much, and this child with anxiety is not scared of me. I don't know. It gets me down. People in my life don't stop to think about what that must feel like, that the people who hate you say nothing to you, and so too do the people who in theory like you.)
This is a totally irrelevant sector of society so far as the general population is concerned--publishing has made itself totally irrelevant and within a few years it is quite conceivable that there will be no printed reading material--so there is free reign for any and all forms of discrimination, because who cares? Who would know? No one is watching. Nothing is policed. And who would it really affect? It's not affecting thousands of talented writers. There are not thousands of them. It gives things to people who are happy to have things given to them, people who have no talent who could never compete in a meritocracy, and no one else has a chance.
They decide that you can be in the club. They pick you. You have to be like them, come from money, go to the right school, sound like them, not threaten them by being smarter, more productive, confident, achieving much on your own; they feel bad about themselves so easily, and if you add to that, by dint of what you are, they will want you dead; If they don't pick you, and you're someone just out there, of comparable talent to them, or even some talent--I'm not talking talent for all-time--what are you going to do? Mount some one-person fight on behalf of your work? You're not going to do that. You're going to quit. And you will quit quickly. Or you might lie to yourself that you've not quit, and go to AWP every year, this being your "big push" forward--it's a non-push, a nothing, a non-starter--but that's the same. Strong people, for the most part, are not writers right now. The best one of these people might hope for is to join some even smaller portion of this already small community, trade a favor, have a book come out with a tiny press, which means you get a box of twenty books, that's the end of everything. I said to my friend that whether it was the Beatles or Jesus or whomever, they were not alone. They might have been the best at what they did, they might have been the leader, but they had other people ready to roll with them, to storm the beach, and I am a one-man army, there is no one else primed to rise up with me. I am the last of the dinosaurs, or the first of something else. (Or maybe I am both the first and the last of something else.) But my friend said that this is all different, and that the stage is set. I don't know.
Anyway. Emma said that the end of "(field watcher)" absolutely wrecked her. The story is two weeks old, almost, I think, so it feels like ancient history to me. As I said, I wrote "Unity" and "The Sawhorse" since then, plus two essays, one at 4500 words, the other 7000. I said that yesterday I was going to sit at Starbucks all day, but I was agitated, I needed some feeling of control, I needed to create, so I returned home for a time and composed the first section of a new story called "Bellows," which is one of five I have going now simultaneously. I am going to work on two nonfiction pieces when I am done with this journal entry to hopefully get some money coming in. One is on a film, the other is on a writer named Seabury Quinn and an excellent book he wrote called Roads which I reread the other day while listening to Dexter Gordon records. But this is towards the close of "(field watcher)", which I revisited after Emma's remarks. There is a lot of talk of owls in the story, which sets up this. I read it all myself this morning, as an independent party, and it absolutely wrecked me. I know this work, by which I mean, these works, from this creator, would change the world if it could get out there, get seen by enough people. I don't believe the people who know me who read it would be at all surprised by that, I think some of them--I don't know the number--expect that. But when? Eventually, the future, that "some day," has to become now. It can't always be out in front, it has to arrive, or you do.
_ _ _
In beds cold feet become warm on calves but I don’t think that calves give off any special degree of heat, I think that’s just how people work. A calf does not have special heat-granting utility. I guess you could say that when you don’t know someone anymore whom you wish to, whom you always wanted to—by which I mean, you wanted to know them until you didn’t know anyone anymore—that that is some kind of negative space. But you occupy it. See what I mean? There is always something in negative space, the white part of the page between the two lines, the strip of field between the two rows of forests. Owls get cold easily. Presumably they are not always cold when it is cold out. Something accounts for a difference.
On the day I last saw my wife, I felt like an owl but only because of our physical positioning in one moment. Courthouses have big fields in the middle of them, you might say. Open space. An atrium is like a field. That’s how courthouses are designed. So it’s like the field also goes up. It’s a climbing field. A field stacked on top of itself. Some people probably gloat when they take everything from someone they were trying to take it all from, but I don’t think she was waiting at the bottom of the stairs like that for us. That was me and my sister. I didn’t feel great about having to hold her hand in a courtroom. She was my younger sister. Supposed to be the other way around. Not that you want it to be the other way around. Or that you want it to be either way. You want it to be neither. You want it to be negative space, but with nothing in it, because that never happened to you, and that never happened to her.
This would have been like me being an owl coming out of my tree, the creature I wanted waiting right there for me on lower ground. Easy, clear approach. I was very dry. I was dehydrated. I wonder if owls fly quieter when they are dehydrated which might actually happen a lot if they are smart enough to avoid troughs on farms.
“Say something if you want to say something” my sister said. She said it really low. Not quite a whisper. But sometimes a voice is like the hardest of bones and the bone can talk, and other times a voice is like the bottom half of a rabbit’s leg with the fur still on it and my sister’s voice was like that.
But I didn’t say anything. I don’t say anything each time I think about that day. I said one thing to my sister, like I was the other leg of the rabbit, and I said “time and place,” but I knew there would not be another one for either. Her head was bent down as she stood there at the bottom of the stairs, at the start of the field, what would have been the first buckle of the field if it was the field inside of the woods I went to and it had been snowing and the buckling had begun that came with that particular form of blanketing that brought out the owl or at least made it visible to me. Her hair was hanging forward and I couldn’t see her face.