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The view from the gaol

Thursday 9/12/19

Stuff is not coming out and I don't know why it's not coming out and that is not good. What little I have right now cannot dry up on me. JazzTimes has nine things of mine. I have no idea what is going to happen to any of those things, but the amount of work it was, for what will be a very low amount of dollars even if they all run, is staggering. It's a good chunk of a book's worth. It's like 25,000 words. I cannot be writing 25,000 words to kick away for free. I don't know why the other stuff elsewhere isn't running. I have to go back into the email after avoiding it forever and just deal with it. And fight. I read a perfectly fine--it was sort of top grade mediocrity--essay today on the last twenty years of television history. It was middlebrow. There were no great ideas, no memorable lines, but it was written by someone competent with language, who did a lot of research--you can tell from the quotes--and who probably wrote it over a long period of time--six months or so, I would wager. It's a kind of writing that's like using building blocks. It's workmanlike, for upper middle class people. And grad students. But competent as what it was. It was in Harper's. Nothing that would impact your life at all, which to me, with what I do, I always think, "Then what is the point?" I need something beyond the topical subject matter, beyond a lesson or a prospectus, or I am not interested. Anything I write is going to be to reach you and impact your life in real ways, intimate ways. I think that is the point of meaningful writing, to transcend being the lesson or the prospectus, the account. This essay was the result of a workmanlike process in a workmanlike writing and reading life--that is, if you come from money, go to the right schools, hang out in the right crowds, read the right books, you're going to sound like this. You'll know some phrases that the Everyman on the street wouldn't use. But they're still the stock phrases of this crowd, or the people in it who master a kind of voice from having lived as they do. They are products of an environment, not possessors and purveyors of talent.

But he did say something correct, which is a something of great concern to me. He wrote that humor has never fared well in terms of approbation as great art. Across all mediums. Buster Keaton was a great artist. He was a genius. A film like The General is as good as any film this country has produced. But it also happens to be funny. Very funny. People enjoy humor. They love it. How many people say, "I love to laugh"? If you've been on a dating site, I can understand if you think 98.7% of the world says that. But when Hollywood gives out fancy awards, it does not give them to comedies. What this guy goes on to write is that the word "satire" is one of the dirtiest words in publishing. Humor is not welcome there. Of course, I have never written anything better than Meatheads Say the Realest Things, which is also--I am confident in this--the funniest book ever written. I am very confident in that. I have no doubts about that, actually.

But what am I to do with this book, that I know would make millions of people laugh out loud? Laugh harder than they thought they could from a book, laugh harder than they do with anything? It's also a clear-eyed work of art, invaluable for an age in which we spend so much time assigning labels and creating distance, disconnection; and here is a work that, as it goes along, becomes warming when you never excepted it to--you thought it was just going to be a giant laugh fest--and shows that all of our factions are really a lot of nonsense of our own making, that the person we perceive as antithetical to us, who we perceive is entirely about different things, ultimately comes home to the same emotional concerns, fears, insecurities, and wants what we most want. I use the meathead--that person from a roundly derided subset of society in 2019, in our age, who certainly deserves to be chided, who we think of as more out-of-step with the times than ever--as my central character in this giggle-riot that is also a work to make you think, feel, cry. It might be the work, when you start out, that you least expect to deeply touch you, but it's going to touch you, and it's going to make you think, and whether you are a feminist who wants to lampoon men and men like this, or you are a student of literature who delights in the discovery of a form of fiction that is new, or you are a wiseass hipster who loves quoting memorable witty lines, or even if you are a jock who never reads, it's the book for you. It's for all demographics in a way that each would think it was written expressly for its needs and concerns.

The Harper's guy says that what publishing wants are works that are earnestly serious. What this means is that kind of fake, serious, simulacrum of life. So that people feel like they are having a "deep" experience--they pat themselves on the back as a result--but are in fact having a very mannered, topical one, a going through the motions one, a Writing Fiction 101 one. It's formulaic. It's faux. There will be no humor. There should be humor in just about every work of art, because there is humor, somewhere, in just about everything in life. But publishing wants something to be all of one thing. The people in publishing, with rare exception, are also humorless. Then there is the expectation of readers. They come to books not for humor. As the Harper's guy says, they go to TV for that. I don't think much TV is funny at all. I think people are settling on things and shows are cited as being funny by default--because something has to be considered funny, something has to bear the title of "funniest"--not because of their actual humor quotient. So what has to happen for me to have success with this book, logistically?

Someone has to say, "You know what, I have this press, we have all of this money we want to invest in pushing this book, even though there are no humor books, there's nothing like this, people don't come to books looking to find humor, and so there is not a preexisting market." Then people have to discover the book, be made to know about it, buy it, laugh their asses off, have the paradigm shift of their sense of what a book can do, in their view, tell their friends, until more people are talking and buying and the wildfire is on its way.

I despair over how much that is to overcome. (That's before we get into all of the other things I have to overcome right now. Like the fact that I could achieve anything here, the next massive thing, and no matter what it is, these people in this industry are going to hate me more as a result.) But to examine it a little further...It is convenient to say that "satire" is the dirtiest word in publishing, and that people don't read books for humor. If you look at that, though, there is the reality that writers are the least funny people out there. There are no funny books. These people pretend Lydia Davis is funny. No one has ever been less funny. They pretend that something is funny in the "O, yes, how intertexually droll" way; they don't actually laugh, their lips remain frozen in place. I don't think anyone can write a book right now that will make you actually laugh. I don't think anyone even tries. (Do you ever look at what publishing calls funny? God damn. Painful to try and get through.) I never even encounter a mildly amusing line in the bilge I glance at. I judged that fiction contest last year, I read a lot of stories. They were not awful by the standards of the day. But there was not one single vaguely funny line in all of those stories. It's hard to make people laugh, dude. Hard to make them laugh when you're standing in front of them, laughing at your own jokes so that they know you were trying to be funny, so they might join you, and it's far harder to make people laugh from something you wrote on the page. Not for me, of course. I can make someone laugh whenever I wish, aloud, or with writing. Again, with publishing, it's just that fake-life simulacrum of depth, sans idea, sans a life quotient. It's the fiction version of "this is so deep" by someone who has not lived life at all, has no life experiences, exists in a bubble, playing for the lowest stakes possible and trying to make it sound important to other people who are the editors and publishers who put it out, who are the exact same way, and the readers who are writers--because publishing has mostly killed off that group of readers who were just readers, as it now sells almost exclusively to the members of its own dying system--like they are who are the exact same way as well.

A problem for me is that I am a one-person army fighting every battle. I can't turn to my fellow writers who also can make you howl with laughter from the pages of a book and say, "Join me, it's revolution time." I am the revolution and have to be the one-person revolution. So what I have is a book that I know would be beloved and bring so much joy and fun and entertainment, which is also a technically perfect work of art, written with the full range of my talent, control, and command, and I don't know how to put it in a position for it to do that. A friend of mine would say that I will come up with something, or it will take care of itself--that is, something else will create fame, leverage, money, power, and then this book gets to have its day as a further point in a chain of events. I did change the subtitle, because I wanted it to be less dry, convey more of the feel of the book, its identity, too. So we are now talking Meatheads Say the Realest Things: Being a Novel in Laughter for the Mending of Men at the Goal Line of the Apocalypse and a Cap. The idea of a "novel in laughter" is nice, because this is a novel novel, some might not think it's a novel (because of its construction, or it's length of 20,000 words, but that is the right length for this novel in laughter), some might think it's a new kind of novel, and a novel in laughter is different than straight up novel. That is a useful term. A laugh-novel. As for the cap--meatheads love caps. I have already started planning a sequel, A Tale of the Chad. By then people would be into it, you can go from there. A Tale of the Chad: Further Adventures of a Meathead Squire in the Click-Click Forest of News. You can have the Chad character infiltrate current events. Put him square in the center of the world's largest issues. Recent stories like "Fitty," "Patriarchy," "Staycation," "Best Life," "Take a Leg" are at the inner core of the issues of the day. I can do that here easily, while making people fall over with laughter. What you can do with the conceit, too, what I have been planning, is a version for many different groups. SJWs Say the Wokest Things. Feminists Say the Most Equitable Things. For instance. I can inhabit any character, any age, any background, and I can bring people closer together with everything I write, despite the differences and distances it might look like we are starting with. There is so much money to be made from this. But I'm locked in this gaol, for dozens of reasons, some of which I just described. And I don't know how to get the work out, or get myself out. Meatheads could also be a series of some kind, live action or animated.

I got off my ass for the first time since Sunday--well, save for walking three miles on Monday--and walked three miles and climbed the Monument five times. I have something happening in my chest but no matter, I was fine, did the climbs fast. I have worked on four different pieces today. What's that like? It's horrible. It is utterly grueling. You can't conceive of how hard it is. Well, I don't mean to slight you. It's not for me to say what you can't know. But it is very grueling. I had to rework the end part of last week's 7000 word essay--the cold fuzzies, warm pricklies one--and that involved a lot of attentive care, jettisoning, writing new chunks. I wrote the first 1300 words of another essay, about the Beatles and Cape Cod. How is that a thing, the Beatles and Cape Cod? Trust me, it's a thing.

I also worked on a new short story, "Honey for Sonny." Sonny is Sonny Clark. He was a hard bop jazz pianist who died in 1963 of a heroin overdose. He's not in the story (the man himself, that is), which is about a girl/woman, who falls in love with Sonny Clark's music, and how it counterpoints her life at various stages. Here's the thing. The story is structured like a jazz song. So it's a prose song. What I had done is written what might have ordinarily been a first section. I had that. But I knew I was going to cut it. I mean cut it up. So that first section was like the prevailing riff. And it was a scene. When she first discovers this music. And that involved a neighbor woman, an adult, who has her own stuff going on. So I took the section, the riff, and I cut it, and it's going to thread through the story. The beginning of the section is now the intro, like you have an intro in a jazz song. Then there will be an A section. Bridge, solo, so forth. What I've done is broken apart the riff, and when I broke apart the riff, and created the parts for the other sections of the song, I broke apart time as a progression, and that's what a jazz song does, too; it's not like something passes and is never heard from again, it's heard from again differently. You recognize it from a prior time, which can be a previous verse, a lick, a quotation. I knew when I cut the riff, because of what the riff was--my words are the riff--that in segments the riff is still going to work, and ultimately it will still be this linear musical progression, though I have completely reordered time within the order of the story, though in terms of the narrative, we still see and hear the linear progression. For a comparison one might look at the way the riff of "In a Silent Way" is edited.

No one has ever done anything like this, I don't think anyone could. I have the close of the story, which is the coda/outro. It's constant innovation now. And I'm just writing these masterpieces for what? I'm unknown. Obviously being hated by an entire industry is a problem, but it's only part of the problem. I have no eyes on me. I'm doing this in a black hole. I need eyes. Eyes are my only shot. With eyes, I could conceivably do this. With eyes I could dominate globally. But I don't have eyes, I have a vacuum, and no one is going to help me to get eyes. I'm not the kind of person anyone helps, let alone thousands of people. People help people like them, they're not going to help a genius white male, they help people who are safe as milk, who they don't find threatening and I'm not saying I'm threatening because I'm mean and nasty because obviously I'm not--I mean people find my mind and ability threatening. I'll give you an example. Saw this on Facebook. Someone writes this fawning nonsense: "Always something, isn’t it? To let our creation fly on its own velvet wings finding its own wind and landing on open hearts. We don’t know each other yet. New FB friends. I have yet to befriend your books. But truly happy for this success. Peace and blessings."

Now that person there? That's typical of someone who shills. You need those people. (By the way, Lara Prescott, the person whose book is referenced in the above, signed me up--and a couple thousand other people--without my consent as a fan of her Facebook author page. How does that happen? You bypass the system by hacking into something? Disgusting. The unbridled arrogance.) That person, they would never, ever, in five trillion years, make that remark to me, because if you read a paragraph of my work, you know that I'm not some fake ass talentless Rainbow Brite bullshitter, and you'd be too self-conscious to say that pathetic puffery to me. They can only say that shit to someone like them. If you say that to me, I'm not going to bite your head off. I'm not going to do anything to you. I just want people to see the work, I just want the work to get to them, I want them to get to me. What I am saying is that someone wouldn't think they could say that to me and not feel embarrassed or not worry that it was corny because I'm on a different level and they know that. Whereas this other person? On their level.

I will get weird notes from girlfriends of twenty years ago where they say, "I think you would be proud of me." What? People I don't know anymore, haven't known since college. This desire for my approval, this feeling that it is so hard to come by because of what I am. That's a problem, too. That is part of the pie, the problem pie. That keeps people away. My friend John says I should not look at things like this, and he's obviously correct, and that my result is going to be far bigger, ultimately, and I'll have plenty of crazy people like this coming around, more than I would know what to do with. This guy is so confident in global domination that he's either going to be largely responsible for how I kept going, or he's going to bury me in the earth. (Or I should say, pick up my ashes from the funeral home.) If anyone does anything on the eye-front, it's going to be top try to keep eyes away. I know that sounds bleak. But it's how I feel. It's how I think. I don't know that my feelings are mucking up my thoughts. I don't think so. I hope so, though. But motherfuck am I writing some art for the ages. Every damn day. I then put aside the short story for now. I mean, I have it. It's in there.

Then I began work on another essay for Christmas, another piece I need to sell, and what an awful way this is to do things, to write it and shop it. But I don't quit. I try everything, I roll up my sleeves and I try harder, take on more. It's about seasonal honesty, and not always having to do what we do now and pretend our lives are super duper awesome. A lot of people have it hard, man. Most people. But we pretend our assess off that all is great. Why? It's not real, it doesn't ferment connection. Doesn't help you, doesn't help you help anyone. So there's a Christmas film I really like that works well for this idea. It's called Holiday Affair. It's from 1949 and has Robert Mitchum and Janet Leigh in it. So I'm doing an essay that is part personal essay, part about that film. This is what I wrote after working on the three other pieces and running on empty. Do you know how hard it is to write like this when you are just running on nothing and have no hope? Pretty fucking hard, man.

_ _ _

I will begin with what is tantamount to a Christmas confession, so we might get to know each other better in a piece that is, in part, about leveling with people, something we do less and less of with each passing year as we become more guarded, fearful, quick to exchange a life lived for a pose maintained.

I love Christmas very much. As I kid that love hit hard, fast, and it hit repeatedly, clanging chords in me that reverberated truer than the mere desire for presents—though that was cool, too—would have alone enabled them. I practically inhaled old, seasonal ghost stories, scouring anthologies for a story or two that might have Christmastime overtones or a December setting. The holiday’s red and green color scheme suggested to me a Baltic forest having a party, which aligned well with the mystery of the season, the expectancy, the days bidding the sun farewell ever earlier, the reading that you would do in warm nooks with a cup of hot cocoa. I was married around Christmas because of this fervency, but each year I would have a kind of dread, too, as the final days of the year advanced, that soon Christmas would be a long way away again.

This will be the eighth consecutive Christmas I have spent alone, in which I will talk to nobody. That’s my confession. I cannot handle talking to anybody on Christmas anymore, though I hope—with a fervor at the level of my ardency for the holiday itself—that life at a future date finds me in a better way, in a place I seek to be at, and I’ll have my reprise of earlier Yuletide joys, but with the wiser, savored perspective of an adult who has come through much and can still dispense a well-timed “ho ho” or hum a few bars of “Good King Wenceslas” on his walk to the Starbucks.

The marriage that began at Christmas ended with a ghost, though unlike in Dickens’s Carol, I was ghosted, rather than visited upon by spirits. One night, someone who represented a large chunk of my life, was simply gone. A mystery had arrived, one of those locked room mysteries—but out in the open air, as if the world is the room, and its entirety becomes your prison subsequently—that doesn’t seem to have a solution, which nonetheless is stumbled upon years after the fact, a bedraggled traveler, and you have your answer, but by then, it scarcely matters what the reason was. Whether it was someone else or two someone else’s. It’s all academic, ipso facto, ghastly and grimly so.

What I’ve tried to do during this period, one which keeps stretching, is retain my love for the holiday, which can feel a bit like doing Christmas calisthenics. I go to a lot—Christmas-related films (It’s a Wonderful Life, Gremlins, Christmas in Connecticut, Lethal Weapon), The Nutcracker, Messiah, programs of Bach, concerts of fifteenth century French carols—but I go alone. At the symphony, I tend to find myself positioned, in the second balcony, next to some comely woman in her early thirties, with a meathead of a boyfriend, stuffed into a sweater one senses he does not wish to be in, at a place he’d rather be anywhere else but, if his preoccupation with checking the score of the Patriots game on his phone is any indication.

To this woman—who naturally takes a cache of selfies of herself and her boyfriend, his wracked grin suggestive of a dentist having just pulled a tooth—I want to say, “dispense with this load, be with me, we’ll have fun and I actually wish to be here!” I envision a post-concert conversation at a nearby café in which we have spirited debate about the soloists, or the first chair violinist, but I know that would never happen, and this is likely as foreign to her as it is to the meathead. A lot of the appeal for people in these situations—people of a certain age, let’s say twenties, thirties, and forties—is they get to pat the themselves on the back for taking their medicine and doing something cultured, and the photos play well on Facebook. I sigh the sigh of Rudolph, before everything started working out for him, and I will further confess that there has been a time or two when I have indulged one of these meatheads in a high five upon the Patriots achieving another victory, because he had no one else with whom to complete the gesture. A meathead left hanging is a person most forlorn. And after all, it’s Christmas.

_ _ _

I will take my leave for now with this. Today Emma showed me twenty drawings--"observations"--she had to do for her art class. Just a few days into the school year they have gone to a museum, had a model pose for them, done various neat drawing exercises like having to execute a self-portrait without taking the pencil off of the paper. Emma is already improving. Her captions were also very witty. She drew a CD, a caster, the third edition--she was quite precise--of the Alcoholics Anonymous book, her hand, Benny's face. I walked Benny with her and we went to the dog park and then I walked them upstairs to the landing outside of their apartment, and I told Emma I had a riddle for her. She was excited. So I said, "Who do you think I love more than I love you?" She thought this was to be an epic riddle challenge. Scrunches up her face. Deep in thought. Trying to see how I am being clever. She says, eventually, "Love. Is that it?" She was sitting down on the steps, and I said no, told her to stand up, she kept thinking, and finally I said, "The answer is nobody!" and gave her a giant hug, boom, right into the hug! I have noted in these pages how I am anti-hugging, how she gives me a hard time about this, and you should have seen the look on her face. She didn't see that coming! She was so surprised she followed me back down the stairs, mouth agape, dumbstruck. Ha. Say I can't do a hug, will you. I showed her. Take that, BFE!


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