Tag Archives: doubt

Better Than A Haymarket Riot

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haymarket_affair“Another Labor Day post?” you wonder.

“Why’s it so late?” you ask.

Being as I wasn’t working on Monday, you’d think I could’ve gotten it together to write a few hundred words about the work I wasn’t doing, right?

Well, I had better things to do.

That’s not to disparage this blog or your reading of it, by any means, because I like this blog, and I love that people read it. After ten months and a couple dozen posts, to have a bunch of people “following” At The Wellhead and writing back via comments and emails is pretty rad.

But, it’s not my first love. My first love is Erin (awwww, I know, I know, but she really is) and yeah, I spent a lot of Labor Day lounging around with her, which in and of itself is always a treat. It’s extra nice these days because we don’t actually get that much time together. Some of you know how that is – Erin’s a management consultant, so she travels all the time, and when she is home, I’m writing, she’s yogaing, I’m running, she’s taking care of all the bs you can’t take care of from the road, we’re both housekeeping and we’re planning a wedding together. (And messing with the cats, of course.) We’re also fortunate enough to have a ton of really good friends that we love spending weekends with, together and separate, here in the Valley and up in Ventura and down in LA and all over god’s green amuhrica, really, so a ton of our time is taken up doing that.

E.g., I’ll see Erin for a few hours one Sunday evening between now and September 19th. So kickin it when we can is très important.

As most of you know, my second love, and the one I was laboring over on Monday, is writing fiction. As I’ve written about before (and here, too), writing’s a labor of love that’s much heavier on the labor part than the love. Or it’s more like a slow-burn, high-elevation, macro-type love, as opposed to pure-joy-every-minute type love, and it requires a LOT of labor.

MurakamiRunningBook(Though at the same time I don’t mean to overstate how “hard” it is – even ultra-marathon-running Haruki Murakami says that writing is physically challenging, but I’ve never understood that. But I also haven’t written eight hours a day for nine months to start and finish a novel, so what do I really know? If you’re interested in this idea, you should read Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Great book on running and writing – on doing anything that requires discipline and the long view, actually.)

Anyway, as often happens after I spend large chunks of time writing several days in a row, I was wondering while setting my alarm Monday night what the hell I’m doing with my life in this job.

It’s a day job. I like it well enough, I work with good people, it’s relatively interesting, and it affords me plenty of time to write. Well, more time than a lot of the jobs my college friends and ambitious peers have, but it’s not even really enough, let alone “plenty.”

I was wondering at what point what we spend most of our time doing becomes what we’re really doing. I insist that writing isn’t a hobby, but that’s because it sounds and feels reductionist to call it a hobby, like building model airplanes or collecting stamps (though true philatelists would take serious umbrage at that comparison). Luckily, society has deemed writing an art, and elevated it to the status of a higher pursuit that many human civilizations for the past 5,000+ years have considered sacred to varying degrees – a conduit to the divine, even – so I feel relatively comfortable saying it’s more important than my day job.

http://www.allartclassic.com/pictures_zoom.php?p_number=25&p=&number=CAM025

Yep, this is pretty much how seriously I take myself.
Pic: AllArtClassic.com

This even though my job is practical in the extreme – we make sure water comes out of faucets in 10,000 homes and is sprayed on 2,000+ acres of some of the most fertile ag land in California (nbd). And, it’s my only source of income, which is important because we live in a money-based world (to employ a technical term).

Most of the people I work with didn’t go to college. Burdened with neither debt nor this weirdly destabilizing and neuroticizing ambition, they’re pretty content in their jobs and the various hobbies they have outside work – lots of fishermen, lots of hunters, dirt-bikers, RVers, campers, gamblers, barbequers, movie buffs, cigar aficionados, concertgoers, a couple musicians. And they just do what they do because they like doing it and don’t worry too much about the implications of their actions or their “sociopolitical non-action” or whether or not they’re making or leaving their mark.

icebergDon’t get me wrong – they’re not simpletons or noble savages. They have their shit to deal with, and their interests are wide and their understandings of the world deep and some of them are dedicated to a lot of things outside of work, but to a certain degree, they’re parking in the shade. It’s a pretty cush gig – at least, not a whole lotta what you call whip-cracking. Plenty of people would love to have this job, and most everyone here is to proud to, and most of them are grateful for it, “especially in this economy” and all that. So it seems kind of reductionist of me to say, “Meh, it’s just my day job, whatever, it’s not even a big deal.” That’s where my self-confidence and goals (daydreams) and discontent tip into arrogance. And I find myself there quite often.

On the other end of the spectrum, a handful of my friends are self-employed, either they own businesses or they’re freelancers of various sorts. These men and women definitely did not take Labor Day off. One of the (few) blogs I read regularly is Caitlin Kelly’s Broadside. In her Labor Day post, she talks about the various forms of work and how many Americans hate their jobs and what a shame that is and what the costs and benefits (which are often the same thing) are of eschewing that kind of job, job-type job for a career you’re really devoted to. Much of Broadside deals with, as Caitlin put it Monday, “how to make our work-lives both more emotionally satisfying and financially useful to our needs.” I really like that concept of “financially useful” – it sums up nicely the idea that we need to work to live, rather than living to work.

It also reminds me of what a mentor of mine says whenever I carp to him about my day job:

“That’s why they call it work.”

So few people want to do what I do on a day to day basis that they have to pay me money to do it. I have to remember this when I start to bitch and moan how “everyone else’s job is so much more interesting than mine.” A) that’s probably not true, and B) who gives a shit if it is? I’m not getting paid to be interested. I’m getting paid to do excel sheets and edit documents and determine the feasibility of this or that project. And until I’m ready to do the footwork to find myself a job that’s interesting “enough” to really devote myself to (what would that be anyway?), or unless the creative work I’m doing now somehow against all odds “pays off” in one form or another, this is my reality.

And no, my dear and sundry consciences-in-the-flesh that are shaking their collective heads at this and tsking, you’re right – it’s not, by any stretch of the imagination, a bad reality to have.

Pretty much any “job,” is like this to some extent, I imagine. As fascinating as my dad finds the human body, as rewarding as it is to figure out what’s wrong with people and help them get better, he probably wouldn’t be a doctor if they didn’t pay him. And maybe that’s the ultimate difference – a hobby, or a passion, or what you define yourself by is maybe the stuff you do that no one pays you to do. Or, if you’re lucky enough to be paid for that thing, what you would do whether someone paid you or not.

Another of my mentors, this one in the water industry, does all kinds of stuff on the side – he’s as overeducated as I am, he’s a poet, a multi-instrument musician, a super-involved father, an opera-follower, a reader, a philosopher, the list goes on – but he still loves what he does at work. It’s like one big word problem that he’s spent a couple decades figuring out. What we do isn’t that different, except for the scale of things, but if you were to ask the two of us to describe our jobs, you’d think his was about a million.5 times more interesting than mine. And that’s simply a result of a very conscious decision he made a long time ago: to apply himself to the job.

I know that my not having made that full dedication is (in addition to a distaste for word problems) part of my lifelong attitude of transience, this idea that whatever I’m doing isn’t the real thing and that the next thing, or the thing after that, will be. (No, that’s nothing to do with the Buddhist idea of impermanence, if that’s where you thought I was going.) If I move to that country, or get this job, or start doing that, or get this published, or hang out with these kinds of people, or get to that level of understanding, or if this star aligns with that one over there, then I’ll be locked in to where I’m supposed to be and things’ll really start happening and then I can be fully into it. This self-perpetuating discontent seems to be part of my DNA it’s so hard to get rid of.

Well, Chuck, a guy's gotta eat.

Well, Chuck, a guy’s gotta eat.

But I’m trying. In every other aspect of my life I do my best to live in the moment, to make what I’m doing, “what I’m doing.” And I think I’m getting better. It certainly relieves a lot of pressure. But I haven’t applied this to work.

And I’m not sure I want to.

Part of me has this thing against the principle of a 9-5, this Hunter S. Thompson (thanks Jessa!) (btw, N*O is the other blog I read and you should read it, too), Charles Bukowksi antipathy to “the work week” as belonging to squares and robots and peons. But that’s putting the cart before the horse, really. Because we all have to earn our bread, and until we can do it outside the confines of a 9-5, well, why shit so hard on it?

It’s not just outsiders and artists who are down on the work week. Shitting on the 40-hour work-week is about as American as the 40-hour work-week itself. That Four-Minute-Hour-Day-Everything guy, Timothy Ferriss (whose ancestors bought too many vowels at Ellis Island), and his ilk all present the work week and “employment” in general as this limiting factor, as something to break out of, as if your full potential cannot possibly be realized within the confines of someone else’s system.

And I fully buy into that. But is it true? I don’t know. (What’s “true,” anyway, right?)

What I do know is that meaning is a choice. I wonder how many of the 70% of Americans who don’t like their jobs have other interests that give their lives lots of meaning. A lot of you probably saw this “Haters Gonna HateWaPo article last week – it was all over facebook. It basically said that people that hate one thing are super likely to hate basically everything. Following that logic, 70% of Americans are haters. Which seems about right, between facebook and the comments on articles and the items in the news and the things politicians say and the way people respond to them. So, I’m gonna go ahead and guess that most of that 70% of people who hate their jobs aren’t spending exorbitant amounts of time or energy developing meaning in other areas of their lives. (Besides family, of course, which kinda only half-counts because that’s biological n shit.)

SteinbeckSocialismI have to imagine this results in part from a very American sense of entitlement. We’re taught that self-employment is the key to happiness, or at least that it’s the full embodiment of the American ideal, and that it’ll bring us riches and a sense of self-sufficiency unrivaled by the drudgery and servitude of working for someone else. One of the more nefariously defeating Myths of America is that everyone can and should make his own way to greatness in the world, when really that’s just simply not possible, for a panoply of reasons we all know by now (right? Right).

If haters really are gonna hate, and, obversely, lovers are gonna love, and if despite our natural (or nurtured) predisposition to hating or loving we can learn to do the other, then it’d seem to follow that we should go ahead and train ourselves to love – or at least like or appreciate or apply ourselves to – something we spend 25% – 30% of our waking hours doing.

If the conscious application of this reasoning to all other aspects of my life over the last few years is any indication, then all those aspects of my life would probably benefit – too, again, more – from me going ahead and giving 100% to my job. Or at least something more than the 17% – 47% or whatever % it is I’m giving now.

If you can’t be in a job you’d love, honey, love the job you’re in.

That’s CSN, LLC, in case you were wondering.

I’ll leave you with this famous bit from Seamus Heaney‘s long poem, “From Station Island,” in remembrance of his recent passing. You might’ve seen it.*

And suddenly he hit a litter basket

With his stick, saying, ‘Your obligation
is not discharged by any common rite.
What you must do must be done on your own

So get back in harness. The main thing is to write
for the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust
that imagines its haven like your hands at night

dreaming the sun in the sunspot of a breast.
You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous.
Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest,

Let others wear the sackcloth and the ashes.
Let go, let fly, forget.
You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note.’

.

And that, friends, is your (few days after) Labor Day takeaway.

http://thegazette.com/2013/08/30/iowa-city-mourns-acclaimed-poet-seamus-heaney/

Pic: Iowa City Gazette, oddly enough.

*Hat-tip LB

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In Defense of Hallucinating

hallucinate (v.)
c.1600, “deceive,” from Latin alucinatus, later hallucinatus, pp. of alucinari “wander (in the mind), dream; talk unreasonably, ramble in thought,” probably from Greek alyein, Attic halyein “be distraught,” probably related to alaomai “wander about” [Barnhart, Klein]. The Latin ending probably was influenced by vaticinari “to prophecy,” also “to rave.” Sense of “to have illusions” is from 1650s.

So the idea’s been around a while.

In common parlance, we take “hallucinating” to mean seeing/hearing/experiencing things that aren’t really there, usually as a result of ingesting a psychedelic drug. Or, in the parlance of my youth, “tripping balls.”

Well, there’s schizophrenia, too, of course, but I’m not about to tackle that in the same post as peyote…

There are lots of opinions about psychedelic drugs and the taking of them, the two ends of the opinion spectrum probably being those who think that it’s a ridiculous activity to engage in because they’re perfectly happy to have their feet firmly anchored in reality and have no need whatsoever to experience any “illusions,” thank you very much; and those who think it’s the be-all and the end-all and the key to unlock humanity’s mystical cooperative harmonic future.

A) Those of you who haven’t imbibed any psychotropic compounds and think you’re escaped the world of illusion – I mean, honestly? We’re still playing that what-you-see-is-what-you-have game? With all we know about reality and space and science and politics and secrets and cover-ups and religion and recession and rock’n’roll and just EVERYthing? There are SO many more pervasive and sinister hallucinatory palls that have fallen, at various points, over our lives and culture than any fleeting thing a few micrograms of LSD can produce on the smokescreen of your mind.

“Fleeting” leading us to:

B) The actual illusions of psychedelic experience aren’t real illusions, really. They’re metaphors or examples – gateways at best and nightmares at worst. Those feelings of interconnectedness and bliss? They’re just chemical euphoria. I’m with George Harrison, who said that ultimately, it’s a false insight that psychedelic drugs give you, just the tip of the iceberg, and with Alan Watts, who in explaining why he stopped partaking said,

“Once you get the message, you hang up the phone.”

The message, of course, being that the entire world we live in and what we call reality and the metrics by which we deem a life a “success” are by and large delusions.

This idea has been so widely disseminated over the last 60 years since people like Harrison and Watts, etcetera, popularized these old-old ideas that to repeat it is almost passé. As in, I know that the majority of you all are somewhere in between those two extremes and thinking, “Gee, thanks, Prichard, but I saw The Matrix. What are you getting at?”

What I’m getting at is the difference between knowing about something and knowing something from experience. Which, if you’ve read many of the two-dozen or so posts here At The Wellhead, you’ll know is a pretty big deal for me – and a much much much bigger deal than I used to think it was.

One of my favorite Notes On Existence is a well-used bit from Frank Zappa:

Remember, information is not knowledge;

knowledge is not wisdom;

wisdom is not truth;

truth is not beauty;

beauty is not love;

love is not music;

music is the best.

I absolutely used to think gathering information would make me wise, and once wise, I’d manifest beauty and truth and love and music wherever I went. This is a simplification, sure, but not a gross over- one.

Get it? Pic: Exiled Surfer

Ha! Found this at: Exiled Surfer

How I’ve changed from that to whatever I try to be now is a long story of baby steps and nearly imperceptible (or at least forgettable) shifts in perspective. It certainly wasn’t the direct result of psychedelic drug use – or any kind of single, white-light, burning-bush experience. I don’t go in for those, or really trust too much anyone who does.

I go in instead for the long, slow smolder, the repetitive, grinding plod. Which is another of the differences between taking drugs to have (and at the same time break through) illusions – or meditation-retreating or fasting or Primal screaming or TMing or Orthodox-mystic-trancing or Gestalting or whatever the mode of de(con)structing – and living on the other side of them.

Living on the other side is hard. At the very least, it takes effort and determination and perseverance.

Sliding back into illusion is easy. That’s why most everyone stays there.

The actual shattering of preconceptions – whether LSD-induced or otherwise – is simply information. It can feel like a whole lot more than that. It can feel like what you thought was the solid earth is really nothing more than shifting sands in a vacuum. And maybe it is(n’t). But even so, that’s still just information, and there’s a real problem in getting stuck in information and confusing a simple glimpse of a different way of thinking with an alternate but equally permanent reality. We all know people who get stuck in that in-between space – those very nice but vaguely superior and ultimately despondent burnouts who love to tell you what you’re doing wrong and what life should be about and how it should be lived but don’t do much more than swallow another pill to get back there for just a little while. It’s like commuting to Wonderland.

Knowledge, as opposed to information, is answering the attendant “So What?” to an insight, whether you saw it with a head full of acid or gleaned it during meditation or realized it as you turned a corner and saw a peach tree in bloom. What it means for you that the world is all shifting sands in a vacuum can only be answered via a process, by seeing what happens when you apply the implications of that shifting-sands understanding to your daily life and behavior and your interactions with other people.

Wisdom comes from living long stretches of time in that application. Or at least I assume it does, as it’s only been a little while that I’ve been trying to apply principles to my life. Well, ones of any redeeming value, at least.

But at least I’m no longer under the illusion that you can just know about things. That’s the problem with being arrogant and precocious and young, right? You think you know, and if there is anyone around to tell you you’re wrong, you can’t hear them. And if you’re lucky/spoiled rotten by life in general and there are no real consequences to your delusions, there’s really nothing to show you you’re wrong.

The advantage to living in such a house of cards, though, if there is one, is that it’s a massive and very fragile illusion, so when it does finally topple, you have no other option than to seriously readjust. It’s not like, “Huh, roads are really just strips of asphalt stuck onto the surface of the earth. Roads qua roads don’t have any inherent meaning at all! Crazy.”

It’s like every assumption you’ve ever made about who you are and how you function in the world is shown to be a fiction and a fantasy and a lie you’ve been telling yourself since the day you realized you could lie.

I’m not saying this wouldn’t have happened to me if I’d never ingested any psychotropic compounds. I know plenty of people who’ve had their minds blown and universes rearranged without such pharmacological aids. I also know people who’ve eaten enough psychedelics to shuttle a herd of buffalo to Alpha Centauri, yet are still as square and deluded and clueless as Paul Ryan loving Rage Against the Machine.

Besides, that little world of mine was hardly sustainable…

Yet – and here comes, finally, the whole “defense” part we started with – hallucinations are effective metaphors. And to declare, in case you missed the implications earlier: by “hallucinate,” I mean all those illusion-shattering techniques out there.

It’s those very fleeting illusions, paradoxically, that unsettle what we think of as solid ground.

Those glimpses – I don’t want to say of true reality, but maybe beyond what we think reality is or was – make it easier to remember that the structure of our daily lives is just an arbitrary, man-made structure. It makes the scaffolding easier to see. Because if you know, walking around every day, that the reality you’re experiencing is as flimsy as the sights and sounds and sensations brought on by a bite of San Pedro cactus (or a deep meditation or whatever), well, maybe you’re the tiniest bit less likely to get sucked into some nefarious greed-riddled illusory hellhole.

The point of remembering our proximity to illusion – our immersion in it, really – is not, as many people would first assume, a kind of nihilism. In fact, it should engender quite the opposite experience. Once you move beyond the smug teenage-angstyness of “seeing through everybody and everything,” being a child of illusion, as Trungpa would put it, is a way to pare away what doesn’t matter from what really does.

And what really matters?

Well, that’s for you to decide. And question and break through and redecide and requestion and rebreak through and…and…and…and eventually just float on.

I for one have no idea what “the real thing” is, whether there is one or whether it’s just layer after layer, illusion after illusion, turtles all the way down. That doesn’t matter so much. What does matter is the seeking to break through, the not abandoning doubt for the comforts of an easy faith, the continual testing and investigation of the things that aren’t working for you, and the perpetual appreciation for those that are.

This was the strangest of these cliché inspirimages I could find.

This was the strangest of these cliché inspirimages I could find. Pic: 99 Venus

It’s a way to keep your ego in check – because the ego’s all about illusion and delusion and telling you that what feels comfortable is better than what gives you the eerie uncanny existence shivers – and a way to keep that flywheel of gratitude spinning.

I realize this may border on a Keith Richardsian advocation of drug use,* but I don’t imagine too many of you are likely to run out and eat an eighth of mushrooms this afternoon after lunch instead of going back to work.

Though, now that I think about it, some of you maybe should.

You know who you are.

Wait – actually, no, you probably don’t.

Which is probably part of the problem.

Gah.

.

What have been some of your illusions over the years?

How’d you get through them or past them?

IF YOU’VE NEVER EXPERIENCED ANYTHING LIKE THIS AND HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT, SEND ME AN EMAIL.

WE’LL CHAT.

.

* I recently read Keif’s memoir, Life, in which he’s always saying stuff like, “Now kids, don’t try this at home, but heroin, if you use the best stuff, and use it with just the right amount of highest-quality Merck cocaine – that combination allows you to stay awake for about week at a time, which is basically the best thing you can ever do for yourself, creatively speaking.”

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On Creativity

Earlier this week, I was honored to be featured on TreeHouse, An Exhibition of the Arts, a web site put together by my friends Erin Whittinghill and Natasha Ganes.

TreeHouseLogoSquare

Click on the logo or right here to read it on their site, or to just check the site out in general, which you should, because it’s awesome.

Or you can stay here, because I’m I’m also re-posting my TreeHouse guest post here, for my email subscribers and so it can filter down into the aquifer/archive. And cuz I’ve been busy and don’t have a new post. And you know, so you don’t miss it.

~

On Creativity

We’re driving through Hollywood when a friend asks me,

“Where do you get your ideas for stories?”

pic from Goodbye Melbourne, Hello New York

pic from Nat Ma’s rad photo blog, Goodbye Melbourne, Hello New York

His phone rings before I can answer, and while he talks, I look around. We’re headed home from a vintage LA evening: sunset dinner atop a Venice hotel, an improv variety show at the Fringe Festival, a nightcap at a French Quarter-looking joint, a dip in the Roosevelt Hotel pool. It’s past midnight and Hollywood Blvd is packed with cars. The line for the Supper Club stretches halfway down the block and it’s packed, too, with bare-backed broads shivering atop their stilettos and fat men in skinny jeans oohing and ogling. Creeping up La Brea to Franklin, I slalom concertgoers wheeling coolers down the middle of the street as they spill out of the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Bowl, laughin and carryin on. A homeless man argues with the parking attendant in front of the Magic Castle. When we finally get to the 101, three cars are backing up the onramp. A shirtless man is standing on the railing of the Pilgrimage Bridge.

Finally, my friend hangs up. “So, about those story ideas,” he says, and I tell him I had about twenty while he was on the phone.

MrMiyagiThis is hardly unique – even to writers, let alone to just me. I think we all make assumptions all day long about where people come from and how we’d act in situations we come across. An image presents itself, and a backstory unfurls behind it. Most of us just immediately let them go. Most of the time, I do. But every once in a while, I pluck an image-packet out of the ether as it whizzes by, like Mr. Miyagi with his chopsticks, and write it down.

If I let it ferment for a while, the general framework takes care of itself and I can write it all out like I’m transcribing something I know. This part – the setup – is sheer fun. And it gets me writing, which is the only way I know how to come up with the rest of the story. What it’s really about. Because a story’s not really about what happens where. (Except it kind of is.)

In the stories I like to read, and the ones I try to write, there’s some ineffable something else in addition to plot and theme and setting and character – not a moral or a point or any kind of distillate you can separate out from the other elements and say this is what this story’s about, but something that, well, gets at the heart of things.

I rarely know what that ineffable something is before I write it. Or, discover it by writing, I should say. Even if the image I first glimpsed is the resolution, by the time the story’s done, it doesn’t carry the weight or meaning I initially thought it would.

Only once has a story come roaring out fully formed. For several years, I thought it was brilliant, and I tried to duplicate that process of starting with the “conclusion,” of describing the whole jigsaw puzzle just as it first appeared, of manufacturing impact. But I never had that experience again, and what’s more, I can finally see that actually, that story is predictable, pedantic, unimaginative, and cliché.

Technically speaking, all impact is manufactured. But ineffable somethings feel less conscious than that. They feel stumbled upon or written into. Uncovered, if I may.

Crushed-Stella-Artois-can-001By way of example: I heard a story on NPR last fall about a handful of people who were going to jail for a very long time for defrauding the State of California by redeeming recycling deposits on cans and bottles they collected out of state. It was irresistible, but I had to carry it around for eight months before I could figure out how to use it. Because a story about the fraud ring would be journalism, and that’d already been done. (Besides, I couldn’t be bothered with all those…facts.)

One day, I saw this great big woman in a pink sweat suit standing at a crosswalk, lighting a cigarette. On the opposite corner was a skinny priest in short sleeves, an older guy with a pretty hip haircut (this is LA, after all), polishing his Ray Bans. Looking back and forth between them, I knew I had a way in.

But still – the cans, these characters, this one strange moment…it was enough to get going, but it wasn’t anything to hang an ineffable something’s hat on. Things went here, things went there, and before I knew it, I was up to 25,000 words. I thought for a moment I’d turn it into a novella, but the vast majority of it was superfluous to the real turning point of the story – which only emerged around word 23,000, as an insight into one of the first paragraphs I wrote. Now, at 8,000 words, the fraud ring’s incidental to the main action of the story, but it’s also intrinsic to the main thrust. I couldn’t simply swap it out for cocaine runners or hedge fund managers or used car salesmen. That’s the thing with ineffable somethings – they transcend the story, but couldn’t exist without it.

Whatever ineffable somethings are made of, I’d never have any of them if I didn’t go through the process of building a story up and then whittling it down, saying, this tangled mess is where I think the story is, and then paring things away to find the kernel.

SprucesMatsAlmlof

Photo: Mats Almlöf for National Geographic 2010 photo contest

And that paring away is where the creativity required by writing overlaps with the creativity required by life; discovering what makes a story tick is the same process of discovering what makes me tick. They’re both about removing obstacles to get at something I don’t understand but that I know is right. That ineffable something near the center of things, in life as in fiction, is always already there, waiting to be brought out into the open. There’s always a thrill when I discover it, sometimes even surprise, but it’s the shock of recognizing something that was there all along.

Hemingway famously said, “The first draft of anything is shit,” and a lot of the “shit” I have to revise out of drafts isn’t just superfluities of my own devising, but also – and more importantly – attempts to sound like someone else. It’s only when I can manage to get past my ideas of what kind of writer I want to be, when I can stop trying to manufacture impact by imitating Papa or O’Connor or Bukowski or Gogol or Winton or Porter, and just try to write sentences that sound true, that the ineffable somethings happen.

PrichardInfluencesThat Papaism applies to life, too, for – at the risk of sounding trite – life itself is a process of constant revision. I certainly didn’t come out polished and blemish-free, as those who’ve had to put up with me know only too well, and all these conceptions and notions I have about myself constantly prove to be only flimsy veneers over…something else. If I try to manage my personality or “craft my image,” I come across as inauthentic, feel horrible about it, and act accordingly (that is, hostile). And then that interpersonal magic that we live for – that real-life ineffable something – becomes an impossibility.

There’s a music inside each of us that’s often drowned out by the cacophony of bullshit muzak we’re sold as models of what our real lives should be.

For me, that muzak-model is a Jack London Jack Kerouac Johnny Cash Tim Armstrong fuck-you aesthetic, mixed with a David Foster Wallace David Rakoff Christopher Hitchens edgy intellectualism, and topped off with a Tom Robbins Tom McGuane irreverent joviality.

Seriously, that’s who I think I should be.

To combat this self-propelled onslaught of ludicrous and impossibly-attainable images, I rededicate myself every day to trying to lead a life, on and off the page, that’s a process of picking out the strains that ring true and leaving behind the rest. You want a Bukowski story? I can write you a Bukowski story, believe me. Hell, I can write you a Bukowski story by three o’clock this afternoon. But I’m not Bukowski, so it’d be bullshit.

You want a Prichard story, well, that might take a little while. I gotta find it first.

strataSince we’re getting close to the end, let me try to sum up: creativity is about paring away the layers upon layers of superficial nonsense we pile on over the years, discovering what you-and-you-alone harbor in the hidden recesses where your undiluted magic resides, and making do with what is found there.

It’s creative because it’s new, it’s original and unique, and you’re exposing it to these old-old things – language, pictures, drums, design, whatever your thing is – and throwing that mass up against the newness and nowness of culture and society.

It’s scary, because we’re taught to look elsewhere for meaning and value and worth, that what’s inside is bland at best and probably corrosive.

It’ll cost you – a little torture, probably, maybe some vertigo – to go rooting around in your depths.

But I promise you, the trip down is worth the cost.

It’s exactly as rewarding as you can possibly imagine.

~

Where do you get your creativity from?

What things stand in your way?

How do you get over/past/through them?

OasisNatGeo

Photo: Nam In Geun for National Geographic 2010 photo contest

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Danger and Doubt

Does this look like a face that embraces danger to you, or does this look like a face that embraces danger?

MHK

I saw Maxine Hong Kingston read and speak Monday night at the John Fowles Center For Creative Writing at Chapman University. (If you’re in SoCal, check out this spring’s awesome Asian-American lineup, which includes Karen Tei Yamashita.)

Kingston was wonderful, all five-foot-nothing of her peeking out from behind the lectern, reading from The Woman Warrior, The Fifth Book of Peace, and I Love A Broad Margin to My Life.

She talked about love as a vital force, about how we may not be able to prevent a war next week or next month or next year, but if we live our lives in love today, we can “save battlefield lives a century from now.” She recalled Viet Cong and American veterans meeting teary-eyed decades after trying to kill one another, and talked about the comfort of Alice Walker’s hands and hugs during protests. She invoked Hua Mulan and Athena and the heroines of Leo Tolstoy in calling upon the strength of women to save the world from war.

All that was wonderful and inspiring and uplifting and vintage Kingston.

And then she said something surprising. In response to a question about influences on Tripmaster Monkey – His Fake Book, a trippy San Fran tale of a sixth-generation Chinese poet named Whittman Ah Sing (it’s rad, you should read it – find it at an Indie Bookstore near you), she talked about the people she grew up with and the people she went to Cal with and knew in the Bay Area then and after. She talked about how cool the men were then, in the ’50s, ’60s and early ’70s, how the new language that was being created to talk about psychedelic experience and political experience and modern experience in general was being coined and spoken by men – they were enfranchised, they were the powerful ones, they were the leaders, they were the creators and receptacles of cool.

That might sound like the beginning of a “feminist” rant, but it wasn’t. She said that the men of the Beat generation, the men coming out of World War II and going into Korea, the half-generation after that, the boys and men facing the draft for Vietnam – during this time, these men produced more good writing than women, because, Kingston said, “[women] weren’t in danger. And you really need danger to write novels.”

No, for all you whose dander is suddenly up, in fact she did not mention the different kinds of “danger” that women endured throughout not only this epoch but for most of human history, nor did she invoke the struggles various other minority groups faced during this time. It was an impromptu response about her life forty, fifty years ago. Maybe she’s reached an age or a stage in which she’s over it, but she didn’t seem upset by the fact that that was the way things were. And we all know that Kingston’s thoughts have been with and her actions on behalf of those marginalized groups for most of her life and career as an author and public figure, so don’t get your PC panties in a knot over her saying that men wrote better novels for a few years because they were in danger. It’s interesting.

Besides, I’m not nearly as interested in the context of that sentiment as I am in the content.

Do we really need danger to write novels?

To write anything?

To DO anything?

There are those who would answer a resounding “absolutely!” but there are also those who would answer an equally emphatic “absolutely not!” I know examples of both. I took classes from Alicia Kozameh, an Argentinian writer of enormous impact who spent part of her three years’ imprisonment in the infamous El Sótano (“the basement”), who said that her mind was never more free than when she was locked up and under perpetual threat of being desaparecida. (This is not to say, by any means, that she would rather be back there, scribbling on dirty napkins in El Sótano, instead of living in LA and teaching at Chapman. I think she’s plenty fond of being out of jail and away from danger — and she’s no less productive.) And check out this story from the NY Times about Murong Xuecun,  a Chinese novelist who’s heavily censored and risking his life to criticize that censorship in his country – novel writing may never be this risky, this dangerous, or this important in the US.

But then there’s John Cheever, for instance, who was rich and wealthy and white and American and pretty much never faced any danger, besides maybe an excess of single-malt Scotch whisky. And let’s be honest, a lot of people in the US and Canada and the UK and Western Europe write from a position of security, if not downright coddled luxury, and a lot of them produce perfectly brilliant, insightful, incisive commentaries on humanity.

There are of course plenty (the majority?) of people who live somewhere in between these two extremes – minorities, immigrants, the poor, the otherwise-dispossessed – and they of course are in varying kinds of danger –  physical danger, danger of cultural extinction, existential danger, whatever – varying amounts of the time.

books

But what about those of us who aren’t? I’m a middle-class white American with all my fingers and toes. I’ve never felt real discrimination. I’ve never been in danger of being erased or not-considered. I’ve never been overlooked for any other reason than my work or whatever isn’t worth looking at. Aside from a few dicey late-night situations, I’ve never been in any real physical danger, either. I’m registered for the draft, but honestly I probably would’ve found a way to bow outta that in years past if it’d come to it.  (Today would I go willingly? I don’t know.)

So how can I write novels? What danger did Professor Kingston use to write her books?

Her most well-known is Woman Warrior, so maybe you can guess where she picked her battles.

So we can pick our battles, then? Decide on what danger drives us? Well then, what do I got?

I think what it boils down to is that I’m in danger of becoming an automaton. A listless carbon copy. 

automatonWe all are, really, in our own ways. I don’t talk about it too much because it can sound (and get) a little batty, but at core I totally buy into the risks Wallace outlined in Infinite Jest, and those Huxley did in Brave New World, and Burgess in The Wanting Seed, and dozens of others in their own way.

I’m also, at core, a lazy bastard, and would just as soon lie about all day and every evening flicking through the “news” channels, flipping through the paper, watching B movies and reading Tom Clancy books and sci-fi and fantasy series, and, like water moving downhill, find the path of least resistance through life. I know the attraction of group think, of agreeing with my friends and the masses in general, of avoiding confrontation and debate.

But there’s something about that, some twinge at the back of my mind, that bugs me, that voice that says, “meeehhh, I’m not quite sure that’s how things go, how they should be, that that’s all there is.”

And mostly that’s it. That’s the extent of my insight – a twinge of skepticism.  Time was, I’d deal with that little voice in other ways besides writing – float it off down a river of Bushmills, say – but nowadays, I leave that twinge alone and see where it takes me.

I have little if any real conviction. I’m not a Man of Principle. But I am curious, and I do doubt, if either of those count for anything, which I think they do. I doubt a lot of things, most things even. Doubt is the most common feeling/emotion/reaction to life that I have. Sure, it can border on crippling if you constantly doubt and second-guess yourself or your writing or your purpose in life, but most things are crippling if they’re too intensely focused on oneself. For the most part, kept in its proper proportion, that omnipresent doubt is the greatest motivator in my life.

Doubt gets me off my lazy ass and in front of the keyboard. 

Some Buddhists say that doubt is the better part of faith, primarily because it drives investigation – of the world, of society, of culture and ego and the self and our behavior in response to all of these things – and it is only through such inquiry that we can learn and understand and see through the bullshit. Because in a lot of ways, that’s what life’s all about, right? We all know or feel – some of us all the time, others only every now and again – that there’s some serious bullshit going on, that there’s some game being played without our consent and definitely without our knowing all the rules.

I have a friend who’s going through some dating bullshit right now, and she’s been feeling kinda bad about how she’s been acting here and there, fending off but also buying into accusations that she’s “psycho” or “crazy” or whatever. But she told me yesterday that she had an epiphany and feels better because she “realized it’s not the actions themselves that make me feel bad, it’s that I place myself in this category of women who are by today’s standards, crazy.” She was growing tired of those “psycho” accusations, and in growing tired, started to doubt their validity, and that doubt created the space for this realization to squeak through that at least for the time being is making her reevaluate who she is and how she’s acting and who she listens to and how she lets what she does hear affect her – in short, in some little tiny way, it’s changing her life.

And that’s a profound thing, right? To realize that the games that are going on are not even real games but illusory ones, games created by people who don’t know any better, who don’t even know they’re creating or perpetuating these constructs and expectations that they’re foisting on anyone and everyone that comes into contact with them — to realize that, right up until the moment of realization, we were those people who didn’t know any better.

Have a couple of these types of epiphanies – or satori, as the Japanese would call it – and you begin to suspect that there are a LOT more to be had. You begin to doubt everything. If you let it, this can take over your life, and you’ll either go crazy or join a monastery. Or both.

But if you find a way to funnel the energy created by this kind of realization and doubt, then you’re really onto something. Some people go to church, some people volunteer or do some other kind of service work, some people quit their corporate jobs and start a raw-dairy co-op, some people take up painting or guitar or poetry or surfing or chess. Some people simply absorb it, knock a bit of the sharpness off their edges, act a little softer towards the world, react a little less. It’s like your skin gets thicker and your heart gets tenderer at the very same time.

If that sounds like Trungpa, that’s because it is.

trungpa

And these are the things that drive me to write. I think they drive a lot of writers to write. Investigative journalists doubt the story, doubt the press release, doubt the party line, doubt the soundbites. Sports writers doubt their ability to do what they’re writing about – okay, mostly they know all about their inability to do it – and that creates awe. (Or they doubt Mark McGwire’s ability to hit 70 home runs, and that creates a story…)

And I think writers of fiction write about their doubts about the nature of reality, about culture and society and love and friendship and history and our place in it. We doubt that our current explanations for those things are sufficient – most people know humanity in general’s explanations are woefully inadequate – and we think there may be better explanations, and we work out and test those explanations in story form.

And the danger (here’s the circle) to NOT doing that, to not investigating/interrogating/inquiring those twinges of skepticism, to not chasing down my doubts, is a slow slide into permanent and perpetual acquiescence. I’ve chosen writing as the thing, my form of not going gentle into that good night, and if I don’t write, I don’t do anything, and I probably sink into my couch watching some version of the Infinite Jest “samizdat.”

…Perhaps, though, it’s all (and I mean ALL) just a desire to not fade away, and it’s as much ego as anything, and what I’m really afraid of is being inconsequential — I want to make my mark. I want to prove that I was here, that I understand, that I see through…

Which is a doubt. Which will require some thought. Which is my point.

~~~~~~~~~~

What’s your danger?

What’s your doubt?

What drives you to do the things that you do?

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