Before I get too much momentum behind me, and invest much more of myself in this space, I realized that I need to address a few old demons that are likely to be waking up…and given the nature of my current work, well more than they ever did. So here goes.
You. Are. Not. Supposed. To. Get. It.
Years ago, when I was first starting to really consider myself a Writer—not as something I liked to do, or was good at, but as something I was going to commit my life to doing—I fought some serious internal battles over this one.
On one hand, there’s the fundamental mandate of art in any form to communicate (I have a much longer thought on this that I’ll get around to giving flesh to eventually). And the more obtuse your personal voice is, the more you’re limiting your potential to communicate.
On the other hand, the only thing worse than failing to communicate is to communicate dishonest bullshit. And the way my mind works, every time I tried to simplify, and clarify what I was saying, it died before it made it to the page.
I think that’s why so much of my earliest work—especially my novel—falls a bit flat now, and never turned my love into my well-paying career. It’s like an artist’s earnest sketches: you can see the skill, and moments of real inspiration, but you don’t even bother asking whether or not you should hang it on a wall…it’s just not that kind of work.
But at this point in my life, I’ve given up. I’m not expecting anything I do to eventually lead to a six or seven-figure book deal, and national awards, and options from movie studios, and hot affairs with the beautiful actress who’s cast in those movies, preferably a redhead…where was I again?
I’m not expecting anything except to feel a bit better about the perceptible universe around me after I’ve brought something new into it.
Really, it’s a bit like finally, truthfully, to your core, accepting the inevitability of your own death: it frees you from freaking out over the small details. It’s amazing what you can do when you can honestly say, with no fear, “Seriously, fuck off.”
It’s not that I try to be obscure with my writing. Maybe it’ll help to tell you about one of the best 2 or 3 teachers I ever had.
I can’t remember his name—which isn’t a great start to a story about a memorable, life-changing experience, but I was stoned pretty much all the time back then, so it’s not like it’s the only thing I can’t remember…which isn’t much of an excuse, but it’s all I have—but I do remember that he was tall, and bald, and reminded me of that character actor who always plays the hard-but-understanding dad of the plucky teenage girl in the charmingly-funny-but-dramatic indie film that always seems to have come out two months ago…
I was at the university (no capital “U” for that manure-infested piece of shit), my sophomore year, in the midst of switching my major from theater to English, and needed to take some of the basic first-year English courses to catch up. So I chose Poetry…it wasn’t Poetry 101, I think the class code was like 135 or something, but that’s what it should have been. Basic introduction to Poetry.
Add to that, this teacher, the bald guy, was on full-time staff at the City College in Sacramento, and commuted out to the university for this one class, presumably because it was so simple a real professor couldn’t be bothered, and he was a dull enough star that he really needed the extra cash, even with the commute.
I got a B in the class, and it was the hardest grade I ever earned. This from your typical “lazy with so much potential” student, the kind who wouldn’t bother reading the books in English class, just noted the quotes the teacher mentioned and stream-of-consciousness improvised the in-class essay, only to earn an A and have the teacher ask him if he’d thought about publishing his work…as a Junior in High School (true story). The kind who didn’t study for more than 5 minutes for his AP Calculus and Physics tests, just derived all the formulas he needed during the test, finished 90 minutes early, and walked out with 4’s and 5’s (meaning had I entered college as a math or physics major I would have had enough credits to take Junior and Senior level classes my first year) (true story).
And I have never worked harder in my life than I did in that Poetry class, and never been prouder of a grade than I was of that B.
A few things explain it: as already noted, I was stoned 24/7 at the time, which doesn’t lend itself to regular attendance of anything (aside from delivery days), let alone class; I also had a moderately interesting role in the university’s major play that semester, which legitimately took up some of my time and attention.
And it’s not like this was a graduate-level class…it was intended for first-year students, non English majors…something easy but mildly interesting to fill out their general ed requirements…at least if my memories of the other students are any indication, and the assignments they were given, which weren’t the same ones I was given.
No, I think the major reason for it is that the teacher worked my ass harder than anyone I’ve ever met in my life. It’s like he was able to size me up in a matter of seconds with ridiculous accuracy—genius-level IQ, overly-literate, slumbering ambition, stoned, lazy, bored out of my mind, maybe lasting one more semester in school after this one, but certainly not more than that (and I ended up dropping out at the end of that semester), desperate for someone to show me something new that could blow my mind—and decided to tear up the lesson plan, and ignore the established framework of where we were supposed to be and what we were supposed to be doing. And instead reduce the 3 months we spent together to something far more archetypical, the Teacher and the Student.
The first assignment was a Frost sonnet, and we were to write one page explicating the poem. Everyone—including me, I actually attended the first few classes before the rain stopped and it was more appealing to be stoned outside rather than inside—turned in the assignment, and he asked me to stay after class. Everyone filed out, I jonesed for a cigarette, and he asked me if I thought I had covered everything in the poem. I don’t remember my response…I’ve never had quite enough James Dean in me to truly be a Rebel, so I probably said something like, “No, not really, but the assignment was one page, and I already did 2 and a half.”
I only remember a few things from those years with absolute clarity. One of them is the experience—not the words, but the setting, the rain, the smoke gathering near the ceiling, the music playing—of going home that night and redoing my explication. 18 pages for 16 fucking lines of poetry. And to this day, I know I could have done at least another 20 pages, and still only begun to dive into what the poem was about.
And that’s how the entire semester went. I didn’t show up all that regularly, but whenever I did, he would throw down his gauntlet, and challenge me to find more, think more, expect more. And I worked and explored and learned more in those 3 months than in any other period of my life.
I don’t write poetry. I’m not a poet. I have far too much respect for real poets (with the caveat that 99.99% of those who call themselves poets deserve multiple kicks in the junk just for breathing my fucking air) to dare claim that title for myself.
But what I learned in that class, what I carry with me now, undimmed, despite my attempted artistic suicide, is that it’s not just words that have power…it’s Words, and the shape of them on the page, and the shape they make in your mouth when you say them, and the sounds they make when you say them.
And when you start putting them together…all those factors start multiplying against each other, combining in a strange alchemy that defies arithmetic. Two words is not just one word plus one word…two words, chosen right, has the power to make you lose your shit.
And since my writing is, now, just for me, and that, ultimately, is what I love, and what I’m good at, that’s what I’m doing. I’m not trying to hide the “meaning” of my work…it’s not a fucking Easter egg hunt. But ultimately, if you’re not willing to take a look at each sentence, each phrase, each word choice as something to be unfolded, with possibilities well beyond the obvious…then you’re not going to fucking get it.
As an example…I posted an excerpt lately from a work in progress called “edge”. It’s no longer in progress, it’s done (or at least abandoned in a suitably interesting place), and I had been planning to post it here, but decided that I’d give a few online microfiction magazines a look first, to see if they’re interested. If they’re not, it’ll show up here, but regardless of what the URL is when it sees life, here are the important details:
It reads pretty obscure, but the actual “narrative” is pretty simple: a man and a woman, on his birthday, while getting ready for the party, kiss each other in the kitchen, and years later, remember that moment as one of those “forever frozen in time” moments that they adore. And I tried to frame it in the context of a quantum possibility wave forever on the brink of collapsing but never quite resolving into reality…but that’s just the physicist in me.
And that’s it. And, really, that isn’t particularly interesting to me. The emotions that type of scene can evoke move me deeply, but really, if I were to try to Write that scene with a clear, simplified narration, wouldn’t your first thought be to wonder where the fuck Jennifer Aniston was, and how pussy-whipped you are to have let your girlfriend drag you to such a trite piece of shit?
What gets me creatively hard is taking that moment—which does legitimately move me—and digging in to it. I don’t draw a scene, I define it in outline by chewing through everything that isn’t the scene, leaving only the essential.
The house is not the house, it’s the space inside. The jar is not the jar, it’s the space inside. The tao is not the tao, it’s the space between what you say the tao is.
That’s what I get off on…wallowing in the potential that Words and their mating begets…and I just don’t fucking care if anyone gets it anymore.
So go ahead, tell me you don’t get it…and you’ll get my fucking fist in your fucking teeth…and in the truest spirit of that plucky teenage girl in the indie film that just came out two months ago, I’ll lean over you, the camera at an interesting angle, and ask, “Did you get that?”