Nobody wants to pay you what you’re worth. For anything. Ever.
You don’t get into the business of writing because you wanted a quick way to make some cash. If so, day trading and prostitution would have been much more viable options. But you wanted to write, because it seemed like happiness was the most viable option and money wasn’t necessarily the way to achieve that. But like every other human being currently living in a Capitalist society, you need money to pay your rent and maybe enough to go to the hospital if you need your appendix removed. Anyone can start up a magazine, and even without offering any pay they usually have writers clamoring to submit and have their name in a byline.
It’s difficult to be human, but we all have very important jobs perpetuating the human race, and making ourselves better to contribute to the betterment of all humankind and ultimately the universe, probably shouldn’t be an easy job. Whether you’re a corporate executive, a coal-miner, or a kid who dropped out of college so he can fish all day and roleplay a werewolf on an IRC channel at night, it doesn’t matter. Your task is still critical – be human.
I haven’t written anything in nearly two weeks. I needed to take a break, but sometimes even when I feel like I don’t have the energy to write the engines keep burning. It makes it difficult to accomplish the goal of relaxation when you’re ready to spring at any time. I could sit down with a beer and a pizza and watch “Rich Kids of Instagram” on youtube to try to relax, but my shoulders would feel the tension of work unfinished and when I pressed my thighs together I’d feel the roughness of a match ready to ignite. Then I’d dream of upheaval, the hours would go by as I “relaxed” and then I’d haul my body as it smoked to my computer, to feel I was even more tired than I was before.
For one of my essays I wrote for my UT admissions (I did get accepted, by the way, but California called to me instead) I wrote about how important it was to have playtime, not just in a philosophical sense, or that it’s “nice to take care of yourself”, but because of mental processes that are taking place when the brain is disengaged from its task. Something called the default mode network, which is only active when you’re not focused, solidifies memory and enhances creativity. It’s not noble to work yourself to death, it’s inherently foolish. Think of the brain as bicameral, bifurcated. It needs dreams and waking, night and day, elation and sadness, stress and relaxation.
It’s easy to forget, that every process is purposeful.
Even the ones we don’t want.
Sometimes I wake and cling to a cup of coffee because I feel like if I don’t have something to hold onto, I’ll be thrown off the Earth.
Some days there is no center to me.
I drink gin and brush my hair and I try to force the Californian sunlight to make me into something better than myself.
Donald Rumsfeld, former secretary of state, coined the phrase “Unknown unknowns.” There are known unknowns, things we don’t know, and unknown unknowns, things we don’t even know that we don’t know.
I know that I could improve upon my Spanish, I know that I write too much about crazy mothers and small-town prophets, I know that I panic and freeze in moments of crisis, I can snap at people I love when I feel irritable, I don’t take enough time to appreciate consciousness.
I can work on these things, because I know that they’re there.
But I also know there’s a dark side I can’t yet comprehend just behind me, something mysterious, a void glinting in the shape of my shadow.
And that -thing- whatever it is, might be crucial to the years coming forward.
Except, I don’t know what it is.
That’s where the default mode network becomes crucial. It fills in blank gaps, makes connections that you cannot while you’re stuck staring intensely at a problem.
I know that once I started actually searching for the answers then I found them – epiphany upon epiphany unearthed themselves, like a shower of rainbows that came bursting from my dirty clawing fingernails. Even when I’m not working, the subconsciousness is set upon the answers. There are things I know now that a year ago would have been incomprehensible to me, that if someone had explained them to me I wouldn’t have understood, not until I felt their shape.
I think one of the most difficult things to write about is a character experiencing epiphany. Knowing something you didn’t know before, because all the pieces that you’ve acquired throughout the time before have suddenly converged into a full understanding. Written poorly, it can seem like magic, like the writer trying to force a plot point forward, shoving the character through a hole in the pages. That’s because epiphany isn’t really a conscious process. It’s something underwater and deep, but still, crucial to our understanding.
But oftentimes, it’s really the only way to learn – great effort yielding nothing but dirt and more dirt, and then suddenly-
Jewels and blood, showering you with resplendence, gnosis.
I want to learn how to write about that moment. I think it’s one of the most beautiful human experiences.
And I want more of it for myself.
To turn the unknown unknowns at least into known unknowns. That’s all I’m asking for now.
Tomorrow I go back to write, back to the page with all its mysterious terrors, turning over stones. The perpetual questing machine. Maybe it will yield nothing – but searching always has a way of turning up more answers than inertia – doesn’t it?i
The act of writing day to day is such an isolating experience. I rarely leave my little den except to take my puppies to the park, or maybe go to the grocery store to pick up more chicken jerky and k-cups. Mostly I enjoy my quiet. It gives me the focus to take the everyday deep-dives into the snarled web of my consciousness, and occasionally bring back something useful. But it can also be derealizing – you can lose touch with reality, with the idea that what you’re doing has any use or value. Live too long in a dream, and the dream begins to warp you.
The moments when you can actually see the effect that your writing has on the outside world are rare. Going into a reading and meeting with other writers often seems to give me shellshock. Everything is actualized and real. You get to see the writers themselves, projecting forth the creations they made inside their isolated neurological soup. This past Friday I was asked to participate in Laura Lee Bahr’s “Bahr Crawl,” in which she travels across the country taking part in readings with other bizarro authors.
I read an except from my short story, Skin Suits, which will be out this year in A Breath from The Sky from Martian Migraine Press. You can see my transformation – from the protagonist in black, to the suit of “Sara” in the blue fur. I hadn’t really practiced my transition – so I think there were a few seconds where everyone thought I was stripping in the middle of my reading. Gabino Iglesias said he thought I’d finally snapped.
Laura read from her short story collection Angel Meat, out from Fungasm Press this year. Everytime I step into a room with Laura, she seems to make the air brighter. She’s radiant and vulnerable and open. I think the cover of her new collection manages to accurately capture her likeness
I write a lot about transformations – women turning into butterflies, into glorious skin-filleted vampires, into robots that carry their memories through hollow unconscious wastelands. I don’t think I’ve written a single narrator in a novel that hasn’t carried a wound that begins to warp them, or travels on a journey that fills their mouth with the blood that begins to redefine them.
And now I’m transforming too – not in the way that I always imagined I would, abruptly, immediately, with the tearing of skin, like a howl ripping through the center of a tornado, or some kind of eucharist machine. My transformation is deliberate. It’s purposeful. I change with a heaviness that feels like everyday I roll out of bed so that I can walk miles across a windswept desert.
But there are things happening in this transformation that I’m not aware of. The human brain has a processing power of about 30 quadrillion calculations per second. For reference, in 2011, the K computer built by German and Japanese scientists to attempt to mimic the human brain, with over 83,000 processors, was only able to mimic one percent of one second of the human brain’s capability – and that took 40 minutes.
It’s easy to forget how extraordinary complex we are, how even the most simple of actions is a glorious culmination of millions of years of synaptic music. There is a lot going on under the surface that we’re unaware of. Subconsciousness, underwater processes, that shift and move the pieces of us around to accommodate a whole shape.
When the werewolf transforms, it does not deliberately and with conscious effort control the new homeostasis of its body, or its newfound hunger for human flesh. Its brain and body shift to eaccommodate its new skin in ways that it’ll never really understand.
Every deliberate action has an unquantifiable amount of data and pathways that was made to get to that action, and the ways in which it transforms the entire system may never be completely known.
I was talking about shame today. Specifically, shame that is used as a motivation to compel action. For years I’d get myself out of bed by calling myself lazy and useless. I’d whip myself mentally to write. And if I did something, but didn’t find it to my satisfaction. I’d castigate myself, say that I was worthless. I thought it was fine. I was getting the results I wanted, or so I thought, so I surmised it didn’t matter how I achieved them. I worked on the video games, I wrote the books, I got the money, the boy, the job offer, the contract, the invite, another motion, another circle, another check-box, another day in which I survived hurtling around the sun without falling off the side of the planet.
I even shamed myself out of not killing myself – calling myself weak and worthless for even thinking that it was an option. So I’d hunch over my laptop in a cafe, drinking an americano, trying to force myself to keep working on my novel, to keep going, clinging to my coffee like it was the only thing keeping me grounded to reality.
To this day sometimes when I smell an americano I’ll get this bitter sharp Pavlovian thought of suicide.
In today’s culture, self-hatred is an acceptable vehicle of growth. Just yesterday on Facebook someone deridedly made fun of women who “loved themselves,” and took duck-faced selfies, indicating that self-love was some kind of character flaw. And it does often seem a little self-indulgent, a little unaware, for people to take pride in themselves. We’re still under the Puritanical influence of our ancestors, and it’s sinful to be prideful in our bodies that are the objects of such sloth and indignities. So we often look down on self-love, without even really understanding why, and so perpetuate this cycle of self-flagellation.
So result of those years of shame-induced movement was that when I achieved something, I never got the satisfied feeling that I was expecting. I feel dull, empty, hollowed-out, looking onward to my next goal with glazed-over eyes. No matter how much I achieved, the internal voice was still whipping me as it screamed into my ear.
Because I’d used shame to try to achieve growth, I was operating under the idea that whenever I achieved something, I shouldn’t be proud of myself, I should be ashamed for not achieving it faster. I was working on the karmic balance of my evil birth – no tabula rasa for me – and every achievement, every good thing I ever did, was only trying to tip the scales toward achieving balance.
Everything we do is important. Not just what we do, but why we do it, and the processes that we use to motivate ourselves. Because everything in the machine is constantly working to achieve internal balance. The consequences of what we do today, may not be seen until years later.
But if you think those things are not reverberating through you right now – building the frequency of dreams – you’re wrong.
In my transformation, I begin to shed the body that hate itself. I can’t quite conceive what the thing underneath looks like, but it’s building itself toward achieving a new kind of efficacy.
Slime, and werewolf blood, and something coiled that glitters. I’ve been writing about this moment for years.
Sometimes I sit for hours inside myself- listening to Chopin or Dvorak or Massive Attack. I look at the trees outside, or the pretty girls on Youtube, and in the spaces between the notes, I begin to hear something. It’s difficult to describe what I hear, because, it’s not a sound, not exactly.
It’s a new way to live. My mind, learning a new rhythm, shifting synaptic waves to build an ocean of gold blood inside of me. An ocean that will carry me through worlds yet unknown.
Because everything we do is transforming us, in every moment, in every space. How we think, feel, breathe cascades into every future moment. Every motion we take, is building us a scaffold down into hell.
The more I read about Edgar Allan Poe, the more that I can feel his loneliness permeating every word, how the trauma of being denied love in early life can chase you until you’re exhausted with the pain. For all my suffering – I can’t fathom what it’d be like to be Poe, with a father who abandoned him and a mother who died when he was barely three. With an engagement that was broken off, several mother figures who died, a wife that died, and a storm of poverty and broken poet-loves and rivalries and lost jobs.
Trying to live haunted by loss in such a way that the loss begins to define you. So that when he writes, he can only see beautiful things through how they’re framed by melancholy.
To have the people that he loved reject him, turn away from him. A cruelty that was heartwrenching, but often, self-imposed.
In his letters, Poe often lashes out like a child.
He writes to his aunt, Maria Clemm, after learning that Neilson Poe offered to take her and his wife Virgina in:
“I am blinded with tears while writing this letter — I have no wish to live another hour. Amid sorrow, and the deepest anxiety your letter reached — and you well know how little I am able to bear up under the pressure of grief. My bitterest enemy would pity me could he now read my heart. My last my last my only hold on life is cruelly torn away — I have no desire to live and will not ”
I see myself in those words and it hurts, to feel the childish gray warmth of sadness. Its familiarity. To think that if other people knew my pain, they would take pity on me, love me.
But it was never pain that drew people to me – it was all the things that’d survived in spite of it.
When I read about Poe, I see a sort of learned helplessness. He longs for other people to take care of him. Over and over I see him put himself into danger and poverty as if he’s trying to shine a beacon for help. He writes several letters to his adoptive father, John Allan, alternating between lashing out and asking for money and pity, until he’s forced to cut him off. He gets drunk so that his Maria Clemm must put him to bed. He broadcasts his pain, blaringly loud.
There were so many moments in his life where he could have found a way to pull himself together – to have his own magazine, or get steady employment, or after Virginia’s death – to have someone to love. But he deliberately destroys all of it with a startling, steadfast deliberation. Over and over again he puts himself into misery because he wants love to pull him out of it.
Poe never learned how to take care of himself. One of the greatest American writers of all time, a brilliant mind who actually wrote about the Big Bang years before it was an actual scientific theory, and his childlike desire to be picked up and helped and given affection often seemed to supercede all of his intelligence and insight.
It hurts to see the slow, spindling destruction of a life. An unnecessary destruction. It hurts because I see in many ways how he could be me, and I could be him, and all the paths my life could go.
I would not wish Poe’s life upon anyone. The writing hardly seems worth it for the constant, drilling, abject suffering that he puts himself through.
Not for the writing. He doesn’t suffer for the writing. He suffers for the child inside of him that comes out to wear his skin and sob across letters, desperate for the love of a mother that he can never have
I spent so long waiting for something beautiful to happen to me, that I thought maybe I could make waiting and sadness and inertial longing beautiful.
I often dreamed of Edgar Allan Poe coming through my window, holding out his hand to take me away from the hole that was my life. Virgina, Edgar, and I often played hide-and-go-seek in the dark woods. In my dreams, we weren’t exactly happy, but we were at home, together. Two melancholy writers holding out for the sun, one wife between us.
But nobody is going to come through my window and give me all of my dreams just because I want them. The beacon of my sadness doesn’t even penetrate my skin.
For all the ways I’ve struggled to stay independent and support myself, the child inside of me wants to be rocked and held and loved without conditions. It wants people to see our pain and take pity on us. As if by the virtue of our pain – we deserve affection.
But the reward for suffering is only more suffering.
He wept on her grave. He pressed his cheek to the cool dirt.
He wrote about the inception of the universe in “Eureka”, its expansion and eventual contraction, to try to come to terms with the way things died.
Women in his stories died, but they rarely stayed dead. They moved through death like a transformation. They lingered in the narrator’s mind, in the walls of his home.
I feel like he was trying to come to terms with the way things you loved died and left holes so enormous that it was as if you were forced to now live life looking up from their bottom.
We’re so afraid of loss that after a while, it felt like all we knew how to do was scream, to cling -please don’t go-. We built our lives around the fear of it. We tried so desperately to see it before it happened that we ended up perpetuating it. Loss becomes the raven, perpetually sitting on a bust of Athena. It is the constant, cawing companion.
But a life cannot be built around the fear of loss. Stability is a dream and nothing is permanent. If you could see the atoms of a boulder it’d look like the swirling of a catastrophic ocean.
Even the dream of forever doesn’t last forever.
One day you will lose the greatest thing that you possess – yourself. Your molecules will collapse in on itself, rearranged in infinite combinations, and continue on, but it will never recreate you again.
I can’t cry for the things that I lost anymore. Maybe one day I will become a brilliant writer, but I’ll never be able to enjoy it, entertain it – as long as I nurse the brink of loss and struggle to keep the ocean from slipping out of my hands.
You are always going to lose.
So I think – if I want any kind of peace, I have to ride the waves of loss, and write about the things that hurt, but also the little wondrous things, and look eastward, past all the sepulchres, to see what gifts that loss will bring me next.
Because loss did not just take things away from me. It is the same mechanism that brings me new joy, and people to love, and inspiration, and surprises, and warmth.
I wonder if Poe understood that, when he wrote Eureka, so close to his death. When he saw the universe perpetually unraveling and curling up, over and over and over again.
I got my first royalty payment from Eraserhead Press today, and it makes me think that occasionally the dream collides with reality.
In 2009 I ordered one of the ‘Bizarro Starter Kits’ in the mail and read it in my grandparent’s basement. I’d just heard of Carlton Mellick III and the whole bizarro genre, and was coincidentally reading “Naked Lunch” at the same time. I remembered thinking I wanted to be published by something like Eraserhead Press, even though my fiction never quite fit in with their aesthetic. Even at the age of 19 I was already “too weird to be mainstream,” and at the head of a cavalcade of rejection slips. But occasionally something beautiful and weird pushes its way into mainstream consciousness – Naked Lunch – and that’s what I wanted to do. Not because I had grand aspirations, but because I didn’t know how to write any other way.
At some point I pushed the idea out of my head – it seemed impossible. I was no one, and nothing I wrote would ever be good enough.
Those things that I carried for years, the hopes and dreams and fantasies that I thought would pull me out of the dense, black pit that was at the center of me. They formed a kind of exo-skeleton, an insectile armor plate, so thick that I could barely see out of my eyes. I froze inside of there. I simultaneously wanted something, and knew that I couldn’t have it. I mastered the art of dreaming without dreaming, of wanting something just enough that I could feel the pain of having it being denied. For years I lived this way.
But sometimes I realize, I CAN have what I want – and little cracks appear in the armor. I see out of the eyes a little more.
Even in the center of hopelessness, I never really stopped writing. There’d be periods I’d think about giving up. I slept on the floor in a house with no heating, shivering in all my clothes. When I woke in the morning my fingers would be so cold that I could barely type on my keyboard.
So I got gloves, and I wrote through the stiffness.
I can finally come to terms with the fact that I haven’t had an easy life. I’ve been told a thousand times over how ungrateful I am, for the things that I’ve been given. And I read stories about people who have mothers that force them to drink bleach, or sleep in their own piss. I’m white. I was raised middle-class. I’m educated. As I’ve gotten older, I haven’t always had the money to eat what I wanted, but I’ve never gone hungry, except by choice. I’ve been homeless for a brief period of time, I’ve lived in more places than I’m able to remember and almost never more than a few months, but I’m resourceful, so I was always able to find some kind of job. By the age of 22 I was making yuppy money and presenting design documentation to a bunch of directors, leading the design for multi-million dollar features. Now I don’t even have a job – but I have a computer, enough money to buy beer, my own office, no real responsibilities except the ones that I impose upon myself.
But the body doesn’t lie. It remembers what it’s like to be a frightened animal. Hissing, caught in the trap. Sometimes when someone stands too close to me panic will cascade through my body. A certain word, a certain phrase, will dissolve into me like an angry ghost. The child that can do nothing but scream is so close to the surface of the skin.
I keep writing – even though the whiskey is making something inside me twitch, and when I stare at the words on my laptop, cross-legged on the floor – something comes through. Something awful, and buried. It has no words. I only see the reflection of what I’ve written, and see how broken I am. It twists its way through my body. I’ve spent too much of my life crying because inside, I’m a desert.
I keep writing.
I read recently that when rats are scared they will always run back to their nest, even if that nest is crowded and dirty and inhospitable. There is a thing inside of us, some kind of mechanism, that has us always moving back toward the origin.
But what if they have no home to go to? What if the thing that is home has been obliterated, so that nothing is left but a gaping hole?
I carry around the skeleton of dreams.
I keep writing. Even though I entertain the idea of stopping often. I know it’s the only thing that’s holding me together. There have been very few people who have seen me go completely insane, but trust me, it’s a theatrical production. But writing always brings me back. It’s the reason why I can’t become a cocaine addict, or go to the mental hospital, or lose what’s left of myself. It’s the reason why I can’t become a thief, or a murderer, or throw myself off a balcony. Even though -I want to-. I want to know what it’s like to lose. To give up completely. I want the thrill of fucking over what I have often perceived to be a worthless life. But I can’t, because I have to-
I couldn’t help but often be disconnected from other writers, especially in college, or growing up, or in the Austin “scene”, where art is really just a disguised social activity. I hear people who say that they have to write to live, or if they’d write they’d die. Or that they’re CRAZY, they’re WRITERS. They BREATHE words.
And I have to wonder, do they know what it’s like to turn the headlights off in the middle of a rural road and drive plunging into the darkness? To touch your skin and be unable to feel it, because you’re so far gone into the ghost that is you? Did they ever wake up gasping almost every night, for months straight, terrified they were going to die before they finished their novel?
I stood in the center of a storm once, because I wanted to learn how to transmute the feeling of terror into words. I wanted to take all the awful feelings I’d ever felt and stretch them out, grow them, place them in the nursery and cradle them so that they’d go out into the world carrying the truth. I wondered if they went to therapy and the therapist recommended sunlight, yoga, exercise, pills, cognitive behavioral therapy, chocolate-
And they had to resist the urge to scream: “Don’t you understand, I don’t want to feel better. I want to walk through hell?”
But after a lifetime of hell, it begins to obliterate even the thing that was holding me together. And if I kept going, even writing wouldn’t be enough to keep me from falling over.
The armor has to collapse. I have to let good things in.
So you see, occasionally the dream collides with reality. Sometimes, we do get to have our quiet. We get to fall in love. We get to be published by the publisher who we thought in a thousand years, we’d never be good enough for.
We have to build our home. We have to grow something in the desert again. We have to learn how to retrain our body to stop walking into nightmares, night after night.
Not only because it’s right, but because we have to keep writing.
You can purchase Ecstatic Inferno here, now out from Fungasm, an imprint of Eraserhead.