Once in a blue moon when I’m forced by circumstance or politesse to attend a social function I’ll blow the dust off my small-talk engine and attempt to engage strangers in chit-chat. When you’re talking with people you don’t know anything about there is a handful of standard conversational ingress points, such as the time-honoured question, “And what do you do, Mr. So-and-So?”
Infrequently but memorably the response is defensive. “Your job isn’t who you are, man,” or something to that effect.
To which I might reply, “Who said anything about your job?”
I suppose it just goes to show why I’m terrible at small-talk, because I make dumb assumptions like words and phrases have a prima facie meaning, and that people say what they intend, and so on. In my fourth decade of life I’m still easily bamboozled by the human penchant for trying to guess what you’re really asking, and answering that imaginary question instead of the one you’ve actually put to them.
So, fine. I can take it as read that “what do you do?” is social ape code for “what’s your job?” rather than “how do you pass your time?” or “what sorts of activities do you enjoy?” Okay. Got it.
That’s one of the reasons I would never describe myself as a writer. If somebody were to ask me, “What do you do?” and I replied, “I write,” I would be guilty of a kind of lie, because as far as they’re concerned I’m supposed to be telling them what my job is, not where my interest lies. Unless writing things down regularly wins you an astounding amount of money, people are liable to correct you internally if not aloud: “Ah, an aspiring writer; I understand.”
This might even be followed by thoughtful musing: “I’ve been thinking of writing a novel myself, actually.” This speaks to fact that the vast majority of all basically literate people consider themselves potential authors who simply lack the time to flesh out their visions. They might even inquire, “Do you have any advice?”
“Yes. Genital clamps. No serious writer can focus – I mean really focus – without genital clamps. It’s all the rage among the New Yorker set.”
And while it’s true that genital clamps are very important, saying this really is a diversion. The fact of the matter is that I don’t have any advice for writers. A few years ago I might’ve suggested they start a blog that nobody reads, but it’s 2010 and blogs are now passé. I might suggest instead, and perhaps to greater profit, that they hit themselves repeatedly with a blunt object.
So there’s another reason I wouldn’t describe myself as a writer. I just can’t stomach the follow-up questions. I have nothing useful to impart to a hopeful. “You’ve got a readership on your blog that’s greater than nobody – what was your network-based marketing strategy?”
“I wrote about Darth Vader at a time when Vader fever was at an all-time high. It was a single-serving strategy. It doesn’t map well to the future.”
“So your advice would be to surf the wave of a popular trend?”
“My advice would be to take up model trains. I’ve always thought the little trees looked like broccoli. Plus, it’s nifty when there’s little lights wired into the town so your train can have a night-time trip. You should take up hobby electronics so you can make all those little lights. Little lights are cool.”
A third, and arguably the most salient, reason for me to eschew the label is that it’s been almost a year since I wrote anything. All other considerations aside, it’s a clear crime of misrepresentation to call yourself a writer when you don’t produce writing.
Thus, as much as I never describe myself as a writer I am now doubly unlikely to do so. Like I said, people really would prefer you to name your job title, anyway. “I’m an art director at an events management company.”
“That sounds interesting! What do you do there?”
“I oversee the genesis of the same vacuous malarkey over and over again.”
“Oh, wow. That’s so creative!”
A fourth reason is that, in my experience, everyone who has described themselves as a writer has also impressed upon me that they are a pretentious douche. I can’t abide that. If people are going to find out that I’m a pretentious douche I want them to find out gradually, bit by bit over time, rather than all at once in our first conversation together.
The reason I started writing in the first place was because it felt like a waste to spend so much time having imaginary adventures inside my head with no tangible product to show for it. In any idle moment I was apt to disappear behind my eyes and have a merry romp through space or history, or just design the details of an imaginary building or tallship or interstellar scow. I mean, the water was gushing anyway so why not hold a pail to it?
I no longer feel any such burden. Now when I close my eyes all I see are various bills in various states of delinquency. Now in idle moments I look to be distracted out of my head by iOS videogames (I recommend Osmos HD) or movies on DVD (the new Clash of the Titans is meandering and dull, and has too few mechanical owls). Just like a regular person I am even watching television shows (my wife and I are mid-way through the second season of fuckin’ Deadwood).
That’s right – I’m pissing time away like a neurotypical. Well, what time I have, that is. I think that at this point, after working two jobs for the better part of a year, it is safe to say that the weight of the world has finally crushed all the dreams out of me. When I have spare time I’d rather be sleeping.
That’s pretty much what I want for Christmas: sleep.
In the evenings and on weekends I work as a stereoscopic compositing engineer which is an easier job to explain than art director, even though the words are bigger and there are three of them instead of just two. “I push cinema commercials into 3D,” I can say. “You know: oooh, it looks like shit’s coming right at me! That sort of 3D.”
“Oh my God, that’s so creative!”
“No it isn’t.”
Most people who are not creative use the word “creative” to indicate a range of bizarre misconceptions from anything that has even the most peripheral involvement with media to anything that involves using professional judgement. It is the latter, in particular, that very concrete thinkers strongly associate with creativity: independent decision-making. It is under this rubric that an accountant or an MBA will describe their own job as “creative” – they get to choose stuff from a set of stuff. Choosing is considered empowering, and if the optimal choice is non-obvious than the selection of that choice is described as “creative.”
I bend to convention. Following this working understanding of creativity, it is true that both of my jobs are creative. I get to suss through sets of stuff to find non-obvious optimality. Next, some twat in a she-tie overturns my decision because she doesn’t know if it’s art, but she knows what she likes. Then I get paid and go home.
“I’d like you to create something here that’s artistic and inspired.”
“Okay, first I’ll need some inspiration.”
“What’s that got to do with it?”
“Well, if you want something ‘inspired’ doesn’t the artist creating it need inspiration?”
“I don’t follow you.”
I sigh and pinch the bridge of my nose. “Can I have a raise now?”
Being creative is actually exhausting. Yes, it’s exhilarating but it is also draining. To care enough to find inspiration, to put it through its paces, to distill this essence of the concept into a vision you can share, and finally to engineer that vision into actuality – it’s a helluva thing. If you’re putting a worthwhile effort in to it, it takes a lot out of you. This is why people with creative jobs are often supplied with perks like Nerf basketball sets in their offices, or pool tables, or other ways to screw around and blow off steam. This is why we’re allowed to come in late and go home early. As long as we bring it to the table when it matters, we’re best left largely alone.
So I’m an art director who often generates creative because the creative director doesn’t actually know what creativity is, or how to access it, or how to evaluate its effectiveness in a given circumstance as a vehicle for communication. And I’m an engineer who spends his spare time pounding through massive problem spaces in search of elusive optimality as an extra dimension is forced into each frame of hackneyed mindless commercial-whore hullabaloo.
And so there’s another reason I’m no writer. I’m spent.
A fifth or sixth reason I couldn’t say, “I am a writer,” is because it would be more fair to say I had been one, if anything. This occurred to me recently when a reader wrote to me asking for a particular connected-stories recommendation, and in the course of responding I read a passage from my novella Felix and the Frontier. The experience was doubly emotional. First of all I was stunned to discover that the passage I happened into was actually pretty good. Next I felt the recognition dawning that I would never write anything that good again.
Who the hell wrote that? It sure doesn’t feel like it was me.
It is entirely possible that my literary career peaked when Simon of Space was briefly and incompetently published by an erotic press in North Dakota. (If this is indeed the case, I will forever comfort myself with how much the anecdote has a distinct flavour of Kilgore Trout to it. My teenage self would be proud.)
I’m counting my fingers now – how many cups of melancholy was that?
It may be time to move on to the next part.
Is there a next part?
Oh, goody. There is!
You see, one reason why I could describe myself as a writer is that nobody except a writer would agonize in print over whether or not he really were one. (See? That’s the pretentious douche angle at work again. Check out the conditional action on that “were.”)
If I weren’t a writer (oh baby, that conditional is so savoury) I probably wouldn’t worry that I’m spending my free moments trying to unwind instead of trying to wind something new up. I’d be all, “What’s on HBO?” and “Does this potato chip make me look fat?” or quoting comic catchphrases. I wouldn’t worry that my imagination was running down a sinkhole, ne’er to return. I’d just find my imagination fix on Blu-Ray, and move on, time well spunt.
But I rage. I thrash. I feel like an athlete who’s been forced off his game by some stupid injury, and now his action is all gummy and uncertain. My imagination spins and sputters but never delivers me safely Elsewhere.
I roll over in my bed, and twist up the sheets.
If I weren’t a writer, I probably wouldn’t miss it so much. Doesn’t that follow? If I weren’t a writer, I wouldn’t need it.
But I do. I’m hollow and dried out without it. It’s like I’m consistently missing a critical vitamin in my diet.
My physician is of the opinion that I might have an easier time of it all if I just slept occasionally, which is very typical of medical practitioners – so obsessed with keeping my meat fresh. She says I should be sleeping for about seven hours each night, which I admit is considerably more time than I’ve been devoting to the effort. For months I’ve been waking up just past midnight and going to my computer to cross some items of my to-do, because otherwise I just lie in bed and fret. I’m comforted by the chance to advance the cause an iota, rather than see the hours wasted. If my computer is busy rendering I sneak downstairs and do a workout.
My physician says I shouldn’t do aerobics at four o’clock in the morning, and that I should eat food. So I do yoga instead, and then eat an apple.
Never the less, my failures as a sleeper have caught up with me faster than my failures as a writer, and so lately I’ve found myself kind of shell-shocked and grouchy and dumb. So my physician prescribed me some tranquilizers but then they had strange side-effects that gave me scary dark thoughts at night, so now I’ve got a whole new kind of tranq – and with these puppies I’ve slept through the night twice in a row.
Two nights of sleep, and I find myself able to write what I’ve written here today. What if I slept every night for a week? I might turn invincible.
Maybe I’m on the mend.
I dare to think that. I very much hope that. I never want to taste this kind of purgatory again. I want to be optimistic enough to envision a time when my work-load might ease and that instead of feeling like going numb I might feel like storytelling. I’m wishing very hard that I can one day write something again that would make me feel proud, like when I went over that bit of Felix and the Frontier and didn’t have to wince. Maybe, if I can harness that kind of deep Elsewhere again, I won’t have peaked yet after all.
So, dear readers, you can see how sorry I’ve been to have left you hanging so long. It’s really rotted me to the core. I have, perhaps, taken my duties to my family and paymasters so seriously that I have failed to do my duty to myself. I have let my imagination become sick and forlorn, and I’ve learned that I can’t live with it that way. To attempt to do so loses me sleep, and without sleep I risk losing everything.
Thank you to those who have written or commented to voice their concern. I’m grateful. The answer to your questions is that I haven’t been at all well – in fact I’ve glimpsed the brink of something I never want to look into again – but I am surviving, and I am going to recover.
The people who care most about me are working hard to make sure I don’t go off the rails. I think there’s good reason to believe this novel “sleep” therapy will yield great benefits for me, and I’m sure we’ll be seeing it written up in the all the leading journals in the near future.
And, you know what?
Last night I even had a dream.
I’m on my way home.