Lit Bit: The Tortured Writer — An Archetype

I’ve been watching one too many TED talks.  Maybe only just enough.  Or maybe a few too few, since I linger on the ones I watch and think long on them.  I was thinking about Elizabeth Gilbert’s thoughts on genius and creativity and the process of agony our culture puts our creative minds through.  She draws a clear link between the writer and suffering.  It’s an obvious link.  Hemingway and Lord Byron and any of our beloved Beat poets lived there in the dark, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, you can name them, the our aching wordsmiths.

I don’t disagree with Gilbert, in that the focus on the individual, the glorification of the “I” in creating art is a heavy burden to bear.  But I think there are other tolls as well.  This alone is not what hurts.

You know the other whys for which all these writers are pushing themselves toward their own destruction?  It’s because we’re dredging up all the dark things from their deep marine trenches.  It’s because there are monsters down there, and some of the best writing, some of the best music, some of the best the best the best that aches to read or hear or see is built of worst hurts, seen and lived and unresolved.  Writing is a therapy.  Writing is self-immolation.  Writing is medicine.  Writing is is a knife to a cutter.

No wonder the drinking.  No wonder the drugs.  And myself?  There are some nights when I wrestle this stuff onto the page, and all I can do is cry.  There are some nights when it’s a transcendent thing, and I am possessed, ridden by ghost or genius or loa, and none of the words are mine.  It is arrogant to call the words mine.  But there are always times when its is an open sore, or when the water drawn up from the well is poisoned.  I wouldn’t trade it.  It rests more easily after, but there are still the aches and demons.  In the end, we’re sometimes still lion-tamers.  And sometimes you’ll lose an arm.  Is it just an occupational hazard?  Or is it because we give over all our pain as a culture to a class of people to pen our catharsis?  Is it because we’re facing our inner monsters, or because we’re trapping them in a labyrinth built of words?  Is because writing allows us great release, or because our culture is so averse to emotion that we’ve compressed our pain into hidden bombs that go off when we engage in the act of exploring?

Touching Base

At the Gold Cosmetics kiosk in the mall, I watched a man in a beige suit sit still, relaxed back in his tall chair as another man in a polo daubed potions and poultices onto his face. He had that peaceful look written on his brow that only comes when someone is enjoying being cared for as the kiosk clerk fussed with the creams and lotions.

Seeing this, I felt my own tingle of relaxation, but the scene struck me as odd. I like watching people make contact with one another. I like it when people touch me, for the most part. With permission. When a friend brushes my hair. When I get a massage. Those instances seem so rare. What was odd about the scene before me was that the recipient was male.

By social rules in the U.S., it seems that women are allowed to touch one another far more often than men are. Hugs between women are normal. The hand laid on the shoulder, or on top of another hand.  The thought of a woman at a spa doesn’t cause an eyelash to bat.  But men?  When do you see a man go to spa, and there is no comment?  It happens, yes, but there is a bro-ish commentary that occurs before it’s okay, devaluing dude’s masculinity.  Because massages are gay.  Touch is always sexual.  A hug must be mannishly justified.  Cuddling is only for enjoying within the confines of a heterosexual relationship, and even then, the man shouldn’t actually enjoy it, And in the public sphere, you pay for touch, for human contact.

And beyond that, many such interactions are transactional: the haircut, the massage, the day at the spa, the manicure. We pay to be touched and pampered. And most of these transactions are available only to women, because we’ve constructed them as feminine things, because we’ve culturally cut men off from the need for contact. When men pay for certain types of contact? The reaction is swift: they’re obviously gay.

I maintain that contact is a human need. Even if we section off types of physical contact into pre-approved boxes, even if we define manliness as a rugged island on which half the population live in social isolation, it doesn’t take away from the fact we link pleasure with touch, well-being with physically demonstrated care. But cultural change is slow.

Did I think the man pampered at the kiosk was gay? Hell if I know. It didn’t matter. I just enjoyed that tiny voyeuristic high of watching someone receive care from someone else.

Lit Bit: Reading These Words Right Here

So, since it can be generally assumed that as a human being, you’re at least somewhat of a social creature, and since as social creatures we tend to use these weird little symbols called words in order to transmit this stuff called information, or sometimes we use them to make pretty stuff called art, and since you’re reading this which is composed of picture-symbol words, I’m going to make the grand assumption that you’re pretty much in favor of words, and that you might even like reading them.  Rather bold of me, but if you’ll forgive my presumption, I’ll continue.

The words you’re reading now are contained within an intangible object known as a blog, or “blag” if you want to be silly (see, I’m doing that nifty social thing called “making a reference” which is really only possible through use of symbols, getting one to recall another thing from another place or time without that thing being present, yay words), composed of a lot little ones and zeros (symbols again, on/off, yes/no), which have an electrical existence on a very real and tangible item like a hard drive, a server that exists somewhere not here, that you or I will probably never see or lay hands on.  Probably.  Unless you’re directly involved in maintaining such items.

Now my point is, if you’ve gotten this far, if you’ve engaged with these symbols reproduced on a screen for your pleasure and enjoyment, you’re taking part in an act called reading.  You may have gotten here through a link from Twitter (which gives you a list of short posts which you more than likely read a few of and clicked over here) or you may have read a status update on Facebook that I posted (which I can assume you read, at least slightly intrigued, or if not, you just clicked hoping to be entertained by the act of reading the post here presented).  But according to some sources, reading is on the decline.  This could be a problem for a writer like myself.

Now, for quite some time, I’ve been annoyed at all this doom and gloom around reading and literature.  People say folk are just not reading anymore, period.  In 2007, Caleb Crain, writing for The New Yorker, digested the National Endowment for the Arts’ statics on reading, and found some grim numbers.  Questions being asked differently to encompass more, to make it appear that reading has gone up?  Eek.  But you’ll note first thing, he’s not giving the numbers from the same pollsters every year.  He jumps from Gallup to NEA to the General Social Survey.  Hmmm.  He does state that the wording of the question has changed over time, yes; but then, people are no longer reading bound print books as much as they used to.  They are consuming e-books.  There is literature and poetry on Twitter.  Short stories are generally not considered “books” by themselves, but are certainly literary.  The way you ask the question is important.  Any anthropologist or sociologist can tell you that.  Asking about book consumption, especially in this day and age, is a tricksey prospect, and perhaps wrong-headed if one wants to get a clear picture of how people are actually reading.

In The New Yorker‘s favor, we have seen the bankruptcy and close of one of the U.S.’s iconic booksellers, Borders.  Every day I go to work and pass the empty building full of shelves that once housed hundreds of thousands of copies of my favorite type of print media.  It is a tombstone for ink and paper, and certainly a blow to an industry now given over to the grave.

Earlier this month, The Atlantic‘s Alexis Madrigal posted Gallup’s numbers.  The question is asked straightforwardly: “Do you happen to be reading any books or novels at present?”  There does not seem to be much ambiguity to that question, because the word “novel” can be applied to any mode of distribution, e-book or print.  Bearing mind also, the graph reads “backwards” (at least to the Romantic or Anglophone eye), the most recent dates on the left hand side of the chart.  Looking only at the Gallup numbers, there is a clear increase.

But even this question would fail to capture my reading habits.  I’ve been making slow progress with a print copy of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil for some months, but I’ve been popping poems like candy, blowing through graphic novels, and breakfasting on short stories from Daily Science Fiction.  None of these forms count when you ask the question  “Do you happen to be reading any books or novels at present?” except perhaps graphic novels, but my point is here, I don’t count them. To me, they are a separate literary form, and though they are of value, merit, etc, my definition of “novel” (work of fiction, 50,000 words in length or more) does not encompass “graphic novel” (work of literature relying equally on word and image to tell a story).  Others’ definitions could.  But mine doesn’t.  And that type of thing distinctly matters when conducting these polls.

Given these thoughts, I don’t think we have to worry about people not reading.  To draw another cultural analogy, though folk regard art as dying thing, it isn’t.  It was never open to the masses, and its accessibility today is an anomaly, despite the fact that critics regard this accessibility as a pollution, a dilution.  Ursula K. Le Guin posits much the same for books in her 2008 essay over at Harper’s.  Reading is a social act, a cultural glue.  Twitter and Facebook affirm this, as does Harry Potter, in Le Guin’s example.

The way people engage the written word will always change.  Our notions of literature are in constant flux.  Why should we value long form over short form, why should we distinguish as more valuable fiction over non?  There is power in each and all.  The doomsayers are lamenting the loss of a format which was in its infancy (at least by the grand arc of human history).  They rue to death of an industry, publishing, that never understood how we construct our identities from the symbols we push around, on paper or canvas or with pixels.  What matters is that we engage these cultural artifacts together, note inclusion, dissect ideas, and make meaning; as users of symbolic reasoning, reading is long going to be part of that process.


Now that my current work permits, I can wear a green streak in my hair again. My verdant stripe is back, has been back for months. It feels like it belongs.

But hair presents an interesting problem. Any style, even the most basic, requires some kind of maintenance, and each hair type has its own demands. Depending on your genes and your desire or NEED to conform to society’s beauty demands, there a straighteners, relaxers, detanglers, curl enhancers, oils, creams, mousses, gels and goodness knows what else to help “tame,” shape, and mould one’s locks.

Unnaturally colored hair is no exception. Now, I maintain that unnaturally colored hair, being quite obviously unnatural, doesn’t need root touch-ups, to maintain an illusion of natural blond, or born-this-way red, but it does need redyeing. Over time,  colors fade. Green begins to look like beached seaweed and iron-deficient grass. I regard this as a disheveled and un professional look.

By last night, my hair had taken on the tone of an ill-aged copper kettle. It was time to address the matter. It was a matter of maintenance. It was a matter of pride.

You’d think, having dyed it once, redyeing it would be a simple thing. After all, you don’t have to deal with the whole bleaching process again. An it’s one solid streak rather than my whole head. But my hair is a thick and wispy mess, frizzing out in a halo of flyaways… some of which are distinctively green. The difficulty then lies in gathering in every faded strand for recoloring.

Even at my most obsessive, it’s a nigh impossible task. A comb helps. A comb does not fix the issue, but it helps. The strands seperate, and I’m able to wrangle together a good chunk of off-lime, shot through with a few significant threads of brown. At least this way, the brown won’t wick up the extra dye.

Then comes the fun. The grand mess. Nothing can contain the splash and spatter of the dye. No matter the gloves, no matter the towels set down, there is always the flung-paint pattern of the dye.

And at last, I wait. I usually wait by writing a blog post or a poem, sometimes I wait with a good book. Usually, I wait for half an hour… unless I read too deeply, in which case it takes far longer, and I don’t wash it out in a reasonable time.

But when I’m finished? The flash of leaf and forest cascading from my brow? Worth it. As if it grew that way of it’s own accord. I’ll save the clean up for later. For now, I’ll bask in my green.

Lit Bit: Spaces Between

When you write, even the time you are not writing, you are writing.  The negative space is as necessary to the process as the time spent scratching a page with a pencil.  Without those spaces between, there is no time to gather in, to hold still, to sit without doing.  All of those things are necessary to the craft of writing in their measure.

Brave Little Fly

There are nights when some things get to be too much… weights around the neck, fae-bright flashes of old memories, dark whisperings at the corners, in the periphery of hearing. What am I afraid of?  I’ll tell you, but I have to whisper.  I have to say it on the slant.

Pinned like a moth: bones to bones, Triceratops (trickster-god of missing puzzle pieces, young torosaurus) speaks from his stand in the Smithsonian in a sea of human language, “You are hiding”; the coyote on the roadside who sees me, pauses, yellow stare a blow to the nose, “You are running?”; I walk headlong into her web in Myakka, the golden silk spider is placid, and as I brush the sticky strands from my face, I cry, shrieking, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”  The spider doesn’t say anything.  She doesn’t need to.  I know.

I am afraid of nothing so simple as failure, or of looking myself in the eye when I gaze into a mirror.  These are bearable things.  No, I’m afraid of you.  You, reading this.  Not in the act of reading, no, but when we’re at dinner, and I make a joke, and it falls flat, and you look at me with that withering look, and I go quiet.  Or when the big reveal has come, and you know my secret, that I’m not straight, that I am in fact one of those complicated bisexual folk, I am afraid of what you will say.  Or what you will do.  If you will slap me open handed, or punch me until I can’t stand, or if you’ll wrinkle your face in disgust.   I’m afraid of being too academic in front of you, or that I’ve missed something important.  That you let me speak because you don’t know how to make me go away.  I’m afraid that everything I am doing is wrong, and you’re just too polite to tell me.

This on top of how I will pay the bills, and how I will put food on my table, the demons of abusive exes and the old memories of traumas years buried.  But those are known.  They are carved into my bones.  I understand them.  You, on the other hand, are the dark, and I am five years old.

Very well, then.  I will not hide, I think to Triceratops.  I will slow my step since the coyote noticed.  I will hold still while the orb-weaver takes up her web.  It’s daylight, anyway, and webs that large need to be taken in at dawn.  It’s daylight, it’s daylight.  Very well, then.  Bravery is learned.  I’ll ask.  How are you?

Lit Bit: Sex Doesn’t Even Rate

We give so much credence to sex.  Sex and love, sure. We want these things, ache for these things, sometimes.  But the real stuff of humanity, the glue that holds us all together, is food and stories. 

We make community in the kitchen cooking meals, swapping jokes, unwinding our days like a skein of yarn.  Our threads tangle us all together as we take dinner, refabricating moments lived and weaving lovely lies for each other’s entertainment. 

And sure, many of the stories are about sex.  Or romantic love.  And we compare good food to orgasms.  But the bread that sustains us is this kneading of our fractured days into a narrative arc. The meat of our daily rituals consists of the social taking of food, so that we may converse, so we may tell tales.

We are the stories that we eat.