November 12, 2009
If a thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters in a thousand years could write the Bible, how many would it take to make people take it seriously? Oh sorry, how many people would it take to make the monkeys take it seriously?: is what I meant. Oh wait, no, I meant the Complete Works of William Shakespeare (nobody takes them seriously). Or maybe some people do take Bill S. seriously (and the monkeys are laughing their heads off). Banana gunk and peanut skins all over the keys. The creationists breaking down the door.
And who’s gonna change the ribbons when computers replace the typewriters and you can’t buy old blue and red ribbons anymore (with over 900 years left to go)? One thing I know (and then I’ll shut up) monkeys could build computers, program them and use them, but only humans could invent (and name) The Blog. It was proposed to the monkeys and they just showed their teeth and typed WHY? WHY?
So we’re stuck with it. Every man a King Features Syndicate. When I was a little kid, and my dad had a mimeograph machine in his office, I thought I could start a neighborhood newspaper for us kids, write funny stories and drawings about the other kids, but there was something about cutting stencils or ditto masters and inking the roller, and anyway it never happened. Now, almost a hundred years later, it’s easy as pie. I have my own newspaper (two, in fact) in Blogland (it ain’t Candyland, but you can see it from there).
What’s writing take? I’m convinced that it takes sacrifice and mental imbalance. Sacrifice, maybe called ambition, means you turn your back on your family and friends, you shut the door on your spouse (if one will put up with you), you de-prioritize your job, and you write like the driven maniac you are.
And when you brood and look out the window, that’s writing too. Wallace Stevens would go for walks every morning, and a neighbor said she saw him walk along, stop, backtrack and walk over his steps again. He was composing. Living in the word world. If you do that your whole life, do you ever live? Are you ever in the horny here and now? (“But honey you seem distracted.” “Let’s do that again, I’m composing.”) And for what? Fame and fortune are a lottery win. Writers are losers. So for what? To leave boxes of paper in the basement that’ll disappear in the fire like Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece sequel to Invisible Man? Poof?
Ben Percy (hot-dog writer/teacher) gave me this quote from Harry Crews last summer:
You have to go to considerable trouble to live differently from the way the world wants you to live.... The world doesn’t want you to do a damn thing. If you wait till you got time to write a novel or time to write a story or time to read the hundred thousands of books you should have already read--if you wait for the time, you’ll never do it. ‘Cause there ain’t no time; world don’t want you to do that. World wants you to go to the zoo and eat cotton candy, preferably seven days a week.
So if World is apart from Writer, then Writer is apart from the World. That’s a lonely place, no place. That’s a place that’ll screw with your mind. They said about William Faulkner that he’d go to parties, sit in the corner, drinking, and never speak to anyone. A weirdo. An artistic personality. Somehow exiled to another dimension, almost coinciding with where the rest live but not quite the same world, not exactly the same life.
Franz Kafka and Emily Dickinson (and then I’ll quit with the examples): severe mental/emotional/social problems, chronic depression, agoraphobia, social anxiety, panic, bipolar, WHATEVER. They lived among us but were not quite like us. Over-sensitivity is associated with artists. Hmm. Hemingway’s crap-detector? or Hemingway’s double-barrel?
I got off track. The reason I mentioned Kafka and Dickinson is that they both died having published almost nothing and ordered their remaining works destroyed. They weren’t, and we are the richer. Maybe some other even greater writers’ works were faithfully destroyed by their descendents. Probably Emily and Franz thought of themselves as losers who’d wasted their lives.
Years of writing that nobody reads. Or a lifetime of ridicule (“you stink man, and your writing stinks too”), why ask for that? Why set yourself up to fail? Then there’s the self-doubt monster even when you're successful in the market (can I fool them again?), not to mention the self-pity monster. Uncomfortableness in the market at the very least, with all those shoppers bumping into you, all that yelling, those strong rotten smells, the filth on the ground. Better to go home, hide in the study, hide in books about other people’s lives in the market, and write your own strange stories that nobody even reads.
Fifteen years ago I read a book by acclaimed writing instructor John Gardner (The Art of Fiction), and I thought he was full of it, didn’t impress or help me at all, the self-worshipping jerk. Now I read another book by Gardner (On Becoming a Novelist) and every word made sense. How he changed in fifteen years! Oh wait, he died in 82 and both books came out in 83. Oops, I had changed. I had seen the path less traveled that lay before me, left the crossroads and committed to the journey. The one where you go to birthday parties but don’t have any fun. The one where you might even go to the zoo and eat cotton candy, but you can’t wait to get back to your writing desk, sit down and not ever get up.
Happy trials, Martin
Mutt: Say something funny, man, we need it.
Jeff: How about this: a guy goes to a psychiatrist ...
Mutt: Is he a writer?
Jeff: A guy goes to a psychiatrist and says that he sometimes feels like a teepee and other times he feels like a wigwam.
Mutt: And the psychiatrist says he’s two tents (too tense). Man, that joke is so old.
Jeff: So old that Barney and Fred used it in their ‘that joke is so old’ jokes.
Mutt: So old the Dead Sea wasn’t even sick yet.
Jeff: So old I’ve got an autographed Bible.
Mutt: By all 1,000 monkeys?