Friday, May 2, 2014

Excuses, excuses

One of my good buddies from college once said something which has stuck with me every since. I’m honestly not sure to what extent the kids nowadays are into it, but back in those mid-90’s days it was very fashionable (and fun!) to flaunt a certain anti-establishment ideology, and the phrase “Stick it to The Man!” was liable to trip off my tongue on a daily basis, possibly in non sequitur fashion. One time I uttered those words to my buddy and he adopted a theatrically taken-aback look and said, “I’m not going to stick it to The Man. I am The Man!” And his tacit implication was that I, my youthful attitudes and long-haired, footloose lifestyle notwithstanding, was also The Man.

And of course my buddy was dead right. Like him, I’m white, male, and straight, American and affluent (at the time of that initial exchange, I was living off my parents’ affluence, of course) and life is pretty cushy for me. If there were any kind of radical revolution, upending the Old Order, it would probably leave me worse off, not better. And I carry around the requisite amount of liberal guilt about this, and try to at least be mindful of it on a regular basis.

But (and this is not a self-pitying complaint, merely an observation) sometimes it makes it hard for me to take myself seriously as a writer. Because I am an inheritor of every last one of the traditions of the white-washed patriarchal past, and as such I feel like my perspective is pretty disposable. The world needs new voices to share new experiences, or experiences that aren’t new at all but have never been properly understood because they didn’t conform to a very limited agenda-setting viewpoint. I confess that I don’t bring a lot to the table in that regard.

I mentioned last week that I’ve been writing a lot more lately (still true, didn’t jinx myself by blogging about it) and at the same time I’ve been poking around the paying markets for short fiction. I do this in cycles, every so often (once or twice a decade). Sometimes I’ll take note of an e-zine or an anthology publisher that I think might be worth submitting to, once I finish a story I’ve already got started. And sometimes it works in reverse, where I find some potential market that serves a very specific niche, and the carefully (or arbitrarily) delineated parameters of their guidelines inspires the spark of a story idea. Which is all well and good. But sometimes (or this time, any way, I really don’t remember encountering this much or at all in previous go-rounds) I’ve run across a publisher seeking to cater to under-served audiences and/or provide outlets to under-exposed writers. In other words, they’re looking for stories by and about women, or people of color, or the LGBTQ community, and so forth. And please do not get me wrong, I think that is fantastic. I still have enough long-haired radical in me that I want to live in a world with a lot less prejudice and fear and more openness and equality, and if a steampunk anthology written and edited entirely by queer black women is a small step in that direction, more power to them. I wish them all the luck in the world. But that’s really all I can do. That’s the (infinitesimally insignificant) downside to having hit the lottery when you were born, in terms of being granted the maximum number of opportunities for mainstream success and conformity: if you have a creative side, you’re not exactly going to be hailed for making outsider art.

In another conversation with another friend some other time (I think it was about ten years ago), said friend asked me point blank if I had been writing much lately; it so happened that I had not, and I truthfully admitted as much. My friend asked why not and I just kind of shrugged and smiled and said, “I’m too happy.” Which led to a whole longer discussion on the process of converting pain into art and how many creative expressions are really, on some level, a way for a person to process difficult emotions or put old ghosts to rest &c. And I am grateful, every day of my life, for the real blessings I’ve received, not so much the color of my skin or my gender or my income, but just that I don’t really have any personal tragedy on my scorecard. I know full well that being affluent and upper-middle class doesn’t automatically shield you from bad things the way it sets you up for good things. Rich white people get cancer or get into car accidents, suffer and perpetuate all kinds of abuse (of themselves and of others), basically are just as susceptible to the havoc of an entropic universe as anyone else. And yet I’ve dodged almost all of those bullets, more or less without really trying, not there’s really any way of actively trying, as I’m trying to convey, except maybe refusing to connect with other human beings in order to spare yourself the pain of them hurting you, inadvertently or otherwise; in any case, that’s not me, I’m not estranged from my family, I’ve built one of my own, and I bond with people at the drop of a hat. I’m just lucky, knock on every piece of fibrous structural plant tissue I see.

I suspect, on some level, that all of the above is part of the reason why I’m so drawn to speculative genre stories, scifi and fantasy and horror (oh my), especially from the creative side. Do I have anything to say about being human that hasn’t been said before, by people almost exactly like me, a thousand times over? Maybe not. Do I have any profound insight into the hard parts of life, the struggles, the losses, the fears and doubts and pain? Little to none. OK, then, how about ridiculous adrenaline-fueled yarns about space dwarves building rocket cannons to fend off an armada of cyborg snakemen? At least it’s somewhat original, and at least I feel as qualified to write it as anybody else.

Those are thin straws to grasp at, though, and I further suspect that when these creative cycles of mine run down to their lowest ebb, it’s largely due to the fact that the areas where I feel the most confident are also the areas I know are inherently silly and disconnected from reality, brain-candy escapism at best. I feel like I’m overcompensating for living a deeply boring life, and then I feel guilty for wanting to put myself in the shoes of someone fighting for their life because it must mean I’m dissatisfied or taking my own for granted. (I’m not, but that’s neither here nor there; I never promised a rational train of thought would be revealed.)

So then on top of those two big excuses not to write (not being disenfranchised enough, or not having suffered miseries enough) there’s the inescapable fact that writing is a solitary pursuit. Collaboration is fun and having good beta readers can be invaluable, but ultimately writing comes down to shutting out the world long enough to find the words and tell the story. Every minute spent in that kind of isolation is a minute that I’m not spending engaged with my real, actual life, and as I’ve been yammering on and on about, I have a pretty good life which I’m quite fond of. I don’t necessarily want to tell my kids to leave me alone on a weekend afternoon, or ask my wife if she minds if I disappear for a couple hours. I mean, I already do those things as it is, but usually in the form of taking care of various responsibilities, asking the kids to leave me alone long enough to mow the lawn, or disappearing on my wife because there’s a friend I haven’t hung out with in six months who could use a beer and a sympathetic ear. To ask for even more time, not for anything or anyone else other than my muse (UGH) seems unpardonable.

Anyway, that’s a bunch of stuff that’s been rattling around in my head this week. Again, not asking anyone to feel sorry for me, not saying I would choose to have things any other way, given how it all weighs out. Just sayin’.

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