Sunday, August 02, 2009

Writer's Block in a Glass Bubble

Here are the first two entries in the "Kaleidoscope" train of thought:

Glass Bubble

For a while, earlier this year, Kirk, Simon, Nelly and Josiah and I were playing an online game called Legends of Elveron. As happens when geeks gather in one place, we got to storytelling about old D&D campaigns. In telling the story of my favorite gaming character, Max Forger, I started talking about living in Seattle at the turn of the millennium. This is what I wrote:

I've promised myself that if I ever manage to teach myself to write again and graduate, I'm going to write an Eighteenth Brumaire of George W. Bush. I owe him and his men so much of what I learned about the limits of democracy, rationality and, indeed, how under the right circumstances how an adroit politician may shape, no—virtually sculpt public opinion like so much clay. There was so much to talk about then. We were not yet desensitized to horror, as we are now. Truly these were the last days of my youth.

We drank a good deal together and had a lot of fun. One of the greatest blessings in my life was that Simon lived very close to me. He and his girlfriend Nelly, with whom I also became very good friends, hardly passed a day when we didn't bump into one another, if we hadn't planned on meeting. While I've never smoked tobacco, Nelly and Simon did, and we all drank coffee in the upstairs room at Cafe Allegro. We'd drink coffee and play cards and philosophize. We played this delightful Russian card game Nelly taught us called Durak, which Simon dubbed "Russian Ratfuck." It's the perfect salon game. As it was the game of nobility, Nelly and I decided that everyone should have a title. As Nelly was my courtly lover, we ripped off Les Liasons Dangereuses and she became the Marquise and I became the Vicomte. Simon became the Duke. I forget what title we gave Peter Hovde. Ru became the Pirate King (despite the fact that in my mind, Simon has always been the Pirate King). We talked and talked and talked. We lived in a glass bubble in the storm that engulfed the nation. Outside, the storm raged on and we were hardly senseless to it, after all, the bubble was made of glass. But I never realized until now how safe the bubble was and how beautiful. I was too stupid to realize it at the time, but it was one of the greatest blessings of my life.

Nelly and Simon were here over the past view days. We had such a good time just talking. I miss them both so dearly. Seattle lost much of its charm for me when they left. But whether or not they were here to lend it charm, Seattle has been a safe, glass bubble for me. There is virtually no place else in America in which it is easier to be an out queer than Seattle. This town has been good to me.

We’ve had a heat wave in Seattle (90+ degrees for several days—we aren’t designed to weather this sort of thing here). Nelly needed to buy a summer dress, as she had no idea that she’d need one here. So Simon and I left her to shop at Alderwood mall and we browsed through different geek-oriented stores. We came to a knife shop and Simon wanted to go in, so we did. I saw a particularly lethal looking knife blade there. This is the closest image I could find, but it’s a good deal scarier that this one:

Looking at this knife in the store’s cut-up, a thought that has been growing in my mind began to crystallize. I’m not going to live in a glass bubble forever. Looking at the knife, so clearly designed to disembowel upon exit, I could see human hatred. It takes a certain mind to objectify a person enough to create a knife like that. That person is out there. Odds are that person hates queers. Well, I’m a loudmouth queer. And I’m not going shut up either. I need to learn to defend myself and my partner. I can’t live in a glass bubble for the rest of my life. I’m going to graduate and probably have to leave Seattle. I need to start getting real. I believe in democratic political order, but there are plenty of people involved in creating democratic political order who don’t believe in me or mine.

I think I want to take a karate class when Craig and I get back from Tel Aviv.

Writer’s Block

In a recent e-mail, one of you guys asked:

It's curious in your blog you talk about how you have difficulty writing but then you write these very long thoughtful emails to me.

I could say that it’s a very different type of writing. That is technically true. It is totally different to spew at someone in a conversation (hockey again) then to write an intellectual argumentative essay (football). The differences between the structural demands of both types of writing couldn’t be more stark. The difficulty with that claim is that it is emotionally dishonest. I think I have, after many years now, figured out how to break the job into parts and conquer it. There remain technical challenges, of course, but I know that this is something I can handle. Something else is wrong.

The something else is that I have writer’s block, because I know that I will never again experience writing as euphoria. A while ago, I did a blog entry on a piece I read by Talal Amin (the other Talal in the social sciences, the one whose name some other social scientist might actually recognize). This was the passage that set me off:

Johann Sulzer, a theorist of the fine arts, wrote in more general terms: “All artists of any genius claim that from time to time they experience a state of extraordinary psychic intensity which makes work unusually easy, images arising without great effort and the best ideas flowing in such profusion as if they were the gift of some higher power. This is without doubt what is called inspiration. If an artist experiences this condition, his object appears to him in an unusual light; his genius, as if guided by a divine power, invents without effort, shaping his invention in the most suitable form without strain; the finest ideas and images occur unbidden in floods to the inspired poet; the orator judges with the greatest acumen, feels with the greatest intensity, and the strongest and most vividly expressive words rise to his tongue.” Such statements, Flaherty argues, are strongly reminiscent of accounts of shamanism—in this case of a shaman described not skeptically but in wonderment. They employ the idea of inspiration metaphorically—as control of an “instrument” from outside the person, or as a “gift” from a “higher power.” But these remain metaphors, covering an inability to explain a this-worldly phenomenon in natural terms.

Before I got sick, writing was always that way for me. I’ve always had a powerful imagination. Before the fateful autumn of ’99 when I had the really nasty attack that gave me optic neuritis, my frontal lobes were capable of processing many, many steps at the same time and I could keep up with the flood of images coming into my brain. I loved writing because it was the highest experience of creative power I knew. I loved it even more than singing. That’s why I became a scholar, not a tenor. The reason I have writer’s block is because I know that I will never feel that power again and my heart and soul hates that fact. Like a child, I refuse to accept what is hateful.

When my niece Valerie was very young, she would often refuse to come along with me when the appointed hour for leaving the McDonald’s playland to go home or leaving the television to go to her bath or her sleep. I would look down at her (as my niece at the age of four was much shorter than me) and say, “Niece. You have two options. You can come along with dignity or without dignity. But you’re coming along. So which will it be?”

At this point Valerie would usually stare up at me in resignation and sigh, “Dignity” and come along. On occasion, however, she would clench her jaw, stare up angrily and say, “NO DIGNITY!” This was boundlessly entertaining and I would laugh, scoop her off the floor and carry her to the next exotic port of call.

I am not a four year-old niece. I am a nearly forty year-old uncle. As much as my subconscious has been screaming “NO DIGNITY!” lately, it is not charming or entertaining. It is unacceptable. I must accept that writing will be plodding and not euphoria. This isn’t cooking. I can punt cooking. I have things I want to say, damn it. I can’t punt writing. Damn it, I’m a scholar. Scholars produce scholarship. This is not negotiable.

I need to make tables, lay out tasks, make check marks and I need to do write everyday, just like I work out every day. I need to accept that change will happen slowly, that I’ll never be directly satisfied with a day’s work, that I cannot measure my life in immediately visible results. Writing will never again be ecstasy, because it will never happen quickly enough to overload my senses. Of all the limitations, this hurts the most, for I wrote once with divine inspiration and will not write that way again. But I have to write every day from now on. This won’t work otherwise.

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