A version of this essay was adapted for The Huffington Post. Read that here.
I nearly died just after completing the first draft of a novel called Beautiful Morning Blues. The story I came up with is unnerving, possibly amoral, anarchic, and, certainly, nihilistic as hell — but it still tries to say life is a magnificent and magical journey. I’m convinced that this dualism, this story at play with big metaphors and dark issues, was working to assassinate me — the messenger — from the moment I conceived it.
I struggled for two years to bring the whole 438 page draft into existence. Beginning with writing the first paragraph on a whim in 2002 (a guy gets offered $300 by a neighbor to have sex with her), over the next two years I battled depression, a growing addiction to alcohol, struggles in my marriage, sexual insecurity, and a weird sort of self-centered lunacy that you really have to call psycho-narcissism. On top of all that, every few months or so I just felt really crappy. I would run a low-grade fever for a few days and had this strange pain in my gut that my doctor couldn’t figure out.
Once I’d read through that first draft, I absolutely knew something very ugly was about to happen to me. The sense of doom I felt was overwhelming. A few weeks later I began what became a summer in and out of the hospital. It took nearly a year after that to recover. My daily sports routine still hasn’t come back to me — nine years later.
Is it possible for a novel (or a story of any kind) to attempt to assassinate its author? More to the point, is it possible that writers leave themselves open to self-destruction in general because they go so far into the unconscious mind and try their hand at the black magic of dredging weird myths and stilted meaning out of that thing that is probably really only intended by evolution as the engine for normal human dreams and nightmares? Tim Parks gets at this dilemma in a recent blog post for The New York Review of Books, “Writing to Death.” Good fiction is often all about an author trying to tell a story that is caught between two moral extremes. Writers must work hard to synthesize these extremes into a more vital truth. Parks writes:
…so many of the writers I have looked at seem permanently torn between irreconcilable positions, something that seems to feed that famous ambiguity literary critics so much admire; eventually, the dilemma driving the work either leads to death, or is neutralized in a way that prolongs life but dulls the writing.
What was the source of Ernest Hemingway’s suicide? Or Hunter Thompson’s? How about the last years of Ezra Pound — crazy as a loon and unpoetic as hell? What of Sylvia Plath’s lethal and legendary ending, or Virginia Woolf’s death by drowning? And then observe all the great authors who died either before their time or, seemingly, out of the blue: Jack Kerouac (alcoholism, 47); Margaret Mitchell (hit by a cab, 48) James Joyce (peritonitis, 58); Franz Kafka (tuberculosis/starvation, 40); Roland Barthes (struck by a laundry delivery van, 64); Octavia Butler (a slip and a fall, 58); Arthur Rimbaud (a lot of shit, 37). This list could go on for a couple of screens. My point should be obvious.
For art to murder its creator, it wouldn’t do — for the sake of human progress (or the survival of art) — to identify the culprit, would it? Better to blame alcoholism, schizophrenia, cancer, accidents, drugs, tuberculosis, or, in a pinch, senseless suicide.
But nothing is that simple for anyone who tries hard to be creative. Writing is indeed the most spooky of the arts, because practitioners are transcribing meaning out of the netherworld all by themselves. Visual and auditory arts go beyond meaning. Trying to channel verbal significance out of the ooze is just plain precarious. Drugs, William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac will tell you, provide a bit of protection, but in the end, of course, they’re the best way that stories know of to kill the writer (and destroy everyone around them).
Norman Mailer is the one who got me thinking that writing is a “spooky art.” He’s not shitting the reader when he writes: “It’s an unnatural activity to sit at a desk and squeeze words out of yourself. Various kinds of poisons — essences of fatigue — get secreted through your system. As you age, it grows worse.”
The underworld of the unconscious may be the most crafty villain on earth today. When a whole bunch of people get sidetracked by the unconscious mind, history goes bananas. Personally, I credit the unconscious run amok to Nazi Germany, the invention of the atomic bomb, 9/11, slavery in the New World, and our inability to get to the bottom of JFK’s assassination. I’m still not sure about the American invasion of Iraq — and the whole Bush foreign policy debacle in the early part of this century (may it rest in peace). Don’t get me started on the U.S. gun problem.
An important question here, of course, is motive. Why would stories that writers dredge out of themselves want to kill their creators? Do writers just go too far giving away secrets that should remain hidden from the people of the world? Does the story as the vehicle of the unconscious mind fall in love with the writer and develop the desire to absorb said writer into its murky universe? Has the writer set up a mirror thing with infinite reflections out of the darkness into the light and then back into the darkness again,etc., etc.? Something that can only stop with his or her death?
I’m going to guess it’s taxing and stressful when writers (or other artists) keep bugging their unconscious, looking for really nasty little tidbits and twisted dilemmas that show how fucked up and stupid human beings really are. Norman Mailer makes out that the unconscious is like a thoroughbred race horse or a gifted servant you make deals with. I think that’s incredibly naive.
But Mailer also wrote in his book The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing:
Suppose the unconscious has a root in the hereafter that our conscious mind does not. If so, it will have deeper notions about death than we do. …the unconscious can feel exploited by the push of the novelist to extract so much of his [or her] product from its resources.
Scariest to me is the fact that stories don’t just look to murder successful artists. They’re indiscriminate and confused in their quest to kill. We just don’t hear about all the wannabes and authors holed up in garrets no one knows about when they croak.
Maybe the definition of success for a novelist is that somehow they manage to buy themselves enough time to actually make a name for themselves. Or maybe the basis of their success is a strong enough will and a hearty enough constitution to do battle with their work, having sufficient strength of character and intellect to manage time to find a loving agent and a competent publishing house to make them famous.
Most of us aren’t so lucky, though. And now, with our electronic universe we usually don’t even leave behind manuscripts in drawers. Millions of unacknowledged words twist noiselessly inside our laptops. Writers’ computers are inevitably recycled or wiped clean after they die, given to nieces or neighbors as a noble gesture. We die and no one reads a thing we have on our laptops — the modern dilemma of being a tree that falls alone in the forest.
Death is inevitable, of course. None of us know if anything lies beyond. Some would argue that every story is really, one way or another, about death. Certainly, writers are moved to finish their stories because they know that one day they will die. Maybe that’s the motive: stories don’t like it when authors get too close to the secret that lies beyond that final door.
In my case, I had a massive cyst hidden in my abdominal cavity connected to my colon. I was relatively young (46), but had likely been suffering from diverticulitis for over a decade. I’d felt like shit on and off the entire time I was writing Beautiful Morning Blues. It was my first attempt at serious fiction in long-form. The book faces the ugly crap in life we hear about endlessly on the news — rape, murder, geo-political violence, good old climate change. It’s protagonist, Hugh Donovan, also stumbles into becoming the neighborhood gigolo (nothing like stay-at-home dads). The anomie and nihilism set up in this story will piss a lot of people off. So does life have any meaning? Is their any hope? I’m still working to finish this book. It should be ready to debut sometime next year or two.
It took them a month to diagnose my situation. The hidden cyst was as big as my fist. They eventually went in and excised 10-inches of my colon. I’d lost nearly 30 pounds by the time they did that. I’d been nourishing myself on a liquid diet of Ensure for a month while they drained my cyst down to a reasonable level for surgery. Even now I want to eat everything on the table every night at dinner. Bacon is my passion. I put the 30-pounds back on…and then another 25 or so for good measure over the years. Two days after my surgery, a doctor was checking me over at 3:00 in the morning. He said, “You know, you’re lucky. Another day or two and that cyst would have burst. You’d have been dead in a matter of hours. Sepsis is no way to go.”
It sucks not having ten inches of your digestive system. But you learn a lot about proper food choices from all that danger. You learn to make fiber a primary part of your diet. You learn to reduce acid intake by cutting out alcohol (for the most part). Food moves through your system faster. You spend more time on the toilet (which is actually good for you if you’re a writer — that and showers). Most importantly, you learn that a lot of the stuff people think matters in the food realm is really kind of silly. I went two months without being able to eat solid food. When I was finally able to eat again, a bacon-pepperoni pizza never tasted so good (accompanied by a fibrous salad).
So this really isn’t supposed to be a mystical statement about the mind-bending world of the arts. The occult doesn’t need to be part of the equation here. In his New York Review essay, Parks provides us with all sorts of examples of authors who ignore the physical duress they’re under because they’re so busy with work. Others, like Chekhov and Lawrence, ran headlong at the mortality their tuberculosis provided them. In my case, I was working a standard day job, being a daddy to three boys, taking care of a slowly dying mother, and trying to be a good husband — all while grabbing 4 AM gigs at my desk or Sunday afternoons to work on this novel I truly needed to get out of me. I ended up ignoring or discounting the pain in my gut, and the low-grade fevers, and the diarrhea that would come and go for years. I ignored it all so well, after a time it became my normal. I expected to feel like shit most everyday as I wrote.
Here’s the thing. Death is always right there in everyone’s lap. Maybe stories really do try to assassinate their authors and maybe they don’t. Maybe your obsession with video games, or porn, or the stock market provides your unconscious mind the same opportunity. Steve Jobs pretty much offed himself by looking for an easier way out of his cancer than what Western medicine offered. He realized the problem, but it was too late in the end. His love of his work may have been his reason for trying that end run.
I’m an advocate of “spilling your guts” when you write (kind of funny, right?). It seems to me this is especially important for Indie Writers working on the new frontier of digital publishing. Our job as writers is to go into the weird realms of the imagination and try to make sense of what is hard for people to understand in any other way than stories and novels. We’re lucky. We aren’t encumbered by agents and publishers and other door keepers. Our content is not censored. We don’t have to follow rules. Over the next few years readers will begin to figure this out. This absolute freedom is a dangerous thing in and of itself, but the upside is the infinite possibility of independent creation.
Whatever you may think about the merits of indie writer E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, I think part of that story’s allure is that she went into a strange, dark realm. Maybe the reason James is still with us, though, is because she didn’t go far enough. Ana is such a princess. The Marquis de Sade lived to be 64. He did spend half of his life in prison and insane asylums and had an affair with a teenage boy in the last four years of his life. Certainly, the world of erotic letters is a wide open chasm into the unconscious. There’s a lot of crap published independently around that gaping hole, but if you look carefully, there’s some amazing work as well.
Beautiful Morning Blues is a decent enough attempt at facing the crazy stuff life has to offer. I’ve also just finished the first draft of a companion piece to it — Ex:Urbia: A Love Story. And I’m about 50% of the way into Dawn of the Summertons which deals with the demise of liberal thinking in America through the story of a mixed race family living in Philadelphia at the time of the Great Recession. There’s other projects I’m thinking about as well. If those stories want to try to kill me, then I’ll know I’m doing something right.
To close, let me say this: the whole nightmare I went through really pisses me off. That’s one reason I keep writing out on the edge the way I do. I hate anyone who tries to censor me, especially my own mind and my own creations. If my stories are going to try to kill me, then so be it. I ain’t backing down.
Of course, I know I may be wrong about all of this. Maybe stories don’t work to kill us. Maybe it’s just the unconscious mind fed up with the self-delusion that every writer must use daily, assuming that the world wants to read what he or she has to say about life. Worse, maybe self-murder is really all about putting an end to people who write one too many bad stories — or write bad stories for the wrong reasons.
Regardless, writing should, indeed, be a spooky art. Playing with the imagination is not for sissies. I do have this advice, though: watch the booze; if you must smoke, just do it when you’re creating; give your love to your family 110% when you’re not creating; see your doctor regularly; don’t get tuberculosis; exercise every day; and, for goodness sake, eat both kinds of fiber with every meal.