The Tyranny & Freedom of Control
"Most people try to live by self-propulsion. Each person is like an actor who wants to run the whole show: is forever trying to arrange the lights, the ballet, the scenery and the rest of the players in his own way. If his arrangements would only stay put, if only people would do as he wishes... Life would be wonderful. [...]
"What usually happens? The show doesn't come off very well. He begins to think life doesn't treat him right. He decides to exert himself some more... Admitting he may be somewhat at fault, he is sure that other people are more to blame. He becomes angry, indignant, self-pitying. What is his basic trouble?... Is he not a victim of the delusion that he can wrest satisfaction and happiness out of this world if he only manages well? Is it not evident to all the rest of the players that these are the things he wants?" –from "How It Works" by Anonymous
Q: How often are you able to create a desired result for yourself by sheer force of will, or by arranging circumstances? Do you ever feel as though the reason you aren't far enough along is that you haven't pushed yourself hard enough, even though you've worked very hard? In your writing life or otherwise: is control all it's cracked up to be?
I'm very driven, always have been. I grew up in the South, in the country, during a time when we were taught early to fend for ourselves. I entered adulthood without a safety net —make it, or fall. Because of that, I've never taken "no" for an answer—I've taken it as a challenge to try harder.
Having said that, as I've gotten older I've begun to realize there are times one needs to back it down a bit. Sometimes, the end does not justify the means. Sometimes, one needs to enjoy the ride and the people along the way, without worrying about the end result. It's a balance —one I haven't yet achieved, but one I work toward every day.
I'm the kid who always hated group projects and the adult who would prefer to do everything myself. For me the need for control comes from anxiety, and maybe that's why I write fiction! I am able to control all the parts, and even if it doesn't go as I want it to, at least it's up to me to figure it out. I tried to write a novel based on a historical figure, the photographer Dorothea Lange, but I couldn't do it because I couldn't change the details of her life, of history. In fiction I think you have to ease the reins of control to find a story, but control goes a long way in writing, shaping and editing. (And for me, the desire to control way too much is not going away any time soon...)
In my humble opinion, we can never exercise any real amount of control. Yes we can plan, yes we can put a risk analysis together, yes we can line up all our soldiers in a row. However, we always fail to take into account our emotional approach, the constraints (usually hidden by our social standing), education, family background, and myriad other influences we are incapable of consciously recognizing. Most plans, if they work at all, only work partially, and even then, with a large dollop of luck. I have always found it much easier to explain why my plan has not worked.
Dang. That's the heaviest question I've ever seen. Honestly it's something I think everyone struggles with. It's like, if we stress and push and force hard enough then every outcome will come out in our favor. Almost as if we flip the coin of life enough times it will always come up Heads and never leave us with our Tails out. But I think that's simply part of the human condition. To be quite honest, all that we need as humans to survive is the ability to eat, sleep (in relative safety), and procreate.
Everything else that we do is simply nonsensical. The most nonsensical thing we as humans do is create art. Literally, art serves no purpose other than to make us feel more in tune with... each other. Hmm. Maybe with that feeling of connection comes an even grander feeling of belonging and it's that feeling of belonging that helps lend meaning to each and every one of us. Without that sense of belonging, would we even want to eat? Sleep? Or Procreate?
I personally think that through sheer force of will, anyone can do anything. That's how I ended up writing on this website in the first place. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that a few Tweets and a short story would actually catch the attention of other people. It's thanks to those pleasant surprises that I keep trying. I love to force my will on society, because it's quite possible that "society" and "life" are simply parts of a giant computer game that's being played by some 10th dimensional twelve year old who can't seem to get passed the first level.
William Blake somewhere wrote something to the effect that ‘Everything is arranged by spirits.’
Emerson wrote that ‘Things are in the saddle and ride mankind.’
We are at our best when we accept that ‘Man proposes, God disposes.’ We make efforts, but the results are due to either chance or fate.
The best we can do is to be the best human beings we can be. That more than anything will determine our fates. The effects of our efforts in that direction will be both potent and invisible.
"What's the line? Something about 'give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference'? That applies to more than alcoholism. When it comes to writing, I know that, at some point, my success is out of my hands—I've written the best novel or story that I can, and I have to send it out into the world and hope that an editor will like it as much (or more!) than I do, and accept it, publish it. After building that world, playing God in some ways, with people, subject matter, emotions, etc. you have to then let it go.
I think there is perseverance and then there is luck. What's that saying? Something like, 'Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.' There are definitely moments where all you have to do is be in the right place at the right time. But if you've built your network up, and interact with thousands of people, sure, you'll be on more radars than if you are a hermit in a cave banging away on a typewriter, waiting for your genius to be discovered. I do think I have made things happen by sheer will, by determination, and perseverance. But it's always about the quality of your work, every single time.
My novel Disintegration took five years to get out—the first half written in my MFA, with one professor, my Pulitzer-nominated professor saying the following semester it wasn't 'thesis material,' (which just means not good enough). So, I put it aside for two years to finish my MFA, focusing on literary short stories (which ended up being a great decision) and then finished it in a hazy week, 35,000 words in five days, the story just pouring out of me. Then some 30 small presses passed, taking a year, then 100 agents passed, taking another year, before signing with my current agent, then ANOTHER year before we sold it to Random House Alibi in a two book deal. In the end, I'll take Irvine Welsh calling it "A stunning and vital piece of work," and Ellen Datlow naming it a Notable Novel of 2015 in her introduction to Best Horror of the Year, over the haters and those that rejected it.
I've had stories rejected 20, 40, 60, 100 times before getting accepted into elite publications, with acceptance rates of less than 5% (such as Cemetery Dance, alongside Stephen King, and storySouth). If you believe in what you're doing, never give up.
I think you can only work with a situation successfully as long as it works with you. There is an art to meeting things half-way, to staying in the middle, to watching the dynamic of cause and effect in one's life and not taking things personally. This is not to say that it is a bad thing to be goal oriented, only that there is little wisdom in putting a time frame on a goal.
Many want to see measurable progress according to their time-table, but this is where we're best shown that we are not in control. I think the adage of showing up, doing the work, and being unattached to outcome is the aim, but how to seriously achieve this stance of non-attachment, this acceptance of our lack of control?
Artists tend to be emotionally involved in their creations. We want to see the fruits of our labors manifest, elsewise—what's it all for? But I'm going to take this to a soul level and say the soul only wants to create; it wants the experience of creation as its reality, and if one considers art from this premise, then it is enough to create.
So the question for any artist to ask themselves is do you want the glory of the experience, or do you want to reap a reward? The world will tell you success looks a certain way at a particular end and therein lies your validation, but what attitude are we to assume until that fateful day? What price happiness?
To answer your question "Is control really all its cracked up to be?" I say no. There is only the illusion of control, and if we subscribe to it, we set ourselves up for all kinds of false premises, wherein frustration, self-doubt, victimization, and all the rest are given license. Art for art's sake is the answer because we can't control our art's reception. We may or may not gain riches and recognition, but if we engage the artistic flow as a way of being in the world, I call this a successful life. It's not necessary to choreograph the show, it's only necessary that we are wise enough to dance.
I’ve been obsessed with the Limits of Control (terrific flick by that name by Jim Jarmusch, by the way) in every book I’ve written. Here’s how I explain in my memoir my own understanding of my inability to control most anything by force of my own will. D., below, is the man, my husband, who left me and I wrote a book about my long journey through the good, the bad and the foolish in the aftermath. Here’s what I learned:
Once, we had that chef’s kitchen, D. complained that the new dishwasher—a German-made product that supposedly was built to last—wouldn’t drain, “The damn thing is two years old and broken.” I laughed and said, “You forget the Second Law of Thermodynamics.”
On the day I wept, when the marriage was broken, before I got in that cab with my one large suitcase and flew away to Missouri, he said at the side of the bed where I lay in despair, “But you forget the First Law, the Conservation of Energy: Energy can be neither created or destroyed.”
I didn’t understand.
I only understand this—and it has been a long time coming: The only path D. could follow was to leave to discover himself. But he never forgot the Laws of Thermodynamics.
C.P. Snow provided this shorthand to remember the laws: 1. You cannot win. 2. You cannot break even. 3. You cannot get out of the game.
But if you stay in the game, you can dance even when it seems that the dancers have all gone under the hill.
What to do? What not to do?
My brain explores the pros and cons.
Exhausted, I decide to let the fates have their way with me, for I know no better than they do. " "–Bradette Michel