Deliberately loving ridiculous things
"I suppose, as a poet, among my fears can be counted the deep-seated uneasiness surrounding the possibility that one day it will be revealed that I consecrated my life to an imbecility. Part of what I mean—what I think I mean—by "imbecility" is something intrinsically unnecessary and superfluous and thereby unintentionally cruel." [...]
"Connoisseurs of reading are very silly people. But like Thomas Merton said, one day you wake up and realize religion is ridiculous and that you will stick with it anyway. What love is ever any different?" –Mary Ruefle, Madness, Rack, and Honey
Love might be one reason people stick with ridiculous relationships and things. Another might be force of habit. Another: clinging to identity. Others might be denial or amnesia or worse.
Q: When you keep a relationship you know to be ridiculous or hard to defend, whether with a lover, a project, a business, a pastime, a group or ideology, or anything else, how do you know you're doing so for good reasons like love, and not bad one's like avoidance? Or do you know? Maybe the question should be put in the past tense. Take us there if you want. (6 August, 2016)
Over a decade ago I began a novel. It was workshopped at Tin House, moved with me from Colorado to Oregon, and was finished a few years later. Our relationship was complicated. I saw in it my idealized self: sharp, assured, fearless. For years I would work on nothing else, consumed by my vision of what the novel could be. Then I wouldn’t write at all. Or I would return to it, but other stories were tugging at me, and my attachment to it began to waver. I felt guilt, hope, anxiety, dread, longing. A real writer wrote novels. I had internalized the pressure short story writers face to write one. But my novel remained a series of discreet, episodic scenes lacking a vision to lift them up and hold them together. I lost faith.
The good reasons for pursuing it—courage and determination—grew into bad ones—stubbornness and shortsightedness. I’m not sure if one can know from the beginning what our motives are for entering a relationship, since so much depends on how we see ourselves in relation to social, economic, political, or cultural expectations, but for me, once I came to terms with the end of mine, I was relieved and grateful. I was free.
Try to explain “I’m a writer” to a group of women, ladies, who stay at home with children with names like Saffron and Morrison, who drive spotless luxury SUVs and play tennis daily. You’re at happy hour. Kids are with husbands or au pairs. Try to explain what you write. Try to explain that your most recent short story is about a barren woman who eats her own home. Eats. Her. Home.
Here’s what will happen: silence. Polite smiles. A few will ask to read something “someday.”
The place I live is a bubble of high socio-economic standards on what used to be ranchland. And, I have friends here. Friendships with complicated women masked in feminine perfection. I’m part of them, but I’m not. I’m a small-town girl whose small town, because of location or because of fate, became wealthy. My husband and I have maintained our home here, but it doesn’t look or feel like the others that are near us. I attend readings and rise early to craft sentences to the best of my ability. And, I’m part of my circle of writers, smart people with strong opinions about politics and Oxford commas, but I’m also not. I work a corporate job to make money, to help pay for the house, the private Kinder, and, yes, the Pilates classes. I read Better Homes. They say that no man (or woman) is an island, but I’ve become exactly that. Amanda of Writer’s Island in the Suburbian Sea.
It can be lonely here.
But, here’s the truth: the two worlds in which I travel are both remarkable. Writers are energy and art generators. Eccentric, creative, passionate. But suburbia is interesting. There’s this desperate desire to be more. There’s a love for children, for family, for life. These ladies who lunch, once you learn about them, are stories in and of themselves. They strive, they struggle, and they are capable of remark-able moments. They just do it in full make-up and wedges.
I do love these worlds. Perhaps it’s because I can push them against each other, like two continents, and build up these miniature mountains of ideas. And if I resided in just one, and not in the other, something would be lost. Something would be flat.
I doubt that anyone else is so appropriately pinned by this question, or that any question could target my life-compelling BIG IDEA with a more accurate flame thrower. I have devoted almost all my life to an idea that had me accused of arrogance, delusion, and finally had me shackled to a bed as insane. It cost almost all I had, short of life itself. This question of what was undoubtedly ‘unintentionally cruel’ and whether love played any part in my stubborn devotion to it was put on trial.
I never asked for the EXPERIENCE that demanded the Book be written, nor sought it, but it happened and it took away the entire outer material creation and left me in a field of light, conscious lumin-escence; No thing.
The question asked here implies that ideas, projects, ideologies are like beads in a market stall, there to try and buy and once bought, possessed exclusively and all credit to the Professor en route for Stockholm. Instead in a coherent field, ideas find us, since we too are ideas in another dimension. The structure of the basket in which an idea coils like a cobra may change size, shape, colour. It is the idea that weaves it. Sometimes they escape and coil in a better, more articulate receptacle.
I had no idea, but an experience giving birth to one. My bruised Ego in the worldly sense is soothed by the forty-five years it took for others to join me. That’s something. Better than betraying the truth of the idea that bit me. Easy to contemplate, impossible to achieve since experiential ideas have their own gravity. Intellect can pick and choose.
I really like this question, especially because it makes me deeply uncomfortable vis-à-vis my personal life. In my personal life, cowardice and fear/laziness of change probably drive me as much as good intentions. But then, I’m a very confused guy. It’s probably easier for you normies out there. I’ve been known to move on, to start over—to improve, even—from said relationships, but usually only after an extended period of self-immolation, usually when it’s far too late to justify or rectify wrongs.
When I apply it to my writing life, there's a certain ineluctable inertia (if that makes sense) that keeps me going, even when I recognize a project or piece I like/“love” as fundamentally flawed. I'm stubborn, and have a huge inferiority/underdog complex, so I mostly trudge on, often to ridiculous lengths.
A few months ago I had a piece taken by DIAGRAM. Soon after, they tweeted about what a pleasure it was to accept a guy so desperate (my word) he’d submitted 13 times over the years. That guy was me. More recently, I had a story accepted that was rejected 90 times in 5 different drafts over a 3 year period. And just a few weeks ago there was this story I got accepted that was so bad in an initial draft a former writing professor called it “the least of both worlds, not a story and not part of a longer work.” I mean, you know it’s bad when even a tenured, lazy CW prof who praises everything calls your story dog crap to your face. So, yeah, there’s no easy answer to your question, although for me it’s really hard to just give up on a piece. Starting over is hard and scary, and I’m neither talented or prolific enough to walk away from something that has even a kernel of hope. Sometimes it’s just easier to keep hammering the shit out of that square peg until it fits, or, in my case, until an editor is like, “Fuck me, I'm gonna just run this guy’s work so he finally leaves me alone.”
My relationship with writing is absolutely ridiculous and dysfunctional but of course it’s love. It is maddeningly enigmatic. It is my closest confidant and knows my mind better than I do. But it’s been a rocky relationship for thirty years. Always passionate, rarely peaceful. It hasn’t brought me much for all I’ve given it. It doesn’t care what courage and humility is required of me to return, again and again, even when I suspect things between us just won’t work out.
I would argue that no creative art is “an imbecility,” unless we consider necessary only what is required for our biological survival. It’s true, a writer can silence herself and her heart and lungs will continue as if she is fine, as if she’s alive. Words can’t feed hungry people or administer medicine or fight fires. Isn’t it selfish to waste time on art when the world needs so much? Words can’t nourish or heal or save.
Except they can. They articulate the darkness and shine light on what connects us. Words tend the existential, not the physical, but need is need. Some people drop writing when it fails to garner the enthusiastic praise they expect, or when they realize there will always be rejection. Love is knowing all this and staying anyway, because you must. I don’t defend why I am in this or any relationship. I don’t even declare that I stay for “good reasons.” Lots of relationships are like that, a blend of love and need. Need softens the blow of love’s inevitable disappointment.
Longevity can be hard to find, and that's true of romance, friendships, or professions. When the will to stay outweighs the benefits of the situation, you know you have a problem. I'm a people-pleaser, and as a result, I've been trapped in plenty of unsavory situations.
For more years than I'd like to admit, I was in an abusive marriage. I knew the relationship was beyond repair, but I stuck it out because I believed I couldn't do any better. As soon as I got away, I realized the key to remedying unfavorable situations was self-awareness and hard work.
My job as an adjunct comes with zero benefits and low pay, but I'm not just sticking it out this time. I've joined a union, and I'm advocating for better working conditions. The hours and the pay might be ridiculous, but after I've put in the work, I believe staying the course will work out for me this time.
Often, doubts have crept in concerning my writing career, but I assuage said doubt with a reminder: writing is my release. Like the people-pleaser I am, I'm going to keep at what I love in order to maintain my sanity.
I have never believed or even feared that writing as a pastime or potential career is ridiculous. I value writing and stories very highly. However, I have often feared that dedicating myself, specifically, to writing might prove to be pointless. That I, individually, will fail to achieve anything or connect with anyone through my writing. This is a fear that might drive me away from the relationship rather than trap me in it if it weren’t for that fact I’m also very afraid of what I would do if I wasn’t a writer. For me, life without writing would be far more ridiculous.
I believe these fears are born from a deep-seated passion for storytelling. It’s difficult to separate the two. It’s difficult to separate them from other impetuses as well. I find it rare to be able to isolate a single motivation for anything in life. Which is probably why it’s so hard for people to leave a relationship they’ve invested time and energy into even if it isn’t quite working for them.
I suppose my only answer is you feel it in your bones. You may doubt yourself or the relationship sometimes but it always comes back around, there are long periods of certainty and it makes you feel like nothing else.
The Starving Artist by Garrett Gill
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When you become so good at something so niched for so long, there'll come a point when you have to make a conscious decision to continue loving it, just so you can stick with it, and that delib-erate loving will lube the way for more excellence, which locks you in even further, which makes you love harder, and so on, until something breaks—open or down.