Philoctetes

I was going to comment on the Ryan Boudinot article but it’s already been fisked to death, I don’t think it bears more refuting. Besides, ever since the initial disappointment of learning that MFA doesn’t actually stand for “motherfucking art”, I’ve been severely disillusioned about higher education.

Unrelated to Boudinot or MFAs, though, I wanted to talk a bit about writing-as-therapy. Not in a classroom setting or in literary academia, but the way it works for the likes of me, for the pulp writers. In the altogether different literary universe—not actually a less pretentious one, since apparently there is equal and opposite snobbery in all directions—where I write short sff, follow Heinlein’s rules and all that, expectations adjusted downward to account for inflation since it’s not 1947 any more, and publish almost exclusively in sff magazines, I couldn’t write memoir even if I wanted to because nobody would buy it. But I’ve both consciously and unconsciously done a lot of writing-as-therapy in the last two years anyway. For example, there’s a pattern you can see in most of my early work, one that was not deliberately put there: “Pockets Full of Stones”, “The Jackal’s Wedding”, “The Calf”, “By Dawn’s Barbed Light” and “On Being Undone By A Light Breeze” are all—alongside whatever else they’re about—about losing parents or losing a sibling. Grief is pervasive; it can become a normalcy, a new default, so much so that you can sometimes write nothing but characters who are themselves grieving for a year and still not notice that it’s a pattern. I stopped after I noticed, of course.

There was another common aspect to a lot of those early stories, which was that the stories would end with the protagonists throwing themselves into the unknown—sometimes death, other times great uncertainty. They’re about stepping forward from grieving. This is true of almost all the stories above, and some others written around the same time (“Caul”, for instance). That part was a little more deliberate. I was practising, if you like, a particular emotional movement, the step from despair’s edge down, to find if nothing else exhilaration in falling. Trying to familiarize myself with the movement so that I could do it in real life. Eventually I stopped doing this one, too, at least quite so blatantly. It’s important to break your patterns when you can, before the wind changes and you get stuck that way.

So the pulp writer’s way is the exact opposite of the Boudinotian #SevenYearsInTheWoodshed. Not isolating yourself to hone your craft in the dark, but doing your practice in public with the “editor’s desk”—that mythical, liminal space—as proving ground and level boss. I only took writing seriously, meaning I started writing and sending work to be considered for publication, in mid-2012 after I understood two things. One was just that life is short, shorter even than you think. Two, that I was numb to, among a great many other things, the fear of failure or rejection. Why not, I thought, make use of this strange and bathetic gift? I started sending work out almost as soon as I finished writing it. I wrote what would be my first pro-sale story a couple of months after I started, after furiously iterating through dozens of scraps and half-assed shit that would never sell. A long time ago, before all this happened and when I was still just thinking-about-writing-someday, I’d thought maybe I should save my good ideas for later because I didn’t want to use them up too early and run out. That was foolish. The first lesson I taught myself when I started writing for real is to go all in, because you can always revisit ideas if you want; because there are always more ideas; because life is really fucking short, and shorter than you think.

(Which is the other thing I don’t understand about MFAs, perhaps because I never went to university and my view of how writing works is perhaps too personal. We all have to make use of whatever we’ve got in our lives, is what I’m saying. Surely it’s only more difficult to explore your unreal estate while under fire by the academy’s canons…? But I’m probably wrong about this. I’m told I am frequently cynical about higher education as a kind of pre-emptive defense for not having any of it. I am only the fox who thinks your grapes are sour. Your grapes are the worst. Nobody wants your grapes. Just, fuck your grapes, man.)

Now, a few years down the road when sometimes a rejection does finally, beautifully sting a little, you have no idea how much I treasure these little hurts. Even my imposter syndrome is still all just pins and needles from slowly returning bloodflow. Whether writing as therapy works or not, or whether it’s just a matter of finding something to occupy yourself while the long grey time passes, this at least is a praxis I understand. Writing through the shit has itself been my higher education. Learning to live with the unhealing wound is my motherfucking art. #micdrop, boom. Gonna have to actively remember to not end all future blogposts like this.

Today’s unrelated reading recommendation & palate cleanser: “Manifesto of the Committee to Abolish Outer Space” by Sam Kriss in The New Inquiry: “we will overthrow the fascist institution of the sun, finally achieving the dream of all great revolutionary movements in history.”