Feb 15

Bullshit stories

It’s rare that someone looks you in the eye and tells you the truth.

I don’t mean about the little things, like “Does this soup need salt?” or “Do you, um, know what happened to my shoes?”–I mean the big things.

I was talking with a friend recently about a dynamic that frustrates me in my relationship with my husband and I got to that most common of phrases, “I mean, what’s up with that?”

He paused for a moment, a look of wry amusement on his face, and said, “You’re a bitch, Theresa. That’s what’s up with that.”

It was so unexpected, so honest about that dynamic, and so undeniably true I burst out laughing. How could I not? He’d hit the nail on the head, squarely, and I could either waste a ton of energy denying it and taking it personally and shooting the messenger or I could use that shock to crack open a possibility in my relationship I hadn’t seen before.

I had the same response when I saw this picture:


Oh yeah baby! It was another one of those moments where I encountered something and within seconds its tentacles had slithered through my entire head, connecting everything together in a new and undeniable way.

We all have a bullshit story. It’s that tiny, poisonous whisper that most of the time we don’t even hear anymore, but that still has the power to bring us to a complete standstill in life:

“I’m not lovable.” “I deserve to be treated badly.” “I’m not allowed to exist.” “Whatever anyone does to me is fine because I’m a bad person.” “If I stick up for myself, I’ll get killed.” “It’s too scary to try. Just don’t.” “Being open with people hurts too much.”

There are thousands of others but they all boil down to the same thing–stay safe. Curl into a ball and don’t risk sticking your neck out.

And if you’re a writer and you’re not aware that that voice is there and how it affects you, the things you write may be technically good–great–even brilliant, but they won’t touch anyone (talk about bullshit stories). Readers will move through your story, laugh, feel the tension, maybe even cry a bit if something sad happens, but your words won’t snake into them, curl around their hearts, and wake them up at night because there’s something there that affects them, too, a niggling little feeling that what’s happening on the page isn’t isolated to the page, that it’s actually happening to them, right here, right now, and they’d better pay attention.

Great literature does this. J.D. Salinger, Margaret Atwood, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, Jennifer Egan, John Steinbeck, Kate Chopin, George Orwell, Orson Scott Card, Barbara Kingsolver, Zora Neale Hurston, Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, Joyce Carol Oates, I could go on and on (and I’m not even listing the non-fiction writers who do this, like Nietzsche and Heidegger and Kierkegaard, to name a few), but the thing that makes them great, besides an obvious level of mastery of their craft, is that they aren’t speaking from their bullshit stories.

When I read these writers, I’m not just reading a story. I’m seeing the machinery inside all of us. I’m getting an in-depth picture of what it looks like to live out a bullshit story and what it takes to break free of it.

My contention has always been that literature is a conversation, not a lecture. As a reader it’s my responsibility to join in by bringing to bear all my experiences in life and seeing what that author has to say about them. When I engage this conversation, I have a chance to engage amazing minds who have thought deeply about what it takes to be human and what we need to do to reach that goal.

Hamlet: everyone talks about his hesitation, and how relieved they are when he finally acts at the end. But when I join in that conversation, with the benefit of my own bullshit stories squarely in my sights, I see the true tragedy of a man lost in his head, completely unable to connect to his heart, to the extent that he sacrifices everyone he loves, including himself. To me, Shakespeare is screaming a warning of one of the great dangers of his, and our, age: beware the death of the heart under the tyranny of the intellect.

As someone who spent most of her adult life living from her head, completely shut down emotionally, I feel the seriousness of this warning and see the impact of losing sight of one’s heart all over my life. Here be tragedy, indeed.

When I read The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, I threw the book across the room when I finished because I thought she’d completely cheated me as a reader by how it ended. Who couldn’t see that the Painballers deserved to be killed in a long, drawn-out manner? But I was haunted by that ending. Atwood is a master at this kind of conversation and I knew something deeper was happening there.

Throughout the book, I was rooting for the good people, gnashing my teeth until I got the pleasure of seeing the bad people die. And the Painballers–they’re so bad–they kill people, rape women, turn women into sexual slaves; they’re vicious beasts with no redeeming human qualities–you just feel yourself go rabid with wanting their death. And in the end, Ren and Toby have the perfect opportunity to kill two of them….and they DON’T.

This isn't me. It's my soul screaming at the injustice of them living.

But what I got was that throughout the whole book I’d been identifying with the good characters because that’s how I see myself. I’d been horrified by the bad men, disgusted and afraid of them…..and at the end of the book, my blood lust at wanting them to die? I WAS THEM. I was not like Toby at all. Given the chance to forgive and uplift or crush and destroy, I’d chosen to crush and destroy.

It was a watershed moment for me, as a writer and a person. As a writer, what an amazing amount of trust Atwood placed in her readers. How many got no further than their reactions to the end and swore never to read another Atwood novel? How skilled do you have to be to write a story that is so physically embodied by your readers they may not even notice which character they’re actually emulating?

And as a person, I had the devastation of seeing one of my bullshit stories so strongly there was no way I could turn away from it. I wanted to kill the Painballers in exactly the ways they’d killed people throughout the book. As horrified as I was by them, they are in me, and if I don’t pay attention to that, that poisonous whisper could wreak havoc in all sorts of situations.

I’m not saying I’m going to go out and kill anyone, but that “killer instinct,” that desire to destroy someone, that’s a feeling I’m all too familiar with. It comes up, for instance, when I get hurt emotionally or when I think someone’s done something to make me look stupid. My mind goes into overdrive figuring out ways to make sure that person goes DOWN–I am cutting, rude, snide….a bitch. And here we are full circle, a poisonous whisper traced both through honest friendship and amazing literature.

So in terms of writing and life (some claim there is no distinction there ;) ), you can’t put a better poster on your wall than the one above. We can write things that do nothing but scream our bullshit stories–or we can write things that expose those stories, rip them open, and chart them so others can lay that map over themselves and see something, too.

Being a writer is a service to the greater good of humanity. That’s a grandiose statement, but look at the list of names that back it up.

Nov 24

Henry Miller on the responsibility of the artist

Yeah, this about sums it up.

Chandrika, a very dear friend of mine, sent me this quote from Henry Miller, and along with this picture, at first I thought it pretty much summed up the artist’s responsibility, process, and drive.

“Side by side with the human race there runs another race of beings, the inhuman ones. The race of artists that, goaded by unknown impulses, take the lifeless mass of humanity and by the fever and ferment with which they imbue it turn this soggy dough into bread, and the bread into wine, and the wine into song. Out of the dead compost and the inert slag they breed a song that contaminates.

I see this other race of individuals ransacking the universe, turning everything upside-down, their feet always moving in blood and tears, their hands always empty, always clutching and grasping for the beyond. For the God out of reach. Slaying everything within reach in order to quiet the monster that gnaws at their vitals.

I see that when they tear their hair with the effort to comprehend, to seize this forever unattainable, I see that when they bellow like the crazed beasts and rip and gore, I see that THIS IS RIGHT.

That there is no other path to pursue.

A man who belongs to this race must stand up on the high place, with gibberish in his mouth, and rip out his entrails. It is right and just because he must…

and anything that falls short of this frightening spectacle, anything less shuddering, less terrifying, less mad, less intoxicated, less contaminating, is not ART.

The rest is counterfeit. The rest is human.
The rest belongs to life
and lifelessness.”

Henry Miller

But then I got to that last line. “The rest belongs to life and lifelessness.” It’s easy to read that and nod my head the way we used to in high school when we were reading Nietzsche: “Yeah. I totally get that. Deep, man.”

But it made me stop—what is there besides life and lifelessness? Doesn’t that pretty much cover it?

So I started letting that mush around in my head. And slowly, as I wrestled with what that third thing could be, something began to take form.

What if “lifelessness” is what we are expected to want, that dream we are all sold, the one we’re waiting around to inhabit? What if it’s that lie of the bigger, better thing (whatever it is) just around the corner that we’ll get if we’re good enough, work hard enough, and eat all our vegetables? Dream=waiting for the future=lifeless. Known.

And what if “life” is the body of habits we’ve formed, and we all have them, while we are waiting for that dream to manifest, the habitual way we react to everything we encounter instead of responding to what is happening, as it is, in this moment? These are the mindless strategies we learned as children to keep pain/fear at bay, and that we still enact as adults. Habit=dead inside to the present=life. Known.

If that’s the case, what is this third, unknown thing Miller is pointing to?

Now this quote starts to take on shape, texture, layers.

If we see life and lifelessness for what they are, how can either ever satisfy? They can’t. So we are driven to escape the traps of these knowns. Here be monsters, indeed. To tread here we must become this third thing: ALIVE.

Can you begin to picture the screaming void that is “alive,” that we’re all inches from the edge of, which is kept out of our consciousness only by the sweet smoke of the opiate of life and lifelessness? To inhabit that world, we must be willing to feel, see, touch, taste, hear what is happening right now, right in front of us, everywhere at once. We must experience life/lifelessness without being of it. And we must allow ourselves to feel what it is like to be trapped in those cages, to crush ourselves into them and feel our bones break from the effort to fit in.

To get beyond these cages we must rip our heads open. Miller gives us the map to do this, if we dare follow it: ransack the universe, turn everything upside-down; be goaded by unknown impulses; clutch and grasp for the beyond. For the God out of reach; slay everything within reach; tear your hair with the effort to comprehend, to seize this forever unattainable.

We must move in blood and tears, our hands always empty, for if we fill them we are once again prisoners of the known. Every thing we unearth can turn to habit. Every thing we unearth can be subjugated by life and lifelessness. This is why we must burn to ash all that we understand, record what we do not, and then burn that to ash, as well, for it is now contaminated by the known—it is “within reach” and it must be slayed.

This is the call of the artist, and the philosopher, when Philosophy takes its proper place on the stage—we must allow ourselves to be possessed, to be driven to tears, to ecstasy, to the blackest of nights of the soul; let ourselves shudder and feel terrified, mad, intoxicated, contaminating; for that is the only glimpse we can have of what it means to be alive. We report back from that edge, and then we must find it again. And again. And again.

The monster that gnaws at our vitals cannot be appeased—there is no way to remain in the unknown. And so we push forward, forever, starving for that edge of ALIVE that is the only taste of what is beyond life and lifelessness we will ever touch. And we hand it, blood-covered, to you.

What will you do with it?