Dear Phantom Reader,
As I’ve sure you’ve noticed, I haven’t been around here for a couple of weeks (did you miss me?). The reason, unfortunately, is boring: Lots of boring work because I need boring money because I have a boring hole in my bank account. You can’t live off credit in Germany (thank god) so all these boring needs mean taking on lots of boring work. Ugh.
Reality does indeed blow.
All this boring work has left me with little energy to do any of my own creative work (i.e. fiction writing, which I’m ambitious about, and music, which I do for fun). Boring work aside, I’ve also been in a bit of a funk with the (fiction) writing again, one of those OMG-what’s-the-fucking-point funks I fall into every once in a while.
I mean, really. Do you realize how many fiction writers there are out there? If the world were a bed, unknown fiction writers would be dust mites–millions upon millions of them, munching away on dead skin flakes, scrawling words across a page, entirely unseen. To take the metaphor further, I suppose lesser known, but still published book writers are more like bed bugs; still too many of them, but at least they can be seen, their bites all those posts on social media in an attempt to get attention and build their personal brand.
God, how I hate that phrase. Personal brand. Blech. Then again, hating phrases like “personal brand” is probably my personal brand. Yikes. You can’t get away from this stuff.
Anyway, I have the heart of a gambler, so the fact that the odds are very much stacked against me to even become a bed bug in the fiction writing world doesn’t really phase me all that much. What annoys me in these I’ve-fallen-into-a-funk moments is why the hell I have to be the kind of person who has this burning desire to write and get my work out there in the first place. This yearning to connect, the desire to respond back to things I’ve read, to enter into the conversation, all of it requires a reader because if there is no reader, what’s the fucking point.
It’s at times like this that I wish my passion in life were something more practical, something that could be reached more tangibly, something that would also make me money so I didn’t have to do the boring work in the first place.
Who am I kidding? If I had a satisfying profession that made me more money I’d save up and quit to focus on my writing because this constant yearning and drive has never gone away and it never will.
Oh boo hoo, you do boring work you get paid pennies for and (almost) nobody appreciates or reads your work. Do you realize how many people have this same story and how much better off you are than a lot of them? Get off this self-pity trip, get your ass in the chair and start writing already. Jesus.
Sorry. That was a little interjection from my inner voice. I call her Tough Love Becks.
Well, TL Becks, I actually am feeling much better this morning, i.e. slightly more blessed then cursed when it comes to writing. But it’s not because of you, it’s because of Jonathan Lethem.
Yes, once again, Jonathan Lethem.
I’d rather not go into much detail here (you’ll have to read this post if you want the full story), so I’ll just tell you I had personal and entirely one-sided encounter with JL in my late teens which meant a lot to me at the time, although I’m not really sure why it did. Although I still remembered the encounter as an adult, it wasn’t something I thought too much about. Then, around three years ago, I woke up one morning and this encounter and the whole story around it was so vivid in my mind I had this desire, no, this absolute need to write about it.
So I did.
Whether the essay is really worth reading or not, the process of writing it felt in some ways as powerful and inexplicable as that day in the cafe I mention in the piece.
This has to mean something, I told myself. But what?
For a while, I was hoping it might mean JL was going to become a real life mentor/friend. Why would the weirdly significant intensity of this moment pop up like this again if that weren’t the case? I actually did send him a copy of the essay snail mail with a hand written note in my chicken scratch handwriting where I pretty much apologized for sending it in the first place. I never heard anything back, which is fair enough I guess.
Because, honestly, if this mentorship/friendship is really what I wanted, why not just be upfront and shoot the guy an e-mail? He seems pretty approachable.
Partly I didn’t do this because of the guy/girl thing, i.e. I was a little afraid it might seem like I had some sort of dubious romantic intentions, which isn’t the case (I’m happily married as, I assume, is he).
I also didn’t contact him directly because I didn’t really know what to say other than, “Hi, I admire your writing and used to stalk you in high school,” which didn’t seem like much of an introduction.
But the real reason I never contacted him directly is because I was afraid this odd connection I have with him might not be there at all in real life. Why risk losing it?
So what did I do? I went back to the roots of my initial connection with him in the first place and started stalking him.
Here’s how it goes: Every couple of weeks or so I’ll do a search for something like Jonathan Lethem interview or Jonathan Lethem podcast or Jonathan Lethem 2018 and see if anything I’ve never seen before comes up (setting up a Google alert would make things waaayy too easy).
Like I said, I admire his writing a lot–I loved The Fortress of Solitude, really liked Dissident Gardens, and liked both Motherless Brooklyn and A Gambler’s Anatomy, haven’t read the other ones yet. But what I really love is what he has to say about life and writing, how he doesn’t allow himself to be placed in a box, the way he gets excited about things, these kind of riffs he’ll go off on when he’s really on. Although the details are different, I relate a lot to how he grew up and how he’s chosen to live his life, or at least the version he presents in interviews.
I also heard a speech he gave (in Portland, I think) about searching for the goat man which gave me goosebumps.
Last but certainly not least, I’ve gotten some great book recommendations from him, like Don Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling and, of course, my most beloved Philip K. Dick. If it weren’t JL, I most certainly would have never found PKD, and that would be sad indeed.
Anyway, to wind down this rambling post, I listened to this podcast last night.
I’ve come across the blog where this podcast is posted before, but I didn’t know the guy who writes it is English. Tangent: I’m a bit of a fake Brit. Most of the boring work I do uses British spelling and style (although I’m sure I unknowingly sometimes add in an Americanism which has someone in Camden or Leeds rolling their eyes) and my computer is now convinced I’m English. My spell check everywhere constantly changes realize to realise and favorite to favourite which is, of course, bullocks and absolute rubbish! I’ve got to toss the old thing into the bin within a fortnight, to be sure. 😉
Anyway, JL comes across differently in this podcast than he normally does in that he sometimes seems to be struggling for words (he’s usually a very articulate guy). He also seems more vulnerable and subdued somehow, but who knows? Maybe he was just tired and hungry.
(Side note: It was also funny that Whitley Strieber came up in the conversation. When I first heard the name I thought, Wait, what did that guy write again? At some point they mentioned alien abductions and I thought, Oh god, no! When I was in my early 20s I had a somewhat boyfriend/mostly best friend who believed. He was totally into Strieber’s alien abduction accounts in Communion and I was like, barf, give me a fucking break. That same somewhat boyfriend/mostly best friend also once thought up plans for the perfect Utopian society over the weekend; he even designed a flag for it. I still remember sitting in his living room while he told me about the plan and showed me the flag, all excited and I immediately ripped it down. “Come on, get real. There’s no such thing as Utopia.” We got in a huge fight about it and he got really upset. The whole thing sounds so silly now, but at the time in goddamn mattered.)
Towards the end of the podcast, JL talks about all the failed writing in the world, the abandoned novels, the writers who scribble away and never get published and he said they’re all still part of the same network, connected to a greater whole. Or at least I think that’s what he said. At this point it was about one in the morning and I was nodding off, alone in bed because my husband and daughters went to visit family in Frankfurt this weekend but I had to stay home because I had the very boring flu last week which put me too far behind on an excruciatingly boring deadline for my boring work.
This image of being part of a network, of being connected even when it doesn’t feel like I am made me feel much better. What I’m doing isn’t pointless like, in my darker moments, I sometimes feel it is.
If writing or art in general is a tree, then me and all the other dedicated, undiscovered writers of the world are tree root fungi, spreading out under the forest floor, our work (mostly) invisible to readers. Yes, we want to evolve, to become bark or leaves and most of all flowers.
But you know what? As I learned in The Hidden Life of Trees, tree root fungi matter a lot.
So eat your heart out, flowers. Here’s one subterranean slime mold who will keep plugging along and maybe, just maybe, someday be given that lucky chance to ooze my way up to the surface.