Smiles Packed Like Suitcases

Hunger was constitutional with him,
wine, cigarettes, liquor, need need need
Until he went to pieces.
The pieces sat up & wrote.

–from John Berryman’s “Dream Songs”

Hunger is relative. It can be physical hunger, yes. We all know the feeling of an empty stomach, the weakness in our limbs. Hunger can be mental as well, the need to know, all the questions we ask as writers, as human beings: who are we, why are we here, where did we come from, where are we going, and so on. But a deeper hunger we all experience is one we take for granted, is more hidden, less accessible. Yet it may be the most important one of all: hunger of the soul. Who doesn’t intimately know that chronic sense of meaninglessness in what we call “daily life?” There is no lab test for this hunger. No microscope or telescope to see it. No app to follow its course. No ultimate “authority” to turn to for answers. Not for this hunger. And unabated hunger of the soul can have extremely nasty results including anxiety, depression and othermeaninglessness mental illnesses, suicide, homicide, war….

Yet at least two multi-billion-dollar industries thrive on “relieving” this hunger: pharmaceutical and medical. NPR recently interviewed Atlantic magazine editor Scott Stossel about his book, My Age Of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, And The Search For Peace Of Mind. Stossel talks about his phobias and anxieties. His fears include turophobia, a fear of cheese; asthenophobia, a fear of fainting; and claustrophobia. He says he wrote the book to help him understand and find relief from — or redemption in — anxious suffering. He’s a very high-functioning anxious person and in fact, before this book, most of his colleagues were unaware of his problems.

“Unaware of his problems.” Indeed. We carry on with our smiling faces, meet other smiling faces on the streets and in the hallways of our lives. No one but their owners knows what goes on behind those smiles packed like suitcases, ready to go off, literally. Yet we all maintain, somehow. For the children’s sake. To keep show some backbone. To not cave. To hang tough. To win the war. No excuses. No apologies. We have to keep up appearances or lose our jobs, our reputations, our fill-in-the-blanks. We are afraid of both death and living. Fear of living (vitaphobia) is similar to writer’s block, no? Someone (I can’t find the reference), probably a writer, was recently ask to sum up our daily existence in a meaningless, fragmented, alienated society in a single word. The reply? “Cold.” I’d call that an apt description.

Again I’m writing about something here that may not seem to have a connection to writing fiction. But isn’t fiction all about wanting something and not getting it? About tension, conflict, and frustration? What a perfect subject, this inescapable discomfort, this incurable anxiety we all know deeply as we breach the past and future here and now. Isn’t fiction about catharsis and maybe even transformation in both our characters and ourselves? Let’s be honest. Why else do we write? Yes, writers are notorious for substance abuse, and who can fault us as, along with other artists, the barometers of our societies? But novels and stories can give meaning inside a vortex of meaninglessness. Not to say they give “hope,” because as Dickinson wrote, hope is a thing with feathers on it. Hope assumes a way out, which is problematic at best. So, I don’t know about you, but my heroes are all unsung, the ones who are drowning and abused and hurting and crying out, everyday heroes like you and me who feel that hunger of the soul and in the onslaught of defeat, sit up and write about it.


Related articles:

Character Rants and Breakdowns—Let ‘em Rip

Hunger (novel by Knut Hamsun)


Keyboard Monkey

 You do have a choice: you can write or you can throw yourself off a cliff.

The infinite monkey theorem goes like this: A monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare. Then there’s the the 100th monkey effect, which is the instantaneous spreading of an idea or ability to the remainder of a population once a certain portion of that population has heard of the new idea or learned the new ability by some unknown process currently beyond the scope of science. If 100 monkeys sit at keyboards for an infinite amount of time, what could it mean for the rest of us monkeys?

Apparently there is a long way to go for some of us keyboard monkeys when it comes to finding steady work. What follows is one case in point [or skip the next seven paragraphs to avoid memoir].

When she was younger she had a debilitating disease. Doctors told her that she’d better get a sedentary job because she would live her life out in a wheelchair. Some days she felt so terrible that she couldn’t hold her head up in class to take notes in her college classes.  Her health continued to deteriorate, but the doctors did not know what was wrong with her. Every day she had high fevers and aching joints. She would take OTC pain relievers which broke her fevers and eased the joint pains, but within a few hours the fever would begin to climb again.

This misery went on for years. But her folks insisted she go to college. So, because her 12th grade English teacher inspired her so profoundly, and because writing and books lead to sedentary life, she majored in English. She fell in love with the Romantic poets and with literature in general. She was never a fast reader. She took her time with each word, sentence, paragraph. Speed-reading classes were a joke to her. She steeped herself in literature, although her slow reading speed produced quality rather than quantity. Continue reading

Observations, Writing

We All Live Here in Mental Cubicles

Today’s post is off-topic, but it does have to do with things churning through my brain that must find a way into my fiction at some point.

Is it just me or is everything compressing into some kind of final insanity? I live in a city where everyone else wants to live: Portland OR. It’s a city of cultural creatives, universities, wealth and gentrification, decent mass transit, Subarus, community gardens with 5-year waiting lists, and high density. It’s a city of yoga and fixies and $550K Craftsman houses on tree-lined streets. Those of us who can’t afford the lifestyle don’t live it.

Yesterday an advert on the radio touted a program for people who suffered from anxiety and panic attacks. I thought, Wow, so I’m not the only one feeling this? No, I don’t live under a rock, but here’s what it feels like to be alive in an urban area in 2012. I ride the bus. I ride my bike. I walk a lot at night and peer into showcase homes without curtains so we can all go “Oooo, ahhhh.”

Eye candy everywhere, everyone with skin has a tattoo and/or piercings (me too). Gee, what individuality. Yet underneath it all is a sense of  deep conservatism, follow the rules, be polite and  politically correct no matter what.  There is this deep and terrifying need to be disengaged from the teeming masses of everyone else, to protect ourselves from the unknown, from getting hurt or getting involved. We all live here in mental cubicles. I consider it a miracle when I can hold a conversation with a stranger for longer that two sentences. What are we all so afraid of?

After I leave home for school my brain is filled with wounded news. What I see on the bus: riders glued to screens and plugged in to music. We all live here where nothing lasts over 45 seconds. Our attention spans are about that long too. I am hopelessly addicted to the Internet. Is there an Internet Junkie Anon yet? Good thing my MacBook lacks WiFi and the battery life is at 50 percent now. Good thing my iPod died. Good thing I can’t afford a smart phone and server.  I’m forced to pay attention to life around me when I leave the house. Forced to tap into things that a fiction writer needs to see/feel/hear/smell/taste. But you have to be conscious enough to recognize something before you can tuck it into your writer’s notebook.

A friend of mine is fighting for his life right now in the hospital. His sister might not be able to donate her kidney, which means he might not have a donor. And now he has a staff infection from the dialysis access to his arm. It could be fatal. He was already depressed. Now I fear he’s going to lose his will to fight. It’s times like these that what’s important surfaces. Everything else in one’s life gets put on hold. There’s that overwhelming sense of mortality that colors everything. This is where life gets simple. This is where you learn what you’re made of. This is where people step out of mental cubicles and lose the veneer. This is where we meet common ground, where we remember for longer than 45 seconds that we and everyone we love are all going to die sooner or later.