Actually, it’s the last MFA in a Box weekly blog. Waltz sounds better than blog. In fact blog joins frack and spam as slightly obscene words that I might have enjoyed using as verbs in junior high school, but at this late stage of my life find irritating. If what I’ve been doing every Monday or so for a year now had been called something other than blogging, I still might be doing it. I should have been delivering a weekly waltz to all of you out there in cyberland. You’d be happier and I’d be Johann Strauss.
I’d like to thank my publisher, Mike O’Mary, and the Dream of Things Team for setting up this space and getting the initial word out through the Dream of Things website. For those of you who don’t know him, Mike is a genuine good guy, whose picture is in the dictionary right next to Generosity and again right next to Kindness. He’s been a good friend to me since long before he became a publisher. My first memory of him is from my first MFA workshop at the University of Montana, back in 1986, when I realized that our professor, Earl Ganz, was making subtle but really dark existential jokes and that someone else in the class besides me was laughing at them. Of such moments are friendships born—dark existential friendships, which are the best and most durable kind.
I’d like to thank all of you who took the time to comment. I read what you wrote carefully and tried to respond to it in the next blog, however obliquely. You gave me a vision of the people I was writing for, an essential external for any writer.
Of all the people who responded, I would like to especially thank Joan L. Cannon, who gives me hope that I’ll make it into my eighties still embracing the world, still trying out new skills, and not falling victim to thinking I already know all that I need to know. Joan L. Cannon, you’re an inspiration to me and to many others, and I hope you keep writing forever. You’re a better writer than you think you are, and you’re going to be better yet. May your path get ever smoother as you go.
To all of the craven Gollum-like sub-humans who spammed my site, I’d like to point out that the Universe will see to it that jackals will gnaw on the spavined bones of your syphilitic grandchildren. That’s not me being vindictive. That’s just the way the Universe deals with spammers, and you should have thought of that before you became one. It probably doesn’t make you feel any better that your grandchildren will die cursing your name, but it can’t be helped now. If any of you lie awake at 3 a.m., regretting your twisted little lives, think of how much better things would have been if you’d all become waltzers instead.
To those of you who wrote unkind comments about my grammar and were denied approval of your comments, I apologize. I should have let you have your say, even if you were being grammar fascists. Most of you were quibbling about typos, claiming I shouldn’t be writing a blog on writing if I was going to make grammar mistakes. I did, as a result of your efforts, start proofreading before I sent a blog off, and I even learned how to edit my own blog once it had been published, which is why some of the most egregious mistakes disappeared over time. So in spite of what looked like malicious intentions, you made the world a better place. Tombstones have recorded worse contributions.
Speaking of tombstones, you may have intuited that I’ve become worried about the survival of our civilization. For many years I was a kindly professor who helped students to learn how to write and sent them off into what I thought was a benign world. These days, of course, the world doesn’t appear to be so benign, especially to twenty-somethings with a degree, college loans to pay off, and no job. So I’ve had a crisis of faith about the reasons I had a teaching career—fortunately I’m not in the middle of that career—and have come up hard against the questions I should have answered differently years ago: Why be a serious writer? Why not just mess around with words and tell funny little stories to make people happy? Why not make money with your God-given talent?
Readers of last week’s blog will know that you can only answer such questions one essay or poem or story at a time, but here’s what is beginning to look like one answer: You write to wake people to the condition of their world, which doesn’t look too good. Climate change and the crisis of capitalism [the 4Cs] make me glad that I’m old enough to have seen The Doors in concert and paid off college loans and had a brief stint where I was a tenured full professor before I moved on to better things.
I really did move on to better things. When I left academe, it was a voluntary plunge into poverty, physical exercise, and blue-collar work that didn’t require me to be particularly articulate. It was also a sudden lack of institutional identity, committee meetings, and faculty politics. It caused a sudden awareness of how limited and limiting the academic world was. The existential questions that an academic job insulated me from suddenly got a lot more urgent, which was okay, as I had a decade or two to consider them rather than having them all gang up on me on my deathbed.
I can’t say I’ve made a lot of progress with those questions, but I’ve started writing a book called A Hundred Little Pieces on the End of the World, which are small meditations on our current cultural situation. As I said, things don’t look good, but I have decided it’s better to be an honest observer of a dark world than to make up cheery lies for people who want to spend their lives in various degrees of illusion. If I wanted to make up cheery lies I would have gone into advertising and made a lot more money and had a secretary who looked like Christina Hendricks.
So, piece by piece, meditation by meditation, I’m exploring the end of this dark world as I know it. I don’t know who will read my writing in a hundred years, or if anyone will be able to read in a hundred years. I don’t even know if anyone will be alive in a hundred years, unless it’s bacteria hanging out in hydrothermal reservoirs a mile beneath the surface of the earth. But if bacteria can read, I’d like them to understand that in the last few decades of human existence, one of those humans looked around himself, observed carefully and thought about what he observed, and wrote down the results of that thinking—existential jokes, mostly, which I’m pretty sure bacteria prefer above all other forms of humor. Other than the jokes, there’s a certain last will and testament quality to what I’m writing these days, not because I’m planning on dying anytime soon, but because there’s a lot to elegize these days.
Yesterday I wrote these words: “It’s hard to believe that the species that created Opus 35 in D Major also created Koch Industries, but it’s happened.”
It’s happened, and we’re looking at a world that is being destroyed by greed and corruption. Formerly honest men become dishonest creeps when they get elected to public office. Newspapers tap the phones of bereaved families. Financial services companies manipulate governments when they’re not running those governments. Even if you don’t believe in global warming, you can believe that we’re destroying what’s left of a wild and beautiful world in our haste to turn it all into habitat for humanity. Seven billion of us are crowding the planet, and anyone with a pocket calculator can figure out that we haven’t got the room to do what we’ve been doing for yet another generation.
I’ll stop, but I hope it’s clear that there’s plenty to write about in this world, flawed as it is, especially if you can keep existentially funny and honestly grief-stricken about it.
I’ll leave you with a couple of book recommendations. They are books that place contemporary life in perspective. The first is Jim Kunstler’s The Long Emergency, a discussion—more like a rant, but a steely-eyed rant—about the devastating economic and social consequences that will accompany the end of cheap petroleum. It’s a prescient book, in that it was written some years ago and describes the present rather well. I’d rather not have the future it describes, but it looks as if we could, given our present trajectory.
The other is Guy R. McPherson’s Walking Away From Empire, a new book about to be available on Amazon. McPherson is a tenured professor who resigned and moved to a self-sustaining mud hut in a rural area not far from the pampered halls of academe, and he did it out of the realization that contemporary civilization is morally and economically rotten. I admire his writing, which is plainspoken and full of the truth, and his thinking, which grasps bad news and comes up with pragmatic ways of dealing with it, and his moral courage, which I wish I could transfer directly to Congress and our president.
Both these books will change your life if you let them. They won’t let you live comfortably in suburban comfort, and they won’t let you assume you’ll ever see your 401(k) or take Social Security for granted, but they will peel the distorting veneer off the world we live in. For a writer, that’s a good thing.
One last note: watch this space. Mike and I will keep it open for awhile in case you want to download some of the entries and I’ll occasionally drop a piece of the 100 Little Pieces book into it. But it won’t be a blog on writing any more—you who have read it every week know more than enough about writing to go on from here. As I always say, writing isn’t rocket surgery.
What I will be doing is throwing new stuff out to an audience I’ve come to value. Any feedback will be welcome.
Thank you all.