What does a writer write about?

That is an interesting question. So many of us who make the bold choice to become writers are faced with an initial period of wondering what the hell to write about. This “warming-up” time can last many years for some of the least spirited workers. I have a professor in college whom I have come to rely on for guidance in my writing, although he only reads and comments on fiction. I’ve had him for three consecutive semesters for various creative writing courses and he is my academic adviser, so we’ve seen a lot of each other over last year or so.

I remember the very last day of class this Spring, a conversation we were having in the classroom. All the other students had gone, except for one. He was a decent writer. He had more to say than his talent for writing had to show, but that’s never a bad thing. Anyway, the professor says to the both of us, “The best thing for you to do is get married to someone who really brings home the bacon, who says ‘here you go sweetie, here’s some money, you be the artist and I’ll be the bread-winner’.”

I understood what he was saying, at the time. But I don’t think it really clicked until tonight. If either of us was going to have any chance at living a respectable life as a writer, we’d need to get hitched to some rich girls, sure I could deal with that. I hadn’t really been considering marriage, but it was never out of the question. But what did he mean by that? Sure, he’s only a professor of English at a school known for it’s STEM departments. But he makes a respectable living. He can’t possibly be speaking from experience, which I would think to be the case for such advice.

I always thought this guy has a bit of an air about him, like he’s got a secret and he knows you know about it, but he won’t tell you. Like he’s some sort of pseudo-Socratic guru always trying to egg you in the right direction without telling you specifically what to do. He tests the lot to see if they catch on, knowing only the real ones, the good ones, the one’s who maybe can’t write that well but definitely have something to say–only they would see the light.

There is nothing to write about that hasn’t been written, he tells us. The only thing different about the stories we tell is the perspective from which we tell them. The eyes of the artist see only the subject as it appears before him. We are stuck in this thing called time, scratching words onto paper, preserving the moment for all eternity. This is what is important. This is all that matters to the artist.

The advice from my professor is more than that, it is an insightful analysis of the human condition, that in order to be an artist, I must live without any hope of fame and fortune. Art isn’t what the people want anymore. Money and greed has changed that. Technology has changed that. Time has changed that. The words here on this blog are themselves representative of the apparent death of Big-A Art. The market has been suddenly and rapidly flooded with every Tom, Dick, and Larry’s contribution to whatever artistic medium, so the only way to make any profit is to cater to the multitudes. In which case, big-A Art loses its flair, its meaning, its singularity, its value.

I live in a time where art is tried by the court of the world, and judged in accordance to its popularity. The world enjoys simplicity and ease of access. Where fits art into the formula? And so I am to accept that no matter the quality of my art, it will never be cherished and praised by the multitudes, nor probably by scholars and bibliophiles of future generations to come. The information age is the beginning of the death of Art. I can hope that our society transforms and will once again be able to appreciate true and inspired art, but it might be more likely that time-travel becomes possible.

I can do one of two things. I can be the artist who writes as he sees the world and have faith that my art is truly saying something despite not selling, or I can write work that sells and have faith that because it is loved by the people, it is truly art.

As I was saying above, every writer goes through some initial dilemma over what to write about. I’ve broken down the problem and come up with ultimately two options. As it stands, I’m still struggling to find the right answer. I’ll leave that up to you.

What’s the Point?

Since returning to NCSU in the fall of 2012, I have discovered many things about myself. Too much to tell in one sitting, and in order to save you from a very sloppy and erratic rehashing of my own life’s story (at least for the time being), I’ll focus on one particular epiphany that came to me within the last week or so.

We learn new things about ourselves on a regular basis because change is inevitable. It is the only thing that makes the universe particularly interesting, and, if we’re getting even more philosophical, the only thing which gives it any meaning at all. But let’s avoid exploring such grandiose ideas. I only mean to say that life will always be filled with little moments of self-discovery, that our “selves” may not always be so clearly defined, because change is inevitable.

After a lot of turmoil and struggling with school for reasons I won’t address in this post, I finally was able to transfer into the NCSU English department as an English Creative Writing major last August. Since then I cannot begin to count the number of times I have been asked, or that I asked myself, “What in blazes am I going to do with a degree in creative writing?” With nearly a year under my belt as an official English major, I have had one of those moments of self-discovery, and in that moment I came to a conclusion, not only about myself, but about American society as I know it. Here I will inform the reader that I have no more authority to write the following than your average twenty-something college kid. But don’t let that stop you. I encourage criticism and discourse. How else will I learn anything?

One of those things I’ve discovered about myself which has at least a little to do with this essay is that I am an introverted thinker. INTP is my supposed personality type according to many online Myers-Briggs tests and hours of Wikipedia research. I don’t want to romanticize the personality thing because I think no one can be defined by one of sixteen combinations of letters. What I know is that I am introverted and that my brain is stimulated by deep thought. I form logical conclusions about the things I see or experience. I have little patience for “the way things are” when the way things are is arbitrarily defined. What is more important to the story is that I work in retail.

I first applied for a position at a Gap outlet store in my hometown. I applied to work at Gap because I thought, “how hard could it be?” Little did I know, working in retail, especially for a popular clothing brand, would be one of the most difficult and incredibly annoying things I have ever done. Bear in mind, I am an introvert. I become exhausted when I have to interact with the world outside of my head for an extended time. In retail, especially at Gap, if I haven’t bombarded the customer with friendly greetings and information about our promos as soon as you set foot in the door, I’m not doing my job. If I haven’t offered you a great deal for signing up for the Gap Card at least three times, I’m in trouble. If I haven’t given you four or five tops to go with those jeans before you enter the fitting room, I might be out of a job.

As a frequent buyer of clothes, I am well aware how annoying I can be to the customer. But that doesn’t matter. Selling you as many pieces of generic clothing I can is all that matters. I expected a job folding clothes. I fell into a job running around like a chicken without a head asking everyone I see, “Do you have a Gap Card? Do you have a Gap Card? Do you have a Gap Card?” The answers, usually: “No, and I don’t need one,” or “Is that like a credit card?” or “I think so.”

After moving to Raleigh for school, I decided rather than look for a new job, I’d transfer to the Gap here. BIG. MISTAKE. (I say this, but most of the people are nice and I enjoy the discount on clothing). Having worked here for nearly a year I can safely conclude that I am only a tool. I am a tool for acquiring Gap Card enrollments and, somehow, magically influencing our often inadequate sales numbers. I get it. I get that I am supposed to show the customer something that he or she may not have previously wanted, and I am to convince him or her that they, in fact, DO want it. I get that I am supposed to make sure every customer knows they can come to me if they have any questions about what top matches these shoes or which denim cut fits their ass better. Unfortunately, and here is my big epiphany, I don’t give a flying fuck what clothes you buy or whether you get a Gap Card. I don’t know what top goes with these shoes because I can’t tell you what you want. I could give you a list of fifty things you could wear with those shoes, each item being something we have in the store. Here’s an idea: take a stroll around the store and find something that you think would go with your shoes. Because at the end of the day, what I show you will be the wrong fit, the wrong color, or too damn expensive (unless you get a Gap Card).

I understand there are people who love to build outfits and really enjoy working at Gap. I work with several of those people and I love them all. They really are brilliant at what they do, because they love their job. I can learn some routine phrases and pick a few outfits to show to anyone who asks, but I will never be great at my job because I cannot tolerate the silliness of it all. And this is fine. I can live with it. I’ll do the best I can, regardless.

When my best is unsatisfactory, however, and you, being my manager, pick a personal vendetta against me because you think I’m inadequate and/or too stupid to work a disposable job selling cheap clothing, I become infuriated. You are an assistant manager (in charge of deciding where to put the clothes) at The Gap. Your constant nagging and moaning that I’m not moving fast enough is beginning to be a bother. Every time you see me passing by in the store, and I’m not having an in-depth conversation with a customer, or I’m not refolding the same shirt for the twelfth time, I must not be doing a damn thing, so you should make sure to tell me to “do something, don’t just stand around,” as if I had decided to take a break standing in the middle of the sales floor.

And here we have the epiphany. I understand why my managers bug the crap out of me. It is their job. Just as it is my job to bug the crap out of the customers. Just as it is the general manager’s job to bug the crap out of the assistant managers. Just as it is the district manager’s job to bug the crap out of the general managers. And so on, and so forth. This is the world we live in. There are no exceptions. When money is on the line, we find ourselves faced with two things: the expectation that we are to do something we may not feel comfortable doing, and that someone with authority over us will see to it that we do our job as efficiently as possible. Unreal expectations will be set. We are never satisfied, because the game is never won. We strive to get better, never realizing we’ll never be the best. I am encouraged by this realization, and I am disheartened by it. It is easy to play the game when you finally know the rules. But I am not satisfied by the way things are.

I realized why I became an English major the other day when I was working at Gap. It isn’t about potential job prospects or money. I knew going into the degree that I was conceding any hope of a prestigious career. The skills I have developed are not in high demand. The pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge is asinine and foolish in our society. I’ve told you the rules. They’re simple. No where do these rules not apply. I’ve spoken about Camus before, that the inane monotony of human existence is tiresome and depressing, that it can cut to the core of a man. But it is necessary for going on. I’m reminded of one of the first stories I read in college which really got me thinking deeply about this thing called life: Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”. In it the title character is faced with the very same qualms which I’m writing about here. Bartleby just cannot accept the brutality of capitalist society, that the only way of moving up is to feed on those beneath you and kiss the asses of those above. Poor Bartleby gives up and succumbs to self-imposed starvation: suicide. I choose otherwise.

I am an English major because I take pride in the intellectual pursuit of man. I value man thinking, as Emerson puts it. I will use my talents and skills to my own benefit, beginning with this blog. I write because I know no other way to share what I’ve learned with the world. I understand my voice is small, but it is not silent. I can survive the game, whether I think the rules are fair or not. That is not an issue. So long as I have my will to learn.

It is 1:46 AM

…and I am lying in my bed, the oscillating fan locked into place casting a steady breeze across my body. I tend to do this–stay up well into the early hours of the morning prolonging the inevitable. I’ve tried to rationalize my behavior to myself, and to my therapist, saying “The sooner I fall asleep, the sooner I’ll have to wake up and deal with tomorrow’s aches and pains.” I tell myself I’d like to live life “in the moment” but I can’t help dreading the future and regretting the past. It all sounds very cliche, but I’ve come to realize life is all very cliche. Everyman wakes in the morning, showers, shaves, breaks the fast, tends to responsibilities, chits and chats, hopefully gets to sit and relax a while before its off to bed. The routine is all the same. The routine is all the same. Camus told us about it, and I’ve read a bit of Camus. There was a time I thought Camus was the cat’s pajamas, but then again I’ve been down that road plenty of times with [take your pick] philosopher.

You see, the questions start young, when you’re just big enough to second guess what your mom and dad tell you is true. Why is the Bible true? they asked me in Sunday school. Because the Bible says so, and the Bible is the word of God. But how do we know it’s the word of God? Because it says so in the Bible. Nonsense. But then they tell you knowledge isn’t real. We can’t know anything for certain. Ok, so what’s that about the Bible again? Life makes just about as much sense as the stories in Sunday School. To me, anyway. I still don’t buy into the religion thing, but I don’t really buy into anything else either. Camus was about as close as it got. Then the novelty of a fresh idea wore off and I’m stuck here again, lying on my bed, the oscillating fan casting a steady breeze across my body.

Do you know what I think? I’m nobody. I’m nothing. I exist sure, but I exist in a place that literally exists within nothing. I’ve written it down in a word document and it bears repeating. What does it mean to be infinitely big inside of nothingness? What does it mean to be infinitely small inside of nothingness? I’ll give you a hint: the two are one and the same. That is how I feel. I feel both infinitely big and infinitely small inside of nothing. There’s Alan Watts for you: a man who’s hokey drivel makes as much sense as the Bible or Camus. He makes the logical assumption that you can’t have nothing without something, or something without nothing, and then tells us to deal with it. He blabbers some nonsense about existence is to the universe as a whirlpool is to a river: “You are what the universe is doing.” Ok, so what’s this about the universe really being nothing? It’s all so futile, so hopeless, so sad.

The human struggle is to make sense of a senseless world (that’s more Camus). Sure he’s right about that. The solution? Accept the nonsense and move on. Kierkegaard? Go with God on this one. Ryan? Stay up at night and prolong the inevitable. There is something about us Human’s that cannot take nonsense for an answer. The struggle is dissatisfaction with incomplete or inadequate conclusions. And the gears jerk forward. What is the meaning of life? What is the meaning of life? What is the meaning of life? To ask the question, I say. For if we can be truly satisfied with an answer, what else would we do?

It is 2:22 AM.