Posts Tagged ‘Ta-Nehesi Coates’

My Monkey Makes my Mother Mad

March 16, 2013

glog

I had no idea what I was doing when I began the project that eventually culminated in this blog
. Looking back on it, I’m reminded of the character played by Richard Dreyfuss in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind who was compelled to mindlessly build that miniature mountain inside his house. I just had to do something, but I really didn’t know what or why.

So I kept writing and reading about writing. And I took some English classes at Cal Poly Pomona. Then one of my professors, Dr. Carola Kaplan, suggested I apply for their MA program. (She advised that if I continued to take classes, sooner or later I would “accumulate” a Master’s Degree.) Many of the longer articles on this blog began as academic papers.

I continued to write until my computer was constipated. So I read the books on how to write the perfect cover letter and I sent out queries and more queries. And all that ever got me was shoe-boxes full of rejection letters.

After more than a decade of unrequited querying, I finally went on an Open Thread at Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog and asked the nice people there how much it would cost to start my own blog. When they told me it was free I said, “Thank you so much. If I had known that, I would have gotten myself a blog years ago.”

Sometimes I begin writing a poem knowing exactly what I want to say and it turns out just like I planned. Sometimes. Other times I set out to write something, but I end up writing something else. And sometimes I think I have a long way to go when the poem suddenly informs me that I’m finished.

And sometimes I start with an idea that’s bugging me or just a single word. (I began this poem thinking about how much I like the word notion.) Other times an entire line will pop into my head. Once a line zipped across my brain, but I ignored it. A few days later it returned—louder. It wasn’t until I sat down at my computer and typed it up that I realized that the line was entirely alliterative: My monkey makes my mother mad. But I didn’t know what the poem was going to be about until I had finished writing the first stanza.

Monkey Driving

My Funny Farm

My monkey makes my mother mad
He also aggravates my dad
He took his car the other day
And drove it to the Hudson Bay

My kitty cat is kooky too
He likes to strut down to the zoo
And tell the tigers to all stand back
If they don’t want to get attacked

I have a hamster named Houdini
And though he is rather teeny
He’ll quickly pick a thousand locks
You could not hold him in Fort Knox

My kangaroo’s a real joker
Up all night playing poker
His friends come to destroy the house
I think I shoulda’ got a mouse

I got a hippo last July
He really is one swell guy
Everything he does is super
I got a giant pooper scooper

Living on this funny farm
I know my pets don’t mean no harm
But both my parents moved away
And no one wants to come and play

Richard W. Bray

The Hemingway Defense

July 7, 2012

William Faulkner

According to William Faulkner, it is permissible for an artist to engage in all manner of malfeasance and loutish behavior because “An artist is a creature driven by demons.”

The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies. (h/t Ta-Nehisi Coates)

It is common for supermacho bibulous writers such as Faulkner, Kingsley Amis, Ernest Hemingway and Christopher Hitchens to confuse self-avoiding cowardice and self-destruction with courage and an intrepid dedication to art. Amis, for example, wrote entire books celebrating the wonders of alcohol. Hitchens thought that crawling into a bottle every day was something to boast about and he was dismissive of people who lack the requisite foolishness to become nicotine addicts. In the sick, sad world of Christopher Hitchens, teetotaling joggers are the real losers.

Stephen King, a man who knows a thing or two about both writing and substance abuse, has a name for the hyper-masculine variety of denial celebrated by various dipsomaniacal American authors: The Hemingway Defense.

as a writer, I am a very sensitive fellow, but I am also a man, and real men don’t give into their sensitivities. Only SISSY-men do that. Therefore I drink. How else can I face the existential horror of it all and continue to work? Besides, come on, I can handle it. A real man always can.*

King explicitly rejects all such poppycock. He argues that “[t]he idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time.”

Unlike writers such as Faulkner who lack the necessary self-awareness to confront their “demons,” when given the choice, Stephen King wisely selected his health and his family over the bottle. Thus he has no use in mythologizing the inebriated scribbler.

Substance abusing writers are just substance abusers—common garden-variety drunks and druggies, in other words. Any claims that the drugs and alcohol are necessary to dull a finer sensibility are just the usual self-serving bullshit. I’ve heard alcoholic snowplow drivers make the same claim, that they drink to still the demons.

Faulkner asserts that it is perfectly natural and wholly acceptable for a writer to be a scoundrel because a true artist “is completely amoral in that he will rob, borrow, beg, or steal from anybody and everybody to get the work done.”

Sadly, people who think like Faulkner have gotten existence precisely backwards. As King notes, “Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”

William Faulkner notwithstanding, no art is essential to humanity, and no poem, not even one as lovely as “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” is worth the well-being of a single old lady. Humanity will grope along with or without any particular work of art, and Earth will continue to abide long after we’re gone no matter what we do. It is expressly because everything we do is ephemeral that the artist’s humanity is of far greater value than anything he could possibly create.

Perhaps it is a longing for a false sense of immortality that leads people to engage in such diseased thinking. But it’s important to remember that although Hamlet will continue to live on for as long as humanity is extant, William Shakespeare is just as dead as the fellow buried next to him. As Groucho Marx pithily noted: “What has posterity ever done for me.”

Only love conquers death.

*All Stephen King quotations are from his marvelous memoir On Writing

by Richard W. Bray