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creativity Essays personal

Self-Loathing in the Shadow of the Unfinished Work

A couple years ago, I had the chance to be a real writer, and I blew it.

Way back in 2017, I was asked to spend two weeks in October at a writers’ retreat in Northern California. This had nothing to do with any books I had written (for I had written none) or high-profile publications in which I had been published (for I had not). But because this particular retreat offered a very particular fellowship for writers in a very niche subject area, the previous fellowship recipient kindly recommended me to be his successor. I’m guessing there also weren’t many other folks to choose from, or perhaps they were busy.

The point is that I got to spend one whole fortnight in a gorgeous, rustic home, surrounded by natural beauty, doing nothing but working on my craft.

The problem I immediately faced upon accepting this fellowship was that I had nothing to craft. One was expected to come to this retreat to work on a specific project, usually a book or lengthy article in progress. I had no such project, in-progress or otherwise. I had to come up with one.

So I did. The formulation I made was simple. I took the two areas of thought that were of the most interest to me at the time and decided to mush them together, comparing and contrasting, wrestling with their implications, and working out what epiphanies, lessons, or truths I could extract from the whole enterprise.

It would be a big magazine article, intended for publication in the journal published by my employer. In this way, it would help justify my two-week absense from work, which, I must add, my employer happily and generously granted. It would be a big piece. A “longread.” Perhaps it could turn into a book.

At the retreat, I worked dilligently. Not one for sightseeing or communing with nature anyway, I made the most of this precious allotment of uninterrupted time. I dug deeply into the subject matter. I collected research materials, I interviewed experts over email, I took meticulously sourced and cited notes, I jotted stray thoughts, I sketched outlines, I worked in feature-laden applications for Serious Writers working on Major Projects, and I drafted sections and subsections and introductions and transitions and reflections.

I did not expect nor intend to finish the entire project during my residency, but by the time those two weeks were up, I had a piece that had grown to something like 13,000 good words.

But I still blew it. I never finished it. Two and a half years later, it’s still unfinished.

There were some contributing factors.

For one, during my time at the retreat, something went haywire in my ear. My existing tinnitus worsened exponentially, I began to go through spells of vertigo, and I lost some hearing. This was something of a distraction. It never stopped me from applying myself to my work, but obviously there was a good deal of mental energy that was inevitably spent on this emergent crisis on the right side of my head.

For another, a few months after my return, my marriage ended. You can imagine how that might drain one’s will to work on projects that are largely extracurricular.

These are fine excuses for why it became much more difficult to me to finish to project, but really, I never finished it because I never decided to finish it.

There was never going to be a mystical space carved out of my normal life to make room for plowing ahead with this work. My job resumed, my kids needed their dad, and I needed to manage a monumental and traumatic life transition. But even with all that, I failed to make the decision to sit back down at the computer and write.

Months passed. Then more months passed. In my mind, the Major Project became a queasy source of regret and shame. And the further time progressed from that autumn of 2017, the more I perceived that project as an unmanageable and outdated mess. I think I almost felt like it was angry with me.

But of course, it wasn’t. Nor was it unmanageable; I needed simply to decide to manage it. Nor was it outdated; I needed merely to decide to refresh it.

Nor was it a mess. I was.

A few months ago, I decided to return to it. I even announced it so that I could give myself at least the illusion of public accountability. And over the last several weeks, I have indeed been working on it.

It’s not finished. It begs for merciless refinement, and I don’t mean some tweaks for consicion. It needs some real horror-movie chainsaw violence done to it. I need to detatch myself from feeling precious about certain passages or turns of phrase that simply to not contribute to the larger goal of the piece. I need to rethink the way it’s framed in the opening section so that the reader is better ushered into the subject matter. And I need to find a path out of it, a way to merge its various tributary streams into a single current.

I need to figure out what it really is.

And I will. I haven’t yet, but I will.

I don’t know what this product will be when it’s done. It might yet be that magazine piece I promised my employers back in those innocent days of 2017. But perhaps it’ll be better suited to a series of blog posts. Or maybe it’ll cry out for expansion into a book. I can’t yet say.

Part of what makes this project loom so large in my psyche, and why it still provides a steady drip of regret into my heart, is the weight of validation I placed upon it. By being given this fellowship at this beautiful retreat, even if it had been a strange fluke of circumstance, I had the chance to be a real writer.

Let’s not get technical, now. I know that I am, indeed, already a writer. I constantly churn out written work for my job, I have written for several websites, I been published in a couple of journals, and I write for my own blog.

But you know what I mean. I sought the imprimatur of a real writer, someone whose byline is recognized and sought. Someone who is asked to be on panels at conferences. Someone whose name graces the spine of a book. Someone whose writing actually matters.

I’m not that guy. I might never be.

I definitely won’t be if I don’t decide to write.

And even in the best possible circumstance, in which this piece catches lightning and earns me some amount of approval, it still does not have the power to make me what I already am.

In fact, I may never publish it at all. It may turn out that its entire premise was ill-advised, and that it simply can’t be worked into something that is worth putting out into the wider world.

I don’t know yet. But even if another soul never reads a word of it, I promise myself this.

I will finish it.

Categories
creativity Essays

I maybe oughta blog more.

There was a time when I tried to make a point of writing at least one blog post every day. Today that sounds like some trite advice from a self-help article on Medium, but I wasn’t doing it in order to “gain 50,000 followers” or what have you. It was a good habit to keep as a writer, to practice in public like that, and it genuinely felt good to have made something each day. But mostly, I actually felt like I had something to say, all the time.

These days, it’s remarkable if I write something more frequently than once a month (this is outside of work, of course, where I write all damn day, every day). There’s a long list of contributing factors. Personal reasons include mental exhaustion from work, attention demanded by kids and other family matters, the attraction of less intellectually demanding pastimes like video games (I really don’t watch much TV at all), and a bedtime that seems to seep every-earlier into the evening as I age.

There are also, I think, broader cultural reasons I don’t blog like I used to. The novelty of the form itself has worn off since its early-aughts hayday. While blogs were once the primary venue for processing and debating the events and issues of the day, they have been largely replaced; for journalists and activists, by Twitter; for everyone else, by Facebook. In those now-hazy before-times, one might be outraged over something some political figure did, compose a four or five-paragraph screed expressing said outrage, and liberally blockquote from some other source for the purpose of bolstering or rebutting one’s argument. Today, the same person will now retweet someone someone else said about said outrage, and maybe add an original line to a tweet in order to keep it within one’s personal brand. Or they’d share an article (probably unread) on Facebook, perhaps adding their own exclamation-marked sentence about the outrageousness of the outrage.

The author in 2006, with a laptop, possibly blogging. Possibly not.

The point being, blogs just aren’t where the action is. Blogs were once little islands of thought, from which individuals or small bands of like-minded island-dwellers would cast their prose into the wide ocean of the internet (or, as it was more often characterized back then, the capital-I Internet, like it was a place). Often, that prose might be fashioned into a kind of dinghy and aimed directly at another Internet Island, sometimes carrying supplies, sometimes a warhead.

It was fun!

Some of those Internet Islands still exist and thrive, and some have developed into full-blown Outlets, honest-to-goodness nation-states in the online media realm. Some blogs were subsumed into larger entities, or their feudal lords were lured away to more luxurious courts. But I think for most of us who were on the tiniest of those Internet Islands, we saw that no one was reading what we wrote anyway, so we might as well put in as little effort as possible, and be ignored on Twitter instead.

And good lord, did I love Twitter for a while. I felt like I really got it, and my own brand of everything-is-terrible humor-as-despair shtick felt very well suited to the platform. Today, though, Twitter is like punishment. I check in, I scroll, and I am quickly saturated by anxiety, anger, and despondency. And it doesn’t seem to matter what measures I take to curate my feed. In a time as ugly as this, ugliness is all there is to tweet.

As for the material I put out on Twitter, no one is seeing it. Even after thirteen years on the platform (Jesus Christ, has it really been thirteen years???) I have managed to attract a measly 4000-some followers, only a tiny fraction of which ever actually see (or care to notice) what I write. If something I tweet does happen to break out a little — usually because a certain friendly atheist has retweeted it to his own massive following — I become deluged with inane replies that are often inexplicably hostile. None of it seems to make things any better, and there’s no feeling of accomplishment.

And besides, I’m not a “tweeter.” I’m a writer. And while thoughts expressed in 280 characters or less is an absolutely valid and valuable form of writing, it’s not sufficient for me.

This gets me back to the question about why I don’t write more, or more specifically, why I don’t blog.

The despondence engendered by Twitter is part of the answer. The ocean of the internet (it’s lowercase-I these days) is already so polluted with opinions, punditry, takes, essays, outrages, and news, it hardly seems useful to throw in more of one’s own trash. Things are bad! Bad people are doing bad things! You don’t need me to tell you that. And while I could write about something else instead, something that has nothing to do with how terrible everything is, my despair has sapped my drive to share my thoughts about anything.

Another reason for my blog-hesitancy is ego. There seems little point in putting in the effort of writing when I know that no one’s going to read it. And my standards for what constitutes “some folks read it” versus “no one read it” have already been lowered to sub-basement levels. The idea is supposed to be that the good stuff will rise to the top, but I don’t think anyone believes that anymore, and who knows if my stuff would even qualify as “the good stuff” anyway? Sometimes I think it has, but what do I know? I only have 4000 Twitter followers.

I end this post without an answer, other than the obvious, which is: Do it anyway. What I write — and yes, specifically, blog — should exist for its own sake. For my sake. Because each time I do it, I will have made something. I will have improved my own thinking and come to better know myself. It will, as Vonnegut put it, make my soul grow.

And maybe, on the off chance that someone else encounters it, maybe it will do something good for them, too. Maybe that person will stand up from where they’re sitting on their Internet Island, look across the sea in my direction, and wave.

Categories
Essays personal politics

Nothing to be done

The part of all of this that most fills me with despair is the fact that those with the power to do something simply won’t.

My experience of Twitter right now is one of being told over and over to be outraged about every offense committed by the president, Republicans, right-wing media, or their followers. And I am! Good lord, I am. Trump constantly lies, promotes self-serving misinformation, and foments civil war. His allies and defenders fall in line. The parade of fanatical ignoramuses react, predictably, with garish displays of jingoist hate. Their cells become food for viruses.

And so the Important People on social media do their duty and Point it Out.

Fine. What I’m not seeing, and what I desperately need, is for someone to do more than Point it Out, but to offer a solution. The dead horse I continue to beat comes in the form of quote-retweets in which I ask, “So what do we do?”

Trump encourages insurrection: “So what do we do?”

Trump refuses to give aid to states who don’t kiss his ass: “So what do we do?”

Trump ignored warnings about the pandemic, and now pretends he was always on top of it: “So what do we do?”

Maybe, in a previous era, reporting on the wrongdoings of a president or other public official would at least get the ball rolling on getting that leader to change course or be held accountable. But, surely, now it must be obvious that this is no longer the case! Everything we all got used to, the idea of “scandals,” exposés of corruption, and various career-ending “-gates,” none of it matters anymore. We can Point Out and Be Outraged over every appalling example of nogoodniks nogoodnicking until we run out of tears and our fingers can no longer tap out our replies and retweets, and none of it will change a thing.

Those who believe what the president says will believe him until their dying breath, even if it’s a breath gasped without the help of the ventilator they needed but couldn’t get because of the president they loved. If reporting, explaining, and shaming had any impact whatsoever, Trump would already be out of office, Pence would be under investigation, and far, far fewer people would be sick or dead.

So, I’m asking, what do we do?

The Senate could have done something. We know how that worked out.

Pence could do something. He and other members of the cabinet could agree among themselves that the president is a danger to the country, invoke the 25th Amendment, and remove him from power, even if only temporarily. But of course, they won’t.

Is there something more the news media could do? I honestly don’t know. Again, merely reporting the many crimes of the moment isn’t enough. Jake Tapper and Anderson Cooper can fume into the camera over the president’s lies and the exponentially rising body count, but everyone who is watching already agrees that this is all an outrage.

Can voters do something? If they can, they have to wait until November, and then you have to assume that they will be able or allowed to vote. And because of how the Electoral College rigs the system in favor of the Candidate of the Fanatical Ignoramuses, it may not matter anyway.

Could well-intentioned billionaires and business titans do something? I don’t know! Governors? Celebrities? Anyone?

It’s hard for me to psychologically accept the idea that there’s nothing to be done, that we’re just hostage to the madness of an idiot cult leader, and that’s that.

I suppose what it comes down to, short of something even more destabilizing or dangerous, is that enough people will have to demand change in any way they can. But by “enough,” I don’t mean an motivated plurality or even 50 percent-plus-one. Overwhelming numbers of Americans will have tell those in power to fix this shit, but do it through some means that doesn’t require them to “take the the streets” like the Fanatical Ignoramuses protesting stay-at-home rules.

But there isn’t enough of us. This won’t happen.

So what do we do?

Categories
Essays politics

I’m Convinced There’s No Hope for America. Please Talk Me Out of It.

Here’s what I need to know.

I need to know that all is not lost. I don’t need to be told that all is not lost, I need to be convinced. I need proof. Without that proof, I either have to remain in this unbearable state of stomach-churning anxiety, or I have to accept the end and prepare for what’s truly next to come.

So this post is a request. Or maybe a cry for help.


Let me go back a bit. I left my theatre career in order to get involved in politics, because I believed that the good I could do in that arena would be more tangibly meaningful than whatever effect I could have as an actor on a stage. (I was almost certainly wrong, but that’s for another post.)

When I made that decision, George W. Bush had been re-elected president, and as bleak as that was, I knew that there were enough souls in this country to nudge the ship of state in a more positive, enlightened, and humanitarian direction, if only they could be moved to do so.

While the Democratic Party wasn’t exactly doing wonders for itself during this era, it still had the allegiance of about half the electorate, and they managed that following not with aw-shucks faux-average joes or slick media manipulators, but with statesmen. People like Al Gore and John Kerry may not have been the most charismatic politicians, and lord knows they were prone to screw-ups. A lot of folks even doubted the sincerity of their principles, but I didn’t.

There is always ugliness in politics. There are always egos of unusual size and tenderness, always those whose ambitions for power boggle the average citizen, always undesirables and deplorables, even within the wider orbits of leaders and representatives on unquestioned integrity. It will always be so. This is a given.

I always understood the Republican Party to be premised on a lie, on the claim that it was made up of men (and almost entirely men) who stood for traditions, stability, and safety. The reality was and is of course that it has, as long as I’ve been alive, stood for the perpetual acquisition of power for those who already have it. Some within the party and its ancillary groups and movements truly believed in the values the party pretended to care about, and, as all of us are wont, managed to rationalize every ethically or morally repugnant action taken on the party’s behalf; from senseless wars to pandering to theocrats to stoking xenophobia, racism, and disgust for the already-marginalized to decimating the mechanisms of society on which tens of millions of souls rely.

Just as evil men could launch themselves into the orbits of true-hearted leaders of character, well-meaning people could also find themselves pulled by the gravity of this plutocratic gas giant, and therefore in its thrall.

I have taken this all as given. This darkness, this oligarch-trained leviathan disguised as an American political party, was known.

Yet I believed that if the Truth could be successfully and thoroughly conveyed, if the public could only be persuaded to listen and think for a half a moment longer than our lizard brains are inclined, and if the body politic could be exposed to just the right appeal to our innate empathy and higher notions of ourselves, then we could win. I was never so naive as to think that there could ever be anything like a total victory, one in which our politics reflects the loftiest ideations of what true democratic discourse could and ought to be. But I did believe that there were sufficient numbers of us who, given the right nudge, could look past our lazy, atavistic aversions and foster something approaching a national generosity of spirit.

Lost elections didn’t necessarily mean total defeat, either. If the good guys couldn’t quite make their case on one go around the electoral track, we regroup, rethink, and run the race again.

And when a brilliant, professorial black guy whose name rhymes with “Osama” gets elected president, twice, despite running against a lionized maverick war hero, and later a man who was clearly grown in a pod for the purpose of becoming president, I think it’s understandable that I could come to believe that not only could we win sometimes, but that the tide had finally turned. We were winning.


During the Obama years, despite the pride I took in knowing that a truly good man was president, it was impossible to ignore the boiling magma of fear and hate that began cracking the surface of the public sphere and spewing jets of scalding rage and idiocy, disfiguring all who wandered too closely. So too, it was impossible to ignore the depths of cynicism, callousness, hypocrisy, and mendacity that Republican leaders and cultists were willing to employ for even the tiniest gains, at the national, state, and local levels.

I knew it was there, and it made me sick, physically ill. And yet I still couldn’t allow myself to believe that it was indicative of more than a disgruntled ruling class and a baffled, aging demographic lashing out like a cornered animal. If nothing else, it would only be a couple of decades before these increasingly anarchic tribes of aggrieved aristocrats, and the ignorant mobs to whom they distributed pitchforks, would simply die off.

Now it’s 2018. Every branch of government is not only utterly dominated by Republicans, but by the very worst kinds of Republicans. The grotesque horror that is the president is well established, but he is only one part of a triumvirate of depravity.

There may be no one living who encapsulates the word “soulless” better than Mitch McConnell. With truly inhuman coldness, he lies, schemes, and destroys. I find him terrifying.

Paul Ryan is a tool. If Republicans keep hold of the House, Kevin McCarthy will be a stupider tool. Less principled than Ryan, if that’s even possible, and without all those pesky brains to confuse matters. And the House Republicans themselves are not much better than the most conspiracy-crazed Tea Party rally, only wearing suits instead of eagle-emblazoned tank tops.

And there’s the latest tragedy, the courts. Among a Supreme Court conservative majority largely made up of partisan hacks, Brett Kavanaugh has asked America to hold his beer(s) as he proceeds to out-hack them all. He is the Platonic ideal of the aggrieved, old, rich, white guy, a Euclidean avatar of the spoiled, entitled country-clubber, who now feels that he has been wronged by Democrats and, more importantly, American women, who dared to question his right to their bodies. Well, now he gets to show them who’s boss.

Let’s not stop there! In state after state, legislatures and governors conspire to dismantle democracy itself. From the disenfranchisement of minorities and the poor to the revocation of municipalities’ right to local governance, Republicans are torching the fields and salting the soil.

If we’ve learned nothing else from the past decade, it’s that if Republicans can’t win through persuasion, they’ll simply rewrite the rules. They are eternally controlling Boardwalk and Park Place. It’s written right on the inside of the box, that they shall eternally passeth Go, over and over, forever and ever, amen.


Today, those of us in the reality-based community, those of us who aspire to something more meaningful than personal power or status, those of us who feel a whit of empathy for those unlike ourselves, are scared. We are marching, we are rallying, we are donating time, money, and energy. We are sparking vital social movements and unleashing waves of compassion, creativity, and raw determination, the likes of which I cannot recall seeing in my lifetime. We sense the threat, the feeling of permanence to the darkness already snuffing out light after light. It feels like an emergency.

It is an emergency. I do believe that people are waking up to that simple fact. Many millions of people have come to realize that things have not only gone wrong, but horribly, existentially wrong. The republic is in mortal danger, and the blight will not be contained within our borders. It’s soaking into the Earth’s crust. It’s riding the oceans’ currents. It’s attached to the very molecules we breathe.

There’s no more nudging. We’re heading headlong into a new Dark Age, and a minor course correction will not suffice.

And my fear, my despair, is that it’s too late.

I fear that there aren’t enough good souls in the electorate to transfer power from the monsters in the Republican cult.

I fear that even if we do outnumber the bastards, that they have so twisted our electoral mechanisms that even the bluest of waves could not wash them from power.

I fear that Republicans and their allied extra-national agitators have so successfully sowed confusion and mistrust, not only of our institutions, but of reality itself, that there is no path back to a shared understanding of what is and is not so.

I fear that our better angels are simply no match for our worst demons.

I said this post was a request. I admit, it took me a while to get here. But this is it: Someone convince me I’m wrong.

Show me that the anti-democratic voting laws, the boots on the necks of the poor, the dehumanization of women, the tantrums of white men, the open racism, the soulless quislings, the partisan hacks, the bullies who cast themselves as victims, and the dumptrucks of money sloshing through the system do not spell the end of this American project.

We’re stealing children from their parents and putting them into camps. We’re destroying our ability to inhabit the only planet we have. We’re callously incarcerating generations of black and brown men. We’re revoking the ability of millions to vote. We’re robbing women of the right to control when and whether they give birth. We’re kissing the rings of sociopathic and psychopathic dictators and turning our backs on the world’s democracies. These are just a few things I just now thought of. I could go on.

How does this get fixed? Show me the math and illustrate the physics. Point me to those who are in a position to repair the damage to our democracy, and explain to me how they’ll even be given the opportunity to do it. Make me understand how control of a grossly unrepresentative Congress will be wrenched from the iron grip of the evil men who currently wield power.

Persuade me that if the good guys start winning again, that the bad guys will even acknowledge it or allow it. Obviously, nothing is beneath them. The mask of civility has long been discarded, and I don’t believe for a second that they see any means as too savage or too depraved. They have proven this time and again. Ecological catastrophe is fine. Mass poverty is fine. Violence and brutality are fine. Nazis are fine. Sexual assault is fine. What depths are even left to plumb? Let your imagination run wild. They certainly let theirs.

If I’m wrong, if there’s real hope, show me. Make me see how Republicans lose control of Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court, the federal courts, the state capitols, the school boards, and how power gets into the hands of men and women who aren’t moral monsters. Convince me that the haze of misinformation that burns our eyes and ears is not the new normal, and that Americans can have something approaching a shared understanding of reality.

Point me to the light at the end of the tunnel, and prove to me that the tunnel hasn’t already caved in. Because I can’t see it, and it’s getting harder to breathe.