Sunday, June 24, 2012

A Short History of Personal Doings

In polite circles and otherwise, it is likely a stranger will query profession before bothering with names. This habit survives in spite of a minefield of potentially uncomfortable revelations. What’s left to talk about when a person suffers an unpleasant desk job? How do you best respond when they tell you they are unemployed? Personally, I don’t really like the “What do you do?” question because I never know how to answer it correctly. Most of my time is devoted to writing and photography, but as I have few commercial instincts it provides a modicum of income compared to my “day job.”  The question seems to measure success but it doesn’t reveal much of a person’s interests. I wish we lived in a society that treated first encounters with more depth: that it was acceptable social protocol in which, two strangers, upon meeting, could ask one another (with a non-contextual straight face, of course), “Nice to meet you. What are you into?”

When I was a kid taking the rare moment to consider future prospects I was sure I’d evolve into a comic book proprietor. Spiderman, Batman, Daredevil, X-Men, the Teen Titans and their multitudinous superhero peers were my overriding interest in life. Every Saturday my father took my sister and I to Fantasy Castle, a local comic book store, where we’d whittle an hour or two. My father had the same obsessions as a kid and didn’t mind the outings (still an avid Conan the Barbarian fan). He was also generous. As I amassed an enormous collection, it seemed then my future was all but assured. Then, quite suddenly, around the age of 14, I lost nearly all interest in the one endeavor that had consumed my life. Certainly in the early 1990s comics had changed—the popularity of Todd McFarlane’s artwork had led to some industry standardization. But I don’t blame Mr. McFarlane for my disavowal of the subculture. It was more personal than that.

I suppose confusion is the normal teenage existence. Following my apostasy I drifted. I liked sports but after a childhood of Saturday afternoons centered on Fantasy Castle, I was ill prepped for High School football’s physical demands. I followed the pros well enough, participating in baseball Rotisserie leagues, but it didn’t seem to matter much whether or not my teams won. I couldn’t even make it as a fair-weather fan.  This quagmire of fecklessness affected my career prospects. I could not begin to wonder what would be worth devoting my life. Lacking considerable imagination, I thought I would be a lawyer. My father was one, after all, and hey, they seemed to make a solid living.

Studying history at the University of California at Santa Barbara, I got caught up in Hemingway, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Hunter S. Thompson. Santa Barbara is a beautiful beach community, flanked by the sea and mountains and it is facile for a twenty-year-old to fall under a spell of romantic impulses. The authors inspiring me at the time were an aspirant’s gateway drug: they made the writer’s life appear wonderfully romantic. Not only that, their prose made writing look easy.  I got it into my head that I could do that too. Thus I became a “writer,” giving up any pretensions towards a respectable, well-compensated career.

Unfortunately, the exceptional genius aside, writers are not born— they’re made. But it takes a long time to understand that. Rare is the young person who recognizes his or her prose is predictable, asinine, goofy, and just plain bad. Storytelling is not a natural instinct—very few people know what to put in and what to take out, especially when a story is being invented on paper. It took me years to get the hang of it as I experimented with different styles and media— starting out with poetry and screenwriting and eventually settling into prose, both short and long. I sacrificed my twenties to my muse, laughing at me across many a blank page.

I consider the time I languished producing mediocre work a sort of apprenticeship. But in that time I acquired the will power to go through multiple drafts of stories. The writer, Laird Koenig, the closest I ever had to a mentor, advised me that, until publication, “a story is never finished, only abandoned.” The literary establishment, often guilty of prickly, conservative, and insular values, can be quite dismissive of unknown authors. I don’t take their defensiveness personally. Any author who wants to make a name for himself must develop a Nietzschean attitude towards perseverance.

I’ve found that when one becomes a writer, the creative process becomes more difficult: standards have evolved and knowing the complexity that goes into a good story well told, I took to long, meandering walks when the words didn’t come. Having grown up in Los Angeles car culture, walking has always been something of a novelty. That I was walking in Japan, India, and other foreign places (where I’d gone to research setting for my stories) inspired me to photograph these wanderings. Like writing, initially I had no real talent at pictures. But I liked doing them and once I had found my own particular signature I found I was pretty good at it. Photography complemented writing— it was a unique medium of self-expression, becoming something of a refuge when the stories I was composing hit narrative pitfalls.

Success is relative and I have a long ways to go but after developing considerable content, I have managed to place my work in various publications, both on the Net and in print. Such third party endorsements have come slowly and I’ve learned to appreciate the acceptances in proportion to the perfunctory form letters.  I haven’t been very good at advertising some of my achievements: I never had a facebook account and only lately started tweeting. I’ve only very recently begun sending out group emails. Even when you are published it is a challenge securing readers. After all, there is a lot of content out there.

It’s a journey, all right, and the arc is long. I’ve accepted that the relatively small monetary compensation is something ruled by market values and not talent. A person’s work is not necessarily what he gets paid to do but where he puts his thinking powers when no one’s asking. Nowadays nearly every piece I’ve managed to “finish” is a job well done and I’m thrilled when it’s delivered to the public. The artist should be grateful for his audience and their distinguished tastes. Between the creator and consumer a bit of energy is passed. This makes living quite worthwhile. A little impact goes a long way.

I decided to write this during the weekend my website was updated. It showcases my photography but if you click on the ‘about’ page, you will find links to my fiction and haiku project. This is what I’m “about.” It is what I do.