It is my experience that writers, as a matter of habit and, probably, survival, regularly delude themselves into believing that what they do is useful, not only to themselves, but to other people.

I will come right out and say I just don’t think this is the case.


The title of this piece, for those who are unfamiliar, is a reference to Office Space.  In it, Richard Riehle’s character, Tom Smykowski, is a mid-level functionary at “Initech,”a software company.  In this particular scene, he attempts to explain to “The Two Bobs” (a pair of “efficiency experts” brought in to streamline the company’s operations), what exactly his job is and why it (and he) is valuable:

I HAVE PEOPLE SKILLS!!!


Especially considering recent trends towards approaching art as one among many entertainment and recreation industries, Tom Smykowski and writers have more in common than any writer would like to admit.


I should be careful to point out that I understand there is writing that is useful. There is writing that is more effective or less effective.  Writing might be instructive or persuasive and it may succeed or fail in its mission.  It is possible for writing to do or encourage people to do or think things.  But as a creative practice in which the genus, execution, and natural conclusion of project are almost entirely avocational–a hobby or recreation for writer and reader alike–it is tough to take too grave and earnest a view of its practical purpose without sounding like a very desperate human being to anyone who is not likewise deluded (see:  other writers).

Anyone who has tried to talk seriously about writing or books with non-writers knows what I’m talking about.  This is how we end up in “communities.”  The literary community is a thing by, for, and unto itself.  We’re a sort of glorified cat lady club that has, unlike the cat ladies, managed to convince the world that our particular obsession is at least a little important.  That they should pay $9.99 to play with our cats.  Our beautiful, beautiful cats. That everyone should support our cat-production program for the enrichment and happy-making of the people, especially ourselves.

We can’t imagine why everybody wouldn’t want an “eagerly-anticipated” cat.

(I always wonder by whom it is anticipated.  I was almost never anticipating any of those books.)

I suppose it is true that for some, writing is a vocation in a manner of speaking.  At least insofar as there is pay involved.  But, as many here are all too well aware, in most cases writers fight tooth and nail, every inch clawing, to wring mere cents out of every word.  It is not a situation where writing presents itself as a traditional vocation–where there is a need and people actively seeking out and hiring individuals qualified to fill that need.  Trying to sell writing means a lifetime of, realistically, direct mail marketing, cold-calling, and door-knocking.  In most cases, the fact is that there is very little need at all for anything any single creative writer does, and in most cases, s/he will find himself aggressively and forwardly pushing his/her unsolicited “services” on an unwitting, skeptical, and largely disinterested public rather than being sought out by anyone at all.  Not readers, not agents, not publishers.

In  the film, The Two Bobs do liquidate Tom Smykowski’s job, but everything turns out a-okay for him.  He is hit by a drunk driver after being interrupted by his oblivious wife in the middle of a poorly executed suicide attempt and will collect a settlement for the rest of his life as a result.  At a party celebrating his retirement, we see Smykowski in a wheelchair, full-body cast, and cervical halo, proclaiming, “Good things CAN happen!  I mean, look at me!”

Rationalizations on full display, a number of writers with formerly lofty artistic goals resign themselves to the whims of the market, emerge from door-knocking and cold-calling haggard, bruised and broken but nevertheless with a book that at least kind of sells, and go, “GOOD THINGS CAN HAPPEN!”

They grin gap-toothed and proud past the split lip of their creative self-respect as their pummeled integrity swells into a massive shiner, impossible for anyone but the writer in question to ignore.  Other writers grimace understandably.  Not out of spite, but at the understanding that this could happen to any of us.  That this does happen to a lot of us.  That there are only so many options.

In such cases, the writer’s traditionally romantic artistic vision of writing is replaced not by reality, as many writers who have settled will insist, but a new kind of delusion:  That which assumes their situation has improved just because it has changed dramatically or because they have traded one discomfort for another.

In sum:  No one, in the end, is really looking for any of us.  Creative writers are not necessary.  To want to be a creative writer for a job is, in the greater cultural scheme of things, a fairly scandalous, decadent thing to demand.

When thousands of people are vying for a handful of positions that only sort of exist (that is, they only exist insofar as our powers of rhetoric can convince people they do), schisms predictably follow.

Writers of one type declare another type or all other types irrelevant, impractical, failing to deliver on the “true” purpose of writing.

Literary types accuse the commercial types of bastardizing the art,  commercial types accuse literary types of partitioning literature off from the masses in violation of the “point” of written storytelling.  Creative non-fiction is ass-backwardly decried as some new bastard child of non-fiction and fiction, poetry (what’s poetry?) is declared a dying, elitist, useless art, and fiction is regarded down poets’ noses, perceived as the promiscuous C+ cousin of them all.


Allow me to clear up a few historical misconceptions.

The “true” purpose of writing, the first writing, for the record, historically speaking, was for accounting, itemization, and taking stock of material goods.  Plainly, writing was invented to make lists.  Not to make entertainment.

After that, it was “for” governmental and religious propaganda, and consisted primarily of embellished historical accounts of the conquests of empires and their leaders.  I suppose we could call those instances creative non-fiction, but that would be at least a little disingenuous.

The first fictional novels as we understand them didn’t even appear until the 18th century (generously), coinciding with a general rise in literacy.  Reading, in the broad historical sense, never belonged to the masses at all because historically speaking, the masses couldn’t (and at any number of levels, still can’t) read.  Very few people were literate in “civilized” ancient societies predating the Romans, and humanity (Western humanity, to be frank) returned quickly to a near-uniformly illiterate state for hundreds of years following the demise of The Empire, only to pick up the skill en masse again as late as the 20th century, depending on what one considers “widespread” literacy.  As of 1900, the American illiteracy rate for individuals over 14 bore striking resemblances to today’s unemployment numbers.  This means about 10% of the American population, nearly 60% of them either non-white or immigrants, could not read when L. Frank Baum was writing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  Compare that to a small fraction of a percent now.

We are, incidentally, once again, becoming less literate as a species following a modern historical peak in the 70s.

All these things considered, your H&R Block representative, Joseph Goebbels, and the silky-handed, teeming faux-elite of planned McMansion communities are arguably “truer” writers in the long-term historical sense than any of us (not that there aren’t accountants, propagandists or idle bourgeoisie among us, but that’s a different discussion, and I doubt those individuals think to count these qualifications among their writerly credentials).

So to pretend that the act of writing as we undertake it has some long-standing, sacred proletariat history that we are beholden to or entrusted to maintain or that makes one type of creative writing more correct than another is simply incorrect.  The truth is quite to the contrary:  Arguably, of the arts (written, visual, performing, and musical), writing is the newest and  most exclusive of them all and its relatively recent overall democratization has served in large part to remove the luxuriousness from an item that never quite had much more than luxury going for it.

So writing–the writing we are generally talking about when we feel compelled to defend the importance of writing–really isn’t all that necessary at all.  In fact, humanity (potential readers and writers alike) got along quite well without recreational reading or writing for the overwhelming bulk of its history, and even after its emergence, huge portions of the population continued (and continue) to get along without it just fine.  Our feelings, as writers, about our own importance are almost certainly unfounded.

It’s easy to despair at the thought.  That writers are never necessary, simply tolerated. That we are of indifferent value and generally disposable.

It could be depressing.  Or it could be liberating.  After all, though the road may be a lonely one, if no one really needs you, you’re free to do just about anything you please.

If I could let go of my pride and truly embrace the idea that my writing and I are accountable to no one and that nothing I might say is particularly important to anyone, what kinds of accidentally important things might I be freed up to say?

It’s time, maybe, to knock a wall out of my cube and start cleaning fish at my desk.  To go to The Two Bobs of the world–and more importantly The Two Bobs in my head–and, when they say, “What do ya do here?” tell them exactly the truth.

“Virtually nothing.  And therefore anything I want.”


Here we are roaring up to June and it’s looking unlikely that anyone is going to ask me to give a commencement address. But just in case…

Whatever it is that you want to do, don’t do it to show them, whoever they are, because by the time you do it, they, whoever they are, your parents, your relatives, the neighbors, and anybody else who said, You’re a feather, you’ll never amount to anything, what planet are you from?, all of them are going to be sick or dead or dotty or just trying to get through the day, and nothing is going to be about you and whatever you did. If you are lucky enough to be able to do whatever it is you want to do, do it for yourself and the joy and worthiness of doing it, because even if they, whoever they are, aren’t sick or dead or dotty, they will not care a fig, you’ll hardly even have a chance to get your news in, at the very most, they will only say they aren’t surprised one bit, not one bit, didn’t they always say from the beginning that you were going to do great things, and you’re going to say, “Whaaa?” Satisfaction and respect and fulfillment and purpose and meaning are not out there. Do whatever you do, for your best self who can appreciate it more than anyone else ever could, and if you do it, you’ll have done it against all odds, so fill with pride, you hero you.

I was a haughty and insufferable young man, intent, ironically, upon a direction of which I was unsure. I am less intent these days and I have worked to lose the haughtiness, though I am still unsure as to where I am headed. A true north, presented as a reasonable and intelligent sensibility remains unknown, a shrouded mystery. Schopenhauer said that walking is arrested falling down. I am walking, and conscious that every step is taken in self-defense, taken to keep from collapsing. I have concluded that for me life holds only surprises and reveals little. I am in a poker game and am blind. I did not spring from the womb playing Mozart. I cannot do math. I have not experienced a particular urge to save the world or develop a vaccine or build an empire. I have no natural capacity for anything, as best I can tell. The writer in me struggles to spin my web, but that is the nature of the discipline. I work from my gut. In short, I exist, like, as best I can tell, many of us exist, without a clarifying direction or calling. Most of the time, sadly, I am not even cognizant that I even exist. When I am aware of the fact, I keep my eyes open and take notes as I am able. The best I’ve been able to do thus far is string them together and search for patterns.

Of all the available super hero powers, I wish that I were telekinetic.

I’ve taken a close look at all the options out there: flying, invisibility, super strength…but these all seem so out of reach, and therefore completely unreasonable. I’m a pragmatist, and the truth is, somewhere in the depths of my being, I believe that if I really tried hard enough, I could do it. I could move stuff with my mind.

I had a kung fu teacher one time who swore that he could move things with his chi. Claimed he could blow out a candle with one focused ka-pow! I asked him to show me, but for one reason or another, we never got around to it.

I’ve tried teaching myself.  If you Google telekinesis, you’ll find all sorts of advice and demonstrations. Like this one: Guy moves CD using only his mind! And then, there’s this one: Guy bends spoon using only his mind!And then there’s this Dutchman fellow who appears to be able to levitate, using only his mind!

I even found an old documentary about a woman in Russia named Nina Kulagina who had been studied by a whole battery of scientists. She, too, could move objects on the table, such as utensils and balls, using only her mind!  

So, in the face of this incontrovertible evidence from the Internet, I know it can be done. I just haven’t figured out how to do it.

Yet.

A couple of weeks ago, a neighbor friend of mine told me about an energy vortex in the field across from her house. She said that if you stand there with a coat hanger (bent in the shape of an L, and then with one of the arms in a cardboard cylinder to reduce friction) it will spin in circles. You better believe that within minutes I was asking her to take me to this place. Take me to the vortex.

The next day, we met in the field. It’s in the back of someone’s house on the edge of the forest, so we called ahead to get permission. We took our coat hangers, and traipsed down the hill to the spot. Sure enough, the coat hangers immediately began spinning. My husband, Scott – who is kind of a geek and totally gets off on offering scientific explanations for everything – had taken along a meter to measure electric currents. What he found surprised him. He hadn’t expected to find anything – and that was exactly what he found.

That’s not exactly true.  While the coat hangers were spinning, he was actually able to measure a current.

“The air-voltage potential is going wild!” He exclaimed wide-eyed, before adding somewhat more quietly, “although it’s not repeatable or consistent enough to be conclusive.”

I eyed him darkly over my spinning coat hanger.

“What?” He asked, pulling out a magnetometer.

It wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate his attempt at explaining the phenomenon in a scientific manner.  I’m a gemini and the more rational of my wonder twins welcomed it with a hearty “Form of …a modern, rational thinker!”  But I would be lying if I said that there wasn’t a part of me that wanted something unexplainable to be happening.  My other twin sort of bit her tongue and defiantly thought in her head something to the effect of “Shape of a why-can’t-you-just-experience-the-moment, bitch.”  When the twins are at odds, it’s hard to come across with any sense of uniformity in the party line.


When the magnetometer returned inconclusive results, as well, I was secretly pleased. He’s lucky he’s cute.

When we got home, I needed to think about things. I needed to go over my experience and decide what had happened.  Had it been a scientific phenomenon that we had witnessed?  And if so, is it true that all paranormal phenomena can be explained scientifically – but that we just don’t have the science to explain it yet?  

From there, my brain went wild.  What if it were actually possible for people to possess paranormal traits, such as possessing the ability to project one’s self across space and time, being psychic, being telekinetic? I mean, how would I know?  For years, I had been assuming these things weren’t possible, but what if?  What if it was only my rational mind getting in the way?

I stood up from my place on the edge of the bed and peeked around the door.  I was alone.  I closed the door.  I knew I was being ridiculous, but I needed to know.  I hadn’t checked in years.  What if something had changed?  What if my experience in the vortex had changed me?  

Carefully, I pulled out a blue marble from a drawer and put it on the table in front of me, and…focused.

Nothing.

No matter. I closed my eyes, put my hand near the marble and tried again.

Still nothing.

I started getting agitated. If I was going to exhibit signs of telekinesis, I needed to act now. Who knew how long the power of the vortex would remain within my mortal frame? Plus, who knew how much time I had before Scott walked into our bedroom and found me staring at a blue marble on my nightstand like Saruman the White over the Great Eye?


I tried again.

Still nothing.

And suddenly, I felt, once again, ridiculous.  I would love to say that there was alcohol involved, but there was not.  Why would I even think I could do such a thing?  It’s absurd!  Had I watched too much TV?  Too much Batman Wonder Woman Spiderman SuperMan Super Friends Great American Hero X Files X Men Star Trek Star Wars Stargate Stargate Atlantis Battlestar Gallactica Lois and Clark Smallville Heroes?  Do other seemingly normal people out there perform periodic checks to see if they might be the unwitting carriers of assorted psychic powers?   Where did I even get this idea?  Have I always had this idea?  Have I been secretly harboring the assumption that deep within I have a hidden well of psychic abilities and have not been able to manifest them thus propelling myself into a life of frustration and disillusionment?

When I was a kid, I had a pair of Supergirl Underoos. They had been given to me by my older half sister, seven years cooler than I. I loved my Underoos with a zealot’s passion. To me, they were not just “the underwear that’s fun to wear” – they were a life choice. When I wore them, they made me feel as if I could accomplish anything. They completed me.

Supergirl was telekinetic. She was also extremely powerful and was a bit of a shape-shifter, but whatev. This girl could move things with her mind.

I have fond memories of posing in front of the large bathroom mirror over the sink in the bathroom. When I wore the Supergirl Underoos, I became Supergirl. I’d flex my muscles, I’d pretend to fly. I’d move things on the counter, using only my mind! It was my secret identity, known only to me…and sometimes my younger sister, who would occasionally barge into the bathroom unannounced and catch me at it.

We really could have used a lock on that door.

Incidentally, my younger sister and I also had a pair of Wonder Woman Underoos (also a gift from big sis), which we fought over tooth and nail when the Supergirl Underoos mysteriously disappeared.


I believe my mother can be blamed for the heist. Unlike Wonder Woman, which was comprised of an undershirt styled top and panty, Supergirl had a top that looked suspiciously like a bra.


At the age of 9 in a conservative Evangelical household, this did not exactly fly. I had already been shamed by my ungodly desire to want to shave my legs after I had been caught in the bathroom by my mother with her pink Lady Remington. (What? I was a hairy 9-year-old.)

Faced with only one top and panty set – Underoos is clear on the use of “panty” in the singular – competition between us was fierce. If there was only one set between us, and mom only washed clothes once per week, then it stood to reason that each of us could only wear the set once in a two-week time period. This led to all manner of deals and threats between us, including some interesting outfit choices in order to try and extend the life of the Underoos beyond a bi-weekly event. Sure, a panty can only be worn once before it needs washing, but the cool top with the gold eagle-emblazoned red bustier could be worn at least a few times before it needed cleansing treatment. I’d pair the undershirt with a pair of light blue panties (plural, and therefore not as amazing or powerful), pull on a pair of red knee highs,et voila! I was Wonder Woman on laundry day.

I miss my Underoos. They had a brief, but brilliant life. At some point near the beginning of the fourth grade, I decided to make a secret appearance as Wonder Woman. Little did I know that it would be my last time. I dug out the Wonderwoman Underoos from my drawer and got ready for school. I knew in my gut that I was too old for that, and yet…and yet.

My teachers and classmates had no idea how protected they were that day – that a Superhero walked amongst them. Nobody had to know. It was my little secret. Somewhere around lunchtime, however, I realized the flaw in my plan.

Gym class.

I panicked. What if my shirt crept up in the process of clearing the projectile of a dodge ball? Seeing the potential horror of my decision I began to grow self-conscious that I might be discovered – that my identity would be exposed to the jeering taunts of my fourth grade class. I tried not participate. Used my superhero strength for good and turned Dodge Ball into Wall Ball. I went home at the end of school and retired my secret identity forever.


I believe that my first feelings of disillusionment followed shortly on the heels of this event.
To this day, I find myself feeling that I’m missing something in life – like I should be capable of something more. I should be able to accomplish bigger things, get places faster, fight for the greater good,
be telekinetic.

I decided to poll my friends to see if anybody else felt this connection – this strange sense of loss and lack of purpose in life after a childhood devoted to pretending to be a superhero. 21 of my friends actually responded to my poll. Of course, it is a rather small sampling of a huge cross section of our society, but I think we can learn from it all the same.

In my poll, I asked several questions, which for our purposes, I shall narrow down to three:


1.If you were a superhero, what would your special power be?

2.Did you have Underoos (and what were they)?

3.Do you have a clear sense of purpose in life, or is it hazy?


Here are the responses:
1 – Super strength / Superman / Hazy
2 – Know what people are thinking / Rainbow Brite / hazy
3 – Ability to beam places / Wonderwoman / hazy
4 – freeze time / no / clear
5 – Flying / Minerva / hazy
6 – get pregnant / Josie and the Pussycats / hazy
7 – flying / wonderwoman / hazy
8 – bendy / bat woman / hazy
9 – healing / wonderwoman, cat woman, spiderman / clear
10 – flying / superman / hazy
11 – the ability to dance and teleportation / no / clear
12 – flight / wonderwoman and Josie and the Pussycats / hazy
13 – telekinesis / batman, superman, he-man/hazy
14 – ability to survive on little sleep / no, but desperately wanted Superwoman / hazy
15 – treetop running, blasting off ground / no, but wanted He-man / hazy
16 – invisibility / Superman/clear
17 – telekinesis / Wonderwoman / hazy
18 – flight / wonderwoman / hazy
19 – flight / no / clear
20 – invisibility and omniscience / Incredible Hulk / hazy
21 – the ability to see through clothes / no / clear

Here is the final tally:

Of those who had Underoos:

hazy sense of purpose in life: 13 (87%)
clear sense of purpose in life: 2 (13%)

Of those who did NOT have Underoos:

hazy sense of purpose in life: 2 (33%)
clear sense of purpose in life: 4 (66%)

So, of those who wore Underoos, 13% feel as if they have a clear purpose in life.  Of those who did not wear Underoos, 66% feel as if they have a clear purpose in life.  

It may be interesting to note, that of the two respondents who did NOT have Underoos and who claimed that their sense of purpose was hazy, they both made a point of stating that they intensely pined over a pair of Underoos, but that their parents would not let them. So, it could be argued that these 2 people really belong amongst their Underoos wearing peers as they may have exhibited the same behavior – perhaps by making their own costumes out of felt and bedsheets. So, this final tally may be skewed with a deeper analysis of the situation.

Generation X has been referred to as “the lost generation.” For some reason, we who were born between 1965 and 1981 are said to exhibit a “hazy sense of identity.” Numerous reasons have been cited as possible contributors, including the collapse of the Soviet Union, a rise in the divorce rate, drugs and economic strain. No doubt, these all played their role.

We are also the generation whose parents told us that we could accomplish anything that we set our minds to. We were assured that we were amazing and that we could change the world. We were the world. We werethe children. We were the ones to make a brighter day, so we had better start living.

And to prove it, we were bought Underoos.

Is there a connection? I don’t know. Was it that Underoos were a symptom of the times…or were they a contributing factor?  That is the question.  What do you think?


* I would like to note for the record that none of my friends had the Monchichi Underoos.