If you’re like me you know that your father told you and your brother and sister stories. They often involved characters named Jamie, and companions or equally relevant characters named after your siblings, as together you all tromped through forests and conquered giants and met and saved princesses and you all became princesses and princes and eventually kings and queens. This transpired while you were tucked under the covers of your childhood bed in the bedroom in which you grew up, situated in the northwest corner of the house in which your parents raised you. The covers covered your knees and, sometimes—during the scary parts when Jamie had to outlast ogres, dragons, or giant rats—the covers reared up to your chin, just as you’d imagine they might in a movie version of this story of your life.

Six Shakespearean Tailgaters

 

The Comic’s Complaint

How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags!
How come you listen but won’t laugh at my gags?

 

BP:  This interview is somewhat unique, since you’re not necessarily out promoting a book or another specific project. You’re not on a junket. You’re a student from Minnesota who is currently living in Norway (more on that later), and I decided to chat you up after I saw UMN’s English Department website bragging about you because you’re the reigning Best Individual Poet according to the 2011 national College Unions Poetry Slam.

Christopher Plummer says he did it “many times,”
back then, awash in boon companions,

sex, and devastating wit. And when he did, the play
would speed up: three and a half to four hours

became two. His Alpine leading lady, no Ophelia,
had a freehold on My Favorite Things (see Andrews, Julie;

I am teaching Hamlet. This is a first for me, and it has given me a chance not only to revisit the play, but also Almereyda’s messy, masterful adaptation (2000); and one summer in my own life when the time felt most terribly out of joint.

It seems to me that Hamlet is not so much a guy who couldn’t make up his mind, nor a man who thought too much, or who lacked resolve, or any of those things—or maybe all of them. The guy was just too totally into himself. That’s what makes Hamlet so compelling. The lure of drama, whether a play, a book, or a film, is the desire to be seen. We wait for that moment when we become real in the eye of the character, when what they say, or how they look, makes us suddenly real to ourselves. But Hamlet refuses. There’s the rub. He obliterates us the way he feels obliterated. That’s how up-himself he is. It’s very frustrating.

Oh, he can see himself, up to a point. ‘I’m an errant knave’ he brags to the lovesick Ophelia, without really ever seeing the girl in front of him. All he can see, all he can be, is himself. He just doesn’t get, that in order to be, as Buddhist leader, Thich Nhat Hanh says in one of the most extraordinary scenes in the film, we have to inter-be. In so being, in being so himself, Hamlet cannot inter-be. He can only be, as the murderous Claudius says, his ‘character, naked’—a contradiction in terms. So be it. If I cannot see myself in him, then I cannot be either.  Watching Hamlet is being Hamlet…. unable to be because of not being able to see oneself in the gaze of another.

Hamlet takes twenties-something slacker solipsism to a whole new level; Ethan Hawke nails it. His Hamlet is self-reflection to the point of self-obliteration. He would extinguish himself and thus aspire to the extinction of all.

This is not the first time the Dane has gotten to me. When I was twenty-three I dropped out of school for the last time. Or so I told myself. Fuck them and the donkeys they rode in on. I broke up with my boyfriend, moved into a place by myself, and stopped seeing friends. But before I did, I did something kind of kinky. In love with Shakespeare, I approached my professor and asked him if he’d tutor me privately. I’d pay, I said, whatever he thought was fair. I just didn’t want to live if I couldn’t live without Shakespeare. Astonishingly, he agreed. An astonishing man. Diminutive and rail thin, pasty, with a reputedly critically ill wife that no one had ever met, he agreed to read with me over one weird summer every Thursday in a restaurant near his house and we would discuss Shakespeare. Macbeth, Richard III, Twelfth Night, Hamlet.

Of course, Almereyda had not yet made his movie.  Last Action Hero was just a twinkle in John McTiernen’s eye … I watched and wept with Withnail. My ex wanted to get back together.  I sent him a note, quoting Viola from Twelfth Night. ‘O time, thou must untangle this, not I; It is too hard a knot for me to’untie!’  Nerdy, right? The ex went off and bought himself the biggest most complete Globe Shakespeare he could find. It must have set him back a pound of flesh. It’s one of those big tomes with gold-edged pages and cheesy line drawings. I didn’t know this at the time, and the only reason I know about it now is because it sits on our bookshelf and whenever anyone in the family wants to check up on a quote, we refer to it. Our kids love the illustrations.

But that was all in the future. Like Hamlet I was too into into myself to really see my boyfriend, or a future with me in it. I was too concerned with my own character, naked, whatever that was. I couldn’t inter-be for the same reason Hamlet couldn’t: I was bereft. Like Hamlet I was grieving over a loss with ‘impious stubbornness.’  My best friend had died three years earlier, and I just couldn’t get past it. In the winter following her death I’d locked myself in my apartment and played old Beatles albums over and over again. Especially, ‘Here comes the sun,’ because I knew it never would.  Even though there was no suggestion of foul play, she’d died in an ugly, unnecessary way, and above all, without me, a terrible betrayal. I too thought that if I sat there for long enough on my own, my ‘too too solid flesh, would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,’ or adieu. Either or.

My only comfort were the dreams in which she’d appear, month after month, year after year, and for a few precious moments, or days, or however long the dream seemed to last, we were together again, yes, but it wasn’t the same. There was something wrong. A distance between us. She scared me a little. Remember me, she’d say, and there was something else.

Remember death, the undiscovered country, impossible dream. Memento mori, sixteenth century manifesto and the most paradoxical message of all. Remember your death, say our ghosts. Like that’s even possible. Sam Shepard is the ghost in Almereyda’s film, materializing in front of a Pepsi Lite vending machine.  ‘Wondrous strange,’ says Horatio, Horatio is Hamlet’s best friend. The ghost appears and reappears.  Don’t kill yourself, he tells Hamlet. Don’t go crazy. I need an untainted mind. Here is my story. I love you. Remember me.

Is that why they come, our ghosts and dream girls? Hamlet’s ghost, Yorick’s skull dug up by the clumsy gravedigger—we knew him once, didn’t we? Good night, sweet lady.

In dreams she’d be and wouldn’t be—alive and not alive—and she’d want something from me. Like Hamlet, I couldn’t give it to her. I wanted to, but it she wouldn’t look at me, not really. I’d crane my neck, will her to meet my eyes, but she’d turn away. That was the dream. Remember me, she’d say. And something else. And then she’d leave. And between her visits I’d do my damnedest to forget. I spiralled into the madness of not-forgetting. That’s all I could do.

The weekly meetings with my professor were therapeutic and instructive, but over time I sensed him becoming distracted and distant. Maybe it was because of his wife. I don’t know, but the summer ended and so did our Shakespeare sessions. I continued to be haunted by my dead friend. I had cut off all ties with her family, and with our group from school. I tried to go to a couple of reunions but was so traumatized by her ghostly presence that I hit twenty-something excess with a vengeance. I never talked about her and surprisingly I never wrote about her until very recently. Last year. Oddly enough it was a poem, the first real poem I ever wrote, and even more oddly, it was published, and stranger still, it was read and admired by the man who would become my agent.  There are indeed ‘more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy.’

We are teaching our students that Hamlet just doesn’t get the whole political thing. He can’t or won’t play the game. He is too into being true to himself. Maybe if he was savvy he would have been able to get rid of Claudius while he had the chance. And then he could have taken the throne and lain the ghost to rest. But maybe that’s kind of what he didn’t want, not what he wanted to be—to be King and to still be bereft. To have the whole world and have nothing, to be and not to be. After the publication of my poem, the dreams stopped.  Every night, I’d go to sleep and think, please, maybe tonight. But she’s gone. Gone and not forgotten. Her story, finally, told. Memento mori. The impossible dream.

When Hamlet lies dying, Horatio would drink of the poisoned cup that killed his best friend. Like Horatio, all I ever wanted to do was to throw myself into the grave and shovel dirt over the both of us. But Hamlet, and maybe my friend, have a better idea. Stay, says Hamlet to the weeping Horatio. Stay alive. Tell my story. Remember me.

My dishwasher and I have been at war for some time. This war is being waged on two fronts. On one side is my ongoing search for a bowl or plate or pot so dirty the dishwasher cannot clean it, but so far I’ve found nothing, including a recent plate coated with the super glue residue of leftover fried eggs. The other battle is a certain steak knife I’ve run through the wash at least five straight times. There is a bit of unrecognizable debris stuck to the tip of the blade that no amount of hot water and dish detergent will dislodge. I could easily scrape the debris off with a fingernail but that would be like conceding defeat. This is a ridiculous war because the dishwasher obviously possesses the horsepower to clean any dish it wants but refuses to acknowledge the steak knife. I think it’s mocking me.

* * *

I don’t watch a lot of television, and I don’t have cable, so the only way I get national news is to read it on the Internet. But I don’t even do that as often as I probably should. I’m too busy looking for that little red alert on Facebook that tells you when someone leaves a comment or sends you a message. Other sites I read with regularity are this one and DamnYouAutocorrect.com. But that’s not what this is about. This is about everyone sitting around watching cable news all day and then complaining how everything is wrong with America. The thing about America is there is so little wrong with it that we have the luxury of watching theater disguised as news and then complaining about how put upon we are. Of course what’s wrong depends on which network you watch. None of them can agree what’s wrong, only that something definitely is. The cable news networks also seem to agree they should compose theme songs for important news stories. Can you imagine being a musician who makes a living this way? Hey, Mutt! We need a quick ten second theme to introduce the war in Afghanistan. Can you whip up something by nine? But Mutt is expensive, and so are satellite trucks, so the way networks pay for their broadcasts is with prescription drug commercials. These advertisements are invariably more interesting than the news itself because they, a) suggest you diagnose yourself with an illness, and b) consume most of their precious air time warning you about side effects. Like this pill will stop you from peeing so often, but you also might shit out of your ears or die or see the future. Whose bright idea was it to put the lay public in charge of prescribing drugs to themselves? Am I the only person in the world who doesn’t understand this logic?

* * *

In downtown Memphis, moments after I emerge from the hotel, a man approaches me and begins to chat. It’s nine-thirty at night. I’m starving. The friendly fellows quickly ascertains I’m looking for a restaurant, away from the tourists, and helps me locate one. I know this game but pretend like I don’t. We talk all the way to the restaurant. He learns I’m a writer and promises to visit my web site and send me an email. I learn he has a “fifteen-mile walk home in the rain.” When I inquire about a potential bus fare, the amount he quotes is about the same as one of the vodka-laced Red Bulls I will consume with dinner. This sounds like a fair investment to me, so I give him the bus fare and go inside.

The restaurant isn’t perfect, but it’s close enough. There’s a bar, a few tables, and a stage where a live jazz band is preparing to play. The crowd is mainly young professionals, dressed a lot like me, having drinks and watching the local pro basketball team on flat screen televisions. I sit down and order a drink and a burger, and while I wait for my order to arrive I send flirty text messages on my iPhone. The band is decent and I snap a few pictures and text those, too. Eventually a girl walks up to the bar and stands next to me. I realize she’s the same blonde I noticed earlier at an adjacent table. She just stands there, drinking water, and I realize she expects me to say something to her. So I do, and when the girl turns to me I can see she is very pretty, like model pretty. She tells me about her job, about how she doesn’t like it, and asks where I’m from. I keep looking back at the table behind us because I’m pretty sure that guy over there in the pink shirt is her boyfriend. It could also be the guy in the suit, but my bet’s on Pink. I’ve got a nice buzz, and I should be feeling happy, but instead I’m confused. Why is this petite supermodel chick talking to me where Pink can clearly see her? And why am I pretending to care about her boring job? I’m texting someone who isn’t here and occasionally being chatted by someone who is, who apparently doesn’t want to talk to her boyfriend, and everything seems absurd to me. I’m listening to jazz music in a Memphis bar, and though it’s pretty good music I start to think how odd it is to be sitting in bar full of locals, listening to a band play jazz because they sort of have to, being in Memphis, like I’m watching all these actors play their parts. When the blonde and I run out of things to talk about, she wanders back over to her boyfriend and the rest of their group, and I turn my attention to the television. Occasionally my phone buzzes, and the conversation moves forward, albeit glacially, and I wonder if my text buddy were here in person, would we be on our phones talking to other people who were not here?

The guy who directed me to the restaurant never sends an email.

* * *

On the interstate, on the way home, I listen to stand up comedians to distract myself from the reality of a six-hour drive. I listen to music. I wonder what draws us to listen to music, to these same melodic rhythms again and again. Sometimes music evokes emotion in us, sometimes it inspires us, but very often we listen simply because we cannot bear the silence. On a normal day you might be working in a cubicle or in your living room, your hours might be filled with the concerns of other human beings, and time flies by with little knowledge of its passing. But when you’re on the road you’ve got nothing but six hours of asphalt and tractor trailers and drivers who won’t get out of the left lane, and suddenly the hours assert themselves. They become worlds, planet-sized, immensity so great you can barely detect their curvature. Which is why you distract yourself with pleasing melodies and rhythms, drumbeats that count off the many moments so you might forget about them.

And you wonder if maybe that’s what you’re really doing every day. Distracting yourself.

* * *

If our bodies are electrochemical machines, the core programming code instructs us to survive long enough to engineer successful offspring. But human minds, perhaps uniquely, possess the ability to override genetic commands. We use latex or hormones to defy industrious little swimmers. But to what end? For some, bearing children is the next, obvious step in their forward-marching journey. Others give no thought to the gravity of bringing life into the world. And maybe a few of us, consciously or not, look at parenthood as a concession of defeat, just one more reminder of the meaningless void. Maybe we see those smiling baby faces as the army that will eventually defeat us.

* * *

In the end, though music may often be a distraction, that isn’t always the case. Sometimes you hear a melody so beautiful you are compelled to stop the forward march and give yourself fully to the moment directly in front of you. Sometimes you make perfect contact with the golf ball and launch it four-and-one-half football fields into the distance. One day your first novel sells and the only response you can think of is to cry. Another day your eight-year old niece calls you on video chat and you read her a bedtime story over the Internet tubes.

If that smiling face is the beginning of military occupation, it’s certainly difficult to resist.

* * *

Today I ran the dishwasher. This time the blade of the steak knife emerged clean, pristine, like it was brand new all over again. I don’t know if it matters or not, but I won that battle.

It never changes. Every time I even think of-let alone read or watch-the penultimate scene of Macbeth, I don’t just sit up, I stand up. I’ll stand right up in a theater-I have no problem with the violation of decorum in public places.

I know Macbeth is guilty of heinous crimes. I know, as he does, that he deserves his fate. I know he is the most despicable of men, a faithful general and friend-a true hero turned traitor, murderer…psychopath. I know he has sold his soul and become a greedy, power hungry madman. And yet…

I rise to my feet in respect, whether at home alone in my office, or in a theater in one of the world’s great cities. When Macduff reveals his prophetic magical protection of being “untimely ripped from his mother’s womb,” Macbeth at first acknowledges his cowardice. And then the old soldier in him, the noble though fallen inner man shines through, and he says for all time: I WILL NOT YIELD.

Macbeth

Though the line, “Lay on, Macduff” has become caricatured in many contexts, no one can ever minimize or demean the power of Macbeth’s assertion, “Yet I will try the last.”

With blood on his hands, doomed to die, he still draws his sword and calls upon the courage that made him the leader and warrior that has been his life. I get out of my seat and want to plunge into the page and the scene-because I want to help him. Despite his crimes, I want him to somehow triumph.

Hamlet, near the end, says, “We defy augury,” and goes on to fence to his appointed death. But my sympathy isn’t so much with him. I appreciate his predicament, but he seems a dithery sop to me-death is an easy way out. He’s a prince and fencing is something he learned indoors.

Macbeth wants to live. A Captain of Men, he’s seen the blood of combat and survived. He is in fact a professional murderer. Confronted by the same dark magic that had earlier protected him, he draws his sword one final time. I think I’m not alone in hoping against hope that somehow he will prevail.

The moment is a great triumph for Shakespeare. The fact that he could produce such remarkable comedy alongside this bewitched darkness is beyond saying. But to create a villain of Macbeth’s complexity-in this, his shortest tragedy-leaves me standing.

Richard III, Iago, Edmund-are all great villains that any actor of substance would kill for to play. (Richard Burton said, “Any actor given the chance to play Richard III who doesn’t take it, should be immediately executed.”)

But there is an undefeated humanity to Macbeth, and I long to join him…to bring Macduff’s head back on stage and not his.

I count this one of the finest, truest moments in fictionalized Western Civilization. There is Christ on the Cross, anguishing in vinegar and blood-but he had his Father’s many mansions to look forward to, and knew all along he was the sacrificial Lamb. Socrates? He knew the payment for the gadfly is hemlock. Odysseus? He would’ve run away. Macbeth draws his sword and says for all of us, YET I WILL TRY THE LAST.

The only moment to compare is early in Paradise Lost, when Satan sits brooding amongst his monsters and the exiled gods, and speaks with disturbing calm about “What reinforcement we may gain from hope…if not, what resolution from despair.”

Think about that…when the fallen angel of the morning star-a lieutenant to Eternity-speaks to monsters of “resolution from despair.” The vanquished ministers of vengeance and pursuit…under house arrest in Pandemonium, debating rebellion by either covert guile or open war against the tyranny of Heaven.

This is a moment in artistic civilization…not Mr. Darcy.

But oh, for Jane Austen, relative to her disciples today. Give me Jesus long before Paul. Holy shit.

I’m now very tired of warm fuzzy characters. I’m tired of the endless yeast infection of what is really chic lit, masquerading as serious fiction. I’m tired of the miserly boredom of figures as real and thin as toilet paper that get flapped in the published breeze just because someone is well connected and lives in Brooklyn.

The WitchesAnd I’m sick to nausea of fantasy hijacks of darkness, where witches and black magic are the stuff geeky boys and a politically correct girl have to deal with-like fodder from a bad Disney movie.

Macbeth, the warlord, met witches. Shakespeare always brought out all the tricks. But still, there is that final moment, when he draws his sword-and transcends gender, race and class in the doing. I WILL NOT YIELD. Though prophecy and fate be against me, he says…bring it on.

Makes me want to climb on stage.

When the first song ended, I began to clap and suffered sharp rebuke at the hands of a middle-aged woman one row behind and two seats to my left.

“Shh!”

Clapping is what you do when a song ends.  I wasn’t the only one who screwed up.  How was I supposed to know?  Orchestra Hall–or its audience, rather–sat in silence for the next 45 minutes.

I felt like I was meeting an old boyfriend for coffee. I was nervous.  I was already under-dressed in shorts, a tank top, and flip flops.  Why couldn’t I have at least worn heels?  I should have worn the floral print dress.  It’s Orchestra Hall, for godssakes.

“Yeah, it’s Orchestra Hall,” my husband had reasoned soundly one hour prior as I tugged at the hem of my shorts in the mirror, “but you’re not going to see the orchestra.”

True enough.

In a scenario reminiscent of My Dinner With Andre, only with way less creepy background music and little or no Wallace Shawn, two Nervous Breakdown newcomers utilize the cold war-era concept of the “face to face chat” in a likely misguided effort to push beyond the personal essay format. Daly, already a TNB darling due to his heavily reported dust-up with Wally Lamb, and Beaudoin, still reeling from the announcement of David Coverdale’s defamation lawsuit, come together for a wide-ranging discussion on a number of subjects. They each arrived armed with three pre-prepared questions in case things hopelessly flagged, but the idea was to wing it as much as possible. No topics were off limits and no feelings were spared. So here it is: unedited, unexpurgated, and without a single national security redaction:

Sean Beaudoin: (sliding into a booth in which Joe Daly is already comfortably ensconced. An awkward male-bonding slap-five handshake-y thing follows) So, this diner is a little on the sleazy side. Just the way I like it. But I’m guessing you took a pass on the eggs benedict.

Joe Daly: Food poisoning changes your perspective on everything.

SB: Our waitress looks exactly like Endora from Bewitched. If you don’t get that reference, I’m even older than I thought.

JD: You’re barking up the right tree, brother. I remember both Darrins. And they were both Dicks.

SB: They were, weren’t they? Dick Sargent and…

JD: Dick York.

SB: There used to be a bar in San Francisco called Doctor Bombay’s.

JD: Nice!

SB: Actually, it was good place to get punched in the neck by some guy who decided you stole his bar change.

JD: Yanno, the last time I was in San Francisco, some guy tried to pick a fight with me.  Has it always been a big fighting town, or was it just me?

SB: I think there are just certain places where it’s unwise to stare at the expensive vodkas, mostly because they’re full of people who see your back as an opportunity.

JD: Have you ever been in the mafia?

SB: Lipstick or Trenchcoat?

JD: Either.  Your comment about sitting with your back facing people made me wonder. That’s the thing about TNB- we really don’t know much about each other. That’s the royal “we” by the way.

SB: It’s true. I sort of feel like I know you through post-osmosis. But in reality, I know absolutely nothing about you. I guess that’s why we’re sitting here. I’m going to take out my folded piece of paper with three questions on it now.

JD: I’m keeping mine in my pocket until the last possible second. My list of questions, that is.

SB: Okay, here’s the first one: let’s talk about the ubiquity of Joe. It seems like every post I read, you’ve already commented on it. Which I mostly take to mean you’re really conscientious about participating in the TNB model, as opposed to just slinging your own work up and basking in the glory. Do you feel an obligation to make the rounds, or do you just really dig the give and take?

JD: (pulling fake pencil from behind ear and leaning over napkin) Hold on-I need to write down “The Ubiquity of Joe.” If I ever record a folk album, I now have a title. I just need the Irish sweater and kinky hair.

SB: I can see the cover. You’re on a stool in a pirate’s jacket with a banjo, doing tunes from David Crosby’s solo album. Which I’ve actually listened to, by the way. Every single song is called something like Ecology, Ecology, Mustache, Drugs. Or Morocco, Booze, Mustache, Freedom.

JD: Classics.

SB: Anyway, I know “ubiquity” might sound sort of negative, but I’m trying to say I think it’s kind of an excellent thing.

JD: How so?

SB: Just that there’s a certain sort of “writerly cool” that requires being all enigmatic and not putting yourself out too much, trading ironic for earnest, not being willing to say things if they’re not always “brilliant”…  I see you out there sort of just being supportive and I like it. It’s anti-cool. It’s zero-hipster.

JD: (chuckling) I’m like the Hootie of TNB. No, I mean, I realize some people might think it’s sort of a yahoo thing to do-to consistently comment. But I really appreciate the feedback when I publish something, so I want make sure I’m supporting other writers in the same way. Personally, I find virtually all comments on my pieces to be enormously helpful-at the very least it brings my attention to what caught their eye, good or bad, and what they related to on some level. And you?

SB: At first I felt weird commenting beneath my own pieces, like I was fluffing the totals. But I got over it. And I really like the dialogue. It forced me to think about the entire process in a different way. That whole dynamic of “I am the writer, you are the reader, there will remain a wall of silent genius between us.” Totally subverting that.

JD: I hear you. My first thought on commenting on my pieces was that it was a pretty slavish way of pimping yourself out. Then some other writers suggested to me that actively commenting on your pieces was a good thing because it drives discussion and brings readers deeper into the piece, as well as the TNB community. Let’s face it-the Bible is online, the complete works of Shakespeare, most of the Garfield cartoon strips. There are some pretty good options for readers looking to kill time on the internet. I think that for people to spend their time reading a piece on TNB is deserving of some grateful acknowledgment, in my opinion. Oh, and yes-I just implied that I’m bigger than Jesus.

SB: You are. My oatmeal is bathed in loving light.

JD: I wish I ordered oatmeal. Maybe I’ll try to multiply yours.

SB: Can you multiply me a coffee refill, too? Okay, here’s my second prepared question: Writing about music is easy in a way, because almost all of us have spent our lives immersed in it, and also pretty impossible, since almost all of us have spent our lives immersed in it.

JD: Exactly.

SB: So there’s pretty much not a single thing you can say-“I love Rush, I hate Rush”-that won’t be considered by someone to be not only ill-informed, but actively offensive. So why take that whole package on?

JD: (briefly considering) Writing about music isn’t the most original endeavor. We music obsessives all suffer from the delusion that our passion is unique in intensity and/or variety. In reality, the only thing unique is probably our album collections, which are like snowflakes-no two are exactly the same. When I crawl into an album or a band’s catalog, sometimes a theme pops up, or I find myself struggling with the question of “what it is about THIS music that makes me feel this way, when this other music doesn’t?” And next thing I know, I’m writing about it. Know what I mean?

SB: I do. Except I tend to ignore that compulsion. To write about it. To me it’s like covering a Pro Choice rally. There’s two groups of people with signs and bullhorns, a bunch of nervous cops, and no possibility of convincing anyone of anything.

JD: Speaking of convincing, you used to write for The Onion. How in the world did that happen?

SB: I pitched the SF city editor an idea and he liked it. Never thought I’d hear back from him. They were desperate, obviously.

JD: Did you just come up with an individual story idea and send it to him, or was your idea to write a regular column?

SB: I pitched him “How to Spend Christmas Day Alone” which was essentially about being that guy who doesn’t have the cash to fly back to his parents’ in Cleveland like the rest of his roommates. The idea being, okay, here’s a list of places you can go to stag in hopes of warding off the crippling depression.

JD: So what’s open?

SB: Um, not much. The Avis rental car counter. Walgreens. I advised stealing lots of candy, getting caught, and spending the day with friends in jail. Also, David Brenner does a comedy night at this Chinese restaurant in North Beach every year. Which sounds almost like jail. After that I kept pitching the idea that SF really needed a sarcastic weekly sports column. And they finally agreed. As it turns out, it wasn’t at all what SF needed.

JD: What happened?

SB: I got canned.

JD: Sexual harassment?

SB: I wish. No, like two days after Lehman Brothers ate it, the SF and LA offices were shuttered. I’d just finished my column and the editor calls and says “don’t bother to send it in this week.” That’s more or less the last I heard from them.

JD: (reaching into pocket for notebook) I guess this brings me to my first pre-prepared question: In the cultural juggernaut Road House, Patrick Swayze’s character Dalton imparts nuggets of wisdom to friends and enemies like “Pain don’t hurt,” and “Go fuck yourself,” to name a few. Ok, in one of Buddhism-lite lectures, he tells the battle-weary staff of the Double Deuce, “I want you to remember that it’s a job. It’s nothing personal.” Is it possible for a writer to follow this advice?

SB: (Crossing fingers over chin in a Zen manner) Well, you probably remember that just before the climactic fight scene, the bad guy tells Swayze “I used to fuck guys like you for breakfast in prison. That’s pretty much my writing motto.

JD: It’s all starting to fall into place.

SB: Not to mention the 26-point Helvetica banner I have tattooed across my back…

JD: I’m sorry, but I’m going to need to see that.

SB: Obviously you’ve done a little research, and I appreciate you slyly bringing up Road House. Yeah, the lead character in my next book is named “Dalton.” And, yes, it’s an homage to Swayze.

JD: People are going to think you’re kidding. But you’re not, are you?

SB: Nope. It’s called You Killed Wesley Payne. But let’s talk about how Brad Listi called you and me onto the carpet of his mahogany-lined Fifth Avenue office last week.

JD: Good idea. We haven’t had a chance to break it down yet.

SB: So, after the usual niceties, he essentially told us-

JD: -to shape the fuck up.

SB: Yes, but also, if we did get our act together, we had the potential to be the Doc Gooden and Darryl Strawberry of this year’s TNB freshman class.

JD: Right.

SB: You seemed to think he was warning us not to stay up all night doing coke with Lenny Dykstra/Greg Olear anymore. I sort of thought he was trying to tell us to enjoy this time of innocence, because it doesn’t last.

JD: Seriously? I’ve been having a blast at TNB. It’s like a literary Lollapalooza. But without the eight dollar bottles of water and overflowing port-a-potties.

SB: You’ve mentioned you’re working on a book.

JD: (tenses up) Wait, is it bad luck to talk about a book that you’re still writing?

SB: Yes, and now the thing is doomed. Even so, what’s it about? What are your wildest expectations for it?

JD: The book is a direct consequence of TNB. I know it sounds trite, but the author community really inspired me to give it a shot. Being outside the literary world, I always had the idea that all novelists were pretentious and unapproachable-

SB: Aren’t they?

JD:-and riddled with fear and sarcasm. But most of the authors at TNB seem down to earth, passionate about the writing process, and sincere in participating in a community vibe. I realized I could either keep doing the one-off pieces and being a hired gun for other artists, or I could take on the challenge and see what I’m all about…the book will deal with music, which means that any expectations I have for it are hellaciously modest. In a genre populated with Nick Hornby, Chuck Klosterman, and Michael Azerrad, I have no pretensions that I’m going to burst onto the scene.

SB: The scene could use some bursting. You could be the new Klosterchuck.

JD: I’ll just be happy to get it published and read by a few people whose opinions I respect….(suddenly laughing) um, excuse me, Miss? Yes, waitress? Did we really order all these cliches?

SB: She’s like, “fuck off and tip me already, you guys are camping at my best table.

JD: Here’s my next written question, while we’re on the subject: You’re quite a music aficionado, seemingly across a number of genres. One of which is apparently jazz, which is sort of like the absinthe of music-few dare to sample it for fear that they won’t understand the experience. Even established musicians can be intimidated by the unfamiliar scales and chord progressions. What does jazz do for you and is it possible to discuss it without sounding pretentious?

SB: It’s unfortunate but true that you pretty much can’t talk about jazz without sounding like an asshole. Unless I meet someone who’s as much of a twitchy stalker about it as I am, I usually play dumb. There’s definitely this sense that, if you’re into Charles Mingus or Sun Ra, it must just be a bid for hipster credibility. It’s like, “there’s no way you actually listen to that for pleasure!”

JD: Right, right.

SB: But, you know, I will cop to the fact that there have been times in my life when I claimed to like things that I was actually not that into-Foucault comes to mind-because I thought it might impress people. One of the great things about getting older is completely not giving a shit anymore. I mean, if I want to waltz into Starbucks and order a triple caramel whipped cream enema, I’m going to do it and not worry what the cute barista thinks, you know?

JD: It depends how cute.

SB: And I would say that the “intimidation” aspect of jazz is probably more about the fear of looking dumb at a party than the complexity of chord changes. Even the name is sort of meaningless, because it encompasses so many different styles of music. You mean your grandma’s Artie Shaw collection? Cake walks? Hard bop? The fifteen incarnations of Miles Davis? Machito? Free Jazz? B-3 funk? Fusion-y shit?

JD: So then what’s the appeal? Does it relax you, inspire you, make you want to lay with a woman?

SB: A long time ago, and this was back in the cassette days, I worked the overnight desk shift at a hotel, and I had this one TDK of Coltrane’s Ascension which is, you know, a challenging piece of music. Seriously dissonant. People would walk into the lobby, hear it, pick up their suitcases and walk right back out again. I wore that tape down to the felt.

JD: It’s like you’re a conundrum, inside of a mystery, served next to some potato croquettes.

SB: I get bored easy. Verse, verse, chorus, solo. Turn on the radio, here’s another song about a girl you like. Here’s another song about how it sucks to be twenty and have no idea how your life will turn out. Here’s an ironic song about a toy we all grew up with. Did you really order the croquettes?

JD: I did. Out of all the world’s vegetarians, I have the worst diet by far. (gripping non-existent tofu gut). And I’m ok with that.

SB: A bunch of people I know got into a massive pixellated conflagration about Lady Gaga on Facebook last week. One side loves her, mostly for campy reasons, but still some true acolytes. The other loathes her, mostly because she doesn’t sound anything like ZZ Top. And the middle thinks arguments about musical preference need to be left in the dorm room, so grow the fuck up already. But I thought it was interesting that the main sticking point seemed to be that while some people admitted to finding her entertaining, they weren’t willing to concede she had any actual talent. Well, Joe Daly, does she?

JD: Wow. I do have a theory on Lady Gaga, which may or may not impact this question. The theory is that there are at least five Lady Gagas.

SB: Good, I like it….keep going…

JD: If you look at any series of pictures of her, she looks wildly different across all of them. Basically, you’ll see that her body and facial structure aren’t particularly unique-just the outfits, makeup, and hair. It occurred to me that if she got really blown out at a party, and was too hungover to make an appearance the next morning, she could easily send a similarly-shaped friend to do the gig, and no one would ever be the wiser. Plus, the way she sings has been auto tuned up to the max, so really there’s probably a legion of women who could pass themselves off as LGG in the studio. You see where I’m heading?

SB: Completely. And I do think she’s incredibly talented. It may just be that her incredible talent does not lay in the musical arena. I mean, she and some very smart people got together, came up with a character to inflame the pop fires, and every day they deposit truckloads of cash into various accounts. They’re just really bald about it, which I sort of admire more than bands or singers who pretend they’re not all about business.

JD: Dead on! You do have to respect an artist who plays it straight like that. So it’s my own personal conspiracy theory that Lady Gaga is like Lassie in that she’s played by a number of different actors/singers.

SB: And also that she can bark and claw the dirt in a way that tells you there’s a little boy who’s been kidnapped by Apaches and it’s time to run and get the sheriff?

JD: She would also probably be really handy if someone got caught in a bear trap. “What’s that Lady Gaga? It’s Timmy? Timmy needs help?”

SB: Seems like a good time to introduce a pretty clichéd scenario that was asked of me last week, mostly cause I got no more good material on Gaga…

JD: Bring it on.

SB: Okay, you’re going to the typical theoretical deserted island and can bring the entire recordings of only one artist to play on your coconut-fueled iPod. The caveat is, you don’t get any bootlegs or re-issues, just the studio albums. To listen to over and over, for the rest of your life. So, even if Working for the Weekend is your favorite song ever, choosing Loverboy limits you to a tiny pool of recordings. Who do you pick and why?

JD: Well, if it were one album, I was going to go with the Best of the Stone Roses, but as they only have two studio albums of original stuff, they don’t make the island.

SB: The smart move would probably be to snag Mozart, not only for the volume of material, but because you could while away the years studying him. If only to keep yourself from talking to a volleyball. Unfortunately I’m not that smart, so I’m going with Slayer.

JD: Because…

SB: Because only Slayer will keep me and my new monkey-wife sane.

JD: I’m going to have to go with The Who then.

SB: Really?

JD: I’ve just always related to them on a very deep level. I got into them in high school, when I was starting to feel my oats, and that was the same general age that Townshend was when he began writing some of his best stuff. I’ve always thought Daltrey was money. Great rage. Plus, end to end, they have a great legacy that includes anthems, punk, heavy riffing, and very melodic, stripped-down stuff.

SB: Supposedly Hendrix hated Pete Townshend. So, by extension, I am obliged to hate Pete Townshend, too. But I dig Live at Leeds. Total early punk.

JD: And one of the best motherfucking live albums ever! (waitress walks by, glares, shakes head.) Whoops-sorry for the profanity, miss. (In a quieter voice) Didn’t realize she was right behind us.

SB: We’re totally getting 86’d. I better do my final question.

JD: Good idea.

SB: (composing mentally, taking deep breath) Okay, so yesterday I was thinking about how, as a society, we process things in tiny increments-

JD: I agree. Next.

SB: (laughs)…we spend all our time like, what do I have to get done by noon? Who am I hanging out with this weekend? It’s pretty amazing how much has changed just in the last year alone, but we don’t really acknowledge it. For instance, Tiger Woods. He’s a punch-line. His iconography is permanently shot. But eight months ago he was a walking brand, one of the most revered, most reliable money-machines of the last century. Pretty much a god, at least to people who find their gods in someone else’s backswing. Okay, so….sorry this is so long-winded….so I was just reading that David Shields self-interview where for the third time he more or less said “literature is dead” and I was thinking how that was like saying “Tiger fucks waitresses at Waffle House.” Bang! Hit the defibrillator, lock your kids in the rec room, start selling off all those valuable first editions. But golf goes on. Tiger’s still playing. People still watch and care. It’s just different now. It seems to me that saying “literature is dead” is really “here’s a contentious generalized statement with which to drum up interest in my $25.95 hardback.” You know what I mean?

JD: I think I do. I mean, does anyone really think literature is dead? In fact, it’s more alive than ever-look at the growing list of contributors to the TNB, many of whom have their own books out. Maybe print is dying, but the fact that it’s easier than ever to get people to read your thoughts, via book, blog, or social networking site, shows that literature is very much alive, it’s just diluted. But for the record, I think the “contentious generalization” tool is about as original as the serial killer not being dead at the end of the movie.

SB: Right. You gutshot Michael Meyers. He gets up. Light him on fire. He gets up. But I do like that Shields is really confident about staking out his position. He’s like, “here’s what I think, here’s what my book is about, buy it or don’t, I’m not trying to make any friends.” He’s obviously spent years thinking through this stuff while the rest of us were running with scissors. I guess in the end I just feel protective of the old model. Which is dumb, since I mostly get screwed in the old model.

JD: Speaking of which, you just posted this thing called Read My Finger: How Not to Get Published

SB: I did. Which will probably guarantee I never get published again…

JD: All the TNB literary critics, editors, and very serious writers knocked each other over to effusively praise the thing. It felt like it was Christmas Eve and someone said there was only one Cabbage Patch Kid left, and it was in your article. Being an outsider in the literary world, I found the piece to be thoroughly entertaining, and at the same time, quite humbling. Not only did you name check a legion of authors I’ve never heard of, but you revealed the submission and acceptance process to be tired, saturated, and impersonal.

SB: Actually, once it was done I considered scrapping the thing. Even though most of it was intended to be comical, in the end I don’t want to genuinely discourage anybody. Writing is just too hard as it is. But, you know, it was all true. The truth cannot be denied. On the other hand, my mother called me up and was like, “that’s the last time I write anything but XXOO on your birthday card.”

JD: Nice one, mom.

SB: Since we’re at the end here, it does seem like I should mention that, even on a telepathic level, we seem to have agreed not to speak of the Steve Almond contretemps. Maybe if for no other reason than that we’re both bored to tears by ever single facet of it. But it occurred to me to ask you one thing, and maybe with this question put it all to bed, permanently, next to Hoffa in a layer of quicklime…

JD: (nodding warily)

SB: Did that experience give you, in even the most fractional way, a glimpse of what it’s like to be pinned down in the public eye like a Lindsay Lohan? By which I mean, caught up in some “spat” that was probably bullshit to begin with, but for whatever reason becomes a cultural snowball, conducted through headlines and discussed by third parties and generally taking on a life of its own, so that it goes way past really being about you, and you sort of end up standing by watching it happen?

JD: Yeah, it was really strange to watch things spin out so quickly. My thinking is that Steve had every right to say what he wanted to say, and I responded to him accordingly as a comment to his piece. My involvement ended there. I wasn’t going to get baited into some internet feud. As the saying goes, “never pass up an opportunity to keep your mouth shut.” But next thing I knew, people began weighing in and a very different debate arose. Greg Olear’s piece, Something Nice,” was awesome because it set off a very thoughtful and sometimes animated discussion about what the TNB culture means to different people and what their expectations are for the site. Apparently it was time for that discussion to happen at TNB.  But as you say, the debate had little to do with me or my writing.

SB: I feel compelled to mention that I do admire pretty much any willingness to leap into the fray brandishing unpopular sentences. To not worry if your opinion is going to keep people from being gentle with your own pieces. To toss it out there like a raw steak and deal with how it effects your Amazon ranking later. I mean, essentially, the internet is nothing but a massive binary excuse to be righteously pissed about stuff. So the guy with the pointy stick, in the long run, is sort of doing everyone a favor.

JD: When the TNB dust up was still pretty new, one of the more veteran authors told me that when you put something out there, some people will like it and some won’t, and to realize that none of them are right. The important thing is to just keep writing because that’s all I can control. I’m not going to say that I don’t care what people think about my writing, but I think that as long as I’m writing about topics that mean something to me, and not for other people’s approval or feedback, I can be happy with my process.

SB: Listen, people who say ‘I don’t care what anyone thinks about my work’ are either lying or Thomas Pynchon. I mean, everyone cares. Deeply. The locus of writing is showing off. It’s narcissistic just by definition to imply “my deepest thoughts are worth your investment in time.” So I think it’s how much of that ego you can deflate, you know, that makes certain writing rise above. How much can you ignore your nature and access your true feelings without censoring them, or tailoring them to a specific audience. No matter what the genre, guns and spies or Jane Austen, that’s the kind of writing that, to me, never feels disposable. So, you know, I guess I’m trying to say, if you feel like you’ve written something artfully, but with a minimum percentage of bullshit, you can pretty much get away with anything. You can call anyone out, or reveal things that are totally ugly and not be condemned for it. But if you’re going to attack someone for the intellectual rigor of their distaste for Dave Matthews, man, you better have a pretty solid handle on your own failings.

JD: Ok, they’re turning the lights out in here. I need to ask one more question though, if that’s cool. When I was researching your works, I found out that your first book, Going Nowhere Faster, was just translated into Polish. Polish!

SB: I know, right? Now it’s called Donikad Byle Szybciej. I’m embarrassed to admit how pleased I am with how entirely random that is.

JD: Why Poland over say, France? Is there a big Young Adult market in Krakow?

SB: No clue. But I intend for my empire to span from Budapest to Helsinki by 2012. And by 2112, I intend for it to span from Spirit in The Radio to Tom Sawyer.

JD: Ha! In a perfect world, where would you like to see your writing take you? If you could decide your own fate, what does the future look like?

SB: Totally honestly? If I can sell just enough to not worry about checks or agents or self-promotion, to be able to sit in my little office with my laptop and concentrate on whatever project I’ve got going that day, I would be extremely happy. Anything beyond that is frosting.

JD: Amen.

SB: Selah.

JD: What does that mean?

SB: I’m not entirely sure. Hunter Thompson used to say it all the time. Something like let those with eyes see, and those with ears hear.

JD: It doesn’t get any more profound than that.

SB: No, sir. It really doesn’t.

Few books in recent memory have caused as much of a stir as Reality Hunger, the 219-page “manifesto” by David Shields.

It’s a book that defies easy classification.

An argument.  A clarion call.  An affront.  A life story.

An unapologetic assault on the literary status quo.

An essay-memoir-pointillistic-literary-collage-and-exercise-in-appropriation-art, one which argues that a new artistic movement is forming, a movement which prizes as its virtues things like randomness, self-reflexivity, reader/viewer participation, and the total obliteration of the line between fiction and nonfiction.

The book has been greeted as a revelation.  A game-changer.  A thunderous ars poetica.

The book has been greeted as reprehensible.  Tired.  An irresponsible attempt to subvert existing copyright law, all while generating a massive wave of cheap publicity.

Writers in particular have reacted strongly to the book.  Some with venemous anger; others, a fit of nervousness; others still with unbridled enthusiasm.

“To call something a manifesto is a brave step,” writes Luc Sante in the New York Times.  “It signals that you are hoisting a flag and are prepared to go down with the ship.”

Shields—as far as I can tell—is still afloat, and he was kind enough to speak with me recently about his life, his work, and his assessment of the cultural moment.

Considering my ever-detouring approach to reading, I think it’s appropriate that March for me began with Umberto Eco’s Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, a series of transcribed lectures conflating the telling and writing of stories with Jorge Luis Borges’s metaphor of the woods as a garden of forking paths, or, as Eco puts it:

Woods are a metaphor for the narrative text, not only for the text of fairy tales but for any narrative text. There are woods like Dublin, where instead of Little Red Riding Hood one can meet Molly Bloom….Even when there are no well-trodden paths in a wood, everyone can trace his or her own path, deciding to go to the left or to the right of a certain tree and making a choice at every tree encountered.

In my head I have a quote I can’t attribute. I want to say it was Faulkner or Fitzgerald. Maybe Steinbeck. It noted (I’m paraphrasing) that we writers don’t compete with our contemporaries; we compete, rather, with the greats.

It’s possible it was Hemingway. Because there is another quote I can attribute to him, from a New Yorker profile of him:

I started out very quiet and I beat Turgenev. Then I tried hard and I beat de Maupassant. I’ve fought two draws with Stendahl, and I think I had an edge in the last one. But nobody’s going to get me in any ring with Tolstoy unless I’m crazy or I keep getting better.

Even besides that profile, the idea of wrestling with the greats sounds like Hemingway, especially considering his running with bulls and hunting on safari and writing hills like white elephants and shooting himself in the face. Hemingway’s always struck me as though he was born smack-dab in the middle of a mid-life crisis he never actually grew out of, only they didn’t have tiny sports cars back then, so he had to over-compensate in other ways.

I got this idea, of rings and fights and competitions, in my head when I read that The Nervous Breakdown’s founder, Brad Listi, will be having a conversation with Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk in mid-May at LA’s Largo at the Coronet Theater.

Fight Club the book was published a week and a half before I started college. I don’t remember hearing much about it until Edward Norton and Brad Pitt signed on to do the movie. Now, this doesn’t mean people weren’t talking about it. I could just be forgetting. I could have missed it for one reason or another (who am I kidding? I was probably studying).

“I want you to hit me as hard as you can.” I’ll not spoil the movie for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet (though, really, it’s been ten years. What’s the statute of limitations on spoilers?), but I think pretty much everyone knows Fight Club‘s story is its title. It’s about a guy who meets a guy who wants to be hit as hard as possible, and I guess it becomes about male dissatisfaction and aggression and coming to terms with the fact that we’re not the rockstar gods we assumed we’d grow up to be.

Or something. There’s a lot of punching. Also some fucking Helena Bonham Carter (in the movie). Also some shit blowing up. Also, Meatloaf (again, movie) and his boobs. Also, a penguin.

***

I think one could make the argument Fight Club is about men dealing with emasculation; I’m not sure I would, but Fight Club is the sort of book—along with The Great Gatsby and American Psycho, for two—that makes me consider the idea of feminist literary theory, and seems to corroborate the necessity for a complementary masculinist theory. I’ve heard it argued that such a thing is not necessary because the male viewpoint, in a patriarchal society, is the default; I’m just not sure of that, and I tend to hesitate in making generalizations.

Still, I wonder if there is some connection between the idea of a fight club and masculinity. That single Y chromosome, despite its diminutive stature, is enough to change a lot, physiologically speaking, and the defining characteristic of male gender is a penis and testicles, the latter of which produce testosterone. So do ovaries and, to a lesser extent, certain adrenal glands, but when it comes down to testosterone, an androgen, a hormone that causes the body to exhibit stereotypically male characteristics—deep voice, hair growth in some places and loss in others—the primary source is the testes. Testosterone also increases protein synthesis in muscle cells, contributing to their growth, which is why bodybuilders use steroids, and bodybuilders’ balls shrink because their bodies suddenly think they have enough testosterone that the testes don’t need to produce anymore.

That increase of testosterone causes many other side effects, one of which is increased aggression—roid rage.

Which brings me back to the central question; not whether Fight Club is a male movie, but rather: who would you fight?

One of the movie’s jokes (among other things, it’s a deeply black comedy; is it really about masculinity, or is it satirizing masculinity? Must the two be mutually exclusive?) is when Brad Pitt and Edward Norton discuss which celebrities they would fight. Pitt, if I recall correctly, cites Lincoln, noting he was tall and probably had good reach.

In perfect deadpan, Norton states, simply, “I’d fight Ghandi.”

***

In finishing coursework to earn an MBA in marketing, I’ve had to write several business plans, and others concerning marketing and international strategy. Most of these documents contain a section that requires me to assess my competition.

Now, when it comes to these assignments, the courses always offer the option of using an already established company as model; some students choose companies like Google or Apple or Microsoft.

Me, I choose myself. I’m a bit of a narcissist like that. But seriously, I’m earning the MBA for the same reason I earned an MPW; for writers, I think knowing how to reach readers is as important as being able to produce something valuable to reach them with, so I think—especially nowadays, with Kindles and iPads and nooks—that writers should know business as well as they know craft.

Problem is, every time I choose to do a business plan concerning me, as an author, I have to write another section about my competition. The results always strike me as inherently wrong; am I really competing with Dan Brown or Timeline or The Time-Traveler’s Wife or The Historian or The Raw Shark Texts? I don’t think so (though that may be why I’m having such a difficult time selling the damned thing).

In a superficial way, the comparison makes sense: shelves, whether in book stores or readers’ homes, are finite, and only so many pages will fit on them. Writers vie with each other for precious shelf space.

But in another way entirely, we don’t. In that entirely other way, we compete not with each other but with ideas, with culture. We compete for attention. The fact that there’s room enough on the Internet for everyone might be both its greatest benefit and disadvantage.

To go back to the idea with which I opened: if we are to compete with anyone, should it not be with the greats?

***

Growing up Catholic, one of the expressions I most commonly heard—besides “You need to put on your God glasses” and “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed”—was a question: what would Jesus do? Now, as my last TNB essay quite obviously demonstrated, when it comes right down to that question, I really don’t have a clue: I figure ride a pony, exonerate an unfaithful wife, have a meal with his friends (it’s worth noting I originally wrote “wife” there, then erased it. Freudian what?), die on a cross, that sort of thing. For me, wondering what he would do is fraught with more uncertainty than the situations during which one might actually ask it.

Still, the idea of role models, of mentors, is always useful, especially when facing a difficult choice.

I faced a difficult choice in 2005, when I decided I wanted to go to graduate school for writing. Articles about How to Choose the Right Writing Program for You tend to make the cover of magazines only writers read; you know both the articles and magazines I mean without my enumerating them. There’s probably an ampersand in the title, and each one tends to have a monthly quota of one article with a list of Ways to Pump Up Your Novel, one concerning How to Structure Your Memoir, one on a group of Agents’ and Editors’ Inside Secrets to Querying and Publishing, and finally one by a Current Best-Seller Encouraging Writers to Follow Their Dreams. We writers read each of the first three because we hope one day to write the last.

Most of the articles on choosing a writing program mention things like residency and financial considerations. Common advice is to choose a program whose faculty has written books you’ve enjoyed, or in the style or genre in which you hope to write and publish, but that just made me think of the writers I’d read: Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Michael Crichton, JK Rowling, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Nick Hornby, TNB’s own Richard Cox. I’m fairly sure none of those writers went to grad school for writing—Crichton went for medicine—and only one, Gaiman, taught (at Clarion West).

I always wanted to be a mega-seller, but none of the faculties seemed to include really popular writers. I fear that dichotomy; if you look at the sorts of books millions of readers read nowadays . . . well, how about we note that the books that earn critical acclaim from prestigious institutions are often not the same as the books that dominate the best-sellers lists? That when New York publishing people start talking about the NBA on Twitter, most readers would probably be surprised they’re not talking about the Knicks?

I remember the relief I felt when I saw USC’s website. While there were a few names I didn’t know, I’d heard of Irvin Kershner; he put my first memory ever onto a screen. I’d also heard of Marc Norman; Shakespeare in Love is one of my favorite movies. I’d also heard of Janet Fitch; I’d loved her novel, which had been chosen for Oprah’s bookclub. I wasn’t yet familiar with Sid Stebel, who became a valuable mentor, but Ray Bradbury said he was great, and Bradbury I knew.

Am I right that it’s a maxim that students are supposed to, ultimately, defeat their masters? As a teacher myself, my aim is for my students to master the techniques I’ve demonstrated to them so they can find their own ways, but I keep thinking of martial arts movies in which the students fight the master to achieve enlightenment. I’m thinking of Christian Bale fighting Liam Neeson in Batman Begins, of Neo fighting Morpheus in bullet-time.

I keep thinking of Fight Club and of Hemingway’s ring.

Truthfully, I never had much time for the greats. Fitzgerald could have used a better editor, Faulkner a POV. Hemingway was a pansy who overcompensated via hypermasculinity, Poe a drunk who married his cousin, Cheever a closeted bisexual who seemed to hate himself and his wife. Dickens wrote like he was paid by the word, and Bukowski should’ve flushed his beer-shit prose. O’Connor’s Catholic guilt bored, while Austen’s propriety grated and Bronte’s melodrama depressed.

So none of them.

No, I’d fight Shakespeare.

When I wonder about role models and mentors, I don’t consider the cross. I always ask myself: what would Shakespeare do?

(I mean besides Anne Hathaway.)

This week marked an anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and christening; he died on April 23rd, and was baptized on April 26th. There is no record of his birth, but custom at the time was quick baptism, so he was probably only a few days old; he might well have died on his 52nd birthday. He was called a lot of things in his time, including an upstart crow, but maybe not a genius. Really, he was just a writer who sat down every day to write words for actors that the great masses of audience would love, and they, by most accounts, loved him for it; his work was as popular as Rowling’s or Brown’s, and we’ll see if their stories last as well.

When I wonder what I should do, I always wonder what he would have done. Mainly because I want to do better.

***

Truthfully, of course, this is all flawed. When it comes right down to it, I think we writers know we’re in the ring alone, and we only ever wrestle ourselves.

I have been condemned. It’s okay. This is what happens. It was a long time coming. Actually, I don’t know how I eluded it for as long as I did. Luck, I guess. But I always knew that someday there would be a reckoning. I always sensed the day would come when I would have to pay. There are consequences to the things we do. This is just the way it is. Without them, it’s not life, it’s not real. We must suffer for our mistakes. For our crimes. This is the way it must be.  

I know how it all came about as well. I knew then. I’m not that ignorant. You’re young, and your heart aches. It won’t stop. You don’t know why. It just does. A drag here, a sip there, looking for a tiny bit of relief, something to dial down the furious turning of your mind, the relentless twisting. Trying to make sense of the contradictory emotions. All of it seems to accumulate in your soul. It becomes the depository for the pain. You try this and that. It turns out to be fruitless of course, and by the time you find out it’s far too late, but for so long it seems possible, to turn a mirage into something real. So you play with the salts, they fade, the half-life shorter and shorter, you start mixing this with that, waving your hands through the smoke.  

Eventually it stops working and still your heart aches. Your heart breaks. It breaks again. And again. You keep taking the drugs because you know it will happen again, and you just can’t bear it once more. You want to stop. But you can’t. It’s too late now. You try this, you try that, but every time the pain seems worse,  heavier, a dull heat somewhere inside, baking a part of you into something solid, a hard shell forming over your heart, fused with the flesh.

One day you wake up on a floor somewhere. You have nothing. Absolutely nothing. The illusions and delusions are gone. You see clearly. You feel like a fool. You’ve wasted so much time. You did. No one else. This is where you should stop. Find a way. Before it’s too late. Stare it down and start over. Shout. Scream. Yell for help. But you didn’t. You couldn’t. It was too terrifying to face. And you felt like a weak, useless, piece of trash for not being able to confront it, and begin anew. So you dig. You begin a tiny excavation, searching for the bottom. For years it goes on, miraculously, nothing happening but things changing hands, you sell and others buy, exchanging death sentences. Somehow it keeps the end at bay. Deeper, deeper, you go. You know that you are going the wrong way and you hate yourself for it. Your mind wants to stop and turn around. Your heart has dreams. But they were locked up now, out of the light, trapped inside the stone. It was your body that was in control now. Your body that was taking you down this horrible path. It was your flesh that caused this. It was the criminal. It must pay. Not for the crimes against society, and not by them either. You must punish yourself. For the real crimes, the inability to be what you wanted to be, what you thought you should be. For not being good enough, for not being strong enough. For not being able to love. For not being able to stop.

I must punish myself. No one else seemed willing to do it. I had to do something. I couldn’t blame it on anyone else. After all, it was I who had thrown my life away. It was I who’d broken the hearts and shattered the dreams of my loved ones, few though they were. It was I. The others, they found it within themselves to give me chance after chance. Try though I did, I could not take them. I felt undeserving. Maybe I have too much pride. Maybe, not enough. Did I deserve forgiveness? I don’t know.  It’s irrelevant now. There must be consequences or it would all be meaningless.

There was no trial. No lawyers, no courtroom. They weren’t needed. You knew you were guilty. And once you sentenced yourself, you knew what to do. Shot after shot, you carpet-bombed your flesh, until the highways were obliterated and all the trees turned to ash. Still, you kept on, wandering from place to place, burying land mines, planting pockets of black tar heroin, dope to be detonated at a later date. You buried them in the muscle, in the flesh. You dug deep. They did not dissipate and go away. They sat there like markings, give-aways, tattoos but deeper, of the thing you truly were. Black. Shapeless. Permanent, like ink. One day it will bubble up through your skin to the surface and someone will use it to write your fate on a scroll, to be read aloud in the public square on the day of your execution.

And now it is over. The sentence was real aloud and carried out. It was not as severe as I had expected, merely to live with the destruction. I have paid. Maybe, a little too much. Maybe, not enough. Only time will tell. I paid a pound of flesh from one side of my buttock, and another pound from the other. Just to be sure I took some from both arms and both calves as well, along with a few shards of bone for good measure. You always felt like an open wound, unprotected, vulnerable, and so it makes sense that is what you became. What remain now are scars, where the cavernous wounds once were. The things I will have to live with, fragile, delicate, ugly. Bloodless tissue, shiny like plastic. My hip is damaged, the bone dissolved from infection, one leg now shorter than the other and my hands don’t function correctly, the wires severed. This is my punishment. And yet it did not end me, as I had thought it would. I am still here, wondering why, and how.  Playing with words instead of smoke. Hammering with a hammer called hope, trying to break into my heart.

Neurosyphilis. Recently, in an attempt to keep my brain occupied (read: prevent utter mental paralysis) while my agent shops my novel, I decided to begin researching my next project. So now, instead of lying awake in bed at night, staring at the ceiling, pondering the terrible economy and my dumb luck to finish writing my book this of all Novembers, I am lying awake in bed at night, staring at the ceiling, pondering my awesome luck at being born in twenty-first-century America where no one ever gets neurosyphilis.1

That’s right. Neurosyphilis. I teach early British literature at the local college, and after another semester of teaching Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, for some reason I’m finding myself inexplicably fascinated with the darker side of Tudor England. Picture it. Turn-of-the-seventeenth-century London. A place without antibiotics. Southwark, the red light district.  Where a man strolling out of one of Shakespeare’s plays could walk into a brothel and purchase a woman’s attentions, along with the disease which was known at this time in London as the “French welcome” for the low low price of (that’s right, sir, step right up, sir, she can be yours for) only ten shillings.