What She SaidBy Tom Hansen
December 12, 2010
I was in the offices of The Department of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) here in Seattle, talking to a caseworker about getting DVR to fund the remaining two years of my MFA. This was 2006, I was 44 years old, seven years off heroin, six years into my education and halfway through an MFA at The University of British Columbia. In my former life as first a failed musician and then a functioning heroin addict and successful drug dealer I had been lucky and smart and devious enough to never have been caught selling or possessing heroin, or when I had been caught, weaseled or schemed my way out of it, and had been funding my new direction in life with Stafford Loans and the odd grant, all channels that would have been off limits to me if I’d ever been convicted of the bazillions of crimes I’d committed over the years. Everything had been running smoothly, through Community College, a BA and the first two years of grad school. I was four years into a memoir I’d been working on and I was beginning to have hope for the future. This was big for someone like me. Pulling oneself out of an addiction as self-destructive as mine is a long grueling process. It takes years to rebuild your self-confidence and to deal with feeling things again and I was well on my way. And then life threw me a curveball, which it’s known to do. George W. Bush, the “Decider,” decided to make some major cuts to education funding, one of which was to cut all student loans to US citizens attending colleges outside the US. That meant me.
The DVR caseworker sat across from me as I explained what was what. She looked at me apprehensively, and then explained that DVR didn’t fund art programs, only vocational stuff. “Anyone can write,” she said dismissively, when I told her what kind of program I was enrolled in. This kind of pissed me off, but I kept my cool. I told her about my disabilities that I’d acquired as a result of my End Game with heroin, the destroyed and degenerating hip that required me to walk with a cane, my mangled right elbow, my contracted hands from shooting up in my arms so much the wires controlling most of my fingers had been severed. She was unmoved. She insisted I change course, give up writing and accept some kind of training in the vocational realm. I told her I would think about it and left.
I’m a very quiet guy, usually.* I’m very good at staying out of trouble and avoiding conflict, which ironically is why I was such a good drug dealer for so many years. But it was less a thought out plan and more just the way I’ve always been, which I think I got from my adoptive parents, Norwegian immigrants, some of the most unobtrusive, hardworking and stoic people on the face of the Earth. When life threw curveballs at my parents they ducked. When it came too fast and the ball hit them, it knocked them down, and then they picked themselves up and carried on. They never complained, and going after the pitcher was never an option for them. They were firm believers that “the meek shall inherit the Earth.” And that rubbed off on me. When people messed with me in school, I never fought back. Never. I don’t know where the hell Mr. Miyagi was when I was growing up. Not in my neighborhood, apparently.
I stewed for a few days after the caseworker told that I shouldn’t be a writer. What she said played over and over in my head. “Anyone can write,” echoed in my mind and the more I thought about it the madder I got. I didn’t want to be a riveter. I didn’t want to work in some damned office. I didn’t want to work on spreadsheets or computer programs or bullet points. I’d always had artistic inclinations that I’d gotten from my biological parents who had been artists and with writing I had found the creative outlet I had always been looking for, the one I had come to conclude was what I should have been doing all along as music had turned out to be too laden with traps regarding my drug problem. It wasn’t that I had delusions of grandeur about writing, fantasies of fame and fortune, it was simply that I wanted to do something that I loved. I had grown to love writing, and I think writing loved me. It was what had kept me clean to that point. It had taught me discipline and perseverance and instilled in me a new kind of work ethic. I knew of course that I could be a writer without finishing the degree, but I was still in a somewhat fragile state regarding my self-confidence, my abilities as a writer and my psychological condition. I had never finished anything legitimate in my life and I wanted to finish this degree. It would be additional proof that my old life was over and a springboard to whatever came next.At least that was what I hoped. And prayed.
Normally I would have accepted my fate. I would have told myself my education was over and it wasn’t meant to be. This was what I’d done my entire life. I had responded to these situations the way my parents had. It was one of the things that led me to drugs. I hadn’t been able to make a career of music and suddenly found that I was good at drug dealing. Really good. Everyone wants to be good at something, and that was my thing, and now that my education was over it looked like it was going to be my thing again. I began to think about selling heroin again, and trying to keep my using under control. I knew that that was damned near impossible, but I still had too much pride, and would rather be successful at something even if it killed me than be unsuccessful at everything and live.
And then I decided to do something I’d never done before. I decided to fight. I really didn’t think anything would come of it. I had no faith in my government, and I didn’t think I would even get a response. I was sure that if anything I would get a letter back from some Bushbot saying “Sorry kid,” but I sat down that night and wrote an email to The US Department of Education, who informed me that when these sorts of cuts had happened in the past, students who had begun something were grandfathered in and allowed to finish what they’d started, but this time, that was not the case. Bush’s ‘decision’ was final. It was over. I was Shit-Out-Of-Luck (SOL) as they say. And then I got madder and decided to fight harder. I wrote letters to Rep. Jim McDermott, Gov. Christine Gregoire, and Sen. Maria Cantwell. I used every writing skill I’d learned to that point and crafted an argument (I should have been a lawyer) that given my physical disabilities I was not suited for a regular labor job, and that I could use a writing degree to become a teacher in the future. I was honest. I even told them that I was a former heroin addict (I left out the part about me being a dealer for almost twenty years) and that I was trying desperately to forge a new direction in my life. I told them about the not being grandfathered in. I made my case.
And then to my utter surprise two days later I received a call from Rep. Jim McDermott’s office. They told me they had received my letter, and asked how they could help. I asked if they could help me persuade DVR to help me fund the last two years of my degree. And that night I got a call from some bigwig at DVR, who said Jim McDermott had called him. He did not sound happy at all, but he went on to say said that DVR didn’t ordinarily fund art programs, but that they were going to make an exception in my case. Jim McDermott, who didn’t know me from Adam, had apparently done some arm-twisting for me. Little old me.
The moral of this story is that people can change. For most of my life I didn’t think that was possible, and for most of my life it kept me stuck in self-destruct mode. This was the first time something like this had happened. It didn’t even happen when I first got clean. That I put down to divine intervention. But this was different. I had changed. Just like the characters we write about have to undergo some kind of change or transformation or overcome an obstacle, I had changed from someone who just accepts things to someone willing to fight for what they want. It was an amazing lesson that informs my writing and it restored (somewhat) my faith in government. And that’s how I graduated from The University of British Columbia, became a writer, finished my memoir American Junkie, got it published and became a fan of Jim McDermott. The End
*Except when I’m shooting my fat mouth off on The Nervous Breakdown (I’m working on it people)
I’m so very glad you decided to fight… and I’m so very glad you have finally posted.
Thanks Jude. I have been quite the TNB slacker, not following the one post a month guidelines at all. I feel shame
Wow. Jim McDermott?! That’s amazing and wonderful. I think maybe even I have a little more faith in government now. I mean not an unhealthy amount of faith or anything. Just a tiny little tiny infinitesimal bit of faith, which is good and right and healthy.
I was already a big fan of the email as a tool for change. This confirms my suspicion that sometimes it can work. Nice piece, Tom. Your writing is honest as ever. I appreciate that.
Yeah it was an actual paper letter I sent to McDermott. Since then I’ve been following him. He’s one of the good guys fo sho. Thanks bud and congrats on Super. It is highly original and super cool
Anyone can write… Yeah right.
To paraphrase Truman Capote: There’s a big difference between writing and typing.
I agree – writing does seem to love you. It flows out in a lovely, natural wave that sweeps us up as readers and we get lost in your words and narrative. American Junkie was an un-put-downable book for me.
I’m glad you fought. Fighting is the hardest thing to do sometimes. Sometimes it’s so much easier just to give in, but the rewards are fewer down the path of least resistance, I think.
Keep on keeping on, Tom – Your words are life.
Thanks Z. That compelling readability of my writing has always come naturally to me, and I’m actually trying to tone it down some with this next book, the novel. While I think that ability to grab a reader and hold them is undervalued, I also think one of the things that sets literature apart from any other medium is that it makes the audience/reader slow down. So while I was very happy that people couldn’t put down American Junkie, I was also wishing it took more than one day to read, and I am now trying to find a balance between that gripping thing and going more in depth with character and theme, because I think the longer you can hold them in the world of the book the more effective whatever it’s trying to say will be
I’m so glad to see you here, Tom.
This was an inspiring read. My mom always says that one person can make a difference and even though she’s always right (it’s that damn mom-thing) I’m always tempted not to listen. But you have proved it. I’m glad you chose to stand up for yourself.
Thanks for the Sunday inspiration, my friend. And my mom will thank you for proving her right.
Moms are a pain huh? Thanks Megan
Moms are always right? Suh-weet. Can I give you my addresss, Megan? I’d like you to send this message to three specific people. 🙂
I’m afraid many people think that anyone can write. One of the reasons there’s widespread contempt for writers — and I think there is — is the assumption that, with enough time and dedication, anyone could pull off an outstanding book, screenplay, what have you.
Meanwhile, it’s indeed inspiring that you fought city hall, so to speak, and won. I’ve rarely fought back through official channels, and your story makes me wonder if there’s anything I could do about my present situation through those same channels: “Dear Senator Boxer…”
Oh, and you don’t shoot off your “fat” mouth at TNB. What gives you that idea? That you don’t always go along with the status quo?
“I fought the law, and I won….” Sort of. About my fat mouth, I sometimes don’t think about what I say when I comment, and while it can be spontaneous and maybe amusing I sometimes wonder if the authors of threads would rather me be more reasoned and intellectually analytical instead of just blasting away from the hip with ten machine guns
The authors of threads or the authors of the original posts? Either way, I don’t see much in the way of genuine debate. Debate is a pain in the ass anyway. I have to really, really care about something to want to write one long comment after another dissecting it — and for what? What’s the victory? Who’s the opponent? What’s their stake?
I think most people are simply seeking compliments and looking to up their comment count.
Both, I suppose. The ‘ten machine gun approach’ can be quite messy and some people like neat. Oh well, whatever. It’s my innate shyness and worry about what people will think of me, which is a blessing and curse. A curse because it’s something I can obsess about and it can take over my mind, and a blessing because it drives me to make my writing the best it can be. This writing thing man, sometimes it’s not so good for my mental health
Please, Tom, please keep commenting without thinking much about it. TNB needs those machine guns blazing.
I keep hearing great things about McDermott. Now that I’ve been in Seattle two years, I’ll have to start paying attention to the politics.
Re: “Anyone can write.” Well, yeah, sure. And anyone can learn the chords to Cowgirl in the Sand. But I don’t ever want to hear a single one of them play it.
One man’s vocation is another’s perfect metaphor.
Okay Sean I will try, thanks. Yeah McDermott rocks. Unfortunately because he’s not a charlatan he’s been marginalized in Congress.
“Either way, I don’t see much in the way of genuine debate. Debate is a pain in the ass anyway. I have to really, really care about something to want to write one long comment after another dissecting it — and for what? What’s the victory? Who’s the opponent? What’s their stake?
I think most people are simply seeking compliments and looking to up their comment count.”
Duke, you’re either joking or you woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning. The hip thing lately is to complain about TNB being too friendly and people sucking up, sure, and we all know contributors enjoy seeing lots of comments on their posts. But you honestly believe “most” people only want compliments or lots of meaningless comments? I can’t believe that. I also can’t believe you don’t see much in the way of genuine debate unless you just aren’t looking.
Also, is the point of debate or the conversations we share here at TNB to determine a victor? Or to enrich our relationships and lives? I sure hope some of us see the point. If there’s no point, there’s no reason for TNB in the first place.
I probably did wake up on the wrong side of the bed. I didn’t mean to sound as grumpy as apparently I did.
I think it’s a complicated discussion as to the “reason for TNB in the first place.” There are lots of literary journals, online or not, that exist without message boards — or in the case of print journals, letters-from-readers pages — as prolific as those at TNB. Some contributors, including perhaps myself, have made that the point of TNB, but if that weren’t the case, would TNB still have a reason to exist? If it’s finally about the quality of the original posts, yes, I think so. There’s a lot of good stuff here that doesn’t elicit much, or any, commentary.
Meanwhile, I certainly enjoy receiving reactions that are personal and anecdotal but not of the “debate” sort. Those tend to be my favorite reactions, in fact. And I do observe debates, and, yes, I do think victory of a kind is sought, but maybe I think so wrongly. As I said, I would have to care an enormous amount about a subject to prepare, like a lawyer, brief after brief in order to have it recognized by someone temperamentally opposed to it — and I do think it’s a matter of temperament, not logic. You can’t win someone to a notion they aren’t predisposed to hold. If I like hardcore and someone else doesn’t, I don’t think there’s an argument I could present that would have that person not hear it as too loud or too fast or too noisy, and so on. That’s taste, of course, but it’s my bias that taste, or something like it, is at the bottom of most disagreements. Also, part of “genuine” in “genuine debate” is, by my definition, a willingness to be influenced, at least slightly, by counterargument, and not to restate one’s case over and over, with some rewording to buttress a flaw observed by one’s “opponent” — “What I meant when I said X wasn’t Y but Z, so my point still holds.”
My comment to Tom was with regard to his self-effacing apologia for being too outspoken at TNB. I’ve seen others make similar remarks, and if we’ve created an atmosphere in which being too outspoken is potentially alienating, then I do think it’s something we need to address, and I would feel the same whether it was or wasn’t the “hip” thing to do. I don’t think it is the “hip” thing to do, in fact. There was a moment of controversy about it, and the controversy seemed to me to be settled with Greg’s post about niceness, in which it was agreed by wide consensus that if we are too nice, we like it that way. I consider myself, overall, a friendly, supportive person, as I would like to believe my record at TNB substantiates, but I’ve also wondered at times if there would be more interaction from those outside the TNB family if we weren’t perceived as insular to point of exclusion. Is that the case? I don’t know. But it is something I’ve wondered, and I don’t think I’m the only one — in fact, since I’ve heard other TNB contributors say as much off the record, I know I’m not.
One could certainly make the point that TNB would function just fine without the comment boards. At the very least it might exist as some other sort of literary and culture site. I suppose my language there wasn’t very precise. Comments aren’t the reason for the site. But I would say they are what makes TNB fairly unique, and I believe many of the readers and contributors here would say the conversations are what keep them coming back.
As far as the “debates” that occur, there are surely some that occur just the way you described. Whether one enjoys reading or participating in those discussions is a matter of opinion. I do agree if a participant isn’t willing to be influenced or listen to reason, it’s perhaps not a “genuine” debate. Though it seems the participants themselves are deriving something beneficial to themselves or they wouldn’t bother in the first place.
I’ve had similar conversations with people about the sometimes cliquish nature of the comment boards. I’m sure TNB is read by many people who don’t comment because they may feel like we’re a group of friends who don’t want to be interrupted, and it would be nice if this weren’t the case. I always encourage my friends from outside this group to participate, but while many read, few leave comments. It’s not easy to know how to fix this.
In the end I suppose I took exception to the line about seeking compliments and upping comment counts. On the one hand I would be a liar if I said I didn’t know exactly how many comments have been left whenever I have a current post on the site. And I know you do as well, considering previous statements about your status as the current or former Comment King. But I doubt “most” of us sit down to write posts with the purpose of generating a string of empty comments, or that we intentionally orchestrate the ensuing discussion hoping it will devolve into a string of dick jokes or haikus. And I doubt you honestly believe that, either.
I can see how my remark might have been taken, and I can’t properly remember the train of thought that led to it, except that it begin with the nature of controversy and how it’s handled here. I think I was sloppily trying to say that even if a controversial remark is made, the result isn’t usually a controversial thread (which, I also tried to say, isn’t necessarily desirable anyway); rather, the goal is softer, if you will. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to want to receive compliments; on the contrary, I think it’s natural and one of the reasons we publish in a forum like this one: because reaction is immediate and written (as opposed to uttered some time later), and I would guess that we hope it’s positive and even laudatory. Also, no, I don’t think “most” of us sit down write posts with the purposes you mention, but I likewise think a favorable reaction, measured in comments, doesn’t exactly hurt. But, again, I can see how my remark could be, and obviously has been, read as insulting, so I’ll eat my humble pie a la mode, if I may.
As for any remarks about being a Comment King, that wasn’t a phrase I originated for myself (or anyone else, for that matter), and when I used it, I did so ironically. I may have a large ego — and it’s hard for me to conceive of a writer, or any artist, who doesn’t — but it doesn’t take any Ted Baxter-ish forms of which I, at least, am aware. Maybe some of my humor has been misconstrued. If so, I’ll offer an apology on that account as well.
And apologies from my side if I interpreted your remarks in a way you didn’t intend them. But since you are one of TNB’s most beloved and respected contributors, how you characterize the site and its culture can be highly influential among the rest of us. I appreciate your willingness to discuss your thoughts further.
Though if we’re ending this on a friendly and conciliatory note, does that mean we’re knowingly contributing to the too-nice TNB culture? Have I just ruined any chance for real controversy here?
Care to step outside, sir?
I’m a coward. You’re bound to be in much better shape than I am, what with your golfing and all, so, no, I’ll stay here at the bar, if it’s all the same.
Also, for the record, if I’ve ever criticized TNB in any way, it’s never been from spite but out of love for the site. I owe a lot to it, and to “most” of the contributors here.
The temptation to hit the quotation-mark key one more time was too overwhelming.
A boilermarker, bartender, and whatever Richard is having.
I’ll take a bottle of Cutty Sark. If there’s any left, I mean.
Too late. I just broke the bottle and kicked the shards across the floor.
I would write a conciliatory haiku here, for irony’s sake, but in attempting to be so self aware I would likely come across as pandering, not irony but the opposite of it, if irony possesses an opposite, and to be honest all I’m trying to do at this point is to attract the attention of Justin Benton, who must surely be following this entire exchange with an “I told you so” smirk on his face.
I will just say that I, for the record, never consented that being too nice is better.
I will point out that one of the beauties of TNB is and always has been the far-ranging and tangential nature of the comment boards, and it’s my perception that attempts to police that somehow–the convening of Nicene councils to say it is only appropriate and favorably viewed to comment this way under X circumstances, provided you have done Y and conduct your comment in Z tone”–is a relatively new development.
Honestly, I think it’s unfortunate. I think that sort of attitude is more insular than most of the back-slapping that goes on here, in large part because it makes the topic of the site the site itself, a subject that the uninitiated aren’t familiar with and about which the initiated will only listen to one another (IF they will listen to anyone at all).
So, having broken the interwebs by engaging in just such an argument with the position that arguing about what’s bad for the site is in fact what’s bad for the site and, furthermore, having done so without even commenting on the actual post first, I will just take my lashings and go back and read the post like a good girl.
(I actually read this this morning, Tom, I just didn’t have time to comment. Then when I came back, there was this fascinating row, and I couldn’t resist.)
Is that supposed to be Justin? I don’t know, Richard. I think his head is a little bigger and he’s not quite as yellow.
Maybe Zara will drop by with a commemorative haiku later.
It’s the golf clubs that are dangerous, Duke, more than the golfer. Ask Tiger!
Maybe we should all get together once a year for The Annual TNB Drunken Brawl. You know, just so nobody gets any funny ideas about us being too PC or nicey-nice
I see your point, Becky but maybe the insular stuff about TNB could be likened to a behind-the-scenes extra on a DVD. A lot of people just want to watch the movie, but maybe a few will be interested in the mini-doc in which the cast and crew discuss “the process” or express their hopes for the final product.
True enough, Don. As a matter of fact, my windshield is broken.
I can’t let this go, though, without adding that the benefit of debate is a long-term thing.
That people refuse to publicly concede or admit that they have been challenged or had their mind–or some portion of it–changed speaks more to the power of pride and face-saving than the worth of argument itself.
Argument and debate produce brain worms, for lack of a better term, and even if someone refuses their opponent the satisfaction of concession or acknowledging a good point, 9 times out of 10, in some other argument down the road or elsewhere, you will see the same person arguing on the same topic, suddenly taking obvious account of the original opponent’s position and potentially even having adopted it in whole or in part.
So, you don’t–or people shouldn’t–argue to “win” in the immediate. And they shouldn’t assume that an argument has been for naught just because whomever they argued with didn’t have a public road-to-Damascus moment. Manipulation is an art, not a violence. 🙂
i’d like to change the topic to giraffes. doesn’t it look like giraffes have antennae? please discuss.
are you fucks afraid of a debate? DO YOU THINK GIRAFFES LOOK LIKE THEY HAVE ANTENNAE OR NOT?!!!
I can’t answer until I know what the consensus is, so that I can take the opposite position.
I do think giraffes look like they have antennae, to help get you started, Becky. Oh, and good point about brain worms. I’ll remember that. Your brain worm in this case has already begun to work.
I’ve been thinking about an entire posting on my experience with “anybody can write,” so I won’t prematurely eja . . . reveal it all here.
As an academic I saw it all the time, including (and devastatingly) when I was up for promotion to Full Professor. My colleagues had written papers and books, yes (as had I). And they were readable in the way that academic books are readable. No problem. But many of them believed that their ability to write a grammatical English sentence qualified them to write creatively — memoir, fiction, essay. Poetry, of course, is so easily-done that it’s not worth mentioning.
They did not support me fully because although I’d done my academic book, I was writing poetry and fiction and CNF and winning prizes and getting published. Almost all my colleagues thought that this was so easy, so much something any of them could do (if they wanted to) that a person doing it was unworthy of being a Full Professor.
Eventually I discovered that some of my opponents as well as my lack-luster supporters were attempting exactly that. One had begun a memoir of fieldwork. Another one handed me a personal essay about living off the grid and was hoping to publish a book of photographs. A third had started a mystery novel, which was actually not bad (he’d been a supporter of mine). Another (not at my college) who said he’d be writing short stories about the Solomons just as soon as he retired and had time. Need I say that it’s been more than a decade since this happened and not a creative piece of theirs is in print anywhere?
What really pissed me off was how they were hoping to do that, not succeeding . . . and dissing me for succeeding. Not a one of them realized how hard it was to go beyond being able to write that acceptable English sentence, or perhaps paragraph.
Ugh. I’m so glad I’m out of that environment.
And Tom — nice piece. I’ll get American Junkie. I’ve been meaning to, but never quite got around to ordering it.
Sounds like you got caught in the shifting sands of ‘downward social comparison’ I think it’s called, a part of the human condition where people create all sorts of hierarchies to make themselves feel more important. Whatever. If creative writing is what makes you go, then go man go and don’t look back. That’s what I say
Tom – I was hoping for a Kindle version. The regular one will be fine, of course, and it’s on its way to me.
I’m sure it’s hard to know how many people are looking explicitly for Kindle versions. Do you have anything to say about it, or is it out of your hands?
I think your “whatever” is maybe the best response. Every so often I think about my old department and Dean and get pissed off. I need to put it down.
Argh, the Kindle thing yeah, that was supposed to have been done ages ago. The press contracted with a company to do e-book versions of their list and they have been either dragging their feet or having problems finalizing their contract with amazon, one or the the other. Either way it is bugging me and I wish they would get it sorted out. Every other e-book format has been done, it’s only the Kindle that has not. Grrrrrrrrr
I f’ing hate the “anyone can write” point of view, which is usually encountered from those who’ve never really tried. I work with a bunch of science and engineering types, and some of them occasionally sneer at my M.F.A….and then bring me their memos and reports to copy-edit.
Whenever someone mouths off about public financing for the arts, I’m reminded of Winston Churchill’s quote about cutting said funding during WWII: “What then, sir, are we fighting for?”
Good for you for having the pluck to fight for what you wanted to do. Too many people, when someone in authority hands them the bad news, just shrug and take it, never considering what might happen if they just spoke up.
Thanks Matt. Writing is hard. The funny thing is some people think music is harder, but it’s not IMO. Music is talent, flashes of inspiration and a little work whereas I feel writing (book length works at least) is talent, flashes of inspiration and then a helluva lotta work (usually years) shaping and crafting those things into a coherent novel/memoir/whatever.
I’m terribly sorry, Tom. You’re not going to slip that prison shiv into our ribs without a fight. Music is every bit as much a language with semantics and dialog and message.
Maybe not in the case of the schmoe that’s banging out “whole lotta love” in the wrong key in the basement of the V.F.W. hall at a redneck wedding reception…
…but seriously, you want to open that can? serve up those worms?
Can you really agree with Zara Potts upthread, and then make a statement like “some people think music is harder, but it’s not “?
About the only thin bit of crumbly ledge I’ll grant you on that, is that it’s easier to “ape” music, to don the trappings and shiny-jangly bits and pretend you’re onto something, than it is in writing. But perhaps not. There’s LEGIONS of Kerouac-Thompson wannabes that toss out “word salad with verve” and bask in their own brilliance.
D.R.H…you were hankering for a debate….
Haha. Touche. I, of course, am generalizing based on my own experience. What I should have said was it didn’t take Keith and Mick five years to write Brown Sugar.
I’d rebut by saying that it took them 15 years to get to the point that they could write Brown Sugar.
Yeah. I guess my point is you don’t ever hear people say “Rock musicians don’t really hit their stride until they are 40 or 50 years old” like I have heard about writers and painters. Can you imagine a rock band only getting big when they’re 50? Haha. “After 25 shitty albums so and so are finally hitting their stride. Unfortunately the singer has recently fallen ill with Alzheimers.”
I was perplexed by your comment, dwoz, until I saw Richard’s comment. Now I understand what you meant.
A great story. I like how this person who says “anyone can write” is essentially pushing you back into a destructive lifestyle and urging you to settle for unhappiness.
Had I listened to voices (often my own) that said my writing would never “amount” to anything, I might have turned to any number of other obsessions under the right circumstances, drugs or maybe fooling myself into thinking spreadsheets and bullet points are deeply important. Either way, I’d have likely sunk into depression without the chance to sit down on a regular basis and craft my thoughts into stories. Good thing you decided to fight.
Thanks Nathaniel. That stoicism I learned from my parents was useful for them, in their time, but it did not serve me well in the world as I knew it, and if I had fought earlier perhaps I wouldn’t have sunk as low as I did. Aside from that, it’s always been a delicate balancing act, trying to figure out how much I want to fight through obstacles (and deal with all the mess that accompanies that) or weaving my way around them and not dealing with the mess.
In the end I discovered some things were worth fighting for. No matter the mess
Sensational story. Having read and enjoyed the ever-loving hell out of “American Junkie,” I’m a direct beneficiary of your struggle and victory.
I hear so many people talk about choosing careers that fall in line with their passion, but there seems to be an inordinately small percentage of people who find that match. I need to hear more stories like yours. Amazing how we can find exactly what we need (courage, determination, a big mouth) when it’s a matter of life, death, or the fire within.
Thanks for giving ’em hell, brother.
Hey thanks Joe. Re:people finding their passion, it’s true. Not an easy thing, but then there’s a part of me that thinks something that rewarding should not be easy. At the end of the day I’d rather be poor and doing this than well off and miserable doing…whatever. I sure wouldn’t object however if I could make the poverty line with income from writing hehe. C’est la vie.
Great post, Tom. It’s inspiring to hear a happy ending in these sorts of frustrations.
I’ve wondered for years why writing isn’t treated like music or painting or other arts–i.e. something which requires time and practice. There seems to be a pervasive misconception that writers work with thoughts and ideas, rather than with words and sentences…
Thanks Tyler. I think it has to do with the fact that music and painting require ‘instruments’ ie: guitars, paint brushes, etc., whereas writing deals in words, a very basic form of communication, which leads people to assume writing is easier than those other disciplines you named. It’s dumb, but that’s the way it is I think.
would you disagree then that ALL arts are actually forms of communication? (as in, categorically, ALL)?
As such, ALL arts have a vocabulary, and semantics.
But that all isn’t what art is about, is it? they’re just framework to hang a narrative on.
Possibly. Does there have to be a narrative? Some of the performing arts can be more pure expression than narrative
Narrative was a dicey word for me to use.
it implies timeline, and I don’t really think that’s germane to the discussion. I mean narrative more in the sense that there is a layer above the physical framework that constructs the art…be that framework a canvas and paints, words on a page, a big stone block, a movement of a body on a stage, a guitar.
To me, the physical framework has little to do with the art, beyond my appreciation of how the artist may have applied something clever and unexpected in the execution. For example, it’s a marvel to stand 12 inches from a Rembrandt painting and be dismayed at the wild looseness and strength of the brush handling, which translates to an almost contradictory effect entirely when you’re 6 feet from the canvas.
But the “narrative” is the life in the eyes, the tension in the hand, the class implications of the robes…etc.
Yeah I’m with you on that. You could possibly go even further and say that the “narrative” doesn’t even have much to do with the creator of the art, but more to do with the viewer/reader/audience and their interpretation of what they see/read.
I have espoused a “credo” for years now, that Art (capital “A” art) is of two aspects, what I call the Objective aspect and the Subjective aspect. The Objective I define as being the intended message of the author/artist, and the Subjective the actual message impugned by the “consumer” of the art.
These two things may exhibit a strong correlation, or be completely unrelated to each other.
It is this concept that allows me to hear music, a symphony of lament, in the sound of the shuffling footsteps of a homeless derelict walking along the street. There was certainly no music intended by the author. But the listener heard it.
Fuck yes. I’m a fan of Jim McDerrott now, too, whoever he is.
“what I should have been doing all along as music had turned out to be too laden with traps regarding my drug problem.”
It’s funny how often a choice of artistic vocation comes down as much to the lifestyle of the vocation as to the vocation itself. Each art life comes with its own lifestyle, and you’re a fool if you think you’re going to change that. Actors don’t get paid to act but to wait. Musicians don’t get paid to make music but to travel. It’s how it’s always been, and it’s only getting moreso in our current century.
Lovely, revealing, compelling piece, Tom. Thanks.
by this rubric, dancers and choreographers get paid to have panic attacks.
(sorry…it’s Nutcracker Hell Week at the dwoz residence)
No problem. Music was always kind of a disaster for me. I was a good enough guitarist, but music history has shown that bands can get away with having one maybe two tops junkies in them, any more and it usually doesn’t work and I kept ending up in these bands where four out of five were messed up. Houston, we have a problem. Writing has been good for me, the solitary nature of it. The only drawback is spending that much time in my head makes me a little wack sometimes
I really enjoy stories of reaching goals and overcoming adversity, so thanks for this, Tom. I also want to punch the caseworker for saying anyone can write. By that reasoning, anyone can be an attorney or a welder or customer service representative, which means her logic fails anyway. Based on the illiterate emails I read on a daily basis, a lot more people can’t write than can.
I must admit, though, I’ve always wondered how a degree makes one more of a writer. In your case it sounds like the MFA meant as much for your confidence and life change as your status as a writer. Which, again, is a goal you set, and one you overcame obstacles to achieve.
It’s also nice to read something positive about the U.S. government when it seems the lion’s share of what gets written is negative.
Thanks Richard. I know right, one just has to scroll through the comment boards of any newspaper and it becomes totally apparent that many people can’t write or even spell for shit. It’s very depressing. The interesting thing about the MFA is it was the last two years where I really made some connections with people who have helped me, agents, publishers, other name writers.
i think this is the first story i’ve ever heard of effective government intervention on a personal level. i think i’ll write to some california politician and ask why, when i have two master’s degrees and a doctorate, my salary is almost impossible to live on. maybe they’ll mail me some ramen.
i love ramen.
Yeah but you have to consider this was 2006, before THE SECOND GREAT DEPRESSION. I wouldn’t want to try asking for help at this point in time
You and Clarence Darrow, brother – apparently some woman told him that he’d never make enough money to pay off a house, and it ignited Darrow’s latent anger. Darrow narrowed his eyes (Darrowed his eyes, really) and said ‘Lady, don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me, when I’m angry.’
Suddenly, with a flash of green light, Darrow transformed into the strongest there is – The Incredible Hulk! Subsequently, he ate the hell out of that bitch.
Apparently he got so incensed with this that he decided to fight back, and, basically, started walking down a path that turned him into the Clarence Darrow of legend. I’m fascinated by the potential of people to change (and how much it doesn’t happen), and I’m glad you found the catalyst you needed.
Also, sorry about all the physical damage you sustained along the way. What a motherfucker.
from Wikipedia on Darrow; “He became renowned for moving juries and even judges to tears with his eloquence. Darrow had a keen intellect often hidden by his rumpled, unassuming appearance.”
Sounds like one of my readings
I wish I’d thought ahead to a) developed a keen intellect and b) hide it under a rumpled unassuming appearance.
Seems like the kind of thing you need to plan out in advance.
good morning, sir. this was a very inspiring write. congrats on hanging in there. even more congrats on kicking that habit. i’ve seen too many of my peeps go down on that one as well as other killers looming about. battles all around, eh? you have a great tone in all your pieces. please give us some more stuff, tom. you know it’s gets pretty damn lonely out there. anyhow, keep on keeping on and thanks for the read.
Thanks Reno. The main reason I don’t post more here is that after my “bad poetry phase” (2001-2003) I committed myself to studying and writing book length projects. So I really don’t know jack about essay writing, short story writing, humor writing, etc, stuff that’s ideal for TNB. But I will try to keep plugging away
Anyone can write. Sure. But not everyone who writes can write well of course. Probably there’s someone in this comment thread who has already said that.
I had someone say something similar to me when I was working on a community outreach thing for a university. We were going to offer a free little creative writing workshops for children at the local bookstore in conjunction with the CW conference we were hosting on campus. I had to go before this big committee of stuffed shirts (I think it was the rotary club or something, can’t remember exactly) to ask if they would sponsor us. After they’d discussed it for a minute, they said “no.” “It’s just writing. There’s no value in it for the community,” they said. I was furious!
Grrrr. Did you freak out? Start throwing things? I would have. Those clubs are weird. My dad was a member of the Elks club when I was a kid. It was like a place for men to get away from their wives and booze out. Some lawyer I had to deal with a while back was a member of Kiwanis club. When he found out about my book he was like “You have to come speak to my Kiwanis club!” I was like “Hmmm, emm, err, well….gmph. maybe.., we’ll see….”
This ripped my heart out and then put it right back in again.
While you may not think you “know jack” about writing short, engaging pieces, I’m here to tell you sir, that you (to borrow from Humphrey Bogart) have been misinformed.
Oh thanks Kimberly. I misinform myself quite a bit methinks. Nice avatar btw. I see you’re down in Florida. Lucky you. We are experiencing the ‘Rain Terror!’ here in Seattle
“anyone can write”
We have this discussion over in the audio community CONSTANTLY. The discussion over there revolves around the crafting of the elusive hit record, on the one hand…
…and on the other hand, about the epidemic proliferation of “band in a box” type tools and applications, which are employed by professionals as idea notebooks, but employed by the unwashed amateur masses as “creativity”.
The typical scenario is a “producer” that “writes” a song by clicking a few buttons on the interface, and then “freestyling” over the top of it.
Now, don’t take that as a slag on hip hop, because it’s not. What I’m describing happens in that genre a lot, but it’s just as rampant with the teen-life-relationship-angst singer-songwriter crowd.
The main point is, “sorry…that’s a nice little bit of ear candy you’ve got there, but talk to me again when you’ve actually WRITTEN something.
Yeah, that’s one reason why I don’t like much ‘modern’ music, at least the over-produced stuff. My pal Mark Lanegan, when he was making one of his albums, brought a bunch of musicians together and then had the ‘drummer’ play bass, and the ‘bass player’ play drums, etc etc, because he recognized that often the magic of rock music comes from the spontaneous and not the over-produced and over-planned and computerized
Inspiring story on a number of levels, Tom. It’s jarring to read so many comments from people who are shocked that an elected representative would go out of their way to help an individual constituent, and I have to admit I’m among those cynical enough to assume that anyone who’s not a Bush Pioneer-level contributor may as well not bother. Which may well be more true in, as you say, post-2006 America.
But I remain emboldened by this: You didn’t fight the law — it fought for you! (maybe you had to twist its arm a little bit).
Looking forward to more.
Thanks man. There will be more. I think I’m gonna write some short fiction here soon. I’m getting a bit bored with the NF/memoir
Why all this fighting?
Why! It must be Christmas time!
Why can’t you place your comment
In the correct place?
Oh, sure. Little Miss Sunshine comes along with a too-nice haiku.
Little Miss Sunshine
Is here to spread joy and peace!
Suck on that, grinches!
Ha ha ha.
(and Richrob- let the haiku fall where they may)
You’re not spreading any of that joy and peace crap on my post, you hear me! Not unless it’s accompanied by pictures of blood
You can’t stop me.
Besides, you said I was exempt.
What a great story, Tom. You are powerful and righteous and richly deserve your success. Having been at the bottom of the heap can be the impetus to climb out. Brilliant you.
No. Yes. I don’t know.
What about bloody pandas? Are they real or not???
Oops. This nestled awkwardly.
Makes me look rather a moron.
Haha I don’t understand this nesting business at all. Nesting? Come on. What’s going on here? Are we laying eggs or something?
Yes. We are.
Oh thanks Meg. I wish I could get down to Portland for the TNB event. I hope you’re gonna keep working on this memoir. It sounds like a compelling story and writing as well as you do would put it a few notches above any prison story I can recall.
“I should have been a lawyer.” I know you meant this as a throwaway line, Tom, but just to be perfectly clear: no you shouldn’t have. You should’ve become a writer, and I suspect that everyone who reads American Junkie will be glad that you did.
Thank you sir. You’re probably right. I might have ended up one of those irritating lawyers like you see on Law and Order, you know, those ones with finely groomed long hair blathering on endlessly about the values of the 60’s. Or worse, a ponytail! Blech. The horror.
Maybe you would have become John Grisham?
A story I like about Grisham is how after becoming a writer, a case he’d promised to represent finally came to court (years afterwards). The family concerned got in touch and said Hey yo, John Grisham, remember when you said you’d do this?
Fuck you, John Grisham replied.
Or rather, he said, yes I do, put aside his duties as a best-selling author, and took the case. And won.
Deeply affecting and mechanically perfect. Hard to believe you didn’t always know you were a writer, Tom. It’s clear additional great work lies ahead.
Gracias. If I hadn’t been so damaged when I was young I may have known sooner. I got into music mostly for the same reason Alice Cooper did. I wanted to get laid
Keep ’em coming.
I adore your writing.
Thanks Ashley. We here in Seattle are getting a ‘taste of New Orleans’ at the moment with a bunch of flooding. Nothing like what you experienced however I’m sure
I like this story, Tom. I like the fact that you chose to fight because you believed in yourself. And of all things a government official helped you to fulfill that dream. That sounds like divine intervention to me.
Anyone can write? Well, technically anyone can. But can anyone write something that readers want to read? That’s what counts. I’m glad that you stewed on that long enough to take action and make your writing count.
Tom, I read this the other day but didn’t get a chance to comment at the time.
1.) The title of this piece made me think it was going to be humor.
“That’s what SHE said.” Heh.
2.) I’m so glad you decided to fight. Of course after reading your book, it’s no great surprise that you found the strength to do so.
3.) I just KNEW there were a few good politicians out there somewhere. Thanks for the confirmation.
4.) I’m really looking forward to reading some of your fiction.
That was pretty bad-ass. I’m impressed, Tom. And grateful, too. Because now we have your writing-