"I'm Not Doing Well!": The Musical

Unproductive, uncertain, and unashamed

Pals,

I am writing my first newsletter to you from storm-swept Iowa. We lost our power for a few days after an inland hurricane (a derecho) rose up from the prairie with 112 MPH winds, but otherwise, we were able to escape the damage that so many of our fellow Iowans are still dealing with (the only help coming largely from local organizations, nonprofits, and our fellow citizens). The state and federal government in 2020 have abdicated all responsibility for alleviating suffering, which is, in my view, the best use of government; to see such a callous response to re-opening schools and colleges, to see such indifference to helping people recover from hurricanes, fires, and derechos, and to see such a horrifying, militarized response to masses of people calling for racial justice, well, we have a government right now that is not only wholly comfortable with suffering, but is actually encouraging it.

During the pandemic, my seven-year-old stepdaughter and I have been crafting an improvised and rollicking musical called “I’m Not Doing Well!” which has a different number every day celebrating the strangeness of isolation and anxiety we experience during the COVID-19 crisis. I’ve  been thinking a lot this week about how hard it is to be well right now, and even moreso, how hard it is to work when the world feels like it is falling apart, when it literally feels as if the nation is failing, and so for my first note to you, I am sending you a slightly revised version of a commencement address I gave to the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, where I’m on faculty, in January 2019:

Several years ago, at a fairly dull conference in some forgettable city, I was seated with some of my writing pals, sipping drinks in a hotel bar. There was one other man in the bar, dressed in casual business wear, and he kept looking at our table. He could hear us erupting with laughter, and he could see we had the good-natured, affectionate slouches of old friends gathered after a long day.

He wasn’t dreadfully drunk, but he was on his way there, when he pulled up a chair at our table and said, “So, this some kind of work thing? What do y’all do?”

I finally confessed: “We’re writers,” I said. “We write books.”

“Huh,” he said. “Well, I hate writing…not much of a reader either.”

We greeted this with silence, with hopes the man might leave us alone, so we might go back to those riveting jokes we tell each other that nobody else understands—I’m gonna rewrite that poem in spondees, hahahaha, or what would free indirect speech even look like in first person, lol.

But this particular party crasher, a salesman by trade, regrouped, grinned again, and said:

“Well, what about hobbies?” he said. “What do you guys do for fun?”

Another awkward silence at the table.

“Uh,” we said. “Read and write?”

“Oh for Pete’s Sake,” the man said, and went off in search of a livelier crowd.

~

Most writers don’t have a lot of hobbies. We have engaging distractions or occasional obsessions that feed our work, but no real hobbies. Sometimes, when small-talking strangers ask me about my hobbies, I lie.

I like hiking, I say, though I don’t admit I mainly like hiking because I enjoy walking around thinking about whatever it is I’m trying to write. I do like dancing, though in truth I only like to dance when I’m surrounded by other writers. I sometimes go fishing, but I go fishing mainly because I grew up reading the Nick Adams stories and feel guilty if I don’t fish a few times each summer.

You get the idea.

When you tell a non-writer that you’re a writer, they often say that I can’t wait for you to win the Pulitzer or land on the bestseller list.

These are things people usually say because they love/like you and think you are capable of anything.

But it is a curious question that people seem to ask writers of all ages when they accomplish anything—publish a piece, earn a degree, attend a conference or residency:

“What’s next?”

If someone you know comes back from a golf weekend in Lake Tahoe, you don’t ask him, upon him return, if he’s joining the PGA next week. When a friend returns from Cancun and shows you vacation photos, you don’t ask her if she plans to become a professional para-sailer. If your parent builds a birdhouse, you don’t ask them when they plan to open up a Wild Birds Unlimited franchise in a strip mall by the the Target.

We just understand that these people spend time and resources and energy doing something they love, without expectation.

But artists who invest in themselves as artists are almost always asked, “What’s next? What will you do with that?”

The truth is you have no idea what’s next. You simply  made the brave and probably inconvenient decision to dedicate yourself wholly to your art for no reason other than you love to do it.

Or, maybe, it was more than love; maybe, it was survival. In fact, if you really want to shut down the “what next” questions about your writing career, just say, “What’s next? Well, baby, I can stay alive.”

(Say it like you’re a jazz deejay working the late shift at a college town all-night indie radio station in 1989.)

There are times when you are clearly alive, when you’ve put your creative work on the proverbial front burner; you have something new in the world, and you’re posting about it and doing Zoom events and you feel like a writer.

But the truth is, we all have times in our life where what we love to do is not on the front burner. It’s not even on the back burner. It’s not even in the kitchen with you and the kitchen you’re in is not even a cool kitchen. It has crappy light and a low ceiling and busted fridge and your credit card will be maxed out and your heart will be broken and a project you’ve given years to will be dead. I have no doubt in my mind that all of you will be in this kitchen sometime in the years ahead, with nothing on the burners. I’ve been in that kitchen more times than I want to admit. I’ve been in that kitchen so many times my likeness should be on a Raymond Carver Vintage Contemporaries edition. (A little deep cut humor for the true book nerds.)

And when that happens, I hope you will remember that you can love this life even when you can’t live it seven days a week. You can love this life even when there’s nothing on the burners at all.

Why? Because all the work you’ve done in the past will never disappear, even if it never see the light of anyone else’s day. The manuscripts you’ve written, even the failures, will stay alive even when you try to kill them; they evolve and take new shapes within you and the books you’ve read and re-read will evolve and offer you new meanings and your way of being in the world will constantly evolve as this happens. That will never end. Being a writer and reader is a way of ensuring that your soul’s evolution will never stop.

This evolution will happen in your most secret, interior places; this will happen in your darkest, strangest times, BECAUSE when you’ve written, when you have found time and energy to create something, you’ve unlocked an incredible and revolutionary accomplishment in our current world: you’ve transformed and celebrated and respected your inner life. That kind of energy never dies, even when it is dormant within you, it’s there.

~

Pals, one of the most pernicious and insidious elements of our capitalist American culture is that it has the ability to constantly give you new reasons to hate yourself. To hate who you are or how you look or what you lack or where you’re from or how you feel and what you say.

But right now, in this moment, I hope that you love yourself. Love yourself for enduring the struggles and challenges that comes with any attempt at a creative or unconventional life. Love yourself for considering yourself worthy to read literature and to create your own. Love yourself for surrounding yourself with the people who build you up and not the ones who tear you down. Love yourself for your radical creativity.

Writers and artists have devoted themselves to a life of uncertainty—there is uncertainty in the work (will it be any good?) and in the life (will I make rent?). We are living in a moment when our collective uncertainty is as intense as ever; my advice to writers trying to work now, writers who want to work now, is to avoid the burden of feeling like you must create work that speaks directly to the current moment. Instead, try and make work that finds the beauty and explores the depths of uncertainty. If you learn to be comfortable with uncertainty, you can survive and create your way through life. And if you’re unable to create anything right now, that is likely a testament to your own empathy and a symbol of your own struggles. Those, too, will fuel your work and your soul someday; be patient with yourself. 

I turned 45 this summer, and if I could go back in time and tell my younger self anything, it would be that: learn to be comfortable in uncertainty and learn to embrace the unproductive periods of your life as part of your evolution. I’ve almost always had some kind of day job, and I’ve wasted too many evenings, weekends, and vacations feeling shitty about not writing. Feeling shitty about not writing is almost always a waste of time and energy; the days I felt shitty about not writing are the only days in my life I regret, because they taught me nothing but shame and self-loathing. Learn to create within the uncertain, unproductive periods of your life by redefining what it means to be productive. Or, perhaps better yet, obliterate that awful word—productivity—from your vocabulary entirely. It has nothing to do with being a writer.

Stay safe and hold on tight,

DB

p.s. If you enjoyed this newsletter, please feel free to share, tweet, re-post, and subscribe.