Monday, November 24, 2008


A nice lady, prosperous and kind, was telling me she was “fascinated” by “interesting” people. I said something off-hand about drawing a picture. “Oh,” she cooed, “And are you an artist, too?” I was deeply offended, not because she thought I was an artist -- she already had it firmly in her mind that I was a writer -- but because she thought that these roles were somewhere between ethnic identity and a vocational aptitude test that assigns people certain educational strategies. Lock down those people into categories! Then demand that they get a license.

The next thing she said was “Oh, I’m not creative at all. I just couldn’t be a writer or artist.” What she really meant was, “I’m just normal. I’m safe and nice and prosperous -- normal -- and I don’t want anyone to expect anything exceptional from me, because that’s dangerous.” She had no identity and she liked it that way, because it left her free to buy her identity. She has returned to the world of Edith Wharton that so many died to escape. She’ll be fine so long as the money holds out.

Everyone is a writer and everyone is an artist, but not everyone has the courage to act on it except little kids. Long ago I read that little kids in Japan draw and write (and writing is much more difficult with a brush and ideograms) and continue that on into adulthood. This was certainly true of the only Japanese adult I knew very well, Teruo who lived in the same house at Meadville/Lombard. He composed a little calligraphed poem for each of us when he left. Mine said, “Look out little sparrows! Here comes Mary!” It was about how I pounded up and down the stairs when I was in a hurry.

Writing for grownups IS shapeshifting. One shape is commercial and popular writing, “being” a writer, which is very hot this time of year because people give books for gifts. Best sellers, of course. What the bookstores are pushing. The trouble with that shape is that it can capture a writer and freeze them into being nice and prosperous. Same with art.

True nagual (jaguar man) shapeshifting is different: it is betting your life, living the narrative even while shaping it, maybe losing control of it, maybe being destroyed by it. (In Montana we don’t have naguals - this far north we have Napi/Trickster. In Europe they have Loki or sorcerers. One could write a book about shapeshifters of the planet.) All the nice prosperous readers and patrons are fascinated by shapeshifters, but they don’t care to participate. They are voyeurs, who go to the horror thrillers to bump up their adrenaline levels, but then pull on their coats and go home to pay the babysitter. This time of year they will exclaim over the Hundred Neediest Cases in New York, maybe write a check, and sigh with relief that they don’t know any of them personally.

They are not like the emergency responders in our society, the EMT’s, the police, the animal control officers, and others assigned to clean up after someone has gone over the edge. (I am not talking about the nice and prosperous social workers who try to manage people determined not to grow up or to leave their familiar cramped and inadequate lives.) I had thought that ministers would be prepared to respond to spiritual emergencies, let’s say Jonestown for an example, but when a woman -- whose sister was being abused, confused, and used by Jones (you know what he did) and who finally died in Guyana -- went to the Unitarian minister for help, he didn’t believe her. To his credit, when the ghastly story came out, he repented mightily, but that was self-indulgent. Voyeuristic. He wasn’t there.

Two things are necessary for people who visit the horror: one is a stubborn grounding in the world. I say “grounding,” and I mean earth, the ground we stand on. The simple animalness in all its attachments and needs. The other is a willingness to lose oneself entirely by venturing into a second world. Might never come back. If there’s a return, it will take time to assimilate the changes that surely happened. “I alone escaped to tell you.”

Nature’s way is to create a million beetles and then destroy 99% of them, keeping only the ones most closely adapted to the ecology: able to eat the food, find the shelter, withstand the temperatures, beat off the parasites. Then those survivors make a million new beetles, some better and some worse, with only a few survivors -- not the biggest, strongest ones but the ones that fit the situation. That’s the way writers are, too. Some times are writer-friendly and they’re in swarms everywhere, largely indistinguishable. Some times are almost unsurvivably severe and the only survivors are the ones who adapted, who found a way.

Well, that’s a nice metaphor. The trouble is that the larger storm which is the surface of the planet is so capricious, that no beetle or writer can plan for success. It either happens or it doesn’t, and the “success” might not be what was expected at all. Maybe by the time you write the book that makes your demanding parents finally realize who you are and what you’re about, they’ll be dead and you’ll never get rid of their mocking, abandoning, rejecting, judging ghosts. Because in the end the writers’ worlds are inside them.

But writing, like ministry, is also a calling -- I don’t mean that the person is called to the vocation but that the writing calls other people. Sometimes this is good. But having a lot of people underfoot makes it hard to write. Maybe not all of them really "got it" anyhow. If the call goes out to the hurt and needy, then the writing can become a ministry. On the one hand, a ministry can be through a book (a book has mystical quality, a book of recipes for magic, a book of secrets, book of maps) but on the other hand ministry also means actual people who show up at inopportune moments wanting to be understood, helped, loved, and maybe even fucked. What they want may not be what they need.

The good part about writing that calls people is that this sort of writer knows what people are about, sees them unclothed and touches their scars. The result, a deep connection, is the stuff of real story. But also, it can burden the writer so much that he or she must resort to shape-shifting to retain an identity that’s not dissolved into others, eaten up.

None of this can be commodified. None of it can be put into categories. None of it is relevant to cocktail parties or a source of status. Nice prosperous ladies should stay away.

1 comment:

Art Durkee said...

joni Mitchell wrote a great song, one of my favorites of hers, along these same lines as your thoughts here. I just thought I'd mention the first verse:

You wanna make Van Goghs
Raise 'em up like sheep
Make 'em out of Eskimos
And women if you please
Make 'em nice and normal
Make 'em nice and neat
You see him with his shotgun there?
Bloodied in the wheat?
Oh what do you know about
Living in Turbulent Indigo?

It's basically a song about van Gogh, and going into the horror, as you put it.

I find myself in agreement with you, here.