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Raison d’être

What if it turns out that I simply have nothing to offer the world (in terms of writing), and never have had and never will? That’s the question I began my day contemplating. It has been kicking around in my head for a while, surfacing at moments when I don’t have the energy to enter denial mode and start engaging with the list of rationalizations: Never give up. Be true to your artistic vision, work hard, and eventually you will succeed. Success is a daily thing, not something out there in the future. You may never be recognized in your lifetime, but that’s okay as long as you keep your artistic integrity. In fact, it’s okay if you are never recognized, even after death, because after all, you won’t know anyway. And this one: Jerry, you are successful.

All of those rationalizations are in place to back me up as the rejection letters keep flowing in. They have worked reasonably well, but I think I’m about ready to push through those and take a fresh look at that question of my contribution to the world, whatever “the world” is. I don’t owe the world anything, and my life has been as much a contribution as most people’s if for no other reason than that I have not done as much harm to the ecology as those who “work” generally do. But that’s all beside the point, perhaps. The point is, I seek my happiness, my raison d’etre, through my work, so I feel a compelling need to see my work as meaningful, and public acceptance of my work is the main means by which I can be convinced of the work’s value and meaningfulness. So today, I want to think about public acceptance.

Looking through my file drawer full of my stories, novels, and plays, and thinking of what each piece has to say, it’s obvious that my work is pretty cynical. Look at the stories I’m currently sending out. “The War Between the States of Being” turns out to be one big apology for the narrator’s life’s work, with hints of secret perversity, lost love, and unfulfilled artistic visions. “Necks and Bodies” portrays a young man caught up in an artistic vision he is completely unequipped to fulfill. “Amsterdam and St. Paul” follows a grief-stricken man as he remains in denial until the end, then breaks down and cries. I guess there’s a small victory for him there, but only what normal people would come by pretty easily. “Sin and Error Pining” shows the sins of the father (abandoning his family) coming back to haunt the narrator as he commits the same sin. How uplifting, right? “At the Riviera Pool” shows a defiled (raped by her two brothers as a young teen) young woman full of hate reaching the end of her rope and probably drowning from it, but at least doomed to unhappiness. And my latest entry, “Casting Out Nines,” shows the life of a man whose father (the narrator) has projected his grief onto the son in the form of neglect, without even realizing it, making both their lives into a nightmare. These are just the stories currently kicking around on my desk and being worked on and submitted to magazines. Gloomy enough stuff?

As for The Paraclete, I tried very hard to give it a positive story, one of redemption and the defeat of evil. I don’t think many readers will get that, though. Most, I think, will see a story of perversion and tragedy, and if they do get to the end, might find the resolution to be a tacked on Hollywood ending. I’m so close to the novel, so unsure about how it will read, that I’m more or less petrified and unable to try and sell it.

I’m searching, today, for the reasons I write such cynical stories. My first impulse is to say that they seem “true” to me, whereas a happy story, or one which shows a universe in which things can work out happily and meaningfully, seem contrived. I must ask myself, then, why I love stories (not my own) that are just such happy visions of life, and generally do not like stories which show a world in which unhappiness prevails, or in which events do not add up to a “truth” I can recognize. It’s as though I want to write one thing, and I find satisfaction in doing so, yet I hate seeing anyone else do it. Last night I watched Linklater’s film BeforeSunrise and loved every minute of it, including the ending leaving me hoping the two young lovers will get back together, and seeing no reason why they should not. Now, if I had been writing that script, I would be constantly looking for ways to make the relationship go wrong and stay wrong, because for Jerry the Writer, it rings false and unTrue to have love without tragedy. And not just tragedy. It must be unreasonable tragedy that is not explained – because for Jerry the Writer, there is Truly never an explanation for anything. I think I am simply angry, and my writing is the way I expel the overage of anger. Maybe what is going on is that this anger, which I suppose originated in my childhood, began to feed on itself with every frustration I experienced with my writing, and with each frustration-turned-into-anger, the cynicism about life (which my writing defines) seemed more justified. The result: ever more cynicism, ever more rejection, ever more hate-filled writing.

All of that is way, way over-simplified. For one thing, part of me has always fought against the cynicism and anger, and The Paraclete represents a victory, in that regard, however flawed it may or may not be. But overall, I think the above explanation, though simplistic, rings pretty true. It has occurred to me lately that I might benefit from simply refusing to write any more until I can force myself to write something that does not portray a world of hopelessness. I know how hard that would be for me. I would feel I was lying, being trivial, pandering to an “audience” hungry for the lie that makes their existence tolerable. I would be asking myself why I should feed their need instead of turning the knife that life has inserted between their ribs. The answer, presumably, would be “because that’s what writers get paid to do.” Indeed, that’s how writers succeed.

None of these ideas are new to me. I’ve been mulling all of this over for ages. When I’ve asked myself about selling the age old lie that says life makes sense, so you folks can relax and have a good time, my answer has been that I’d rather keep telling my own personal truth, however nasty, because therein lies my integrity, and without personal integrity, my art is nothing. Can’t get paid for it? Can’t get famous for it? Well, too bad for me; I guess that, too, fits in with my whole outlook and just proves that my Truth is true. As for my preference for reading (and viewing on the screen) the age old lie myself, well why not? I’m no different from anyone else, in that regard. I need the lie at least as much as you do.

And to be fair, I shouldn’t call it a lie. That would imply that the artist is a liar, and I don’t think for one minute that Linklater is lying. His personal Truth is simply not the same as mine. Successful artists, by and large, are not lying. But when you’re talking about Truth in terms of an artistic vision, with a capital T, it is not the facts that are in question. If that were the case, then all fiction would be untrue, whereas in reality, we find our greatest lies in facts, and our greatest truths in fiction, which is unencumbered by facts.

Does any of this solve anything for me? Am I simply doomed to see myself, when I’m in a black mood, as a failure with nothing to offer the world, and to feel kind of okay when I can convince myself that writing my personal Truth is somehow worthwhile – worth a lifetime of personal strife and psychic discomfort? Am I going to turn over a new leaf today and refuse to write until I have something nice to say? Should I?

Nothing solved. Nothing gained. Just another couple of pages of verbiage, I guess.

© Jerry Stubblefield. Return to top of page.
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