I do realize now that writing the column has been an aesthetic and spiritual practice. But a spiritual practice must be supported. It was kept in balance by the salary. When we adopt certain practices if they are not supported they lead us to imbalance. That is what I am struggling with now. If I continue to spend four to six hours a day doing this aesthetic and spiritual practice, my life will be out of balance.
Yet do not wish to abandon it. So I do it sporadically.
In the meantime, I make these notes, so you know I am still here, thinking these words, thinking in this way.
I suppose this is why monks and religious folk have gone to live together and support each other, because to live in this way, giving oneself over wholly to some practice which takes everything one has, one must simplify. One must depart from the world, in a sense. Because there is too much to do.
I love you, O person who is unknown to me. That is what I send to you. I send my love. This is a rare thing to be able to do. I am not being paid for this but still I am sending my love.
When I was being paid, in the many times in my life where what I was writing was a product purchased by a company, such as all writing is when we are paid for it, I still saw my job as one of sending love out through the words. I wanted to do it in a funny and clever way but it was still an act of sending love out in words. I was still trying to cause delight in the mind. I was trying to give you the best of what I can do.
I know I have a gift. At times I have let this go to my head. At other times I have debased myself because of this gift, feeling I had to lower myself and not display this gift. I have my neuroses, my demons and wounds. But I also have this gift. I see and hear things.
What is next? I’m not sure. Oh yes, I remember now: Writing the column is a spiritual practice.
The advice column has a quality to it that is of a person speaking directly to another person. That quality flows out of the form of it, that it is epistolary in form.
What I can do, even if I am not writing the column is I can still speak directly to you.
What I can do is to speak directly to you, the person who is seeing this. I may not be able to untangle entire lives in the time I have to write. But I can speak to you directly in this way.
This is a literary style. It can be defined by sentence type and word choice. And sound. It has a particular sound, this style of mine, how I write. It is also an intent, embodied in a literary style. The intent is to implore you to slow down and participate with me in a kind of breathing. That is, the slowness of these words is meant to say to you, slow down and breathe with me. Perhaps I am even trying to hypnotize you. I am saying slow down and read these words along with me. Slow down and contemplate our collective powerlessness, out of which grows great strength. I am saying, recognize with me that in this moment as I am writing I am picturing you reading we are together. There are no other worries. In this moment that you are able to read this, you are safe and protected. You are breathing. This won’t last forever. I will pass on and you will pass on and one day there won’t even be a trace of us here on this planet. We don’t know where we will be then. For some reason we are prevented from knowing this. Yet for right now if you are reading this everything is OK. Nothing is going on except that I am sitting in my room in the noise of the heater, with my cups and my crumpled napkins, my plate and my cellphone, my nails that need clipping and my keys and glasses case, my lamp, my stack of mail, and I am only doing this one thing.
I can think about that stack of mail and I can even feel the tension it causes when I think of it, but even that is somewhat under my control because I can return to this simple act of writing to you.
What a radically dangerous pledge it is, to pledge oneself to writing. You must be willing to let everything else slide. (Or must you?)
If I decide that today I am answering a letter from a person who is suffering, that might be all I do today. If I put limits on it, if I say that because I am not being paid then I can only spend one hour on it, that may cheapen it. What I need to say may require six hours, not one.
What I do in the column is the opposite of a bullet-point list. It is a song. I enter into the spirit of an individual’s life. I try to touch people. I try to move heaven and earth with my prose.
At times I feel that if I am a person of great faith and serenity I can simply continue what I was doing and everything will fall into place. Because I practice the 12 steps and am deeply connected to a community of faith and recovery I am sometimes in that state of mind where everything will be fine. But also I am in that place where I am not the only person living in this house. If the house crumbles around me and the bills aren’t paid, it doesn’t just affect me.
I do not know exactly what will happen. That is what vexes my spirit: Not knowing the future.
Is that not crazy? Who among us knows the future? Who among us can control what will happen tomorrow? And yet I fret. Why? Because having a salary creates the illusion of a certain future.
The future is an illusion. Still …
I know, when I meditate, and when I am connected to my 12-step community, that certainty in a future is an illusion. I know from my own experience that a tumor can be found in the body and that will mean a new path. A tumor can be found and that will change everything. Or money can fall from the sky. Or an anvil can fall from the sky. Or a piano, as in a cartoon. When writing the column I am deeply in that world. When writing the column I am for a while in the world of meditation. That is what I transmit; I inhabit this world of things as they are.
When a monk inhabits the world of things as they are the monk may do nothing for weeks at a time. In our world, in San Francisco, as a homeowner and a credit card user and a purchaser of PG&E gas and electric and garbage services and a buyer of gasoline and soap and food and clothes, I cannot just sit; I am in relationship with the suppliers of all these things. I am in trade. And as a business person, I am in all kinds of reciprocal agreements and relationships with people. I cannot just be a monk.
So again we are talking about the place of the writer in the world.
There is an editor’s letter in the current Poets and Writers Magazine in which the editor takes issue with the idea that it makes a difference whether you write for money. He seems to think that there is such a thing as writing for writing’s sake. I know what he means but I wonder. I wonder if he realizes that the reason he can afford to entertain the notion of not writing for money is because he himself is writing for money. I wonder if he sees this — that writing not for money is a romantic notion.
To me, writing not for money is a privilege and a romantic notion. I don’t mean that one ought not write simply for the joy of it. But at some point, if one is writing for publication, economics becomes a central issue. It is a material issue. Because if your money is not coming from writing then it is either coming from a store of money that has passed on to you or been given to you in some way, which means that you view the world in a certain way, or it is coming from an occupation that drains you of resources that would otherwise be devoted to your writing, and deprives you of the time you need to fully do your job as a writer.
So I think we would all be better served by talking openly about the economic challenges of being a writer, and about the rewards we receive.
I have always tried to make my living as a writer. I tried doing other things and they took too much out of me. That is why I didn’t have children. I could not see how I could do that and still devote every waking hour to writing and reading and getting better at doing this craft.
So now I am at a crossroads. I would love to write the column as I was before. But writing it for a job, like playing for a team, makes a difference. I do not want to shortchange people. I do not want to do second-rate work. If I do it, I want to do it right.
Tomorrow: If I had enough faith, would I just keep doing it regardless?
What is public and what is private confuses me. I turn my life into writing. That’s my material. So now in this life I am faced with a situation that is part personal and part political and economic.
As a columnist I felt it was my job to share with you whatever I could of my personal life as long as it did not injure anyone else. So, for instance, things that would embarrass my wife I tried not to say. Of course, some things about me are so strange that it embarrasses my wife a little just to have them in public. Just to have people know that she is not married to Superman is some kind of embarrassment. That she is married to a human being. So I try to be discreet.
At the same time, I am a creature of many weaknesses
I have often felt that when people do business they are not as honest as when they are in private dealings. We try to put on a face. We want people to do business with us so we act like everything is great. That has always bothered me. And yet I understand it.
Being a writer has meant growing up in public.
I do believe that we ought to talk openly about the social and economic forces that affect our private lives. Unless one has an assured private income one must work. If one works as a writer then one’s life is precarious. That is a given. So why should it be a secret that as a writer one is always figuring out how to make it work. One is always hustling. One is always selling something.
This conflicts with the persona of the advice columnist, whose sole interest is in the well-being of the other person, and in entering into the spirit of the situation.
So in considering whether and how to continue writing the Since You Asked column now that there is no longer a salary attached to it (and hasn’t been for over a year) one faces these interesting questions. I like to share this. I feel that I have come to be known by many people out there and that we are in a more or less ongoing dialog.
Tomorrow: Why and how being paid makes a difference
I used to write a column five days a week for a salary from Salon. In this column I practiced a particular kind of literary art whose purpose was to affirm the dignity of individual suffering. This required a particular kind of writing, one that could sustain and encompass an individual’s dramatic situation. That dramatic situation included both personality and social forces. My aim was to acknowledge the totality of forces bearing on a situation — the individual’s personality as well as the choices available in the world. And then to produce something that was pleasing: sometimes pretty, sometimes kind, sometimes funny, sometimes beautiful. Sometimes crazy.
This was constant: I was always swinging for the fences. Swinging for the fences was my mantra. I knew I was lucky to be doing this and that it couldn’t possibly last forever and so never once did I succumb to cynicism. At times I was tired or distracted or simply wrong. But I was never glib. I never took it for granted. This meant working every day four to six hours writing. That is a relatively long time to spend writing. If you are doing that, that is pretty much all you are doing. This had consequences which we’ll get to.
I knew that this job was a rare opportunity to do a kind of writing that very few people do, and that as long as I had the job it was best for me to give it everything I had. In doing this job I created a body of work. It is literary work. And because I was being paid to do this work, I never cut corners. I dedicated myself to this.
Judith, abstract expressionist, El Farolito on 24th Street in the Mission for lunch after the meeting, talking about William James, the God thing, William James says, Look, we are scientific men, Christian men, honest men, and we cannot deny what we see: People are having experiences; they have these experiences of another world and then they change. What are we to call this? How can we, as scientific men, pretend that this is not real? So something is going on, basically, is what Judith and William James and I agree about in the Farolito on 24th near Florida Street.
How did she get 33 years sober, hanging out with de Kooning in New York, marrying Steve Lacy because he needed a wife even though she preferred women, and living in that apartment at 23rd and Potrero since 1979, watching the giant construction cranes across Potrero at SF General Hospital, and my plate of al pastor, and the uncanny feeling of holy rescue one feels sitting across from somebody who rampaged through 1950s New York art scene fucking everything that had a can of cadmium yellow and a canvas stretcher, everything that had a gallery show even a group gallery show and a collection of Chet Baker records not too many because he didn’t make too many because he died young and pretty and messed up, toothless and beat up and strung out in the Fillmore … thinking how does that familiar miracle happen to this woman who is nothing but trouble for years just fucking up everything until finally one day she gets it and stops the bullshit and just keeps painting every day for the last 33 years in her studio at Hunter’s Point until the abstracts are piled up to the ceiling and still she keeps going because it’s the only way to God for her, it’s the only way to know herself, her raspy, Winston-ravaged throat, her New York by way of Chicago combination of exasperation and exultations, half the time having no idea what she’s really saying but agreeing, as we agree about William James and what he was seeing in 1890, that the old religions are crumbling yet people are having these experiences of something beyond, something other, something anti-rational that says everything you believed up till now was wrong, relax, surrender.
Let the impossible happen.
Let what you don’t know guide you.
Me and Judith in El Farolito. She talks incessantly about dying. How she’s ready. How it’s a pain in the ass. How people are taking care of her. People are taking Judith where Judith needs to go. People are buying Judith lunch. People are driving Judith to meetings. This is community.
This is how community works, a loving community around a single person without any blood relatives nearby, this is how we close ranks around someone who tore through New York in the 1950s and is still painting abstract expressionist and still listening to jazz LPs on her turntable in her Hunters Point studio and still wearing those khaki painters’ pants the hipsters wore in New York: that faded black-and-white photo of her on the door of her Hunters Point studio: Who is that woman she’s with, her lover? A friend of de Kooning’s? Who is that woman? How did she get there? And how did we get to this table at El Farolito?
We moved into her building in 1990 and she said, “I’m the one with the great flat. You’re the ones who got the not-so-great flat.” We became friends. We went to demonstrations together.
I am giving her rides. We are taking care of her. We are closing ranks around her as she threatens to slip away from us.