I am convinced that writers may be the pedigreed mutts of America’s Artistic Kennel Club.
Stephen King was at one time a janitor. Kurt Vonnegut was a car salesman and managed America’s first SAAB dealership. William Burroughs was an exterminator. T.S. Eliot composed The Waste Land while working as a clerk at a bank in London. Margret Atwood worked as a cashier in a coffee shop. Charles Dickens worked in a factory, and Richard Wright, William Faulkner, and Charles Bukowski were all disgruntled postal workers. Langston Hughes was a busboy, Harper Lee sold tickets for Eastern Airlines, and Zane Grey was a dentist.
So many authors boast an entire menagerie of collected odd jobs. Douglas Adams worked as a hospital porter, barn builder, chicken shed-cleaner, hotel security guard, and a bodyguard. Jack Kerouac was a gas station attendant, cotton picker, night guard, railroad brakeman, dishwasher, construction worker and deckhand. Harlan Ellison claims to have been a tuna fisherman, crop picker, hired gun, nitroglycerin truck driver, short-order cook, cab driver, lithographer, and a door-to-door salesman. The list goes on… and I encourage any of you to spend an hour surfing the subject on the net as it is not only entertaining but will work wonders for your self-esteem.
I have been writing ever since I was a teenager. I published a short story once, in the world of traditional publishing… as well as having been published in college journals, written for the community stage, local TV, and for my own enjoyment. And though I stopped writing for gaps in time—thinking yet another great American career had landed in my lap, we writers know that the lonely world of the blank page has its side effects… procrastination, self-doubt, imposter’s syndrome.
And we have to pay bills to pay, families to support.
But we writers are always writing. If you’re like me, you have a stash of manuscripts, complete and incomplete, paper and electronic, good and terrible, always awaiting our return.
Is there a reason for the term suffering artist, or is it an established paradigm we feel the need to live up to? I think I am trapped somewhere in between. And I am desperate to escape. I’m hoping that this blog may be the first step in that direction—whether a sly secret panel or an abrupt seat-ejection button—an eventual escape hatch.
Or maybe it’s my version of a seven steps program.
Since entering the occupational world I have been paid to mow grass, manufacture doors, drive a truck, be a clerk in a copy shop, act, teach tap dancing, bag groceries, bartend, be a bank teller, teach high school, sell books, manage a bookstore, process government loans, manage a home store, be a field representative in the travel industry, own a home store, and for five years a letter carrying assistant for the US Postal Service (by far the worst). I did not like several of these jobs, but I do have a good work ethic and with the exception of a couple, I stuck with them for at least two years or more. Woven within this fragmented tapestry of employment gigs, I wrote—not always steadily, but I have been writing a long time… on paper, on my mother’s Smith-Corona electric typewriter, on my monolithic Brother word-processor, and now on a computer.
But what does that really tell you?… That I’m a good person. That I get along with all kinds of people. That I can pretty much work anywhere. Great. Someone get Mike Rowe on the phone.
And I’m a good writer. Maybe not great, but I can string sentences together, give good narrative flow, generate a mood or tone. I graduated with a BA in English and a minor in professional writing. So, what’s with the varied employment history? Is it just writers that experience this? I suspect not. But I do ponder whether or not it has to something to do with all those artistically inclined, and some deeply ingrained prejudice taught by society that artistry is frivolous, for people that cannot hold REAL jobs, and solely to entertain those that bring home the bacon.
And then I picture myself as a fool in a past life, bouncing around in a silly costume to entertain a king and his minions.
Am I fool now? I don’t think so, but I do question myself and fall down these inquisitive rabbit holes regularly. And believe me, it’s enough to make you question your sanity.
And if you add to the mental mix that I’m gay, from a generation before it was hip and cool, it’s even more complicated. I remained closeted until mid-life, and sometimes still find myself dealing with the residual self-loathing insecurities and all the text-book baggage that comes with being a repressed individual of society. I was the gay man who could pass for straight, maintained opposite-sex relations for show, had friends who were homophobic, and, yes… was homophobic myself.
So, not only did I (do I?) have massive insecurity with my writing but with my sexuality and my place in society as a whole.
Whew! See where I’m going here? Definitely a mixed bag of bagels.
Obviously, not all artistic people are gay, but many are. And plenty has been said about the reasoning behind this. The artistic community attracts vagabonds, ne’er-do-wells, misfits… accepting people more for their differences than similarities—their diversity, and causing many a bigot sleepless nights. I have no doubt that my gravitation to the arts was in part because of this.
But let’s shake that bag a little more.
Ever since I was a child, before I knew I was gay—at least before I knew what that meant—I was obsessed with old movies, horror in particular. A lot of this I attribute to my mother and living in Atlanta. Before TBS exploded in the late 1970s, I had its former incarnation locally, WTCG channel 17, showing all the classics, black and white mostly, but pure color for me—Universal, Hammer, William Castle—hell, even Abbott and Costello. I craved it all.
Maybe I knew I was different. Maybe somehow I knew, even as a 6-year-old boy, that I was the piece of some other puzzle. Maybe—and I am sure that some psychological journal somewhere has suggested—I gravitated to tortured creatures like Frankenstein’s monster and The Wolf Man because subconsciously I identified with them… being the outcast… being different.
So I’m laying it out there for you, my blueprint. I’ve been reluctant to write blogs because I was afraid that I didn’t have enough to say about anything. I doubted my abilities to retain attention without theme, order, substance.
Did I mention I’m borderline OCD too?
But forcing myself to just sit down and vomit all of this out I have come to realize that maybe I am the theme. Sure… I know a helluva a lot about writing, being gay, and horror fiction and film… but maybe through my speculative meanderings, I will not only entertain but strengthen my psyche. Stephen King has said before (and I paraphrase) that if he were not a writer he would have killed somebody.
Maybe there’s some therapy in this after all.
As always, thanks for listening. I would love to hear your thoughts.
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