Jasmine’s Seafood Restaurant
An essay that didn’t go where I thought it was going to.
There were two kinds of coins on the big red Buddha statue at the entrance to the Dim Sum restaurant where Michael was waiting for me. There were the american coins placed in the flat portusion of the laughing buddha’s happy belly. The place where you’re meant to leave a quarter for good luck. There were also the proportionally giant pieces of Yen that hung from a yoke on the Buddha’s back. As if he were a beast of burden, and the burden was his cash.
In the essay that follows I’m going to talk about money and it’s going to come off as naive. I’m going to say some things that are obvious to the more practical-minded person, and it’s going to seem strange that I would even find it worth my time to put these thoughts down into words. But it’s the special priveledge of artist to be Naive. Artists get paid to be naive and hopeful and childish and fun. Even the doomers, the dark artists, the HG geiger’s of the world have a fantastical absolutism to their art that does not reflect the world we live in. The world that is neither good nor bad, happy nor sad, artistic nor practical, but only all of those things some of the time. I’m going to cash in on that privilege and talk about all the ways I’ve been fooling myself around money, and how that’s been getting in the way of the art.
Michael and I are making a comic. He’s handling the script and I’m fumbling my way through Illustrating: something I’ve always dreamed of doing, but now that I’ve been given the chance, has proven to be a remakably difficult thing to do for free. We’ve given ourselves to the end of summer to do it. To have a completed 22 page comic printed and in our hands. It doesn’t need to be fancy or original or even good. It just needs to be done. The story needs to have a beginning a middle and an end. The art needs to be consistent. The dialogue and the pictures have to work together to tell some kind of a story.
We’ve given ourselves these rather dim low bars to reach through because (as writers) both Michael and I can be ambitious in our imaginings and we often think we can pull off a lot more than our current level of skill would allow. Now I dont’ know about Michael, but this kind of thinking has left me knee-deep in a huge pile of unfished stories with ambitious and slightly pretentious beginnings. We decided to meet for lunch at a Dim Sum restaurant because I’d never had the pleasure before and because a rambling literary conversation that moves from subjects like Star Wars to addiction to self hatred very quickly is best done over what I can only describe to you as Chinese Tapas.
The food was amazing. The star of the show was sesame bun stuffed with sweet pulled pork. I didn’t ask Michael for the names of any of the dishes but you can see what we ate in the photo above. There were also bao bun dumplings, rice stuffed with sausage and wrapped in what appeared to be a banana leaf, several shrip-stuffed wan-tans, fried sesame seed balls stuffed with red bean paste. My culinarily inclined readers are rolling their eyes right about now at how badly I’m handling the food section of this story but let me just say that it was delicious, and I had to work with every bit of self restraint this glutton has to not devour everything. Instead, I tried to be present, to look Michael in the eye, and to not have any food in my hands while there was some in my mouth.
This proved difficult for two reasons. The first was that the caffeine in the green tea was combining with the caffeine in the coffee I’d just finished and my heart rate was beginning to race. The second was that I was (and currently still am) in search of a job.
The other day I wrote an essay on the way my writing practice is evolving. It used to be a terrible affair where I would spend six to eight hours at the keyboard writing manically. The next week would be punctuated by short periods of writing and long periods of me doing nothing at all. I very well could have been doing other things during those periods but I was “supposed to be writing.” That’s why the quick-and-dirty technique I described the other day works for me, even though I feel guilty about it. I’ve found it exponentially more productive to show up for short consistent bursts every single day, writing something I think is crap but every so steadily improving upon that crap, than to to try to set the world on fire and only burn my house down.
Because of this change in my practice and my rhythm, I’ve found that I have a lot more time in my day to get other, non-writerly, things done. These things are trivial little matters like handling bills, or making plans with your partner, or cleaning the kitchen. I don’t know how it happened, but somehow I developed this obsessive image of what it looked like to be a writer in my head. This was probably due to a misunderstanding of that essay by Michael Ventura called The Talent of the Room. I think in my own little ways I’ve been rebelling against Ventura’s ideas while also being subservient to them because his version of writing had become the default mode for me. So even if I was rebelling against the idea that I had to spend the largest portion of my day miserable and fully conscious of the choices I was making with each word, and unless I was in deep pain from the sacrifice I was making to write those words, then I wasn’t a writer.
I don’t write that way. Or at least, I don’t write that way anymore. I need to see the sun. I need to be able to walk around and to have interesting conversations with friends. I need to be able to surf. I need to be able to travel. If you’ve read The Talent of the Room then you know that none of what I’m describing here is prohibited by Ventura. Those were limitations I put on myself due to some lack mentality that probably started at some point in the formative years. There are a lot of ways to interpret the fatalism that Room packs into it’s dense three pages of doom-and-gloom, but I’m just now realizing that maybe it doesn’t have to be so fatalistic. After all, to quote the essay:
If you’re Sharon Doubiago, your room is your van; if you’re the young Ernest Hemingway, your room is a café table; if you’re Emily Dickinson, your room is your garden; if you’re Marcel Proust, your room is your bed; if you’re William Faulkner, you compose As I Lay Dying in six weeks in a humid shack while you work days in a factory (or was it work nights and write days?). But whoever you are, whatever shape it takes, that room is the center of your life and it’s very crowded. Everything you are and everything you’re not backs you up against the wall and stares at you. You stare back. And eventually you get some writing done.
Now I don’t know why, after re-reading this essay again, I developed the false idea that I couldn’t have a job a write. Maybe it’s just because writers love to be miserable. But take Faulkner as an example, he had that factory job which probably ate up huge sections of his day and it probably paid absolute crap. I’m lucky enough and privileged enough to live in a time unlike any other. I can work for well paying companies from all over the world and make good money doing it. And those jobs cumulatively take a whole lot less time away from my life than a factory job would. They allow me to go into the desert and do my research like I love doing. They allow me spend time reading, or meditating, or doing all the other things besides just writing that makes writing what it is.
For Ventrua, it seems like writing has to be bleeding on the page for it to be any good. I love to bleed on the page when I can, but much like crying on command, going to sleep, or cumming, I find that when I show up with the intent to bleed, my veins run dry.
For me, my best writing has always been rewriting. I show up and give an idea my best crack. I do my best to be honest or at the very least try to note where I know I’m not being honest and try to be better at it tomorrow. I know I’m still technically a young writer at the beginning of his career and by the end of it my practice will look nothing like it does to day, but the constant doubt that follows me around has me asking for permission, and by permission I mean validation. It’s already true that nobody cares about you (or at least the vast majority of people don’t, won’t cant) but that seems to be especially true with wordsmithary. Sometimes that fact gives me the courage to write, and to publish these messy little letters on line. Who is going to sit through 3,000 words of this bullshit after all? I wouldn’t if I saw the title.
Other times though, it’s terrifying. The goal of writing is invariably to make good writing and that’s the problem. One of my most precious writing friends has caught me in this headspace before and challenged me on multiple occasions to go out and make the worst possible piece of writing or art I could make, just to put some fluid back into the bones. That’s one of the reasons I’ve always hated writing about writing, it always seemed so insecure. What I’m realizing now is that of course it’s insecure. With writing you’re left alone with your thoughts. Those things that people run away from in the form of gambling, overeating, sex, or other addictions.
Neil Gaiman wrote Coraline by writing 500 words on it a day every night before he went to sleep. At the moment I’m working at 1,000 words a day every morning. And the project terrifies me because I’m putting myself and my issues in the spotlight, something I’ve always danced around, poked my toes into, but never fully jumped in headfirst. I spend large portions of my days reading and writing, and when I’m doing that I’m often thinking about something I’m reading or something I’m writing.
So why do I still feel like I’m cheating when I say that I want to work on this novel and also have a job that allows me a life? Why am I so obsessed with the idea of the starving artist, even when I know almost all the starving artists that made it found themselves a patron to fund their artmaking.
At the beginning of this essay that was the point I was trying to make, that art and commerce do not exist in separate worlds. That if want to be the artists that sits at the cafe and writes philosophy, then you also have to be aware of the Mexican worker who was paid pennies to pick that coffee. Of the roasters who fermented, burned, and bagged the coffee at the finca. Of the distributors. Of the resellers. Of the purchasers. Of the waiters who served the coffee for you. At the beginning of this essay I was going to try to make some point about the novel I want to write is something I chip away at every day, diving deeper into it bit by bit, even if that’s only for 45 minutes a day.
At the beginning of this essay I wanted to say how at the heart of every novel has been a very boring, very dry economical fact. Most characters in novels have some kind of benefactor that allow the more dramatic events of those novels to happen. Isn’t that just as important? As writers, don’t we care about getting to the bottom of things? Of finding the source? Why do I have some false Idea that I cannot have artistic or interesting ideas while working a job? Is this the consequence of some lazy bum gene I have inside of me or a misunderstanding of the way the world works.
Maybe tomorrow I’ll write that essay I meant to, but I’m going to give it a rest for now.