A Sudden Glory

Laughter: Why It Matters, I think

If you’re ever in the mood to find nothing funny ever again, you don’t have to subject yourself to Holocaust footage, or read about the Slave Trade, or, God forbid, turn on cable news. Even Nazis, for all of their dehumanizing cruelty, proved an occasional source of humor, as Mel Brooks made a fortune proving time and time and, perhaps one time too many, again. 

No, if you really want to divest your soul of any humor or capacity for laughter, just read philosophers trying to dissect humor. I double dog dare you. Plato, it turns out, wasn’t a fan of, well, fun. And he was not alone. The list of great minds who have tried to forensically examine our capacity for laughter only to end up like those chimps braying incomprehensibly at the obelisk at the start of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is legion. However, for sheer, weaponized, eat-your-angst-ridden-vegan- heart-out-Morrisey level of humorlessness, Thomas Hobbes is tough to beat.  Hobbes tackled the phenomena of humor with all of his trademark intelligence, insight, and gang-rape level of sunniness. Thomas Hobbes, it turns out, was a laugh riot, once you realize most riots end in blood, chaos, and trauma. 

Comedy Is You Falling Down a Manhole. Tragedy Is Me Getting A Paper Cut.” – Mel Brooks

As Hobbes once put it, “Laughter…is caused by observing the imperfections of other men. And therefore much Laughter is at the defects of others.” In other words. A lot of humor is based on cruelty. And to this Colossus bestriding the Enlightenment, I can only offer a humble but heartfelt: well, duh.

Yes, of course much laughter is based on the idea of “Thank God it’s that guy and not me!” But I challenge you, not so gentle reader, to think of many things in this world that aren’t.  To view humor in those terms is to miss the point. It’s like looking at the Sun and focusing entirely on the fact it causes melanomas and provides Florida with so many electoral votes. In defense of the Great English Thinker, he was man of many gifts, but looking at his mug of ale as half full was not one of them, hence his pithy, nihilistic gem, “Life is nasty, brutish, and short.”

Fine, If You’re Going To Be THAT Guy

Yes: OK, fine, Life can be all those things. And humor is often cruel. But my God, who’d want to go a day without it? Who could? One my mother once said has always struck me as uncommonly wise: never spend a minute more than you need to with someone who can’t laugh at themselves. 

If music moves us because it perhaps expresses something we have no words for, then let it be equally said that humor and laughter bind us because it reassures us that, despite all evidence to the contrary, we’re never as alone as we think we are. The world is indeed sometimes as Hobbes described it. The world is also contains The Brandenburg Concerto, gelato, Side Two of Abbey Road, Jane Austen novels, puppies, and the cool, seamless poetry of Mariano Rivera’s whip-like delivery to home plate. It’s home to countless, small flowers struggling and blooming through imperceptible cracks in asphalt.

Make ‘Em Laugh, And Other Wisdom From The McCarthy Era

Most importantly, the world also contains laughter. Hobbes termed laughter a “Sudden Glory,” but, as only a philosopher could, he didn’t mean it as a compliment. Will it forever mark me as a cretin if I refer to one of the most important philosophers in Western political thought as a bit of a dick? Oh well, too late.

The idea of joy being an unalloyed good seemed to elude him, just as unalloyed joy too often eludes most of us. Certainly, it glides beyond my grip like mercury more days than I can count.  But, every now and then, a bit of it catches on the edge of a laugh. So let me make the rather obvious but apparently philosophically radical proposition that laughter is not only good, but necessary. I urge each of us to be unashamedly greedy in our pursuit of it. And while we’re at it, let’s try to recognize each other in our laughter. Let’s try to recognize ourselves. That truly would be a sudden glory. 

Hey There, Strangers!

Why I’ve Been Gone For So Long, And Why It’s Totally FINE You Didn’t Notice. Seriously.

It feels like a long time since I’ve posted on here; it’s likely you, with your busy lives crammed with saving democracy, binging various food-themed shows, and (if you’re like me) binging on actual food haven’t noticed my absence, but I certainly have. Much of it has been for a happy reason: I’m the Artistic Director of a new online theater company, New Normal Rep (follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, he plugged crassly!), and we’re about to launch our inaugural season, and so: too busy to do much of anything else.

But despite this sense of hope, gratitude, and purpose this project feeds me, I’ve also been battling what Winston Churchill called “The Black Dog” a great deal recently: a gnawing, visceral, unnameable certainty in the complete futility of, well, anything. In less melodramatic terms: depression. Or, in slightly more melodramatic terms than in the previous sentence: Depression.

The Black Dog, The Noonday Demon, The Ring of Unpleasant Potpourri: It’s Depression Anyway You Slice It, Although I Think The Last One Isn’t Actually A Thing.

This particular flavor of Depression has featured an unaccountable irritability a sharp itch to escape the world and its populace, an occasional surprise visit from volcanic, formless rages, and a deep sense of numbness and distance from those close to me with a simultaneously attuned sensitivity to the sadness and indelible loneliness of strangers and animals. I saw a man on a subway platform at Penn Station this week accompanied by a ragged menagerie of animals he was selling for “adoption.” Both the man and the animals were dirty and careworn, and one dog in particular looked at me with such a piercing and forlorn hopelessness, that I boarded my train with my face mask salty and wet. That poor dog still haunts me. For all I know, she feels the same way about me.

I Mean, They Gave Us Schadenfreude. The Word, Not The Feeling. Although Sometimes, Maybe, That, Too.

But it doesn’t take objectively pathetic sights to press the trap door button on my emotional armor (See? I’m mixing metaphors. THAT’S how bad). The most prosaic scenes can set my spiraling. There ought to be a word for the ineffable sadness that’s sometimes aroused in observing otherwise ordinary things. For all I know, there is. I can’t imagine the Germans haven’t got that one covered. That seems right up their alley, no?

Anyway, I have no sense of what brought on this deluge of Sad, but I’ve found that it’s often very hard to comprehend the most basic truths about myself, in the same way the simplest and smallest words are often hardest to define. Just as words like “an” and “the” can stump even the most articulate of people to express their meaning, the necessary bits of myself that glue my basic narrative together often glide by unnoticed.

It Ain’t (Sic) Over ‘Til It’s Over (Sic)

I sometimes feel like a jigsaw puzzle of a solid gray background. As Yogi Berra once explained, “There comes a time in every man’s life, and I’ve had plenty of them.” I’m sure we all have. That’s why Yogi was so beloved. That, and his clutch hitting.

Objectively, I have much to be grateful for, and much to look forward to. I know that, and remind myself hourly. At the moment, however, I’m not returning my calls to myself. But I will.

Anyway, I’m back. And still here. Sometimes, that’s enough.

This Year, Let’s Keep The Days Out Of The Holidays

2020 Is Close To Going Away, But Not Before It Ruins The Holidays

It’s sooo on brand for 2020 that it’s a Leap Year. No, no, 365 days weren’t enough for this Annus Horribilis (and yes, you’d better believe I triple checked the spelling on that first word): it was so overflowing with awfulness, so teeming with terribleness, so rife with wretchedness, it needed an extra day to pack all of its surfeit of suffering in.

So, although most of us haven’t thought about it, as we slog towards 2020’s finish line, the truth is that line is a full 24 hours away further than it normally would be. 

Who Cares? The Months And Days Are Arbitrary Markers. Time Is A Flat Circle, Or Something

So what, you no doubt think. It’s just a day; it’s not like everything will magically be better on January 1st. You’re right of course. It won’t (nothing is better in January. Sorry people with January birthdays). But symbols are important in life (maybe too much so for writers, but let’s gloss over that for now). 2021, whose first few months promise to be quite bleak indeed, still affords us the chance to unchain ourselves from the shackles of these past 12 months that have weighed us down, Jacob Marley-like, link by odious link.

Some Signs 2020 Has Defeated You

Here’s just a few of those links that have, one by one, hung so heavilyy on our shoulders:

  1. You’ve finished Netflix. I don’t mean you’ve gotten bored or fed up with it. You’ve actually finished it. All the baking shows, all the sitcoms, all the Scandinavian detective series, all the documentaries. You’re done. You hit the Home button and it merely says, “Oh my God, what more do you want from us?”
  2. You’ve developed a deep bond with a certain cohort: you’ve had your ups and downs, your misunderstandings, your moments of healing and bonding. I’m talking of course, about the hosts of nightly cable news shows.
  3. Pornography disgusts you: not because it’s misogynistic, exploitative, and warps our perceptions of intimacy and sexuality, but because they’re not wearing masks. 

To Hell With It

But to hell with it. Let 2020 have its extra day. It’s in February, and if anything, February sucks even more than January (two words: Valentine’s Day). And yes, when we finally cross that threshold into 2021 on the stroke of midnight (one good thing to come out of this pandemic: the unwatchable Times Square New Year’s Eve television extravaganzas will be totally changed. Who am I kidding? They’ll find a way to make it suck, anyway) we can take a deep socially distanced, mask filtered breath . Hope, I truly believe, is on the way. 

Plot Twist

The holidays will feel very different this year. And mostly not in a good way. But here’s what I recommend. Watch It’s A Wonderful Life. I know, you’ve probably seen it umpteen times, and maybe you’re generally done with it. But although it’s often dismissed by cynics as sappy, it really isn’t. In fact, for a key portion of it, it’s surprisingly dark. We see a man who sees his life as nothing but a string of failures. He feels he’s hopeless. He literally wishes he was never born. But by the end, he learns that all of his grandiose dreams that failed to materialize don’t really matter nearly as much as what he’s done for those around him. It is a film that points out that it’s the small acts of kindness and empathy that matter most in life. That serving one’s community, however one defines it, is noblest of ways to expend one’s energies. That a sense of and responsibility to our communities, both immediate and larger, is how we get along in this world. 

Every Time A Bell Rings…

In a way, 2020 robbed us of our sense of community: time with our friends and family, the rubbing elbows with our neighbors and peers. But in a deeper sense, it’s given us a chance to reevaluate our priorities and sense of what constitutes our community, and where we fit in it. What we contribute to it, and how it enriches the quality of our lives. That’s why I think It’s A Wonderful Life will resonate even more with me (yes, I’ll be crying at the end. I’m not a monster). I hope we can, in the midst of reviling this past year, recommit ourselves to the painful lessons it’s taught us. 

If we don’t or can’t won’t, to paraphrase another well-known Christmas tale: God save us, everyone.

Writing = Rejection

Ever Had Your Work Rejected By A Teacher/Professor/Editor/Publisher? You Have Impressive Members In Your Club

To be an artist or writer means to become intimately, and more often than not, quite frequently, acquainted with rejection. Fortunately, I have become somewhat inured to rejection due to a rigorous immersion in it in middle school. Still, some rejections can sting the most jaded of us, regardless of how many girls laughed at you, or walked away, or looked right through like you were a window pane, or, in more than one instance, feigned a seizure when you asked them to dance. The bottom line is, we’ve all experienced rejection. If you somehow never have, read no further. In fact, get the hell off this blog, Karen Matriccio! And Stephanie Wyler! In fact, everyone at Elwood Junior High’s Homecoming Dance of 1984 (Wait, a homecoming dance in junior high? What exactly were we coming home from? The orthodontist?), get the hell off my blog!

Sorry, my work on my anger issues is a…let’s call it a work in progress. 

Anyway, my point is sometimes it’s good to consider some of the many great writers and artists who’ve been slapped down, often repeatedly, by people who seem like, in retrospect, utter fools. I’ve saved you the trouble of scouring Google and compiled a few of my favorites, which I now share with you.

Buckle Up: Next Stop, Rejection

U2 – May, 1978, from RSO records: “We have listened with careful consideration, but feel it is not suitable for us at present.” I love how this letter combs over its cattiness with a patina of British civility. At first, “careful consideration” sounds good; it means they really gave it a lot of thought. But more probably, it means they really, really are thoroughly convinced that U2 sucks.

Kurt Vonnegut – from The Atlantic Monthly: “[your submissions] have drawn commendation although neither one is quite compelling enough for final acceptance.” Ouch. So close. Vonnegut actually loved to collect rejection letters, having received quite a few early on, and had this framed. That’s a confidence we should all aspire to.

That’s Nothing: Read These:

Alice Munro – from Knopf: “As a collection I suppose there is nothing particularly new and exciting here,” writes Editor Judith Jones. Guess again, Edith. Munro is now a Nobel laureate for her work in literature and recipient of the Governor General’s Award, the highest literary honor in Canada.

William GoldingLord of the Flies rejected 21 times, with one publisher gently calling it, “an absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.” While some high school sophomores might be inclined to agree, most of the literary world – eventually – did not.

Stephen King – Ace Publishing rejected Carrie, stating flatly, “We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.” Negative Utopias? Did no one at Ace know the word “dystopia”? Definitely a money laundering outfit.I’ll be honest, I have no idea if Ace Publishing even exists any more. I do know that Carrie still manages to sell a few copies every year.

John Cleese – From the BBC’s initial rejection of Fawlty Towers: “I’m afraid I thought this one as dire as its title. It’s a kind of “Prince of Denmark” of the hotel world. A collection of cliches and stock characters which I can’t see being anything but a disaster.” Now bear in mind, John Cleese had already achieved accolades and fame from Monty Python, broadcasted by the BBC. Fawlty Towers is generally regarded as among the greatest sitcoms ever made.

The Beatles– From Decca Records: “Guitar bands are on their way out.” Not so much, it turns out.

The Ultimate Proof No One Is Rejection-Proof

And if that doesn’t lift your spirits, Shakespeare gets on 4 1/2 stars out of 5 on Amazon. Which means, somewhere, there are sizable cohort of people who think Hamlet is crap. And eventless people are in good company. Leo Tolstoy hated Shakespeare, for example. 

There are legions more. I would argue, as disparate as the artists are, they have one thing in common: they were all original, and it takes a rare talent indeed to recognize, let alone appreciate, originality when they come across it. Don’t get me wrong: I’m open to the idea that many of my rejections can be chalked up to the fact that what I submitted just wasn’t good enough. Or it may have been fine, but just not to this person’s taste. And remember, their jobs invariably center around rejecting people.

It Takes Different Strokes To Move The World, Yes It Does

And bear in mind, no matter how brilliant you are, not everyone love your work. No one is admired by everyone. Marlon Brando hated The Beatles. Dorothy Parker couldn’t abide Katherine Hepburn’s acting, acidly dismissing her work in one review with the the deathless quip, “She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.” Oh Dorothy, how we miss you.

So, sure feel bad if you get rejected. give yourself an hour or two, or even a whole day if you need it to feel sorry for yourself and misunderstood in your time, like Van Gogh (oh yeah, we didn’t even get to him!). But get up, and get back to it. I firmly believe art is, as much as anything else, an endurance sport. Here’s to building up all our staminas

The Witty One

The Late, Great Johnny Ace

John Lennon was 40 when he was killed; that murder took place 40 years ago today. Walter posted beautifully earlier about Lennon, but I figured if there were an artist worthy of two posts, it was, as Paul Simon called him, “The Late, Great Johnny Ace.”

I spent most of my teenage years trying to be John Lennon; eventually I realized that position was permanently filled. The whole band (you know who I’m talking about, right?) grabbed my imagination and still hasn’t loosened its grip. But for a teenage boy of a certain age and sense of alienation, John cast a particular spell. His lyrics were often incandescent with imagination. His melodies could be propulsive and muscular and tender and beautiful: sometimes at the same time. 

The Witty One

And then there was his wit: stinging, diamond-hard, and lightning-quick.

“For this next number, I’d like to ask your help,” Lennon said to the audience at the Royal Command Performance in 1963. “Will the people in the cheaper seats, clap your hands? And the rest of you can just rattle your jewelry.” Another time, on the BBC, as they were just starting their careers, the band introduced themselves (tough to believe there was a time when any of them needed to identify themselves):

“Ringo: I’m Ringo, and I play the drums.

Paul: I’m Paul, and I play the um, bass.

George: I’m George, and I play the guitar.

John: I’m John, and I too play the guitar. Sometimes, I play the fool.”

There are a multitude of more moments like that sprinkled throughout his all-too-brief 40 years.  In short, his voice – a plaintive, nasal snarl imbued simultaneously with haunting vulnerability – was one of the few things that pierced the thick shell of my self-conscious, adolescent cynicism. 

Help!

Lennon also had a prodigious amount of demons. He was far from a perfect man, but today isn’t the day too dwell on that. In fact, that he was so unflinching in his honesty about himself – about everything – and struggled to be a better person is an example and consolation for those of us who are trying to do the same thing as we wrestle with the darker angels of our nature. 

My life, and indeed the whole world, would be a tangibly darker, lonelier place without his time here, just as it would no doubt be a little better if had been allowed to live the last four decades. 

The first time I heard John Lennon’s name was when I heard he had been killed. I was bewildered by the weight of grief that pressed on so many of the adults around me that day and the weeks that followed. 

Now I get it. It’s hard to believe it’s been 40 years have blurred past us since that time. As Lennon himself instructed us on one of his final recordings before his murder, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

A HALMARK XMAS GREAT GATSBY

Everything changes at the holidays. Even seminal works of literature.


(Gatsby in his mansion, alone, disconsolate.)
Gatsby: Daisy chose Tom over me. It can’t be. It can’t. (The phone rings. Picks it up.) Daisy?
Gatsby’s Wise Yet Hitherto Unmentioned Uncle: Well, it’s been a long time since anyone’s called me Daisy. No, it’s your wise but hitherto unmentioned uncle.
Gatsby: People used to call you Daisy?
Gatsby’s Wise Yet Hitherto Unmentioned Uncle. Now never you mind, nephew. Come home to your mysterious home in the Midwest, the town of Christmasville, for the annual Christmasville Festival.
Gatsby: It’s early September.
Gatzby’s Wise Yet Hitherto Unmentioned Uncle: Which, if you recall, is when the Christmas season kicks into gear here in your previously unnamed hometown of Christmasville.
Gatsby: I suppose there’s nothing for me in the East but further corruption and dissolution. But, no, I MUST stay. For Daisy.
Gatsby’s Wise Yet Hitherto Unknown Uncle: Just for a few days. You said she’s in Europe, anyway.
Gatsby: No I didn’t.
Gatsby’s Wise Yet Hitherto Unmentioned Uncle: Oh. Um…
Gatsby: All right, I’ll go, but I promise myself that I won’t be sucked into the small-town dead end provincialism I made a point of escaping early in life.
Gatsby’s Wise But Hitherto Unknown Uncle: What?

Cut To:
(Christmasville, USA. Gatsby’s home town. Gatsby takes it in.)
Gatsby: I’d never noticed how beautiful and Christmas-like Christmasville is. Or how generically beautiful everyone here seems to be.
Generically Pretty Hometown Girl: Hey – Aren’t you James Gatz?
Gatsby: I’d normally deny it, but your kind and innocent hometown ways have already broken down that line of defense.
Generically Pretty Hometown Girl: I’m not sure I follow. For as you can see by our eerily picturesque Main Street, life is simpler in Christmasville. Especially come Christmas. Not so much in February, of course, when the seemingly endless winter spikes our suicide rates appreciably. Anyway,I’m glad you’re back in town, even if you have put on some big city airs, James Gatz. I can’t wait for you to meet my implausibly sweet daughter. Her father died tragically in the Great East Egg Nog fire four years back, adding just the right amount of pathos to my backstory.
Gatsby: I’m sorry to hear that. In any event, I won’t be here long. My life’s based on the greed engendered by corrupted American values and goals, thus driving me to want all the wrong things.
Generically Pretty Girl: Whatever! Just help me put up this tree, eat these cookies, and join me and my irritatingly twee daughter tonight as we listen to the town choir sing Christmas carols at the tree lighting, as they do every weekend of the year.

Cut To:
(Choir singing. Gatsby and the girl hold hands discreetly)

Cut To:
(Morning, Christmasville Town Drug and Soda Shop. Gatsby, having just established a bootlegging operation there, emerges.)
Generically Pretty Girl: Hello, James! You know, there’s some canoes down by the dock, right near the green light, and the weather’s lovely. It won’t snow until nightfall, because that’s more atmospheric. I was hoping maybe we could go for a boat ride.

Cut To:
(They’re on the river. Gatsby paddles.)
Generically Pretty Girl: You sure are a mystery, James Gatz. You’ve sure changed.
Gatsby: Did we even know each other when I lived here?
Generically Pretty Girl: Who knows? Anyway, let’s get out of the boat.
Gatsby: Yes, despite all my paddling, we’ve seem to have been borne back ceaselessly.
Generically Pretty Girl: You say the funniest things sometimes, Old Sport. Say, you’re not going to miss the town tree lighting tonight, I hope.
Gatsby: Wasn’t that last night?
Generically Pretty Girl: There’s one EVERY night! Isn’t that creepily wonderful? Incidentally, you should know, my barely mentioned daughter has suddenly clung to you as a paternal figure, which complicates this plot further. I think it was all the brightly colored shirts you inexplicably threw at her.
Gatsby: Yes, she did cry stormily into them.
(They look at each other a long, lingering moment).
Generically Pretty Girl: I’ll see you at the tree lighting! I’ll bring hot cocoa, because at this point it would be weird if I didn’t!

Cut To:
(Tree lighting ceremony. There are Christmas carols being sung quietly in the background)
Gatsby: Who’s singing?
Generically Pretty Girl: No one knows! It just happens every night between early July and mid-June. We’ve just sorta roll with it.
Gatsby: You know…I’m awfully embarrassed, I never got your name.
Generically Pretty Girl: It’s probably something like Ashley or Dakota. Let’s go with Ashley.
Gatsby: Fair enough. You know, Ashley, Christmasvile seems immune to the corruption endemic to American capitalism somehow. In fact, the more problematic aspects of our country’s rapacious and brutally Darwinian ethos seem entirely absent here.
Generically Pretty Girl: What?
(Just then, a Colorful Town Character runs out of the drug store in which Gatsby has established his new bootlegging empire)
Colorful Town Character: Mr. Gatsby, there’s a “Daisy” on the line, here voice full of…well, money, is the only way I can describe it, breathlessly begging to talk to you.
Gatsby: The name’s Gatz. Tell her I’m not in.

END CREDITS

Author Interview: Amy Long

Amy Long is an award winning author whose non-fiction book of essays, “Codependence,” of which noted author David Shields raved, “Against all the easy recovery narratives, against all the Opioid Crisis Hand-Wringing, stands this heart-stopping book–ferociously written, powerfully felt, absolutely persuasive in its extraordinary nakedness, bravery, and gallows humor. Brilliant.” Her writing has appeared in the Best American Experimental Writing 2015 anthology, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere, including as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2018. She was kind enough to talk to me about her work, her process, just generally wax winningly in general.

https://amylorrainelong.com

When did you know you when you were, like it or not, bound to be a writer?

I don’t know about “bound,” but I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a writer. I’ve written fiction and poems and stuff since I was, like, six. Since I could write. But I veered off course a little in college, and I really thought I was going to be a feminist media studies professor (I have a Master’s in Women’s Studies that I got right out of college and had planned to do a PhD). Then I was working for nonprofits, which I liked, but something felt missing. So, I took a night class at NYU with Amy Shearn, who is wonderful (she just put out a really gorgeous novel, Unseen City with Red Hen Press, which makes such good editorial decisions), and she encouraged me to take classes at Sackett Street, which is this great program run by Julia Fierro in New York and, I think, LA now, too. Emma Straub, who is a great workshop instructor, said “If you apply to 20 MFA programs, you’ll definitely get into one,” so I applied to 21, and she was right. I got into a couple, and I ended up at Virginia Tech, which was a perfect program for me. I’d have these lovely conversations that I call “serenity talks” with my advisor, Matthew Vollmer (he’s the best, and his work is amazing), and I think the way he talked to me about my work and my life made me realize, like, “Oh, I can actually do this. Wait, I am doing it. I am a writer.” So, forever and then when I was maybe 27.

Tell us about your award-winning book, Codependence?

Codependence started out as an installation sort of project thing I made in Matthew’s creative nonfiction workshop. I narrated my drug history in a medicine cabinet. Like, I made detailed pill-bottle labels and rolled up stories inside them or designed motel keys and used the instructions on the back to tell a story—those ended up in the book almost unchanged—and then the medicine cabinet became an outline (I can’t work from outlines; right now, I’m writing an album that is the outline for Book Two), so a lot of the book is me trying to figure out how to get all this 3D stuff onto a 2D page. I alternated between the more experimental essays (the book includes an essay in the form of a glossary, one that’s shaped like a map and has this amazing actual map that goes with it that my friend Silas Breaux made for it—basically hermit-crab essays) and more traditional braided essays that let me flesh out and ruminate on things and kind of wander around my life and my subjects.
I had the manuscript written and revised around the beginning of 2017, and I’d started sending it out to agents and small presses at the same time. I kind of knew it would be a small-press book. It’s formally weird, the subject is so specific, it doesn’t have that redemptive memoir arc that’s common to drug and illness narratives, it’s not hopeful, and I wouldn’t have changed that. So, I saw that Brian Blanchfield, whose essay collection Proxies I’d just read and loved, was judging Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s annual Essay Collection Competition, and I had this weird moment when I thought “I bet Brian would like this book. I really feel like I can win this.” And I entered, and I waited, and I’d come up to New York to see your play about Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe, and I got the email telling me that I did win! It was weird. Like, I had a good feeling about it, and I was right! I remember we were walking around near Central Park after I’d called Matthew to go “What do I need to ask this press?”and I made you sit at an intersection on the sidewalk while I talked to my editors, Caryl Pagel and Hilary Plum, who were really wonderful and really got the book in a way I hadn’t expected anyone to get it. Their cover designer, Sevy Perez, did a beautiful job with the cover (and I did not make it easy!), and the book is just, like, this gorgeous object that sometimes I look at and can’t believe is really mine, you know?

I remember. It was exciting to see you as you were finding out the news. What are the some of the technical challenges specific to writing autobiographical essays? What drew you to the form?

What drew me to the form was how easily the story came out when I used it. I’d written a glossary essay in Matthew’s workshop, and it was maybe the first personal essay I’d ever really written, but all this story just fit so easily into it. Often, the form felt as if it generated the content, or the constraints inherent to a form were generative for me. I’d been trying to write it as a novel, and it was so boring. It was boring to write. I’m pretty sure it was boring to read! But the essays felt so natural. Like I wasn’t even really trying. And I find myself inherently interesting, so there’s that. 

A lot of the challenges come in part from other people—like, how much of this person’s story is okay to use? Or will my sister be mad if I write about that? Does using this story that involves someone else serve my story? But I think I’m missing a privacy filter that other people have. I don’t have trouble revealing things. In talking to other essayists and memoirists, I’ve found that the privacy aspect, questions about memory, and revisiting trauma give most of us the majority of our troubles. But, for me, writing the book was fun and like a puzzle, and at a certain point, I did become a kind of character to myself, and it got easier when I thought of myself that way. I think Matthew kind of instilled that in me.

Like, it’s all fiction once it’s on a page. When I write, I watch the scenes like a movie in my head. It’s not like dissociating or anything. It’s just how I remember. So, a lot of it was, like, “I see this in my head, and I’m missing this…,” but one of the really freeing things about nonfiction for me is that I can say “I don’t know. I don’t remember.” I love that. I value honesty a lot, which is I think what allows me to bypass that “I don’t want people to know this” filter, so the ability to admit that I’m not sure if X happened in Y way or Z way is really more about honesty than my stoner memory. I have a great long-term memory, but if I watch a movie tonight, I won’t be able to tell you the plot tomorrow (but I will be able to tell you who played what character on The Americans, The Wire, or Grey’s Anatomy).

When do you know you’ve got something to write about? Or are you one of those lucky writers who has a notebook full of ideas?

I think in books. So, it’s usually a “big” idea, and then I have to figure out what goes in the idea. I do have a notebook of ideas, but I rarely use them. I just know. It’s intuitive, I guess. But I kind of can’t go further than, like, “chronic pain drugs and fun drugs” or “loneliness and relationships.” Like, I need an idea that can contain a lot of experiences and doesn’t dictate to me, if that makes sense. 

What kind of writing really gets you excited?

Any form used in a cool way. Noor Hindi wrote these poems that were published in Hobart a few months ago in the form of a multiple choice quiz, which I’ve been trying to do forever, and it always ends up, like, an actual quiz! I was so impressed, and then we figured out we met each other when I read at CSU in Cleveland last year! I’m also always up for a good drug story.  

Are you a redrafter? Let me rephrase: How much do you revise.And when do you know it’s time to let it go?

I do a lot of revising as I go, so it’s hard to say. Like, usually when I sit down to write, I go over what I wrote the day before and spend an hour “fixing” it. My drafts end up pretty clean. But sometimes it takes longer to get there. 

I know you’re working on a few different pieces at the moment, including a novel. Tell me about the differences in doing that? What’s easier and/or more challenging for you about the form?

I don’t know if I’m still working on the novel! Every couple years, I decide I want to write a novel, and I love it for the first couple months, and then I want to write about myself again! I think fiction is way harder. It’s the getting from one place to another without feeling like you’re just going from one place to another, I think. But I love the description and the character planning and the way that anything can change with a sentence. It’s just not really my form. 

What writers would you say have influenced you most? And who are some of your favorite writers (I’m assuming there may be an overlap, but not necessarily) 

Joyce Carol Oates is a forever favorite. For Codependence, my main influences were Maggie Nelson, Elissa Washuta, Leslie Jamison, and Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. But no book had a bigger influence than Amy Berkowitz’s Tender Points. It was the first book I’d read in which the pained narrator does not get better, and it’s a huge touchstone for me. She’s a friend, and she’s incredible at community building, and I’m so stoked for the novel she’s writing. Rob Roberge’s Liar was an influence, too; it’s all in the second person, and I use the second person kind of a lot, so I went back to it to look under its hood a good bit. And Joshua Mohr’s Sirens got me interested in drug narratives again when I thought I was sick of them. I also always go back to Matthew Vollmer’s inscriptions for headstones. It’s such a good mixture of the mundane and the profound, and that’s hard to do. 

Karen Havelin’s Please Read This Leaflet Carefully, Sonya Huber’s Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, and Carlyn Zwarenstein’s Opium Eater, which all center on chronic pain, were important to me when I was revising prepublication, and I’m really looking forward to finally starting Sarah Ramey’s The Lady’s Handbook for Her Mysterious Illness. There’s been a kind of pain-book boom lately, which is exciting. 

I’ve been reading a lot of friends’ books lately. I’m loving Nick Jaina’s novel Hitomi. I just finished Sarah Vap’s Winter: Effulgences and Devotions, and I was struck by how perfect it was for my pandemic attention span but also just how much it has to say about bodies and love and the state of the world. Lee Klein’s Neutral Evil0))) is a lot like that, too. I love my friend Tatiana Ryckman’s novella I Don’t Think of You (Until I Do) and her novel The Ancestry of Objects (I tweeted about how much I loved the former, which is how we met, and now we write songs together!). Reachel Anne Jolie put out an amazing book last year, Rust Belt Femme, that I love in part because we’re the same age, and she references a lot of the bands I also loved in high school, but it’s also just so well done. I loved Jeannie Vanasco’s latest, Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl, and Sejal Shah’s essay collection This is One Way to Dance. I also really loved David Shields’ The Trouble with Men. I know this wasn’t the question, but if I had to go back through my whole reading life, we’d be here all week! 

Alexandra Naughton’s a place a feeling something he said to you has been important to my writing and thinking lately. I did a reading with her a while back, and I bought it and fell in love with it. I’ve been gravitating toward relationship books because that’s kind of where my writing head has been. Tatiana’s books are huge resources for that, and Sarah Kasbeer’s A Woman, A Plan, an Outline of a Man and Melissa Mathewson’s Tracing the Desire Line are calling to me from my TBR pile. 

Do you have a set regimen for your writing?

Kind of. It depends on how my pain is that day. With ideal pain management, I start writing around 11am and stop at 5pm or 6pm. With the actual pain management I have now, I have three specific hours during which I might feel good enough to write, so I have to use those. But, if I can, I like to write all day. Maybe take some breaks.  

What was the best piece of advice about writing you ever got?

From Trysh Travis, my advisor in Women’s Studies grad school: “There is no such thing as writing. Only editing.”

What advice would you give to other writers?

Write about what obsesses you. Don’t worry about whether it will obsess anyone else. If it obsesses you, readers will feel it. And don’t let your book tour depend on anyone else!  

Amy Long is the author of Codependence: Essays (2019), chosen by Brian Blanchfield as the winner of Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s 2018 Essay Collection Competition. She holds a Master’s in Women’s Studies from the University of Florida and an MFA from Virginia Tech’s Creative Writing Program. She is a contributing editor to the drug history blog Points. Her work has appeared in Diagram, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere, including as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2019. She is on Twitter and Instagram @amylorrainelong

Get Codependence from CSUPC (http://www.csupoetrycenter.com/books/codependence) or Bookshop (https://bookshop.org/books/codependence/9781880834121), or patronize her favorite indies, Bookpeople (https://www.bookpeople.com/book/9781880834121) in Austin, TX, where she worked as a bookseller, and Sundog Books (https://www.sundogbooks.com/book/9781880834121) in Seaside, FL, the porch above which adjoins Central Square Records, where Long worked on Codependence during her MFA summer breaks.

2020: THE INTERVIEW

Recently, I had the chance to sit down with the year 2020. We talked about 2020’s accomplishments, its regrets, its future, and what it might have up its sleeve its last 6 weeks.

Q: 2020, welcome.

2020: Thank you, Jack. Glad to be here. And by here, I mean in 2020. So I guess I’m saying, it’s great to be with me.

Q: Of course.  Well, I have to say, a lot of people wouldn’t share that sentiment.

2020: Ouch. Starting right away with the tough questions. I can respect that. After all, I hit the ground running, too.

Q: That’s an understatement.  The calamitous fires in Australia in January, for example.

2020: Right? (Laughs) Doesn’t that seem forever ago?

Q: Exactly. And at the time, I think a lot of us thought that may be one of the big news stories of the year.

2020 Dishes Out a Scoop!

2020: Well, I’ll give you and your readers a bit of scoop: that was totally deliberate. Diversionary tactic til Covid was ready to really take off. Now, let me share some credit. I didn’t invent CoVid-19. That was all 2019. Was it maybe a little too much, maybe you could even call it tacky to put its own name on the damn thing? That’s not for me to say (Chuckles) But I kid 2019, we’re like brothers, really. 

Q: Right, so he started the Coronavirus.

2020: Yes, that’s true. Absolutely But, and this going to sound maybe a little…I don’t know.

Q: No, please.

2020: Well, I think was the one who really saw its potential pretty early on. So right off the bat, pardon the pun, I decided to go global.  Looking back, you gotta admit it was a helluva gamble for a young year just trying to find its footing. But go big, I always say.

Q: Did you expect it to take off like it did?

2020:  Well, you always hold out hope, one can always dream, of course. But I’d be lying if I said I knew it would explode like it did. And let’s face it: I owe a lot to you guys.

Q: Who?

2020: You guys! I mean, you’re still split on basic science! Which is such a gift, I have to tell you. We haven’t been given the chance to work with that sort mass, pig-headed ignorance since.…well, it’s been awhile (chuckles).

Q: Right.

2020: I mean, and again, credit where credit’s due: I can’t thank 2016 enough. 2016…well, it was sort of a legend around the office. It set a mighty high bar.  And its trajectory that just kept gaining steam, 2017, 2018, 2019 – I know it’s hard to remember, but people bitched nonstop about those years as they were happening.  So, I don’t mind telling you, the pressure was on! 

Q: Indeed.

2020 Gets Real

2020: But ultimately, Jack, and this is a message I really want your readers to hear, is that I had to go to some pretty dark places inside of myself, confront my demons, really do the work, to speak my truth. And that is so empowering. In October, 2019, I made a vision board – I know, I know that sounds so, whatever. But it helped – it gave me the gift of believing in myself. (Becomes teary-eyed)

Q: You want to take a break?

2020: You’re kind, but no. I think it’s important for people to know the real 2020, warts and all.

Q: Warts and all? You created a pandemic that killed over 1.4 million people

2020: So far. 2020’s not done yet.

Q: That’s true. You’ve got about a month left.

2020: (A wry smile) I wouldn’t be quite so sure about that yet.

Q: How do you mean?

2020: Well, time’s kinda lost all meaning in 2020, right? Everyone’s saying that.  People are saying it. It just all seems to run together, am I right?

Q: I guess, but –

2020: I’m saying that there’s doubt – real doubt – that this is even November. In fact, there are experts who – I hear people saying that it’s probably late August at most.

Q: Well, the calendar quite clearly –

Calendars: Fake News?

2020: (Rolls eyes) Calendars? OK, OK: let me ask you something: you believe everything the liberal calendar lobby tells you? Think: who stands to make the most profit off of a new year? Big Calendar, that’s who. Follow the money. 

Q: With all due respect, that sounds a little –

2020: There are people looking into it is all I’m saying. The best…we’ve uncovered substantial evidence of widespread fraud in month-counting.

Q: But that’s….I mean, it’s getting cold out. The days are getting shorter. Surely –

2020: Let me ask you something, and I’m not trying to sound – you know – but ask yourself – with the way I’ve gone so far, you’re saying it’s not possible that I could make that happen in August?

Q: Well, I –

2020: I think your readers know better. We’ll see. We’ll see how it plays out. What’s your next question?

2020 Reflects…On 2020

Q: What’s your proudest accomplishment?

2020: Oh gosh, so many…and again, it’s a team effort, you know? Without the last ten years at least that came before me, I couldn’t pulled this off all by my lonesome. I mean, the Pandemic would be such an obvious answer. So, besides that, I guess I’d have to…gosh it’s hard to pick one. The Increase in racial tensions in America is certainly something I’m proud of, um, I mean, um, Q-anon has just blown up under my watch. I think I’m doing a good job picking up where the last few years left off in terms of escalating right wing racist tendencies in Europe.

Q: What about the election results in the U.S.?

2020: I try to stay apolitical, sort of like , you know, the Queen or Susan Collins. But – and here’s the beauty of it: it didn’t matter. Either Trump would win, and well, I mean: great. But Biden winning just means vast swaths of the American people are gonna buy into conspiracy theories that will…well, I don’t want to steal any of 2023’s thunder. 

Q: Any regrets?

2020: Well, looking back, I think the Pandemic was such a runaway train, it just sucked all the life out of everything else. (Chuckles) Let me rephrase. There just wasn’t much room for anything else, you know? I’ll give you an example: I think my celebrity deaths didn’t get their due. Kobe Bryant. I mean, that was the last one we got a lot of mileage out of before the Pandemic. But I mean, Sean Connery, Eddie Van Halen, Alex freaking Trebek? I’d stack that roster against anybody’s. Also, the whole Killer Hornet thing. Amazing idea, just, there was just too much going on for it to stick in most people’s heads like we’d hoped.

He Did NOT Just Say That!

Q: Let me ask you: when did years become so evil?

2020: Whoa, whoa, whoa there.  We take our cues from you people. Assess the general trends. Play into the zeitgeist. You were all feeling pretty angry and divided. Don’t get me wrong, the Coronavirus was playing hardball, sure, but it could have been a chance for you all to come together, you know. I didn’t force you people to become even more fractured. 

Q: Yes, but –

2020: I mean, masks? Masks? In my wildest dreams, I wouldn’t have thought you guys could’ve made something ugly out of that. George Floyd’s murder? I mean, it’s recorded! Don’t blame me if you guys found a way to be divided on that one. 

Q: Still…

2020: And where’s my thank you for getting Steve Bannon arrested? Where’s the thanks for that? I would’ve tried to pull some shit on Stephen Miller, but, honestly? Dude scares the crap out of me. And Giuliani? I gave you Rudy frigging Giuliani ranting like a vampire off its meds all year on cable news and topped it off with a press conference between a dildo shop and crematorium? And that, that press conference with the leaking –

Q: Hair dye, yes. That was good.

2020: See? Thank you. And, FYI: not hair dye.

Q: Really?

2020: A common misconception. It was simply the last remnants of his soul leaving his body. That’s what it looks like, sometimes.

Q: Interesting.

2020: Right?  And, two words: Queen’s Gambit. Pretty great series. No? So, you can’t say I didn’t do anything right by you.

Q: I think I speak for all our readers when I say, “2020, fuck off.” 

2020: It’s been a pleasure.

My 10 Iron-Clad Rules For Writing

The Unshakeable Writing Code I Live By

  1. Know what you want to say.
  2. Say it is honestly as you can.
  3. Find a quiet, comfortable place to write.
  4. Have some music on softly in the background.
  5. Is that Three Dog Night?
  6. Or maybe it’s…no, it’s definitely Three Dog Night.
  7. Wait, what’s the other band I’m thinking? With that guy?
  8. You what I’d LOVE right now? An egg roll. Or two. Two.
  9. (Rifles through desk drawer for Chinese menu, comes across a scorecard from a 2004 Yankees-Twins game, spends rest of day googling old Yankee player stats).

Ok, my list obviously demonstrates my overt suspicion of “How To” books about writing. Or most “How To” books, actually. Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure there are many that are truly helpful to many people, and, as John Lennon wisely counseled, “Whatever gets you thru the night.” Suffice to say, I would never write one (Full disclosure: no one, absolutely no one. has ever asked me to do so. And while I’d still say no, it would feel nice to be asked. for God’s sake).

I believe manuals that purport to teach one how to write, or undertake any artistic endeavor, by definition erase the one thing that makes actual art: the artist’s unique mind, shaped by his/her/their unique chemistry, life-experience, etc. I do think some of these books (and courses) can teach one the basics: the nuts and bolts, the carpentry, the technical aspects. And that’s not nothing.

But We’re All Snowflakes, Remember (In The Good Way Our Kindergarten Teachers Taught Us, Not The Right-Wing Twitter Way)? Or Something.

But I’d also argue that those lessons are better absorbed by doing vast, diversifed, steaming great, heaping piles of reading. Read and read and read (or listen to the equivalent amounts of music, or looking at paintings, or whatever you’re trying to pursue). I’m also an immense fan of re-reading, especially stuff you adore and stuff you abhor to try to figure out why you do.

If you read enough, a lot of those answers about the basics will seep into your brain through osmosis, into your subconscious. I’d argue that’s ultimately far more valuable, and that seeking out a formula is not only a cheat code, it’s bound to make your art, well, rather formulaic.

Hang On A Sec, Jack, You Ruggedly Handsome Bastard

Hmmm…for a guy who is openly cynical about anyone telling people how to write, I’ve spent a lot of time the last two paragraphs telling people how to go about doing things. But I’m not. I’m just telling you what’s worked (sorta, to varying degrees) for me. In art, like life, others can help, but you’ve got to figure it out, I think, for yourself.

10,000 Hours Of Practice To Mastery: Yeah, Yeah, Yeah

Malcolm Gladwell has famously argued that it takes 10,000 hours to master any craft. I generally find myself agreeing. But that’s not all it takes. Let’s use one of his most well-known examples: The Beatles. While still young (George Harrison, was in fact, underage), they were not held in high esteem by their fellow Liverpool rock musicians to say the least.

Then they gigged in Hamburg. And gigged and gigged and gigged. Six nights a week, usually eight hour sets. It not only forced them to hone their craft, but the sheer number of stage time to fill forced them to turn to broaden their minds and look to other genres to fill the hours: show tunes, improvisations, Country & Western, comedy songs, standards. And when they came back to Liverpool, the town went crazy for them, and well…you know the rest.

But here’s the thing: Lots of bands gigged like that in Hamburg. Tons. Only one came back as THE BEATLES. Also bear in mind, John and Paul had been writing songs at a steady pace and the best they had to offer for their first release was “Love Me Do” (I’m not knocking it, but that was the highlight of their five years of writing).

On The Other Hand, You Can’t Always Get What You Want

The Rolling Stones, on the other hand, saw Lennon-McCartney literally sit in a corner of a studio and write the Stones their first hit (“I Wanna Be Your Man,” for you trivia fans). After that, Stones’ manager Andrew Oldham locked Jagger and Richards in a room and basically said: “Right: you two do that.” And that worked out OK.

More On Those Iron-Clad Writing Rules

My point is there no magical formula. It’s not like building a stool (like I have ANY idea how to do that. The sight off me trying to build stood, if recorded, would be part physical comedy routine worthy of adulation from the French, and part searing commentary on the futility of human existence). But my guess is, once you’ve learned how to build one, you can practice and get progressively better, You can even get fancy, but you’re still building a stool, because it’s a skill you’ve learned.

Writing, for me anyway, isn’t like that. Every time I start to write a new play, TV script, or blog post, I feel as if I’m starting from scratch. I haven’t clue one what to do first: the legs or seat (metaphorically, although, I have to admit, sometimes literally, too). Moreover, I have no idea if my writing will be better than the last effort or worse.

70’s TV, Once More, Teaches as It Entertains: It Takes Different Strokes To Change The World, Yes It Does.

There are brilliant writers who outline every detail before they write a word. There are not so brilliant writers who do the same. There are brilliant writers who start off with a spark, or an idea, or sometimes even just a line (or sometimes not even that much) and see where it goes. Also, not so brilliant writers do that. As the great playwright Sir Tom Stoppard once observed, “If I knew how my plays were going to end, why would I bother finish writing them?” My point it there are NO universal rules (Which sounds suspiciously like a universal rule).

I know, I know. I’m writing a post whose thesis is not to listen to anything or anyone but your own experience, and yet posting this is, by definition, asking you to listen to me. I majored in irony and minored in hypocrisy in college, so believe me, I do get it. So disregard this post. Or don’t. Whatever you feel is best for you. Dammit, more advice. There seems no escaping.

OK, No More Iron-Clad Rules For Writing. Just A Few Incredibly Un-Iron Like Suggestions

So let me get out of this corner I’ve painted myself into by just saying my general approach, which may or very well may not work for you (and, sometimes, doesn’t even work for me).

I try not to confuse facts with truth. I try to write something I think I’d want to read. I often find myself writing in order to figure out what I feel/think about something, not to prove what I think is necessarily correct. The less I think I know to begin with, the less I have to let go of when it turns out I was wrong. I try to be utterly without judgment when I’m writing, and ruthless when editing. For me, my gut always maps out the way better than my head. I try to be prepared to discover, accept, and trust what I think I was writing about is actually not about that at all.

But don’t take my word for it.

President-Election Biden

Personally, Biden wasn’t my first choice for president, based on policy issues. But, as I repeatedly argued during the primaries with many of my younger friends, Biden stood the best chance of uniting the country. I still believe that.

People smarter than I am will be able to analyze this better, but I believe deeply that Joe Biden won the election not because of any policy positions. It’s because he is – agree with his views or not – a good man. He is demonstrably empathic, and that’s ultimately what stood in starkest contrast to the incumbent.

We can haggle over politics and policies later. And I hope the “better angels of out nature,” to quote Lincoln, talk us out of gloating to those who are seething and saddened by the result, as hard as that might be.

But the bottom line is, I believe from the bottom of my flawed and battered heart, and with every synapse of my admittedly limited mind, that goodness has prevailed. I’m often a critic of America BECAUSE I love it, and no doubt I’ll continue to be so, but today, I am proud of my country.

We chose goodness and empathy over cynicism and cruelty.

Decency won the day in America. Anyway, that’s what I think.