Small Shot

A writer’s journey from point to point

Part 1, Bullshit Self-Esteem

October of 2019

Day Zero

Where else could I have been when I spotted Ken? At the bookstore, of course.

The memorial was underway. Bookstores are where recently passed poets are remembered these days. Across the room, on the other side of the History shelf, a tastefully dressed woman was speaking into a microphone.

Tiptoeing like a thief across the room, Ken passed between two shelves, History and Fiction. He seemed to be slipping out at the very moment when the reverence of the crowd was just building to a somber crescendo.

“Ken!” I whispered.

Oh, hey!” He changed directions and dodged over to me. I had been sharing a bench with a black woman who was in the bathroom at the moment.

Ken wore biking pants and carried a helmet under his arm. He’s 72 years old but gets around by bike, even in winter. He’s one of these admirable people who manage their health proactively. He’s also Chinese-American, and a touch…fringe, shall we say.

To treat cancer his prostate, he’d paid the city to replace the lead pipes leading from the water main to his house, and applied relentless positivity, and installed an 8-way reverse-osmosis water filter in his kitchen. Ken had faced many hardships and illnesses in his life, but somehow he kept himself healthy through the power of his mind, his attitude, his words, his intention. As is sometimes the case with these types, it’s true Ken may have conceived of more civic projects than he’d completed.

“How are you?” Ken asked.

“I’m doing all right, I guess,” I said, whispering.

My brave face felt like settled Jell-o. I was twitchy-cheeked and lumpy-throated, meek of voice. All the commas in town couldn’t correct me. I was like a starfish in a bed of sea anemones at this bookstore. Taking cover, hoping I didn’t get eaten.

“What’s going on?” Ken asked, sitting down on the bench next to me.

“There’s a woman sitting there. She asked me to watch her laptop and stuff. She’s in the bathroom.”

“Oh, okay.”

People at the microphone were still talking about the deceased poet. Ken crouched to the other side of me, put his hand on his knee. I told him about the agent, the manuscript, the dead prospects, the lack of money, the hopelessness, the shame.

“I feel like an idiot, man. I had a good salary job in the city. I mean, I would have had a full work load this term, but enrollment was down — not my fault. Nevertheless, here I am, wondering how I got to be 47 years old and in this boat. My connections are lost. I’m this close to applying at Starbucks.”

“Oh, okay.” Ken’s face was calm. I looked at the two liver spots on his temple. His scalp showed through his thin black hair. He said, “Well, I can tell you’re upset. Hey, listen, it’s gonna be okay. You told me about your book; you’re a modern-day Jack London, I can tell.”

One always has to take Ken’s assessment of things with a grain of … if not salt, then perhaps a perspective that accounts for his astronomical sense of hope. He once said to me, “I’m going to live to be 150. Maybe I’ll make it, maybe I won’t, but at least I tried.” It’s almost like all ridiculously positive possibilities lived only a moment away in Ken’s mind, no matter how unlikely they were.

Sure, I’d told Ken about my book, and the book sounds impressive even to me whenever I’m blabbing my elevator pitch to anyone who’ll listen. But Ken’s belief that I’m Jack London doesn’t mean shit to me in this moment, as I’m in what feels like a six-month-long moment of indulgent self-pity. The worst kind — the kind that afflicts writers.

Ken had been counselling me on this for a while. After yoga, at the poker table, on the phone. His best idea for helping me make it big was to get me into some Manhattan supper club where publishing big wigs are known to dine, or lunch and perhaps wheel and deal, if that’s what they do. It’s true, Ken had owned a nightclub in the East village for a time, but his ability to get me into the Aqua Lounge, or whatever it’s called, is unverifiable at best. If it even exists, the idea that it’s a haven of publishing execs, given Ken’s age, may be as many as 50 years old. He might in fact be thinking of the Algonquin Round Table.

This is my state of mind on this night at the bookstore — skeptical, pessimistic, bitter. When I get down, it seems nothing will turn things around. Nothing could possibly happen how I want it to happen. But I feel Ken’s heart energy coming to me, his warmth, his caring, and his consoling hand on my leg.

“Is this all right if I have this here?” Ken says.

“Yeah, sure.” This guy is simply so sensitive and in-tune, he’s just the best. I met him doing yoga at my wife’s studio, and for months after every class, he talked about the pro-bono repairs he wanted to make to the building. Sealing brickwork, bolting some newel posts, patching a leak. That we had the highest quality possible air filter in the furnace he took on as an intense concern, for a few minutes anyway after every class.

I had known him about three weeks before he started saying to me, “I love you, baby.”

The poet memorial raged on. All her linguistic accomplishments were being recalled. Ken told me he wanted to take me to an herb shop in Chinatown and then buy me dim sum for lunch.

“I have to teach a class in the city tomorrow,” I said. “We could go in together.”

(This all happened in that long-forgotten time of tranquility, safety and abundance for all that lives in the imaginations of Americans: the year 2019.)

“Oh, that’s perfect!” Ken said. “See, baby, things are looking up.” He beamed his big broad smile at me. Ken always introduced his most important speculations with a single declarative: “Now.”

“Now,” he said. Then he went silent a while, to mentally comb through his calendar, which I believe is written in feather and ink on a parchment in his mind. When he turned back to me, he joked about the horridness of his memory, laughed at himself, then decided that tomorrow was a fine day to go to Chinatown. I guess it’s impossible to ruin plans you cannot recall.

What time you going to pick me up? he said.

We agreed on 7 AM. The class I teach, just next to Port Authority, started at 10.

When Ken went away, I dwelled in the warmth of his generosity. Ken was giving me his day, and I felt that. I knew I would enjoy talking to him and watching him ride shotgun in my Prius like a handsome Chinese Yoda, sans walking stick. I knew he’d ask about my writing. Who knows, I thought, maybe he’ll even solve my problems. My problems were spiritual more than literary, I knew that.

Part 2, A Message

September 12, 2019

A month prior to Day Zero

In Valencia, Spain, my wife and I see a flyer for a Banksy show.

(Again, this happened in that rosy period of racial and class equality and uninhibited worldwide travel that lives in our imaginations and dates to circa 2019.)

It’s hard for us to picture the legendarily anonymous graffiti artist standing around a gallery’s reception area, hobnobbing with folks. Would he really be there? We read about it online and see that while there are some original Banksy works being displayed — prints, posters, sculptures, and film — it’s an unsanctioned show. The artist will not be present.

For ten Euros we decide to check it out. Our honeymoon has been a blur of cafes, beach-side strolling, driving, some hiking, touring, and eating. A visit to an art gallery would provide some variety.

The air-conditioning is worth the ticket price alone, and when I see one particular Banksy slogan on a print, it chills me even more.

THE LIFESTYLE YOU ORDERED IS OUT OF STOCK

The fucker. He’s nailed it. That elusive wanker with his bold declamations and hunch-shouldered rats and culture that runs counter to even the counter-culture!

This line triggers all the bitter thoughts that have been bouncing around in my mind for some six-month-long moment, or possibly since as long ago as 2012, when I first placed my order for a Big Shot lifestyle by moving to New York. The thoughts are nothing rational. Nothing substantiated. Just a gut feeling, never put into words because it’s so easy to be mocked for making any expression of hardship as an artist (and white male), when real suffering abounds to the extent that it does. In 2019 especially, notions of privilege are spreading and, yes, it’s a privilege to be able to spend hours and days and weeks and months and years, and in fact 2.5 decades stringing together letters with spaces between them, hoping someone will confirm that you’ve done it expertly, in a manner worthy of being shared with an audience.

All trip long I’ve driven south down Spain’s eastern coast, from Figures to Barcelona on to Granada and the Costa del Sol, waiting to hear from an agent about a sale. But every day my inbox is empty. It used to be that when you travelled abroad, you were out of touch, unreachable, as good as dead. Now, it’s impossible to detach, and though we all know this outcome is for the worse, we all do it anyway.

Out of stock. Yes, it seems so.

I get through the 14-day trip through Spain to Fes, Marrakesh, and Casablanca without a peep of news. Once I’m home, I learn that the book hasn’t sold and won’t be selling under this agent’s direction, which seems to ratify Banky’s adage (or is it an admonition?). For how many years had it been dawning on me that decades and degrees and manuscripts galore might all be for naught? Because I’d definitely been in denial. The thing I was pursuing felt unequivocally no longer extant. As a truth, it felt celestial and international and regional. Who I’d set out to be 25 years ago was now a figment of the past. Perhaps even then it wasn’t possible, and perhaps I’d always been deluded, no different than someone’s dreams to be an NBA player, say.

Part 3, Data Intermission 1

July 07, 2018

A year and three months prior to Day Zero

Sample from the Field

Collection Site: New Yorker Magazine

Collection Date: 2018–07–09

Specimen: Writer Ottessa Moshfegh, interviewed and profiled: “I don’t really feel a reason to exist unless I feel my life has a purpose, which is creating.”

Part 4, Data Intermission 2

May 07, 2020

The most current entry of all, apart from the end note

Upon reading “Fuck the Bread. The Bread is Over,” in the Paris Review today, shared with me by my colleague Nick (who his agent wants to call Nico), I say, “Here’s somebody who gets it.” The author, Sabrina Orah Mark, says, “I consider how much we depend on useless, arbitrary tasks to prove ourselves. I consider how much we depend on these tasks so we can say, at the very end, we succeeded.”

Part 5, Prescription

October 2019

Day Zero + 1

I get up at 6 and dress decently for the classroom and pick up Ken at 7 AM. Normally to be awake at this hour would agitate me, but it’s not a problem today. I’m energized. Ken has done a lot for my spirits already. And to think, he’s never written a word to me, or written at all. I doubt I could read his handwriting if he did.

Would he be memorialized at a bookstore when his time came?

No more bullshit self-esteem,” Ken says.

We’re crossing Bowery towards the Lin Sisters Chinese Herb Shop. It’s afternoon. I’ve taught my class, and picked Ken up in Chinatown. He’s gotten his hair cut, and is looking sharp, and having nailed a great parking spot at rush hour, we’re a cheerful couple. Now we walk and talk like some duo in a film (no one said Woody Allen), over crosswalks, weaving through the throngs, gesticulating, me tall, Ken short, me young, Ken old. Standpipes steam in the background and there’s a shit-ton of people streaming over the avenues on their way to places.

It seems to resemble an aspirant’s life. It seems there should be some Sinatra playing over this. Can I package it, get it to Harcourt Brace or perhaps W.W. Norton?

It’d probably be rejected. Already been done, I could hear an agent saying. Ever seen Karate Kid?

Bullshit self-esteem?” I say. I know immediately what he means, but it’s my line and so I have to ask: “What is bullshit self-esteem, Ken?”

“It’s not real, you know.” We stop in the middle of the sidewalk, and face each other. Standing close, Ken puts his hand on my arm. “You have to love yourself. You know, for real. Here’s what I’m going to do.”

He tells me his idea for training me in real self-esteem. He says I am to write a list of things I love about myself and consult it whenever I’m feeling down. If the next time Ken sees me I cannot provide the list to him, I’m penalized, I have to pay him… Wait, no. He revises it. “I’m going to give you a hundred dollars, and if I don’t write the list, then I take it back!”

See, the mutability of it all reveals the failure of this plan — or so I think. But my thinking can’t be trusted. My loser-brain (presently, in this moment, this day, this spell) believes that loving myself better is untenable. My negative-mind believes the rules of his game are morphing and if I practice real self-esteem, then I’m walking away from my chance at prowess and notoriety.

Even though I’ve already had some of these things, here I am feeling like I do not, and have not. It’s always the next novel that could blow up, right? Send you over the top.

Let’s back up, though, because to say this is to pluck out the crucial cog: The last thing I want to do is write a list of things I love about myself! I’d rather keep focused on the imagined big payoff of glorious literary stardom. This outcome, I’ve always imagined, will bring me feelings of security, wholeness, wellness. When the things happen that I want to happen, I’ll be able to know that I matter. I’ll have a feeling of completion. Why? Because people will hold my words in their hands. They’ll be printed between two hard cardboard covers with tastefully designed jackets and the blurbs of my esteemed cohorts. And in a sure sign that this is a grand delusion, my reputation shall be immutable, esteem being my cozy companion until my dying days.

In the herb shop, Ken talks to the Chinese women behind the counter, and they direct us upstairs. There we sit, and I fill out an admission form. From behind a closed door, we hear a woman loudly sobbing. She’s really upset. Then we hear her say the word “cancer.” Ken and I share an acknowledging glance. Finally, she leaves, and I’m called in by a bald-headed Chinese man of about 60 years old.

He holds my wrist across his desk and looks off contemplatively. He asks me one-word questions in English, such as, “Sleepy?” and “Appetite?” He feels my pulse for a long time, then writes Chinese characters on a sheet of plain paper. He could be writing “Very weak self-esteem” or “bruised ego” but I’ll never know. I don’t read Chinese.

The agent is with a big firm, the son of the founder, who I’m told once represented people like Mailer or maybe it was Gloria Steinem or Patti Smith or Ken Kesey or perhaps all of the above. I thought his taking me on meant I was in. In like Flynn — just not Michael Flynn. The agent (he or she? could be either!) gave me a list of 28 publishers to whom my latest novel was being submitted. They were all the top ones — amazing houses, companies that had made the books I’d been clutching in my hands on beds and on beaches since I was 15. Hell, they were in short companies that canonized the canon. Companies going back to the 1890s. I felt vindicated, like finally my skills and strengths as a writer were seen. At least 15 of them I would have been thrilled to be published with. But after months, the agent had forwarded me only seven emails from editors, who remarked on the things they liked in the work, a comic satire, and all ultimately passed.

I learned through some public records and scathing forum threads that the agent’s AAR credentials had been revoked a couple years ago due to violation of the bylaws of the Association of Authors’ Representatives around client communication. Essentially, the agent categorically does not do follow-ups, and his clients naturally took issue with them, and he responded poorly, rudely, with ludicrous claims of penury if his reputation were to be sullied by false accusations. It was a disgusting Trumpian tactic. As my manager (and wife) says, this agent’s style is “wham-bam, thank you, ma’am.” Blasting submissions, and if it hits, commission is made, yippie. If not, on to the next author. There’s even good reason to believe that my novel had never been read or cared for as I’d believed.

What a hard luck story, eh?

Relative to all stories? Not in the least. Let’s just acknowledge that and move on.

One of the more hilarious things said to me during the break-up call with the agent: “As you know, I have the utmost respect for you as a writer.” That was a lie. This agent had never shown any respect for me as a writer or expressed any appreciation for the contents of my work. Taking it on, the agent only said, “We could give this a try.”

The result for me? Sails, this is wind calling. Adios. Vindication here. Ciao. Belonging. Au revoir. Purpose, hope, belief. We’re out! Check you on the flip-flop.

Back downstairs in the tea shop, I hand the Lin Sisters the paper written by the doctor. For ten minutes, they fetch canisters and mix packets on a scale. While I wait, I look at a box of sheep placenta on the shelf. So there are worse fates. You’re an animal, and you give birth, and some crazy people scoop up your placenta and sell it to rich white Manhattanites probably to make their skin glow or increase their fertility.

Ken ran off to buy vegetables when my consultation began. Once I have my parcel in hand, I call him, and we head to the dim sum place.

Part 6, Harold Meyerowitz

December of 2019

Two months after Day Zero

Abagail Rasminsky wrote beautifully and oh so candidly of her publishing saga (“Your Book Might Not Sell, and You Have to Live with That,” Electric Literature). Perhaps it’s more accurate to call Rasminsky’s saga one of non-publishing. Not being published might be the destiny for many hard-working, dedicated, talented writers. This is a reality. What Rasminsky said felt to me like something that badly needed to be said. So much of the literary news is glossy or completely omits the hardships of the business. People get their raves, then it’s on to the next.

I said to myself after reading Rasminsky’s piece that I would write about this too.

For time, I did not do it.

Then I saw the film The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) with Dustin Hoffman as the self-important, egotistical, and embittered sculptor Harold Meyerowitz. In the twilight of his career and not as famous as he’d planned to be, Meyerowitz slanders his peers and abuses those close to him.

Adam Sandler, as his youngest son, says of him: “He’s waiting for his life to begin.” Meaning the life Harold imagined for himself hasn’t started properly yet, he hasn’t been recognized to his satisfaction. He hasn’t received the acknowledgement he feels he’s due. The self that he imagined as a younger man becoming remains a ghost.

Meyerowitz is me.

I am Meyerowitz.

For my therapist’s sake (Hi, Luis!), and the sake of my 12-step group, I’ll add something less self-critical, less black-and-white: I’m Meyerowitz to some extent. Yes, I live my life. It’s not like I don’t. But for a long time, I have expected a better one to arrive, and I have not quite been satisfied with the one I have, as wonderful as it is. Which is sad to experience. And the real heart-stopper is to wake up to the reality that the sense of whether one has been ill-treated or shorted or is the recipient of undue bad luck is a matter of perception. And those perceptions can be altered.

In a sense, the apparent “reality” can be altered, without altering the facts of history or making any agent or editor see your brilliance, or “get” your vision, or anoint you with their Scepter of Acceptance.

Meyerowitz violently smashes a pool queue over a billiards table. Swap in tennis rackets for me. It’s been some years since I routinely did this, but though it’s infrequent now, there’s been a dozen or more going back to my early times with the sport.

As for the slagging of others, I’ve been known to do it. Mentally more than anything else.

Sample from the Field

Collection Site: Teaching materials, Fiction Level I, Week 9 lesson topic: Theme

Specimen: Writer Tobias Wolff, interviewed regarding his short story “Bullet in the Brain,” in which a critic grows to hate the site of a stack of books published by others: “The horrible truth is that I was mining some tendencies of my own in that story. To be derisory of things that I’d read or heard. And often I think that I would, without meaning to, have a kind of inward sneer. And to live that way detaches you from reality.”

I know what’s acceptable when it comes to social comportment. Yet the feelings of superiority have been there. Less so now than in the past. With the events of this year, in particular with the unethical agent, the purpose of me begrudging someone else’s success has lessened. Trying to discern the subjective merits of my work compared to others — also not productive. The big-hearted part of me (he’s in there), the Buddhist, wants all writers to know success and feel recognition.

Re.

Cog.

Nition.

My fingers know the keyboard pattern so well. I don’t think they’ll ever forget how to type the word.

Part 7, Minneapolis, Minnesota

May of 2003

Over 15 years prior to Day Zero

I sit at a cube typing my new email address into an email. My first initial plus last name plus at plus Data, Recognition, Corp, dot com.

It’s a real place. Data Recognition Corporation.

Over the next 9.75-year career as an editor at this publisher of educational assessment tests, I’ll type the word recognition thousands and thousands of times, emailing people at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Penguin, Random House, HarperCollins, Scholastic, and dozens of other New York publishing houses and literary agencies.

The name derives from the company’s roots in production of scannable documents, those bubble dot things on heavy paper on which students mark their test answers. It’s big business. The company expanded to launch a test publishing division, and at the time that I work there, they have 8 or so big state contacts. For the next 9.75 years, I pay out $1.1 million dollars in licensing fees for the use of text excerpts from books by Toni Morrison, Louise Erdrich, Earnest Hemingway, Toby Wolff, as well as countless children’s authors.

In my position, I author the copyright acknowledgements that go in every English Language Arts publication.

Ben, do you have the acknowledgements? We print test forms for grades 3,5,8,10, 11 and 12. We print practice tests, we print retests, we print pilot tests, we print sample tests. Each gets an acknowledgement page.

For 9.75 years, I’m asked whether I have the acknowledgements. On the phone, I ask Edith G. at Simon & Schuster how the author should be acknowledged. In documents, I edit the acknowledgements. When I email the documents to go in a publication, the subject line is: Acknowledgements. I email them to so-and-so at Data Recognition and cc somebody else at Data Recognition.

Acknowledgement. Recognition. When my tenth anniversary approached, I pulled the plug and moved to New York.

Now, it’s true that during my time in this position, I published my first novel with Penguin. I got some serious and life-changing acknowledgement for myself. It’s not that I had none.

But I’ve always sought more.

Part 8, Idols & Guides

1993

Twenty-Four years prior to Day Zero

I stand next to a urinal peeing, while the man beside me does the same. This man is Allen Ginsberg. We’re in the restroom of the O’Shaughnessy Auditorium, a building on the campus of my undergraduate alma mater. I’m 20 years old and the president of the National English Honors Society, a group that is, in conjunction with a local small press, hosting Mr. Ginsberg’s visit.

I don’t write poetry much, but Ginsberg is a hero of mine. An inspirational figure. Someone with an incredibly distinctive authorial voice, a literary iconoclast, a man of passion and intelligence.

At the end of the show, he propositions the young men in the audience, inviting them to his hotel room. Which is mildly scandalous, because this is a Catholic university. I don’t take him up on the offer or anything. That’s not how this story ends.

It ends, unpredictably, for me, 23 years later:

2018

I sit on a yoga mat in easy pose. After a few minutes of closed eyes, taking mindful breaths, I rub my hands together vigorously, then place them at my sternum in prayer pose. I chant to tune in, and invite a connection (communion? communication?) with my gurus and guides. Chief on the list are Brother Nelson (a well-known deceased hit-maker and fellow Minneapolis native), and a long-haired man named Chris who also sang. They are the top two, the right-hand men, the Angels in Chief, what have you. Also on the roster are Willa Cather, MLK, Mother Theresa, and William Blake (it’s a strong squad!). Not far down the list is Allen Ginsberg. These are people whose strength, wisdom and spirit I invoke. Whether or not they deliver it to me is unproven. But I do believe that someone delivers something. Every day I return to the keyboard with the will to do my art, which counts for more than “something.” Accomplishing this can, in fact, make up for the dissatisfactions of anything and everything else. The failures. The disappointments. The missed opportunities. The bad luck. The swindles by shysters. The helpless factors, like being of the wrong persuasion when other persuasions are enjoying some time in the spotlight.

Part 9, Fill the Hole

November 28, 2019

A month after Day Zero

My wife and I are welcomed into our guest’s house for Thanksgiving dinner. We hand our wine and desserts to them and get to talking, make some greetings. Then it’s “What would you like to drink?”

While that’s being taken care of, someone speculates on whether there are more published authors in the house than non-published people. We are not a pretentious lot, and no one bothers to make a tally; it’s close, we all conclude.

Soon we get to the topic of readings.

“I like doing readings,” I say. “I like getting my new stuff heard and seeing how people react, getting their attention.”

“The validation,” our host jokes.

“Of course, the validation.”

“Something to fill the hole besides drugs and food.”

Isn’t there a quote from some authority on the matter, that all funny jokes are founded in unspeakable scary truths? Maybe George Carlin or Richard Pryor?

If you have a real cutup at a party, everyone will be uncomfortable in time. It’s too frightening, the truths that lie behind zinging insinuations, behind the observations too bald to be politely earnest. All these bodies cut open as if by lances, their wounds bleeding right into the room, and the sight of all this blood, and the dark humorist refusing to digress, which is just like marching around in circles in the shallow bloody pool. Splash, splash, splash.

Nobody splashes at this party, though. We eat a dead bird and talk mostly about movies and music. But at the center of it all, for me, is this stark but coded recognition that there is a hole that we writers seek to fill with validation.

Part 10, Dim Sum

November 28, 2019

Day Zero + 1

Ken takes the stairs three at time going up to 88 Palace, the dim sum place on East Broadway.

“What the hell, Ken?” I say, trailing behind him. I’m in shuffle mode. Right now, I’m not about giving it my all. I’m about getting there, or not, what’s the difference. “Did you just do that?”

Ken flashes his proud smile. “As long as I can do that,” he says, “I know I’m still alive.”

Alive.

Being the opposite of dead, last I checked.

Part 11, Memorial

October 2019

Day Zero

An hour before bumping into Ken, I go in the bookstore to work or write. (There’s usually no difference between working and writing; the terms are interchangeable.) It’s a bookstore café slash bar. I can get online there and grab a coffee or beer, as needs dictate. I’m not there long, when several writer friends turn up.

“Are you here for the memorial?” my friend asks. She’s a writer.

Oh, shit. The memorial. I had forgotten about it.

“I am,” I say, lying. I worked with the deceased poet and professor on several occasions, during the three years that I hosted literary events as part of a weekend-long festival that happens upstate every fall. But the poet and I had no contact beyond this event for two days a year.

My friend is dressed up. “You’re doing the introduction?” I say.

“Yeah.”

She goes away to test the mic and check in with the poet’s family members and colleagues. I see that now they’re setting up extra chairs. I take a seat on a bench as far away from the service as I can. I’m in no mood to grieve a writer, and frankly, absurdly, I resent the attention she’s getting. Whenever she read her poems, I felt like I was listening to an autistic robot read words that had been programmatically arranged. This is the biggest reason I feel unmotivated to grieve her.

When the ceremony starts, this is what I hear my friend say: “Welcome, everybody. Thanks for being here. We’re here to celebrate the life of ______________. ”

And what follows is not a list of character traits, her attributes, her beauties and flaws, her experiences and habits, ways and means, cares and wishes. Not even the jobs she held or children she bore or foods she loved were mentioned. No. Only one thing: her publishing credentials. Every literary journal that her poems had been published in is named. The titles of her poetry collections and the presses who’d produced them are named.

What appalls me (frightens me?) is not that her credentials are lesser or greater than mine. It’s the suggestion that the only thing worth remembering about her is what she published. Is this the only thing that outlives her?

That’s when I spotted Ken — who, perhaps intuitively, sensing something contrary to his ethics, was slipping out of the place.

Part 12, Non-Bullshit Self-Esteem

Pels Pie Company, Brooklyn, NY

August 2019

Two months prior to Day Zero

A Saturday in Brooklyn. In the backyard of Pels Pie Company, a small café in Prospect Lefferts Garden, two dozen folks are gathered for a reading. A small stage is set up, and a microphone and amp. I’m there with my wife and my best friend Nick (whose agent wants to call him Nico), who was first a student to me, then three-time student, then a colleague, then a friend and beta reader, then a five-time student — and now ultimately a cherished friend and my most vocal and tireless supporter.

I enjoy listening to several poets, and a singer. When it’s my turn, I warm up the audience with some banter about Allen Ginsberg, and how pleasantly esoteric he came across as in Scorsese’s The Rolling Thunder Review, the film of Bob Dylan’s legendary tour. Then I read a selection from the novel that was corruptly agented. I read with enthusiasm, giving a dramatic interpretation to the character’s speech, such as the hauteur of the wealthy matriarch. I narrate the ironies, one-liners, and sardonic takedowns of the hypocrisies of the American class system with élan. Frequently I hear laughter. While reading, I’m in the zone. I’m content — nay, happy!

Fulfilled.

Nothing else bothers me.

The world is just.

I have no anxiety.

I don’t go a second over the ten-minute slot, and I step off briskly with a smile. I sit and listen to the next reader, a poet/singer who moves everyone, even herself, near to tears with the passion of her performance.

As others have never heard of me, I have never heard of her. This is the life of the Small Shot.

Sample from the Field

Collection Site: From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction, by Robert Olen Butler, p. 29

“When I’ve finished a work, and some time passes, and I’m working up to something new, I feel that I am utterly wasting my life. I do trivial, ghastly, quotidian stuff; I hate myself; I complain about myself to my wife, and that hatred daily increases. “

Part 13, Superhero

A town in the Southern United States

Around 2008 or 2009, roughly ten years prior to Day Zero

Many years ago, I had occasion to visit a university in a town in the southern United States. Over the course of several days, my partner-at-the-time and I met with the director of the graduate program in Creative Writing and lunched with many students.

One evening there was a reading by an esteemed fiction writer who had taught at the school for 15 years — a winner of a MAJOR literary prize. Let’s call him Mr. X.

We arrived, took our seats, held our programs, and watched a film by the foundation that was hosting the reading. The lights came up, the Director made an introduction, and then Mr. X took the podium. He spoke energetically and with humor and confidence. He held our interest. Then he read from his most recently published book. Following this he read tweets that were made to promote the book. They were amusing. Lastly he read from his newest work, which he said he was 22,000 words into. This was its “world premiere,” he said, rather grandiosely.

It was a god-awful cliché. A distraught woman of 50-something goes to a hotel room in New Orleans’ French Quarter. A painfully long passage in which she interacts nervously and hesitantly with the bellhop finally ends, allowing her to go up to a room she once shared with her husband, whom we don’t know just yet. She enters, recalls familiar things, clutches a travel bag, and sobs. Cut to a Louisiana highway, where a man races along a road in a BMW convertible, a 29-year-old blond in the seat beside him, her hair flapping back like pale fire. He resists the temptation to put his hand in it. These two also go to a hotel — fancy that. It’s a hotel the man has been to with his former wife, the weeping woman. He has memories but is not ensnared by them; he embraces the young blond. This man is 55 years of age, a trial lawyer. His mistress is probably something like a scientific researcher or something. It reads like bad Grisham, and, my, was it plodding. Great attention was paid to the lip-lock with the young girl. The male character cries but doesn’t let the woman see his tears. Oooooh, tough guy.

Mr. X pointed out after his reading that he had continued to teach at the school for 7 years after winning the MAJOR prize, as if this were a great act of charity.

It was embarrassing. We met our student friends again the next day; they told us that none of them had a good workshop experience with Mr. X, who had told one student, named J.D., that he wasn’t writing from his “dream film” and was not reaching into his “white hot center.” Everyone had heard about the white hot center.

At a meeting with Mr. X about her work Brittany, a young black woman, was shown photos of Mr. X’s young lover, pointed out to be a 25-year-old black girl, as if this would earn Brittany’s acceptance. “He’s pretty much a douche,” Brittany said. None of the students wanted him back.

J.D., who had written about his experience living on an American Indian reservation, learned that another student had been told (in reference to J.D.’s work), “Well, yours sucks but at least it’s not about a white guy living on a reservation.”

“I asked him a question once,” Brittany said. “A question I often ask people: ‘If you were a superhero, which one would you be?’ ”

Mr. X replied, “I wish I knew enough about popular culture to answer this” (making clear that he was of a higher order of thought and experience).

Brittany told him, “Well, you can make a superhero up.”

So Mr. X said, “Well, then I’ll be [MAJOR literary prize] Man, who writes and writes and all day and everything comes out brilliant!”

Part 14, Inexplicable Love

November of 2019

A few weeks after Day Zero

I mentioned the gurus and guides whose spirit I sometimes invoke when doing yoga and meditating. The Minneapolis native, in particular, holds a prominent place in my spiritual life. This is true of many of his fans, I know. I’ve collected bootlegs of live performances and unreleased studio material since I was a teenager. On a basic level, his music is full of positive messaging; but for me it’s more than that. For me, listening to his music connects me to my younger, perhaps “truer,” self, who was confident in who he was and felt a baseline sense of hope, purpose, and promise.

In the wake of my agent fallout, in the ensuing crisis of confidence, I return to a bootleg trading site I’ve belonged to for years. I haven’t been active lately, because I already own everything that’s out there. But occasionally things crop up.

Giving to others is part of what I’m trying to cultivate, to relieve my suffering. So for the first time on this site, I upload some recordings I own that I notice have not been shared here. It’s gratifying. Some fans drop thank yous in the comments. I feel connected and like I’m spreading a bit of joy rather than dwelling in my own misery.

Then something strange happens. My user name is an obscure lyrical reference: Andre_Crabtree. In the forum section, I see a post titled “I Love Andre_Crabtree.”

The post is made by a user I don’t know, and dated over 7 years ago! “Just saying,” is the body of the post, along with a smiley face emoji surrounded by hearts popping like balloons.

The thread is huge! There’s over nine thousand replies, and over a hundred thousand views. I scroll through it. “Who doesn’t?” say some replies. And “Thanks!” And “Andre_Crabtree is the gift that keeps on giving!” and “I’m loving him right now!”

I post a somewhat baffled reply and subscribe to the thread. It’s a strange kind of elation. Wow, what have I done? Nothing more than keeping my torrent client open when I downloaded and shared the music. And now I’ve hosted some rare stuff that surely fans will dig. But I just did this — I didn’t do it 7 years ago. Do people even know who I am? There’s nothing in my profile other than an email address. Naturally, I’m suspicious — is this spam, or a con?

I visit the thread again over the course of a few days. The love seems to be pretty unanimous. I cannot figure out why hundreds of people are chiming in on it, but they are, and who am I to argue?

A few days later, the mystery is revealed when an email comes in saying: There are updates to the thread you subscribe to: I Love {user_name}

The thread tells everyone that they are loved, no matter who they are. I laugh. But I also feel sad that I fell for it.

Yet, it seems everyone fell for it! This is why so many threads say “thanks!” Everyone’s grateful for the show of unconditional love they got.

They didn’t have to be known. They didn’t have to have done anything. They were just loved for who they were. On the internet, such a thing is nearly as rare as human life apparently is in our cosmos.

Did it seem inexplicable to everyone? Did it seem suspicious? Unlikely? Improbable, but irresistible?

Did some detect a ruse right away?

Sample from the Field

Collection Site: New Yorker Magazine

Collection Date: 2018–09–07

Specimen: The film “The Children Act,” based on a novel by Ian McEwan, is reviewed by critic Anthony Lane. In the story, a boy refuses treatment of a life-saving drug due to religious reasons. Lane deftly and appropriately points out that the film operates on a false presumption: that because the boy appreciates classical music, his life is valuable.

Part 14.5 (the so-called “ghost part”)

1999

We spend time going in-scene to Oddbins wine shop, Summertown, Oxford, England, UK, the one on the left side of Banbury Road, going north. It’s a summer night, past 11 PM, and the metal grates of the shop are down. Inside, we show me swiping the credit card of one Mr. Ian McEwan, as he purchases several cases of the 1996 Bordeaux wines, which have just arrived from France that week. We peer closely into the mouth of Mr. McEwan, which is empurpled from the wines he’s been tasting, at this exclusive after-hours tasting party for deserving and loyal customers.

Part 15, Dim Sum II

Nov 28, 2019

Day Zero + 1

“Xiè xiè,” Ken says to the server at 88 Palace, bowing his head. He’s ordered for us.

When the server departs, he explains that he’s saying thank you in Mandarin, and that in Chinese culture, it’s good to act subservient. Even though Ken is Chinese, his native dialect is Cantonese. The Mandarins think they’re better than him, he says.

We eat steamed dumplings and roast pork brought to us in bamboo baskets. We drink tea.

Ken shares one anecdote after the other. About his parenting philosophy: how he gave his teenage daughter pot and alcohol, believing that a kid is going to try them anyway; at least when provided by him and used in his presence, he knew she was safe. Now that she’s 20, she doesn’t use either.

He tells some harrowing tales about fleeing China through Tibet with his mother when he was young. (Later, I run these stories past him, and he denies the accuracy of my facts or waves off the stories as unimportant.)

He never declares any intent to these tales — no express reason why he is telling me these things. But it seems he knows that by comparison, the struggles of yet another white male fiction writer in New York must pale.

He tells me about overcoming asthma, surviving a stabbing, and his prostate cancer.

Intermingled in these tales, he compliments me as a person of authenticity, good heart, and funny. He says often, “I see why Theresa loves you.” (Theresa is my wife.)

He sheds tears when he talks of his daughter being born. “I tell her all the time, ‘When you were born, I was so happy, because you were a spirit out there, and you picked to come into this baby and be with me. I’m so grateful!” He wipes his eyes with a napkin, asks the server for more napkins, saying,“Xiè xiè,” which sounds to me like shay, shay.

He orders extra food and packs it up nicely for me to take home to Theresa. He also bought us a big air-locked bag of dried Chinese mushrooms. On the drive home in my car, Ken finally runs out of steam. We’ve been talking a lot. He’s been talking a lot. It’s been a long day.

“Can we put on some music?” he says.

“Sure.” I start dialing up something from my device. “I’ll put on some rap for you. I know you said you want to learn how to rap.”

“Oh, yes, thank you. I do want to learn how to rap. I think it’s the way to reach the young people. A lot of young people I know, they listen to rap. We gotta reach the young people, because some of them, you know, they’re really hurting.”

I put on Aceyalone’s Book of Human Language.

Ken leans back and rests his head, but listens intently. “Can you turn it up?”

I turn it up.

“How is he doing that?” Ken says after a few minutes.

I turn it down and offer an explanation. “I’m pretty sure he writes his lyrics first, and in the studio he’s probably working from a lyrics sheet. It’s too wordy to memorize all that.”

“And how does he go so fast?”

“It’s called having mad skills!” I laugh.

“Oh my God. I don’t think I can do that. I’m only a beginner. I’m gonna have to practice!”

End note: This was all written in 2020 and pitched to places that didn’t want to hear about it. Now it’s 2021, and I’m a smaller shot than ever, but by working only for the sake of my growth as a literary artist, I am enjoying the process and getting better results than ever with a new novel. It’s about two guys who leave IT and fashion to start a literary press. Spoiler alert: they make mistakes.

I’m also doing lot more teaching and private one-on-one guidance with clients, and I’m finding it more gratifying than ever to support, encourage, and guide them. It’s not easy all the time, but like climbing stairs it lets me know that I’m still alive. This weekend, Ken and I are driving to Chinatown again for dim sum. This time we’re meeting Nick, who is celebrating the sale of his short story collection to a great indie press in Brooklyn. He’s worked damn hard on it and hardly ever complained. He has decided to publish as Nick, not Nico, and will probably be ditching the agent, who had no role in the sale.

Instructor at @GothamWriters, NYC. Ed.-in-Chief of AspiringWriterSyndrome.com, where fiction is the focus and inspiration is the goal. #Javascotia @PenguinBooks

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