1. WE DESTROY OUR IMAGINARY FRIENDSAuthors invent people. Out of thin air. They reach into the moist and dewy folds of the invisible thought vagina and from that squishy space birth people who have never existed, and who willnever exist. We give ourselves — and by proxy, the audience — reasons to care about these people. They become our imaginary friends. Then we take our imaginary friends and fuck them over ten ways till Tuesday. “This is Dave. We all like Dave. Good hair. Nice teeth. We can allrelate to Dave. Uh-oh! Dave’s wife just left him. Stole the kids. And now he’s being hunted by a serial killer from the moon! HA HA HA HA SUCK A DICK DAVE.”
2. WE SPECIALIZE IN CREATIVE WAYS TO DIEWe’re basically murderers who just don’t have the balls to actually go out and kill some motherfuckers. It’s not just stories about aliens chomping on people’s guts or thugs stabbing other thugs — books and films and comic books are showcases for every form of misery and doom one could imagine. Once in a while you’ll be walking along and suddenly a thought will strike you: “I wonder if I could work it into a story where some dude gets his guts vacuumed out his boothole by an out-of-control Roomba. I bet I could. Time to murder some non-existent humans. To the writermobile!”
3. BEHOLD THE BAD NEWS BONERIt’s not just murder. It’s all kinds of bad news. Bus crash! Small town swallowed by avalanche! Exploding nuns! Deadly form of herpes escapes lab on the back of a carnivorous shark-llama hybrid! Oh noes! Bad news! Yay! I want to rub it all over my body like a cream or unguent! I want to wear its stink and huff the stench of cataclysm and catstrophe to get me jacked up for my next story! Exclamation points! Can’t stop!
4. “I WAS ONCE BORN WITH A TAIL!”We are trained to be gifted liars. Anybody who writes fiction — or works for Fox News — is tasked with the job of convincing others that Things That Are Absolutely Not True are, in fact, Totally Fucking True. Our entire job is predicated on being good at spinning a complicated web of deception. Truth? Bo-ring. Lies? High-five! Lies make Story Jesus giggle as if you’re tickling his tummy. I imagine all writers have those moments where they’re sitting around their office, pantsless, an empty whiskey bottle spinning idly at their feet — they rub their eyes and mutter, “I don’t know what’s real and what’s fake anymore.” Then the writer hops on his rocket unicorn and goes to buy a cat-burger from the fish-faced Atlantean fellow down on Bumbershoot Street. See? The lies just fall out of me. Like chewing gum from a dead man’s mouth.
5. QUIET LONERSWhenever they find some whackaloon with a collection of severed heads in his freezer, they always trot out the neighbors and you get that classic line: “He was always so quiet.” And the assumption becomes, oh, that seemingly nice-and-quiet chap next door needed his quiet time because he was too busy with his hobby of decapitating dudes. On the other hand: hey, maybe him being quiet and alone all the time made him crazy. Maybe you spend too long cooped up with yourself the carpet starts moving and the wallpaper shifts and the room starts to whisper,You know what would be awesome? A sweet-ass collection of severed heads. Get on that. This is probably a good time to remind you that writers happen to spend a lot of time alone and cooped up with themselves. Just, uhh, putting that out there. What, this old thing? Just a hacksaw.
6. THE GROTTO OF INSANITYOur office spaces soon begin to reflect our quiet and lonely — and inevitably crazy — lifestyle. Teetering towers of books that threaten to crush us. Pens laying everywhere (and if you’re me, half of them are chewed on, the toxic ink and plastics long settled into my body). Over there, a plate of what may have once been a burrito but now looks like a brain made of fungus. Next to it, a small handgun. Next to that, a dead pigeon. Underneath the desk, a noisy pile of Red Bull cans, liquor bottles, and ammunition casings. Behind us, a cabinet full of freeze-dried severed heads. Our offices inevitably turn into wombs, that is, if wombs were responsible for birthingthe raw stuff of crazy into the world.
7. THE NEXUS OF MADNESS IS ATOP OUR WIBBLY-WOBBLY NECKSIf you think our offices are the domicile of the insane, you should see the inside of our heads. It’s the asylum from 12 Monkeys all up in these motherfuckers. And we live here all the goddamn time. No escape!
8. CREATIVITY IS SEEN AS A COMMODITY OF THE LAZY AND INSANEYou tell most people what you do and you get this look — it’s a look that perfectly contains a tempest of information, a tangle of thoughts (and none of them good). You get a mixture of,Oh, he’s one of those, or, Look, another hipster-slacker-socialist-asshole stealing all our precious unemployment, or, He doesn’t look like he’s starving so he must have a trust fund keeping him alive, or, Ugh, that’s not a real job. Swamp logger, that’s a real job. Writer’s just something you say when you like to smoke drugs all day. It’s really quite disheartening. You get those looks often enough it starts to crack your egg a little bit, dontcha know?
9. THE LOVE-ME HATE-ME TWO-STEPHere, then, is the critical dichotomy of our process: we have to love an idea so much we’re willing to spend the great deal of time shoveling it into the world, and then we have to switch gears and learn to hate the thing we just created in order to improve it. We puff up our ego, then lance it with a hot pin. It’s like giving birth to a child who you love with all your heart until you throw him out into the icy woods with a note pinned to his chest reading: this is how you learn to survive, you little turd. Writers are the tragedy and comedy masks whirling about, trading places again and again. And it’s all a bit barmy, innit?
10. CAFFEINE POISONINGWriters drink so much caffeine that eventually the synapses start to break down like wires chewed by starving squirrels. And then those starving squirrels make a ratty nest of old leaves and smelly yarn inside our heads. We end up as gutted automatons piloted by a tribe of twitchy squirrels. Metaphorically.
11. ALCOHOL POISONINGCoffee, then liquor, then coffee, then liquor. Okay, yes, I know, not every writer is a pickled booze-sponge, but some drink enough for all, I suspect. All that booze affects the liver and just as the liver is kind of the bouncer for the human body, detoxing all that bad voodoo, Plato felt that another function of the liver was to keep in check a human’s darkest emotions. Meaning, the liver’s purpose was to bottle up all the crazy. And what do writers do? OBLITERATE THE LIVER WITH DRINK. Be free, little crazies! Be free!
12. “I GOT A BAD CASE OF THE PENMONKEYS, MAN”We’re addicts for our wordsmithy. Over time, it just happens. One day you’ve been writing so long that when a day comes you don’t put words to paper it feels like that space between your heart and your guts is filled with a cluster of bitey eels that want out, and the only way to give them egress is to start writing again. We’re word-junkies, man. Ink-slingers. Fiction fiends. The only cure is another taste of that sweet story.
13. CONTROL FREAKS WITH NOTHING TO CONTROLInside our stories, we’re gods among mortals — our hands are on all the buttons and switches. Outside our stories, we control a big bag of Dick Butkus. We don’t control publisher advances, book placement, trends, reviews, or that weird little deranged robot that computes the Amazon recommendation algorithms.
14. CRAZY MONEY!Yeah, by “crazy money” I don’t mean “money in such quantity it’s totally awesome,” but rather, “money that arrives in wildly inconsistent sums and on a madman’s schedule.” You hit this point where, okay, you have to learn to survive from January to March on this royalty check of $7.53, and then in March you’re supposed to get like, ten grand or something, but then that ten grand doesn’t show up until June, and when you get it you forget you need to buy groceries and instead buy like, a Wave Runner instead. Yeah. See? Nutty.
15. BOOKS BOOKS I LOVE BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS MMM BOOKSThe one thing that e-readers have robbed from us is the ability to throw all the books we own into a room and roll around on them, naked. I mean, okay, sure, I can do that with an e-reader, but eventually someone’s going to pick it up and be like, “Is this a testicle-print on my Kindle?” What I’m saying is, some people hoard clothing, cats, fast food containers, ninja weapons, exotic primates — but writers hoard books. And eventually all those books — each a storehouse of utter unreality — bleeds into our brains via creative osmosis. Either that or they fall on us, crushing our weak little writer bodies beneath.
16. WE ARE DISTRACTED FOR A REASONIt’s not new to suggest that writers are easily distracted: we’ve all gotten lost in an endless labyrinth of cat videos (and at the center of that labyrinth is a cat dressed like a minotaur, and he’s all like I CAN HAZ COW HED OH NOES THESEUS and — dang, LOLcats jokes just don’t cut it anymore, do they?). But here’s why we’re easily distracted: because our brains know it’s bad for us to stare at a screen full of tiny words all day. Our brain is telling us to look at something — anything — other than those tiny little ant-like words. It is unnatural to stare at words in this way. It nibbles holes in our gray matter.
17. THE INTERNET IS FULL OF RAGEHATE, AND WE DIVE IN, HEADFIRSTOnce upon a time, authors would get reviews that were insightful, incisive critiques — “The author’s masterful use of language is sadly handicapped by a plot whose events fail to properly resolve.” Now we have to put up with internet vitriol like you’d find on the likes of a YouTube video where a guy gets hit in the nuts with a tricycle: “THIS BOOK IS FUKKIN STUPID IT BLOWS GIRAFFES THE AWTHOR IS A TARDCART.” And then they probably call you a racial or sexual epithet. It’s like asking for insightful criticism during a Call of Duty match on Xbox Live. It does little good for one’s sanity.
18. THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE MAKES AS MUCH SENSE AS SNIVEL BLIFF FLEEKUM HORKOkay, this one is a little biased toward those writing in the English tongue, but seriously, trying to know all the rules in and around the composition of the English language will give you a goddamn nosebleed. Looking at all the rules — and then memorizing all the bizarre-o exceptions — makes you want to go back to the days of communicating with clicks and burps. Related: Brian Regan knows the real “I-before-E” rule.
19. AT SOME POINT WE TRIED REALLY HARD TO UNDERSTAND THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRYPredicting trends, imagining advances, contemplating the agency model, trying to figure out why anybody would publish any book by Billy Ray Cyrus ever — all this does is plunge your mind into the roiling black soup of unmitigated chaos. You can tell the moment any author’s sanity snapped, because it goes like this: “My book’s been out on submission for seven years, and now they’re publishing a book of scat marks written by that greasy orangutan, Snooki?” Listen hard enough, you hear a *plink* — that’s the sound of the little pubic hair holding the last vestiges of that author’s sanity together.
20. THAT MIGHT BE SCURVYNo, that’s not the latest spin-off band by They Might Be Giants — it’s because we don’t have enough money for food and health insurance and because we didn’t eat a couple oranges now we’re losing our teeth and fingernails and turning into some raving froth-mouthed version of the Brundlefly.
21. ME ME ME ME ME ME ME ME? ME!It is in our makeup to be desperate for attention. We write our books, our films, our articles, and we’re not writing them so that we can just read them back to ourselves and have a jolly good laugh. We want you to read them, too. And you. And you! And you over there, hiding behind the shrubs. The more attention we get, the more successful we become — or, at least, feel. The ironic part is, many aren’t comfortable with that attention and yet seek it like junkies. Which, you guessed it, makes us a wee smidgen bit crazy.
22. AMAZON RANKINGSClick. Clickity-click. Refresh refresh. “Did my ranking go up? Or down? Or up? Or down? It stayed the same. What does that mean? Did I sell enough to stay afloat? Are the rankings broken? How often do they update? Is my book doing better than that other book? Is that good? Or bad? My finger is getting a blister. MY ENTIRE SELF-WORTH IS PINNED TO THIS GODDAMN NUMBER. *sob*” Click. Click. Refresh refresh.
23. THE IDEA PLAGUEAsk a writer: “Where do you get your ideas from?” And the writer will reply: “How do you make yours stop?” Then he’ll bat at his hair as if it’s on fire. I can’t walk ten feet without thinking of a new novel or script idea. It’s an idea that will almost certainly never yield fruit — which means I’m essentially committing an act of literary Onanism. So much idea-seed spilled on the floor. Infertile and inert. And smells like Clorox.
24. WE HANG OUT WITH OTHER WRITERSCrazy people hanging out with other crazy people just creates a crazy people feedback loop where the crazy recirculates again and again like a bad stink in an old car. Crazy begets crazy begets crazy.
25. IT’S COOL-COOL TO BE CRAY-CRAYMost writers aren’t actually crazy — but we certainly feel that way sometimes and furthermore, a helluva lot of our authorial forebears were definitely a bit, ahhh, unstable (Hemingway! Hunter S. Thompson! Emily Dickinson! Sylvia Plath!). As such, we’re cast into a realm where it’s okay, even expected, that our creative pursuits mark us on the charts between “a little bit eccentric” and “crazier than a shithouse chimp.”
""""One of the most mortifying moments I experienced in my theatrical career was when I was asked to bring the entirely African-American cast of a new musical we were workshopping, a new piece by an African-American librettist and composer, across the street to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and up into the plush boardroom so they could perform a song or two for the board of directors. I wanted to say something, but I didn't. For one thing, it would take an invaluable 45 minutes to an hour out of the creative team's limited time together. But... every year we had to do the same old song and dance for the board to remind them that yes, we did do new plays and musicals, so yes, it was sometimes a good idea to expose the board to new voices, to the vibrancy of an exciting work in progress.
You all know where this is going, don't you? I led the team in. The talent in that team! The writer/composer himself and the cast, lauded veterans of the stage and the most promising members of the next generation of acting giants. And there was our board. White, as white as can be, white white white white. And very comfortable. They'd just been served lunch, I believe. My theater spared no expense in pleasing our board and catering to their demands (oh my god, I'm feeling such rage right now! I'm pretty sure we had a staff member who was mostly dedicated to help our richest board members get house seats to shows on Broadway and the West End. But I digress...)
The only black face in the audience seated at the conference table? The only person of color? The head of our education department, of course. My heart went out to her.
The cast sang a song from the show. They did it. And they brought it. Because they were and are professionals. And the very pillars of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion reverberated down to the parking lot. It was breathtaking.
And I had just been complicit in the remaking of a scene for the millionth time: black bodies and voices entertaining white audiences, an institution raising money on the backs and voices of black bodies.
I was too mortified to apologize to our writer and to our cast, none of whom, I should add, expressed even an iota of discomfort. They were professionals, and they shone. And come to think of it, they'd probably all become accustomed to this scene. "It's just how theater works," they might have thought with a shrug of their shoulders. Or maybe they seethed inside, for the millionth time, when all they were trying to do is workshop a new musical.
Well, I apologize sincerely now to our writer and those actors. I wish I had had the courage to put my foot down. It is not how theater should work.
I quit the American theater on Valentine's Day 2016, so I've been out more than four years now. And honestly I don't plan to return, which is why I can write with such candor.
The heart of the problem, my friends, is with the non-profit structure, which is capitalism on steroids. Who are the bosses ultimately in an American institutional theater? The board of directors. Who are the board of directors? For the most part, those members of the community not with the strongest attachment to the art form but those with the deepest pockets. Often they're really not members of the community. They often just drop in. They are sometimes mere tourists.
It's no wonder that that board meeting was held in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The theater, like most American theaters, had built its board of directors on the old opera model: You get the richest folks together, offer them galas and house seats and receptions and private recitals and showings (for which artists often don't get paid extra, mind you), you pamper them and make them feel more special and entitled than they already do, and then they'll write you big checks to support the kind of art they like, the kind of art they can bring their kids and grandkids to. AND they--not the artists, not the community--get to hire the institution's leadership.
It is a rotten model. Rotten to the core. How can any artistic institution claim to be working for and in the community with that model?
It's got to be torn down. It's got to be reinvented. And I have no idea what the next model will be. I really don't. And no, honestly I don't think government is the solution frankly. Some of the most bloated, self-satisfied, decadent theater I've ever seen was in Germany, where it was almost fully government-funded. Lots of bells and whistles and provocations and completely soul-dead.
I see amazing and galvanizing lists of demands recently being made and posted by theater artists of color. These are vital demands. But they don't address the central issue. As long as the ultimate bosses of an artistic institution remain the community's deepest pockets, nothing will change. Nothing. You'll be putting band-aids on a gaping wound. Sorry, but it's true.
So please figure something else out. Maybe for a few years you just avoid the institutions. You've already started. In the pandemic, so many of you are making amazing art without an institution. Find those who truly adore your work and ask them to fund it. Screw non-profit. Form a corporation and value your art art-making as a resource that profits you, your viewers/audience and your community. I have no idea.
But please don't return to a new version of the old. After the virus, after he's out of office, after police reform and nationwide conversations about race, after, after, after, begin something new. I can't wait to see what it is!”
Words: Pier Carlo Talenti
Video: Griffin Matthews
April Yvette Thompson